Me: Do you know the treatment for coronavirus?
Student: There IS no treatment
Me: I'll give you a hint....it's a system in your body that we've been studying since September
Student: Uhhh.....is the treatment just to die?
Backstory, we've been learning about the immune system since the beginning of the year. We spent one month learning about viruses, one month on pandemics, and a few months on how the immune system works to fight disease. And yet, here's this student standing right in front of me with some crazy amnesia of everything we've been learning. Nothing is more frustrating than realizing I spent dozens of hours setting up lesson plans and labs only to have this kid forget everything??
To be fair, he wasn't the strongest student, but (as many teachers will tell you) this kind of amnesia ("wait....we learned that?") is pretty common. Helping students make connections is something I struggle with on a daily basis. It's like we'll spend a whole month learning about some topic......but by the end of the month students have just spotty understandings of individual concepts. They understand the trees but not the forest. They understand the textbook questions, but it's harder for them to relate those questions to what's happening in the world around them. Even as an adult, I struggle to connect ideas across different systems, but when I make those connections I know the feeling (that lightbulb moment of "oh THAT's why that's there" or "oh THAT's what that is for").
Then along came my grad school classmate Lior and his awesome workshop on systems mapping! Systems mapping is a method of concept mapping meant to help students see the forest and not just the trees. Here's how we did it.
Step 1: Brain Dump
Step 2: Connected Circles
The awesome thing about systems mapping is that the task is group worthy, meaning students naturally work in groups without the teacher requiring group work to happen. Because this kind of concept mapping was more cognitively demanding, more heads were better than one in order to get the job done. I definitely plan to use systems mapping more moving forward. It's a great example of an inquiry based way of concept mapping new ideas, where areas of dense connections naturally appear for students to notice and analyze.
Yesterday I was leading the class through a class discussion when a student starts blasting music from his phone. I remind the student several times "Please put the phone away".... he ignores me. I speak with him individually and he starts to mock me- "Ok whatever you SAY Ms. Tsai blah blah blah BLAH" **makes a weird face
Both the student and I start to feel angry. I feel like I want to grab this kid and shake the immaturity out of him (don't worry I don't actually do that.....but if I could.....)
Teaching is unique in that my emotional reaction to day to day situations has a real impact on the students that I serve. More generally, my mindset has a ripple effect through everything I do. In this situation, I have a few choices to make. Do I respond to the anger first? Or do I respond to the situation first? The choice may seem obvious, but I find that in practice making the right choice is easier said than done. In practice, I find that it's easier to default to a place of fear-- If I don't show this student how angry I am, the student won't understand he's in trouble, and I'll lose control of the class. Therefore, I need to assert my authority as the one in charge.
But....what would it be like to practice separating myself from fear (fear of losing control of the class....fear of letting kids "get away with" cheating or breaking the rules.......)
I was listening to a podcast by Angela Watson, an educator and author, and she introduced me to this idea of radical acceptance. Radical acceptance means dealing "realistically with the facts of the situation and sitting with the discomfort of the present moment instead of insisting it shouldn't be happening". Radical acceptance does not mean "suck it up and muscle your way through it". Radical acceptance is a way to conserve energy in order to actually focus and make change towards the situation at hand. Like mindfulness...but applied in a practical way.
Going back to the scenario I wrote about in the beginning of this post, there are two ways I could have responded.
The way I see it, radical acceptance can help us to pause long enough in the present moment when upsetting things occur in school in order to 1) identify our fear and 2) react from a place of confidence. And I'm not saying I'm an expert in actually doing this....but it's something I want to practice going forward.
In my student teaching, it was common for me to see teachers shame students, kick them out of class, lecture students harshly, or even call students names. What would happen if teachers were more sensitive to not just how our students are feeling...but how we're feeling? Maybe it could help us stay present, stay engaged, and meet students where they are. Maybe it could help us lead students in the right direction from a place of confidence rather than fear.
I don't police cell phones as strictly as most teachers because I really think the benefits of cell phones outweigh the harms. I know this is an unpopular opinion, and while I don't think students should have total freedom with their phones (everything in moderation, yes) I do think there is a place for smart phones in the classroom, especially a science class. The amazing thing is....when students are actually engaged, most of them can police their own use of cell phones without my help. If I can train students to self regulate with technology, that not only takes the stress off of me, but it makes the students feel less irritated from having an adult constantly berate them for being on their phones. Figuring out how to design a lesson that engages students productively with their smartphones is the hardest and most rewarding challenge of teaching for me this year.
Here are six ways to use smartphones in the classroom
1. Gimkit and Kahoot
While training students to be responsible with technology takes a lot of effort, I do think it's worth the effort to get students to self-regulate rather than banning phones all together. As a fellow Gen Zer/Millennial I actually agree with the students on a lot of their smartphone habits. I too take pictures instead of notes. I have my notes organized into photo albums on my phone. I look the periodic table up on the internet rather than carry a paper copy around with me all the time. Trusting the students to use their phones productively is a big leap of faith, but worth the effort in the long run.