Sunday, March 15, 2009

Acting down

Friday night, I threatened to throw three students out of my classroom.

Not because they were making too much noise -- they were silent. Not because they were acting up -- they weren't acting at all. Is there such a thing as a student acting down?

My students all have a government-issued textbook from the "Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press," printed on pulp paper, with cartoons and fairly condescending text and exercises. Think of a poorly-done sixth-grade reader, being served up to college-aged kids. I don't blame the students for disliking the text, but at least it gives us all something to work from. The first week of class, I told them that we shall get away from the text as much as possible, but they need to bring it every week.

Friday night I began with a fairly rudimentary exercise in comprehension and conversation, based on the text. I had them read a page of one-line arguments, in which they were supposed to identify premise and conclusion (or, as the text numbly termed it, "opinion" and "reason"). I knew it was basic stuff, but I intended for it to start off our classroom conversation.

This class of 20 included only one small, timid clot of boys, clustered on the right, away from the door, in the back two rows. As the rest of the class broke out their texts, it became quickly apparently that none of the boys had brought it with them. The rest got to work reading, while they just sat there in silence, as if on guard duty.

I gave them a minute or two to solve their own problem, then I turned their direction and said, sotto voce, "if you don't have the text, please find someone who does so you can work with them."

One of the three boys moved, turning wide and plaintive eyes to the other two for clues to how he should behave. The largest boy, seated in the middle with a fashionable woolen overcoat and brushed-back pompadour, leaned back and crossed his arms. The third boy made no move to question me, nor to defy me -- he just sat. No one moved but me, walking to the opposite corner to give them a moment.

I sniffed a handful of distinct scents in their various reactions: Hatred for the text. Shame for having failed to bring it. Squiggly unwillingness to ask a girl for help. Fear of what horrible things might happen if they actually had to work directly with a girl. Alpha-male pack challenge to my authority. None of it smelled good.

Finally, after another minute or two of silent indolence, I walked back to the podium and asked the three of them directly: "is there a reason you are refusing to accept my instructions?"

No answer. Finally, I had reached my end. I told them that if they continued to refuse to obey simple instructions, "I will have to ask you to leave my classroom." The timid twist-necked boy looked up and met my eye for the first time. The pompadour grinned arrogantly. The other boy gave no reaction.

A girl from across the aisle quietly slipped them the text, and they bent their three heads to it. When I called upon each of them, that first time, they had at least done the (very easy) assignment.

Later in the class, though, I assigned the students to read slightly more complex arguments. Not difficult, but marginally more so.

This time, pompadour did just fine -- he even volunteered extra information beyond the question I had asked. The third boy gave a so-so response. But the swivel-necked boy said "I did not look at the text." Then he dropped his head in shame. I quickly turned to another student, but I knew that I must find a better way to work with this odd cultural dynamic.

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