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Classroom norms: Keep them simple, global, flexible.

It’s my fourth year teaching math and science at my parent partnership (school for homeshoolers). This year, happily, I have cycled back to teaching biology, after a year of chemistry and one of physics. Out go those files into temp storage, in comes my much bigger stock of biology books, props, and readings. Once again this year I teach Algebra 1 and Geometry and this year’s Algebra 2 is a regular course rather than just supporting home study. Friday classes are fun but much simpler, as I only have one class to prep, repeated twice each for groups of 3rd to fifth graders and 8th to eighth graders. This was another gift from my principal, who wants to reduce unnecessary stress for her team of very hard working teachers.She also spread my high school classes across Monday through Thursday rather than having them all on two days with the others being tutoring only.

Of course I start each year with a conversation about norms and expectations. One must lay the groundwork for a good community learning environment. Arising from the evolution of my teaching practice and seeing what is life-giving for student learning, my advice is: keep it simple and frame most of what you “require” students to do in terms of choices they make internally. Secondly, try to get most of the important stuff stored in their mental cupboards rather than on neat laminated posters on the wall..

Here’s what that looks life for me. Keep in mind that I teach mainly high school, but these things work well down to the level of my third graders.

I have classroom rules, values rather, framed in terms of two short phrases, posted in rainbow colors on the wall, “Be kind” and “Do your best.” Lately I’ve been thinking of rephrasing the second one to “Do quality work.” A previous iteration was “Work hard,” but the word “hard” doesn’t really bring out the ideal of work being a desired and enjoyable challenge.

At the beginning of the year, I briefly point out these rules, explaining that if they are wondering whether something is okay to do or say, they should consider the two values and see what fits, and if not sure, I and the rest of the community will help out.

I’ve heard it advised that teachers democratically work out a list or rules for each class, making a list and posting it. The idea is the students will come up with what the teacher wants anyway because we all gravitate to natural law. This has seemed sensible to me in the past, but now I don’t even bother fleshing it all out at the beginning; I just ask that they work it out as we go, except for the non-negotiable management- and safety- related requirements such as signing out to leave the classroom, which is a school rule we have found necessary. I told them it’s in case of emergencies, but mostly it’s to track possible bathroom vaping patterns.

The advantage of this streamlined approach centered around a few global values is that it eliminates the clear, impersonal  boundaries that certain students are naturally inclined to spend precious energy and creativity challenging. Instead they use their intelligence (more in future n believing in your students’ intelligence) to create personal boundaries that flex as needed to maintain values about which there is generally no debate.Then if you need to have further conversation due to students’ naughty or dumb choices (we all know that intelligence doesn’t keep us from being naughty or dumb), it can consist simply of clarifying how best to act more consistently with the two big rules/values.

On the other hand, the disadvantage (some might call it a disadvantage, though personally I call it an adventure) is that interpretations can vary and working things out might require a teacher to let go of a few things. For example, in that initial conversation about what is okay to say to another student might acknowledge that teasing can be okay among friends who build their relationship that way, but not okay with others.

But doesn’t this confuse students if they do not have a clear idea of what is expected of them? Yes. But, I say, give them some practice in that, for heaven’s sake–in life, they’ll need it.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2019 in Education, Relationships

 

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The man inside the boy

I don’t know what happened with my youngest son, but it’s good. I have been urging, reminding, cajoling, conniving, and ganging up on his to either do more physical activity of the ordinary kind such as biking to school, running, or swimming at the local pool, or join a school or club sport or team, to please, please choose something, and I’d support him. But he only dabbled, while his newly developed height with doubled number of muscle cells puddled in a chair as he played computer games for hours a day. I got into it with him the other day–he could see from my intensity how heartfelt my concern was, how serious a thing I felt it was to neglect one’s health that way, how he would be giving up the good feeling of strength, balance, and sense of accomplishment, even while his brain was tricked into thinking that the levels or perks of his gaming were some kind of real achievement. It was a hijack of his innate evolved dopamine reaction that didn’t pay the same dividend as REAL challenges, REAL risk, REAL conflict, trouble, and overcoming, I said. And no, I said, when he told me he needed me to “make him” exercise, I just couldn’t, with a full work schedule and disciplines of my own to fit in. I said he had to make himself, or sign up for something where he would be made to do the work. I acknowledged the reality of the temptation to yield one’s time and attention to those clamoring for it–the games, or movies, or social media for some. I told him it was too much–I had been willing to make athletics mandatory, but there was supposed to be an eventual owning of it, and it was past time.

He wasn’t planning to swim again this year–said he’d had too many ear infections. Last year, with lots of encouragement from his parents and his siblings, he chose to swim on the high school team, after years of unenthusiastically participating in summer league and improving each year, though never enough in his own mind to pay more than grudging acknowledgment to his gradual drop in race times. He felt nowhere near as good a swimmer as his brother and sister before him, though she assured him that his times were about the same as hers when she started. His brother had started much younger and so had immediately made varsity in his freshman year, going on to be count Swimmer of the Year and then almost make college nationals (in Canada). We assured him it didn’t matter, that it was about fitness and fellowship, and that we loved watching him swim, along with his grandparents. Also, he was becoming a bit of a specialist in backstroke, unlike his Freestyle/Fly siblings. So much for an easy choice –excellent coach, good group of boys, great fitness, and fun to watch for us. But it seemed to be over. His sisters had invited him to go for climbing and to the gym, but nothing was happening.

Then today, he burst out of his garage bedroom and said, one, that he was really glad his drum teacher had got him listening to jazz it was so amazing (he never listened to music before this, despite several years of piano lessons and now a few months of drumming), and two, that he wanted me to sign him up for swimming.

So I guess the exhortation with tears got to him where the gentle reminders and reasoning didn’t. He’s a heart guy, like his dad. He’s owning it, too–he doesn’t do things just to be compliant, but he does have a desire to do what’s right. He’s manning up, I think. I’m so proud of him Dare I hope that he’ll also heed my pleas to say no to first person shooter games, to protect his imagination, or to do real live work with his hands, like helping me build a new compost bin, or splitting some firewood, instead of virtual digital building and tearing down?

 

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The gift of trust

IF I go to the graduation open house, it will be with you, and I promise we will not stay long, I said. I know you have other things to attend to, but no need to take two cars. It is mainly symbolic for all of us, but could be a powerful symbolism of affirmation and support. Just as they have supported us. We all are wishing one another’s graduates well, and look forward, with a little wince at the anxiety for the one recovering from the head injury, to seeing you all make us proud as you go on growing and finding your calling. Actually, I expect that sometimes they will make me a little envious.Their style has always been of the more lauded kind of success, as in class president and team captain, while yours is more along the lines of being recognized for your quiet intelligence, your willingness to listen, your slow, deep responses and careful wording. Sometimes you lean away sideways when you speak–did you know that? On one foot, diagonally leaning. yesterday I wondered if I should video that, and show you what it looked like, but didn’t want to imply criticism.

We went early, so we’d make the David Suzuki talk at eight, and right away your dad found a fellow college alum he hadn’t met before, and they brought up one of his favorite subjects for light conversation–the football glory days, and deeper conversation–theology and spirituality. The other man was darkly tanned, and his blue eyes contrasted with the brown of his handsomely weathered skin. He probably sails, I thought.

I was introduced, made my taco salad, hung around a little, then moved off among the family’s friends and relatives with whom I was not acquainted, until I saw the round, smiling face of Mary, whom I hadn’t seen in years. Had she recovered from that brain surgery years ago? Seemingly. At least she still had that gently, humorous sweetness I remembered, though her brown curly hair had been lightened, easing into grey–she smiled and lifted her hat to show me. Compared to her steady gaze I felt as if I my glance shifted often, and I wondered whether I wasn’t sufficiently “comfortable in my own skin”. Had to settle down to allow her to discern me full on, as she stood closer than most people do, and said less, smiling. She was safe to be around, even comfortable, and I stayed there until someone else came along to enjoy her company. I like it when someone takes the time to try to penetrate the mask

For a while I watched the young people play badminton in the back yard. Such a mild and innocuous celebration, a real contrast to the one I was part of after my grad, where a set of well-to-do parents lent their beachfront cottage to swimsuit clad, alcohol-sodden minors and hung around the fringes to laiser them faire ce qu’ils voulaient. Those parents were from the sixties, all grown up and well heeled, but maybe nostalgic, living vicariously through their youth. What were they thinking? Thank heaven for allowing me to avoid the worst of the stupid paths I could have walked down that night, between the fine, cold, white sand and  clumps of saw grass, passing figures in pairs giggling in the dark. Some of my better instincts were working, at least.

The sun had shone all day, all week and it felt like mid July already. Tans, cool drinks, parents borrowing grad gowns, parties popping up all over town. My son came over to me by the deck rail to inform me he was getting a drive with a swim teammate to another grad celebration. I send him off with good wishes and trust.

The next day, my daughter alluded to something she had heard–and she exhibited a certain disdain for the friend who had shared this gossip–that my son did not always make wise choices. Not being specific, and I didn’t ask. She said she wished she didn’t even know, and that her friend would mind her own business. I tried to give the friend the benefit of the doubt, having known her since she was a preschooler, and heard many a news flash inaccurately told, all in an attempt to build connections between people.

But the implication hit me hard all the same. Not making wise choices? What had she heard? I felt a kind of grief, of disappointed expectation, that my son, all of my children, really, might not sail through the temptations of youth unscathed and unfallen. Not very reasonable, but there was the hope. My imagination started working into the present, the future. But not for long, as I am naturally averse to worry and anxiety. I set aside my speculations, and slept well.

A day or so later I obliquely approached the subject of wise choices with my son. He asked what it was about, and I said I was just checking in, because he was out a lot with friends, and I knew that sometimes companions didn’t always make good choices. “Like what?” he asked. I said, like underage drinking, or weed. Though I trusted that he would be a good example, I added, and a driver, if necessary (as my parents had requested of me). But not expecting perfection, I added, and I hope that he wouldn’t feel he had to keep secrets. Unbidden, he said, lightly, on the way to his room, “I solemnly swear never to do drugs.” Which I thought was kind of him. He does not utter words lightly, so I ended in believing that the rumor was another instance of my daughter’s friend getting her facts wrong.

Today my younger teen daughter paid me a great compliment, one which is not erased from my memory by her soon after calling me pathetic and ridiculous (in reaction to a disappointment, I decided). She said that she liked my parenting style, that I trusted my children, and that being trusted made her feel good. This was after being picked up from a friend’s house after a sleepover. I don’t really know the family, though I could see the girl was a solid contributor to my daughters’ school volleyball team, and that the mother had a nice countenance. I told my daughter that I did feel she would make wise choices, and was old enough to discern people to know what environments were good ones. That if I felt she was making unwise choices, I would indeed bring it up. Told her I had appreciated being trusted by my parents too.

Somehow I have accomplished communicating trust, though I do my share of warning, scolding, checking up, saying no, and imagining the worst. So that’s something. I want the to be the foundation of a self-fulfilling prophesy, that our children will surpass us, including in strength of character and wisdom. I choose to believe that, or at least project a trust toward that end.

Meanwhile, soon we’ll be having our own party, and darned if the thought didn’t cross my mind of allowing some alcohol-induced merriment among us of-agers, along with volleyball, bocce, and mingling around the neighborhood pool as the young folks splash around. When do the temptations ever really go away?

 

 

 

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Helping our children learn to submit to legitimate authority and understand rights and responsibilities

Sounds high and lofty, no? I apologize to those expecting something more authoritative. Just trying to live out the principles, and here’s how it sometimes goes.

Having rejoiced in my previous post at a certain harmony established with one daughter, I now tell another tale, about a confrontation resulting in my confiscating the smart phone she uses–as distinct from “her smart phone,”as she calls it–due to her not fulfilling household duties and showing proper respect to other household members. Sloth and sass, one could say. Let’s see if we can make any headway here, in a realm in which I remember well being on the other side, and my parents having not really won the battle. It’s a battle not of parents against children, but parents for children, against their lower instincts, right? Helping them overcome. Now as an adult I’m on my own in my own battle not to be slothful and sassy, but I do want to help my kids along too, maybe give them an advantage for the future. And we parents who like to expect everyone to be reasonable and come around on their own have to force ourselves to be more assertive at times like these. They respect us more in the end, and appreciate the help with overcoming their vices. Strange but true.

We did explain that the phones (given to the three oldest) were lent, on condition that they pulled their weight and kept good relations with all family members as they were able. Yeah, yeah, whatever, might have been the thought. What kid being handed a wonderful toy ever thinks, “My, those are reasonable conditions, and I should consider whether I really intend to fulfill them”, etc..? Still, the dotted line was, figuratively, signed.

We have confiscated devices a few times before, but not effectively. Have had to face the implied challenge of a physical wrestling match (“No! You can’t have it! It’s mine!”) by waiting and swooping in when said phone was untended, or by cutting off service, changing network password, etc. Then yielding to a reasonable-sounding request–need to text a friend about homework, want to listen to calming music, etc., after hardly any time had passed. The lesson was not learned, the bedroom was still a wreck, the chores still undone. Their unspoken conclusion was, “Well, I guess I can get away with that without too much grief.”

But this time I just stood my ground, unmoved by shrieking, and insisted, insisted, insisted that she give me the phone, that it was a privilege and had conditions. And she actually yielded, with a snarl; I got the phone. I was frankly surprised! But she assured me that this wouldn’t work, would make it even less likely that she’d do what I wanted. And I was being totally unfair, because the other daughter still had her phone, and hadn’t cleaned up her room either. So tempting to justify, and I usually try, but this time, I just said, “This is about you, not about her, and I’m trying to teach you something important right now that will help you in life. I’ll do my best with each of you, but that’s not your concern.” Goodness, she should be thanking me for coming down on her–parents who love their children discipline them, as the Bible says.

Then she went through device withdrawal, and reverted to some childish methods to try to intimidate–yelling, accusing, dumping her glass of water on the floor, knocking over chairs, provoking siblings,slamming doors, even the silent treatment (not her specialty), refusing to answer when spoken to. All with an appearance of fury, but, in reality, not uncontrolled. She’s not throwing anything through the plate glass living room windows, after all, or doing any personal violence, knocked over a chair, not a lamp, and so on. I tend to wait this out–it’s no time to talk, after all when she’s in the “reptilian brain.” Just take note of things she’ll have to fix or clean up, or I will.

I wrote down the requirements for her to get back her phone and conditions on which she was keeping it. Specifically, clean up her room, acknowledge the legitimate authority of us as parents, be respectful of everyone, do some household chores for the common good. By the next afternoon, the paper had a hand-torn fringe, but she had cleaned up her room, done her chores, and politely asked for the phone. and of course I gave it to her.

All the reasoning of this process, and the waiting out of tantrums and her apparent suffering for the lack of her phone were pretty easy for me, but that part where I had to stand there and insist, not give up, dictate, act like a solid rock, that was hard. I can count on one hand the times I remember doing that properly. But as I said, every time I stayed strong for my kids, stood up to them, calmly set a firm limit or consequence, those were the times there was some kind of breakthrough in their ability to respect me as a parent, as well as their sense of security. It’s like they thank me silently from their soul for being strong when they can”t be.

 

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