Although it is still early in my Practicum Block, I have already had a few chances to practice the Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) skills that were discussed in my At-Risk Children courses, and so far, the results have been very positive. Over the past couple of weeks, I have been working with the students to finish their projects for a school-wide Science Fair, which took place yesterday morning (stay tuned for a more detailed post regarding this!). It has been a fun, chaotic, very busy time, and it has given me a lot of great teaching practice.
The first time I tried CPS, it was with a Grade 6 student who I had noticed doing nothing whatsoever when the classroom teacher gave the group a chance to plan out a rough draft of their projects’ information, using a graphic organizer. I approached his desk, got down at eye level, and said “I’m noticing you’re having some trouble getting started here. What’s up?” At first, he was relatively unresponsive, so I asked him some more questions about how he was feeling at the time.
“Are you feeling tired today?”, I asked him.”
“Nope,” he replied. “Are you feeling sad at all?”, I tried. “No, I’m okay,” he told me.
“Hmm. Well, you look a little frustrated. Is that right?” I asked, hoping and praying for something a little less monosyllabic. “Yeah, a little bit,” he admitted. Finally I had a hook, so I fished for more information.
“Is it because of the worksheet?”, I asked him. “Are you frustrated by the amount of writing that you have to do?” “Yeah, I don’t like writing stuff down,” he answered.
“I totally understand,” I responded. “Writing can be hard to do sometimes, and that’s definitely frustrating. But you know, you won’t be able to finish your board for the Science Fair if it has no information, and that wouldn’t be good, because it’ll be pretty disappointing if you don’t have a finished project.” He gave me a slight nod, so I asked “How about we make a deal?”.
“Okay, I guess,” he said. “Here it is: I will do the writing part of the worksheet, IF you tell me all about your Science project, and tell me which ideas you want me to write down. Then your rough work will be finished, and you can type it up on a laptop. Does that sound good?” “Yeah, I can do that,” he answered. Eureka! The write-up was eventually complete, and it felt really great to help a previously struggling child to accomplish a task.
A couple of days later, I got to try my hand at CPS again, in a similar scenario with a student who just did not seem interested in the Science Fair process at all. I approached his desk and said something along the lines of: “Hey, I’m noticing that you seem to be having some difficulty with your project. What’s up? Are you okay?”
He shrugged his shoulders and looked the other way. “Are you feeling tired today?”
“Yes!”, he admitted. “I got no sleep last night.”
“Oh no!,” I said. “That must be really frustrating. Are you frustrated right now?”
“Yeah,” he said. I assured him that it was completely okay to be feeling this way, and expressed my concern about his lack of a finished product for the fair. “Would you work on your Science Fair project if I helped you?”, I asked. “Maybe it will be easier to finish if we work together.”
“Okay, sure,” he told me. In that moment, I felt a huge amount of relief, and for most of the rest of the morning instructional block (and for a short time the next day as well), I worked with this student one-on-one, through each stage of his project. We tested the experiment, took a picture of it with a classroom IPad, and I supported him during the write-up too, explaining each step and asking prompting questions to help get his ideas flowing. By the end of the second day, his project was finished entirely, and all that was left was to paste it to a poster board.
I felt great about this in the moment, because there is almost nothing more rewarding to me than to be able to engage and support a student who needs extra help. I live for lightbulb moments and instances of clarity, and nothing makes me happier or more fulfilled than to see students feeling confident and capable during the learning process. However, I felt even better about my efforts with this student after a discussion with the class’ Educational Assistant a few days later.
She told me that this student has a history of not connecting well with adults. He is incredibly quiet, barely spoke to anyone during the previous school year, and also had no completed Science Fair project last year. The EA said that she was very impressed with how I had interacted with him, and that I would make a fantastic teacher some day.
I don’t tell this story to brag– in fact, I attribute most of the success in this case to the student. He is more than capable of completing work, and in speaking to him about his project, I found that his understanding of the topic at hand was far more advanced than he he had originally let on. All he needed in this case was an extra push, a system of support and some individual attention in order to complete the assignment that had been given. CPS proved to be an effective tool for me to be able to provide him with this support, and knowing that I had impacted him in a positive way, helping him to reach a goal that he hadn’t come close to last year, was more rewarding than I can effectively express in this now very long post. I will without a doubt be using CPS in the future, and will continue to build up my competence in putting this theory into practice.