Bruce Greene's Learning Story


GoldfishC 2010 Bruce L. Greene The Goldfish I call it the 25-year test. What, if anything, you experienced as a high school student remains meaningful 25 years later? For a teacher, it’s the same as asking did I make a difference or impact anyone in a positive way? My arrogance as a beginning teacher took the form of cognitive certainty. My approach would meet standards and requirements, but it would also be visceral. My students would feel something. Though I was hardly teaching in an age of apathy, many students were far too apathetic. Yet many relied on a set of assumptions about what my social science classes would be like based on every other one they’d had. Like many beginning teachers, I too was taken by that romantic notion of a teacher, usually sitting atop a student desk, tossing out incisive questions to enraptured students as easily as feeding pigeons. The onlooker can see the critical thinking skills being developed flawlessly by one of the best teachers ever to write on a chalkboard. That vision is nonsense. Move on, there is work to be done. My nomination for the 25-year test is a lesson I shared with a most unlikely teaching assistant’a goldfish. In 1976, while a third year teacher, I found myself teaching a 12th grade elective called International Problems. The majority of seniors I taught were, like many seniors, fairly full of themselves. Theirs was a world still full of must-win football games, proms and first cars. Nixon and Watergate left them politically vapid. Punk Rock glistened like condensation on their first beer, high school was for the most part to be endured, and the dreaded draft law had finally expired. Yet great moral issues were everywhere. My syllabus for International Problems included units of study on Apartheid in South Africa, Nuclear Weapons, the CIA as covert government, and U.S. -Soviet Relations. With Jimmy Carter in the White House and the national nightmares of Watergate and Vietnam winding down, a story emerged that would not leave me alone. The My Lai massacre. Our country was deeply troubled by My Lai. An American company of soldiers, Company C of Task Force Burker, had systematically killed all inhabitants of the village of My Lai. The event had originally taken place in March of 1968, but after a cover-up subsequently failed and journalist Seymour Hersh was given photos and eyewitness testimony, the awful truth of My Lai spread like an infection throughout the media and world opinion. Certainly the slaughter of more than 500 women, children, and elderly wasn’t making the world safe for anything. The barbarity at My Lai was particularly disturbing. How could enlisted men and officers alike commit such senseless crimes without questioning their superiors? Perhaps it was the stress of never seeing an enemy who day by day was killing your own. Some have even suggested that Calley and his men thought they would encounter North Vietnamese troops but poor intelligence placed them at My Lai with only the villagers present. The mental let down, they say, gave way to senseless violence. When helpless terrified people are marched into ditches, when even infants are shot, when American troops sit down to eat their lunch amid the carnage, even the most militaristic of us take notice. The callousness of My Lai offered an opportunity to explore a burning question of the day with an equally important teaching strategy: the moral dilemma. What better way to teach critical thinking than to tackle an issue that begs for a deeper understanding. How could Lt. Calley’s men blindly obey an order that resulted in the massacre of so many innocent people? The villagers of My Lai offered no resistance. Calley’s men acted under superior orders. Only one man, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot, tried to stop the massacre. At one point, Thompson placed his copter between groups of frightened villagers and American troops threatening to shoot at his compatriots if they did not stop the killing. Hardly anyone else present questioned these insane orders. Like many, I wanted to know why? Is there such a thing as moral emotion and action in war? Certainly I had my own opinions, but how to approach this in the classroom became an equally baffling dilemma. Many of my students had heard of My Lai. But their generation learned about the world largely from television. On one hand, the media covered Vietnam like no other war. But even the first ‘televised’ war could be dismissed with the flip of a switch or the click of a remote. Before getting to the particulars of My Lai, I wanted to find a test for individual morality under fire that I could present in my classroom. For a young teacher, this is a risk one ought to weight carefully. Still I searched for just the right idea. I’m not sure how I found it. My best guess is while pouring over catalogs I’d amassed at social studies conferences. The paperback had an unassuming title; something like ’25 activities to teach world affairs.’ When it arrived, this orange colored book from Denver, Colorado, contained an activity that held me immediately. It was called ‘The Goldfish.’ The materials were easy to gather. A sheet of newspaper, a glass bowl full of water, and one lively goldfish. The premise was even simpler. Put students into small groups of four or five in a large circle around the classroom. Place the swimming goldfish in the bowl in the center of the room, surrounded by the groups of students. Give the verbal instructions in the most authoritative voice you can muster. ‘Whatever you do in the next 10 minutes, no one is to leave their seat. Anyone getting up and out of their seat will fail this class; do you understand what I am saying. I’m not kidding, I want everyone to remain seated during the next 10 minutes. Failure to remain seated will result expulsion from this classroom and an F in this class.’ Remove the goldfish from the bowl and place on newspaper. Wait. Announce the end of the activity. Debrief. Simple enough, right? Certainly someone would get up and save the goldfish. Someone would break through the veil of classroom simulation and refuse to let the goldfish die in front of everyone. I was excited. That afternoon I stopped by a local pet store and purchased one goldfish, one goldfish bowl, a small package of fish food, and a small goldfish net. I decided I couldn’t afford to chase the goldfish around the bowl or risk it slipping out of my hands. A net would make me look efficient. I could then empty the fish out of the small net onto the newspaper. I always thought I’d put the fish back into the bowl if nobody moved. But would there be enough time? If I saved the fish too soon, the lesson might be lost. By 8:00 the evening before the day of the activity I began to get anxious. By bedtime, I looked at my goldfish. Earlier in the day I’d given him the name Morrie. It was close enough to ‘moral dilemma.’ ‘Morrie,’ I told him, ‘I sure hope I bring you home tomorrow, but you never know.’ Slowly, this activity was boring into my sense of serenity. I slept very little that night. International problems met in the afternoon. I kept Morrie in his bowl in a closed cabinet behind my desk. Between classes, I’d look in at him. His welfare became extremely important as the day wore on. By class time, my heart beat faster than usual. This is stupid, I kept telling myself. Of course he’ll be saved, why am I so nervous all of a sudden. I took roll as usual. Period 6 International Problems was a bright, engaged group and I often looked forward to ending my day with these seniors. By now my hands were shaking. I can’t believe I’m reacting this way; it’s not that big a deal, is it? I guess it isn’t every day someone or something might die in your classroom. The students made the small groups easily. With 30 students in the class, and two absentees, they divided themselves into six groups circling the room. I knew I’d have to give the directions in my most authoritarian voice.
I’m not noted for being loud, but my intensity served me well as I told them, ‘We’re going to do an unusual activity today to begin this next unit. ‘Why is it unusual?’ ‘It’s unusual because the directions must be followed precisely.’ If you don’t hear anything else this semester, listen to what I’m saying now, you must remain in your seats at all times.’ When I asked if anyone needed to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water, nobody took me up on the offer. Their curiosity peaked. When I made the threat of failing the class, a few giggles ceased. Then I added, ‘I would remind you that this is a required course for graduation. You cannot afford to fail this class if you intend to graduate this year.’ Silence ensued. They were ready to begin. When I produced Morrie, swimming innocently in his bowl, Karen Branch asked, ‘Can we talk?’ ‘Of course you can talk. You just cannot get out of your seats for any reason. Got that?’ ‘Yeah,’ Karen said, ‘Is that your fish, he’s cute, what’s his name?”This is Morrie, he belongs to all of us,’ I said. Now watch carefully’I placed the bowl on an empty student desk and then spread the newspaper on the floor in the middle of the room. Morrie came easily to the net and in 10 seconds was resting on the newspaper. I said nothing. I heard a gasp. Someone said, ‘cool.’ Someone else said, ‘You’re a fool.’ And then nothing. Morrie flopped at first but then lay still. My heart pounded. How long would I let the activity go on? When one of the guys started to get up, another one reminded him that he was starting halfback on the football team. An F meant no more football. He sat back down. Another 20 seconds passed. ‘He’s really gonna do it,’ someone said. When another student started to rise, I snapped, ‘Sit down. You heard what I said about not getting up.’ He slouched back down. I decided to sneak a peek at my watch’s second hand and when I lifted my head, I was jolted out of any concern by the face of Connie Wong. Tears streaming, she pushed past me and placed Morrie back into the bowl. ‘The activity is over.’ I roared, ‘Please return your seats to their original place. Yes, you may now move, no threat of discipline now exists. We’ve got a few things to discuss.’ Over the next few days we talked about Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. It was easy for the class to see how most people, like Calley’s platoon, are governed by Level1 reasoning. Their actions involve avoiding punishment more than doing the right thing. We talked about how difficult it is for people to go Level 3, universal ethical principles. An understanding of how My Lai can happen grew from these discussions. I know the little goldfish activity is not a perfect parallel for My Lai, but I also know that both those students and I will never forget that day. When we asked Connie to describe the moment she knew she would get up and obey a higher order, she replied, ‘Well, I knew you wouldn’t hit me.’ Not exactly the answer I hoped for, but I knew what she meant. Connie, like her classmates was content to maintain order and obey authority. Ultimately, she was able to move to the highest level when it became necessary to obey a higher law. It was less about defying the teacher, and more about obeying her own conscience. Like all affective classroom activities, this one certainly raised more questions than it answered. When I read today about ‘student engagement’ and ‘achievement gaps’ I can’t help but think about something so simple as ‘the goldfish.’ Morrie went on to live out his days in a larger aquarium with a peer group. All those seniors graduated and many, have children who struggled with the moral dilemmas of Iraq and Afghanistan. Richard Nixon subsequently pardoned Lt. Calley, who became a scapegoat for the entirety of My Lai. In 2009, Calley issued a formal apology. While researching the transcript of his court martial hearing recently, I came upon this testimony of a Private First Class named Robert, one of Calley’s men. Calley and Meadlo were firing at the people. They were firing into the hole. I saw Meadlo firing into the hole. Q: Well tell me, what was so remarkable about Meadlo that made you remember him? A: He was firing and crying. I thought of Connie, running toward me, crying. I’m sure she remembers that day well.