Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Musical Chairs of Responsibility

Musical Chairs...get it?
My students want so badly to be responsible kids. They want to take responsibility for their behavior and own their choices. They want to know themselves and be proactive with that knowledge.

And now they're realizing just how complex all of that is when you try to put it together into a workable whole.

At class meeting last week a student raised his hand. I threw him our Talking Vader (some classes have a talking stick or some other bauble, I've got a little stuffed Darth Vader). He said, "I feel like I'm tempted to talk too much in the group that I'm in and I think I should be moved."

Some background before we go on- I do not create seating charts or assign seats unless absolutely necessary. From the first day of school my students choose where in the room they will sit and who they will sit near. This is because our classroom runs on choice and that can't just be lip service. If you say you do student choice, you gotta lean into it and make it a reality. Just because a student chooses a place to sit doesn't mean that's where they will always be, however. They know this, we talk about it a lot. "I'm letting you make this choice, but the most important part of my job is allowing you to be in an environment where you'll learn. Some of your seating choices might not be the best for your learning or the learning of those around you, so I will occasionally have to move you." That's my job as the teacher. Their job is to make a choice that precludes me from having to take any further action. They're nine. So some of them don't. Not at first, at least. This is to be expected and fine, it's part of learning the responsibility of having choices.

I will make one or two rules when it comes to seating- I do not want groups that are all students who identify the same way, our groups must be mixed. I do this because students in fourth grade still split up into "boys" and "girls" for one reason or another and I don't like it. Nothing in my class is split down gender lines, especially since binary gender lines don't exist. The second rule is anyone who wears glasses needs to choose to be near the front because I need you to be able to see the board even if you forget your glasses. That's it.

Back to my student who is trying to make the good choice by being reflective and asking to be moved to a group where he won't talk. He's in the front of the room because he's a student who needs that little extra proximity sometimes and because he has already been moved at least once for being distracted by and distracting those around him. Hey, he's nine. It happens. I'm here to help. He asked me for help. "I need to be moved."

Here's what I did not say- "Ok, how about you and this kid switch. Sweet, problem solved. Moving on." You, dear reader, are a teacher who is on it and I bet you know why I didn't say that. I bet you can even guess what I said instead. Let's see if you're right, shall we?

I said, "I am glad that you are asking me to do this. It shows strong reflective abilities and a willingness to be responsible. What group could I move you to that has no one you will be tempted to talk to?" You see, dear reader, this problem is not mine. It's the student's. Let us watch as he looks around the room, along with everyone else, and they all realize for the first time that the groups are divided in a very specific way, almost as though by letting them make their own choices, and then making small adjustments, we've engineered a relative balance in the room. Let's watch as he looks at one group and thinks, "I could go...no, he's there." To another, "Oh! Here. Wait no, then I'd be across from..." And so on. Yes, my child. You have friends at each of the other five groups, don't you? Whatcha gonna do?

He looks back at me with an idea in his eyes and I can say it along with him. He's about to suggest not just a two person switch, but a wholesale realignment of the classroom. He's about to set up a scenario in which I've got to pull up two diagrams, a graph, a map, and a horoscope in a futile attempt to somehow balance the room so no one ends up next to or near anyone else they will talk to. Newp, I think not.

Finally we get to the meat of the issue. Finally we get to have the conversation that we need to have about this.

"It is not up to me to keep you from talking. That is impossible. I can help, absolutely. And I will. I move you away from friends that you cannot resist talking to to the detriment of your education. However, there are too many of you to keep you away from anyone you're likely to talk to. I refuse to move you out of groups and into rows just to solve this problem. It won't work, for one, and for two, I despise rows with a fiery passion. And you will too once you think for a moment about how much group work we do, because if you make me put you into rows it won't be a sometimes thing. Instead, this is the point at which you need to choose what kind of a student you will be. We talk about responsibility all the time. We only have four rules in this class- Be Respectful. Be Responsible. Be Safe. Make Good Choices. And we often boil those rules down to the One Big Rule- Be Cool.

"Responsibility is easy when there's nothing pulling you in any other direction. But that's not the world you live in. You'll always be tempted. I'm tempted. I like the teachers I work with and we have to sit in some long meetings. You think I don't want to talk instead of listen sometimes? Of course I do. But I don't* because that's the mature, responsible choice. It's time for you to start learning that lesson for real."

We have a good talk about it. We talk about how it's hard and how they will fail. We talk about how I'll still move students who need moving for whatever reason. But it's vital that this is the point that they realize I'm not a superhero, here to swoop in and solve their problems for them. Some of them have already realized that when they asked me how to spell or define a word and I go off on, "If only there was a book...a book with all the words in it. A big red book..." or a similar riff but for Google or the glossary in the back of the book or whatever other academic problem that is not so major they can't solve it for themselves, at least partially.

Now, if you're near someone who is making you feel unsafe in some way, that's different. I'll help solve that problem right away. That's serious. Temptation to talk is not. I will not move your seat just because you're near someone you think you might talk to. I will be glad that you know you're near someone you might talk to. I expect you to take that information and use it. This lesson in a microcosm for literally everything in our class.

*mostly. Shut up, you do too.

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.

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