(My Years of Montessori – Part 36 – partially plagiarized from Part 6 – but this time with pictures!)
On my very first day in my “new” school (which really isn’t new anymore, seeing as how this is my sixth year there) I watched with morbid fascination at how awful the kids in the “Sekundaria” – the 13 and 14 year olds – treated one another as well as the teacher who was trying so hard with them.
Traditionally, in this first circle discussion of the school year, the group comes to a consensus on seating arrangements and general rules concerning classroom etiquette, independent study time conditions and shared space. This includes a wide variety of topics from the use of cell phones to eating in the classroom, from quiet versus social areas to music volumes, from which kids are allowed in which rooms to respecting others’ property, from doing chores to not running in the hallways . . . It was quite a list. And a surprising one. In my introduction to the ways of this school so far, I had heard it contrasted to “rules schools” quite a few times. And here were the same prohibitions you would find anywhere. The only difference was that the kids were supposed to come up with and agree to them on their own. The teacher’s goal was to have them create a poster of the rules that would then be signed by all and hung in the classroom to guarantee a peaceful and productive school year.
That poster never came into existence. In this long excruciating hour, the kids teased and interrupted one another constantly. They chatted with neighbors rather than listening to the one who currently held the conch, oops, I mean the heart-shaped pillow. Elbows were dug into other kids’ ribs. Squirming was constant and adversarial. Barely audible but clearly snide comments and subsequent chuckles were made at other people’s expense. Pseudo-laughter over things that weren’t really funny was a constant feature in general. Arms were crossed in a defensive posture as one student after another leaned back and signaled their anger. All the while, the well-meaning and not un-respected teacher kept cajoling and lecturing the kids, trying to make them admit that they were old enough and smart enough to understand everything he was trying to accomplish. They were and they did – but none of them were going to actually admit that out loud. At some point, the clock struck 10, signaling recess, and the group discussion was over.
I went home and brooded over the experience for hours on end. In less than two days, I would have to face this group for the first English lesson (a subject they had collectively rebelled against in the past). How could I get this troop to give me and English a chance? I would have to hit the exact right tone and fairly quickly – these kids were clearly not receptive to lectures. They were tired of being talked to, reasoned with, and they immediately tuned out. And rules? They turned out to be enticements – the kids were very creative in finding ways to break them. I was going to have to get equally creative.
The first question was how to deal with all the rebellion. By sheer coincidence, it was an election year, so one of our first topics was democracy. I introduced them to the American history and governmental system with an emphasis on rights and responsibilities. We moved from “I have rights” to “Everyone should have equal rights” to “Everyone should respect the rights of others.” The final project in these lessons was to take their classroom rule list and reframe it. For instance, instead of “Rule #1 – No running in the hallways”, they wrote “We all have the right to safety and security, so we don’t run in the halls.” They may have been wildlings, but they were also impressively smart. Suddenly breaking the rules for the sake of breaking the rules didn’t seem like such a great idea to them. But there was still a problem in how they treated teachers and one another on an emotional level . . .
And now we get to the sub-title of this post.
Two years ago, on a different blog platform, and before any of my current readers (except one) even knew I existed, I wrote about my eventual solution to the “wildlings” problem:
. . . After three weeks I introduced them to my group dynamics box.
Sitting on the floor in a circle, I explained to them that sometimes I wanted to send them a message, but didn’t want to do it in a lecturing way. So everything in the box was a symbol and a message. The first object was a “Stop” sign but with some words added underneath. It meant things were getting too rowdy. Time for them to collect themselves:
The second object was a little music box that played a particular melody – that one was sort of self-explanatory for them. They were, after all, 13 and 14 year olds and they inherently understood the concept of momentary brainlessness.
The third objects were for the cases when a student was disinterested in everything – the idea that something is ”Boorrrinngg!” can be so contagious in a classroom. I said, “I don’t expect you to find every topic interesting, but if everything is boring to you, then you are not really living. You might as well start building that coffin.” I put some big nails on the floor. “Here are some coffin nails. You can get started.”
Also in the box was a Socrates doll (teacher/student relationships / listening goes in both directions), my replicas of the Constitution and Bill of Rights (the classroom is a democratic space), and a little stuffed bird. This last one referred to a German expression ”You have a bird!” which is actually an insult and means ”You are crazy.” I told the kids that, in our class, “having a bird” was a compliment – like thinking outside the box or being original / creative.
I’m not sure what Montessori, Steiner, Wild, & Co would think of this method, but the kids loved that box and it worked like a charm. The few times I did use it, there was always some laughter and then an easy course correction. They showed it off proudly and explained it to their parents on Hummingbird Day . . .
My box of objects has gone through three adaptations based on the group dynamics and the personalities in the class each year.
About those adaptations. I had a subgroup in Year 3 that loved to make ridiculous requests. The first two or three times, I actually explained, almost apologetically and in words, about why I had to say “No”. Then I realized it was just a game for them. They wanted to see how I reacted. Enter the flying pig:
Not all of my inspirations worked out. In Year 4, I added a chicken to deal with two boys who refused to speak English. It completely backfired and was quickly removed from the box. But also in Year 4, Mr. Potato Head joined the collection to deal with problems in circle discussions. He had big ears and no mouth. He turned out to be a keeper.
Last year I had such a harmonious class that I retired the group dynamics box all together. But lately, I have been considering reactivating it. I have a pack of five boys who have started rebelling collectively, mostly against journal writing. (For ten minutes at the end of the school day, the kids should reflect on the day and write something – anything! – about it.) The vast majority of our kids seem to like doing this. They write creatively and/or review what was new or fun for them that day. They add colorful illustrations or fitting song lyrics. But for the past month, the entries of the Pack of Five have included a lot of illegible scribbles or swearwords or penis drawings, etc. Or they provokingly write the same two sentences day after day after day: “Before the break we had (Math) and after the break we had (German). It was cool.”
This rebellion came to the Team’s attention and since then the battle fronts have hardened. (To be honest, I kind of admire the boys’ tenacity.) The schedule was tweaked so that I am now there for journal writing time twice a week to support my sorry young colleague who had been taking the brunt of the incoming up to that point. I also identified the weaker links in enemy force and have been employing a divide and conquer strategy with some success. Last Tuesday I challenged the whole class to write five sentences without ever using the German phrases for “I/we had” or “I/we did” – and that led to a few creative workarounds. I think I am weakening their defenses, but the battle is far from over. They still want to win.
I have been racking my brain for some symbol that might help in this journal feud to add to my magic box before I reintroduce it. One idea was a little white flag of surrender and a message like “I know you don’t want to give up. The problem is that you already have.” Another idea was something to do with wolves or sheep – though that might be too harsh. Basically, I am still waiting for an inspiration.
So I’ve decided to enlist YOUR help, my blogworld people – you are all so creative. Any suggestions?