Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pt 3 At-Risk Classroom Management: Incentives and Redirection

Welcome to Part III of my At-Risk Classroom Management Series. We covered rules, expectations, exceptions in Part I, and cultivating culturally-relevant classrooms in Part II.

This week, we will cover incentives and re-redirection. Be forewarned, this is a long post.

My classroom

Incentives are always preferable to consequences. It is proven that incentives garner more positive results than assignation of consequences.  But,  I don’t give candy, stickers, or similar rewards; my experience has shown that giving out those types of incentives cause students to believe they deserve something tangible (candy etc.) for good behavior.  Good behavior should be its own award. I am interested in cultivating a sense of community in my classes, so I like to provide community incentives for classroom behavior.   I host award contests for behavior (a few winners), play “behavior bingo” (a few winners of big items like sketchbooks, marker sets, etc.), and class-wide earned incentives (everyone wins) to promote good behavior.

Below, you can see a picture of my white board which currently features an incentive program my students are using.  For each day of good class-wide behavior, the class earns a smile.  Four smiles earn the class a day-long art-based activity that is very special (in this case making Maasai necklaces).  Classes who earn an “X” can earn-back a smiley by displaying above-and-beyond positive behavior the next day. 

Classroom Incentive Chart

General Redirection
General redirection is all about creativity. Ultimately, you have to find balance between empathy, humor, and what works.  You have to get to know your students, and figure out what makes them tick. If you know they don’t like something, chances are you have found a new redirection technique.

Also, don’t argue with students. You’re the teacher. Arguing causes the teacher to lose respect; it demonstrates to students that arguing is an effective means to get what you want in class. Students are good at wearing adults down; for some of them that is their modus operandi at home. Don’t engage with them. It should be a “You, them, you and then that is it” conversation. 

First, a story:
Once, I had two boys who earned detention. I received a note the next day from each parent stating their student was exempt from detention because they had football practice. I didn’t want to have some (meaningless) prolonged argument with the parent(s) about detention. I also knew that football was really all these boys had going for them, and that missing practice meant something significant.  I know some of you might think: “Well. Excellent.  Next time they won’t misbehave in class.” But, the boys would have received a pretty harsh consequence for a minor class issue: a detention, the loss of practice, and being ineligible to play in a game due to missing practice.  The consequence needs to suit the behavior. This severe consequence would only mean the students would dislike and distrust me, and as a result, would probably misbehave more in class.

Instead, I got creative.  I told the football coach about the situation. The coach was a great guy, agreed with my assessment of the situation, and was willing to give the boys an in-practice consequence. But, I had another idea. I attended football practice and the boys had to run all the drills I devised for them for half of practice (the length of the assigned detention). I made up games like “marker relays” and “pick up a crayon” stadiums.  The boys didn’t miss practice, experienced a little bit of discomfort. . . And, they NEVER EVER acted up in my class again. In fact, they actually ended really liking me.

As a bonus, they would tell their friends: “Don’t mess with her. She is cool, and she is like crazy good at getting at you.”

Sometimes, you gotta just go with it; enjoy the moment!

 Also, providing choices is an effective and empathetic way in which to provide general redirection. A lot of students in at-risk environments feel as if they don’t have options/choices.  Giving students choices helps them to feel in-control. . . And, my students thrive on being in-control.

General Re-Direction Techniques
I do all sorts of things, all the time, to re-direct students. 
-          I snap, point, and gesture
-          I give the “death stare”
-          Write essays on behavior
-          Copy a pre-written behavior essay
-          Give antsy students a job (sweep, collect work, clean out the closet, pick up all the crayons!)
-          Change the assignment to a dreaded one
-          Mimic student behavior back at them (again, you need to know your students for this one!)
-          Call home, immediately, in front of the whole class (discreetly in the corner, SUPER effective)
-          Write an apology letter to me/another student
-          Say “I’m confused as to why you are doing [list student behavior].”
-          Move students to another seat
-          Move students to a seat by themselves
-          Take away a student’s chair/make them stand
-          Make a student only use crayons when others are painting (material misuse)
-          Make a student my “special friend” and sit next to my desk
-          Make a student hold my hand/link arms (their choice) to walk down the hallway (for kids who run/roughhouse in the hallways)
-          Ask students collectively to stop a noisy behavior and say “I don’t care who it is; just stop.”
-          Tell rough housing students to “Quit touching each other!”  (touching is a social faux-pax to them)
-          For minor arguments say “I’m uninterested in your conflict. Figure it out. If I have to talk to you, you are both getting a consequence.”
-          I say “What makes you the only super special student? You have to follow the rules too.”
-          I say “Go to college, get a degree, and then you are welcome to run this classroom.”
-          I –when all else is failing- “you’re going to do what you are going to do. I’m going to do what I have to do.”
-          When students want to argue: “I’m not talking about them. I talking with you, about your behavior.” My students attempt to divert my attention to another student doing a similar action when I redirect their behavior. I’ve learned to not engage. Focus on the student you have identified. Deal with him/her and then move on to the next crisis.
-          When students don’t like the consequence and continually argue/try to express their point I just start loudly speaking gibberish every time they try to talk. It is very frustrating to them.  I do this when it is a simple redirection (sit down etc.) that they want to argue about. It is necessary to argue about sitting down; you should just do it. So, I talk gibberish. It is funny, and it wears them down fast. 

Sitting alone can be a privilege or a consequence. My students like to earn the opportunity to sit at this seat under the window.

Example 1, refusing to work/participate:
I use any one of these responses depending on what I feel best fits the situation/student.  I will also use them in order to escalate as I feel necessary. And, sometimes I vary the responses and mix them together etc. etc. (obviously). Typically, I only escalate 1 to 2 steps before using my consequences list.

My response #1:  “Please get back on task.”

My response #2: “Your grade in this class is X. Please do the work, so I can put good grades in for you.”

My response #4: “Oooh. I would get on task. I know your Momma (Daddy/Auntie/Guardian) doesn’t want to talk to me tonight!”

My response #3: “If you will not participate in class, I will move you to a seat by yourself.”

My response #5: “You have a few choices. You can do the work, or I can call your house (other consequence).  I’m going to give you thirty seconds to decide. When I look back over here, your behavior will let me know you choice.” 

Example 2, out of seat/wandering the room etc. :
They wander. I don’t know why.

My response #1: “Sit down”

My response #2: “You are not [doing whatever the students insist s/he is doing]. Don’t lie to me; sit down.”

My response #3: “I better see the blue plastic of that chair touch your rear end in the next five seconds!”

My response #4: “Sit down, or I will give you consequence X.”

Name Calling
Why do students call each other names? Why do any of us ever call anyone by a name?  It is fun, it is funny, it is mean, it is a way to demonstrate power over another individual, it is way to express annoyance, and sometimes it is a way to tease. The reality is, they do it all the time, and we want to curb enough to create a positive learning environment. 

A (genuine) failed attempt at an anti-bullying poster
Often, with name calling, there is a preceding situation.  None of the given scenarios below deal with that situation, as my initial, primary, goal is to end the name calling immediately. If I believe there is a situation preceding the name-calling that needs attention, I stop the name calling and then request all concerned parties meet with me to discuss the situation and effectively manage it. I get the counselor involved as needed.  All bullying incidents must be reported to an administrator at my school.

Here are a few ways in which I handle name calling:

Example 1, Generic name-calling:
Student:  “You nasty girl!”
My response: “ Stop. Shut your mouth.”
Student:  “You didn’t hear she said to me!”
My response: “We aren’t talking about her. We’re talking about you. You can either choose to treat others nicely, or you will suffer a consequence.”
**If the student continues to argue, repeat the final response until s/he stops. If s/he refuses to stop, give him/her a consequence immediately and tell him/her you will escalate the consequence each time she continues to question you.  I don’t worry over much about apologies because often that begins a secondary situation; I just want to stop the name calling.**

Example 2, racial/skin-color/ethnicity/cultural name-calling:
Student: “Ugh. Her skin too dark. Only light-skinned girls are pretty.”
My response: “That is racist/elitist behavior. It will stop now.”
Student: “But, it’s true!”
My response: “It is not true; it is an example of racist behavior. Continue racist behavior in any manner, and I will have you removed from our classroom. This is a racism-free environment; we [gesture to the whole class] don’t want to be exposed to that garbage.”
** I’m careful to not say “your racist behavior” as middle school students are still learning boundaries; sometimes they honestly don’t understand they are behaving in a racist manner. Having said that, I have a zero-tolerance policy towards racism; it is very effective in ending this type of behavior in the classroom.  No student wants to repeat a racist comment to the administrator. Typically, by the time I voice my second response, other students are nodding and voicing their approval. If students seem to genuinely be perplexed as to how the behavior is racist, we have a class-wide discussion about the behavior.**

Example 3, Gay name-calling:
Student: “Ew. You gay/faggot/lesbo/queer/punk.”
My response: “That word is just as offensive as the “N word.” If you use it again, I will treat it as if you said the “N word.”
Student: “But, s/he acting gay!”
My response: “There is no such thing as behaving as a homosexual unless you are actually having sex. Since no one in here is having sex, you are incorrect and need to stop.”
** Using the word “homosexual” and identifying it with sex is titillating to students and is usually very effective at ending this behavior.  If the student refuses to stop or escalates, tell him/her you will escalate the consequence each time she continues to question you. Additionally, if students question the gay slurs being equivalent to racial slurs, you have a wonderful opportunity for a class discussion. I use this method for 7th grade and up.  For sixth graders and younger, I modify my response and end it with the slur being as offensive as a racial slur. That is usually enough.**

"Messing with the lame kids, you gonna get reported." Another failed anti-bullying poster

Example 4, repeated name-calling:
My response: “That’s bullying. Stop now, or I will turn in a bullying report.”
Student response: “I’m not bulling b/c XYZ!”
My response: [grab pink bullying report sheet and put student name on it] “I’m putting this next to you. If you argue with me again and/or repeat any of your rude comments, I’m turning this report in. If you can behave, I will allow you to tear it up at the end of class.”
**My school –and probably yours too- has a zero tolerance towards bullying. Students who bully get suspended for a minimum of five days. It is taken very seriously, and students know this. Giving students a visceral reminder of the consequence is helpful.  Also, the option to tear up the form is an incentive to behave.”

My students blurt. . . A lot.  Generally, this is primarily due to the fact they are in middle school, and middle schoolers blurt.  I don’t want my students to blurt ever, but that is an unrealistic expectation.  Blurting is especially disruptive when you are re-directing a student and/or when you are teaching.  I don’t think there is any cure-all way to end blurting, but here are few ways in which I handle blurting.

Example 1, general blurting from many parties:
When students are blurting in groups and or in large numbers, I stop the class to address the blurting. 

My response: “Look. The shouting out of whatever hits your mind stops us from learning. It is rude. Stop.  It is like you have verbal diarrhea and all this poop is just falling out of your mouth!”
Using humor to address the students is particularly effective. When the next kiddo blurts, I get very dramatic and will say “Ah! Look! Verbal diarrhea in action!”  It is embarrassing, but in a minor way. . .And, it is a fun and effective means to ending general blurting. And, yes, the kids do laugh, and they do giggle in a way that some see as “wasting time.” But, look. They aren’t in prison. It is okay for things to be funny; it is okay to laugh for a minute. I promise the world won’t end and learning will still happen.

These students are following along to a video (the whole class is watching on the large screen) while playing with tools, to help keep them on task.
Example 2, blurting during teacher redirection:
Ugh. Nothing gets my blood boiling more than when some darling feels the need to blurt out and/or comment on a student that I am redirecting. Generally, when this happens I assert my alpha/dictator/god-of-the-classroom status. Immediately.

My response #1: “Excuse me? I’m a lot of woman; I don’t need back up from you.”
My response #2: “You will shut your mouth now. Go to college, get a degree, and then you can come back and run this classroom.
My response #3:  “If you are going to contribute to this conversation, I’m going to give you the same consequence I’m giving [the student I’m redirecting].”

My response #4: “Ugh. Quit with your verbal diarrhea!”

My response #5: “Unless you want me all up your business, you will hush your mouth now.”

"Social Justice is respect for others. . .Not shunning or avoiding them! No one is a zombie!"
Materials (Mismanagement)
If it isn’t nailed-down my kids will steal/take/destroy it. They are really rough on materials; rougher than most students. I believe this is because most of my students aren’t exposed to a lot of the materials we use in my classroom, and they are still in an exploratory and incidentally destructive phase.  Additionally, they like to throw stuff. The like to throw stuff a lot.  Anything that can be a projectile is a projectile.  So, some of their misuse is just due to behavior issues.  I don’t have any fail proof solutions for you. . .But, here are a few things that at least keep it at bay.

Prevention is Key
The easiest way to avoid dealing with tool theft and/or misuse is to prevent it.  I prevent theft by developing material management that can easily be checked. . .There are a few pictures below illustrating how I track these materials.  I keep all sharps (except scissors) in a sharp box, and check them out individually to students according to numbers. That way, I can track who has what sharp. It is always good to track sharps in order to protect your students.  I worked at an overnight camp wherein several campers had issues with cutting.  Limiting the students’ opportunities to take sharps enabled me to keep them safe. 


Tagging materials with patterned duct tape

Theft of Your Personal Belongings
If a student steals something minor off my desk/something personal of mine, I ask the school officer to attend the next class.  I discuss how I take all incidents of theft seriously.  The school officer is just there for show. Typically, I won’t get the stolen item back, but the kids are scared to steal anything else and/or are more likely to report incidents of theft.  I’ve had the school officer show up when so much as a quarter has been stolen; it is effective.

Theft of Expensive Items
Sometimes, students steal items of high value (personal or monetary), and getting those items back takes precedence over a consequence.  I handle this psychologically, and I’ll explain via an example.

I keep a small zipper bag of all of my USB drives; it contains about twelve drives.  These drives house all the lesson plans I ever written (200+) among many, many other items.  During the course of a class the entire zipper bag was stolen. I was beyond upset at the loss of the items. I appealed to my classes by describing the situation, describing how important the items are to me, explaining that I would be happy to give the drives to the thief, so long as I could get the information off the drives first, and that I would give two Chick-Fil-A biscuits to the person who gave me either the USB drives or the information to get the USB drives.  Finally, I made a reporting box in the event students felt more comfortable giving anonymous tips.  The day after my appeal, a student came up to my desk and turned in all of the missing USB drives stating: “I found these in the hallway.” I have no idea if that was true or not, and I didn’t care. I got the USB drives back. I duly gave the student two Chick-Fil-A biscuits, and offered the emptied USB drives to him/her, which s/he refused.  Not only did I get my items back, I gained a lot of respect from my students; they were impressed I kept my word.  This year, when my cell phone was stolen, students turned the school upside-down to find it and return it to me; they took it personally.

Oh, and I’m now a big believer and user of Dropbox. 

Theft of Dangerous/destructive Materials
The Art room houses a lot of dangerous/destructive tools:  Scissors, gouge-tools, X-Acto blades, heavy cuts of copper/tin, liver of sulfur etc. etc.  I always state the following when discussing the usage of these materials: “I don’t think anyone in here is a thief or a criminal.  But, I want you to know that if any of these items leave this classroom, there is a serious consequence.  These items are considered weapons outside this classroom. If you are caught with a weapon at school, it is an automatic suspension.  Additionally, it will be a legal situation you and your family must handle with the school officer.  I do not tell you this because I think you are bad or criminals. I tell you this because you are forgetful, and I don’t want you to have to deal with severe consequences because you forgot to return an item.  You need to make sure you return all items before leaving class.” 

That statement is typically scary enough.  I know you might think that I am giving students ideas, but honestly, they are pretty creative on their own . . . And, Art materials are easy to identify.  If they want to use a weapon at school, at least it won’t be mine (yours).

Throwing Stuff
Good Lord-Amighty!  I have no creative advice about throwing.  I use general re-direction and consequences.  I do sweep between classes, so I can really tell when a class has been tossing stuff about, and so I can give that class specific consequences/new rules/etc..  I don’t have enough time to watch individuals to prevent throwing materials, so I simply say: “I can tell which general direction from which items are thrown.  All students in that area will suffer the same consequence if the throwing does not stop.” This is a helpful tool since the non-throwing students will quickly identify the thrower to avoid a consequence. Divide and conquer.

When Nothing Else Works
Sometimes, nothing seems to work and you are losing ground and respect as a teacher (along with your mind!).  When that happens, it is time to bring in “the big guns”
1.       Give all students (or special ones you identify) an administrative referral form (whatever is the most powerful behavior-based form at your school) that is already filled out with their name. Place the form at the student’s desk/area.  This is a powerful, visual cue that lets the student know that any misbehavior will be dealt with swiftly.  At the end of the class, if the student has demonstrated good behavior, allow him/her to destroy the form.  I know we don’t like to waste materials; but that little waste is worth positive behavior in my opinion.
2.       Call in a respected colleague. Ask a colleague to sit and observe your class, but not engage with your students. Ask your colleague to give you feedback and/or tips about your management.  I know this is scary as we are all a little afraid of criticism in this era of “teacher reviews,” but this can be very helpful.
3.       Describe the situation to the most sympathetic administrator and ask him/her to visit your class for the first ten minutes.  When class begins, set strong limits for the students (you may want to brainstorm these before with the administrator if you feel comfortable), and let them know that any infractions will result in a meeting with the administrator. Again, I know this feels scary. . .As if you are admitting defeat. . .But, if you go to your administrator with a plan and are asking for support, that demonstrates initiative and a willingness to try to solve the problem.

Some Things I Don’t Do. . .And, Wish Others Would Do the Same (I’m judgy like that)
Do not put troublesome students out into the hallway
When class is in session, there are very few adults in the hallways.  Removed students are usually angry and upset; they are not likely to hang out by your classroom.  Instead, they wander. Your hope is that they wander to the bathroom or to the front office. In truth, however, they might wander to another teacher’s classroom causing issues. . .Or, (and this is my worst fear), they might wander outside the building.  My school has cameras, and whenever I point out students might wander out, someone points out the cameras. Cameras are all great and fine, but you have to notice the student is missing (there are 1,000 kids in my building), and review the right camera to account for his/her actions.  By the time all of that happens, any number of horrible things could have happened to the student. And, if that isn’t horrific enough, you were the one responsible for that student’s well-being. So, don’t put kids out of your classroom. If a kid ever leaves my classroom, I immediately send an email to every administrator, the secretary, and the school officer alerting them that I have a missing student.  

There is a lot of space to wander

Do not send troublesome students to another teacher’s classroom
This is NOT an answer.  When you send a troublesome student to another teacher’s classroom, you are just removing the problem to another location. And, you are causing a problem for that teacher.  First, the student you are sending out is having issues, s/he is probably the least likely to go to the place you assign, and will end up wandering the hallways causing disruptions. This is also unsafe, as no one is able to account for that student (see above). Second, should the student go to the assigned teacher, that teacher has to stop his/her class, identify why this student has appeared, assign him/her a location, sometimes provide an assignment, and hope that s/he doesn’t begin the “bad” behavior in his/her class.

I can’t tell you how many random students end up in my classroom because I catch them wandering the hallways due to being sent out by a teacher. I pull them into my classroom because I want to be able to account for them in the event of an emergency etc. etc. And, this is annoying as I am managing someone else’s problem.

When other teachers do this, I go and personally hold them accountable. I have no issue explaining my stance on this to anyone in my building at any time. If a student is that big of a disruption in your class, you need to have them removed by an administrator.

I know that some of you have this as a procedure between you and another teacher.  Hey, if you have that set up between you and a colleague, and you are both okay with it. . . Then go for it. I wouldn’t recommend doing it, however, unless you classrooms are next to/across the hall from one another.

Do not demand tardy notes
Kids are tardy all the time in my building, and it is incredibly annoying. I give a lot of leeway for tardiness, as I don’t have the time to mete out that many consequences (it would be for pretty much every kid!). I do note all tardies, of any kind, in my gradebook.  This is just good practice, as that way you can account for a student’s whereabouts if asked (“yes, student A was late to my class that day, s/he did have time to graffiti the bathroom wall, as Student B claims”). I give about a three minute window, and after that, I expect some sort of explanation from the student.  If the student doesn’t have a note, I ask where s/he was and with whom.  I make a note of it, and then I email/ask that teacher if the student is telling the truth.  If the student is lying, I assign a detention.  Obviously, it usually takes about day to determine all of this.

I have worked with some teachers who demand a tardy note from students.  If students cannot provide a note, the teacher sends the student back to the previous class to get a note.  However, in my case, 100% of the time (I always write late passes for when I keep a kid etc.), the kid is lying and was just fooling around in the hallway. So, what happens is a kid appears in my classroom, disrupts my class, asks for a pass that I will not provide, and then proceeds to waste more time not-learning in the hallway. The kids at my school are pretty adept at this game and will waste nearly a whole class period on this endeavor. If they get caught in the hallway, they tell a long and winding tale of how no teacher will accept them into his/her classroom etc. etc.  WHAT A TIME WASTE. Ugh. Just take late kids in your class, make a note of where they claim they were, check it, and then move on.  

Ah. On-task students!
FINALLY, a Note on the “Panic” Button
Most schools have a button and/or call system in each classroom for emergencies; I call it the “panic” button. If you teach in an at-risk environment, you know this button is mostly used to remove troublesome students from class.  I am all for moving students from your classroom that are problematic to the learning environment. . .I use my call button too (in fact, I used it today).  But, you also have to be careful.  Every time you use the call button, you are giving away a little bit of your power.  Utilizing the call button too much sends a message to the students (and the administration) that you are not in control. So, use your button judiciously.

You can do this! All 37 kids on-task!

Whew! What a long post. What kinds of things do you do in your at-risk classrooms to manage the behavior!?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Pt 2 At-Risk Classroom Management: Cultivating Culturally-Relevant Classrooms

Welcome to Part II of At-Risk Classroom Management.  Previously, we have identified the need for this discussion, and an outline for designing meaningful rules and consequences for your classroom.  This week, we will discuss how to cultivate a culturally-relevant, empathetic classroom for your students.

Introduction: Identifying Student Culture(s)
An important aspect to behavior management is to understand the culture of your students.  Culture, in this sense, doesn’t refer solely to the heritage of the students (although that certainly can be a contributor), instead culture refers to the contemporary climate and environment of your students.  You students’ culture is their community; it consists of: manners of socialization, pop culture, clothing and accessories, home life, friends, mentors, and heroes.  Another part of learning about and understanding your students’ culture is to observe (as objectively as possible) the student-identified rules of socialization, conflict, and conflict resolution.  

Students dressed up as South Park denizens
 Also, you should understand that the moment you walk into a school as a teacher, you are now a part of that community; a part of that culture.  You must understand and respect that there should be no perception of you and then Other (school, school community, and/or students). It should always be “we.”

Here are my students’ rules (or at least, my perception of them):

1.       Having (the appearance of) wealth is an important part of social capital
2.       Wearing the current-identified “right” brand of shoes is important (currently: Nike Jordans)
3.       Wearing the current-identified “right” brand of headphones is important (currently: B by Dre)
4.       Owning and displaying the “right” brand of personal device is important (currently: PSP, iPhone or any brand of tablet)
5.       Owning more than one of the “right” accessory indicates a higher degree of social capital
6.       S/he who is loudest has the most important thing to say/wins the argument
7.       Pointing out other students violating rules in the same manner as yourself is an effective means of disagreeing with teacher redirection
8.       Revenge is not only an important part of conflict resolution, revenge is key to maintaining social status, respect, and social capital
9.       Demonstrating you are in control and dominant of all situations, even those containing adults, is a key part of social capital and self-respect
10.   Violating someone’s personal space is a way to demonstrate dominance
11.   Stealing is an acceptable behavior if the stolen good(s) help gain social capital and the theft is not an irreplaceable item (like a family heirloom etc.)
12.   Failing a class because you refuse to try/turn in work is acceptable because it is not a measure of your intelligence
13.   Exhausting adults with questions and arguments is an effective manner in which to obtain what you want
14.   School supplies are not a student responsibility; if teachers want you to participate, they should provide all materials
15.   There is nothing worse than being gay

Understanding the rules of my students’ socialization allows me to set meaningful boundaries and consequences for student behavior.  It isn’t so much about figuring out what they like, so your consequence can carry the most punch (but sometimes you have to go there too), it is instead about understanding these people you spend all day with, and perceiving how you can become a meaningful part of their culture and community.

My first year (eight years ago now!) teaching in an at-risk school was in an urban environment. While I witnessed other teachers use language and tones similar to the students (and their parents) to redirect student behavior, I was reluctant to follow suit.  As a privileged, upper-middle class White woman with gobs of unearned cultural capital, I felt that attempting to relate to my students in that manner was un-authentic, condescending, and possibly racist.  I was correct in parts.  You should always behave in an authentic manner with your students because authenticity demonstrates honesty, and engenders a positive and respectful learning environment for students.

I would attempt to redirect my students by clapping my hands and saying something like: “Boys and Girls! Please! You need to be seated.”  I call this type of direction a “soft direction,” because is it translates to a request.  My students (then and now) don’t respond to soft direction.  In most of their homes, they are taught from an early age to respond to quick, loud, and concise directions. I call such direction “hard” as they are orders and not requests.   Hard direction often sounds rude (to me), but I have consistently found that my students accept and follow hard directions in the same manner I would a soft request. That is to say, they don’t feel slighted.  While, I don’t particularly enjoy utilizing hard directions to run my classroom (I refer polite soft directions), they do work. . .And, I need an arsenal of tools and techniques that work.  Additionally, I have classes wherein we have come to know one another so well, that I can utilize soft directions in lieu of hard directions with great success.

But, you have to get there first.

Pushing the Pedagogy
Gloria Ladson-Billings in New Directions in Education writes,
“ [t]here is a pedagogy of poverty in urban schools which are more likely to be diverse.  This pedagogy consists of giving information, asking questions, giving directions, making assignments, monitoring seatwork, reviewing assignments, giving tests, reviewing tests, assigning homework, reviewing homework, settling disputes, punishing non-compliance marking papers and giving grades. None of these functions is inherently bad, and in fact some might be beneficial in certain circumstances.” But, contrast this pedagogy with the “pedagogy of “good” teaching which involves student engagement with issues of importance to their lives, explanations of human differences, major concepts and ideas, planning what they will be doing, applying ideals to their world, heterogeneous groups, questioning common sense, redoing, polishing or perfecting their work, reflecting on their own lives, and accessing technology in meaningful ways” (2003, p. 59-60).

During the Fall of the 2011, I was struggling with a particular group of students. I did not have a great deal of art supplies, as my supply order had yet to be fulfilled.  The students were frequently disrespectful towards me, one another, the classroom, and classroom supplies.  I maintained –and frequently told them- that until they could demonstrate some level of maturity, they would only be allowed to use crayons.  The artwork they created was barely sufficient to meet the demands of the assignment; they did just enough to get by (and some did nothing at all). They threw the crayons, snapped them, insisted broken crayons didn’t work and were garbage etc. etc.  It was, in short, a nightmare to be trapped in a room with them.  Finally, I realized something had to give. . .It was unlikely that my students were going to suddenly change without provocation, so the change had to be me. 

I scoured the supply closet and came up with plastic paintbrushes and only a few colors of tempera paint (red, purple, green, blue, black, and white).  I also had access to a quality printer and copy paper. I taught the students how to create a value portrait. The results astounded me; the work was so good. The students’ behaviors changed radically. They were still middle school students, and they still did middle school things. . .But, they were actively engaged in what we did in the classroom; they were invested. It was amazing.  And, it was primarily due to the fact that I was willing to change.  

One of the paintings of my students from the Fall 2011
 This experience made me realize that sometimes, when students misbehave, it is an indicator the learning needs to change; it needs to be more relevant and more challenging. Since the Fall of 2011, I have made an effort to develop complex, student-led projects and units wherein my students have the maximum amount of space to drive their learning experience.  We talk about issues of social justice, race, culture, and politics nearly every day.  I’ve taught them to question ideas and topics in order to challenge and test accepted and new knowledge. I want to empower my students to see themselves as disseminators of knowledge and justice. 

This empowerment process is amazing.  As a teacher, you have the rare opportunity to see amazing sides to your students’ personalities.  Whenever dealing with a particularly difficult student I try to remind myself “think of one positive thing you have seen this kid do. Think of him/her positively.”  When you create an inviting culture of discussion and openness in your classroom, you have so many more opportunities to witness the talents and positive attributes of your students.

While it is hard, when you are dealing with a difficult set of students, consider changing your pedagogy.  Provide you students with a more challenging opportunity that is relevant to their culture.  I know as humans we have strong opinions against “rewarding bad behavior,” but you have to get past this limiting view.  Bad behavior is often a symptom of something else.  Providing a rich, learning environment for your students is not a reward, it should be an active part of an educator’s “good” pedagogy.

Cultivating Empathy
Empathy is not something that comes naturally to most of my middle school students. While, I have no factual evidence, I dare to say that empathy is not something indicative of students in at-risk environments.  Many at-risk students have complex lives away from school wherein empathy plays a very minor role (if one at all).  Empathy must be received in order to be learned.  It is hard to extend understanding and respect to someone else, when you have never received the same.

I dislike hearing teachers say to students: “Respect is earned.”  Types of respect are earned (esteemed, feared, trusted respects etc.), but there is a type of general respect we collectively extend to one another.  This is the respect of not invading someone’s space, being courteous to others, and withholding harsh judgment from strangers.  Courteous respect can certainly be extended to all people we encounter, and this includes students. 

My classroom
 Vocally extend your respect to your students, define your classroom as a safe space of community and shared experiences.  Respect is an important part of the culture of my students.  They like to say “s/he disrespected me!” etc. etc.  Students understand courteous respect even if they don’t know how to describe it; so offer it freely to them.  It is a mutually beneficial situation.

I also attempt to take it a bit further and try to teach empathy by extending it by validating student emotions.  Sometimes, we all need to know we are understood. When students don’t like redirection, I allow them to calm down for a few minutes and then we talk it out.  They explain how they feel, and I validate it.   I don’t change the consequence, but at least the student  has been validated and s/he understands what led to the consequence.  Surprisingly, it engenders an emotional connection between you and the student.  I’m always surprised how small chats can lead to positive behavior and the student perception that you “are on their side.”  Honestly, we’re always on their side, but getting students to understand that can be a bit of a struggle.

I spend a bit of time visiting each table in my classroom. I don’t get to every table/student every day, but I make an effort to talk to the students.  I pick up the conversation the students are having and actively participate in it; even I don’t understand the conversation, I ask for clarification (what is “Adventure Time?”).  Participating in student conversations cultivates a community feeling and helps to develop empathy.

Finally, don’t be afraid to speak honestly with your students.  This past week, I became frustrated because a group of lively students kept talking while I was trying to talk to the whole class (after repeated requests to desist).  So, I stopped teaching and said: “Guys. I only get about an hour a day to write lessons, grade work, and do all the stuff I do to make sure you get to do cool things in Art.  That means, I spend a lot of my personal time coming up with cool stuff for you. I do it because I love teaching you; I respect you all so much. But, you have to be willing to give me back an ounce of that respect.”  You could have heard a pin drop after that!  Students are surprisingly perceptive; utilize that!

A Warning
We are not counselors, therapists, or psychologists. While we work with large amounts of humanity every day and sometimes feel as if we know a great deal about human emotion; we are not experts.  We must also respect our boundaries and behave in manners that respectful and ethical.  When cultivating a culture of community empathy, you should also be aware of the possibility of instances of that are outside your purview; do not be afraid to enlist support from other, more-equipped professionals.