Thursday, May 21, 2009

Does Recess improve classroom behavior?

First, read this, or just eyeball the charts for a few seconds.

This is from a blog I read (or skim) daily at work when I'm waking up and trying to shift gears from Spidey-sense mode (from the 5 or so brushes with death I have with early morning commuters) to code-monkey mode, which requires that your language centers are firing. This entry shows a study relating how much recess school kids are given and how well-behaved they are in the classroom. Although the results don't seem to me as significant as the author implies, it seems obvious that letting kids burn off energy a couple times a day is a good thing.

What struck me most was the first comment after the article, posted by Lilian, which echoes a sentiment of my own:
"It may also affect teachers' effectiveness in the classroom if they get a break too."

[Look at that awesome sentence! She used the possessive plural of "teacher" correctly, fit "affect" and "effect" into the same sentence, and avoided the grammarian's snooty comma between "break" and "too"... brings a tear to my eye.]

Why does that echo my own thoughts? A little background:

I spent a lot of time volunteering at elementary schools when Stacey was between the 1st and 4th grades, using the hook of my mad computer skills. It started when I signed up for "Tech Corps Ohio", which matches computer guys to local schools. They pitched the gig as helping schools install OSes on new machines, upgrade network firmware, run cabling, stuff like that. The school I was placed with, Annehurst elementary, less than a mile from where Stacey played most of her soccer games this year, wanted someone who would help their three 5th grade classes learn PowerPoint so they could do book reports with images and bullet points. At the interview at the school, I heard what they wanted me to do and said confidently "sure, no problem, that'd be swell," or some variation thereof, and left to go quickly teach myself what the heck PowerPoint was.

It turned out to be pretty simple, and in addition to the basics, I learned a phrase to make myself sound smart and professional ("hierarchical lists"), and a couple things about the program that I knew the kids would like: hotkeys and drawing. F5 runs your slideshow, ctrl-M adds a new slide, during a slideshow you can right-click and choose pointer options -> pen, and draw on the screen, and erase it all when you're done. Genius. Fun.

The class was a hit, and I quickly settled down and got comfortable with the kids. All three classes of them. There were 20 kids in each class, and I took them in three 30 minute shifts. I hid my anxiety through being a smart-alec, and took a hint from the AP (my high-school) and asked the kids to refer to me by my first name. Toward the end of the year that became "Mr. C" by kids who wanted to seem cool but couldn't overcome the previous 5 years of training to be artificially respectful to authority figures.

I also preached my controversial philosophy of learning computers, which reduces to "if it jams, force it, if it breaks, it needed replacing anyway", or "go play with it and see what it does". The easiest way to do that with a group of kids is to find one who isn't following your instructions, usually a boy trying to test boundaries or show that he's a rebel by browsing the web when you want everyone to be creating a bulletted list in their "About Me" slideshow, and say something like the following:

"Ok, everyone stop. Look at Jim's computer, here, how he's not anywhere near what I asked you guys to do? [pause for effect]... that's perfectly OK. I just want to let you guys know now that I'm not grading you, and you're here to learn, to experiment, and I want it to be fun. For me, what Jim is doing is how I learned to use computers in the first place. Exploring is what led me to be a professional computer guy. So explore, and don't worry about getting in trouble."

Shocking, and in some cases the first time these kids had heard anything similar in a school setting. A side effect of this was that Jim stayed with the class a little more, even though he was praised rather than scolded for his rebelliousness. Interesting. How did I get away with this? With saying something so against the grain to 60 5th graders? I'll explain towards the end.

When we ran out of PowerPoint stuff to do, we moved on to Excel, where they learned how to collect and graph data, make a multiplication table, and try to solve a random nonsensical question that you can throw numbers at. The question I picked was "Does how many siblings you have affect how tall you are." [Apparently not, as it turned out]

The coup de grâce that year was me convincing Sterling Commerce (where I worked at the time) to host all the kids for a day. All 60 of them. They got bussed from Westerville to Dublin, and spent all day touring the Sterling campus, seing the server room and "The Bubble" (the communications room with all the modems, leased lines, X.25 nodes, CSU/DSUs, etc.), where I worked. They also got treated to a speech on e-commerce by the CEO, where he used examples of current episodes of popular kids TV shows, Lizzie McGuire and Jackie Chan Adventures, to illustrate points he was making in terms that 5th graders could grasp and find interesting. The man was a genius. That was a fine end to a great year.

So after that great success, I jumped at the first opportunity I had to do something similar, which turned out to be at Stacey's school, when the principal said he was looking for some people to help teach kids how to get stock data into Excel.

The 4th and 5th graders of Stacey's school were asked to learn basic spreadsheet skills so they could work on the "stock project", where each of the grades picked a common stock (Blockbuster, Walmart, McDonald's, companies like that were pretty popular picks) and took $500 of imaginary money to buy shares at the beginning of the semester, to be sold back at the end of the semester. The grade that made the most money "won". The end products were to be a nice printed graph, and a handful of computer-savvy kids.

In the classrooms, the teachers would write down their grade's stock price at the end of every week, and at the end of the semester the kids would transpose all the data into the computer and print out some pretty graphs. My part was teaching 6 volunteers how to use Excel, in particular how to make graphs from columns of data, 45 minutes before school for a week. Here's what we ended up with:

From Misc

The kids got the basics of Excel down very quickly, and I noticed if I pushed too much math into it, the kids just shut down. For example, the idea that you can't buy a partial share was one I never should have broached. That means you have to keep track of the remainder of your $500 from the initial purchase and add it back in later, and also that you need to tell Excel to not just divide, but to round down. I thought they would pick that up in 2 minutes and move on, being little mental sponges, and volunteers to boot. Big mistake. The kids had been convincing themselves for the previous three years that math was hard and scary, and tracking the remainder and rounding down turned the exercise from fun with spreadsheet graphs into mean-spirited story problems. I quickly backtracked and let them buy partial shares before the kids lost their interest in the project. Everything worked out. Close call, though.

That project got me ingratiated to the school's teachers and office staff, who knew me on site afterwards, chatted with me when I passed them in the halls, asked after Stacey, etc. I used that success and my newly won notoriety to volunteer the following year teaching basic computer skills ("how to type stuff up in Word and print it out" and "how to find the icons for the lame educational games" was about all that was going on) once a week for an hour to Stacey's second grade class.

The following year I volunteered as a general classroom aid to Stacey's 3rd grade class, where I would run copies of whatever handout the class needed, collate, staple, etc., and eventually ended up being sort of a tutor, where kids who had problems with certain taxing homework assignments or tests would meet with me privately to go over the assignment and try again.

When Stacey was in the 4th grade, my career came calling. AEP was doing away with it's flex-time, so I was no longer able to work 4 10-hour days, and no longer able to regularly volunteer. It came at a good time, because I was getting burned out on it. With only one day a week for about an hour for just a few years I was really getting burned-out on the kids. I still loved them to death, but it was emotionally and mentally draining... which brings me to the point of this whole recounting:

I was the recess. I was the break that affected the teachers' effectiveness in the classroom. Each year that I volunteered the same thing would happen. On day one, I was closely supervised, presumably to make sure I didn't show up drunk, set the American flag on fire, or anything like that. On day 2, and from then on, I was left alone with the kids while the teachers went elsewhere to catch up on grading, rest, smoke a fatty, what have you. I, with no training in education, with no background check, was left alone with a total of over 100 different kids over the years at multiple schools. Saying things like "call me Curtis" and "it's alright to go explore, if you're so moved" without being advised against informality or ignoring the discipline of the Lesson Plan.

"How the heck is that possible?!" you may angrily inquire. It's because the teachers are taxed beyond belief, struggling to maintain order, handle special needs kids (mainstreamed Down syndrome kids, and ESL refugee immigrants, for example), get through the textbooks on schedule, and spend part of the year teaching specifically for the "No Child Left Behind" federal tests and the state equivalent (ours is the "OAT"). Kids wear you out under normal circumstances, and they wore me out with minimal exposure in just a handful of years. Imagine what career teachers being stretched in all these directions must be going through. I could have been anybody. I'd put money on there being people out there who volunteer with less than honorable motives, people with no business being in front of kids, who are happily conducting classes under the radar, with no supervision. Scary, no?

All horror scenarios aside, I'm glad I got the chance to work with the kids, and I'm getting to the point where I think I would enjoy it again. I've volunteered at the book fair a couple times this year, and that's gone ok. As I spend more time with Scout, she's at the point where she takes an interest in my explanations of how things work, beyond the "I'm trying to hold your attention and be cute so you'll love me" common in toddlers. Example, a couple days ago we learned about smooth wood versus rough wood when she was walking to the playground with me and we passed a gnarly, dry wooden fence. I showed her how easy it was to peel some wood back from the fence to make a splinter, and how to judge how smooth the wood was and whether it was safe to run your hand across it. She listened intently. A year ago the conversation would have gone thusly:

"Here, Scout, check out this wood fence, I want to show you how..."

"Can you pick me up? I want a juice. Can we watch TV when we get home...."

Granted that some conversations with a 4 year old will still go that way, but Scout has rounded the corner of toddleresque constant stream of commands and begging for favors to listening and thinking... sometimes. I look forward to her elementary school years, and trying to leverage whatever reputation capital I have at work into time I can volunteer again, to watch another girl I love grow into the genius I know she'll be.

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