Figure 1 The front entrance of MacDonald Middle School. Photo from ELPS district site.
As the spring semester winds up, one of the parts of my school week I’m looking forward most to getting back to is working with math students at MacDonald Middle School (Figure 1). Last semester, I spent Monday and Wednesday mornings as a teacher’s assistant in two classrooms — third and fourth period on their schedule. My third period classroom was a sixth grade geometry class. This class covered a lot of really neat common core approaches to solving problems and, in particular, emphasized learning through guided exploration and peer-to-peer interaction. My fourth period classroom was a catch-up class that mostly focused on getting comfortable with performing computations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and going back and forth between fractions and decimals. This class relied on lots of worksheets and timed standardized tests.
I spent some time over the break reflecting on my own role in these classrooms and how I can more effectively serve the students I work with. I loved volunteering at MacDonald Middle School, but the first semester was truly challenging. Among other highlights, we had students wrestling in the back of the classroom, I had a student fill out a worksheet with skulls and make extensive commentary about their dead pets, and we had the word "faggot" thrown around. I struggled to think on feet my in situations that were completely foreign to my own experiences as a student and a tutor in the educational setting. At times, I felt out of place and, more importantly, that I lacked the background and tools to be effective. Sometimes, I left happy to have kept a few students on track with the day’s lesson. Other times, I left knowing that I had missed an opportunity to help a student but unable to grasp what I should do differently next time. Often, I drove away feeling both.
I’m writing this essay mostly to iron out my own thoughts. I’m sharing it, though, because I hope some tidbits might prove interesting or useful for your own work. I’d be happy if sharing it led to further conversation, too. In the not-so-long-ago past, I worked as a subject tutor and academic consulting advisor at my alma mater’s Center for Writing, Learning, & Teaching. I miss, in particular, our weekly meetings to debrief, discuss readings, and figure out how to be better at what we do. If you’re doing similar work and want to chat, call me/beep me/you know how to reach me (i.e. the footer of this page).
My most challenging moments at MacDonald boil down to a conflict between two impulses: to meet students where they are and to hold students to a high standard. I see this conflict as cutting across two levels: academics and behavior. My interest here is mostly in behavior. My particular role in these classrooms isn’t to set the academic course; I spend most of my energy helping students keep up with the academic expectations each teacher has set for their classroom. Obviously, I meet students where they are academically. Behavior, though, is murkier. I see situations I encountered last semester as convincing arguments for both approaches.
In my first week at MacDonald, one of the kids in my fourth period classroom was almost impossibly squirrelly. He was crawling over, under, and around his chair. Really, it could have been a Cirque du Soleil act. The teacher came over and tried to get him to do some problems from the worksheet. “Hey. This one looks easy. I know you know how to do this one. Why don’t you give at least three a try.” He put his head down on the desk. After a few minutes, he scooted his chair across the classroom and out the door. I followed him out into the hall and sat against the wall a foot or two from his chair.
He squirmed around a bit more then said something about snacks. I asked, and he hadn’t had breakfast. “Yeah,” I said, “that’ll make it hard to concentrate.” I left and grabbed some pretzels from the teacher’s lounge. Once he had the pretzels, he started doing the worksheet right there in the hall. He didn’t even need any help. In fact, he taught me his own system for doing multiplication. He told me his dad had learned it in prison.
While he was working, we talked about band — he plays a brass instrument — and about Oregon a bit. His older brother likes the Ducks and wants to go there for school. To establish a peer relationship, I made a point of just engaging with him around the work instead of overtly pressuring him to do the work. Mostly, I just sat there and ate pretzels, too. I think this decision played out well in this case. Clearly , naively — perhaps even blindly — punitively enforcing a "high standard" for behavior in the classroom wouldn’t have ended so well; I am almost certain no math would have been practiced and, likely, there would have been other negative outcomes. The kid just needed food and a quieter environment.
I’ve had several encounters with students, however, where flexibility with respect to behavior goes nowhere. I had a student tell me flat out that, "I don’t want to do this worksheet." I asked about why and made a few suggestions that we really should do at least part of it, but got nowhere. They just didn’t want to. So, we just talked about this and that for twenty minutes. We did no math. I had decided that maybe the actual math material wasn’t the most important thing I should (try to) accomplish with the student that day. I instead decided to invest the time in building a rapport with the student. To boot, I figured that the student might take something — a broader perspective, perhaps — away from our conversation, too.
Afterwards, though, I wondered if I had done the student a disservice. Not only did the student miss out on the material, but I wondered if by backing off and lowering my own expectations I had reinforced whatever expectations the student held for themself, essentially normalizing their decision to not engage with class material. I asked myself how I would have reacted to the same situation if the student hadn’t been previously pointed out to me beforehand by the teacher. What if they had dressed or spoke or looked differently? Would I have optimistically decided that the student might take "something positive" away from twenty minutes of meandering conversation? I began to wonder how unexamined willingness to meet students where they are — lowering your standards just to continue to engage them — contributes to larger systematic inequities that undercut some students.
I saw the consequences of lowering the bar for behavior play out in the my fourth period classroom. Over the course of the semester, increasingly generous bargains were made with the students just to get everybody on board with class activities. Students took twenty or more minutes of unstructured time at the end of class, skipped problems that they didn’t want to do, and, eventually, any behavior that didn’t actively disrupt the rest of the class — or, at least, disrupt class too much — became acceptable. On my very last day of the semester, two of our students ended up sent out to the office. I wasn’t in the classroom at the time to see what had happened, but afterwards I picked up some broken school supplies and righted some chairs in the back of the classroom. Relaxing what should be — and, in future classrooms and workplaces, will be — baseline expectations seemed to have hurt, not helped, students in this case.
Parallel to this standards-flexibility spectrum, I find myself confronting a dichotomy more germane to my role in the classroom: acting as a peer versus acting as a superior. Personally, I’m inclined to act as a peer. My background, upbringing, and, I think, my personality, predispose me to avoid being too direct (in particular, avoiding direct conflict). My work background in peer learning also pushes me towards this strategy. Last semester, I came to MacDonald planning to play the peer role I was familiar and comfortable with. Along the way, I made intentional decisions to put myself in that role: I often did the same worksheets and activities as the students and, from time to time, hopped in to play games along with them.
However, as I’m getting ready for my second semester at MacDonald, I want to try to achieve greater awareness and versatility in the role I play. I think of figures in my own primary, secondary, and collegiate education who, by holding high expectations for my cohort and administering their expectations with a certain directness, influenced me to hold myself to those standards and, importantly, see myself as worthy of those high standards. A band director, in particular, comes to mind who by making an honest, acerbic, but wholly tactical show of his frustration from time to time pushed the ensemble to achieve performances we were very proud of. I don’t anticipate a circumstance calling for anything acerbic on my part next semester, but I do think I should be more direct with students about how much I believe them capable of and, therefore, expect from them.
Although I hope that defining and reflecting on these dichotomies will help me be more effective in the classroom, I suspect that in almost all tough situations there’s a third way. Last semester, after I had spent ten minutes trying to get a student going on a worksheet they suggested, "Why don’t we just do something else?" I almost dismissed their idea out of hand. Two minutes later we were doing all the math on the worksheet, but just one by one on the student’s own paper with numbers I pulled out of my head. The problem with the third way, though, is that more often than not I just don’t know what it is.
I hope that this semester I’ll expand my own classroom repertoire in the areas I’ve identified but, also, in ways that I don’t yet foresee.
My thinking was influenced by the NPR Code Switch podcast series on Ron Brown high school. This series, in particular, explored the conflict between establishing high standards and maintaining flexibility. You can find their four-episode series here.