Friday, February 08, 2008

1, 2, 3, 4....I Declare a Paper War!

Ok, take a piece of notebook paper in your hand and ponder its many uses. You can use it to diagram sentences, solve complex mathematical equations, begin the next great novel or…use your hand to squish the paper up into a ball.

Yep, you read that right….create a paper ball.

Now ponder the different uses for that same piece of paper in ball form. When faced with a mistake you can release your frustration by crumpling your paper. Perhaps you’re out of those bits of Styrofoam and you need to pack something fragile. In some young minds a paper ball equates to trash which we all know must be gotten rid of as quickly as possible when sitting in a classroom. Students have some strange notion that a paper ball cannot remain on a desktop until the end of class. They must be thrown away as soon as they are formed or something terrible will happen. I don’t know what that is, but paper balls sharply increase the gravitational pull between students and the trash can. What I do know is when I challenge a student regarding why they are up and walking to the trash can during a lesson I am also instituting a power challenge between the student and myself.

Thanks to James Madison one way I have reduced the number of trash can power struggles is by instituting what I call “Paper War Rules”. It’s very simple. Stay in your seat during whole group lessons and partipate as instructed. The reward? A no holds barred just short of physical injury paper ball fight in the classroom.

Some might be asking themselves what the big deal is about going to the trash can. Well, maybe you’ve forgotten what fun it can be to stand in front of a trash can and lob paper balls into it one by one. Suddenly the whole group isn’t looking at me or listening to me. They are watching “the star” at the trash can. On average I have approximately two whole group lessons a week where I need the undivided attention of students for ten to fifteen minutes at a time. Basketball antics followed by a student who wishes to challenge me with vulgar actions and words can be extremely disruptive for everyone.

So, what does James Madison have to do with a paper war? Well, everything, of course! You see James Madison attended Jersey College or you might recognize the name it carries now….Princeton. In fact, the college likes to state he was their first graduate student. Ralph Ketcham’s biography of Madison recounts a friendly rivalry between the American Whig Society and the Cliosophian Society. Madison along with Pennsylvanians and Southerners were members of the Whigs while New Englanders tended to be members of the Cliosophian Society. Their paper war did not consist of paper balls but was a war of words when they could manage to trick or talk their professors into allowing it. Each society had their own poets who would write satiracal verse aimed at members of the other side. The verses would be volleyed back and forth in the prayer hall before the entire student body. Apparently it was great fun and some of the poetry exisits in a notebook that can be found at the college per Ketcham. He included in his biography of Madison two examples of verse. The first aimed at Samuel Springer who later became a Congregational minister and the second aimed at Moses Allen, another a minister who served at Midway, Georgia during the American Revolution. Both men remained great friends throughout their lives with Madison. Here are Madison’s verses aimed at Samuel Springer:

Urania threw a chamber pot
Which from beneath her bed she brought
And struck my eyes and ears and nose
Repeating it with lusty blows.
In such a pickle then I stood
Trickling on every side with blood
When Clio, ever grateful muse
Sprinkled my head with healing dews
Then took me to her private room
And straight an Eunuch out I come
My voice to render more melodious
A recompence for sufferings odious…

and Madison’s words towards Moses Allen:

Great Allen founder of the crew
If right I guess must keep a stew
The lecherous rascal there will find
A place just suited to his mind
May whore and pimp and drink and swear
Nor more the garb of Christian wear
And free Nassau from such a pest
A dunce a food an ass at best.

If you haven’t figured it out by now I don’t share all of Madison’s verses with students. This site here provides another Madison poem. Ketcham states in his book that the verses demonstrate abundantly what Madison never doubted: he was no poet. Students like to hear about the paper wars as I begin to explain to them how my own “Paper War Rules” work.

Part of instituting “Paper War Rules” in my classroom involve me placing the words “Paper War” on the board in different colors for each class I teach. As students challenge me or violate the stay seated policy I erase a small portion of the letters. A great day in class means I replace a small part that might have been deleted previously. At the end of class we collect the paper that needs to be thrown away in large lawn and leaf bags----only paper----no half eaten sandwiches, pencil shavings, or the assortment of strange items that end up in my trash can at the end of the day.

I’ve never had a class operating under “Paper War Rules” not get to have their paper war though there have been some close calls. Some of the more challenging students learn very quickly they will receive the wrath of their classmates if they continue to challenge me. Excitement mounts as we near the end of the term because I never announce when I will declare a paper war. Sometimes I stand at the front of the room smiling slyly as I wait for things to settle down. Under their breath someone whispers, “This is it….paper war!” Then I do an about face and say, “Ok, yesterday we discussed Jackson’s victory at New Orleans using citizen volunteers. Let’s move on by writing accounts of what Jackson might have said to get citizens to defend New Orleans.” Disappointment mixes with stoney resolve as students realize “Paper War Rules” are still in effect for one more day at least.

Finally, the day really does arrive and with fifteen minutes left in the class period I begin to walk to the back of the room to avoid getting run over announcing along the way in a loud teacher voice, “1 , 2, 3, 4…..I DECLARE A PAPER WAR!”

For exactly one second and a half there is no movement. There is no sound. Then the room magically transforms into a battle zone replete with a no-mans land. Tables are pushed away and a few are turned up on their sides to form trenches and fox holes for students to take refuge in. The bags and bags of collected paper balls are requisitioned to the two teams.

I walk to the front of the room and raise my hand. The attack is on as I exclaim, “Engage your enemy!” The room erupts into a verbal flurry of paper wads. There’s also a verbal volley as students must say social studies vocabulary words as they launch their paper balls across the room. No, it’s not the satiracal prose of Madison and his college buddies, but it makes them think while they have fun. It also slows down the throwing a bit so the fun is stretched out longer. It’s quite a scene as the air fills with paper zingers, giggles, squeals, and a mish-mash of vocabulary. George Washington, origin story, compromise, Renaissance, Line of Demarcation, Treaty of Paris, de Gama, compass rose, Samuel Adams, allegiance, barter, and Phyllis Wheatley are just some of the words kids shout at each other.

After the paper balls are all thrown and I have told at least three young men to NOT place the plastic lawn and leaf bags on their heads we clean up and refill the bags for the next group that might get to have a paper war. Every class has their war on a different day so they can’t pass along the good news to another group.

Students leave the room thanking me for the fun and I say, “You earned it and don’t thank me. Thank James Madison!

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