The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

An interesting article - a transcript of a middle school lesson can be downloaded here. Thanks to Lordy for asking me my opinion of the piece.

The situations in the transcript are recognisable to me from the school in which I work. The teacher responses are not.

I notice Chloe is sitting at her desk, doing nothing. "What's up?" I ask her.
"I don't have a pencil." This must be the twentieth time this year she has come to my class unprepared to do anything. She knows that I am going to tell her that it is her responsibility to come to class prepared ... this is the seventh grade not kindergarten. Before I can say anything, she says, "I had it! Somebody stole it from me." This is, of course, the fifteenth time that this has happened to her. The must be a fabulous black market for stolen pencils and notebooks. What makes this theft even more amazing is that even though this is a fifth period class, because of a rearranged schedule, this is actually happening the first period of the day. I know no one stole her pencil. I have two behavior problems, first that she is constantly unprepared to work and second the lie. If I provide a pencil, no one will bring any material to class again. Today I choose to work on the lie.
I tried providing pencils ... I went through 144 in three weeks!
"Chloe do you think when you have a job in the real world your boss is going to keep accepting these lame excuses?"
"Somebody stole it!" She's sticking to her story.
"Come on, does anyone think someone stole Chloe's pencil?" I ask the class. Of course one or two agree but most know she's lying. "Well what will your boss say when you keep coming up with these excuses?"
The class knows and yells out, "You're fired!" Chloe begins a high-pitched giggle that goes on for 15 seconds. The laughing also reassures me that she is in fact lying. This sets the class off, everyone starts to talk or laugh. Steven Berdell gets up and walks directly in front of me like I wasn't there.
"Sit down Mr. Berdell!" I yell. He is one foot in front of me and doesn't even flinch. He can't hear me. People in the next room can hear me, but he ignores me. I'm not there. I don't matter. He has a purpose, to talk to someone on the other side of the room. He has to. I'm not there. He has a reason. Who knows; maybe he too needs to borrow a pencil. In his mind he is justified to get up and walk across the class. I take a step and block his path.
"Sit down" I say.

The narrator seems to have forgotten they're children. I teach classes similar in make up to this, but I use different behavioural management skills to prevent any trouble escalating. This man, according to the transcript, patronises them, tries to trap them, and humiliates them publicly.
I can understand how he might feel he's doing his best, but there are other ways of handling confrontational situations than yelling at people to shut up.

I don't doubt that in many situations the narrator can prove himself an excellent teacher. In this situation, however, he is not.
He employs zero active learning techniques, in fact at the end, he describes learning as a punishment for them. The methods we use to get across skills and information are equally as important as what we decide to teach.
What he wants them to do in essence is to shut up and sit still for an hour while he treats them like criminals (the tape recorder), then humiliates them if they fail. The worksheets weren't even new, they'd done them once already. Plus, instead of teaching them, he was trying to skive off and do his marking instead.

He excuses this by saying he is usually involved in 'Socratic' Q&A teaching methods (which are often more suited to older students) - but there's lots of behavioural teaching to be done even while a class is working in silence. This class is crying out for better behavioural direction - we see that in their constant testing of his rules. I'm tempted somewhat to go through with a marker pen and pick out all the signals these children are sending him - indirect verbal and non-verbal signals that they're upset by his approach to them, and his apparent dislike. The frequent references to the tape recorder are merely the most obvious.
Teachers need to be alert to these signals and pick up on them, because they are the adult communicator in the room. In a chaotic classroom, this can be the most difficult thing to stand calm, be still, and notice these signals. But it's the most effective thing you can do.

The clue to his negativity about the children is in him actually bothering to transcribe the tape at all. There's no way it could have made him feel better, or help him reflect on his methodology, or implement better ways of interesting those children. It was an exercise in persuading himself they were unteachable, to salve his own conscience.

Why didn't he go see them in other classes? Why didn't he vary the tasks set, or the pace? Why didn't he use their energy and noisiness - say in a debate?

If you ask an adult to sit still silently without fail for an hour, while you publicly humiliate them, then... well a driving test is the only comparable adult experience, I think. And even then, the inspector isn't allowed to patronise, ridicule and belittle you, or tape you. Children find it harder to slump still than adults.

I feel for the man, he's obviously not very happy. But I don't think that's caused by his experiences at school.
He's in a job where you can't stay a control freak and also gain control.