Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do ("Enforcing" Rules)

You join the blog today as I'm in the midst of writing a series of posts I'm calling "Why I Teach The Way I Do," with the hope of later drawing them all together into one comprehensive piece. The first post in which I discuss philosophy and obedience is here. The second in which I detail the hows and whys of our preschool legislative process is here. Yesterday's post was a bit of a step back as I attempted to explicitly answer the promise made in the title to this exercise. Today, I've written about the role of the executive function, which is largely (although as you'll see, not exclusively) the role of adults, or more specifically, how we serve and protect our equal and free citizenry by enforcing the rules we have made together.

The Executive

When he was 2-years-old, Henry did not respect any rules whatsoever. Of course, this was the year before we'd introduced our legislative process to the children, so it's possible that he simply objected to having no say in things, but it's more likely that he didn't care to share the space, the toys, and the adults with the other kids. It's a big step to move from your family, where you're the only child to be considered, into a world full of children. One day he declared, "I'm going to break the whole school." Thankfully, he didn't follow through, but it looked like he meant it.

Two years later, having made peace with whatever it was that caused him such frustration, I spied Henry patrolling the room, holding his hands atop his head, palms forward while rapidly opening and closing his fingers. He occasionally stopped to talk to a friend, but then moments later was again circling the room. When next he came near me, I said, "You have your hands on top of your head."

"I'm flashing them."

"By opening and closing your fingers."

"I'm a policeman."

That made sense. "And your hands are the flashing lights on your car."

"I'm reminding people when they break the rules." Just then his friend Colin jogged past and Henry was on him in a flash. "Running inside is against the rules." Colin continued on his way, walking.

I was reminded of this earlier this summer when I was riding my bike with a friend Dan in downtown Seattle. He's something of a scofflaw and was riding without a helmet because, as he puts it, "I don't need to be protected from myself." He was at least willing to stop with me at a red light, but the team of four SPD bike cops coming up behind us didn't, racing through the steady red as if it wasn't there. Dan yelled, "Hey, you ran the red light!"

One of the cops shouted back over his shoulder, "And you're not wearing a helmet!" Just a couple of citizens reminding one another of the rules.

The next time I caught up with Dan, he'd bought a new helmet, explaining, "I want to be a good example for the kids," although I knew the real reason: he'd been reminded. This is the way it usually works in our classroom, and if we had a truly educated citizenry, it's likely this is how it would work for most people, most of the time, in our wider society. As you can see, I'm a Lockean to the depths of my soul.

If there is one part of democracy where we fail the most dramatically in being equal and free, it is in the exercise of the executive function. It's my opinion that on a federal level we've ceded far too much power to the Executive branch and the President in particular, tipping our entire government out of balance. Ideally, the three branches are equal with the Legislative being "the first amongst equals," by virtue of it being the first one detailed in the Constitution. This imbalance, however, has tended to filter down through all levels of government, although many governors and most mayors are far more effectively counter-balanced by legislatures and city councils than is the President. Still, in many cities, my own Seattle being one of them, if you need any evidence that power has shifted too far toward the executive function, just look at the increased militarization of our police forces and the "widespread and routine use of excessive force," to quote a recent Department of Justice report on the SPD.

We attempt to employ a more properly balanced approach in the preschool, although it can't be forgotten that there are practical reasons why everyone is not fully enfranchised from birth, the primary one being that we expect a certain level of experience and education in order to responsibly engage in democracy. Very young children cannot be expected to have the discretion and judgement to make every decision for themselves. While it's true that when making decisions as a legislative body I've found we can rely on the children to collectively make good decisions, this is not always true of individual children who simply don't have the experience or the developmental aptitude to operate in the world without some level of external executive function: providing this, when absolutely necessary, is the role of parents and teachers.

This is where we adults come in, not as superiors, but rather in the role that Henry provided for Colin: to serve and protect. Just as a traffic cop has the job of sometimes telling me to stop, not because he is my boss, but because he has been hired by we the people to do a necessary job, and I trust that he is doing it in the name of service and protection, so too do the adults in our little practice democracy. In preschool that means that sometimes the adults simply have to say, "I can't let you do that," either because there is a rule being violated or because someone's safety in in jeopardy. (I prefer this particular phraseology because it has the virtue of being a true statement as opposed to a command like "Stop!")

Every now and then, even in our classroom practice of democracy, a child will persist in breaking one of our rules, even after being reminded several times that "You and your friends agreed . . ." In these cases, especially if the behavior is hurting or frightening the other children, I'll assume my role as a representative of the executive branch, saying, "You'll have to play in a different place until you're ready to remember the rules." Sometimes I need to take a hand or shoulder and guide him to another place, but most of the time, the child will simply move on to something else, engaging in an activity that makes it easier to remember the rule. It is entirely up to the child to determine when and if he'll return to the scene of his "crime." In 10 years, I've never had to take executive measures beyond this, even with children who decide they can return 30 seconds later.

I don't know what I'd do if a child pushed it further. Probably, I'd sit him down and attempt to engage him in a conversation, one in which I pointed out facts, my opinions and concerns included. I wouldn't lecture him on right and wrong, but I would attempt to work things around to the brilliant logic of the "Golden Rule," and how his friends expect him to abide by his agreement to not hit or push or take or whatever it was he persists in doing. Whatever I did, it would not involve evoking consequences beyond the natural ones that emerge from the behavior: "Your friends are afraid you will hurt them," "The other kids don't want you to play with them," "Suzy is crying because you took her doll."  And if it came right down to it, I would say, "I can't let you hurt the other people," which is a simple statement of fact that I would, reluctantly, back up with my greater physical strength if absolutely necessary.

Just as the bike cop did with my friend Dan, or as the Dutch do with their very loosely enforced ban on marijuana, I also fulfill my executive role with discretion, the way citizens should when dealing with fellow equal and free citizens, whatever our "jobs." It is a simple truth that all laws are not created equal. While we are fairly rigorous with things like "No hitting," because safety is at stake, rules like "No making a mess," or "No guns," are often enforced much more loosely. This is how we treat one another, with discretion and respect, when we are free and equal: most of the time it is enough that we remind one another.

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1 comment:

Anne said...

“The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It's proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or "accessing" what we now call "information" - which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.”

Wendell Berry

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