Monday, June 13, 2016

"Snowballs" Fly in History Class and Other Mistakes

I said when I wrote a book about teaching that my focus was on what worked in an ordinary classroom, with an ordinary teacher, in an ordinary American school. I wanted to focus on what real teachers do and why what they do can be infernally hard. I wanted to focus on how to improve what happens in any classroom.

So I skipped over most of my mistakes. 

Naturally, I made plenty, as all human beings do.

In my class, I’m sure former students would admit, we did all kinds of skits. Eventually, I realized how good they could be at performing what I called “plays without scripts” and we set skits up to last for entire periods. 

Early in my career I set up a role-playing activity based on the Boston Massacre, which seemed like a good idea at the time. 

I expected it to last ten minutes—and since snowballs were thrown at British guards in the winter of 1770—I decided we needed “snowballs” to enhance the show. Part of my plan, involved members of the audience throwing a few paper wads.

I was young then; but I should have known!

Once you allowed teens to throw a few snowballs, their enthusiasm for history knew no bounds. (If you remember the Christmastime incident in Philadelphia, years back, where drunken Eagles fans pelted Santa Claus at halftime of  an NFL game, you have some idea.) The snowballs were a mistake from the start; but the debacle was complete when the student in the role of commander of the redcoat guard decided to wave his sword—my blackboard pointer—at the leader of the rebellious colonists. Before I could warn him to be careful, he brought down his weapon squarely on the head of one “dirty rebel,” a student named Darryl.

The blow split his scalp neatly and Darryl did what any dirty rebel might do.

He bled profusely.

(Perhaps it is needless to say we never tried that skit again.)

Before I ever set foot in a classroom I spent two years with the United States Marines. Like my drill instructor at Parris Island and several basketball or football coaches I had admired, I felt there was a place for ass-chewing when it came to motivating people and considered ass-chewing a kind of art. So I worked in the medium whenever I thought it would help; and by “help” I mean help get students going or cut off the kinds of misbehavior that led to far more serious troubles in the end. (I explain this all in my book.)

On at least one occasion, however, ass chewing backfired and that meant it was a mistake. (Some educators might argue it always is. I leave that for wiser heads to debate.)

In the case of F. G., a student in one of my gifted classes, it was definitely a mistake. Like many gifted children, he appeared unmotivated at first glance, at second, and at third. He and I talked repeatedly about getting his work done. I liked F. G., too, but the work he did turn in was incredibly sloppy and incomplete. At some point I questioned him sternly about lack of effort. 

I found out later he took offense. 

Not realizing, I soon got on him again. Finally, I called home. His step mother answered. She liked the boy, she said (he was mild-mannered and capable of hysterical comments at any time), but she couldn’t believe how disorganized he was. His room was “filthy,” “just unbelievable,” she explained. “It looks like he’s a barbarian or something.” 

The boy’s father had blown up repeatedly, she continued. You couldn’t see the furniture in the room under heaps of dirty clothes and toys and junk. Finally, they took away his bed and dresser and chair till he agreed to clean up his room. 

He didn’t clean up, though. Passive aggression was more his style. 

He slept in a sleeping bag and kept piling up junk. 

I realized then that chewing him out wasn’t doing any good. In fact, this approach was exacerbating the problem. In later years, as I became more adept in the subtleties of working with teens, I might have recognized the problem earlier and adopted a fresh approach.

Again: I was young.

Still, in working with a 150 kids ever year, you can’t avoid making mistakes. A third example—this one near the end of my career—involved a project turned in by one of my better students. (I mean “better” in terms of work. I liked or loved all but half a dozen of the 5,000 teens I taught. In fact, I think that’s the only mindset a teacher should have. I think you have to work on it; I think you have to try to like all the kids.

The project in this case, a game of some sort, was terrible. Even a brief perusal made it clear the work was rushed and the results incredibly sloppy. I took the young man gently aside and told him he’d have to fix it or start over. 

This questioning of the quality was not my mistake. The project was terrible. But the next day, after he told me he planned to start over, and thinking no one would know whose work it was, I showed his game to a class later in the day, as an example of what not to do. As always, my message was simple. We must all work hard to produce quality work. 

The project, in my mind, was a prop, to make my point to this particular class. I knew it was going into the garbage, regardless. So I bent it double and stuck it in the trash. 

It turned out some of game maker’s friends were seated before me and had seen his project on the bus to school. They knew whose it was and told him about the fate of his work on the ride home that day. The game-maker was humiliated. 

I had held his project up as an example of what not to do.

The boy’s mother contacted me as soon as she found out and told me, perhaps more politely than I really deserved, that I had made a mistake. She could have chewed my butt. I knew at once that she was correct.

I offered to apologize in front of her sons class. 

I offered to apologize in front of his class and the class where I trashed the game. 

I said I’d be happy to apologize directly to him. 

I offered to apologize to all of my classes. 

Mom felt this might compound the boy’s embarrassment. And she said he would be angry if he knew she called me to intercede

I told her I’d say I heard about the problem from one of his friends and promised to take him aside the next day and apologize in that way

And I did.

A fourth example of the kind of blunders I committedand I think its safe to say all teachers make their own brand of mistakes—should suffice. Generally speaking, I got huge mileage out of a humorous approach in the classroom. This included using comical essays when it came to minor matters of discipline (also explained in my book). I also used to tease students, particularly ones I liked, and especially those who could give it right back.

I never once meant to offend.

I don’t believe a teacher ever has a right to insult a child. I don’t believe sarcasm directed at students has any place in a classroom. So, if I teased a kid I liked, I was watchful for any expression or hint my jokes struck the wrong spot

One year, I fell into the habit of teasing Kate whenever the subject of women’s rights came up. Kate was one of my most talented students, possessor of a superior intellect, \a thoroughly likeable young lady in ever respect.

So I used her as an example—employing what I thought was obvious sarcasm, in regard to the historical mistreatment of women. Talking about the endless battles Susan B. Anthony fought to win the right to vote for women, I might say in effect: “Oh course, Kate, you realize women do belong in the kitchen.”

I suspected Kate was going to end up in medical school—and had no doubt she could do whatever she set heart and hand to do in the future.

I thought the juxtaposition of ideas—the absurdity that women should have been limited in any way—that Kate, herself, was so talented—was clear. Certainly, Kate never complained. 

Her manners were probably too good. 

At the end of the year, however, when she filled out an anonymous survey I always used, she let me know how she truly felt. I wanted teens to answer questions about my class honestly, to tell me what they thought, and set it up, as best I could, so I wouldn’t know whose answers were whose. But seated at my desk, trying not to look over anyone’s shoulder or see their responses, I noticed Kate was using a green marker and writing on a yellow legal pad when she marked down A, B, C or D answers.

Students were allowed to add any comments they might care at the end. So Kate wrote a paragraph, saying her feelings had been hurt.

How did I know it was her?

Only one sheet of yellow legal paper with green responses was turned in that year.

My inclination was to apologize as soon as I read her comments, after her class went to lunch. I would have hunted her up and apologized on the spot.

Still, I always encouraged students to be honest about my class and promised never to question anyone who complained.

I was afraid she might feel I was putting her on the spot.

I gave the survey as close as possible to the end of the year. So, for the next two or three days, before summer vacation, I gave her the space I thought she might need; and I can only say I made damn sure in years to follow I was careful in discussing women’s rights.

Finally, after Kate had gone on to high school, I wrote her a note of apology—which was the least I could do.

If she’s not a doctor today or using her impressive talents in some challenging career, I’d be very much surprised.

Kate: again, I apologize to you.

In the "good old days" this kind of statement could actually fly.
In my mind it was always ludicrous that this was true.

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