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The Simplest Things…

May 10, 2008

Sony Bubble Girl.pngSometimes it’s the really obvious things that are the hardest to spot… and the first we should change… Following a fascinating chat with a very bright teacher I’ve realised that there’s a strong case for making some changes to the way we approach ‘punishments’.

Every now and again, I have to supervise ‘detention’. I sit in a room with the Usual Suspects and growl at them if they dare to raise their heads from the laminated edition of the school rules they are copying. I have often suspected that the theory behind detention is to create an environment of such stultifying and oppressive dullness that the pupils would rather behave than be assigned after-school detention… except it patently does not work. As I’ve already mentioned, the fact that detention is the resting place for pretty much the same people week after week after week after… means that rampant boredom is not too effective as a deterrent. This is not good…

I’m an English teacher first and foremost, and so part of my passion is directed towards encouraging pupils to read and write. I love books and literature and do try to get this across to my classes with varying degrees of success. In any given class, I can expect to find the full spectrum of ability — everyone from the fluent to the strugglers. Sadly, one thing is reasonably predictable in all this and that is that the strugglers make up most of the ‘detention’ clientele. So… here’s the really obvious problem that was pointed out to me by a pretty smart colleague:

Why are we using writing as a punishment? What message is this sending out? How can we ‘sell’ writing as something worthwhile and fun… while we are using it as a punishment?

Given these questions, it’s not really a surprise to think that there might be a relationship between using writing as a punishment and kids becoming even more reluctant to write… I’m certainly keen to move writing away from being a punishment as soon as possible, but what should I try as an alternative? My sense-of-humour thinks I should get them to draw pictures in an effort to make them hate art, but I’d rather be positive instead.

So, having already been given occasion to think by one teacher, I’d like to know what suggestions you might have. Is it possible to have ‘punishment exercises’ that are not going to further dissuade reluctant learners, and if so, what are they?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2008 8:43 am

    I never gave out any punishment exercises in the last 20 years of my job. I became furious at the sight of the rubbish pupils were given – always the kids who struggled most with the worthwhile and necessary written work. What was the point of burdening them further? Quite apart from the point you make about its putting them off writing.

    If there has to be punishment, why does it need to be “academic” at all? I suppose there are health and safety issues to deal with, but I’d have thought cleaning the debris from the social area at the end of the day would be an option. Or – better still – instead of paying teachers to take detention in the form you describe, pay for them to teach: not English, or Maths, or whatever, but to manage a group talk session in which the offenders speak for themselves and in which some real education might take place.

    But bear in mind I never rose to the giddy heights of policy-making!

  2. May 10, 2008 9:50 am

    I tend to agree with you about using the time for teaching, though I worry that that becomes a variant on the ‘writing’ problem.

    It could be a good time to go over something practical like how to understand a Credit Card agreement or driving test theory…

  3. andywallis permalink
    May 10, 2008 10:32 am

    Get them to make a verbal contract with you and record it either via a webcam or traditional audio. That way it’s a permanent record and makes it far more personal; also encouraging them to think about what they are saying rather than just writing out the meaningless “I’m sorry and I promise to pay attention” ramblings!

  4. May 10, 2008 10:45 am

    I wasn’t really thinking of conventional teaching – more the kind of random discussion about them that I used to enjoy and then feel guilty about cos we should have been doing interps! So what you suggest would be absolutely fine.

    I once spent a whole period discussing what “thae auld guys” thought they were doing when they prayed during the last Conclave – all because I went in after lunch and said “Well – have we got a new Pope yet?”

  5. Dorothy permalink
    May 10, 2008 11:35 am

    Hmm That’s made me think though I’m in Primary and this is perhaps different.

    When I am teaching music (one day a week) I have offered those who are finding the limits of the less structured activities difficult to remember, the opportunity to learn about music by writing about it, instead of by doing it. After they’ve spent 5 minutes copying from my laminated sheet they are magically able to constrain their wilder impulses.

    So I suppose I acknowledge with this that writing is harder work for many, but they do have an option. The punishment element is removal from the class (they sit just outside it but in my eyeline). The writing is then their choice and they have to experience the tedium of it while hearing the others enjoying themselves to reinforce the benefits I offer to those who can exercise a degree of self-control.

    But perhaps this is a distinction that isn’t obvious, even though that’s what I tell them. Maybe they will still see the writing itself as the punishment.

  6. May 10, 2008 8:15 pm

    Hi Neil,

    I’ve been in the position, this year, where I have been explicitly instructucted to hand out puni’s, then detention, then PT referral as my routine discipline procedure.
    It’s nuts!
    Phone the parents in most cases is the thing I think would be best, not to “grass” on the pupil but to look for support from home (if possible). This would be a far better culture of punishment than the daft cycle of puni’s/detention that I and the pupils go through.

    Although, I quite like giving detention because there is always a job I can get the pupil to do. Usually sharpening pencils, helping me set out stuff for the next class (equipment etc). Getting them to mark prelims. Although don’t worry, I always thank them 😉

  7. May 10, 2008 10:08 pm

    @ Dorothy: I like the distinction you are drawing between writing as a punishment and writing which is known to be a punishment…

    I’ve always tried to make my own ‘Punnies’ have a ‘fun’ element… getting pupils to write about something they already know about, or which I think they’ll enjoy finding out about… not ideal, I know, but I’ve always tried to avoid lines and other rote punishments.

    The obvious answer is to make every lesson exciting and stimulating and well-paced… but then reality sets in and you have to juggle the planning and execution of classtime with all the other tasks that we deal with on a day-to-day basis.

  8. May 10, 2008 10:18 pm

    @Krysia: I know what you mean. My own school has set procedures that all staff follow all the time (aye, right!), but I know I’m going to be recommending that we move away from using writing as a punishment.

    We keep being told that the Guidance team are not really there to deal solely with discipline matters. I think I also need to start insisting that writing should not be used as a punishment… which dovetails nicely into…

    @Chris: …the notion of having pupils do some form of meaningful ‘community service’ would be fine, but I too have been told that Health & Safety issues prevent this. Mmm… I wonder what the truth of this is. I know that the HSE sponsored the 2007 World Conker Championships because they were fed up with having their name taken in vain by schools who, quite frankly, were scared to do anything that might have an element of risk… I’m rambling!

  9. May 11, 2008 4:08 pm

    At my school they send the kids who get in trouble to a study hall. This is not a study hall with specific assignments, mind you, but one where they’re supposed to go get work done until they can rejoin their friends in the cafeteria or wherever.

    Like, “You’ve been bad. Now you have to do your homework.” You can imagine what it does for our school culture.

  10. May 12, 2008 11:59 am

    Make them clean out dirty test-tubes.

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