Thursday, August 30, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (Fairness)

I'm working on a series of posts I've entitled "Why I Teach The Way I Do," hoping to ultimately pull them altogether into one comprehensive piece. I started it as an exercise in convincing and informing others, but I'm finding, as I do with most of the things I write here, it's becoming a reflective process that's forcing me to really think about the things we do at our school and why we do them that way.

These posts probably make more sense in order, so here are the links to them so far: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four. Today I write about justice.


The Arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward Justice. ~Martin Luther King Jr.

At the heart of justice lies the idea of fairness, not that every outcome goes our way, but rather than the process by which we go about settling our conflicts reflects the essential democratic idea that all men are created equal. In many respects the story of our nation is the story of progressively discovering essential unfairness, debating it, persuading a majority, then finally deciding as a society that it's time for justice. It's a long story that arcs through the American Revolution, emancipation, women's suffrage, the labor movement, and civil rights. If it seems like we are today no closer to it than we were two centuries ago, it must be remembered that fairness isn't a destination where we will all one day sit together in perfect brotherhood, but rather a direction we've set for ourselves by adopting our Constitution and all its amendments.

Young children are deeply interested in the idea of fairness, especially as they begin to gain experience in the world of school where resources and space are limited, and it becomes essential that we discover methods by which to share. From the first day the 2-year-olds arrive at our school, they begin the journey toward an understanding of fairness if they've not already begun with the advent of a sibling and the necessity of sharing mom and dad. They arrive to find only 3 painting easels, for instance, 6 surfaces on which to paint. At first they tend to paint willy nilly. There is always at least one child bent on making her mark on each blank sheet of paper. There are others who crowd around a single canvas, their brushes swirling together. I intentionally put the easels closer together than necessary so that they must bump, jostle, and otherwise interact in this shared space. At the end of the day, it's usually impossible to know which individual made which painting, although often a diligent parent will keep a running list of names on the corner of the paper, indicating everyone who was involved. This may not appear "fair" to the adult eye, especially as one child repeatedly paints over the work of the others, but until the others object, until the others begin to feel that an injustice has been done, we have come to at least a temporary agreement about what is fair.

It's a challenge for us, but the adults strive to not impose our own ideas of fairness on the children, but inevitably certain "tools" emerge, such as the idea that rules must apply to everyone, turn-taking, one-man-one-vote, and the complicated rule "you can't say you can't play." I'm not going to pretend that these ideas come solely from the children's experiences with one another in the classroom, because so imbedded are these ideas in our culture that, of course, the children are influenced by experiences from elsewhere, but what I am saying is that it is a testament to the power of these fundamental tools of fairness that once they are introduced, once they are understood by the children, they are readily adopted and quickly become the norm.

Remembering to apply these and other tools of justice, however, is difficult in the heat of the moment, no matter what our age, which is why we hope to have impartial judges and juries of our peers.

Not only do the adults play the role of executive in our preschool democracy, as I discussed yesterday, but we also often have to play judge, frequently all in one fell swoop.

More often than not I walk into a situation that is already at full boil, one in which two or more children are emotional, often engaged in tussling or crying or shouting. I won't go into the details of how I work to calm the situation (because I've already done so here), but once we're able to talk, I start by trying to take on the role of arbitrator rather than a judge with the authority to make decisions, attempting to impartially listen to both sides of the story. In the beginning, I don't care so much about the rule of law, but rather, can these two (or three or four) equal and free individuals work out a solution, an agreement, to everyone's satisfaction. This means that the worst thing I can do is go in with my own idea about how this should fall out: the goal is fairness in the eyes of those most directly affected.

The first step is to give everyone a chance to be heard and that means not just the "combatants," but also any other citizen who has something to say, because, after all, the things that happen in our school are everyone's business. I start by asking something like, "What happened?" or "Why are you mad?" I listen, then paraphrase as concisely as I can, making sure that the other children involved understand what has been said. Then I listen to the story from the next perspective, again paraphrasing. Sometimes I then paraphrase the stories jointly, "You both say you had the block first."

Then I wait. This waiting is an important part in the arbitration process.

Sometimes after that moment of silence a child will repeat his statement or rephrase it or expand upon it. Sometimes one of the children will propose a solution, such as, "We should take turns and I'm first." Sometimes one child will "give up" her claim, perhaps out of an understanding that she was, in fact, in the wrong, or perhaps because it's not a battle worth fighting, both nobel positions. Sometimes one or both children will appeal to me to settle for them in some manner, at a loss for what to do. In my role as arbitrator, I simply repeat the challenge as it has been presented to me from both sides, then add, "We need a solution."

This process typically draws a crowd, which I think of as the proverbial "jury of peers." Often, especially if we find ourselves truly at loggerheads, these onlookers begin to offer their "evidence" (e.g., "Johnny had it first.") or ideas for a solution (e.g., "They should take turns.").

Throughout this, my job is to repeat or paraphrase (in the interest of clarity) what the children are saying and wait.

It is in this waiting, hanging out with our questions, conflicts, statements, and evidence, that we really begin to experience what fairness and justice are all about.

I know there are some that would have us, as adults, inject morality into this process, but I strive to avoid that, sticking as strictly as possible to the case at hand, and perhaps, if necessary appealing to our rules. It is through this process of coming to understand one another through our conflicts that our collective morality emerges. It's the place we end rather than begin.

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Luke Jaaniste said...

I like the idea of an emergent collective morality (which means it can change we honestly negotiate our preferences).

One question here Tom is - why the 'you can't say you can't play' rule? I read the link post, and in terms of fairness, I do wonder how it is fair that a social-space that I've created with say just one or two others has be to opened to others beyond this is they want to join in. Can't feelings of disappointment be okay to feel and experience and thus can't 'exclusive relationships/play' be allowed to flourish as much as wider groups? Why would it be fair that someone else desire (to join in) trumps my desire (to have some secluded small group)? Aren't I 'free' to self-select?

I suppose another way I could ask it is: what does equal mean? does it mean we all have to equally share all the time? I don't think so, but I'd love to know what you think here... and also it suggests the larger question of: what do you mean by 'equal' and 'free'?... I'm not quite sure - surely you don't mean equal as in the same, so what is equal?

Meagan said...

Do you ever run into children taking sides based on friendship rather than fairness? Saying "John had it first" because John is her best friend, not because John really had it first? How does this turn out?

Do you ever have children who ALWAYS decide it's not a battle worth fighting simply because they're more timid by nature? Do you let that rest, or try to encourage them to stand up for themselves if you see a pattern of subservience?

Teacher Tom said...

@Luke and Meagan . . . Good points, both. I want to answer/address them, but it will have to wait until later today. Thanks!

MissJosephineB said...

@Luke, check out Vivian Paley's book (it's a very quick read) called "You Can't Say You Can't Play," through her experience as a Kindergartes teacher she explains how this rule came about and, I think, very clearly explains it's value and importance. In short, creating a culture of inclusion vs. exclusion so early on promotes and encourages the value of community support and civic engagement because it starts children out looking out for every member, not just preferred members.