Siberian ice

Thawing Siberia

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.

Siberian ice

By Unknown – Internet Archive identifier, Public Domain,

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.

6 thoughts on “Thawing Siberia

    1. Jackie Blain

      Great story. Actually, a whole bunch of great stories. I do try to identify the “F as always” students early in the term; they’re often actually very smart, just beaten up by the system, and if I can get them engaged somehow, they often become leaders in the class. And I’ve done the “isolate one student and turn them into a leader” strategy a few times, and it almost always works. Thanks for the reminder, Aaron.

      My problem this term is that my whole 1101 class is one big Siberia. We’ve kind of turned it into a joke, but somehow it’s comfortable now instead of feeling like I’m walking into the land of the universally unengaged. Happily, the talkers are accepted instead of being ostracized. I think that was just good luck rather than a result of anything I did (except maybe for the talker-listener discussion we had). I’m looking for more strategies…

  1. Aaron Barlow Post author

    I need to do more with this. What I posted is short and facile, a quick summation of an extraordinarily complex weave of classroom interactions. All of us who teach recognize just how careful we must be, how attuned to people about whom we know very little but, sometimes, assume a great deal about.

    One aspect of this I didn’t mention is the other side, the willingness of some instructors to badger students right out of their classes. This is actually encouraged by Student Evaluation of Teaching surveys at the end of the semester: if one rids oneself of the turbulent students, one’s scores will be higher.

    Deliberate distancing of students from faculty needs to be avoided, but is not. I recently saw an exam returned with this on the cover: “F (as always).” That’s no way to draw a student forward.

    1. Carrie Hall

      This “F (as always)” guy is gonna be remembered for posterity. I’ve heard this story about 15 times. But this is a good point.

      I’m really having trouble with my 1101– they’re just REALLY quiet, bored, unengaged. Assignments that have drawn other classes in are just– not with these guys. I need to to some CPR quick.

  2. Kim

    This is really great to read about, because I think about ways of drawing in quiet/unengaged/bored students and dealing with problems with disruptive students all the time. It’s really nice to hear that others deal with this too, and that your approach was so successful!

    One thing I like to do to get everyone talking and dealing with each other (and to try to split up the Siberias in my classroom or keep them from forming) is to split students into non-adjacent groups — i.e., they have to get up, move, and talk with someone who isn’t their usual bored-buddy….. they always groan, but discussions can be better (and I walk around a lot and try to engage them one on one)…. and once I do it early on, they come to expect it to a degree. And learn each other’s names…

    Classroom dynamics and chemistry are so interesting…..!!

  3. SSchmerler

    I love hearing this Siberia stuff, as I just came out of a class that was really challenging.THat notion of groups that Carrie mentioned usually works really well for me, but not for me today. I did divide them up into groups that made them walk across the room. I broke up a particularly tight-as-toffee cluster that sits and jabbers near my podium by scattering them into other groups. It sucked. The groups were still too large (darn! but groups of 5 worked last night!); they were lackluster (sitting quietly and not reading aloud, after I had asked them to “we’re done,” they said); and my efforts to pick the quieter ones and let them shine by leading an activity I had already created, failed. They were so quiet, and read so poorly, that the others couldn’t do the activity.
    It was all I could do not to lose it. And this class came on the heels of two other lackluster interactions. Three’s an anti-charm.
    I had prepared my activities; I had made photocopies; I showed a video; I did a short freewriting; I spoke; I tried to do air traffic control between the groups.
    Siberia. With a layover in Iceland.

    Students watch our responses to these challenges. Lots of them care about what we are trying to do, and don’t speak up. They wait to see if we will comport ourselves well. I would give myself a 6 out of 10 today on comportment.

    Yes, sometimes it is just luck. Also, I would say that I should do (as one of you said?) and just remain engaged. It was probably due to my own shakiness on a few points of pedagogy that made it hard for me to recover to each freeze out as I encountered it.

    Of course, this is the section in which I’m being evaluated next week. That’s the way it always goes. : 0
    I think I will learn from being watched for sure.

Leave a Reply