Challenging Times


Today I revisited a lesson that I have done a number of times in my classroom. You know that you are becoming an institution in a school when older siblings prime younger ones for ‘The Card Lesson.’

The Thinking

I have always been very adamant that children who leave my class have a sense of their responsibility to society, especially in Northern Ireland where I hope we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past (lefty liberal, that I am!). To this end I like to explore symbols of Northern Ireland in my class in a neutral, open environment. This is a very interesting unit and runs parallel to a small ‘situation’ I give the children to work out.

The Set-Up

Without warning, my children come into class to find a playing card on their desk. They are told that the card is not to be touched until I give permission. They are then told that they will either turn-up a black or red card.

‘Under no circumstances do you want a red card,’ I begin. This is followed by me explaining, at great length, that those who receive a red card will have an awful day, while the rest will be allowed free time to do what they want – art, computer time, etc. After more exposition where the expectation is heightened, each table is asked to turn their cards over and if a child turns over a red card, they are to leave the class immediately and wait for me in a resource room that we access through another door in the classroom.

I’m sure that you can appreciate the atmosphere in the classroom as table-by-table, children turn cards to discover their fate!

Strong Children

By now, I hope that you realise that the cards are primed for certain children. I choose children who wouldn’t naturally get into trouble or who I think have the strength of character that I need. The door to the resource room which the children exit to, has very large vision panels, enabling the class to see me speaking to the children I have chosen. They stand with their backs to the class while their peers can see, but not hear, my very angry and bitter facial expressions that I pull as I tell these 4 or 5 kids that I need them to act miserably for me as I ‘punish’ them by making them sit in corners, facing walls, while around them the rest of the class are enjoying themselves.

This takes massive amounts of trust between me and my ‘volunteers’ and it is always given as they enjoy being conspirators in the deceit!

Who’s Brave Enough?

After returning to class I am quite spiteful to my conspirators: making their lives a misery; speaking in very angry tones to them; etc. All the while I’m the best in the world to the other children, getting them to relax and enjoy themselves.
And I wait…
I wait for those in my class who don’t like the set-up to complain to me! Surely, this situation is so wrong that something has to be done about it?
And I wait…
Inevitably there are a lot of rumblings around the classroom about how it isn’t fair or that the children involved haven’t done anything wrong and never have.
And I wait…

The First Time

Today, for the first time I was actually challenged about my behaviour by a number of girls in the class. They were so nervous that the spokesperson was actually shaking when speaking to me and the other girls weren’t too far behind!

This was exactly the result I wanted but it was built on false foundations as, last week, I told them about some of our ex-pupils who had stood up to a situation in their new schools. However, they did it to me and I was delighted. I managed to deflect them to see how they would cope with being dismissed. So, what did they do? They embarked on an unofficial, low-key strike!

Wonderful, absolutely wonderful! The girls didn’t think I had noticed but I did see that they refused to participate in any of the activities by just sitting in their seats, arms folded, not talking to anyone. I was, and still am, so proud of them for this but I couldn’t let them see that I had acknowledged their resistance.


After about 40 minutes of this ‘charade’  I broke the news to the rest of the class that it was all a set-up and that my ‘volunteers’ had been in on the prank all along. The release of emotion was almost palpable as those children who were struggling with the situation now had relief from their inner struggle! We then had a class discussion (not ‘Circle Time’ which I despise – too artificial in my eyes) where we all faced up to what had happened.

Where Were You When We Needed You?

My boys and girls, this year, have been a remarkable class for their inclusion considering the extremities of abilities in the class. They look out for each other, make sure that nobody is left out and generally display a very caring attitude to each other.

So, why didn’t they all complain at my change in behaviour? Fear? Loyalty? Relief? Revenge?

All these emotions and more came out as we found out why they were prepared to let my behaviour continue. Fear that they might have to sit in the corner if they complained; Loyalty to (Fear off?) me as the class teacher as such behaviour is totally out of character; Being overcome by relief that they didn’t get a red card and so took the opportunity to enjoy the free time; Taking delight in the misfortune of others and revelling in the way they were being treated (very, very rare – but there!)


I apologise for the length of the explanation of the activity but, I’m sure you can appreciate, it does need some explaining. The turn of a card decided the fate for five children this morning – it wasn’t their fault.

But neither is it the fault of someone being born Jewish and suffering in the second World War. It isn’t the fault of someone being born a different colour and being enslaved / imprisoned for it. It isn’t the fault of someone being a Catholic or Protestant and being discriminated / beaten / killed because of it. Nor is it the fault of  the child preyed upon by the adult. But this is what happens in our society – it’s all around us and a reality in too many lives. If no-one speaks up, who will say that it is wrong?

I want the children to speak up about my behaviour because it’s wrong and shouldn’t happen. One day, hopefully, I will get reported to the principal (who is fully aware of what is happening at the time, by the way, primed to take the knock on the door) and someone will speak up against the wrong going on in our microcosm of society in our classroom that morning.


I will follow-up the activity with a viewing of ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ to give the children an insight to what happens on a grander scale and what the consequences of human behaviour can ultimately be.

One thing, however, that needs to be revisited is the guilt of those children who wanted to challenge the behaviour, felt they couldn’t, but regret not taking the final step…





Four of the five children chosen this morning have older siblings who have been in my class. Ironically, they were all aware that I had done this before so I was fortunate (clever?) in choosing them! Now, I have to think of something different for next year…


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