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Thursday, April 22nd, 2004
9:15p - Journal 7, Session 9 -- Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills


Chapter 6 in the Language and Learning text provides us an overview of Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS). Provide 2-3 examples of ways we can facilitate the acquisition of BICS.


Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills

The State Juvenile Home in Toledo, Iowa, received students from all over the state, both adjudicated delinquent and neglected and dependent. I taught there for nine years, right out of college. I made it a point NOT to read the student’s files, as it is far easier to treat them properly if you DO NOT KNOW who held a knife on their father and tried to kill him from those who were there because their parents failed to make sure they had food and a warm place to sleep at night.

Many times, their life styles led to inadequacies in their education, and our focus was to provide instruction on the basis of what their intake tests showed they most needed remediation in. The students were ability grouped, not by what class they’d be in on the "outs" (outside of the institution) but by best fit.

My ninth/tenth grade English class had a variety of ages, colors, ethnic backgrounds, and underlying problems. When we hit the unit on speech, required for a semester by the state curriculum guidelines, nobody would get up and talk.

I took a cardboard pencil box and emptied it, filling it with tiny slips of paper, each of which had a topic on it. They were simple, one word topics that anyone would know something about.

As the students entered the classroom, I had them file into a line and adorn the blackboard instead of sitting down. They got to sit AFTER they talked. On topic.

My first taker was a huge Negro boy from East Waterloo, George. He was a "troublemaker" and frequently would instigate fights.

He and I had come to an uneasy peace at the start of the year after I’d corrected him one too many times. He was reaching his hand up the mini skirts of the girls who passed to get help/hand in work, and pinched or jabbed his pencil into the boys. On the day of his blow-up, he stood up and pounded his fist into his hand, saying with a growl for a voice, "If you correct me one more time, I’ll kill you! I mean it, I’ll kill you!" He pounded his fist into his hand at appropriate times, and his posture, timing, and facial expression all gave a GREAT, believable performance.

I’d never seen or heard anything more threatening in my life. I was standing behind a podium at the front of the room, and it was a good thing, as I grabbed the sides to keep myself upright. My knees were literally shaking. But, I sounded reasonable… At least the tone of voice was reasonable. "You can’t do that, George. I’d have to go get the principal." (Who, fortunately, was a strong disciplinarian.)

The idea of my dead body jumping up and running out for the principal was so blatantly ridiculous that the class burst out laughing. That was not quite the reaction George was going for. In the face of so much peer scorn, he slumped into his seat and class went on.

Afterward, I caught the principal in the hall as he was walking somewhere and related the story. "What did you do?" he inquired, never stopping.

When I told him what I’d said, and how the class reacted , he laughed and walked off, never saying another word. Me, I needed some reassurance that it was NOT going to happen…

But the day of the speeches, George drew his slip and carefully hid what it said from everyone. "Do I have to do this topic?"

"Yes. It’s something you can easily talk about for one minute."

"Starting when?"

"When you start talking."

"I AM talking."

"On your topic."

"Oh. Black people are good at singing. We’re well-known for our ability to sing and dance well. There have been many well-known Black singers and dancers. Duke Ellington, Chubby Checker, Harry Belafonte, Fats Domino, Otis Redding, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix , Wilson Picket, Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross., lots and lots of them. We’ve got RHYTHM, (he demonstrates by doing an Elvis Presley imitation), and we’ve got style. We sing lots. We’ve always sung. The song I’m going to sing came from the songs the slaves sang. You’re going to love this! .... Is my time up yet?"

I nodded, and he sat down, laying "singing" on my desk. The group howled. "We want to hear your song!"

"Nope. My time is up. I did my talking, and now I get to SIT while the rest of you have to stand."

Nobody even thought of not speaking after that. The minutes ticked by, and in one class period, the impossible happened – all 23 students recited, as compared to 0 the day before.

One other student gave a memorable speech. Tim was a Mesquakie Indian boy who grew up on the Mesquakie settlement right outside of Tama, Iowa. The Indian students were taught by Mesquakie teachers for the first eight years, in an Indian language of the Sauk-Fox language group. Many had very poor English skills when they hit high school, even though they grew up surrounded by people who only spoke English once they got off the tribe’s 800 acres, more or less. Frequently, movements came up to require the Mesquakie teachers to be certified like the other schools, but the tribe owned their own land and claimed tribal rights to keep their language and culture going. (This was long before the casino…)

I do not know what Tim did to get himself sent to the State Juvenile Home in Toledo, Tama’s sister city, occupying the land basically on the north of Highway 30, while Tama had the south, where Highways 63 and 30 junctioned.

Since Tim was quite articulate and had a great sense of humor, it was always hard to keep this sunny trouble maker on task. He could do far better than he would. A talented mimic, he once impersonated Mr. Killstoff’s deep, vibrant voice so closely that the students in his room dashed to their seats and opened their books, then looked around, confused, as Mr. K. was NOT anywhere near.

Tim’s topic was "polls". But he started talking about poles, and how to build a POLE BARN from discarded telephone poles. He ran several minutes over before he got them all set and the supporting crosspieces screwed in… Nobody minded. He made you want to climb into the tractor’s rickety bucket and try to drill into that old post yourself.

Tim was one of only two Indian students at the Juvenile Home at that time. The other was a beautiful girl who was the top of the class even when she chose to "hide". Holly wore pony beads on a string, turquoise and slightly larger than the head of a pin. One day, while we were taking a test, she was putting her finger between her neck and the beads and running it back and forth, putting outward pressure on the necklace as she worked steadily away on her test.

Suddenly into the quite of the room came the sound of the beads popping and bouncing all around the front of the room. Holly turned her test over, carefully began collecting the beads and pouring them into a conical shaped piece of notebook paper she’d made to store them. When she’d gotten them all, she lay the paper on the desk and went back to her test. Soon, the pull of the beads was too strong for her, and she again turned her paper over and began to restring the beads. Soon they were all back on the string. Tying the end, she slipped the necklace back on and again went to work on her test. Forgetting about the break in the string, she was soon again running her finger back and forth over the beads.

They again popped, scattering and bouncing in the silent classroom.

Tim looked up and said, "Well, I guess Holly flunks Indian bead work!"

He put his fluency, wit and voices to good work. After he got out, I saw him once more. "Guess what I’m doing?"

"I’m just relieved it’s not the TIME you always claimed you wouldn’t mind doing!"

He laughed. "I’m the 7 am DJ at WHO on Sunday mornings."

"Oh, what a perfect job for you! Do you like it?"

"Perfect. I’m even in college now." Everyone needs to hear about a few successes along the way.

Talking shop with a Tama-Toledo high school teacher once, I was surprised to hear how much of a trouble maker Tim was in their school, and in her class. Her main complaint was that he would not use English. Of course, he had other Indians from his tribe in that school system, some with very poor language skills, so "hiding" must have been easier. I think half of the reason that he did not at the Juvenile home had more to do with his obvious crush on Holly, who was BRIGHT and not from his tribe, so she had to share things with him in English, not his native language. He did NOT want her to view him as a fool. Clown, okay, but a witty, loveable one. If Tim picked up his English competence in a year or two, to the ability he showed in language word play, nuance, and understanding, he must have been very proficient in his first language at the Mesquakie school, judging from the research

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