Thursday, November 4, 2010

Making 8th grade a police state is not the answer.

Remember the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld? He held the ultimate power over whether Jerry and friends received soup or not. When the show's characters entered the store, you could see their change in demeanor. They lived in fear of being yelled at and denied soup. It is unfortunate that I find myself making a connection between the Soup Nazi and some of the 8th grade teachers at my daughter's school. She has coined them "The Gum Nazis."

Right now, there are several things rotten in the state of Denmark that is my daughter's middle school. I am so frustrated at how the values of the school seem to be the polar opposite of the values I hold as a parent and as a middle school educator. (As an aside--people used to ask me why I never went for a job in the district in which I live. I think I always knew that I couldn't be happy working there specifically because some of the policies and practices are in direct conflict with my beliefs. I never fully realized that was why until I my own children became school age.)

My daughter is a responsible young woman. I also realize that she is a child. She will make mistakes. She will get in trouble. But for the most part, I find that her reflections on what is happening in her school, while tinted by the lens of adolescence, are usually pretty accurate. Two days ago, the principal, explaining to the entire class just how terrible their behavior is, enacted new rules that make an analogy to a prison state pretty accurate. As data to support his plan was the fact that the 8th grade has the largest number of PRIDE slips--more than the other three grade levels combined. PRIDE slips = discipline referrals. I have a hard time keeping them separate in my mind from PRIDE tickets, which are given randomly for "doing good things." I'll just let you read what Joe Bower has to say about these reward systems; he says it much more eloquently than I could.

So, they have a lot of PRIDE slips as a group. My daughter has had zero. Most of her friends-zero. But some of the teachers are seeing this new list of "rules" as vindication and revenge. ("Rules"? I call them punishments-see what Joe Bower has to say about that as well. He is one smart guy.) It seems that one rule being broken quite often is No Gum Chewing. And a couple of teachers are on the war path to catch the gum chewers. They have decided that chewing gum will earn a PRIDE slip. After 4 PRIDE slips, students "earn" a suspension. I don't know. I would be embarrassed as a teacher or administrator to explain to a parent that their child was suspended from school for gum chewing.

I can understand the frustration of a whole group of students that is overwhelming naughty. We've had that group move through my own school system. They were trying. They were aggravating. But we always tried very hard to remember it was the behavior of a few that made the whole group seem "bad." And we tried to remember that there was some reason behind why each student who was acting out made the choice to do so. It was our job to try to help them understand what those reasons were and to help them learn to make better choices. My daughter's teachers don't seem to understand this. My daughter described one of her teachers as being "cocky" when she enforces the "new rules." And that is just not necessary. In fact, my daughter said, "Geez, we get it. They have all the power. We have to do whatever they say. She doesn't have to like it so much." The sad fact is that when the teachers take this attitude, they are alienating themselves from the "good" students who at one point wanted to make them happy and proud. The "good" kids are so fed up with being in trouble and they aren't taking it out on the "bad" kids causing the trouble, which I think is something adults often hope will happen. Instead, they are losing respect for the authority figures who are abusing their power. Kids shouldn't be given the task of monitoring or trying to change the behavior of another kid, especially through manipulative ways like group punishments.

Any teacher's #1 strategy in having an efficient, learning classroom should be creating caring and respectful relationships with students. My daughter no longer feels like she has a respectful relationship with several of her teachers. Turning 8th grade into a police state is not the answer. This school needs to take a careful look at their beliefs about teaching, learning, and basic nature of people. If their behaviors are supported by their beliefs, I have to seriously ask myself if this is the school in which my child belongs. I would much rather my children learn in a school that spends time reflecting on the best way to teach each child to reach higher levels of critical thinking, life-long learning, and ethical behavior and not on devising punishment and reward systems that do things to kids rather than work with them.

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