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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 07 2013

Finding what works

What does work look like?  To some teachers, it’s the sound of pencils quietly scratching on paper and students breathing.  I have tried my best to get there and it just isn’t going to happen.  But I’ve made a discovery.  This particular group of students this year works while they’re talking and laughing.  I know that sounds crazy, but it’s the truth.  I used to rant and scold and skulk around the room trying to get them to be quiet, becoming increasingly frustrated as I did.  Over the past few weeks, it dawned on me that silence might actually be bothering them.

Ruby Payne’s “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” came to mind recently while I was being reflective.  I considered that silence might be so alien to my students’ lives that it might actually make them uncomfortable.  With that in mind, I decided to try an experiment.  After a reading segment, I introduced the writing prompt.  I told them they could generate their evidence with a partner, but they had to produce their own essay.  During that time, I decided I would let them set their own volume level.  I circulated around the room offering assistance and giving gentle nudges to those who were having trouble getting started.  The room became fairly noisy–more noisy than I would like it–but I let it continue so long as it didn’t get out-of-control.  The level of chatter got right up to my maximum level of discomfort, but I tried to hold back.  I called out some time reminders so students knew where they stood as the period drew to a close.  At the end of the time, I had an in-basket full of papers.  Most of the time, almost half the students would have just sat there doing nothing.  This time, I only had a couple of hardcore do-nothings.

I was impressed.  I have tried it several times now and I’m amazed.  The kids are working better than they have all year.  They still have a long way to go quality-wise, but a lot more of them are turning in work than before.  I can only conclude that they are much more comfortable with what seems to be calamity than I am.  In the midst of the clamor, they are working, whereas just weeks ago, in forced, sullen silence, they were resisting and fighting me.  I guess silence just isn’t a part of their lives; they don’t feel comfortable with it.

I guess the lesson is to go with what works, rather than trying to impose what we think is best.  It’s a different world for them than it was for me.

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YOTFAO BACTAG = You only teach for America once, but always challenge the achievement gap.

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