Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Omaha Denouement—Finally!


(Continued from yesterday, Wednesday, September 18 . . . )

Toward the end of the four weeks between January 18 and February 15, 1960, I began to think that if I became a pal to the seventh graders in our Omaha classroom they’d like me and want to learn.
         I discovered how mistaken that notion was on Friday, February 12, when we had a Valentine’s party. Besides bringing cupcakes, soda pop, and candy, several students also brought radios to the classroom. The party began in early afternoon. What ensued is like a Hieronymus Bosch painting.


Allegory of Gluttony and Lust by Hieronymus Bosch

         First, the students had a contest to see who could throw a cupcake up to the ceiling and make it stay. The contest continued an interminable time with much hooting and raucous laughter. Soda pop fizzed on the floor and against the windows. Girls ran around the room, trying to evade the groping hands of the boys.
         Then, several boys came to the front of the room, threw themselves on the floor, and turned up the volume on their radios. Moving their bodies suggestively, they humped, thrust, moaned. I stood by my desk as they performed their obscene floor dances just a few feet from me. They fixed their eyes on me and smiled with glee at my discomfort.
         That Friday-afternoon party was an ending for me. I knew I couldn’t go back into that classroom on Monday. That evening, my body must have proclaimed my great weariness—I’d lost ten pounds—and my despair and desperation. I say this because of what happened next.
         Sister Nicole, in whose fifth-grade classroom I’d substituted the first two weeks of January, was now home from the hospital. When she asked me how things were going, the whole sorry tale came pouring out.
         “We’ll put a stop to that,” Nicole said.
         “But how?” I could see no happy ending.
         “Here’s how. It’s this or Council Bluffs.” Nicole laid out the following plan: On Monday, I’d go into the classroom and announce a new beginning. I’d read a list of what I’d no longer tolerate:
1.    Interrupting my teaching
2.    Interrupting the responses and questions from others
3.    Jabbing with math compasses
4.    Throwing papers and books
5.    Spitting
6.    Making rude and obscene remarks
7.    Getting up from desks without permission
8.    Visiting other desks without permission
9.    Talking without permission
10. Failing to do homework
11. Sassing
The list must have had at least twenty-five unacceptable behaviors.
“The next thing you’ll do on Monday,” Sister Nicole said, “is to explain the punishment system.” What we devised is this:
·      Every time a student did something on the list, I’d put a check by his or her name on the chalkboard. At the end of the day, anyone who had three checks had to stay after school.
·     I’d give that student a subtraction problem by multiplying a three-digit number by another three-digit number. The student would then take the paper to his desk and begin. He’d subtract the second number—the subtrahend—from the first number—the minuend. He’d keep subtracting until the difference was zero. He’d stay after school until the problem was completed to my satisfaction.
         “But how will I know he hasn’t cheated to get out of detention early?” I asked.
         “When he shows you his work. Check it by multiplying your second number by 10, 20, 30, 40 . . . and so on. Look for the resultant numbers among the subtrahends. Just look for numbers that end with zero. Most students start to fudge and make up numbers until they get to a final answer of zero. You can show them where their subtracting went askew and set them to working the problem again.”
         “This’ll work?”
         “Once the students discover just how long all that subtracting takes it will.”
         I worked a problem and saw what Nicole meant. Then I went to Sister Brendan to get permission to keep the students after school for as long as it took for them to do the subtraction correctly. I also needed permission to miss Vespers, the lengthy chanted psalms the nuns prayed together after school ended.
         Monday came. I announced the new beginning. Within a week life had settled to what became the norm for the rest of the school year. In the next posting I’ll describe the atmosphere in which the students and I lived until the end of May. Cold. Chilly. Bleak.
                                       ( . . . continued next Wednesday, September 25.)

Bosch painting from Wikipedia.

61 comments:

  1. How did you get them to agree to stay after school & work on the problem?

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    1. DEar Fishducky, you're going to need to wait until next Wednesday! Peace.

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  2. Math, the best way to get the kids in line, who knew? I guess you haha

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    1. Dear Pat, math does tend to confound a lot of people! Peace.

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  3. I think all new teachers make the mistake of wanting to be friends with their pupils - we soon learn!

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    1. Dear Annie, I did learn--very quickly--that trying to be a friend wasn't working and wasn't really the best answer. Peace.

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  4. Wow, so simple once you knew, Dee! I'm so glad there was an peaceful end to the bad behaviour and interruption of learning. Children really have to know we mean what we say and that system would show them.

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    1. Dear Perpetua, I suspect that what students want is boundaries. And with Sister Nicole's help I gave them boundaries, but many of them hated me for that. And that word "hated" really applies here. Peace.

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  5. It is sad, that teachers cannot be friends any more because as they grow older they might be able to advise and be there for their teachers just as much as their teachers were there for them. This would help them get accustomed to be good people al in all.

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    1. Dear Munir, I suspect that most of the students had friends. What they needed was someone to help them set limits. Peace.

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  6. I am just glad you were able to get support for assigning detention and that the the kids would actually show up. What a unique math problem to keep them concentrating and quiet. Sister Nicole came back just in time.

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    1. Dear Patti, yes, Sister Nicole, I think, helped me stay sane for the next few months. Peace.

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  7. Oh my Dee. I am so sorry - for you and for them. It seems that they treated 'friends' of their own age badly (bullying and power struggles) so I suppose it was inevitable that you too suffered. And I don't believe that a teacher or a parent's role is one of friendship - or at least not first and foremost. Just the same the cold, bleak and chilly atmosphere in your classroom must have hurt you just as much as them.

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    1. Dear EC, the next couple of postings will show just how badly all of us were hurt by that experience. Peace.

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  8. This really isn't getting a lot better, is it. At least I'm not seeing your way out except through punishment. Perhaps effective, perhaps some learning is going on, but I'm sure no child is a willing participant.

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    1. Dear Joanne, sorry to say but I did need to resort to punishment to establish a classroom in which teaching could be done. It was, at the time, the only way I could figure out how to disciple the students. And it certainly wasn't the best answer but kindness wasn't working. Peace.

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  9. Okay... brilliant idea, but I must admit, even as good at math as I am, I am completely confused.

    I fear I'd have never left detention.

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    1. Dear Juli, I didn't do a very good job of describing the math process! My writing skills fell short. Peace.

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. Oh my goodness- I just can't imagine what that must have been like to walk into that classroom each day...

    I wonder what became of the kids in the gang? It would be interesting to know if they ever changed their ways.

    Can't wait to read more!

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    1. Dear Shelly, I, too, wonder. They would be in their mid-sixties now. I wonder if any of them have a memory of that year. Peace.

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  12. I'm very sorry you went through this difficult experience. These days, most schools can't keep students at the end of the day because they'd miss the bus and parents are angry with the school, not the child, if they have to pick up their little darlings.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Dear Janie, that's true. But Sister Brendan came through for me as I'll explain in next Wednesday's posting. Peace.

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  13. Oooh Dee, I wouldn't/couldn't be a teacher then or now...

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    1. Dear Turquoisemoon, I never wanted to be a teacher. I'd entered the convent to pray, knowing that the order taught and so I'd end up teaching. And I just thought at the time that I was the only nun who didn't know how. Peace.

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  14. To think that these children were only 12, yikes! I went to school in the Bronx then and we did hear of kids acting up in public school but never in Catholic school. Omaha must have been a pretty rough town. You were a saint, Dee, to have put up with that.

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    1. Dear Arleen, one of the other nuns--Sister Mary Norbert--said to me during those four weeks that she'd taught most of the seventh graders when they were in fifth grade and that they'd "lost their innocence" at "parties" during that time. Peace.

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  15. Thank God.. That teacher certainly came to your rescue... Those were great suggestions. I'm sure they worked since kids don't want to stay after school--and work math problems. AND--they are always in competition with each other --so they wouldn't want their name on the blackboard... Hooray.. Great ideas!!!!!
    Hugs,
    Betsy

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    1. Dear Betsy, after the first week, the students learned that the math problem took time and so most of them didn't act up because they'd didn't want to stay for an hour or two after school. Peace.

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  16. How awful! Just the description of the scene was enough to make my heart rate increase. I cannot understand how anybody could have gotten through this. But you did!

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    1. Dear DJan, I wonder if they'd done the same to the teacher who preceded me. The one who was sent to the mental hospital in Council Bluffs. Peace.

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  17. Bless Sister Nicole.
    First establish the rules. Then establish the consequences. A perfect formula for life, and any classroom. The atmosphere for the remaining of the year doesn't sound too rosy, however. Once again, Dee. you've drawn me in and make me eager to hear what happened next.
    You really are a treasure. Thank you.

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    1. Dear Penny, yes, "bless Sister Nicole." We remained friends until she died just a few years ago. She truly was a blessing in my life and I came to understand why the fifth graders were so attached to her. Peace.

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  18. What a brilliant detention model! I'm really impressed with Nicole's method of class control...but now I want to know, did it work? I don't know how you survived without breaking, Dee. I am really curious to know how these young people ended up in life as adults. They seem to have been such hopeless little people in the years you were teaching. But you didn't seem to give up on them...so I'm very curious what the next part of the story will reveal! Great storytelling, Dee. (breathe lighter)

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    1. Dear Debra, I'm hoping I can write the next part well. I have to admit that much of the rest of that year I don't remember. Peace.

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  19. you recovered from THAT??? LOL. Amazing!
    I, too am curious, how did the threat of punishment sit with the leaders of the pack? I would have imagined them just laughing it off and leaving.
    mimi

    Mimi's paintings

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    1. Dear Mimi, as to the boys "laughing . . . and leaving," Sister Brendan came through for me. I'll describe that in the next posting. Thanks for sticking with me on this series of stories.

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  20. I'm not sure I could be a teacher. It takes a special breed of folks. I admire you all.

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    1. Dear Rick, often when I read about what takes place in many classrooms today, I think just as you do--"it takes a special breed of folks" to be teachers. Peace.

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  21. Excellent teaching learned and earned. I realized that the students did not want a friend in me, they wanted someone who would hold them accountable and be in charge. Looking forward to the next segment.

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    1. Dear Susan, you were much more mature than I in your first classroom, Susan. I was totally unprepared for teaching. Peace.

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  22. The aspect of conflict that you portray so well here, Dee, is to my mind the inescapable aspect of life in schools from about the mid-20th century on. Every situation is/was unique, of course, and there must be complex reasons (I've tried to list them for myself), but problems had really set in by this time, in my mind, for classroom education in America. Growing up I was so sensitive to it that when I learned about homeschooling I gratefully opted for that with my children, still hoping (as the daughter of a teacher) for better days ahead in education. I still do hope for that, and I will read more of your writing with interest, as always.

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    1. Dear Deanna, we hear often about classroom teachers who are gifted and charismatic and make all the difference. Now if only we could "bottle" what they do and teach it to other teachers--and also if our culture could change so that parents appreciated teachers again and did not always take the part of the children. And if parents had time to see that children did their homework. Children really do need a community--a global village as Hilary Clinton says. Peace.

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  23. Hi Dee, I would not have the patience to teach - especially under the circumstances you just described.

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    1. Dear Pam, I don't know that I had patience. I think mostly I was so shocked and stunned that I was mute. Like a zombie. Peace.

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  24. I'm surprised, but glad, that they allowed there to be enforced rules. Shocked that nobody helped you with suggestions before that point. Seems to prove that people do want to know what is expected of them and to have boundaries and rules of some kind--or they run amuck and act out. ;)

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    1. Dear Rita, I do think that children want rules and boundaries. They need them and we do too. We mostly establish them for ourselves--it's part of our moral code of our moral compass. But we need to help children find and embrace a moral compass. Peace.

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  25. I'm always amazed at what teachers deal with -- and how they learn to handle such situations! Good for you, Dee, for hanging in there and taking your colleague's advice. Seventh grade has to be the worst -- to teach and also to live through as a student.

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    1. Dear Kathy, I've always thought that 7th graders were the most challenging class to teach. They are forming out their our opinion and trying them out on others. Peace.

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  26. Surely that’s not it yet? They gave in as easily as that? Can’t wait for the final final denouement.

    I can’t understand why the worst students weren’t expelled from school and put into special schools. Is there/was there no such system available?

    No teacher in the UK would put up with such terror.

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    1. Dear Friko, next week! Next week! Peace.

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  27. Oh my God, that's a lot of Maths work for me :-)

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    1. Dear Haddock, a lot of math for anyone nowadays! Peace.

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  28. This is a book for sure, Dee. In the last post when I read that you had 55 kids I nearly choked. That's beyond horrible. I can hardly wait for the next installment.

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    1. Dear Deb, at that time, at least in Catholic schools, 45 to 55 students in a classroom was the norm. Too many. Way too many! Peace.

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  29. You really got good advice. Finally a lesson on class control!
    The gr8 teacher ought tomhave tried teaching you that too,

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    1. Dear Heidrun, yes, Sister Nicole made that school term endurable for me. I continue to this day to be grateful. Peace.

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  30. Dee, what a great turning point. And how clever the solution! I can't wait to see what happens next!

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    1. Dear Kate, I don't know when Sister NIcole had had to use this solution before, but she had it right there for me. Peace.

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  31. I guess what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I went back and read the posts I missed and I think it was good to read them all at one time. I am amazed that children in a catholic school, right after the end of the 1950s, in Omaha of all places, would behave like that. Thank you, Dee, I learned something today. And 55 students, what in the world............

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    1. Dear Inger, if I'm remembering correctly, 45 to 55 students was pretty much the norm in Catholic grade schools at that time. But 55 was the most I ever had. And thank you, Inger, for stopping by. I know how busy you've been. Peace.

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