The Thinking Classroom experiment may be a success. The white board contact paper is starting to gather dust in the corners, the kids trust the fancy randomizer, and there are consistently good days. I’m all ready to write a post about successes or a sort of “growth” post about my what I’ve learned the most (spoiler alert: it’s about managing flow). It’s just, well…there are these two kids who I’m worried about.
On Wednesday we started on an open middle problem and two of the four pairing had a student sitting down, facing away from the board, and looking at their phone. Paul likes to mind his own business, and isn’t too interested in talking with me or any student. Denisha has flirted with pursuing a GED, with support from her parents, but decided to give this year one last shot, but so far hasn’t earned any credits in any class that didn’t her performing music. They both didn’t hear the full explanation about the class during registration, so maybe this isn’t what they expected. I am aware with both having behavior issues in previous math classes which have escalated to administrative interventions. While both of their attendance is around 50%, it surprised me that neither have had an even moderately successful day working with their groups.
On Wednesday, Paul was struggling in a grouping that made me question throwing out the randomizer. He was paired with a student who has had excellent attendance, and is pretty bright, but isn’t really a big “includer.” This student has a tendency to stare off into space, deep in thought, before emerging with an answer that he can’t seem to communicate without writing it on the board. Paul had been paired with this student before and didn’t seem to be contributing anything, even though I asked. It seemed then that Paul wasn’t being vocal then, but his body language showed he wasn’t even participating. I had to try even harder to get the marker into Paul’s hand, but he was said he “don’t learn like this.” He seemed sad that he wasn’t able to pull the answers out of the air like his groupmate and wanted me to sit next to him and tell him what to do.
The randomizer also placed Denisha in a pairing that wasn’t ideal. Her partner was probably the third least talkative kid in the class so I knew I would spend a lot of time over there getting the conversation going. The two were both quiet, Denisha seemed detached. Denisha’s partner seemed quiet because they weren’t clear about the next step in the problem, while Denisha seemed like she was trying to hide and not be seen. If I visited, she would look up and confidently assert that she knew what they were doing, but wouldn’t be able to answer any questions about the actual problem. After some questioning it seemed like she wasn’t aware of what the problem was or what her partner was doing to figure it out. When I wasn’t nearby she would zone off or get sucked back in to her phone as if she was waiting for us to go over the assignment.
Both of these students seem to struggle asserting themselves in math and are also uncomfortable with collaborating around a task. The tasks that I am giving out seem like they are pretty “low-floor,” but Paul and Denisha are not accessing or engaging with them in up until Wednesday. They don’t seem to feel safe in this environment. One of my big goals in this experiment is to create a culture where students spend more of their time feeling safe, but it seems like these two students are spending most of their time avoiding feeling “dumb.” It’s tempting to want to blame the victim here. To imagine the kids could have been more successful if they attended regularly, or to assume that these kids would “get it” if they “just got on board.” I think I should do more to meet their needs (and am open for ideas here). I’ve tried using more manipulatives and am going to work more on having students interact socially before they start working on math, but it’s hard to see if it is working or not.
On Friday I had a pretty successful day with Paul. First I explained my new grading system for the class in very clear terms. I then re-explained the whole philosophy of the class again to connect their grade to the class. Then we had the weekly quiz, which Paul would was unprepared for. Paul, and another student instead worked on quizzes from earlier weeks that they missed. Then I had those students work on a problem maximizing the area of a rectangle given a perimeter together using manipulatives. Paul was much more confident in working with this new partner, and was more vocal when I asked them to explain why they thought a square isn’t a rectangle. We ended with a conversation of what he needs to do to earn credit. I think it was a big step forward for Paul. Denisha wasn’t there, but maybe I have an approach that I can try with her. Not changing the expectations, but being as clear as possible about them, providing more ways to access the problem, and keeping to work to build confidence.