Monday, January 21, 2019
"I need you both to come to my desk right now, please." I take a breath and hold it for a moment as two of my boys make their way across the classroom to my desk. This isn't the first time we've had this conversation, and I have no idea how to make it the last time. I want to make clear before we get too deeply into this that I'm not talking about bullying or racism, those get handled differently. But if I handle this well, that heads off the bigger problems later on.
"You're arguing. Again. Loudly. Rudely. Aggressively. Please explain. You first." I turn to one boy and look at him until he starts from wherever makes him look either the best or the most victimized and therefor justified. The other boy tries to chime in, but I stop him. That's how this kind of interpersonal problem solving works in my class. You listen to the other person's full story without interruption. Then you tell your version. Then we find the middle ground. Or we find the truth, because sometimes there's one version and then there's the version everyone else is telling. Nothing is ever as clear as it seems, and often it's even more confusing that a non-teacher could imagine. I've said it before, but Sherlock Holmes would quit teaching after three hours.
Once one story is told the other gets the same treatment, down to no interruptions from the other party. I can interrupt, but I often only do to ask clarifying questions. Sometimes there's a lot of those. Any other times I speak are to prod students to "try to remember, it happened ninety seconds ago."
As soon as both stories are told I do my best to let them talk to each other. Do you see what he was saying? Do you see how he could have seen that? And you you see what he was saying? How could we have handled this situation better?
Here's where it gets frustrating- Away from me, when it's just the two of them, they will bicker and argue over who killed who endlessly. They'll dig heels in and close their ears and become rock solid sure in their side of the story. But as soon as they come over to me they start talking to each other like I've modeled. Like we've talked endlessly about. They'll start using sentences like, "Oh, when you did that I thought you meant..." and "I heard you say...but now I hear you say..." The trick, I know, is to get them out of the situation. Get them out of their lizard brain fight or flight modes and into a place where they actually can hear each other. Is part of the reason that's with me next to my desk because they know if they don't find a way to cool it out and listen they might get into trouble? Maybe. I'd rather it wasn't, but it's a start. We want everything students do to be internally motivated, but my kids are ten years old. They're internally motivated about a lot, but there's a whole lot going on inside those brains right now.
This is always the point in the year when these kinds of incidents spike in my room. That's not to say that my room is some kind of Lord of the Flies battlefest, but Winter Break always marks a I'm Gonna Try On My Big Boy Pants Now phase. Aggressive tendencies come up, little annoyances get blow bigger than they should be. We work close, and there's a lot of us. I can see kids getting irritated with other kids. I can't change the situation, but I can work to change the reactions.
I understand the behaviors too. Every year I've got a student that I can see myself in, like a little time window. I can see the struggles coming more clearly for this particular student than some of the others because I was very there. I empathize with all my students, and I know that the age they are and the places they are heading will come with all kinds of struggles unique to each of them. But there's always one kid that makes me think, "Oh dude. Middle school and high school are gonna be real tricky. Find a way to get that temper under control. Come to terms with your interests being well outside the norm of your peers. Have faith that eventually you'll find some other weird kids who aren't like you, and everyone is cool with that."
The temper thing comes to the forefront hard some years. Some kids are so very angry. I had it. My parents divorced when I was in elementary school and I struggled a lot. It's about finding power, right? I've still got a mouth on me, the only difference is now I'm (a little more) able to control it. (And I'm cleverer about how I use it.)
And I wonder- How much of the anger comes from toxic masculinity. I don't remember "Boys will be boys" being thrown around too much, but I was also the kid getting picked on a lot. So how much of my anger was me trying to Be a Man and Fight Back. I've got students now who's first reaction to a lot of situations in books we read are something along the lines of "I'd pop him in the nose." I like when they say that because it means we get to talk about it. First- No, you wouldn't. Second- How would that help? Third- Why?
What am I doing to help change these thought patterns? I'm modeling it. In the example at the top we are talking through how we're feeling. We're being open about it. And we are honoring what the other person says they feel. I can't say that enough in my room, "If someone says you're making them feel some way, what makes you think you can disagree with that?" We assume the best intention first in each other. Everyone in my class is cool, and we assume that everyone is ultimately trying to be cool to everyone else. So when we get angry about something right away, we're not assuming the best. (To be clear, I'm talking specifically about my class who are all cool to each other, not groups of people who have a history of bad faith and abusive behaviors, that's a whole different thing.) We're on a journey to see everyone as a human worthy of respect and being listened to. I don't want it to sound like my kids don't already see each other with respect. They do, our class is built on that. But it's not one lesson, one conversation, and then it's over and done. It's easy to listen when you're calm, but what about when you're heated? Then we have to talk about why you're heated. How could you avoid getting heated?
And yeah, this is big with me and my boys especially. They peacock hard. Gods, the basketball games that end in arguments sometimes feel like they outweigh the basketball games that end drama-free. "It's a recess game, knock it off!" isn't good enough either. That addresses a symptom, not a root. Why do they think they can react like that in a game? Where's it come from? Because I see it in group work too. I see slights being blown out of proportion in order to what? Save face? So we talk about that. Openly, with clear language. I model listening and I make sure they listen to each other. Most of the time they can see how small the issues actually are and we can reflect on what they were becoming. Then it's about reps. Getting the work done.
All I want sometimes is for them to listen to one another. I want these small issues to be dealt with in mature ways. I know they're ten, but maturity is within reach. They learn this now, they'll better navigate through the hormonally rough seas ahead. Everything is geared towards helping everyone be better humans. But I can't beat around the bush. I can't let things slide. We know where that leads. It leads to men pretending to be victimized by a shaving commercial while also hiding behind whiteness and toxic masculinity to justify terrible thoughts and actions. The anti-Trek.
I see Star Trek as hope, as place where we should be trying to get to. My captain is Jean-Luc Picard. And it is Jean-Luc Picard who says that before we fight we must talk. And when talking doesn't work we talk some more. And if that doesn't work we keep talking. If I can run my room like Captain Picard, if I can get my kids talking to each other even if they're angry at each other, then I can get them to understand each other. There needs to be willingness on both sides. Openness. But if I can get there with the thirty-some kids in my class, then I can make a difference.
If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.