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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Barbed Wire Model of Classroom Management

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I had an epic battle with a tangle of barbed wire a while ago. I'm glad to report that my cuts and scratches are healing nicely, and I'd like to share with you about how this battle revealed to me a number of brilliant truths about classroom management.

I had decided I had to do something about the tangle of barbed wire hidden in the grass on our property, so I began to untangle it. Very quickly, I learned Barbed Wire Fact Number One: Even when barbed wire is not tangled, it is tangled. There are so many barbs that they catch on one another and the strands between.

Soon, I noticed a pain in my left arm. To my dismay, I saw that I was tangled in the wire. Barbed Wire Fact Number Two: It has a life of its own. No sooner would I untangle a few feet of wire than the wire would attempt to bounce back and try to tangle itself again. Applying this new knowledge, I hooked the free end of the wire to a fence post and resumed the untangling process.

Now I had another problem. Barbed Wire Fact Number Three: Barbed wire doesn't thread. It gets caught on the other wires as soon as you try. So, I ingeniously rolled the end of the wire into a loop and passed the whole loop through the tangles. Controlling an ornery loop of barbed wire was dangerous enough, but trying to put it through other tangled loops was just asking for trouble. It worked OK for the first few loops, but quickly the wire decided it did not want to be cooperative.

I didn't have enough hands to keep it all in place, but then I put my foot on the wire and used a bit of baling wire to tie it back and make it stay in a loop. That is how I learned Barbed Wire Fact Number Four: You cannot control barbed wire without help.

Finally, I began to make decent headway with the tangle. But, sadly, I noticed that as I added loops to my threading loop, it was starting to threaten my arm. I thought about getting some more baling wire, but then I stumbled across Barbed Wire Fact Number Five: If you roll the wire upon itself, instead of just looping it side by side, the barbs work in your favor and keep the rebellious loops under control all by themselves.

Now I was in charge, and I made the barbed wire work for me, which made untangling the rest of it a cinch.

Coiling the Classroom

As unpleasant, frustrating, and painful as untangling that barbed wire was, sometimes I find that managing classrooms can be even worse. But one can apply the brilliant truths I learned about barbed wire to a classroom to get it under control, too. Simply recognizing (and respecting) the nature of education will help us deal with all of its prickly tangles, but I have also added a few ideas that might be of use to you in creating your own neatly wound classroom-management coils:

Even When Barbed Wire Is Not Tangled, It Is Tangled
Even in the most organized classroom, anytime you get students together, there will be friction. Their emotional barbs get caught on one another, and it is the teacher's job to untangle the mess. Add to that the multitudes of state standards, and it's no wonder that lesson plans sometimes get jumbled. The true task, then, is to focus on one tangle at a time. Find where the barbs are getting caught and target that particular standard or behavior until students have mastered or solved it. Then go on to the next tangle.

Barbed Wire Has a Life and Mind of Its Own
Classrooms are ever changing and evolving. What worked very well one day may not work the next. And there's often another tangle that appears, especially with older students. They prefer the comfort of being told what to do and not having to think for themselves. They know it is a lot easier to do worksheets than to actually write, create, or produce a viable product.

We constantly have to struggle with overcoming mediocrity (laziness) and getting our students to think and behave in creative ways. Our job is to stay at least one step ahead of the students and to differentiate the curriculum to match their current needs (not wants), because they might change at a moment's notice. Variety is the key.

Barbed Wire Doesn't Thread or Cooperate
Today's students are more sophisticated than kids of years past, and the threat of discipline is less capable of motivating them to modify their behavior. Thus, we need to employ other creative methods that fit the students we have now. Closer contact with the students' parents will help untangle some knots. Cell phones are a huge benefit. Parents carry them all the time, so you can get in touch with them all the time.

Another strategy is to avoid the role of judge, jury, and executioner. Put that on the shoulders of the student, where it belongs. Students understand consequences, and if an infraction occurs, they need to take responsibility. It is a question of changing "I am going to punish you" to "Your actions are punishing you. What are you going to do about it?" The difference between these statements is that with the second one, when you are not there, your students will still monitor themselves.

You Can't Control Barbed Wire Without Help
I see teachers struggling to "control" their students by keeping them busy. The students wait around to be told what to do, or they get fidgety and start mischief. However, when students help create a binding, high-performance contract with their teacher that has consequences, the teacher can leave the control method behind and move into the channel method, described below.

You Can Make the Barbs Work in Your Favor
Lockstep instruction, with no student choice or input, is a barbed tangle waiting to happen. The students are the learners, so channel their energies into productive paths. It just takes some encouragement, suggestions, and individual concern. The very tangle of chaos and confusion that we tried to control -- and that was causing us grief and pain -- now becomes our helper.

Focusing Student Energy

When correctly channeled, the frenetic energy most students display becomes enthusiasm and zeal for learning rather than reasons for disciplinary action. When students get done quickly with their assignments, do we give them busywork or allow them to play, or do we encourage them to choose a project that will feed their interests and truly engage them in individual study? (This is differentiation, extension, and enhancement.) A student of any age can write a book, create a movie, choreograph a dance, create a song, design a house, build a skyscraper, solve a problem, paint a masterpiece, or discover and share something new. Project learning and inquiry learning fit the bill nicely.

I survived my tangle with barbed wire, and after intense effort and experimentation, I was able to master it and finally get it all coiled neatly -- well, as neatly as one can coil barbed wire. I felt a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, the way I felt as a teacher when my carefully planned and choreographed unit was effective, even with all of the on-the-fly adjustments. Maybe that is why there are so many people, but so few teachers. We are willing to tackle that barbed wire, knowing that we probably won't come out unscathed. But we are willing to take the risk if it will help our students. So, wear your scars with pride.

Please share some of your nasty tangles and how you were able to tame them.

Comments (98)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Tegwen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey John...I see you found your way over here too. I am very luck to teach at a school that has a school wide discipline program. It is based on Raised Responsibility. What makes this so great is that I am doing the same thing that the lower grade teachers are doing. So when students get to me in 4th grade, they know the expectations of the school. I just add onto for my classroom. We also create class mission statements. This helps the students and they created this and have more desire to follow it. I also allow them to write the class rules. They have an easier time following them if they write them.

Tatyana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Katrina,
I totally agree with what you said about individual plans for students. Of course there needs to be a classroom plan or system that would work for most students. However, there always seems to be a person or two (maybe even three or four)that really need their own individual plan and then they blossom like no one expected. I think that their is no one plan that works for EVERY child in the classroom.
Tatyana Ormanzhi
Salem, Oregon
2nd grade

Lauren Gossard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The analogy of comparing classroom management to barbed wire is something I never would have thought of. But it makes so much sense. It seems that just when you have solved one tough issue or problem in the classroom, another arises. Sometimes it takes only one student to throw off the rest of the group. Can you ever truly get the "barbed wire" in your classroom completely untangled? Probably not. Stategies that work with one student or class, may not work with the next. Part of being an educator is being flexible and always willing to try new strategies and ideas.
This is my first time blogging and I found it very interesting. It is exciting to hear what others have to say and also comforting to know you're not the only one facing these issues today. Thanks for the experience.

Lorna M.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a creative way to see classroom management unfold. This is my first experience with blogging and Mr. Johnson has made it a reality. Managing a classroom is not an easy task. I remembered my very first day of teaching kindergarten. I did not have a paraprofessional at that time. The students were sitting in their assigned seats waiting for me to unpacked their supplies. Half way through, some of the students started eating their lunches, drawing on notebook paper, some were crying for their parents, some out of their seats and some were just standing there. At that time, most of my barbs were tangled. I was not prepared for this. I remembered blinking the lights and trying to untangle the most difficult issue first. To make a long story short, that night I spoke to a family member who was an educator and she laughed and said, "welcome to the world of teaching". I got with my colleques the rest of the week and we planned some activities together. I was looking forward to day 2.

Kelli Allen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed your analogy of barbed wire to a classroom and the way it is sometimes ran. Looking back on last year I would say that my classroom felt like a giant roll of barbed wire.
The one that really hit me was that barbed wire has a life and mind of its own. I completely agree with this. One day something would really work great and then the next day it was like they had never done it before. One example was reading groups. I would put them into groups to read and it would be great. Everyone was on task and following directions, and then the next day it was as if they had never done it before in their life. I leared to take one day at a time.
Eventually we would discuss at the beginning of reading each day and decide what we thought would work best for the day. I found this to be the most helpful in taming the barbed wire.
By giving them a variety, but not to much it allowed them to feel a little bit in charge of their learning and in turn made my morning easier and more enjoyable.

Stacy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for all the insight. As a first year teacher, I know this will be my biggest struggle. Knowing how to handle it from the start will hopefully leave less scars to heal!

Nikki Dowdy, Nicholson, GA's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Have you ever wrapped barb wire around a tree? If you leave it alone, the tree will grow around the barb wire, and the wire will be stuck. The same with a child. If you don't try different things (move them or change your method of delivery) the child will remain "stuck" where they are. Whether it's a behavior problem or an academic problem, children need change to become "unstuck."

Mary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben for some reason I have a real hankerin' for a BBQ and a trail ride after reading your blog. It sure beats wrestlin' up some cow hands to fix the fence line. Thanks for the encouraging words as we soon will be back in the saddle again at school and "Happy Trails to you."

Kevin Carpenter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed Mr. Johnson's analogy and have quite a few nicks and scrapes myself from years of teaching grade one. I really liked the point about putting the responsibility on the students' shoulders. My little ones come to me with every behavior problem that arises. I listen to both sides but then explain to them that I can solve their problem(taking time off recess, making calls home, etc.) or they can try to work out their problems and come to a resolution that they are both happy with. Most times, they choose to solve it themselves and the self-monitoring that Mr. Johnson talks about takes place in the cafeteria, the playground and all the other places they frequent without me. I also appreciated the ideas for when students finish an assignment early. It is always nice to add to the bag of tricks. Thanks for a great article.

William Braitsch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great extended metaphor. Kudos to the author. I imagine barbed wire as somewhat naturally coiling itself if it is taken off of the fence posts. Students are the same way. In fact I have students themselves create the classroom rules as one of the first activities I do at the beginning of the year. I place students in groups of 3-4 and give them a sheet of 'big paper' and a marker. I then ask them to create a list of 'fair' or reasonable classroom rules. The groups then share their answers and I record the answers on the chalk/white board. Afterwards I add a few of my own and remove a few that I don't feel are necessary. This gives the students both 'choice' and 'ownership' which are two major factors in keeping students disciplined without literally or forcibly disciplining them. As well a group mentality is converged and the students do not perceive the rules as something the teacher enforces but more so the law of the room which they share. When infractions occur the teacher need only remind the students of the rules that they chose. It seems to be working well for me with older high school students who do not wish to be reprimanded and feel that they can control themselves.

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