Ease The Sail: Navigating Classroom Culture in Stormy Seas
The post below is by Myles J. Brawer, a teacher at my school. Currently in his third year in the profession, he has the reflective skills of someone much more experienced. Influenced by his time teaching as well as his time as a student at a New York Performance Standards Consortium High School, his insights into school and students have helped me develop my perspective on what it means to teach and learn in our type of community.
Sailors are likely to be familiar with the proverb; when in doubt, ease it out. Classroom instructors, take note.
First, let me explain to you non-Melvillean's. Sometimes the sailboat slows down for some reason and novice sailors tend to respond by pulling on the line that controls the sail. This brings the sail under tighter control. But experienced sailors learn to respond instead by first attempting to ease the line and thereby to open the sail.
During one coverage period for a sick colleague I was faced with an analogous dilemma; several of the students in my class were having side conversations, not attending to classwork and ignoring my repeated instructions. Our classroom sailboat was starting to slow. Two boys in particular refused to do what I asked, refusing to accept me as the temporary acting commander of the ship.
In a calm and well-meaning tone I reminded Ulysses* of the task at hand and of the importance of education. Ulysses' haughty response appeared as pure provocation, "I can't expand my knowledge or learn by only thinking about things I already know--learning requires new information."
Moving on to instruct the class to identify textual evidence for "pro" and "con" sides of the argument in a reading packet on euthanasia, Ajax* called me over and said, "Can I use the word 'pro' to refer to the 'con' side because my position is that of the 'con' so 'pro' will actually mean the position I'm in favor of?" I felt my boat had been backwinded and had to restrain myself from responding to this provocation with acrimony.
I realized classroom management was waning as some students fired broadsides of paper balls at each other. Our ship was in danger of being caught in irons. I thought, "The students in my other course are so respectful and engaged, what's wrong with these pirates!?"
I deemed it expedient to quell the foremost rabble-rousers before there was mutiny. I asked Ulysses to wait in the hall. A few minutes later, regrettably, I had to ask the same of Ajax. This seemed to provide momentary relief and our class got underway again. Now I had to decide how to approach the two people I'd sent to the hall. Should I pull harder on control? Or should I relax my grip and offer more openness to the wind? I decided to go with Dr. Ross Greene's ideas on "collaborative problem solving" rather than blame and punishment.
I spoke to Ajax and learned that he wanted more student discussion. Ulysses was simply "bored".
When Ulysses returned, he made insufficient improvements, so I told him to stay after class. After dismissal, Ulysses told me he was in a rush to teach skateboarding. I empathized with his situation, acknowledged the progress he had made, and tried to strategize for the future. I also reminded him that he had wasted important class time. He appreciated my acknowledgment of his nascent leadership skills and quick-wit. He said tomorrow would be better, put up the remaining chairs and wished me well.
Still feeling defeated I spoke to my mentor and former teacher. First, he showed me that Ulysses had actually raised a vital epistemological question! Is reflection sufficient for insight or is new knowledge a prerequisite? Ajax, we realized, implicitly, raised a concern with the course-specific skill of semiotics and definitions! How do we define "x" and how does that overlap or diverge from alternate conceptions?
The next day my expectations remained low. I grew apprehensive when I saw them seated next to each other. But, I had consulted my charts and adjusted my heading on a new point of the compass.
Based on Ajax's feedback I asked students to share out. Ajax's hand went straight up and he commanded the respect of his peers. We ping-ponged before allowing a few other classmates to chime in. Ulysses also raised his hand a few times and added in some thoughtful remarks. Smooth sailing.
For the moment, I had avoided shipwreck. In the words of educational philosopher Patricia F. Carini, I was "attending to children with care." When in doubt, our first response to our students should be listening and connecting - not pulling harder on the ropes in search of a sense of tight control that leaves the collective boat going nowhere fast.
*Student names have been changed.
Photo: "Peeters Sea storm" by Bonaventura Peeters (I) - Own work (BurgererSF). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peeters_Sea_storm.JPG#/media/File:Peeters_Sea_storm.JPG