Sunday, February 22, 2009

What if you didn't?

I teach about ancient civilizations to my 6th graders, and American history to the seventh grade. I teach about the way that religion, education, language, and government have evolved. I talk about the crazy rules that existed in all of these cultures – the way that kings could rule in a monarchy, or tyrants in a tyranny. I talk about the types of things governments different from our own demand of their citizens.

Without fail, the students ask me what would happen if you broke the rules.
“What if you didn’t?” someone asks, and for once, the class grows quiet to hear my answer. Sometimes I’ll know, the answer, and otherwise it is easy to explain that you could be jailed or tortured or even killed.
“Whoa” – those are real consequences. Not like the consequences that these kids have in our school, where they can’t be jailed, tortured, or killed for their bad behavior. Heavens no! They can’t even be given detention at our little school.

The kids look to the limits. I think of the movie Pleasantville, when in a ‘geography’ class, students are taught about the geography of their town.
“What happens when you get to the end of Main Street?” one student asks
“Why, when you get to the end of Main Street, you’re just right back at the beginning again!” said the teacher, in cheery reply.
“Oh!” In unison the class accepted this answer.

That is not my class. My class does not accept a simple boundary. It does not stay within the lines. They push until they are given a reason to stop. When you give them a rule, they want to know how serious it is – what will happen if they break it – how far can they push it before they are punished. You can see it in every class that I teach, as they question rules that seem unfair. My 6th graders were fascinated my learning about Hammurabi’s code in ancient Mesopotamia, which took the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’ as literally as they could. They can recite what punishment accompanied which crimes effortlessly, though after 6 months they still struggle to correctly label the cardinal directions on a compass. The 7th grade wonders what happened to families in China who dared to have more than 1 child.

These kids live in a world of crime and punishment – a world of consequences. They think in terms of cause and effect without any effort at all. Which is they it makes sense that they are so out of control, so regularly disobeying and breaking rules and driving me nuts. They push until they are given a reason to stop – and within the school those reasons are not provided. I blame them for their behavior – I hold them accountable for their actions. But I also believe that without the school showing them that the rules matter - in terms of consequences that they understand – we are failing them. You can’t blame them for not intuitively knowing what behaviors are acceptable – and you can’t expect for them to follow the rules just to keep me from being angry.

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