Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance

In case no one noticed, it's been a while since I've posted. There are reasons, which are also excuses, and maybe someday (if I continue to post) I'll explain them. Meanwhile, it's time for a little snark.

This year, I have only one child left in public school (happy dance, happy dance). The high school he attends has instituted "Sustained Silent Reading" for 25 minutes, three times a week. I could go on about how useful I think this is at the high school level, but I would bore myself just writing about it. And, in general, I think letting kids read what they want to read for extended periods of time without interruption is a good idea; we certainly do plenty of it at home and always have, and it's something each and every one of my children has rejoiced over when they attend WeeM with me ("I can sit in the lobby and read and no one bothers me! Wow! It's almost like being at home.").

For the sake of form, I will also mention, whilst mentally looking off to the side as a diversionary maneuver, that this is a loss of 75 minutes per week of instructional time (ack!) on the block schedule. Ahem. However, in the general realm of theory meets reality, I'm OK with SSR, since most teachers use the last half hour of their classes as study hall for the kids to do their homework, so the kids aren't losing anything they weren't deprived of already.

Last month, though, my youngest came home very disgruntled. His PE class was having a free day. Apparently, during a free day in gym, you can throw a dog toy back and forth with other children, which is called "Throwtron", pick some other activity, or wander in a large circle around the gym for 90 minutes. He chose to wander in a circle, and, because that would generally be considered quite supremely boring, he decided to read while wandering. There weren't a lot of other children wandering -- I guess the lure of chucking a dog toy was too much for some of them to resist -- and he was ambling happily and quietly around, reading.

After a short while, the student teacher noticed, came tearing over and told him he wasn't allowed to read.

Take a moment to let that one soak in, please. He wasn't allowed to read. In a school diverting 75 minutes per week of instructional time to a schoolwide policy to encourage reading, my son was not allowed to read during non-SSR time while walking in a circle. Keep letting that soak in.

He asked why and was told it just was not permitted, and he would not be allowed to listen to an MP3 player or Walkman unless he was Power Walking either. So, he put his book aside and continued to amble around in a circle.

Later on, the staff teacher came over and, in a very intimidating manner, asked him why he was giving the student teacher a hard time. He was gobsmacked by this accusation, and, as far as he remembers, just stood there not speaking, at which point the coach/teacher advised him that it was a safety hazard and he was not to do it again. Let that one soak in, too, reading is a safety hazard when you are walking in a fairly lightly populated circle of very few other children who have opted to wander around rather than chucking pet toys at each other's heads.

Now, I don't dispute the teacher's point -- perhaps one of the knuckle-dragging mouthbreather types who might have been participating in a more hazardous activity would have lobbed a dog toy off to the side and clonked my nerdling on his unobservant head. I cannot figure out how that would be my nerd's fault rather than the fault of the mouthbreather, but he still would have wound up being clonked. Perhaps a more exuberant Power Walker would have been distracted by wild lyrics and a driving heavy metal beat on his/her MP3 player and stomped right over my son, which, again, would not have been my son's fault, but he would still wind up with sneaker marks on his back.

And, just to put a cherry on the top of this sundae of dissonance, he received an F for the day for participation. For wanting to quietly read while engaged in a boring physical activity and asking why he was not allowed to read. Beware the scary, non-conformist, bibliophilic nerd; he is a silent lurking hazard.

When Doodle regaled us with this story, my daughter started shaking her head and reminded us of a similar incident that happened to her while she was in the same high school. She was taking dual credit college courses at school, which started a little later, and which were not offered every day. On her off days, she would go to the school library to read, look over homework, and make quiet, productive use of her time.

She would enter the library, find a table near the back, open up a book and start reading or maybe look out the window. For the first couple of weeks, the library staff kept coming over and asking her what she was doing. She told them, and they would just stand there looking at her for a minute. Perhaps they thought she was going to burst into flame or offer them illicit drugs. Mostly, they didn't believe her. And the reason they didn't believe her is that this was aberrant behavior for students in a school library. Take another moment and let that one soak in, too -- a student using extra time to go to the library and read is an anomalous behavior in the school.

They did stop coming over to find out what she was up to after a while, but then spent time just staring at her from their desks/safety positions near the emergency hotline (or whatever), in case she did spontaneously combust or begin dancing the tarantella on the tables, thereby disrupting the other students who.... weren't there. In fact, in a year of going to the library on her off days, the only time other students came into the library was when an entire class came in with the teacher to do a specific project, during which time they were invariably noisy, obnoxious, and didn't concentrate on what they were supposed to be doing.

After this happened a couple of times, she decided to leave a few minutes before the bell and go get her stuff from her locker and make sure to be at her first class a little early. That worked out fine until she got caught being in the halls before the bell, screamed at by a teacher, and sent to the office for disciplinary action...for going to her locker early to get her supplies so she could be early and prepared for class. Let that one soak in, too.

I suppose you'd need to know my daughter to understand why this is possibly the most ludicrous, inexplicable response to her actions -- people smile when she comes into a room because she is a happy, quiet person. She is generally teacher's pet in every class, including the professors she has in college. She is calm, diligent, intelligent, does her homework before it's due, respects teacher time, follows directions, checks her resources, thinks deeply about issues, gives measured and worthy responses to questions, and, so far, has a straight A record in college. Her professors invite her out for a smoothie in the Caf when they need cheering up. They tell her they appreciate having her in class. They give her sweatshirts, hoodies, and free lockers just because she is so swell. She's allowed to use their personal equipment without supervision because she's so darned trustworthy and sensible. And she has always been this way.

So, for the very first time in 13 years of public schooling, her first and only disciplinary referral was because she was doing something as threatening to life as we know it as... getting her class supplies early so she could be early and prepared for class.

Somehow, somewhere, the educational industry has lost sight of reality and has completely forgotten the underlying principle to encouraging good habits and behavior.

It's pretty simple, really, "Reward the behavior you wish to encourage."

I suggest they start taking notes. There will be a quiz.