Thursday, September 30, 2010

It’s the first period of the day at John O’Connell High School, which means it’s 8 a.m. for the handful of groggy students in the peer resources class taught by Gary Cruz.

As the morning bell sounds, Cruz is set to begin the elective course that trains students to provide services — such as classroom observations and mentoring — to the campus.

A soft-spoken boy in a gray hoodie lays his head across a classroom table, nearly asleep. “Stay up late last night?” asks Cruz. The boy nods.

Before Cruz begins today’s instruction on conflict mediation, a few matters need to be addressed. Six weeks into the school year, he recognizes that not all of his students know each other by name.

To be fair, out of the 18 students, half are freshman and half are juniors and seniors — a mix uncommon in high school classes.

To get acquainted, we play Panic Fruit, a game in which students choose a fruit and then memorize the fruits of their peers.

Students eagerly choose kiwis, blackberries and pineapples. Cruz selects a tomato, eliciting both laughter and a mini-debate as to whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable.

Cruz then has the students play the game using names instead of fruits.

The students — all Asian, black or Latino — do well. They know more names than they thought. A couple of them volunteer to go around the circle and name their peers one by one, getting them all right.

Many of the others say that they too have memorized all the names. Although it took a while, “It’s never too late to figure it out,” Cruz says.

The game is a hit, and the students beg Cruz to continue playing it.

“Can we have a day just for games like this?” asks an outspoken girl wearing a bright pink sweater. “Yeah!” they all echo.

Cruz seems to indulge the pleading teens for a bit, but is quick to move on to the next order of business ­— something called Check In. The students, still in the circle, go around and name what is good and bad about their day, week or lives.

“I’m stressed out about the college application process,” says one girl. Directly across from her, another nods in agreement.

“I got good sleep last night,” says another. “But my grades aren’t good.”

“The weather is finally cooling down,” says a boy, happily. A girl has a different take: “My bad thing is that it’s getting cold.”

“I think I’m doing good in calculus,” says a boy.

“I feel more mature and stronger,” says a boy who towers to nearly 6 feet.

A few have nothing, good or bad, to say.

Cruz asks students to reflect on the Check In session.

“We heard more good than bad things,” says a girl. “It seems we are doing better than the first week [of school].”

“How can we support each other?” asks Cruz.

“We can encourage them,” responds a boy. When things are going well, “We can congratulate them.”

Cruz notes that this class is particularly conscious about grades, as it’s a topic often referenced during Check In.

Talk of grades brings a transition to conflict mediation training. Cruz asks three volunteers to role-play a conflict. One student acts as a mediator along with Cruz, and the other two act as the students in conflict.

The scenario: One student borrowed notes for English class from her friend, lost the notes and then lied, saying she had already given them back.

The mediators go through the stages. Everything stays in the room except threats of violence, they remind the two. Do they agree to solve the problem? The mediators hear the problem, paraphrase it for understanding and ask the disputers about the history of the relationship.

A few giggles later, the role play is over after both students have expressed their sides and one has apologized.

Cruz asks for feedback. “Was it realistic?”

“No,” respond students. The problem was solved too quickly.

The answer, says Cruz, is to dig deeper.

“Don’t just solve the surface problem. Get to the root of it.”

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