I've been wanting to tell you all about some of the tools I used to help first block get focused on our academic community for the last few weeks of school, but things have been so crazy here! I had to blend some more punitive measures with some more information about why making the choice to be kind can benefit us and the people around us.
We had to pause both our sharing time after free writes and our weekly community meetings. I told students that I wanted to hear their voices but that the voices they share with the community need to be helpful to the group as a whole. It's a distraction from the work we have to do when I have to spend my time policing sexist jokes, students calling out, and words that are just plain mean and unhelpful.
Instead, I used the random acts of kindness slips our school uses to hold weekly drawings to have students think about who has helped them throughout the week. After two weeks of no sharing and no community meeting, I saw students really thinking about who they wanted to honor with their slips. We added back in free write sharing and the responses were longer, more thoughtful, and helped create a more positive atmosphere. A week after that we went back to our community meetings where students were then able to ask for things like a checklist of end-of-semester work and a more consistent enforcement of the bathroom/break policy. Throughout the second half of the semester, students have been able to earn points and when they get to ten as a class, there is a reward. They are just over halfway toward their third reward.
To get us all thinking about why the way we treat others matters just as much as the content we need to study, we watched Tom Shadyac's wonderful documentary I Am at the recommendation of another English teacher. Shadyac, who directed a slew of Jim Carrey movies, explores the science behind kindness (he is also a fellow 'Hoo!). The scientists he interviews explains that evolution has created in us a genetic need to help other humans. Our attention was captured by the scientific study of how a person's feelings can physiologically affect another person's feelings by electricity given off by the heart. At one point during the film, Shadyac sits facing a small dish of yogurt that is hooked up to a device that measures the electricity flowing through the yogurt's cultures. When Shadyac, who is not physically connected to the yogurt, thinks about experiences and people that are stressful (ex-wife, lawyer, agent, etc.), the electricity increases in the yogurt. Students had to analyze the documentary as a vehicle for presenting research as well as explain how they could apply what they learned from the video in our classroom community.
Finally, two girls from my eleventh grade class offered to come and speak to the ninth graders. I knew this would be risky, but I was proud of how the girls explained that they used to cut up in school and disrespect teachers. As they have grown up, however, they have realized just how beneficial learning and positive relationships with teachers can be. A few days after that, Student J wrote that letter I shared in my last blog post.
We aren't perfect in first block. I had to refer a student to the office after he lied to me about his whereabouts during an extremely long bathroom break. That student, however, ended that day coming to talk to me about how sorry he was about lying, that he didn't realize he was lying when he did, and that he also knew that our conversation didn't affect his consequences. He said he just wanted me to know that he was sorry and hadn't meant to be disrespectful when I tried so hard to show him respect and understanding after the recent passing of his older brother.
Knowing what I do about the crazy teenaged brain, I believe that he was telling the truth about lying instinctively rather than maliciously. I also know that we built some trust in the last few weeks. What fifteen-year-old boy comes to shed a few tears about his older brother's death with a teacher he doesn't trust? I will be grateful for the rest that comes after the school year ends, but I can't really say that I will be glad to see the students go on Friday.