Training TAs: The Art of Empathetic Inquiry

This morning I met with a group of students and two teachers to launch a mobile writing lab at Lafayette High School.  This writing lab pilot is the brainchild of the Lafayette writing committee, chaired by our writing resource teacher, Holly.

We don’t have the physical space for the kind of writing center you might see on a university campus where students make appointments with a tutor to discuss writing assignments. We also don’t have the staff to supervise such a venture.   Also, a before-school or after-school writing center wouldn’t be able to serve students who have no reliable transportation.  

Many of our students need one-on-one or small group assistance with their writing. Our writing committee also wanted to support our large faculty, who assign writing tasks, but need help with the time-intensive process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing necessary for quality writing.

This program allows teachers to “check out” writing teaching assistants (TAs). Similar to reserving a computer lab or a tech cart of laptops, teachers can reserve one or two tutors through an online app. The TAs will email the reserving teacher an intake form which allows teachers to describe the writing aid they need. TAs will then attend the class and provide the requested assistance.

In November, the English department recommended students whose writing, speaking, listening, and leadership abilities positioned them as naturals for this role.  From these recommendations, Holly invited fifteen students to participate in the pilot and attend the training this morning.

After Holly discussed the nuts-and-bolts of reserving a TA (in a future blog, I will hyperlink examples of how we set up our teacher intake form, our teacher feedback form, and our running record of TA work) she asked students to introduce themselves and tell a story about a writing assignment that had been difficult for them.

Sharing writing war stories was a great place to start the conversation about writing tutoring.  One must come to the table with respect for the difficult task of writing, and empathy and understanding are the cornerstones of any good teaching foundation.

After we reviewed our writing TA manual (a Google folder full of brainstorming strategies, graphic organizers, research resources, plus a bell and lunch schedule and a list of our faculty, their rooms, and planning periods) I asked TAs to test their tutoring chops by role playing with one another, using anonymous student samples. One sample was an argumentative essay about the most important word in Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.

“What might you say to this student?” I asked.

“I might ask her if she thought she took a long time to get to her point,” Kris said.

“Okay. Pretend I’m the student who has written this essay. What might your opening question be?”

“Do you think you took too long to get to your point?” Kris said.

“No, I don’t.  I think it’s good,” I said in the role of the student and pushed the essay back across the table toward Kris, who laughed, immediately realizing he had backed himself into a tutoring corner by asking a yes or no question instead of an open-ended question.

“A student will give you a yes-or-no answer if you ask a yes-or-no question, and the conversation comes to a grinding halt, right?” I said.  The group shook their heads, yes.

“I would say to the student, in your introduction you make a lot of good points, but you need to get to the point sooner,”   Kenna said.

“So yes, that’s clearly what needs to happen in this introduction, but what kind of question can you ask this writer that will allow her to arrive at that same conclusion?” I said.

“Let me try,” Leslie said. “I would say, I like how you have a lot of good points, but where is the main point that you want to make? Can you underline your main point?  And what other points come before the main point?”

Leslie had it. She was leading the student to make an independent discovery about the writing instead of fixing it herself. She was using inquiry to move the student writer toward a solution. 

“Think of the adage, give a man a fish, he eats for the day; teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for life. You can fix a peer’s writing today, but that only helps him once.  Or you can show him how to think through his writing independently and become self sufficient. ”

As the training continued, I was so impressed with how empathetic our TAs were and how they were using inquiry to assess student needs. This on-the-spot diagnostic inquiry requires a TA to 1) access the student’s need, while 2) figuring out the best way to help the student meet that need, while 3) forming a question that will lead that student to discover the answer to his own problem.  This kind of formative assessment is a skill many actual teachers struggle with, but it’s the key to meeting students where they are.

So, our TAs have been trained and are ready to be checked out Monday morning. Holly and I are excited about tracking the data and feedback we get from students and teachers on the efficacy of this model.  Stay tuned to hear more about this process!

 

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New Teacher Series/Question 6: How regimented should I be during the first few days of school?

Regimented, as in organized, controlled, and on top of your game? Yes. Regimented as in mean, militaristic, and Machiavellian?  No, no, no.

There should be clear consequences of ignoring your classroom expectations, and you should be ready to address those during the first two weeks when students test your boundaries, but how you address those behaviors will set the tone of trust, respect and positivity for the rest of the year.

New teachers are often told “don’t smile until Christmas,” and several very successful teachers I know run their class like a boot camp until October, but ultimately, every teacher works out her management style through trial and error. Personally, I could not drive to a job every day for five months where I couldn’t smile.  And even though I can be very intimidating, I have zero drill sergeant skills, so boot camping is not an option for me.

My approach is more like, “I’m a professional teacher who wants to arm you with the tools for a better life and help you discover and respect your own mind.  I will expect nothing less than your best. I will honor that by bringing my best. I will not waste your time with busy work, but you will not waste my time with drama and trifling. In this class, we are about learning, as individuals and as a community.  I take my role very seriously, and you should know your role too.  You will be a better thinker, writer, reader, and human being for having been in my class.”

Think this to yourself every day.  Walk into that classroom with this disposition on your face.  Then make it happen. Exude positivity and confidence.  You can truly change their lives.  Believe that.  Here are a few tips:

  1. Connect with every kid that first week. This could be a home visit, a letter, or a call home just to say hello to her parents. Ask your bandies what instrument they play. Ask your ballers about their strengths. Ask your corner reader if she has read X; if she hasn’t, give her a copy to take home.  These small things state an important message to kids:   I see you. I see you as an individual.  I know you.  In high school, especially, kids can move through the day and never have a meaningful conversation with an adult if they don’t want to. Make sure every kid is on your radar every day.
  2. Greet kids by name, welcome them, and then immediately engage them. If you haven’t read Harry Wong’s The First Days of School, you need to read it.  Wong suggests you stand at your door and welcome kids with smiles and instructions. They will be nervous that first day.  Be positive, be inviting.  Check out these step-by-step scripts for a smooth first day.
  3. Good idea – Always explain why a rule is a rule. Better idea – let the kids create the classroom norms. They will create seriously good rules, and there’s immediate buy-in because they’ve established their own boundaries.   Make sure kids see why the rules you (or they) have chosen serve the community. Make sure they understand how the rules protect and aid everyone.
  4. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. They’re watching you. Students want to know if you’re one of those teachers who has rules, but doesn’t really enforce them.  They’ll know this in two days.   Address every infraction in a calm, confident and firm manner.  Remember, you are the adult in the room. You don’t have to threaten, scream, or belittle kids; deal with everything explicitly, stating this is what you’re doing, this is the rule, this is what I expect.  And don’t wear everybody out with giving a dozen warnings. Act fairly and decisively.  Then get back to the business of learning.
  5. Make the consequence match the offense. The consequences should be established long before the rule is broken. Deal with small offenses in your classroom, and lean on your administrators for the big stuff. Don’t send kids to the office because they didn’t bring a pencil. And always be fair.  If your favorite kid in the class is breaking a rule, exact the same consequence as if another kid had broken it.  Then get back to the business of learning.
  6. Always be alert. You can sense a shift from positive to negative energy.  When you feel that shift, move quickly to bring things back in line with your lesson.  Step into a group, shift focus, crack a joke.   Every kid in that room is just as exhausted by drama as you are.  They want you to deal with the issue.
  7. Never create a show-down with a student. If you yell across the room at a kid for doing something, all heads swivel.  You’ve now put her in the position to either comply or tell you to go jump in the lake.  You can imagine which one she’ll choose.  Don’t ask kids to make choices like that; you will lose.   Move in close, address the offender quietly by name, tell her exactly how she can get back on task. State the offending behavior, state the correct behavior, give her an opportunity to change.
  8. Being prepared, professional, and positive will curb 95% of all classroom management issues. Being prepared will guarantee your students are engaged which cuts down on chicanery.   Sometime between now and when school starts, read Teach Like a Champion 2.0 , which offers 62 strategies for engaging students and maintaining high expectations.  The book also comes with a DVD with over 70 videos of real teachers using these strategies.
  9. Don’t let kids talk over you. I’m always surprised by how many teachers allow this. If I’m giving instructions or explaining something, I expect all kids to be listening. Do not tax them with long, boring lectures, but expect them to listen when you are speaking.   Deal with the offenders individually; don’t punish the whole class.
  10. Always be real, which sometimes means pretending you’re a better person than you really are. To paraphrase Whitman, you are large and contain multitudes. Every teacher must know when to use the hammer and when to use the kid gloves. You need to be versatile and self-aware enough to tap into which persona the situation demands:  the magician, the healer, the listener, the guru, the crazy aunt, the wise sage, the storyteller, the performer, or the professional.  And at the center of all these multitudes is an authentic person who is honest and caring, led by an ethical vision that far exceeds whatever is educationally trendy.