A Safe and Orderly Environment

John Ash teaches eighth-grade social studies in a Michigan public school. His students are similar to other students around the country. They talk about clothes, video games, and the opposite sex. They also put each other down. "Klutz," "homo," and "retard" are a few of the more popular words they use to ridicule one another.

Tired of battling the verbal violence, John recently created a plan to eliminate put-downs in his classroom. In each of his six classes, he taught his students about put-downs. He instructed them to take notes as he placed a definition of "put-down" on the board. He lectured about what put-downs were and what they were not. He shared and solicited examples of put-downs. He led a discussion on what it felt like to both send and receive them.

Twenty minutes into each hour, the pop quiz was announced. Students were instructed to number their papers from one to ten. The first question required students to define "put-down." The remaining nine questions were true or false, requiring students to decide whether or not the examples John provided were put-downs. Following the quiz, papers were exchanged, corrected, and turned in.

To begin the second half of each class period, John passed out a handful of paper slips to each student. He instructed them to use the slips to write put-downs about classmates, about themselves, and even about him. He assured them that these put-downs would be anonymous and would never be seen by anyone. He also explained that this was their last chance to get put-downs out of their systems, because beginning the next day verbal violence would no longer be allowed in the classroom. John allowed five minutes' writing time and then collected the slips in a large paper grocery sack.

Students watched as he stapled the bag shut. He then led them out the door, down the hall, and outside to where the cooks emptied the garbage. With his students standing in a circle, John held the bag of put-downs over a burn barrel and set it on fire. Students watched as their put-downs went up in smoke.

After everyone returned to the classroom, John told his students that they had just witnessed a Viking funeral. Since the put-downs were now dead, he explained, they would no longer make an appearance in the classroom.

The Viking funeral helped reduce put-downs among John's eighth graders. It did not eliminate them. So in the days that followed, he employed a Teacher Talk skill designed to reduce put-downs even further. When he heard a put-down, he called it by name.

"That's a put-down," he would say. "We don't use put-downs in eighth grade. What we do here is tell the other person how we feel and what we want to have happen. Use that pattern when speaking to the person you want to put down. What do you really want to tell that person? Do you need help?"

Without exception, John responded to put-downs identically: "That's a put-down. We don't use put-downs in eighth grade. What we do here is tell the other person how we are feeling and what we want to have happen. Can you handle that, or do you need help?"

In less than a month, John had drastically reduced the incidents of verbal violence in his classroom. Instead of "Hey retard, you belong in Mrs. Olson's room with the other retards!", he soon had his students saying, "I'd appreciate it if you didn't bump my desk on the way to the pencil sharpener. It's irritating and I'd like it if you were more careful."
"Knock it off, dog breath" was replaced by "I don't like it when you put your foot on my desk."

I was intrigued when I heard this story. It obviously took a major commitment in terms of time and effort on John's part to affect student behavior in this area - time taken away from the social studies curriculum. Why was he willing to do it, I wondered. So I called him and asked him. His answer surprised me.

"I did it because of the effective schools research," he informed me. "Are you aware of the number one tenet in the effective schools literature?"

I was aware of it: The number one tenet is creating a safe and orderly environment.

"Some people think 'safe' refers only to physical safety," he said. "Partly it does mean that. I have to provide a safe physical environment, or only minimal learning will take place. But it also means emotional safety. I don't allow students to beat one another up with their fists, and I'm not going to let them do it with their words either. If I don't provide an environment where students are safe emotionally, how much learning do you think will occur?"

John Ash still teaches eighth grade. His students still talk about clothes, video games, and the opposite sex, but they no longer put one another down. Instead, they have learned to communicate honestly and openly. They risk saying what they really mean. They can afford to take risks because they feel safe. After all, they are learning in a safe and orderly environment.