Sunday, October 12, 2008

Facing the Challenges of Learning New Ways

I've been working on a very important speech. It's been keeping me up at night. I've been thinking about it in the car. And while running. Even in the shower. 
No, I'm not presenting at an EdTech conference. Nor am I addressing the PTA. 
The words for which I am searching are to be spoken to none other than a very small (12 students) but challenging 5th grade class. 

I have had challenging classes before, and I can only hope that I have continued to grow and learn as a teacher. Funny how that doesn't really make it any easier. 
This isn't even "my" class.  
Here's the situation: As I mentioned previously, I am working with the 5th grade class on the Meet the Candidates webquest. The kids are required to work together in small groups to create a political ad. There's a high level of interest in the project. They are motivated and excited. 
The problem? They are finding themselves unable to work together productively. There have been tears, arguments, and me having to intervene with small groups as well as sit and "process" with the larger group. Friday was the most difficult day so far.
I thought, based on MY experience as a teacher and the groups I have led in the past, that I could lead any groups to success. Did I say that there are ONLY 12 students in the class?

I am humbled. Challenged. Learning IS messy, isn't it?

What I see here is, I believe, the failure of years of schooling that was based on worksheets and workbooks, the individual pursuit of academic skill-building taking precedence over the skills of collaboration and community building. 
The 5th grade classroom teacher is great. She is open to all ideas, discussion, suggestion. I think, if nothing else, she and I are a model for the students as they watch the way we collaborate. 
We discussed the problems over emails this weekend. Should we allow only some students to work on the project? She says that this is what the kids want. They feel that the school should do something about the kids who misbehave. We (the adults) are all talk and no action. 

I thought about it.
I thought about the "misbehavior." It really isn't misbehavior. It is that they DON'T KNOW HOW TO WORK TOGETHER. THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN REQUIRED TO WORK IN GROUPS. THEY HAVE NOT BEEN TAUGHT. Because it's FLIPPIN' HARD! It would be so easy to let this project melt into dust, to "babysit" them in the computer lab, give easy assignments and let them play games. SO. MUCH. EASIER. 
But sometimes learning involves struggle. And what kind of message would I be giving them if I gave up on them just cause it's hard for me to watch them struggle?

I am going to talk to them tomorrow, and I am searching for the words to say. I think I will start by sharing this quote I read in David Warlick's "Open Letter to the Next President" in Tech&Learning Magazine: 
"The real problems of the world are not problems of science and math. They are problems of communication, people, communities and values."
If I had my way, and I mean this, I would throw out all the grades and the other stuff that school has become. I would focus all of my energy on the community, on teaching them to compromise, discuss, value one another, understand the other person's point of view, work together. 
I thought it somewhat ironic that Friday was such a difficult day. Our school is a Jewish Day School, and Thursday was the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Of course, I don't really expect 5th graders to understand the idea of atonement. But I think they can comprehend the fact that none of us are perfect, that each of us can improve ourselves. 
That, as I see it, is the hardest part. I think that each one of them thinks that someone else is the problem. They aren't really willing or able to see their own role. So, as I was saying,  the teacher suggested that maybe a solution was to take certain kids off the project. That way the other kids, the ones who have an easier time getting along, don't have to lose out on the opportunity to create the video, the most motivating part of the lesson for them. 

And I thought about it. A lot. 

I have concluded that that is not the best solution. We are studying a presidential election. It is emotional and can be very divisive. But we will all have to live with the results of the election. If the candidate I am supporting does not win, I anticipate having to suffer based on what, in my opinion, are the poor choices made by others. This is part of life in a democracy.
And I guess that I believe that this is part of life in school. I am going to try my hardest to work with the kids, to express myself, to help them learn the difficult skills of navigating life on earth with so many other human beings. If we fail to make our videos, we will fail together. I think we will succeed. But the most important thing is that we learn something. 
Wish us luck.


Anonymous said...

You make great points here, and I'm glad you aren't going to take the more "difficult" students out of the group. They all need to learn how to work together. In my opinion, this is not just isolated to students. I've seen many examples of teachers and other professionals in so-called "PLCs" that are not functional because they don't know how to work in collaborative groups. It's the structures and processes that are sorely lacking. Bravo to you and your partner teachers--it's not easy, but I hope you stay with this experiment!

Andrea said...

thanks for the comment. I agree with you that we all have difficulty working collaboratively. I struggle with it almost daily! How do we create structures and processes to help us deal with "difficult" personalities? It's tough. We really can only continue to try to work on ourselves. That is part of what I told the kids today. You can't control someone else, only yourself.
I really like that you called this an "experiment." I need to think more like that. Experiment is an opportunity to try things and learn. It makes me feel more free to learn from whatever occurs rather than feeling that if things don't go a certain way I have failed.

MJ said...

I'm so glad there are teachers like you out there, who are intelligent enough to spot the real issues and brave enough to tackle the problems.

I think this quote, from you, could also be a good thing to tell them "If the candidate I am supporting does not win, I anticipate having to suffer based on what, in my opinion, are the poor choices made by others. This is part of life in a democracy.", perhaps with an invitation to a discussion about popular opinion and majority decisions.

Andrea said...

thanks for your kind words and encouragement. I did talk to them about the the comparison to living in a democracy. In fact, I printed out my blog post and used it as an outline for the talk. It has been going really well since then. I am planning to write another post updating what is happening.

MJ said...

I look forward to reading it; I'm sure there will be something in there that I can remember in case I face a difficult teamwork situation in the office.

Anonymous said...

Good job. It is NOT the best solution. It is allowing kids to stay within their zones of habit - the comfort zones from within which little learning happens.

I am having the same issues with my grade 11 students. Also a small group - 15. The ones who do work well in groups tend to stick with the same group of kids...leading me to think they work well with those kids, not necessarily well in groups. I have 2 who outright refuse to do group work. Grade 11 is a tough year to try some change - it's their last year in high school and they've got their eyes on leaving, not on new ways of learning.

I have a lot of work to do.

I like how you model collaboration with the class teacher. I think I need to bring another teacher into the classroom with me so I can do the same.

I love the Warlick quote. I think I'll nab it from you!