Suspensions Disrupt Student Communities

“As Perry and Morris argue, removing a student from the school context may not be the individual act that it might seem. Rather, it occurs within an existing web of social relations and, as such, it affects student networks and the messages and meanings that are shared through these relationships.

The researchers point to two underlying mechanisms that may explain these results. First, at the individual level, a high suspension environment can create a heightened sense of anxiety. Second, at the school level, suspensions disrupt student communities, creating unstable, socially fragmented environments, which undermine the social bonds that undergird positive outcomes.”

–Esther Quintero, “New Research On School Discipline” on Shanker Blog

A Glimpse of My Own School Ecosystem

I am fortunate to work in a great district school. I would happily send my own child (if I had one) to Jonas Bronck Academy. I work in co-teaching classrooms across 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. I actively receive some of the best professional development I could ever get due to the fact that in each of my classrooms every single day, I get the opportunity to observe and collaborate with highly effective teachers.

Here’s a video in which you can get a glimpse of this wonderful school ecosystem. However, what you won’t see is the community of adults who actively surround these children with love each day. Try to keep that community in mind as you watch, because they are what enables what you do see to exist:

Hurricane Sandy and Resilience

I teach at a high school in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, a narrow peninsula surrounded on three sides by the waters of Sheepshead Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Dozens of my colleagues live in and around South Brooklyn, the Rockaways, Staten Island, and the South Shore of Long Island. Hundreds of our students and their families live in these areas. Hurricane Sandy devastated our school community.

You’ve read about the houses lost, the families displaced, and the hundreds of thousands still living without heat or electricity, without beds of their own. Maybe you’ve heard about Governor Cuomo ordering students to return to unheated schools, even as we watched this winter’s first snowfall turn to frozen slush. This hurricane has given us enough horror stories to last a lifetime.

I want to talk about resilience. In ecological terms, resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb trauma and disturbance, and then recover. Since the hurricane, I’ve learned that the school ecosystem I inhabit every day has tremendous resilience. Teachers whose homes were destroyed by the storm have taught lessons on the science of hurricanes. Others have worked tirelessly to collect and deliver supplies for people in Far Rockaway, Gerritsen Beach, and other ravaged communities. Guidance counselors have helped shell-shocked students process this catastrophe. Parents have organized carpools and opened their homes to students who now have none. Students have arrived early and left late, helping staff fill and distribute care packages for affected families. Administrators worked day and night to ensure that staff were informed both about Sandy’s impact on our community and what we could do to help. We are far from recovery, but all of this work has helped us absorb the trauma of the hurricane and maintain our sense of community.

To my knowledge, all of this work was organized by school staff, students, and families at the local level. We received no support from the Department of Education and, to be fair, should have expected none. Our schools chancellor, after all, has prioritized giving schools “the power to punish” teachers accused of wrongdoing over renovating toxic school environments. Our mayor has reveled in the wholesale destruction of swaths of our city school system and taken every possible opportunity to attack city teachers. Just last week, his administration channeled massive amounts of resources into restoring the New York Stock Exchange while children in the Rockaways wandered dark streets, looking for a place to sleep.

Despite their negligence, our school is resilient. Students who hadn’t bathed in a week showed up to read Julius Caesar with their classmates. Teachers whose supplies were lost in the flood created new lessons by candlelight. Parents whose cars were swept out to sea rode the bus with their children to make sure they got to school safely. Resilience is a remarkable thing, but we need to make sure we see things clearly.

During Tuesday’s elections, voters in the embattled Rockaways received another slap in the face as they arrived to find their polling place without heat or power. Thousands of voters lined up in the cold and endured the harsh conditions so that they could take some small part in the political process. Many pundits described these lines of freezing voters as a testament to our democracy, perhaps even as a symbol of that democracy’s resilience. Writing on facebook, an acquaintance responded to this type of thinking:

“People waiting in line is not a tribute to our great democratic system. It’s a tribute to the people waiting in line. It also says that our system sucks.”

I’ve seen remarkable resilience at my school this week, but I’ve also seen tremendous anger and frustration. We are proud of our ability to persevere, but we’d rather not have to. Hundreds of our students and staff remain without heat, power, or hot water. Others are displaced, traveling longer distances to school, sleeping on floors at friends’ or relatives’ houses. We are overwhelmed and exhausted. We are sick and tired of negligent city officials claiming to care for our schools when their actions show us, again and again, that they’d hardly notice if the storm swept us all away.

The Pre/Trans Fallacy in Public Education

In a post a while back reflecting on teaching the whole child, Will made an observation on what it means to teach the whole child that really resonated with me:

When we talk about teaching the whole child, we’re talking in part about teaching with an understanding that children are fluid beings who grow and develop constantly. In some way, then, the whole child includes who the student was, who they are, and who they will become. 

When politicians use “students first” language, pitting our students against the adults they will become, they negate the whole child, fetishizing students’ youthful selves and devaluing their grown-up selves. In environmental terms, it’s like saying we must prioritize acorns over trees. Shouldn’t we just take care of the whole forest, and defend it against those who want to slash, burn, and subdivide?

This idea of “fetishizing” youth reminded me of something completely tangential, but perhaps bearing some relevance to the broader concern here with holding up children as idealized pawns in ideological warfare. Ken Wilber, a controversial contemporary philosopher, has written about what he calls the “pre/trans fallacy,” in which he points out a potential pitfall in our thinking on nonrational states of being. He delineates nonrational states into “prerational,” such as infancy, Freudian drives, and myths, and “transrational,” which refers to spiritual, metaphysical states beyond rationality. He believes that the danger lies in confusing these two states, such as Jung elevates prerational mysticism to divine insight. Conversely, Freud portrayed transrational spiritual states as a regression to infancy. In other words, according to Wilber, in much of our thought there is little distinguishing between truly elevated states of consciousness (such as those states discussed by Sufi poets and Zen masters) and those states that precede the development of intelligence, or that operate at a minimal level of intelligence. When discussing spirituality, Wilber cautions against distortions of both “reductionism” (such as Freud’s take on religion in The Future of an Illusion) and “elevationism” of spiritual understanding (much of Romantic thought, the New Age movement et al).

At some level, this conflicted ideation of nonrational states can be viewed in the manner we talk about children, as Will pointed out. By prioritizing “acorns over trees,” and ideologically putting “students first” at all costs, we imply that childhood is an elevated state of being, rather than a developmental stage prior to adulthood that requires guidance and nurturing. Though this may seem like quibbling, the way we talk about children and childhood can reveal a deep problem in the manner in which we approach education.

Children require nurturing and guidance in developing sound of body and of mind and with the character and knowledge to face the problems and challenges of their society. It is our job as adults to provide that direction, nurturing, and guidance. Furthermore, it is our job to provide healthy eating options, and create positive learning spaces in which children are exposed to diverse experiences, access to abundant light and green spaces, and ensure students are provided with the academic and social knowledge they require to comprehend their world and make informed choices. Yet if we were to believe that childhood is some elevated state of being, we may instead allow children to do whatever it is that they so choose, as if all they require are boundless options, such that they could direct their own learning and “discover” all that there is to know. Though this may seem like a straw man argument, this sort of mystical thinking about childhood is evident in more extreme strands of inquiry-based learning, constructivism, and ideas about schools in which children are on completely individualized tracks, sift through activities and discover underlying concepts, or interact randomly with different resources.

Teaching is a craft that requires careful channeling of childrens’ innate talent, curiosity, and will towards planned and sequenced targets of learning. The best inquiry-based lessons are grounded in a deep understanding and mastery of the content by the teacher, who has carefully modeled, planned and structured the activities. It is this deep understanding and mastery that is often most obstructed by the policies, structures and schedules of our public schools (such as an unconscionable lack of paid planning time), and most ignored by education reformers who focus on external mechanisms rather than upon curriculum and school and community contexts.

Successful schools that nurture children and provide a strong curriculum are not harsh, militaristic environments. On the contrary, they are environments that abound in niches for sharing, learning, and positive social interactions.

As adults, we have for far too long absconded from our duty to provide warm nurturing and clear guidance and direction to children, and hidden behind political or theoretical abstractions that result, in the end, in the anemic drivel that is the typical curriculum of public schools, and the cold, alienating environment that constitutes many school contexts.

Perhaps if we recognize that we must “take care of the whole forest,” as Will suggested before, rather than reducing or elevating any one component of a school ecosystem, we can resist the urge to fetishize children and focus instead on how to best support those children that have been given unto our care to love and educate.

More on Time and Consistency in Learning Environments

In one of the most insightful books I’ve read on education, In Schools We Trust (if you haven’t read this gem, check it out from your library now!), Deborah Meier provides some wisdom from her extensive experience in cultivating positive learning environments that complement our last few posts (Planting Seeds and Educating for the Long Haul) on the necessity for a long-term perspective in education:

“. . . schools [that are learning communities] offer plenty of time for ideas to grow, and they don’t set rigid timetables. For some kids the aha’s are almost immediate; others require seemingly endless repetitions . . .”

“A school that is always rethinking basic premises creates unacceptable intellectual and moral disorder for kids and families. Sometimes it’s even worth sticking with the wrong consistencies for a while. In schools, as in classrooms and families, there are necessary routines and rituals. . . Caution is also required because we have all had very little, sometimes virtually no, experience with face-to-face democracy . . . so some of our efforts are clumsy out of sheer inexperience.”

Stability. Consistency. Sustainability. This is what creates a positive learning community for children.