Supporting a Young Student’s Identity as a Scholar
Last year at John Muir Elementary in Berkeley Unified, we had the opportunity to engage in inquiry through a collaboration with Mills Teacher Scholars. We used an equity lens to focus on particular students who had been identified as needing additional support through our Response to Intervention (RTI ) process. Our goal was to improve our support of these individual students within the classroom and to think about how the work we did with them could extend to other students in the future.
A Focus on Kennedy
When we began our inquiry work, it was clear to me that my focus should be on Kennedy. Kennedy was an African-American girl in my first grade class whose ebullient spirits and jumpy energy powered her into the classroom every day and kept her bouncing around it for the next six hours. Kennedy resembled a tightly wrapped bundle of rubber bands–when she bounced, you couldn’t predict where she’d ricochet to. Her smile involved her whole dazzling face, and she was driven to please. But she was not succeeding in school, and even in first grade she lagged far behind her classmates.
I knew that I needed to focus my inquiry on Kennedy, to figure out how her immense energy could be harnessed to support her learning. Initially, I didn’t know how, or what that would mean.
As part of my data collection process, I interviewed Kennedy several times throughout the year. In my first interview with Kennedy, I was struck by how stuck she was when it came to answering questions about what it means to be a good student. I asked, “How do you do well in school?” She answered, “Be good.” I followed up, “What does it look like when you’re good?” She replied,“Sit quietly on the rug. Listen.” I wondered, “What happens when you listen?” Kennedy shrugged. Her eyes were everywhere but on me. She pulled the neck of her shirt over her head. She nibbled something she’d found on the rug. So many things were competing for Kennedy’s attention that she didn’t know what to attend to.
After the interview, I realized that I ultimately wanted Kennedy to be able to connect “being good” to learning academic content, not just to compliant classroom behavior.
I created a behavior chart to support this. My thinking was that if Kennedy could control her body and focus her attention, at least physically, during direct instruction time, she would be more likely to absorb some of what was going on–and be less distracted by the hundred other things calling on her. It was a very behaviorist approach to supporting a student, but I’d had success in the past with simple behavior charts, largely because they guide my behavior as well as the student’s. They provide a constant reminder to notice, record, and celebrate a student’s positive activity, and in so doing they reinforce not only the child’s attempts to comply with classroom expectations but my own efforts to build the child up, instead of succumbing to frustration. In creating the charts for Kennedy, I relied on various “Tools” which BUSD teachers use as part of a social-emotional curriculum called Toolbox.
Kennedy’s Behavior Plan
|I will use my tools to control my body on the rug.||I will do my best to focus on the rug and use my Listening Tool.|
|Totals out of 4|
6 or more of 8: EXCELLENT 4 or more of 8: OKAY Fewer than 4: NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
Please go over with Kennedy each day and sign so that I know you have received and discussed her work.
Kennedy responded with enthusiasm to the behavior chart in my class. She worked heroically to control her body and to use her Listening Tool on the rug. I was excited to give her tons of kudos daily, and she was very eager to share the news with her mom. But Kennedy’s academic skills remained low, and I needed to do something to move the work from the realm of behavior to that of academics.
I conducted another interview with Kennedy, in which she was able to articulate that she felt she was ‘doing good’ in school but again was not clear about what that meant. I revised the behavior plan with the intent of highlighting academics, not merely behavior, and in the ensuing weeks I checked in with her throughout the day, asking her what she had learned. I added further tweaks, for instance asking Kennedy to read the objective before a new lesson and then asking her to state it for me later. My rationale was that this explicit iteration and reiteration of the objective would help her to focus her efforts on the central goal of a lesson.
Kennedy’s Behavior Plan
|I will be able to tell one thing I learned during each part of the day.||I will do my best to focus on the rug and use my Listening Tool.|
|Totals out of 4|
Mid-year, despite her strenuous efforts and her amazing growth in self-control, Kennedy was still not making the needed academic progress in school, and her new learning/behavior chart did not encourage her the way the earlier incarnation had. I interviewed her once more, asking again about why you should listen in school, and what happens when you do. Again, she was at a loss. It was clear to me that Kennedy knew much more about what was going on in school than she had a few short months ago because of her immense efforts to listen and to attend to the work of school; I realized that my job now was to help her see this as clearly as I did.
I amended Kennedy’s behavior chart yet again to include sentence frame scaffolds which I hoped would help her articulate what she had learned.
Kennedy’s Behavior Plan
|I will be able to tell one thing I learned during each part of the day.||I will use my Breathing Tool and my Listening Tool on the rug.|
|9:00-10:30||The pattern in word work is_____________________|
|10:50-12:00||The weather is__________
In math we learned___________
|12:45-2:00||I help myself read tricky words by_________________|
|Totals out of 4|
In the weeks that followed, I prepped Kennedy for the questions embedded in the chart. I regularly noted her answers and sent these home with the chart so that her mom could celebrate with her.
Listening to Kennedy
At our last inquiry session in which we had time to discuss our work with focal students, I shared the final iteration of Kennedy’s behavior/learning plan. One of the teachers with whom I spoke asked how well Kennedy was able to fill in the frames to show her learning. I had to admit that she was not consistently able to do so, and that I felt very concerned for her as the year drew to a close and her academics remained far below grade level. She had been tested and found eligible for an IEP, and would be receiving extra support in the years to come, but I was very anxious that Kennedy not lose her burgeoning sense of herself as a person who can “do” school–can sit and listen and focus and learn.
As a result of the reflections with my colleagues, I began a campaign of high alertness around Kennedy. Any time she told me something which demonstrated that she had been listening, absorbing, and attending to any of the day’s work–whether it related to math skills, to the genre of writing we were doing, or to the fact that a change in our schedule would mean we wouldn’t be able to return our library books on time–I pointed it out to her. I used a similar phrase to celebrate her focus every time: “Kennedy, you know that because you are listening. That is what happens when you listen.” My intuition was that she would begin to internalize these words and that the next time someone asked her (or she asked herself) why it was important to listen in school, or what happened when she listened, she would have an idea of an answer.
And of course, just like with the positive feedback cycle of the behavior charts, I felt the positive effect of this focus on myself. I listened more to Kennedy and as a result I noticed Kennedy noticing more, and I celebrated her more. I had shifted my idea of what it meant for her to “do school” and was able to see her as a scholar because of this. I hoped that she could see herself reflected as a scholar in my eyes, and build her identity in school through my belief.
As a result of my work with Kennedy this year, I am excited to think in new ways about behavior charts. I love the idea of continually tweaking the chart in response to student growth, not only moving the goalposts but incorporating the progress that has already been made. I look forward to listening actively to my future students, and to listening to my colleagues listening to theirs.
Carrie Johnston is in her 18th year in the classroom. She continues to change her practice with each year that passes, incorporating Visual Thinking Strategies; piloting and tweaking writing units aligned to the Common Core; and delving into inquiry with her colleagues, supported by the Mills team. Carrie has been using behavior charts to support student choices for years, but has only recently thought about how to expand their use and to look at them as a source of data. When not teaching, Carrie takes her elementary school kids on long hikes; reads voraciously; and plays banjo and guitar, though not very well.