Who’s the Adult in the Room? A defense of Two Choices Technique and the Gangsta’

Why Two Choices Technique? Who’s the adult?

This post will be written as an open letter to Mr. B. [you can see his full letter in the comments section of Two Choices and the Gangsta’]. This post and many of my writings in general are dedicated to any teacher or parent who has tried the current mainstream methods of inspiring a child (or children) yet nothing seems to work. I wrote Two Choices and the Gangsta’ [as well as other examples of Two Choices Technique in numerous other situations and posts] for those who have reached the end of their rope. I also write for those who would offer advice.

Mr. B. had read my post. He offered some very common, very sound but very unusable advice. It seems as though I did a poor job of communicating just how dangerous my situation was. I had submitted my post, in response to a Twitter post, as an example of how to defuse a very volatile and dangerous situation, and still keep the kid in class. Yet, Mr. B. (and others at other times) questioned whether or not I had achieved a worthy goal, or some measure of real success. It’s as if I were guilty of unfeeling manipulation, or had just sort of ‘lorded it over’ the kid.

The following clarification of that post and my responses to Mr. B.’s valid concerns could be written to any teacher or pundit who advises being nice and student centered. I write this to help.

Dear Mr. B.,

Thank you for reading my post and offering your polite, thoughtful, and helpful comments. Your students are lucky to have such a caring individual as you for their teacher. I agreed with everything you said. It was very good advice for a young teacher in a majority of the classrooms in America where classroom makeup remains the same throughout the year. I don’t understand why you thought it would be of any help to me. Particularly, how would it have helped in that situation of which I wrote?

If we were to critique my use of Two Choices Technique (or to offer any useful advice), I think it would be more effective to take a Socratic approach to figure out: Why did I use it at all? And: By what criteria do we determine its level of success or failure? And then I believe it would be helpful to give action oriented advice. Give concrete examples of what you believe could or should have been done.

I do give advice, and when I do, I avoid the mistake of all edu-pundits who say, “Be nice – everyone responds well if you are nice.” Because being nice doesn’t always work. We often try to start from nice. Then we run into a challenge we didn’t learn about in our ed classes. When we try to explain our challenges to those who don’t understand our challenges and we get told we are being negative or authority driven, it’s not helpful. Being given concepts rather than concrete actions drives many teachers from the profession. At least… That’s what they tell me every time I talk to someone who leaves teaching. [For an example of my Socratic and action oriented approach to suggestions for classroom management Read: Spring Valley High: What I would have done to avoid the assault.]

So, I will address each of your concerns and suggestions in a minute but first some background and then a few questions and a challenge of my own for you as well.

Who do you teach? Gangstas, killers and drug addicts!

It’s legit to ask who or where you teach. Where we teach can have a major influence on all aspects of our profession (as well as our personal satisfaction with the profession). In many of my other posts I have told of the special nature of our school. The following will update you and any others who have only read Two Choices Technique and the Gangsta’.

We are a Community Day School (aka: a CDS school). We are part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. We are part of the ‘Options Program’ which includes continuation schools and schools for pregnant minors. We are a last chance school. We get the bottom of the barrel in behavior, skill levels, social adjustment and just plain bad luck. If that offends you, remember, I have said, “When we talk about the winners of the academic decathlon we call them the top students don’t we? Well, if there is a top there is by definition a bottom.”

The number of students who came to us on weapons and drug violations was so numerous I wrote What Happened To David to tell their story.

I was describing a typical day to some friends, when one of them asked, “But don’t they have special schools for kids like that?” To which I replied, “Yeah, we’re it!” Finally, I ran your letter past JG a former student of mine (and now friend, confidant and more), so I could then discuss how best to respond, and JG said, “Obviously he doesn’t know that your students were all gangstas, killers and drug addicts!”

They weren’t all bad kids.

The sheriffs called our school ‘Future Felons of America’ (although some were already felons with lengthy criminal records) but really, they weren’t all bad kids. It took time and trust to be able to tell who could be helped and how to help them. We didn’t always have time to tell. Our student turnover was higher than in regular schools. We rarely had a majority of the same students at the end of the semester that we had in the beginning.

Not only did we get the bottom of the barrel due to behavior, we also got those who were far behind in their academic (skills and) credits. [Read my rants against social promotion] Finally, we got the bottom of the barrel due to luck. Guys like JG who got swept up in raids and suspended or expelled due to guilt by association. [a theme in What Happened to David]

Educational Triage? You’ve got to Maslow before you Bloom

So, beyond our mission to teach our various subject materials, we had to do educational triage. You’ve got to Maslow before you Bloom. We had to figure out who we could reach to inspire them to get a good education as well as a piece of paper (i.e. diploma). While inspiring we had to also protect. We could have students as young as 11 (7th grade) or was old as 21 (sp. ed.) in the same room at the same time.

Each student was working independently and needed a safe, stress free environment in which to work and learn. Some of our kids were homeless and/or from abusive, dysfunctional families. The only hours of quiet camaraderie in their lives was in our classrooms. We had to have a way of dealing with the student who preyed on others, disrupted the learning of others and stole learning time from others due to acting out, and then refused any offer of help. Yes, I’m saying it – there are kids out there who were so damaged that we couldn’t reach them (given the time and resource constraints put on us as public servants). [Read: The Heartache of the Impossible Child to see what I mean.]

We have to protect those who are willing to work and turn their lives around. We protect them from those for whom no offer of help, no offer of compromise, no threat of punishment, no promise of reward would be any incentive to not interfere with the safety and learning of others.

How did I know I was getting a gangsta’ challenge?

I knew I was getting challenged due to years of experience with tough guys. I grew up on the south side of Chicago. [Read: about bullying and the numerous fights I was in. Yes, I Was Bullied] I worked as a professional musician since I was fourteen. I would ask you, how many (biker) bar fights have you seen where someone gets taken out unconscious? I’ve seen too many. I worked places where I was the only white person there and got along fine. I worked for five years as an incentive sub in L.A.. Incentive subs get a bit more money but you have to take the assignments they give you and most of them are in the inner city. I kept getting called back to various schools because I could handle the inner city hustle.

I got my job at WHCDS because I was subbing there and a fight broke out in the lunch area. I jumped in and stopped it. They figured, ‘He’s crazy enough to work here.’ [Note to new teachers: Check in with your school or union. Jumping in to break up a fight is against our union rules. You could get hurt! We are not to try to physically break up a fight. But when, “Hey Fool! Stop that!” doesn’t stop the action… What do you do as the only adult around? Stand by? Wait for security? Watch some kid get the crap beaten out of them?]

What is success? Authority defined.

I could go on about my successes but I did ask for specifics related to this incident. [I’d be happy to boast about lives I’ve saved if there is an audience, but…] I will try to keep my examples related to why I chose to do what I did and why I think it was a great success.

I feel like we disagree on what a success is. And we seem to disagree in particular about why I feel that establishing my authority was student centered and appropriate. So let’s define authority so we are talking about the same thing.

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary there are two definitions of authority which I believe apply:

1 • a person with extensive or specialized knowledge about a subject; an expert

2 • the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience

I will explain as we go along.

I’m going to answer your concerns by addressing your second premise first. When you said, “…the problem started in this case when the curriculum and teacher were established as the authority in the class.”


Here I must disagree with you. First of all I have fought valiantly against the one size fits all curriculum and pacing guides handed down from on high. Read how I fought about curriculum, common core, and social promotion. Read about my detailed entry evaluations. I developed a system in which I could get a starting place to begin to teach math and in which those who were motivated could learn and progress quickly. But as a public servant, I had to follow district guidelines which I bent but never broke in students’ favor. So, I ask you, when is asking a student to do math in a math class incorrect? And if you think it’s not wrong to ask, I just asked the wrong way – well read on…

I taught an extremely popular and relevant class called Financial Planning/Life Skills (aka FP). No former student ever thanked me for learning y=mx+b, but for years students have come back to me or called me or contacted me on social media, and thanked me for what they learned in Financial Planning (like JM who took over the bookkeeping at his father’s construction company).

The school district changed and we were forced to adopt an all college prep and standards based curriculum. I was no longer given a period in which I could teach FP (I did sneak in some of the concepts but I was limited by law). It was all Algebra and go to college, which was NOT in all of my student’s best interests. I fought. I fought so vociferously (yet respectfully – for all the good it did me or my students) that my Principal came to me one day and said, “Be Careful! They’re watching you downtown. They don’t like what you say at meetings and as an NBCT you are expensive for a little school like us. They want to get rid of you. Be Careful!”  So, I reject any criticism of my use of Two Choices Technique based on the curriculum – I hated the curriculum, fought against it and still fight it. Your next objection was about me establishing the teacher as authority in the class.

Who’s the Adult In the Room?
Authority as Expert.

When I took my educational methods classes I learned about cooperative governance with the full participation of the students. I learned about many different types of classroom management strategies. They worked fine when I student taught 2nd grade. Fifth grade student teaching was a breeze. I found a much different reality during the five years I worked as a substitute teacher.

I developed a wide range of techniques for winning the trust and confidence of a room full of strangers. I’d let them know that I know the subject and am there to teach or, “I’ve been misplaced. I have no idea what the curriculum is for metal shop and your teacher left me no notes.” More often than not, peaceful coexistence based on honesty was achieved. [Read: I Witnessed a Miracle]  But who lets the gangstas run the class? Who’s the adult in the room?

Many of our kids have been just passed long. They figured they were cheated out of an education by whatever and now faced graduation requirements that were daunting. They needed to be assured that I know what the curriculum requires so I can help them:

1 • stay out of jail,
2 • reintegrate with a more livable lifestyle
3 • and hopefully graduate.

By reminding Nicolas that he was off topic, I was also reminding him and the others that:

1 • I know what the curriculum is and I know what you need to graduate.
2 • I will work with you on whatever subject matter we work on, as long as we discuss it and I okay it. [This gets told to each kid when they enter my class]
3 • I was reminding him and the 20 other student in the room that this isn’t jail. In jail as long as you don’t attack the person next to you, after a set amount of classroom time, you pass. Not so in Mr. D’s Room

Who’s the adult in the room?
Authority as having the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.

I always conduct myself by following this advice from the Bard:

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility,
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:
Henry V (III,i, 3~6)

I heard the blast of war and acted appropriately. I’m the guy/teacher who’s been given the responsibility (the power and the right) to make decisions about grades and behavior. I needed students to know that. Students have told me that they have had classes where the teacher was so afraid of some students that those teachers would pass the student (or sometimes the whole class) without teaching them anything. I had to let everybody know that that wouldn’t happen in Mr. DeVuono’s class. I don’t like to enforce obedience but there is NO WAY I would give math credit to guys discussing their distaste for homosexual masturbation in prison.

You said I drew first blood.

I have to ask you what would you do if you overheard two students loudly talking about their distaste for homosexual masturbation in prison? You said, “Calling out a student by  name and correcting in front of the entire class causes embarrassment.” So. What exactly would you do and or say? What do you believe would be the outcome?

I have NEVER had a student claim (either in person or through the rumor mill) that I embarrassed them. For our students, and many of your students who act out, it is an attention getting technique. If you are trying to draw attention to yourself (to get out of work – to bully the teacher) how can getting called out be embarrassing? There was a student who was embarrassed about almost dying in my class due to a drug overdose but that’s another life I saved. Rather than making a claim that I embarrassed Nicolas, it would be better to examine his motivation for talking like that.

What was his motivation?

As I said in the post, it was a gangsta challenge. I figured, Nicolas wanted to see what he could get away with. He was also trying to impress a very powerful gang member (Andre). Nicolas could also count on the intimidation points it could win him if he were to get away with talking trash and bullying the teacher.

What was my motivation?

I wanted to protect my other 20 students. I don’t understand why some people don’t see that. I didn’t want my gay boys to fear the rampant homophobia of the inner city. I didn’t want fear to distract my lesbian students. Who else (but I) would protect those students who weren’t sure of who or what they were, or where they fit in (which means most kids).

I didn’t want my pregnant 17 yr old who was struggling with 6th grade math to hear about the irresponsible fathering of children. Her ‘Baby Daddy’ was in lock up and she was always distracted. I didn’t want my other young men to think that such male irresponsibility was acceptable conduct.

I was worried about the autistic middle school kid who had been mainstreamed into my class. He desperately wanted to be liked (like many teens, but particularly those who fall on the autism spectrum). He came to us on a weapons charge. The gangstas at his middle school heard about an impending search so they asked him to ‘be their friend’ and ‘hold some stuff’ for them. I didn’t want him to get caught with 6 knives again. I had to deflate the power struggle or he might try to get friendly with those who would use him (or any others who were lonely or insecure) to further their criminal activities.

That seemed to me to be student centered. It was centered on those who realized they had a real opportunity to turn their lives around and that I was one of those teachers who could really help them.

Fostering Trust

You advised me to not call out a student by name but you didn’t tell me what to do instead “…to foster trust… that humanizes.” Again I have to ask you what would you have done? I believe I did foster trust. I asked politely, quietly, three times before I shouted (more on shouting in  a moment). The trust I was fostering was: I won’t attack a student unnecessarily nor, will I let students attack each other physically or verbally.

A Word About Shouting

Again with the Bard…

Though we seemed dead, we did but sleep. Advantage is a better soldier than rashness. Tell him we could have rebuked him at Harfleur [the first faggot comment], but we thought it not good to bruise an injury until it were full ripe. Now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial.
Henry V (III, vi, 114~119)

I’ve encountered many students who just didn’t think I was serious until I started shouting. It is a learned behavior from growing up in a chaotic, dysfunctional atmosphere – as many of my students have. Many of my kids believe the great jazz poet Mose Allison who advises:

“If you’re going up to the city, you better learn to shout.
‘Cuz if you don’t stand up and holler, you’re going to be left out.”

You’ll notice that after I shouted (to get his undivided attention) and Nicolas shouted his ‘nigga bitch’ taunt, I immediately lowered my voice. This is part of the technique. I didn’t rise to his bait. One thing that leads to bar fights, street fights and classroom brawls is the refusal to back down or to lower the volume of the rhetoric. People don’t know how, or refuse to learn how to back off with dignity. I provided that for Nicolas. That being, an escape route (to back off with dignity), and a model (Two Choices Technique) to protect himself in the future if his mouth ever writes a check he can’t cash.

Goals – What makes you think I didn’t already try that?

School is definitely about the learner. But the empty chair doesn’t learn. Throwing Nicolas out of class would do him no good (and would probably have started a fight IMHO). The beauty of TCT is that it was quick. Classroom operation returned to normal.

I not only kept Nicolas in class, I kept him in school. Students had been thrown out for the kind of disrespectful language he used. By keeping him in class and in school, I was also keeping him out of jail. Many of our kids were out on parole. More on this in my summary.

You claim that my goal was not to engage, inspire or connect. You assume a lot. What makes you think I didn’t already try that? [Read about my entry evaluations and the necessity of getting to know our kids] It’s easy to say that I have a rare situation with my particular demographic, but each of my students had been in a traditional, middle, jr., or sr. high school and they had already proven that they were a challenge to teach in the current mainstream way. Such students are difficult. I write to help those teachers (and there are a lot of us) who get those kids so we can successfully engage, inspire or connect before the kid gets into trouble and gets sent to a school like mine or jail. I thought that was obvious.

Engage, inspire

Two Choices Technique and the Gangsta’ is a post about how to deal with a very volatile situation AFTER you’ve tried every tool in your teacher’s toolbox. I thought that was obvious. It was not written as an example of where to start. If you want to be sure I understand engagement, read The Standing Desk. It deals with a willful special ed. student who didn’t want to do her physical therapy. I used Two Choices Technique to reframe her view of an odious exercise and made it a source of great pride and accomplishment for both of us.

I won’t go into detail about how difficult it can be to inspire those who are math phobic. You didn’t tell me what I should or could have done that would have inspired Nicolas to stop talking about jail and be inspired to do math. I have taught just about every subject in the whole curriculum and I found it much easier to teach Moby Dick to non readers than to inspire the math phobic to even listen to an idea about how to get inspired about math. [What I did is a whole other can of worms I’d be happy to go into at a later date.].

To show what I consider inspiration read John Coltrane, “My Favorite Things”, and the Hero of Second Grade. If you don’t follow any other links read that one. It’s too heartwarming to pass up.

Connecting Nicolas to a greater understanding of the world.

Connecting students to a greater understanding of the is always a goal in my teaching and my writing. I was connecting Nicolas with the hard fact of life that there is always someone bigger, tougher and in my case, smarter than you. I was also connecting him to his own feelings about the world. Too often my kids act, react, or blow up without thinking of the consequences.

Successes I didn’t talk about in my post

By giving him a quiet moment to consider his options he was able to calm down and think of what was in his best interests. I have students who would rather get a beating or go to jail than back down, particularly with authority figures like teachers and cops. I gave Nicolas the choice to stay in school or to leave. He wisely chose to stay, but he could have said, “Screw it!” and stormed out. It was a win, win solution. I assure you, all witnesses to this exchange saw it as that.

What Nicolas won.

Nicolas got to be part of the show. He could brag to his gangsta friends that he stood up to a tough teacher and didn’t get thrown out. By giving him an out, by which he didn’t lose any face, he could say, “Yeah. When that fool yelled at me I told him I was having a momentary deafness.” (along with appropriate hard guy body language – grin, grin, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean?). I won his respect by helping him to save face. I could then move on to hopefully engaging him with some math. I couldn’t do it if he got thrown out. The empty chair doesn’t learn.

What the students won.

My students won the assurance that Mr. D.’s room is/was a safe place. That they had a teacher who would stand up to the gangstas and not unnecessarily raise his voice or lose control.

What I won.

Respect. Word spread like a Santa Ana brush fire, after that incident with Nicolas and Andre. My reputation among the hard guys was, “If you want to learn, you take Mr. D.’s class. He will treat you with respect. If you want to screw around, take math in lock up or summer school.”

The O.G.s (original gangstas or older …) knew the value of genuine respect and of remaining low profile and actually learning something. The hard guys who were smart knew that a long juvenile arrest record made life tougher than necessary. I didn’t freak out over Nicolas’ rude behavior. I showed them I could be reasoned with.

I have no trouble believing that students who come to us might not trust us. I try to be nice. I frequently use a Vito Corleone line that has been very effective with the hard heads. I say, “Ask your friends about me.”

I would challenge you to consider this. Two weeks after my go around with Nicolas, I got my validation from Andre.

I was having a difference of opinion about the benefits of doing my entrance exam with a rudy poot little kid who wanted to be seen as a tough guy. [according to the Urban Dictionary: a rudy poot is someone who is more or less a wannabe, poser, loser, or something to that effect] He adamantly refused to take my entrance exam or do anything constructive. I was all set to launch my Vito Corleone, Godfather speech when Andre, the toughest gangsta at our school, leaned over and said loudly enough for everyone to hear,

“Man! You just gotta understand.
Mr. D. don’t take no mess!”

If you liked this blog post, I’m sure you’ll like my book

What Happened to David

Paperback now available at Vroman’s Bookstore

and on PayPal and Amazon

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