Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Surveillance, Control and the First Day of School

Yesterday was L's first day of junior kindergarten.

In a lot of the conventional senses it was not terribly traumatic for either him or me. After all, he spent a fair number of half-days at pre-school last year so he has done something kind of similar before. JK is full days here, but over the summer he spent some weeks at home with me and some weeks going to day camps that lasted for the entire day, so he is not completely unfamiliar with absences of that length. We even had a chance to go in and meet his teacher and see his classroom last week, so it wasn't completely unfamiliar territory. Yet I retain the unease I have felt since before L was born about the prospect of participation in the education system.

You see, in my mind, the best way to do education...well, the best way to do education would actually be some sort of resource centre model, I think -- something like community-based spaces that were sort of based on souped-up public libraries. Participation would be flexible, organized around meeting the needs of the community and of individual parents and children, responsive to diverse schedules and diverse desires for learning while still presenting opportunities and environments and information that said individuals might not have known they didn't have. It would be socially funded and would employ people with experience in working with radical pedagogies who might on occasion teach but would spend much of their time advising, facilitating, supporting, and accessing or creating resources for people, and in this way the centre would be a site for youth and adults to create individual and collective spaces for learning for themselves and each other.

But that couldn't happen without some fairly major social reorganization. In the world we currently live in, the best way to do education, in my opinion, is some variety of home schooling. I believe that mainstream schools encourage obedience and conformity, provide overt curriculum that reflects dominant lies about how the world works and hidden curriculum that reinforces relations of domination and subordination, and stifle creativity, originality, and spontaneous expression. Their main function has always been training youth to become workers that fit into the slots that social relations have apportioned to them, rather than critical thinking or liberatory personal and social development. Home schooling, unschooling, and various other types of non-institutional pedagogy can do better. So can other types of non-traditional institutional schools, like Waldorff or Montessori, but I have a great deal of discomfort with private schooling for other reasons.

Anyway, we're not doing home schooling with L, and that bothers me some. We're not doing it because I know that I couldn't. I would come to resent it fairly quickly because it would require enough of my time over a large enough block of years that I would feel a serious lack in terms of space for writing and other creative endeavours -- that may not reflect well on me, but I know myself well enough to know that is how things are. And that sort of resentment would not be good for anybody. As well, I have the sense that home schooling works best when the parents have a skill for proactive cultivation of social networks of various sorts for themselves and for the children, and I tend to be socially reserved, even socially anxious, and I doubt I would be able to do a good enough job of that side of things.

Which leaves the public school system. Far from ideal, but I'm approaching it from the stance of working to provide L with the tools to navigate it in ways that minimize the damage it does while taking advantage of the opportunities it offers. That's the theory, at any rate. In twenty years, maybe he can tell me how well I've done. :)

Anyway, like I said, the first day went fine, but the reason I started this post was to share some of the material in the school-wide newsletter that was sent home with him yesterday. It is a very simple document, with little blocks of text and little desktop publishing graphics sprinkled on both sides of two 8.5 x 11 sheets.

What struck me about this document was the overwhelming presence of discipline, surveillance, and control in the matters it concerns itself with. I mean, like I said, mass education has always been about those things, but I get the sense that it is significantly more severe now than when I was a kid. I'd imagine it is the educational corollary of things like food banks -- institutions that did not exist in any significant way when I first stepped into a public school in 1979, which were initially responses to a particular crisis, and which have never gone away. Except rather than responding to the bodily needs of people in the context of increasingly harsh oppression and exploitation, the increase of surveillance and control is a response to the ways in which young people respond to those shifts in the context of institutions.

The front page is largely free of this material, but it starts coming hard and heavy on the second page. There is a blurb on school safety, with issues like checking in at the office and getting visitors' passes (which, I have to say, I don't object to). There is a blurb on absences and the need to notify, including a not terribly veiled threat that if parents are not successful in coercing regular attendance from their kids then the state will harass the parents -- the "Attendance Counsellor for our school...will become involved immediately if there are concerns regarding attendance."

Along with information on the school council -- I'm thinking of participating, however ornamental and cooptive the intent -- and on allergies, the third page contains one of the most outrageous items in the newsletter. Apparently it is mandatory for any children in Grade 1 or higher to pay a supplementary fee for an agenda book, and to have that book initialled on a daily basis by their teacher and parent. Could you get any more open about the fact that you don't expect what you do to widely engender spontaneous love of learning and participation purely for that reason, and that ensuring work discipline acceptable to the capitalist employment market for which students are being prepared requires overt, daily surveillance and coercion by authority figures? Unbelievable.

And the final page includes a blurb about riding the bus, which is entirely devoted to issues of discipline, and then a section explicitly on the institution's "Positive School Discipline Plan." This includes very explicit controls on the movement of students into, out of, and within the building -- like "line up and be escorted single file down the right hand of the stairs" level of controls. It also says, "We will continue to emphasize with our students how to talk politely, how to dress appropriately and how to act respectfully at all times." I think respect, if understood in the right way, is a good thing, as long as it is nonhierarchical and reciprocal, which is not my experience of schools. I can imagine all manner of ways in which "politely" and "appropriately" get constructed in ways that are more about ease of management of subordinated people (i.e. students) than about any critical understanding of what they can mean, and that those words smuggle plenty of opportunities for oppression into that statement.

The real kicker of that section -- and, no, I'm not making this up -- is that the school has a "Planning for Success Room to help our students learn appropriate behaviour." This disgusting euphemism for a detention room becomes all the more poignant when you realize that this school is in a largely working-class area of a city in which any students who do not manage to get into the mining sector or the broader public sector have little option but insecure, minimum wage, service sector jobs to look forward to -- more than 60% of jobs in Sudbury pay less than ten dollars an hour. In that context, exactly what kind of success are these kids to plan for as they are being disciplined?

Anyway. I'm sure I'll write more about school-related stuff over the coming years, as I try to figure out an orientation that will be best for supporting L and, perhaps, for contributing to efforts to make change.

And as a palate cleanser after all of that, here is a sweet, vaguely relevant anecdote: The other day L and I were playing with stamps -- not the kind you put on envelopes, but the kind you put ink on and then press onto paper. I ran upstairs to go to the bathroom or something like that and in the couple of minutes I was gone, my newly four year-old kid had started a new page and written on it "TO DAD" and then "FUM LIAM" in letters that took almost the entire page, and added a little fishy stamp. It was pretty cool.


thwap said...

"Success Room," ... omfg! I was a huge success in highschool then!

Scott said...

:) It is actually the "Planning for Success Room"...no doubt all the planning you did back in highschool has brought you to where you are today!

laura collins said...

Truancy: The root of all school safety problems!

“No child falls through the cracks. They are dropped through or shoved through by lazy, emotionally immature adults and unethical professionals”

After the Columbine shootings I made this statement during an interview on national television. The reporter asked if I really believed that statement and I replied, “absolutely!”

But you may ask what this statement has to do with the issue of truancy? Simple, truant children – who are routinely late or absent – come from dysfunctional homes. Those homes in my experience are lead by caregivers who are more concerned about there own pleasures and convenience than the welfare of their children. Some may say that this is an unkind assessment. My response to them is simple, visit these homes and you will see that this is not an aberration.

While some caregivers have a difficult time because of poverty, work schedules or transitioning to a single parent household; the majority simply refuse to exercise self control or basic order in their homes.

And this assessment is supported by various national studies. Research from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education have found that child neglect and family disorganization are major factors in truancy. The OJJDP also found that “Truancy has been clearly identified as one of the early warning signs of students headed for potential delinquent activity, social isolation, or educational failure via suspension, expulsion, or dropping out.”

More disturbing is a document that I have used for many years in criminal profiling, the Juvenile Sex Offender Assessment Protocol (J-SOAP-II). In this well respected assessment tool, caregiver issues and truancy become connected as impetuses for teen sex offender development:

Inconstant and instable caregivers before the age of 10. Multiple changes in caregivers and living situations.
Chronic truancy, fighting with peers or teachers.
Dr Gerald Patterson sums up the issue this way, “Parenting plays a critical role in the development process of children. Early discipline failures are a primary casual factor in the development of conduct problems. Harsh discipline, low supervision, lack of parental involvement all add to the development of aggressive children”

Bullying, sexual harassment, negative behavior cliques and aggression towards staff are all done by children who come from dysfunctional homes. But beyond the home environment, schools have a big stake in controlling truancy. Not only is it a major part of NCLB compliance but it affects all school safety issues. The US DOE has tracked the following school issues that directly contribute to truancy.

· Lack of effective and consistently applied attendance policies.

· Poor record-keeping, making truancy difficult to spot.

· Teacher characteristics, such as lack of respect for students and neglect of diverse student needs.

· Unsafe environment, for example a school with ineffective discipline policies where bullying is tolerated. [5 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 skipped school because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school.]

Truancy happens in rural, suburban and urban schools and all classes of families. School must take control of their truancy problems or they are bound to be overtaken by it.

A well managed school is a safe school!

Scott said...

Hi laura.

So I wonder: Do you actually realize that when what you've written is read from a place grounded in the actual politics of my post, rather than completely ignoring those politics as you have done, that your comment reinforces my central point by its example? I suspect not. There are so many ridiculous things in your comment (or, in many cases, ridiculous absences) that I'm not sure where to start.

Of course schools have a big stake in controlling what you describe as "truancy." Of course a school in which top-down surveillance and control is exercised most effectively will be one that requires the fewest crisis interventions by those who manage it. The sorts of indicators that this implies for the "goodness" of schools are all from the standpoint of managers, not really about the experiences of students or about the role of schools in overall social relations.

You make use of the catch-all category of "dysfunction" to give respectable-sounding vocabulary to broad generalizations based in thinking that is both sloppy and oppressive. By looking primarily at one narrow indicator of the school experience -- what you call "truancy" -- and by offering an explanation that looks primarily (and in moralistic, blaming ways) to the behaviour of particular individuals that can be constructed as "bad", you create space for yourself to completely ignore any explanations that might lead towards solutions that would involve critical challenge towards the school system, stopping the attack on some communities lead by the same state that controls the schools, or challenging social relations that mean that the biggest "plus" in terms of future "employability" that many kids can get from school is learning to follow orders without asking questions or sticking up for themselves and their peers (which is a pretty sick thing to see as a plus if you ask me). Because you have constructed a narrow problem and a narrow solution to that problem that blames "bad people", it justifies an agenda of intensifying the practices of surveillance and control that are increasingly a part of mainstream education without seeking to understand what the education system really is and does.

Red Jenny said...

Could you get any more open about the fact that you don't expect what you do to widely engender spontaneous love of learning and participation purely for that reason

Yeah, seriously. Honestly what kid does NOT love learning up to the age of, say, 4 or so?

Then again, I also sympathize with the teachers since they have 30 individuals to try to teach. It's nearly impossible to do so without some application of discipline. Certainly seems a bit over the top at this particular school, or maybe you're right and the times have changed.

Personally I like your ideal of schools, but would add mentorship to that. I do think it is important for kids to have one or more mentors that can help nudge them towards learning things which they wouldn't necessarily do on their own, or leading them through more difficult material, or just simply being there to help answer questions or direct the kids to new learning material.

I hated history until I had a teacher in high school who decided to teach us about ww1 and ww2 through lecture style. Then it was basically like having a twice-a-week storyteller spin a fascinating tale. I ended up becoming a history major.

Some kids learn by reading and writing, and for them, a glorified library would be excellent. Some, however, learn best by other methods. For them, having teachers (in the informal sense of people who teach) could be invaluable.

Scott said...

Hey RJ.

For sure, mentorship would have to be a part of that. I think I was trying to get at that when I wrote that the people working there would be heaviliy involved in "advising, facilitating, supporting, and accessing or creating resources". What I was hurriedly trying to get across was a situation which was not purely driven by the kids/parents and not purely by some higher authority with credentials, but allowed the kids and the parents room to explore what they wanted to explore while also deliberately providing some guidance, including guidance towards things they might otherwise not be interested in.

And when I used libraries as a metaphor or a model I didn't mean to imply all the education would be text-based. I was more trying to get at the idea that it would be a socially-funded repository for resources -- very centrally including human resources, in the case of what I was suggesting, not just books -- that could be used in different ways with considerable discretion by those doing the using. In what I envisioned, the people employed at such centres would certainly teach in the broad sense you have outlined, I was just trying to get away from the narrow understanding of it that we currently see in many schools. An important category of resources that the people working there would work to make accessible to youth and adult learners would be not books, not websites, but other people in the community who might come in once in a while to talk about something they have some expertise in, whether that is astronomy or backyard gardening or writing poetry or fixing outboard motors. (Part of my fantasizing about how such institutions could work is based on my partial understanding of how some friends are unschooling their kids and making a radio show about it at the same time, using the great reservoirs of expertise held by ordinary people in the community as an important resource.)

It would definitely be crucial to address the very different ways in which people learn -- the refusal of mainstream schools to do so beyond certain narrow limits is one of the many reasons to object to the way in which they are organized -- and I think a resource centre model would be well placed to do that.

Red Jenny said...

Makes sense. I would attend that school!