Every day as a teacher, I make six dozen choices. Big ones, little ones, ones I don’t even, in the moment, realize that I’m making. Do I work with her today on reading or math? Directly correct that child’s misbehavior, or praise someone nearby on the theory that it’s attention seeking? Two paras are absent–which room do I staff?
Every day, every child I work with presents me with information–through their words, their actions, their performance on work samples, they show me what they currently know and indicate, in ways that aren’t always crystal-clear, a little bit about the learning that still needs to happen. Every response that I have is, in some ways, a choice: I have my lesson plans, sometimes, and my scripted curriculum, but just as often, the nature of the work I do is in active, instant dialogue with whatever’s in front of me. I take it in. I make a choice. We move forward, or we don’t.
Finn’s lunch group was perhaps the most organically evolved thing on my plate for last Wednesday. Unlike my other lunch groups, it did not begin as something I designed with a specific target population and an IEP goal to develop one skill. It started because he saw the permission slips for someone else‘s social group, and he decided he wanted one, too. Finn himself coordinates and operates Wednesday lunch group, selecting the peers he wants to invite, distributing the permission slips, making the rounds at lunch time to deliver the reminder and welcome them upstairs. The two of us talk, every week, about lunch group being Optional–what that means is that anyone, including Finn, can decline. This leads to good conversations about how crucial it is to use our social knowledge to create an experience that the kids enjoy having–to make our question of the day, for example, something that everyone present can connect with, to offer one friend a chance to invite another friend as well. The unstructured nature of this semi-structured social group means that some days, we’re drowning in random third graders, and other times, it’s just Finn and the quietest girl in his current 4th grade class. For the most part, given gentle reminders, Finn can navigate these dynamics, and I think it’s helpful for him to experience a bit of the messiness that is inevitably a part of group interactions: my watchword is always, “check in with the group.”
Last Wednesday, the group was small. (In-the-moment decision–break out extra snacks, so that word gets around and more people want to come next time). Jonah is Finn’s friend from last year–a fiesty blond boy with freckles and a mohawk and a tendency for trouble, who speaks his mind without apology and sometimes suffers the consequences of that. Malcolm is in Jonah’s class, and the only thing I really know about him is that I once found him crying on the bench during recess because his best friend was currently excluding him and he didn’t know whether he had other friends. We talked a little bit, with no clear resolution (I don’t tend to “make” children apologize or play). I gave him a clipboard and a marker and he occupied himself making a complicated Sudoko puzzle. Finn’s lunch groups have a way of attracting the square pegs: Malcolm looked a bit awkward, but happy to be there.
Finn got us started, as he always does, with the Question of the Day. Which, as it turned out, was a bit of a dilemma.
“So, the question of the day is, What would you do if you were the king of hell?”
Here, of course, is a choice to make. I could very quickly put the kibosh on this selected question on any number of grounds, slamming down the hammer of Appropriate for School. If it isn’t a thorny religious construct, it’s a curse word. If it isn’t a curse word, it’s a thorny religious construct. Better, most likely, not to go there.
However. The reality, evident to anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes around 9 year old boys, is that discussions with premises far dodgier than this were being held, out of adult earshot, all over the playground in that very moment. And that references, in some form or another, to devils and hell are widely available to children of all ages–from math storybooks to play vacuums to bit characters in Disney movies. Actually, “bit characters” is a rather disingenuous label: the “Night on Bald Mountain” piece from Fantasia had hell and its denizens in a pretty central role, and even called the allegedly actual king of hell by name.
So, while I was not utterly delighted to have the “hell” concept invoked in Lunch Group, I knew this word wasn’t necessarily falling on pristine and simple ears. I had the choice to squelch the topic, and I would fully respect any colleague who squelched it outright. But, after performing split-second calculations that may very well not add up to the same number for others, I made a different choice.
I looked first around the room, most closely at Malcolm, checking to see any signs of discomfort. None. Jonah was looking at me, spoiling for discussion, fully expecting that I’d simply shoot Finn down. Malcolm’s skin tone hadn’t changed in the slightest, he hadn’t taken a sudden breath, he wasn’t looking away. He genuinely looked like he was contemplating the question, mapping out a strategy for responsible hell stewardship.
Ok. Let’s try this.
“Finn–check with the group.” I fed him snippets of the questions he needed to ask, helped him take in what his schoolmates were saying. This is what I want the question of the day to be, but not everyone feels comfortable saying that word or talking about it. Jonah, indignant, pointing out that he knows grown-ups who say it all the time, noting that it’s okay to say it, if you’re talking about a place. Both boys clarifying that they don’t mean a REAL place–just the idea of the place, just the idea of being in charge there. Malcolm agreeing, saying, I’m cool with it. Asking Finn to get started, to tell us what he’d do. And me, watching all of them closely, ready to step in if it seemed like anyone was going ahead with talking about something that they didn’t feel okay with.
Finn’s idea (spoken in reference to “1134”, because he understood that I didn’t like to hear the word and if you typed in those letters on a calculator and flipped it, you’d be able to read the word without saying it out loud) involved conveyer belts and security lines and weapons confiscation. Jonah would control access so that only some of the denizens could go in and out. And Malcolm ‘agreed with Finn’s idea, but would probably add some more metal detectors.’
The talking stick circulated among the three boys, each taking just a little care to modulate their language. And then, the talking stick was handed to me. What would Teacher Beth do, if she was king of hell?
I demanded, more than I usually do, their full aware attention.
“I am not going to answer the question of the day, because I honestly don’t feel comfortable doing that. It is always my right, and your right, to say that. You can always walk away or say no, if kids or even grownups make you uncomfortable with what they’re saying. I’m not talking about math, or geography, or school stuff that just seems boring to you–you understand the difference, right? Thumbs up if you do.”
“So, I’m not going to answer. But I am going to say, I noticed something pretty awesome. I noticed each of you guys thinking carefully about what you were saying–how you only said the word once, or not at all, and how you checked in with each other to make sure it was okay. You used something called a “filter”–not just saying every single word or thought that came to your mind, but actually thinking, as you spoke, about the people you were speaking to, and not going all inappropriate like I know sometimes happens at recess when kids talk. That’s something that’s important for all of us to think about–how we can speak differently in different places, and how we think about who we talk to.” We went around the circle again, with another question of the day–when have you used a filter? Jonah noted that he typically didn’t (“I always say what I think, right away when I think it”) and recognized, for an instant, why that might not be for the best. Malcolm said he didn’t typically need to use one. Finn said, “All the time.” Lunch group disbanded, the kids heading off to a playground where words and ideas bounced around without filters–where hell, in some ways, could be real for some kids. Lately, the fourth graders have been awash in social drama. Most of it takes place outside of adult earshot, but we are all taken aback when we find out, later, what was said.
I made a choice, and I still stew, to be honest, about it. I let a word be said in my presence that upsets some people; I let a topic be discussed that is not typically discussed in school. From this week on, I will be pre-approving Finn’s suggested “Question of the Day”.
On the whole, though, I think I stand by my decision; I hope that what sticks most with Lunch Group is not the titillation of saying the word “hell” next to a grown-up, but the importance of doing the “check with the group”. The concept of filter is such a key concept–something Finn is becoming increasingly able to recognize and use, something that can help Jonah make his points with light as well as heat. It’s something I want Malcolm to engage with as well, because when a child of his age and his clear intelligence honestly thinks there is no time in which it isn’t helpful to monitor his thoughts before speaking, I wonder if his filters are so internalized that he censors his own thoughts before they consciously surface.
The rest of the day unfolds in a series of less difficult decisions. Yes, we’ll do the fluency passage, no, you can’t have more snack. Clear functions of behaviors are noted and addressed; protocols get followed, notes get sent home. Over time, the king of hell question will recede to the background, as I get wrapped up in new dilemmas, new decisions. Working it out, the best that I can.