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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

Leah Jones's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Classroom management is a tricky aspect of teaching and takes time to develop. There are a lot of lessons learned over the years regarding classroom management, but I think teachers only get better as time goes by. I agree that different students call for different strategies and it takes a lot of patience and reflection in order to figure out what will work for different students.
Over the past year I was stuck by a few barbs myself and had to figure out how to untangle the distractions of my students. Many of them were coming from difficult home situations and needed a lot of care and time to talk and for someone to listen. I learned to give them time to cool down or remove them from a situation before they boil over and address the issue or action later. I also agree that getting students to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it is one of the best lessons they can learn. I used this technique a lot, but I work with middle schoolers, so I don't know how it would work for younger students. Letting students know that I cared about them as a person and student really helped with my classroom management, especially in the area of discipline.

chenita's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach first grade and have found having class meetings and role playing positive and negative behaviors help. I have learned not to see everything sort of speak. I have to remind myself that some of their behaviors have alot to do with their age.

Crystal Francois's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I cannot think of anything better than barbed wire to describe the tangled mess that my class was in last year! It eventually got to the point where I decided to give up, but then some of my determined and good-willed students tugged at my heart. I could not give up on them. For weeks I focused on those students, almost ignoring the problems in the classroom. The students who were behavior problems basically annoyed one another while the other students learned how to ignore them. I eventually realized that this was a counterproductive method of teaching. I needed to reach all of my students. Time and time again I focused on giving the accelerated and well-behaved students self-guided projects. I love the idea of presenting this option to all students. I was naive to assume that students with behavior problems could not handle this type of work. This coming year I want to dedicate myself to reaching the interests of all students through self-guided projects that extend their learning. Problem behaviors in the classroom occur because children are bored or uninterested. It is my job to bring them back and build their love of learning. Thank you for the motivation to do so!

Sarah Lieske's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I understand what you are saying completely. The best laid plans do not always equal the solution you had planned. I can plan to keep students in for recess if there are behaviors that are occuring often, however some students LOVE to stay inside (especially during our Wisconsin winters). I actually had a student tell a parent "you know, I hate going outside, I am so glad Mrs. Lieske keeps me inside when I get into trouble." The parent is someone I had a close relationship with so we talked about it and laughed. Then I started making sure she was outside for recess everyday! I am a second grade teacher and the beauty is that for us, something as simple as lunch with the teacher can be a treat for them. I try to focus on positive behaviors. I use the negative behaviors to make goals and then my students work to achieve those goals.

Sarah Lieske's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love to hear a comment like this from another rural teacher(administrator). I loved reading all about the issues with the barbed wire and I could see exactly how it related to the classroom. You made a number of really great points that will definetely stick with me!
Thank you,

Sarah Lieske
2nd Grade Teacher
Montello, WI

Alyssa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben, what a wonderful analogy! This past school year was my first year of teaching. Like many other new high school teachers, my main goal of the year was to work on my classroom and behavior management skills. I began the school year with a list of expectations that I believed would be the key to a successful learning environment. Sadly, I was too inexperienced to know that 16 year olds, like the barbed wire, had a mind of their own. Immediately, I noticed that my students were very unmotivated and tried to "get away with" anything they could in my classroom. I often found myself wavering with my enforcement of rules, and I was constantly criticizing myself as a teacher. I experimented with reward systems that would motivate my students, and I even implemented punishment into my routine, but nothing seemed to work.
Finally, as you stated, one of the best solutions I found was to give my students more responsibility. I taught my students that their actions and choices were the cause of problem, not my rules. I often found myself saying phrases such as, "Because you made the choice to not do your homework, you also made the choice to have detention." Luckily, this system seemed to work and my students thought twice before they didn't complete an assignment or treated me disrespectfully.

ldean's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Belinda,
I loved your approach to your high school students. i think it is so important to give students a voice in the learning that will take place during the school year. Once students know the expectations and the consequences for not meeting those, the teacher's role changes. They don't have to be the authoriatarian anymore. They can really enjoy and encourage the learning that is taking place!

ldean's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Classroom management is an area of teaching I am always seeking information about. I am always asking my colleagues how they do this or that. But I now think I have been looking at "classroom management" through only one lens. As Amy stated in her post it is not only about the set up, the lessons or the color schemes. I realize now it is more about establishing the environment in the classroom, a learning environment built on respect for each other. Once students are aware of the expectations and challenges; and if they know the teacher is interested in helping them meet those goals then there is no limit to what they will do!!

Amy Bower's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

So much of what I do in the classroom is a matter of taking the curriculum and making an activity out of it. Our goals in Kindergarten are obviously far different from your goals, but I do simple things such as making play dough to teach them measurements, following directions, etc. After we are done making it I turn it into a language lesson and they have to use it to write words. I do a lot with shaving cream on the tables. We write with it, we do math with it, we draw our shapes, etc. I am very big into music too. I have an arm full of CD's that I know my kids work really good to, and another arm full that I know I need to take out if they are getting antsy in their seats and need to move around for a minute. My kids are very involved in the activities of the day because it is just so hard to know what they all want and need. So, I often give them a chance to decide what they want to do as a whole. I give them the goal and they find the way in which they are going to get there. They are decision makers and investigators!!!

Altamease Ford's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Amy, I can relate to you! Although, it was many years ago, what you learn in a college course, definitely can not compare to the actual classroom experience. I teach kindergarten. Kindergarten is the beginning of everything! This is the point where their minds are being molded into little critical thinkers. I am interested in what types of activities you incorporated in the classroom to infuse the students enery level with the lessons?

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