Friday, November 22, 2013

Freshmen: Lost in Transition

Freshmen...this seems to be the talk amongst both high school and university educators.  Regardless of the institution the conversations usually begin with the phrase "Those freshman..." and often follows with something like this:
  • "....don't know anything!"
  • "...have no idea how to study!"
  • "...cannot write to save their lives!"
  • "...are clueless!"
Those same cries are usually followed by blaming the prior institution, their faculty, their parents, society and the list of complaints go on and on:
  • "What in the world are those teachers teaching them?"
  • "Why aren't those teachers...?"
  • "I can't believe they actually made it to this level!"
  • "Wonder what those parents are like!"
  • "I can't believe they actually graduated!"
  • "What is happening to education?"
  • "It's that NCLB, CCSS, and those government...(blah, blah, blah)."
  • "I'm afraid for our future!"
Whoa! Slow down!  How quickly we digress!  Remember what we are talking about here? Freshmen. They come to us, not underprepared, but simply lost in transition.  

Now, I am not a certified freshmen expert nor am I parent of a freshman, nor a leader of any political party, I am simply a high school teacher of 16 years. During this time, I can safely say that the needs of freshmen have not drastically changed; nor have educator complaints changed much regarding freshmen struggles.  If the saying "time will tell" rings true, then it is safe to say that in another 16 years freshmen needs will look close to the same.

After much reflection I came up with these parallels between high school and college freshmen.

Notice, The Freshmen 10 solely focuses on freshmen thus eliminating all causes.  In my years of teaching, these are the top ten struggles I have noted for freshmen learners. It is why they begin to believe they are not smart enough to survive in their new surroundings; thus eventually giving up.

I believe we have a choice as educators to either:  1) continue pointing the fingers of blame and shame or 2) start meeting the needs of students in their transitional years.  As you can guess I am interested in the later of these two. As an invested, connected educator, I have some thoughts as to how we can better support struggling freshman in high school and college.  It all begins by addressing what The Freshmen 10 need in order to adapt and evolve in their new learning environments.

Even when these needs are met in high school, they need met again for traditional college freshmen. I find it interesting how our society has deemed holding hands appropriate for certain life events such as helping a toddler to walk, crossing the street and much later in life in marriage when we repeat the vows "to have and to hold"...yet there is a huge gap where our society frowns upon holding hands.  This large gap occurs from approximately middle school on until one finds a life partner.  Why do we do this as a society? Why do we let go of hands during the most critical developmental stages of the mind and why for so long? Why is okay for adults to hold hands with someone for the rest of their lives, yet we want students to stand alone? Mark Ryan, Darius Rucker, and Jim Stonefeld (1994) from the band Hootie & The Blowfish offer powerful words as to why we should continue to hold hands in supporting one another:

Yesterday, I saw you standing there
Your head was down, your eyes were red
No comb had touched your hair
I said get up, and let me see you smile
We'll take a walk together
Walk the road awhile, 'cause
I've got a hand for you

It is up to educators to meet freshmen students at the intersection to help them cross. When we finally let go, we do so knowing we supplied them with the support and tools needed to move forward on their own.  

Bryan M., Rucker D. & Stonefeld J. (1994), Hold my hand (Recorded by Hootie & The Blowfish) on Cracked Rearview Mirror Atlantic Records (1994)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Connecting Students: Reflections4U & Success4U

Can you believe it is already November? It seems like just yesterday we were hashtagging the #1st5days of school so that we could build relationships.  While we may realize the end of the semester is fast approaching, I guarantee the vast majority of your students have not thought beyond next week....for some they have not thought beyond today! Fortunately, there are caring teachers like you that are going to take a time out from curriculum to talk with students about their choice in finishing strong.

I believe there are two simple ways you can connect with students in order to inspire them to finish strong:  1) create a video message for them and 2) differentiate for the disconnected student.

Video Message:

Why a video message? One, because if a student is absent, he/she will still receive the message.  Two, this is a great way to communicate with families.  And three, it becomes an official record of course expectations.

Here's what the video does:
  1. informs the students of the number of days remaining in the semester 
  2. reminds high school students that semester grades are on their official transcripts for post-secondary careers and colleges to look at 
  3. commends students for putting forth great effort in their learning
  4. encourages students that are not connected to their learning
  5. provides students a work plan with a timeline
  6. fills their buckets by letting them know you care about their learning
Differentiate 4 The Disconnected:

While the message above will resonate with the vast majority of your students, there will be a select few students that will remain indifferent and disconnected.  I have found that after 16 years of teaching, it is not that disconnect students do not want to be connected it is that they do not know how to connect.  Often these students are seen as behavior problems in the classroom.  I choose to look at these students through different lenses.  A few years ago I created a plan in order to connect these students.  This year I will implement the plan below on the heels of this video.  

Here are the two tools I use for students disconnected from learning.

Tool #1:  Reflections4U (click HERE to access a PDF of the documents below)

The tool above allows disconnected students the opportunity to self-reflect on classroom behaviors.  It is vital this is not used with students when they are doing something wrong nor should it be referenced as a "think sheet".  The moment you use this as such, you have created another hoop the system uses for kids to jump through thus creating an even wider divide for disconnected students.

This tool is truly a reflection of the student by the student.  Give this to the student at an appropriate time, perhaps when students are working quietly or maybe at the start of class.  Simply pull the student aside and say, "Hey, I was wondering if you would take a moment to work on this.  You are not in trouble in any way, I think this might be the key to helping you learn in this class.  If you'd like you can sit in the hall or at your desk, it's up to you."

Now, the interesting part about the second half of "Reflections4u" is that the student must indicate if he/she feels there is direct self control over each behavior.  While as adults we know we all have direct control of our behaviors, students do not always see it that way.  Again, at an appropriate time, talk with the student about his/her responses allowing the student to elaborate more if he/she chooses.  In order to introduce the next tool, bridge this conversation to the next by saying something like, "You know, I think I have something that will help you gain control over your learning." Then give the student the tool "Success Plan4u."

Tool #2:  Success Plan4U

This tool allows the student to:

  1. choose only one behavior to focus on improving; preferably the one he/she feels interferes the most with learning
  2. create a positive goal statement to turn this behavior around 
    1. He/she will likely need help with this as it is natural for the student to create negative statements such as "I will not talk too much." It is important that we teach students to focus on the positive results that want to occur such as "I will talk at appropriate times."
  3. develop a multi-step plan of action in order to reach the goal
    1. Again, the student may need assistance talking through ideas.
  4. self-monitor his/her success daily for one week (this can be done on the paper above, on a Google form or even simply having him/her give you a thumbs up/down at the end of each class for you to note...again let the student choose how to self-monitor)
    1. Let the student know that you will give him/her space to implement the plan, but that you are available to talk if they want
    2. Support the student by letting him/her know you will post-conference at the end of the week to discuss the week's success
During the post-conference, you and the student can decide if he/she wants to continue with the plan with or without tracking the results.  The two of you can also decide if there would be any benefit to focusing on another behavior for the next week.  This really needs to be about student choice and teaching students they have direct control over their behaviors and learning.

Finishing Strong

Relationships lay the foundation for student learning.  When you take the time to speak with them about their learning and create opportunities for choice and ownership they will grow leaps and bounds. While this post is about encouraging students to finish strong, it is also to inspire teachers to run along side students to cheer them on to the finish line.