The desks incident

This is a story of student leadership in the realest sense.

Last week my students had social studies testing all morning. By the end of the day, I guess they were a little burnt out. My class (the one that tends to be a very well-behaved bunch of students) came into the room in a small uproar. I have a policy with them that they need to line up outside the door, enter the room quietly, and sit down.  If this is done well, the class gets the next five minutes to socialize. (See my article, “Ask the Kids,” in Teacher Magazine for more on this practice.)  If they do not enter quietly, I often allow them to line up outside and walk in again—for a second shot at earning the social time.

Now, on this particular day, the desks were still in rows from testing, instead of the groups of four they are used to. When the students came in, they didn’t know where to sit. I said, “Find a seat anywhere for now.” On most days, that would have sufficed.

“Oh, man, I hate the desks this way! Can’t we sit in our groups?” a student yelled.

“No!” answered another student indignantly. “We should keep it this way. Every day ‘til the end of the year!”

“Noooo!” some other students shouted.

“Shhh!!!!” other students cut in. “Quiet for the five minutes!”

Gradually the class became quiet, waiting to see what I would do.

Even in their silence, I was slightly shocked at the level of tension they were displaying. I didn’t think it had so much to do with the desks, but I knew we needed our usual structure back. “On a scale of one to four, how do you think the entrance was?” I asked, as usual.

“One!” they groaned, all in agreement. “Can we do it again?”

“Yes,” I answered calmly. “Here’s what I want you to do. Each of you, move your desk back into group formation.Then line up outside and we’ll enter again.” I thought these were reasonable directions and didn’t expect any fuss in return. I was wrong, however.

“What?! I ain’t moving any desks!” cried a girl, who is usually very well behaved, but does have a complaining streak that kicks in on occasion.

“It’s not fair! We didn’t sit in these desks like this! We shouldn’t have to move them!” another student chimed in.

Soon half the class was complaining about moving the desks, while the other half was watching, wondering what would happen next. I was surprised by the behavior, which I know I showed on my face, and was fighting back rare feelings of disgust. I could have gotten ugly at that moment. No matter what was going on with them, my students knew better than to act that way.

Suddenly, Kino (a pseudonym) stood up from his chair.“Oh my GOD!” he said.  “This is ridiculous!” He forcefully moved his desk 90 degrees and pushed it into the desk in front of it. The whole class watched without saying a word.Then Tyshawn, one of the tougher students in the class stood up, shaking his head at the rest of the class.

“Come on, guys,” he said quietly, and moved his desk too. Within a heartbeat, the whole class moved their desks into their usual formation without another word about it. They lined up outside and entered quietly. During their five minutes break, I found out there had been major drama in the lunch room: kids were throwing bottles at one another and there had been no adult present.

For some reason, this incident—the one with the desks—stayed on my mind for a while. On the one hand, I had trouble getting over the gall of the students’ refusal to move the desks… on the other hand, how remarkable was Kino’s moment of leadership? While the class was stuck thinking, “Are we going to be good right now or bad?” Kino rose above it and did what he believed was right. His influence over the rest of the class was powerful, and no one questioned his choice. Finally, how much better was it for all of us that leadership—and, frankly, authority—emerged at that moment from within the class rather than from me, the teacher.

Leadership in middle school is about how kids position themselves and make their voices heard in their various communities (school, home, church, neighborhood, etc.). School may be one of the most important communities for kids because it is where so much of their peer-to-peer socialization occurs.  Student-centered classrooms, while they open the door to the full range of adolescent behavior (more than a lot of people want to be bothered with), also give kids real opportunities to be leaders.

I have been thinking of talking to Kino about what he did that day and why I thought he displayed leadership—but I don’t want to ruin it by putting the Teacher Stamp of Approval on it! I know he didn’t do it because of me, which made it all the more real.

 

[image credit: www.monitorequipinc.com/ cdf_desk_chair.JPG]

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