U.S. teacher provides lesson for combating class collapse

by Ryan Nakashima

William was an impatient junior high student in Karol DeFalco’s Connecticut classroom, constantly bringing questions to her while she was in the middle of helping other students.

Experts on classroom collapse speak Friday at a Tokyo symposium.

After she said, “Not now, William, go back to your seat,” he would noisily slam back in his desk with a huff.

His actions were on the verge of causing classroom collapse, a problem that has hit Japan, where unruly students ignore or talk back to teachers, walk around and talk loudly.

The Education Ministry defined classroom disintegration in a report earlier this year as being a situation in which classrooms do not function. Experts in Japan have yet to find a way to effectively deal with the issue.

DeFalco recounted her problem with William, which occurred over a decade ago, during a symposium on classroom breakdown held last week in Tokyo.

On the next outburst, DeFalco told the student, “Not now William, ‘timing.’ “

“Timing” was the keyword of a social development lesson the class had learned earlier. It was part of a new curriculum the New Haven, Conn., school board was testing in 1989 to help get a grip on truancy, bullying and a dropout rate that showed 50 percent of eighth-graders never went on to graduate.

William’s response surprised her.

“Miss DeFalco, I get it! It means I can ask you later.”

DeFalco said the social development lessons not only pulled the classes back from the brink of breakdown, but raised academic performance, attendance and students’ affinity for school.

The dropout rate fell to 42 percent a few years after the program started, she said.

Topics in the 45-minute, once-weekly lessons ranged from stress management and positive self-evaluation to alcohol, drugs and teen pregnancy.

The material, which DeFalco helped develop, was designed to address student needs as identified by a group of parents, academics, teachers and other community members.

Disruptive students were found to lack self-awareness, were unable to manage stress or control impulses, were poor communicators and were bad at making decisions.

“We have to teach those skills just as we teach math,” she said.

Since the pilot classes started, they have spread to all of New Haven’s some 50 schools, at every level from prekindergarten to Grade 12.

Katsuyoshi Tanaka, a New York-based photographer originally from Tokyo, came with DeFalco to the symposium after having photographed and written about the program in his 1999 book, “Gakko de Korosareru Kodomotachi” (“Students Get Killed at School”).

He said that while he thought the New Haven system could work in Japan, it would need to be adapted.

He cited the poster put in every school in New Haven listing the steps one should go through when problem-solving, what the school board calls “skills.”

“We don’t really have a concept of what skills are” in Japan, Tanaka said.

“When we hear ‘skill,’ we think, ‘Is it a technique or ability?’ That shows how we are not really familiar with (those kinds of) skills at school.”

DeFalco also noted that school boards in the U.S., unlike those in Japan, have much more freedom to change their curriculum without national approval.