Friday, March 29, 2013

Year 3: Week 26 - The Reactions

One of the challenges of teaching is trying to figure out how your students feel about things that are happening in class. I don’t need to know whether or not they like everything that I’m doing in class but it’s helpful. Being able to tell when a student is upset about something is even more crucial.

One of the things that I enjoy about my 3rd graders is that they are pretty easy to read. When they are excited about a song we are learning, they sit-up, smile at me and I can see the excitement in their eyes. When they don’t like something we are doing they will avoid eye contact, slouch and engage in distracting behavior.

For most of these kids, I can tell what’s going on with them because they don’t try to hide it. I do have students every year who are less comfortable with their self-expression and are harder to read but in general, 3rd graders pretty clearly show you how they feel.

Middle school students are a whole different game. They can sit there and give you the exactly same expression and posture when they are hating an activity or having the time of their life. " Grouchy-annoyed" face doesn’t necessarily mean that they are annoyed and "exuberant-happy" face could very well be sarcasm and not genuine excitement.

This can get confusing and can make working with middle school kids a baffling proposition. Because of the nature of middle school students you have to look for different things besides their facial expression to gauge their excitement and interest. Are they participating in class? When you ask them to do something are they complying? Even if they are whining, if they are still doing the work well, then they probably don’t hate what’s going on in class.

There’s a couple other things you can try. When a student was whining about being in band class I asked him, “are complaining because you are whining or because you actually don’t want to be here.” He responded, “I’m just whining, I’m cool being in band.” So after reassuring him that if it was a valid complaint that I did indeed want to hear, it we got back to work and I completely ignored his whining.

There's another piece with middle school students that can lead to more authentic reactions.  Like adults middle school students try to be a certain kind of person.  Many of their actions stem from insecurity.  If they show that they like something too much they may be considered a dork.  If you can create a classroom atmosphere where students feel safe enough that they stop trying to be someone and are simply themselves, you see many more genuine reactions. 

This is a hard place to get to that I've only reached with a couple classes of students.  It takes a lot of trust building, some very specific conversations and a great deal of energy from the teacher.  You have to make them believe that you really got their back and that in your classroom they have nothing to fear.

The bottom line is that you have to get to know your students as people.  Celebrate their hopes, their interests and their feelings.  Don't ever tell a students that what they are feeling is not valid.  Always give them the benefit of the doubt and never hesitate to tell a student how much you believe in them.  Above all else, listen, really listen to what the students are saying.

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