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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Universal Solution

Following my caveats about the dangers of looking for a  program that could  solve the problem of bullying in schools, I do dare to offer one solution that I have never known to fail; it can work effectively from kindergarten to twelve grade regardless of the nature of the problem.  Here it is: share whatever the problem is with the people whom the problem impacts.  Involve them in understanding it and addressing it.

Here are two examples: 

There was a teacher who used recess as leverage to get students to do their homework and this approach "worked" for him for many years.  If a student didn't do homework or was behind in getting work done in school, he/she would forfeit recess time to get it done.  This worked until he had a parent challenge him asserting that recess/physical activity was a not privilege but a necessity.  This teacher asked me for some advice on how to resolve this dilemma.  I recommended that he share this problem (without using the names of the individuals involved) with his students.  This sharing could mean having them read newspaper stories about the research on physical exercise.  He could also share the legitimate need he had in holding students accountable for their work.  In a structured and planned way he put the "problem" back on them, asking them for their advice for how to resolve it.  A few days later he came to me with the solution the students ALL agreed to: there would be a certain amount of time guaranteed every day for recess for all students plus there would be an additional 10 minutes that was not guaranteed but could be earned by completing all required work.  This was the class's solution and it worked for him also.  He could also be sure that the students would most likely abide by it since it was their solution not just his.

There was another first year teacher who was having a very successful school year with his students, but sometime in May realized he had forgotten a science unit that involved a kit that the class only had access to for a set period of time.  He realized that it would be very difficult to "fit this into" the typical school schedule that he had already established and had followed for the year.  He took this problem to his class and accepted responsibility for not planning the year with this unit in mind.  He asked for their help.  The students were unanimous in agreeing to voluntarily give up some of their recess every day for the length of the unit in order to find the extra time.

  I once a teacher ask me what to do with the inherent tension between raising test scores and finding time for students to think more reflectively.  I didn't have an answer but recommend that he pose that problem to his students.  If it was hard for him, why not give his students a chance to wrestle with the problem. It is difficult to think of a situation where this sharing, when carefully and skillfully presented, would not work.

I recall an quotation from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (I never read the whole book but I do recall this line): "Truth comes knocking at our door and we answer it saying "Go away, I am too busy looking for the truth."  Learning to solve life's problems requires reflection, thinking, talking, sharing and interacting with others.  The problems that happen every day in the life of classroom could and should be the focus of thinking, reading, writing.  They are not distractions from learning if we  embrace them rather than view them as distractions or extraneous events.  The meaning and relevance so important for engaging students is really right under our noses living in their social interactions and the inevitable conflicts and issues that occur every day. As John Dewey so aptly said, "... the very process of living together educates". 

So if we truly want to "solve" the problem of bullying, let's humbly, genuinely, and thoughtfully ask our students what they think about it and what they think could be done about it.  If we follow that lead, we will be heading in the right direction.  There is a lot to learn  when we ask the right question and truly listen.

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