Dealing with Oppositional Students 2

Mildred is the captain of the girl’s basketball team. She is rough. She had to be rough because she was thrown around physically by her abusive parents in a double wide trailer growing up. One day I learn that one of the walls in Mildred’s trailer has a gaping hole in it, covered with plastic.
I sense on this first day of class that that Mildred would probably have little chance in her life to leave that trailer and stay in a five star hotel in Paris on a vacation. Mildred may not even be sure what I teach.
I have a problem, because Mildred’s swagger upon first entering my classroom is saying, “I am going to take over this class, and bring five of my friends with me, and that is the way it is going to be.”
Mildred just doesn’t go to her seat. She walks around a little, not unlike an animal staking out new territory by peeing on things. Mildred is peeing, but not in the way Susie Gross means.
Have you ever taught a Mildred? Isn’t it fun?
If in this moment I say to myself, “I am going to really love Mildred”, it is a futile act. Mildred has not experienced enough love growing up to know how to even respond to it.
Instead, I need a technique, a process, for dealing with Mildred in a specific way. I have two possible scenarios from which to choose:
Scenario 1:
“Mildred, sit down now. We are going to start class.”
She doesn’t. What do I do? Wag my finger in her face? Raise my voice? The class senses my indecisiveness. Mildred finally sits down, but not after establishing a negative mood in my classroom on the first day of class.
That was her purpose, because Mildred is comfortable in a negative mood. She thinks confronting people is a normal activity. She sits down, having displayed her power. You teach poorly the rest of the period, because Mildred is passively controlling the classroom via her aggression. Mildred wins.
What happened in this scenario? I allowed Mildred to bring her Personality A into my classroom, the personality she uses in all her classes and the one which will eventually cause her to drop out of high school before she graduates because it simply won’t work for her in schools.
Is there a Personality B that you can develop with Mildred so that this doesn’t happen? Is it possible for teachers in all subjects to interact in such a way with their students that the Mildreds of the world want to stay in school instead of dropping out?
Scenario 2:
When I greet Mildred at the door and sense her game, even though I know nothing about her, I sense that she may be “the one” who needs to learn some discipline at this point in the year a lot more than she needs to learn some French.
So when the students begin filling out their questionnaires, I casually sit down next to her and say, “Hi Mildred! What sport (activity, etc.) do you do?”
The reason I ask about sports is because a large part of teenagers’ personalities are centered around sports. It is a good way for them to get a workable identity in school. I have found that well over 50% of the kids, in eighth grade at least, when I do PQA with them, tell me about their sports first. It’s what they do.
If Mildred tells me that she doesn’t play sports, I find out one thing she does. If needed, I stay with Mildred for the filling out of the questionnaire, just sitting close by engaging her in idle conversation every few minutes, visiting with other students if possible, but keeping my focus on her on this first day of class.
The class is seated alphabetically (in a big rectangle around the room) to prevent Mildred from establishing a “cell” with her friends.
When I collect the questionnaires, I first look at Mildred’s questionnaire and bring her sport to the attention of the class. I turn this into a positive for both of us in the following way:
I start in English, “Mildred, you play basketball? That is so cool. I used to play basketball some but I wasn’t very good at it.”
Remember, this isn’t about teaching French. It is about establishing firm discipline in the classroom, a prerequisite to success in any classroom, and doing so via personalization. Then I say in the target language:
“Classe, Mildred joue au basket!/Class, Mildred plays basketball!”
The students understand “class” because it is a cognate, and “Mildred” because I say it in English, but not “joue” so I write down:
joue au basket – plays basketball
Now I stay there. I circle that expression really slowly using the question words, pausing and pointing, going slowly, not moving off the sentence until it comes to a natural stopping point. It is a simple sentence and everybody gets it because I am following the visual metaphor offered on page 108 of the Conclusions section of TPRS in a Year!
My focus is not on the target language now, it is on Mildred. I am neutralizing her by making her the center of attention. I whisper in English to her, “What position do you play?” She says point guard. This fact becomes a fact of supreme importance to me as I continue with this super-slow circling.
By now I have a basketball in my hand. I have created a kind of tension around the basketball. Will I hand it to her as I continue around the room circling? Mildred and the class sense that she will get that basketball if she keeps paying attention.
By my feigning a few handoffs to Mildred, but each time withdrawing the ball, the kids begin to understand that Mildred won’t get the ball until she responds successfully with “yes” or “no” to me in French.
What have I done by this? By talking about Mildred in the target language, I have forced Mildred to pay attention to me because I am talking about her and because I am so impressed that she is the point guard on the basketball team.
People love to hear how great they are, and Mildred is no exception. I am beginning to own Mildred, the person who came into my classroom intending to own me.
And, in fact, Mildred buys into the whole thing. She has no idea that her Personality A is getting neutralized, and that her Personality B is being built. She gets the ball when the circling naturally dies down. I then interest myself in another student’s sport or activity, but not before making strong and meaningful eye contact with Mildred when handing her the ball about who is in charge of this class.
What if Mildred decides to chuck the ball to a friend or toss it up and down? I simply take it and put it in the cabinet. When Mildred comes into class the next day, she goes straight to my cabinet where she gets “her” basketball. She is shocked when I allow her to do that, but she doesn’t know that I am training her in her new personality. She also knows that the minute she disrupts class with the ball, it is gone.
I return often to Mildred these first few weeks, circling the simplest of sentences about her, keeping her involved, smiling, inviting her to accept this new Personality B – that of an important athlete in the school who pays attention in French class.
By the end of the week I have a naming ceremony using a small plastic sword from Wal-Mart, in which Mildred is dubbed in English “Best Point Guard in the History of Colorado High School Basketball,” a name she will keep all year.
I will use this name in all sorts of PQA and extended PQA activities, in stories, and in readings. The Best Point Guard in the History of Colorado High School Basketball needs to learn how to read French to know what great things she has done on the court as described in the readings I have created about her Personality B. As long as I keep Mildred engaged and important, she doesn’t relapse into Personality A.
By always returning the focus to this wonderful basketball star (the greatest in the history of Colorado high school basketball!) and this great French student, Mildred buys into whatever I do. I win.
Personality B sets in fully by the end of the second week. The problem is solved, not by my loving Mildred, but by my doing a specific, designed, activity directed right at her in the first few classes of the year.
Some teachers may object that this kind of energy output is not part of their job description. But, if we remember that we teach students first and language second, it is the most important aspect of their job. If they feel they cannot do it, they must fake it until it becomes a reality.



4 thoughts on “Dealing with Oppositional Students 2”

  1. Hey Ben,
    Once again you touch on a timely issue and nail it. I just blogged ( about a book called “The Invisible Classroom by Kirke Olson that jenschongalla sent me before Christmas. It is an effort to help teachers understand and deal with the aspect of class/school that you deal with in your post.
    In the Introduction Kirke says:
    Extensive research over many decades shows that from the first moments of birth, human brains are wired to learn best within the context of loving relationships. This does not end because children enter schools, so cultivating a positive relational culture in your classroom and school supports learning and creates a better working atmosphere for you. What’s love got to do with it? Well, everything!
    Ben, I wonder what you credit for your insight into this topic? Is it only your experience? Honestly, I truly believe that no teaching to its full potential can happen until we address students in the way you talk about above.
    If I can be successful in doing what you describe I can change not only the student’s experience in my class and my experience but the experience of the entire class!
    Thanks Ben

  2. Skip there was a big change in treatment of mentally ill people in France around the time of the French Revolution. There was some doctor who thought that if patients weren’t chained to walls but rather were allowed to move around and be involved with others who also had suffered with mental illness, that is, being acknowledged for who they were instead of being labeled as a misfit (or, as Kirke says, being in a “positive relational culture” with others), the patients got better. The Quakers later brought this into the U.S. and even today there is a movement in American mental hospitals to avoid hiring super qualified “mental health experts” in those hospitals and instead hiring people with a history of mental health issues as well. The reasoning is obvious: the latter group brings empathy to the equation and the former, those mental health experts who advocate the giving of drugs to deaden the patient on all levels and don’t enter into positive relation with the patients, don’t bring much of anything to those patients except their own overly analytical left brain dominant selves, which treat the patients robotically and without love, compassion and empathy.
    The parallels with teaching as it happens in American schools these days are obvious. We work in institutions that consider the collection of data more important than the real human needs of the child to be a part of a group. In our institutions if a student is absent because of some kind of crushing family crisis, or if the student is not balanced mentally as a result of being in schools (for example like what happened in Columbine High School), they are often told that they have to do the work anyway. They have to make up the work and take the test.
    We must choose how we react to those mentally imbalanced children like Mildred. Historically up until now, a suffering child was treated as different, labeled with all sorts of terms, and put on some kind of plan/medication. (Honestly, Mildred was horrible. Her behavior in class kept me up at night. I wanted to get the biggest security guard in the building and drag her out of my class every day.) But she didn’t know that. Myrtle Beach High School WAS an insane asylum and I had to choose who I wanted to be in it. We all do. We who choose CI choose love. OK now I know I went over the line with that sentence. Maybe I should say that there is more potential to teach with love in CI than there is in using a textbook. Not to say that textbook teachers don’t bring love to their students, but that love is less free than the love we bring our students with stories. I mean, how can you bring love to someone when it’s packaged in a relative pronoun object? I do love me a good relative pronoun, but they don’t me love back much. Unless I’ve given them life in a story. Then they are happy and not two dimensional and sad anymore. That’s the best answer I can give to your question, skip, my brother.
    The only thing is that it took me a long time to let go of the idea that I had to be successful in my efforts with those kids. Luckily, I gave up long ago the idea that I could fix the system. I really can’t. The kids are too sick and most of the teachers are as well, with their focus on grades and competition and just how hard they are, how hard their faces are. All I could do was really work on taking care of myself so that I could serve my students in humility and just do the best I could. This profession has forced me to take care of myself, which I didn’t do when I first started teaching because I had bought into the competitions thing. By taking care of myself and resting properly, I very slowly learned how to avoid being like those horrible mental health people of centuries past.
    The short version of the above is: What Kirke says. Really, all of this stuff can be referenced and studied on Laurie’s site. Or just talk to her at a conference. This whole discussion, which is huge in our work, because it involves our mental health (where our minds find health by finding warmth and support in our hearts), could be labeled Laurie Clarcq 101. Just go read her blog and learn.

  3. If there is anything wise on my blog, it came through me not from me. Emotional and mental health is so important to me because there are so many UNHEALTHY practices in our lives and the most unhealthy element is that we aren’t aware of them. I wasn’t raised to know what healthy was, I wasn’t ever really taught what healthy is….and it is a constant battle for me to find a place of health (physically, emotionally etc.) It’s not popular to admit it, I suspect it is for most of us.
    A number of the adults in my family are very bright and have dealt, or do still deal. with anxiety, depression and probably a great deal more. It was not their way to explore these issues. It was/is their way to deny them. It simply made sense to them to assume that what they knew was normal. Inside, however, the struggle was/is powerful and real. What am I thinking? Why am I feeling this way? What is wrong with me? Most of their struggle has been blamed on the outer, not the inner world. Work is stressful. My kids are brats. My marriage is awful. I have no money. Etc. But I know what their greatest fear was/is. To be labeled as “crazy.” (see Ben’s post above)
    I’ve been an anxiety sufferer since my earliest memories. I have no problem sharing that I take daily meds to keep anxiety and depression under control. Sadly, I was in my late twenties before I even knew what anxiety/depression were and in my forties before I finally accepted that I needed help. For some people this is an episode, a period of time they eventually work through. That is not my reality. It’s my lifetime sidekick. But I live in the 21st century. I am extremely grateful to have been able to experience peace and grace for the majority of my adult life. I wouldn’t wish those pre-meds years and experiences on anyone.
    But the truth is that we all have our albatross (es). AND WE NEED TO KNOW THAT THAT IS NORMAL, EXPECTED AND LOVABLE. Because it isn’t the anxiety, the depression, the addiction, the abuse, the divorce, the illness, the job loss, the fear or the whatever that damages us.
    It’s the idea that these things somehow make us unacceptable and unlovable. Having them in our lives feels like proof that we deserve to be burdened or punished rather than loved.
    To feel unloved and to believe oneself unlovable…….that is the greatest affliction.
    Each of us can prevent that , or change that, for someone else.
    Any and every little thing done in love can do that.
    I believe that is what we are here for. Teaching a language is just a setting for the real work.
    with love,

  4. As usual, Laurie comes through with the kind of honesty and transparency that I have prayed for on this blog. Not everyone will be able to relate to what Laurie describes above, but I sure do. I always thought I hated my job until I realized that it was given to me to teach me similar things to those Laurie describes above. I turned into a real workaholic with teaching until I realized what I was doing to myself (not loving myself enough to take a break). The breakthrough came when Susie Gross explained to me over a period of about seven years, in no uncertain terms, that I was to stop entering super trained kids, trained by me like top athletes, in the National French Exam and the AP French Exam and start learning to teach in this new way, which is not conducive to cut-throat exams and contests for privileged white kids, and turn to and embrace the many beneficial mental health aspects of this work, it’s all inclusiveness and how it represents what is best about America. It’s not just external politics that made me make this blog private; it was also internal mental health reasons. Laurie has always kept this topic front and center for us over the years and only those who have been along for the long haul know what that means to them personally. And so when we see Laurie each summer at the conferences, ever fresh and ever honest, just like Susie and Blaine and Jason and Diana and the other real leaders in this work, to remind us that no matter how much we got beat up in the previous year, we can and will return to the classroom in the fall by using this God-given way of teaching to not just benefit our students but also ourselves, with God’s ever-constant blessings and help as we go along with the method. That was so well said above, Laurie. Thank you, one more time.

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