Category Archives: Teachers Establish a Respectful Environment for a Diverse Population of Students

Simple Truth: Trying Kids Need Love, Too.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the interactions that I’ve had over the course of my career with ‘trying’ kids.  

You know the ones I’m talking about:  They talk over their peers, they use unkind words, and they show up late for class.  They sit in other people’s seats and refuse to move.  They seem to find a way to break rules at every turn.  You think about them all of the time — worried about what they are going to do next and you spend TONS of time talking to colleagues about the new and interesting ways that they’ve driven you nuts from day to day.

Used to be, I’d go full on Enforcer on those kids.  Punishment was my primary intervention.

Want to blurt out in class?  You’d better be ready to have your Pride Guide signed.  Using unkind words in class?  I’m going to fuss at you until you cry to show you what unkind words look and feel like.  Determined to break rules that other kids follow without question?  I’m calling you out in front of everyone, calling the principal, and then calling your parents.

Then — just to rub salt in the wound — I’d use condescending language like, “Wouldn’t it just be easier to follow the rules?” or “Sooner or later, you are going to figure it out.”

Most of the time, I believed that punishment mattered for trying kids — and I believed I was the right person to deliver those punishments.  “If these kids don’t learn how to behave,” I’d say, “they are NEVER going to succeed in life.  SOMEONE has to teach them that there are consequences for their actions.  SOMEONE has to hold them accountable — and if their parents can’t do it, I will.”

#sheesh

What I didn’t bother thinking a whole lot about was an argument that my friend Chris Tuttell makes all the time:  Trying kids aren’t TRYING to be difficult. 

Chris rightly believes that no child wakes up in the morning intending to be unkind or to use hurtful language or to be in trouble at every single turn.  And more importantly, kids who are struggling to meet our behavioral expectations have the same mental and emotional needs as the kids who please you the most day in and day out.

She writes:

Read that again, guys:  ALL kids want praise.  ALL kids want acceptance.  ALL kids want hugs and love and to know that someone is proud of them.  

More importantly, all kids DESERVE praise and acceptance and hugs and love and to know that someone is proud of them.

But is that what happens in our buildings?  ARE we taking steps to let every kid know that they have value and that we believe in them?  Or is our pride and praise reserved for the small handful of kids who act in ways that we expect?

#worthasking

The good news is that this is an easy fix. 

Find a trying kid today.  Take a minute to tell him the things that you love the most about him.  When you see him following rules, celebrate him — and make sure it happens in front of his peers, who have probably come to see him as more of a pest than a partner.  Call home and let his mom know that you believe in him and love him and are excited to have him in your class.

Doing so will help to redefine that child in the eyes of everyone. 

His peers will see him as an equal instead of as an annoyance.  His parents will appreciate and support you when you need their help.  And HE will start to see HIMSELF differently.  Because he feels acceptance from you, he will be less restless in your classroom and he’ll try harder to meet your expectations because he won’t want to let you down.

Doing so will also give you the emotional leverage to be heard in the moments where you have to deliver correction.  It’s a heck of a lot easier to point out misbehavior or to get trying kids to invest effort in changing when they realize they aren’t your target anymore.

But most importantly, YOU will stop seeing the trying kids in your class as annoyances and start seeing them as the amazing, inspiring people that they have been all along.

That matters.

___________________

Related Radical Reads:

Is Your School a “Rules First” or “Relationships First” Community?

Three Promises I’m Making to the Parents of Quirky Kids.

Simple Truth:  Kids Want to Be Noticed.

Is Your School a “Rules First” or a “Relationships First” Community?

Over the next year, I’m participating in a school-based book study of George Couros’s Innovator’s Mindset.

If you haven’t read it before, you ought to pick it up.  What I dig the most about it is the fact that George’s ideas are incredibly approachable.  Not only will you walk away with a better understanding of just what innovation looks like in action, you will walk away with a belief that innovation is doable.

#thatmatters

My a-ha this week came in a chapter on the importance of relationships in education.  

George references this Atul Gawande bit describing how ideas spread through an organization.  In the article, Gawande describes something called “the rule of seven touches” that he picked up from a pharmaceutical sales representative:

I once asked a pharmaceutical rep how he persuaded doctors—who are notoriously stubborn—to adopt a new medicine. Evidence is not remotely enough, he said, however strong a case you may have. You must also apply “the rule of seven touches.” Personally “touch” the doctors seven times, and they will come to know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, if they trust you, they will change.

That’s why he stocked doctors’ closets with free drug samples in person. Then he could poke his head around the corner and ask, “So how did your daughter Debbie’s soccer game go?” Eventually, this can become “Have you seen this study on our new drug? How about giving it a try?” As the rep had recognized, human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.

I know firsthand that the rule of seven touches works with adults.  Here’s why:  I’m ‘notoriously stubborn’ too! 

Need proof?  Ask literally ANYONE who has worked with me professionally over the last 25 years.

If you are going to have ANY chance of convincing me to embrace a new practice or behavior or to walk in whatever direction you are hoping I’m going to walk, you are going to need to rely on more than just your authority or position.  Instead, you are going to have to have a series of smaller interactions with me that build trust.  If I don’t come to know you — or worse yet, if I’m not convinced that you’ve tried to get to know me — I’m never going to trust you.  And if I don’t trust you, there’s not a chance in the world that you are going to convince me to take your ideas for a spin.

But I wasn’t thinking about adults when I read about the Rule of Seven in The Innovator’s Mindset.  I was thinking about the students who struggle with behaviors in our schools.

You know the kids that I’m talking about:  The ones who aren’t in their seats when we want them to be or who use unkind words to their peers or who can’t keep their hands to themselves or who are late to our classes time and time again or who are in spaces where they aren’t supposed to be or who mouth back when we try to correct their behaviors.

For years, my response to those behaviors had nothing to do with “the rule of seven touches.”  Instead, my response was more along the lines of “the rule of seven consequences.”

I’d sign their behavior trackers or fuss at them in the hallways or chase them back to their classrooms with a stern voice or the ‘evil eye.’  I’d write them up and send them to the office and argue that we needed MORE consequences if we were ever going to ‘manage their behaviors.’

I actually took pride in being ‘the strict teacher’ and would warn kids at the beginning of the year that if they didn’t behave, I would be their LEAST favorite teacher.  I’d call their parents during my planning period, intentionally trying to get kids in trouble.  “Wait until you get home,” I’d crow.  “Your mom is NOT happy with you.”

The funny thing is that NONE of those ‘command and control’ approaches to dealing with student behaviors worked.

Students who were suspended time and again or fussed at time and again or shouted down by teachers time and again or ‘disciplined’ time and again by the adults in a schoolhouse don’t become MORE likely to follow your rules or to participate in your school community in positive ways.

Instead, they resist and fight back and begin to doubt and disrespect everything and everyone in your school community.  Why would you expect cooperation from kids who have been buried in consequences by important adults at every turn?

So I’ve done my best this year to create “positive touches” with the students who struggle with behaviors on my hallway.  

Specifically, I’ve learned the names of kids in different classes that I stumble across over and over again out of place in the hallways.  I say hello using first names every time that I see them. I ask about their weekends, about their interests, and about how their days are going every chance I get.  I say goodbye as the head out the door at the end of the day.  I say, “It’s good to see you!” a thousand times a day to kids who have gotten used to being somebody’s outcast.

There’s nothing remarkable about any of these interactions — and they cost me nothing.  But they are deliberate — designed to get kids to ‘come to know me’ because I realize that if kids who struggle to behave ‘come to know me’, they are more likely to trust me.  And if they trust me, I’ll have a better chance to coach them around behaviors when I need to.

And it’s working.

I’ve already established trusting relationships with some of the most ‘difficult’ kids in our school.  Those kids stop and listen when I ask them to.  If I need them to head back to their classrooms, it happens without any kind of resistance involved.

When they make poor choices, I can call them out on it and know that they will hear me rather than slip directly into denial or anger or belligerence.  What I love the most is that many of them have started stopping by my room on purpose just to say hello in the morning — and they’re bringing friends who want to get to know me, too.

None of this would have happened in previous years, y’all.

That’s because in previous years, I would have tried to drop the hammer on these kids every time I saw them in the hallways.  I would have chased them away or fussed first and asked questions later.  I would have used every punishment that I had available to me, convinced that those punishments were not only deserved, but essential to “send a message” to kids.

Can you see the flaws in my logic?

My priority was obedience first and relationships later, not realizing that obedience — or the lack thereof — was a direct reflection of the state of the relationship that I had with each individual student.  The kids who misbehaved the most were the ones that I’d done nothing to get to know and appreciate and value and celebrate.

Now don’t get me wrong: I haven’t ‘rescued’ any of these students yet.  They aren’t behaving everywhere that they go in our building.  In fact, it’s not unusual for me to find out that they are in trouble for shouting at other teachers or staff members that they’ve encountered during the school day.

But each of those negative interactions bothers me more now than ever because I KNOW that these same students CAN respond in a positive way to correction and to guidance from adults.  That correction and guidance just has to come from adults that they trust — and trust starts when adults concentrate on having positive touches with the most difficult kids in their buildings.

So here’s a simple question I want you to consider:  Is your school a “rules first” or a “relationships first” community?

You are a “rules first” community if you spend more time in staff meetings or leadership meetings or school improvement meetings talking about consequences for kids than you do talking about the best ways to build trust with the kids who need you the most.

You are a “rules first” community if you have an incredibly long list of misbehaviors and their corresponding punishments posted all over your school’s website, but you can’t make a similar list of the deliberate steps that YOU are taking to make sure that every kid — including those that are always in trouble — has positive interactions with adults in your building each day.

You are a “rules first” community if your school is full of teachers who are constantly grumbling about the lack of “enforcement” or “discipline” in your building but those same staff members aren’t willing to roll their sleeves up and create experiences intentionally designed to strengthen relationships with students who are struggling to behave.

You are a “rules first” community if teachers in your building can list all of the things that a difficult student has done WRONG but struggle to come up with anything that those exact same students have done RIGHT.

You are a “rules first” community if you are more than ready to call home to notify parents of all of the ways that their kids have broken the rules, but you never take the time to call home and notify parents of all of the ways that their kids inspire you and make you proud.

And you are a “rules first” community if there are a group of kids that you never seem to be able to reach with consequences.  They’ve tuned you out.  They’ve given up on you.  They don’t trust you — and because they don’t trust you, they will never respond to you in the way that you hope that they will.

If that sounds anything like you, maybe it’s time to start thinking about relationships.

They matter.

#trudatchat

——————–

Related Radical Reads:

Is Your Team Failing Unsuccessful Practices Together?

Three Promises I’m Making to the Parents of Quirky Kids.

When Was the Last Time You Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

 

Second Guessing My Kids of Color?

Blogger’s Note:  This post is on race in America. It’s full of ideas I’ve been wrestling with for a long while.  Like the issue, there’s nothing neat and polished and finished about my thinking.  But like the issue, I think it’s time for transparent reflection — particularly from white people in positions of authority and leadership — no matter how messy it may feel.  

Read it if you want.  And then do some reflecting of your own.  This is a conversation we have to stop avoiding.  We owe it to one another.  


I think I’m an outstanding teacher.  At least that’s what I’ve heard from parents and students time and again for 25 years.  It’s not unusual for kids to smile when they see me, anyway — and I”m not bashful about telling students that I believe in them and that I care about them.

That matters, right?

But here’s a really uncomfortable confession:  I’ve caught myself time and again over the past few weeks treating my students of color differently than I treat the white students in my school.

Simple things, really — but treating kids of color differently nonetheless.

Things like saying, “Where are you supposed to be?” to Ja’Quon when I saw him outside the bathroom, jumping immediately to the conclusion that he’s either skipping or stalling instead of simply going to the freaking bathroom.  I even used the word “caught” when describing the interaction to Ja’Quon’s teacher — implying, with little evidence, that he was in a place he wasn’t supposed to be.

Or things like chasing Cadedra and Samyria away from the water fountains when they are saying good morning to one another each day, jumping immediately to the conclusion that whatever they are doing, it’s going to end up causing some kind of social drama that I’m going to have to deal with later.

Or things like being really surprised when Ashante asks the best questions in my classes and that her parents are some of the most interested and involved parents that I’ve ever met — and then realizing that I can count the number of interactions that I’ve had with the parents of my black students on one hand.

Or assuming that Tadion was screwing around in the hallways when he showed up late to class after lunch — and then finding out that he had an upset stomach that he was dealing with.

Heck — I did it today, y’all:  De’Andre and Jonaad showed up in my room for our school’s enrichment period.  “You’d better be here to work,” I said the MOMENT they walked in the door.

“If you aren’t interested in working, you aren’t welcome here,” I said, with skepticism in my voice even though I hadn’t questioned any of the other kids who showed up to work in my room.

#sheesh

Look back over my list of examples for a minute.   There’s nothing overtly racist there, right?  

In fact, I’d bet those kinds of moments happen a thousand times a day in your schools, too — especially if your school is staffed, like most, with a whole bunch of white, middle class teacher people.

But that’s what makes them so damn insidious, y’all.

Imagine being De’Andre or Cadedra or Tadion and being doubted and second guessed at every turn by every adult in your building.  Want to say hello to a friend?  Go for it — but get ready to be hassled.  Need to use the bathroom?  Go for it — but get ready to be hassled.  Late to class because you forgot something in the cafeteria?  Yup.  You are going to get hassled for that, too.

Meanwhile, your white classmates — let’s call them Sarah and Alex and Jack — are all saying hello to friends, using the bathroom and coming to class a minute or two late without having to explain themselves.  Instead, they’re getting  friendly reminders to be more responsible next time!

Stew in that for a minute, y’all.

Does it sound like your school at all?

Be honest.  It won’t hurt.

But also imagine the impact that being doubted over and over again, day after day, year after year has on our kids of color?

#doublesheesh

And don’t forget that while being doubted at school, our kids of color are ALSO living in a world where the President of the United States defends white supremacists as “very fine people” while simultaneously calling black athletes protesting police brutality in communities of color “sons of bitches” who deserve to be fired.

Our kids of color THEN see those same athletes called “arrogant, ungrateful, anti-American degenerates”  and “crybabies” and “no good n*****s” by commentators and community leaders.

ALL. OVER. A. PEACEFUL. PROTEST.

And not just a peaceful protest about ANY old thing — a peaceful protest designed to draw attention to troubling stories like those of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and #ferguson and Freddie Gray and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — cases where black men were literally killed in the streets.

Need MORE proof of how bad things really are?

Consider the fact that we’ve become so desensitized to the endless cycle of violence against marginalized groups that we barely even acknowledge events that DON’T involve shootings anymore — think School Resource Officer Ben Fields tossing an African American student all around her high school classroom for being disruptive or police officer David Casebolt turning into Kung-Fu Panda to break up a pool party that had grown too large in McKinney, Texas.

And worse yet, we haven’t even really BOTHERED to consider the concerns of the #anthemprotesters.

Don’t believe me?

Go read through your social media streams right now.

I guarantee that you’ll find plenty of people raging about “rich, spoiled athletes disrespecting the flag” but few who are wrestling with “black men using their position as public figures to speak out about racial injustice in America.”  The one-sided-ness of the conversation speaks volumes about our readiness as a nation to deal with inequality.

#triplesheesh

Long story short: I used to wonder why some of the kids of color in our building were so darn belligerent when I tried to correct them.

They’d mouth off every time.  I’d write them up for being disrespectful every time.  Then,  I’d gripe to colleagues about their attitudes — convinced that I’d done nothing to deserve their back talk.  After all, they were the ones breaking the rules, right?

But when I think with an open heart about the way that I’ve caught myself treating my kids of color, it’s pretty clear that I’m the one being disrespectful.

I really do jump to negative conclusions about the actions of my black students a heck of a lot sooner than I do when I’m having the same kinds of interactions with white students.  Andy gives me attitude and “he’s just having a bad day.”  Anquan gives me attitude and “he’s just a bad kid.”

And if I think with an open heart, I’d bet that at least some of the confrontations that I am seeing out of my kids of color are nothing more than a reflection of a society where doubt and criticism and unfair consequences are the norm rather that the exception to the rule for black kids living in a biased world.

I can’t fix all of this by myself anytime soon.

But I can guarantee you that, moving forward, I’m ready to rethink every interaction that I have with a kid of color to at LEAST ensure that my own assumptions aren’t leading to a classroom where bias is the norm rather than the exception to the rule.  And I can also guarantee you that I’m going to speak out — as a white man in a position of authority — about race in America anywhere that I can.

It might make people uncomfortable, but I just don’t care.

I OWE that to my kids.

And so do you.

#simpletruth

 

*Note: All student names are pseudonyms to protect identities.

____________________

Related Radical Reads:

After __________, What’s Our Role in Promoting Peace?

#charlestonchurchshooting

#ferguson

Are YOU Standing Up for Tolerance?

 

 

Three Promises I’m Making to the Parents of Quirky Kids.

I’ve been doing a ton of reflecting lately on just what it is that teachers owe to their parents and students.  

I think that’s because my daughter — a wonderfully quirky kid who can’t stand school — begins third grade on Monday and I’m more than a little worried about it.  I’m already dreading the battles that I know we will have over getting homework done.  They consume much of my evenings — and all of my emotional energy — once school starts.

And I’m dreading the inevitable phone calls from school employees, telling me that my kid isn’t working as hard as she can, isn’t sitting in her seat as quietly as she can, or isn’t making as many friends on the playground as she can.  I’m also dreading the inevitable phone calls telling me that she’s not reading on grade level yet — and that the only solution is some form of remediation that pulls her away from the few things about school that she DOES love.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I don’t blame the school for any of this.  

I know full well that my kid’s strengths don’t align nicely with traditional definitions of success in school.  She’s super curious, but not all that willing to invest her attention in things that don’t interest her.  She’s super articulate and verbal, but not all that willing to wait her turn to share what she’s thinking.  She’s super kind, but only if she feels that she’s accepted by those around her.

And my kid’s weaknesses — stubbornness and insecurity — are only exacerbated by life in school.

She knows full well that there are high stakes attached to darn near everything in her classroom. She recognizes that she doesn’t read and/or write as well as her classmates.  And she understands that she hasn’t found as many friends as her peers.  All of those things cause her to worry and to push back and to quit way more than I would like her to.  And all of those things get in the way of both her happiness and her success in the place where she will spend the majority of her days for the next 10 months.

That breaks my heart.

 

But I do know that being the parent of a quirky kid has changed who I am as a teacher — and as a result, I’m ready to make three promises to the parents of my quirky kids this year:

Promise #1:  I won’t bury you in homework.

For the parents of kids like mine, homework is a source of constant conflict.  When Reece comes home after a day of struggle at school, she’s not ready to sit down and struggle some more.  After all, she’s spent most of her time between 8-3 feeling insecure already.  And she’s exhausted.  Struggling all day will do that to you.

But homework is always ready and waiting for us — and it’s a constant battle to get done.  It probably takes us twice as long as it takes most kids and families — and twice as long as the teacher intended — because it just doesn’t come easy for my kid.  It also leaves everyone in our house frustrated and annoyed and unhappy with one another — and that sucks.  

Sometimes I wish I could just come home and read with my kid or answer HER questions or play outside in the backyard or watch her at dance class or in gymnastics — but even when we make time for those things, we both know that our fight over homework is looming just around the corner.

So I’m going to limit the amount of homework that I give in my own classroom.  Will there be times that kids have to finish a task or two that we started in class?  Sure.  But there’s no way that there’s going to be work every single day.  Instead, I want to create space for families to be families and for kids to pursue their own interests.  Fights over classroom assignments have no place in our daily routines.

Promise #2: I will celebrate your child, too.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth that I’ve never addressed with my daughter’s teachers:  While I get lots of emails and phone calls and notes about the “bad” things that she’s doing at school, I rarely hear about the positive things that she does.

Now, I get it:  I’m a teacher too.  Finding time to communicate with parents is hard enough to begin with.  My planning time is consumed with meetings and developing lessons and grading papers.  What’s more, why should we set time aside to celebrate kids who are simply following classroom rules?  Meeting basic expectations shouldn’t be cause for celebration, should it?

But I never realized how discouraging it can be to parent a quirky kid through the school system until I had one of my own.  I know that I’m going to hear a LOT over the next ten months about the reasons my kid — who I love with every ounce of my soul — is a disruption or a behavior problem or academically behind her peers.  But it’s unlikely that I’ll hear all that much about what she does well or why she’s worthy of celebration.

That breaks my heart, too.

So I’m going to celebrate every single child — including the quirky kids in my room — this year.  Whether I’m writing Kudos Cookies or writing letters directly to parents, you are going to hear me praise all that is unique and amazing and important about your kid, even if they are struggling academically or socially in my room.  You deserve it.

And so does your kid.

Promise #3: If I call home with a concern, I’ll come prepared with suggestions, too.

The worst part about being the parent of a quirky kid is the feeling of helplessness that I have when I get the inevitable phone calls and emails about my child’s behavioral or academic struggles.

While I appreciate the information and always want to follow through at home with a consequence so that Reece knows that I expect her to “follow the rules” and to “work hard in class,” I have no idea how to change her behavior or to succeed academically in the long term.  If I did, she wouldn’t be behaving the way that she’s behaving to begin with and she certainly wouldn’t be struggling academically!

If Reece is in trouble for behavior, I fuss — but I know that she is likely to get into the same pickle in a few weeks time.  At which point, I’ll get another email or phone call.  And I’ll fuss again.  I’ll ground her or take away her privileges or create some kind of threat that hopefully will motivate her to do all that is expected of her.  “Don’t let me hear from your teachers again!” I’ll say, “Or we aren’t taking that trip to DC with your friends!”

Then, I’ll wait until the same behavior repeats itself.

And if she’s struggling academically, I’ll double down on homework time.  We’ll spend even LONGER at the kitchen table, grinding through as many practice worksheets as I can find on the ol’ Interwebs.  She’ll grumble.  I’ll grumble.  But it’s all I know to do.  I can’t just let her fall further and further behind.  I know what happens to those kids when they grow up.

To be honest, I never REALLY know whether or not the steps I’m taking make any sense.  After all, I don’t teach elementary school.  I’m doing the best that I can with the knowledge that I have — but things never seem to change and I don’t know what to do next.

So this year, EVERY time that I send an email or make a phone call to the parents of a student who is struggling with behaviors or academics, I’m going to do more than just let them know what is going on at school.  I’m ALSO going to let them know the actions that I’m going to take at school to address the situation AND I’m going to offer them some suggestions about the things that they can try at home.  What I’m NOT going to do is drop bad news on parents and expect them to solve the problem at home without me.

After all, I’m the professional educator.  Solving problems is my responsibility.

Could my promises work just as well for kids who are succeeding in school?  

Sure.

But those aren’t the kids or families that I am most worried about.

I’m worried about families like mine.  Moms and dads and kids who are discouraged and hopeless — convinced that school is something to be survived instead of something to be enjoyed.  Those moms and dads deserve MORE of our support and encouragement and celebration.  It’s easy to point out the weaknesses in quirky kids.  But it is our responsibility to do all that we can to lift those kids up and help them to be successful, too.

I’m not sure I’ve always done that as well as I should.  That changes now.


Related Radical Reads:

Writing Positive Notes to Students is the Best Way to Start the Day.

When Was the Last Time YOU Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

Simple Truth:  Kids Want to be Noticed.

 

Is Your School Producing “Copy and Paste” Kids?

Something special happened to me last week, y’all:  I was at school late on Wednesday trying to get myself above water after three days with a brand new group of sixth graders.  I was equal parts exhausted and frustrated.  Schedules were wonky, the air conditioning in my room wasn’t working, and I had a thousand signed parent information forms to file.

That’s when Stephen walked in.  

He’s a senior in college now.  Going to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — one of the toughest schools in our state to get into. Majoring in finance and set to make a bazillion dollars over the course of his life.

But he’s got the same energy and spirit and smile that he had when he was my student almost a decade ago.  A kinetic energy.  Constantly moving.  Constantly thinking.  Constantly riffing on ideas and finding humor in situations.  Constantly questioning — questioning rules and limits and expectations and ideas and people.

I’ve always loved that energy and spirit — and I knew it would make Stephen remarkably successful someday.  But it didn’t make him all that successful in school.  Instead, it got him in a ton of trouble with teachers who didn’t see value in a kid who couldn’t sit still and who was just as likely to blurt out 37 times a class period as he was to turn in a piece of work that showed a depth of thinking far and beyond grade level expectations.

I watched teachers try to crush Stephen — and it broke my heart.

They’d sign his behavior tracker for talking out of turn.  They’d call him out in front of everyone when he wasn’t sitting down.  They’d grumble ABOUT him and grumble AT him, wishing that he would “just follow the rules.”  I’d point out that everything that he’d blurt out in class was brilliant and they’d point out that blurting is disruptive and disruptive kids should be punished.

One woman was more than a little open about her dislike for Stephen, going as far as to argue that tolerating his actions would send the wrong message to all of the rest of our students about “what is acceptable and what is unacceptable” in school.  To her, he was intolerable — and she wasn’t willing to apologize for her opinion.

That sucks, doesn’t it?

But it’s a sad fact:  Kids who don’t conform — who aren’t quiet and well prepared every day and willing to raise their hands and take their turns and walk in straight lines — can become outcasts in our buildings pretty darn quickly.

I asked Stephen if he remembered the teachers who had such antipathy for him — and more importantly, if their actions had left him with a bad taste for schools.  He laughed.  Wanted to know WHICH teachers I was talking about.  Turns out that in Stephen’s mind, MOST teachers had a sense of antipathy for him!

And then he shared a piece of slam poetry with me describing his take on his time in classrooms of all shapes and sizes.  His argument:  School is mostly a joke.  A trial.  A test of conformity instead of creativity.  Some people commit to playing the game and they  “succeed” — if obediently producing and repeating thoughts, meeting other people’s expectations, and answering other people’s questions is what you mean by “being successful.”

Stephen wasn’t buying it.  Never was.

Here’s what he wrote*:

COPY AND PASTE

Who are you?

If you answered, they wouldn’t listen

You’re given your name and identification through the perpetual system

Where you’re not you, you don’t exist, and you have no personality

You’re nothing but a name on a piece of paper, a product of formality

For individuality is the fatality

Of conformity’s brutality, it’s the new reality

Where they don’t care about your past, present, future, and they don’t know your face

They just do their very frickin’ best to press copy and paste

To breed and grow you like the rest, what they believe works the best

But nevertheless this is why we get depressed

Because our creativity’s suppressed, our ingenuity oppressed

Because you’re not going anywhere if you don’t know how to test

Now, I must confess, this is a particular skillset that I possess, I study a little less, and get lucky when I guess, but nevertheless I still don’t believe we should attest our success

To our ability to retain and return the bullshit facts that we learn about things we don’t care about – and in ten years won’t know about – but I digress

Learn to love powerpoints, forget about hands-on

Turn on the radio, you’ll keep hearing the same damn song

The world’s foundation is falling, we have nothing to stand on

When everything you are lies in a bubbled-in scantron

This is our handicap, not just something to rant on

If they heard my words they’d laugh hand a tampon

Some of you might too, because you’ve already been stamped on

Our anthem is void, it’s now nothing but a phantom

Damn son, you may say, you seem pretty upset, I say

Upset? I’m frickin’ livid, given the world in which we’re livin’

Where we’re missin’ the frickin’ point, back practicing fast facts and cold religion

Where we’re told not to speak and only to listen,

Where teachers laugh at unique ideas, diss ‘em and dismiss them,

Where school isn’t a place of learning, it’s a clone factory and prison

Where we all get tested under the same curriculum

The rules have been set for you, and you better learn to stick to them

It simply makes me sick, we’re replicated and sent through the reticulum

You try to picket the system? Ridiculous, that’s it, your done

Just find the sum, write the essay, circle C, prepare for test day

Busy work and study dates, up until we graduate

But my friends, that’s not the end, only one cycle complete

Go back to school, go back to rules, apply, dry, rinse, repeat

And then get a job, stabilize, work every day from 9 to 5

Then go home to your kids and wife, don’t disagree, it causes fights

How has it ended up where we all live the same life?

It’s because we’re taught how to find x, and told not to ask y

I couldn’t stress how much potential we waste

When we highlight, right-click, and select copy and paste

When we generalize instead of work case by case

This will be the downfall of the human race

I mean, sure we’ll survive, maybe we’ll even evolve

But if you don’t live your own life, did you really live at all?

Learn your lesson, society, you’ve really dropped the ball

You can either pick yourself up, or continue to fall

But you’ve committed an unspeakable sin, murder in the first degree

For you killed individuality when you pressed “control c, control v”

Stephen told me that he’d written his poem for a college class.  Just something that he’d whipped up because he was tired of the parade of PowerPoint presentations that substitute as learning products in class after class, year after year.  He figured he’d mix things up a bit.  Challenge the norm and watch what happened next.

#awesome

As he recited it for me with all of the cadence and rhythm and emotion that defines a master poet and artist, I couldn’t help but wonder what his university classmates and professor thought when he stood in front of them “presenting” a product that they’d probably never seen before.  Did they respect the risk that he took?  Admire his willingness to stand out — or maybe even apart — from them?  Did they see his choice as foolish — why poetry when PowerPoint was good enough?  Did they knock points off of his grade because he didn’t do what was asked of him?

I also couldn’t help but wonder what the teachers who had tried to squeeze him into their boxes so many years ago would have thought of his poem.  Would they have finally seen him as a deep thinker?  A kid with opinions worth listening to?  A person of reason and rationale instead of as a person who just couldn’t follow the rules?   Or would they have been offended, realizing that he was poking fun at the traditional classrooms they’d created?

But most importantly, I couldn’t help to wonder if we are ever going to get to the point where our schools value something other than creating copy and paste kids.

That’s a question worth asking — and I’m so glad that Stephen is willing to ask it.

#wrestlewithTHATchat

 

*I’ve asked Stephen to record himself reading this for all y’all, Radical Nation.  Leave him a comment down below to let him know how much you would dig that.  I don’t think he realizes how powerful his words can be!


Related Radical Reads:

Can the Quirky Kid Thrive in Our Schools?

Too Many Kids ALREADY Hate School.

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?