Saturday, August 17, 2013

A new standard for ALL schools

I just finished reading Kathleen Nolan’s Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High Schooland am feeling at the same time encouraged and deflated.

In the text (which I highly recommend to educators in any setting, but especially to administrators - and so-called ‘discipline deans’- in urban schools), Nolan conducts ethnographic research at a large public school in the Bronx.  While she was there, the school was a major focus of Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to “take back the schools” (Bloomberg never mentioned who he intended to take them back from… but I’ll leave symbolic action and hyperbole for another day) with zero tolerance and order maintenance procedures.  As a result, there was a major increase in police presence in the school (and in schools across NYC).  Incidents like dress-code violations, tardiness, and the enigmatic “disrespect”, once school-based disciplinary infractions, now resulted in citations and court summons issued by NYPD officers stationed in the halls. 

I have much more to say about Nolan’s findings in the text and how they epitomize the experiences my students share, but that will have to come later.  What I want to explore is the cause for my conflicted feeling upon finishing the text. 

In her conclusion, she discusses the role that small schools might play in eradicating this type of police state in schools.  Nolan explains:
There is much promise in the creation of small schools, but small schools can succeed only when they avoid replicating the same inequalities and problems found in traditional large public schools and when all small schools receive the resources and freedom to adopt the kinds of educational and disciplinary practices that meet students’ needs. (175)

Later, she builds upon a piece by CUNY’s Michelle Fine about a standard for “social justice” in small schools:
This standard gets ignored in all the talk of standards. It asks, does a school offer a sense of respect and dignity? Such a standard is met through establishment of democratic, collaborative relationships with parents and communities, engaging classroom experiences, and appropriate academic and social supports. When schools meet this standard, violence and disorder are likely to decrease. (175)

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk given by Michelle Fine.  Though the focus of the talk was on standardized testing, she took a minute to challenge the audience to imagine, amid all the talk of anti-this and that, the type of schools we’re FOR. This standard of social justice that Fine and Nolan discuss is at the heart of the type of schools I’m for. 

When I think about the conflicts that I’ve had with students in the past year (even in the past month), the majority of them stemmed from what the student or I felt was disrespectful or a challenge to our dignity - whether real or perceived. 

Imagine a school that put at the forefront establishing a sense of respect and dignity for its students, staff, physical space, and learning. 

I’m certainly not na├»ve enough to think that we can just hang a mission statement on the wall and this will happen.  In fact, this is a real challenge, but I really think that it’s a worthwhile endeavor. And here’s the best part: it doesn’t cost a dime. 

Here are some steps to get stared:
 - Stop yelling at students, making empty threats to them, and generalizing and stereotyping them.
 - Stop “putting kids out” of class and school.  If a student needs to leave class (which sometimes happens), the teacher, student, and a 3rd party need to have a conversation about it. 
 - Try “I” statements. For example, “You need to listen” vs. “I need you to listen”  Don’t think it makes a difference?  Think about how often adolescents are told what to do… and don’t misunderstand, it’s not about begging your students, but rather shifting the focus.
 - Use please and thank you with students. Thank them for coming to class. Thank them for their work or attention at the end of class… It’ll rub off.
 - Explain rules/ policies/ decisions to students rather than giving directives. 
            For example: “No more than 3 absences. After 3 you’re dropped.” vs. “Because this course is accelerated, no more than 3 absences. We will be moving at a fast pace and in 3 classes we’ll cover about 9 days worth of material. As a result, if you miss more than 3 classes, you’ll fall too far behind and will have to take the class over”  - Easy enough.
 - Encourage students to speak up and provide a genuine forum for their concerns… then address those concerns.
 -  Give students genuine choices - in the classroom and outside the classroom
 - Remember: not every interaction has to be a confrontation.  Security and “climate” staff would do well to remember this. 

As I was thinking about some of these, I was heartened because I feel like we do a pretty good job of creating a “social justice standard” at my small school.  Certainly there are things to work on, but our students generally feel respected and dignified and it does translate to fewer incidents of violence and disrespect. 

However, as I was generating this list I could hear the naysayers in the back of my mind telling me this is too warm and fuzzy.  It’ll never work with “these kids” (ugh… there’s that phrase).  You have to be tough… no excuses. 

To this, all I have to say is give it a try.  I work with a tough population - 16-21, dropped/ put/ pushed-out of school at least once, 60% involved with juvenile/ adult justice system, 60% pregnant or parenting - and though these tactics certainly aren’t a silver bullet, they rarely hurt.

I’m not a softy who makes excuses for my kids, but I do treat them with respect and dignity…


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