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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 8

Refusing to Play the Blame Game

Encouraging students to confront their own behavior and contribute to classroom solutions is far more effective than imposing solutions or lecturing.

I had gone to a one-day conference and had a substitute teacher cover my English class —a particularly difficult group of 9th graders. Upon my return on Monday, I was distressed by the report he left on my desk. It was a teacher's worst nightmare: "The kids were completely out of control; people were throwing things; someone tried to flush a young man's backpack down the toilet."
A 12th grade intern who helped out in my class had also been overwhelmed. She reported that there was little she could do but sit by helplessly and watch. "I had forgotten what it's like to want a sub for a class so you can just act up and have fun," she wrote in her journal. She observed, too, that "the guys are a lot more dominant today. Only one or two of them are actually reading, but all the girls are."
This English class has an unusual make-up: 19 boys and only 6 girls. The heterogeneously grouped class is fairly representative of the 1,000 students who come to our high school from three small factory and rural towns in and around Berwick, Maine. The boys had been unruly from the start of the semester. They communicated by kicking, writing on one another with chalk, and expressing annoyance at classmates by throwing their books in the trash. One student threw a temper tantrum whenever he was displeased by something I asked him to do.
To prevent the boys from silencing the girls, I had been engaging the class in a variety of activities and discussions about respect in the classroom. I felt we were making progress. Naturally, then, my first reaction to the substitute's report was anger: how could these students do this to me and to one another?

A New Paradigm

I could have spent the rest of the year mad at and frustrated by these kids. I could have analyzed why they had no social skills, dwelling on their very low socio-economic backgrounds. Or, I could have simply accepted my students as they were and devised ways to alleviate problems that were sure to come up. After much soul-searching, I realized the third option was my only real choice. Thus was born my problem-solving model.
I knew that the move from 8th grade to 9th grade is a difficult transition for most students. In our high school, the new freshmen are accustomed to having the junior high school principal read the school rules over the intercom every morning. So my students had never spent much time learning about democratic practices or decision making in the classroom. When they entered high school, they suddenly found that the onus for learning and responsible behavior fell squarely on their own shoulders. I wanted to give them the tools to deal with their new responsibilities.
When I returned to class on Monday morning, the students were very quiet. They clearly expected the usual lecture and reprimands. Instead, I used surprise. "Today," I announced, "we have an opportunity to solve a problem together." I then made this chart on the chalkboard:

Refusing to Play the Blame Game-table

Problem: Behavior with the substitute teacher

StudentsMs. DowdOther Factors
StudentsMs. DowdOther Factors
I asked the students to take five minutes to write about what they felt happened on Friday and what contribution each student had made to what happened. I also asked them if they had any ideas for solutions. "Today, you will need to share what you have written," I told them, "so be prepared." The only rule I imposed on this sharing was that each student was to focus on what he or she had done. I wanted them to begin to own their behavior.
Free writing had been part of our daily routine, but I had never used it for such a purpose. The class quieted down immediately and all began writing. As usual, I wrote along with them.
When I asked who would like to be the first to share, Noah, the class clown, eagerly volunteered. He had written a clever poem about how things were flying across the room when the sub was there. It lightened the mood. It created an opening for several other students to express how "cool" it was that people were throwing things. They even confirmed that someone's backpack got flushed down the toilet in the girl's bathroom.
I found it difficult to reserve judgment and not react, but I knew that if I fell into the trap of venting my anger, my whole plan would fail. So I held my tongue. I only spoke up when students pointed fingers at others. "No, what did you do?" I repeatedly asked. "Al will have a chance to talk about what Al did."

A Different Voice

When most of the boys had spoken, I had yet to hear from a single girl. So, as I had warned, I began to call on those who hadn't volunteered. The girls had very different stories to tell. They were angry with the boys' immature actions. They had tried to keep the group on task, but the boys were out of control. The girls feared that the entire group would be punished severely, as had happened in the past. As I had hoped, this problem-solving format allowed the girls to speak up in a safe way. It elicited other voices that otherwise may never have emerged.
I went on to refer to the chart on the chalkboard and again asked the students to identify how each of them had contributed to the problem. They owned up immediately, almost as though they were proud of their actions.
I then asked how the substitute teacher had contributed to the problem and also howI had contributed. A silence ensued; clearly this was a question they were not used to being asked. Finally, Megan read this from her journal:The sub didn't even try to keep control of us. Once, when Al threw something across the room and hit another kid in the head, the sub said "Nice shot." After a while, some junior football players stopped by to talk with him and he ignored us for the rest of the period.
Another student added that the sub couldn't find the lesson plans. "Maybe next time you could leave sub plans," he suggested.
Clearly the school had chosen the wrong substitute teacher. Knowing how difficult my students can be, I had painstakingly typed two pages of directions and left a pile of handouts. When I returned on Monday morning, the materials sat undisturbed on my desk. I promised the students I would look into it.
One insightful student made the lone contribution to the "Other Factors" column. He noted that they weren't used to being asked to control themselves; they were used to authority figures threatening them. In fact, some students said it made them nervous that the sub didn't follow through on his threats to kick people out.

A Breakthrough

When we moved on to the solutions, the students conceded that they could have been more helpful to the sub by telling him about activities that are part of our classroom routine. Others agreed that even if the sub couldn't find my lesson plans, they could have used the time to study. The students also agreed that they shouldn't have behaved any differently than they do when I am in the classroom. They admitted that they broke the "food rule" (students may bring food and drink into the classroom as long as they don't leave a mess or throw things). Those involved in throwing pumpkin seeds voluntarily gave up food privileges for a week.
This discussion was truly a breakthrough. Unlike any lecture I could have given, the discussion forced students to confront their own behavior and to contribute to a solution. When I admitted that I had a role in the problem and therefore would have a role in the solution, they appeared more trusting.
The establishment of a protocol to talk about problems openly, without fear of retribution from the teacher or peers, made a big difference. Students who had once remained silent—particularly the girls—began to speak up and get their needs met. Louder is better was no longer the norm. (The displeasure of peers carries much more weight than the displeasure of teachers.)
I tried this exercise again following a particularly frustrating lesson when I felt the students refused to listen to me. The lesson involved connecting words to art and included a brainstorming session. What emerged from the exercise was that, in my eagerness to have students take responsibility for their own learning, I was shoving an activity that they had no interest in down their throats. Because students in one of my other English sections had been enthusiastic about the topic, I assumed that these students would be as well.
Our consensus solution was this: We would create a unit on public speaking and debate—subjects that truly interested this group. Ironically, part of my master plan for the year was to allow students to work with me in developing an aspect of the curriculum. But I had intended to do this during the second half of the year, assuming they'd be ready by then. As it turned out, they were ready sooner than I expected. And they were serious. They were no longer tossing out off-the-wall comments and suggestions.
Since beginning the debate unit, the class has become focused and on task. Together we have established a rubric for a successful debate and we have begun a round of debates that will conclude with an outside panel of judges scoring the students.

A Misstep

The problem-solving model has not always worked. When I tried it with my other English section, the students resisted. They blamed other classmates and me for their own behavior. They were rude to me and to one another, often interrupting or talking among themselves while a classmate was speaking. When I admitted to being partly responsible for the problem, many of them launched into a scapegoating session. They told me everything they didn't like about me, my teaching, and the classroom.
My response was to try to justify my actions and defend my teaching style. The more I fell into this trap, the more frustrated I became. I looked around the class and noticed that several students had completely disengaged from the discussion. They were doing the very things we were addressing.
With despair, I stopped the activity for the day. When I thought about it that evening, I realized that I had skipped certain steps to save time. I hadn't required students to do the free writing—a time for reflection that allows even the most reluctant students to share their opinions. I hadn't insisted on hearing from everyone; I let some kids off the hook. Further, I wasn't specific enough in stating the problem and framing the activity. I made a leap of understanding about the exercise and the students didn't leap with me.
The next class period, I started the process again. I was more specific in outlining the guidelines and describing behavior that I considered acceptable and behavior that I didn't. This time, the process worked better.

Keys to Success

As we continue to use the exercise, students are becoming more comfortable with the concept of problem solving and more willing and able to see and own their behavior. Noah has even volunteered to facilitate the next problem-solving session.
What makes my students buy into this process? Above all, I am explicit with them about building social skills. Students are forthcoming because they know that everybody will have a chance to voice their opinion and that no opinion will be disregarded. They know, too, that their teacher is engaged in this process on an equal footing; I am not simply imposing a solution. Equally important, this model is visual, concrete, and has a distinct beginning, middle, and end.
Instead of making assumptions about why things have gone wrong, I let my students tell me, and I assume that they are honest. Most of the time, I am rewarded with a real solution to a problem. It is so easy to fall into a pattern of second-guessing student behavior instead of finding out what is really going on. This process has enabled me to enter the minds of my 9th graders, to view problems and solutions from a completely different perspective than I would have had I tackled the problem alone or with other adults. Every time we go through this exercise, I am surprised by factors I hadn't considered.
I have shared my problem-solving model with other members of my teaching team and with the social studies teacher, who now uses it regularly. I knew that if my students saw the process being used in other classrooms, they would respond even more favorably—and they have. We are asking our 14-year-olds to make a paradigm shift—a shift from being babysat and controlled in junior high to owning their behavior in high school. This is a tough transition for many students, but they are making slow but steady progress.

A Fruitful Investment

I am aware of the time this process takes. I know, however, that when students lack basic social and problem-solving skills, it will get in the way of curriculum work every time. When our classes go poorly, we can waste more time and energy blaming our students' upbringing, society, or even ourselves. I needed to get away from blame and find a new paradigm for problem solving.
I consider this activity a short-term investment of time for a long-term gain in decision-making ability and self-esteem. I hope it will help my students to see problems not as overwhelming obstacles but as something we can solve if we put our minds to it and work together.
Many educators complain that we are seemingly being asked to take on virtually the entire social development of young adults. I agree. But the unfortunate fact is that the students I work with are not getting this help anywhere else. Many come from families that lack problem-solving skills. Without these skills, these kids will never make it in this world.

JoAnne Dowd has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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