Wednesday, September 28, 2016

No Easy Answers by Julie Johnson

(Julie is an intervention teacher and literacy coach with Hilliard City Schools. In this blog she writes about an experience in her fifth grade classroom.)

The boys are huddled together, working on some kind of project.  From the outside, they look like upstanding citizens of our elementary school. Their clothes are clean, their hair, containing some kind of product is neatly combed.   They are confident in their social standing, sticking together wherever they go, whatever they do.  They are the cool boys.  Their group is the one that everyone else wants to join.  They hold the power deciding who’s in and who’s not.

Caleb teeters on the outside.  He wants to be one of the crowd, but sits on the edge.  His mismatched clothes and often dirty hands, blue eyes darting back and forth, don’t fit the requirements to be invited into the circle.  The wall seems impenetrable until his words find a weak spot.  

“I think Michael is gay.  When I stayed at his house, we slept in his bed together and he didn’t wear pajamas.  He sleeps in his underwear.”

It worked.  The crowd parted and invited Caleb in.  

Like gossiping old ladies, the boys wanted to know more.  Their zeal encouraged Caleb to go on.

“Yeah.  He never sleeps in his pajamas.  Whenever I go to his house he says he gets hot, so he just wears underwear.  It’s so gross.”

The boys titter, their laughter ripples through their tight-knit group until some decide it’s time to spread the news.  The circle parts while a few venture out to whisper this new information to others, issuing an invitation into the circle, even if it’s only temporary.   Some jump at the invitation, eager to share the scandal to the person sitting next to them.   Some stand by with a nervous smile or quiet laughter, not sure what to do.

Not one person tries to stop it.

When I hear about this latest incident, I despair because I am reminded once again that what I perceive to be true, isn’t necessarily so.  I want to believe that our classroom is a safe, supportive environment where the members are caring and respectful of each other, because from the core of my being, I believe that we all need a space where we feel safe to think, ask questions, and take risks.  Each move I make in the first months of school are based on deliberate decisions I’ve made to build a trusting environment.  

In fact, when you walk into our classroom, it would appear that you have walked into a welcoming space where children have a voice. Taped to the walls,  you notice hand drawn posters made by 10 year olds with quotes they’ve chosen to motivate, inspire and empower each other.  The letters are crooked, the crayoned pictures crudely drawn, but the words are straightforward and powerful.

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”  ~Oscar Wilde

“Anything is possible. Anything can be.”  ~Shel Silverstein  

What you don’t see, but is still there, are the multiple conversations we’ve had while sitting together in a circle, a circle meant to give everyone the opportunity to be heard, where everyone is equal.   We’ve done the things we’re supposed to do according to the experts.  We’ve been up front about bullying and name it for what it is:  any act of taking away power from someone else.   We’ve read. We’ve written. We’ve role played.  Together, we’ve agreed on the rules we want to follow in our classroom that are supposed to create an environment of mutual respect among all of us.

And, yet, we still have words like “he’s gay” floating through the air, leaving their hurtful sting.

I am frustrated.
I am angry.
I am disappointed.

What have I missed?  A flurry of questions torment me as they ricochet back and forth in my head.  

Why doesn’t Caleb see himself as a bully who is pushing Michael even further out of the circle with his destructive words?   They’re supposed to be best friends.   Do the boys who stand by and laugh realize that they are only perpetuating the situation?  What is it about the boys who appear to be safely enclosed in the circle?  Are they afraid?  Do they worry that their inclusion is as tentative as Caleb’s?  Do any of them think about how their words, actions and lack of action might affect Michael or whoever the victim du jour is?  How do I help each of them  reconcile their need to belong?  How do I help them see the big picture?  In most circumstances, these are nice kids.  What is going on?  This tug-of-war of wanting to belong and not knowing how to do it without hurting someone has me stymied.  I’m not sure what else to do.

Because I can’t give up, we gather once again.  We talk once again.  We specifically call it out once again.   “Gossiping, spreading rumors, purposely leaving someone out of the group, standing by and watching are all different ways to bully. Think about the role you’ve played each time you’ve heard rumors about someone else.  Do you want to be known as someone who perpetuates bullying or someone who stops it?”  I begin barely concealing my anger.  Eyes are cast down as I look out into the room.  

Evan, new to our room this year and one who’s been on the receiving end of his share of rude comments, tentatively says, “I’ve never felt like I belong here.”  

And Michael speaks up, “Me either.”  

And then Tommy, “There are lots of times I don’t get included in things.”

These words of truth zero in on the harsh reality and an uncomfortable hush falls over our group.  Silence wiggles in and sits right next to us, giving the boys space to consider the consequences of what they’ve done or not done.  

“I know I’ve left people out before,” came a quiet voice from the back.  Those words gave courage to others to admit their own past transgressions and soon it sounds like a group confessional in our room.  Incredulously, I watch as the mood switches from one of despair to one of optimism.  I overhear invitations to play soccer at the next recess and watch boys reach out to others they’ve never reached out to before. Just like that, it seems like past hurts are forgiven.  For the time being, the circle opens wider than it’s ever opened before.

I am cautiously hopeful, but my guard is up.  I’m not confident they truly understand.  I still have questions.  Will words like “he’s gay,” or others meant to be just as hurtful ever stop poisoning our classroom?  Will these boys ever grasp the seriousness of their actions?   I don’t know the answers.  

What I do know is that we can’t ignore it.
We can’t allow it to go on.  
And most importantly, we can’t be silent.

The Secret by Stephanie Duwve

(Stephanie is a pre-service teacher working in a preschool classroom. The inspiration for this piece came from the many times in the dramatic play center when she has hear children telling each other they can't wear a certain outfit because of their gender.) 

Come close and listen, for I have a secret.
I don’t think you've heard it before;
but if you have, you should hear it again.
It’s the best way you can learn more.

Come close and listen, for I have a secret.
It shouldn’t be kept quiet though.
I encourage you to yell and let the whole world hear it,
because it is one that will help our nation grow.

Come close and listen, for I have a secret,
and I want to share my knowledge with you.
It’s okay that you don’t know this yet,
because I just recently found out too.

Come close and listen for I have a secret,
that should matter to both, Republican and Democrats.
A boy CAN wear a pink dress
just as a girl CAN wear construction hats.

Come close and listen, for I have a secret,
this is what I stand for.
You have a CHOICE to be a boy or a girl
with no pain, no shame and no war.

Come close and listen, for I have a secret;
just know, not everyone agrees with me.
It’s okay to be “different”, although different is not so different.
It’s up to us to help the world see.


Update on Educational Musings...

Over the next several months we feature the writing of teacher consultants from this year's 2016 Summer Institute. They write eloquently about their experiences; some showing their readers the complexity, ambiguity, contradiction, and unknowable in classrooms and others speaking to the challenges and joys of writing.

Alongside the work of the teacher consultants we also feature some short pieces of writing by pre-service teachers who, working from their inquiry journals during field placements in preschool classrooms, created short pieces about their experiences.

We hope you will enjoy this writing that is grounded in classroom life and all the real events and daily struggles that happen in classrooms.