Friday, April 4, 2008

Where do we Draw the Line?

The Times has an interesting piece today about a school in upstate NY and their attempts to deal with discipline and teach kids responsibility. The school has, essentially, taken a no-nonsense approach: anybody who breaks any rule (or falters in any class) is barred from all activities and, in some cases, given detention or served lunch last. Students are assigned seats at lunch and not allowed to get up until given permission. Students have to walk to the right of the line in the middle of the hall (which the school where I taught used to do -- when I was there we just had the tape running down the middle of the hall and chaos all around it).

It would be easy to simply condemn this policy, but I hesitate for three reasons:

1. I read a short newspaper article about it; I don't really have a clear picture of what things are like on the ground

2. The new principal has coupled this no-nonsense approach with more fun activities in which the kids who aren't in trouble can participate

3. There has to be some structure in place to teach kids respect, responsibility, etc.

The strongest evidence against it is that about 1/4 of the students are currently on the no activities list. If that continues to be the case after a couple years of the policy then I think it would be fair to declare it a failure.

There's a fundamental question here that needs to be answered. How do we teach kids respect, responsibility, etc. without creating resentment and, at the same time, teaching self-control? Apparently lunchtime was a problem, so they clamped down. I'll assume that the students in the school are now more likely to view lunch as a controlled atmosphere rather than a time to goof off. But if they can't even get up when they want or sit with their friends, how are they supposed to learn to create such a controlled atmosphere on their own? (a conversation along similar lines has been taking place over at Bridging Differences).

In other words, it doesn't matter how much discipline can be imposed on the students in a school if they have no self-discipline outside of the system. But, at the same time, a system with no discipline does the kids a disservice. So, where do we draw the line? How do ensure the best of both worlds?

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Maybe with a policy like this it would be better to view the fun activities as rewards for doing well, and to make sure they really are "extras" and "privileges" and not the more appealing parts of the educational program.

My daughter's middle school has grade and behavior criteria for attending dances and socials, but not for most other activities, and I think it's mostly seen as fair.

You have a good point about the need to teach kids to control their behavior -- and I'd be really worried if a high school was taking this approach.

My sense is that through elementary school and middle school one of the goals of educators is to move kids from extrinsic motivators (stickers, class pizza parties) to intrinsic motivators. I can see the change beginning to happen with my 6th grader -- at least to the point where grades are a successful extrinsic motivator. But even that is a big change from a year ago.