Joy Kirr is a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. Her 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve their lives through student-directed learning - without marks throughout the year. This is a log of their learning experiences... Want to have her speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is Joy's PORTFOLIO.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Troublemakers

Labels irk the heck out of me.

The fact that we label students as "troublemakers" really irritates me, even though I've done it myself.

I've been waiting (why have I been waiting?) to read this one for a bit, and it did not disappoint, as I read it in two days...

The canary and cage on the front have two meanings. The most obvious is from Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," and the less obvious is the one that distressed me the most. Miners used to take canaries down in the mines with them, as they served as warnings about the air quality. If a canary were to die, the miners had to get out. When a child is singing loudly, we need to heed that as a warning that something is wrong in this classroom. Most likely, it's the imbalance of power.

Most of what Carla Shalaby shares is about a child's need to feel free - to feel as if they're in some sort of control - to feel HUMAN.

The four students the author chose to focus on were in what seemed to me GREAT schools. She asked the principal to share two teachers of high caliber. And to those teachers, she asked, "Who of your students is the most troublesome?" These are the four she shadowed for a bit - at school, and when possible, at home. What I found kind of amusing and kind of sad is that the behaviors these four first graders exhibited were some of the very same behaviors I see in some seventh graders.

I can see and understand the messages she shares about the young black students not having any adults at school to look to for models. I can see how schools are conforming students to ... basically act white. When I think of my own students, the ones that I lose sleep over happen to be white. My school has a high white population (and I, too, am white). The author is upset about students' exclusion to a different part of the room or a different room altogether. I do not worry about physically excluding students, but I may exclude them unintentionally if I call them out on something in front of the entire class.

What I was really struck by was the conformity we expect of our students.

The author points out that educators want compliance because that's what's expected in schools. That's how we can get our lessons across, and that's how the school culture simply IS.

While she was sharing the stories of the four seven-year-olds, I couldn't help but think of my own students, and I was reminded of a few things:

  • Students really don't have much control at school, especially compared to at home. No matter how much we think we have student-directed learning or choice or voice, this book forced me to consider how much I actually control, and how much the school culture actually dictates.
  • Many students learn that the culture of school is to listen and obey.
  • Some students are simply just being themselves. Their personalities may differ from those of the majority of the class, or else the majority has figured out it's safer to hide or squash their true personalities at school.
  • "Different" is often perceived as causing trouble.
  • Many (most?) children have a natural tendency to want to learn. What do we do at school that dissolves that initiative? We have a curriculum to teach. I wonder how many times our curriculum is not something each child would choose to learn each day...
  • Teachers often pigeonhole children into doing what we do, and doing it how we do it.
  • We may have 25 students in class. We don't always make the time to help answer questions from inquisitive minds, and yet we encourage them to be inquisitive. We want them to think for themselves, and when they do, it can cause a disturbance. We want them to be independent, but only under our parameters.
  • We need to listen to individual students.
  • We need to get to know our students even more.
  • We need to let them know when we are proud of them.
  • We need to notice and name the good they do.
  • We need to see them (or imagine them) outside of school - how does what they're doing in school look like outside of school? Might what they're doing actually help them somehow outside of the school setting?
  • Stop labeling students! Making trouble is a verb - not a noun. It's not something to fix. It's something to explore.
  • Just because a student is a "good student" does not mean that he or she will succeed outside of school. Compliance does not always equal success. We put so many limits on students in school - how will they succeed when they're left on their own? We want children to find their identities, to figure out their strengths, to be confident, to have a voice in decisions... We need to give them the room to do so - without fear of punishment, or worse, exclusion.

At the end of the book, I still wanted MORE. I wish I could copy the entire conclusion and her note to teachers here. Instead, this will be your advertisement to read this book if you have not yet. The author does not solve our problems with these so-called "troublemakers." She leaves it to us and our students. I have a tiny idea of what I can do when I return to school after this two-week break, and yet I know my students will have to help me figure it out. They have many more ideas than I ever will, and maybe we can get to the root of what they need from me.

My favorite quote: 
How stressful it must be to be a young person in our schools! How unsafe and frightening it must be to wonder - as you witness the next punishment and rejection of one of your peers - if you will be next. That kind of conditional acceptance, subjective belonging, contingent care, must feel terribly threatening to children, whom we know are biologically wired to make illogical choices as their brains continue to develop. They make mistakes and they make bad decisions - don't we all? Especially when we are stressed, feeling unsafe, and suffering?

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