The Stick and the Carrot

I’ve been told by other teachers that once you yell at a kid, you’ve lost. At that point, supposedly, they realize there is nothing else you can do to them. I suspect this is true under two conditions: (1) the child is a repeat offender whose exposure to the words “or else” has been greater than the length of his short-term memory, (2) the person doing the yelling stinks at poker.

Yesterday, in an amazingly bad turn of events, I ended up being in charge of dragging 26 hot, tired, cranky children from the bathrooms to the swimming area (a substantial hike across a very busy trail) with the support of two of our assistant counselors. That ratio would seem like a dream in a classroom, perhaps, but a classroom is not a summer camp. The appropriate ratio of adult to child in order to maintain order at camp, when the group is wandering all over the place, is 1:6. 1:8.66 might not seem like that big a difference, but trust me. It is. It’s the difference between order and chaos.

It was inevitable that someone was going to push me to use my scary voice.

Now that I think of it, there maybe a difference between scary voice and yelling. Hollering at a child from a distance never, ever, ever works. Children are excellent at pretending to not hear you. What is extremely effective, I discovered yesterday, is getting uncomfortably close to their face, looking them in the eyes, and saying in the best “Imma cut you” tone you can muster, “You do not want to mess with me right now.” You might need to follow it up with some plausible explanation of why this usually soft and cuddly counselor is hovering on the brink of insanity, such as, “I have to keep too many children safe right now to put up with this behavior.” If you do that, the child will probably require a reiteration of what you expect them to do. “Start walking,” “Hands to yourself,” etc.

If you don’t get a response, you might want to practice your “Crazy-but-also-deadly-serious” face in the mirror a few times. Ninety-eight percent of all children can be bluffed into action, with perhaps only five percent requiring some follow-up conversation. Fortunately for me, yesterday, the two percent who would have seen the gaping hole behind my bluff (namely, that I’m not exactly allowed to pick them up and throw them over my shoulders or throw them in jail for contempt of counselor) were responsible for the incident that required our director and two other counselors to be away from the group reinventing the Code of Hammurabi and were therefore with the other adults, not with my group.

I think the other factor that makes the scary voice effective is knowing when to use it. Kids want  to have their grievances heard. Scary voice is a tool for shutting them down in circumstances when taking the time to listen compassionately to the issue behind the behavior problem is going to endanger the safety of the rest of the group. If you’ve told the group to start walking and everyone but Child X complies, eager to get to swimming, you can’t take the ten minutes you need to persuade Child X, who is sitting on the ground sulking, to tell you all about it while the group walks. You need Child X to start walking thirty seconds ago, before Child Eager Beaver at the head of the line got out of sight and hearing range without noticing you were stuck at the back.

For scary voice to be effective, I think kids have to understand that you are usually a reasonable person who is more than happy to spend twenty minutes listening to their woes. If the scary voice comes out every time a child is acting up, you will lose the battle, if only because their short memories will start to register that scary voice is rarely followed by consequences. (And don’t even get me started on consequences. How is it that, speaking of Hammurabi, human law has been codified for thousands of years, yet teachers and parents seem to have to reinvent the legal system every time we encounter bullying?) Bluffing doesn’t work if the kids know for sure you don’t have an ace.

I was lucky, yesterday, that in the face of several minor medical emergencies and several large behavioral ones that my poker face scary voice never lost its power. Possibly it helped that I really was on the brink of a nuclear meltdown. Kids can sense that, and they’re smart enough to not want to be at the epicenter of the explosion.

Also, and this is just a hunch, but I think my case might have been helped by the fact that I was carrying all the ukuleles. Buy some. They’re better than sticker charts.


Five & a Half Reasons to Play the Ukulele

First things first, here’s a video John and I made this weekend (strong emphasis on John–he did all the camera work and editing):

And now that you’ve watched it, perhaps some explanation is in order.

Last week, I won a contest at work. My prize was a ukulele. It’s a peculiar sort of thing to win in a contest, but then, it was a peculiar sort of contest. We were all asked to submit prize ideas for a freshman open house in the fall–if your idea was chosen, the LRC would buy two and give you one. I suggested a baritone ukulele.

As to why I would suggest such a thing, well…the video sums it up pretty well. Above and beyond that, I had recently read this article about how ukuleles are becoming more popular in Boston. Also, I’ve been following Amanda Palmer on Twitter and was generally excited about her new album. In short, I’ve just had ukuleles on the brain.

Making the video was…an experience. I now know that there’s a very good reason I’m not a rock star. Playing an instrument in a public place is very awkward, and if my expression looks strained in any of the shots, it’s because I was highly aware of how many people’s walking paths we were obstructing.

It was quite the social experiment, in that regard. Some people will wait patiently for you to finish, some impatiently. Some will duck down in front of the camera, some will walk across anyway. Some will start down a path, see you, and then backtrack to change their path. The further I stood from the camera, the more obvious the effects were.

Adding an instrument into the mix changes the dynamic–as much as a camera makes people feel visibly self-conscious about intruding on someone else’s  social territory, an instrument seems to break those invisible barriers that we hold around ourselves as a defense against talking to other people. The first place we shot was in the subway, and I hadn’t even had my ukulele out of the case for two minutes before that guy in the first shot came over and started talking to us.  Doing the arch shot, another guy stopped to ask if we were doing an album cover and compliment our work. Walking towards the park, a couple of teenage boys with instruments on their backs hollered “Ukulele!!” and waved at us.

It was at once both one of the more awkward and one of the more uplifting experiences of my life.

Putting the video together from the clips was a different story entirely, and one that makes me impressed with people who do real and longer video production. To make that 1m:50s clip, we spent almost four hours walking around to shoot maybe twelve minutes worth of clips. Laying down the sound tracks and doing the sidewalk art took me maybe another two hours, and putting everything together took John something like eight hours to finesse (including researching and learning new software that could handle multiple audio tracks). Making a video, even a little silly one like this, is a lot of work. (Something I should have been more prepared for, given that it took us seven or eight hours to make Robot Riot.)

Anyway…I hope the video is enough to earn your forgiveness for this rambling post, and if anyone feels like swapping ukulele tales, I’d be delighted to hear them.