Stopping the shame game

So there is this practice that is somewhat prevalent among teachers, and I don’t like it.

I call it ‘The Shame Game’. We all know what the shame game is. Either we play it with our students, or had it played with us when we were students, and we have all DEFINITELY seen it played sometime in our lives. The shame game looks something like this:

Student comes to class. Student needs a pencil, but doesn’t have a pencil for whatever reason. Usually they forgot it or it got lost (somehow, magically, in the 10 steps between their last classroom and your classroom) but sometimes their friend took it and broke it in the seconds your back was turned to write something on the board, or maybe they dropped it and it rolled underneath your bookshelf and now they can’t get it, or they threw it up in the air and now it’s stuck in your drop-down ceiling. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.

Anyway, so student comes to class, and they don’t have that pencil. Your job is to teach them responsibility, right! Why don’t they have that pencil! Why aren’t they prepared for class! And this is where many teachers start to play the shame game – they say those exact things to the student. The student, of course, feels so incredibly thankful that the teacher pointed out to the class that they were unprepared and that they are a dumb loser (maybe not in those words, but we can read between the lines here) who can’t even hang on to a stupid pencil, and never forgets their pencil again. Right?

Right?

I have a student, who I love dearly, who is in my Spanish 3 class. He has struggled since day one to play the school game properly. He has gotten better over the years as we have found strategies for him to be prepared, be on time, to stay organized, and probably a little bit has to do with simple maturation. But the *very first day* of class this year, he somehow managed to leave his chemistry syllabus on my table. I don’t know how, we didn’t even need to open our binders that day, we just talked in Spanish about nothing in particular. Now, I could’ve played the shame game and thrown it away – ha ha, that’ll teach him responsibility to not leave his stuff lying around! – or I could’ve chosen to be the compassionate teacher, found him in the hallway and handed it to him with a smile, saying ‘Hey buddy, I think you forgot this.’ As I will with every. single. paper. he will leave in my room over the course of the year, as he has for the previous two years.

Because here’s the thing, fellow teachers. Playing the shame game helps no one. It doesn’t teach responsibility. We know this. That kid is still going to forget their paper, day after day after day. Or their pencil. Or their binder. Or their computer. Some teachers seem to take it personally. It is not personal. Sometimes the student has an undiagnosed problem with their executive function (aka, the part of your brain that controls decision making and organization.) Sometimes they just have a brain fart. Maybe the student is being bullied in a place where we can’t see and they start the day prepared, but someone is taking their stuff before they get to us. Some people are just plain ol’ forgetful. Playing the shame game only raises the affective filter, makes them more nervous, and paints us as jerks. We are not jerks… right? That’s not how we want to portray ourselves. We already have tv shows and movies for kids to do that for us.

To add insult to injury, these things do not happen in the adult world. As an adult, if I go to a meeting, paper and writing utensils are frequently provided for me. If they aren’t and I don’t have something, nobody asks me for a shoe or my planner for collateral. If I run out of dry erase markers in my classroom, my school has an entire closet of extra supplies in the office and I can take as much as I need and nobody ever asks why I didn’t plan ahead. It’s also far easier for me to keep my items where I need them because I’m not tromping around a building (and then to and from my house) with all my stuff – it stays where I put it in my room, mischievous students aside.

So here’s the point. The shame game does not teach responsibility. It doesn’t stop students from forgetting their whatevers. All it does is hurt our relationships with those students, make us look like jerks, and makes it seem like we care far more about a stupid 10 cent pencil than our students. I don’t know about you, but at this point in my career, I can always get more pencils. (They don’t pay me THAT little, or I can just get them from the aforementioned well-stocked closet.) I can’t always repair a damaged relationship with a student. The shame game is not worth it. Please, let it go. Compassion will take us much farther in our goal of educating all students.

Even if we have to grit our teeth as we smile and say ‘Hey buddy, I think you forgot this,’ for the seven hundred zillionth time.

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One word + one sentence

It’s the beginning of a new school year, and around this time, many #edutwitter and #langchat bloggers do a post about their #oneword. (I promise I’ll stop with the hashtags now.) I never bothered before now, because I didn’t really have one word that could sum up my goal for the year. I’m quite terrible at setting year-long goals: my goals tend to come up organically, something to adjust as the year goes along. So when I set one in August or September, I’ve usually forgotten it by November because something else has cropped up that needs more immediate tweaking. But by tweaking little things throughout the year, it ends up addressing a larger goal I didn’t know I had, which is usually some variation on be a better teacher.

But this year, I have a word! And it’s a marvelous word. My word is PATIENCE. You see, last summer, I bought a house. It’s a wonderful house that is slightly too big for me and my four cats with a giant fenced-in yard for my non-existent dogs. I love my house. But my house is 117 years old. It has been well-maintained and updated, but like any house, it has things that always need to be repaired or changed to my liking. So, like all teachers, I’ve spent my summer slowly chipping away at the gigantic list of home repairs that accrues throughout the year (because any project that takes more than about 2 hours and $20 is not happening during the school year) and I have learned… patience. Because if I am impatient and sloppy with how I do things, especially considering I am extremely clumsy and have poor manual dexterity, I am going to have a poor end result. And then I am either going to have to live with that poor end result (which will irritate me to the end of time) or I’m going to have to redo it. With patience.

I’ve also been playing a lot of video games this summer that require patience. I am a pretty impulsive gamer – shoot first, die, then ask ‘What are we doing?’ later. (My boyfriend, bless his heart, is very good about reviving my stupid self when I blunder face first into a pack of enemies, guns a-blazin’.) I’ve been working on Darkest Dungeon, where it autosaves. If you mis-click, if your character dies, it’s permadeath. No going back to a previous save. You have to have patience. Calm. Cool.

As teachers, we all know, we need patience. So much patience. In my years of teaching, I have found untold depths of patience I didn’t know I had. I need patience with my students and their needs. I need patience with other colleagues who might not understand what I’m doing and why I’m so darn cheerful all the time (and why my classroom is so noisy. All the time. There is a lot of laughter in my room). I need patience with other language teachers who are not so sure about this whole comprehensible input thing. I need patience with my school leaders, who are often pulled in 72 different directions and 71 of those don’t agree with what I think is best. I need patience with parents who sometimes don’t understand that my class doesn’t look like a traditional classroom, but we’re still doing lots of learning in there. I need even MORE patience with my students and their language growth. Language acquisition is a process that takes foorreeevvverrr. And just as importantly, I need patience with myself. I can only do so much.

This brings me to my sentence of the year. I might write it on big paper and post it in the back of the room where I can see it every day. It’s going to say:

IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, COURTNEY

with maybe some squiggles and exclamation points to really drive that point home. I listened to some of the president’s recent speech to the Boy Scouts at their Jamboree and I was so angry. He took a thing, a celebration of the scouts and their accomplishments and what the scouting stands for, and made it about him. But it shouldn’t have been about him. Scouting is about the kids.

And so it is in our classrooms. My school is planning to switch to the Power of ICU type plan for dealing with our chronic low quality and missing work. (For reference, our grade 7-12 population is about 120, and we have approximately 25% of those students failing one or more classes at any given time. That is unacceptable to us, and the things we’ve been trying have been utterly failing, so we’re gonna do this new thing. I think it’ll work.) Basically, every student completes every assignment. No arguing, that’s just the way it is now. It is a cultural shift. The first quarter of trying it is going to be an absolute nightmare. The kids are going to push. Some teachers will be upset because part of it is that you accept all work, no matter how late it is. Another part is that if students don’t turn in work, it goes on the ICU list (where everyone can see it) and if it’s not a quality assignment, then eventually people are going to start dropping hints about maybe reevaluating what kind of assignments that teacher is giving.** And as much as teachers hate that, it’s not about us. It’s about the kids and what they need, and they need quality assignments that are not just rote memorization. It is going to be an awful quarter, I think, and we’re going to have some kids who never do get on board. But if we stick firm, most kids will adapt, and it will be easier from there on out. (I also like the Power of ICU because it takes away the shame/power struggle part of missing work – it is simply, “Who do you owe? What do you owe? How can I help you?”. As someone who prefers to keep things positive in her room, even during study hall or advisory time, the neutrality of the questions makes me happy.)

This thought also dribbled into my brain at iFLT. My overuse of English? Keeps me comfortable, lets me talk about whatever I want with the kiddos, but it’s not allowing their Spanish to grow at the pace it could be. But the class is not about me.

And – going back to patience – when students complain about things in class, I like to frame it as, they’re trying to communicate to me that they are unhappy about something and would like a change, but their underdeveloped teenage brains don’t know how to appropriately state their feelings and a plan of action. So if my students are saying “ugh, stories are so boring, we do them all the time,” I don’t need to get upset. It’s not about me. What my student is trying to say is, “I feel like we do stories frequently, perhaps we could mix it up a bit with some other activities?” Or something that definitely happens in Spanish 3: “Reading, AGAIN? Let’s just get this over with. Why don’t we do any of the fun stuff we used to do like in Spanish 1?” Translation: “We used to listen to more music and play more games, where did they go? I enjoyed that part of class.” Because guess what! Not about me. (Also, they’re right. Something I intend to fix in my overhaul of Spanish 3 this year.)

So those are my two interrelated ideas for 2017-2018. Patience, and it’s not about me. It is about the kids and their needs, and sometimes figuring out those needs requires patience. Meeting those needs definitely requires patience.

**I just finished Tom Rademacher’s book It Won’t Be Easy and as an English teacher, he makes his assignments pass the Google test. If his kids can Google the answers to his assignment, then he needs to come up with something more challenging. I agree with this test. Especially if you are a 1:1 district.

My AP syllabus: 2 years later

Two years ago, I started on my AP Spanish journey. If you’ve been reading recently, you have realized that my AP journey… has been a rocky one. Not going so well. That’s okay. In teaching years, two years is still baby steps. I know I didn’t feel like I sort of knew what I was doing at all as a teacher until my 3rd year, and I didn’t feel like a decent teacher until my 5th. Now, going into my 8th, I feel pretty confident that I got this. I don’t feel any nerves about this upcoming year, only excitement. (It definitely helps that I work in an awesome school, with an awesome staff, where I feel safe and supported, and I have the same students over and over, so I always know what to expect, which keeps my hates-the-unknown anxiety down to a manageable level.)

Anyway. One of the continually popular blog posts of mine is my AP syllabus. I’m sure it’s frequented by poor lost souls who are also teaching AP, probably for the first time, and have no idea what they got themselves into. If you’re one of those people: welcome! You’re not alone! Tengo un secreto: nobody knows what they’re getting themselves into when they say ‘sure, I’ll teach that AP class’. (In my case, I offered to do it – I know most teachers aren’t given the choice.) So I decided to look back at the original post and see if I would say anything different, given what I know now.

First off, you can reread the original post here to refresh your memory.

Writing your own syllabus… hmm. I still agree with everything I wrote. Especially if you’ve already taught a similar level class, why re-invent the wheel? If you are a brand new teacher, though, and you’re coming into a situation where the previous teacher already had a syllabus? USE IT. And then modify it to fit your needs/style.

Know what your students need – definitely. One big failure of mine is that I know what my students need to know to be successful… I just failed to, you know, teach it to them.

I still think the easiest way to plan a unit based on authentic resources (or any unit from scratch, really) is the grid shown to us by our trainer. I don’t know why I don’t use it more often. I should keep it in mind as I restructure my Spanish 3 this year. That way, you can be sure to hit many different types of input (and assess using different modes of output, if that is your desire). Plus, it’s really handy when you get to February and you’re thinking ‘man, I read that really cool article on [topic] that one time that would’ve been PERFECT… now where did I read it?’

Vertical curriculum – HUGE. I noted this as a big deal, and didn’t implement it myself. It hit me over the head again just a few weeks ago at iFLT, and I am going to try to slowly reorganize my lower levels to fit the AP themes better. Those essential questions? Yeah, that’s to try and figure out what theme(s) your unit would fit under – and also help drive some thoughtful questions to ask your students as you go along. I realized, I am doing all sorts of the right things, I just need to clean it up a bit. (For example, in Spanish 1, we watch Selena as part of the family unit. Not only does it fall perfectly to watch a movie around Thanksgiving/one act competition time when I am gone a lot, but it lends itself to appropriate family/identity related topics for novice speakers – but how can I better orient my questioning/activities to make it clear it’s related to an AP theme?)

The actual syllabus itself (still available here! check it out!) Oh my. My official syllabus… is beautiful. Look at all those resources. Look at my introductory paragraph. It’s gorgeous. So convincing that I’m gonna be successful.

The reality of my syllabus? If you somehow can teach everything in that beast AND have time to prepare your students for the test AND get around all the stuff that seniors miss school for… please let me know how you did it. I typically teach units 1, 2, and 3 (prehispanic cultures/gender roles/fashion) in the fall, and hit 5, 6, and 9 (La Guerra Sucia/immigration/mobile technology) in the spring. We also do FVR/blogging and Gran Hotel weekly, so I really am only teaching content from the syllabus 3 days a week. (This is up for potential change this year.) The units I pick are ones that have the most compelling content and the ones I feel most competent teaching. I might pull unit 8 (love and romance) or unit 10 (the return of measles) down to Spanish 3, with adaptations and time permitting. Things are really up in the air this year.

So overall, I think my original thoughts were on point. The reality of teaching, however, is not that easy. I always joke that I am THE BEST teacher on paper, which is true. Actually teaching real, live humans? Sometimes, not so much. I still think my syllabus is pretty darn great, and I don’t intend on changing it for the moment. It’s my in-class practices that need to change. But if you’re someone who is wanting to use units or the whole thing, feel free – just know that if you weren’t able to get through everything, that’s okay. I made the syllabus, and I couldn’t either. 🙂