Thursday, April 05, 2007

New Term, New Tensions

Despite missing the first night of class so I could be part of at least one seder this year, my term is off to a rolling start. I have nearly 30 students in my class, pretty evenly divided between Russian speakers (who are mostly ethnic Turks) and Spanish speakers (from Mexico,Guatemala, and Honduras). They're a bright and lively bunch and it should be a great term.

There's just one problem. I'm already seeing the beginnings of tension between the kids from each group. We've had fights before, so I am hyper-sensitive to any kind of bad vibes and tonight there was a bit of trouble. My students were working on an activity which required them to move around the room and speak with a variety of students. A couple of Mexican boys were chatting with a Turkish girl whose brother (also in the class) was not all happy and began to yell at them to leave her alone. Feeling (rightly) that they'd done nothing wrong, the Mexican boys wanted to continue the conversation and the girl in question seemed to be more embarrassed by her brother's outburst than by the other boys' attention. The room became charged with energy and I placed myself in between the boys to try and defuse the tension. Eventually everyone settled down but I found it very frustrating because I can't speak Russian well enough to help mediate things like this.

This isn't the first time there's been inter-ethnic tension and the fights have always involved a girl. I expect my students to regularly work with one another in mixed gender and mixed ethnicity groups. It forces them to use English and gives them experience in a multicultural environment which is new to many of them. The "don't talk to my sister" attitude drives me crazy. The girls don't need protecting.

As newcomers to the US with minimal English skills and no real power that these students have far more in common than they realize. Nothing is gained by this silly posturing and there's much to lose. Our current policy is that anyone caught fighting is expelled. Period. They're just teenagers but one of the lessons they most need to learn is to think past the next 10 seconds. They need to learn enough self-control to back down and focus on their education. Now, if only I could say that in a language they all understood.