Lessons from Middle School: Group Work, Antonin Scalia, and Kindness

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I began teaching middle school two weeks ago. I am a technology education teacher which, yes, includes using the bandsaw, but also focuses on teaching students about the engineering design process. Because teamwork is an incredibly important real life skill, our curriculum includes many opportunities for group work.

In preparation for our first group project, I offered students the opportunity to provide me a list of who they would like in their group. I allowed them to also provide me with names of students they perhaps preferred not to work with. In most of my classes, the first list was far longer than the second, with the second typically only including one or two names.

In one class, this was not the case. About two thirds of the class had two lists: “People I Would Love to Work With” and “People I Can’t Work With.” The second averaged eight to ten names. It was heartbreaking.

Fortunately, this provided a teaching opportunity. We spent time watching Kid President, discussing the difference between “Can’t Work With” and “Don’t Prefer to Work With,” and then, building understanding. They had the opportunity to have deeper-than-surface level conversations with their peers about dreams and passions and the proudest moments of their lives, and by the end of our class period, they were sharing what they’d learned about their now new friends.

This past weekend, Antonin Scalia passed away. In many moments, I found myself reflecting on my classroom as I read Facebook status after Facebook status wishing the man good riddance – a man who had served our country in one of the greatest and longest capacities of all for many, many years. I found myself reflecting on my classroom as I read about Republicans promising to block the President’s nominee long before any names had been posed to them. It was like aha moment after aha moment as I realized that my student’s perceived inability to work with each other is perhaps a reflection of our culture.

I once wanted to be a lawyer and politician. I was interested in studying politics because I found it fascinating that there was a field where no one was ever right or wrong. Where there could be myriad different views on an issue, none of them any more or less correct than the other. I loved politics because in discussing them with others, I learned part of their story. What was – and is – beautiful to me about politics is that our views are shaped by where we’ve been, who we’ve been impacted by, what we’ve experienced. What we believe is the culmination of who we are. And if we are willing to listen — truly LISTEN — to others, we have the opportunity to learn about what has shaped them. We have the opportunity to build understanding. I have always found that to be very cool.

But this is not the reality of political discourse today. Today, the political conversation looks a lot like my one class. One glance at your Facebook timeline, and I know you’ll agree. As adults, we just aren’t doing a very good job of modeling for our children that it is possible to disagree with someone — even fundamentally and on big things — and still work together. Instead, we call people idiots on Facebook walls, post nasty grams about candidates who believe different things than we do, and wish “good riddance” to a Supreme Court justice. We applaud Republicans blocking a nomination before it even gets started or the President vowing to veto a bill before it has even been passed. Both sides are guilty.

Just because someone does not hold the same political views as you does not make them a bad person. It doesn’t even make them wrong. It simply means that their life has unfolded differently than yours — they’ve had different experiences, met different people, found different priorities. Perhaps instead of being quick to judgment, or worse, hatred, we should be finding opportunities to listen. We should be asking questions with the desire to learn, rather than with the intention to poke holes in their beliefs. We should be modeling for children that it is possible — and normal! — to have friends with whom you disagree. Or, at the very least, that you do not have to agree with someone or be best friends to have a respectful working relationship with them.

Here’s the Kid President video we watched last week in my class. I especially like numbers 4, 6, 7, 14. It’s okay to disagree, but it’s not okay to be mean. Kindness is universal, and compassion doesn’t require agreement. It simply requires respect.

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