Archive | September, 2012

How “Straightening Kids Out” Actually Cripples Them

27 Sep

I started a new Deep workshop with 6th grade students at a local middle school the other day. It was supposed to be a simple day—fill out some surveys, introduce ourselves, go over procedures—but it turned out to be one of the most frustrating hours of my life.

Not because of the kids—they are hilarious, and I adore them, and I called their parents to tell them so—but because of how the kids were used to being disciplined.

Ten minutes in, at least four kids had commented at how strange it was that I hadn’t yelled at them yet. I told them I wasn’t going to yell at them—I never yell—and they laughed at me. “You’re too nice,” they said. “Other teachers would have straightened us out by now.” Another said, “We’re underachievers. You gotta keep us in line.”

“No,” I said. “You have to keep you in line. You are going to make our rules, and you are going to stick to them. I’m just here to remind you of them and make sure you practice them.” They shook their heads at me, certain that I was nuts and had no idea what I was doing.

The reason I didn’t “straighten them out”—by which I mean yell at them until they shut up—was because, while yelling at or lecturing kids gets immediate and obvious results that my style of discipline takes much longer to achieve, it also does three other things:

  1.  Teaches students that yelling is what mature adults do to get what they want, though we all know honey catches more flies than vinegar in the real world. Though yelling sometimes works in the short term, it is rarely effective in the long term.
  2. Takes away students’ agency and self-worth—rather than complying because they know that it is the right thing to do, or because they understand the long-term consequences of their actions, they do it because they are scared of getting screamed at. This can be devastating to a kid’s sense of purpose and self-worth; one study shows that being constantly yelled at is a better predictor of future mental illness than sexual or physical abuse.
  3. Cripples students in creative or independent endeavors. Which is pretty much every high-paying job ever. Students who grow up with lecture-and-yell discipline learn to rely on a supervisor to keep them in line, rather than doing it for themselves, and bosses hate employees like that. I certainly wouldn’t hire someone who needed me to look over their shoulder all day.

So what should we do instead?

Procedures, baby. Instead of screaming at kids for doing the wrong thing, be fair to them and show them exactly how to do the right thing. Help them practice it over and over until it is easy. Any time they forget, ask them to do it over again correctly. And praise the heck out of them when they get it right because adjusting to school life is tough, and they deserve some serious kudos for getting the hang of it. I’ve started this process with my new students, and I’ll admit: it’s slow, and it takes a lot of work and repetition. But they are awesome kids, and they are absolutely worth that effort.


3 Crucial Writing Skills We Always Forget to Teach

17 Sep

The Georgia State Writing Test has a rubric that measures students on four categories: ideas, organization, conventions, and style. These skills may all be important stepping stones to great writing, but let me ask you this: when was the last time you asked someone why they loved a favorite essay or story, and they said, “What really gets my juices flowing is when ideas are cogent and nicely organized, the grammar is correct, and the author varies his sentence structure and uses an impressive vocabulary!”

Yeah, right. Organization, grammar, and sentence structure may make a piece of writing intelligible, but they have very little to do with what makes a piece of writing great.

Because at Deep we believe that my students are capable of something much greater than merely intelligible writing, I have invented a new rubric for them that measures artistic merit, rather than mere competence. This rubric requires that their writing be three things:

  • Vivid. As in, full of juicy, telling, laser-targeted details rather than lazy generalizations or safe clichés.
  • Unique. In the true sense of the word–as in no one has ever, or could ever, say anything like this. Said another way: demonstrating a specific and memorable voice.
  • Fearless. As in, honest (in the artistic sense, not necessarily the literal one) and willing to embrace humor, say unusual or unpopular things, be frank, challenge common beliefs, criticize oneself, and/or approach difficult topics.

I will be scoring students’ work on a pass-fail basis: students will be expected to work with peer and mentor feedback until their writing demonstrates all three of these qualities.

What do you think of this rubric? What else makes great writing? How would you encourage students to aim for brilliance, rather than just competence?