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That “Problem” Class–Part 1 in a Series

It’s my 6th period class.  It’s Latin 3, and there are 33 of them in the room. This is after lunch for these students and the next to last period of the day.  I have taught many of them before. They represent the full spectrum of the demographics of the school.  Almost every day, it’s a struggle. I see us become our worse selves (I don’t think anyone has reached worst–yet).  What I struggle with is gaining and keeping their attention.  I know that they have at this point of the day little attention left to give.  They are also intelligent and creative people. They can also be aggressive and resistant on almost any issue.  They are beyond “sitting still and being quiet” and other traditional classroom conventions. Perhaps the better point is that some part of me still expect traditional conventions to be a given without having to cultivate any sense of common cultural meaning between me and them!

Last summer I bought and read Christopher Emdin’s book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (Beacon Press, 2016). I came back to school in the fall and convinced my 4 other Latin colleagues to read and study this book together as a professional learning project. I’ve been working for many years now on my own whiteness in an increasingly multi-cultural world. Emdin is challenging me with language and ideas that I would not easily have discovered on my own. (The enigma of white privilege: it not only elevates white people to access everything in the culture, but it insulates us against seeing that, much less knowing best how to deconstruct it). This blog series is about what I am learning as I put into practice Emdin’s”reality pedagogy.”

The first step is to form a cogen group.  Cogen is short for “cogenerative.” A cogen is formed with four students in the class who become my advisers who help me create a better class experience. Emdin says that the four students should represent the demographics in the room.  Per his instructions, I spent time pondering that and made a list of four students who filled that requirement.  Then, last week, I asked each of them if they would be willing to meet with me on Tuesday morning at 6:55 for a meeting that would last 15-20 minutes.  I needed their help.  I would bring snacks.  I assured them that they were not in trouble, and that this was a secret group–so not to tell others.  They agreed.

I went to the store the night before and bought cinnamon rolls and chocolate chip muffins.  Honestly, I worried that they would forget to come even though I personally reminded each of them on Monday.  I also (per Emdin’s suggestion) asked an Assistant Principal to stop by during the meeting to congratulate them on being chosen to be my advisers.

At 6:55 the first student arrived.  Within 3 minutes, all four were there, had taken some food and were gathered in the circle.  Emdin says that this first session has two goals: to establish the rules for the cogen and to let them have a positive experience of helping you with something.  That something should be simple, and one of his suggestions is “what is something I can do at the beginning or ending of class that will make our experience more positive?”

As one young man was entering, he asked me: so, Dr. Patrick, how is your morning so far? I told him that it was still pretty rough for me since it was so early.  He responded.  “Yeah.  I think that you never get to see us except on the bad side of the day.”  It was a simple but very revealing comment. He was calm, sleepy and thoughtful. I agreed with him and brought that observation into our short discussion.

While they enjoyed their food, I explained what a cogen was and that I appreciated their willingness to help me make our class a better class. I told them that our cogen group had three rules (straight from Emdin):

  • There is no special person in the group–especially me just because I am the teacher.  While I am the Latin expert and quite frankly the expert on teaching, I am not an expert on their experience or what it means to be a 16, 17 or 18 year old.  I am not an expert on what it means to learn in my class or what it means to be a student in this school.  We all bring some expertise to this, and that’s why I asked them to help.  None of us is special. All are important.
  • There is only one mic.  I had already begun using this idea and phrase in class to mean: when someone is talking we all agree to give them our full attention. It also means that everyone gets equal time.
  • We all agree to work on and take individual responsibility for the ideas that will make our class better.  We leave our meetings with an action plan, and we are all responsible.

They were in immediate agreement, and so we moved on to our one task for the day.  What can I do at the beginning or ending of our class to make class a better experience?  Immediately one student asked:  by better do you mean make everyone happy or do you mean dealing with individuals who may just not want to be in the room that day?  It was a great question and the short form of my response was that I’d like something that would work for both possibilities.  I did note that I always try to be aware of anyone who looks like they are in distress, and I do let individuals leave to take a break, go to a counselor, et al.

Here’s the plan they formulated which does, indeed, respond to both aspects of his question:

  • Begin class with 5 minutes of “check-in.”
  • Check-in can be something that you want to get off your chest.
  • Check-in can be a “brag about me” where you share something good that has happened to you.
  • They acknowledged that this is not enough time for 33 people to check in, but that it would begin to create the sense that this is safe place where what they are going through is important.

In the midst of this, the Assistant Principal arrived.  She joined our circle and congratulated them on being asked to be my advisers.  We did brief introductions and summarized what we were doing.  She was genuinely excited and asked to be kept apprised of how this was going.  She left, and we brought our time to an end.

This felt SO GOOD!  It was genuine interaction with students from the “problem” class. I will tell you that I have been ashamed of that fact.  I am a veteran teacher. I am confident about what I do and how I do it. Building trust and relationship with students is the core of what I do.  Yet, this class did not make that mark.  Often, it was just the opposite.  I attribute that to “the drift.”  You know the drift. It can be any myriad of things that allow us as teachers to slip away from what we know is solid work in human relationships. It can be the simple fact of aging! You will never be as close to their ages as you are this year. It can be other major things going on in your life. It can be the demoralization of bad state, district, school or department leadership. It can be problem parents. It can be the difference in cultures of being a white teacher among young people who are from many different cultural backgrounds. (I presume that the majority of teachers reading this will be white because 75% of all US teachers are white).This short little first cogen experience tapped into some common humanity that simply transcended all of that.

On the afternoon of this same day, the class came in.  Immediately the four students made eye and verbal contact with me that was friendly and familiar.  The connection was made.  I began class by introducing a new thing called check-in.  For five minutes anyone who wanted to vent or brag about themselves could.  Immediately two of the four in the cogen volunteered (took ownership) and several others in the class followed–both brags and vents.  It truly changed the atmosphere in the room to something much more positive than usual.  This is a good start.

Bob Patrick

4 thoughts on “That “Problem” Class–Part 1 in a Series

  1. Thank you. This inspires me. We need to talk more about this. The struggle of teaching is primarily social-emotional. When we focus too much on pedagogy, we make the mistake of assuming teaching can be “won” or that there is some “way” to do it and avoid the painstaking work of building and maintaining relationships. What you’ve done in this piece is open the door to these conversations among colleagues. Well done, Dr. Patrick. Thank you again.

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  2. thank you for your honest thoughts…I am a veteran, too, but sometimes that connection is missing…these are good ideas and I think I will get ahold of that book!

    Like

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