Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 05 2011

No one ever writes about days like these…

I felt like an awful teacher today. No one ever writes about days like today, because they aren’t pretty or pat or able to be described in a pithy one-liner. But I felt like I should tell you about it, because you probably fall into one of a couple categories. Maybe you are a friend of mine who is mistakenly thinking this is all fun and, if not easy, manageable most of the time. Maybe you are a fellow corps member from another region or institute, and you’re thinking you’re the only one who has absolutely sucky days. Or maybe you’re not a teacher of any kind, and you’re thinking that it sounds noble and just like you’ve seen in Coach Carter/Stand and Deliver/Freedom Writers/Dead Poet’s Society/Insert-teaching-movie-here. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s like today. In the spirit of honesty, let me tell you about my lesson today.

We were doing subtraction using blocks to take away. This seemed like a basic, totally do-able objective in theory. But I failed to account for a couple facts:

  1. Soon-to-be First Graders will build things from blocks. They will not use them for math. Even when you tell them clearly, explicitly, and repeatedly to do so.
  2. Soon-to-be First Graders who are using blocks for math will see others using them for building, and building will instantly become cooler than math. They will start to build too.
  3. When soon-to-be First Graders have been so antsy, over-tired, or inattentive all day that their consequence pins have already dropped to the very bottom of the consequence chart, CONSEQUENCES DON’T WORK ANYMORE. They have maxed out on that particular strategy.

So if you are an experienced teacher, you recognize these things. You make a plan for how to minimize building, or what to do when you need new consequences. You catch kids being good so they never get to the bottom of the consequence chart. You use investment to ensure compliance (when you build, you don’t learn, and then you won’t know how to subtract for, say, the SATs. Or something like that ). Or you pre-empt the building fever and SHUT IT DOWN. All these things mean your kids can learn to subtract with blocks.

But if you’re me, you try to pre-empt and it doesn’t work. You are completely flustered when you give a kid a consequence and he says, “But I’m already all the way at the bottom!” You can’t give that kid a consequence for building, and he WILL NOT STOP, even after 6, 7, 8 redirections and admonitions. And before long, 4 of your 6 kids have totally forgotten how to subtract at all, even though they got it a minute ago, because all they can think is BUILDING BLOCKS!!!!!

In the middle of all this, you will realize that one of your children has been faking her way through math based on body language and teacher tone, and actually has only the beginnings of a concept of some numbers being greater than other numbers. She has missed so many days of school so far that somehow, no one has noticed.

And then you flounder. And then only 2 of your 6 kids actually learn anything.

It’s not always pretty. They don’t always learn. Sometimes you, as the teacher, completely and utterly blow it. Yes, there are reasons (late bedtimes, 4th of July parties, and end-of-day jitters) beyond your control, but at the end of the lesson your kids didn’t learn, and that’s on you.

All I can say is that maybe tomorrow will be better. At the very least I have a doctor’s appointment so maybe this terrible ankle pain can be taken out of the mix for when I reteach subtraction next week.

6 Responses

  1. elsa

    I’m at the Delta institute right now and everyone I’ve talked to had a sucky day today – you’re not alone. someone posted this on our facebook group, and it was surprisingly inspirational: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_RVId9OkgI

  2. One thing that’s worked for me when using fun manipulatives with little kids is to tell them that everyone who follows the instructions and doesn’t goof around with the manipulatives now, will get to play with the manipulatives at the end of the lesson. IMO, it’s worth it to give over a couple of minutes at the end to save a lot of screwing around during the lesson.

    • ZR

      Or, I have seen this go well if you give them a few minutes to get it out of their system at the beginning. But you really have to limit it. And follow through on removing the blocks if they can’t follow through with using them appropriately.

      • eminnm

        Thanks for the tips :-) Update: we have worked again with manipulatives AND introduced mini-whiteboards and markers (potential for misbehaving: infinite) but also introduced CLEAR ad EXPLICIT expectations and consequences before giving out such fun toys. I had to take away one marker and one set of blocks, but the result is that my kids can be super excited to have fun toys while they are still learning with them. Score one for the teachers!

    • I’ve read books that tell you to give kids time to “play” with manipulatives before you use them for instruction. That way, they have their chance to be silly and then they should respect when it’s learning time. Also, tell them at the beginning that you’ll take their manipulatives away if they’re playing, and follow through – no other warnings!

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