“It’s Friday. I got that reading class next. But all we do on Fridays is watch Judge Judy.” This was followed by a small flurry of fist bumps. I once overheard that during snack. One of my many grand cons was taking shape. I am constantly conjuring up my best P.T. Barnum. Let’s be honest here. I’m not just teaching class. Half the time, I’m selling tickets. I can’t show you a damn thing, unless I can reel you into the circus tent. Luckily, most classes don’t need much of a sales pitch. Some silly behavior and an interesting take on a story and they’re in. They were coming under the tent anyway. Parental fear. Goals. The need to please. Maybe even a love of reading, or a secret interest in writing. They’re coming under the tent. Rest assured, I’ll still give them a good show most days. Step. Right. Up.
But other classes? My big red circus tent holds no interest. Allure is low. Ticket sales are way down. When you have THAT class you need something more. On the first Friday, I start the con.
“I’m bored,” I say after they’re seated.
“At least you’re getting paid.”
“Let’s not do anything today. I feel like watching my favorite TV show. Let’s do that.”
“What’s your favorite TV show?”
“Judge Judy.” They laugh at this.
“That show is stupid.”
“My grandma watches her every day.”
“Me, too,” I say and click on the DVD. Keep in mind that each case is designed to last about ten to twelve minutes. Immediately, some of the kids start to hum the serious court music that plays as each case is introduced. “I thought you guys said it was stupid. Why do so many of you know her little song?”
“Because my grandma can barely hear so that music is thumping in my house when I get home.” We laugh. And we watch. The class provides quite a bit of colorful commentary and play-by-play action.
“Crazy eyes!” someone immediately calls out when one of the defendants makes her entrance. I freeze it on her “crazy eyes.”
“Really? Are these crazy eyes?” It seems unanimous that the defendant has clearly brought her crazy eyes to the courtroom. “Why are they crazy eyes?”
“They’re all wide and buggy.”
“Like Ms. Jenkins in math.” The class laughs at Ms. Jenkins’ expense.
“Yup. Once Ms. Jenkins gives you her crazy eyes, you know you’ve pushed her too far and you best stop right away.”
“Does this woman’s set of crazy eyes hurt her case?” Most believe it does.
“Should it, though?” And, the room breaks out in actual reflection. Many agree that it shouldn’t matter, but that it probably will. “Have any of you ever been judged unfairly like this woman?” I get a few stories. I also get a lot of thoughtful faces. I don’t want to push too hard first time out, so we pick up the case. Commentary continues.
“Liar,” someone blurts out. Naturally, right before her decision, I pause the screen.
“Who will win?” Kids start shouting out. “If you think the woman will win, move to the left side of the room, and if you think the landlord should win move to the right.” Kids eagerly move to their respective sides. And when Judge Judy, complete with side remarks that would be totally inappropriate in any normal court setting, leans in for the big reveal, cheers and boos go up about the room. The room settles after a bit.
“Why did you think the landlord would win?” I ask.
“Because that woman was crazy.”
“But, it wasn’t a case about whether or not she was crazy. It was only about if she owed the money or not.” The kid throws up his hands. “Let’s do this every Friday,” I say and the room seems pretty pleased by this. But little do they know that the gas lighting has begun.
Next Friday comes and the screen is paused on Judge Judy’s opening. Kids cheer. It just feels like free time. When kids settle in, I pass out what looks like a small reading article. Dejected faces stare back at me.
“This ain’t Judge Judy,” someone points out.
“This is the case we’re about to watch. I thought, it would be interesting if you saw ONLY the facts in the case first, and then made predictions based only on the facts.” Kids look at each other, a little disappointed. “It’s only a page and a half.” I pause. “And there are prizes for the winning predictions.” This seems to be a reasonable trade for the group. And, almost in unison, they begin reading. While they start, I hand out highlighters. “Annotate the facts that support your predictions.” No one seems to complain. I don’t hear the usual chorus of indignant sighs.
Predictions are made and the debates begin. Without crazy eyes to go on, students repeatedly refer to the text to support their claims. And, at that moment, they are no longer THAT class. They are like any class highly engaged in critical reading and debate. We choose our sides and let the case begin. In unison, the whole room hums her serious intro music. When one witness is called, many of them chant out, “crazy eyes!” By the end of class, no one seems to care that they were forced to read and annotate today. The gas lighting isn’t over, though.
Next Thursday, I hand out the next case. Just the facts again.
“We’re watching Judge Judy today?”
“No. Tomorrow. But I had an idea. Since I’m going to need about five essays from you this semester, what if we made one or two of them Judge Judy essays?” They look around. “Nobody has to know,” I add. I put up our essay format. Their prediction is their thesis. They site evidence to support their claims. It’s all there. Most of the kids are finished or nearly finished their essays by the end of class. And most of them have a completed product come viewing time the next day.
In those two days, this class of struggling students got quite a lot accomplished. They read critically. They annotated. They wrote an essay. They cited evidence to support claims. But to hear them tell it? We just watch Judge Judy on Fridays. Step. Right. Up.
For more inspiring classroom stories, please check out Mr. Bowen’s recent bestseller, Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom.