I’ve been sitting on this post for a few days trying to find the time to organize my thoughts. This post is motivated by this recent post by Michael Pershan over at Rational Expressions, by my son’s recent little league season, and by multiple recent conversations with a good friend and colleague who is our drama director. I hope that I can make it all make some sense.
Michael talks about what feedback looks like and sounds like in different contexts. He offers these two examples of how a baseball coach might talk to a player who is struggling with his hitting.
“Tommy, you haven’t been hitting as well as you could’ve lately, amiright?”
“Each time you swung and missed, you raised your head as you swung so you didn’t really have your eye on the ball. On the one you hit hard, you kept your head down and saw the ball.”
I think that any of us (teachers, coaches, parents, people who have lived for a little while…) would agree that the second remark is more helpful. [This reminds me of a former student of mine who was a basketball player. At halftime of a game where his team was being routed his coach was blistering the team questioning their will to win etc. He raised his hand and said 'Could you tell us what we're doing wrong and how to correct it?' Unfortunately, his fired up coach did not take kindly to this interaction.] After I read this – and, again, I’d urge you to read Michael’s whole thoughtful post – I started thinking about the language I use when speaking to my students and when writing to them on their work. I also thought about my son’s recent experiences.
I watched my son struggle through his inaugural little league season with good cheer. He just turned 11 last month and had never expressed interest in baseball – much to my chagrin as it is my favorite sport. This spring he announced that he wanted to join the local little league. Luckily, they have a level for kids aged 7 – 10 with a variety of experience levels and they do a nice job balancing the teams. He was on a team with fantastic, supportive coaches. They were consistent, they were enthusiastic, they were patient. When a player made a mistake they pointed it out to him/her right away but they focused on what should have been done rather than simply criticize the mistake. They regularly referred back to practices and reminded the players how they were taught to play. I have seen my son give up on tasks at home and tasks from school in the face of frustration. Despite only getting three hits all season (but two of them resulted in RBIs!) I never saw him frustrated and he never gave up. I think that a big part of the reason why is that he was part of a team and felt that he was responsible to the team and his teammates. The fact that the coaches helped create an atmosphere of positive energy was a huge factor. The fact that the team won all but two of their games made a big difference as well.
I have had a number of conversations with my friend Jason who is a drama and English teacher at my school. We have talked about how different perceptions are at school about certain students. I think that all of us who have taught for some time are familiar with the fact that some kids ‘click’ better with certain teachers or subjects. But what we have talked about goes beyond that. I have noticed that there will be students who routinely struggle with follow through and commitment in their academic classes but will be praised for their persistence and determination by coaches and/or drama or music teachers. There are students who won’t do homework, they’ll bomb some tests due to lack of preparation, they might skip a class or an assessment but some of these same kids (generally) do NOT miss practices, they learn their lines or their parts for the symphonies, they stay extra time for practices or they regularly get there early. I know that there are all sorts of factors at play here. But I think that the two biggest ones are these: (1) Few kids CHOOSE to talk Algebra II or Chemistry or US History. They are required to take these (and others, these are just some examples) classes. They have made a conscious choice to play basketball or lacrosse or to play cello in the symphony or to try out for a role in the school play. It’s easier to be committed to something you choose to do. (2) In all of these activities a failure to carry out your job has a direct impact on the chance for others to succeed. If I failed an Algebra II test in school no one else was going to suffer, it was just my failure. If I run the wrong route for a pass play in football the entire team might suffer the consequences if there is an interception. If I flub my lines on stage it has an impact on everyone’s performance. If I don’t learn my part in the string ensemble the performance suffers for the players AND for the audience.
I think that this second aspect is the most important one. This is where I finally try to get to my big point in thinking about this blog post and sharing it out to the world.
How do we create a team atmosphere in our classrooms? How can we encourage our students to feel responsible to each other and pull all together in the same direction? At my last school I had furniture that was easily manipulable and had my room set up in ‘pods’ of three or four desks put together. My students there took great pride in their pod performing well on assessments. I had a few ‘pod’ quizzes and they worked hard together on those. My current classroom is set up in two long tables that seat ten students each. The students interact,they share ideas and when I give them time to work together they do so well. But this does not create any sense of accountability to each other. Perhaps I’m dreaming and hoping for something that just doesn’t happen inside the classroom walls. I don’t think that I am imagining a grading system where their grades depend on each other in any way (although Dan Kennedy wrote a really important essay where he proposes something slightly along those lines as part of a much more complex argument about assessment) since I know how delicate the relationship between learning and grading can be. I look to the hive mind of the internet for inspiration and suggestions. How have you been able to foster an environment in your classroom where students support each other’s learning and where students feel that they are part of a team where their contributions really matter?