This post from 2008 is from my book PQA in a Wink! It offers a way to deal with troubled kids that is based in kindness:
Mildred is the captain of the girl’s basketball team. She is rough. She had to be rough because she was thrown around physically by her abusive parents in a double wide trailer growing up. Basketball coaches know things like that about their athletes. One day I learn that one of the walls in Mildred’s trailer has a gaping hole in it, covered with plastic.
I sense on this first day of class that that Mildred would probably have little chance in her life to leave that trailer and stay in a five star hotel in Paris on a vacation. Mildred may not even be sure what I teach.
I have a problem, because Mildred’s swagger upon first entering my classroom is saying, “I am going to take over this class, and bring five of my friends with me, and that is the way it is going to be.”
Mildred just doesn’t go to her seat. She walks around a little, not unlike an animal staking out new territory by peeing on things. Mildred is peeing, but not in the way Susie Gross means.
Have you ever taught a Mildred? Isn’t it fun?
If in this moment I say to myself, “I am going to really love Mildred”, it is a futile act. Mildred has not experienced enough love growing up to know how to even respond to it.
Instead, I need a technique, a process, for dealing with Mildred in a specific way. I have two possible scenarios from which to choose:
“Mildred, sit down now. We are going to start class.”
She doesn’t. What do I do? Wag my finger in her face? Raise my voice? The class senses my indecisiveness. Mildred finally sits down, but not after establishing a negative mood in my classroom on the first day of class.
That was her purpose, because Mildred is comfortable in a negative mood. She thinks confronting people is a normal activity. She sits down, having displayed her power. You teach poorly the rest of the period, because Mildred is passively controlling the classroom via her aggression. Mildred wins.
What happened in this scenario? I allowed Mildred to bring her Personality A into my classroom, the personality she uses in all her classes and the one which will eventually cause her to drop out of high school before she graduates because it simply won’t work for her in schools.
Is there a Personality B that you can develop with Mildred so that this doesn’t happen? Is it possible for teachers in all subjects to interact in such a way with their students that the Mildreds of the world want to stay in school instead of dropping out?
When I greet Mildred at the door and sense her game, even though I know nothing about her, I sense that she may be “the one” who needs to learn some discipline at this point in the year a lot more than she needs to learn some French.
So when the students begin filling out their questionnaires, I casually sit down next to her and say, “Hi Mildred! What sport (activity, etc.) do you do?”
The reason I ask about sports is because a large part of teenagers’ personalities are centered around sports. It is a good way for them to get a workable identity in school. I have found that well over 50% of the kids, in eighth grade at least, when I do PQA with them, tell me about their sports first. It’s what they do.
If Mildred tells me that she doesn’t play sports, I find out one thing she does. If needed, I stay with Mildred for the filling out of the questionnaire, just sitting close by engaging her in idle conversation every few minutes, visiting with other students if possible, but keeping my focus on her on this first day of class.
The class is seated alphabetically (in a big rectangle around the room) to prevent Mildred from establishing a “cell” with her friends.
When I collect the questionnaires, I first look at Mildred’s questionnaire and bring her sport to the attention of the class. I turn this into a positive for both of us in the following way:
I start in English, “Mildred, you play basketball? That is so cool. I used to play basketball some but I wasn’t very good at it.”
Remember, this isn’t about teaching French. It is about establishing firm discipline in the classroom, a prerequisite to success in any classroom, and doing so via personalization. Then I say in the target language:
“Classe, Mildred joue au basket!/Class, Mildred plays basketball!”
The students understand “class” because it is a cognate, and “Mildred” because I say it in English, but not “joue” so I write down:
joue au basket – plays basketball
Now I stay there. I circle that expression really slowly using the question words, pausing and pointing, going slowly, not moving off the sentence until it comes to a natural stopping point. It is a simple sentence and everybody gets it because I am following the visual metaphor offered on page 108 of the Conclusions section of TPRS in a Year!
My focus is not on the target language now, it is on Mildred. I am neutralizing her by making her the center of attention. I whisper in English to her, “What position do you play?” She says point guard. This fact becomes a fact of supreme importance to me as I continue with this super-slow circling.
By now I have a basketball in my hand. I have created a kind of tension around the basketball. Will I hand it to her as I continue around the room circling? Mildred and the class sense that she will get that basketball if she keeps paying attention.
By my feigning a few handoffs to Mildred, but each time withdrawing the ball, the kids begin to understand that Mildred won’t get the ball until she responds successfully with “yes” or “no” to me in French.
What have I done by this? By talking about Mildred in the target language, I have forced Mildred to pay attention to me because I am talking about her and because I am so impressed that she is the point guard on the basketball team.
People love to hear how great they are, and Mildred is no exception. I am beginning to own Mildred, the person who came into my classroom intending to own me.
And, in fact, Mildred buys into the whole thing. She has no idea that her Personality A is getting neutralized, and that her Personality B is being built. She gets the ball when the circling naturally dies down. I then interest myself in another student’s sport or activity, but not before making strong and meaningful eye contact with Mildred when handing her the ball about who is in charge of this class.
What if Mildred decides to chuck the ball to a friend or toss it up and down? I simply take it and put it in the cabinet. When Mildred comes into class the next day, she goes straight to my cabinet where she gets “her” basketball. She is shocked when I allow her to do that, but she doesn’t know that I am training her in her new personality. She also knows that the minute she disrupts class with the ball, it is gone.
I return often to Mildred these first few weeks, circling the simplest of sentences about her, keeping her involved, smiling, inviting her to accept this new Personality B – that of an important athlete in the school who pays attention in French class.
By the end of the week I have a naming ceremony using a small plastic sword from Wal-Mart, in which Mildred is dubbed in English “Best Point Guard in the History of Colorado High School Basketball,” a name she will keep all year.
I will use this name in all sorts of PQA and extended PQA activities, in stories, and in readings. The Best Point Guard in the History of Colorado High School Basketball needs to learn how to read French to know what great things she has done on the court as described in the readings I have created about her Personality B. As long as I keep Mildred engaged and important, she doesn’t relapse into Personality A.
By always returning the focus to this wonderful basketball star (the greatest in the history of Colorado high school basketball!) and this great French student, Mildred buys into whatever I do. I win.
Personality B sets in fully by the end of the second week. The problem is solved, not by my loving Mildred, but by my doing a specific, designed, activity directed right at her in the first few classes of the year.
Some teachers may object that this kind of energy output is not part of their job description. But, if we remember that we teach students first and language second, it is the most important aspect of their job. If they feel they cannot do it, they must fake it until it becomes a reality.
What if there is more than one Mildred in the classroom? How does the teacher deal with that?
The first thing is to keep them away from each other physically via alphabetical seating. I use the alphabet because they don’t see it as a planned attempt to separate them from their friends.
If the alphabetical seating still allows two loose cannons to be in close proximity of each other, I casually seat them in places where they cannot see each other. I work very hard at this seating, because it works.
Mildred 1 soon forgets about Mildred 2 if Mildred 2 is in the furthest most out-of-contact seat in the room from Mildred 1. By the end of the first week of school, I have identified the Mildreds and they are so far apart as a result of my meticulous pre-emptive planning that they are a non-factor. Any social group that hangs together meets the same fate – the kids become separate entities in my classroom and their group has no power.
I also make sure I can put a name with a face as early as possible and learning at least one thing about each kid from their questionnaire, and then trying to bring it into the PQA. By doing this I send the message to the kids that each one of them is important.
Focusing primarily on who the kids are at the expense of content during the first weeks may seem somewhat off the mark to some teachers. But I maintain that if it is not done there will be little teaching of content. Conversely, if it is done, the academic atmosphere will be assured, and with it content.