Friday, November 28, 2008

Trying again

This may sound strange, but I sometimes feel like Tyshaun and I relate to each other in very traditional male-female ways. I tell him how he makes me feel when he is unapproachable and try to get him to express how he is feeling; on a good day, he begrudges me a monosyllabic response through which, for a second, I catch a glimpse of his interior emotional landscape, and I feel rewarded and pleased with this minimal success.

After he took something from my desk, and treated me with hostility because of how embarrassed he felt, I wrote him a note. I thought a lot about why he might be acting so terribly after stealing from me, and made some good guesses about how he was feeling. I told him that I still cared about him even when I was disappointed in him – that we were still “tight,” and nothing was going to change that. I told him that just because he made a mistake didn’t mean that he was a bad kid, so he didn’t have to act like a bad kid. It was half a page long, and it was a really nice note.

Tyshaun read it, grabbed a pencil, and scrawled “OK” in the margin. Yep – I poured my heart out in an effort to help him feel better, and he gave me a one-word answer.

I felt good about it anyway.

The way Tyshaun enters the classroom in the morning affects my day a lot. I notice that I wait for him to arrive with anticipation, because I can tell a lot about how his day is likely to go just by his body language when he comes through the door. When it’s a bad entry, I can feel my heart rate quicken, because I know it could be a rough day.

The other day he came in.

“Good morning, Tyshaun,” I said. He ignored me.

“What kind of milk do you want with your lunch today?” I asked. He ignored me and kept laughing and joking with some boys by the door. I could feel my irritation building.

“You all need to come in now!” I said sharply. “Tyshaun, this is the second time I am asking you what kind of milk you want with your lunch!” My voice became shriller as I spoke.

“God!” he snarled between his teeth. “I’m just coming in. God! Leave me alone. Chocolate milk.”

I hate starting the day like this. And I had decided a few days earlier that I had to set stricter limits about him talking to me disrespectfully.

“You cannot speak to me like that,” I said. “I told you that if you talk to me like that, you can’t stay in our classroom. Come on. I’m taking you upstairs to Ms. Cruz’s room.” Our agreement was that if he was rude to an adult, he took his work upstairs to a fourth-grade classroom for about half an hour. He hates not being in our room, with us.

“No!” he answered. “I don’t want to go.” He didn’t move toward the door. “I’m staying here.”

“Tyshaun, I told you you can’t talk to me like that. It is not okay to start the day out like this. Let’s go. You can come back in half an hour and try again.”

His tone softened as he saw that I was serious, and he tried to figure out what might work with me. (He probably works just as hard to figure me out as I work to figure him out.)

“But you made me mad because you talked to me like that when I came in,” he tried to explain. “Can we try again?” I couldn’t help but smile. I am always amazed when I hear my students use my words, when what they say sounds just like me.

“I’m sorry I talked to you like that,” I said gently, taking a deep breath. “But you hurt my feelings when came in the room and ignored me. I don’t want the day to start like that.”

“Sorry,” he muttered. And we agreed to try again. I asked him what kind of milk he wanted, he responded in a somewhat pleasant tone of voice, and the rest of the day went smoothly.

It is generally not considered good teaching practice to announce a consequence and then let a student talk you out of it. I gave in for several reasons. One, I had spoken to him sharply, partly because I was stressed about other things, and him coming in like that pissed me off. Two, he used a good strategy to deal with me – he told me how I made him feel, and he suggested we try again. I have to admit it, I’m a sucker for kids who use the strategies I teach them. And three, I knew that if we could manage to re-start the day, there was a good chance the whole day would go well. Whereas, if he started his day by spending 30 minutes in the fourth grade, his day might be a wash. And every good day at school is money in the bank for Tyshaun.

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