Creating A Peaceful, Productive Classroom...Even with Resistant Teens

Over Thanksgiving Break it was my daughter's birthday. She's now twelve. My son is 13 and my youngest daughter is almost 11. We are officially living in the preteen/young teen years in our house. For those of you unfamiliar with living with children this age, here are a few things we experience daily:
  • rampant child genius/parental stupidity 
  • "That's not fair!" 
  • "You are the strictest parent ever! All my friends' parents let them _____."
When the kids were little, I discovered two books that became my sanity. The first was
Love and Logic Magic for Early Childhood: Practical Parenting From Birth to Six Years by Jim Fay and Charles Fay, and the second was Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: The 7 Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into Cooperation by Becky Bailey. I was by no means perfect at keeping my calm, but let me tell you, our house reverberated with the Uh-Oh Song, and I recited "What you focus on, you get more of" inside my head like a mantra.

Soon we left toddler-hood behind, and our life seemed to breathe a bit.  Everyone settled into those delightful days of elementary school wonder and awe.  I'd be lying if I said they were conflict free, but really, compared to the days of three toddlers, three little humans talking over each other to tell me what happened during their days at school was heaven.  

And that brings us to now.  The middle school years.  I chose to teach middle level students for 15 years, and there was so much that I loved.  My students were developing their voices as writers, discovering genres they wanted to read, figuring out new friendships and beginning to carve out identities for themselves.  

But let me tell you, home life is a little less structured than my classroom was, and here, I get the full-fledged, well-rounded character that is the middle level child.  Instead of just talking about books and writing, I get to live it all...listening to friendship drama, teaching hygiene of body and bedroom, and realizing that the Uh-Oh song and a little bedroom time is not going to save me. 

So, I pulled out Parenting with Love & Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay, the updated and expanded edition.

My heart rate slowed. My breath came a little easier. And the fog of panic inside my head dissipated.

But, you, dear readers, know what's coming, right?  I mean, this isn't a blog about parenting middle school children.  It's a blog about teaching high school readers and writers.  As the fear-fog with my own kids began to lift, I started to think about my high school students, many of whom never heard the Uh-Oh song or experienced the power choices as toddlers.  Many also never had a parent reset herself when they were preteens to realize empathy, not anger, was the way to create kids who could make responsible choices and solve their own problems.  

So what's a high school teacher to do?  Is it too late?  Is it true that they should know all this by now and if they don't, it's their loss?  

I have one word for you: neuroplasticity. According to Standford University, the old view that only young brains create new connections needs to be replaced. "Today we recognize that the brain continues to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. This phenomenon, called neuroplasticity, allows the neurons in the brain to compensate for injury and adjust their activity in response to new situations or changes in their environment."

High school teachers, we must embrace the reality that we have the power to shape young brains with the choices we make in our classrooms. When we offer kids experiences that meet them where they are and allow them to stretch, we are impacting their brains every single day.

The secret is that we have to meet them where they are and provide experiences they can handle. Each of our kids' brains are different and therefore, rigor and challenge mean something different for each of them. There is no one-size fits all in education.

In our English classrooms, this means kids must have choice. Sometimes, it means open choice, where students craft pieces of writing that are personally meaningful to them and read texts that speak to their hearts and minds. Sometimes, it's within a particular course or unit of study, where teachers offer choices within limits, or they help kids come up with choices that meet the criteria of the unit.

Foster Cline and Jim Fay remind us, "One reason choices work is that they create situations in which children are forced to think. Kids are given options to ponder, courses of action to choose. They must decide... choices [also] provide our children with opportunities to hear that we trust their thinking abilities, thus building their self-confidence and the relationship between us and them"(85).

At home with my tweens, choices might sound like,

  • "Which book do you want to read?" 
  • "Would you rather fold your laundry in your bedroom or in the living room?" 
  • "Would you take a shower before bed or in the morning?" 
Notice the embedded non-negotiables: you will read; you will fold your laundry; you will clean your body daily. These are tasks my kids are capable of handling. They've had modeling and some direct instruction, and now I need to let them choose and own the tasks. Yes, sometimes, someone will have to refold laundry that was stuffed in a drawer, but my chances of peace and success go up tremendously when choice is involved.

In my classroom the next few weeks, choices might look like this:

  • "Would you rather revise that assignment with my help or on your own?" 
  • "Would you rather turn in that late work on Friday or Monday?" 
  • "Would you rather have 5 minutes to review for your final or begin right away?" 
Again, see those brain-stretching non-negotiables? You will revise poor quality work; you will turn in work that is late; you will take your final. When my students feel some control and the work is meaningful, peace and productivity will reign supreme. Even with resistant, independence-craving teenagers.

As we head into the final weeks of first semester, let's keep our cool and challenge ourselves to offer as many choices as we can, so that our high school students have as much success as possible.


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