Ideas & Answers

March 16, 2013

I get called arrogant kind of a lot. When I ask those who know me well about the issue, they note that I am a bold & confident person (no disagreement). Then, they usually cite some interaction they had with me in the past in which I was very receptive to feedback or perhaps even explicitly admitted being wrong (something I am quite a lot) as evidence that I am not arrogant. So, I’ve been reflecting on this a bit (you know, cause getting insulted isn’t fun).

I think I’ve come to a conclusion. I view the world in ideas rather than answers. When someone asks me a question I almost always have an idea (so do you), but not necessarily an answer. However, I wonder if people hear my ideas as answers? (Thus inferring that I “have an answer for everything”).

Now I’m left trying to figure out how to help those I communicate with understand that I am proposing ideas rather than stating answers. I believe this will be more daunting than it seems. For example, if I give up on my ideas too easily, then they won’t be fully explored. That is, if we give up on ideas because we don’t want to seem arrogant, then the idea seems weak because of our fortitude rather than weakness inherent to the idea. If an idea is weak, we should abandon it, but we should not abandon an idea because of any trait of the proposer (good or bad).


While I could respond more often with, “I don’t know”, I don’t think such a response gets us anywhere. Perhaps I could say, “I don’t know, but here’s an idea…”, or maybe I’ll just ask more questions.

I wonder if I view other people’s answers as ideas? I suspect I do as I rarely take someone’s word for something. So how do I continue wrestling with someone else’s idea while helping them realize I value their idea?

While writing this post, one thought kept popping up, “why should I have to change, shouldn’t other people just be more self-confident & recognize the value of ideas over answers?” Yet, I know this is an emotional response & I can only control what I say & how I say it, not how others interpret what is said. Sometimes it might be easier to just not talk at all.


* The follow was edited out to avoid misinterpretation: “This makes me think of Christ – the embodiment of humility, yet filled with fortitude, & even a bit of certainty.”  When I wrote that sentence, I was not at all comparing myself to Christ.  Instead, I was noting how thinking about the fine line between humility & arrogance made me think *about* Christ. How is it that he was able to be known as so humble, yet consistently told people they were wrong (& with authority)?

Student Participation

October 4, 2012

Today in my Ed Psych course I asked, “Why do we want students to participate in class?” The preservice teachers easily acknowledged that increased participation likely leads to increased mental engagement & having students hear ideas of other students has clear benefits concerning the language accessibility of the exchanges. I then asked, “What things can a teacher do to discourage/encourage participation?” While there are obvious answers, I think one of the more nuanced ideas related to valuing student ideas. When exploring this, we noted that teachers need to flexibly use student ideas, but doing so requires a very well developed pedagogical content knowledge. Leave a comment sharing how you encourage your students to participate in class discussion or other activities?

Emotional sink of teaching

May 17, 2011

This semester I had all assignments be “learning experiences”.  That is, the assignments were not graded in the traditional sense.  When the students turned in assignments (often self created) I provided extensive feedback for them to consider as they continue to learn.  Then, four times throughout the semester I met with each student individually to discuss what they’d learned so far and what they could continue to work on.  During these meetings I helped students become more and more adept at self-assessing.  Their final grade was self-assigned.

Why was this emotionally draining?  Well, to start, this took an unbelievable amount of time.  I was still providing feedback on all of the assignments as well as meeting with every student for 1/2 hour (sometimes more) at four different times throughout the semester.  Also, the students fought me on this almost the entire time.  Some students claimed this assessment to be “inappropriate”, others thought I was being unfair, and still others thought they could better write about their understanding, rather than verbalize it (newsflash, you can’t).  Additionally, these meetings themselves were emotionally draining experiences.  Several students broke down, others simply shut down.  The verbal and mental finesse I had to use at times seemed mind boggling.

I am confident beyond any percentage that the students learned more this semester than last.  But how long can this last?

First, do no harm.

May 5, 2011

Reputations happen.

I usually develop a reputation for having a frustrating/difficult class.  Some recognize that they learn a lot.

When I’m asked about why I choose assignments, activities, and assessments that are frustrating, I respond with two points:

1) Learning sometimes involves modifying deeply held beliefs.  Making sense of complexity, paradox, and nuance is not straight-forward.  Reinforcement of established beliefs is easy, but learning is frustrating.

2) When parents discipline their children, the children do not like it.  Yet, parents continue to discipline because they believe the discipline is good for the child.*  I know students might not like certain aspects of my course, but I hope they know that I have their best interests at heart. **


*I know this could be used to defend all sorts of atrocities,

but this is where paradox and nuance enter the equation.

**Perhaps when we only worry about what kids “like” we

do more harm than good.

Tech effect

May 4, 2011

I was walking past a classroom at 10:51 am.  Their were three students sitting in the room, near each other, I paused and observed.

Not a word was spoken.

I went on my way and discussed a few things with a colleague and then headed back to my office (I usually follow up emails with a face-to-face visit).  At 10:57 I walked past the same room.  Now there were about 8 students in the room.  I paused and observed.

Not a word was spoken.

This is the last week of the semester.  These people have had class together all semester.  This is not an issue of shyness.  They were gathering to meet for a class at 11:00 and they were not present.  They were somewhere else.  Each student had a device in use: laptops, cell phones, iPads.

Not a word was spoken.

Some thoughts on praise

May 3, 2011

I address the issue of praise each semester with my methods students.  I usually use questions (surprising, I know) to encourage the preservice teachers to consider praise from a different perspective.


Why do we praise kids?

Many people say they want to help kids build self confidence.  We want students to feel good about themselves.

What does it mean to be self-confident?

I encourage the reader to think about this question.

In what way might external validation in the form of praise undermine self-confidence?

This is where many of the preservice teachers kind of say, “huh?”.  Rightfully so.  I’m not saying praising kids will cause them to be less self-confident, but that what we really want for kids is to have internal confidence and not rely on the praise of others to maintain their sense of self worth.

When thinking about typical praise,  I hear “Great job!” or “That’s right!” or “way to go!”.  Kids very quickly figure out how meaningless this praise is.  Those that don’t come to rely on the mini-treats like a salivating dog.


If we want kids to learn the cause of the moon phases we know that simply telling them about the phases is ineffective.  If we want kids to modify their self image, why would we think simply telling them “good job” would suffice?

Quick to forgive.

November 17, 2010

There are lots of things we get better at as we get older.  I think it is unfortunately that most all of us get better at holding a grudge.  I offended my middle school students often but I always admired their ability to forgive so quickly.  And they truly forgot.  Not in the sense that they were unintelligent or didn’t actually remember – I mean they never brought it up again except in humor.

I learned a lot from them.

I miss them dearly.

Calling home? Ask questions first.

August 16, 2010

April’s grade was falling. April was acting out in class. April was withdrawn when I spoke to her individually.

This was not normal for April.

When I first met April, she was funny, outgoing, and got along well with most everyone. I liked her immediately. When February came around and April began to change, I tried several times to speak with her about what might be bothering her, but wasn’t getting anywhere. I decided to call home.

When I called, I told April’s mother that April’s grade was slipping and her attitude in class was not appropriate. Her mother interrupted me saying, “the miscarriage has really gotten her down lately”.


“I’m sorry, I had no idea she was dealing with such a tragedy.”
She informed me that the school counselor had been informed and was supposed to inform her teachers.

Didn’t you get the memo?

Needless to say, I had a much better understanding of the changes April was exhibiting. I also had very different concerns for her.

From then on, whenever calling home I have asked, “How has ______ been doing lately?”

About a Girl (part 2)

July 29, 2010

When Araceli came in after school, I asked her to sit down at a table with me so we could talk.  I began by explaining that I understood she did not like my class, but that we had to come up with a way that we could get along.  I made clear that she did not have to like me or my class, but we had to be able to work together so that I could effectively teach and she could learn.

After I explained my goal, she tried to get me to argue with her again saying, “I’m never gonna like your class.”  I simply repeated what I had said about her not needing to like my class, but that we had to work out a way that we could work together.  She then said, “I knew I wasn’t gonna like your class already last year, there’s no way I’m gonna like this class.”

I found her statement to be odd and figured I would investigate.  “How could you have known you wouldn’t like my class as a 7th grader?”

“Cause you said you didn’t want me in your class.”

Shocked and utterly confused I asked for clarification.

“One time in Friday Night School (that is our school’s “breakfast club” that I volunteer for) you said you didn’t want me in your class.”

Still confused I asked, “What made me say that? Could you give me some more details?”

She described how she was not working on her homework and when I asked her to work on it, she refused and said it is too hard.  To this I replied that she was not trying and if she was not willing to try, I would not want her in my class next year.

Now, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of her recollection, but it didn’t matter.  This girl had been hurt by something I had said…so much so that it stuck with her until the following school year.

I thought for a minute and said, “Araceli, I can believe that I said that.  You and I both know that Friday Night School is different than a regular classroom and I didn’t know you then like I know you now.  I apologize for saying something that made you believe I did not want you in my class. I hope we can start over.”

She remained silent for a few seconds.

“I hope you know that I am willing to work with any student who is in my class and I really enjoyed your contribution to class at the beginning of the year, but now I don’t see that any more.  What can I do to help you get into class again?”

At this point Araceli was pretty withdrawn.  I would not be surprised if this was the first time a teacher apologized to her and then went on to ask what they can do to help her.  Her defenses were certainly down, and I could tell she didn’t really know what to do.

After a few back-and-forths, she brought up the event from last year’s Friday Night School as an excuse not to get involved in class.  At this point I had to make clear that I had apologized and that at some point she will need to forgive me for what I said and focus on the present.  I am not able to go back and undo what I said, all I can do is apologize and do my best not to repeat my mistakes.  To this explanation, Araceli responded positively and indicated that she would try harder in class.  She also gave me some ways I could help her participate and her perceptions of the classroom dynamic including students I seemed to ignore and favor.  I thanked her for her ideas and promised to work on the suggestions.

Once we had resolved our conflict, I decided to try to get to know Araceli better.  The resulting conversation would make clear that school life was low on her list of concerns.  After getting to know her better, I was very disappointed by how her 8th grade year ended in our school.

Now, in the words of Back to the Future part 2: “To be Concluded…”  :)

About a girl (part 1)

July 22, 2010

In the language of my middle school students: I <3 Nirvana.   :)

I also really like John Spencer.  He has inspired me on several occasion. This post is an attempt to tell a better story.  I hope you like it.  I am brought near to tears every time I think of Araceli.

Araceli is a loud, disrespectful, bilingual 8th grader.  Her reputation preceded her in our school and I had her in 7th period science.  I usually get along better than most with “problem” students and had no reason to believe Araceli would be any different.

During the first weeks of school Araceli was not a problem in my class…she wasn’t much of anything in my class.  She sat in the back of the room with Tatyana and the two seemed to get along well.  Neither participated much in class and were off-task from time to time, but simply looking their direction or moving toward them was enough for them to get back on task (or at least appear to do so :) ).

The few times she did contribute to class discussion, her insight was profound.  I decided to talk with her privately about getting more involved with class discussion.  “Araceli, I really like the things you say in class, why don’t you participate very often?”  With disdain, Araceli replied “I don’t feel like it.”  “I hope you’ll share your ideas more often, I think the other students in class will really benefit from what you have to say” was all I could muster.  I could tell she was uncomfortable and didn’t want to push her any further.  I assumed she was not used to being spoken to by a teacher, in private, except when she was being reprimanded.

Over the next few weeks, I noticed a sharp decline in Araceli’s attitude.  She and Tatyana were now off-task more often and she was showing up late to class.  Her general demeanor toward me seemed to have plummeted quickly as well.  I was troubled and when talking to other teachers, the things she was doing in my class had been par for the course in their classes up until this point.  Apparently, the honeymoon was over.

I decided to keep Araceli after school one day to discuss these issues.  I let her know that I would like to see her after school and she blatantly exclaimed that she would not be coming.  Near the end of the school day, I made my way over to her last class period room and asked her to come with me to my room. Grudgingly, she did.  When we got to my room I asked, “What’s up? Why have you displayed such a negative behavior in my classroom lately?  I do not want to attempt to further replicate the dialogue, but it quickly became a shouting match between her and me.  Yes, I stooped.  I stooped way down.  At one point I stopped the argument when I realized that shouting was her goal.  She was enjoying the exchange.  She may not have had a better way to communicate feelings of frustration.  I decided to let her leave and said, “I hope to see our relationship improve” to which she replied as she ran out the door “I doubt it”.

Her behavior continued to escalate.  She continued to be late, she was off-task nearly 90% of the time, and her in class outbursts disrupted the entire class regularly.  I again went to her last period class and asked her to come talk with me again.  She came to my room, but immediately tried to get me to join a shouting match again.  This time I was able to resist, but she continued to push and complain that she had to leave.  I told her that if she walked out on me, she was choosing to have the matter turned over to the office (she was very familiar with both the principal and the assistant principal).  She walked out and I (slamming my classroom door) went to the office to fill out my first ever referral.

While filling out the appropriate paperwork I entered into a discussion with our in school suspension supervisor and the assistant principal.  They tried to reassure me that what I had done so far was fair and that I was taking the appropriate action.  Yet, I disagreed and returned to my classroom, referral sheet in hand.  I decided I would try one more time.

The next day I asked Araceli to come in after school to talk.  I explained that she did not need to come, but that I simply wanted to talk with her.

(To be continued….)


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