Sensei Plays The Quiet Game

Dear Readers,

Monday was a frustrating day.  As many of you may recall, I am deep in the midst of a three week long middle school language arts substitute teaching assignment (Or TWLMSLASTA for short), and I had run into some pretty insurmountable problems.  31 of them, in fact.  All of them 8th Grade.  So yesterday, I took the advice of one of my other masks, and laid out my issues on the line.  I came up with some unorthodox ideas, and I thought you might be interested to know the results.  As always, the names in my stories are (hilariously) changed to protect the anonymity of the subjects.

The bell rang, signifying the end of my precious moments with my wide-eyed eager 7th graders.  Like the stroke of midnight affects gourds in a Cinderella tale, the last period was ushered in with four mellow digital tones that would cause my dutiful, intelligent, and smartly dressed middle schoolers to transform into obnoxious, squealing proto-high school rats.

 But today I was prepared.  Today I was going to be red paint, not a wall trying to hold in Buddhist tea (!

They filed in, the sensible, seven shushers first, as always.  If you were to take those few precious moments of passing period as a snapshot, you might think the class was idyllic.  Quiet work from the board(called Bellwork) commences, but I know I can’t let my game falter yet.  Moments tick by, and finally the tardy bell rings.  The class door bursts open as fully two thirds of the class jams themselves into the room, two dozen teenagers breathlessly calling some version of, “I made it!  I made it!  I’m not Tardy!   You saw!”

It isn’t worth the fight to point out that their mass exodus takes almost 30 seconds to complete, well after the tardy bell stops ringing, and that each of them should, in fact, be counted late for their mass laziness.  But today isn’t about battles.  Today is about flow.

I ask them to take their seats, skipping the usual reminder that Bellwork is to be completed silently in order to help focus students minds on language arts class.  Instead, I begin to circle the room, and rather than demanding that they be quiet, I am quiet myself.  I remember that for the better part of this assignment I have been trying to get these 31 teenagers to shut up and listen to me, rather than paying any attention to them.  I let the five minute Bellwork period pass in chaotic cacophony and I catch snippets of conversations: break-ups, sporting events, one reference to the presidential debates, and  more conversation than I would have imagined between neighbors asking how to do the Bellwork.

This feels stupid.  I look around and without my constant prodding few of the kids have even started.  Maybe this won’t work after all.  But, I have committed, for one class period, to be liquid.

The Bellwork is simple: Write an introduction for yourself that convinces a reader that you are someone worth listening too (We call that building an ethos).

I clear my throat, and speak loudly, “Who would like to share their bellwork?”

No one even looks up.  I can see two girls near the back trading lip gloss, several of the boys on the left side of the classroom are playing with a folded paper football, and the middle of the room is a wasteland of passed notes, pen-graffiti covered forearms, and half-open backpacks.

Then, in the dead middle of the room, I see a smallish Latino boy who we will call “Domingo” running up and down his row, pausing at each desk to push his butt towards the owners face and gleefully shout, “I farted you!”

I watch him approaching the front of the room: “I farted you!”  “I farted you!”  “I farted you!”

I know Domingo, who is one of my most disruptive and immature students, uses humor to cover the fact that he has a very hard time understanding formal English because it is not his first language and is rarely spoken in his home.  His cousin is in this class, and they often speak to each other only in Spanish and frequently Domingo has to ask his cousin to translate assignments for him.  I feel like I could help him, if he would listen, but when he feels intimidated, his fallback position is to make the most immature joke he can.

“I farted you!”

This is the moment.  Persuasion is everywhere, says the Wizard.

I take a deep breath, and point to Domingo, smiling brightly, and say in a booming voice, “I farted you!”

The class goes dead silent.  I continue to grin though I feel ridiculous, as Domingo stares at me with his mouth hanging open.

I clear my throat and continue, “I farted you.  That is an excellent example of persuasion.  Which of the three parts of persuasion is Domingo using?  Ethos, pathos, or logos?”

The silence stretches, and then one of the lip gloss girls calls out, “I think it is pathos.  Right?  I mean…cause it is funny.”

The class laughs, and I nod, “That’s great!  Pathos cause it is funny.  Domingo is using humor.  What is he using humor to persuade us to do?”

One of the paper-football boys raises his hand.  I acknowledge him, “So…I guess it would be like…he wants to distract us…right?  I mean…cause like…the humor makes us not pay attention…”

I nod, “Right!  Humor is a great way to distract someone.  Domingo is really good at using humor as a pathos, wouldn’t you agree?”

The class nods.

“Would anyone else say he is one of the funniest kids in class?”

Murmurs of agreement.

“So then…Domingo used the pathos of humor to craft himself an ethos.”

Domingo stares wide eyed at me as he slides into his desk, “I did?”

I nod to him and say, “You bet you did.  What would we call this ethos?”

Someone from the center wasteland calls out, “Class clown?”

I put my finger on my nose, “Right!  Everyone would believe that Domingo did something funny in class right?  Whether you saw it or not?”

I can see people nodding, and one student raises their hand, “So…you mean that we can use pathos and even logos to help us make an ethos?”

I nod, “Exactly right.  Ethos is just a fancy way of saying reputation.  I mean, it gets more complicated than that, but that is the first step to understanding it.”

A girl raises her hand, “Oh…then I need to redo my Bellwork, can we have extra time?”

I feel a little stunned and I nod, “Sure…”

The chaos resumes.  Noise level jumps to lunch-room levels bordering on playground deafening, and the trade of basic supplies resumes once more: pens, paper, lip gloss, and yu-gi-oh cards flow freely.  But I notice that about half the students are writing now, spirals open, and, as I pass the back desk perch of my two most notorious trouble maker girls, I hear the ringleader ask her crew, “So guys, listen to this…what kinda ethos is this?”

The raging rapids are still rapids, but today, since I am not a stone in their path, but rather a tiny drop of red paint mixed among them, those raging rapids are just the slightest bit pink.

I have never felt more accomplished in my life.


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