Sunday, April 28, 2013

Pt 2 At-Risk Classroom Management: Cultivating Culturally-Relevant Classrooms

Welcome to Part II of At-Risk Classroom Management.  Previously, we have identified the need for this discussion, and an outline for designing meaningful rules and consequences for your classroom.  This week, we will discuss how to cultivate a culturally-relevant, empathetic classroom for your students.

Introduction: Identifying Student Culture(s)
An important aspect to behavior management is to understand the culture of your students.  Culture, in this sense, doesn’t refer solely to the heritage of the students (although that certainly can be a contributor), instead culture refers to the contemporary climate and environment of your students.  You students’ culture is their community; it consists of: manners of socialization, pop culture, clothing and accessories, home life, friends, mentors, and heroes.  Another part of learning about and understanding your students’ culture is to observe (as objectively as possible) the student-identified rules of socialization, conflict, and conflict resolution.  

Students dressed up as South Park denizens
 Also, you should understand that the moment you walk into a school as a teacher, you are now a part of that community; a part of that culture.  You must understand and respect that there should be no perception of you and then Other (school, school community, and/or students). It should always be “we.”

Here are my students’ rules (or at least, my perception of them):

1.       Having (the appearance of) wealth is an important part of social capital
2.       Wearing the current-identified “right” brand of shoes is important (currently: Nike Jordans)
3.       Wearing the current-identified “right” brand of headphones is important (currently: B by Dre)
4.       Owning and displaying the “right” brand of personal device is important (currently: PSP, iPhone or any brand of tablet)
5.       Owning more than one of the “right” accessory indicates a higher degree of social capital
6.       S/he who is loudest has the most important thing to say/wins the argument
7.       Pointing out other students violating rules in the same manner as yourself is an effective means of disagreeing with teacher redirection
8.       Revenge is not only an important part of conflict resolution, revenge is key to maintaining social status, respect, and social capital
9.       Demonstrating you are in control and dominant of all situations, even those containing adults, is a key part of social capital and self-respect
10.   Violating someone’s personal space is a way to demonstrate dominance
11.   Stealing is an acceptable behavior if the stolen good(s) help gain social capital and the theft is not an irreplaceable item (like a family heirloom etc.)
12.   Failing a class because you refuse to try/turn in work is acceptable because it is not a measure of your intelligence
13.   Exhausting adults with questions and arguments is an effective manner in which to obtain what you want
14.   School supplies are not a student responsibility; if teachers want you to participate, they should provide all materials
15.   There is nothing worse than being gay

Understanding the rules of my students’ socialization allows me to set meaningful boundaries and consequences for student behavior.  It isn’t so much about figuring out what they like, so your consequence can carry the most punch (but sometimes you have to go there too), it is instead about understanding these people you spend all day with, and perceiving how you can become a meaningful part of their culture and community.

My first year (eight years ago now!) teaching in an at-risk school was in an urban environment. While I witnessed other teachers use language and tones similar to the students (and their parents) to redirect student behavior, I was reluctant to follow suit.  As a privileged, upper-middle class White woman with gobs of unearned cultural capital, I felt that attempting to relate to my students in that manner was un-authentic, condescending, and possibly racist.  I was correct in parts.  You should always behave in an authentic manner with your students because authenticity demonstrates honesty, and engenders a positive and respectful learning environment for students.

I would attempt to redirect my students by clapping my hands and saying something like: “Boys and Girls! Please! You need to be seated.”  I call this type of direction a “soft direction,” because is it translates to a request.  My students (then and now) don’t respond to soft direction.  In most of their homes, they are taught from an early age to respond to quick, loud, and concise directions. I call such direction “hard” as they are orders and not requests.   Hard direction often sounds rude (to me), but I have consistently found that my students accept and follow hard directions in the same manner I would a soft request. That is to say, they don’t feel slighted.  While, I don’t particularly enjoy utilizing hard directions to run my classroom (I refer polite soft directions), they do work. . .And, I need an arsenal of tools and techniques that work.  Additionally, I have classes wherein we have come to know one another so well, that I can utilize soft directions in lieu of hard directions with great success.

But, you have to get there first.

Pushing the Pedagogy
Gloria Ladson-Billings in New Directions in Education writes,
“ [t]here is a pedagogy of poverty in urban schools which are more likely to be diverse.  This pedagogy consists of giving information, asking questions, giving directions, making assignments, monitoring seatwork, reviewing assignments, giving tests, reviewing tests, assigning homework, reviewing homework, settling disputes, punishing non-compliance marking papers and giving grades. None of these functions is inherently bad, and in fact some might be beneficial in certain circumstances.” But, contrast this pedagogy with the “pedagogy of “good” teaching which involves student engagement with issues of importance to their lives, explanations of human differences, major concepts and ideas, planning what they will be doing, applying ideals to their world, heterogeneous groups, questioning common sense, redoing, polishing or perfecting their work, reflecting on their own lives, and accessing technology in meaningful ways” (2003, p. 59-60).

During the Fall of the 2011, I was struggling with a particular group of students. I did not have a great deal of art supplies, as my supply order had yet to be fulfilled.  The students were frequently disrespectful towards me, one another, the classroom, and classroom supplies.  I maintained –and frequently told them- that until they could demonstrate some level of maturity, they would only be allowed to use crayons.  The artwork they created was barely sufficient to meet the demands of the assignment; they did just enough to get by (and some did nothing at all). They threw the crayons, snapped them, insisted broken crayons didn’t work and were garbage etc. etc.  It was, in short, a nightmare to be trapped in a room with them.  Finally, I realized something had to give. . .It was unlikely that my students were going to suddenly change without provocation, so the change had to be me. 

I scoured the supply closet and came up with plastic paintbrushes and only a few colors of tempera paint (red, purple, green, blue, black, and white).  I also had access to a quality printer and copy paper. I taught the students how to create a value portrait. The results astounded me; the work was so good. The students’ behaviors changed radically. They were still middle school students, and they still did middle school things. . .But, they were actively engaged in what we did in the classroom; they were invested. It was amazing.  And, it was primarily due to the fact that I was willing to change.  

One of the paintings of my students from the Fall 2011
 This experience made me realize that sometimes, when students misbehave, it is an indicator the learning needs to change; it needs to be more relevant and more challenging. Since the Fall of 2011, I have made an effort to develop complex, student-led projects and units wherein my students have the maximum amount of space to drive their learning experience.  We talk about issues of social justice, race, culture, and politics nearly every day.  I’ve taught them to question ideas and topics in order to challenge and test accepted and new knowledge. I want to empower my students to see themselves as disseminators of knowledge and justice. 

This empowerment process is amazing.  As a teacher, you have the rare opportunity to see amazing sides to your students’ personalities.  Whenever dealing with a particularly difficult student I try to remind myself “think of one positive thing you have seen this kid do. Think of him/her positively.”  When you create an inviting culture of discussion and openness in your classroom, you have so many more opportunities to witness the talents and positive attributes of your students.

While it is hard, when you are dealing with a difficult set of students, consider changing your pedagogy.  Provide you students with a more challenging opportunity that is relevant to their culture.  I know as humans we have strong opinions against “rewarding bad behavior,” but you have to get past this limiting view.  Bad behavior is often a symptom of something else.  Providing a rich, learning environment for your students is not a reward, it should be an active part of an educator’s “good” pedagogy.

Cultivating Empathy
Empathy is not something that comes naturally to most of my middle school students. While, I have no factual evidence, I dare to say that empathy is not something indicative of students in at-risk environments.  Many at-risk students have complex lives away from school wherein empathy plays a very minor role (if one at all).  Empathy must be received in order to be learned.  It is hard to extend understanding and respect to someone else, when you have never received the same.

I dislike hearing teachers say to students: “Respect is earned.”  Types of respect are earned (esteemed, feared, trusted respects etc.), but there is a type of general respect we collectively extend to one another.  This is the respect of not invading someone’s space, being courteous to others, and withholding harsh judgment from strangers.  Courteous respect can certainly be extended to all people we encounter, and this includes students. 

My classroom
 Vocally extend your respect to your students, define your classroom as a safe space of community and shared experiences.  Respect is an important part of the culture of my students.  They like to say “s/he disrespected me!” etc. etc.  Students understand courteous respect even if they don’t know how to describe it; so offer it freely to them.  It is a mutually beneficial situation.

I also attempt to take it a bit further and try to teach empathy by extending it by validating student emotions.  Sometimes, we all need to know we are understood. When students don’t like redirection, I allow them to calm down for a few minutes and then we talk it out.  They explain how they feel, and I validate it.   I don’t change the consequence, but at least the student  has been validated and s/he understands what led to the consequence.  Surprisingly, it engenders an emotional connection between you and the student.  I’m always surprised how small chats can lead to positive behavior and the student perception that you “are on their side.”  Honestly, we’re always on their side, but getting students to understand that can be a bit of a struggle.

I spend a bit of time visiting each table in my classroom. I don’t get to every table/student every day, but I make an effort to talk to the students.  I pick up the conversation the students are having and actively participate in it; even I don’t understand the conversation, I ask for clarification (what is “Adventure Time?”).  Participating in student conversations cultivates a community feeling and helps to develop empathy.

Finally, don’t be afraid to speak honestly with your students.  This past week, I became frustrated because a group of lively students kept talking while I was trying to talk to the whole class (after repeated requests to desist).  So, I stopped teaching and said: “Guys. I only get about an hour a day to write lessons, grade work, and do all the stuff I do to make sure you get to do cool things in Art.  That means, I spend a lot of my personal time coming up with cool stuff for you. I do it because I love teaching you; I respect you all so much. But, you have to be willing to give me back an ounce of that respect.”  You could have heard a pin drop after that!  Students are surprisingly perceptive; utilize that!

A Warning
We are not counselors, therapists, or psychologists. While we work with large amounts of humanity every day and sometimes feel as if we know a great deal about human emotion; we are not experts.  We must also respect our boundaries and behave in manners that respectful and ethical.  When cultivating a culture of community empathy, you should also be aware of the possibility of instances of that are outside your purview; do not be afraid to enlist support from other, more-equipped professionals.


  1. Thank you Amy for this series. Just a quick note: Your challenges are not limited to urban areas. Rural areas have similar challenges. We have a gun culture. We have pregnancies, incest, parents in jail, students drinking, bringing weapons, and probably more I do not know about, nor do I want to know. We have some serious isolation issues and often school is the only safe place for students and the only place they get decent meals. (With younger students I always see escalation of anxious behaviors before school vacations, especially for the summer.) Urban areas often have special programs for students to attend local museums for "enrichment", whether art, natural science, etc. Also some colleges have programs as well. One of my schools is over an hour away from the closest museum (which is very small) and can only be visited so many times before it gets "lame." I've often said we live in a cultural ghetto. I have found one of the most effective classroom management tools with my middle schoolers is to, when I give them a paper listing the expectations I have for them completing the project, is that I have a list of expectations, in writing, for me. An example would be: I will have supplies and materials organized and ready for you to use, I will assist you with any aesthetic or construction challenges without imposing my own aesthetics or "taking over" your work, I will not put any marks on your artwork without your permission, etc. I "allow" one foul word slip a marking period and I allow music to be played in the room (with a signed note by a parent the music is acceptable). I always model please, thank you, etc. and I don't sweat the "small stuff" unless a student is repeating small stuff behaviors. Then we have a discussion. Usually it takes only one session of reading and answering questions from one of my Scholastic Art magazines in the office to end the behavior. (I know I'm lucky to have administrative support.) Okay, 'nuf said. I've found your comments to be informative & important, even as an old goat in this education business for a long time.

  2. Carol,

    Thanks for your insightful words about students! I used the term "at-risk" since it is typically loosely utilized to identify students who live in exceptional circumstances; just like your students. I'm not sure how that got confused with "urban?" Maybe it was the Ladson-Billings quote that begins "[t]here is a pedagogy of poverty in urban schools which are more likely to be diverse." At any rate, I've been very careful to only identify my students as being urban and at-risk, and to avoid the stereotype that urban=at-risk and/or at-risk is exclusive to urban environments. Thank you for kindly adding to the discussion that at-risk is a term inclusionary of so many students.

  3. Your blog has really saved me on a few occasions through this first year of teaching!!! I teach art in Brooklyn, NY to pre-k through 5th graders. One of my 2nd grade students actually slapped me in front of the class this week. In addition, I recently received a donation of crayons and other supplies and had another class throw the BRAND NEW supplies right out the window. Similar to your experience with the value painting/self-portrait lesson, I too changed my way of teaching. I added a few lessons using markers to create watercolor paint. You could have heard a pin drop in a number of my classes this week. Anyway, my point is that I didn't let 1 student's physical disrespect stop me from improving the learning in my classroom. Thank you more than words for your classroom management edition! It's been really helpful.

  4. Just wanted to say thank you again for this great a second year re reading this ! Gearing up for this week! Im sure it will be a better one with this refresher!