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Deconstructing Disruption in the Classroom

By Josh Parker — September 14, 2018 10 min read
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”...Whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, “I don’t give a damn.” You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot.” -Ralph Ellison

Food Network’s ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’ is one of the most watchable and re-watchable shows of all-time. Oftentimes, my family will recline on the large sofa and watch episode after episode without noticing how much time has actually passed. It really is incredible. And rarely have I seen the same epsiode twice (but love it when I see local haunts getting the Guy Fieri treatment - shout out to Jimmy’s Seafood and Miss Shirley’s Cafe). On one episode, I recall seeing Guy visit a diner that served a deconstructed reuben sandwich. Before I saw the finished product, I was baffled. Deconstructed? What does that even mean? According to this website, it essentially means to take apart a meal into its component parts and in most cases, reproduce it in a new and creative way.

Pretty cool. Also, pretty scary.

The word ‘deconstructed’ triggered flashbacks within me of times after a class period where I felt pretty darn deconstructed. Broken down. Into parts. Seeking the combining elements of a cool Cheerwine and reruns of Guy’s Grocery Games (don’t judge) before beginning the grading process. What left me feeling separated was not the duties or coverages, but I felt most drained when I had to manage disruptions within the class. All day.

Redirecting over the course of a day or week can take its toll on teachers and leave us, well, in parts. But, it does not have to be that way all the time. Not even some of the time. In this entry, I would like to deconstruct classroom disruption in the hopes of breaking it down into its component parts. All the while, I will attempt to refashion what classroom disruption looks like in a novel way which should make handling it a little more palatable. First things first, let’s break down the classroom dynamic.

Black and brown students remain the students with the most unfinished learning and are most likely to receive beginning career teachers as well as be referred to the office or suspended. Additionally, black and brown students face the legacy and/or contemporary applications of explicit and implicit racism in their schools and communities. This is not to victimize these precious students of color, but to give context on the power dynamic at play before they even take a seat.

Once they are in their seats, they have to take a most-likely spotty educational history with them in the service of learning something new. Every day. They are beyond capable to do this, but are extremely dependent on a skilled educator to provide the scaffolding or enrichment (the pull or push) supports needed to master grade-level tasks and texts. It is in the nexus of all these complex interactions that most disruptions form.

So, we have a teacher with a set of standards and objectives to teach. Then we have a student, who carries an invisible backpack of trauma, unfinished learning and anxiety. Multiplied by 25 for the normal class size. Situated between the teacher, students and the physical/pychological environment is the learning that is supposed to happen. This is the picture I would like you to keep in your mind before we go further.

Also, did you know that according to Teach Thought, a teacher makes 1,500 educational decisions a day?

How do you think that plays out in our classroom picture if even just one of those decisions comes into conflict with the invisible backpack of our children, much less any other issues between students? And here is where the reconstruction of instruction in regards to disruption has to happen:

Teaching is disruptive. By the very nature of introducing anyone to new knowledge, there is bound to be a disruption of their previous train of thought. The process of reading this entry, which I hope you still are, is disruptive. You no doubt have come into the idea of disruption as an interruption to the teaching process. I would like to submit to you, that it may be a vital sign that you actually are teaching.

“But what about those times when there are disruptive students and behaviors in a classroom that break the flow of a lesson?”

I hear you. Let us return to our classroom picture and then continue our delightful discussion on disruption.

First, there is productive disruption and destructive disruption. The chart below can provide some behaviors that I have witnessed, heard about or contributed to (as a student):

Productive Disruption

Destructive Disruption

Asking for task clarification

Requesting additional help in the completion of a task

Moving to get a better view of the board, or listen better to the discussion

Voicing disagreement, confusion or affirmation of the content or another peer’s thoughts

Organizing body and materials to begin a task

Engaging aggressively with another student or teacher in a way that is demeaning or violent

Calling out in ways that derail the attention of the class

Fighting

Notice that the right column contains only a few examples that are clearly observable. What you also may notice is that all of those same behaviors are subjective. Even fighting (I have many times mistaking sparring for violent striking). Due to the sometimes subjective nature of disruption, there is a ton of teacher discretion in how each incident is addressed. It is in these instinctual moments that our biases are in full display. When we do not have the benefit of time and space to prepare our responses, what we internally believe about the inherent qualities of black and brown students is what surfaces.

Therefore, the first step to addressing disruption happens before the first bell. We must all surface whatever biases we have about the inherent worth of black and brown children. There is an instinctive and emotional part of you that develops thoughts and opinions of students everytime you leave the teachers’ lounge. Whenever you hear about the behavior of a student from a colleague, that instinctual part of you becomes almost hard-wired to react towards his/her eventual disruption in a certain way. Because remember, teaching is disruptive.

Next, we must understand that students come into a classroom from a deficit perspective. They come in need of information and actually have no real delegated power. This means that every interaction educators have with students is from a position of dominance. This is a place where we can also mitigate destructive disruption. If we reconstruct the classroom as a place where their culture, community and perspectives are seen as critical to the learning process, we can begin to take some of the extremely heavy books out of their invisible backpacks.

So far, we have operationalized disruption as part of the teaching process. We have set up a classroom image that helps us visualize what is happening in a physcial sense, throughout schools across the country. Now it is time to put the finishing touches on our deconstructed/reconstructed composition. Below are four final thoughts or ‘toppings’ on the idea of classroom disruption:

1. Disruptive communication is not a direction, it is a clue. When students attempt to derail a lesson, it is not a signal for you to stop teaching (in most cases). It can provide a clue to what is missing from what or how you are implementing a lesson. It is a student’s way to get you to find a better way to reach them and the children around them. It is a cry at times for relevance, passion and energy. So here’s what some classic signs of disruption may actually mean:

“I can’t do this” = “There has to be a better way for me into the content and I am frustrated that it is not being provided.”

“I am not doing this” = “I don’t have positive memories or experiences mastering this concept; I am not sure I can complete this successfully without sacrificing my cool, my status or my insecurity.”

“Why are we learning about this?” = “Why are we learning about this?”

The deepest need for a student, and anyone, is relevance. We cannot reduce learning to its core elements without reconnecting it to its more abstract yet soul-deep ramifications.

2. Disruption is personal, but not in the way you may think. It is about their personal history with the content, environment and style of instruction they may have been receiving. If they are used to a life of packets, then when they get served another one, they may retreat into a state of hopelessness which may manifest as work avoidant behavior. Let’s not punish where we may need to just teach better. Additionally, they may be trying to save you from frustration. Students know pretty quickly which teachers can help them and are knowledgeable and which teachers aren’t. Sometimes their behaviors may result from a belief that we don’t actually know how to help them once they really present their lack of understanding. We need to be the ones who prove them wrong. Every time.

3. Resolving disruption won’t always be clean - but also doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing students. I have heard some variation of this quote throughout my career, especially as it relates to black and brown students: “there are just a few students who are messing it up for everyone else. They just don’t want to learn.” Again, what evidence do we actually have that they do not want to learn. Are they in your class? Have they completed assignments before? Every student has a history of learning that pre-dates us. Our job is not to interrupt it, but to continue it. In that sense, resolving disruption may take courage, creativity and some post-class (or during class) conversation. It is possible to resolve disruption while helping students complete their assignments. If we believe in the oft-repeated phrase within this section, the ultimate end of this belief are actions that communicate to the student(s) that they actually don’t deserve to learn. Would you want to be educated in such a classroom? School?

4. Solving disruption is a function of preparation, mediated reflection and your connection to power bases. Most classroom disruption is resolved, redirected or repurposed before the class begins. Getting to know your students and what makes them cry or cheer is time well spent. The relationships we build with students may be the most important lever we can use to continue to invite them into a productive classroom experience. Some students have to be invited daily:) That’s okay. They need education too. Additionally, there is power in thinking about classroom disruption gone awry. Reflecting on the experience with the student and his/her peers could yield suprising results. Invite a colleague to give you feedback on your interactions with that student you have had a hard time managing. Lastly, there are power bases, or sources of power that are available to most people in a professional setting. Social psychologists John French and Betram Raven coined the idea of power bases in 1959. The different categories are coercive power, reward power, legitimate power, referent power, expert power and informational power. This video explains the concept in more detail. Your connection to these sources of power as well as your ability to share the power with your students is a key to producing a safe and welcoming classroom culture.

Believe it or not, reconstructing traditional signs of disruption from black and brown students as entry-ways into better serving them is an equity move! It is the way we help these children, with invisible backpacks as large as they are, carry this weight and ultimately lighten it. We cannot educate children we believe are trying to harm us when they are only attempting to get help themselves. So, before you step foot into your classroom again, it is imperative that you be as prepared as you can be not only to manage disruptions, but to welcome them.

Resources

Classroom Management: Resource Roundup by Edutopia - https://www.edutopia.org/article/classroom-management-resources

Best Practices in Classroom Management by Christoper Dunbar of Michigan State University - https://msu.edu/~dunbarc/dunbar3.pdf

Inspirational Video

How Students of Color Confront Impostor Syndrome by Dena Simmons - https://www.ted.com/talks/dena_simmons_how_students_of_color_confront_impostor_syndrome

*Bonus Video*

A Deconstructed Reuben Sandwich from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives - https://www.foodnetwork.com/shows/diners-drive-ins-and-dives/videos/turn-on-traditional

“I am beginning to think that the only thing wrong with black [students] is that we actually think something is wrong with them.” -Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

The opinions expressed in Everyday Equity in the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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