Friday, November 29, 2013

"Irresponsible Teenagers": an oxymoron?

Dubois then turned to me. "I told you that `juvenile delinquent' is a contradiction in terms. `Delinquent' means `failing in duty.' But duty is an adult virtue -- indeed a juvenile becomes an adult when, and only when, he acquires a knowledge of duty and embraces it as dearer than the self-love he was born with. There never was, there cannot be a `juvenile delinquent.'" Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers
I hear a lot from my colleagues about making teenagers be responsible, and indeed I think that's a really important (primary?) goal of high school. But the thing we as teachers often fail to realize is that teenagers aren't responsible.  They're not really capable of planning ahead long-term, they often make poor decisions for reasons that, more and more, we understand as weaknesses in brain development, a mismatch between the complexity and long-term consequences of what kids can do on the one hand and their brain's inability to think through complex decisions with long-term consequences on the other.  (See here for one of many scholarly articles on the subject.)

So when we give kids a long-term project that we don't help them break down into pieces--and I think there's a huge distinction between handing it to them, all sliced into pieces, and walking through the planning process with them--or make passing or failing a single test a huge piece of their grades, or create any other single point of failure, we're really playing into the thing that we know they can't do.  And then when they don't do it, we call them irresponsible.

The thing is, if kids can't really be responsible (yet), they can't really be irresponsible, either.  It only makes sense to talk about irresponsibility in the context of something that we can reasonably expect someone to be responsible for.  Kids can be responsible for lots of things with short-term consequences, and they can be taught (helped) to see the connection between lots of short-term decisions and long-term consequences.  But those lessons are hard ones to learn, and the process often mirrors a saying attributed to Mark Twain:  "Good judgment comes from experience.  Experience mostly comes from bad judgement."  What that saying suggests is that we need to create and preserve opportunities for kids to fail safely and learn from those failures, rather than making those failures catastrophic.  And we need to be right there so that the kid can connect the dots between what he or she did or didn't do, and the negative consequences that resulted.

So often, when I hear a teacher talking about a kid's being irresponsible, I wonder two things:

  1. What did you, as the responsible adult, do to bring about this situation?  More importantly, what did you, as the responsible adult, do to avert it?
  2. What could we have reasonably expected this child to do in this situation?  Why didn't he or she do the "responsible" thing?
#2 is shorthand for my exasperated "Of COURSE he was irresponsible -- he's a child!" But it doesn't really help kids to throw around this moralistic label -- it only makes them feel cruddy about things that happened in the past, rather than accepting the consequences and doing better in the future.

One last pitfall.  We all know kids who are remarkably responsible--who manage to pull it together and keep it together despite an insane array of pressures, conflicts, and demands.  But that phenomenon is just the end of a bell curve of development and personal characteristics.  We all know--or know of--six-foot-two seventh graders, or freshmen taking Calculus.  Yet we don't hold those kids up as examples against which other kids are judged.  No matter how much we wish that kids were more "responsible" than they often are, blaming them for being irresponsible -- especially ordinary-kid-kind-of-irresponsible -- isn't any more reasonable (or responsible) than blaming them for their height, or for "only" being in Algebra.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Objectives and Experiences

And we turn him into an anecdote, to dine out on, like we're doing right now. But it was an experience. I will not turn him into an anecdote. How do we keep what happens to us? How do we fit it into life without turning it into an anecdote, with no teeth, and a punch line you'll mouth over and over, years to come: "Oh, that reminds me of the time that impostor came into our lives. Oh, tell the one about that boy." And we become these human jukeboxes, spilling out these anecdotes. But it was an experience. How do we keep the experience?
 John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation
When I was a starting teacher, it was as much as I could do to articulate what I wanted my kids to know at the end of the day, much less at the end of the week or month.  A key development for teachers in transitioning from that beginner level to something like "proficient" is learning to anticipate what's needed for instruction over the next week, month, and year: for example, knowing that you have to teach a bunch of chunking in Algebra II and Precalculus so that students can do integration by substitution in Calculus.

That's where standards come in: they tell you what you have to do in each year so that kids can go on and do what they need to do the next year.  Whether you're using the Common Core standards, Next Generation Science Standards, or an in-house list, this shift in perspective -- from "What am I going to do today?" to "What do kids need to learn?" is crucial if you're going to accomplish anything--and if your students are going to make any genuine progress.

But I've noticed that master teachers--like my co-blogger John, or my friend Doug O'Roark--ask a different question, not necessarily first, but early in the planning process.  This question is: "What experience do I want kids to have?"  I find that this question more than any other has changed my perspective about planning for classes.

What experience do I want kids to have?  Is the goal to give them the experience of discovering something?  Of exploring in a rich "sandbox" of cool math ideas, regardless of what they wind up conjecturing and proving?  Of solving involved numerical problems?  Of developing a set of ideas to describe a new situation?  Of applying old ideas to solve a new problem?  Or ... ?

Attending to the quality of my students' experience rather than simply on what I want them to learn leads me to new ideas--that, even in a mostly-remedial algebra class, it's important to have fun.  (The way Doug and I did this was to do magic tricks with Algebra.)  And it puts common teaching pitfalls into perspective. I mean, who would answer the question "What experience do you want the kids to have today?" with "I want them to watch a powerpoint for 30 minutes"?  And who would want kids to have the exact same experience, every day, for 180 days?

I think that one way to understand the Standards for Mathematical Practice section of the CCSS is very much in this vein:  they describe and, to a certain extent, prescribe the kinds of experiences we want kids to have while they are learning the content in the other standards.  For example, take SMP-1, "Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them."  The "standard" doesn't describe a set level of perseverance that kids are supposed to attain, or even clearly define what "making sense" of a problem is.  But it suggests that kids ought to be experiencing problems that are ill-defined, or at least initially resistant to mathematical analysis, and that these experiences should include trying more than one approach before being successful.  Thinking of the SMP in this "experience" way helps me reconcile the essentially-fuzzy nature of those standards to the others, and also helps me think about how to mesh the two: the point isn't to do one kind of standard and then the other, but to approach one (content) standard in the mode of one or more of the others.

And that "or more" leads my musings to a caveat.  At its best, mathematical experience is rich: a great class is one in which kids are spotting patterns, making conjectures, trying things out, having fruitful errors, using various technologies (from compasses to computers), all woven together into great mathematics.  It's a rich story.  What the CC-SMP provide us is more like a set of anecdotes.  Their list isn't exhaustive, and it isn't supposed to be exhaustive--but that's not my problem.  My problem is rather that boiling down one of these terrific class days into a set of three or four practice standards is, as Guare's character Ouisa warns us, turning an experience into a set of anecdotes.  When we do that, we lose--the math loses--something essential: by being just explorers, or cross-examiners, or number-crunchers, we stop being the rich, mathematical people we were when the class was going on--and the math stops being, well, mathematics.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What do we learn from our students?

It's been a while--partly because of work, and partly because I just found out about the death two summers ago of one of my former students, tragically in the course of mourning the (more-recent) death of another former student.

I've been hesitant to write about him, but I haven't been able to write not about him either, so here goes:

Like many of my colleagues and friends, I went into teaching in large part to "make a difference" in the lives of young people.  And I have, but in some cases, I have to admit that the difference isn't necessarily the difference I intended to make.  This young man in particular started ninth grade as an angry, somewhat-alienated wannabe skate punk; I say "wannabe" because although he was an accomplished skater, he hadn't quite worked out the "punk" part besides just being angry a lot.  Something about him spoke to me: I wanted to be "that teacher" for him, the teacher who got what he was about, who saw what amazing, exciting gifts he had to offer, who helped him mediate between his anger and desires and the sometimes-irrational (and always irrational-seeming) system in which he lived and learned, who he'd talk about fondly as "the only reason I stayed in school".  But when I was done intervening, he had become an extremely angry, completely alienated fifteen-year-old on his way to dropping out of high school (which I believe he did two years later, shortly after moving to another city).  His final exam in my class was covered with obscenities.

I was "that teacher," all right.

I've gotten better about such interventions, and I share this "wisdom" so far as I can put it into words--although I think that the experiential way in which I learned is probably the only way to learn.

First and most important, I've learned that you can't make students trust you.  You can act to earn their trust, by being trustworthy in your actions, and by reminding them that you're there.  But all you can do is open the door.  To put in terms of my favorite joke:  it only takes one teacher to change the lightbulb, but it has to want to be changed.

On a more pragmatic front, there's a specific mistake I've decided not to make again: while I'm willing (indeed, in some sense, happy) to bust students with whom I've forged close relationships, I won't jeopardize those relationships by asking them to turn in their friends.  In fact, I've decided that that question--"who else was with you?"--is just not fair, unless it's literally a matter of life-and-death.  And in that case, I'd rather convince my student of the life-and-deathness of the situation rather than simply use my personal leverage to get the answer out of him.

Third (and my current or recent students might laugh at this), I've learned to use a lighter touch.  I'm not naturally subtle, and I've had to realize that anything I say -- in particular anything negative -- is effectively amplified many, many times (maybe I should call this the "multiplier affect"?).  Most of being "that teacher" is really about listening, and waiting, rather than talking.  And when talking, it's hard to underestimate the importance of being positive, positive, positive:  not untruthful, not unrealistic, but as relentlessly positive as possible given those two constraints.  Remember how insecure and terrified you were as a teenager?  That's what I'm talking about.

As teachers, much of what we teach is propositional--facts and ideas that can be put into words easily.  Much of the important stuff isn't so propositional--for example, how to approach a math problem, or ways to analyze a text--and arguably the most important stuff is the stuff we don't even think of as part of the curriculum.  (Ted Sizer's excellent book The Students are Watching is all about this last part.)  But when we think about "learning from students," I think we sometimes default to the propositional mode.  Sure, I'll never forget Dan's incredulity that I--who knew way more than he did about math--didn't know that hogs have to be walked.  And I learned a fact: that if you're raising hogs, you have to walk them.  But I also learned something much more important:  that students whose knowledge in one area is only a small subset of your own can be experts in areas about which you're totally ignorant.

I think the most important part of what I've learned from my students--slowly, painfully, extremely imperfectly--has to do with how to be more like the person I wish I could be when I'm teaching them.  And most of that's been learned the hard way.

For the record, after a couple of years of wandering in the desert--I'm reminded of Tolkien's line that "not all who wander are lost"--Constantine apparently found his way and what he was about.  Friends of his friends tell me that his last years were good ones, where his creativity and energy were valued and celebrated by the people around him.  I wish I'd been a part of that, of course, but even more, I wish I'd been able to see it for myself.  I'm sorry I couldn't be that teacher.