Sharing Harmony with Teenagers–A Game
With the goal of creating a sense of community, we begin each school year with a camping trip. On this particular trip there were ten teenage girls – some of whom we had just met – and two teachers. These girls came from different cultures, some from other countries and some from other states. I had been wondering how we were we going to create an emotionally safe environment for the younger ones, while offering the older girls the challenges they needed. Some options would be to make up rules like putting the older ones in charge of the younger ones, or giving the older ones a talk about being role models—but somehow these all felt artificial. After praying about it, an idea came to me.
The idea was based on the game called “Secret Santa”. In that game students secretly share gifts with a randomly chosen friend. What came to me was a more subtle version of the same game. Each group, including the teachers, would choose a higher quality like kindness, gratitude, etc. and practice it during our trip. At the end we would try to guess each other’s quality.
The trip went amazingly well. When we asked if anyone could guess what the jr. high girls had chosen for their quality, one of the older girls said she felt it was respect. She supported her choice by sharing that she’d noticed that the younger girls would listen to her ideas, and even though they had their own ideas, they would give hers a try.
The high school girls chose cooperation. What a great choice! They were the link between the teachers and the younger students, and this choice contributed to the positive energy of the entire group. This quality wasn’t very easy to guess, but one of the younger students said they thought the older students had been supportive.
The teachers chose servicefulness. What choice did we have? We were going to do this anyway since it was our job, but now it had an element of fun—we wanted to be serviceful. One of the students said they felt we were being helpful. I have to say it felt good that someone noticed!
Looking back on this experience, there were a couple of lessons in it for me. First, it showed me that students can make good choices when left on their own. We did not have to tell the students which quality to choose, and we did not have to remind them to practice it. Secondly, it reminded me of how important it is to notice and voice when someone is doing something positive. And thirdly, it taught me that having a shared positive experience at the very beginning of the year—even though it takes lots of planning— shows us that we are capable of working harmoniously, if we put out enough energy.
GET ME OUT OF THE CLASSROOM!
No matter how good your idea is, the students will let you know pretty quickly if it works. Especially after a long vacation when I have lots of GREAT ideas. Most of those fabulous ideas only work for the invisible students who live in my head, but some actually translate pretty well, let’s call those inspired ideas. Here is an idea that came from watching my students’ behavior and realizing that they were feeling trapped.
Let’s call it: GET ME OUT OF THE CLASSROOM! I put it in capitals because, that is how it felt to me. It was my first year of teaching and I had a group of 4th and 5th grader’s. Some of them were typical students who showed up, sat down and were ready to do what I said. Others were typical students who showed up and wanted to tell me what to do. And in the third group were typical students who barely showed up.
I began to empathize with this third group because sometime I dreaded being in the classroom all day-everyday. I wondered if that was what they felt. It was risky at first to think about taking them out of the classroom at least one day a week. On top of that it felt like we needed to have another non-desk learning day. I began planning outings to nearby historical places, hikes at the river, or sitting in a beautiful garden. We found that we could read while sitting on a tree or draw by the river. It was still school, but different.
The hardest part of this whole thing was helping them to be away from their desks and make choices which worked for everyone. At first some of the kids didn’t know how to behave without the structure of the classroom. Little by little they became aware of their behavior and its impact on the group. On regular school days we worked on developing such skills as cooperation, harmony, and discrimination. After some time, going outside the classroom became a way to test on how well we were learning these qualities. It was amazing to see that students became were more willing to study on the days we were in the classroom and we got so much more done joyfully. Our school experience was more balanced, productive, and fun. (Notice I didn’t say easy–but it was worth it.)
Let’s Take the “Can’t Out of Their Vocabulary
One of the behaviors I have been observing and experimenting with is the desire for children to educate me on what they can and can’t do. “I can’t do math.”, “I can’t run.”, “I can’t spell.” Maybe there was a time when they really couldn’t do these things. Maybe they hadn’t learned the numerical values, or they had a broken leg, or they hadn’t yet learned their alphabet. Fine, that works. But by the time they get to junior high school and have had exposure to math and reading and possess perfectly able bodies, it is difficult to understand the “can’t” attitude. This “can’t” language they use to describe their situation is what holds them back.
I sometimes go into the younger classes to work with students in math. I remember working with a third-grade boy who insisted that math was dumb and boring. I watched him as others enjoyed the work. After some time he wanted to join in, but I realized he did not know his basic facts. (He still used his fingers for simple addition and subtraction.) He had transferred into our school and somehow managed to hide his secret. This is so common even in the older grades. Most times, I find that students use the words boring, stupid, and dumb to show us what they don’t understand.
They find it difficult to communicate things such as: “I don’t know my math facts.”, “I am not in physical condition.”, “I tend to transpose letters when reading or writing.” etc. What they want me to understand is that they have given up trying to do these things out of frustration. They have “self-diagnosed” and come to the conclusion that the patient (the math student etc.) has a terminal illness or has died (of frustration) and cannot be revived.
Through experience and experimentation I have learned that the place to begin with such a patient (student) is by asking them to pay attention to their language. Language reflects and reinforces the attitude which is detrimental to learning. They need to take “can’t”, “dumb”, and “boring” out of their vocabulary. As a teacher I can say to a student: “I will only fail you if you don’t try. I need to hear you say that you are trying”. Every student who I’ve said this to has agreed. It hasn’t been easy for either of us, but it has worked. Students want to succeed, and my job as an educator is to offer them the clues they need to succeed.