No teacher comes to school expecting a student to smash a chocolate chip cookie into her forehead. Especially after she helped pay for the cookie and served it as a treat. But that’s exactly what happened to me.
First off, let me say that I generally don’t believe in giving students rewards for being “good” or otherwise doing what they are supposed to do. I do, however, believe that honoring students for exceptional effort is appropriate--I even encourage it.
So in my Warriors Boys Book Club, which consists of ten 8th grade boys with a long history of failing classes and/or poor behavior, achieving even average grades is quite exceptional.
When I designed this class, I reasoned that periodical incentives would inspire them and keep them on track. One would think that walking across the stage would be incentive enough, but teachers told them that they might not graduate all year and that still hadn’t increased their work ethic. So I devised a bi-weekly incentives plan (detailed in this post).
I didn’t tell them what the prizse were--only that they would increase in value as their grade requirement increased. Another teacher secured free White Sox tickets and I planned to use them as the grand prize.
You might remember from the Intro post, and Day One, and Day 11, that I designed this course as an experiment to find out if, in ten weeks, good instruction, engaging and enabling text, a small class size, and external incentives could work to inspire these ten Latino boys to improve their poor study habits before they entered into high school. (About 30 percent of Hispanic boys drop out* of high school in Chicago, which makes this experiment extremely relevant.)
By the end of week four, I announced that the surprise reward was a free lunch from Subway! Three boys had an average of 75 percent or higher and one boy had an average of 74.6. I wavered on whether I would round up and add him into the mix, knowing his propensity for joking around in extremely inappropriate ways. This class was all about second chances, right? So I let him in, explaining to him the tension between my better judgment and the kindness of my heart.
The middle school counselor who has been helping me with the class suggested that instead of ordering in, I should take them on the six block walk to Subway. It was one of the first nice days in Chicago, and eating lunch off campus would seem like an even better way for the boys and I to bond. Again, I was reluctant, though it sounded like a good idea.
So that’s what I did. I took four of my Warriors out to lunch. On the way there, I was having trouble keeping up with the boys’ pace and I asked them to slow down. The boy who I will call “0.4" for the fraction of percentage point with which I had graced him, turned around and said, “You can’t keep up Ms. Rhames because you’re gaining weight. You’re really packing on the pounds. You look pregnant. Are you pregnant again? Already?”
I had a baby six months ago. All the boys laughed hard, and a different one added that another teacher was looking fat and was probably pregnant.
I told them that their comments were disrespectful and inappropriate. I thought about turning around right then, but we were a quarter of the way into the trip. Besides, I didn’t want to punish the other two boys just for laughing.
The obnoxious humor waffled between flat-out insults and loud, defiant acts. My emotions ranged from annoyed, to wondering if it was normal middle school boys to behave this way, to trying to find common ground, to outrage and anger.
It was about 85 degrees, sunny, and super humid. On the way back to school I decided I would lighten up the mood by sprinkling ice from my cup onto the boys’ arms, shoulders and necks. They all laughed and shrieked at the shock of the cold running down their sun-baked skin. We all seemed to be having fun--without the joke being on me.
But then 0.4 decided to pick up the ice cubes from the ground and began hurdling them at me. He hit me with four or five cubes to the head, arms and shoulders. It really hurt.
I yelled at him to stop. He waited until I caught up with him in a few steps, then he turned around and smashed his half-eaten, half-melted chocolate chip cookie right into the center of my forehead. There was cookie in my hairline. Cookie in my eyelashes. Cookie skipping down my nose, on my shoulder.
When I wiped my forehead with the napkin I had been holding, chocolate smeared across my face. All the other boys were balled over laughing. I stood there on the corner, a block away from my school, seething. I couldn’t even speak. I was tempted to say and do things that would have surely cost me my job.
I noticed that one of the boys had stopped laughing. In fact, he had seemed uncomfortable the entire time we had been together. His expression told me that he really didn’t find it funny, but he had no courage to speak out against his classmates. I told the boys that I they were completely out of order.
I got back into the building with only one minute to spare before I had to teach my 7th grade writing class. No time to consult a mirror, I hoped I had wiped away all the cookie crumbs and chocolate. The four boys went to their other classes and I did not see them again for the rest of the day.
I didn’t tell anyone what had happened, not even the counselor. When I came home from work, I didn’t tell my husband. I just didn’t want to talk about it. I couldn’t even write about it. I was just too upset.
The next day, I told the counselor. He told the administrators. And all the boys were called down to the principal’s office.
Later that day, 0.4’s mother came to the school. In broken English, she told me that I deserved what I got because I was acting like a child, not an adult, when I placed ice on her son. I expected that from her. She later apologized. Crying, she said in Spanish that she has lost control of own child.
It took me two weeks, but yesterday I finally discussed the incident with all nine Warriors. (As part of his consequence, 0.4 is no longer a student in my class.) Most of the boys who weren’t on the trip had already heard about what had happened. I told them that the incident took a lot of energy out of me and that I wouldn’t be able to get back to normal until I talked about it with them. The kids said they had noticed a drop in my enthusiasm for the book club since the incident happened.
The boy who was almost just as disrespectful on the walk as 0.4 asked me what was going to be the next reward. After all, it was now six weeks in, and his grades qualified for the prize. I told him that though I forgive him, negative actions have negative consequences: there would be no more prizes for the remainder of the class. He looked genuinely disappointed.
We teach to students’ minds, but often times they have soul problems. Character development is largely neglected in the test-pressured school culture. Even when we deliberately teach character-building lessons at school, how much of it actually sticks if the opposite message is reinforced at home or on the streets?
I feared I’d lose at least one student in the book club to poor behavioral choices. I just didn’t know which one. I only hope now that the cookie to my forehead will forever teach the boys how not to bite the hand that feeds them.
I learned many things, too. Namely, how to keep unmerited student rewards out of my hand.
*data revised after publication on 6/4/14.
The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course 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.