Sitting down with the Real Talk boys, Jared Washington told them, “When we’re in this room, I’m not your principal.” (Photo by Charlie Simokaitis)

Real talk

Woodson Middle School’s “difficult kids” get to know their principal—and each other—well.

Jared Washington’s wife, Tinishia Legaux, says the “most difficult kids” at Woodson Middle School, a U of C Charter School campus, are the ones who get to know her husband the best. And she’s right: as principal, “he’s the enforcer, he’s the discipline,” says Legaux, who as Woodson’s director of academic and social supports says she’s more likely to give out hugs. Misbehaving students can expect to have a chat with Mr. Washington.

But there’s another reason Woodson’s troublemakers know their principal well. For two years, Washington—featured in our Jan–Feb/12 issue's cover story—led an elective class called Real Men Talk. Part club, part support group, Real Men Talk was mandatory at first: a few months after the school opened in 2008, teachers and administrators picked out about 15 boys with worrisome attitudes and bad behavior, “who we thought might be showing interest,” as Washington puts it, “in what’s going on in the street.”

So while the rest of Woodson’s student body chose among fun electives like crocheting and yoga and architecture, the boys fated for Real Men Talk were herded into a classroom and told that their decision had been made for them.

At first they were furious. Middle schoolers don’t often get the chance to make choices for themselves, Washington says, and these electives, called X-Blocks, were their chance to do that.

Washington told them why they were there and that it was serious. He told them that in that room, during that school period, he wasn’t their principal. He told them that the private stories and feelings they shared would remain private among them. “And we had a real conversation,” he says, “about some of the challenges they were facing, some of the things they’d been getting into, the struggle with their grades. They turned around and asked for help. They even asked for the academic help.” Washington, who taught middle school for a decade before becoming a principal, was surprised at how quickly and completely the students opened up, even in the first session. And he was moved. “Adolescents are tricky beings,” he says. “You could believe the hype: ‘They don’t want this, they don’t want that.’ They do want it. They don’t know how to verbalize it.”

At the end of the trimester, when it came time for Real Men Talk to end and for the students to choose a new X-Block, they refused. “The boys were like, ‘We can’t disband,’” Washington recalls. “’How can you disband Real Talk?’”

The class kept going for six trimesters, and during each new round, new students who wanted to join were interviewed—“grilled,” Washington says—and voted in or out by the group. Real Men Talk finally came to a close only when the youngest from the original core graduated eighth grade and the others decided to move on to other X-Blocks. Washington is still amazed at its success.

“We talked about the issues they were really scared about,” he says. “The violence that was going on in the city. This was during the time when Derrion Albert was murdered. Kids that looked like them, some that they knew from their neighborhoods, seemed to be under attack that particular year.” He brought in speakers to talk about gang life, about why people get into it, and what happens when they do. “We tried not to preach,” Washington says, “not to just tell them what to do all the time.”