IT IS AS MUCH THE HOW AS THE WHAT: EXAMINING MY OWN PRACTICES FOR TEACHING CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT
by Barbara McEwan, Ed.D.
INTRODUCTION TO THIS STUDY
For the past decade I have been teaching, researching and writing about democratic classroom management practices and, as a result, have become very interested in whether or not the manner in which this subject is taught has equal, more or less importance for helping my students understand equitable teaching practices. The question I sought to explore in this study was whether or not the use of technology, specifically incorporating e-mail conversations and video taped assessments into a more standard course delivery format, might result in a structure that encourages personal reflection concerning classroom management.
I focused on incorporating these specific technologies into this particular class because they are the most accessible tools for my students to use. The Internet has been widely described as being representative of democratic principles because of its availability, ease of use, and the ways in which it levels communication. Video tapes that demonstrate teaching are equitable as a means of assessment in that the interns in my class can video tape themselves any number of times and select the tape for assessment they feel best reflects their professional development in the area of management.
WHERE I BEGAN
It is important to stipulate that the approaches to classroom management I emphasize in my classes are typically viewed as falling within the parameters of "democratic education." I emphasize democratic management as opposed to authoritarian strategies because I believe the first is a productive way to help young people learn responsible decision making while the latter has more to do with external controls of behavior. I accentuate the importance of personal decision making as a means of controlling our own behaviors and accordingly, in my class, token reward and punishment systems are viewed as being those strategies least appropriate to learning self management. Democratic models built on problem solving and communication skills are discussed as being more suited to helping a cognitive being achieve a sense of personal control through responsible decision making.
QUESTING FOR THE "BEST" COURSE DELIVERY SYSTEM
Seeking a "best" way to teach democratic classroom management practices has led me to experiment over the years with various styles of course delivery and assessment. While I always thought it interesting to experiment with different approaches to delivery, my efforts had always struck me as little more than a cerebral exercise.
Then I spent some time visiting the classroom of a teacher who had recently graduated from our one year Elementary Education Master of Arts in Teaching program housed at Oregon State University. When this teacher was ready to dismiss her class for the day, she placed herself at the classroom door and read outloud the names of her students. Their names were read in a descending order that corresponded with their scores on the latest spelling test. Those who had done best, she told them, would be dismissed first. The strategy was so grossly out-of-synch with everything any of my colleagues or myself had tried to teach in the classes she had taken the previous year, that I could only wonder at her choice to employ such a practice.
To be sure I have no delusions that this teacher is the only one to graduate out of our program and adopt strategies we had attempted to discourage. Classroom Management is unique to the courses one typically finds included in teacher education programs in that it touches upon some deeply held personal beliefs. Learning to treat students fairly in a classroom is not like learning to teach them a new approach to math computation. Working with children in a truly equitable fashion requires teachers to overcome personal biases. Some of our preservice interns have always seemed more capable of incorporating democratic management strategies into their teaching styles than do others, a fact that continues to puzzle me and, in part, led to this study.
IMPLEMENTING NEW STRATEGIES WITHIN OUR MASTERS' PROGRAM
In our Masters of Arts in Teaching program, we have the luxury of great flexibility in terms of how we deliver courses. In addition, because it is a small program with a small core faculty, we have many opportunities to work with our students over the course of the one year we are together. I teach a class on issues of equity and law during the summer term, a course in classroom management in the fall, and seminars on legal issues and management during winter. Except for the summer term classes, all course work in our program is directly tied to field-based practicums. However, it was evident to me that even with the amount of time we had within the program to discuss issues of management and equity, most of our students who have moved on to their own teaching positions have not attempted democratic management.
All of this led me to begin thinking that how I taught the course, and more specifically, how I assessed it might make the difference in terms of what information was retained and eventually implemented. Restructuring the assessment of the class has been an on-going process over a three year period, and led me to increase the use of technology to deliver and evaluate content comprehension.
A NEW APPROACH TO ASSESSING MANAGEMENT SKILLS
I resolved to develop an approach that would require students to demonstrate their emerging management philosophies by video taping themselves using strategies learned in class and elsewhere. The first year I tried this approach, I required that they tape themselves while teaching at the beginning of the term, review the tape and set goals for themselves to reach by the end of the term. Then I also reviewed their tapes and provided them with feedback on their work as well as providing some ideas for extending their goals. At the end of the term I held a one-on-one conference with each student to review their second video tapes in order to assess their growth.
During the second year of these assessment conferences, a bit of anecdotal data emerged that directly led to the study reported in this paper. I noticed that the students who seemed to show the greatest amount of growth in the area of management as well as the greatest ability to implement a variety of strategies, were also those students who had chosen to communicate with me over the Internet during the course of the term. Those e-mail communications had come about spontaneously. I had made my e-mail address available to all our students at the beginning of the program and invited them to use it as a convenient way to get their questions answered. Some students began to send me questions about management problems they were having without waiting for the regular sessions. I kept our conversations confidential but would sometimes refer generally to their questions during our regular class meetings. The professional development of the few students who chose to communicate with me in this fashion was so noticeable in their second video tapes that it piqued my curiosity as to whether or not incorporating Internet conversations into course requirements would result in the same levels of growth in a greater number of students.
At the same time, I also realized that those students who had chosen to hold conversations with me via e-mail were the same students who were high achievers and who would probably be very successful regardless of course delivery formats. However, I felt that the question of Internet communication as a means of fostering growth in the area of classroom management warranted further investigation. I was particularly interested in investigating whether or not the private communication available on the Internet would encourage more reflection on professional growth.
I decided not only to revise course requirements yet again but to deliberately study the use of technology as a concomitant benefit to the delivery of this particular course content. I already had gathered some data at the end of the previous year's course on student perceptions regarding the process of meeting with me to review their video tapes, so I had some means of comparing the effects of using that technology between two groups of students. I also decided to use a triangulation approach that would correlate my perceptions of their reflections on professional growth with their e-mail questions and their responses to a scoring guide I developed to further structure the assessment process.
To assist in developing and implementing this study, I sought and secured funding from the L.L. Stewart Foundation. The foundation funds provided me with time to work on the syllabus and scoring guide. The challenge of the syllabus and scoring guide was to create language that set high standards and expectations while, at the same time, encouraging students to evaluate their own growth. Our university provides students with access to computers in several labs on campus and also provides each student with a free Internet account. Requiring the use of computer technology, therefore, did not discriminate against students.
Before the class even began, the students were involved in a full-time practicum called "September Experience." Students in our program spend almost a full month with their mentors between the end of Summer term and the beginning of Fall term on campus. At the beginning of September, I invited the students to begin submitting questions to me via the Internet whenever they felt the need and those questions began coming in almost immediately. At times it was not unusual for me to find 20 to 25 messages a day on my e-mail and this continued throughout Fall term. Obviously it was a time consuming process.
If there is a down side to this form of delivery, it is the time commitment. I shared my frustration about this with a colleague who is also researching the uses of technology for course delivery and his response intrigued me. He stated that what we were trying to do, establishing one-to- one relationships with every student was a worthy endeavor. In his opinion, the problem was not how much time it took to do this but rather the fact that our time was not being invested in a way that is traditionally valued in a research institution. For an assistant professor who is still immersed in the promotion and tenure process, this was not the most comforting comment, but neither did it discourage me.
WHAT THEY WANTED TO TALK ABOUT
The statements students sent in ranged from the despairing cry of "I will never figure this out." to the joyous "Wow, what a great day I had today!" In either case, they were not the sort of comments I would typically have heard during class discussions.
What follows are some samples of Internet communication with brief commentary. The exchanges with students have been quoted exactly with no editing of style. Hence, much of it will read as conversation. While students use a more formal style when writing papers, they tend to lapse into a much more informal pattern during Internet chats. In this sense, reading e-mail communications is much like reading their dialogue journals.
I found that Internet communication allowed me the time to develop answers to their questions in ways I would not or could not during class meetings. In class I would never respond to one student at length particularly if I were trying to challenge him/her to further consider an idea. Students would be so uncomfortable with that much attention that any learning would be subverted.
For instance, this was an early question sent to me. "During today's class, one question kept popping into my mind concerning all the dialoguing we are supposed to be doing with our students, especially in times of stress or conflict. How do we find the time?" The student is referring to various communication strategies they were reading or hearing about in class. What made this particular question interesting to me is that it was sent after the course had been running for a couple of weeks and various responses to it had already been discussed in class at least on a couple of occasions.
Answering the student over the Internet allowed me the time to develop the answer more thoroughly and perhaps make the information that much more accessible. My response was as follows. "The larger issue is, why wouldn't you find the time? If that student is not able to learn, is feeling scared, is frustrated, is bored, is going through trauma at home, how will you ever be able to pull him/her into the learning community if you don't decide that child is worthy of your time? What are you there to do? Do you see your role as teaching a nebulous curriculum to whomever is choosing to listen on any given day and giving up on the rest of them? Or are you there for every student? If you say you are there for every student, then you will put your students in groups, give them time to interact with each other, not have all the curriculum play off of you and then you will have the time needed for one on one interactions. But first you have to decide what you are there to do."
At this time I was typically responding to their questions with more questions, in an effort to encourage their thinking. However, I quickly learned that this method was only increasing their sense of frustration and I altered my approach to providing my students with a balance between direct answers as well as more questions.
As stated earlier, it was not at all uncommon for me to be asked to respond to issues via e-mail that had already been discussed during class sessions. Perhaps the students who asked these questions didn't listen to that particular class discussion but I suspect it had more to do with their "readiness" to understand the issues at the time they were discussed in class. Students never indicated that they had heard the topic discussed before or needed to have something repeated. They always asked questions previously discussed as if the topic had just occurred to them. I recently commented to one of the students that there are no auditory learners enrolled in our program. She responded with the laughter of recognition.
Another comment a student shared over e-mail but probably would not have shared in class. "I had a very rough and frustrating experience yesterday. I was working with a small math group and took them to the project room, which is an unused room at [my school.] They were just going wild on me! I did my best to remain calm, and I made a point to keep my voice soft. These were two things I felt positive about. However, I had students leaving the circle and crawling on the floor, lots of loud talking, and lots of 'off-taskness.' I became very frustrated and lost my calmness! I almost started crying. I just do not know how to handle it when several students are being very disruptive, I still have students paying attention and wanting to get on with the work, and I can't deal with them all at the same time. I also feel that the fact that I am a student teacher ...causes them to feel as if they can get away with more; I think they are still testing me a lot. Anyway, any tips or responses would be helpful. I am feeling pretty unsettled about the whole management issue."
Again, the topic of avoiding just such problems by establishing behavioral expectations for lessons had been discussed on several occasions prior to the message being sent. Another interesting aspect of the question is the lengthy description the student provides me in order to ensure that I will understand the scenario. In class I would never have heard such a lengthy description. I suspect the detail may have to do with the reason the student did not realize the topic had been discussed before. I think that when students are in the thick of a management problem it appears to them to be unique as well as overwhelming. Perhaps it is that perception that prevents them from associating the problem with strategies they have read about or heard in class.
My response to the question, which follows, reflects the shift in approach I took when I decided to balance providing answers while still asking some questions. "Before you go next time, sit down with the group and discuss some common expectations for the behaviors you will see when you get there. When you do get there spend some time developing rules for that room and that activity. Put the rules on poster paper as they are being developed and put them up. Refer back to the rule...if someone crawls away..say 'I want you all to ask yourselves if you are following rule number...' Try asking students to do a 'self-check.' If it's not working, examine your curriculum. Are they bored? Frustrated? Don't be afraid to "bag" a lesson and take them back to the classroom it it's not working. These are really tough [situations] when they happen, but you will get better at it." Again, this response is much longer than I would have time to give an individual student during class.
Students also used the Internet to discuss their readings with me "I've been reading Positive Discipline ( Nelsen, 1986). I've only read the intro and chapter one, but so far I am really impressed with the book. The examples are so real and down to earth, and the reading is very easy-yet interesting-that I find it hard to leave it alone and go on to other class responsibilities. "
In the following instance one of my students is speculating as to why a child in her field placement site might be reluctant to get his seat work completed. "...I have heard from teachers that his parents do everything for him (he didn't know how to take care of some of his bathroom needs last year on his own.) and I am wondering if he is dragging his heels because he isn't used to doing things on his own and doesn't want to, or if there is something else I should be looking for. I know that he can do work if he is allowed to pair up with one other particular student, but the teacher doesn't always let him do this (they are across the room from each other). He seems able to do the work easily when he wants to. Is it power then? Sorry for rambling."
My response was: "No problem. This is a pretty thorny issue. Let's look at what we know about him. He is really used to having others do for him rather than doing for himself...so accountability may not be part of his functioning sense of the world. Maybe we're looking at an assumed disability. So then the challenge becomes to help him learn a different way of functioning in a classroom."
The following is an example of a student working to process some management issues and my responses to her thoughts. The Internet not only provided opportunities for conversation but also for mental ramblings. "Hi, Barb. I am sitting here after a Tuesday full of classes, and my head feels extremely dense with loads of new information. So now I am refocusing...Okay, got it. "
My response: "I think this is what brain researchers would call your consolidation time. Appreciate it. It's important for all of us that we do some quiet reflection particularly after overload."
Then the student said: "I have a question concerning giving students choices. You have given a few examples in class of situations which do not really give the student a choice. Can you clarify that for me? What really constitutes a 'choice?'"
I answered: "There are some things upon which we must stand firm and those have to do with our professional responsibilities and legitimate educational purpose. We can't assess a student's progress if we have no product or evidence. So that needs to happen. There is no choice. However, the way it is achieved can have lots of choices. First of all, as much as possible, we should offer choices and present options in the way students might demonstrate their learning. Projects or other activities related to the 7 multiple intelligences is certainly one way to get at this. And we can give choices about when work gets done. When setting up a classroom, though, we need to make clear our responsibility and how we fulfill it. We fulfill it by presenting a rich curriculum that is assessed through a variety of authentic strategies...but must be assessed. And that's the difference between threatening always to deprive students of recess and taking the time to say 'This is your responsibility and this is mine. How can we work together so we can both do what we need to do?' "
During class sessions I often will encourage students to consider the use of a quiet compliment over a token reward when wanting to let the young people in their classes know a good job has been done. The Internet provided me the opportunity to model a private word of appreciation because students will often share their successes with me through this format and I can respond with an electronic pat on the back.
"Today I taught a lesson in Science. Before we began I specifically addressed the expectations I had. They were simple: Soft Voices, Raise Your Hand, Active Listening, Sit Where You Will Work Well, and Use the Water and Materials Safely. I listed all of these on butcher paper and left it posted throughout the lesson. We discussed what each one would look like, especially the 'play with materials safely' since 'safely' is so ambiguous. All I have to say is that doing this five minute expectation introduction was well worth it! I felt that the students were more focused and when they became unfocused all I had to say was, 'Remember my expectations,' or 'soft voices.' "
I responded: "Bravo! So glad this proved to be a successful strategy for you. Now, next time you might ask them what the expectations should be and write those down. You probably will find they're the same...but the students will have an even greater sense of ownership over them."
Sometimes students just want to let me know that they were able to successfully apply a strategy that we had discussed in class. "I tried the technique of questioning like I told you I would. What a difference! Today has been the best day teaching I think I've had. I led most of the day so that [my mentor] could get some assessments done. Students communicated better with me, took responsibility for their own learning and staying on task, and only needed very few reminders. I'm so excited!"
In some cases I found that students were e-mailing me because they had to and not because they were truly engaged in the process. I would deliberately frame a question back to the student in an attempt to get a conversation started. I found this to be successful as indicated by the following exchange. "I'm really enjoying the texts for the classroom management class. They have great ideas in them and are reader friendly. I also really enjoy seeing you role play in the classroom with difficult situation. Thanks."
I answered the student with a question in attempt to get her to engage in e-mail conversations in greater depth. "A question for you. When you watch me doing a role play in class, do you think 'It's interesting to see what Barb does in this situation.' or do you think 'That's fine for Barb, but I'm not sure I could do that.' I really am hoping for an honest answer from you. I do a lot of role playing with students, but I never know if watching me helps folks internalize practices or creates more uncertainty. What do you think?"
As you will see, the student spent time providing me with a thoughtful opinion on the issue of role playing, thereby engaging in the e-mail communication process at a deeper level than in her previous message. "In response to your questions about role playing in our class, I am uncertain about what approach to take when put in uncomfortable situations with students. Seeing you role play reinforces to me an appropriate way to deal with the situation. I do not want to respond in the way my mind is telling me, which is what I have seen from others and certainly not the philosophy being taught. After seeing you role play a common situation that I was in, I tried to respond in a manner similar to yours. It has helped me a lot. You can talk all day about how we should response in situations, but it is more powerful to me to see it. I think all the interns have been in a power struggle with a student and will be again in the future. I hope others get as much from the role playing as I do."
I found these one-on-one correspondences to be rewarding in that I was able to celebrate successes with some students, commiserate with others and provide advice as needed. I came to the conclusion that the use of Internet communications was worth doing despite the amount of time required.
With all students engaged in the process of Internet conversations, I did not see a correlation between those students who communicated frequently with me and those who demonstrated a high proficiency with management strategies in their second video tapes as I had the year before. That leads me to think my suspicion that the high achieving students enrolled the year before had used the Internet because they were motivated to do so might be closer to the truth than the idea that Internet communication resulted in a better command of management skills. I did note that the higher achieving students in the second group communicated with me more frequently than did other students.
There are many educators taking a serious look at what is being called "virtual universities." From my limited perspective, I believe that the incorporation of e-mail and video tape technology into traditional course delivery has enhanced the learning opportunities for me and my students. In a ten-year quest for ways to effectively teach classroom management strategies that are equitable and fair, I strongly feel that the evidence emerging from my on-going study related to the uses of the Internet and video taping indicates the combination of the two technologies result in meaningful interactions throughout the course. An additional benefit of this course delivery design is that requiring students to use the technologies ensures that they will become familiar with them and be able to teach their uses to their own students.
Anecdotally, I have already observed this outcome. Students often tell me that they are called upon in the field placement sites to help others learn how to use the internet or to help with the running of a video camera. In fact, our students began a spontaneous exchange on their own listserv the following term decrying the lack of technological savvy among their mentor teachers and seeking ways to incorporate technology more fully into their curriculum designs. My increased familiarity with the Internet has resulted in similar occurrences. I now have my own colleagues asking me to teach them how to use Netscape as well as the Internet.
I must restate what I noted earlier, the time demanded for meaningful interactions is not inconsequential, however, the topic of equitable classroom management is so personal, so close to the core of who we all are, that I believe the only way to truly process some of the deeply troubling issues that inevitably arise with students is most effectively served through the one-on- one communication format afforded by the Internet.
I have become a firm believer in the benefits of technology in teaching...I think it has particular and special applications to teaching classroom management. I look forward to continuing this study on the how as well as the what of effective course delivery.
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