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The Dance of the Dolphin

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Introduction from
Classroom Management:
The Dance of the Dolphin

Mark Kennedy

It was just days before the Christmas break and everyone in my class was feeling the intensity of the approaching holidays. As a dangerous corollary, I found out that some of my students were involved in a he-said-she-said undertow. By the time I got word of the dispute, it had escalated through the argument stage and on to the level of threats, never idle in my county-run alternative education class where everyone is “backed up” by older homies, and violence and tragedy can be just a phone call away. I reminded myself this was not paranoia—I’d seen it happen before. And the thought of losing one more kid was more than I could take (the number of those already lost in past years was in double digits).

On the one hand, if we could get to Friday, the two weeks off would act as a natural cooling off period. On the other hand, Friday was two days away, a lifetime. I could picture it all too easily: the slowing car, the ugly flash of metal, the crack of gunshots—another tragedy erupting in a heartbeat. I’d have given anything for it to be Friday afternoon.

But it wasn’t, and it was up to me to do something if this mess was going to be stopped. I knew from experience that calling in a harsh response—police and probation officers—would not work, would only drive the conflict out of sight. I also knew that counseling, even from trusted adults, would bring a polite but distant reaction, and would merely result in an interlude in the action. Fortunately, however, for more than a decade my classroom had been student self-governed, with the intent of nurturing educational, social, and communal authenticity through the balance of student empowerment and responsibility. To make a long story short, the current crop of student leaders was able and willing to step in and handle this situation through a combination of individual and group peer mediation. I turned them loose in an adjoining room, where they conducted a two-hour counseling/support/tough-talk session. Incredibly, when all the participants finally emerged, it became apparent that these children had gone beyond damage control, to healing; old resentments were released and old friendships between the feuding parties were reestablished. The almost-combatants were now just kids again, excited about the coming holidays, because of the work of some other kids who had earlier grown through the balance of freedom and responsibility inherent in our class management system, which we call Micro Self-Government, or just Micro.

The Dance of the Dolphin: Four Steps

Shortly after this incident, while watching JoJo and Dean swim the lazy circle, I began to see it as a dance that might be emblematic of Micro. As man and dolphin swam—or danced—the lazy vertical circle, it occurred to me they could be described as passing through four movements, or dance “steps,” which could represent what I believe are the four primary ways of seeing and running classrooms (Kennedy 2001a; Hallahan and Kauffman 1994). Specifically, there are behavioral classrooms that put a high value on student compliance so that factual information can be efficiently disseminated. Other classrooms are ecological and seek conformity to societal norms in order to ensure that students will learn job and life skills. Then there are psycho-educational classrooms, which operate by creating an environment where learning is driven by student commitment. Finally, there are personalistic classrooms that seek to establish a learning community. What if all four could be combined in one classroom? In every one? In Chapter One we’ll look more closely at each of these four classroom management views and the possibility of forming them into a circle, or dance.

A Willingness to Dance

To lead the Dance of the Dolphin and successfully use all four movements in running a classroom, the teacher, an individual with a strong predilection towards only one of the individual movements or steps, must be willing to admit the he doesn’t know it all, that she is still learning. This will require both humility and courage on my part. Humility is needed because what I don’t know and what I must learn will be seen by all. When I commit myself to the process of dancing with others, I can’t always predict the exact pattern or direction that our dance will take, although I can predict the overall, or global, outcome. Entering a process which will publicly expose me to humility and risk will take some measure of courage on my part. We will talk in more depth in Chapter Two about both the requirements and benefits, personal and professional, that await the teacher willing to lead the dance.

Micro is Significant:
Some Ways the Dance Works

The Dance of the Dolphin will call upon students to change, too. Essentially, it requires students to learn and practice the balance of authority and responsibility, the very foundation of democracy. As we know, in a democracy the social compact between the people and the government empowers the citizenry to make material decisions about government, including who will serve in it, but in return it requires citizens to abide by the decisions of the elected representatives. The result is our rule of law, to which even the President of the United States is obligated. For many students, this will be their first experience with having the authority to make significant decisions that affect themselves, as well as the responsibility of living with the results. Just as with the teacher, this new experience will require courage on the part of students, while paradoxically it increases the security they feel in their learning environment, an effect implicit in Maslow’s work (Dickinson 2001).

Just as there are chosen leaders who make the social compact work, Micro must have leaders as well. One reason we were able to handle the situation illustrated in the opening vignette at the classroom level—in reality, the only level possible—is that students already knew that our class is not just preparation for life, but is life. They know that our class is not a time-out from the real world, as schooling is traditionally seen to be; we don’t believe it “unprofessional” for the teacher and others to acknowledge the real-life problems they’re facing; that it’s OK for us all to be real people, not just academic blank slates, or talking heads with all the answers. In order for a teacher to have the freedom to let go of the traditional “command and control” mode (Fried 2001), and to follow for a while as Dean did when JoJo ascended to become the leader, she or he must have trained, encouraged, and nurtured student leaders. We will take a look at the process for doing so in Chapter Three.

Why the Dance Works:
Micro Self-Government

This book is meant to combine experience with theory, to mirror a reflective practice. Therefore, it includes many suggestions and even exemplars for classroom practitioners.

There are three essentials for practicing a Micro system in the classroom: an organizational scheme, micro regulations (which replace the old list of “classroom rules”), and a micro economy. I will share samples of ways I and others have implemented each in the past, in order to flesh out the theoretical skeleton. As we shall see, however, the ultimate form these three essentials take is open to customization and revision. In fact, when teaching this concept to other teachers, I encourage them to raid my ideas and modify anything they like. More than a few of these students have far outstripped the “master.” I encourage you to do the same.

Learning in the Micro Environment

Using the concepts of social compact and rule of law in the classroom and school, not merely as abstract history lessons but as tangible guidelines for classroom self-management, can have two further pragmatic benefits: Such practice reduces stress for teachers (by delegating some responsibility) and students (because they share in the authority); and, it is educationally significant, because it frees students to find and pursue the particular avenue to learning that best works for them. There are many good maps available for guiding such explorations (Sternberg 1985; Gardner 1993; Diamond and Hopson 1998; Dunn 1996). But since busy practitioners must settle on one, in Chapter Five we will call upon my own model, the idea of Learning Perspectives (Kennedy 2001a), as an example of how students can form roots and then wings in a Micro-run classroom. This exploration will include practical suggestions for understanding and determining the natural perspective that students bring to the learning environment, for subsequently grouping them either homogeneously or heterogeneously, and for challenging them to grow into ways of thinking which at first may seem foreign to them.

From Micro to Macro:
Two Success Stories

While not everyone who leaves my class has gone on to graduate summa cum laude from Harvard (of course, neither did I), I believe all have benefitted. Further, of the micro leaders, about 80% have stayed off drugs, have either completed high school or continued into adult school, and almost all of those have stayed in touch with me. About half are working full time to support themselves and their families, while the rest have continued into college—often at first a community college. Perhaps half of the latter have expressed interest in becoming teachers and counselors with high-risk youth. At this point, I would like to offer the changes in just two kids as an anecdotal rationale for Micro. (As always, I have mixed and matched actual events to protect identities.)

First there is Vicki, who came to my class as a sixteen-year-old child of an alcoholic father and perhaps, one suspects, a victim of sexual abuse. She was what the culture would call a “player.” As is so typical, Vicki had dropped out of school in the ninth grade, and so even though age-appropriate for 11th grade, she had completed less than one full year of high school credits. In the beginning, she fell right in with the wrong people at our school, those with whom she could continue on the same course. After a few months under Micro, however, she began to become more serious about schoolwork, and at the same time seemingly more aware of others, their feelings, and their circumstances.

Vicki was by no means free from her past, though, and so it turned out she became pregnant. But even with morning sickness and doctors appointments, even with time off to have the baby, Vicki returned to school more intent and focused than ever. By doing essentially double the normal high school workload through all this, she was able to complete all her credits, pass the high school proficiency exams, and has for the past couple of years attended community college. Her goal is to work with at-risk youth, perhaps as a probation officer, social worker, or counselor.

Second, I offer Peter. Half Latino and half White, somewhat nerdy and an outcast, Peter was close to his father, but at odds with his stepmother. He had been expelled from comprehensive high school in his freshman year for dealing drugs, and had done time in juvenile hall before being released to attend a court and community school class. I always suspected Peter hid a red-hot rage behind a ready smile, although this observation was from a distance at first: Peter went through several other teachers at our school before they gave him to me—his last stop.

I sensed that it was Peter the (former?) drug dealer who first walked through my door. Yet after a few months he began to change, acting more like a stakeholder, even defending our Micro system to newer enrollees who thought it silly or childish. Within nine months, Peter became first a team leader, and then the class CEO. He held that position for another six months, until it was time for him to return to high school for his last semester so that he could graduate and walk in the graduation ceremony with his class. Peter went on to attend (and complete) an associate of arts degree and to become a full-time day manager in a regional hardware chain, a family operation known for paying well and offering excellent benefits in order to attract the best people. When he arrived the last time he came to visit me, I noticed his car was a much newer and more expensive model than mine!

There are both more and less dramatic success stories from the Micro organization structure; these two are merely illustrative. While I’m sure there are other important elements that contributed to these students’ success, I’m just as sure that they would not have been able to find their own authentic, unique paths to living as independent adults and lifelong learners without the Micro experience. As an added benefit, they helped me and their fellow students become better, more enthusiastic learners and to understand through experience what the delicate dance of freedom and responsibility in a democracy is about. In Chapter Six we will look at several more such stories.

Dancing to Hope

To speak of only one side and ignore the other is to create [skepticism] firsthand in most ordinary citizens, who know firsthand counterexamples to any single view.… Many educators in classrooms and schools feel that they have become pawns in the reformers’ and policymakers’ propaganda game that insists there is only a single best way to change the system of American schools. (Glickman 2001)

The Dance of the Dolphin provides a fuller approach than any one-sided classroom management system. It is an approach that acknowledges the complexities of human need and interaction, a more honest way to lead. And because it is honest, we will see that the Dance of the Dolphin offers hope—hope that inclusion can replace exclusion; that understanding can replace gossip and fear; that trust can suffuse distrust; that every child’s natural hopefulness and exuberance can be nurtured—or rekindled—into a passion for life and lifelong learning; that every educator can be appreciated not in spite of his or her best dance step, but for it. Too idealistic? Not in my experience. But read on, and then decide whether or not you agree.


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