This year I have been blessed with one of those classes that has a strong core of friendly hard-working students who get along well and are able to take in stride the shenanigans of those we call “high fliers,” students who are always on the radar, getting attention in negative ways. However, as is common in the second half of fifth grade as emerging hormones collide with spring fever, the classroom dynamics are beginning to fall apart. Students who never get in trouble are starting to argue instead of discussing their group work, a student acting like the class clown gets a laugh instead of being ignored, and a new student coming in has turned the social dynamics topsy-turvy. Last week a guest speaker from the Denver Dumb Friends League told the starfish story that ends, “It matters to this one.” (One version of the story is found at http://starfishfoundationforwomen.org/story_of_starfish) I had been struck by one line of Obama’s speech at the Tucson memorial service which I also played for my class: “We may not be able to stop all the evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us. And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.” It is at about minute 29 of his speech. We talked about the meaning of these two messages, about how we, too, can make the world a better place, making a difference one small action at a time. I hoped that the class could get back to being a friendly caring community of learners. It didn’t happen.
After a very frustrating day yesterday in which I seemed to spend more time putting out fires than effectively teaching I decided to try again. In the process I gained a valuable insight into two of my students. I started by having the students fold a paper in fourths. I told them that we were going to think about our day yesterday, and that no one would look at this paper so they could write freely. In the first box I had them write at least one specific time they made a positive difference to someone yesterday. In the second box I had them write at least one specific time someone did something yesterday that made their day better. In the third box they wrote about a specific time they saw someone make a positive difference to someone else. As they worked I drew a symbol in each box of my model using stick figures and arrows to help them remember what each box was about. In the final box I drew an eraser and asked them to write at least one thing they did yesterday that they wish they could erase and do differently or do better. Then I told them to fold up the paper and stick it deep in a pocket. Throughout the day they could reach in their pockets and touch the paper to remind themselves to make choices that make a positive difference and to be aware of all the positive things happening in the world around them.
To close the morning’s exercise I had them write on an index card one specific example of something someone in the class did yesterday that made a positive difference to them or to another person. I told them that they had to think until they remembered something. “Nothing” was not an option. This card did not have the author’s name on it, but they handed it in.
In the afternoon we talked about the kinds of things they had written on their index cards. Then I had them repeat the entire exercise using things that happened today. The only change was that the person they wrote about on the index card had to be someone different from the person they wrote about in the morning.
Two students were unable to come up with a single time, either yesterday or today, that they had seen anyone making a positive difference, even after the thinking and discussion we had done. Every other student was able to write an example in the morning and fill their papers with positive observations in the afternoon. Both of these students have trouble interacting with their peers. They aren’t my “high fliers,” who have really strong behavior issues, but they are the students who aren’t in trouble, but who aren’t chosen for teams, the ones who occasionally receive mean notes or are ignored on the playground. Having gone through the same day that all the other students went through, in the lunchroom, in gym, on the playground, and in the classroom, these two students didn’t notice a single time when someone was nice to someone else. Wow! Not only did this exercise give me an insight into these students’ personalities, but it gave me a clear place to start helping them change their attitudes in a way that does not judge them but that will help them see the world in a more positive way. This change in their perspective will, I hope, help them approach their interactions with others differently, and others will respond.