My Two Cents On Positive Peer Intervention

June 12, 2010 at 12:34 am Leave a comment

It has taken me many years to get comfortable with the fact that students will not always get along. Adults disagree and even get mad at each other, but we seem to think that our students shouldn’t.

The reason is because it’s hard for a teacher to draw a line between healthy and unhealthy student disagreement. Unfortunately if we don’t draw a line we are teaching students that every disagreement is wrong. We make them feel like they must choose between fighting or never disagreeing. And the next thing you know, students are fighting. Because agreeing all the time is impossible. I often fail to agree with the people I love the most.

It’s not disagreement that’s the problem. It’s how students disagree. By allowing our students to disagree, we teach them that it’s possible to do so without fighting. But this is difficult. It is painful to hear a student tell another, “You are wrong! You don’t know what you’re talking about!” We’d like all the students to explain themselves calmly and rationally. But if they don’t, it’s okay. What if the person they are talking to really is wrong?

We have to draw the “disagreement line” at being mean, and finding this line might take some trial and error. I often have to stand by some pretty ugly fights because students need to practice arguing without insulting or threatening someone, and they’re not good at it at first. As students disagree, I watch and sometimes chime in. There are also times I have to remind them to talk it out and disagree instead of tattling.

An interaction this morning reminded me what I’m looking for…

A student came to me as students were milling around during breakfast. She told me quite openly that people were making fun of another student by putting her name in the sentences they do for Writing HW. I asked who was doing it. She said it was one of the boys in the homeroom. I said, “Oh man. Did you talk to him about it? And tell him that it was wrong?” The boy could hear us. My tattler said yes, but quickly turned to the boy and told him again that she didn’t like what he was doing. He told her to shut up. Of course he did. I told the boy to watch his words because people were just telling him how they felt. But my intervention wasn’t really necessary because other students immediately chimed in to intervene as well. Another student said, “Yeah, that’s wrong. You shouldn’t do that.” And – this is the part that’s exciting – the boy was put in his place! He moved away from everyone, clearly upset.

I should be clear. This was not a warm, fuzzy moment. The students were loud. All of them were unhappy. It’s not the exact way I would want every interaction to go. I mean, the boy said shut up which is really really not okay. But it was a student-initiated discussion. Used for good. Not evil. That is progress!

I am really working hard to give students the space to disagree. It might take sessions of listening to them yell and argue, but it’s better than forcing them to hide the disagreements from me. I plan to teach how to disagree the same way I teach math: through authentic experience.

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