I returned to pick my class up from lunch today to discover they were outside playing. I was really happy because, first, it’s rained here for what feels like two weeks straight, and second, because kids need to get outside and due to the immensity of my school and the construction going on, recess is not an option.
My joy quickly turned to dismay when I stepped outside and saw them all – except for Tessa – lined up. She was crying, a few steps ahead of the class, scrapes on her elbow and forehead. It was due to the fact that she was so anxious to line up that she ran to the group. In flats, this is expressly forbidden.
I sent her to the nurse with supervision and began to bring the rest of the class inside. By the time we got the second floor, though, Alvin (outgoing, loud, and confident) was sniping audibly at Jasmyn (shy, quiet, and unsure of herself). This was a unique face-off, as these two children have little to do with each other most of the time. Alvin often gets into arguments with other kids, but with the exception of her friends, Jasmyn really likes to keep to herself.
Alvin was standing with his arms folded, nearly glaring at Jasmyn. I was alarmed at her being in someone’s sights that way, but I figured I’d give it another flight of stairs before I intervened. When I turned around to take inventory on the third floor though, no fewer than seven children had folded arms and angry faces. I asked what was going on, and four boys chorused that they were angry at one of the other girls (another wallflower) Dolly, who they claimed pushed Tessa, causing her to fall. I knew there was no way this could be possible, as Dolly’s most major infraction this year has been speaking too quietly for me to hear.
Soon enough, the whole class was up in arms, screaming this way and that. First of all, that kind of conduct is an absolute no-no in the halls (and they know it), but more importantly, I sensed a real fraying of the threads that have bound us since September. I informed the class we would be having a meeting when we got back to our room, and that they were all to put their lunch bags away and make a circle in the meeting area as soon as we went in.
They were silent as they came to the meeting area, sensing they had touched a nerve in their teacher and were not going to get away with it. I retrieved a ball to establish a one voice rule and asked who wanted to begin. The boys were very eager to lay out their side of the story, and Gus articulated the way Tessa came to fall and hurt herself (right down to the type of shoes she was wearing). The next one to speak was Alvin, who made it his business to announce that he was mad that Dolly pushed Tessa and made her fall. Here, Jasmyn sprung to defend her friend, momentarily forgetting the rules of the circle but accepting them when I reminded her she needs to hold the ball in order to speak. She said she was sitting with Samantha because they were both wearing “these ones” (gesturing to the flats) and that Tessa, who was also wearing “these ones” was running and fell. Dolly wasn’t ready to speak, but violently shook her head no when I asked her if she pushed Tessa.
Students took turns talking, and it began to become a little clearer. While I was annoyed and angered by the infighting and accusations, I was really enjoying listening to the students’ passionate arguments in favor of their perspectives. It was some genuinely authentic dialogue occurring, with even the shy kids piping up.
David spoke at one point to give his account of the story. He said he was tying his shoe, and when he turned his head “like this” (turning to the left), he saw Tessa on the ground with Dolly next to her. Therefore, he reasoned, Dolly must have pushed Tessa. I was not satisfied with this logic, and I asked him if he saw Dolly push her. Or, did he only see Tessa on the ground? He conceded he only saw Tessa on the ground, and I successfully convinced him that he had no way of knowing how that happened because he had to turn his head to see, and only saw after the fall.
Did you know an elementary school playground incident could pan out like an episode of Law & Order?
So I used this opportunity to chide and teach. I tried to make it crystal clear to Alvin (the head rumormonger) and the rest of his band of merry thugs that when you lie, you hurt feelings. By this point, poor Dolly was bawling, partially due to embarrassment, partially due to fear, partially due to having people stand up for her. Even Richard, so awkward socially and so aloof most of the time, was moved. Sitting next to Dolly, he went to put his hand on her back for comfort, but hesitated and looked at me for approval to do so. I nodded, and he patted her back, tears forming in his eyes, too.
I turned back to the boys and asked them, “What did you learn from this?’”
Alvin was honest. “Nothing?” (He actually meant it). So I unloaded some direct instruction on him: “No, we learned that when we lie, people get upset. It’s not the right thing to do.” Jumping in, David announced, “Lying is bad.” That’s a succinct way to put it.
Before I could adjourn the meeting, I had to fly back into fifth grade lecture mode. I reminded the students about the way they’ve treated each other all year, and how important it is to be nice to each other even if you don’t like someone. I repeated several times, “If you don’t like someone, that’s okay. But you still need to be nice to them!”
Did any of this 40 minute meeting impact the kids? Hard to say. Certainly some children were moved by the whole disharmony of it all. But where will it go from here? Already this afternoon there were frayed interactions across the desks. Is it just the May/June Swoon? I tend to think so.
But I also tend to think I won’t be accepting these issues for another month.