Education Opinion

Pow! Take That!

By Susan Graham — November 29, 2010 4 min read
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On Tuesday before Thanksgiving my sixth graders were winding up their Consumer Education unit. They had all passed their written assessment. We had learned to write a check and practiced making change. Now we were going to apply what we learned about money management, monetary math, and marketplace manners by playing Allowance, a board game.

I started the class making the connection between disposable income and choices and tied it to Black Friday. We discussed the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that were important for a career in banking and each table of six had elected their own banker. As I circled the room the kids were up on their knees, laughing, counting and occasionally complaining about a borderline spin, or the banker making wrong change, the terrible unfairness of having to pay for turns without a single collect. About five minutes before the end of the period the timer on my desk went off.

Okay class, let's count up your money and see who has the most at each table. so as you pack up, I want you to think about this question: Which do you think matter more, your skill of the player or the luck of the numbers you spun and the spaces you landed on?"

I was congratulating myself on how well I had on the relevance of the activity, how well I had framed it, how engaged the students had been as they compared their winnings and worked cooperatively to get the money all sorted back into the cash tray. As the bankers brought the games up and had their cash trays checked in, their table was allowed to line up at the door for dismissal. Yeah me! Smooth processes and procedures! And great closure by tying organization and teamwork to workplace skills!

And then...

Fight! Fight! Fight!"

And no, they weren’t just arguing; they were swinging punches. The little kid was fast, but the tall kid had about a foot of reach. By the time all three administrators converged on my room, I had dismissed the rest of the class and we were having a three way face off as the two boys simmered just below boiling. The cause of the fight? Bryan claimed he had won and Jerome said he as a lair because Bryan stole two dollars from the bank while no one was looking.

Augh! The unpredictability of middle school! There have been some rough verbal exchanges in my room and there’s always those dust ups out in the hall, but in 23 years of teaching middle school, this was the first fight in my classroom. Quite frankly, I’m a master at classroom management, but I never saw this one coming. And to think, I could have just had them read the summary chapter, complete the worksheet and do a word find instead!

Getting Inside the Teenage Brain , an article in Sunday’s Parade magazine and offered a quick summary of some of the adolescent brain research that has been going on during the last decade.

The frontal lobes, and particularly the prefrontal cortex, are one of the last areas of the brain to develop. Researchers now believe that the prefrontal cortex -- responsible for things like organizing plans and ideas, forming strategies, and controlling impulses -- is not fully developed until the late 20s. Dopamine levels are also not yet at optimal levels during adolescence. Dopamine is the chemical messenger that allows us to do constant triage in day-to-day life, so we can figure out what to pay attention to and what is background noise. Without adequate levels, life can be a disaster.

Okay, so maybe we could just give them seat work and keep prepping for those end of course multiple choice tests, but while it may make the day go a little more smoothly, it’s a recipe for very limited learning.

The skills you practice as a child and pre-teen become much sharper in the teenage years; and those practiced reluctantly, if at all, will diminish on your brain's hard-disk drive. "The brain is very efficient, allowing you to become more adept at the life skills you're going to use -- which is why these are the years to set good work habits in place," notes Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute and author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs. Adds Shatkin, "This synaptic pruning in a sense makes you become the person you'll ultimately be."

Our children are constantly exposed to movies, TV shows and video games where violence is the automatic response to conflict. Have they begun to prune themselves into adults who see violence as a solution to problems? If Bryan and Jerome don’t learn to deal with business disagreements in productive practical ways, will they may grow up to be either bank robbers or vigilantes? Well, that’s a lot of pressure, so I guess I’ll risk playing the game. But then again games require social interaction and according to Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd who has lead much of this research,

As if struggling to make good judgments and rein in impulsive behavior isn't challenging enough, many adolescents also wrangle with social anxiety. For some, seemingly inconsequential triggers, such as being asked to work an algebra problem in front of the class or hearing a collective snicker from the cool girls in the locker room can cause sickening unease. "A lot of teenage behavior is about avoiding this anxiety of feeling left out and not being a part of things," she says.

Way down deep we all know this because we have all experienced it. Who cannot tell you a story of personal humiliation and social anxiety from their middle school years? But it seems that adolescents deal with this differently than adults and Yurgelun-Todd’s research indicates that they have difficultly differentiating between fear and anger in the expression of others. That can lead to misinterpretations of peers and teachers and parents. That misinterpretation can lead to inappropriate responses. Multiply that by two adolescents and you’ve got trouble.

So what happened in a split second in my room on Tuesday? Was it a clear indication of immature pre-frontal cortex development? Was it synaptic pruning that is refining them into confrontational problem solvers? Was it a defensive response to social anxiety caused by the competitive nature of game playing? Was it a split second lapse in supervision on my part?

I’ve read that teacher makes about 1,500 instructional decisions each day. Some of them will be carved indelibly into the memory. There were instructional decisions made by my middle school teachers over 40 years ago that influence my life today. Some of those decisions have inspired and guided my thinking all these years, and others still cause we to blush or cringe. I wonder if Bryan and Jerome will always remember my class as “the place where I got in a fight and got In School Suspension for a day.”

In the meantime, I’m still trying to figure out how I might have foreseen, intervened or prevented this sudden violent flare of anger and frustration.

In teaching you cannot see the fruit of a day's work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years. -- Jacques Barzu

That usually gives me a nice fuzzy feeling, but there was a fight in my room; and I find that the possibility of that long term impact can feel sort of prickly as well.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table 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.