Sunday, October 10, 2010

School Violence and Real Teaching

 Mark Kleiman emphasizes that kids need to feel safe in their neighborhoods and at school:
"It also leads some of them to construct informal alternatives to state power for mutual self-defense. Alas, those institutions are also capable of collective aggression; we call them “gangs.” All the random psychologizing about how gang membership provides a substitute for the family misses its role in providing a substitute for the state. If we really want to shrink gang membership among juveniles, we might start out by making non-membership safer."
While I agree, I'm not sure sure this is an avenue that will bear much fruit in the long-term.  Many of his commenters throw up their hands and complain (again) about the failure of public education as an institution.  But we must remember that what schools are being asked to do - and rightly so, in my opinion - is take these broken children and offer them a chance at success.  And not just the victims, but the perpetrators as well.  Because are they not all victims in the end?
There is a lot of room for growth in how we fight bullying and violence in our schools.  The current reform norm via charters & NCLB have actually created an environment in which a lot less experimentation is possible. State mandates are often created by people who have little experience in actual education and it means endless wasted hours for those of us who want to make our schools better, distracting us with top-down bureaucracy that distracts from the business of site-level analysis and serious reform. But there’s of course some good too.

I work with at-risk gang populations at a continuation school and fortunately we have the benefit of small class sizes. I have students who are able to get the kind of one-on-one support that no comprehensive classroom teacher would be able to offer with 35+ students. That makes me just one more person in his(her) life who he knows cares about him and facilitates his emotional acculturation. This means that when he walks out my door to the lunch line he’s that much less inclined to react violently to a negative situation.

Obviously there needs to be sufficient policing. But the culture of a school (something incredibly hard to quantify) is possibly more important. There’s a ripple effect from violence, hate, anger, etc. that can overwhelm even the best security measures. In my own classroom, I know that things happen behind my back because the students are very good at not being seen. But through handling bullying and conflict appropriately, which often means directly in a smaller class, provides rich opportunities for improved student self-awareness and an orientation toward compassion. Students know what is wrong and what is right, but they often lack the tools to get through conflict in a safe and responsible way. A lot of gang/bullying/etc. behavior comes from a simple ignorance of appropriate responses to stress. 

Now, the fact that so many of the students are coming from high-stress homes, with few or no positive adult role-models, makes this process very fragile. And honestly, I’m not sure every teacher is cut out for the work, as it demands difficult to identify, high-level emotional skills. But there’s also little room in the day for this type of instruction, much less in any kind of serious, targeted curriculum – especially in high-risk neighborhoods where everyone is simply trying to survive academically and everything is focused towards reading & math scores. But school may be the only place many students will ever receive the type of moral leadership and emotional skill-building that they’ll need to be successful in life. It should be on the agenda of every school board and site administration.

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