Breaking the Academic Code for School & Life Success

Michelle Bulla, December 2017
Breaking the Academic Code for School & Life Success

I’ve been thinking about this a long time – probably, in some ways, since I started teaching: students need to be taught how to act in the classroom. Wait! Don’t go! I’m not about to preach about discipline tactics. We’re breaking codes of a whole different type here.

This is not a post about how you create the code of ethics / behavior in your classroom, a la “Our Class’s Commandments” or “Ms. Bulla’s 3 R’s for Success.” What I’m talking about is teaching the academic practices that many students simply don’t know, and which is key for their self-sufficiency and future success.

Full Disclosure: what really helped crystallize my thinking around this was reading Hillbilly Elegy, by J. D. Vance. If you haven’t picked up this treasure yet, please do. Among many other things, Vance’s book discusses a version of the reality of growing up poor in America. I say “a version” because not everyone agrees with Vance that his experience is iconic. Regardless, I want to discuss a topic tangentially related, which he also speaks about: knowing / not-knowing expected propriety when one is transplanted from one’s home environment to another, and the isolating impact this disconnect can cause.

In the literary world, one result of this devastation is the existentialist’s dilemma: that upon realizing there is no meaning to our lives, we may be perpetually lost. Feeling lost is a motif for Vance’s journey. One of the key causes of this dilemma is having one’s home milieu stripped away as, say, Pi does in Yann Martel’s psychological and existentialist novel, Life of Pi.

In our academic worlds, many of our students don’t realize how lost they are, simply because they don’t know the actual codes that drive success, and they’ve not been taught to look for them. And, I daresay many of them have consequentially suffered a disconnect which drives them away from seeing themselves as intellectuals when they otherwise very easily could be given the opportunity to be included. Many teachers (myself included in my early days) don’t realize they need – both the codes and the students – to be explicitly taught.

Here’s an example using a common situation: student absence. We often are faced with these student reactions:

• I was out yesterday; did we do anything?
• I’m going to be out tomorrow; are we doing anything?
• No comment to you at all either before or after.
• Upon collection of X assignment: I was out – I didn’t know we had anything due.
• Upon return of X assignment: Did you do that when I was out? I didn’t know anything about it until now.
• Did my mother email you for the work I missed when I was out?

However, what we really wanted them to do / say is likely one of these:

• I’m going to be out tomorrow; what will I miss?
• I’m going to be on vacation next week (and it’s not currently Friday); is it possible for you to put together what I’ll miss so I can stay on top of my schoolwork?
• I was out yesterday; what did I miss? Can I make it up?
• Or even better: I was out yesterday and I can see from the calendar that I missed X. Can I come see you to discuss X?

There are several teachable moments here, and I would argue – am arguing – that it is our job to teach appropriate academic practices in this and many other moments. Some of the specific practices pertaining to absences are:

The distinction between asking in advance (when possible) vs. waiting until after.
The distinction between doing one’s due diligence to learn – where possible – what will be missed (i.e., searching class websites, class calendars, digital classrooms, bulletin boards, etc.) vs. presuming it is the teacher’s responsibility to attend to each student’s individual needs at all times.
• The distinction between being engaged and responsible for one’s own learning and academic standing vs. being disengaged and reactive.
• The distinction between expecting an adult to have / want to make time explicitly for a student vs. students realizing they are part of a community / ongoing journey for which that adult is responsible whether they are present or not, and that it is their responsibility to help keep that boat floating.
• The distinction between parents emailing for their children vs. children advocating for themselves. (Parents, if you’re reading, you could be taking advantage of a teachable moment or one missed: students – certainly middle and high school students – should be doing the contacting / emailing except in extraordinary circumstances. In other words, parents, coach children to reach out to their teachers, rather than taking on the responsibility yourselves. Stay tuned for a column sometime in the future, possibly called….”Parenting your MS/HS teen for self-sufficiency” Stick with me, readers. I’ll get there!)

I could go on, but these are the main points I’d want to help students understand. Helping them understand these distinctions is not something I teach to make my life easier; rather, teaching these distinctions is crucial to their comprehension of participating in a community and being self-sufficient in that participation at all times.

Students who understand and accept their role in the learning journey of the classroom also understand their roles in protecting and preserving the environment, their responsibility to vote, their obligation to neighbors / family / friends when in need, and more. In other words, they are socially aware and equipped to act on that awareness. They have developed the social skills necessary to navigate relationships, including their relationship with their environment / society.

In essence, when we teach savior faire, we are teaching civic engagement as well as how to move from one social environment to another in socially acceptable – and perhaps even socially admirable – ways. Students who can sense and be responsive to the code of new situations / environments are positioned for success.

Here are some additional academic practices I’ve come to teach my students explicitly:

How to participate in class / group discussions:
• Place all unrelated materials below the work surface, including devices not in use;
• Look your audience in the eye, and focus on fellow students, rather than the teacher;
• Address students by name when your responses are connected to theirs;
• When referencing text evidence – and this should always be the case for any claims made – grab said text, indicate the page and approximate location and what the quote starts with aloud, wait a few beats for your audience to find it, and then read from the text;
• Find ways to include those who may be reserved: ask pointed, low-risk, open-ended questions like, “What do you think, Michelle?”
• Follow the C-S-E (claim-support-explanation) pattern to ensure validity of perspective.

How to speak / present in front of peers:
• Stand with confidence and look your audience in the eyes;
• Hold notes so that an audience can still see your mouth;
• Rehearsal / practice so that enunciation of names, locations, etc. is clear and thus conveys authority;
• Understand why it’s important to know more than is being presented, so you can answer questions and offer additional information, again conveying authority;
• How to give an introduction to the presentation that conveys awareness of the Aristotelian Rhetorical Triangle (speaker / author – reader / audience – subject), thus contextualizing the content for the audience while also indicating the speaker’s authority;
• How to read lines of poetry aloud by sentiment / sentence vs. line break.

How to set up a collaborative work station in form and tone:
• Create “board room” style pods so all desks form a station with no gaps for materials to get lost;
• Position desks so that all participants can easily view all others;
• Place all necessary materials on desks to signal readiness;
• Sit tall and look peers in the eyes;
• Speak aloud a collaborative sentiment like, “I can’t wait to hear / read / see what you think / have created / are going to share today.” (You may think this is silly, but I do this with AP level seniors! They love it, and when everyone repeats after me, I’ve got an entire room of students who have spoken their first words together, have something to laugh and smile about, have broken the awkward ice, and have been suddenly pitted on a team together against their corny teacher… win-win! They’re ready to work.)

How to enter / leave the room mid-stream:
Carefully open the door and take stock of the situation (or the reverse if leaving);
If it seems there’s something critical happening – a serious moment, a student speaking, the teacher mid-sentence – pause just inside the door (or at your seat) to wait for an appropriate time to move.

How to make an appointment to see a teacher outside of class:
• If possible, email the teacher to schedule one;
• If necessary, wait after class to address the teacher 1-1.

There are more moments, too. Like the times they decide to walk across the room to get a tissue while you’re knee-deep in whole-class instruction…*sigh.* You may even be thinking of some now. And I will think of more throughout the year that I want to address. What’s great about setting the tone for this type of explicit teaching of code-awareness / academic poise early on is that students are receptive to future teachable moments because they’ve already decided you are out for their success, and know you are teaching them the moves they need to make in order to be received well, listened to, heard, and potentially followed.

My final advice: don’t wait for things to go wrong to start teaching these. Even if you’re a brand new teacher, you’ve come upon moments like these already. Stop, drop everything, and teach your students specific practices for success in school and beyond. And next year, start your year with a collaboratively-written mission statement declaring yourselves a community of learners who want to be open, eager, respectful, and dutiful in the cause of expanding their horizons, and you’ll have yourself a room of students who expect you to do all you can to help them be all they can at every teachable moment that arises.

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