Thursday, September 23, 2010

Alfie Kohn- I Need You

About a week ago, Alfie Kohn tweeted a new article “Schools would be great if it weren’t for the kids” that he composed in response to a previous article written by Robert J. Samuelson. Samuelson placed much of the blame for the lack of success in schools on the students, and Kohn took issue. Kohn explains:

People who blame students for not being “motivated” tend to think educational success means little more than higher scores on bad tests and they’re apt to see education itself as a means to making sure our corporations will beat their corporations. The sort of schooling that results is the type almost guaranteed to . . . kill students’ motivation.

What may look like simple apathy, laziness, or opposition on the part of kids often reflects a problem with what, and how, they’re being taught, or the extent to which they’ve been excluded from the process of making decisions about their own learning.

Conversely, if you want to see (intrinsically) motivated kids, you need to visit classrooms or schools that take a nontraditional approach to education, places where students are more likely to be absorbed and frequently delighted, where what they’re doing is not merely “rigorous” (a word often applied to very difficult busywork) but meaningful.

Those who presume to weigh in on problems with education should visit schools that look very different from the ones that most of us attended -- and even more different from the chillingly militaristic places that rich white people cheerfully recommend for poor black children. Read Dewey, Piaget, Bruner, and Montessori.

Read the contemporary giants: Meier, Sizer, Goodlad. Read other educators who are thoughtful about what great classrooms look like and how to create them: Lilian Katz, Eleanor Duckworth, Constance Kamii, Harvey Daniels, Nancie Atwell, Jackie and Marty Brooks, Jim Beane, Steven Wolk, and many more.

I want to preface what I am about to say with how much I respect and value Kohn’s work in education. I have read his books, follow him on Twitter, and appreciate his information regarding how to change education. But, I wish he could come into my classroom, and work with my kids, and deal with the constraints, and challenges of a public school. (See new standards post)

I see myself somewhere between the two positions: I see that my students aren’t to blame for my inadequacies as a teacher- if I am not excited, motivated and passionate about what I am teaching, then they shouldn’t be either. If I don’t provide sufficient resources for them to not just meet their expectations, learning and understanding, then they can’t turn in their work. If I am not challenging them, being open for their feedback, or am placing too high of expectations on them, then they can’t succeed. If I don’t fully explain assignments or requirements, then they can’t learn. If I can’t provide a safe, secure, supportive learning environment with extensive resources, then they can’t flourish.


What if I am doing all those things, and the kids still aren’t doing the work, turning in assignments, being engaged, motivated, succeeding, and flourishing? When do the kids take some of the responsibility for their learning? When are they supposed to accept responsibility for their half of education? When do they get to be held accountable as teachers are?

As I have previously written, my all boys class continues to be one of my favorites as well as one of the most challenging for me. With my reading of Kohn’s article, and my belief in what he advocates for, I am left wondering how to change my class? As we are working on writing their first essay, we spent one full class just outlining an essay. On Thursday night, their homework was to follow the examples and write their own outline of their paper to bring to class on Friday. On Friday, we took those outlines and started writing the intro paragraph in class. Over the weekend, they were to finish writing their essay for Monday so that we could peer edit their essay before its due date on Wednesday. NINE kids had it completed. So, at the end of class on Monday, I asked how many would prefer another peer editing day so more kids could receive some feedback before their final piece was turned in. Unanimously the class all voted for another day. Before the kids left, I reminded them that all would need to bring a piece for editing tomorrow. Of the 33 boys in the class, only EIGHT had a piece the next day ready to edit. Why? Because as they admitted, they didn’t do their homework.

I wonder what it is going to take to change the state of “work completion” in my class. I don’t accept mediocrity for my students and so I return any work that isn’t satisfactory. They HAVE TO turn in quality work. Is this too much to ask? I don’t think I assign work that is simple completion assignments or mere regurgitation. Also ,I don’t assign work that is meaningless and without purpose. I feel like what I am doing in classroom is meaningful and engaging, but I still don’t see kids completing simple assignments- writing a paragraph, posting a topic sentence, completing a vocab card, adding a vocab word to a piece of writing, etc… My classroom, definitely as Kohn points out, “looks different” from others, and yet I still can’t kids to complete work. My boys have the six week period as the grade deadline and so much of what we do in class is paced by each student not by me. My classroom does a number of untraditional assignments (blogging, Google Earth, podcasts, reading more boy centered literature). We use laptops each day to help my boys write. We don’t do book reports instead we do PLNs. Are my boys too overscheduled in their academic careers to be successful? Are they too unscheduled outside of school to be successful? I don’t even think it is a question of can they do it? I think it is simply some won’t do it. Maybe there are more kids who lack basic technology skills? I am pretty sure we have 8th grade competencies they need to meet, but if they don’t, what’s the consequence? What is going to happen to these kids who still don’t know how to post to their own blog? Who can’t proofread something before they post it online? Who can’t comment properly to another blog? Is this a problem because of the hour I teach the class- 7:21 am – 8:19 am?

Maybe I need to revisit the purpose of why it is important to read critically, write effectively and speak eloquently? As I realized only eight had completed their homework, I was angry. I gave them a very serious talk about how they want to live their lives and was this the kind of behavior that will get them into a college, a job, let them keep a job, or move up in this world? Is this who they want to be?

I have read Dewey, Piaget, Montessori, and I have studied the classrooms of Atwell and Daniels. So Mr. Kohn, at what point do I get to hold the students responsible as I am held responsible? At what point to do they accept and are held accountable for their part in changing education? Mr. Kohn, maybe you want to take a visit to Littleton, CO and come help me out- I am sure my students and I would thanks you for it. Also, I think there are a number of teachers and students here who would love the conversation and learning adventure.


Anonymous said...

Hi Anne,
First of all, it seems to me that 7:21 is a very bad hour to schedule a writing class for 9th grade boys whom especially for ones as you noted in another post who dislike writing.

I, like you appreciate and concur with the thoughts of Alfie Kohn. I know that you are thoughtful and accomplished and that your classroom is different. And I remember painfully similar experiences in my classroom. So I hope it’s ok to offer some thoughts here— thoughts predicated on the premise that students should be taking responsibility.

I’m wondering if youngsters by the time they reach high school have played the game of school so long and it’s become so engrained, that it takes far more time than we might imagine for them to have the courage to take responsibility for learning in the ways we’d like to see, if some of this is fear.

I’m wondering if youngsters who dislike writing might be those for whom it is so difficult, for those with no self confidence to just not do it. That way no one, not their classmates, not their teacher, sees their inadequacies. I haven’t picked up from your posts, is there a sense in the school that being in the all boys class is a stigma?

I’m wondering what their response might be if you asked them (and likely you’ve already done this) why they were not writing, not completing homework and what as a group/individuals they should/can do to change this and why they should. Could that kind of discussion be helpful?

Is Carol Dweck’s work on mindset and attribution of value to this discussion?

Might it make a difference if they knew they had an audience on their blog? That’s one thing that had an enormous impact on my students and their learning. Another class or some mentors? If you think it would be of value, I’m happy to spend some time interacting in the comments?

I’d enjoy a conversation with Alphie Kohn, you and your colleagues too for I think the issue you’ve shared is common, is troubling, and together we could collectively come up with better ideas that would help our students.

Lots of rambling here, not focused I fear,

Anonymous said...

So sorry about the very jumbled bad first sentence which I hoped would say: First of all, it seems to me that 7:21 is a very bad hour to schedule a writing class for 9th grade boys, especially for those as you noted in another post who dislike writing. I think I've got it this time--

Jerry Heverly said...

It's amazing how similar your procedures are to mine. I teach in a computer lab instead of using laptops but that't the only real difference. I assign writing work and they do it until I'm satisfied it's done. It's either 100% or incomplete--an idea I got from Kohn. BTW I 'sort of' had a conversation with Kohn about these issues: it was on the Wash Post website: . Check it out.
Jerry Heverly, San Leandro CA

annes said...

As always, your feedback is so very much appreciated. As Karl and I have been discussing my growing frustration, he echoed similar thoughts that you have put forth regarding the kids being used to "playing the game of school." I know it will take time to change this mentality, but I wonder if some of it is a maturity issue as well.

I do agree that many of the boys struggle in writing, or feel as though it is acceptable to just turn in poor quality work- they are kids that are satisfied with a D, which of course they can't get in my class. I am trying new venues with writing so it doesn't involve handwriting (but their typing skills aren't the best anyway), the ability to rewrite work, to blog, use Google Earth, podcasts, etc…

As far as Carol Dweck, I haven’t heard of her so anything you can suggest I would appreciate!

We are having a conversation on Monday since today, Friday, is their last day to turn in make-up work or any missing assignments. I want them to see their grade, to think back over the first six weeks, and set some goals for the next six weeks on what is going to make the difference, what aren’t they going to do again, and how can I help them achieve.

On a side note, I am hoping that Alfie will have that conversation with me, and with all those who are interested in teaching and learning looking different. We need to have more conversations!
Once again, Lani, thanks for the support and feedback! It is so valuable and appreciated!

annes said...

Jerry- thanks for the link to your article. I do agree that we seem to be struggling with the same issues, so there has to be some change we can make to help kids become better versions of themselves, to realize they are capable of more.


Scott McLeod said...

A few thoughts...

1) You say, "I don’t assign work that is meaningless and without purpose. I feel like what I am doing in classroom is meaningful and engaging, but I still don’t see kids completing simple assignments- writing a paragraph, posting a topic sentence, completing a vocab card, adding a vocab word to a piece of writing, etc…" Clearly, however, it's fairly meaningless and without purpose to your students because if they cared then they'd do more for you. The meaningfulness and purpose is in the eye of the student, not you, no matter how well-intentioned you are.

2) Which brings me to a quote by Seth Godin: "If your target audience isn't listening, it's not their fault, it's yours."

So you haven't hit it yet. You care about your kids and you're trying hard and you're understandingly exasperated about your lack of success to date. But the learning environment you're creating for them isn't working for them. [That's not a negative indictment of you; it's just a recognition that there's still work to do (as you know).]

A) How much say do your students have in what they write about, how they write about it, to whom they write, etc.? I don't see most students voluntarily choosing to do things like 'posting a topic sentence' or 'completing a vocab card.' I'm not a writing instructor, but can you work your instructional and curricular goals in through the side or back door of some other type of writing work (something that engages their interests and passions FIRST and then lets you tap into their desire to make their writing better)? For example, maybe writing for some student-devised project, or a class blog, or a protest letter, or ...

B) Have you outright asked your students why they don't do your assignments? Have you delved deep enough into why they don't care so that you really have a good understanding of the root causes? Is it because they're afraid of looking dumb? Is it because your assignments aren't engaging? Is it because...? You get my drift. You may have to ask them do to some kind of anonymous survey if they're unwilling to tell you face-to-face.

This is tough stuff. If it were easy, we wouldn't need gifted teachers like you. Keep up the good fight, Anne, and keep us posted.