There is a teacher that often happens to be doing paperwork on the opposite end of my classroom at one of the schools where I teach, and has thusly been a silent observer to some of my group classes. Today, she asked me how I got the kids to do certain things. I told her that I only got anything at all because I happen to work with the same kids for several years running and get to control my class sizes, and that these perks afford me certain nuances in standards that are maybe more difficult to get when you have less crowd control and long-term time with your students.
She then wanted to know what my standards were, typically, and how I reinforced them over the years. So, here they are.
1. We don’t tell each other answers; we help each other get to the answers.
I’m very big on no spoon-feeding. I will occasionally succumb to it, but it makes me cranky and kids tend to agree that maybe we shouldn’t frustrate kitchen. If one kid figures something out, she waits till everyone has a chance to figure it out on their own. If needed, she is encouraged to share her method for figuring it out. I want that ding! of clarity as often as possible, because I think it is the easiest and most effective way of showing kids the value of effort and growth. Answers are easily forgotten, but the glow of pride from a moment of clarity isn’t.
2. We compliment first, then criticize.
I have a ton of rules about this, too. Compliments are specific. “It’s good” or “I liked it” isn’t enough. We need details. Giving each other something concrete and personal makes it easier for us to trust each other and helps us believe positive feedback.
Criticism is also positive. There is a huge difference between positive and negative criticism. Negative criticism tells us how we were unsuccessful; positive criticism tells us how to fix it and why we might want to fix it. Positive criticism invites an exchange while negative criticism tends to shut it down. I like to walk my kids through different ways of addressing each other and work with phrasing and word choice so our comments can be taken without hindering our progress.
3. We acknowledge as much as possible, as quickly as possible.
I lead: it is on me to call out achievements and improvements. It is also on me to own up when I mess up and to call out behavior lapses whenever I see them. I want ownership to be a norm in our classes, so I have to emphasize it at every opportunity. I stress this to the point where, when we are reflecting on our performances, we are not allowed to point out each other’s mistakes unless invited to do so. (And then the aforementioned concrit rules apply.) I don’t want my kids to think it’s abnormal for an adult to mess up, and I definitely don’t want them to think it’s abnormal for an adult to apologize to them. I also want them to expect to hear about their improvements and their achievements; I want them to be able to reflect on their growth regularly, even if the process itself isn’t always comfortable.
4. Tangentials are not necessarily the same as derailments.
Tangentials (Mrs. CS, look at my boots! Mrs. CS, did you read Twilight?) often lead to a calmer approach and more thorough trust during our work. They also frequently tie in to some issue I wanted to cover during the class, anyway. I will not automatically nix a tangential conversation just because it seems like it has nothing to do with the topic on the table. Kids have different things they’re sorting through, and sometimes these things need to be sorted if we’re going to be at all productive during the class. That said, I tend to spot a procrastinator as easily as I spot good pizza, which is to say anywhere within the tri-state area if it even exists, and this…talent?…has probably allowed for this rule to exist in the way that it does.
5. Ignoring me is hurtful and will make the class less valuable.
We talk a lot about respect and trust, and how both are impacted when someone is ignored. This rule tends to get broken the most (small things, like fiddling when they should be sitting quietly, not listening when I call out measure numbers, etc), but because my classes move quickly and I expect a very high level of focus for their age groups (and, all said and done, by the time they’re nine, I’m not reminding them anymore), I tend to mind less when I have to re-explain in this area.
The other portion to most of the rules is I don’t phrase them as ‘do not’ when I’m in lecture mode. Listening to me is not a matter of me controlling them; it’s about them being in a place where they can hear me. They’re not out there, actively trying to diminish me. I will talk about how it makes me feel when they behave that way, what that choice means for them as individuals, and then I let them sit with that responsibility.
I don’t know that I enforce any of these rules with any consistency. I will say that I get some uncanny wins in my group classes. Granted, I also get incredibly lucky with creative, enthusiastic, kids who all too willingly put up with my rigid expectations and utterly random humor. But I also think there is something to be said for allowing kids to sit with their discomfort in a way that lets them know their discomfort is still safe. Learning is a weird area in that it is never comfortable, and can feel so far outside of familiar boundaries that it may or may not resemble pain. I think the time I spent in that unacknowledged discomfort as a child has made me more aware of these kids, as they tumble through Bach and Mozart. And maybe that prior tumble of my own helps me with them now, at least a little.