Monday, October 18, 2010

Can you transform bad students into Good ones?

If looks could kill, you'd be his next victim. Welcome to 6th grade...

Always get the bad students on your side and the rest will follow.
No one wants to be the absolute worst and if you have one of those student like that in your class, he/she will set the bar for the rest of your bad eggs to go crazy.

This is advice from my mom, a retired elementary school teacher. She offered me this tip as one of a list of many, as she laid it before me and my 6th grade co-teacher after visiting my school and sitting in my 6th grade classes last spring.  Whoever thinks the kids of school teachers have it easy, think again... My co-teacher got the polite version. I got the accusatory and disgusted one when my mom couldn't understand how I could be her child and still not know how to manage my 6th grade classes. She actually has a reputation with other schools and teachers as the teacher that turns bad students into good ones.

But what can you do when your co-teacher does want to implement strong classroom management skills, yet insists on being THE teacher the students look to? Well, you get dragged around like a kite pulled by a long string on a day when there's no wind....

Things have changed since, but at the time most classes felt manageable, with the exception of one class... 

"Sometimes I wanted to tell my students--'You make me want to die'." 
-- homeroom teacher of Class 6-3

Shocking quote, eh? But if you had this class, you might think the same thing too. Class 6-3 always emitted a deep and agonizing groan from me- an "Oh my god...Why?" ... I obviously wasn't alone. Were they that bad? By Korean standards...worse.

I'm a hardened ex-New Yorker, who's dealt with bigger things in life, but this class was horrible! My girls were more bully than boys, I had kids I thought could be future Korean mafia (or the sons of them) and who would say curse words to me in Korean and laugh at me cause I couldn't understand it, and my slow kids wouldn't lift a disinterested finger to try. At one point, I actually yelled at and walked out on them. The class was like a house of cards. If one twitched, the entire balance would tumble down. 

What did we do to change them?
Aside from my co-teacher threatening them with the lie that "Christine actually understands Korean, so she knows what you are saying to her", I honestly don't know. We tried many things. I gave my attention to many students and spotlight praise has been a great dangling carrot. However, there are two students that we worked with, whose change I feel affected the whole class.

Chan-hyuk, the Mouse
Chan-hyuk was the absolute king of this nightmare class. He isn't a big bully, tough guy or have a loud voice; in fact, he is tiny and soft spoken. He is our class mouse. But when he wants attention his tiny stir can be disruptive -- kicking the back of student desks, turning around trying to get others to play with him, throwing things and generally, faking absolute disinterest throughout class. Speaking-wise, his tongue always got in the way of comprehensible pronunciation. Even if he tried, he'd slaughter his attempt with his tongue. Instead, he took the easy route of I'm stupid; leave me alone.

My co-teacher and I spent some time with him and to my slower kids, I occasionally speak a few words of Korean to remind them they can't get away with things.

Encouragement is the key to confidence. Every student craves attention and essentially wants to be your model student. For Chan-hyuk, pats on the back and grand gestures of praise in front of the class has given him a ladder to climb towards confidence. I also find, he's one of the students who likes the speed games I play with them (whispering) (and I occasionally rig the games so that my slow students have time to prepare their answer or get something we've worked on together!)

Chan-hyuk's progress is fickle but I can see him developing visible confidence along the way, such that he actually focuses, pays attention and TRIES. These days, he loves to participate, he tries to do speaking games correctly and when we have the class repeat words, he's not just faking a moving mouth. Okay, sometimes... But I've never seen such a 180 degree change in someone.

Hyojin, our strong man with a mysterious burden

No one can explain to me what's wrong with Hyojin, other than he had a mental illness last semester which had him out of school for a couple of months. Since, I think the class labeled him as the "class nut," but Hyojin is our gentle class giant with an infrequent and uncontrollable twitch. He's not a bad student, just a little slower due to his illness or mood swings.

Hyo-jin's always been one of my favorite students from the start, but I couldn't tell you why. Probably because he was one of the handful of obedient students who'd participate well when  our class was possessed by other devils.  And when he's confident, he tries to "big brother" the more troubled students, like Chanhyuk.   At times, he tries hard; and at times he completely shuts down. His learning curve isn't as great as Chan-hyuk's but because the kids don't like him much, his vocal participation in class helps.   Like Chan-hyuk, Hyo-jin is one of the students I keep an eye on when I make my rounds in class. They're the ones I spend time working with.

Last semester we held a "special kids class", every Tuesday after lunch and for 20 minutes. It was too short but all our weaker students got a chance to review with more attention paid to them. I think this encouraged Hyo-jin. He'd try to make each class religiously and if he couldn't, then he'd actually look pained.  While Hyo-jin still occasionally shuts down, he does do a lot better than he did before. These days, he participates with confidence!

In fact,... 95% of the students in our "special kids class" have gotten stronger in class participation and have been consistently raising their hands to give answers during normal class! It's as if a bit of attention has given them all confidence that they can improve and succeed.

Can two good apples can sweeten the barrel of bad?
Um,... yes. These days, due to the fact these two students are making improvements, the entire energy and mentality of the class has shifted. The mafiosos are shaping up and are more attentive in their learning-- they try and participate. My girl bullies are showing themselves to be intelligent "girlie-girls" and my slow students are making visible improvements.  My worst class is now my best class of the semester-- my diamond in the rough.

Always get the bad students on your side and the rest will follow. 

I guess my mom was right after all...   Have you ever had a bad class go good?

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