Sunday, 11 November 2012

The school as the place of sanction: problems with punishment and power in the classroom.

One of the most wonderful aspects of being part of a start up school is the opportunity to reflect on what a school is and whether this form of social infrastructure is what it should be.

Two readings of an academic nature that I've been tackling for thesis purposes have really struck home regarding my assumptions and associations of what a school, and schooling, are. The first is Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault, and the second is The Activities of Teaching by Thomas F. Green. Both are pretty abstract but their relevance to practice and the every-day is not difficult to see. I'm just going to talk about reflections on punishment today, and leave the Green reading for a later post.

Much of Foucault's work stems around the social, and Discipline and Punish is particularly focused on social institutions and processes that enforce penalty of some kind: prisons etc. Naturally, one of these institutions has traditionally been the school--even the cover of the book draws on that classic Victorian method of punishment from a despotic teacher: the wooden ruler.

Just on seeing this book jacket, mental images are immediately conjured up of corporal punishment, writing lines, detention, suspension or, that ultimate of school penalties: expulsion.

Expulsion: that process that says "we are so hellbent on punishing you as an individual that we will deny you access to education" (yeah right: because that's exactly what is going to help a troubled teen work their way through those difficult years... a lack of education. Seems to me to be a recipe for turning a troubled teen into a troubled adult).

Chatting with the principal of the new school, I confess my mind turned to that automatic question that every new teacher wants to ask: "what are the sanction processes if a student causes trouble?".

Straight away I resented myself for asking it: it immediately exposed how deeply internalised the idea of a school-as-a-place-of-sanction has become in my mind. I want to undo that line of thinking before I start working in the new school. At a superficial level I think I've long decided I disagree with the sanctioning structures schools normally impose, and this manifested in my prior teaching job as a deep-seated reluctance to use the school sanctioning system. The system was "3 warnings and you're out".

1 warning = no sanction yet;
2 warnings = come back at a time of the teacher's choosing;
3 warnings = get out of class and go to the "parking" room where an on-duty teacher will supervise you doing work isolated.

It hardly ever worked. On being ejected from the room, students would walk around the school feeling jaded and excluded (because they were), causing trouble with other classes and generally refusing to do anything they were asked to do; or alternatively, they would refuse to leave the room because actually they wanted to be there, but wanted attention, and senior staff being called in to remove them. The resultant conflict and tension was as disruptive, if not more, than what the student was doing in the first place. The other students would witness the spectacle, and the 'loss of face' for the student in question, further eroding what little self-esteem they may have had.

Parents would get called in: interviews with senior staff, student and parents would result in parents questioning the teachers' judgment and capability of handling a class (that they should need to resort to excluding a child from the room) and staff justifying their position and why the student needed to now miss 3 days of school on suspension. It made more work for the teacher, who then was supposed to collect work for the student to do while at home so that the student didn't miss out on learning (this hardly ever happened). So the student returns having missed lessons, even less likely to be able to follow, feeling they've been publicly shamed, and therefore more likely to start causing trouble as a mechanism of hiding their distress at feeling 'stupid' or 'bad'. The relationship between the student and the teacher was often irreparably damaged. And so we'd start all over again.

I hardly ever issued warnings: you can see why I was reluctant to start with the whole process. That said, there were one or two students with whom I just didn't know what else to do. It didn't work at all. We ended up really resenting each other, and meetings between us was enough to make all of our days' really horrid.

The common 'justification' for the process was that we had to think about all the learners in the room, not just one, and if learning was not happening as a result of one student, then we owed it to the others to 'minimise the risk' by excluding that one student.

But how much were we 'minimising the risk' really? That student would come back again. In fact, we were probably creating a more systemic chronic disruption to that entire class long-term by constantly engaging in battle with this student, exercising our power and authority over them punitively (and that's Foucault's point really: that it's about creating and enforcing power structures). They've already demonstrated their willingness to engage in self-destructive behaviour as a mechanism of resistance. Me asserting my authority over them is not going to change that.

What is it that they are trying to resist?

So far, as a teacher, most of what I've learned about troubled students is that the resistance is not against me. It's not personal. It's the student often trying to resist the identity that they feel society is forcing on them, the labels that they automatically bear by simply not fitting well into a very narrow form of behaviour: "stupid", "slow", "restless", "weak", "bad". They are feeling powerless, and their instant response is to try and claw back a little semblance of power by disrupting, to exercise control by causing "trouble" instead.

Referring back to my earlier question, "what are the sanction processes if a student causes trouble?", what is meant exactly by "trouble"? A person who doesn't enjoy sitting in a chair for hours on end? A person who prefers to learn by doing rather than by book? A person who perhaps doesn't remember facts easily? A person who feels uncomfortable and wants to 'get away' when placed in a situation which really doesn't suit them at all? Because this description fits most adults too. Labelling it as 'troublesome' is to pathologise normal behaviour.

So by 'trouble' do we mean ' a person who doesn't fit into a very narrow definition of how things are done?' When put in such a position, un-self-regulated teenager acts out their internal feelings about the situation instead of suppressing their reaction as 'inappropriate'. This is one of the things I like about teenagers... they are not yet clipped and pruned into what society likes to call 'proper behaviour'. i.e. that behaviour which is self-regulated, self-suppressive and a little soul destroying. They sense that they do not fit, that they are marginalised and seen as less, and they respond naturally by resisting.

Perhaps, by 'trouble', we are talking about them defying our power. It always bothers me that teachers who see no problem with heavy punitive measures love to use the word defiance. For some teachers, it seems, their favourite part of the job is being powerful. In the realm of our classrooms, on our own without observer or witness, we are the kings of our domain. We are supremely powerful. I think some teachers get off on that. My father often recollects a particular teacher at his own school who couldn't hide his glee when he received students in his office to administer corporal punishment. Dad's response? To team up with his friends and between them notch up so many blows that the teacher was not physically fit enough to administer them. Yup: his way of resisting and 'taking back power' was to keep coming back for continuous beatings until the teacher almost keeled over from exhaustion. That's the degree to which students will go to resist the power exerted over them.

Back to my question to the principal: I think the reason the question popped out of my mouth is because I am afraid. I'm afraid of an unknown: I've never been, myself, a member of an institution that has done things differently to what I've described above. I can't yet imagine the alternative. And, having been involved with some students who have been physically violent in their resistance, fear is an understandable reaction.

But there can be no denying that the standard school punishment paradigm is deeply problematic: the only 2 outcomes are to either break a student into submission (and all the psychological effects that come with it) or to constantly engage in a ratchet effect of who can outdo whom in an attempt to do so, by whatever means necessary.

Here in SA, violence is an endemic natural part of our lives, and we have become desensitized to it. Despite corporal punishment being officially illegal, it is widespread and common place: and in some cases, the imagination exercised in dreaming up ways of administering pain as a mechanism of control is horrific. If only teachers exercised that amount of imagination in their lesson planning! Physical pain inflicted by those who have power over you is normal in our schools: teacher-to-student, student-to-student and, unfortunately, sometimes teacher-to-teacher. How can we then be surprised that our students grow up seeing violence as a legitimate form of exercising control? How can we be surprised that we have so many violent adults? We are breeding violence in our schools, and I believe that a culture of Victorian discipline and punishment that has persisted, combined with the deep psychological scars and issues of power that our history has brought us, is the cause.

I don't believe teachers should enjoy the power they exercise over students. Our role is one of great responsibility (insert cheesy Spiderman quote here). We have an inordinate amount of control over these kids' lives. We certainly should not be condoning physical pain as a means of control. We shouldn't be exercising psychological pain as a form of control either. Nor should we be denying our students their basic right to learn as a means of punishment.

It's got to come from respect, somewhere. From seeing the student as a human being who is vulnerable, prone to fear and feelings of inadequacy, and providing a space where their resistance serves no purpose because it is not needed. They need not resist, because who they are is OK as is, irrespective of age, language, gender, prior attainment, preference. As long as you're respecting other people, and not insisting on exercising control over them, then you are welcome as you are: jumpy or calm, loud or quiet, a reader or a doer.

With this in mind, I'm going to take the following ideas into my new classroom in January:

1. No student of mine is going to miss out on learning because they don't fit in.
2. Punishment is not the answer.

I've got to remember that I'm the powerful one here. Not the student. I need to exercise that power cautiously.

Let's start there and see how it goes.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Masisakheni isikolo

So this blog is about to get seriously regular. It's been sporadic until now, but that's going to change.

I'm ecstatic, thrilled... no, completely ping-pong-rubber-ball-excited! Today I got offered the job I couldn't have imagined a month ago. It started with a cold call to a school that I admire and thought I might try my luck at, since my Masters is drawing to an end and gainful employment might be a good idea (it seems the bills don't stop coming once the money has!)

The school in question (no names mentioned) unfortunately had no vacancies, but one of their own was about to launch a new school and he gave me a call when he saw my CV. One thing leads to another and after an interview yesterday, I got the call this morning. We're starting a brand new high school!!!

Not just any high school. A proper public high school--you know, the type that are accountable to voters. Serving an under-developed area where the student numbers far exceed the public school system capacity in the area, but on a location tucked in between the mountains with a view of the ocean, surrounded by pine trees and wild flowers.

We'll be starting in temporary structures, with grades 8 and 9. The opportunities are endless: how to bring kids who are behind up to speed; how to create spaces for exploring beyond the curriculum; choosing resources and materials that we want to use; arranging activities and learning opportunities that turn these kids into competent and confident young adults, equipped with what they need; creating a culture, a way of working, that is respectful and productive, critical and conscientized; where what you do is what matters, not who you are. But best of all, we're going to find ways of giving these students the skills that will enable them to not merely survive in the world, but to see the world for what it is, and have the imagination and boldness to deconstruct and reconstruct it far better than anything my generation or our predecessors have made up until now.

So this blog is going regular: I'll try and document experiences and reflections here regularly as the school starts and develops. We're only just in the beginning phases... who knows what will happen over the next 6, 12, 18, 24 months? It's going to be epic! It's going to break ground.

Masisakheni isikolo! Let's build a school!

Monday, 30 July 2012

The most critical aspect of being critical... stuck in an infinite loop

So, inevitably, as with most meta-states of reasoning, I'm finding myself in a bit of an infinite loop (forgive the programmer-speak, but it really is just too appropriate here to forgo in favour of a less jargony term). And the infinite loop involves being critical of thinking critically. It goes something like this.

The basis of 'thinking critically' is to automatically problematize things. Your default 'mode' should be switched to asking the question: 'what's not being said here?'... to constantly calling unsaid assumptions into question, and seeking to invert that which is accepted as innate and 'normal' in any situation. Critical thinking is about analysing power asymmetries and trying to understand and, on a good day, undermine their effect.

The result is that you are persistently rummaging through cupboards, lifting rug corners, going 'hang on, what about..?' or, in the cases where you encounter a scene that you have already picked apart before for its unstated assumptions and power assymmetries, you tend to get rather grumpy rather quickly. Akin to a thought process that goes something like

"C'mon, we've already discussed ad nauseum why this is problematic! Haven't you sorted yourselves out yet? Get with the program!"

...because you honestly can't understand why the status quo has so much inertia when, to you, it is so blatantly problematic.

Many people find this understandably irritating, but often because they

a) haven't understood your original point or
b) don't want to understand it because it might involve bringing some of their basic assumptions about life, the universe and everything in it into question.

Ho hum... life of the fucking party, this one.

But it has its perks you know! For one thing, because everything is questionable, it means everything is changeable. And that's optimism for you. There are very few 'innate facts' about the social universe that just have to be accepted as crap and allowed to plague our lives... people do not have to be morons (as a general rule), life does not have to be unfair and cruel, and we do not have to take being treated poorly as a result of our gender/race/age/body-shape/language/you-name-it-here. It is the ultimate emancipation of the Archetypal Human Spirit in all of us.

Accepting that there is always room for improvement comes hand-in-hand with accepting that things are messy, but that this is not an excuse. Messiness is part of the human condition which, while the critical-discourse demands it be up for questioning, is certainly very persistent. And not always undesirable. Through allowing messiness and entropy, we can forgive ourselves our past faults and flaws and remake ourselves anew, accepting that we're fallible and complicated, and yet not carved in stone.

However, having this 'critical thinking' button wired into the ON position has some very distinct disadvantages (see! here I go again! Problems, problems, problems...)

Unfortunately many of the best critical thinkers I know suffer from depression, because let's be blunt: seeing the shit of the world in all its glorious colour is hardly cheery. Fighting to expose the injustices that you see, to try and get them recognised as problematic and not dismissed as the ranting of some fringe loony who sees things that aren't there (like racism, or misogyny)... it's hard work and often thankless. It's enough to wear all but the most battle-hardened down. Even for them, there's no telling.

So this is where the critical thinking becomes a snake that eats its own tail. What is it about the modus operandi of the critical thinking state that is problematic and encourages this form of pessimism that it is so often associated with? What are the power dynamics of the status quo that 'other' critically aware people, silencing their voices, reflecting their dissent back upon themselves to the point where they start to internalise the problems they see as a reflection of themselves (sounding familiar?) and not the biases of those who don't want to hear them? And how does one remain critical and yet keep 'a foot in' to the mainstream so as to allow legitimacy, so as not to be dismissed as 'a bit nuts' and, in doing so, potentially alter the course of the mother ship by a micro-degree (on a good day)?

This is the power of critical thinking: it can self-reflect. Some say this is the same power that is embedded in the fundamental principle of the scientific process. Douglas Hofstader went as far, in his rather hefty tome 'Godel-Escher-Bach' as to suggest that the self-reflective characteristic--what he calls 'the Strange Loop'--is the critical property that brings about sentience and intelligence. I suspect there is an element of truth to this idea...

But to be self-reflective--to be aware of one's strengths and flaws with a brutal clarity--and to NOT act... well that is worse than being ignorant of them in the first place. That is mediocrity by choice. And if that's what you choose, what's the point in having a choice? Some people would question the idea of 'free choice' at all, but the theory of deterministic automata from craddle to the grave does not explain human advancement. As for the John Stuart-Mill types, the idea of each choice being unbridled by circumstance and power, being independent of bias... well contact your most conservative economist who works on Choice Theory and even he will disagree with you.

There's no point in being human if we choose not to choose... for that is a choice in and of itself: the choice to be passive. It is a dangerous choice indeed (like the choice to be 'not political'... that's another blog post). We must act on this information we find about ourselves. We must assume agency where we recognise its potential for realisation. We must self-reflect... and then with our new-found knowledge, we must self-work.

Self-work is the bane and blessing of the critical consciousness: while truly freeing, it's also fucking hard. Perhaps the hardest thing you will ever try and do is to change who you are fundamentally, to reflect honestly--not in a self-deprecative depressed kind of way, but in a constructive way that identifies the sources of problems and attempts to rectify them. Constructive self-work is probably somewhere in a healthy tension between depression and narcissism. With some kind of self-regulating mechanism that prevents an alternative orbit to either extreme (a mechanism that often may not seem to exist in many of us... I certainly myself feel like I vascillate between the two inexcusably!).1 I

Much like surgery, it is rather painful and takes time to 'heal', but once you know it's there to be done, you will never be able to ignore it again. The job is forever incomplete, and yet all that you have done before is a part of the process. This is more than a lifestyle change... it's an entire perspective shift. 

You'll never see the world again the same way, nor yourself in it. You'll be accused of losing your sense of humour, which you may, but if you do, then you've still missed the point. You will be sidelined as a bit 'nuts' and if you ware, well you need to have a think about 'why'. And the carousel goes round again...

Sorry, you took the red pill.

Incubus summed it up nicely:

If I hadn't made me, I would've still been made somehow
If I hadn't assembled myself, I'd have fallen apart by now
If I hadn't made me, I'd be more inclined to bow

(The) powers that would be have swallowed me up

But that's more than I can allow

If you let them make you

They'll make you papier-mâché
At a distance you're strong
Until the wind comes
Then you crumble and blow away

If you let them fuck you

There will be no foreplay
But rest-assured
They'll screw you complete 'til your ass is blue and gray

You should make amends with you

If only for better health
But if you really want to live
Why not try and make yourself?

1: My husband likes to refer to this phenomenon by alluding to the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, when Zaphod Beeblebrox steps into the 'Total Perspective Vortex'. He is the first to ever step out alive. All who have gone before him imploded in a puff of irrelevancy as they realise how insignificant their existence in the Universe is. Zaphod's ego, however, is so great that he is unaffected.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Colonised little minds

An observation from Reading Club today which saddens me...

Our students painted some lovely cushion covers for our reading room for something to sit on and be comfy with when reading. Some of the choices of images included:

* a Union Jack (!)
* Goku (from Dragon-Ball Z)
* Hello Kitty

This isn't really problematic in and of itself: television is obviously a major cultural contributor to teenagers, and even more so for those who lack other stimulus in their lives e.g. books! That's why we're there! BUT, when I read them a poem which was cleverly made up of the titles of some of the most famous books written by African authors--which even ignorami like I had heard of at school (my sheltered middle-class Model C white christian school)--... the students had not heard of one. Not one! Not 'I write like what I like' by Steven Biko (they didn't know who he was!!!!!). Not 'When Rain Clouds Gather' by Bessie Head. Not 'The Famished Road' by Ben Okri. Not even 'The Wrath of the Ancestors' by A.C. Jordan, possibly the most famous Xhosa novel published ever. Nope, they hadn't even heard of his son, Pallo, a current and very vocal ANC minister who is regularly on the radio, in the newspapers and quoted by journalists nationwide.

How sad then, is it that they know how to paint a Union Jack accurately?

Knowing the Union Jack, Goku, Hello Kitty, Disney or any other stereotypical anglophone western cultural icons is not--in and of itself--like I said, a problem. We are all bombarded with them daily.  And I'm not expecting them to want to paint something South African necessarily. But they don't know what it is that they are not choosing, and that's the sign of a colonised mind, a mind unaware that there are other options.

How very sad.

A brief recap up to here

Welcome all--it's been a while since I last blogged and much has changed. But it's time to start again: I hope you will follow and find what I have to write interesting and informative. Or irritating. But at least thought-provoking? Here's hoping...

I qualified as a mathematics teacher after a year of training-on-the-job in Oxfordshire in the UK in 2009. Other reasons took me to the UK, but the training there is excellent and circumstances which I shall not describe here led me into teaching, which seemed a very sensible skill set to build for when I knew I'd return to South Africa.

I've been back 18 months now, 18 months which have brought learning Xhosa and enrolling in a Masters in Education at the University of Cape Town to create the space I thought I needed to explore the theory behind what _I_ perceived to be the problems in SA public school maths classrooms. Classroom time (having not been a full time teacher yet here--that caveat needs to be put right out there) has included tutoring mathematics for matrics sitting their Senior Certificate at the South African Educaiton Project, a stint as the Chief Examiner for the Western Cape Grade 6 Mathematics summative assessment and other non-maths related work including the Vulindlela Reading Clubs, where I am still very active, and work through SHAWCO at UCT.

This year marks the beginning of my research, and simultaneously my starting a maths support aspect to the literacy work done by the good people of PRAESA, the Vulindlela Reading Clubs and the Nal'ibali movement as a whole (Look them up on Facebook!). Next week we will begin an hour of maths tutoring as part of these community outreach clubs at the request of the older children who come.. I will document our progress here.

So this blog is about the challenge of teaching students mathematics in South Africa--particularly those who don't have access to the mathematical resources that middle class children do: qualified teachers, well designed textbooks, tuition about a difficult subject in a language they understand and have mastery of ('cos I know I wouldn't want to learn about algebra in a language I barely understand!), the development of that language--namely isiXhosa--to explain and capture mathematics (following on the work of Somi Deyi, Pam Maseko and others)... but to name a few. There'll also be anecdotes, social commentary, lots about language development and no doubt a few rantings. Comment, disagree, discuss and debate--but most of all, please give a damn. 'Cos this shit is important.

-S (aka Nox)