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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Class You Dread

One of my classes is normally the lowlight of my day. It's full of generally well-behaved and capable kids. But something about the chemistry is terrible. I hate it. They hate it. We all feel like we are grimly marching to the bell. Eyes are rolled. Sighs are sighed. Comments are muttered under the breath.

Something had to be done.

I talked over the situation with a school psychologist friend for a good hour. Many people only see school psychologists in their role working with learning disabled students, but helping teachers problem-solve in their classroom is under their umbrella as well. I didn't want to take stabs in the dark with this group. A failed attempt would have been worse than no attempt at all. I wanted a professional to endorse the plan.

There were a few little things first. I changed the seating chart, to jostle them out of their habits. I papered over the little window in the classroom door, which is a frequent distraction (there is some little punk who likes to stand out there that period and make faces or something). I gave them a little speech about our goals, their futures, and positive learning environments and the behaviors I saw that indicated their attitudes were all that positive.

The big "intervention" (the psychologist's word of choice these days, it seems) was: Each day before class, I write on the whiteboard the list of the problem numbers assigned for homework that night. While class is going on, I am looking for positive learning behaviors (taking out materials without being asked, attempting practice problems, volunteering to answer questions, asking questions, etc). If all goes well for 5-10 minutes, I quietly X out one of the homework problems. By the end of the period they may have 3 or 4 less problems to do that night.

If you are savvy to basic behavioral psychology, you'll recognize this as negative reinforcement. In a nutshell, removing an undesirable consequence in order to promote good behavior. Which, psychologist friend informs me, research has shown to be more effective than punishment or positive reinforcement.

It's also a random and variable reinforcement interval. I didn't tell the students I'd delete a homework problem exactly every 5 minutes, for example. The intervals will change and be unpredictable. Also promoted by research.

He used a bunch of other big words that I don't remember.

He warned me that I would have to stick with it for a while. The kids didn't trust it at first. They wanted to know what the catch was. They were sure they'd have to do the deleted problems later, or something. They wanted to be the ones to choose the problem to delete. They also tried to start arguing with me about when they deserved a deletion. All of this has taken some time.

But it's been pretty painless. And, the environment in the classroom has certainly improved. More kids are contributing more often, kids are more willing to engage, and I don't dread going to this class anymore.