The Desks Incident
This is a story of student leadership in the realest sense.
Last week my students had social
studies testing all morning. By
the end of the day, I guess they were a little burnt out. My class (the one tends to be a very
well-behaved bunch of students) came into the room in a small uproar. I have a policy with them that they
need to line up outside the door, enter the room quietly, and sit down. If this is done well, the class gets
the next five minutes to socialize. (See my article, “Ask the Kids,” in Teacher
Magazine for more on this practice.)
If they do not enter quietly, I often allow them to line up outside and
walk in again—for a second shot at earning the social time.
Now, on this particular day, the
desks were still in rows from testing, instead of the groups of four they are
used to. When the students came
in, they didn’t know where to sit.
I said, “Find a seat anywhere for now.” On most days, that would have sufficed.
man, I hate the desks this way!
Can’t we sit in our groups?” a student yelled.
answered another student indignantly. “We should keep it this way. Every day ‘til the end of the year!”
some other students shouted.
other students cut in. “Quiet for the five minutes!”
Gradually the class became quiet,
waiting to see what I would do.
Even in their silence, I was
slightly shocked at the level of tension they were displaying. I didn’t think it had so much to do
with the desks, but I knew we needed our usual structure back. “On a scale of one to four, how do you
think the entrance was?” I asked, as usual.
“One!” they groaned, all in
agreement. “Can we do it again?”
“Yes,” I answered calmly. “Here’s what I want you to do. Each of you, move your desk back into
group formation. Then line up
outside and we’ll enter again.” I
thought these were reasonable directions and didn’t expect any fuss in
return. I was wrong, however.
“What?! I ain’t moving any desks!”
cried a girl, who is usually very well behaved, but does have a complaining
streak that kicks in on occasion.
“It’s not fair! We didn’t sit in these desks like
this! We shouldn’t have to move
them!” another student chimed in.
Soon half the class was complaining
about moving the desks, while the other half was watching, wondering what would
happen next. I was surprised by
the behavior, which I know I showed on my face, and was fighting back rare
feelings of disgust. I could have
gotten ugly at that moment. No
matter what was going on with them, my students knew better than to act that
Suddenly, Kino (a pseudonym) stood
up from his chair. “Oh my GOD!” he
said. “This is ridiculous!” He forcefully moved his desk 90 degrees
and pushed it into the desk in front of it. The whole class watched without saying a word. Then Tyshawn, one of the tougher
students in the class stood up, shaking his head at the rest of the class.
“Come on, guys,” he said quietly,
and moved his desk too. Within a
heartbeat, the whole class moved their desks into their usual formation without
another word about it. They lined up outside and entered quietly. During their
five minutes break, I found out there had been major drama in the lunch room:
kids were throwing bottles at one another and there had been no adult
For some reason, this incident—the
one with the desks—stayed on my mind for a while. On the one hand, I had trouble getting over the gall of the
students’ refusal to move the desks… on the other hand, how remarkable was
Kino’s moment of leadership? While
the class was stuck thinking, “Are we going to be good right now or bad?” Kino rose above it and did what he believed was
right. His influence over the rest
of the class was powerful, and no one questioned his choice. Finally, how much better was it for all
of us that leadership—and, frankly, authority—emerged at that moment from
within the class rather than from me, the teacher.
Leadership in middle school is
about how kids position them selves and make their voices heard in their
various communities (school, home, church, neighborhood, etc.). School may be one of the most important
communities for kids, because it is where so much of their peer-to-peer
Student-centered classrooms, while they open the door to the full range
of adolescent behavior (more than a lot of people want to be bothered with),
also give kids real opportunities to be leaders.
I have been thinking of talking to
Kino about what he did that day and why I thought he displayed leadership—but I
don’t want to ruin it by putting the Teacher Stamp of Approval on it! I know he didn’t do it because of me,
which made it all the more real.
[image credit: www.monitorequipinc.com/ cdf_desk_chair.JPG]