A class of 8-year olds -- caught up in their hostilities

The teacher faced a classroom of angry children. They were being rude to one another. Some were fighting. Caught up in their hostilities, they ignored classroom discipline.Nothing the teacher said or did to calm them down seemed to work. By day's end she found it hard to see them as anything but "little monsters," bent on destroying all they'd been patiently learning and building together.

That evening at home, away from the loud talking and disruptive behavior, she thought long and deeply about her class: 20 eight- year-olds, from a mix of racial and ethnic backgrounds, nearly half their number from broken or single-parent homes; homes in many cases without the time or resources for developing the love, courtesy, fair play, and caring of normal, healthy family life.

Gradually getting them in better focus, she saw the angry faces dissolve into more recognizable faces -- some serious, some smiling, some sad -- but all the dear, familiar faces of her pupils.

"If I can see them now in a better light," she asked herself, "couldn't they somehow be helped to see each other that way, too?" An idea struck her: a little observation exercise that would train them to observe good things the various children said or did in the classroom instead of the bad and angry things.

Next morning in school she stapled a big folder together, making a pocket of it, and tacked it up on the back wall with a container holding blank slips of paper beside it. A label on the front of the envelope read: "Nice Things Said or Done in Our Classroom."

She explained to the children that they were to watch for nice things their classmates said or did, then write down what they saw on the slips of paper -- without signing their names, but mentioning the names of the children they were writing about -- and drop the slips in the envelope.

The next day, and for several days, she took the slips from the envelope and read them to the class. They said things like: "Mary shared a pencil with Bob." "Chris said thank you to the teacher." "Jim picked up Andrea's book from the floor." "Sarah was kind to Jane when she was sad." "Tommy helped Johnny mend his music book."

Small things? Yes, but very big to children from homes where even small courtesies are seldom observed.

There's a follow-up in progress, too. Teacher and pupils have talked about values they feel are needed to make the classroom friendly.

So far they've decided on: "Being friendly." "Being thoughtful." "Staying in your seat." "Not shouting out." Not all the problems are over, but the classroom is calmer. The children are still "in training," observing and writing on the slips the good things they see their classmates saying and doing.

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