Thursday, June 5, 2008


Writing about stuff that you don't want to talk about is an odd feeling.
The things that you discover about yourself when working with kids are not always pleasant. In my case, Abe Simpson's remark that as a parent he was "mainly in it for the spankings," feels uncomfortably close to the mark. I've never touched a kid except to give them a pat on the back or a hug if they reach for one, but still I worry that affection is not my primary way of interacting with the kids at the elementary level.

This has nothing to with my 11th graders. For them, a stern talking to, simple rules, and the threat of a dictation lesson, are enough to get them to a reasonable volume, and since my classes have topics like robots and skateboards, I usually have their attention. With older kids it's easy to see when my boring lessons result in bad behavior. But with my little kids I am not so kind.

When Sara and I go over what happened in class today, if she had a problem with her class her concern is teaching strategy: what didn't the kids understand, what did they know so well that they were bored, what to do better next time. I worry about none of these things. I play the same seven or eight games every day, and the kids love 'em. They laugh and shout, they get excited, and they're fixated on the answers to questions even when it's not their turn. But when the class gets out of hand, when I can't control the kids, all I think about is punishment.
Somebody's not paying attention? Sara would ask them with a smile to face her, my strategy is, if he's not any great student, warn him once to pay attention, and the second time stand him up at his desk and ask him to say the sentence or phrase on his own. The kid will turn red, and the other kids will laugh at him, problem solved.

Is one kid goofing off and trying to get attention? Sara would sit him down and talk one-on-one with him about what he needs to do better, giving him the attention he craves in a positive way. I tell the whole class they need to be silent for a second. The kid will inevitably shout something just as the class is at their quietest, so I subtract a point from his team (the class is always in two teams). When he's the one who cries out "awwww!" I subtract another point. If he keeps acting out, it means his switch has been completely flipped, he doesn't care if his team hates him just so long as they look at him, so the next time he acts out I pick up a chair and set it at the back of the room facing the back wall, I sit him in that chair and take a point away from his team every time he turns around to look at the front. Then I play a game with the rest of the kids, jumping and tossing a ball around. Now if he acts out he loses his team points and gets no attention, plus it's boring. I've turned more than one kid from clowning this way, but it's important to do it right, the other day I tried it but the kid sits in the front of the room and so walking him to the back meant he ran a little gauntlet of kids talking to him and waving at him. Like a lot of the kids he felt bad and bored in the chair, but I know the attention of walking down that aisle was worth it, and tomorrow he'll pull the same stunts to make it happen again.

Okay so those are two examples where I sound fairly sane and effective, but it just doesn't stop. I'm punishing kids for not repeating with the class, then I punish them for repeating too loudly. I punish kids for turning around in their chair, I punish kids for fiddling with a toy in their desks, and then I punish them if they don't put the toy into my outstretched hand but rather make me reach for it. I carry a bag of candy around in my bag and once in a while I'll give everyone on one team candy but it's not really because that team did so well. It's because I want to punish the other team.

To get the class in unison I command them to all stand up, then jump. Then I tell them to all sit down and for a second I've got everyone's attention, every eye is on me and we can continue the lesson. In a one hour lesson I do this about twenty times. One kid looks right at me, makes eye contact, and instead of hopping up out of his desk and standing to attention, he makes a slow, deliberate motion of setting each foot on the floor and easing himself up like he's an octogenarian. The first time he does it I warn him, the second time I stop the class, take a point from his team, and then walk up to his desk and tell just him to stand up. Then I tell him to sit down, then I tell him to stand up, then sit down. Then I smile at him, and touch his shoulder, and tell him he needs to do it just like that, and I knew he could do it fast if he really tried. The third time he stands up slowly and deliberately I sit him in the back facing the wall. He's already crying as he gets to the back of the room, and he keeps crying for the five minutes he's back there, his eyes puffy as he rejoins the class. Since this whole thing was for attention, I don't let the classroom assistant talk to him during his punishment or afterward.

Kids aren't allowed to talk during their monthly tests, and one girl last week would not be quiet. I warned them at the start that they would get a zero on the test if they were talking. Now I can't actually give any kid a zero unless I'm sure that they're cheating, but since I can't understand their Chinese I really can't let them talk. So I tell the class once again that they need to be quiet, and when this girl starts talking again I come down the aisle from the back so as to approach from behind, then reach out grab her test from her desk before she knows I'm there, and then ask her (through my translator assistant, Alice) if she'd like to tell her parents why she got a zero on the test. Again tears, but I give her back the test and let Alice give her a hug, as the little girl's violation of the rules was motivated not by a desire for the attention of adults, but rather the friendship of a fellow student.

I do this kind of stuff every day. And if a kid cries, or feels terrible, or is terrified of what their parents will say if they mess up again, then my next class will be a little easier, we can play some more games, learn some more stuff, and maybe have time to sing a song or two.

Of course, if one of the kids isn't singing, or if he's not dancing in unison with the other children, well then we've got a problem.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This, of course , is TOO SAD to comment on.

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