What’s in a meme? (part V)

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Welcome to part 5.  For parts 1-4 check out hereherehere, and here.

Conform: Intellectually and socially.

Ralph Waldo Emerson says that the virtue in most demand in society is conformity.  This sentiment is clear throughout the work of Transcendental writers: non-conformity leads to great things.  And their ideas have been used as inspiration for countless movers and shakers in our country and our world. These are the very movers and shakers (writers, politicians, activists,etc.) that we teach in our schools every day.  Surely we must be teaching students the importance of non-conformity.  Whether implicitly or explicitly in many courses we teach the importance and potential results of not conforming.

But the policies, procedures and actions of schools and individual teachers do not generally accept nonconformity.  After all, society demands conformity.  Society ostracizes and punishes (sometimes violently) nonconformity. We all know this.  Society has unwritten rules (as well as some written ones) as to how people are supposed to behave.   Schools are no different, which makes sense since schools are societal institutions.  Sure individual teachers may praise nonconformity and “thinking outside the box” from time to time.  But eventually even they have their limits and some actions may be too far out the box to be accepted.  In fact, we even teach our autistic population how to act in a “socially expected” way.

As I remind my students often, nonconformity may lead to great things, but it is not without its consequences.  It is a matter of whether or not the individual is willing to accept those consequences to act as a nonconformist.  I often argue that education is about finding a balance, which I’ve mentioned many times previously.  Issues of conformity are no different.  As teachers we need to nurture individuals and their creativity and ability to think outside the box while also teaching them the potential consequences of this.

What’s in a meme (part IV)

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Welcome to my 4th installment discussing this meme.  Check out parts 1-3 herehere, and here.

Non-compliance is punished.

For most of these claims, there is a little bit of truth, but not the whole story.  I will fully admit that #4 is pretty darn accurate.  Non-compliance is punished in just about every classroom and every school out there, but this is because schools are a product of society–a society in which non-compliance is punished.  So many people already complain that kids and teenagers are disrespectful.  Could you imagine how much more these people would complain if schools didn’t, in some way, punish non-compliance?  Without going into the science about brain development and whatnot, students need boundaries and consequences for exceeding those boundaries.  Anybody who has actually worked with students knows this.

Many people are probably saying, but what about civil disobedience?  If a rule is unjust, unfair, or unnecessary, students should practice civil disobedience.  After all, we teach students (directly or indirectly) the virtues of civil disobedience.  In fact my students even read Henry David Thoreau’s piece called “Civil Disobedience.”  Aren’t I being slightly hypocritical for not practicing what I preach? Not exactly.  What often gets forgotten in that argument is that Henry David Thoreau wrote that while in jail.  He practiced civil disobedience by not paying his taxes to fund a war that he thought was unjust.  As a result he was punished and sent to jail.  As we talk about this, I constantly remind my students that civil disobedience comes with consequences.  Your non-compliance will be punished.

When one thinks about non-compliance and civil disobedience, the most prominent example is the work of MLK Jr. and the civil rights movement.  These people staged sit-ins at whites only counters, etc. and fought for what is just.  Many might argue that by punishing non-compliance in schools we are hindering these sorts of movements in the future.  Again, I’d point out that these civil rights activists were all punished-not just by being sent to jail, but also through physical violence.  I’d also point out that it is easy to say you’d be civilly disobedient, but much harder to actually do it when the time comes.  Martin Luther King Jr. actually trained people in how to sit at the counter and keep calm while being insulted and physically attacked.  I don’t know many people-nonetheless school age students-who could withstand that sort of abuse while remaining calm without the necessary training.

None of this is to say that students have no ability to question authority or school rules.  While I alluded to this in a previous post about this meme, in my experience schools (and individual teaches) have allowed students to voice concerns about policy.  For example, a few years back the dress code for one particular dance was made more stringent than it ever has been.  One member of the student government, with the guidance of the adviser, circulated a petition regarding this change.  This was a means to start a conversation that has been ongoing since though the dress code for this dance is looser now.

My point is that while non-compliance is generally punished in schools, there are means for students to question the rules and authorities.  It is easy to suggest that we are squashing free thinkers, but it is much harder to maintain an appropriate learning environment than non-educators realize.  We must strike a balance that helps and supports all our students.

What’s in a meme? (part I)

My brother recently posted this meme on facebook:

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And as an educator, it is hard to not respond to something like this, but his facebook wall just doesn’t seem like the right place.  The fact of the matter is that there is certainly some truth to these statements, but a meme never tells the whole story, so I figured I’d give a go at each of these statements in a series of posts.  And so, let’s have a go at the 1st statement:

  1.  Truth comes from authority.

Our curriculum (at least at the high school level) actually leads to the exact opposite of this statement.  When we teach the works of the great thinkers of the world such as MLK Jr. or Thomas Jefferson or Ghandi, we are teaching that truth doesn’t necessarily come from authority. We idolize these people and hold them up in schools as examples of people who questioned the authorities of their time and recognized that truth can be found elsewhere.  High school English curricula all over include dystopian novels which very often question the very notion that truth comes from authority.  George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984 is not only about constant surveillance, but also very much about the problems with allowing authority to hold the truth.

The Common Core State Standards also disavow this statement.  One standard reads: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence. And another says: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.  Both of these standards are asking students to evaluate information that they receive from “authorities.”  This is a cornerstone of my senior writing course.  This is an argumentative writing course in which students have to use research to support their claims.  They need to know how to critically evaluate information in order to determine if the authority is true otherwise their argument is going to be garbage.  A few years back I had lunch duty with one of my colleagues who also teaches the same senior writing course.  I distinctly remember discussing with him the need for our students to gain a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the information they obtain.

Now all that being said, the bigger question is: does our educational culture practice what we preach?  As teachers and administrators we do often try to stop students from questioning our authority.  Every school has administrative codes and discipline procedures for disrespect and failure to comply, and students who question teacher authority are often labeled as such.  In schools we have this deep rooted fear that all hell will break lose if we allow students to question our authority-that we won’t be able to maintain any sort of classroom management to make our way through the standards of our curriculum in time.

One piece of advice that I always give new teachers is to be willing to say “I don’t know.”  And yet so few of us as teachers are willing to say that.  We are afraid to open ourselves up to our students and be vulnerable.  We expect our students to accept what we say as truth.  Yes, learn about the importance of questioning authority, but be sure to question someone else’s authority not mine.  We can be quite hypocritical in this regard.

Through my years of schooling this is undoubtedly the message I received, and I still see it as I walk the hallways and talk to fellow educators.  But I also see this shifting.  Educational change moves at glacial speeds, but I am happy to say that I work with a number of people who are practicing what we preach.  The original statement from the meme isn’t entirely true, but it’s not entirely false either.

It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it

We’ve all heard this before, but when it comes to working with students especially, this age old mantra is quite true: It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.

I’m thinking about this in terms of classroom culture and management.  I’ve long argued that the best means of classroom management is to ensure a positive culture of mutual respect focused on learning.  Obviously, that is the sort of thing that is easier said than done, but when I think of the idea of HOW we say things, I consider the idea of a positive culture.

For example, the misuse of cell phones is a pervasive issue in my school-one that is constantly bandied back in forth in disciplinary meetings, etc.  The perennial question is how do we get kids to use them appropriately and responsibly.  Most of us know that banning them outright isn’t the answer, but we want students to put them away when they should be focused on our teaching or their classmates’ ideas.

In my experience, I have had classes in which I was constantly battling cell phone use and other classes with little to no issues.  What is making that difference?  In my, albeit not research based experience, simply the way I word the request makes a big difference.  When I tell kids “put your phones away,” I have far less compliance than when I say “thank you for putting your phones away.”  Am I making the same request?  Essentially, yes, but phrasing it in a polite and positive way leads to better results.  I’m currently teaching summer school, and there is not a single phone in sight.  All I said was “thank you for putting your phones away.”

Words matter.  Will framing your requests in a positive manner always yield the intended results?  Probably not–after all does anything always work?  but I’d say it’s a nice start to creating a positive culture.

Some thoughts on discipline

It’s the end of the year, which means, unfortunately, it is senior prank season.  Of course, a number of students are making poor decisions and pulling pranks that cause damage and create potentially dangerous situations.  Of course this also means that the administration is tasked with disciplining these students with very few days left to carry out any consequences.  This has me thinking about student discipline in education.  With that being said, here are just a few bullet notes on the subject:

1.  Discipline is really about teaching.  Every time a student is in the office for a disciplinary infraction is an opportunity to teach the student appropriate behavior.

2.  If the student truly believes that the punishment is “worth it,” then the lesson probably hasn’t been learned.

3.  If the same student is guilty of the same infraction time and time again, then it’s time to reconsider your approach.

4.  Suspending students for skipping school is counterintuitive

5.  Student discipline is generally not black and white because no situation is completely black and white.  When the question is “What discipline is appropriate when a student does such and such,” the answer is always “that depends.”  There are always variables that need to be discussed.

6.  There must be an adult in any disciplinary interaction.  It’s not going to be the angry student, so make sure it’s you.

7.  Discipline is an opportunity to build a relationship with students.  Talking to them, hearing their side of the story, and approaching the situation as an opportunity to move forward will allow you to create a relationship with students, and those relationships can go a long way in preventing further infractions.

Is this a complete list?  Not even close.  Rather, I wanted to take a moment and get some ideas down.  Are some of the naive?  Maybe, but as guiding philosophies, we can work to change the way we look at discipline

Effective discipline

As an administrative intern, I shadow administrators quite often.  This means I watch a lot of disciplinary interactions between an adult and a student some of which can be quite weighty.  People close to me often ask why I would want to pursue a career that focuses so heavily on disciplining kids.  When a kid gets sent to the office for discipline, there is an awful lot going on there.  What exactly is the student hoping for?  What is the administrator hoping for?  What is the teacher hoping for?  What is the appropriate reaction of all those involved?

Let’s start by thinking about how necessary disciplinary procedures are.  For students to learn and thrive there must be discipline right?  All the research proves this.  Boundaries are necessary and punishment should act as a consequence for transgressing those boundaries, right?  Is it really that simple?  I wonder how often teachers send a kid to the office hoping he will be punished as if the punishment is some sort of revenge.  I’ve heard many teachers say things such as Ï hope he gets a detention” or something to that effect.

But I honestly believe most teachers don’t view discipline as merely enacting some sort of medieval revenge on students.  The ultimate goal of discipline is to change a behavior.  The punishment should say to the student: “Your actions were not appropriate; here is the consequence for such actions.” So how is a student supposed to get that message?

If changing behavior is the goal, then I’d aruge that discipline is more about creating a relationship with the student than meteing out punishment.  The disciplinarian must ensure that he is building a trusting relationship with that student and make it clear that the punishment is necessary.  Just about every school has a set of infractions and a list of penalties associated with it.  This list must remain flexible for disciplinarians to do their job effectively to allow the relationship to form.

Obviously discipline is far more complicated than this, but at its core, discipline must be about creating relationships with students in order to effectively change behavior.