When fourth-graders go on strike, they don’t always use the word “strike” to plead their case. Take for instance, the case of elementary students at a North Dakota school. Their steady and uniform chants outside of their school building called for more ice cream and the placards they held demanded the same. Some of the placards were even polite and displayed the words “thank you” with their demands. I read about these fourth-graders last year as I was reviewing some educational briefs. The students’ strike was an exercise in practicing the art of compromise.
Compromise is an invaluable life skill for adapting to and within a world like ours which is in rapid flux. Historically it helped to delay the American Civil War by about 40 years, thanks to the “Great Compromiser” Henry Clay, Sr., a Kentucky attorney and statesman. Genuine compromise requires practice and is void of any emotions. It is such an important life skill that the World Health Organization lists compromise as one of its 10 core life skills to maintain a healthy mind and body.
Teachers of this small northwest town in North Dakota realized the importance of this life skill, so much so, that they decided to connect their students’ study of Caesar Chavez to an opportunity for their students to participate in and practice the art of compromise. Strikes, boycotts, and bargaining were discussed in class. Next, the fourth-graders were afforded an opportunity to connect the skills of listening, negotiating, and compromising that they had learned over the years to a real life situation. Students decided on an issue that meant most to them: more ice cream served several times per day throughout the school year. They then spent time creating signs, deciding upon their chants, and choosing a spokesperson.
The students and their teachers hit the pavement in front of their school to press their demands. The chanting and loud voices prompted the principal to pop outside to see what all the ruckus was about. Noticing the signs, the principal just shook his head in dismay and told both teachers and students to get back to work because there was work to be done in the classrooms.
The principal’s flight back into the school building was short-lived as the picketers’ volume of voices and demands increased. When it became evident to the principal that the strikers were not disbanding, he returned to the sign carrying neophytes and requested to speak to the picketers’ spokesperson. A fourth-grade boy stepped forward. The boy’s peers gathered close around him to see what would take place next. The fourth-grader insisted that ice cream be served to students and teachers several times each day. The principal’s response was negative and the picketers were told that eating ice cream as often as they demanded wasn’t healthy. Negotiations went back and forth until a compromise was reached by the two bargaining parties. Ultimately, the principal agreed to an ice cream sandwich for each student and teacher if they all returned to their classrooms and worked hard the rest of the day. A brief discussion among the students, teachers, and spokesperson followed which was approved overwhelmingly by the students and teachers. The student spokesperson accepted the principal’s offer and the deal was finalized with a handshake.
Listening and compromising are essential in good communications. And mastery of life skills are an integral part of the overall development of any child. Through this activity the students witnessed how the life skills of listening, negotiating and compromise can bring about positive results. Although the students didn’t envision the impact that this experience would have on future negotiations and communications with others, their teachers knew that this experience would serve their students well into adulthood.
Winning or being right all the time isn’t always the most important achievement. And compromise isn’t just child’s play; it’s a priceless mind and body asset. Perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves, “When was the last time that I unveiled my mastery of the art of compromise?”
Wanda Dengel, B.S., M.A.T., is a long time local and Columbus inner-city schools teacher who served on the Diocesan Catholic Schools Advisory Commission in Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org