Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora: two teachers challenging the status quo
The newspaper ads are signaling that a new season ( and no, it isn’t Christmas) is upon us. That’s next month. They are announcing their back to school sale, causing parents to scramble to find just the right folders, pencils and notebooks that will hopefully ensure success in school. And while parents are working their way through the aisle of highlighters and backpacks, teachers are also madly squeezing as much fun into the waning, lazy summer days.
Yep, it’s August. Sigh. And students, although they whine and complain as each new sack of school material is dropped at their feet by excited parents, they too are secretly jazzed about returning to school where they can swap summer stories with friends they haven’t seen since June. They are ready to connect.
The connecting process is powerful in all of us, and teachers need to learn how to harness this powerful tool to end the bullying in our schools. In our last post, we discussed the ineffectiveness of the top-down method of teachers delivering top-down edicts students hoping to foster some kind of respect, and we acknowledged that the edicts and even the posters, put up by well-meaning administration, do little to deter bullying. We all have done it, and we have to admit that we have been ineffective, at best. And because of our ineffectiveness, we signal to our students the school’s apathy to end bullying. However, the need to connect that is within all of us is a powerful way we can create an environment of trust and honor to hopefully end disrespect in our school.
Creating empathetic students through their connections must be the focus of the classroom climate teachers create; a place of learning where we encourage a connectedness that produces respect. Brene Brown, PhD. and author of The Gift of Imperfection defines connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; they can give what they receive without judgment; and why they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship. And Brown goes on to say this will occur when we set boundaries for behaviors, becoming compassionate and accepting, while still holding people responsible for their actions.
Everyone wants to be seen, hear and valued-even the teachers! But putting the boundaries and respect into practice, ah, and therein lies the rub. Boundaries may seem the rules that control the class, but they are the glue that holds the class together. But when we feel are classrooms are clogged with curricular standards and district expectations, boundaries and behaviors seem like “one more thing” to take precious classroom time from the curriculum map and test prep that has become an integral part of the classroom today. So teachers silently point to the ineffective poster on the wall when boundaries are not respected, and yet still hope for the best. And disrespect and bullying continue.
Admittedly, we know the importance of connection in the classroom, but do we always actively foster it? Using the material of Daniel Goleman in his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Brown demonstrates the power of connectedness when she cites his research, “Even our most routine encounters act as regulators in the brain, priming our emotions, some desirable, others not. The more strongly connected we are with someone emotionally, the greater the mutual force.” Simply put, this means that the students have a need to connect with others, and creating a more positive connection creates students who will respect one another. Teachers want that positive connection, where character values are strengthened through the classroom environment. Remember, students can connect in a negative or a positive way, and if we get them to connect for a better learning environment, everyone wins!
A connected classroom has the ability to develop character in all students and creating opportunities for students participation to end bullying in the school. At at the very least, it will make all students aware of the anti-social behavior connected to bullying and the consequences for the victim and the bullier. Creating authentic curricular opportunities that connects students to appropriate social behavior is a lesson that will stay with the students after the class is long over. Remember, the students we teach today want relevance in their education.
Rafe Esquith’s book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire has a chapter that focuses on the research of Lawrence Kohlberg and the Six Levels of Moral Development. Esquith discovered this while researching lesson plans for To Kill a Mockingbird. The more teachers help students move on this continuum, the better classroom environment and respect within the classroom. It moves beyond passive behavior into moral decision-making that will change the classroom. The concepts in Kohlberg’s theory changed the way Esquith ran his classroom because it went beyond the attempt to build obedience and moved into the moral development of the character of the entire classroom. Integrating the material into the literary lessons he taught, he was able to create students who cared for themselves and for others; he created students who protected themselves and others-yes, even from bullies.
Listed below are Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development with a simplistic explanation from Esquith in italics:
Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment Orientation: Students chose to behave, simply to stay out of trouble. Level I student-thinking is based on fear and avoidance and this form of thinking stagnates moral development.
Stage 2. Individualism and Exchange: Students want a reward for their behavior, and this is a learned response. They do not understand that appropriate behavior is an expectation of living together.
Stage 3. Good Interpersonal Relationships: Many students want to please and have that reward from teachers. However, they need to learn right behavior without the expectation of the reward.
Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order: Rules are necessary, but we need to teach our students to continue to think beyond the rules. They need to understand that all rules are not helpful and understand people like King and Ghandi who transcended the rules to make a better society.
Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights: Students become considerate of other people.
Stage 6: Universal Principles: A personal code of behavior has been established by the student, and this is what Esquith calls the Atticus Finch model.
This is best achieved through the curriculum and classroom discussion. Pattie uses the authentic curriculum in creative writing classes to connect her students to one another and the events of the world in hopes of leading them to stage 5 of Kohlberg’s stages. Peter Sears, poet-laureate of Oregon, has been her mentor as she changed her creative writing approach. Her goal is that, through the connections, they will move beyond rules and rewards, and begin connecting and developing empathy. Spicing her lessons with real-life experiences, whether it be the experiences of a high-schooler or something with a global slant such as women in Afghanistan or child soldiers of the Congo, she moves them to humanity and truth in creativity.
Pattie’s Creative Writing II super-rapper, Brycen Dodds, created a poetry slam that he and a group from the class presented at an assembly that targeted respect and the power to create change by placing honor on others. The assembly was packed with stories and PowerPoint of people who have created change in the world through respect. Brycen and the slam poetry group ended the assembly. The event was a packed with standing room only, and over 600 students from various age groups in attendance. Their performance was to a student body who were transfixed by the power and the truthfulness of the message from the slammers. Here is a re-creation of that slam:
A big thank you to Logan, Kate, Matt, Sarah, Jasmine and George for taking the time to re-create it for the blog!
This slam accurately portrayed the powerful feelings students have when they are disconnected through the bullying process. Students described the loneliness and the fear that comes through the separation and isolation in the high school experience. It wasn’t a top-down message; it was about them.
Pattie’s fourth grade granddaughter asked for help in writing a play. When she asked what the play was about, her granddaughter, Dahlia, told her it was about bullying. Pattie told her there were so many plays on the subject and that hers had to be different to gain attention. Dahlia replied, “Oh it will be different. In my play, the teachers do something.” Ouch!
We can and must do better. Make the connecting and authenticity a goal as everyone returns to do battle with the forces of apathy. It will be worth it to so many.