Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Dealing with "That Class"

We’ve all had them and if you haven’t, you will -- “That class”… you know the one. The wild-card. The challenge. The pain in the ass. The day ruiner.  Call it whatever you want, but it’s the one class in which things just never seem to come together. I don’t have one every semester by any means, but I definitely have one this spring and they’ve been driving me crazy. 

There’s no one thing that makes this particular group “that class”.  It’s kind of like Justice Potter Stewart’s obscenity test: “I know it when I see it”, except I see this group every afternoon at 2:03

The group that I’m struggling with this semester is not terribly unlike other difficult classes I’ve had in the past:
- they get way off track
- they want to talk and argue and shout about rappers and their neighborhoods
- they get irked/ frustrated/ irritated with me
- they cut class
- they disrespect each other
- they end up failing the class. 

Also like many of the other challenges I’ve had in the past, these guys (most of the class is male) can be brilliant and respectful and insightful on an individual basis. In fact, I had a handful of them last semester and they were completely different people.
However, last semester there were two major differences:
1) We saw each other 2nd period (9:40 in the morning)
2) There were some very strong females in the class who would never tolerate the childish behavior, nor would the males act that way for fear of embarrassment (gotta love adolescents).  

So this group has been giving me headaches on the regular for the last month or so. But I work in an alternative school (not that it’s different in traditional schools) so this behavior ought to be par for the course and being the seasoned vet that I am… I reached into my pedagogical bag of tricks. 

My first instinct was to flip my frustration right back on them.  Make them accountable for the material whether they wanted to engage it or not.  This translated to independent reading, guided notes, written thought questions, collecting and grading EVERYTHING, behavior charts, blah, blah, blah.  Basically I took it way back to the basics… and the boring basics at that.

The level of success that this approach yielded depends on how you define success.  Some students needed this kick to stay on task and get things done. Others decided that they weren’t going to do it no matter what and continued to talk or disengage.  After about a week, I was left with a small few who were doing very well, a middle group who did enough to pass, but only barely, and a sizeable group who were failing miserably because they hadn’t done any of my “you can’t have  a scholarly discussion so do this seat work” assignments and were now even more disengaged than before.  At the end of the day, I could say that whatever their grade it was entirely on them.  The other thing I could say for certain was no one was learning anything or engaging in critical thought - least of all, me.

This type of “seat work” did not come naturally to me and I found it soul crushing, especially after seeing the results.  There had to be another way…

After a weekend of thought and some conversations with my PLN and others, I decided I couldn’t do it anymore, I had to go in a completely different direction.  Willingly or not I had traveled down the exact “basic skills” path of disenfranchisement that I’ve railed against before and that drove most of my students out of their traditional schools in the first place.  I had totally zigged when I should have zagged… and I ended up falling on my face.  

On Sunday night, I reworked the following week’s lesson plans to be project oriented.  The students didn’t want to listen to me talk and that’s fine.  After all, I shouldn’t be doing that much talking anyway. I decided that my last period class would proceed with an inquiry & project-based framework (I try to organize my classes around this framework, but I sometimes slip).  In some ways, I suppose I would still put the responsibility back on the students, but instead of mind-numbing seat work, I would challenge them to elevate their game.

To offer a concrete example:
We’re working through a unit on irony, more specifically dealing with the question: “Why do  authors use irony in stories?”.  We’ve looked at some interesting texts: ironic photos, news stories, a Simpsons’ episode, Chopin’s “Story of an Hour”, Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter”, O’Flaherty’s “The Sniper”, and Dorothy Parker’s poem “One Perfect Rose”. My original intent was to power them through an analytical essay comparing different uses of irony across these texts (and we did still do some formal analysis, but on a much smaller scope).

Instead of guiding them through this analytical essay, I first challenged them to go back to one of the texts and map the irony.  I told them that these maps would serve as the entire class’s refresher for that story so if they do a half-ass job they’re not only screwing themselves, but also their peers (just as I expected, they took this as a challenge and held one another accountable).

After presenting their irony maps, I hit them with stage two of the irony final project: Developing their own ironic work that teaches some lesson or accomplishes a goal.  Just as O’Flaherty used irony to show the devastation of civil war or Chopin used it to rally early feminists, so must they craft an ironic piece that accomplishes some goal. Both the goal and the medium were entirely up to them. In the end, many wrote short stories while some wrote plays or raps.  A few more artistic students chose to do comic strips or other artwork.  

I was incredibly pleased with their focus and the products of their work.  More importantly, my students were engaging in critical and authentic thought. 

I realize now that one of the major elements missing from that particular class was a clear and challenging goal… or at least one that was visible to the students.  In Michael Smith & Jeff Wilhelm’s book Reading Don’t Fix no Chevy’s they discuss the necessity of learning (and specifically reading) to be useful or utilitarian, in other words, accomplishing or working toward a goal.  Perhaps this was one of the issues with my 7th period guys - they didn’t recognize what we were doing as useful, or certainly not as useful as arguing whether “Ace Hood or Wayne is more bubblegum”. 

My advice on dealing with classes that try your patience and could push even the most dynamic educator to pass out the worksheets:  resist the urge to regress.  Believe me, I know the “basic skills” path is well worn, especially in urban schools and with challenging kids, but you have to take the one less traveled by, as it will make all the difference (excuse the obligatory Robert Frost…)

Further, talk to your peers.  Reach out on Twitter.  Ask the Google-man: “what do I do with a class that is awful”. You will find resources.  You are not the first teacher to have a class that sends you running for the Advil in the desk drawer at the end of the day and you certainly won’t be the last.