Mean Kids

I received a major email today from a member of our group. Here it is:

Ben,

I have had a great year with four out of five classes. Students love the personalized Matava and Tripp story scripts. My smallest class of eighteen gifted students, which should be a dream class, has become my worst class. I have no yelling out or classroom management problems with this group. This homeroom has “the popular girls” who are also extremely mean girls. I have no choice in students so I can’t refuse to teach them. They are not overtly mean so I can’t right discipline referrals for bulling, but the students are too scared to be risk takers because they might be mocked by the mean girls. Students no longer offer cute answers. I often find myself asking a question and all I hear are crickets.  I am at a loss of what I can do with these students. I might have to go back to the Look I can Talk book which takes out some of the personalization but allows students a problem and relies less on their creativity. Any suggestions, help would be greatly appreciated.

I responded:

My take is that mean girls like this can and have ruined many classes and many careers. In a group, they are young witches, and so much more a source of stress on a teacher than one could ever imagine. And you said why – because the kids who would play well in class are subject to their disapproval. It is a form of mental control of a class through individual bullying, and we must react to it most seriously.  I would do the following and I encourage others to chime in please.

First, I would act. This one ain’t going away.

I would stop all stories and not do any more. I would go with Read and Discuss of novels in the way it is outlined here. I would continue  until they start asking for stories again (they will) and I would respond that the reason you are not doing stories is because of the energy in the class.

Then I would just bring it out into the open. It is not a secret – those two girls and their hold on the class is known to the group, certainly. I would tell the class what you think is going on. You can explain how the class depends on the good will of all and how you feel that (name each witch) has created a situation where the other kids don’t want to play, so you can’t do stories.

I can just hear people reading this as they gasp in horror at outing the ringleader. I disagree. I confront bullies and I do it publicly. More on that below.  While you are in the novel doing R and D I would call the individual parents and explain jGR and say that you are asking for more good will from their daughter in class, that she is smart and capable but, the way the standards are now requires communication skills (have the interpersonal skill ACTFL description there and be ready to read it to them) and not judging others and how you feel that their daughter is hurting the class by not bringing her best effort to the class. Just be honest.

Of course, it would be good to contact each mean young witch individually in the hall before calling the parents, but some of these girls, who can be so mean, may not  respond so you may want to go straight to the parent phone call. One thing that has really worked for me is I go to the ringleader alone and say I need her help.

I did that last week with a mean boy and it worked. His behavior is completely different. He sits apart moreso than where I put him away from his buddies and it really helps. He pays attention. I think I got him on the human level – I saw it in his face when I said it, when I said that this way of teaching is so hard and I really need the natural leaders in the class to step up and he did. I don’t know if it can work for you in this situation.

Whatever you do, we must act in situations like this. This is what courage is all about. You are confronting bullies. Get a mediator there in the form of a counselor if you get to the level of a meeting with parents and/or the child. I would only get to that level with the ring leader(s). There is usually just one, but here it looks as if there are two. But go for the leader of that group of two first. That is the bully who must be confronted.

The teacher then responded to my response later today:

Your take on the situation is correct. Sadly the mean girls are only two, the rest of the girls (there are seven of them) are really sweet but submissive and allow these girls to have power over them. They are desperate to be accepted and my two mean girls hold all the cards and stir the pot so my sweet girls are too scared to get in the line of fire. This group (led by the mean girl) has decided that they learn through making up skits, apparently the teacher last year was fond of this (less work and the kids appear to be working collaboratively). How do I explain to an eighth grader that they in fact do not learn by making skits?

I responded:

Skits are code for “let’s screw around with English and not do any work”. Tell them that. Then call mom and dad that nite and say that there is a crucial thing that their daughter is NOT GRASPING about the standards – your need, your professional obligation actually, to keep 90% of the class in the TL, and that skits don’t fall in that classification. Here is my definition of bullshit – skits and projects. My definition of bullshit is skits and projects.

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5 thoughts on “Mean Kids”

  1. I agree with just about everything Ben said, but I personally would start by talking to one of the ringleaders. I would guess that one of them is the real leader and the other just backs her up in everything she says. I wouldn’t make it confrontational, but an objective analysis of what is going on in class, telling her that you would appreciate her being more positive and engaged so that the others won’t be afraid of speaking up. And letting her know that if you have to, you will go to her parents and the administration, because this IS bullying, however subtle it may seem. I once had a class of 36 students with very much the same situation. I tried assigned seats and had a very sweet cooperative girl come to me after class with tears in her eyes because I had put her next to the head witch. With luck, you may have a genuine conversation with the girl and learn why she feels she has to act that way. Any psychologist will tell you that a person who has to denigrate others is actually a very insecure person. If you can make her feel safe, she may not feel that it’s necessary to attack the rest of the world.
    Laurie, as usual, has the answer. With love,
    Judy

  2. Yes and this is where jobs may come in. I made the ringleader of a group of girls in the class I’ve been filming for this group into a main actor and I also call her the classroom “manager” and it has turned her completely around. I ask her in front of the class questions like if we should do this or that now or what percentage we should read that week and questions like that. I do that all the time. It’s like she’s a Professor 1 or 2 but not for academics, but for all those other decisions we need to make every day.

    These kids really do take their jobs seriously. Now that group of four junior girls has gone from being the worst group in class to the best. If your kid knows after a talk that her grade will go way up bc of the extra credit from the jobs she does and bc jGR will work for her instead of against her, and bc you need her to help you, it could be the turning point. What judy says here is key:

    …if you can make her feel safe, she may not feel that it’s necessary to attack….

    The point being is that action, not requests, is needed here. Hopefully positive action, bc I think that the model we are all about in storytelling, something impossible with the grammar book, is that what we are really doing is not fighting kids, but building community.

    This is new to kids like your ringleader and so we have to show them how safe they are and how they can contribute. That is why I have put so much energy into the jobs this year. With the other pieces we have, it all goes to making us the authority in the classroom, hiring and jokingly firing, getting kids working as members of the community (jobs) and in terms of rigor (jGR) and breaking those cells of resistance that so drain the health of the overall group.

  3. I agree. You cannot build a community around a textbook, especially when so many books by their very nature alienate and divide kids into categories like smart and stupid, compliant and rebellious, throwing tons of irrelevant and uninteresting vocabulary words and cultural facts at them. They either suck it up, neatly spit it out, and get an A, or if they are wondering why bother, they will get a bad grade and be made to feel stupid, and then they’ll find other ways to feel important and respected in the classroom, or just tune out. Taking control of the classroom away from the textbook scope and sequence, and assigning jobs seem like very effective ways of breaking this cycle.

  4. Chris take note for your master’s thesis. What we do builds a democratic system in the classroom. What the book is all about is elitism.

  5. I found the following quote from a holocaust survivor, addressed to teachers. (Here is the most fitting place I could find on a quick glance to put this quote). Refreshingly, I found the quote on a school district’s webpage.

    “Dear Teacher,

    I am a survivor of a concentration camp.

    My eyes saw what no man should witness:

    Gas chambers built by LEARNED engineers

    Children poisoned by EDUCATED physicians

    Infants killed by TRAINED nurses

    Women and babies shot and burned by HIGH SCHOOL and COLLEGE graduates.

    So I am suspicious of education.

    My request is: Help your students become more human.

    Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.

    Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.”

    –Haim Ginott, Holocaust survivor, 1972

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