When Jonah Goes Off the Rails — Continuing the Disciplinary Implosion Posts

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Hello again, new teacher!

Many first graders expected to meet the Common Core standards will feel stressed and stupid. Better teachers can help control for this, but kids notice when other kids can do classwork more quickly and easily. Especially when the range in performance is great, kids at the bottom are likely to conclude other kids are smarter than they are — no matter how much time we spend emphasizing that everyone has their own special intelligences. As educational reformers raise the standards bar throughout our grades and schools, I believe one byproduct of new, tougher standards has been greater numbers of lost kids, especially in financially- and academically-disadvantaged schools.

Those lost kids are often central to classroom disciplinary meltdowns. If the day’s plan is too far from what Jonah can do, no one should be surprised when Jonah starts poking friends, tossing erasers or sketching male body parts on papers, books and desks. Incomprehensible material = boring, and bored students will find something to do with their time.

Eduhonesty: Sometimes Jonah does not need a new seat in a new seating chart as much as he needs tutoring, from you or from an outside source. Jonah may require extra time, or he may require adapted materials. If you start adapting materials, you should also start recording Jonah’s deficits. Too many adapted assignments and Jonah should be identified as a possible candidate for special education. In many districts, that special education placement will not happen without reams of documentation carefully noted down over months of observations, so the sooner you start, the better.

Student melt downs? Try extra tutoring, combined with other scaffolding and supports designed to make academic success a possibility. Many behaviors improve dramatically with hopes of academic (and social) success. When possible, involve parents in helping with challenging academics too.

And praise, praise, praise real academic successes when they occur — but only real successes. You want to avoid praising schlock work because if you praise schlock work, you will receive schlock work. That success you praise does not have to be an impeccably written paragraph; it can be any paragraph that shows thought, effort and progress toward understanding new material.

A side trip:

During my last formal year teaching, I held Saturday morning tutoring at the McDonalds near school. My kids could not pass the East Coast consulting firm-prepared, 7th grade Common Core unit tests that I was required to give them, tests set years above their benchmark-confirmed knowledge levels. They could almost never pass the quizzes based on those tests, quizzes which were required every Friday. So we met at odd hours, the afternoons being pretty much sucked up by meetings. I gave them their chance to pass quizzes. By October, we were doing alright, and by winter we were a hard-working team, but to those newbies out there who are having a tough year, I was nearly at retirement and I had an absolutely hellish September my last year. Being obliged to present incomprehensible material day-after-day gave me the toughest start I can ever remember. Once the kids understood that the whole grade was being obliged to take the same Friday quizzes and unit tests, and that I truly had no choice (the Principal had threatened to fire me if I did not go with the program, although I did not share that fact), I got the disciplinary piece in control, and we got our groove back, but I got a great firsthand look that last year at what happens when required content is incomprehensible and undoable. A class operating at a third-grade level mathematically cannot succeed on seventh-grade Common Core Unit Tests, although class members who can be convinced to attend tutoring will learn a great deal of math.

P. S. Absent more time in school, and extra tutoring, I don’t see how harder, Common Core-based tests will help disadvantaged students more than earlier state standardized tests did. But the standards movement has so much momentum that many districts no longer even question the desirability of new demands. As a teacher, you are probably writing down standards you intend to cover on your board, on poster paper, or somewhere else for students to see, making changes weekly or even daily. Even if  you go over those standards, I suspect many students pay as much attention to the week’s standards as they do to the local newspaper’s real estate section. When I see those standards written in preschool and early elementary classrooms, I laugh sometimes. Admin can’t read the lesson plan? The kids can’t read most of what’s on the board, that’s for sure.