Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Advice Needed

Let me give you the lowdown. Let us call the students "Jen" and "Anne." Let us call the class "creative writing." Let us say that this class, in particular, is fairly mature and very attentive.

Picture this: class begins. Students are seated. You are in the front of the room discussing the reading they were to have read for homework. The majority of the students are scribbling down notes. At least one or two hands go up when a question is posed. When asked to read their work aloud, many of the students are willing to divulge what they've written--therefore, putting themselves and their writing out there on the chopping block for the rest of the class. Occasionally, someone will send a text message, but will immediately put the phone away when you, the teacher, give them a "look." The students laugh at jokes posed by their peers or you and are really quite witty and intelligent. They impress you with their desire to learn and their thoughtfulness. In the back of the room, distinctly separate from the rest of the class, are Jen and Anne. Once, in the middle of workshopping three different, carefully written stories by three different students who offered up their work to the critical eyes of the class, you are distracted through the entire hour and fifteen minutes because Jen and Anne are noticeably fooling around on their laptops-side by side, in the back right of the room. You are annoyed because you realize if it were their pieces being workshopped, they would be paying the utmost attention. They were to have read all of these stories and made comments on the manuscripts in order to discuss them this very day. They had the pieces, at least, one week in advance. There is no reason they should be typing away, eyes fixed to the screens before them, while the rest of the class respectfully attempts to critique the short stories in order to help with the revision process for their peers.

Class ends.

Because you do not want to "call them out" in class and embarrass them in front of their fellow students, you sit down and compose two emails that evening, one to each girl, asking that they do not ever come to class and play on their laptops again. You kindly explain to them just how rude and disrespectful that is to not only you, but their peers and, especially, those who's stories are being workshopped.

Neither girl replies and neither girl appears in class with a laptop again.

When workshopping ends and lecturing begins again, Jen and Anne tag-team their attendance to the class. You notice that Anne is clearly the brighter of the two, as well as the more talented writer and more thoughtful student as a whole. She is, overall, a better student and it is evident when she makes comments in class. However, Jen has a poor attitude-incessantly writing notes, laughing, rolling her eyes, assuming an attitude of condescension when given a prompt in class while the other students are thirsty to learn more, try more and do not make the assumption that what you are asking them to do has no point. It is clear that Anne is more involved in these prompts as she takes much longer to write them. Jen, on the other hand, is always the first one finished. She slams her pen down with annoyance and proceeds to distract Anne while she is still doing her work. One particular day, you have had just about enough and find yourself glaring at the two girls in the back of the room, breathing enraged breaths and debating exactly how it is you want to handle this situation. This has been sparked by Jen's overwhelming flow of haughtiness. Today she has become outright vocal about her displeasure in being asked to perform the menial task of writing down five things and acts as though even the simple directions are damn near ridiculous. (Write down five characters. Write down five conflicts. Write down five gestures.-She responds: A gesture? What, like a hand gesture? Like five different hand gestures? To which you reply, there are far more than just hand gestures to be performed in the world.) Everyone else, including Anne, seems to understand the assignment. She, unhappily, goes back to her work.

Not too long ago, a student complained. In fact, it was just after the laptop incident. He conferenced with you and said, "It's so distracting and annoying! I don't know how you can stand it. If I were the teacher I would flip out!" You want to tell him you, too, want to flip out on occasion...but you haven't quite gotten to that point yet and, instead, you are holding out hope that your emails on the laptop incident will solve the problem. You find out, over the course of the next few weeks, that you are, in fact, wrong.

While the students work on their prompts, you consider your options for solving this issue, while maintaining your composure and coolness. You have reacted well with situations that others may not have before. Remember the time half the class showed up without their work done? You calmly told the half that did not do the work that they were dismissed and free to go since they were of no use to the class or the conversation if they did not come prepared with their work. They stared at you in disbelief. One of them asked you to please, at least, yell at them or something. You said you weren't angry-it was their grade, but you simply couldn't use them in the class activity so they should leave in order to clear up space and distraction. They did so and never came unprepared again. It was the saddest you'd ever seen a class and, possibly, one of the most effective ways of disciplining you've ever used. You want to maintain that kind of demeanor. You think of this while you debate the options.

1. Ask them both to stay after class. When they do, tell them that their attitudes and ongoing conversations with one another are not only rude, but distracting. Explain that you've had students literally tell you that they find it disrespectful and annoying. Ask them if there is a problem you are unaware of that, perhaps, you can all solve together? Further, if they react poorly, tell them they are welcome to drop the class or you can do it for them considering Jen has already missed the allotted four absences. If they respond well, tell them if it keeps up, though, you will have to ask them to please sit separately from now on. "I don't like to do this," you hear yourself say, "Just like I don't like to call students out and embarrass them in class, but since you have become a distraction to your fellow students, it's a major problem and I will be forced to ask you to sit apart if you cannot handle sitting beside one another and remaining attentive in my classroom." Part of you imagines this breaking into a fight because Jen is so angry looking all the time. You don't want to have to take her down. 

2. Ask Jen to stay after class, knowing full-well Anne will probably wait for her outside the classroom. Speak solely to Jen and explain to her that her attitude is starting to disrupt the class and her fellow students. Tell her that she is acting as a distraction to Anne who, when Jen is not present, is attentive and participatory. Explain to her that you've honestly had just about enough of the high school attitude and that even if she dislikes you or the class, it's up to her to make the decision to either stick it out and perform up to par with the rest of the class or to drop it and you'll be happy to submit a drop form to the Dean. Further, she is not to miss even one more class as she has already missed the limit and, lastly, she is not to sit near Anne any longer if she cannot keep from chatting with her. This is where you imagine she flips out and attacks you. Unfortunately, you are about half her size so you fear this, but, luckily, you have some taekwando training. A very small amount, but it's better than nothing.

3. You try a sneak attack mode and ask Anne to stay after class. This one, you think, is ingenious! When Anne stays after class, and you know Jen is waiting outside the room for her, you explain to her that you think she is a thoughtful, helpful critic. You tell her that you think her participation is useful and that you enjoy having her in the classroom as she brings a unique twist on things other students have not. You go on to say that you think if her first story was any type of hint as to what she could do in a shorter period of time, you are convinced she could do something quite wonderful if she took quite a bit of time. Unfortunately, you tell her, you have had students complain about the activity going on in the back of the room between she and Jen and it would be best for her grade, overall, if she found a new place to sit or a new way to ignore her friend's chatting.

There aren't as many cons on the third, you think. Positive reinforcement, then blast away at the friend. Divide and conquer! Brilliant! 

Yet when the class ends, after the students have read their short scenes for the class, you do not ask either of them to stay. You want to make sure you have chosen the correct option, but need to run it by some people instead of just going for it. You are ok with thinking that Jen might not like you as a teacher or think you are not effective. You're fine with her disliking you as a person, even. What you are not ok with is handling the situation incorrectly and setting a standard. You want this to end and you want it to end as peacefully and quickly as possible.

What do you do?



  1. I prefer option three, for the reasons you highlight. It sounds like (of the two) Anne is the one with potential. She's the one hoping to get the most out of the program and therefore I think she'd be thrilled to have the teacher pull her aside to recognize that. Any warning that her potential is being stifled by Jen should have her questioning her allegiance, especially if you let her know other students also find it distracting.

    I mean really. This isn't high school.

    I think going after Jen won't do anything more than make her dislike you personally. She seems like the type to see herself as the victim. I feel as if Jen's made her choice. She's ostracized herself from the rest of the class. I think you can and should save Anne.

    Of course, as a teacher, you may want to leave no child behind. I, on the other hand, tend to write people off too quickly. So my advice tends to be harsh.

  2. You are such a better person than me!!! I love how much you've considered this and enjoyed reading this post. Being that I taught Public Speaking at Auburn when I was 22-23 I TOTALLY feel this. I went the direct route... "HI - in the back - are we bothering you?" (no response) Yes, "Jen, Ann, i'm talking to you. Do you need something? Can I help you?" (answers no... sorry) "GREAT I'm going to finish up the lesson for today. So... as I was SAYING." Yes, i'm like that. I've also split up people before. Like, mid-sentence i'll be like "i'm sorry... this is just unacceptable... Jen - please move over three seats and up two seats, Anne - stay put. Great - thanks, Ladies." hehe Yeah - those TWO people may be pissed but the rest are like ohmygodthankyoukelly!