Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Going against the schedule: How sitting in a circle transformed my students

Let me take this moment to say a huge THANK YOU to the folks at the International Institute of Restorative Practices. They helped me harness the energy of my amazing, although highly misunderstood, students today, by having taught me the power of the circle. In 47 minutes, I was able to turn a class of angry and frustrated 9th graders into excited, self-motivated learners/doers. If it hadn’t actually happened to me, I would think this were just another storybook case study.

7th period rolled around and through my door trudged a reluctant bunch of angry faces. They were yelling at each other, telling each other to shut up, get outta my way, don’t make me come over there and hit you, I hate you, I hate being in this stupid class with that stupid kid. After a few minutes of unproductive shushing and attempted redirecting, I looked at the board, with my perfectly labeled ‘objective’ and ‘do now’ and thought: this class doesn’t need to explore imagery in a piece of fiction. We need a community circle.

I asked them to get into a circle, which they did, moaning and groaning and slapping the tops of their desks. I picked up my squeezy apple stressball and said, “We’re going to pass this around. When it comes to you, just say one word or phrase that describes your feelings.”

I started with mine: Thrown off.
Then theirs: Agitated. Frustrated. Angry. Annoyed. Bored. Bored. Bored. Bored.

“Ok,” I said. “How would you prefer to feel?”
Productive. Happy. Excited. At home. At home. At home.

“Ok. You all said that right now you’re in a crappy mood. And that you’d prefer to feel better. Given that we’re at school for 7 ½ hours a day and we can’t just go home, what do you think you could do to feel the way you’d like to feel?”

And then I just let them take control.

“I don’t want to be with the same people the whole day.”
“I want these teachers to not be so boring. They’re not teaching us anything.”
“I want to learn something interesting.”

They then wanted to know why the Support Aid was with them. Were they the ‘slow class?’

I told them to ask her. She was a person. Just ask her.
And someone did.
And she told them that it was her job to give teachers more support, and this was just her assignment. She wanted to help them.
They suddenly realized that she was an actual human doing her job, and not just some random policing force, or, worse in their eyes, a symbol that they were ‘slow.’

The conversation turned to why another school got to have brand new facilities and we had such an old, falling apart building.
And then why we didn’t have any performing arts opportunities, because, as one of my students said, “I’m sure we all want to perform.”

I told her that she should ask everyone what their talents are.
So she did. She passed around the apple, and everyone said that they were artists, dancers, and athletes.

And that’s where everything changed.

One student asked for the apple, and said “Why doesn’t our school get dancers together and perform for the Puerto Rican Day Parade?”

At that point, the class erupted in enthusiasm.

“Yeah! We should represent our school!”
“And wear our shirts.”
“And do bachata.”

I asked them what they thought they needed to do to make that happen.

One girl decided to be the facilitator. They listed all the steps it would take to reach their goal. Two others made flyers to get students interested. They made a plan for a rehearsal schedule and asked me to be their sponsor. Who could say no to student initiative?

During all of this, the students who had been feuding were working together. The class spoke directly to the guy who was constantly being disruptive, asking him to be quiet. But this time, they weren’t mean. They were just not interested in being distracted from their goal. And he listened.

It turned out that we were too late to register for the parade, but they didn’t care. They decided to self-organize a dance club, to do bachata, salsa, hip hop, and break dance. And they convinced another teacher to organize a talent show for October, so they could show off their soon-to-be-amazing moves.

As the class period ended, I asked them to sit in the circle again. “Give one word to describe how you feel.”

Excited. Happy. Motivated. Excited. Excited. Excited.

It felt like a sitcom. Unruly high school students sit in a circle and talk about their feelings. They transform instantly.

But that’s what happened.

That’s the power of allowing students to voice their concerns, ideas, emotions, and humanity. They normally know exactly how to solve their problems, and, if given the space and the structure, will come up with something that is more motivating than what anyone else could force onto them.

And I wondered, if an administrator from the District had been in my classroom, would they have approved? Or would they have rated me unsatisfactory for not meeting the scheduled standards and the scripted outcomes? Would they have told me that I wasn’t helping raise test scores or meet AYP?

But they weren’t. So I did what needed to be done.

I’m glad I was able to have the autonomy to use my classtime in a way that could build a sense of community in my classroom and personal power in my students. What if I’d just been following a script, like hundreds of my public school colleagues are forced to do everyday?

To the reformers in their office chairs and their clipboard monitoring walk-throughs, I was diverting from the ‘schedule.’ To my students, I was helping them unlock their passion, energy, and motivation for being in school. You tell me, Mr. Reformer, isn’t that the point of education?