Monday, December 22, 2014

To scold or to laugh it off?

Should we give high school students 'the talk' or just turn it into a joke?

Sometimes a scolding is required, but knowing when to err on the humorous side is very valuable. This is the story of my experience and the lessons learned.

The sleeping beauty.

Many years ago, one of my students kept falling asleep during lessons. She would let her hair flop in front of her eyes and then nod off. What to do in this situation? 

The background. 

It was a small class of high schoolstudents and over the year and a half I had already taught them, we had gotten to know each other well. It was their final year of high school and they were facing university entrance exams, applications and difficult choices and so I knew how exhausted and stressed out they were.

So when this particular student, kept falling asleep, a scolding just didn't seem fair. But allowing students sleep through lessons is not an option either, so, what to do?

Turning it into a joke, instead of a big deal.

Back in the teachers' room after one lesson involving more snoozing by Sleeping Beauty, I made this sign on a whim, which I pasted onto my lesson planning notebook. Then the next lesson when bangs flopped down and eyes closed, I silently held the sign up in protest. The awake students giggled, rousing sleeping beauty to read this sign being held in front of her. She just smiled reticently, but after that she magically seemed a lot less sleepy.
Original Image: Pedro Machuca 

No offense taken.

Towards the end of the year, S. Beauty was accepted into one of the most prestigious private universities in the country. I was so glad for her that when she told me, I burst into tears. As she graduated, she let me know how much she appreciated how;

'[... ] you tried to understand how we were and what kind of circumstances we were in. 
Even though most teachers would have scolded me [...] , 
you made it a funny moment, and laughed it away.

The lesson learned.

Students are tired. Teachers are busy. Endless scolding is just more exhausting and wears everyone down. Turning minor issues, especially when there are extenuating circumstances, into a laugh can help a student correct their behavior and still keep the mood positive and allow the whole class to keep learning in a nicer environment without the finger wagging, hands-on-hips strictness that can cause teenagers to stop listening. Of course, I don't recommend laughing everything off. Eraser throwing, gum chewing, these may be minor issues too, but are dealt with very swiftly by me.

Why be lenient?

I was lucky to have taken my CertTESOL at VUW when Professor Paul Nation was one of the faculty teaching the course. He was a superstar teacher for many reasons. One day, he talked about erring on the side of compassion and had a great anecdote about a student who claimed to have "lost" his essay. Paul thought, "Hmmm...", but he just said, "Alright, bring it to me tomorrow." Later that day as he was walking back to the faculty room from his office, Paul saw some paper blowing in one of the bushes and when he picked it up, it turned out to be that student's essay.

Where have I gone from here?

Well, I still turn sleeping during lessons into a joke. I always make sure it is a joke where we are laughing with, not laughing at the slumbering teenager. Students still attempt sleeping during my lessons, no matter how interesting I attempt to be. My new tactic for the prevention of in-class sleeping is:

- sneak up behind the sleeping student and suddenly roar, 'Raaaaah!'.

Then I laugh much louder that any of the students when the sleeping student has been startled awake. Feigning enjoyment in these situations is a tactic I got from another educator I admire (there are many!) Phil Beadle, but more on Phil in another future post.

One 10th grade student was very startled indeed, gasped loudly and jumped to his feet. He has never attempted even a second of shut-eye again. His surprise was so genuine that the whole class was in stitches for a good minute.

And aim, of course, is to create a positive atmosphere where all students can enjoy laughing, and learning. You do have to be careful and make sure that it is a student you know really well, of course.

As this video on How To Maintain Classroom Discipline from 1947 shows, it's hardly a new idea. The narrator notes, 

"a friendly attitude with a sprinkling of humor goes a long way to winning the regard of the class."

Check out Marisa Constantinides' wonderful edublog where I came across this video - it's a real gem! 

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