It’s a fine, fine line OR How to make me Rageful

Previously in my Math Class: One of the essential features in my department are short presentations that we expect students to give in small groups. They have five minutes to Frame a problem, Explain a problem, and then Take Questions. In case you can’t tell by my awkward capitalization, that means there are three roles: Framer, Explainer, and Question Taker. We are currently doing these presentations as a form of midterm exam review. Groups of three are assigned a problem from the midterm that many students struggled with, and then they are given a day in class (plus however much time at home) to prep for their presentation.

Now: A group was giving a presentation. The Framer did an OK job, the Explainer wasn’t the best presenter but their math was correct. The Question Taker stood up and started trying to field questions. The first question asked if the way the group solved the problem was the only way to solve a problem. The QT said yes, that’s the only way and other ways are wrong. Everyone started laughing.

Then I lost my shit.

Obviously ignore "June 13"

Obviously ignore “June 13”

Here’s the thing. The student that was Question Taker has a certain way of speaking. The best way to describe it is to compare his intonation to that of an old time radio announcer (think kind of like the narrator from Legend of Korra). He’s not the strongest student and he’s not the weakest. But when he talks like that, it’s really difficult to tell if he’s being goofy on purpose (i.e. he’s getting the answer wrong to get a laugh) or he’s using his goofiness as a shield because he doesn’t know what’s going on (i.e. the likely situation). Other students find his tone to be very amusing, and I think he is hamming it up because it’s better to be laughed with than laughed at.

I totally get that reaction. I am goofy and sarcastic and self-deprecating, and I laugh at myself a lot. My instinct when I make a stupid mistake is to call myself an idiot. I don’t mind if kids laugh at my stupid mistakes because I make a lot of them. But I know that this sends a mixed message when I’m also like “Don’t laugh at others”. I don’t know what to do about that.

I once saw on Twitter someone tell some version of the following anecdote from their class: A student was at the board, and had to choose another student to do the next problem. First student chooses a second student, but second student says they don’t know how to do it. First student says “That’s ok, we’ll help you!”  This is what I want in my class.  Everyone helping everyone, everyone understanding that none of us are experts (even me) and we all make mistakes (especially me), everyone feeling safe to make mistakes.

So…how the hell do I make that happen? I’ve had numerous conversations that I don’t like it when we laugh at others in my class. Even today I was like “Not nearly enough of you got this question right that you should be amused that someone else didn’t, and even if you did get it correct you shouldn’t be laughing. You’d feel like crap if someone laughed at you, I’d feel like crap if someone laughed at me, so why are you laughing at someone else?” And I ended with “I don’t know how else to make you all buy in. I’ve told you I want this to be a safe space and yet here we are. I’m tired of it and it has to stop”. I was upset. I’m still upset thinking about it. It ruins my day when I have to have these conversations.

But I don’t know how to constructively address it. Stern talking-to’s aren’t helping. Pleas for compassion aren’t helping. I brought this to a consultancy group last month and they were all like “Well it sounds like you just haven’t set up the classroom culture you want”.  Well yes, apparently. But how do I fix it?

Here are my ideas:

– I have a mid-year survey that I’m asking students to fill out. One of the questions is “What can Mr. Baker do to make it a safe space?  What can YOU do to make it a safe space?” The goal is A) To get ideas from the kids about things they see that I’m not doing but could be, and B) to get students to realize that it’s not all on the teacher.

– Bribery: I’m going to start a table points system. This was originally to get kids on task more quickly, but what if I also use it to reward groups that are supportive and helpful?

– Supportive Shout-outs: Acknowledge kids that are already being supportive and awesome. Maybe even a “Most Supportive” weekly award?

The cynical, jaded, bitter part of me feels this is cheesy, but I have to try something or I’m going to go crazy. I welcome any suggestions as to what has worked in your classrooms in the past.

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