Teaching Practices that Create Classroom Connection

I was getting ready to teach my workshop on hidden student trauma to staff at a local high school when my husband made the passing comment, “Better build connection early, because by the time students are failing mid-year, you’re gonna need it.”

What is the term they use now? Mic drop? My thought at the time was, Oh, shit.

When I first started teaching professional developments on how to create connection in the classroom, I had another workshop on the back burner: “Differentiation Begins With Your Ladder: How to Create Rungs on the Curriculum Ladder to Allow All Students Access.” A long title. And though incredibly important, it wasn’t as important as addressing hidden student trauma. Unless, of course, it is.

What my good-looking husband so brilliantly pointed out is that students are only going to continue to feel the benefits of the connection and support you’ve worked so hard to create in your classroom if they ALSO feel that how they are learning honors where they are starting on the curriculum ladder. And, once on that ladder, helps them learn that falling off doesn’t mean failing. Which is not the same thing as everyone gets As, and it’s also not telling a student, “I’m so glad that you were able to reach out to me to talk about your mom’s depression. Also, you’ve failed English again.”

So how does a curriculum ladder work and how do you help students attach safety ropes to it once on? I think of it like this:

Your academic standards are the top rung on the ladder. I was fortunate to teach with an colleague trained in International Baccalaureate, the standards for which dovetail perfectly with Common Core and, more importantly, common sense. Collaborating with her revealed that those standards were the top rungs.

In my experience, most students have a knowledge base at least two rungs below that standard. For example, 9th grade students know what citing your source means, but they don’t know how to accurately cite sources in essays (Don’t even get me started on what’s wrong with EasyBib). They know that you should quote your sources, but not when or how. They also are still fuzzy on topic sentences.

Then there are the few students who are like, essay? What’s that? Those students scrawl a few sentences on a piece of paper and may or may not turn that paper in. And they will be completely shocked when they don’t pass the class.

Putting bottom rungs on your curriculum ladder doesn’t mean dumbing-down curriculum. You are dealing with the equivalent of short people versus tall people trying to get onto a ladder whose rungs typically start 5 feet up. Nothing is wrong with the ability of short people to climb. Of course short people can climb to the top rung or curriculum benchmark when starting further down than everyone else–as long as there are ladder rungs that extend to their reach and there are more rungs put in along the way. The same is true for English Language Learners, students with learning disabilities, and…pretty much the rest of us. Everyone has the ability to learn anything. Some of us just need a few more rungs. If my teacher doesn’t see that I need more  rungs, I don’t feel like the teacher is invested in my success.

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  • Creating bottom rungs means breaking a task or assignment into skills or learning targets that are bite-sized. Too many directions on a page or too many skills integrated all at once = meltdown for those of us who are grasping for the first rungs on the ladder. (And guess what? Breaking down the task is also a steam-release valve for high-achieving students. Win and win).

 

  • Vocabulary reminders are a huge part of students’ understanding of content. Especially in science class, a student who may otherwise know content can get bogged down in the text’s vocabulary.

 

  • Use exemplars, not examples for what you want the final product to look like. Students who struggle have missed partial information in the past. They’ll miss the direction that what they are looking at is an example, not an exemplar, and, instead, imprint on the model that has flaws, studying it and turning in their best version of it. BB33B577-1464-489A-94A4-BD23D538B6C7
  • Exemplars also allow the high achievers who need lots of attention to work off of an exemplar rather than asking every 3 minutes, “Is this right?”…”How about now?”…”Is this how I should do it?” You’re welcome, teachers of grade grubbers.

 

  • Use examples of weak, developing, and strong work that demonstrate where students often go wrong. Refer students back to the examples when they make those mistakes.

 

  • Build time into your curriculum plan for those who are managing a few more rungs.

 

  • If every assignment is truly important to learning, not accepting late work won’t cut it as a  teaching philosophy. Dock a certain percentage amount, but not enough to cause the student to receive a failing grade. Did I want them to learn it? Yes. Did they learn it? Yes. Then mission accomplished.images-7
  • For any assignment or project that is truly essential to learning, do not give the student a final grade until their best version has a chance to come in. I want to be graded on my best try, not my first try (For information about how to do this and not lose your damn mind, fill out the contact form below).

 

  • If every assignment is truly important to learning, students should never be sent out of the room for something like not having a pencil or paper. I am not their future employer. My student may even end up working at a job that gives their employees limitless supplies to get their work accomplished! If my school can’t afford to supply pencils and paper to students who forget or don’t have the supplies, WTF is wrong with the allocation of my school’s funds?8959cc10057bac98f0ea18a23395e273--a-pencil-math-teacher
  • If every skill or content knowledge is truly important to a students’ education, then tests should be offered multiple times—in class (gasp!) 
    • Offer the test 3 times–and only accept 100% correct for passing the first 2 times. (Grade grubbing students love this).
    • Struggling students often don’t make it back for after-school or lunchtime make-up tests without a lot of teacher prompting. Skip the nagging, offer the test in class and get more bang for your class time.
    • For more tips on how to do this and not lose your damn mind, fill out the contact info at the end of this blog.

 

  • At regular, 3 week intervals, hand students slips of paper with their missing assignments listed.
    • Many students are still not technology inclined. They need a reminder in their hand to acknowledge what is missing and to do something about it. Tech savvy kids will throw away the reminder slip, but now they know to check their online grade and be properly shocked and outraged.images-6
    • Offer class time during that week to help students who have not completed assignments. The rest of the class gets to do an enrichment activity, possibly for extra credit. Everyone likes this because everyone wins.
    • The following Monday, call home for any student who has not turned in acceptable work (Email won’t suffice).

If you are interested in examples, exemplars, or have questions about specific classroom practices mentioned above, fill out the contact form below to get on my mailing list. In the comment box, ask about ideas for your classroom, ideas to help your child who is struggling in school, or  to make sure that not only your students feel supported, but YOU feel supported as well. Because if Mama ain’t happy, well, we know how that goes…..

 

 

 

 

 

Students, Vanity Fair, and #MeToo

Last December, my daughter, Lucy True, was born into a world that included a man who had openly bragged about sexually assaulting  women being voted into our highest office. Thank God she was also born into a time when women finally got tired of taking it. I love that we are now in a #MeToo era because that is what my daughters will inherit. They, too get to matter. They, too get to own what happens to their bodies.

I wish I had spoken up when I was in my first teaching position and the special education teacher came into my classroom. He put his foot up on my desk and announced that though his wife wasn’t interested in sex anymore, he was. This from a colleague I had said hello to once at the copy machine. I spoke to the union rep who told me that I had to make it clear to him that he was being inappropriate before anyone from the union could speak to him. This was when I was 23. I was too shy to tell a waitress that I would like creamer for my coffee, let alone tell a colleague at my new job that he was being inappropriate. That, and I thought it was just me. I thought there was something was wrong with me and that was why I was targeted.

A former model, Paulina Porizkova, recently described sexual harassment as a “compliment.” She, too, took it personally. She took it to mean that she was found pretty and therefore “worthy” of harassment. But sexual harassment and sexual assault are not personal.

Now, after each new wave of #MeToos, it concretizes for me how un-personal sexual harassment and assault is. In fact, it is the depersonalization aspect that makes this a predatory behavior, and that affects everyone. If it was never about me, then others were at risk too. I know now that me not speaking up meant he could have gone on to harass other female faculty members, or, even more appalling as I think about it now, female students.

Which brings me to JLo’s booty. Now, I need to make it clear that I’m not anti-booty. My favorite booty shots include Beyonce’s covered-though fabulous performance in “Single Ladies” seen here and Pink’s booty shot during an ethereal “Glitter in the Air” performance at the Grammys, seen here.

This photo, though, the one of JLo’s booty?
IMG_3688This was in the December 2017 issue of Vanity Fair. The photo of the booty is in a spread about JLo’s and A-Rod’s relationship. My first thought? She does have a nice booty. My second thought? Something about this bugs.

Again, to be clear, I’m not putting down JLo’s booty. I think the reason why this photo bugs, though, is that it is HIS hand that is pulling up her skirt to reveal her butt. And their faces are turned as if someone is watching a scene that is private. Kind of like a photo that gets passed around social media without the person in the photo giving consent. And those two aspects together create a different narrative than JLo simply hiking up her skirt to show off her assets–or Beyonce strutting her stuff with her dancers. No one watching Bey could say that she doesn’t own every bit of her performance and her body. But this photo? It feels off.

I know, I know: It’s a lot of fuss over a photo. On one hand, I could say the photo is about about JLo, her butt, and if we only had perfect butts too, we would be wearing the diamond studded undies. But this picture isn’t about a perfect butt. It’s about a man taking control over a woman’s butt, and that ain’t personal: It’s the very kind of depersonalization–dehumanization–that the #MeToo movement is calling out.

If my older daughter is going to show her booty to an audience, then believe me, at three years old and a raging threenager, that girl is going to show off those buns. But I don’t ever want her to think that letting someone else show her butt to the world, in a magazine or social media, is okay. And I have to teach her that. Because if Vanity Fair didn’t get the memo, at least my threenager will.

This is a critical moment in time when women are speaking up about our rights to our bodies, and our students and children are paying attention. How we talk about what is happening will determine whether children and teenagers will feel they have a right to speak up too. Kids don’t have much life experience and even less life context, but adults do. We can let them know that we have their backs if they speak up. They aren’t to blame, they aren’t alone, and they matter as people who own their own bodies. But empowering our children starts with talking about what is happening in the news, what is wrong with this photo, and saying out loud to my threenager and to my students why I wish I had spoken up seventeen years ago.

And, looking at JLo’s expression here, I do wonder if a more appropriate caption for this photo might read: Me Too. 

 

Identifiers for sexual abuse in teenagers CAN include:

  1. Tattoos
  2. Excessive piercings
  3. Hair color that is unnatural (pink, blue, green, etc.)
  4. Cutting
  5. Wearing emo or goth clothing.
  6. Not bathing
  7. Overtly sexual behavior
  8. Drug or alcohol abuse

These are all ways that teenagers take back ownership of their bodies.

To bring this information to your school in the form of a workshop, go to JessieDorin.com or email JessieDorinCoaching@gmail.com

Wild Horses, Black Hole of Death Students, and Original Medicine

When I was 8, my bipolar dad put me on our unbroken horse with the advice, “Roll away from the hooves when he bucks you off.” Even better advice? Don’t let a bipolar ex bull rider talk you into breaking the new family horse in the first place. But I was 8 and loved my dad. So I got bucked off. A lot. Finally, after too many weekends, my dad gave up on my horsemanship abilities. But I never forgot how that horse looked at me. It was a look that clearly said, “Please, don’t break me.” I’m pretty sure my own face revealed the same plea.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there are some students who will never talk about the harms they have encountered because to do so would be too painful. Their eyes will tell you, “Please don’t break me.” So I refer those students to the counselor even though they won’t go. I don’t push them on vulnerability. They will refuse and that’s okay. That is when I turn to the other gateway to connection: Love.

Horse whisperers don’t call what they do “breaking” a horse. They call their method “making” a horse. Teachers can help “make” students by connecting to students through what kids as individuals love and especially how they love it. For example, I have a good friend who is a filmmaker/scientist. My college transcripts will reveal that I don’t grasp scientific concepts easily, but when my friend explains the mating rituals of hummingbirds or why we don’t ride zebras, I fall in love with the natural world. She brings her whole self–personality, insights, and particular way of explaining things–to the non-science-minded. We connect in science through her eyes.

Recently, I had a student so dark, he was my Black Hole of Death kid. He seethed in his seat, refused to participate, sucked other kids into his foul mood, and drew furiously in his notebook. So I sat him next to the cute, chatty cheerleaders and praised the hell out of his drawing. I found ways to include his artwork into assignments. I dragged his his grumpy self in front of the class to present, and it turns out he was a closet comedian. Gradually, he became a part of our classroom community, loved for being himself. None of this took much effort on my part, but it was the difference between having the absence of a student in the room, a black hole, and a very present student in the room.

This matters for his life and it matters for mine. A kid hurt beyond his own recognition of self will hurt himself and hurt others. Someone who is able to see the value of all parts of himself has the motivation to heal himself, and in doing so, he will grow into someone with enormous capacity to help heal others. His particular experience of hurt, the particular way in which he eventually heals that hurt, coupled with his love of drawing and grumpy, slyly humorous personality, will someday all come together to be his particular brand of healing–his original medicine. We all have original medicine, and we all need others, at one time or another, to use their medicine to help us heal ourselves. My science friend helps heal the part of me that can feel disconnected from the natural world. She makes me sit in wonder again.

Caroline McHugh, in her brilliant TED talk, “The Art of Being Yourself,” gives a lovely example of what it is to not look to others when stepping into yourself. Instead of comparing one’s self to others by feeling inferior or superior, she suggests going inward to interiority, which leaves comparison out of the picture entirely. There is only you. Feel the freedom in that for a second. McHugh gives the example of performer Jill Scott being interviewed while waiting to follow Erykah Badu. The reporter asks her if she is nervous. Scott laughs and says, “Have you ever seen me perform?…Everyone comes with their own…queendom. Mine could never compare to hers and hers could never compare to mine.” Scott’s original medicine.

Picasso didn’t give up on painting because people had painted before him. Steve Jobs didn’t shrug his shoulders and say that the telephone had already been invented so what’s the point. We are what we love and how we love it. We are also how we heal and how we share ourselves with others. What would it be to share yourself in a way that profoundly helped other people just by doing and being what makes you so uniquely you? Darkness would have a difficult time hiding out.

My Black Hole of Death student is an example of how teachers can help students who are not going to give up information about the trauma they are experiencing or have experienced. That’s okay. We aren’t here to “break” anyone. Teachers are there to drop a line for students who want to share. For students who don’t, we help “make” them, listening for what they love and finding ways to nurture that. We give students opportunities to share themselves with others and plant the idea that they are people who matter to the class. This is so when those students are ready to heal, they already know there is someone inside of them worth leading out of the darkness.

Contact me at: JessieDorinCoaching@gmail.com to have me come to your school and talk about Uncovering and Addressing Hidden Student Trauma, Original Medicine, and Black Hole of Death Students.

And here is a wonderful video of Maya Angelou recounting how she reminded Tupac of his worth.

Maya Angelou and Why Character Development Alone Won’t Change School Connectedness

Social Emotional learning is great. Character Development is wonderful. So is mindfulness. None of those, on their own, will create true connections in the classroom. I point to Maya Angelou and my turbulent past with toddlers to illustrate why.

School connectedness is a new buzzword in the districts near my home. High performing schools are great at getting (most) students to make the grade, but those same students are not feeling connected to their classrooms or their school in general. Those schools use Healthy Schools, a survey in California, as their method of measuring students’ own reporting of how connected or disconnected they feel in school.

Many schools in my local district have placed student feelings of connectedness as one of four priorities for their next accreditation cycle. They’ve enlisted a wonderful organization that uses character development curriculum as the sole method for creating this connectedness. Schools host inclusion rallies, show character-building movies, and create spirit days that celebrate the “other.”

In the case of my local school district, schools put a video clip on their character development web page featuring a Maya Angelou clip from YouTube as their rallying cry. The clip is entitled “Just Do Right.” In it, Dr. Angelou speaks about the time when she left her mother’s house, at 17 and with a baby, and her mother told her, “Now you have been raised.” She knew right from wrong. “Just do right,” were the words her mother bestowed upon her.

Kids, it’s easy: Just do right.

Um, yeah. Here’s why it fails:

A few years ago, after a particularly grueling day teaching and worse commute home, I stopped at my local grocery store. After stomping around the store to get something for dinner, I made my way to the checkout counter. A toddler with her mother was in the line ahead of me. The little girl stared at me, and I gave her my meanest glare back. The kind I would never have dared to shoot at any adult. The kind that tells you to go F yourself. That’s the kind of glare I gave this three year old. Somewhere, a unicorn died.

Yes, I do work with kids. Yes, I do have my own toddler now and am even more horrified at my actions, but then, as, I suspect, even now, the “Just do right” mantra wasn’t going to change me into someone who recognized how far I had slipped from reality on that day.

When you’re having a bad day, thinking about how someone else is feeling isn’t going to transmute you to connection. Neither is mindfully focusing on how you feel on the insides of your feet. I imagine it is the same for a student whose parents are divorcing, who is neglected at home, or whose brother just went to jail, or…any of the crappy life events that happen because it’s, well…life.

No, “Just Do Right” isn’t the Maya Angelou clip that illustrates how to get to connection. On the other hand, another Maya Angelou interview, entitled, “Love Liberates,” is.

In this clip, Dr. Angelou relates a memory of her mother telling her, again when Angelou was a young woman who was leaving her mother’s home, “You can always come home.” And Angelou says, “I went home every time life slammed me down and made me call it uncle.” She recalls, on those occasions, how her mother was always delighted to see her, never gloating over the event that made Angelou need to move back. And then her mother told her, “You’re the greatest woman I’ve ever met.” This from a mother who had abandoned Angelou and her brother to her grandmother when Angelou was a small girl.

Dr. Angelou then talks about her mother on her deathbed, and how Angelou told her, “You were a piss-poor mother of small children, but you were a great mother of young adults.” Angelou says her mother’s love had liberated her, and she wanted to liberate her mother by telling her how much she loved her and it was okay for her to go. It was a seeing of faults and a gratitude for the love of an imperfect mother.

Mindfulness asks students: How does your breath feel? Social-Emotional learning asks students to imagine how someone else feels. Compassion, Empathy, and Vulnerability asks students, “How do you feel?” Then the teacher listens, and goes to a place within themselves that says, “Yes. I have felt that way at some point, too. Let me sit with you while you feel that way now.” It asks teachers to courageously be vulnerable and talk about their imperfections and sadness too.

“Love Liberates” provides schools with context and vulnerability that “Do Right” misses. When a student is having a horrible day, “Love liberates” says that parents make mistakes. Terrible mistakes. Even Maya Angelou’s parent. It doesn’t mean that the student will not become successful. It doesn’t mean that that parent is shameful or will be a person who makes terrible mistakes as a parent forever. Maybe they will. But maybe not. Angelou didn’t forget or forgive her mother for her mistakes in the past, but she didn’t define either herself or her mother by those mistakes either. She clung to the love her mother offered later. People change. Thank God.

When teachers offer their own stories in a safely vulnerable way, especially stories that say, “This happened to me when I was young. It was awful. I wish I had told someone.” And students see that you are okay now, they see that they, too, may just make it through this awful spell. And they can feel like if they talk to you about their tough time, they will be seen.

Oh, and the toddler in the picture is mine. Karma is definitely Team Unicorn.