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Every Classroom Needs a No Put-Down Rule

by Jane Califf

Sooner or later, teachers in public school through college hear racial epithets, sexist remarks and other types of put-downs in their classrooms. This isn't surprising. Put-downs have always been a part of our country's culture. Currently, for example, the term “illegal alien” makes it easier to look down upon and exploit foreign workers instead of understanding the desperate economic, political and social conditions in their own country which lead them to come here.


In my teaching experience, nothing short of an all-out effort by the teacher to create a positive, supportive classroom atmosphere in which students listen to and respect each other will solve this problem. Put-downs do not just go away on their own. One feeds another. Students will not feel free to speak up, to express their opinions, will be ever on guard to protect themselves from abuse. Students who tend to make negative comments about others will be waiting for the next opportunity to show themselves better than someone else. This kind of combative, defensive setting, no matter at what level of intensity, takes up energy and thought that distract students from an enthusiastic search for knowledge.


The development of this positive classroom atmosphere presupposes teachers who do not ridicule their students to make them pay attention or behave, but who search for ways to build up their confidence and self-esteem so they want to cooperate.


Practical suggestions


To implement the No Put-Down Rule in the classroom the teacher must clearly set the tone as the term begins. Students must come to understand why this rule is important. To this end, the teacher initiates a class discussion in which the following point in emerges:


We are all here to learn. We cannot concentrate if we are worried that someone will make fun of us. We won't ask the questions we need to ask to understand the lessons. We won't feel free to express our opinions which could help others better understand a problem. We will be nervous, and then it is hard to learn.


At this point, you can say, “We need rules which will help you to learn, and I want you to decide among yourselves which ones would be the best.”

In my current work as a literacy teacher for 17- to 21-year olds in an alternative high school, I divide the class into groups of three and have them suggest at least two rules. A recorder writes them down and everyone in each small group signs the paper. (This help students get to know each other's names.)


All of these suggestions are put on chart paper, the class votes, and the recommendations with the most votes become the rules. Teachers can propose rules too.  For example, when a group says, “Listen to the teacher,” I always say, “What about listening to each other? When you speak, don't you want other students to listen to you?” Invariably everyone agrees.


I carefully print out the agreed-to class rules on a large posterboard. It hangs on the wall all year. When a rule is broken, I simply point to the chart and say to the student, you broke your class rule number ____. Knowing the rules were created by their class, offending students are more ready to cooperate than if they were only my rules. From time to time during the term, we evaluate the rules to see if they are working. If not, we may make changes or decide how to better carry them out. As the days go by, I am constantly on the alert for any hurtful remarks or harmful looks. I tell my students they cannot even roll their eyes at anyone or exchange looks with a friend that put down a third person. In extreme cases, I have sent young children to another class while I discuss the child's problem with other students and how we can help him or her when he or she returns.


During class discussions, students may strongly disagree with fellow classmates, and express their disapproval by making inappropriate remarks. If that happens, I not only point to the rule that was broken, but I remind them:


We don't have to agree with everyone, but we have to listen not just to the teacher, but to each other. Everyone has important information and experiences that they should share. The teacher doesn't know everything, and we can all learn together. If you don't agree with someone's opinion, you cannot say oh, you are all wrong or that's a stupid idea. You can only say, I don't agree with you because, or my opinion is different. As we read about and hear different views, we are better able to reach an intelligent solution to a problem.


I believe that teachers have the right to express their opinions too, as long as they do not impose them on their students. A teacher who expresses an opinion on an issue legitimates the idea that having an opinion is important. A teacher who also listens respectfully to students views and insist on everyone else listening too, creates the opportunity for a free flow of ideas which is essential for informed learning.


In his book, Creative Conflict Resolution: More than 200 Activities for Keeping Peace in the Classroom, William Kreidler suggests that teachers brainstorm with their classes for loaded words and put-downs followed by such questions as, “How do you think they make people feel?” Then He suggests that the class list “put-ups” (supportive things to say) and discuss them: “How would these affirming words and phrases make someone feel? What would be the effect on our class if we used these phrases instead of put-downs?”


With adult literacy students who continue to make negative remarks (which is rare), or with teenagers who are more prone to “dissing” others, I tell them to leave the room and later I go out in the hall and discuss with them how to improve their behavior. Below are two specific examples of how I have dealt with put-downs.


Elementary School


I once had a job in a Cultural Enrichment Program in which I would go into various classes once a week to prepare them for performers who would come into their schools, and I would write lesson ideas for teachers related to these performances.


In one fifth-grade class it was difficult to get anywhere because there was a “cootie girl,” Maryann, whom students were concentrating on more than my lessons. She was an outcast. Anyone else could become a cootie girl by the following process: if Child #1 is a carrier, this meant that she herself could not be a cootie girl, but she could create another one by first touching Maryann and I quickly touching Child #2 who remained a cootie person for at least a day. The tension around who would be the next was in the air. The teacher kept telling the children to leave her alone, as I did, but it didn't help. After a while, Maryann refused to come to school.


I suggested that the teacher, Mrs. Brown, and I talk over this problem and try to find a solution. We arrived at a plan, and the next day, I discussed the situation with the class. I said, I really feel badly for Maryann. I know she is called the “cootie girl,” and she has no friends. Children make fun of her. Now she doesn't even bother to come to school and stays home day after day with nothing to do. Why, she may never come back to school and won't learn what she needs to know as a grown up. How would you feel if you were in her shoes? The children began to look sad. Most agreed it would feel terrible to be left out all the time.


I asked who would like to be on a committee to figure out how to get Maryann back. A number of hands flew up, and I chose three well-behaved children and three children who picked on her so as to give the latter a chance to redeem themselves.


At our first meeting one child said that Mrs. Brown's birthday was coming up, and they wanted to have a surprise party for her. “We can also make a welcome back Maryann party,” he suggested. Another child said, “We can make a sign that says that.” The decision was shared with the other children who agreed.


Meanwhile, Mrs. Brown called Maryann's mother and encouraged her to send her child back to school. Her first day back, the children tried to be nice to her. I took her aside and taught her how to make an origami cup that holds water. I told her that the teacher’s birthday was coming up, and it was going to be her job to stand up in front of the class and teach everyone to make the cup. At first, she was frightened, but we roll-played how to do it many times until she felt confident. (The idea here was to destroy her Image as a “cootie girl” by having her touch children's paper and hands to teach them this skill.)


On the day of the party, Maryann was overwhelmed to see the sign “Welcome Back Maryann” next to one that said “Happy Birthday Mrs. Brown.” I told the class that Maryann you how to make a cup that held water and that she could teach them to make one. They were very impressed to see her make one, fill it with water, and show that it didn't leak.


She, Mrs. Brown and I went around the room helping the children make them. Those who learn quickly helped others. There was real excitement as children tested their cups with water. Mrs. Brown said, “Let's give Maryann a round of applause for teaching us this new skill.” And everyone clapped.


About a week later, Mrs. Brown ask Maryann how she was feeling about class. “The children are nice to me now,” she replied with a smile.


Mrs. Brown and I felt great at solving this problem with the help of the class. From then on, the classroom atmosphere relaxed and children were able to play better attention to their lessons. They were even able to learn a series of dances from and around the world to perform for other classes and no one minded being Maryann's partner. Many teachers with students who are unpopular think that this situation is a fait accompli. In my experience, this does not have to be true if teachers enlist the cooperation of their pupils and making the students feel accepted. 


Working with adults


Teachers also have to be on their toes at the higher levels. One day in my adult literacy class, a new student arrived, Maria. It wasn't long before I overheard her say, “Blacks are lazy compared to Puerto Ricans.” Other students, a number of whom were African-American, looked at her with surprise. (They did not say anything derogatory to her because the No Put-Down had taken hold.)


I stopped what we were doing and said, “Does anyone else agree with this?” Comments included, “That doesn't sound right,” “Most blacks aren't lazy. Where do you get your information?” “I know a lot of black people who aren't lazy.” Maria continued to maintain her position.


I asked her, “How many African Americans do you know personally?” It was a small number. I continued, “Do you know how many African-American people there are in the world? Hundreds of Millions! If a person knows 10 lazy African American people, can she say the whole race is lazy? What could she say that would be true?” The answer agreed-upon was, “Some black people are lazy.”


“Does anyone here know any people from other groups or lazy?” They did. The statement was modified to read, “Some people are lazy.”


I then proceeded to give a brief presentation on the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. With help from the class, I listed on the blackboard many African American organizations and churches which are active in their communities, and the country to improve the lives of other people their people. I concluded that I could list just as many for any other group in our country. Our discussion descended on a positive unifying note. Needless to say, Maria never made such a remark again.


Frustration leads to put Downs


When I first began teaching adults, I never dreamed that I would have to enforce a No Put-Down rule. I assumed that everyone was there to learn, and most were. However, individuals who have difficulty reading are frustrated and insecure, and they sometimes take it out on each other.


It was when I began noticing negative comments in my classes for adults that I decided I had to set up specific rules for behavior with the students, so our learning situation would improve. I have found my adult students to be very grateful for this rule, and after a while, put-downs generally disappear as students monitor themselves and each other.


I once worked in a school in which college students received credit as interns in our adult-literacy classes. One day we had a gathering where students from two of our classes shared their poems with each other. One of the interns cried a lot during this poetry celebration. When I asked her why, she said, “I'm really envious of the students. They bravely get up and read their poems even though reading is not easy for them. No one ridicules anyone. In most of my college classes, I never give my opinion or speak out for fear of some other student making a negative remark.”


This was brought home to me at the end of a term in one of my adult-literacy classes. Students were asked to answer questions that evaluated the class. Here is how Kevin, a beginning reader, answered two of them:


What can you do now that you couldn't do before?

“I can read a lot and express myself around a group”


What are some things you like about the class?

“The freedom when we have certain discussions, we don't hurt anybody…”


Students in classes such as Kevin's are able to study about other people's foods, cultures, and histories with interest for they are not considered weird or inferior, just different in some ways. Students in such classrooms feel more fulfilled and knowledgeable. Teachers can begin to point out what various ethnic or racial groups, males and females have in common so as to open students’ minds to the possibilities of such groups working together to solve problems in their communities or in the wider society.


We teachers have a responsibility to fight against the tendency toward a put-down mentality. By continuously enforcing a No Put-Down rule in our classes, encouraging students to listen to and respect each other, and by setting an example ourselves, we can play an important role in helping democratic practices to become more widespread in our classrooms and in the wider society.


Jane Califf is a New York City public school teacher

Article from School Voices, Vol. V, #2 Fall 1996. “A New York City magazine for Parents, Educators, and Students.”

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