Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Think Positive, No Matter What!

Consensus among the teachers is that the seventh graders have completely lost their minds. They talk constantly when they are supposed to be quiet, they completely ignore directions given by adults, they insult each other; in short, they are behaving like the worst stereotype of seventh graders (well, maybe not the worst). Give us back our kind, considerate, obedient babies!

I have had a particularly hard time lately with SUNY-Albany (remember, we named our classes after the alma mater of the homeroom teacher). I do not expect complete silence during my class, at least not all the time. We do plenty of labs and group activities where talking is not merely tolerated, it is actively encouraged. At certain times in the lesson, however, I want quiet work. And I definitely do not want to spend 1 minute out of every 5 regaining the students' attention. But lately, every time I pause - after giving directions, finishing a sentence, handing out papers, after every single thing I do - they start talking.

"Take out your notebooks," I say.

Chatter.

"Write down the notes that are on the board," I say.

Talking.

"Finish the warm-up activity silently," I say.

Whispering.

"Clear your desks of everything except your notebooks," I say.

Talking.

As a school, we are discussing making some changes after Christmas vacation - we are going to do a little research into middle schools that work and how we can create the kind of environment where the kids voluntarily treat one another nicely, speak to adults respectfully (and listen to adults respectfully!), and pay attention in class.

But the situation in SUNY-Albany demanded more immediate action. So, today, last period, after a surprise practice-standardized-test, a difficult period with any class, I began a new system: forced positivity accompanied by a reward system.

"I like the way table one is working quietly," I said. Notice: I said nothing about tables two through six. Instead, I quietly made a checkmark on a sheet of paper under the number one.

"I'm looking for tables where all the students are obviously focused and paying attention," I said brightly. Ten minutes later, I found one! "I can tell that everyone at table five is paying attention because they are sitting up, looking at me, and volunteering to answer questions," I pointed out, making a checkmark on my paper under number five.

This continued all period, and, sure enough, it was one of the best periods I've had with Albany in weeks. By the end of the period, every table was focused and on-task. I had not beaten them over the head with negative comments, and I was able to praise them.

By the way, I never told them anything about the checkmarks, or what those marks might lead to. I never introduced any new systems. I gave out no awards. At the end of the week, I will probably find some little reward for the group with the greatest number of checkmarks, but I'm not going to tell them what's coming. As a colleague once told me, "Tell them ahead of time to be good, it's a bribe; tell them after they're good, it's a reward."

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