The Pertinence of Being Impertinent
“Is it pertinent?” Lillian asks her classmate who is frantically waving his arm in air to get her attention. The boy sheepishly shakes his head and lowers his hand. Lillian scans the circle and sees another student trying to silently get her attention. She is usually pretty soft spoken, but in a clear authoritative voice, she ask again, “Is it pertinent?” The student nods and Lillian call on them.
Pertinent is a not word you hear many middle schoolers use. Nor do many adults, for that matter. When I worked with students, I often heard myself say, “Calm down,” or “Focus,” but I don’t think I ever told them to be “be pertinent!” That was until I came to Arthur Morgan School.
Encouraging Student Leadership in Schools
At AMS we make a lot of announcements. At least three times a day, we circle up with one another and have announcement periods. A lot of the statements come from staff. They range from updates about the day’s activities, to homework reminders to identifying which staff will be on for chore supervision. The students make announcements too. Theirs typically identify where a club is going to meet or try to drum up interest in an activity they’re planning. Sometimes they remind the community about a norm they feel is slipping. They also give each other consistent reminders to wash their own dishes after snack or inform everyone to be on the lookout for an item they lost.
Announcement periods are a great opportunity to encourage students to speak up and use their voice. They are integral to promoting student leadership in schools. By making announcements, the students feel like they are contributing and valuable members of our community. They feel responsible for the school and recognize the importance of good communication with one another. They then take those lessons into their classes where they feel more comfortable speaking up.
Trusting Students with Power
Students moderate the announcement periods, recognizing people and calling on them to speak. We call this person the clerk. During most announcement periods a ninth grader fulfills the role, but every student is given the opportunity as one of the school’s afternoon chores. After everyone has spoken, the clerk asks the community to share a moment of silence of which they choose the length. By ringing a bell, they let everyone when its ok to speak again and move on with their day.
This power feels real to our students and they often treat it reverently. A prospective parent once commented to me on the rareness of this responsibility we so regularly give our students. “It’s amazing–a whole community, staff and other students, respond to the authority of a student who is sometimes younger than them. How empowering!”
Middle Schoolers Need Practice Speaking
Announcement periods also provide an excellent opportunity for public speaking. An announcement is usually just sentence or two, but for a middle schooler even a short public declaration can be mortifying. While everyone’s attention is quietly focused on them, they must clearly explain their thoughts. It’s pretty common for them to mumble at first or add an awkward “yeah” to the end of their statements. As time goes on though, they often build confidence. They watch their classmates speak up and quickly feel emboldened to speak their mind clearly and assertively into the circle.
Too Much of Good Thing?
Sometimes though they feel a little too emboldened. Once a student feels comfortable speaking up, the effect can be a little intoxicating. Some students will take advantage of the spotlight and use announcement periods to tell a funny story or highlight a funny joke they just learned. Being middle schoolers, they sometimes just make up words and enjoy the reaction they get from yelling them into the circle.
Once one ridiculous announcement is made, it usually causes a chain reaction. Another student will want similar attention and make their own silly announcement. These attention seeing moments take up valuable time and hamper the sense of leadership that we are trying to bestow on our students. This is why we stress pertinence.
Asking a student whether their announcement is pertinent causes them to think about their words. The question forces them to pause and think about whether what they want to share is important to everyone or if its just about them wanting attention. The stakes are real. If a student makes too many impertinent announcements, they will lose the trust of their fellow students. If they keep abusing the privilege, they might stop being called on to speak.
Of course we also recognize that its sometimes healthy for middle schoolers to be goofy and show off for one another. So on Wednesday nights we give them a chance to make impertinent announcements. When announcements are called after dinner, you can feel the energy in the air. Lillian, as clerk, first asks for pertinent announcements. Students sit on the edge of their seats, their arms ready to shoot up, as they listen to a teacher remind them to turn in a homework assignment or another student tell them to bring in bathing suits the next day. Then Lillian calls it.
“Time for impertinent announcements,” she states. A dozen hands shoot up. Lillian chooses one.
“GAWRP!” the first student says. Everyone laughs and raises their hands again.
“Did you hear about the kidnapping?,” another student asks. “They woke up.” Lillian calls on someone else.
“So I was hungry today and I saw this piece of bread lying on the ground so I decided to eat it and then I did so…yeah.”
Lillian keeps calling on people, never questioning the pertinence of anything the students wish to say. Sometimes a staff member will join in and add to the ridiculousness. After a few minutes, the students tire themselves out and Lillian calls for silence.
Maintaining the Students’ Empowerment
Impertinent announcements like the ones above used to litter our normal announcement periods. They were just silly distractions, but they also diminished the empowerment and sense of responsibility we were attempting to foster. By relegating impertinent announcements to Wednesday nights, we create the opportunity for our middle schooler to be silly while also stressing the importance of making their words matter. We teach them the pertinence of being pertinent.
-by Nicholas Maldonado