Monday, July 28, 2014

Never Play Another Man’s Game

Never Play Another Man’s Game
            In 1983, I went to New Orleans with my former husband.  A group of twelve or thirteen year old boys wagered a bet of twenty dollars with my ex-husband shouting, “I bet I know where you got your shoes at.”  They had me hold the money while they instilled their bit of wisdom (to my delight).  They explained that, “You should never play another man’s game.” They went on to reveal that they had used the preposition “at,” not “from,” because “at” implies the location of an object, while “from” implies its origin.  Since they said, “at,” the location of his shoes were on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  Laughing I happily handed them the twenty dollars, a cheap price for the important lesson: “never play another man’s game.” 

            Teachers would be wise to learn from these pint-sized sages.  Several years ago, I had a student-teacher, Miss Greene, who was taking command of my seventh grade language arts classes.  My classes were filled with docile, well-behaved students from an upper-middle class suburban neighborhood whose parents were mostly professionals: computer programmers, doctors, attorneys, and professors. The classes were easily managed; it was an ideal teaching positon (a tub of butter).  Like most seventh grade students, they did not always listen to all of the directions given to them, but considering their age, this is natural behavior.  For those of us who have gone through the change of life, we know what it feels like for our ability to concentrate to turn on and off randomly like a dysfunctional light switch.  Being an adolescent is very similar, but additionally their bottoms and feet are growing so fast that sitting still is a near impossibility. Do you get the idea of what being a hormonal, emotional teenager is like?  Apparently, Miss Greene did not.  She had just given them directions, but they did not immediately comply.  Instead they began clucking like chickens turning to their neighbors to ask what those directions were.  They were confused, but instead of clarifying, Miss Greene burst into tear screeching, “You children never listen!”  Then, she ran from the room leaving me and the bewildered students wondering what had just happened.  I took over and got the children on-task, but the damage was done.  Word spread from period to period.  We made Miss Greene cry and run away.  Suddenly the students realized they had power and they could make Miss Greene play their game.  They began planning bad behavior, manipulating Miss Greene into playing their game and soon my well behaved seventh grade classes became manipulating monsters.

            Most bad behavior can be prevented if the teacher learns the wisdom of those pint-sized sages of New Orleans:  “never play another man’s game.”  Instead make the children play your game.  Come on, you’re the adult.  You’re smarter than a pack of twelve or thirteen year old children.  Use your power of manipulation.  Miss Greene could have easily avoided her mistake.
            First, the best way to avoid the chicken clucking sound is to check for understanding.  Each time you give instructions, select a random student and ask him to repeat your instructions.  If he doesn’t know, call on another student.  Offer rewards like a small pencil eraser with a smile on it or a piece of candy.  There are a myriad of cheap rewards available at The Oriental Trading Company.  If you don’t have a budget for erasers, print off small reward tickets. Mine were “Jenkins Jewels” worth one point when attached to an assignment.  Students never noticed that one point is not worth much when there are 3,000 points available each quarter and does not make much difference in their grade, but they still loved getting them. It doesn’t really matter what the reward is as long as everyone knows that each one is a “winner. . .winner. . .winner. . . chicken dinner.”  Class becomes a fun game and they are more than willing to play your game.  They will pay attention.  Better yet, you are in charge because they are playing your game. 

            Another way to make certain they are playing your game is to break your learning into ten minute segments.  This will force them to pay attention to what is going on in class instead of scheming against you.  “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  Most students have very short attention spans.  If you keep them busy with a variety of different kinds of activities that appeal to a variety of different learning styles (kinetic, visual, audial etc.) you will reach more of your students, but then there is the problem of transitions. How do you create smooth transitions between these activities?  There are several easy methods.  One is to hold your hand up and repeat, “If you can hear me, raise your hand.”  The goodie-two-shoes children will break their backs to be the first to raise their hands, the less confident ones will follow and even the child who is never listening will stop talking and raise his hand (even though he has no clue what is going on, but he doesn’t want to be left behind.) Another method that my neighboring teacher used to use is to clap her hands on the desk once, clap her hands together twice and put her hands in the air.  All of her students would imitate her and they got all of their wiggles out.  I bought a xylophone from Rick Smith author of the Conscious Teaching.  I play three notes on it and they are ready for our next activity. The sound clue tells them to stop, look and listen.  They are playing my game.

            Why do these children play these games?  Often they want someone to set boundaries and stop them from acting out.  They are testing the limits to see how far a teacher will allow them to go.  Other times, they want attention: negative or positive.  I was the third of five children, born one year after John, my brother who had birth defects requiring several surgeries.  A year later, my brother, David was born.  My mother had her hands full with children so close to the same age, but she also cared for her mother who was dying of cancer. I was a child who needed attention. The circumstances made it difficult for my over-worked mother to give it. There was so much squabbling over breakfast that she unilaterally passed a mandate that there would be no talking to each other during breakfast.  We were all to read our cereal boxes and not even look at each other.  While we ate, she was busy cleaning the house and doing the laundry so she could go to our grandmother’s house while we were at school.  As a result, she was not paying much attention to us, except to bark orders to keep eating and stop looking at each other.  To get her attention, I collaborated with my older brother, John, against our younger brother.  While we all appeared to be eating our breakfast quietly behind our cereal boxes, I slid beneath the table, untied my younger brother’s shoes and retied them to the legs of his chair.  Then, ever so quietly, I crept back to my chair.  Everything was quiet until David decided to stand and leave the table.  His chair flipped over, upsetting his milk and our father.  My older brother and I denied any knowledge of this and enjoyed a good show of our parents’ anger.  Do not allow students to be unattended during your class or they will plan some calamity for their own entertainment.  Do not allow them to control the show. 

            When students take control of a class they are not learning the academic curriculum, and they feel frustrated.  Their behavior can become out of control making the situation unsafe for all of the students.  Don’t play another man’s game.  Create your own game and invite the children to play. If you don’t create the only game in town, your students will create one that you do not want to play.