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The Best/Worst Class

by Chick Moorman
ipp57@aol.com

(Names and places have been changed in the article below for reasons that will soon become apparent.)

Mary Sutherland teaches science to seventh graders in a large suburban school district in Michigan. Like many Michigan teachers, Mary had attended one of my "Teacher Talk" seminars and heard me suggest that they add "act as if" to their teacher talk repertoire. When students look up from their desks and whine, "I can't do it" or "I don't get it," I recommend teachers reply, "Act as if you can," "Pretend like you know how," or "Play like you are an expert."

While this strategy doesn't work with every student and it doesn't work every time, it does help many youngsters get off their "I can't" stance and take action. Acting as if, gets students moving, gets them doing something. Helpful correction and direction by the teacher follows.

Over the past few years, teachers have shared with me how they have used this strategy successfully with students who were working on long division, dividing fractions, and looking up material on the Internet. Educators have reported success with 6-year olds tying shoes, sophomores demonstrating neck springs in physical education class, and a middle schooler preparing to give a demonstration speech. Although the applications of this technique have been as varied and as personal as the teachers who have used it, no one has applied "act as if" in quite the same way as Mary Sutherland.

Mary's first-hour science class is her favorite. The students in that first-hour, homeroom class are challenging and assertive. Mary enjoys both their energy and their spirit.

Most of Mary's first hour students move on to social studies class during their second period. Occasionally, her first hour students complain about second hour and their social studies teacher, saying, "She's boring," and "She doesn't seem like she enjoys teaching." One youngster asked, "Would go talk to her and tell her to make class more interesting?"

During these times, Mary simply listens and reflects the feelings and content of her student's comments without taking a position one way or the other. She listens as they vent and attempts neither to encourage nor discourage the remarks.

Mary has a third-hour planning period, which she often spends in the teacher's lounge enjoying coffee as she relaxes, plans, or corrects papers. Also having a third hour planning time is Mrs. Millman, the social studies teacher about whom her first-hour students frequently complain.

Guess what Mrs. Millman, the social studies teacher, does during her planning period. That's right. She complains about her second-hour class. Mrs. Millman does not share the same degree of affection for the students Mary has first hour and she lets her opinion be known to anyone present in the teacher's lounge following second hour. "How do you stand them?" she once asked Mary. "They are so noisy and can't concentrate for any length of time."

It didn't take Mary long to realize she was caught in a squeeze play. First hour she often heard from students how awful their second-hour teacher was and third hour she frequently heard from the teacher how awful her second-hour students were. After a few days of this cross-venting, Mary realized she had to do something. She figured she had two choices. She could work with her students or she could work with the teacher. She chose the students.

"I took a workshop a couple of weeks ago," Mary explained to her first-hour class the next day. "The presenter told us about a strategy he called, ACT AS IF. He said that if you ACT AS IF you can, you can actually alter they way you look at the world and often change certain situations for the better." Mary gave a few examples and then monitored a lengthy discussion on the topic.

At the conclusion of the discussion, Mary challenged her students to use the strategy on Mrs. Millman, second hour. "What do you think would happen," she asked, "if you all went in there for two weeks and acted as if her class was the most interesting class you ever attended?

The student responses came quickly.

"We couldn't do that."
"That's impossible"
"You don't know how boring it is in there."
"She'll never change!"

"It's just two weeks," Mary explained. "Maybe it won't make a difference, but at least we can check out this technique and see if it would work in this impossible case. How about doing it for just two weeks?" The students resisted and Mary persisted. Eventually the students agree to go along with the plan for two weeks as part of a science experiment. They would go to their second hour class acting as if they loved it for ten school days, documenting both their individual and the teacher's reactions and behaviors.

Before they began, each student described in writing how he presently viewed the class. Each student detailed the intervention she planned on making (acting as if she liked the class) and wrote a hypothesis concerning the experience, predicting the outcome. The acting as if strategy was discussed and role-played. Students decided that acting as if you liked a class meant you sat up straight, gave solid eye contact, smiled at the teacher, asked related questions and participated during discussions. It also meant doing all homework assigned by the teacher.

At the end of the first week, students reported no change in their views of the class. The teacher seemed basically the same, and the class was still boring. Several students did mention though that they did better on the chapter test because they had been paying closer attention to the lecture and discussions.

During the second week, Mrs. Millman brought to school Chinese souvenirs and artifacts from her home. "My second-hour students seem to be behaving better," she told Mary during their Monday planning time. "I think I'll take a risk with them and do a couple of special things this week and see how it goes."

On Wednesday of the second week, Mrs. Millman brought in Chinese finger-food she had prepared at home and fortune cookies. The class asked related questions about the food and continued to act as if they were interested. Mrs. Millman noted the changed behavior and continued to mention it in the teachers' lounge.

At the end of the two week trial period, students voted to extend the experiment for another week. "Mrs. Millman seems a lot nicer," one student offered. Many students agreed that the class was getting more interesting. The students reported that Mrs. Millman was smiling more in class and had stopped yelling.

At the end of the third week the students turned in their individual science reports on ACT AS IF. All reported that the strategy helped change their social studies teacher's behavior.

In the staff lounge, Mrs. Millman was heard to announce, "I've finally turned the corner with that second hour class. It took me a while, but I finally got them where I want them."

To this date, Mary Sutherland has not confessed her efforts with the science project to her colleague, Mrs. Millman. That's probably just as well.