“Playing School” Turned Christmas Into a Nightmare

Over the holidays, my wife and I traveled to see her family in Dallas where we enjoyed warm weather and lots of fun outdoor activities.  As much as I was able to relax and step back from school for a bit, it was Christmas morning when my mind was sent racing. Our nieces have been hoping for American Girl Dolls for quite some time now, so when they opened them on Christmas you can be sure that they were playing with them immediately!  After the excitement of gift opening faded and all the wrapping paper was cleaned up, I had the chance to sit back and watch as the girls began to play school with their new dolls.

Our nieces are nine and seven and attend a school that is rather similar to ours here at KTEC, a close-knit, community charter school with a STEM focus.  I had been talking to them earlier in the week about their teachers and their favorite parts of school (recess always ranks number one!) and they shared that they loved their teachers and really enjoyed reading and science, so I was a little surprised when, after a while, they started playing Math Class with the dolls. 

You may know that my wife is a high school math teacher and I was always passionate about math growing up as well, so while I was surprised it was a pleasant surprise to see them playing Math Class.  It started out as many math classes do, with the turning-in of homework. Then, “the teacher” started quizzing “the class” on math facts. They started out easy enough and “the teacher” was awarding extra recess to everyone who got them right, what a deal?!  However, things took a turn for the worse when the questions got tougher. As soon as “the class” started getting questions wrong recess was taken away and everyone had to do more worksheets…yikes!! Talk about being surprised, this beautiful morning had just turned into a nightmare for Uncle Bret!! 

I immediately went and found my sister-in-law and grilled her about this school, I mean what was going on around there?!?!  She assured me this was nowhere near the reality at their school, one they’ve been attending since kindergarten. She did, however, shed some light on the situation.  Our nieces, who are typically good students who work hard at school, absolutely loathe math. They feel constantly under attack by math homework, multiplication tables, and memorizing math facts.  It is a battle at home and anxiety mounts every time tests come around. My sister-in-law, who is also a teacher, expressed her concerns that math was going to be the thing that made her daughters start dreading going to school.

So, as I said, my mind started racing!  It started with, what can we do to help more students like math (in particular girls)? I then got to the point of, what are we doing to ensure that all of our students are having a positive experience in school, no matter their strengths or weaknesses?  School isn’t always going to be easy for everyone and I don’t think it should be, there is an appropriate level of challenge that all students should face. However, when I think about a class of 20-25 students, I wonder how many kids are being appropriately challenged all day long.  Are there students who are struggling to the point of anxiety all day or even part of the day? What about the other side, do we have students who aren’t challenged enough and thus bored throughout the day?  Like I said, my mind was racing!

As we return and continue planning for second semester, I’d like to ask you to work with your teams to think further about appropriate challenge and what we’re doing to ensure that all of our students are being met at their optimal level.  We talk often about those students who need extra support to meet expectations but what about those other kids, the ones who regularly meet or exceed expectations? How can they be appropriately challenged?

I know it is never easy when there are so many different kids at so many different levels, especially when we tend to get so focused on meeting expectations and standardized testing.  If you’d like to continue this conversation in person, I’d love to hear people’s thoughts and suggestions!!

Students Aren’t Robots

Students aren’t robots, in fact they’re exactly the opposite – they’re humans.

Not only are they humans, they are teenage humans.  Hormone filled, emotional, impressionable teenagers…eeek!  There couldn’t be anything less predictable wandering our halls than 600+ teens.  Nothing could be more different from a predictable and programmable robot than a teenage human being.

This is why, recently, I’ve asked our Year Level Managers to start scheduling parent meetings with all of our students (and their parents) who’ve shown a pattern of arriving late to school.  See, up until now, we’ve sent each student the same exact “agreement” letter once they’ve reached a certain amount of ‘late to school’ infractions.  The problem, once again, is that our students aren’t robots.

If our students were robots then ‘agreements’, lessons, and consequences that were exactly the same for each student would work perfectly for all of them.  It would be glorious, we’d find the perfect lesson and consequence that helped all students arrive to school on time and our problem would be solved.  However, as I’ve mentioned, our students aren’t robots.

So, back to the meetings…my theory (that our students aren’t robots) proved to be true right out of the gates.  The first set of meetings were all completely different situations.  The first student was having a hard time arriving to school on time because she would wake up and look at social media on her phone for such a long time that she ended up leaving the house late every day.  The next student just couldn’t get out of bed because he was staying up until two or three in the morning each night.  The third student was doing everything right but her older sister was so slow in the morning that she ended up being late herself too often.  How effective is the same ‘agreement’ letter for these three kids and can you really apply any fair consequence to all three students?  

Our rationally developed and 95% effective Behavior Expectation System just wasn’t doing the trick for that remaining 5% of our students.  The reason it didn’t work for everyone…well, I think you’ve figured it out by now, ‘our students aren’t robots’.  We needed a touch of the human side to get involved in the process and, from what we’ve seen so far, it was very necessary.

I’m sharing this today because I want to encourage you to work on responding to the individual needs of our students more appropriately.  Sometimes it seems more efficient for the entire class to go through the same lesson, lab, or assessment but is that actually the most effective way of learning for each student?  Being ‘late to school’ is no different from trying to learn academics in the grand sense that our students all have different stories.  One student may learn very differently than their peers.  Most students, in fact, don’t learn the same way as those sitting next to them…they are humans.  

Our students aren’t robots.  I know that’s obvious but I think the exaggeration of the point allows us to realize that, sometimes, we operate as though they are very much the same person.  Even if we could take away the crazy swings that hormones cause in our students we’d still be faced with 600+ individual and unique human beings.  Perhaps 95% of students fit the molds we’ve created, but what are we doing in our classrooms, with our Behavior Expectation System, and every other aspect of education to make sure that all 100% of our students are receiving the best education possible?