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Is differentiation critical to a gospel-centered classroom?

Yesterday I wondered this as I looked at Cyndy typing away on the computer. Cyndy is indeterrably happy and seems equally indeterrably non-academic. Her genre of choice in writing workshop is fluffy happy nonsense poetry. I have a long way to go–I want to push Cyndy into new writing territories.

But can every student be pushed into such territories? I’m reminded of what Crystal (my fiance) once said to me: a rope can’t be pushed, only pulled.

Differentiation is a wonderful result of reading / writing workshop as exemplified by Nancie Atwell in her book In the Middle. Every student is doing the work of writing and reading in the most authentic way possible–they choose their direction. I’ve taken the plunge into workshop with the Lord during the last six months, and it has been a frightening and overly rewarding experience. I pray for the chance to continue studying students in this kind of classroom next year.

Thank You, Father.

Differentiation seems essential given the fearfully and wonderfully made-ness of each child. So yes, I think differentiation is critical to a gospel-centered classroom. It is a primary means of affirming the worth of each child.

I don’t know if my classroom is gospel-centered, but I know it is gospel-changed–reading and writing workshop is one evidence of that.

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Computers in writing and reading workshop: helpful or harmful?

The other day I observed something in writing workshop that led me to ask the question above. I watched Destiney first see if she was going to be able to get an available computer, then, when it was clear she was out of luck, she came up and asked to go to the nurse. As soon as she got back, she got on a computer and feverishly went to work.

It struck me that Destiney would not have gone to the nurse had she immediately had computer access. Which led me to ask, are computers in writing/reading workshop helpful or harmful to overall production of finished pieces of student work?

Where our computers came from: The Lord has provided us with five computers for our classroom workshop. One is “my” computer (all teachers at our school get one), two are old models that Ms. Shannon and Mr. Scriven allowed me to take from the scrap heap, and two are a pair of brand new Dell desktops that were allotted to Title I teachers in our school this year. It’s up to the Lord to see what we’ll have available to us next year.

How our computers are used: During writing workshop, we use our computers for word processing only. After school, provided that they aren’t in use for word processing, I allow students to play games on them that aren’t blocked by the district’s servers. (Thinking of this, I’d like to start limiting these games to typing games only.)

How I manage computer use during class: At the start of status-of-the-class conference (see Nancie Atwell’s book or ask me more), I tell students which group is on the computers. We cycle through the groups day by day. If someone is absent or chooses not to use a computer, other students may use them (this is how Destiney’s situation arose). I require students to stay in their seats until SotC is over (avoids the shuffling and typing that used to distract from SotC as students logged on). There is a printer next door for immediate publishing. About twice as many computers would be ideal, because more students love to us them than can possibly use them in one day. Also: when we are within a week of a deadline, I ask those who have met the deadline to yield their use to those who have not.

How computers are helpful to writing workshop:

  • Some reluctant writers (e.g., Lawrence) will write endlessly (almost too much for me to keep up with) on the computer.
  • Some seem to attempt larger pieces of work on the computer than they do on paper (e.g., Rashad’s play The Worst Year Ever).
  • Work is easier and quicker to edit for both myself and the student.
  • Handwriting is a non-issue when word processing (though I still think handwriting is an essential skill for all students).
  • Students are familiarized with the shortcuts and intricate workings of Microsoft Word in an authentic, writerly way, rather than in the sterile “Computer Apps” course that I remember taking. E.g., students learn to double space a piece by highlighting the whole thing then either going into “Page Setup” or hitting Ctrl + 2, and they know that this skill is essential because their editor will hand back claustrophobia-inducing single-spaced pieces. I can go on and on with the joys of teaching students to be able, efficient Microsoft Word users.
  • Work published on a computer when compared to work published by hand is incomparably better looking.

How computers are harmful to writing workshop:

  • Computer lovers tend to rely entirely on computer time for getting work done, making them either:
    • a bother when it’s not their turn to use the computers, constantly looking over for free computers or sneaking over to see if they can talk someone to letting them get on.
    • a workshop management issue when they are not on the computer.
  • Computer lovers may produce less than they would if they mastered both on- and off-computer writing.

Solutions:

  • Create a list with students during a mini-lesson on how to make the most of on- and off-computer times. Some things that can be done off the computer are: marking edits on printed drafts; brainstorming new pieces; updating writing territories; drafting new pieces; testing multiple leads next to each other; soliciting peer writing conferences; etc.
  • Post the class-created list on the wall.
  • Encourage students daily to study the craft of both on- and off-computer writing.

Anger in the classroom

(Please note that this won’t be an entire picture of the classroom God has given me dominion over, as nothing that I write truly can be. The entire picture of this classroom is a myriad of relationships and classroom history. But I am going to try to learn what God is teaching me through these experiences.)

Today my blood boiled during 1st/2nd period. Boiling blood aptly describes how my face felt. Anger. I’ve been reflecting on whether teacher anger is at the root of most write-ups, referrals, and poorly considered consequences. I think it is. Repenting of sinful anger is a key to classroom management.

It really started yesterday.

Yesterday, MW, who was being punished, wrote an impassioned note to himself that he hated me because I let JP get away with everything. MW wrote that he thought I was scared of JP. He gave me the note when I asked, and when I asked if I could keep it, he let me. I kept it in my stack of edits for that night (writing workshop produces a lot of those right now), and whenever I came across it I read it and considered it..

Today I moved JP away from MW at the start of the class, citing instructional reasons. During silent reading JP was moving over by the couch and talking to the people there, so I told him he couldn’t sit there. He asked me, “Why?” The tone of his voice and the look on his face made me angry. It appeared that he was trying to… what, bully me? Be tough?

He stared at me and I stared at him. Then I knew he was trying to be tough. This thirteen year-old boy, part of the mentor/mentee group I go to Cici’s pizza buffet with on Wednesdays, was trying to intimidate me in my classroom! I was outraged. So I stared at him. I was mad. The fight sensors were blaring in me. I wasn’t going to back down. When JP sat at his desk, he reached his hand out–challenging me to arm wrestle! He seriously challenged me to arm wrestle. Part of me wanted to try it. He’s a big kid, but he’s a kid! I could beat him… but it was absurd. He really wanted to make clear that he was the big dog in the class.

I sent him outside. He went out and slammed the door. I gave him a minute to cool down out there (and, truthfully, for me to cool down).

Practical application: Give myself time to cool down when I get mad.

When I went out there, I was able to coolly explain to JP what had been unacceptable about his behavior. He listened, and seemed to soften a bit. I told him that the Lord had given him a great, athletic body, but that it wasn’t for that. It was for glorifying God on the field, sticking up for bullied kids, protecting women, but not for what he pulled. I told him to come in when he was ready, and several minutes later, he did–slamming the door.

But by then, I was having an issue with DT, who was talking during reading workshop (of course, it didn’t help that I’d been outside for some moments now–but the classroom was still quiet, if not inactive). My anger went up quick, and, in the anger, I assigned him lunch detention.

Practical app: Don’t give consequences in anger. The tone this gives them is one of resentment. Give consequences after both parties have had a chance to cool down.

Final digression: I’ve got these two boys JD and CJ who made a girl cry today. JD was saying something smelled, and Clifton was saying it was LG (the girl). These boys are pretty quiet about what they do. They have been infuriating me this week because of their coldness; even though they’re always giggling, there’s a lot that’s mean and cruel about it. They’re not taking anything seriously.

Lord, I praise You for making them, for Your plan for them that I can’t see. I confess that I am angry and bitter towards them; I resent their attitude. You made them in love, have a purpose for them in perfect love. You are unconditionally committed to getting them into your arms at the future feast. Lord, I want to know their hearts; I want to know how to teach them; I want them to stop being mean and start being young men. Father, with Your Spirit I repent of my feelings towards these boys, and I forgive them. I ask that You would grant LG the same overflowing grace. Because we have been unconditionally forgiven, we can forgive–all because of You.

Practical app: Father, praying about students is of infinitely greater worth than worrying about them or being angry at them or bitter towards them or indifferent about them. All of these approaches besides prayer is idolatry. I repent of today’s idolatry and turn back to You, my Father.

Pencil Experiment

I decided last Monday morning to put out 12 new pencils in the pencil jar and monitor their progress. You can see the results here: http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=pazxn17LO61JC489e3T4ANw <http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=pazxn17LO61JC489e3T4ANw>

I noticed that if I put a mixture of pencils out in the morning, those left at the end of the day tended to be the shortest ones. And yet, on not one day was a child idle due to lack of a pencil. A long pencil is not required for even 40 minutes’ worth of straight writing workshop, so today, on Friday, an insight popped into my head as I was looking at yet another pencil I’d found outside. This one had some nice length to it. Why not break it in half? I did. I sharpened the newly broken piece. I looked at my desk where I’d set the pencils. Two pencils.

Suddenly, the price of pencils changed from 98 cents per dozen to 49 cents per dozen — a fifty percent decrease! Pencils cease to be the classroom management issue they’ve been in the past. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for little surprises, and for making a pencil predicament into a fun experiment.