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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.

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Amy Bower's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Several years ago while still in the education program at my college I sat through a course that was supposed to help us with classroom management. After several weeks of lectures, tests, discussions, and projects I realized that this class had taught me everything but management in classroom. What was lectured was that there was more to classroom management than just controlling your kids; the setup, the lessons, and the color scheme was far more important than how I was going to control a large number of kids.
So, when I got into my own classroom (this year being my first), I realized the color scheme of my room meant nothing, the desks could be switched around to fit the needs of the kids, and the lessons I taught meant nothing if I couldn't get any of my Kindergarteners to listen. For weeks they talked, played, ran through the bathrooms, and did virtually everything they were told not to do. It was at this point that I had to take a step back, throw away the lecture papers and do things the way they were going to work for my class.
I quickly realized that my class was full of Kindergarteners. They were active! What I never learned while in classes was that you need to feed off of what interests the students. This unwritten law came to me very quickly and my kids started to respond without hesitation. I knew I could either make them sit and write for hours and we would all pay for the boredom or I could think of a project that would combine writing and activity. We chose the latter and nine times out of ten I got all of them to give me their best writing if they knew something exciting was in store.
These are all lessons that are part of the "unspoken" lectures that we listen to. The idea of classroom management is not a skill you are born with and it is certainly not a skill that comes easily in a classroom, but it is necessary. Classroom management: it's kind of like making cupcakes. You have individual holes that all need to be filled. They each have their own story; some of them might be dented, others of them perfectly round. When you put the mix in there and bake them at just the right temperature, they will rise.

Belinda Jenks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sometimes we have those classes that defy any and all of our former patterns and successes for the management battle. We have to be students of human nature to unravel the solution to working with the chemistry of certain mixes of students.

While working with a group of juniors in a basic literature class, I found that they were determined to slide through and participate as little as possible. Getting them to read literaure was not going to be easy since they all seemed almost proud of the fact that they didn't read and didn't care to read when they could just see a movie or play a video game instead.

Rather than letting them convince me to expect little from them, I decided to simply expect a lot. Explaining Socratic seminar techniques and that I felt they needed to make some of their own decisions about what they would learn, we began. At first, it was an uphill battle, especially when their groups had to create 'good' questions for discussion by other groups. They weren't sure how to operate without worksheets and "Right or Wrong" answers. But once they started to see what they were capable of, they caught fire!

Instead of reading The Old Man and the Sea and just getting the facts, they were writing questions for discussion that really took some thought, such as, "In what ways might a person not reach his goal but still be a winner and how could that idea apply to our own lives?" That question was the pride and joy of the group that wrote it and they insisted that the other groups were not going to just give a simplistic answer. Groups poked and prodded and deeply questioned one another. They had to think and they had to tell why they thought so.

Not everyone worked hard, but the majority did, making it uncool to be a 'bum', as they called nonparticipants. I know the strategy won't always work, but sometimes, we can find a way to push them to manage themselves rather than being managed by us. They definitely take it more to heart when their peers won't 'play well with others' in a game for which they helped make the rules.

Jamie Anderson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How insightful it was to see the likeness of a classroom in barbed wire! It is critical to keep your students challenged and busy, but without tapping into their interests and abilites, teachers can work themselves into a frenzy trying to control the class.
I have had to examine classroom management through a different framework. I am a self professed control freak, which does not lend itself well to a group of rowdy first graders. I have had to let them guide me through their actions and attittudes. When we work as a team, meaning I set the expectations and they help me get us there, we are off and running. We cannot attmept to control the uncontrolable. Students have various activity levels,home issues, interests, and abilities. We have to learn to roll with the punches, stay light on our feet, and keep the students in our corner!

Emily Rodik's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a first year teacher, I found your comments very relatable. I started the year with a definitive plan for managing my first graders. I noticed right away that many of their behavior problems were increasing, even though I stuck with "my plan." About halfway through the year I had a wake-up call. As I took a walk through the halls, each classroom I passed was quieter than the first. I began to realize that my students should have caught on by now, and if they haven't it is my fault - not theirs. That weekend I decided to throw out the old plan and come up with a new one that better suited the needs of my students. I definitely realized that you cannot predict student behavior before the school year begins. Sure, you need to have guidelines put in place, but each class will behave differently and each student will be motivated differently as well. I am happy to say that my new plan was a success, and I'm looking forward to starting my second year of teaching and leaving behind my old mistakes. My plan this year will be a work in progress, and will be tailored to my student's individual needs!

Katrina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow, Emily I am so impressed that you were able to formulate a 'plan' that worked so effectively in your first year. I am still very new to teaching myself (I'm entering my third year) and I am learning that each year the class is like night and day of what does and doesn't work. When I started I thought all I needed was something simple for the whole class however I learned quickly and was amazed how some students need their own individual plan and like Ben mentioned in his post "Teaching with Tangles: The Barbed Wire Model of Classroom Management" what works one day doesn't always work the next day. I have tried several things on and maybe my bouncing around between management styles and approaches is partially due to the ineffectiveness of them. Management is my biggest concern at the start of each new year and this year more than ever I want to start it off with a 'plan' that is in place from day one. I would love to hear what your plan was that you are intending to implement again this year and any individual management advice you have to offer.
Thank you so much,
Katrina

Katrina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Amy, I am so impressed with your discovery in just your first year of teaching. I very much agree with your philosophy about incorporating learning with the high energy needs of such young learners. I often find it difficult to be so creative with the high demands of structured curriculum. I teach 2nd grade and my kids can sit still and independently work much more than probably your kindergardners however I would love to hear any tips or advice you have to offer about how you took incorporated the students needs into your teaching. Also any great 'get up and move' quick activities or songs that your kids tend to latch onto.
Thank you so much,
Katrina

Katy Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with you. I have taught first grade for 2 years. Last year I had a very rough crew. I had a boy running around the school ALL day. I had another who checked into the hospital for mental issues. Then, I had the constant talkers and "I'm not doing that." I learned many things. One thing I learned was to roll with some of the things they did. I tried relating to them by bringing in pictures of myself at that age. I told stories that they would enjoy. By the end of the year, they were still a little wild, but we (I) had made a lot of progress. I know that every year brings a new and interesting set of kids!

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 a lot to do with their age.

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