Street Law Journal

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Join Katherine Zellner’s journey through her year teaching Street Law at a local Houston school.

Entry 5: The cure

Last week, we had a class incident in which one of my students felt helpless because Mr. L and I did not defend her. Before this incident, my student was one of the better students—well behaved and an active participant in class. Since the incident, she has only been disruptive and continues to act out. Unfortunately, her behavior encourages other students to do the same. Her behavior is like a disease that spreads to the other students; a disease for which I needed a cure.

During class I asked Mr. L if I could handle the situation. He said sure. I asked my student to step outside the class so we could chat. Just like any typical group of teenagers, the students collectively “Oooooed” as we walked out of the classroom. She followed, and I shut the door.

Standing face to face outside the classroom door, I asked her, in a firm and callous tone, why she thought it was okay to behave in such a manner. I could see she was uncomfortable, wanting to cry, but she tried to hide it with a defensive demeanor. I knew my firm tone was not the best method of communication, so I changed and told her that until the incident, she had been a great student. I made sure to mention that I truly appreciated her class participation. My words landed, and her face lit up. She looked surprised but happy. I then told her that she could talk to me about anything and that I was there if she ever needed anything.

Since that moment, she has been an excellent student, and I seem to have found the cure—words of affirmation and appreciation. I have realized that my students are not the kind of students that need to be punished. They need to be loved. Positive words go further than negativity. My student now listens and participates. Her active participation has also had the effect of quelling the other students, who seem to be misbehaving as well. Is a scolding in the hallway a thing to be feared? Possibly . . . I think they want my approval now and will behave to get it.

Entry 4: Class incident

I decided that today we would review some in-class book activities. The task was to determine whether various situations are crimes. Each example proposed an ethical dilemma designed to test the student’s ability to decide right from wrong and to choose between two evils. The incident was cause by the question: “Would you sell drugs to feed your mother?” One student got particularly heated about it. He said that he would absolutely sell drugs to feed his mother and that was not a crime. The class went wild! All my students began arguing about how ridiculous his response was. The class’ response was, of course, feed your mother but selling drugs is a crime. My one student would not concede.

Another student sitting near him, a girl, told him to be quiet and to stop being rude. This is when the situation went south. He turned to her and cursed at her using extreme profanity and insults. She looked very hurt by his words, and maybe a little embarrassed by the situation. As babies sometimes do when they fall and look to their parents to see what they will do, she looked to me then to Mr. L. We did nothing, and this crushed her. She stood up, started yelling and left the classroom. Mr. L followed her.

I was in shock but knew I needed to get control of the situation. The girl who left was mad because she said the school won’t do anything to the boy who misbehaved. The boy kept saying he didn’t care because the school and teachers wouldn’t do anything. He said, “what are you going to do, you can’t do anything to me.” Although I knew there was little I could do, I saw this as a small learning experience for the students. I asked the class “do we think that our actions don’t have consequences?” They said no. I asked “in this same scenario in a college classroom what would happened? And at a job?” The students responded with ideas as to how our actions have consequences even if it isn’t immediate.

Looking back, I’m disappointed in the way I handled the situation. Although Mr. L removed the boy from the class for the rest of the day, there was more I should have done. I thought it was Mr. L’s responsibility to control the class, but how could I demand respect from the students if I refuse to support them when they need me.

ENTRY 3: Hunger and Opportunity

My third week teaching was the week my students started opening up about their personal lives. This was also the week Mr. L decided to tell the students I owned a small business. One of my students shared with the class that he doesn’t have food at home. He said his mother is rarely home because she is preoccupied with a new significant other. This information concerned me and made me realize that my students have bigger concerns than grades or preparing for mock trial. They have problems outside the classroom that affect their ability to learn in the classroom.

On the bright side, the same student who shared asked me if he could work at my business.  I told him that I have to check with my professor to make sure it is okay and there were no conflicts that would not allow me to hire my student.  My classmate who used to be a teacher, told me about some great places that can help my student get food. My concern is that he is 18 and those programs are for kids. I will look into it and let my student know.

Update on this issue: I told the student about options for getting food. He says he still wants to work to make money. I set up an interview for him to come by and speak with my hiring manager. He has canceled and rescheduled about three times. He doesn’t bring it up anymore. I think I will check in with him to make sure everything is okay.

ENTRY 2: Growing Pains

This past week, I learned how my students react to different forms of information. The school I am teaching at stresses the importance of PowerPoint presentations. While this form of teaching might be good in a college classroom or TED talk, my students are not very attentive when I start flipping through slides. One of the first things I learned was that my students are not fans of long sentences or paragraphs on my presentations. To show their disapproval, they simply put their heads down and sleep. Luckily, Mr. L attends my classes and walks around the classroom to wake up those that have decided to nap. While this has changed the way I create presentations, I have also learned what gets my students talking. Drugs, murder, and sexual assault are a few topics where everyone in class is listening and ready to blurt out information or experiences they have had. In addition, they are full of questions when it comes to topics such as those mentioned.

I am hopeful about their performance during Mock Trial because of their active engagement in class. The students like when I praise them. It seems to get them to want to participate more. They don’t mind shouting the incorrect answer either. I want them to feel comfortable speaking their minds and adding their perspective so I don’t discourage them from responding even if it is the wrong answer. I think if they have a safe space where they are comfortable, they will be more open to learning. We are working on raising their hand when they want to speak but it isn’t going well. I think I will have them stand when they speak if the hand raising doesn’t get better.

Entry 1:

My first week of class was not what I expected. The students each have an opinion and a unique personality. They are loud, excited, and it is a bit of a hassle to get them to calm down. I teach at a high school in Northeast Houston. It is a long drive across Houston to get to my school but it goes by quickly. The area around the school is filled with fast food restaurants, dollar stores, and game rooms. I asked the classroom teacher, Mr. L, what types of jobs the students’ parents have. He said they are usually blue-collar workers and most live at the poverty line. The school, itself, is enclosed by a tall rod iron gate with a security guard at the entrance. The building that I teach in is what looks to me to be a temporary building or “T-Shack”. The classroom has a window unit to keep it cool. The desks are falling apart, creating sharp edges, causing a hazard. Mr. L says the school cannot afford textbooks so he prints out assignments or posts on the board. When I gave the students their textbook, they were excited and one said “finally a real book.” After their first writing assignment I noticed that most of them have issues with spelling and grammar. I will try and add it into the curriculum by having them write more.

I have 14 high school seniors. Half are Hispanic and half are African American. They did not know they were in Street Law until they saw their schedule. They did not choose the class. They were placed in what they thought was philosophy. They seemed excited when I told them we were learning about the law. I’m trying to learn their names while they continue to call me simply “Miss.”