It was all going smoothly until I got the call from my principal. “Mr. Davidson, you need to come retrieve your 7th grade students. Some of my elementary teachers are complaining.”
“Well there goes that idea!” I thought. “See if I teach this inquiry again.”
To provide some context, I teach 7th grade social studies at a K-8 school in Little Rock, Arkansas. The K-8 environment is truly unique in my state–very few public schools in Arkansas are set up this way. As middle school teachers, we are given opportunities to interact and work with elementary teachers that really help my middle school students grow and take ownership of the school. It also affords several mentoring opportunities that my students would not have otherwise.
As a social studies teacher, my primary content focus is geography. In this course, we go region by region, looking at the physical geography before going into the human geography and geographic challenges of the region. Our unit of study at the time was the Middle East region. The compelling question for our inquiry was “Why is conflict so difficult to resolve in the Palestinian region?” This is truly a ‘compelling’ topic for my students, as they are bombarded with news of terrorism, wars, territorial disputes, and regional migration from this region almost daily. The topic is also compelling, however, because it relates to something my middle school students are all too familiar with–conflict with others.
The inquiry was fairly straightforward in its implementation. The first part of my plan was to show students pictures of conflict between the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs over the years before looking at the major wars that erupted between Israel and its neighbors. We did this, albeit longer than the inquiry outlines, but everything went fairly smoothly. I created various graphic organizers for students to use as they researched the wars and reasons behind the wars. We then looked at efforts made by both sides to resolve their disputes peacefully. After this, students wrote their arguments explaining why conflict was difficult to resolve, with most students suggesting both sides were partially to blame.
The trouble came in the Taking Informed Action piece. According to this part of the inquiry, students are to consider the types of conflict taking place in our school and then create a survey to ask teachers and students why these conflicts are happening. This was rich, I thought, because it gave my older students a chance to interact with and ask questions of the younger kids. In my idealism, I imagined my “mature” 7th graders eventually forming a mentoring relationship with the elementary students. Surely the elementary teachers would love this, because it would take the teaching load off of them to a small extent, elementary students could confide in the older students, and elementary conflict would be a thing of the past!
Oh how naive I was! Did I really think no problems would arise from this scenario?
I walked my 7th graders to the cafeteria and playground and set them loose to interview the little kids. Sure I was monitoring everything and had already gone over basic rules and procedures with them beforehand. But unfortunately, things got out of hand quickly.
The first problem they ran into was that many of the elementary students didn’t want to talk. They were eating their lunch and playing recess–naturally, why would these kids want to leave their friends to start talking with these middle schoolers they didn’t know? Secondly, the few students that did want to talk felt the need to “share all” before proceeding to demonstrate the conflict with their friends sitting next to them. This, of course, led to some chaotic moments on both the playground and in the cafeteria, to the point that some of the adults had to run over and shut down the situation. Thirdly, some students ran to their teachers asking why these “big kids” were getting in their faces and asking personal questions.
In the midst of all this, my 7th graders had two responses–some were enjoying the scene almost gratifyingly while others were scared out of their minds.
And that’s when the phone call from my principal comes in. It did not take long for elementary teachers to voice their complaints with Mr. Davidson’s “project.” Shortly thereafter, I rounded up my 7th graders and we marched back into the classroom.
The next day, we debriefed over the situation. Classroom conversations were certainly lively, and upon much reflection with my students, it became clear that we did indeed learn something: seventh graders don’t make good school counselors, and Mr. Davidson needs to go back to the drawing board and find a more appropriate approach.
One thing is for sure — they got to experience why resolving conflicts can be difficult, and how being a well-meaning “peacekeeper” doesn’t necessarily yield the desired results.