Slow dancing with “that class”

You know that class.  Every teacher who teaches multiple classes in a day–especially in middle school–knows that class. You’ve planned an excellent lesson; maybe you’ve used it successfully for years. It goes over swimmingly with 810 and 812–these students exclaim how they love your class. Then comes 813. You brace yourself as they enter the classroom, because you never know what to expect with them. For whatever reasons, students in that class respond differently. Some days they are great, but on others, they don’t settle down and it’s a struggle just to begin class–they seem content to socialize while you wait or dole out detentions. Sometimes they start out cooperative and engaged and then devolve into petty quarrels with each other. They often fall behind the other classes, or the classroom environment is so full of distractions that students have trouble being productive. The usual strategies seem to work one day and not the next. You find yourself shortening lessons to make up for lost time. Students often ask you to teach even though kids are having side conversations, but you know this is a trap and refuse.

You ask yourself, why is this happening?  There are some students with challenging behavior in this class, but there are challenging students in all of your classes.  This class doesn’t even have any students with diagnosed special learning or emotional needs.  What’s more, you spoken with students individually and met with their parents, but the progress is almost always temporary. Is it you? But your lessons and teaching style seem to work in the other classes. And other teachers report similar experiences with the same class. Is something just off with 813?

Last week I made some progress in my thinking about my 813 (a pseudonym). It started when I was absent for a day to score NY State ELA tests.  I left a movie for the students to watch. The film, “Smoke Signals,” is actually an important piece of my curriculum, and I told the substitute that I needed the students to really watch the movie. If students were talking, I said, he should pause it and ask them not to talk during the movie, and continue when they are quiet. I also left a worksheet for students to make observations as they watched and which explained that we would be discussing the movie when I got back, so they should pay close attention. As you might imagine, 810 and 812 watched the movie with no problems. But 813 talked so much, the substitute eventually turned it off altogether.

When I got back, the students of 813 were upset. “But we weren’t even being bad! I mean for 813, we weren’t bad. No one was disrespectful. We were just talking,” they said. I took a good 15 minutes to hear multiple renditions of the story and discuss the situation with them. I explained that I had instructed the sub to pause the movie if they were talking. I also asked them if they would be able to understand the movie if they were also talking to one another about other things… After a little while, they seemed to understand.

We put the movie on. They started talking a little bit, then a little more. I paused the movie. They protested! We discussed the reasons behind my expectation that they watch silently again. They got quiet. I put the movie on again. They started to get into it! Someone made a comment in response to the movie. This provoked a string of comments that got loud. They were missing important dialogue. I paused it again. They got annoyed. Then they got quiet. I turned the movie on…and so forth.

The other classes finished the film in 2 class periods–one with the substitute and one with me–and loved it. We had brilliant student-centered discussions the following day, which were so interesting that the students asked for another day to continue (and we did).

Meanwhile, after 2 days of the film, 813 was only halfway through it. I had a dilemma. Should I give the class extra periods on the movie? How much time? What about the discussions? A colleague recommended not finishing the movie, canceling discussions, and giving them a test on the entire film. Alternatively, I thought of allowing them to finish the movie, but forgoing the discussions. Or, I could allow them to discuss the half of the movie they had seen. But all of these options would defeat the purpose of having them watch the film in the first place: to get experience analyzing an entire work of “literature,” its conflicts and the resolutions of those conflicts, its themes, and the craft decisions made by the screenwriter and director to achieve the effects the movie has on the viewer. This would build story understanding and discussion skills that we would put to further use in discussions of an entire novel.

I spent a while thinking about who was responsible for the fact that 813 hadn’t seen the whole film–me or them. I didn’t want to enable irresponsible behavior by giving them unlimited time on anything. But the discussion experience had been so rich for the other classes and so well-timed in the curriculum, I hated for this class to miss the opportunity.

Then I thought, does it even matter who’s at fault? Here we are, either way. Maybe this class is just slower than the others. Not slow intellectually–in fact they are some of the most insightful students in the grade when they apply themselves. They are behind in terms of their group process. I teach a CTT class and give that class extra academic supports when they need them. Maybe 813 needs some extra social-emotional supports that the other classes, for whatever reasons, don’t require. Though somewhat counterintuitive, maybe spending time learning how to watch a movie carefully together might be the most productive thing for this group.

I remembered my mentor at Bank Street College, Madeleine Ray, telling a story about a class she taught years ago in Harlem. As the story went, she always kept bread and butter in the room for the students. When, on occasion, they broke out the bread, one boy in the class always tried to eat more than his share. When the students reported it to Mrs. Ray, she said, “It’s okay. Let him eat. We can always get more.” Contrary to everyone’s expectations, every time they ate bread, she let him eat until he was full.

Then one day, just as she predicted, the student stopped eating extra bread. His need had been filled and, more importantly, he made the decision on his own to limit himself. Sometimes we make the mistake of trying to control everything and ration everything when it comes to our students, even when it’s not working. Afraid to take risks, we ignore the real problem and continue to do what’s already not working. Often, we deny our students the opportunity to make important decisions for themselves.

There was no real reason for me to limit 813’s time, when they clearly needed it to reach the learning objective I had for them. Like Madeleine had done with the bread, I let my class take as much time as they needed to finish the movie. I explained to them that they were two days behind the other classes, and that I had debated over how to handle it. When I told them that it was necessary to finish the movie before having the discussions, and the discussions were necessary for their education, they seemed to feel some urgency.

By the fourth day, they were watching silently. They finished with fifteen minutes left in the period and elected–without my input–to begin discussions right away. They listened to one another and even stayed voluntarily for part of lunch to continue the discussion.

Mind you, day two of discussion we were back to starting and stopping, starting and stopping. But I’m coming to see this as the practice they need. My patience and persistence are more valuable to them than my instinct to control them or cover up their weaknesses. For now, I’m content to slow dance.

[image credit: http://carcino.gen.nz/images/index.php/5922d576/6fa

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