A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Payoff

In class, Pablo has been both the poster-child for learned helplessness and a source of daily annoyances. Pablo's body language has both infuriated and saddened me as other children have cheered on occasions when I have had him removed from the class so that others can learn. I have moved him away from students so that they cannot hear his steady stream of insults, away from walls so that he cannot lean his chair back against it, faced him away from other students so that his poisonous attitude does not infect the entire class. In The Teacher's Concise Guide to Functional Behavioral Assessment, Waller explains:
"Research has shown that only a few things serve as the function for the majority of misbehavior at school: attention, escape, tangible items, and sensory input issues (sometimes called automatic reinforcement)" (Waller, 2009).
After describing four primary drivers of misbehavior, Waller adds a special discussion of how "skills deficits synergistically impact any of the four functions of a target behavior and worsen that target behavior." (Waller, 2009). In the case of Peter, Pablo, and Kendall, direct-instruction seemed to trigger most episodes of cross-classroom insults, outbursts, and negative attention seeking behavior. I reflected that I needed a better system for remediating skills deficits, since my full-court press at lunch or after school efforts to help students learn simple fraction-decimal operations with students were not reaching students who either were not able to attend, or when they attended disrupted sessions, which had been the case with another leg of the three-legged stool, Peter, a special case with "sensory input issues."

When the counselor, Peggy DeForrest, as part of an On Time Graduation Initiative, asked why his Interim report card showed that he had earned an F for the 2nd quarter, my response was that Pablo had done nothing in my class all year, that I had conferenced face-to-face and started regular e-mail discussions with Pablo's father, Salvador about how we might begin more aggressive interventions. Peggy's query prompted me to reflect deeper about the effectiveness of my practices. Dr. P expects us to send home progress reports every few weeks, which I had been doing -- it turns out, Pablo, Peter, and Kendall had been hiding their interim reports from their parents. My good friend Tim, who was directly responsible for bringing how I teach to Dr. P's attention, watched Peter throw his Interim Report Card on the floor. I hand-delivered the report to Peter's house just before the holidays, and used the incident to help frame my Christmas Eve intervention with Peter. I had to be honest with myself -- I had not been doing a good enough job making sure that these reports were coming back signed. By making friendly calls or emails to virtually every student before the holidays, I was able to determine who had and had not been seeing these reports. I know I need to tighten up with the use of checklists.

Pablo fit most criteria for being included in On Time Graduation Initiative at-risk reports, having been transferred from an Alternative School, excluded from his base school, and failed most State Testing. Just about all of my students fit the at-risk category, with poverty, learning disabilities, and major skills deficits as givens in the classroom landscape, and many of my students have either an Academic Coach or are involved in a mentorship ship program.

The holidays have given me breathing room to reflect on my procedures. Reshuffling seating arrangements to test how various combinations of students worked together and quarantining the most extreme behavior problems had made significant differences and had contributed to making the learning environment more compatible for learning, but the gap between the standards and prerequisite capabilities put a limit on the effectiveness of that kind of intervention. My outreach efforts have been broad, and I have been able to reel in students who are motivated to learn, but Pablo who has mastered the art of work avoidance, mocked my requests with his ineligibility to take a late bus home.

The smugness with which Pablo smiled as he repeated his inability to take the late bus home, and his purposeful disruptiveness during lunchroom interventions led me to the conclusion that either I needed to take formal action to protect the learning environment, or I needed to find a more creative way to reach him. Pablo cried crocodile tears when I first showed up at his Tower Apartment, and Salvador and I scheduled a series of private sessions over the holidays, but we replied, "If you had used your class time to learn the material, we wouldn't have to use your time over the holidays."

After four two-on-one interventions, of between two and four hours in duration, while Pablo continues to have skill deficits, he now knows that, in math, there is no fooling, because the numbers do not lie. He knows that we have "Playbook" which shows step-by-step procedures for every math procedure in 6th grade, he knows how to access every note, every Power Point, every vocabulary poster, every chart, and how to access the National Library for Virtual Manipulatives. I have shown him several different strategies for doing multi-digit multiplication, how to do long division, how to read decimals with place-value language, and perhaps most importantly, the importance of showing every step in recording his math thinking. I have Salvador's cellphone, and he has mine.

Pablo knows that I plan to recommend him for summer school, but he didn't cry when I reminded him of that virtual inevitability. He knows that, if he does not practice at least an hour a day, he will likely be repeating 6th grade math with the rising 5th graders. I concluded, "I doesn't bother me if you fail the state testing, as long as you fail the right way.

Waller, R. (2009). The teacher's concise guide to functional behavioral assessment. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.