Monthly Archives: September 2011
I like the work coming out of the *Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago (CCSR). They use both long- and short-term action research approaches in the study of important educational issues such as dropout rates, social promotion, and school safety. These studies are intended to help educators all over the world make informed decisions on policies and practices that directly affect their students.
I also like their work because they take school climate seriously, not just because of the current attention on bullying-prevention, but because their research shows that school climate is one of five critical factors affecting student achievement, and that relationships are the foundation for how secure and capable students feel.
How safe do you feel?
In their May 2011 report, “Student and Teacher Safety in Chicago Public Schools: The Roles of Community Context and School Social Organization,” the CCSR looked at the factors affecting how safe students and adults feel in their schools. As we might expect, students from high-crime, high-poverty (disadvantaged) areas tended to feel less safe.
But the most revealing and promising finding was that students and adults felt safer in disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships than they felt in advantaged schools with low-quality relationships. The power of positive, caring relationships among students, families, the community, and school staff trumped the expected negative social effects of crime and poverty! This finding has a dramatic impact on where we choose to focus our efforts to improve student achievement.
The CCSR has now released its Five Essentials School Reports. Based on 15 years of research data, they identified five factors that matter most for student learning. The climate of the school and the relationship between the school and its families and community again rise to prominence.
The Five Essentials:
- Ambitious instruction (classes are challenging and engaging)
- Learning climate (the school is safe, demanding and supportive)
- Instructional leadership (the principal works with teachers to promote professional growth and school success)
- Professional capacity (teachers collaborate to promote professional growth and school success)
- Family and community ties (the entire staff involves families and communities to advance student learning)
The finding that schools that are strong on three or more of these essentials were 10 times more likely to improve student learning than schools weak in three or more of the essentials should grab our attention and help us focus our efforts. Once again it’s all about relationships and good teaching:
Caring teachers + Engaging instruction = Motivated students + Safe school climate
*The National Research Council recommends the CCSR as a model for better linking research, policy making, and practice.
As I was online looking through the local news about the record-breaking flooding in Binghamton, NY where I used to live, this unrelated headline from September 4, 2011 caught my eye.
Broome-area students say best teachers relate to them, make them think
‘It’s nice when you can talk to a teacher, when it’s interactive’
It seems with the first day of school approaching, a Binghamton Press reporter interviewed area high school students to get their perspective on what makes a good teacher.
They found that students agree with the American Psychological Association teaching module report, “Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Supply Essential Support for Learning” and this quote from Sara Rimm-Kaufman, author of the APA module:
“Teachers who foster positive relationships with their students create classroom environments more conducive to learning and meet students’ developmental, emotional and academic needs.”
The APA module noted a positive student-teacher relationship shared these characteristics:
- Teachers show their pleasure, that they enjoy their students.
- Teachers interact in a responsive and respectful manner.
- Teachers offer help by answering students’ questions in a timely manner and offering support that matches the children’s needs in achieving academic and social objectives.
- Teachers help students reflect on their thinking and learning skills.
- Teachers know and demonstrate knowledge about individual students’ backgrounds, interests, emotional strengths and academic levels.
Pair these positive relationship-based traits with exceptional instructional skills and knowledge of the content, and we have all we could ask for from a teacher.
Good teaching + Caring Relationships = Better Behaving Students + Higher Academic Achievement
I trust this is not news to most parents and educators. Specific personal and professional competencies are necessary for success in any field – sales, health care, construction, counseling, research, law enforcement, administration, running a restaurant. And beyond these field-specific skills and knowledge, success is a product of a strong work ethic and a commitment to continuous improvement, and depends on an ability to relate with your clients and co-workers. In teaching, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the relationship between teacher and student is the critical factor for success, the foundation for everything that happens in the classroom.
People commonly talk about the culture and climate of their workplace – the norms that drive behavior, the way they are treated, and how it feels to work there. Why? Because how we feel in a certain situation and with certain people matters a great deal to us. We feel more secure and work harder for those who respect and care for us and who have earned our respect.
When we apply this premise to students in a school, its meaning is magnified by the expectation of society and families for students to respect authority, and by the potential for abuse when you have such an age and power differential. But it is also magnified by the beliefs and practices of the individual adults who work with our children. In no endeavor, other than parenting, is the relationship between the provider and recipient as critical and delicate as it is between teacher and student.
So to answer my question, no it isn’t news that students do better with teachers who relate to, respect, and challenge them, but it does bear repeating until every adult who interacts with children internalizes the message and molds their behavior accordingly.
It had to be a slam dunk, didn’t it? He shot and killed his classmate in front of a room full of students and the defense never contested that he was guilty of the killing. But yesterday the jury told the judge that they were deadlocked with no chance of reaching a unanimous vote.
Brandon McInerney was barely 14 years old when he killed Larry King. Three years later he was tried as an adult, as allowed in California by a 1995 law that changed the cutoff from 16 to 14. To a handful of the jurors, Brandon McInerney was guilty of either first or second degree murder in the death of Larry King. But seven of the jurors wanted to convict Brandon of voluntary manslaughter. It’s no wonder they were a hung jury: When it comes to children, people’s reactions are influenced by many factors, including our cultural belief that adults should protect children from violence, and their personal attitudes and experiences. We have compassion for an abused child and in this case it appears the jury thought that both the murdered child and the murderer were victims.
Trying Brandon as an adult made the jury’s job more difficult. They had to decide which of these adult charges, with very adult consequences, applied:
- The most serious charge was first degree murder, which California defines as the willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought. Malice aforethought is the conscious mental determination to commit an unlawful act. While the seven jurors may have believed Brandon did premeditate and have a plan to intentionally murder Larry that day, they also may have believed the mandatory 25 years to life sentence carried by a first degree murder conviction was inappropriate in this situation. And if they convicted him of first-degree murder and a hate crime, the sentence would escalate to mandatory life without parole.
- Second-degree murder is any murder not defined as first-degree murder. To be considered second-degree murder the homicide must be intentional and with malice, but not premeditated or planned. It is also not a killing committed in the “heat of passion.” In California a second degree murder conviction carries a 15 years to life sentence. Again, given the particulars of the case, the possibility of life imprisonment, with little chance for rehabilitation, did not sit well with many on the jury.
- Voluntary manslaughter occurs when the homicide is committed without malice aforethought, and is instead a spontaneous act arising during a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion. As compared to first and second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter carries a sentence of 3, 6, or 9 years; a life sentence was not an option.
Charged to keep an open mind and to consider all the evidence presented, they heard testimony of warning signs of escalating friction between the two boys and missed opportunities where school officials should have intervened. Adults had a chance to prevent the tragedy and they failed. With all the emotional nuances of the case, it isn’t hard to see why the jury deadlocked.
But was the killing premeditated first degree murder? I believe the evidence proved it was. Brandon told others he was going to kill Larry, and the next day he stole a gun from his house, hid it in his backpack, went to school, sat in the same room as Larry King, and after a few minutes got up and stood behind him, and then shot two bullets into the back of Larry’s head. At the time Larry was not bothering or even interacting with Brandon. There was no argument, no provocation, no verbal taunting that would trigger “a heat of the moment” homicide.
Yet seven of the jurors voted for voluntary manslaughter. Why would they do this? We already mentioned aversion to condemning him to spend a good part or all of his life in prison, but Brandon had other factors working in his favor: he was white, good-looking and boyish, not at all threatening; he killed a gay student portrayed as a flamboyant sexual predator who harassed him; testimony that he suffered great emotional and physical harm at the hands of his father, the same person who taught his sons to believe that gays were an aberration not worthy of respect. Brandon was abused at home and bothered in school by a homosexual, and the jurors felt compassion for him. They could see the tragedy through his eyes.
Did the jurors feel the same compassion for Larry, an openly gay eighth grader who sometimes wore make up and dressed in girl’s clothes? A child of color who had his own share of family issues and lived in foster care? A youngster who was teased and harassed because of his sexuality? Like Brandon, Larry had a tough life and was victimized in school. Did the jurors feel compassion for Larry? Could they see the tragedy through his eyes?
I can’t help but wonder if the circumstances were reversed and Larry King, the gay student, shot and killed Brandon McInerney, the straight student, if there would have been a hung jury.
See related posts.