How The Idea For "The Prize" Was Born
 We Learned From Each Other

It was a cold day in January 2000 when my two colleagues, Patty Barrett and Mara Sonderman, and I climbed the steps to the entrance of Koscuiszko Middle School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and rang the buzzer. We could see the hall monitor through an iron mesh-covered window in the door. She finished her business with some students before she came to unlock the door. We told her our business, signed in, and got directions to the classroom. We wove our way around animated students, down wide, pleasant, well-lit halls decorated with posters depicting adolescents of different colors and cultures—bilingual posters shouting encouragement to students to stay in school, avoid drugs, and abstain from sex. There were announcements for AA meetings, sporting events, and group and club activities.

We were there to begin a pilot study of our bully prevention program for which we were seeking a grant.

There are two less frequently cited theories to explain why our youth have become so violent: our system’s failure to adequately promote cooperation and our children’s prolonged adolescence and dependence on authority. Equipped with our belief in the potential for reciprocity to encourage a culture of cooperation and with our faith in the resiliency of adolescents, we entered the classroom.

We waited while the teacher settled her class. Her voice was loud and authoritative as she sought the attention of thirty active adolescents who were settling into chairs at long tables facing her desk. Music stands and instruments lined the perimeter of the very large room, used for band practice when it wasn’t making do as a social studies classroom. The teacher instructed her students to get settled and start copying the self-affirmations she’d written on the board. She told her charges to write the three or four statements ten times each, and she supplied pencil and paper to those who had come to class unprepared. She reminded them she would be collecting their papers, and their grade would reflect what they’d done. Some busily wrote; others whispered and sniggered good-naturedly. 

“They need to settle down,” she explained when she finally greeted us.  “It’s a good way for them to acquire some badly needed reading and writing skills.” 

Finally, it war our turn and we got down to business: a group discussion about safety and bullying. Like good therapists, we planned to gain trust by demonstrating our understanding of problems as they, the seventh-grade students of Koscuiszko Middle School, defined them. 

This task, however, turned out to be more difficult than we anticipated. We asked for their perception of the bully problem, and we got it. They jumped right in to complain about restrictions placed on them and to criticize administration’s inability to keep the bullies in control. 

I have a degree in secondary education, but I hadn’t been in a classroom for thirty years, and these kids seemed so different from the five I’d raised in a relatively safe and well-to-do suburb. It didn’t help that I was having a hard time understanding them, even when they spoke one at a time. It wasn’t just the Spanish that I didn’t get; there was the dialect of English that I had to strain for. I felt bad having to ask some of them to repeat and repeat again. When it seemed the kids were all talking at once, not necessarily to us, things had clearly gotten out of hand. My knees were shaking, and I thought, “What am I doing here? I’m too old to be doing this sort of thing.” -

Their teacher rescued us with a call for order and a stern lecture about how we had volunteered our valuable time to help them. The least they could do was listen. Later, after class, we were the ones to get the friendlier version of the lecture. “You can’t let things get out of hand like that. These kids need structure and a no-nonsense environment.”

Structure—in the guise of a well-formulated curriculum—was certainly one thing we didn’t have. After all, we were there in part to develop the curriculum for our grant.

A week later, instead of attempting a discussion with the whole class at once, we put the students into “more manageable” groups. This time we didn’t frame the question as a problem; we asked them to discuss potential solutions to the bully problem. Again, the students took the opportunity as carte blanche to criticize everything about their school and its authority figures. Again, the climate in the room was chaotic. The teacher jumped in and banished the three of us “leaders” to the hall while she gave the class another lecture. 

My partners and I looked at each other in dismay. “What were we doing wrong?”

When we were allowed back into the classroom, we met with a very quiet and docile group of kids. Their proposed solutions, while offered politely continued to focus on how the authority structure needed to change. I was still uncomfortable, but for a different reason. The students were telling us that it was up to the adults to solve the problem. How was this supposed to encourage self-reliance? 

At the end of that class, the teacher gave us the “you’re losing them” lecture and once again highlighted the need for structure and control. Structure and control, I thought.  Ineffective control of bullies from the top down was the main complaint of the students.

In retrospect, I realize, we should have discussed our mission in more detail with the teacher before we entered her classroom—the class she so graciously volunteered. We should have solicited her guidance and participation. She had been nice to us but we weren’t reciprocating. We weren’t being nice back.   She graciously gave us a second chance, and we explained that we wanted to teach skills for self-reliance. She said, “Be honest with them. You’re here to teach them something, so teach them.” She suggested we use more than one channel of communication and keep the focus of the subject narrow. It finally dawned on me: Teaching is not the same as doing therapy.

After that, each time we met, we appraised the teacher of our narrow goal for the day and our plan for achieving it. We also invited her to actively participate and asked if she would be so kind as to give us feedback on our progress. We replaced the written affirmations with definitions of key words in the concept of reciprocity. With the help of some bilingual students, we wrote the words on the board in both languages. Students went to the dictionary to look them up and reported their findings to the class.  

Students were required to show respect by talking one at a time, and the teacher kept a close lookout for disrespectful behavior. I had to admit I was more comfortable in the controlled environment, and we did seem to be making more progress. 

I was struck by how this teacher, with her brusque authoritarian manner, was so connected with her charges. Sometimes all that was required to keep order was a look. At other times she had students change their seating arrangement. I still didn’t like the rigidity of the structure or the reward system she had established. She gave them candy bars in exchange for respectful behavior. I thought she was bribing them.

Many mistakenly think that reciprocity, “Titt for Tatt”, “an eye for an eye” refers only to reciprocating nasty behaviors. Not so. Reciprocating kindness with kindness is equally important. In an effort to begin a reciprocal cycle of being nice, the first lesson we tried to teach was “be nice first.” I was afraid that these streetwise kids would laugh at the three suburban ladies who came to talk to them about being nice. We weren’t exactly wearing white gloves and flowered hats, but our differences were so glaringly obvious. Instead of rejecting us out of hand, however, the students showed us their vulnerability. They were just as quick to respond to small, kind gestures as we were.

My partners and I were constantly watching for instances when someone was nice to someone else, and the teacher, the symbolic parent, was quick to supply a number of her own observations, including examples of students being nice to her. That’s when I understood the candy bars. It was her way of reciprocating a kindness for a kindness.

At the end of the first be nice lesson we gave an assignment for each student to notice what happened when they offered a kind gesture to someone. What did the recipient of the kind gesture do in return? 

A week later, motives for being nice were discussed. For example, offering to do the dishes as a strategy to lessen a punishment was acceptable, as long as expectations for results were kept within reason. In other words, altruism isn’t the only adequate motive for being nice. Self-interest—being nice in order to encourage others to be nice back—is a good motive too. We ended with an assignment for students to notice when someone was nice to them.

We asked, “Is it easier to be nice to someone we know and like than to someone we don’t know very well?” That week’s assignment was to be nice to someone the student didn’t know very well and report what happened.  “Why not just be nice all the time?” “Because that’s not fair,” they answered. “Besides, that can get you in a whole lot of trouble. Some people take advantage.”

By this time, the kids already knew that being nice back didn’t require a great sacrifice—just a friendly gesture in return for a friendly gesture. All the same, when we moved into the notion of reciprocating unkind gestures, we worried. We didn’t want to sound like we were giving permission to retaliate harshly or take revenge. We were very careful to make fine distinctions between providing a consequence and retaliation, between retaliation and revenge. 

It turned out we didn’t need to worry.  The students picked up the subtle nuances of reciprocity more quickly than many more-sophisticated adults do. It seemed these kids already knew what we were trying to teach them. What they didn’t have were the fancy words—or permission to act on their faith in fairness. As one boy aptly pointed out, “Reciprocity is just a fancy word for being fair.”  He told a story about how he’d beat up another boy for having called him a homo. “Next day, that kid and his friends beat the stuff out of me. I got some of my friends together, and a whole bunch of us got into a fight. I got a broken nose out of it. I should have just called the guy a pansy and let it go at that.”

At this point, we showed excerpts from two movies, “Lord of the Flies” and “Babe.” I was a little nervous about showing these streetwise kids “Babe,” a movie that on the surface seems like it was meant for young children, but that movie is filled with examples of cooperation through reciprocity. They were quick to pick up on how violence escalated in the competitive society created by the boys in “Lord of the Flies.” They were equally able to identify incidences of reciprocity in “Babe,” and how that was a more cooperative system. I was delighted to discover that their aptitude to think critically was not hampered by the below-average reading level of many of the students.

So far, we’d been focusing on concepts one at a time, providing examples, and encouraging discussions. It was time to give the students opportunity to demonstrate in action what they had learned. It was time to risk some group work again.    

I was nervous. The assignment was to use real-life examples in role-play. These students live in what is probably the most dangerous neighborhood in the city. Drive-by shootings, crack houses, prostitution, poverty, and chaotic, often abusive families are realities they live with on a daily basis. We gave them permission to act out the escalation of an altercation. Would they go too far—get too real?

Five groups of students demonstrated the difference between reciprocity and revenge, playing out first what happens when altercations are met with escalations, and then what happens in the same situation when the offense is reciprocated without escalation.

There were several demonstrations. I don’t remember them all in detail. This one stands out in my memory because it involved so many of the students at once, and because I was literally holding my breath as more and more students joined into the sketches. It started with one girl snatching a piece of jewelry off the neck of another girl. The victim (in role play) hit the thief in the mouth and the girl who stole the jewelry called upon her friends to beat up the other girl who then called on her friends and half the class became involved in a make believe fight. I was relieved when I heard the sound of laughter and saw the smiles erupt across the faces of the play-acting students. We applauded their performance.   

In the next round of role play by this same group, the one to demonstrate reciprocity, the girl from whom the jewelry was stolen took the thief’s reading assignment from a folder that had been left on a desk and held it for ransom. The assignment was due that day. The two girls exchanged a few nasty words but ultimately agreed to return the stolen items to each other. 

Another group demonstrated escalation with one boy calling another a name. The other boy punched him in the stomach and the two boys wrestled around on the floor and engaged in a fake fight. They injured each other badly, fell on the floor and moaned. In the next round the same two boys began the role-play with the same name calling demonstration. This time the boy who’d been called a name shot an angry look at the name caller, called a name back and walked away. 

My partners and I were elated. “They got it!” Or perhaps they already had it, and all we supplied were the words and the permission. 

The teacher and the three of us leaders agreed that the students were better prepared to mediate minor altercations without help from central authority. However, they are still teenagers, and some situations are beyond their control. Our last formal session focused on developing a safety net. Students individually identified a trusted and capable adult to whom they could go for help in dangerous situations. They formulated a plan for their personal safety to be used when a situation was clearly beyond their personal control. 

The last class was informal. No, not candy bars—pizza. Patty, Mara, and I came to school early and baked frozen pizzas in the home economics room so they would be hot when we served them. We weren’t being nice first. We were being nice back .

—M. LaCourt

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