Friday, March 18, 2011

Crime and Punishment first grade style

I have been corresponding with many teachers and parents as the film makes its way into people’s paths. Yesterday I emailed back and forth with a parent from North Carolina. She has graciously allowed me to print part of her letter:

“I understand, absolutely, that there are many "right" ways as you say for education... but I am currently facing a very uptight system. I am about to embark on a no turning back campaign to end "silent lunch" punishments in my district. Children work quietly and dutifully with little time to explore, discuss, and interact... and are now being threatened with losing their right to talk at lunch. My son has silent lunch in first grade if children talk during instruction time (desks, worksheets, more worksheets if they finish early). Insanity. INSANITY!!!

I do not blame teachers, I understand that most of them feel powerless in this system. I do not blame administrators, they want to support teachers. I am not blaming. But who is thinking about the child? Where is the child's voice? I know it is not about blame, but someone must start these conversations! Especially in my town.

I am not politically savvy, and I've never gone against a big system (David and Goliath), but I am doing my homework and reaching out to other parents right now. Our community is in desperate need of a good conversation in which everyone's voice is heard. I am trying to find ways to make that happen.”

The principal at this school thinks that silent lunch is the best disciplinary alternative open to teachers. It is seen as mild—after all no one is being suspended or hit. A teacher doesn’t have to raise her voice, just write on the board “silent lunch today” and not only will the 6 year old miscreant who was squirmy get the message, but so do all his classmates, so peer pressure will make the “bad behavior” less likely to happen again.

There are two outrages here. There is the act the child is being punished for, and the punishment itself. I understand why my letter writer is focused on the punishment. The cruelty inherent in denying children the ability to enjoy their meal goes beyond the period of time when they are being punished. It extends to their attitude around eating in general, and is a good way to start a child on the road to eating disorders…but "to prove what?" is also essential to look at.

While many may think a quiet classroom with everyone working at their desks is what learning looks like, anyone who has studied child development knows differently. Many adults would have a hard time if their work situations were that rigid, but children absolutely need to move. Movement promotes social/emotional, creative, and cognitive development. Depriving children of the ability to use their energy will inevitably lead to them…doing it anyway and “getting in trouble!!”

On Monday I watched a happy group of first graders, the same age as my correspondent’s son, moving around a classroom purposefully. They were building with blocks, drawing pictures, reading books, and working on their spelling. The room was alive with their voices, their excitement and pleasure at what they were doing was evident. Having been in this classroom many times this year, I could see the progress the little writers had made in motor control and understanding letter/sound relationships.

Their teacher has their respect because she respects them, including their need to move. There are few “discipline problems” in this class because she is working with her students needs, not trying to subvert them. If a child is disruptive the teacher reflects on what she could do to help the child, not how to punish him or her.

Alfie Kohn wrote in a 1996 essay in Education Week titled Beyond Discipline: “To "manage" students' behavior, to make them do what we say, doesn't promote community or compassion, responsibility or reflection. The only way to reach those goals is to give up some control, to facilitate the tricky, noisy, maddening, unpredictable process whereby students work together to decide what respect means or how to be fair."

I applaud this parent for taking a stand, and fervently hope she will find other parents who realize they must protect their children from being seen as objects to be managed!

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