The Lesson I’ve Never Forgotten From a Parent’s Gentle Rebuke

Opening the door wide open for parent communication can sometimes be a scary thing — fear of the unknown, previous negative experiences, and limitations on time can all add up to create some understandable hesitation.

But each time I have chosen to lay aside these fears, I have always gained — not only in the way of building bridges with parents, but in learning how to improve my practices.

Here’s one example that has stuck with me:

A month into the school year, I started sending emails to all my students’ parents to touch bases, provide encouragement, and to build rapport.

To one of my student’s parents, I sent praise of her willingness to “be an example,” to “stay on task and participate,” and to “step out of her comfort zone to offer ideas” (as she was one of my quieter students).

I hit send and didn’t think twice — until I read her dad’s response:

“This is very helpful. Thank you for taking time with her. She really is a bright young lady. As an extra note, she has some real strength in analyzing math, science and comprehension. It seems that your approach will really reenergize her confidence in these learning skills.”

I never will know for sure whether her dad even intended this as any kind of rebuke, but that was certainly how it translated for me, and rightly so. For I had been so content with how compliant and agreeable his daughter was, I had overlooked her much more powerful strengths.

This father’s gracious response has stayed with me ever since. It stands as a reminder that we owe it to our students to dig deeper to help them uncover their passion, their power, their potential.

While we’re grateful for our students that don’t feel the need to violently rock the boat day in and day out, sometimes, their very lack of any boat-rocking can be cause for concern. We should dedicate time toward finding out why they are content to hide in the shadows, just as we dedicate time toward working with our regular boat-rockers on how to funnel their efforts more appropriately.

So keep sending those emails to parents. Keep searching out feedback. After all, the ones who benefit most from our doing so are our students.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

8 Tips For Non-Manipulative Classroom Praise

“Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines— rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions.” (Haim Ginott, 1965, p. 39)

Praise Research 

Praise researchers have set up various camps for decades. Some maintain that praise encourages student behavior and motivation, advising teachers to “reward the student with verbal reinforcement when she or he exhibits desired behavior” (Dev, 1997, p 16). 

Others believe that it can damage motivation–and in some cases, even become downright manipulative. Alfie Kohn contends that praise “leads [students] to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval” (5 Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job).  They argue that “Praise can create excessive pressure to continue performing well, discourage risk taking, and reduce perceived autonomy.” (Henderlong, J. & Lepper, M.R. “The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis,” p. 776).

Despite these opposing camps, still other researchers examine specific variables of praise that can impact students’ intrinsic motivation both beneficially and detrimentally. In their comprehensive praise review, Henderlong and Lepper conclude, “rather than asking whether praise enhances intrinsic motivation, it is far more useful to ask about the conditions under which this is likely to occur” (The Effects of Praise, p. 791). Some of those conditions include:

  • Sincerity: honest and specific evaluation
  • Performance Attributions: focusing on controllable processes vs. student ability/overly simple tasks
  • Perceived Autonomy: focusing on students’ autonomy vs. our control (finding, in fact, that no praise has a better effect than controlling praise)
  • Competence and Self-Efficacy: focusing on information on performance vs. social comparison
  • Standards & Expectations: focusing on specific praise on appropriately-challenging tasks vs. praise for too-easy or too-difficult tasks

8 Tips

Be mindful of the growth-mindset

Never praise students for what they are right now. Elevate your sights to the vision of where their efforts can take them; if your praise focuses merely on their current abilities, they will be less likely to view that potential for growth in themselves.

“I could tell you worked so hard to figure out that math problem. Way to stick with it even when it was tricky!” instead of “You’re so good at math!”

Be descriptive

Vague statements like “good job” can undermine student motivation because it does not offer concrete support for a student’s effort, nor does it recognize their personal reasons for pursuing the task. On the other hand, a detailed description becomes more useful feedback.

“Nice–when you made eye contact and responded constructively to your group members during that activity, it showed them respect and helped your whole group have a good discussion.” instead of “Good group discussion!”

Make the positive reinforcement more of an observation than explicit praise.

Set the tone of optimism by noticing the good more often than the bad. This helps create a positive atmosphere not only because students know you’re not going to harp on every error, but also because they’ll tend to pay more attention to the good things happening around them, too.

“I notice that Carlos is stacking everyone else’s chairs for them.” 

Connect the praise to genuine principles of respectful relationships.

Really, everything else hinges on this one. As Henderlong and Lepper concluded, “…provided that it is perceived as sincere, praise is likely to enhance intrinsic motivation when attributional messages prevent maladaptive inferences, when autonomy is promoted, when perceived competence and self-efficacy are heightened without undue use of social comparison, and when realistic standards and expectations are conveyed” (The Effects of Praise, p. 791). Nothing else will quite matter if your students sense ulterior motives.

“Wow, when Becca turned her chair around when I was sharing instructions, I could tell she was offering not just her attention, but her respect for my time, because her body language showed it. I really appreciate that.”

Genuinely thank students for their efforts to create a supportive classroom environment

They should know that you understand that it’s not easy to bring 25+ people together in a cooperative, positive, and safe learning environment every day. Give them the tools to help by verbalizing the kinds of choices that support learning.  Express your appreciation for those efforts frequently, reminding them that we’re all in this together!

“When Johnny was sharing his story, I saw Ashley put down her papers and look up at him. It’s not easy for anyone to get up and share, so thank you for helping Johnny feel more comfortable with sharing with such an attentive and respectful audience!” 

Don’t just use positive reinforcement as a misbehavior redirect

Notice and point out times when the entire class is pitching in to help the classroom run smoothly, and explain the difference you can feel–and ask them if they can feel it, too!

“During that transition, everyone put away the math cubes and moved back to their desks for wrap up immediately! I love that we have plenty of time to discuss our math noticings now–thank you for helping our class run smoothly!” 

Notice everyone

Seriously. Use a class list on a clipboard and tally off names if you need to. Otherwise, you and your students both know you’re going to wind up primarily noticing the same 5 line-of-sight people every day.

Get rid of tangible extrinsic rewards that often accompany praise

These devalue the positive attention given because students are less likely to internalize the value of the behavior or task for its own sake.  Keep close tabs on your extrinsic rewards in general, and always be willing to ask yourself the tough questions.

Featured Image: fs999

3 Practical Formative Assessments

When you barely have time to suck down occasional gulps of air amid swells of paperwork, it’s understandable to lose some perspective.  Unfortunately, this is a condition many teachers face when it comes to approaching formative versus summative assessments.


 

Opportunity for impact?

But how important is it, really, to keep track of such minute details on student progress?  Well, Google defines formative as, “serving to form something, especially having a profound and lasting influence on a person’s development.”  Black and Wiliam found “that innovations which include strengthening the practice of formative assessment produce significant, and often substantial, learning gains.”  And we have discovered teacher-student relationships become elevated as students recognize just how invested teachers are in their daily progress–not just in what they produce at the end of units.

The nature of the beast

Formative assessments do not cast the intimidating shadow of their summative counterparts.  They are so authentically woven into the day, it can feel almost spontaneous as you uncover quiet learning moments, pinpointing students’ true understanding. Meanwhile, summatives are not only highly concrete and measurable, but they’re also accompanied by pressure for results–pressure that may come from administrators, parents, politicians, and even sometimes teachers themselves.

Educator’s catch 22

And so, we run into the classic teacher dilemma: on the one hand, we know part of the value of formative assessments lies their authentic, unassuming quality; on the other, it is precisely that quality that makes it easy for them to slip under the radar.   The key is to make a plan for a record-keeping strategy that works for you.  This sounds easy enough, but it does take a little trial and error as you find one or more methods that feel comfortable and easily accessible in the flow of your classroom.  Below are a few personal favorites, all of which have functioned well in various contexts.

3 Strategies

1. Confer App
Image retrieved from Conferapp.com
Image retrieved from Conferapp.com

This is the Mary Poppins carpet bag of education apps.  No matter how full I’d pack in anecdotal notes for each student, it stayed organized and easy to navigate.  It was also easy to share with parents during parent-teacher conferences.  Some details I appreciated include:

  • The option to sort notes in practical ways, including by student names, groups, and feedback.
  • A design in that’s conducive to appropriate feedback with fields like “strength,” “teaching point,” and “next step”–great to remind teachers to look for what’s going well along with what needs work.
  • The ability to apply one note to multiple students simultaneously–and the fact that it saves a previously-used note so you don’t have to type out the same phrase again.
  • The color coded flags to remind you who currently needs some extra support.

Note: At first, some students were unsure about my typing on my phone during our discussions–they worried I was texting, or otherwise distracted.  Be sure to introduce this method of note-taking to your whole class, telling them exactly how you are using your phone during your conferences.

2. Notecard Waterfalls

This one is a bit old-school, but I found it especially handy for reading groups.  I would write each student’s name on one notecard, sort them into their groups, and then tape them into a waterfall on half a piece of laminated cardstock per group.  (see photos below) I found this to be the perfect place to keep tallies for simplified running records and reading notes.  After a student would read aloud, I would say something like this:

“Ok, I’m writing that you are rocking your punctuation expression.  You paused appropriately at every comma and period!  I’m also writing that we’re working on paying attention to the endings of words, since you left off -ing and -s a couple times as you read.  Do you want me to add anything else for us to remember next time we work on reading together?”

This kind of feedback was quick and simple, but extremely effective as it kept us both on the same page.  Another bonus: when a card would fill up, I could easily throw it in the student’s file and pop in another one.

Waterfall booklet

3. Status of the Class
Image retrieved from Teacher Supply Store
Image retrieved from Teacher Supply Store

Status of the Class is the perfect tool to keep track of student-driven projects or independent work time.  Simply call out each student’s name, and then jot down their selected task on a class list.  This works well for long-term processes involving steps, stages, or centers with which the students are already familiar, such as the Writer’s Workshop, the scientific method, or math or literacy stations.  Some advantages include:

  • Stay informed of where you can coach students in their individual processes.
  • Teach students metacognition as you require them to give a brief statement explaining both the what and the why of their choice. (I would periodically model how that would sound right before taking Status of the Class to remind them how to explain their choice.  For example:  “I’m working on illustrating because I want to better visualize how to describe my characters,” or “I’m going to read to myself because I just got to a cliff-hanger in my book.”
  • Keep track of students who seem to be stuck in one place.
  • Maintain accountability for students who may get off-task during independent learning time.
  • If appropriate, give on-the-spot feedback as you help students learn to spend independent time wisely (ie, “I see you’ve chosen that 3 times in a row here.  How else could you spend your time to help you grow?”)

Tips: Use wet-erase marker to write on a laminated class list chart, such as the one pictured, and keep it posted in the room so students can also keep track of how they’ve been spending their time.  Make a key for your abbreviations on the bottom.

What are some of your favorite methods for practical formative assessments?

Featured Image: Elli Pálma via Flickr Creative Commons