One of the things I have become attuned to in the classroom is what Ira Shor refers to as “Siberia.” I’ve had to; we all have. The row of disaffected and suspicious young men, often African-American, at the rear of the classroom. One of Shor’s strategies is to walk back and speak to the class from next to them. That doesn’t work for me, but I do have ways of addressing the problem that do–sometimes. An experience in one of my 1121 sections over the past week shows that one of them, at least, can work.
The broadest strategy, the basic one, is to nip the growth of Siberia in the bud. That is, I try to avoid confrontation, replacing it with activities pulling the young men into the group and out of their shells. There are many ways to do this and I generally create them on the fly, in response to the particulars of the situation. All of them require avoiding confrontation; the need is to convince the students that we share goals for the class. That can’t be done by yelling, but there are times when the situation gets frustrating and even the best of us reacts in annoyance.
Anyhow, let me tell my little story. Then you may know what I mean.
Last Tuesday, my Siberia was particularly raucous, lots of laughter and movement. I did not address this in class on purpose, in part because there are two parts of Siberia in that classroom in Midway, which has a structural piece jutting into the room from the back, dividing the two sides so that they can hardly see each other. While those on one side were partying away, those on the other seemed to be engaged. I knew, though, that if I came down on the one group I stood a good chance of losing the other.
I made it through the class without slamming the desk or saying anything untoward. That evening, though, I sent an email to one in the group who had been a problem. I addressed him politely and, in a long message, tried to bring him to my side. I chose to address just one of the group, picking a young man who I thought could be responsive.
And he was. He wrote back, apologizing and promising to lead by example from the back row. That was a relief; I hadn’t been sure how he would respond.
On Thursday, though, he did not come to class. I was crushed, and worried. The partying (it wasn’t really, just too much conversation and laughter) began again and, exasperated, I reacted as I shouldn’t have, asking them to calm down and act like college, not high school, students. They obeyed, but I saw the looks that told me I was close to losing them. I cursed myself for my lack of patience.
Going into class today, I was extremely worried. When a disconnect starts with part of the class, it can easily spread to the rest–and I wasn’t sure I would be able to stop it. And the student I had emailed, I saw, wasn’t there.
However, in the middle of taking the roll, he walked in, smiled at me, quite broadly, and walked to Siberia, pushing himself into the middle of the little group and sitting down. He didn’t say anything to the others but, as the class progressed, I could see them melt a bit as he engaged with what I was doing. Eventually, I managed eye contact with two of them and they all participated in the in-class exercise without disruption.
This was a very little thing but, for me, it was a great victory. It showed that paying attention to the little details of what is going on in the classroom and acting promptly and positively can go a long way to counteracting the mistakes we all make as we try to manage our classrooms.