Yesterday was pretty bad. I had children literally running around my room, others shouting profanity, and a few more hurling objects that fit in their little hands at one another. There was even a subset that managed to do all three things at once. These were my exceptional students. My wife suggested that it would have been pretty funny if you didn't have to be there. She may be right, but my perspective hasn't allowed much humor in just yet.
One boy in particular was making the nightmare that was my morning one for the ages. He was taking every scrap of paper he could find and folding it into some sort of airplane, then hurling them across the room, much to the delight of the rest of the revelers. With a number of potential fights brewing between any number of boys and girls, I felt myself torn between chasing the kid down and just letting him go. It was his petulant little laugh that pushed my button. I got his last plane, sat him down, and had him sent to another class for the rest of the day while I put out the rest of the brush fires. It was nearly lunch time before there was some semblance of order in my class.
There is something about this group of kids. In the past I have struggled with one or two personalities that have outgrown their fourth grade bodies, but this class has only a few that I would call "easily manageable". Consequently, I have been hard on myself and, in turn, hard on them. When I got home last night, I felt like I had gone through a ten-round exhibition for no one's entertainment. I resolved to do something about it.
Over the past few years, I have made a point of having "only pleasant interaction" days. Rather than confront anyone in an angry or frustrated way, I would simply ask for what I wanted pleasantly and wait for the response. If I didn't get what I wanted, I would just move along, knowing that I might have an unpleasant interaction at another time, but not on only pleasant interaction day. That's why I waffled a little when my paper airplane maker showed up this morning with a sneer, "I don't want to be in this class anymore. This class sucks. I want to be in the other class."
I took a breath, then: "Gosh, I'm sorry we can't make that happen," I said as I brushed aside his opening shot. "I was thinking about those paper airplanes. You really like making them, don't you?"
An indifferent shrug.
"I was thinking that instead of getting in trouble for making them, that we could have it be an activity at recess, or during P.E. Would you like that?"
His lip uncurled just a bit.
"And I was thinking maybe you would be the guy to be in charge - since you're so good at making paper airplanes."
Now there was actual eye contact.
"Who else likes to make airplanes?"
"Greg. And Chris. And Manuel."
"Great. Maybe you can teach each other how to make all kinds of different planes."
"I know how to make really fast ones, and ones that can do tricks."
He smiled. For the first time in weeks, he was smiling. "At recess, can you be in charge of taking out the paper, and collecting all the planes at the end?"
That kid kept his word. He did his work. He passed his reading test and stayed on task for most of the day. I did a lot of ego-stroking to help him along, but he did it. I have no illusions about this being the magical turning point of the year. I know that this kid will still probably talk trash about me to his friends, but I don't care. During the morning recess I had yard duty, and I watched a blizzard of paper airplanes floating around the playground. We kept them confined to one area, with one trial being to fly from one side of the map of the U.S. painted on our blacktop to the other. Girls and boys participated, and when it was over all the planes were scooped up in a great big pile and brought back inside. Only planes made outside were allowed in the classroom. We agreed that "planes made inside would die there," and be thrown into the recycling bin. Kids were giving them up so as not to lose their flying privilege at recess. We now have a big green folder full of various designs. I am seeing enthusiasm for something other than mayhem for the first time this year.
After spring break, we start studying aerodynamics.