Earlier this week, I wrote Waiting for my groove, outlining my struggle with trying to open doors for my students as they struggle with “playing school.”
I’ve committed to presenting on exactly this topic on a panel at TESOL International Conference in Chicago this coming spring. I’ve been worried that I will have nothing to talk about. I will have to report that my action research yielded nothing. So I’m trying to figure out what to do next.
The liaison coordinator at our school–she’s a former refugee herself, who now coordinates multilingual liaisons who keep us in touch with parents in the community by facilitating interpretation–said she had read my post and found it interesting.
She agreed we don’t really know what to do to trigger internal motivation that will help these students work harder to change their current trajectory. And she said she agreed fully with the Alan November article I quoted about handing students technology that in actuality was nothing more than “$1,000 pencils.”
But in this one week of experimentation (of putting on my “heart hat”), I have found a new willingness–and I use that term loosely–to do work.
Here is the scheme:
I look to see if they have done the 10 minutes of typing homework I have assigned. If yes, everything is wonderful. If no, I publicly invite them (by listing names on the agenda, which I project daily on the screen at the front of the room) to stay for 10 minutes after class to do the homework with me while I sit with them.
“I cannot make you stay,” I say. “If you have something better to do, then do that. But know that I will call home. Not because I’m trying to cause trouble, but because I love you and I want you to succeed.”
The discomfort my students have with that sentence is palpable. They look at each other almost as if to check to see if I’m bluffing. This week, they found out I’m not. I issued through liaisons seven calls home when students chose not to stay with me, disappearing after the bell when they thought I would forget that I had listed their names.
The change has been overwhelming. It’s almost eerie.
If I hold them accountable to their parents and guardians, whom they don’t want to disappoint, it’s like sprinkling magic fairy dust and uncovering a dedicated individual who truly cares about what is happening in class.
Now, we all know that the change I’m experiencing is not a magical internal shift that happened overnight. It’s that they are not wanting to make waves at home.
When I taught in New York City, I had colleagues caution about calling home. Oftentimes this well-meaning outreach would result in the child getting beaten by the parents who were upset their child could not follow the rules. And not wanting to make this game of school be necessarily that kind of life lesson, I tended to resort to cajoling and pleading with the student, mostly to no avail.
So we are back to phone calls, just to see how it goes.
Not wanting to make waves at home has forced a sea change for my students. They are doing the 10 minutes of typing practice that I was using as an indicator of personal growth and responsibility. That indicator is produced and maintained this week by fear of negative consequences, but nonetheless, it’s a start.
This shift has also been a learning experience for me.
It afforded me learning opportunities in class, showing practical applications of skills we learned earlier but have not necessarily revisited. But now I could show them how, had they listened to me just a few short weeks ago, they would not have such problems now.
This is evident in the fact that one student whose home was called came to me and claimed that I was wrong, that he had done all the homework.
“My mom said you told her I didn’t do homework, but I do. All the time.”
I asked him to show me the work he has done on his computer.
He holds his screen in front of me and says: “Look. I was on lesson 12 yesterday, and now it’s back to lesson 1. I don’t know why. Every time. Lesson 1 again.”
It turns out that he was not logging into the site. It’s a painful experience. Everything he had done was for naught. I couldn’t see his efforts because every time he closed that tab on the computer, the past was erased. Along with his grade.
So we talked yet again about how bookmarking was important and how you needed to see your name in the corner of the website we are using to do typing. It’s a great site, by the way, called Typing Club. The school edition helps teachers track time on task as well as average speed and even speed of each finger, if they actually are doing touch typing instead of hunt-and-pecking. And if they are actually logged on to the school site and not the individual site.
When I explained about how important it was to sign in, at least two other students shouted out, “Oh, that’s why!”
Yep. A bunch of students were simply typing in “typingclub” in the search engine and starting as soon as they found the site. Not logging in, and certainly not accessing the site I had set up for them so I could track their work.
So maybe next week I’ll have 100% participation. Finally. This late in the term.
And none of this would have come to the fore had I not initiated calls home. That student would not have confronted me. He would have continued to get zeros on his assignments and silently wonder why. He would have continued to not understand why he could not move past lesson 12. I would not have been able to show him why it was important to bookmark the site and to sign in under the correct URL.
Granted, not every teacher has the luxury of doing what I do. I’m only teaching one class with 21 students. It’s not like when I taught in Orlando and saw 150 students daily. And, in addition, I now have an amazing cadre of multilingual liaisons to carry out my dirty work.
Before devising my evil plan of public humiliation accompanied by ratting out the laggards, I had tried using our Canvas platform to email students, sending gentle reminders that they were missing assignments.
Last week, a student asked me about an email she had gotten from me on Oct. 6, saying she needed to complete a test by the end of the week. I explained why she got that notification and then asked why she didn’t take care of it earlier. “Oh, Miss, I don’t check email.”
And then I explained how you don’t tell your computer teacher that you don’t check email…
In this switch to a technology-driven educational system, where we hand each student a computer without questioning whether they have the background knowledge to use it efficiently or effectively while we mindlessly trudge forward delivering content at what seems to these students to be a maddening pace–why, it’s insanity. At best.
Students don’t know how to check to see if assignments are missing. And showing them one time is not going to help. Even showing them six times or ten times is not going to help. Until it has become habitual-routine-automatic, it’s always going to be a struggle. And that automaticity takes a long time.
I forget that.
Just last week I was complaining to my classes with incredulity that this was the fifth time–the fifth time!–that I had showed them on this specific assignment how to upload a photo to the Canvas platform. We did the same assignment every week! Why was this so hard? I was dumbfounded.
I had to repeat directions time and time again, and what really burned me is that it was the really dedicated students who had no clue. And so I needed to look up how many times I need to repeat something to make it a habit.
James Clear, a blogger/weightlifter wrote an article in 2014 summarizing studies that examined how long people needed to adapt healthy lifestyle habits, and this is what he uncovered:
On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In [Phillippa] Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.
Clear also states in this article that many people propagate the myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit. But it is a myth, based on one doctor’s observations that he was noticing patients adapting to losing a limb in approximately 21 days, and nothing more.
And then I wonder why I show a student how to do something five times, once each week (not the daily dose required to make a behavior habitual), and am frustrated that this multistep task is not committed to memory.
And we hand teenagers a Chromebook and expect them to be able to keep up with things and know how to log in and access and remember passwords and type when they have never had encountered such technology in their lives.
We show their parents once when they come in for parent-teacher conferences how they, too, can keep up with their children’s homework assignments by logging on. They can tell if their child has turned in an assignment or what grade they have currently. Or what score they received on that last test.
And these are parents who are living in poverty, living paycheck to paycheck, who don’t necessarily have a great command of English, and in some cases, are illiterate in their first language as well. And we wonder why there is not a lot of home support, why parents are not checking up on children and holding them accountable.
Because, after all, we showed parents how to log in that one time. With first language support, even.
Maybe they just don’t care about education.
Or maybe, just maybe, we’re not understanding how our students’ brains work.