Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Virtual Conference on Core Values: Treat 'Em Like They're My Own

Conference is here.

What's at the center of my classroom?


It's the same thing that drives my parenting: I'm raising them to leave.

My home is differentiated. My wife and I have boys ages 12, 9, 6, 4 and 1.5. We don't treat them according to their age; we treat them according to how ready they are to be independent. It's based on this unwritten authority/influence continuum that seems to be as dynamic as anything I've ever encountered. At one end, we have authority which is determined by the decisions we make for our children. At the other, we have influence which eventually becomes the decisions they makes for themselves. And in between?  We have all kinds of decisions we make together.

We start out by feeding, burping, bathing and changing. It's a no-brainer, because an infant can't do these things for himself. Trust me; I've tried.

As the child grows, he begins to do more for himself.  The part we have to embrace is the messiness that ensues as the spoon leaves our hand and moves into the hand of the child. Let go of the spoon too soon and you'll be cleaning the ceiling for months; let go too late and the child may never learn to feed himself. But as you begin to let go, make no mistake, it's going to be messy. That part is hard because sometimes it's just easier to feed the kid yourself. Parents get this all kinds of messed up and the child eventually pays for it.  We've all seen it:  helicopter parents who make decisions for their kids, resolve their conflicts and clean up all their messes.

There may be times when the child may look like he's taking responsibility, but all he is doing is following the lead of his parents.

The way this works into my classroom is simple: Never do for them what they can do for themselves.


Our initial placement on the continuum is critical. The only way to assess that is to provide activities that can be differentiated in terms of our involvement: How much do we show them? How much do we explicitly tell them? What questions do we ask and how helpful should they be? We can't turn them loose too soon, but the goal has to be to let go.

We are preparing them to leave.

I think once we wrap our mind around that concept, the continuum begins to look more like this:



See, most of the teaching I've been around assumes the teacher to be the source of all knowledge, like a breathing encyclopedia. I realize we are all dealing with mandated curriculum and most students probably aren't quite ready to choose their own adventure anyway.  I'm not trying to discuss what we teach (that's a topic for another post); I'm talking about how.   But sometimes, the spoon never leaves the hand of the teacher because it's assumed the student can't feed himself.  The complexity of the material may increase, but the cognitive demand of the delivery never leaves modelling and explicit directions in the form of statements--or maybe, if we're lucky, closed questions. The student may look like he's functioning at a high level, but all he's doing is following the lead of his teacher.

I have to constantly take a look at how much of what I say ends with a period and how much ends with a question mark.  I also have to be aware that not all questions are created equal--are my questions pointed and closed or are they open, allowing for multiple entry and exit points?  If the best I can do is offer closed questions to my students, then the best they'll do is depend on me to be the one asking the questions.  The really interesting part is how a student and I can move all over the continuum during a single conversation.  Sometimes we may start with the open questions (which is always best, in my opinion) and based on the student's response, I may have to just get out of the way and let him go--or we keep moving towards modelling until we find a spot where the student is comfortable.  It's really up to him.  The key is to let the student lead.  This may be problematic at first because, just like learning the tendencies of a new dance partner (sorry for changing metaphors there, but it had to happen.  Besides, I do dance with my kids, so it kinda fits.), many students are conditioned to follow.  They'll sit and stare for a while until you let them know, "the music's playin', kid, time to bust a move."

So, whether we are talking about feeding a child or dancing, the point remains the same:  the student determines my level of involvement and it's important to never underestimate how independent he can truly be.  It's a tough call sometimes because the little boogers'll sandbag, for sure.

So now what?  How do you move the spoon from your hand to the hand of your student?

Sorry, it's your spoon.

7 comments:

BMS Principal said...

We are preparing them to leave---thought provoking at both the parental and pedagogical levels. Thanks!

Dina said...

Nice read. Highly recommend dy/dan's blog on this topic. His tag line is "less helpful." If you search on these words, several posts will come up where he wrestles with these ideas very fruitfully.

http://blog.mrmeyer.com/

mythagon said...

"I have to constantly take a look at how much of what I say ends with a period and how much ends with a question mark." I like this line a lot. The kids have such great thoughts--gotta give them the chance to say them!

David Cox said...

I have a tough time separating the parental and pedagogical...which is probably as it should be. On another note, Mr. Powell, I see the blog is up and running. Nice. Consider yourself subscribed.

Dina Dan's influenced this post, for sure. Looking forward to your post.

kalamitykat.com said...

Love this: "I have to constantly take a look at how much of what I say ends with a period and how much ends with a question mark."

What a succinct way to say it. Thanks.

scottt22 said...

I really enjoyed the post and the metaphors were a perfect fit. To follow along with your metaphor, what happens when the student or child would rather leave the spoon in your hands and just kick back and let you do all the work? With students in the middle grades it seems that they would rather do the bare minimum to get me off their back, and as far as they're concerned, the less work they have to do to, the better. At what point do we thrust the spoon into their hand, or set the spoon down and wait until they pick it up?

David Cox said...

Scott,
I think the challenge is to provide learning opportunities that are interesting enough that the students just won't kick back. If the activity has multiple access points, then most kids will get on board. Those who don't may have some other issue that needs to be dealt with.

With that being said, I have experienced kids who have learned to sit back because their teachers have eventually caved and just taken the pencil out of their hands, so to speak. It's definitely a test of resolve.