Disruptive Students Shock Syndrome

ecastro flickr.com

Photo by ecastro flickr.com

Disturbed by nightmarish anxiety, it might have been a mild form of PTSD, I woke from a dream realizing that I was once again a fresh, idealistic teacher confronted by a mob of snotty, bratty, uncooperative students. It did not matter that it never really happened exactly that way, this was my perception. In the vision, I was forced to start the first class of the year in an octagonal-shaped room, which I mentally noted was probably the catalyst for the surly mood of those students. Anything so unconventional or novel in setting can destabilize standard protocols. Once again, I felt the rush of stressful adrenaline, as my fright or flight impulse responded to a mix of bombardments from students who could care less about school and me.  I just wanted to be “nice” and expected compliant, eager to learn pupils in Social Studies.

Many teachers are probably still feeling this distress, and may not have the solutions that I found to be most useful when confronted by aggressive, non-cooperative, and unmotivated students. Knowing that there are great resources, I thought that this would be a good time to share my tips.

My next realization upon rising, was to reflect on what I could have done better. I suppose reflection has become a habit after so many years and lessons, and I mentally corrected my response to the situation.

With the aplomb of Cruella de Vil, I politely and somewhat sinisterly responded to the student apparitions, “Well, we are going to have fun this year!” Spoken with such confidence to mean, “You can’t show me anything I don’t already know,” and I leave them wondering why I am not intimidated by them. I do not implore their attention, I expect it. I earn it, because our class is so awesome, so relevant, so engaging. It is as if I said to them convincingly, “You will see, you will see!”

And so I reveal to you in order of my preference, the three most outstanding, life preserving books chock full of strategies and wisdom for teachers who could use a boost of life force in classroom management.

Fred Jones—Tools For Teaching
Richard L. Curwin, Allen N. Mendler, Brian D. Mendler—Discipline With Dignity: New Challenges, New Solutions
Harry K. Wong, Rosemary T. Wong—The First Days of School

It’s a good time of year to try something new, shake it up, keep students guessing what new spark of novelty you bring to your class. It can take a multitude of forms, but the point is to do something new! Celebrate your class community. Make it reflect the best aspirations because everyone wants to belong and be a part of something significant and productive.

High Performance Education Systems: Expert Thinking and Complex Communication

2013-02-04_14-50-00_457 Gift from Sr. Wan, Iqra Academy near SLC

A casualty of America’s reliance on high stakes testing has been the cutting of courses other than Math, Science, and Language Arts by budget minded bureaucrats. Yet, while the value of the tested material is recognized, to marginalize the wide array of other subjects somehow diminishes the level of civilization.

Historically, we have seen a pattern from ancient times that in peace there flourished art, literature, and architecture, while in war and times of anarchy it simply was impossible to cultivate. People merely struggled to survive. Are we slipping?

Education expert E. D. Hirsch wrote, “[education] attained by studying a rich curriculum in math, literature, science, history, geography, music and art and higher level skills in context…there is a scientific consensus that academic skill is highly dependent on specific relevant knowledge.”

Incorporating a wide variety of learning opens doors to deeper understanding, creativity, and problem solving capacity. This is exactly what the world needs in the future, and education professionals must provide it now. For while many menial jobs are exported to countries with cheaper labor—thereby raising a larger, global, middle class—and robots increasingly tackle  jobs previously performed by humans, we need to prepare our students using high performance education systems that feature a wide spectrum of valuable cognitive content. These can be summarized as the liberal and fine arts. We are about to take education of humans where computers cannot go. That is, we teach the “gray areas,” those that incorporate values, ethics, and judgment that necessitate heuristics.

For example, take the student whose friend asks for last night’s homework. Being a loyal friend, one would be inclined to share and help a buddy. Yet, would our students judge that acquiescence as ethical or not? Would they pursue a logical analysis to question if their compliance could be construed as sharing guilt? This is the specialized domain of a parochial education, as the public school system is struggling to maintain basic skills and rudimentary performance of the masses. I challenge argument!

Let’s recognize that we cannot afford for our Islamic schools to slide down and ignore the manners, values, and critical analysis of choices and responsibilities of individuals. We must not narrow and dumb down the scope of our curriculum offerings in exchange for elevated standardized test scores removed from relevant application. Insight toward the complexities of thought and excellence in articulation across a variety of modes is the ticket to a true high performing education system.

Elements that keep us employed and economically viable are our abilities to utilize Expert Thinking and Complex Communication. There are two categories of Executive Skills which are recognized as valuable components to success and brain development.

Promoting Expert Thinking incorporates pattern recognition, perceiving relationship, and problem solving. These are cognitive skills.

Complex Communication is performance based. Students can demonstrate ability to confer understanding beyond declarative learning. They incorporate listening, analyzing, evaluating, and conveying information via a multitude of modes. While it is still evident that many of our students need more development in their writing, it is also relevant that they must learn oral articulation skills, graphic representation, technology based skills, and artistic means to effectively broadcast the products of their analysis.

This is where Active Learning, as designed by the instructor answers:

  • Why and how the lesson fits previous learning?
  • How is this relevant and interesting to motivate students?
  • Is movement incorporated for the students during the lesson?
  • Do students verify competence in the learning goals?

As you see, the intelligent design of lessons is imperative to an optimal outcome, but I question if Islamic school teachers will rise to the call? I wonder if many instructors are still in “survival mode” struggling with class climate and management issues. Certainly, involving students in deeper levels of learning can keep misbehavior at bay, but it can only be done when there is a window of order, clarity, and trust in a collaborative classroom. The journey to higher levels of learning must be preceded by focus of minds and cooperation among the class community, and especially weekend schools would benefit from this realization. Much can be done to improve the school environment, but willingness from administration to diligently strategize a campaign with all stakeholders to prioritize school climate is necessary. This is also where seeking professional guidance is worthwhile so that your school can aspire to developing a high performance education system.

Last night, my eldest son gave me some critical analysis of my blog structure and website. When time permits, I want to redesign and make it more functional as a resource for Islamic school professionals and people who work with Muslims in their communities.

Please give content suggestions so I can incorporate them in a new design. Not that I am so tech savvy or have the means to pay a web developer, but I guess it’s finally time to learn more about the backside of web design. It may take awhile…

Last weekend was my first visit to Salt Lake City, as I flew in to do professional development at the Utah Islamic Center where full-time and weekend school teachers from Iqra Academy met along with members of the local Bosnian organization. Iqra Academy is the only accredited Islamic school listed in Utah, and they presently serve up till 5th grade. I truly enjoyed meeting everyone and found the mountains calling me beyond. Such an inspiring setting; I wish to have stayed longer for skiing. Thanks for your hospitality!

The only downside was that I caught glimpses of Superbowl at the first touchdowns by Baltimore, and San Francisco’s after the blackout when changing planes in Phoenix. It was however, an opportunity to read Forbes and ASCD’s Educational Leadership. Now, as freezing rain and bits of snow pelt us, it’s back to preparing for the Common Core presentation. Hope you have a chance to register for the ASCD preconference at the ISNA-CISNA Education Forum in Chicago!

Lesson Design for Deeper Learning

2013-01-21_12-47-47_90 Mosque in Chico, CA

The striking difference between Lesson Plan versus Lesson Design is illustrated: As an undergraduate, my professor handily grasped his black binder of lecture notes (lesson plans) for each class, drearily reciting from it each day. After abysmally performing on his first test, I learned that he expected students to write notes of what he said verbatim, and then write back those exact words to him for answers on his exam. The absolute irony was that the course was titled “Learning Psychology,” and I don’t remember a thing!

Another professor from graduate studies tortured us the same way for a course in Learning Disabilities and Educational Law. Somewhat fortunately, I remembered from the previously described course to utilize 4×6 index cards for memorization, but what I recall most is that all the teachers in my cohort really hated the course (and him) because he relied on tricky multiple choice testing. Again, we probably chose to remember only the most relevant aspects, and would never want to pursue his content of our own initiative.

These instructors had lesson plans, but they did not reflect an inkling of understanding about their students’ needs, motivation, learning methods, or memory building tactics. In contrast, lesson design incorporates an understanding of all of these.

Educators should consider research-based aspects in their lesson design. Do be sure that students “know Why;” that is, do they understand the relevance and connect the learning to their previous knowledge? What can you do to design the lesson with their interests in mind? Can you incorporate some physical movement, rather than just sitting like stones in your class? Finally, ideally, can students actually DO something with the lesson content that demonstrates deeper understanding and acquisition of necessary skills to an acceptable degree of competency?

The “art” of instruction requires teachers to have mastery of their content, a repertoire of instructional methods that cultivate thinking and skills for students, and a degree of technology savvy in order to teach and track performance. As we quantify our students’ performances, so should teachers check on their own efficacy in matching teaching and lesson design to assessment results, with increasingly higher expectations cycled through modification and feedback.

Lesson Design
Simple Lesson Designs should feature
• Clear Learning Objectives
• Provides a Background Knowledge Base
• Teaches or Models
• Allows Guided Practice
• Checks for Understanding
• Independent Practice/ Assessment

Hopefully, the message is clear to recognize that any old patchwork of a lesson plan is grossly inferior to a well thought out lesson design. The preparation time is worth the investment because targeting procedures aligned with assessments yield vastly improved results in long term learning for our students.

As an update, ISNA has made the “Keeping Our Children Safe in School” webinar available. If you scroll back to my previous blog, you will see additional hyperlinks to it as well as a “motherlist” of crisis management resources.

This past Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend featured the ISNA Education Forum in Anaheim, CA, and it was a solid success! It was also very kind of Medina Academy of Anaheim to invite us, along with the other ISNA planning team members, to dinner after the conference. Thank you!

After that, Riad and I flew to San Francisco and drove north of Sacramento to Chico where we surveyed the area for a possible relocation. We really liked what we saw. It is home to Cal State-Chico, and seems very pleasant…even in January! Now we are seriously trying to find the way to make the logistics of hauling ourselves, our businesses, and four kids (some aren’t “kids” anymore) with us. InshaAllah, it is meant to be.

The Chicago based ISNA-CISNA Education Forum is slated, as always, for Easter weekend, March 29-31. ASCD will present a preconference on Common Core State Standards. See this link for program details. Several other projects (Ed Forum, creating customized PD presentations, drafting accreditation standards, accreditation visit, book collaboration, and cleaning my basement so I can move to Chico!) have me busy these days, but, the next post, we will delve into what it means to be “Educated” and High Performing Education Systems, inshaAllah!

Transitions and Making Choices

It isn’t easy facing new challenges and the unknown; in fact, sometimes we drag our feet when we are uncertain of best options for the future. As we approach autumn, Riad and I quickly realized that we had best get the house on the market, even if we still see the details that need repair. We are ready, except for painting our bedroom and sorting out 16 years of clutter in the basement, but the grand question is still unanswered. What should we do if we find a buyer?

Last night, while walking in 50 degree weather, we reminisced about our warm and sunny California trips from earlier in the year. Then we were pulled back into the reality that all four of our children still live with us currently, and our eldest, a nursing student, had his first day of clinicals at the new ultra luxurious Elmhurst Hospital. It would be a dream to work there after graduation, but we want our kids to move with us too. In reality, there are many fine benefits to where we live generally, but the climate and its impingement on our desire to maintain fitness through outdoor activities pall our enthusiasm for staying when it is below 40 degrees. The thought of staying based here, while seeking an investment property in a warmer winter locale that we can visit for a few weeks in January seems attractive.

So transitions are sticky to negotiate, especially when others are involved. The best means of rescue though is when someone else, a trusted ally, can give advice and lessen the anxiety. Likewise, when our youngest son rose in rank to enter high school as a freshman, it was with some amusement that I overheard his older sibling, who is a senior at the same school, coach his younger brother, “Dude, you can’t wear plaid shirts.” “You can’t be seen talking to ______!” “You have to do your Algebra the way the teacher demonstrates it, not just do it in your head.” “This is important for later!” “Dude, if you miss the bus, you can run to the next stop ‘cause they have a lot of kids to load, so you can usually still make it.” “Hey, you can’t pick my friends to be your friends, and you can’t go to the football game until you have friends!” I understood perfectly then when my freshman gloated to his senior brother, “I can go to the football game because I have friends now.”

I recall that when we would transition students from 5th to 6th grade at our pre-K 3 through 12th grade school, we deliberately scheduled an orientation for the students. In the last few weeks of 5th grade, students were privy to shadow 6th grade in order to see what life was like outside the self-contained classroom. Then in the first week of 6th grade, the students were advised that organization was important, and that emotional distress not uncommon. We gave them handouts that specified exactly what they should be expected to do, and teachers usually dovetailed our efforts by holding them to compliance whenever they could. Naturally, all the details were presented in a visually pleasing presentation, and we encouraged students to feel free to talk to any adult if they felt overwhelmed. During Open House, many teachers would also advise parents about expectations and potential pitfalls experienced by many transitional students at 6th and freshman levels.

At the heart of many students’ lack of performance seems to be a deficit in organization and planning, and there is much that individual teachers can do to facilitate the adoption of these in their classes. A review of necessary binders, note taking skills, homework format, and frequent assessment to verify daily effort go a long way to getting students on track. Also, as heightened levels of skill and quality of student products are expected, teachers use rubrics in conjunction with anonymous samples of student work in order for new students to more fully understand what quality work is expected. With timely feedback, students are able to edge their work and performance toward those expectations and feel the satisfaction from their efforts.

This reminds me of the improvement I saw in my golf game this past week. Vexed by my poor performance in putting, I split my score card to differentiate the number of drives versus putts. Knowing that I was having difficulty in “seeing the line” of the putt, I took several putters to the practice putting green and quickly realized that my Daisy putter, from when I first learned to play golf as an 18 year old, was my best fit. It is significantly shorter than other putters collected in my garage too, so sometimes something old is what fits best. Overall, I saw a definite improvement in both drives and putts on a nice little 9 hole executive course, and felt confident that the adage “practice makes perfect” hold true, both for me and my freshman who is hearing that applied to his Algebra, Arabic, and writing. Success feels great! Be sure to make time to take care of your own wellness too!

More insights to transitions for Middle School to High School can be found from William D. Waidelich, Ed.D., Executive Director of the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) at this link.