Guerrilla Students

My coach (the person who observes me frequently and gives me feedback) has complimented my students’ “scrappiness.” I love this categorization of them as it reveals their persistence in the midst of a system that I often think has not served them well. The other thing that I appreciate about the honesty of this categorization though is my students’ guerrilla attitude toward schooling. I think of street fighters who are ill-equipped, and so adapt various strategies to survive. I think many of my students have evolved this approach to their schooling.

Unfortunately, I believe many of their survival strategies limit their growth potential to “just surviving” rather than thriving. A colleague and I want to come up with a way to give our students the necessary tools to continue growing, not just get by.

So here’s what I want to know: What do you consider the most critical skills for students to have to succeed well in a challenging problem solving environment?

I think I want to emphasize as my big three

  1. Collaborating
  2. Valuing the process over the product
  3. Communicating clearly and concisely

Anyone have any experience teaching students these things? Do you have ways you build practice in to your classroom?

8 thoughts on “Guerrilla Students

  1. I’ll submit that scrappy dispositions will grow into robust and resourceful ones when enveloped in a safe and rich environment. And so rather than thinking about ways to teach those three skills in any kind of direct way, it may be useful to consider how to give ample space, time, and opportunity for these capacities to build up on their own. Unrushed, unscripted, exploratory math tasks where the outcome is not anticipated, except in rough, broad-strokes ways. Many chances for kids to share their work with each other in small-group and whole-class settings where their results, comments, and observations aren’t constantly being evaluated by the metric of “is this getting us to where we need to be?” Maybe this kind of thing is exactly what you meant by how to teach these skills, but I thought it worth saying.

    • I think that more opportunities will certainly be a key part of increasing their efficacy, but I also have a good number of “high achievers” who choose to shut down in those situations because they have been taken advantage of for so long.

      I do try hard to create the rich environment, but many students have such a low threshold for persisting in the unknown that they quit as soon as they are not SURE what to do.

      For that reason I want a mix of fluid, in-class opportunities like you mentioned and intentional instruction on how to get better.

      • Great. A question and a thought.

        Q: “Taken advantage of” in what way?

        Th: Being “not sure what to do” might imply that the tasks in question are still too prescriptive, narrow, and high-bar. A task need not be high-cognitive-load to be rich. In fact, great exploratory, collaborative, process-oriented tasks often have very low expectations about sophistication and content. An example at the middle school level is “Find me some numbers that you can make by adding together threes and sevens.” Every kid can find success there, everyone knows how to get started, but no one can be sure about the outcome ahead of time. Great conversations, pattern-finding, collaborating can ensue.

        Sorry if this is at all preachy or didactic. I’m really into both your questions and efforts and the thoughts you’re causing me to have!

        • Justin, by “taken advantage of” I meant that there has been rampant cheating in various forms. The students’ grades have not been transparent for most of their careers and they will do anything they can that they think they can get away with. Nothing new, but it does usually mean the few kids who have managed to succeed are expected to shoulder the burden for the corner cutters.

          In regards to your other thought, Thanks! I think that probably does characterize a lot of the activities I have tried to implement before. We will probably work to meet the students where they are and use tasks that are broadly appealing. I do also wonder how to balance this with “the curriculum” that we are supposed to get through in our district.

          • What you describe in terms of “taken advantage of” is much darker and more serious than what I had imagined. That really sucks. 😦

            Dealing with the “curriculum” on the one hand and the kids in front of you on the other is an enormous challenge. And these are of course not directly opposed or anything, but they are often in tension. The only advice that I can give on general grounds is that while curricula tend to be pretty flat, a successful math classroom is spiky. A teacher can pick out certain ideas, methods, and themes and make them big and important in their room, and take others and minimize them–relatively speaking–while still “covering” them. This has benefits for learners, both because it gives them a good grounding in parts of the material as a foundation, and because the course will become more memorable and interconnected instead of one damn thing after another. Also, movement in this direction can free up some time to embark on more open-ended mathematical exploration, like we discussed above.

            Good luck as you continue to noodle through this wonderful enterprise!

  2. Also: Yay! Great reflections on your practice and your students, and great goals to be aiming for. 😀

  3. Communicating clearly and concisely: I occasionly use what I call pair and share. I have taught a math concept. The next time I see the class, I pair the students and tell them that each student in the pair must share 3 things they remember from the previous lesson with their partner. All my students are willing to share with another student in a pair or in a small group but many would not share in front of the entire class. They do this sharing while standing. It all happens very quickly. After they are seated I will either ask for a few to share what they discussed or I will state the important ideas that they should have mentioned while they were sharing with their partner. Every time I have used this quick and easy activity, at least one student tells me that it helped him better understand the previous lesson.

    • Janelle, a couple questions:

      1) How do you motivate students to participate in the pair and share?

      2) I often feel like many of my students don’t have the tools to communicate (primarily weak vocabulary, but also just a complete lack of experience communicating math). Do you have students like that? How do you get them involved in this?

      3) Do your students have the chance to use notes or prior work during these pair and shares?

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