"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Thursday, November 10, 2011

learning a practice of love

when i was a teacher in Los Angeles, i had lots of students who were maladjusted to being at school, an environment that necessitated, sometimes forced, their interaction with a diversity of people, an environment that challenged them to try new things EVERY DAY, while possibly sitting next to someone they couldn't get along with, or even got along with too well. i learned more about human nature in my two years of teaching than i have learned my entire life.

one invaluable thing i learned was that everyone, from the teacher's pet to the disaster student who wreaks havoc on your classroom, is just seeking some validation. everyone needs solace in some redemptive quality in themselves. oftentimes, because we're too insecure and damaged from a history of neglect and emotional abuse. children are especially sensitive to every event in their lives, because these events are closer to the surface of memory, and because children use each moment to learn and adapt and adjust.  

the moment that changed my pedagogy life was when i did a functional behavior analysis (FBA) in my first year of teaching, as part of a grad school project. the FBA is basically a glorified checklist that you use to observe a student's behavior in an attempt to understand the purpose, indeed, the meaning, behind the behaviors. for my project, i chose my student Marvin, who had a range of bizarre behaviors that seemed to come out at random: he would frequently come disruptively late to class, get out of his seat and come to the front of the class to stand near me and mock my lessons, he would throw pencils at other students, he would sit at his desk with both fists in his mouth and his eyelids turned up in grotesque self-amusement, he would bark like a dog and scream and bang on his desk and stomp his feet and laugh maniacally at the hell he was raising. frequently, his behaviors were so disturbing i would react more out of fear than frustration. so, i followed him around one day, went to all his classes, armed with my FBA chart, on which i listed all his behaviors, and made checkmarks by them each time i saw them occur, and in what setting or following what types of stimulation. at the end of my observation, i was horrified to discover he only behaved this way in my class.

but after looking at my notes, i began to detect a pattern. Marvin had one of the lowest reading levels of any student i had in any of my special ed classes - he was barely above a kindergarten reading level despite being in the 6th grade. in all of his English classes, i noticed him being suspiciously quiet, almost unnoticeable. he only occasionally tapped a peer on the shoulder, or ripped at the edges of a textbook, but all while the teacher was turned around. Marvin was trying to avoid being noticed in the classes that would require reading, something he was bad at, insecure about, and ashamed to be exposed for. Marvin was, however, strong in math. in fact, he was one of the strongest in my special ed class. he was quick, usually accurate, and excited. he was almost always the first one done, the first to raise his hand, and then the first to freak out if i didn't call on him (which i tried not to do ALL the time, in order to give other students a chance). i then considered my math class, and the way i usually conducted them - short group teaching, individual practice, followed by a review of answers and more practice*. it became painfully clear to me that Marvin's disturbing behaviors were not completely his fault, he was trying, in the only way he knew how, to get my attention for something - maybe the one thing - he did right and was proud of.

the reason this changed my life, you see, is because it revealed a fallacy of an unexamined assumption. we're told, or assume, that people who act unreasonably or irrationally are just weird and/or crazy, and should be ignored (at best), shunned, or reprimanded. never are we told to reach out to these people, to embrace them, and try to understand them. when i realized that Marvin was just seeking my attention for something he felt proud of (granted, in the worst ways imaginable), all i had to do was give him a little bit of my time every day to listen to him, applaud his accomplishments, and give him validation in an otherwise unforgiving and indifferent world. it was so simple, and yet, so revolutionary, because it goes against everything else we're told in our culture.

what we have to understand is that people behave in strange ways all the time. sometimes words are not enough to give voice to deeper longings, or are too hard to say. sometimes you give someone a gift, because you don't know how else to say you're sorry. or you reach out to touch someone's hand, just to let them know you're so happy they're alive. our culture can be so isolating that we forget how to talk to one another, and when we make efforts to reach out to another human being, it feels revolutionary.

learning to see through Marvin's destructive behaviors and understand what he was trying to say by them, helped me move away from blame-placing, to a more compassionate, understanding, and forgiving approach to my interactions with others. it's not always easy to practice, heck, it's not always easy to remember, but trying to hold in my head and heart the conviction that all people are, like me, struggling to be loved and make meaning out of their lives, and the least i/you/we can do to make a difference is to love a little back.

The toughest thing is to love somebody who has done something mean to you — especially when that somebody is yourself. Look inside yourself and find that loving part of you. Take good care of that part because it helps you love your neighbor. --Fred Rogers

*the lecture-style, banking model of teaching is an obvious first-year teaching mistake. the problem is it's so common and assumed that even this critical pedagog was fooled into thinking it would work! in my second year, i greatly improved my pedagogy by adopting a student-centered, rather than teacher-centered, method of instruction. i still gave mini-lectures, but incorporated multiple manners of student engagement and participation, even though my mini-lectures were only about 10 minutes long. i worked my butt off trying out activities, and inventing new ones, and the best idea i ever had: allowing students to work cooperatively to solve problems together. wow, what a difference a year of mistakes makes! in my second year, all my students were OVERJOYED to come to class, i never had anyone be late, and my second-year Marvin, a girl who was, of course, named Angel and had a predilection for animal print hoodies, never derailed my class (despite running around the room stomping her feet and clawing the desks and grunting) because my other students were enthralled with my lessons, loved what they were learning, and didn't want to stop. the best part of this story is that the culture of learning and positivity in my class was so strong that Angel eventually realized the best way for her to get attention in class was to do well in class. i succeeded in turning her around bit by bit, but issues Angel had in another class caused her to get expelled from school.

No comments: