Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
Stress matters, whether you call it stress, pressure, anxiety, or the affective filter.
How stressed your students are will definitely impact their attendance, participation, and their performance on assignments.
Do you know how your students are doing in this regard? How do you know – are you guessing? Or are you finding out too late, during an outburst in class?
Try this: create a very simple online form (I like using Google Forms) that you can send out to all your students on a regular basis – at least weekly. Ask no more than three questions, targeting their stress levels.
What would this data show you about your course, your assignment instructions, your deadlines, and your students’ lives outside of your course?
What might it mean to a student who’s overwhelmed in his personal life, to be able to click that first 5 and know that he’ll get a kind word from you in class?
How would you change these questions to suit your own classroom?
One thing that went well: Today’s long reading was about comfort food. I think it went well from beginning to end: it started with students’ experiences with comfort food, modeling and practice of figuring out confusing words from context only, and munching the cookies I’d brought in. The timing of the lesson was pretty good too, and we ended class with a nice, up-beat feeling. No complaints from me!
One thing to improve: Making writing less stressful to students. I’ve been trying with process writing (as opposed to one-shot, get-it-right-or-fail writing), examples, and pointing out my own writing’s shortcomings in said examples. But I think I need to focus on it even more, especially framing writing stress as something the students can exert a degree of control over.
One surprise: I thought that a few students in particular would struggle with today’s writing assignment, which was basically to map out the purpose and main points of the letter they’ll be drafting tomorrow and perfecting (inasmuch as writing is ever perfect) next week. I kept an extra eye on them, so I can proudly report that they did just fine!
One thing that went well: I gave them a six-question grammar quiz as part of our accuracy review this morning. Honestly, my motivation for doing so was to get data that was meaningful to them for our daily mini-demo on spreadsheets. But the data turned out to be very informative for me. I found that one of my questions was unduly difficult and why (whoops), about 2/3 of the class was pretty solid on the grammar point, and about 4 people (I was surprised at who they were) were struggling considerably. Very good to know! Note to self: low-stakes quiz more often.
One thing to improve: The warm-up was weak and lacked any structure at all. This was not a choice, but a result of saying during my planning, “I’ll come back to the detail of how exactly they should practice each other’s names” and then doing so when I didn’t have enough time to figure it out. I ended up telling them that they had 7 minutes to study each other’s names, first and last. It actually seemed to go pretty well: many of them used their grids from Monday, everybody was involved, and later on during the break I heard snippets of “how do you spell your name?” Free-form seemed to have been a good idea – I’d just like to use it intentionally in the future.
One surprise: This week, several students have mentioned to me that they’re stressed in class. Not in tears or anything, and always with a laugh, but still. In some ways this is not actually a surprise because a couple of them just moved up from Level 2. But one of the students has been Level 3 for a while now, and though her writing is excellent, she mentioned that it really stresses her out. I guess I’m surprised that I could both be stressing out my students and that they’d be willing to tell me so – you’d think they’d be mutually exclusive. Also, I’m not really sure what to do. Thoughts?
When people around me make decisions I disagree with that impact me, I get upset.
When I set a goal and then am moved in a different direction, I get upset.
Someone asked me why I let these things upset me.
The answer is change. Because when I’m upset, I think harder, faster, and more creatively to make the situation change. When I’m upset is when I say, “That’s it, I’m not letting [mistake] happen again and here’s how,” or “I know [this] is the right answer and I just have to make sure I’m heard,” or “Ok, [goal] just got harder but so help me I’ll get there anyway.”
Because if I don’t get a little pissed off sometimes, a one-time goof becomes a habit, what was once a mishap becomes normal, and the standards bar slides down unchecked.
A life of anger is not the answer, but neither is one of complacency.
The result of these changes is that stressed-out people rely on habits, and that these habits can become “ruts” and downright counterproductive behavior. From the article:
“Behaviors become habitual faster in stressed animals than in the controls, and worse, the stressed animals can’t shift back to goal-directed behaviors when that would be the better approach,” Dr. Sousa said. “I call this a vicious circle.”
Angier also emphasizes the plasticity of the brain, noting that the brain returns to normal when the stressors are removed.
Some interesting groups of stressed-out people whose brain chemistry might be favoring habits over goal-driven behavior:
Refugees and immigrants
People struggling to pay bills (be they heat or private college tuition)
Overworked, under-supported teachers
This has some pretty interesting ramifications. What I see applying to my students (many of whom are refugees):
they need a safe, relaxed, predictable environment to help them think
many would respond well to repetitive exercises, vocabulary drills, etc.
teaching them basic survival habits will help them through future stressful situations