Saturday, September 3rd, 2016
LET’S TRY NEW WAYS TO TALK TOGETHER
Last week, I wrote about anger and sloppy undisciplined talk.
I mentioned Governor LePage of Maine and Trump as particularly low on the self monitoring scale. (I got quite a few raw responses to this blog.) I understand the attraction of ugly authentic blurts over managed, marketed, oh so careful remarks of other politicians, and yet, we need to agree to a new standard of conversation and discourse.
And we need methods to ensure that. We need to design a different process for
different types of discussion. The ones we have don’t work. Blaring out a strong opinion with a smart ass tone will get you one back. The perennial panel discussion with Q & A at the end might get some information into the air but it won’t be resolved or turned into action. The Presidential debates (we need a new name AND format) were nuts. I have five kids and the debates reminded me of some of our worst family moments!! And Robert’s Rules of Order (remember them) squash good decisions.
Recently I keep thinking about an experiment I created that worked surprisingly well. I developed it as a way to survive in a very high conflict situation.
I worked as an English teacher for 7th graders in an inner-city school.
I was putting a husband through law school and would not become tenured, SO I was given five class of 30 kids that no other teacher wanted. Town kids versus university kids. Black versus white. ADHD, sex addiction, and drugs added to the complexity. Kids who were beaten and kids who were pampered.
I created classroom control with a crazy parody in a moment of sweaty fear. I told the kids I was an 1890’s teacher and they had to be in their seats with hands folded when the bell rang—or detention. I added that it would make the other teachers jealous and the other kids wonder what was the heck was going on. It became a joke as my students did it very exaggeratedly as people looked in. We strove to be prissy!! I liked these kids. But they had very little ability to self-control so I decided to have them learn–by running their own classroom.
I created Town Hall Day for each Friday, I would ask what was working and what wasn’t and what needed to be changed for us to learn together. I had to go along with their ideas no matter what was decided. And they tested that for the first two months. (I had freedom because no one cared what went on with these particular students.) We brought in rugs.They got dirty. Custodians wouldn’t vacuum. We cleaned our own class room. We tried radios (before headphones) They got voted out. We allowed gum. We disallowed gum. We created homework groups. We tried three days of learning with no grades. We created a program where students gave one another homework assignments (very tough ones too). Each week’s decisions were upheld and evaluated.
Now to the point of this story. To become self-managed learners was very sophisticated. The Friday Town Hall needed its own special process. A ball (huge–as in ‘the ball is in your court’) was put in the middle of the circle of desks. Whoever wanted to bring something up went and got the ball. When done, the person put the ball back in the middle. There was no timing. The length of time for talking became better and better. BUT when the ball was put into the middle of the room there had to be a two minute pause–silence between speakers. To get the ball after the pause, people wanting the ball stood and the ‘caller’ of the day chose who would go next. I provided the timing of the pause and I carried the authority (hard won) of containing the space for this experiment.
If this sounds oh so progressive and childish. It was not.We dealt with racial slurs, we dealt with physical fights, we dealt with washroom gangs, we dealt with sex abuse and physical abuse and hunger. The only thing I said at the beginning of each Town Hall was “What do we need to do as a class to help learning?” Things started out shockingly raw but as the freedom to talk was trusted (and protected some by me but most by the process) the Town Hall became thoughtful, kind, creative and,( always shocking to me) insightful about what supported learning.
Understanding and the momentum for collaborative change needs new designs that create conversation among people who don’t like one another, have strong opposing positions and who are terrible threatened by ‘the other’. Our methods support conflict, not the kind of discussion needed to self govern.