17 September 2006

Sage Advice Indeed

Around last March, I acquired a subscription to Edutopia, a magazine published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation and that is free for teachers.

I picked up this month's issue and was thumbing through while I was making dinner, and my eyes settled upon the Sage Advice column, where the question of the month was "What's the most commonly asked question in the classroom?"

I laughed long and loud at one response:

Most frequently asked question: "Can I go to the bathroom?"
Most frequently heard response: "I don't know? Can you?"
Next most frequently asked question: "May I go to the bathroom?"
Next most frequently heard response: "Yes, you may."

This is a daily exchange in my classroom, and it seems as though every year, just as soon as I get one group of students trained, they move on and I start the new year, training a new group of students.

It was the final response on the page, however, that really made me think:

"What are we doing today?" A large number of middle school students ask this question every day, despite having the day's agenda written on the whiteboard and the weekly calendar printed and handed out on Mondays.

What they are really asking is, "Can I connect with you again today?" and "Please focus on me, because I want some one-on-one time with you." Never underestimate the power of a friendly teacher smile, a listening ear, and a word or two with these students!

While I work with freshmen, they are usually not far from middle-school students in terms of behavior and ability, and this is a question that I hear scores of times in a single day. Usually, I will tell the first student that asks (despite the fact that I too have an agenda on the board) and then, when each successive student asks, I'll point to that first student and say, "I don't know, ask _____."

It never really occured to me until I read the above piece of sage advice what students are really asking, and now I've resolved that, when they ask, I'll instead ask them how their day has been thus far.

I enjoy talking with my students--hearing about their lives and their thoughts and their general outlook on things. For the past four years, however, I always interpreted the "what are we doing today" question as nothing more than kids being too lazy to look on the board, an interpretation that now makes me cringe. I want my students to connect with me, I want to connect with them, and I'm glad that the sage advice opened my eyes.

So, how was your day?


At 9:54 PM, Blogger Mrs. T said...

Thank you sooo much for this! I am going to try this instead of my usual exasperated sigh or sarcastic comment or reproachful "I TOLD you guys yesterday we were going to have a quiz- doesn't anyone ever listen to me?"
I love connecting with my kids, too and I have found that some of the quieter ones will ask this question instead of just talking to me.

At 7:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

La maestra,

I too was struck by that one bit of advice. I even decided to try a mini experiment. I work with juniors, but they are no less likely to ask the question, so I decided, let's see how many ask after I personally stand at the door and greet them coming in. All day, no one asked or said anything once that final bell had rang, except the two students I missed during fourth because I was dealing with two troubles from 3rd period! I know my class changes when I am not at the door to greet my kids. It's amazing at how much that little action can sway behaviors in my room. We are all well versed on the need to greet students right at the beginning of the year, but I feel it is one classroom management tool that is greatly un-utilized and I plan on sharing my mini experiment results with that SAGE advice to the rest of the faculty so they can try it out too.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Darren said...

Let's not forget, "When are we ever gonna have to use this in real life?"

About once a year I tell each class about the girls in England who went to school during the Depression (yes, my grandmother), who truly had no use for algebra at all.

Until WWII broke out, and then women were working the kinetheodolite in the mixed-sex anti-aircraft batteries. Read about them here:
Note especially this part:

"Another instrument that was used by A.T.S was the kinetheodolite. This was only used at practice camps but this was based on the theories of cinema and theodolites combined. The operators would film mixed battery detachments firing at drones on the practice camps. The films were taken back in the evening to the camp headquarters and the operators would use the measurements taken, together with the film to work out how close to target each team was firing. This enabled teams to adjust their procedures in order to become more accurate. The work of the kinetheodolite operators was very mathematical and only those who were very good in this subject were able to cope with the calculations that had to be made each day."

I'm sure the girls taking algebra in 1930's Britain never guessed they'd be using their math skills to save their country from the Nazis.

At 2:27 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I have had conversations with tons of kids on cafeteria duty. It's been interesting. I have been informed that I am "nice, but don't play." I guess that's good.

I even had a kid apologize and say "Ma'am" today when I asked him to put on his ID. They have no idea how much "Ma'am" makes my day.

At 11:43 AM, Blogger Lsquared said...

I read somewhere a teacher insight (and it seems true to me) that when students say "when will I need this" what they really mean is "I don't understand". It's a lot like the "what are we doing today" question in some ways. Certainly taking the approach of "how can we understand this better" seems to be more effective than giving an answer to where you might need to know this (which tends to be a morass in which no one is ever satisfied). I like your WWII example, though--I may try it.


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