Runaway Rigs

“You don’t need guardrails,” a friend told me, “when painted lines will do.”

His imagery caught my interest.

“I’m glad enough for guardrails,” he continued. “where if you sneeze it’s a long way down. But if I’m not on a mountain, they hem me in.”

As I drive, I’ve been playing with this metaphor. What features from the street connect to the classroom? Here are a few I found:

Runaway Truck Ramps: A few weeks ago we traveled to the mountains of Western Maryland, where I was born. As always, I looked for the emergency escape route along a steep downgrade on I-68. This ramp allows a truck that has lost braking power to avoid a violent crash by dissipating energy in a controlled and relatively harmless way.

I’ve taught plenty of students who lacked emotional braking power. As dangerous as runaway rigs, they need off-ramps to slow big feelings. A quiet classroom corner, a break in the hall, an errand to the furthest part of the school, a drink of water, a stress ball, a touch on the shoulder—all these are safe ways to steer students off the road, away from people they might hurt.

Text Stops: I was intrigued with a sign I saw in New York:  It Can Wait: Text Stop in Five Miles. Just down the road, we passed a small parking area, dedicated for texting. The state was sending a clear message to drivers—there’s no excuse to take your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road. But there was also the recognition of the need to communicate.

And this reminds me of the urgent need for students to talk. Instead of fighting this impulse, I learned to incorporate it.

“In just a couple minutes,” I’d say, “you’ll talk with a partner about a problem. So listen to the dilemma Robert Frost sets up in his poem about a snowy woods.”

When they knew they could talk in a few minutes, they were willing to listen for a few minutes.

The next time you take a road trip, have fun with this metaphor. Can you connect caution lights and speed bumps and road barriers to the classroom? What about information signs like the one I passed in Pennsylvania the other week: Entering Chesapeake Bay Watershed? Or the more ominous one: Falling Rocks? What about the stretches of wildflowers on freeway medians?

As you construct these metaphors, you’ll likely see the classroom in new and vivid ways.

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