Managing a Hostile Class
Question Posted by Schreck on the Middle School Chatboard:
The Middle School Chatboard
My problem is that I'm teaching Reading in summer school to a group of mostly 8th grade boys who HATE school, HATE reading, HATE me and aren't afraid to express themselves. They must pass my class in order to be promoted to the next grade, but I can't motivate them to do anything and I find their behavior to be very nerve wracking, to say the least. If I look away from them for a second they laugh uproariously and I have no idea what's going on. I have them for a two hour block and this laughing goes on for most of the time. One boy has been taking things off my desk and lying about it. Another one has been placing his hands in his pants constantly (the hands are moving). The bigger boys are trying to bully the little one, who is only in sixth grade. And today they put their heads down on their desks and refused to read or do anything at all.
What should I do? If you tell me to "lay down the law" then help me to know how. If you tell me to make the lessons more challenging, then help me know how to do that too.
I'm looking forward to hearing from you. I need help!
Response posted by Bill Page:
Sorry to say, I see no possibility of teaching a lesson for these two. That would be like rearranging the floor plan when it is the foundation that needs the work.
I hypothesize from your description of their behavior that they are already resigned to flunking the summer, repeating the grade, thus leaving you with no coercive power to get them to respond to the most basic of requests, or even acknowledge your presence. If so, they probably understand that if they go too far the next step will be authorities (school, parents, juvenile, police) involved so they are walking a line between entertaining themselves for the summer session with nothing to do or lose, while avoiding overt acts which could get them something worse.
First make any physical changes over which you have the capability. For example, remove anything from your desk (I would probably remove my desk). If you need the items on your desk, give them to one of your other students along with a title such as "Supply Sgt.," or assign two students to occupy your desk to deter theft, or move it in the corner and sit on it. If possible, separate the two and others as much as possible. Play music or videos to reduce the effect of their laughter and get the other kids to want to listen. Focus on the class not on the losers. Consider partitions made from large boxes, file cabinets, tables turned on their sides, etc. Reduce their feeding off of each other and as much of the audience as you can. You can also begin by knowing what doesn't work and refusing to do any more of that. That's usually everything that has been done thus far, including yelling, flunking, threatening, punishing.
Second, ignore everything the two do that you possibly can, including the hands in the pants, heads on the desk, and the laughing. You need to reduce their impact on each other, on you, and on the others in the class. You need to reduce your time, focus, and concern for them -- they want attention. Don't give them the wrong kind. See if you can get them bored and tired of laughing for hours with no one giving a darn.
Third, get the others busy with activities. I would suggest pairing, except for the two of course, and think of them as pairs not as a class. Get a school catalog; have them find learning devices, and games that they can duplicate. Have them get raw materials such as blocks that they can made dice out of -- the dice having fractions decimals and percentages; or having and matching exercises etc. Let them start a room library of books, magazines and catalogs (solicited from teachers, neighbors and ?). It will be a better message if they see others working and succeeding than to give them a mini-lecture.
If you can get time for the two (one at a time -- I know of nothing you can do with the two of them together) the goal would be to get to the most basic relationship with them. (I taught in a "reform school" for a year where they were sentenced by a judge, brought in by armed guards. They didn't follow rules of an institution, respect authority etc., which is why they were there.) The most basic element I could find was something like this:
Here I am and here you are. I didn't put you in this place, I'm not the one who will release you. I didn't ask for you and I know you didn't ask for me or ask to be in this room. But, if you are going to be here... If you think you can get out of here let me know how I can help. I see only two possibilities: You can come in every day for two hours and do your thing, I'll do mine. What ever happens, happens, and you wind up with nothing but trouble, boredom and killing time. All I wind up with is aggravation, wasted time and frustration. It looks like that's where we are headed.
However, since you are going to be here (again, if you think you are not, lets talk about it), "it seems to me that there is a possibility that you might pass, might not have to spend an extra year in grade or in school, have the time go by faster, and maybe have a couple of "real" laughs..."
You have to find a way to get them to see they have a chance and then give them a chance, one day at a time. (Does giving kids a chance make me soft?)
Unless and until you can establish this most basic relationship, the only other possibility I see is goading them into exploding so you can kick them out.
I would have three goals:
First - Getting a relationship that will permit us to at least talk or get beyond disgusted looks. Remember that's with each not both.
Second - You have to help them change their attitude. This can only be done in two ways; one is changing your own attitude. Every kid I have ever had knows me and I can't fool them. If you don't believe they are capable of changing, why would they? They already know you are smarter than they are, so if you don't see hope, and if you don't have expectations for them, neither will they. If you don't think they have a chance to use this class time and get somewhere, why would they? Remember that 80-90% of the communication at this level is non-verbal. That's why you can't fool them. Kids of this type are experts at reading people. The second way to change attitude is getting them to see it differently. If they saw it differently they would behave differently. If they saw what I saw, they would do what I do. (This can only come out of the relationship.)
Third - They have to have a voice or at least a choice in the what, when, where, and why, of any decisions that might make sense. Start by offering a choice, and then more choices. Let them suggest variations, or have control of some of the variables in an activity. Any basis you can give them for ownership, even a choice where or how to sit, can get them to care at least that much about what they are doing. Otherwise they are doing it 100% for you and they sure as heck aren't teacher pleasers.
I am the only one who can change me. Each kid is the only one who can change himself. I'd love to, but it is impossible. Since I am the adult, professional, and I can't change the kid, it makes sense for me to do the changing. (Is this why some think I don't require kids to be responsible?) You can't change a kid -- the closest you can come is like my old first sergeant told me, "I can't make you do it, but I can make you wish you had." The problem is you can't even do that when they've already flunked.
With joy in sharing, Bill Page
Response posted by CJ Cavalier:
This is a long message, so I apologize ahead of time. Glad to make your reading thought provoking. I actually enjoy Bill because I see in him the permissiveness that has caused so many problems in the schools. And, yes, I know that I am VERY opinionated. I am definitely the "A" type personality.
On to your problem. You sound like you have your hands full. My first question is how many in the class? That does make a difference. You also stated that the kids hate everything about school. Try to find a common interest. One of the things I do, believe it or not, is try to get the students on MY side. Don't expect 100% success, but see if you have a common interest. I use sports and music. Granted, some of their "music" is pretty ear-wrenching, but I do listen. They really get mad when I tell them what their favorite musician is actually saying, but they realize that I took the time to LISTEN.
The promotion issue makes it more difficult. Some kids are taught at home that school doesn't really make a whole lot of difference. In some cases, they are right. There are too many teachers that just collect a paycheck. It's mean to say this, but it's true. I would avoid the 'If you don't pass, you are going to be held back' argument. It probably won't work.
If you lay down the law, it will feed to their rebellion. This is NOT to say to roll over either. BE CONSISTENT. If you tell them there are consequences to their actions (like picking on the 6th grader) you have to follow through. I hated to send a kid out this year. But he challenged my authority in the class. I had no choice. Fortunately, my principal agreed with me.
Which leads me to the next point. Get the administration involved before it's too late. Call parents. Let them know that their kids are acting like troglodytes. If you apply some pressure, they might respond.
If they put their heads down and say they won't do anything, say fine, and send them to the principal. They are defying you and daring you to do something. Don't let them bully you. You are the one that controls the gradebook.
As far as making the lessons more challenging, try getting a book that interests them. At the beginning of each semester (we're on block scheduling here), I give them a questionnaire that asks basic things like name, address, phone, etc. But it also asks things like favorite music, person they most admire, favorite sports, and favorite food. Then, I READ them. It's the only way I can figure out how to make the class appeal to the greatest number of kids. This year, I had more students fail than I wanted. I also had more passing students than last year.
Schreck, you won't reach them all, but you may be able to reach more. Hope this helps.
Regarding the kid playing pocket pool, send him to the nurse with a note saying he has uncontrollable itching in his groin. I did that to one kid and he never put his hands in his pockets like that again.
Response posted by Deb ms/IA:
How about using the novel The Outsiders along with the movie (rent it at your local video place) and do a compare-contrast type deal. You can probably find a teaching guide at a local teacher supply store. Read the book first and then watch the movie.
Matt Christopher books will appeal to the sports guys. There is skateboarding and snowboarding along with traditional sports books. Low readers find these easy to get through and many are non-fiction. You could even pick one sport and you all read it.
Pocket pool guy needs to visit the nurse. Advise the nurse ahead of time of the problem and she can address it. Our nurse does an excellent job with this issue!
Student [apathy/hostility] are very hard to fight, especially in a group where they are already failing and they back each other up. Can another person take half your class so you can break the group up a bit?
Response posted by Schreck:
I just want to say thanks and that you guys absolutely amaze me. I just finished my first year of teaching and am still feeling my way through some issues and trying to learn how to deal with tough situations when they come up.
From reading your posts I am already seeing some mistakes that I need to correct, or at least some things that I need to approach differently. For example, I placed the kids in a circle so that I could SEE them every second. Maybe I need to let them have a little more distance.
Also, you made the point that I need to connect with these kids on some level. I will definitely work on that starting in the morning. Unfortunately, I already made the mistake of threatening one student with the retention thing. I wish now that I had not done that. Of course I really do want to see him be successful. He told me he missed over a hundred days of school last year and I am concerned that he will become another drop-out statistic.
I am going to try out as many of your ideas as I can, starting with clearing my desk off. I'll also get some music in the classroom tomorrow and maybe we'll play some games (reading games, of course) to break the ice a little. I liked Deb's idea of reading The Outsiders too. Maybe they can connect to that in some way, and I know they would love the movie.
Anyway, all of you gave me many things to think about, as usual, and many wonderful ideas to work with. If nothing else, at least I feel a little less hopeless because now I have a plan!