Sorting Out The Problematic
[ Journal Entry ]
The point of teacher action research is to help
us sort out what’s problematic in what we’re doing.
We’re involved in this learning enterprise to understand
better what our work involves.
Last time I kept asking you “What surprised
you about…?” I did that because I wanted you to
begin noticing moments that surprise you—both in school,
and in your out-of-school lives. It’s the moment of surprise,
of being perplexed, that alerts us to something interesting
and provides an opportunity to make our assumptions visible. “What
was I expecting?” you need to ask yourself. “Why
was I expecting that?”
Let me illustrate with a freewrite I did a while
One of the most difficult transitions I personally
have had to make has been dealing with kids’ resistance,
their not-learning behaviour. Just when I think I have
some control over my responses I run into a kid who pushes
me back into my instinctual, authoritarian way of responding.
There’s one like that in one of the third grade classes
I’ve been visiting.
In my experience when kids are resisting or
avoiding engaging, offering some support brings about a small
shift in attitude. Usually I can get a kid to ‘just
try’. Based on past experience I’ve learned that
helping kids to be successful allows them to overcome a lot
of their resistance. But I can’t even get near this
one—Brent, I’ll call him. He cuts me off before
I can offer help of any kind. His body language is real clear—stay
away. If I offer any help he rejects it—he makes it
plain he isn’t going to think about whatever it is the
other kids are doing and he has been asked to try.
Now part of Brent’s problem is that he
doesn’t read or write very well. At age nine, that’s
now starting to be serious. He’s bright, that’s
obvious, so he knows what the others can do and he can’t.
His behaviour is considerably more aggressive than the others
and he keeps the others, boys and girls, at bay by being disdainful
or by pinching, hitting, or jabbing them with a pencil. They
don’t want anything to do with him—his behaviour
gets what he wants, distance from the rest; but at a cost—he
does, at some level, want friendship which he can’t
get the way he’s going about it.
So I’m perplexed. At some level I agree
with Brent that the tasks he’s being asked to tackle
are meaningless, certainly unconnected to who he is. His resistance
is very like that described by Herb Kohl in “I won’t
learn from you!”—Brent is saying quite loudly
he won’t learn from me. And each time I attempt to engage
him I seem to be digging the hole deeper.
Brent evokes the ‘witch’ in me in
the same way the junior high kids did. While I understand
his resistance, I react to it in a way that doesn’t
help. Jake on the other hand, who drives the teacher crazy,
I can manage to maneuver. He doesn’t make me bristle
the way Brent does. The question is what about their behaviour
gets to me in the one case and not in the other. What in my
own history is being triggered in the one case and not in
the other? I don’t have an answer for that at the moment.
Maybe it’s the way Brent is firmly taking
control, but in a way that in the long run means he defeats
himself. When he evokes the witch I walk away. There’s
no point in attempting to cajole him and I have no authority
to insist on him doing anything which the teacher can do and
has from time to time done. But I’m not happy just walking
away. I keep wondering what I’m doing that evokes his
resistance and what I could do that would permit us to work
out a different kind of relationship.
What I realized is that Brent and I were engaged
in a power/control struggle. If I approached him by asking if
he needed help, he could refuse legitimately. In fact, he didn’t.
That surprised me, actually. Instead, by asking him if he needed
help, he could let me know what kind of help he needed and then
His teacher and I had a conversation this afternoon
in which she described how she learned to accept his clear signals
that he wouldn’t comply. Rather than forcing him to do
anything, she learned how to negotiate with him. Her important
insight was that Brent was always in control and that she would
never get anywhere trying to force him to do anything. Because
she has become adept at reading his signals, he’s become
much more involved and proficient at reading and writing and
his behaviour is considerably less resistant.
The freewrite helped me understand what was causing
our struggle and what I could do about it.