Zero Tolerance and the Never-Ending Lockdown in America’s Public Schools

Why are we using police power to terrorize children who don’t realize they are violating school rules when they bring objects to school rational people don’t consider weapons ? A folding comb? A camping eating utensil? Their fingers? Where has common sense gone when we use police to arrest children for these offenses instead of using them on the streets where real criminals are using real guns to kill innocent people. Mass murders aren’t committed with folding combs or fingers or even the unmoving guns in the hands of miniature toy soldiers in play sets.

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Zero Tolerance and the Never-Ending Lockdown in America’s Public Schools.

Jason Pinning Me at Court of Honor
Jason Pinning Me at Court of Honor. Yes, he owed the camping eating tool that included a knife.

This is the kind of thing that will make actual criminals out of innocent students. Take the case of Zachary Christie mentioned in this article. He is six years old and a Cub Scout, learning to be a good citizen. He innocently brought a camping utensil to school that’s an all-in-one knife, fork and spoon to be used for eating. For this offense he was sentenced to serve 45 days in reform school. I’d wager that will be a much worse influence on him than a Boy Scout camping trip. He’ll probably learn how to commit real crimes, disrespect authority, etc.

We’ve known for a long time that legislators on the state and federal level have been short on common sense, but it appears this lack of common sense also exists in public school administrators. I’ll bet a lot of them played cops and robbers (or violent video games) when they were young. In fact, if we want to prevent  gun violence, maybe those violent video games are a great thing to make unavailable for children. If the first amendment keeps those legal, maybe the second amendment can at least keep fingers and harmless guns on play figures that can’t even move legal.

A common sense approach would be that students who probably didn’t realize the items administrators find offensive  were considered weapons be informed and warned . Parents should then be called to the office and have it explained to them, and then have the parents come get the item with instructions never to let it come to school again. Things that are normally not thought of as weapons that are forbidden on campus should be listed on the school website that parents use for school policy information. The list should also be on a note sent home at the beginning of the year. Students should also be informed in their classrooms the first day of school and again about once a month.

Meanwhile, while the police are being called to drag these young and probably unintentional offenders from their classrooms, they are not available to track down the real criminals on the streets who are killing each other with real guns. Where have our priorities gone? Where has our common sense gone?  No wonder children aren’t learning critical thinking skills in some schools. Teachers can’t teach what they don’t have.

Maybe the idea is to label these children as terrorists now so they will never be allowed to own a gun when they grow up.  Then they won’t be able to protect their family someday from a real terrorist or common criminal breaking into their home.

Sight Words or Phonics?

What’s the best approach to teaching children to read — sight words or phonics? Let’s take a look at Dr. Fry’s approach.

I just read a blog that discussed some of the virtues of rote memorization and it reminded me of the old question about whether children should learn to read by learning sight words or by learning phonics. Sight words are memorized and often learned by drilling on them. The late Dr. Edward Fry produced a lot of materials that help children learn sight words, but he also wrote materials on teaching phonics and spelling.

He recognized that some of our most often used words in English don’t follow the rules of phonics. He is widely recognized for his list of 1000 Instant Words which are intended for children to recognize by sight after a series of exercises, drills, games, flashcards, and other memorization aids. Some of these words, such as in, on, he, be and fish, also obey phonics rules and can be sounded out, but when a child is first learning to read, it’s discouraging to have to stop and sound out every word and lose track of the meaning. It’s very satisfying to be able to read a complete sentence or story without having to stop often and sound out words. Think what it would do to our adult reading speed and comprehension to have to sound out every word we read? By learning the most common words by sight, a child or illiterate adult can have the satisfaction of really reading, not just decoding words. She will understand “A doll is a toy.” if she reads it at a normal speed instead of struggling over every word.

On the other hand, as a child continues on the path of learning to read, it would be burdensome to have to memorize every single word he will ever need to read. Dr. Fry recognizes that understanding the sounds attached to letters is also necessary for a child to become an and independent and proficient reader. He brings these two approaches together seamlessly in his Spelling Book Grades 1-6: Words Most Needed Plus Phonics.

Let’s look at the first lesson for first grade. Only ten sight (or instant) words are introduced: the, of, and, a, to, boy, girl, man, woman, baby. Though the teacher is given teaching suggestions, this is not a workbook. The student pages may be reproduced for student use, but the teacher decides how to best teach the words.

Under the list of words is a list of phrases using the words so that the students can practice seeing and reading the words in context. Samples of the phrases are man and woman and to the boy and girl. Students could practice reading these aloud and the phrases could also be used for dictation exercises, since this book also teaches spelling.

The last parts of the lessons involve age-appropriate word study. In the first grade lesson we used as an example above, students learn about how the phonogram an is used in man, rancan, and pan. Then they learn in the phonics section below about the short vowel a. The included notes to the teacher in these sections spell out the rules and explanations, but I seriously doubt that the first graders will have to memorize, “The Closed Syllable Rule states that when the syllable ends in a consonant, the single letter vowel is short.” (Examples are taken from Lesson 1 of the book linked to above. ) At this stage of the game, the student may not know or care about syllables, open or closed.

That's me, with my book at the age of three.
That's me, with my book at the age of three.

When I learned to read I taught myself in much this fashion. First I memorized a very simple picture book my mother read to me over and over and then I read it back to her. She knew I’d memorized it, but I knew which word was which, so I had learned some sight words that I could recognize in other contexts. My mother would tell me about the sounds that the letters made until I was asking her for the ones I didn’t know yet. I started asking my dad about the letters I saw in the headlines of his newspaper. I was only three, but I could read. By the time I hit first grade, I was sitting in the class library section reading whatever I wanted while the teacher taught reading to all the rest of the class except another student who shared my first and middle name, who could also read.

My mother was a wise woman who realized that although I was reading above grade level, I had holes in my phonics understanding, so she sent me to a private school for a semester to learn phonics in a systematic way. (This was in the late 1940’s, when the “look, say” teaching method was in vogue.) After my phonics instruction, I flew in my reading skills. I think I would have thrived with Dr. Fy’s approach, since I would have learned the sight words in and out of context, as well as the relationships of the sounds to the words I learned every week. Seeing those relationships brings this method of teaching beyond rote memorization to understanding. I think Justin Snider, the author of the blog that inspired this one, could live with this approach. Maybe he will stop by and let us know.

Students are Individuals — Not Test Scores

Above all, teachers need to model the intellectual curiosity and desire to keep learning they want their students to have. If they don’t like what they are teaching, as this English teacher didn’t, how can they ever expect their students to like learning the subject? A desire to learn is caught, more than taught.

This blog was written in response to another I had just read: So if Teachers Wont “Read It” What are We doing with Kids!

I had many teachers in high school that just “did their jobs” in content areas because all they really seemed to care about was coaching. They had some PE classes and a coaching job, but usually had to also teach history or English. One English teacher especially sticks in my mind. I was between a B+ and an A- when the standardized tests were given. I placed in the 89th percentile in Language Arts.

After the tests, the teacher called four of my friends to his desk and said they would be excused from class to work on a term paper in the library for the next quarter because they had placed above the 90th percentile. I was totally devastated, because the rest of us were condemned to doing grammar exercises where we had to copy the sentences and mark them up. I knew my grammar cold. I told one of the chosen few after class I would probably flunk English because there was no way I was going to do that. He offered to go with me to talk to the teacher.

I asked why I wasn’t able to work on the paper at the library. The teacher said my score was too low. When asked for details about my weaknesses, he said they were in reading comprehension.  My score in grammar and usage was perfect. Case made, and I was able to join my friends and actually learn something. Without the encouragement of my friend, though, I would have just accepted my fate and probably flunked English or learned to hate it. As things turned out, I majored in English at UCLA and later taught secondary English.

It is so important for teachers to use tests properly and treat students as individuals, not test scores — to treat students with the same respect we expect of them. Above all, teachers need to model the intellectual curiosity and desire to keep learning they want their students to have. If they don’t like what they are teaching, as this English teacher didn’t, how can they ever expect their students to like learning the subject? A desire to learn is caught, more than taught.

Must reading for teachers

It’s not easy to teach unmotivated students. How does one help them learn when they don’t seem to care?

I just ran across this today and thought I’d share the link to this poem : All Kids Have Special Needs. I think every teacher should read it about once a week. The more challenging your students, the more important it is to read this.

Entering a classroom day after day can sometimes seem like a chess game. As the teacher you want to encourage your students to learn. You have made your plans carefully, taking your students’ abilities and past learning into consideration.  But some days they have a different agenda than learning. They are perhaps thinking about survival, abuse, hunger, lack of love at home, and other things you may not have any experience of. All these things keep them from tuning into the classroom experience you are hoping they will have.

Do any of you have books or links or personal experiences to share on how to reach these special students?