Classroom vs. Court

If you follow my blog, you know that a few months ago I accepted a new job as a teaching assistant of a 3rd grade class. Knowing that my free time would drastically increase, I invited a friend to co-coach a girls volleyball team at a local non-profit. We settled on coaching a 3rd-4th grade team, “The Cheetahs”, feeling confident that our volleyball skills would be sufficient for the beginners. Of course, this means that I spend a lot of my time with kids in and around the 3rd grade, and though it can be challenging, I’ve really enjoyed seeing them in different environments.

For most of our nine girls, volleyball is pretty new. Some of them had played for a season or two, others had barely touched a volleyball before they arrived at our first practice. None of them know much about how the game is played beyond the basic concepts of serving and returning. From a “this is brand new to me” perspective, it’s very similar to how my students at school spent their week in math – trying to master right-to-left subtraction. Despite being very different types of problems, the kids handled them in many of the same ways. Some, who the skills came to easily, are eager and excited for each opportunity to practice and improve. Others take a little longer, struggling with holding the ball still as they underhand serve, or forgetting that you have to add what you borrowed to the original number before subtracting. And the last group are those that get the most frustrated, threatening to give up or bemoaning their lack of ability. While we still have some in this group (both in class and in volleyball) it is lovely to see their “ah-ha” moments when the pieces start to come together.

Perhaps the biggest difference for me between coaching and teaching is that some volleyball concepts can’t be explained in words. In subtraction, as with most academic concepts, there is always a reason for what you’re doing and how you do it (you borrowed a hundred, so you add ten tens; you didn’t have enough to take away so you had to trade for some more, etc.). But in volleyball, sometimes whatever you tried just doesn’t work. It’s not that the girls don’t understand the concept, or what they should be doing — it’s that they haven’t had enough repetitions to have mastered that particular body movement. As an educator, I regularly find myself at a loss when trying to explain how they could improve on specific volleyball skills, and I’m coming to accept that maybe I can’t.

Just like at school, our volleyball team is full of girls at completely different levels. Some of the disparity comes from age, some from experience, but we have girls ranging from incredibly consistent in both serving and passing, to girls who still swing and miss when trying to get the ball. Just like in our classroom, it is frustratingly difficult to meet all of their needs at once. It’s much easier at volleyball, where one-on-one interactions can be tailored to each girl’s level, but helping them become a cohesive unit is extremely tricky. Moreover, I’m getting a taste of what lead teachers must deal with every day, with parents’ desires to contribute (or not), their hopes (and demands) that their child get certain attention, and so on.

Observing kids of this age in these different settings has shown me a lot about what it means to be eight. My co-coach and I had visions in our heads of kids eager to listen, work hard, and become star volleyball players. Instead, just like at school, most of the kids just want to hang out with their friends. They are happy and silly and have a hard time focusing, even the ones who desperately begged their parents to let them play. Fortunately, we don’t have to spend nearly as much time trying to get them to be quiet or mandating that they listen to every word we say. Practices tend to be organized chaos, where we try to capitalize on their energy and lack of focus to get them as many touches on the ball as possible. As it turns out, the chaos is serving as a nice break from the regimented school day.

While I don’t know that we are coaching prodigies, the girls have been winning their games and seem to have fun doing it, so for now: Go Cheetahs!

Reconsidering the Avoiders

This week, prompted by a suggestion from a friend to look at the work of Carol Dweck, I’ve noticed something more about the so-called “avoiders” I talked about in a previous post. Though they still contribute their best effort when trying to get out of work, I think there’s something much deeper affecting them.

This TED talk was shown at our all faculty meeting before school started and does a nice job of explaining the importance of a growth mindset for learning. Unfortunately, I think the thing our “avoiders” have most in common is a complete and total lack of this mindset. Instead, they show the epitome of a fixed mindset; they are often rooted in their own ideas, convinced that they alone are right, or, worse, that they don’t understand, so they should not try at all.

One student, faced with a challenge, latches on to the first idea that comes into her head and refuses to let any others inform her thinking. She is often the first to contribute in a group, but her skills are on the low end of her peers, so she rarely provides a complete and correct idea. So her classmates build upon her offering, as a team should, until reaching a reasonable conclusion. Cue this student regressing back to her original answer with complaints of: “I don’t know why mine isn’t right” and “can I just use what I said before?”, leaving me flabbergasted. Another student has a habit of assuming they don’t understand or don’t know the answer before they actually read and consider the question. Sometimes, all it takes to remedy this is to make them read the problem aloud; other times, they will spend a full 3 minutes bemoaning that they “can’t” or that they “don’t understand” before I can get them anywhere. I find the latter much easier to manage, and typically work to incorporate appropriate praise when they inevitably reach the right answer (which they almost invariably do).

While I appreciate the idea of the fixed mindset to help me explain these behaviors and the ideas provided to alter their approaches, the thing that keeps nagging at me is that each of the three children in my class with this mindset are girls. Initially, when they would approach me with their whining and complaining I found my gut wrenching. I took particular offense to the mere possibility that these girls have been receiving messages that they can’t or that they aren’t smart enough to do absolutely anything they want. I cannot prove that gender is the cause as opposed to the fact that they just happened to be the children who internalized messages to lead them to a fixed mindset, but I suspect that conforming to the female gender role is part of it. All of the students in the class have been at the school for at least a few years, and none of the boys in the class have developed the fixed mindset. Sadly, I imagine that the school is probably sending the least of these messages – the majority are likely out of our control, coming from the outside environment, friends, and parents. It disturbs me that a child of 8 might think themselves incapable of anything, and I hope we can work to support the growth mindset in all of our children regardless of the role we fill in their lives, be it educator, parent, or community member.

Sitting Still

Try this:

Sit still for two full minutes. No phone in your hand, TV on, or other entertainment. No talking, limited fidgeting; just sitting.

How did that go?

Now, imagine doing the same thing while you have to go to the bathroom, sitting next to your best friend, after spending 30 minutes running around with them. Then add another 8 minutes on to the clock.

For many people (myself included), the two minutes alone was probably difficult. We are products of a highly connected, constantly stimulating environment, doing nothing is barely in our vocabulary. And yet, we expect our children to do this multiple times a day. Not only do they have to patiently wait their turn to go to the bathroom, but they have to follow almost all of those rules to simply exist as a “good” student in the classroom.

In fairness, I wouldn’t say that participating in a class lesson is the same as doing nothing, but the principle still applies. This morning, I watched nearly all of the 17 students in my class struggle to stay focused and engaged in a math lesson. Even our super consistent rule follower was making paper chains. Naturally, you might assume that it was a terribly boring lesson, and though it wasn’t the most exciting, the real issue was something much more common – things were moving slowly so everyone could keep up. Trouble is, not everyone who didn’t understand was engaged either.

My observations spurred by breakfast reading of Montessori Madness! A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori Education, I watched a class full of students completely disengage with a lesson. Worse, this did not become a problem that was addressed, because each of them had checked out quietly, meaning they weren’t capturing the attention of myself or the teacher in a way that we deemed needed addressing. We had a paper chain maker, a hair twirler, a pencil twister, a doodler, and a host of others, but, for once, they were all relatively quiet. They weren’t learning, but they were quiet, so all was well. That may be unjust, but there’s certainly a measure of reality as well. We constantly ask our students to ‘behave’ even if it’s completely impossible for them to learn while doing so.

As Trevor Eissler explains in his book:

An authoritarian system is needed in a school because without it children would naturally progress at their own pace, not at the pace indicated on the teacher’s lesson plan. In traditional schools, having children work on different things, or at different speeds, is considered chaos. Classes are designed around one teacher giving one lesson to thirty students. Everyone doing the same thing on the same page at the same time is necessary for simultaneous progress through the syllabus. This system recognizes that children may have different interests at different times than their peers….It takes these realities into account, but only to design…a method to bestow upon teachers the authority to override individual student’s preferences for learning, in order to keep pace with the mandated syllabus.

It saddens me that this is normal; that as educators, grateful for a short respite, we have let it become more important that students be quiet and “making progress” than that they actually learn something. My school is better than the one described above, with significantly greater flexibility, and support for individual children, and yet it still falls so far short of actually meeting kids where they are.

One of the things that I think is particularly valuable about Montessori in meeting this challenge is utilizing multi-age classrooms. By having students from different levels in the same classroom, a teacher immediately eliminates the very real struggle involved in a student realizing they aren’t “as good” as their peers, as well as the pressure to have every student on the same page. Instead, students are taught that everyone works at their own pace and that that’s okay. A fifth grader and a third grader could be working on something together, and that would be okay too. This approach eradicates much of the social pressure associated with school, while laying a solid foundation for a teacher to present any work he or she deems appropriate for a given student’s development.

What’s in a Name?

Stuart and Pat W.
Jackie and Pat C.

These are the names of my elementary school teachers; yes, their first names. Though I now know all of their last names, as an elementary schooler their last names were the source of significant curiosity. I was not taught to call teachers by a title and their last name until I started public school in 6th grade. Like many of the new things at “traditional” schools, this was just another thing I chalked up as an oddity that I must comply with.

I never thought about this much until this week. I’ve been internally struggling with my new role as a disciplinarian, as a good portion of my responsibilities now involve enforcing rules. While I believe the rules are important, I also believe that we can easily create environments that minimize the need for an authority figure to enforce said rules. Every time I walk my 17 third-graders to the bathroom and “threaten” them with a dock to their behavior chart for uttering a word, a small part of me dies. I’ve never seen this particular side of myself, and honestly, despite going through the motions, I think my students can tell my heart isn’t in it (or at least I assume that’s why they don’t listen to me as well as they should).

Coincidentally, this side of me came out when I started going by Ms. Schultz. Before three weeks ago, I had never once introduced myself by or asked anyone to call me by my last name. Shortly after I started graduate school, I did an activity that required I tell the story of my name. When I shared my story, my surname didn’t even come up. This activity was designed as an introduction to social justice and understanding identity, which I have carried with me in my work, but I didn’t realize quite how central my own name was to my personal identity. In many ways, I feel like a totally different person while I am Ms. Schultz, filling the role of enforcer.

I imagine the need to have children call adults by this formal title is a hold over from long, long ago, when children were meant to be seen and not heard. By allowing students to use teacher first names, I believe we humanize both student and teacher. We put all parties in a position that allows them to see the other as a person, not an underling, or an intimidating authority figure. As elementary students, we almost never disrespected our teachers, but what we called them had nothing to do with any instances of disrespect. Indeed, we had far fewer opportunities to be disrespectful. There were far fewer stated obligations when it came to “respecting” authority, and as such we spent much less time failing at them. Instead, we naturally respected our teacher as a loved part of our community — they were the people who made the community a community at all.

On the bright side, I’m actually grateful for this different, authoritative persona, complete with a different name.  Because I have such a removed relationship with the “Ms. Schultz” moniker, I can hold on to “Stacie” for another time, when I can work to create an environment more like the one I envision.