Yer Outta Here

As with many debates in education, the whole thing begins with a problem (too many suspensions), hot button issues are thrown at it to make everyone lose their tempers (racism!), and then everyone weighs in on what should happen, even though most of them have never successfully disciplined a classroom, or worked out consequences with an administrator that were effective.  I have done both.

Suspension is not a punishment, really.  It’s a cooling off period.  For kids and for adults.  When a kid threatens me, makes any kind of physically aggressive move toward me or someone else– then and only then I lobby for suspension.  I don’t always get my way.  Our head disciplinarian makes that decision.

Suspension is not a cure for kids who can’t sit still for emotional or medical reasons, kids who hate paper and pencil work, kids who are depressed or angry.

Unruly kids need quick, practical, consistent interventions. They need the help of a team of teacher trying to figure them out (is it ADD? a toothache? unresolved grief? dislike of the subject? personality conflict?).  They need to meet with teachers and reflect on their own behavior.  Discipline works like a ladder, and knowing all the rungs and using all the rungs keeps everybody calmer.  Work up the ladder, and down it: warning, reprimand, detention, in-school suspension.  I wish there were more use of restitution along the way– having kids actually give back, since they have taken away.  When I’ve offered restitution as a choice (clean the room, water the plants), kids usually like it.

Every kid is forced to sit down with the books in in-school suspension.  It’s what some kids need, to avoid spending the whole day engaged in distracting conflicts.  It’s what the other kids need, to keep them from being robbed of quiet work time and fruitful collaboration and smooth presentation of information.  If a kid needs in-school suspension like, every day, they’re a good candidate for an alternative school of some kind.  No one school can work for everybody.

Kids who hate paper and pencil work need teachers to make things as hands on as possible, and some of them need to move into more hands on work as soon as possible.  Vo-tech schools are supposed to serve these kids.  Sometimes having multiple gym classes and/or art classes is enough.

Kids who are depressed or angry need counseling.  The big news in Texas about minority students being disproportionately suspended is really no surprise.  African-American kids are more likely to be angry.  They have good reasons.  A disproportionate number of their people are in prison, victims of violence and perpetrators of it, living in poverty.  Hispanic kids see how their folks get blamed for ruining our country, and they see their language denigrated, as if English has always been somehow ordained by God for America.  I’m pissed off about that stuff, too.  Depression and anger are two sides of the same coin, and are often expressed in similar ways– violence against oneself, or objects, or other people.  All behaviors that will get you suspended.

Teachers from peaceful neighborhoods might not understand that presenting yourself as powerful and capable can be a safety measure, not a rebellion.  If in your neighborhood, you have to walk like a gangster and talk like a gangster to keep from getting the shit kicked out of you, I’d guess it’s hard to transition to a school atmosphere.  It’s not necessarily that you want to bother the teacher.  It may be that you need to show the class that you aren’t someone to mess with, or you are someone who will protect them.  Self-representation is just different where personal safety is at stake.

People are more likely to perceive any angry expression or posture as a threat if it comes from a minority kid.  We all live in this soup of society, and it’s contaminated with our assumptions about each other.  Or, as they say in “Avenue Q,” “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”  This is likely to lead to harsher consequences for minority kids.

We need more counseling provided in our schools.  Our anger management group has turned kids from explosive to merely grouchy.  Counseling is cheaper than prison, which is where some of our anger management kids were headed.  A lot of them have parents in prison already.

It’s unlikely that things will change without better training for teachers, more collaboration with discipline (something we frequently do at my school).  Nothing in my teacher training addressed conflict resolution.  No one showed me how to present myself as an authority figure.  No one demonstrated how to shut down a kid while allowing her to save face in front of the class.  I figured that out on my own, somehow.  At least enough to keep my class rolling most of the time.

the story on Texas school suspensions: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/education/19discipline.html?_r=1

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I Used To Feel So Uninspired

Barack Obama makes me feel like a natural woman.  Especially this morning.

I’ve been preaching for years that education funding should not be locally funded.  If our goal in education is to equalize opportunity, it makes no sense to let poor kids in poor areas go to poorly funded schools and rich kids in rich areas go to lavishly funded schools.  (I say this, ruefully, as a child of one of the richest counties in America.  People there were willing and able to tax themselves like crazy to give me a great education.)  This additional federal funding is one more step toward equalizing some shocking gaps.  If it comes with additional federal oversight, I have faith that  it could be worth the annoyance.

And adding funding to Pell Grants?  I can’t imagine a better investment in our country.  Of course we should fund the college education of people with drive and skills but no money!  My fear about educational inequality is that some kid somewhere is born with the brains and creativity to cure cancer, and instead of going to med school, the kid is changing my oil at Jiffy Lube.  (Yes, very honorable work, but inappropriate.) 

Equal opportunity is not about compassion, or fairness, or any touchy-feely stuff like that.  It’s about cultivating the knowledge and talent we have in our country.  We’ve got to build up what we have.  (And incidentally, I don’t think anyone’s going to reject that cancer cure if the lead researcher was an illegal immigrant’s kid.) 

People from all over the world still come to the U.S. seeking education.  The fluidity and creativity cultivated by our educational system are unrivaled.  (To those people who felt stifled by their American education, I have to say: at least you weren’t born in Europe.  Or Asia.  Or Africa.)  The government here doesn’t control your major or your track in high school, and your studies here aren’t all about memorization and obeying authority.  That’s our weakness, but it’s also an incredible strength. 

Americans are a wildly creative bunch.  We might lag in math and science right-and-wrong tests, but we invent things like nobody’s business, gobble up and regurgitate everyone else’s languages, and mix cultures without killing each other a whole lot of the time.  Also, we’re good dancers.  That’s just my opinion.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/education/28educ.html?_r=1&hp

Finally, merely because I have been brainwashed to think in threes: does Obama’s election really change anything?  Could having a black president really influence ideas of race in a meaningful way?  If I hadn’t seen these researchers’ theories in action myself, I would think they were silly.  Here’s what they found: the black-white achievement gap disappeared in two sets of tests that was administered before and after Obama’s election.  I know.  It sounds nutty.   Again, touchy-feely, self-esteem worksheet crap.  Still, on my final exams, I always have students (all of mine are African-American) write something positive about themselves before they start the questions.  How silly.  Or maybe not.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/23/education/23gap.html

Hot off the presses: urban youth react to Obama victory

I am glad to report that many of our students here (all African-American) are pretty psyched about the Obama victory, and have been writing in class about how this changes their idea of themselves and their futures.  One of the boys said he cried.  Another said his dumb grandma went downstairs to honk the horn on her car. 

One wrote, “People in other countries believe that America is once again the land of opportunity, that really, you can do anything, with hard work and dedication.  I mean, I’m no ignorant person, but I didn’t see America letting a black man win the presidential election.  I am only 17 years old, and I didn’t think I would live long enough to see a real life black president.  But in all honesty, I thank God.  We needed this.”

Still, they maintain their usual annoying teenage whining, annoyance, and misbehavior, so I know the world hasn’t totally flipped on its axis.  We kept up our cranky struggle for power, teacher/student wise.  That’s reassuring.

November 4

Everything else up here is carefully revised and not just off the cuff… because I value your time, dear reader…however, today requires two extemporaneous insertions.

One: people searching for “naked locker room” on the internet are accidentally being sent to the tale of my dying grandmother and her bathroom problems.  This must be poetic justice for a conservative (though not prudish) woman.

Two: I think last night was the only day of my life in which I sat and pondered how Jesse Jackson was feeling.  Whenever there is some bright spotlight, I always imagine the person in the shadows.  This is why I don’t really enjoy sports.  Even if “my” team wins, I’m thinking about what it’s like to be in the losing locker room, in the shadows. 

Mr. Jackson and I don’t have a whole lot in common (other than political leanings).  But as I was doing not much of anything last night in my yellow gold attic bedroom, I thought: Jesse Jackson must be freaked out.  And I am freaked out.  He thinks we’re going to have a black president tomorrow.  So do I.  I think we’re both terribly pleased, but my awe is overshadowing my pleasure thus far. 

Driving to work this morning, I drove past two polling places in largely African-American neighborhoods, and both had lines stretching far out the door.  I tried not to burst into tears at this.  It’s going to be a long day, and there won’t be time to burst into tears over and over again.  I also tried to find an appropriate song to listen to.  It wasn’t perfect, but I settled on “As,” Stevie Wonder.  Not political, but upbeat.  It’s one of my favorite love songs because it’s not like “I love you, sexy baby,” it’s like, “I’ll love for forever [although our love might change completely and we’ll have to be just friends or you might get a terrible disease and I’ll have to lock you in the attic]”, which strikes me as a more honest kind of love. 

I wish the whole thing was over.  Seeing the lines gave me a surge of certainty that this is our day.  Then I think of the Kerry year again, and I cringe. 

I wondered, probably along with Jesse Jackson, if there would be protests…riots… if (heaven forbid) Obama lost.  On the radio they reported that The Authorities are preparing for such a possibility.  Shiver. 

My students need to leave today thinking I could vote for John McCain.  I think I have done a reasonable job of maintaining neutrality.  However, I do have an Obama sticker on my car, and there is sometimes discussion of this.  I guess I should say, “Who put an Obama sticker on my car?  And who put that Kerry sticker underneath it?  Gosh darn it!” 

I hope that tomorrow morning is the first day of something different for my kids here.  I am certainly politically aligned with Obama– I’m not voting for him based on his race– but it is a delicious bonus that he can heal wounds that we have wasted years and years reopening (to maintain a “safe” discussion of race and avoid an awkward discussion of class).  Even better, he can push people who are disenfranchised to accept that progress is possible.

Special thanks today to the little dog Jo, wherever you are, naked or dressed.