Social-Emotional Ed, Culture & Discipline

In the last week I have read five fascinating articles at the intersection of culture, social-emtional learning and discipline in schools. The first two articles appeared in The Seattle Times in their on-going “Education Lab” series funded by the Gates Foundation. One article reviewed the research and on-going programs in Washington state that are trying to understand and overcome how childhood trauma can affect learning and behavior in schools. The other highlighted schools in the area that are using the Yale RULER social-emotional education program.

The first article, entitled “‘You are more than your mistakes’: Teachers get at roots of bad behavior’”, discussed how researchers and teachers are coming together to address Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which not only affect the education and behavior of a child in school, but can also affect their adult health. I made many notes about ACEs in my blog post review of Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed.

One of the Seattle area schools mentioned in The Times article is West Seattle Elementary. I worked with their staff and principal, Vicki Sacco, in the lead up to my former Seattle school’s application for a ‘Turnaround Schools’ elementary levy grant from the city in 2013. I was also pleased to once again read about the work of Washington State University Professor Chris Blodgett because I had the pleasure of hearing him speak about ACEs and the social-emotional training he leads at schools like Bemiss Elementary in Spokane, Washington.

Next came an AEON Ideas prompt on their beta forum discussing ‘how educators can help end the schools to prison pipeline’ started by Daniel Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies (CCRR) at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. He laments the continued disparities in discipline along racial lines in schools across America and urges schools to begin to do the basics to avoid suspending students.

Discipline Disproportionality

Losen does not directly reference the research about the root causes for discipline issues in schools, such as ACEs, but he instead speaks to the imperative of alternative, inclusive and even restorative methods of addressing undesirable or disruptive school behaviors. He says that “well publicized research by Skiba at Indiana University has demonstrated that after controlling for poverty, school principals that embrace zero tolerance discipline philosophy have higher suspension rates and lower test scores than those that fold school discipline into their overall educational mission and strive to keep students in school.” In other words, strict discipline being exacted on kids acting out because of adverse emotional trauma they’ve experienced at home or elsewhere is truly counterproductive. Therefore, Losen suggests that schools start closing the “discipline gap” by not “suspending youth who are truant or tardy” and by limiting “the use of out of school suspension for minor offenses such as disruption or defiance.” Combined with teacher training on ACEs and an integrated social-emotional education program like the Yale RULER, schools could respond to adverse student behaviors proactively and productively.

You can participate in the AEON Ideas discussion forum on the schools to prison pipeline here.

Yale RULER Tool

The last two ed articles are related to one USC Rossier School of Education longitudinal study on the adolescent brain and how culture affects its social development. The study was designed by USC Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and over it’s five year period it will eventually include over 100 participants from Latino, East-Asian and bi-cultural backgrounds.

Half way through the research period, Immordino-Yang claims there are already two big takeaways about learning; first, Immordino-Yang says, “Traditional educational approaches think about emotion the way Descartes did; emotion is interfering with your ability to do well in school, to think rationally. Neuroscience is showing us that that is absolutely not the case—when you take emotion out of thought you have no basis for thought anymore. So we’re trying to understand how socially constructed emotion shapes learning, academic development and identity.” Second, Immordino-Yang says about the difference of our neurological processing of emotions and our outward manifestations of those emotions that, “There were no differences at all in how much these young adults’ brains were activating when they responded to our emotional stories—and no differences in the strengths of emotions that participants in the different cultural groups reported…But there was a strong cultural difference in how patterns of neural activity corresponded in real-time with participants’ experience—in how people became aware of their emotion.”

In other words, emotions play a big role in how we all learn, regardless of cultural or linguistic backgrounds, and yet those backgrounds do have a differing effect on our awareness and outward expression of those same emotions we all feel.

In one of the study’s tests, participants are asked to run up and down a flight of stairs until they can physically feel their heartbeat. The participants are then hooked up to a heart rate monitor and also simultaneously asked to monitor their heartbeats themselves, marking down every beat they feel. Somewhat astonishingly, the ability to accurately feel your heartbeat can predict the participant’s cultural identity.

“What we find is that among the East-Asian American kids, it’s the kids who are not particularly sensitive to their heartbeats who are saying they strongly hold Asian values, whereas among the Latino kids, it’s those who have a better ability to feel their heartbeat who are saying they strongly hold Latino cultural values,” says Immordino-Yang. “What that tells us is that kids’ natural awareness of visceral sensations may predispose them toward constructing a particular identity. It’s showing us how a very basic biological tendency, which we know is anatomically based, which is mainly kind of innate, is predisposing kids to adopting a particular kind of psychological self, with implications for how they act, what they believe in and who they strive to become.”

Immordino-Yang spells out the implications those results may have for educators and students. “We need to understand that the way kids feel matters. Their embodied experience in the classroom powerfully influences what children take away and how they grow both academically and personally. What science is teaching us, in short, is the need to understand the holistic emotional experience of a person, and the need to account for subjective experience when we design and evaluate educational environments.”

So think about the implications of this study in the context of a child who is growing up in poverty, who is African-American and who has a few Adverse Childhood Experiences. The holistic emotional experience becomes not just part of the learning equation for this child, it becomes the key. Educators have to try and understand how this individual child will emotionally react to different social experiences and different educational experiences because tapping a well of safe and positive emotions will help the child learn. In addition, their future cultural identity is being informed by their physical and neurological reactions to these experiences in schools. A lot is at stake and ignoring social-emotional learning, cultural backgrounds and the importance of positive discipline policies is inexcusable.

Look for more from me on the Immordino-Yang study in the coming weeks, as I will expand on my impressions of the implications of this study based on my experiences working in elementary schools in Latin America and East Asia. Unshocking spoiler; the study reinforces much of what I already assumed about how culture shapes how we learn. But, I will try not to generalize too much and I will try to give some specific examples of experiences that I have teaching abroad that will hopefully add to the discussion on this research.

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Character Readings for the Classroom

This week, while on vacation, I ran across two small pieces to spur reflection and action in building character strengths for teachers and students.

The first came in my inbox via the weekly Brain Pickings newsletter, which I highly recommend subscribing to and following on Twitter. Maria Popova shared some of the highlights on habit from Mary Oliver’s book Long Life. But she began the piece by quoting William James, who is credited with saying:

 “Habit and character are essentially the same thing.”

Below are the collected sections that Ms. Popova quoted in her post on Mary Oliver and her thoughts on habit. I found them incredibly eloquent and to be a great impetus for reflection among teachers when talking about character, practice, mastery, growth mindset and self-regulation.

In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role… Most people take action by habit in small things more often than in important things, for it’s the simple matters that get done readily, while the more somber and interesting, taking more effort and being more complex, often must wait for another day. Thus, we could improve ourselves quite well by habit, by its judicious assistance, but it’s more likely that habits rule us….

The bird in the forest or the fox on the hill has no such opportunity to forgo the important for the trivial. Habit, for these, is also the garment they wear, and indeed the very structure of their body life. It’s now or never for all their vitalities – bonding, nest building, raising a family, migrating or putting on the deeper coat of winter – all is done on time and with devoted care, even if events contain also playfulness, grace, and humor, those inseparable spirits of vitality. Neither does the tree hold back its leaves but lets them flow open or glide away when the time is right. Neither does water make its own decision about freezing or not; that moment rests with the rule of temperatures…..

What some might call the restrictions of the daily office they find to be an opportunity to foster the inner life. The hours are appointed and named… Life’s fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers… And if you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.

The other source of character building inspiration I came across this week, was the famous poem by William Ernest Henley entitled InvictusIn my readings and reflections on Stoicism, cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness and character building, I have again and again found references to this poem. This week I read it over a few times, began to memorize it and stashed it away to use as a class motto in the future. Here it is for your enjoyment:

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

The Mindfulness Triangle

It seems like nearly everything education-related that I read or listen to as of late mentions either Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness, Stoicism or all three. First, let’s provide some definitions for these ideas and then I will talk about a couple examples.

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a structured, short-term, present-oriented psychotherapy for depression, directed toward solving current problems and modifying dysfunctional (inaccurate and/or unhelpful) thinking and behavior.
  2. Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment
  3. Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and that a sage, or person of “moral and intellectual perfection”, would not suffer such emotions.

In his book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough writes that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in the context of character building and education, is “using the conscious mind to recognize negative or self-destructive thoughts or interpretations and to talk yourself into a better perspective.” For example, many of the KIPP teachers profiled in the book ask students to think about their thinking, identify either negative or positive thoughts, their behavioral triggers, the resultant actions, and then plot a repeatable course that nets better outcomes for the student.

In Invisibilia, the newest podcast from NPR, the first episode entitled, The Secret History of Thoughts, explores the three phases of psychological theory. At first thoughts had meaning and a connection to the material world, ie Freudian psychoanalysis. Then it became common theory and practice to assume that thoughts had limited meaning, automatic negative thoughts should not be simply accepted and internalized, and by challenging or contradicting your thinking you could change it, i.e. Dr. Aaron Beck’s CBT. And the podcast hosts mention that, according to the research, the latter has proven more effective than the former in facilitating mental health.

Finally, the third and newest psychological theory posits that many or most thoughts have no meaning at all, and that through mindfulness therapy a person can learn to ignore those negative, meaningless thoughts altogether, and deny them the power to affect mental health. Under this theory, meditation has become a regular part of therapy. And, in fact, there is a growing movement of educators who are using yoga, meditation and other mindfulness strategies to help their students learn and take care of the whole child. Here is a great review on the Cult of Pedagogy website about a great practical new guide to mindfulness in the classroom, Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness In and Out of the Classroom.

My frequent encounters with this vein of psychology did not stop there. Lary Wallace has written a great piece in Aeon Magazine online about “why Stoicism is one of the best mind-hacks ever”, using the parlance of our times. Wallace argues that Stoicism has been largely ignored in the West because it does not offer the “exotic mystique” of the great Eastern philosophies even though it is more accessible and therefore more practical for the average person. He writes, “Stoicism is, as much as anything, a philosophy of gratitude – a gratitude, moreover, rugged enough to endure anything.”

As a real-life example of just what Stoics can endure, Wallace references the 1993 King’s College London speech of US Navy Admiral James Stockdale. In the speech Admiral Stockdale recounts his five years as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. He used this time as a ‘laboratory of human behavior’ in which he ignored or denied himself any concern outside of his very small ‘sphere of choice’.

Wallace’s emphasis on Stoic gratitude and Stockdale’s reliance on concerning himself only with his own actions in order to endure horrible war-time conditions both have significant ties with the character education being taught at KIPP Academies. Self-regulation, grit, and gratitude are of paramount importance for children of poverty to succeed academically and achieve social-emotional health. And any ‘mind-hack’, as Wallace labels Stoicism, must also require mindfulness to identify thoughts and actions that are within the sphere of choice. Therefore, these three ideas about our thinking, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness and Stoicism, all have significant overlaps which can be leveraged in the classroom through intentional practice. I am energized by this possibility and will have to follow up in the future with specific teaching practices that integrate these ideas and promote positive student behaviors.

Student Focused: Effective teaching through learning centers

The following post was first published in the January edition of BiBimBap, the bimonthly Jeollanamdo, South Korea teachers and foreign residents newsletter.

The Logic of Learning Centers

Learning centers are a constructivist teaching method designed for Pre-K through 3rd grade classrooms, where students engage in self-guided work, either independently or cooperatively, that attends to multiple learning styles and ability levels. The students are split into manageable groups which then rotate through different areas and different activities. The teacher acts as a facilitator, creating different stations or “centers” where groups engage in different activities that will educate and stimulate them. This is a student-centered method wherein teachers provide structure via planning, modeling the activities, and guidance during the center’s rotation. When I think of the Centers Model, what comes to mind is my Montessori pre-school days of rotating between an art activity, making block patterns, and counting hundreds of tiny toy soldiers; but it can be an effective teaching model for many of us, as well.

The Logistics of Learning Centers

Many NET’s in Jeollanamdo teach small groups of students in extra classes after school or work in rural schools where the class sizes are small. Learning centers are ideal for groups of fifteen students or fewer, especially if there is a wide range in ability levels and managing students is a challenge. However, learning centers are also used in large pre-K through 3rd grade classrooms of twenty or more throughout the world.

There is a significant amount of work up front in the form of planning, creating materials, and modeling the activities for each center. You must also practice the rotations, reinforcing the behavior expectations for individuals or pairs at each center and ensuring that centers are accessible to all students while also providing a challenge for those able to do more.

Once you have the learning centers running, you are free to confer with students as they engage in the different activities. You can also take advantage of flexible grouping so that a lower ability level student has a strong peer model to work with at each center.  However, the real benefit of establishing centers is that you, the teacher, become a learning center where you can provide targeted, differentiated, one-on-one (or small group) instruction to help a struggling student or encourage challenging one that is excelling.

The Lowdown on Learning Centers

I have implemented five learning centers with my extra class of ten 3rd grade students. We meet twice a week for 40 minutes, so it took me about one month (or eight classes) to plan, model, practice, and gradually release the students to work in pairs at the five centers. I do not have a co-teacher in my extra class, so clearly and repeatedly modelling both the task and the behavior expectations was essential. I used ClassDojo prodigiously up-front to reinforce both good and bad behaviors that I saw and then wanted to either encourage or snuff out at the centers.

11 Examples of Tiered 3rd Grade English Learning Centers Activities (easy to challenging):

  1. Shapes, Colors and Numbers practice, draw 10 green squares, 9 purple triangles, etc.
  2. Letter/Sound Recognition practice
  3. Spelling practice with a list of three letter words, a whiteboard, a reader and a writer
  4. Vocabulary matching or memory game with word and picture cards
  5. Number Scrolls, students write the word and the number together using a number grid visual aid, the rolled numbers papers become a scroll
  6. Rhyming word practice with ending sound examples, write as many words that rhyme with ‘am’ on the whiteboard or paper as you can think of
  7. Body Parts Labeling using pictures of people and animals
  8. Phonics Sliders, create sliders with all the vowel sounds so students can see and hear the difference between ‘bat, bet, bit, bot and but’ (nat, net, nit, not, nut)
  9. Word Fragments or Sentence Fragments, students have to put the fragments together and categorize them based on key words
  10. Quizbean.com, create a visual vocabulary mastery test on the free online site and create a station at a classroom computer
  11. Buddy reading, provide a level appropriate text for students to take turns reading to each other

Currently, my five centers activities are tiered, meaning they vary in difficulty level for the students, and are fully based off the content we have previously covered in the extra class. During the roll-out, I wanted the content of the centers’ activities to be easily accessible for the students even if the task was new. In this way, I hoped to scaffold their entry into the self-guided pair work and set them up for success.

The centers have been running for almost three weeks now. The students are really responding to them and have their favorite center. They are taking responsibility for their own learning, their own behavior, the clean-up of their center before rotating to the next and they are working well with their partners. The next step is adapting and evolving the centers to respond to the learning growth and interests of the students.

If you would like to see my centers in action, feel free to watch a video of my extra class here:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8Ahbqb_1JzeVHRxSHAxLWhIR2s/view?usp=sharing

If you would like to see an expert teacher implementing and managing learning centers in their classroom, watch this Teaching Channel video here:

https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/classroom-management-guided-reading

Resources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_centers_in_American_elementary_schools

http://www.talesfromoutsidetheclassroom.com/2014/10/using-powerpoint-to-manage-centers.html

http://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200707/OfPrimaryInterest.pdf

http://www.abcteach.com/free/l/learningcenters_rev.pdf

https://www.google.co.kr/?gfe_rd=cr&ei=zMpyVJbhDcGJ8QeG24GgDQ&gws_rd=ssl#newwindow=1&q=classroom+learning+centers+elementary

 

Discipline in Schools: Is This Working?

This American Life, Episode 538: Is This Working?

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/538/is-this-working

This is a really powerful and honest exploration of discipline in schools; what is the purpose, what are the methods, what is working and what is not working. Some of the stories told are all too commonplace, some of them are very unique and tragic situations. However, all of them represent a dilemma or debate in the education community about how we should think about and implement appropriate and effective student discipline methods in schools, and what that may mean for different communities. The show also reflects on the parallels of school discipline policies and those of the criminal justice system.

It starts by surveying a number of middle school teachers on their response to a behavior scenario which has a student refusing to comply with a no hats school policy. There is a wide range of answers from a full-fledged, middle of class conversation, to simple demerit points smoothly integrated into the uninterrupted class content, and even the throwing of a clog!

Elizabeth Green’s book, Building a Better Teacher, is cited in that there are still teacher preparation programs around the nation that do not have a class that covers classroom management and specific behavior management methods. And indeed, there is no best practice that all educators agree upon. In spite of this, yet and still “you kinda have to nail discipline before you do anything else that you want” in the classroom, says Ira Glass.

Here are some of questions and issues they explore:

  • Will the wrong kind of discipline in school screw up children for the rest of their life?
  • Is it appropriate and/or effective to suspend pre-school children?
  • Do the behavior histories of parents in schools repeat with their children?
  • Discipline disproportionality based on race. “Is my black preschooler just another statistic?
  • The-school-to-prison-pipeline
  • Michael Thompson and the Texas student database from 2007-09 that showed that 2 out of 10 black boys in Texas made it through high school without being suspended. Students who were suspended were three times as likely to come in contact with the criminal justice system outside of school.
  • Strict discipline as a management method in high-poverty schools with students who have multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s).
  • The creepy feeling when teachers use hyper-control methods on students and there is little joy and humanity in different school situations.
  • “Do you not get why I am freaking out right now. I am so worried because I see myself and my friends, and some of those people are in prison right now.” -Rousseau Mieze
  • Fear Factor:
  1. Teachers are afraid of losing control
  2. There is a fear students will not develop self-control
  • Restorative Justice: a mediation that tries to restore the harm done by the crime. This comes from the criminal justice system, where they bring offenders and victims together to talk about the crime and attempt to restore justice somehow.
  1. Lyons Community School
  2. Talking circles to resolve conflicts, “talking is how you are successful” ie thorough communication.
  3. A long-term investigation of student actions and words goes along with the long-term project of each student “Being Lyonized”. Talk, exploration, reflection and cognitive behavior therapy.
  4. The Plain-Clothes Cop on the Train story, restorative justice between an angered cop and a group of 9th grade Lyons students, whoa!
  • “What is the point of punishment in school? Is it to teach self-control? To get kids to be quiet so that learning can happen? To prepare children to function as grown-ups in the world? To teach them how to avoid being arrested?”
  • “Removed from the community” is the term they use at the end of the show to refer to the parallels between suspension and prison as our standard social punishments.

For me, the comments of Rousseau Mieze on hyper-control methods rang most true. In my second year as a bilingual instructional assistant in a Title I Seattle public school, I was aware of my calling to the teaching profession and spent some of professional development hours observing the experienced and innovative teachers in my building.

I spent one half-day in the classroom of a teacher who was new to the building and district, having moved from Los Angeles after working for more than 20 years in inner-city schools there. She was nice as pie in the staff lounge, one of my favorite teachers to chat with about students, teaching and life. In the classroom, however, she was not to be trifled with, even as a fellow staff member I felt on-edge about my performance based on her expectations in her classroom.

I distinctly remember the feeling of a community-building activity that she seemed to be ramming down her 5th graders throats that day. The students were in a big standing circle tossing a ball to their peers and practicing giving “put-ups” as opposed to put-downs to their fellow classmates. This activity was viscerally awkward and disingenuous at times, and yet the teacher was strident that all the students complete the activity no matter how fake it felt. I distinctly remember walking away from that half-day observation wondering if I had to be such a strict and demanding task-master in order to teach these diverse students of color and lesser economic means? It didn’t feel good to me. It was not inspiring. But, as I saw throughout the school year, this teacher was highly effective in building relationships with the most recalcitrant students, bringing up the reading levels of her lowest ability-level students, modifying bad behaviors, reinforcing good habits and maintaining high expectations. This woman was a pro and she knew what her students needed and she gave it to them whether it was bad tasting medicine or not.

Like Rousseau Mieze, I find it a bit disconcerting to find yourself in the position of holding young people to such strict discipline standards. As a person who has had their fair share of discipline issues in school, it is not fair that certain young people have a shorter leash and a greater potential for consequences than I did as a white male student. Yet, the fact remains, that Mieze and I both have friends who have gone to prison because of self-control issues in their youth. Discipline is definitely important in all classrooms, but it appears to be eminently critical in certain schools and classrooms. Suspensions and the disproportionality issue have to change, but not at the expense of this uncomfortable bit of current reality.

What’s all the fuss about ClassDojo?

Make sure to read the comments section of this post on the pros and cons of ClassDojo. The conversation is a good one!

And here is ClassDojo’s official response to The New York Times article:

https://www.classdojo.com/nyt

Lehrer Werkstatt

Recently the New York Times published an article bashing an app for education called ClassDojo.  I was quite shocked at the negative tone in the article.  Teachers were being accused of releasing harmful data about children into the universe.  The app was being accused of making money on advertising, even though I’ve never seen advertising on their site.  Basically, teachers were being accused of openly shaming students into being good.

Bottom line, a good app does not a good teacher make.  As with any app or with any use of positive feedback, things can go wrong.  Teachers can abuse students using discipline programs that were created to promote a more positive classroom atmosphere.  If you are not good at controlling your students, if you don’t have a positive relationship with your young scholars, a fancy app is not going to help you become a better teacher.

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