Tuesday, June 24, 2008

IRD Third (and a half!) Week: Correcting the Overcorrection

The end of last week was very busy, even though N. was away at camp, and I did not post a reflection at all.

And perhaps that's to the good, because today I was confronted with the balancing act of learning to teach differently than I have in the past.
So this is a good day to write a reflection.

I had a parent complaint about the atmosphere in one of my classes. This is a class with middle school children, one or two of whom I am concerned about in terms of progress and home practice, but all of whom are likeable kids. It is a quiet class, too, although last week with the excitement of an electrical outage, they loosened up quite a bit. As did I, and this last may be the clue to the problem.

I think what the parent observed is based on overcorrections on my part. I have been struggling with two issues, and achieving balance in both of them will make me a better teacher. The first is timing--in my case complicated by my perfectionistic desire to add detail upon detail. I discussed that here. The second is the need to be direct with students. My tendency is to soften commands by saying things like: "You might want to do...." and "Open the book to page such-and-such, please" and "Suzie, please put the pencil down." My trainers made me practice saying: "Put the pencil down" and "I need you to do..." and "Now open your books to..." This directness goes against my early training designed to corral a rather "spirited" child!

And the new directness has been working. With my younger kids, especially, where I am also playing games with them as part of the process, and where directness interacts well with my natural warmth for the little guys. But in this particular class, I am dealing with mid-school kids and I have been very matter-of-fact with them, especially when teaching the study skills part of the class. My supervisor asked me if I was remembering to praise their efforts frequently enough. And I realized that although when I go around to check homework, I do try to find a good thing to say to each one, I have not been praising the group effort as enthusiastically as I do with my younger kiddos. And yet these are not yet the high school kids who would be insulted by that. These are middle schoolers who still have a little kid in them, and not buried too deeply, either. They need to know that their hard work is noticed. And they need to know it with the same level of directness that I am using to give directions.

So there you have it, like a nervous new driver overcorrects by jerking the wheel a little too hard, I was overcorrecting for my tendency to qualify directions and sounded quite strict. It is not bad to be strict, but at the same time, I forgot to praise real effort when they are working on something difficult. And for middle school kids, the art of finding main ideas and supporting details in a textbook or other work of non-fiction is difficult. So this parent was observing the fallout of my overcorrection.

In addition to this, there were some other incidents that had happened that day that left me a little rattled and I was having a real Jonah Day--as Anne of the Island called a bad teaching day. (Although my day did not include fireworks in the heating system as Anne's did).

Factor in that this day (my second with the class) was this parent's child's first week in the class. So this was the parent's first impression of me.
And I had not gotten to the bathroom between classes, to touch up and get a breath of outside air. Imagine this: hair wild, lip gloss not touched up, nerves tingling.Well.

It is never pleasant to recognize that someone's first impression of you is not your best foot forward. And it always hurts a bit when you first hear the truth of the matter via a complaint.
My first reaction is to want to explain myself--in detail, of course!

If the complaint was not made, I would not have the opportunity to correct the overcorrection problem. It might never have been called to my attention.

Just like that test answer that you got wrong and so you remember that information twenty years later even after forgetting most of the rest of the test, (a diatreme is the frozen neck of a volcano exposed by weathering way of the original mountain--I got it wrong in 1981), so having attention called to the issue so forcefully means I am more likely to achieve the balance sooner.

This is the never-ending process of getting the rough edges rubbed off.
Painful, but necessary to the process of arriving at a smooth and balanced state.


Amie said...

Oh...now I want to re-read my Anne books! It has been a few years...

Anonymous said...

This was a difficult post to read...in this case I think your original inclinations were right on target. I'd probably water the command down even more: "Let's turn to page 37". If some of the children are not meeting expectations, it may be just because it isn't the right program for them. I don't think any of my three children, all delayed readers who achieved fluency at 10 or older, would have done well in an RDI program. They all inherited a highly visual orientation with delayed symbolic processing from their mathematician/scientist/musician father. None of them was a fluent reader before the age of ten. I confess that I've never tried to teach a large class. As a private violin teacher, I've never had a class of more than than four, and it's usually one on one. I'd never say anything to a sudent that I wouldn't allow someone to say to me. When my dyslexic daughter was struggling through "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 easy Lessons", I refused to use the script: "You're going to...". Her inability to "get" the material was related to the way that she's wired, not the fact that I wasn't presenting the lesson as a series of commands. As a homeschooler, my goal is not the "efficient" tranmission of knowlege or skills. I'm inclined to verbosity too, and I don't think its a defect: I want my children to be able to see that my ideas don't just appear fully formed, but are the result of "experimentation" and reflection. And I don't praise at all, other than to say, "I can see that you've worked hard on this!" or "I love the illusion of movement in this drawing." More often, we talk about what interested us in whatever it is we're studying: we'll talk about layers of meaning imbedded in a story, or how a mathematician became interested in symmetry. I suspect that the prescribed format of RDI might be hard for you, as a homeschool mom...


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Deborah, and thanks for the very detailed comment.

Yes, my own inclination is also based on the culture I am dealing with. This particular class is in Santa Fe, and that kind of eastern directness is a foreign language to many people in the area.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons for using very little qualifiers in language and more direct commands. The classes are large and we only have five weeks with the kids. Essentially, we are teaching skills rather than content--although some content is included.

However, you are right on several counts. It is very difficult for me as a homeschool mom and as an analytical-type person to cut out the details. And when I taught gifted kids I used direct commands sparingly as well; they tend to respond well to more polite and qualified language. And since I taught science, direct instruction meant supplying the steps that develop an idea or using Taba lesson plans for concept development.

But IRD is direct instruction that has been pared down to the basics needed in order to get kids reading at their particular level ASAP. For me, the fun part is the book discussion, and there I can be more truly the gentle teacher that I have always been.

I do think that kids with certain learning needs would not do well with IRD. But the program does help a goodly number of people attain the status of being a reader in a remarkably short amount of time.

As far as praise is concerned, it must be aimed at specific accomplishments and results. Most of the time, I am praising the efforts that students put into the work and not a particular product. That is because in reading the "product" is not tangible.
In discussions, I'm more likely to say "that's an interesting idea" rather than "good answer." Praise, properly given is a good thing. Praise given to the person rather than the effort put in doesn't always work.

At any rate, in this case, the child's assessment of the situation did not match the parent's idea of it. The parent had seen one or two exchanges that I had with others, not the sustained interactions that occur over the entire two hours. Nevertheless, my over-correction was obvious even to me, because it was so unbalanced and not me.