* The Lightning Club

This is a post on one of the most delightful social skills groups I have ever taught.  There were seven kids in the group.  I was desperate for an eighth student for partner activities, but we managed.  The kids were in fourth grade but all of them had been retained, so they were fifth grade age.  Three were labeled with behavior/ emotional disorders and four were high functioning autistic students.  It was one of those wonderful groups where we actually had a non-lunch time slot and it was at the end of the day.  That meant we weren’t rushing to cram down our food and I could squeeze every possible second out the session.

The kids were a joy to teach.  They were wildly enthusiastic about everything, including bossing each other, winning every game at any cost, and being in charge of everyone else’s business.  I much prefer a group with spunk, and these guys had it in spades.  They arrived like firecrackers.  I’d selected the bossiest student to remind the others,going class-to-class, that it was time for our group,  They assured me, panting and out of breath, that they had all walked down the hall.  Of course, they immediately tattled on each other for running   So we started off in fine spirits, with additional bickering about who got to sit on the edge of the table closest to me.  I smiled at the thought of all the skills they were going to learn.  (Eventually they learned to walk to my room 76% of the time.)

Because everyone in the group was so strong-willed, it took us weeks to decide on a name and theme for our “club.”  We ended up being The Lightning Club.  They thought it was a cool name; I thought it was prophetic.  What made this group so appealing?  I loved their honesty most of all.  Everything was out in the open, including their disputes and struggles in class and at home.  They would tell me that our role-playing had no effect at all on their classroom behavior.  In their respective classrooms, and with each other, they were social outcasts.  They had been at the same school since kindergarten and had grown to dislike one another as much as other kids disliked them.  When we started The Lightning Club, none of them would pick anyone else to be a partner, citing numerous old grudges and the “disgusting” behavior of their fellow Clubbers.lightning-bolt

I started us off with games.  I could only manage two games or groups at a time, because there were so many conflicts.  Everyone memorized “Play fair, Take turns, and Say nice things” pretty quickly.  The kids used checklists to monitor themselves, although they much preferred to monitor everyone else.  “Winning and Losing” was another challenge.  I would ask, “Do you want to win or do you want friends?”  The answer was “I want to win at all costs,” but I could identify with them, easily being the most competitive of all.  They rather enjoyed smearing me in games.

We worked our way through basic skills, spitting out “nice” words to each on command.  I videotaped everything and we watched edited versions, which they enjoyed a great deal.  We role-played a skill (which was nicely done in practice), then I set them loose and refereed the semi-chaos.  We laughed a lot, because I did let them demonstrate how NOT to make friends.  They were experts at NOT making friends, so we had plenty of fun with those skits.

We’d been together about a month when I initiated our altruistic phase.  I wanted them to experience the satisfaction of helping others.  Their suggestions?  All variations of me buying them stuff.  Ultimately, they decided to record a series of self-created puppet shows on social skills for younger kids.  I had dramatically described the difficulties these younger kids were having, so my wild group was quite eager to set the little ones on the right course.  The puppet shows were challenging.  Lightning Clubbers had to agree on a theme, fight over the more desirable puppets, and take turns being the bossy director.  I kept reminding them of our purpose, to help these poor little kids who had no friends.  It was a worthwhile project for a couple of reasons.  Their practice was more authentic than it had been when rehearsing for themselves and the videos were actually engaging to younger kids.

By winter break, The Lightning Club coalesced into a real community.  We settled into a natural rhythm of activities, often suggested by the kids, with opportunities to role-play, critique videotapes, and work through conflicts between group members.  Kids no longer had to be forced to think of positive comments for others.  Yes, there were days when keeping everyone separated was my best strategy.  Like a large family, we laughed and struggled together.  We had parties to celebrate almost everything.  When the kids decided to make gifts for one another, I felt like a contented mother hen with a brood of spunky chicks.

I wish I could say that the rest of their school year was as successful.  On the last day of school (a half day, at that), most of my group had been transported to me for an impromptu “session,” booted out of their rooms for disruptive behavior.  Their presence was bittersweet under the circumstances, but I was thrilled they could spend their last few hours at school under my wings.

* Watch yourself: the benefits of videotaping

lens-456818_640Videotaping is at the top of my list for improving your teaching.   I have referred to this strategy before but want to supply more detail.

First and foremost, videotaping is a powerful tool for shaping your behavior.  It’s the place to start if you need to shape students’ behavior, as well.   Although a single tape can inform your instruction, especially if you’re filming a bumpy situation, videotaping on a regular basis will allow you to see and analyze patterns of interactions, responses, and much more.

You can analyze the types of questions you typically ask your kids.  Are you intelligible?  How rapidly or slowly do you speak?  What level of questioning do you use?  Are your questions prompting analysis and application?  How much wait time do you allow after questions?  Do you call on all students equally?

You can analyze your patterns of movement and observation in the class.  Do you monitor the entire class or only focus on certain areas?  Where and when do you move in relation to students?  Does your proximity to students vary?  In what ways?  Do you move or are you glued to your “teacher” chair?

You can analyze the authenticity of your responses to students.  Do you validate their answers?  Do you extend or rephrase their answers?  Do you notice if they answer incorrectly?  Are you communicating what you intended?  Are you laughing with kids or at them?  Are you genuinely smiling or simply baring your teeth?  Do you appear firm or ambiguous?  Do you look as scared as you felt?

Analysis of your responses to behavior outbursts can be a goldmine of effective information.  Flip on that camera at the first sign of trouble and enjoy the rerun later that day.  Did you maintain a neutral and calm expression (including body language) as you handled the meltdown?  Did you use sarcasm or any belittling remarks or body language?  What kinds of directions or prompts did you use?  Were you fair and kind?  Did you help kids recover and save face?  Did you quickly return to the classroom routine?

Make sure you have signed permission slips from parents that include specifically how these videos will be used.  If you are filming for your eyes only, check with your exceptional needs director for your district policy.  I always let parents know that I will videotape to improve my instruction.

I’ve mentioned before that filming can change your behavior even if you don’t watch the films.  Videotaping automatically triggers self-monitoring, which is vital to effective teaching.  That means I don’t need to watch everything I film.  And that means I can end up looking rather silly:

I was teaching a class for kids with behavior and emotional disabilities.  The Exceptional Children’s director asked me to show a typical social skills session for parents of a student new to our district.  The student had an IEP that indicated placement in a self-contained setting, but his parents were naturally anxious about what that would look like.  We met in my classroom to watch a 20 minute clip of social skills.  As I started the recording, I realized that this was one of those films I had not actually reviewed.  Duh.  But I remembered the lesson and figured it would be representative, so here was an opportunity for me to analyze it, along with the parents.  The recorded lesson had gone pretty well.  The kids were all engaged and there were some funny and touching moments.  Unfortunately, that included some touching I hadn’t noticed at all:  Halfway through the lesson, Alex began picking his nose with a purposefulness that defied imagination.  He was sitting on the edge of the group, digging away (oh dear, I didn’t scan the whole group continuously).  He contributed comments and watched others, but by the end of the film, I was amazed that dear Alex hadn’t triggered a nose bleed.  As the parents sat with me, they were chuckling and enjoying the lesson, reassured that this placement was going to be fine.  All I could see was Alex.  And his nose.  And his fingers.

See?  Videotaping is an excellent way to improve all kinds of skills.