"When I taught at a charter school, I once gave out 37 demerits in a 50-minute period. This was the sort of achievement that earned a new teacher praise in faculty-wide emails at Achievement First Amistad High School, in New Haven, Conn.
Amistad is a No Excuses school, in the mold of high-profile charter networks such as KIPP and Success Academy. The programs are founded on the notion that there can be “no excuses” for the achievement gap between poor minorities and their more affluent, white counterparts. To bridge that gap, they set high expectations and strict behavioral codes. School days are long. Not a moment is to be wasted. Classes even rehearse passing out papers quickly so they can save every second for drilling academic content. Instruction is streamlined with methods that data says lead to strong performances on standardized tests, which lead to college acceptances.
In May, Amistad’s students decided they’d had enough of compliance. One morning, they refused to attend classes and instead marched to protest the school’s racism and draconian discipline system. In a way, they were taking after their school’s namesake: Nearly 200 years ago, the Amistad was a slave ship whose cargo rebelled, then demanded education as well as freedom."
This is right up there with naming your colony "Roanoke." You're just asking for trouble.
"And yet such charter schools have often been criticized as excessively harsh. A New York Times story last year described Success Academy students peeing their pants because they were not permitted to go to the bathroom during practice tests. That harshness looks worse when it is carried out mostly by white teachers against students who are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.
On my first day teaching 10th-grade English, I broke with No Excuses protocol. I wanted my students to fall in love with ideas; I wanted them — not me, and certainly not some figure behind a desk at Achievement First headquarters — to control their own confrontation with difficult concepts. So I had them rearrange their desks into a circle and gave them a short but baffling text by Jorge Luis Borges. The kids struggled. More than a few of them broke the behavioral code (slouching, talking to classmates, shouting out their reactions to the reading or m my queries). But they worked hard and asked questions. At the end of the class, one student thanked me: “I’ve never thought about such big ideas before,” she said.
From that day, the school’s administration, which learned about the violation, had my number. An administrator watched my class every day. If I didn’t fully enforce the school’s code — under which demerits must be issued for slouching, looking at the wrong person or even taking notes when not explicitly directed to — the administrator would correct me on the spot.
Soon, questions were forbidden. In an email to the faculty, the school’s principal explained that the 10th grade was not doing well. Evidence included the fact that students were hugging each other in the halls. As a solution, the principal presented a rule: “There Are No Questions.” He explained: “Every time you engage with a question, you effectively A) go off your carefully planned lesson pacing, B) put one student over the rest of the class and C) kill momentum.”
Amanda Pinto, the school’s communications director, told me last month that, at Amistad, “kids are asking questions all the time.” She noted that banning “unsolicited questions full class” didn’t mean that students couldn’t ask individual questions when their peers were otherwise occupied.
Still, the questions rule turned my class to chaos. My students had read a bit of Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” and I asked them to write briefly about Machiavelli’s morality. Following protocol, I told the students to silently spend the next minute writing an answer. Two students raised their hands. “Start working silently, and I’ll come answer your question once everyone’s started,” I said, following the required script. They kept their hands defiantly in the air.
With an administrator watching, I wasn’t allowed to hear their questions, so I kept pushing back, telling the students to wait. Eventually, their protest turned vocal, and soon the whole class was yelling and throwing things — open rebellion. Later, I learned that those two students (good, focused kids) had raised their hands because they didn’t know the word “morality.” The problem could have been easily solved."
In my unfortunate experience, you canNOT stop a person from asking questions for anything in the universe. They will cut you if you deny them. They will hound the shit out of you until you give in. Or in this case, "rebel."
"Classrooms at Amistad were often unruly. My students’ favorite disruption strategy was to make bird noises — a clever move, because it’s impossible to tell who is making the noises, so no one ends up punished. One of my student advisees said to me, “I’ve been in charter schools for 10 years, and the only way to have fun is to get in trouble.” Amistad officials knew they had a morale problem. Still, an administrator once stopped me in the hall to say (on her own initiative, not following policy) that she had seen me laughing in front of my students, which was wholly inappropriate behavior.
I told a friend who had grown up in China about some of the struggles at Amistad. “That’s as bad as Communist China!” she said. “They made us march at recess.” I told her that Amistad does not have recess. The students’ only opportunity to socialize was during the lunch period, half of which was devoted to silent study hall. For a few kids facing extra punishment, lunch, too, was silent."