How Many?

They always seem a little surprised that I can do it. I strike up a conversation with a student before school, someone unknown, someone who’s caught my attention. We chat a bit, and then I ask the question: “If it’s not too forward, can I ask you how many referrals you got last year?” Today’s student, E, raised his eyes to the ceiling as he began count, but I didn’t let him continue. “It’s okay,” I explained. “The number is not the point. The question is the point.” He looked at me with a bit of confusion. “Did you notice I didn’t ask you, ‘Did you get any referrals last year?’ but rather, ‘How many referrals did you get?’, which is a different question entirely.” I paused. “Do you want to know how I knew you’d gotten referrals even though I’ve never seen you before in my life?”

Later, when E is in class with me, I recalled for the class, with his permission, the conversation. They were intrigued and asked if I could do it again.

“Really? You want me to put you on the spot like this?”

“Yes, we don’t mind!”

I pointed to a boy who had already been quite chatty. “You’ve gotten a few.” I pointed to a girl who, despite her best effort to hold it in, had displayed a bit of attitude. “You got a few.” I mentioned two or three other students, and I was not wrong with a single one of them.

“Do you want to know how I do it? Do you want to know why I can confidently say that I could walk down the all on other team and tell you who’d gotten referrals, that I could go up to the sixth grade hall and make bets on who would get referrals within a few weeks?” They all wanted to know, so I explained the simple fact: “You are constantly, constantly communicating. With everything you do.” I glanced around the classroom and created a list on the fly: “The way you’re sitting in your desk communicates,” I said to a young man who was slouched in his desk. “The way you carried on at the beginning of class, before we really got started, communicated,” I said to the girl who was arguing loudly at the start of the period. “The way you wear your clothes,” I said to a girl who obviously takes a great deal of pride in her physical appearance.

“Every little thing about every one of you communicates, some of it positive, some of it negative. Some of it you’re aware of; most of it, I would guess, you’re not aware of.” And so many of them are not. They don’t see that they’re communicating disrespect with their body language and get upset when a teacher calls them on out on it. They don’t see when they’re communicating apathy by the simple way that they hold themselves. They think they’re riddles wrapped in mysteries, but so much of it is just so obvious.

“Are you saying you know everything about us?” one girl asked.

“Certainly not. I’m only making inferences based on what I see, inferences based on past experiences. I don’t know why you all do the things you do.” That was a bit of a lie: I don’t know about the specifics for this or that student, but I know many of the contributing factors.

Every year, I have this same conversation. Every year, I have the same hope that I can help them change.

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