reflections of a first year math teacher in a Arizona public high school
Saturday, July 5, 2008
Tools For Teaching Part I
One of the most useful resources I've come across was Fred Jones's works. Even though the teacher certification program I went through was great in many respects, we had -no- training in classroom management (big surprise, right?). Once I asked the best teacher we had, our math methods teacher who had been a classroom teacher herself, and her response was "The best discipline plan is a good lesson plan." Riiiiiight. There's tons of truth to that, but every trainee in the classroom knew we needed more than that!
During my student teaching last semester, I was quickly approaching burn-out when I went to a local public library and browsed through their catalogue for books on classroom management (my mentor teacher had already given by Wong's First Days of School, which is great, but I needed something more). I came across a set of books by Fred Jones called Positive Classroom Discipline and Positive Classroom Instruction. "Hey, sounds good" I thought, and checked out both. What I found blew my mind away, and I quickly bought the first edition of Tools for Teaching off of amazon.com. I also eventually paid for myself to go to his 3-day conference in Phoenix, AZ, and there got a free copy of the second edition with the accompanying DVD. The following is my review of the latest Tools for Teaching book.
Tools for Teaching, Second Edition, by Fred Jones is the best book that I have come across on classroom management so far. He divides up his system for managing a class into 3 fundamental parts: classroom structure, limit setting, and motivation using Preferred Activity Time (PAT).
Anyone can read the book, so I'll keep my summary short. He brings all his advice together in Chapter 25: Exploiting the Management System, as a ladder of responsibility. Everything is first built on 1) Classroom Structure, which includes Discipline (room arrangement, carefully teaching routines, and constantly moving among the students) and Instruction (replacing a passive teach-teach-teach-teach-practice format with an active learn-use-learn-use-learn-use one, giving instruction visually instead of audibly, and getting helpless handraisers to independence). Anything that cannot be controlled with Classroom Structure is controlled with 2) Limit Setting, which is the section where Dr. Jones won my respect: he studied the body language of effective classroom teachers and broke it down into individual body movements that are described and can be practiced and learned (we did this in the workshop too). Basically, he took the mysterious "meaning business" that good teachers instinctively know how to do and broke it down so the rest of us can learn it. Finally, any behavior that can not be controlled by limit setting is controlled by giving Preferred Activity Time (PAT), which uses the idea of Preferred Activities such as games to motivate kids who currently have no instrinsic motivation for learning the material.
Here's my one-sentence overview of the book: Tools for Teaching brings a thousand should-be-obvious "Duh!"s to the front of your mind.
What I got out of this book was no ground-breaking thoughts that expanded my mind, or new insights that made me go "Wow! I would never have believed it!" Instead, my reading and re-reading of the book is constantly accompanied by this mental train of thought: "Ow!....Ouch....Zing! So true! But what can I....oh. Oh, duh. Wow, this is obvious - why didn't I think of this?.......Hmm, I'm not sure about this...oh. Yeah, I guess so. Doh....Ouch! I say that all the time! But what else can....oh. Huh. Doh."
I've just changed the format of this post to the first of many, because I really can't do justice to the book in one sitting. But for right now, here are my reservations and the adjustments I plan to try in the coming year:
1) FJ seems, from his writing and workshop, to believe that groupwork is overused and preferred individual or pair work. I'm not sure, but it seems that way. I definitely believe in groupwork (and I'm also *required* to use groups by my school!) which means that I can't use part of his Responsibility Training. FJ suggests motivating students towards diligence (hard work) and excellence (good work) (p.104). To do this he suggests using Preferred Activity Time (PAT) in two ways: first, PAT the entire class accumulates to use on fun activities, and second, PAT activities individual students can switch to when they have demonstrated mastery of the day's objectives. In group learning we depend on peer teaching to help all the students so I am not planning on using the individual PAT activities that any student can get to every day. Hopefully this will not cause the whole system to collapse; I'll keep this blog updated on whether this is possible.
2) FJ doesn't seem to like discovery work very much (again, just my impression), preferring direct instruction from the clear-cut directions he gives as examples of good lessons. However, in my student teaching I did not find that his suggestions interfered with my abiity to run discovery activities. Indeed, his suggestions point out ways to avoid the BAD "discovery learning" that people can fall into, without clear directions and expectations.
3) FJ's examples focus on procedure, not concepts. Indeed, he uses math for most of his examples and then quotes humanities teachers that say "But Dr. Jones, my subject isn't like math, its about concepts!" AAAAAAAAAAAURGH! It hurts every time I read that. Math is NOT about procedures, it is about concepts, and math is as much (or sometimes more) conceptual than any other subject. Still, I found that I was able to work around this. His examples focused heavily on teaching procedures, like the long division algorithm, but I don't find it very hard to take his underlying philosophy and apply it to teaching concepts. The basics are still useful: be clear in what you want. Use visual aids instead of spoken instructions which are quickly forgotten. Give students a change to use new information immediately, not at the end of a long and boring lecture. Give plenty of practice with the teacher (Guided Practice) before releasing the kids to work on their own (Independent Practice).
4) FJ promotes a more authoritarian view of the teacher than I would like, but once again, I can adjust it to my teaching philosophy. And I have come significantly closer to his POV after student teaching and losing my naive "let's all be nice to each other" hope. My hope is to teach my students that I cannot and will not tell them what to think and believe, but that in my classroom, I can and will set up choices for them about behavior: correct behavior or appropriate consequences.
5) FJ suggests that the time-honored goal of teachers to motivate with content has failed enough to be put aside in favor of other motivators (like PAT). I'm not quite ready to give that up and I hope to God I never will be - when I cease to hope for instrintic motivation, I hope I'll leave the classroom. Still, what eventually won me over was the fact that I don't have to choose. I will run both "motivation systems" side by side - institute PAT time to get reluctant students on board, and then use their attention to try and capture as many of their minds and hearts with math as possible.
Well, this is too long already. But my basic recommendation is this: Read the book, over and over. Take what you can from it, and what is antithetical to your teaching philosophy can be adjusted or discarded. But for any struggling teacher, especially new ones, READ IT. Its NOT a dry read either - FJ has a great dry sense of humor and you find yourself laughing out loud (at yourself, goodnaturedly) constantly. His son's cartoons are also right on the dot. Its funny, eye-opening, doh!-inspiring, and useful. I couldn't use all his suggestion during my student teaching, but what I did use made my job much, much more enjoyable. Hope it does the same for you!