In boxing, it’s called The Walk-Away.
As a kid, I was attracted to this easy stunt. It required a little under-stated showmanship on my part, and I immersed myself into the role. After the ref pulled the two of you apart from some sweaty clench, you drop your hands and start to walk back to your corner as if you are confused and somehow think the round is over.
If you do it just right, an opponent with an untrained eye might quickly attempt to seize on his alleged good fortune and bound toward you with blood in his eyes.
Now, you must do your mock walking away at just the right angle to reserve full use of your peripheral vision. Once they pass that line, you spring into action with a well-pivoted cross. Caught more than one opponent off guard with that one. You can only use it once, so the timing must be just right.
In the classroom, I use the spirit of the Walk-Away all the time. Kids are easy to draw in. My go-to-slight-of-speech involves starting a story that I suggest I shouldn’t be telling them and then…well…sort of walk away.
“Just tell us! Please!”
“We won’t tell anybody, we swear!” That’s the second biggest lie kids tell. It’s not possible for a fourteen-year-old to keep this sort of secret. Sadly, they only seem capable of keeping the secrets that they should tell. Fear is power. The biggest lie kids tell is some version of, “We won’t talk anymore. Promise.” Brain chemistry surrounding impulse control just doesn’t make this a promise they can physically keep.
I turn and act as if I’m about to confess but stop myself and walk away again. Yes, the rarely used Double Walk-Away. This. Is. Killing. Them.
“Okay, okay. But you can’t mention it to anybody. I don’t want to lose my job over this.” If you ever want to silence a room where the angst hangs heavy with the mass hysteria of puberty, simply suggest that what you are about to say next could cost you your job.
“I hacked into Ms. London’s grade book.” There are gasps. Like the full-on types of gasps characters make in classic old plays when the rules of polite society have been breached.
“Oh shit,” someone whispers.
“Yeah, oh shit,” I say. Somehow me muttering “oh shit” lends authenticity to the moment. Alex is first up with the epiphany.
“So, like you can change our grades.” All eyes on me. Instantly, the semester has a whole new glow of hope. Eighth grade privileges could be restored. All of it just a few clicks away.
“I can’t,” I say. “I can only see what is there.” In just a few short words, hope’s glow has been dashed.
“Well, that ain’t hacking. We can go online and see that.”
“Not everything,” I say. It’s as if someone is playing with the light switch. Hope glows once again.
“What’s that mean?”
“Well, I was able to see how she calculates her grades.” Hope is still glowing, hanging on these next few sentences. “Did you know that you only need to do some of her assignments to get a C?” Confused, but still awash in glow, kids look at each other.
“She never said that.”
“She never will. It’s a secret that most teachers won’t tell you.” Most kids at this age are certain that the world of adults is conspiring against them. So? Fuel the conspiracy. Use it for good.
I pull out some folded papers from my back pocket and lay them on the desk. I push books out of the way, some fall, creating just a bit more urgency. Instinctively, the kids surround the desk. In that moment, we all feel to be looking at a map showing the one glaring weakness of the Death Star.
“What is this?”
“This is a print out of all of your grades for her class.” One kids seems a bit dejected.
“But I don’t have Ms. London. I have Mr. Simpkins.” On cue, I reveal more papers and smile.
“If you’re going to hack into grade books, you can’t hack into just one.” We are no longer a group of kids failing some classes. We are now a pack of Robin Hood’s men seizing from the rich, stealing our dignity back from our oppressors.
Let’s recap a moment. Obviously, I didn’t hack into anybody’s grade book. I still hand my phone to my children when it won’t magically give me what I want. All I did was meet with the history department and discuss how I might be able to move their D and F students into the immaculate glory that is a C for most of them. Once I understood how they weighted their grades, it became apparent that perhaps all the assignments didn’t need to be done in order to get a C. Or, some assignments could be turned in with minimal effort in order to avoid the zero so that their energy could be spent on assignments that might push them over the line.
“But, that’s still a bunch of homework.”
“No, it isn’t,” I say confidently. “You can do it all in here.” Confusion rustles through the room.
“But you’re our English teacher. What about English?”
“Anything you do for Social Studies counts for me.” I pause. “You get two grades for one.” Hope restored. Vague possibility is fast becoming something tangible. So much is in reach.
“Are you allowed to do that?”
“Who’s going to know?” Yes, that’s right. The kids now think that, in a matter of minutes, I have placed my job and security in absolute peril TWICE. The school district could now tap my phone and search my house. “Will you be reading?” They nod. “Will you be writing?” More nods. “Studying?” Nods again. “Close enough,” I say.
Meet Them Where They Need You
If the internet is correct, then Oscar Wilde once said, “Life is far too important to be taken seriously.” As it is with struggling students, you must meet them at their greatest point of need. Instruction should be differentiated.
Sometimes it’s not the material or strategies that need to be differentiated, though. Sometimes, it’s the angle. It’s how you finesse it all. Present an idea as an undercover, sneaky adventure and now you’ve got them going. School is too important to be taken seriously, right?
If this were a standard class, it might have been a good idea to present their grades and show them how they could improve and where they could best make use of their time and energy. But this group? The straight-ahead approach assumes that school and grades matter far greater than they do with these guys. And besides, where’s the fun in that? No. This is a group that sees little to no value in hard work and responsibility. This is the group that is looking for an angle. Some way to game the system.
Give it to them. We weren’t a group of hard-working students yearning for better grades and achievement. Let’s be honest. We were a rather motley group of under-supported kids, some struggling year after year with no real clue about how to actually BE a student. We were no good, lazy cheaters. This was our ticket. And we took it.
Every kid got a copy of their grades with the missing assignments. Next, we got the calculators out and started plugging in numbers. The big question was what was the least amount of work each kid could do and still pull off the C?
“I don’t need to make up all of that stupid homework as long as I do the three essays.”
“If I can get a B on the next test, then I wouldn’t need to do that summary.”
“But you need to be studying your butt off. You have to guarantee that you can get a B.” Kids sit in groups based on what assignments they would actually attempt. Notecards are passed out and kids make stacks of terms and dates to study. I sit with groups and help them craft their essays. Never before had this group tried so hard or done so much. But they didn’t see it that way. We were in full scam mode.
“I need to do this other essay,” a student points out disappointedly – as if doing one more essay was the tipping point. One more essay would make this too much like work.
“What do you need to get on it?” This logic hadn’t quite dawned on him yet. We run the numbers. “Looks like you only need a D. So, just do D work.” He smiles.
“You mean barely try like I usually do.”
“Exactly.” It’s a scam within a scheme wrapped in a trick.
No F’s. No D’s. Mission accomplished. The list of D’s and F’s came out, announcing who would not be going to the eighth-grade party, who would miss out on the trip. The breakfast. The promotional walk across the stage that many a struggling mother needs to see. Many more than you might know cling to it as validation that maybe this all might work out in the end. My usual group of suspects were nowhere on that list. I’ve won some pretty big teaching awards over the years, but without question, this was my single greatest achievement.
The Rules Of The Game
On that last day of class, before their week of eighth grade activities began, we take out our grades again.
“Last assignment.” Groans all around. “It’s simple. Promise. Just do me this one small favor.” We come to a reluctant agreement. “All I need you to do is figure out how much more you would have needed to do to get B’s. Or A’s.” Kids sit around and crunch the numbers. After a little while, there is some genuine surprise.
“It’s not that much more to get a B.”
“It’s not that much more to go to college, or trade school. It’s not that much more to make a decent living and have a nice life.” It’s one of the most important silences I ever earned.
“I wish I would have known this a long time ago.”
“Me too,” I say. “But it doesn’t matter now. Now you know. You have actual proof. It’s all a game. All of it. You just need to know how to play this game.”
And on that day, we were no longer a room of no good, lazy cheaters. On that day, we were strong, hard-working young people better prepared to take on the world — one scam at a time.
For more inspiring classroom stories, please check out Mr. Bowen’s, Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom.