Thursday, May 5, 2011

It's Not You, It's Me

One of my favorite scenes from my long love affair with the great show Seinfeld is a conversation between George and his girlfriend. The line being used in this conversation is, “it’s not you, it’s me.” Obviously, George and his girlfriend are using this time tested line to justify a breakup. However, I think this classic line has a real place in a classroom.

When students are misbehaving, off task, not doing work, or otherwise acting “bad”, we often blame the student. We reprimand them, write detention slips, claim a learning disability, and a whole host of other things aimed at “fixing” the student. I think instead of looking at the student, we might need to look at ourselves and our practice.
“It’s not you, it’s me.”
This should be our initial response to such issues in the classroom. If a student is off task or misbehaving, are we challenging and engaging them with worthwhile activities? Is our instruction tailored to their needs or are we trying a one size fit all approach? When a student is being lazy and not doing their class work, are we looking at the work we are assigning them? Is it high quality and connected to the student’s needs and interests? Are we giving student’s choice and control in their learning or simply telling them what and how to learn?

While this may seem so simple, how often are we looking at our own practice before trying to “fix” a student? Too often it is easier to look at a child’s perceived shortcomings when in fact the truth is, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Sunday, May 1, 2011

My Bin Laden Takeaways

Osama Bin Laden has been killed by US forces in Pakistan.

President Obama speech about US killing Osama Bin Laden
 I have two takeaways after this surely historical event.

My first takeaway is the emotional mixture I am feeling right now. As I type this, I am watching crowds celebrating and cheering as if someone has just won the Stanley Cup. Am I happy that the man responsible for the atrocious acts on September 11th, 2001 is no longer able to hurt? Yes, of course I am. Am I happy that a man has died? No, I am not. This is where I am struggling to grasp the emotion of this event. It is a good feeling that Bin Laden has finally been taken out of the terrorist equation, but what is an appropriate reaction? I am happy that his reign of terror is over. I am sad we are celebrating the death of a man. I am confused that I am not celebrating. I am anxious about what will come next.

The other takeaway is the amazing feeling of connection I experienced while first learning this news on twitter. Well before President Obama took the stage, I was engaging in conversations and hearing reactions from around the globe. While I was sitting alone at my computer, I was far from alone. Truly amazing is how the news broke via social media and how the commentary ensued. The commentary I was reading was unfiltered by any news outlet or presidential speech writer. It was raw emotions from real people and it was as authentic as it gets.

As I sit here too anxious and fired up to sleep, I wonder what tomorrow will bring. Will this make a difference? Will there be retaliation? Will this bring Americans together and stop fighting pettiness amongst ourselves? What will I tell my students? What will I tell my kids?

I Like to Compete

I like competition and I think it can be a very healthy motivator for kids.

Many people will most likely disagree with this statement as many people think competition is not a good thing and leads to cheating, bias, and overall inequalities. While I can see those potential problems I think there are many positives to competition among kids.

First, let me explain that I was an athlete my whole childhood and into college. When I wanted to get better at basketball I played against the older kids. Playing against kids that were better than me pushed me to become better and work harder. Now, I am not saying having a 12 year old compete with a 17 year old is going to be a good idea. However, I think if you are in a situation where you compete with those slightly better than you, it will push your performance. I can say for sure that I became better through competing with those at my level and certainly with those a little better than me.

When I was in the fourth grade I remember “racing” to finish my math facts worksheets and being rewarded when I was the first one done. I feel pretty confident that I got better at math when I was competing with my classmates. In high school I worked hard to be at the top of my class because I knew that those end of the year awards would help me get scholarships and into the college I wanted. Again, that competition with my classmates helped me achieve my goals, both personal and academic.

To make yet another analogy, I am a gamer. I love playing video games on my Nintendo Wii and have always loved playing video games. With most games you can change the level of difficulty based on your ability. If you are a novice, you can play the entry level so as not to get frustrated playing at an expert level. In most classrooms we are asking all kids to play at an expert level with novice abilities.

With that being said, why does competition get a bad name in schools? If pushing ourselves to be the best and competing with others can potentially motivate and make us better, why is it bad?

The biggest issue is that it’s not fair to all. Schools are set up in such a way that students are put into classrooms based on when they were born and not their academic or social level. Students sitting in our classrooms are along a spectrum of abilities and often that gap is great. Expecting them to compete on a level playing field is similar to me competing with Michael Jordan in his prime. It would be unfair and ultimately frustrating. Too often kids are competing in an unfair situation. This is when competition is bad. Those that don’t have a chance of success will ultimately give up and stop whatever task they are doing, athletic, academic or otherwise.

In addition, there are often awards associated with competition. In terms of academics, the awards are grades, honor rolls, class ranks, and other certificates and trophies. For those students at the perceived “top”, these awards are great. They push themselves to get those awards and compete with their classmates. However, only a small number of students actually have a chance of winning these awards, so many students don’t try. If you don’t have a chance of winning, why would you compete? Again, why would I challenge Michael Jordan to a game of one on one, knowing I can’t win?

Yet, I still think competition can help students learn and push themselves. However, I think there are a few things that have to happen. First, if you are going to use competition don’t have unfair competitions. In others words, don’t set kids up for failure through unfair competitions. Every kid should be on a level playing field if there is going to be fair competitions. How often does this happen in our classrooms though? When we have races in math class, does everyone have a chance to “win”?

Is it possible to change competition so that students are competing with others at their level or possibly create a culture of competing with themselves? Can the goal of winning be learning and not an award? How do we do this?