SEL for all or just for disruptive students?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the newest edu-fad, writes Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field. Believers say devoting time to SEL activities will raise academic achievement.

“Disruptive, distracting behavior imposes a tremendous drain on teaching/learning — for perpetrators and victims alike,” she writes. But, she wonders if SEL activities make sense for all students — or just those who are unable to behave properly in class.

Students participate in a SEL program run by the Holistic Life Foundation.

Students participate in a SEL program run by the Holistic Life Foundation.

She proposes splitting teaching and classroom management into two jobs with “highly qualified teachers up front, and highly qualified classroom managers in back.” Class sizes would be increased to pay for the extra adults.

In her scheme, the classroom manager would be able to remove disruptive students, temporarily or for the long term. The money that would have been spent on SEL instruction for the entire student body” would be spent to provide “special psychiatric and academic services for disruptive students.”

Can teachers develop students’ social-emotional strengths while teaching academics? Or will SEL inevitably be an add-on that competes with academics for time?

Teachers, what do you think?

Stop hazing new teachers

It’s time to stop hazing new teachers, writes Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News. Without training in classroom management, new teachers are set up to flounder and fail.

In The Battle for Room 314, Ed Boland refutes the “hero teacher” narrative, writes Pondiscio. Boland didn’t save his tough, inner-city students. He struggled for a year at a New York City high school, then quit.

Pondiscio recalls being a new fifth-grade teacher at a low-performing public school in the South Bronx. He was saved by a mid-year transfer to take over an experienced teacher’s class and by reading Ron Clark’s book, The Essential 55, which listed “classroom rules . . . to teach his students to be attentive, engaged and respectful.”

Taking over a new class gave me a fresh start in my first year and an opportunity to undo my rookie mistakes; Clark’s 55 rules helped me develop a hard-nosed action plan to address my prodigious classroom management struggles. It’s worth noting that Clark’s book was a direct repudiation of the training I’d received, which encouraged us to allow students to create their own classroom rules so they would feel “ownership” of their “classroom community.” The only thing that got owned was me.

Boland followed the traditional teacher prep route with two years of graduate school and six months of student teaching. “I had taken courses in lesson planning, evaluation, psychology, and research,” he writes. “Next to nothing was said about what a first-year teacher most needs to know: how to control a classroom.”

“We treat the first-year teaching like it is some sorority or fraternity hazing,” notes Kate Walsh, the head of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “Educators expect a new teacher to be sick to her stomach every day at the thought of how she is going to survive the day just because that’s what they once did. It’s appalling!”

Often, schools “are filled good people trying their best and failing,” writes Pondiscio. Boland was “failed by those who trained him, hired him and left him to crash and burn.”

Losing ‘The Battle for Room 314’


After 20 years working for non-profits, including a foundation that puts smart, motivated, low-income students on the Ivy track, Ed Boland earned a graduate education degree and became a high school history teacher on New York City’s Lower East Side. He lasted for one year, then quit to write The Battle for Room 314.

The book is “tragedy and farce,” writes Maureen Callahan in the New York Post.

Boland starts with a scene from ninth-grade history class. It’s his first week. “Chantay” is sitting on her desk gossiping. He tells her to sit down and get to work.

A calculator goes flying across the room, smashing into the blackboard. Two boys begin physically fighting over a computer. Two girls share an iPod, singing along. Another girl is immersed in a book called “Thug Life 2.”

. . . “Chantay,” he says, louder, “sit down immediately, or there will be serious consequences.”

The classroom freezes. Then, as Boland writes, “she laughed and cocked her head up at the ceiling. Then she slid her hand down the outside of her jeans to her upper thigh, formed a long cylinder between her thumb and forefinger, and shook it .?.?. She looked me right in the eye and screamed, ‘SUCK MY F–KIN’ D–K, MISTER.’?”

The principal has announced he won’t expel any student for any reason. Kameron is suspended for throwing a heavy sharpener at a teacher and again for threatening to blow up the school. Then he’s caught with a hammer and switchblade. Finally, he’s expelled

“Oh, they getting real tough around here now,” a student says. “Three hundred strikes, you out.”

Boland admits he came to hate most of his students. Colleagues urged him to put their behavior in the context of their poverty, their dysfunctional families. He couldn’t.

The problem is the teacher, not the students, responds Thomas Martone, who teaches history at a Brooklyn school for students who’ve been kicked out of their previous high schools.

My classroom is filled with students who are parents, students without parents, students who receive free lunch, students who don’t speak English, students who are in gangs, students who are in legal trouble, students with mental disabilities, students with physical disabilities, students who are overaged, students who are under credited, students who are unable to identify the seven continents . . .

Martone hands out candy to “help explain the wide gap between the Estates during the French Revolution” and plays Tupac when teaching that Machiavelli’s The Prince is “about how to get power and keep power.”

One student did nothing but tear up paper. Martone “gave the student activities where he would rip out vocabulary, geographic features and social classes from one piece of paper and label them appropriately on the wall next to him.”

Will Martone’s students do any better in life than Chantay or Kameron?

Can good teaching prevent disruption?

Worried about high suspension rates for black students, San Francisco public schools no longer suspend students for “willful defiance.”

Mission High School is trying to avoid trips to the principal’s office, writes Dani McClain on Slate. The school, which is devoted to “equity, inclusion, and Anti-Racist Teaching,” hopes to improve student behavior by changing teacher behavior.

When one of Henry Arguedas’ students got upset and slammed a book on the floor last year, the teacher followed what has become standard protocol in schools across the country: He sent the teenager out of class to an administrator who would decide his fate.

. . . A veteran teacher and a dean followed up and gently encouraged Arguedas to think carefully about why he had sent the student, who is black, to the office for glaring and slamming the book. As Arguedas reflected with his colleagues, he realized to his dismay that he had misinterpreted the teenager’s emotional problems and inability to express himself for aggressive anger—possibly because the student was black and male.

In October, a fourth-year teacher named David Gardner asked Mission High’s “instructional reform facilitator,” Pirette McKamey, to observe one of his ninth-grade geometry classes.

. . .  the lesson focused on logic and structuring proofs. Some students worked in groups to configure blocks of various colors and shapes into hexagons or triangles and puzzled over how best to describe what they’d done. Later, McKamey estimated that only about a quarter of the class was on task at any given time. Others took slow, meandering trips to the pencil sharpener or acted out in subtle ways. Two students, for instance, disobeyed school rules and kept their cellphones out while another listened to earphones. One boy stood his skateboard on end and spun it round and round. Two others playfully jousted with rulers.

. . . a black boy named John (not his real name) . . . popped between tables during group work, sang loudly as Gardner gave the class instructions, and at one point left the room without permission. But John’s hand was also the first one up when Gardner asked what the groups had accomplished with their proofs, and his answer was precise and on target.

When McKamey met with Gardner a few days later to debrief, she told him “the pacing was off.” If Gardner improved his instruction and kept more of the students engaged, McKamey assured him most discipline problems would disappear.

McKamey also suggested that Gardner might, unknowingly, be telepathing a dislike for John, which triggered the student’s unhappiness and frustration. “Think of him as someone you like and who you’re going to take care of,” she said. When John causes a disruption that demands a response, McKamey suggested using humor rather than a punitive tone to defuse the situation publicly, and then talking to John in greater depth about the incident privately.

Improving instruction is always good, but . . . really?

Teachers need to be trained in “warm demandingness,” advises Russell Skiba, director of the Equity Project at Indiana University.

As one example, he described watching a teacher coax a student who had his head on his desk to sit up. She kept urging him to lift his head higher and higher, but when he was finally upright, the teacher showed empathy. Specifically, she walked by him, put a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Get some more sleep tonight’’ in a friendly, supportive way, Skiba recalled. “It’s possible to show kids that you are not going to let up on them until they reach your expectation, but within that to be establishing a friendship.”

High school teachers usually have 30+ students in a class. Is it possible to teach an academic subject while providing individual coaxing, private talks and demanding friendship for each student? It sounds time consuming.

Larry Ferlazzo’s readers offer their advice for good classroom management.

Classroom management

Out of order

Keeping order in the classroom is essential for new teachers, writes Esther J. Cepeda in the Washington Post. But few teachers are taught effective classroom management techniques in ed school.

In my first full-time teaching job, a supervisor disabused me of the classroom-management silliness my teacher-preparation program had drilled into me.

A battle-hardened veteran devoid of educational mumbo jumbo, she gave it to me straight: Be firm, show ’em who’s in charge.

My teacher-education program had sporadically and ineffectively preached what I called the mommy/best friend philosophy of classroom management. The idea was to coddle and entertain students into engagement, creating a bordering-on-party atmosphere to get kids actively learning.

A classroom should be “a collective of learners wherein everyone had equal standing,” she was told.

Ed schools don’t spend much time or energy teaching classroom management, charges the National Council on Teacher Quality in Training Our Future Teachers.

Social, emotional, but where’s the learning?

First graders react to the question, “What face do you make when your mother compliments you?” during a class session called “Feeling Faces” at Public School 24 in New York City. — Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

Teachers are using Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) to manage classes, reports Education Week.

Already dubious about SEL’s claims to make children nicer and prepare them for the 21st century, Katharine Beals sees SEL for classroom management as intrusive and manipulative.

It starts with an obvious tactic: “Giving students input in classroom rules and making them make amends and apologize when they hurt someone’s feelings.” Students also learn simple vocabulary words related to feelings, practice identifying their emotions and act out their feelings.

It all takes more time than a traditional incentives-based classroom management system, a teacher tells Education Week.

The program also invades students’ privacy, writes Beals.

Students convene for class meetings, during which they express their feelings and solve problems.

. . . Ms. Diaz said she has conversations with the class about not repeating what they hear from members of their “class family.” In addition, she explains that as a mandated reporter of child abuse and neglect, she must pass on certain information to counselors and administrators.

Also, Ms. Diaz said, she warns parents at the start of the year that their children may open up to her about what’s going on at home.

One activity sounds like “emotional abuse” to Beals.

Maria Diaz’s 5th graders were revisiting a lesson in social-emotional learning they’d done recently in which they drew pictures of themselves and then listened to a story. Each time students heard a “put-down,” or a hurtful statement about someone in the story, Ms. Diaz had them tear off a piece of their self-portraits in a show of empathy.

. . . The “put-downs” activity . . . brought much of the class to tears.

The goal is to make kids “more responsible and empathetic,” writes Beals. These are “two traits which the teachers we’ve read about, as well the architects of these programs, appear to be lacking in spades.”

“SEL-based classrooms also do not work for every child,” Ed Week admits. “Students with behavioral issues may require an extrinsic-rewards system or a more structured approach.”

Beals asks: “Why are we forcing students who don’t have behavioral issues to waste so much time on these privacy-invading, time-wasting exercises?”

Is SEL useful, harmless or manipulative?

Unprepared to teach

Olivia Blanchard quit Teach for America because the five-week training program hadn’t prepared her to teach “difficult” fifth-graders.

I had few insights or resources to draw on when preteen boys decided recess would be the perfect opportunity to beat each other bloody, or when parents all but accused me of being racist during meetings. Or when a student told me that his habit of doing nothing during class stemmed from his (admittedly sound) logic that “I did the same thing last year and I passed.” The Institute’s training curriculum was far too broad to help me navigate these situations. Because many corps members do not receive their specific teaching assignments until after training has ended, the same training is given to future kindergarten teachers in Atlanta, charter-school teachers in New Orleans, and high-school physics teachers in Memphis.

Katrina Ballard explains why she didn’t quit, despite feeling unprepared and overwhelmed.

She’d spent her five-week summer training working with second graders, but was hired to teach middle-school students in Denver.

 I struggled with behavior management, making connections with kids who grew up in realities far from my own, and the bureaucracy of working in a public school . . . I was failing at too many things for my ego and my body to handle.

But it wasn’t because she lacked traditional training, Ballard writes.

. . . about half of the incoming staff that year were fresh out of teaching school. They struggled with the same things I did. They found small successes and built relationships with their students, like I did. But TFA or not TFA — it didn’t make a difference.We all felt as though we were drowning.

. . . Teaching in many of our public schools is unsustainable, and many of the teachers don’t last, except for a few golden gems. When I left after my second year in May to come back to New York, about half of the rest of my school staff was quitting, too. Teaching is HARD. REALLY HARD. CAREER TEACHERS ARE SAINTS!

Ballard now directs teacher training at Democracy Prep, a network of New York City charter schools.

More states and teacher prep programs are requiring prospective teachers to pass an assessment of their classroom skills, reports Stateline.

Esquith’s new book geared to rookie teachers

Rafe Esquith, who teaches Shakespeare to low-income Hispanic and Korean fifth graders in Los Angeles, has come out with a new book, Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans

It includes a dialog on responsibility on the first day of class, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

A student asks to go to the bathroom. Esquith asks him whether he’ll run or slide down the stair railing. The student says he’ll walk.

Rafe: Why? Is running a bad thing? I love to run!

Student: Huh?

Rafe: There are wonderful places to run and make noise. Can anyone name some of them?

The class: The playground .?.?. the beach .?.?. the park .?.?.

Rafe: Exactly. So why are we walking quietly to the bathroom?

Student: You don’t want me to get hurt or disturb other classes.

Esquith asks the student if he’ll fool around in the bathroom, perhaps throw a wet paper towel on the ceiling or on the floor. The student says he’ll go, wash his hands with soap, throw the towel in the garbage and return.

Esquith asks what would happen if the student broke his trust by “running, disturbing the school or fooling around in the bathroom?”

 Student: I won’t be able to use the bathroom anymore.

Rafe: Nope. Of course you can go to the bathroom. But you will have to be accompanied by people to watch you, as you would not be ready to do things yourself yet. I think you are. Do you think you are?

Student: Yes.

He lets the student go to the bathroom. (Let’s hope it’s not too late.)

Picking (and avoiding) your fights

Education Realist, a high school math teacher, took off a student’s hat as a joke. Before she could return it, he stood and shouted at her, “Give me my damn HAT back.” In Picking Your Fights—Or Not, she tells the story.

“Sit down, BTS. Right now.” I was standing very, very still. He edged even closer.

“Give me the damn hat. You don’t take my hat.”

. . . “BTS,” I said very carefully, very clearly. “I promise you I was just kidding around. You hadn’t done anything wrong. I was going to hand it back to you. And you will have the beanie back the minute you sit down. But you do not tell me what to do.”

He said, again, “Give me the damn HAT BACK. NOW.”

She didn’t want to give back the hat till he sat down. She didn’t want to call a supervisor, which would risk a charge of “physically threatening a teacher.” Furthermore it was partly her own fault for messing with his hat.

Then she heard her other students telling BTS to calm down. One girl said, “I got to tell you, BTS, that’s a damn ugly hat to be going face to face for.”

They weren’t mocking him, laughing at him, making fun of him for letting me take his beanie. They were, god love each and every one of them, fully cognizant of the thin line we were on, and determined to walk BTS back.

Sabi, a usually quiet Afghani, said “BTS, you should sit down and get your hat back.” Kyle said “It’s spring break, man. You want to lose a second of it to the (detention) hallway?”

BTS sat down. She gave him the hat back.