Monday, January 21, 2013

Jones v Flippen

My thoughts keep returning to my classroom issues, and what I can do to diffuse them.  The number one issue, whenever a class goes all to pieces, is an attention-seeking, disruptive student.  Sometimes it's more than one, but one is definitely enough.

So I've been thinking about what I do when a student goes off, and whether or not I'm helping.  Let me rephrase: I've been thinking about what I'm doing that's allowing it to continue or even making things worse.  Last night I pulled out my stack of "teacher advice" books and looked through them all, yet again, to see what I've forgotten. I didn't find anything of much use until I picked up Fred Jones' Tools for Teachers.

Jones is very clear on what to do with disruptive students.  In his chapter on dealing with backtalk, he repeats this visually alarming mantra: Open your mouth and slit your throat.   The accompanying illustration is kind of funny and kind of horrifying.  The point is, if a student is giving a performance, the worst possible thing you can do is give him more material. If the student wants to derail the class by starting a conversation about something else, you don't have to participate.  Jones' method of dealing with backtalk involves breathing, remaining calm, saying nothing, and letting it die a natural death as you wait out the student with an expression of "withering boredom".

I do wonder if Jones dealt with as many barely socialized students as I have.

When students go off-task, Jones' advice boils down to staying calm, breathing, turning fully toward the offending student, moving in (proximity), and if necessary, camping out on the student's desk until he gets back to work.  There is no dialog involved.  I've used this technique and it works -- at times.  I have students who are so resistant to the idea of work that they don't understand that I'm hanging around because I'm waiting for them to get back to work.  "Why do you keep looking at me?!  You're creepy!"  Then I have to explain that I'm waiting for them to get back to work (because the tapping on their desk, pointing to the work, wasn't clear enough).

Jones' technique does work for backtalk, and it's probably the only thing that does.  Responding verbally to the student just prolongs the 'conversation'/distraction.  I realize that because the Flippen Group training has me doing just that.

The heart of the Capturing Kids' Heart model is to engage with the students.  Very little was said about appropriate limits to that engagement.  In my efforts to acknowledge, respect, and listen to my students, I've put myself in a position where I let the more aggressive few talk all over me.  I'm not blaming the Flippen Group for this problem, because it's not something that came up.  What did come up was dealing with garden variety off-task behaviors, which are handled using the four questions, which begin with, "What are you doing?"  and "What are you supposed to be doing?"  These questions put the responsibility for the student's behavior where it belongs, with the student.  They work well when the social contract is place (especially since the social contracts all emphasize trust and honesty.)

The problem is, the Four Questions invariably start a conversation, directly contradicting Jones' Open your mouth, slit your throat edict.   I know Jones' advice works, but I've seen the Four Questions work, too.  I'm trying to figure out a method to get the benefits of both methods -- acknowledging the student, but at the same time discouraging the conversation.  I'm thinking of a series of statements/questions, like this:

1. I can see you really want to talk about this.
2. Is this something you and I can talk about quietly, so the rest of the class can get back to work?
3. Do we have to do this now?
4. I always have some time in my lesson plans for discussion, but we've already used that up.  Can we postpone this discussion and get back to the lesson now?

It amazes me how I forget things that actually work.  I've used, "Can we talk about this later?" countless times, but recently it has fallen out of my playbook.  The students sometimes complain that "later" never comes, but then I remind them that they can talk to me at lunch or after school, and then they beg off, because whatever it was is not really so important after all.

This is probably the sixth or seventh time I've gone back to Jones' book.  I should just make myself re-read it once a month, or at least leaf through it to make sure I haven't let any good habits fall away.  There are times for the four questions, but there are just as many, as if not more, situations that call for Jones' methods.  I always talk too much.  If I can hold onto that image of cutting my own throat, maybe I'll stop.

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