August 27, 2013
If I were receiving an award, it would have to be for successfully outwitting my students into revealing their true selves. The award would be called, “You’re Smarter Than a Fifth Grader” award. And here is how I would win it.
In order to understand teenagers, there are two simple rules to keep in mind. One, teenagers lie and two, teachers can’t change rule number one. Given these two absolutes, it has often been difficult for me to educate the true student. In fact, it has been difficult for me to know the true student.
“Why is this important?” you might ask – or not. But here’s the answer, anyway. Knowing the true student, no b.s., no posturing, helps me decide how to teach individuals, not classes. It also helps me motivate and extract each student’s best work. Unfortunately, since teenagers are almost always ‘fronting’ in class, getting to know how my students tick has almost always been near impossible, until recently.
I will briefly explain a lesson I created, why it works to break down teenage barriers, and an example of how I know it has worked for me.
“What do you value?” is the essential question in my lesson. I hand each student a list of about 50 or so values. The list contains everything from family to money, from education to charity, from spirituality to wisdom. As we read through the list, I ask students to add anything they think is missing from the list.
Next, I ask students to cross off those things they either do not value, or that hold very little value to them. They must continue to cross out values until they have only ten (10) values left. These should be their top ten values. During this phase, the list of values generally looks something like this: Family, Money, Physical Beauty, Having Fun, Love, Adventure, Travel, etc. You get the picture
Following that, the students begin the task of narrowing down their list even further to include only their top five (5) values. Then, they must number their values from one (1) to five (5), with 1 being the thing on the list they value the most. Here is a typical list: Family, Love, Friends, Having Fun and Money, or variations thereof. I then put my top 5 values on the board without revealing who is the owner of the list. The list inevitably looks like this: God, Family, Country, Wisdom and Education.
As an aside dear Readers, that is my true list. These are my top values because I could not be where I am today without believing in each of those five.
This lesson on values always follows the lesson on character traits so that the students have both a list of their most prominent character traits and a list of their top 5 values. I then ask for volunteers to hand in their list of values so that I may anonymously reveal them to the class. As I reveal the values, I begin to describe the character of the person whose list is on the board. The author of the list usually reveals him or herself rather quickly because here is one of my typical reveals, “Well, since this person values family first, I would say this student is caring. However, with money and fun on this list, this person is shallow and selfish. I mean, if you value money and fun over say, truth or justice, you have a shallow character. And valuing money over friends, well, if this person had to choose, he or she would choose money over friends.”
The anonymous author usually speaks up at this point, “Miss, I’m not selfish.”
“Really? What character traits do you have on your list? Do you suppose one of the lists is wrong? Take another look at your values list and see if you want to change it.” And usually all of the students want to take another look at their list of values.
Teenagers want to impress their peers, they want to appear cool and that is why what they value must be cool. Money, money is definitely more cool than spirituality. However, once they realize that what you value speaks volumes about who you are as a person, they decide to be as honest as they can in revealing their true values, at least in revealing them to me. And that, dear Readers, is all I wanted in the first place. Armed with a true set of values for my students, I can begin to understand and educate the true student.
So, that is the lesson and how it works to help me turn my little liars into honest students. Now, here is the best part dear Readers, how I have used it to help me understand my students.
One year, I had a very difficult 16 year old young man. He was heavily involved in a gang, he was used to intimidating his teachers, and although he had such disrespect for authority figures (me included), he demanded that authority figures show him respect. He was intimidating and would create a disturbance the whole class would follow if he felt even the smallest slight. Once I learned his values, I knew how to reach him.
One day, while I was giving instructions to this students’ particular class, the student stood up and began making his way to the front of the room to throw something in the trash. As he approached where I stood, I took a step forward so that he could not pass between me and the chairs in the front row. I wouldn’t move and he refused to make his way to the trashcan by way of the back of the room. He wanted to let everyone know that he was in charge of his movements within my classroom. And I wanted everyone to know that he was in charge of his movements as long as they did not interfere with my teaching or they did not get between myself and the rest of the class. We had us an old fashioned standoff.
“You need to go around to the back of the room,” I whispered to him so that he was the only one to hear me.
“I’m already here, just let me through,” he answered for the whole class to hear.
My response? Just don’t tell anyone. Still whispering, I said, “You won’t go around and I won’t move. See, what we have us here is a pissing contest and I can piss farther than you. This is my classroom, now go around.”
My response so tickled him that he broke out in a grin and even chuckled. Then he went around to the back of the class. In getting to know the true student, I picked up on the fact that I had to be firm and stand up, not back down, every time this student challenged me. Backing down would only indicate weakness and he had no respect for weakness.
I gained this student’s respect that day. Not only that, I gained his trust. By whispering to him instead of calling him out in front of the class, he was able to make up some nonsense when asked what I said that made him laugh. He was not humiliated and I didn’t lose face. It was a win-win.
Incidentally, dear Reader, that young man became my top performing student that year. I’d like to believe that it was my mad skills that brought him around, after all, I did just receive a “You’re Smarter Than a Fifth Grader” award. Pull the wool over the eyes of a roomful of teenagers, dear Readers, and you, too, can lay claim to that award. Peace, ~v.