Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Reaching our social students

Last week I submitted my final essay for my last class.  Ever.  At least I keep saying its going to be my last class, but I have a feeling there will be more.  However it is, the class I just finished, presented information on how to best teach our Latino students.  Considering forty-four percent of our student population, according to the State of Illinois interactive report card, are of Latino heritage, I figured the class was appropriate.

Now, I am a native Auroran, and I figure thirty-eight years of life in this city gives me some sort of honorary diversity-certificate, but I was surprised to find out how much I didn't know about my neighbors, and I was horrified to discover that there are certain behaviors that I need to reconsider as I continue working with our Latino families.  

Before I get started, just as my last blog about boys in education, some of what I will say here will sound generalized and stereotypical.  In no way am I asking my respected colleagues to start treating all of our Latino students and families a certain way.  What I am asking is for an open mind so that we can work together to embrace our diverse classrooms.  Each of our students comes from a wide variety of backgrounds that may or may not encompass what I bring to the table today.  All I want to do is point out that there are more cards in this deck than the ones we are currently playing, and if we want all of our kiddos to play, we need to play their cards as well.  

The author team of Bridging Cultures Between Home and School breaks our student groups into two commonly referenced cultural categories: individualist and collectivist; individualist being a culture that emphasizes "individual fulfillment and choice", whereas our collectivist cultures focus mainly on the well-being of the entire group and downplay individual accomplishments and choice. A lengthy list of characteristics describes each group, but the class spanned two books and a nineteen page article, so I will do my best to give you the highlights and points relevant to direct instruction.  

There were several main characteristics that stuck out to me, and I felt I could change them in my own behavior when trying to reach our diverse groups.  Because each characteristic held so much depth, I will touch on only one here.  The first aspect was the idea that part of the collectivist culture is working as one collective group - in other words, sharing is not an option - it's a way of life (supplies, lockers, homework, and test answers).  How often have I, as a teacher, marveled at the audacity of a student who reaches across an aisle or behind him to grab a pen or pencil to make a change on a paper . . . without asking?  And how many times have I been flabberghasted at the number of math books that can be shoved into one locker?  It's also been an interesting phenomenon how willing some of our young ladies are to do the homework of their male counterparts, but one thing I haven't really stopped to do is consider who it is performing these acts. 

Looking back at my sixteen years of teaching experience, I can easily align this idea of working as a group and for a group to our large groups of Latino students.  In fact, last year while on bus duty, I did an informal observation each week and noticed that the only consistently homogeneous group of students standing together outside were our Latin American males - a clear indication that their comfort zone was within their cultural group.  Interestingly, however, the Latin American females were peppered within other cultural groups (although often in pairs) - giving evidence to support brain research that theorizes our females can more easily adapt socially due to the way their brains are wired.  Nerdy, I know.  But fun to learn!  I dare you to look at this the next time you're out on the blacktop.  It'll give you something to do other than scan the crowds looking for suspicious behavior. 

How can we make this collectivist mentality work to our advantage in the classroom?  The idea that we should all be working for a common good and sharing responsibility is obviously a trait of cooperative learning.  What is interesting to me is the complaints I hear, across the board, from teachers who can't seem to understand why our kids can't work in groups very effectively.  When I walk into my own children's Montessori classroom I am bowled over by independence that even the primary students display.  Why does this happen?  A systematic approach to teaching students how to work independently and in small groups from the get-go, the expectation that they will all accomlish this, and the consistent monitoring and interaction of teachers in these classrooms is what works, and it is what builds the confidence of some of our kiddos who lack the academic self-esteem necessary to surive in our individualistic society.  If four-year-olds can do it, middle schoolers can too, right?  I mean, brain research often parallels the early-teenage brain to those of early preschoolers in terms of development, and there are definitely some behavioral commonalities. 

Chapter four in the fourth edition Project CRISS manual gives the reader solid research on social learning before diving into ways educators in a traditional classroom setting can promote it.  As I process through this information, I am reminded about a lesson I co-conducted with our sixth grade intervention teacher called Save the Last Word.  This was a powerful lesson that involved 100% of our sixth grade students and required them to listen and speak as equal partners in small groups.  I can remember after the first few classes how pleased we were with what our students could do, simply because we had given them a structure for their cooperative learning. 

We were disappointed, however, to find that the more adults that were in the room, the less effective the activity became because our students fell back on their old go-to behaviors and refused to rely upon themselves as learners and participators in their learning.  Interestingly, as I continue to reflect on this, it dawns on me that another characteristic of the collectivist culture is the idea that if you are talking you are not learning.  When an adult is around, your mouth closes.  Ask no questions.  Do not provide your own ideas.  Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.  Period.  Had I known this back in the winter I would have addressed the issue by telling students that adults will hang back (and then asked the adults to hang back) as the students maintain control of their discussion.  Then I would have only allowed a few adults to circulate the room and only to listen, not to participate.  Hindsight, right?

Some other discussion activities that might help our social creatures are the quick and simple ones:
  • Think-Pair-Share (Think and write down your answer, quickly discuss with a partner, and share out with the class.)
  • Three Minute Pause (Pause learning every five to twelve minutes for three minutes to discuss with a partner by summarizing, identifying something interesting, and asking questions.  Then continue learning.)
  • ABC Brainstorm (In partners or small groups come up with words or phrases beginning with each letter of the alphabet that directly relate to the topic.  Be prepared to explain.)
  • Read and Say Something (One person in the group reads out loud while others follow along.  person to the right says something related to the reading and the rest of the group responds.  Move on to the next reader, and continue in this fashion.)
  • Read and Explain (Read a small selection, pause and explain it, ask questions or talk about problems you encounter, move on to the next reader.)
Or the more extensive ones:
  • Discussion webs (These work really well for topics that have opposing sides.  Have students work in groups to fill out the web.  The web gives students an automatic format for discussion.  CRISS has a nice one you can use also.)
  • Carousel Brainstorming (Select a number of topics related to your lesson and post them on large poster paper around the room.  Separate students into that number of groups and put each group at a poster with one marker.  Give groups one minute to brainstorm everything they can think on their particular topic and write it on the paper.  When time is up, have students "carousel" to the next topic, pass the marker to another person in the same group, and read/respond or correct information.  Repeat.)
  • Cooperative roles (Just Google it.  But CRISS's new manual lists roles for fiction, nonfiction, math, and poetry because they get that those discussions are going to require different facilitation).The photo to the right is taken from the manual and gives an idea as to the differences between what roles would look like between fiction and nonfiction discussions. 

As I stated earlier, preschoolers in a Montessori classroom can work cooperatively because they are exposed daily to the expectations of independent and cooperative work.  Daily.  If we truly want to embrace our kiddos whose lives revolve around their collective groups, perhaps giving group work a conserted effort on a regular basis would be a good place to start.  Just like with any other strategy, cooperative grouping and discussion will never become a comfortable part of a student's education if that student is not exposed frequently, so bring it on!  But remember, asking students to work in groups is not enough.  Highlight some guidelines for yourself as some of you move into this uncomfortable territory:
  • Create a structure for group work (assign and define group roles, even if it is "partner one does this and partner two does this").
  • Communicate this structure . . . over and over and over again, expect that the structure is followed, and possibly assign one role in the group to be the one who oversees the structure itself.
  • Monitor closely without interfering with the collective group work (remember, they're supposed to be learning from each other).
  • Give collective feedback without interfering (maybe leave feedback to the end).  Because you have a group of kids whose culture may disappove of individual feedback, picking out something positive you saw in each group and giving the feedback to a group rather than individuals may still give the feedback needed to keep motivation going without embarassing or singling out any one student. 
I look forward to consulting with some of you this year on the art of cooperative grouping as we continue to learn how to support all of our students more effectively in all content areas.  I'm still baffled at my own ignorance of some of the more obvious differences between our cultural groups, and I'm anticipating an even better year as I use this knowledge to my advantage while maneuvering interactions with students and parents.  The biggest challenge for me will continue to be utilizing my observation skills and intuition so that I can use what I know to meet the needs of each individual family rather than using the knowledge as a blanket over a large group whose individual participants may actully take offense to things that I do as an educator.  As they say, knowledge can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse. 

See ya'll in two and a half weeks!

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