So, my last class of the day is a long block of junior English. The way it worked out, I have nearly every kid in the junior class, in fact; I jam 22 hyperactive 16-year-olds into my room immediately after lunch and have to keep them there for an hour and a half.
The first two weeks of class had proven, well, challenging. Yeah, there are a lot of kids (especially when one considers that the average class size in my school is about 12) and yeah, they’re coming to me all hyped up after lunch and yeah, they’re wide awake by the time they get to C block, but none of that was really particularly difficult; I’m good with 16-year-olds and we got off to what I felt was a really great start with the teacher-to-student dynamic. I’d spent the first day or two getting to know them – learning their names, asking them questions about themselves, and generally setting the tone of the culture of my classes – and I was seeing that paying off in how the kids – especially the more recalcitrant ones – responded to me one-on-one.
It turns out, though, that the challenging part wasn’t the teacher-to-student relationships; it was the student-to-student relationships.
Within the first week of class, I could very easily see that the group was divided along three very clear and bright lines; the kids who are “good” at school and are confident in their ability to play the game, the kids who are “okay” at school but who are a little socially awkward, and the “bad” kids – the kids who’ve convinced themselves that they’re no good at school and who go out of their way to intimidate everyone into leaving them alone so no one can tell that they’re frightened and insecure.
Very often, it’s the “bad” kids to whom I tend to gravitate because, most often, they’re the kids who need me the most. They’re the ones who don’t have an adult in their lives they can trust. They’ve been told that they’re not “book smart” and have convinced themselves that is true. They are often the most frightened and insecure and damaged, but they cover that up with bravado and volume and bluster so that they come off as too confident – cocky, even – and end up pushing everyone away.
I have 7 of those kids. They’d come into my room and head for the far back corner – avoiding taking seats at the table and, instead, sequestering themselves into their safe and comfortable clique. They’d interact with me directly, but they wouldn’t participate in class discussions. Their side conversations and constant fidgeting were a huge distraction – even to me – and I had to stop class once every 7 minutes or so to try to redirect them.
Yesterday, the situation became untenable. Despite having moved their seats around, despite having had individual and private conversations with each of them about appropriate classroom behavior, not a single one of the 7 could hold their shit together for longer than about 7 or 8 minutes. It finally got to the point where I ditched the lesson and said, “you know what? This ends now; we need to figure out a way to set this right or we’re never going to make it through the term.”
While I was in the process of expressing my frustration over the fact that we couldn’t come together as a class – that we couldn’t hear each other, that we weren’t listening to each other even if we could hear each other, and that the culture of the class was not in keeping with what I was trying to foster – one by one, each of the 7 got up and left.
I knew they wouldn’t go far – that there were adults in the building who would intercept and corral them – so I set to work on getting the remaining kids to download what the hell was going on in the class. I had them do a quick write; “Tell me 3 things that are working in the class and three things that aren’t; then, tell me what you – the person sitting in YOUR seat – can do to try to address the things that aren’t going so well. Finally, let me know if there’s anything you need from me that you’re not getting.”
The answers I got were both reassuring and profoundly disappointing. They all universally enjoyed the class; they like me and my teaching style, and everyone said that they thought they felt well-supported and respected by me. That was lovely. What bothered me was that they were very quick to place the blame for how the class was failing on the 7 students who walked out. “Look at how well the class is running without them!” a number of the remaining kids said. “It would solve all our problems if we could just split the class up.”
As we were downloading this – and before I got a chance to address it – the principal of the school came into the room and asked to see me in the hallway. He let me know that the rest of my class was assembled in the conference room and asked me to go there to talk to them while he kept watch on the remaining students.
I walked in to see the 7 arranged around the conference table in what – admittedly – would be a really excellent English class. The kids back in my room were right; splitting the class would, in a very real way, be beneficial to everyone. The students in the conference room were cohesive, they listened to each other without talking over or interrupting, and they get each other; there’s a kind of respect among those kids that they don’t extend to the rest of the class.
I listened to them spout almost verbatim the things that the rest of the class had said; THEY were the problem, THEY don’t respect us, THEY make us feel bad and so we respond by being confrontational and/or walking out of the classroom. In both cases, it was they who were the problem; no one was at a point where they were able to stop and consider what they themselves were contributing to the situation. While every one of those 7 agreed that I was doing a good job treating them well, they still didn’t feel like they belonged in the class.
That day ended with my telling the students that I heard them, but that we were going to have to figure out how to come together as a culture; splitting the class wasn’t an option and, even if it were, I wouldn’t do it because there is immense value in having different people with different outlooks and experiences come together to make meaning out of questions and issues and stories. Somehow, I told them, we were going to have to work our shit out.
I spent last night trying to figure out what that was going to look like. I spoke to my sister – who’s a social worker – and talked to my daughter – who’s also a junior and these kids’ contemporary – and did a lot of thinking.
The first thing I came up with was that I had to rearrange my room; everyone MUST have a LITERAL seat at the table, and the way my room was arranged wasn’t conducive to that – we simply didn’t all fit. Two of the kids in the middle group I mentioned above came to my classroom this afternoon to help me rearrange the tables so that everyone would fit. It totally fucks with the feng shui in the room – the tables are all angled awkwardly and kids are sitting in corners and along edges – but everyone fit this afternoon. I can’t see it being a permanent fix – I’m not even OCD, and the arrangement made ME itchy – but the point was made that I will go out of my way to make space for EVERYONE. I think they understood that.
The other thing I came up with made me MUCH more edgy, but I did it and I’m glad I did it.
What I was seeing – from ALL the kids – was that our biggest problem was a failure of empathy. The “bad” kids felt like the “smart” kids disrespected them and, despite the fact that those kids go looking for sleights, they weren’t entirely wrong; I had seen some kids roll their eyes at something one of the 7 would say, or try to shut them down by saying “I can’t believe you don’t know what that means” (though, in my defense, I lovingly but firmly stomped on the kid who said that, reminding him that we’re in school specifically because we don’t know things, and that admitting ignorance is the first step to eradicating it, but the target of the kid’s comment didn’t hear any of that because she was too busy winding herself up in her confirmation bias). The “bad” kids were belligerent and blatantly disrespectful of anyone who wasn’t in their gang of 7 and, both literally and figuratively, invited a number of them to go fuck themselves. No one – not one of them from any of the groups – was willing to step outside of their biases to think about what the other might be feeling. I knew that if I could get them to do that – even for a short while – it might change the way they think about each other (and, maybe, themselves).
When they walked into class this afternoon – everyone at the awkwardly placed tables – I told them we were going to do something VERY hard and VERY scary and asked them if they trusted me. They all said they did, and I offered that if anyone wanted to sit this out, I wouldn’t be offended. I then explained what PostSecret is all about and told them that I was going to hand out index cards upon which I wanted them to write something they wish they could tell someone about themselves; something that would help the “other” understand a little bit about them and maybe make them feel less isolated and unwelcome. I reminded the kids that, since we’ve not really done much writing yet, I still don’t recognize their handwriting, so they’d be COMPLETELY anonymous. I had them write their “secret,” fold it in half – everyone folding the same exact way – and asked them to put them in a basket. I’d read each one aloud, and they’d have a chance to respond to the secrets. When we were done, I promised them that the cards would literally be shredded; I’d take them to the conference room and do the deed myself.
It was an AMAZING experience.
Everyone – even me – participated in putting a secret in the basket. No one – not even me – could tell whose secret was whose (well, I knew which one was mine, but I wasn’t telling). With the exception of one student – who was still listening – everyone decided to respond to some of the secrets.
The first secret I read was something like “I was raped, and now I don’t trust anyone.” The secrets ran through a gauntlet from that to “I watched my grandfather abuse my little brother” to “my mother has anorexia and I’m worried all the time” to “I know I’m smart, and that I come off as stuck-up, but I really DON’T think less of anyone else” to “I often feel like an impostor and I’m terrified of letting people down” (that was mine). It ended with “I’m wicked suicidal and I sometimes regret that I’m still here.”
To quote one of the 7; “Damn.”
It was a HUGE risk to take – not only for the kids, but for me, too. The kids were opening themselves up – REALLY opening themselves up – and I was honored to the point of tears that they trusted me that much. I had to be able to hold my own shit together enough to be the strong, caring, loving adult that could guide them through this experience. It could have gone horribly, horribly wrong, but it didn’t. In fact, it was exactly the opposite of horrible.
When it was all over – when the last secret had been read – the kids were amazed. No one knew who wrote what secret, but they all had a newfound appreciation for the fact that EVERYONE in the room had something really hard to deal with. They started seeing each other as survivors, and they started recognizing that, really, they had a lot in common despite what they may have thought of each other when the activity – or even the semester – started.
I had 10 minutes left in the block, so I did the human knot activity; I had the kids all get into the middle of the room and grab someone else’s hand, then we worked together to untangle ourselves. I felt like we needed to literally touch one another, and I loved the symbolism of untying ourselves and ending up holding hands in an unbroken circle. With the five minutes that were left, the kids walked around the room – talking to kids they often never spoke to – and hugging. When it was time to go, I stood at the door and acknowledged every student as they left, hugging some, fist-bumping others, and telling every single one of them that I love them, because I do.
I’m expecting that Monday’s class is going to be a new beginning. I can’t wait to get started.