Monday, March 23, 2009

Giving Children Choices That Matter

Recently, I listened around the fringes of a conversation about a new method of teaching reading, writing, and spelling that - I thought, strangely - endorsed the idea that teachers should not correct spelling mistakes. The notion, apparently, is that children will learn how to spell when they're ready. I realize that I may be vastly (and unfairly) oversimplifying the theory, but whether one agrees with it or not, I can appreciate the intention to let children direct some of their learning. I'm a big fan of empowerment.

Personally, I think literacy depends on teachers teaching literacy, in much the same way that true peacemaking depends on teaching peace. But that's not to say that children shouldn't have practice making decisions that affect them. Thinking about this reminded me of a last ditch attempt to teach a class of recalcitrant third-grade revolutionaries and what finally got through to them. At the end of our rope - utterly frustrated by their attempts to thwart our best intentions - we inadvertently gave them a real, honest, sincere decision to wrestle with. And much to my surprise, they rose to the challenge.

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The class was being taught by a young adult volunteer whose best attempts to reach them were shunned at all turns. After five months, they had broken her to the point where she said that she couldn't teach it anymore. I'd observed the class on a couple of occasions and could see what she meant. They appeared to have grown considerably meaner and more aggressive than the docile second graders I remembered. The final straw was when they started booing the volunteer when she walked into the classroom. Having run out of other tricks, I suggested that perhaps they need to be given the opportunity to refuse Peace Games.

We talked to the teacher and came up with a plan for a classroom meeting during which we would allow students to give honest feedback about the year so far and then suggest where we go from here. The teacher agreed. (I wondered if maybe she was a little overeager to agree, but I left that aside).

On the afternoon of the meeting, we met in the classroom just before the students returned from recess and pushed all of the desks to the side. We arranged the chairs in a large circle - not an easy feat in a classroom that small and crowded. The teacher went to fetch the children from recess, and when they turned the corner and saw the set-up many of the students seemed momentarily stunned. Not one to take any chances, the teacher assigned each one of them a seat in the circle, careful not to put any volatile combinations too close, and then turned it over to me.

I tried to facilitate the meeting with a seriousness that would hopefully both hold their attention and urge them to participate. I began by stating the obvious: "So it seems like there are a lot of things that you don't like much about Peace Games lately." This elicited lots of nods and muttering of agreement under their breath, acts of posturing and proving to me that I will not be able to make them peacemakers if they do not want to be. I seemed to surprise them, then, when I add, "It's understandable not to like some things. Maybe the answer is to do something else instead. Maybe Peace Games isn't for you, and that's okay." In response, some students were quiet and contemplative. Others expressed shock and disbelief.

We'd devised the meeting to be three parts: an overview, observations, and a decision. I convinced myself - and the volunteer and teacher - before we began that whatever they decided would be fine. If the students decided that they didn't want Peace Games, it might actually turn out being a relief for everyone: the volunteer would have less stress, the teacher could use the time for extra reading, and the students would have been entrusted with a big decision. What was the point of convincing them to stick with something that was only making everyone crazy? I realized that I had no investment beyond this conversation and making sure it was as genuine as possible.

And so, with the overview behind us, we moved onto observations. I asked them to tell me what they'd observed in Peace Games so far this year - good things or bad things - as a way to understand what has worked and what hasn't. We went around the circle to make sure everyone had a chance to talk, if they wanted to. They agreed that they like the skits that the volunteer has planned each week - a ritual which had seemed, to the volunteer, outright under attack. That said, many of them also agreed that they wanted more games. Some wanted more art. Others wanted to go outside, even though it was the middle of December. The prevailing theme seemed to be one of wanting the least amount of structure and as much control as possible - a combination which, of course, would mean chaos. "Surely, there's a balance," I observed.

As we moved onto the next steps, I made an observation: I had not heard anyone say that there was nothing they liked about Peace Games, which must have meant there was something worth saving. While some children seemed ambivalent about this, none disagreed. And in fact, several nodded their heads in vigorous agreement. The teacher and I both alluded to the Peacemaker Projects ahead, experiential projects that are next in line curriculum-wise but which require substantial teamwork. I explained that if we were going to continue with Peace Games, I had two things that were important to me: first, that we learned something (a pretty basic condition but one which couldn't be taken for granted), and second, that we worked together. The activities we used to accomplish this mattered less to me, I explained. Not everyone has had a chance to act in a skit yet, so we agreed that we would continue the skits until everyone had a turn. After that, we agreed that we'd try new things - like more art and more games.

Almost organically, a consensus seemed to emerge that we would continue having Peace Games. Before summarizing, though, I added one condition that seemed to be within the spirit of the meeting: if someone does not want to participate in Peace Games one week, they have the responsibility to make that choice. And their choice is either Peace Games or silent reading. Choices are good, but limited choices.

Everyone seemed energized by the meeting. It lasted more than an hour - well beyond the forty minutes allotted and far longer than any of us thought third-graders could sit still for - but we appeared to make real progress. The rest of the year was not without its bumps - in fact, it had more than its share - but we knew that when we had been prepared to surrender our complete control and share some of it with the students, they had risen to the occasion. Perhaps they were stunned into compliance by such a drastic change in routine. Perhaps they were humoring us the whole time. But perhaps they took the responsibility we'd given them and made the most of it.

That's not to say that we should forgo the tyranny of spelling tests, too, but it is a timely reminder that we ought to trust children with as many real choices as we're comfortable with. It's a strategy that's too often the last resort.

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