[Editor’s note: Ms. Aha-Moment is a third-year ESL teacher in an elementary school in Brooklyn.]
I taught my first year in the New York City public school system at an elementary school in a hardscrabble neighborhood of the South Bronx. My self-contained ESL class consisted of twenty-six students, bridging 2nd and 3rd grade. As in many classrooms throughout the city, the children who entered my classroom brought with them an array of linguistic, academic and social issues.
Fresh out of graduate school, I imagined my class would be a Community of Learners, a circle of polite and happy children interacting seated on the rug. While the majority of my students displayed typical, manageable behavior in the classroom, I had my hands full with no less than five Serious Disrupters. All boys, the Serious Disrupters seemed bent upon sabotaging every attempt I made to create a Community of Learners by engaging in a variety of activities such as, chronic interruption, name-calling, cursing, stealing from, and punching or body-slamming other students.
Veteran teachers advised.
“Don’t smile until Christmas!”
“Use a behavior chart.”
“Write a note home in the agenda.”
“Call his parents!”
“Reward good behavior with stickers.”
It was easy not to smile, but I felt guilty about punishing my well-behaved kids with a sour face everyday.
I created a stoplight behavior chart, which worked with the majority of the class. It angered the Serious Disrupters, however, when, lo and behold, their clothespins landed on red almost every day.
I wrote many notes home in the agenda, with almost zero response from the parents of the Disrupters.
I listed the phone numbers of the Disrupters in the address book of my cell phone, calling them directly from the classroom when a child’s behavior crossed the line. If I could reach a parent, the disruptive child was chastened for the remainder of the day.
Reward stickers were effective… until I found myself peeling them off of desks, chairs, and the glass tray of the overhead projector.
As I struggled to maintain a calm classroom through the first half of the year, I voiced my frustration to a literacy coach. Her message of self-preservation hit home. “You have to decide the kind of classroom you want to come into everyday,” she said. “Sit the kids down and have a serious talk with them.”
I had tried it before, I could try it again. I would repeat my refrain that in Ms.A’s class we are friends who learn with, from, and about each other. Making the message stick was the problem. Experience had taught me that English Language Learners of all ages need more than words. They need visuals, they need something large and tangible; something that connects to them, each of them, personally. It would help, I thought, if there were some kind of hands-on element that would help cement the idea of community and friendship their minds.
In graduate school, a professor had once posed the question of how teachers could promote peacemaking in the classroom. While conflict arises in all classrooms, the mix of nationalities found in English as a Second Language classrooms, in particular, provides ample opportunities for cultures and personalities to clash. My professor’s question was now keeping me awake at night, as I fretted over ways to make peacemakers out of my warring schoolchildren.
Spring arrived with flowers and green leaves sprouting along the sidewalks of the South Bronx. Mimicking the season, I decided I would make a tree, a tree representing peace, in the classroom. I sat the children down and we had our serious talk about the choices we all make when someone does something we do not like. We can strike out. We can ignore unwanted behavior. We can use our words to tell the offender that we are not happy. We can bring it up to an adult, if necessary. A smart person, a strong person, does not choose striking out. It takes more strength, I counseled, to find peaceful methods to resolve a conflict. For the remainder of the school year, we were going to practice being Peacemakers in our classroom.
On chart paper I drew the trunk of a tree, branches extending up and out and wrote the title, “The Peace Tree.” I cut leaf shapes out of green construction paper, large enough to write a sentence on. I told the children that they would get the chance to show that they could be Peacemakers by nominating other children who had done something to keep, or make peace in the classroom. I would write the event and names of the children involved on a leaf, and attach it to the Peace Tree. When the tree grew one hundred leaves the class would earn an ice cream party. However, I stipulated that every student must have at least three leaves on the Peace Tree.
It started with friends nominating friends. Mariela nominated Elisa for lending her a pencil. Ivan nominated William for sharing his chips. Maria nominated Gabriella for lending her crayons. The tree soon attracted the attention of the five Serious Disruptors. Swept into the peacemaking spirit, they began to gingerly report kind actions and averted conflicts. Michael nominated Jose for apologizing after bumping into him. Justin nominated Eduardo because he skipped him in line, and then gave him back his spot.
I nominated children as well, vetting out examples of peacemaking behavior from precarious alliances. Felipe and Amari each got a Peacekeeper leaf for using words instead of their fists in a dispute over a basketball during gym. Nelson got one for staying in line and walking quietly to the lunchroom.
The Peace Tree grew as every couple of days we added leaves at the end of the day, assessing how coolheaded and accommodating we had been to each other. The children proudly showed the Peace Tree to everyone who visited our classroom. By June our tree had sprouted one hundred leaves, representing the peacemaking behavior of every child in the classroom. Our goal of becoming a community accomplished, we had our ice cream party complete with chocolate syrup, whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles.
As a parting gift, the mother of one of the five Serious Disrupters gave me a beautiful houseplant with dark shiny leaves and delicate white flowers. After I got home and unpacked my car, I took a closer look at the label stuck in the plant’s soil. It was a Peace Lily.
Two years later the Peace Lily thrives on my windowsill. I hope that the peacemaking spirit continues to thrive in the hearts of the children I met my first year teaching in the Bronx.