Wednesday, May 21, 2014

No Failure Classroom at Work

At this past FLAG conference, I attended Bob Patrick's workshop on the No Failure Classroom. Bob has a thriving program and is an award winning teacher of Latin. I wanted to write a post on it now because I have been slowly implementing pieces of the No Failure classroom this semester. The experience has been eye opening and something I'd fully recommend.

Bob started by asking us what was important to us and what our "elevator speech" was - that is, how we explain why we do what we do given a brief amount of time with someone who is not a foreign language teacher. Here were my responses:


The key to these things is that we, as teachers (especially foreign language teachers) need to build trust and relationships with our kids - "War is what happens when language fails." (Margeret Atwood)

Today, I'd like to write about three aspects I've already used in my classroom. I plan on doing the 4th this Friday and will write a summer post on it.

Two Most Important Questions
I did this the Monday I came back from FLAG. These two questions are now how I will begin each year. The key to this is to make sure you tell the students: 1) This is NOT anonymous; 2) I will read each and every one. Nota Bene - Also tell your students you are a mandatory reporter and what that means.

Here are the questions:
  1. What is important to you?
  2. Why does it matter?
I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting. Every kid wrote something. Some of them were short and simple and some students took an entire sheet of paper. I went home and, as I promised, read every single one. It changed the way I saw some of my kids. For others, it explained behaviours I'd wondered about. When I came back the next day, things were a little different:
  • Some students consciously worked to change habits they knew weren't productive. 
  • Many students wanted to know if I'd read all 130 papers
  • Some students approached me to talk more.
Overall, I am pleased I did this. It definitely built the amount of trust between me and my kids and our relationship has improved. 

Classroom Management - Power With
I use the Daily Engagement Assessment rules for my classroom management. Since my first day with them last year, they have done wonders for my room. These ten rules keep it clear what behaviour I require in my room and also serve to help students do their best in my room. If students are following the DEA, they will make progress. These rules, rather than simply being a list of do's and don'ts provide students the tools and power to succeed. 

A No Failure Classroom goes even further to create "Power With" situations as opposed to "Power Over" situations.

More than a few times, I've had situations that require a... gentle word with students. Bob lays out simple ways to deal with this after pulling a student outside
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  • I am on your side
  • I am here for your success. Do you want to be successful?
  • Can we go back inside and do what it takes to be successful?
The key here is to not argue behaviour. At that point, it is about gaining power over someone whereas this conversation gives both parties power to do something together. More than once I  have had a conversation like this with students. Before, the conversation could take many minutes, filled with arguments, apologies, and explanations. Now, it is quick and clear. Sometimes I have to have this conversation with the same student daily. More often than not, however, the behaviour changes. 

There has been one instance in mind that I think is a perfect example of a no fail classroom. This student and I have had many conversations and struggles through the year. Having had these conversations with this student and knowing what is going on in his/her life, I have been working with the student to get work in and focus in class. The changes were startling when I changed from a traditional approach to the No Failure Classroom.

Before After
Student would miss 4 of 5 days Student misses 1 of 5 days
Student argues when asked to put away
technology or take out materials
Student initially argued, but now does it
after being asked once
Student would not participate in the Daily
Engagement Assessment and would roll
eyes frequently during class
Student participated 3 out of 5 times
Student would respond to my prompts
with an "I don't know" or "I will not" or
"I don't understand anything"
Student initially responded as before,
but after a few days of consistent help
and prompting, began to make
connections without teacher aid
Student would work, even on a basic
level with others. Student would refuse
to join groups or pairs.
Student is still reluctant to work with
others, but will do so, especially if a job
has been given to the student (like note
taker or artist or runner)
Student was rude to others, including me
on a fairly regular basis. 
Student initially responded as before,
but now is a good "classroom citizen",
helping clean up and helping others.

It was clear that the initial change caught the student by surprise. After a few days though, (s)he caught on to what I was doing and joined in. Here's an example of our progression:

Day 1 - "I know this isn't what you want to do, but I need you to do this." "Why? There's no point."

Day 3 - "I know this isn't what you want to do, but I need you to do this." "really.... okay"

Day 5 - "I know this isn't what you want to do, but I need you to do this." "ya, ya okay..."

Day 7 - "I know this isn't what you want to do..." "but you need me to... I know. I got it."

By day 7, this student was participating more, offering to help, etc. I was taken aback! With some other students the "broken record" phrase was what I discussed above about success. With that too, quick change occurred.

Having spent my semester slowly involving these techniques, I don't know how I ran my classroom before. This has changed everything about how I address students, see students, think about students, and it has changed how they see me. I definitely see more action and more excitement about things than before. What a great way to end a year!