Do you have citizens of a learning community, or detainees in a training camp?

Where I work we like to say, “if a student cannot walk into a classroom and decide where, how, or if to sit, we are not helping them to learn anything about decision making or being an adult member of a community.”

We say that over and over, we believe that. And yet…

We also like to say, “Students are in control of their technology,” be it our 1:1 effort or our BYOD policies. We say that and believe that. And yet…

“I call our students “children,”’ Albemarle County high school principal Dr. Jesse Turner says, “because most of my kids don’t get to be children at home. They have to work to help support their home. They have to care for siblings or parents. They have to maintain their home. So when they come here I want them to get to be children, and they all know what I mean by that.”

I think we are way better than most public school systems, I do, and we have evidence, and yet…

Way over forty years ago the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision in Tinker v DesMoines Independent Community School District (1969), and in that decision was the now famous statement:

It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The film Casablanca, “your papers, please”

Now, is this truly true in our schools? In yours? Let’s ask a few questions. Are there classrooms where students are told where and/or how to sit? Police interrogation rooms are like this, of course, but… Are students in any of your schools ever required to have letters of transit to move from one place to another. Yes, we use the more polite term “hall pass” but there is no difference… Are students marked down for being late? For missing a class even if you know they are safe and in the building? Is compliance considered part of the evaluation system? There was a time in America — back at the beginning of Ford’s revolutionary $5 day, $2 was for living a properly “clean American” lifestyle — but maybe we’ve moved past that…

Who or what has every made anyone in the 3Is [a ‘school without walls open during the 1970s and 1980s] take more classes than he/she wants to take? First year student Richard Hobbs during his two years in the 3Is probably didn’t take more than one or two and, if I remember correctly, didn’t even get credit for them. He graduated. (See Ira Socol and Tom Murphy on the art of not taking classes; on the other hand, for the art of taking classes, see Kim Jones, who amassed something like 12 credits and graduated after her sophomore year.)”

Do we require students to be in a building even if they have no classes? Do we require classes even if a student might demonstrate knowledge another way? Do we create rigid schedules that make earning money difficult or sleep a rare commodity?

Listen, I understand, high school kids are, in some ways, still children… and as Dr. Turner says… but for Dr. Turner, being children means being safe to explore, to imagine, to test things out, to play. It doesn’t mean being treated as if all human and citizen rights were taken away. And I understand that middle school kids are, in many ways, still children, and yet… might we at least define “children” and “safety” in 1960 terms — when kids could be out of our line of sight for hours — or in European school terms — in which supervision is not required all of the school day?

“No kid ever died from twisting a swing,” says kindergarten teacher Meg Franco, who led a mostly successful fight against playground rules a couple of years ago. Ms. Franco’s kids run, climb, jump, dig, twist, in every kind of weather, and every piece of wet clothing, every cold hand, every bumped arm or leg is something learned.

Could we find a way to let freedom be part of every child’s life? Could we find a way to allow our kids the chance to take risks? The chance to do things wrong? The chance to screw up?

Childhood without risk is permanent. It means that no growth occurs. Adolescence especially is designed to be risk taking. Without that a 20 year old is a 10 year old in every cognitive and emotional way.

So, start this way. What rules in your school are about true physical danger — perhaps leaving the grounds of a middle school — and what rules are there simply to eliminate risk — cutting class, being late, not doing homework, leaving a classroom without specific permission?

Real rules have natural consequences — if going to a class has actual value then missing that class has a consequence. If homework were to help you understand something important then not doing it has a consequence. If running in a corridor without paying attention causes you to crash into someone and hurt them, then there are consequences. Most school rules, on the other hand, have punishments because there are no real consequences — because those rules are just rules, to establish a hierarchy.

Which are the rules in your school? Ask yourselves that, and then — burn your pads of hall passes. Eliminate punishments for cutting class or being late. Let kids run, dance, and jump in the halls. Measure learning instead of seat time — and stop telling kids where, how, or if to sit. Stop insisting what books they should read.

In short, start treating your students as humans — as citizens of a learning community — and stop treating them as detainees who are in your school for training.

That will change their lives for the better. And it just might do the same for yours.

  • Ira Socol

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