To Change Behavior, Students Act as Teachers

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Kate Gutwillig has been teaching for two decades, but she was caught off guard after moving to Public School 51 in Manhattan last September.

"I've never cried like I have this year," Ms. Gutwillig, 49, said during a quiet moment in May. "I've gotten so angry, and I've beaten up my bathroom door with a mop handle because it's so frustrating. Because we haven't been able to get it to work."

Ms. Gutwillig and her co-teacher, Priscilla Wong, taught an inclusion class with 30 students for most of the year. Ten of them had special needs and the gender balance was off, with 10 girls and 20 boys, some of whom were aggressive. During a typical day in Class 4302, several boys would be seated at desks facing the walls to avoid causing too many distractions. Temper tantrums and suspensions were not uncommon.

"The lack of respect in this room is -- it's appalling," said Ms. Wong. "And it's really depressing sometimes."

The teachers knew they had to do something drastic to change the classroom environment. With the help of a colleague, they devised an intervention of sorts. They started a reading-buddy program, pairing their students with first graders for two classes a week. The hope was two-fold: that the fourth graders would assume a leadership role, and get a dose of their own medicine by seeing how difficult it can be to teach.

The results, they said, were mixed.

Many schools use reading-buddy programs to build community and improve literacy, according to the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse. At P.S. 51, the teachers used a curriculum co-written by Teddy Gross, executive director of Common Cents, best known for its annual Penny Harvest charity drive. Mr. Gross said he wanted to give the so-called bad students a chance to play a different role.

"If you know what it's like to be a teacher, you probably are going to be a better student," Mr. Gross explained. "And if you know what it's like to have to cope with a bad student, you're probably not going to be inclined to be one."

The students weren't told that the program was intended to help them. The focus, instead, seemed to be on the first graders.

One day in May, a first-grade teacher entered the fourth-grade classroom and announced that she had a problem. She told the children that some of her students had trouble reading and might not move on to second grade.

"And I was wondering if maybe I could come down here and get some of you to help them out," she continued, saying she would need only about five tutors.

The students jumped at the chance, raising their hands and shouting "ooooh."

After seeing their excitement, the fourth graders were then told they could all participate. Mr. Gross and a co-worker spent a week training them how to be tutors.

The first task: picking a book. As the fourth graders entered the two first-grade classrooms, wearing laminated name tags, they approached their buddies and took them to tables piled with picture books.

Brandon, a 10-year-old with big brown eyes, had been assigned two buddies. "Which book do you want to read?" he asked them, hopefully.

But the two little boys were distracted by the classroom's ant farm and didn't seem excited about reading. "Quincy, Eli, do you want to read now?" Brandon pleaded.

"Uh, no," said one of the boys.

Brandon was frustrated but he kept his cool, guiding the two boys to a table with some books. On the the other side of the room, a girl with a bright pink head scarf was a natural, getting her two buddies to take turns reading a picture book. But other students found it difficult to share, especially during related art activities.

One fourth-grade boy got annoyed after helping his buddy draw a puppet. "Apparently he's taking all the credit," he grumbled.

And that's when the light bulbs went off. The fourth graders met as a group after each tutoring session. Ms. Gutwillig was amused when this same boy -- who's a notorious trouble-maker -- complained about how difficult his buddy had been with the puppet.

"That sounds familiar!" Ms. Gutwillig said. Then she asked how it made him feel. "Now I know how Ms. Gutwillig feels," he replied, as the children all laughed.

Several students acknowledged they had trouble getting their buddies to cooperate in picking books or making art projects. One boy read an essay to the group, in which he wrote, "I hope everybody knows how it feels to be a teacher."

As they shared their stories, the students also explored why their buddies were having trouble. When Brandon told them about how one of his buddies wouldn't sit down to read, he said, the problem wasn't about reading but behavior.

"You know what, honey, he is who he is," said Ms. Gutwillig, explaining how she and Ms. Wong tackle similar situations. "We come back every single day. And we try and we try and we try. And sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But we never give up."

But reversing roles wasn't a cure for Class 4302. Midway through the six-week program, the two boys who told Ms. Gutwillig how they could relate to being a teacher were suspended. Her co-teacher, Ms. Wong, said that didn't mean the buddy program was a failure.

"I think that it just takes more than just one program in a month to really change what they grew up with," Ms. Wong said. "You know, it goes way deeper than that. It has to do with family life. It has to do with their surroundings."

Those are the things no intervention can fix in just six weeks.

But Ms. Gutwillig said the tutoring program did bring everyone together and alter perceptions. She said a couple of boys in particular really rose to the challenge of acting like older brothers and helping the first graders. "I think there's been a change in our relationships definitely, and that we understand each other better," she said.

But in those moments when students are really acting out, she acknowledged it's very hard for both sides to build a trusting relationship. That's why she wants to try the buddy program again next year, starting much earlier than May.

Additional reporting by Yasmeen Khan.