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Enforcing the Rules
By Taylor Stoehr (profile)

One of the probation officers announces the rules at the beginning of every semester:

  • Attend class on time
  • Read the assignment
  • Turn off all cell phones
  • Respect everyone in the room
  • Arrive sober and straight

  • Respect for others has never been in doubt in our classes, although a lively conversation sometimes has so many voices talking at once that it's hard to hear. Usually though, people are pretty good about listening, giving the other guy a turn. We've had problems with a few students concerning cell phones and substance abuse, but we've dealt with these straightforwardly and ultimately solved them. Our rules about attendance and homework have been more difficult to administer.

    Our attendance rules are enforced by the probation officers who pass around a sheet for signatures at the end of each class. We warn people not to use up their two allowed absences. I've seen the probation officers converge on a student who had missed two classes early in the semester, urging him to shape up. A few weeks later, several emergencies came along, and he had to be told he wouldn't graduate. We've lost several of our best students this way, men whose presence, though irregular, had clearly been an inspiration to their classmates; but we kept to this rule because it was our charge from the court and our bargain with students.

    But what should count as being present or absent? Suppose a man joins the class a week late because he couldn't find the room the first night or because he was recruited after the program had already started? Should that count against him? We wavered, but ultimately decided to enforce the eight-meeting requirement. It takes at least eight meetings to absorb what the course has to offer, we told ourselves. If a serious student misses a third class, we have sometimes offered a make-up session at the end of the semester, but this is not really an equivalent experience and niggling to boot.

    The more we wag our fingers at absentees, the more likely we are to have people at the opposite extreme, with perfect attendance the first eight meetings, who then skip the last two, keeping careful score. This is rare, but it's happened. Once we put rules in place, it becomes a game for some students, just like school.

    What about tardiness? For the most part we ignore it, having realized that the 10 minutes we spend waiting for latecomers buys us 10 minutes of free and easy conversation, the leavening in our recipe for the communal loaf. This is a good example of how an old problem can be turned to advantage simply by asking what's really at stake. It's all a matter of attitude. If we made a fuss about it, everyone would end up feeling pissy.

    If someone is always 20 minutes late, we look into it. Sometimes there's a good excuse (e.g., a job and a long commute), but our probation officers don't like making exceptions. I do remember a night when one of the more dutiful students came rushing into the room five minutes before the attendance sheet went around. He'd been forced to work late, knew he couldn't make class, but wanted us to see his face and hear his story. He had his homework with him, and we let him sign in as "present."

    How to enforce homework assignments is a much more complicated question than any of these other matters, and in my opinion, something to be dealt with case by case. Of course, teachers deal with homework resistance all the time. The usual problem and the usual solution have long since fused into the basic syndrome of schooling, where means of enforcement determines the entire assignment package (book reports, exams, and recitation) so that what you read at home serves as little more than pretext for disciplinary routines that structure the school day. By-products include mindless obedience, sneakiness, inability to concentrate, and a scorn for books.

    With enforcement come grades, report cards, tracking, and various sanctions, guaranteeing that some students will fail. That's what it means to have a ranking system tied to performance: no matter where you stand on the ladder, if you're not at the top, you've lost the game, you're second best or last. In their years of schooling, our probationers slid to the bottom so often that most of them stopped trying, thinking of it as their own failure, though of course they hated the regime that put them to the test. The upshot for changing lives in the Changing Lives Through Literature program is written on their faces that first night: an assignment of only a few pages of easy reading can stir deep feelings of inadequacy and reactivate the old choice between defiance and submission. To ask them for homework is like putting them back in Third Grade again, their knees too big for the desks.

    All this is merely to say that the problem is a very thorny one and requires lengthy discussion. I will attempt to state here only some of the basic guidelines we've worked out in Dorchester (Massachusetts).

    First of all, as will become clearer in what follows, our view is that the crucial force for change in our program comes from class discussion and not from the literature that provides its starting point. The reading or writing a student does at home is certainly important, but the essential changes grow out of what happens in the classroom, people talking earnestly to one another about their real concerns.

    Over the years, we've made many adjustments in the structure of the course and our own expectations, but we started with one fundamental premise that we've tried to hold to: the CLTL program, whether or not it actually changes any lives, should not change them for the worse. It might, for instance, be good for a probationer to learn self-discipline through meeting the requirements of a study program that made reasonable and worthy demands on him, but not at the expense of other probationers who failed to meet those demands. We resolved that the course should not be another "failure experience" for anyone, not even those who couldn't or wouldn't do the work, for good reasons or bad.

    The aim must be to demystify the whole realm of literacy. All their lives our students have been told they are incompetent readers and writers, and this tends to make them so. But the incompetence is superficial in most cases. Their speech skills are usually more than adequate, and often superb. In fact, their failure in school has protected them from certain kinds of glibness and beating about the bush.

    The important thing is not to set standards and hold people to them, but to be of genuine use to students at their own level of achievement. The crucial lesson involves communication of an attitude toward ideas and experience, rather than pushing any predetermined level of knowledge or expertise. This means taking into account the ideals and aspirations, as well as the intelligence, of our students. And it means a growing awareness that language, aesthetic taste, and practical ethics are not simply inherited from the culture you are raised in, but are continually being created, negotiated, and revised in the public realm, wherever groups of people come together for serious talk.

    As it happens, the primary forum for such cultural work has become the modern classroom, just as it once was the marketplace, or the church, or the town meeting, or even the theater when theater was still a civic event in ancient and medieval times. Whether or not the classroom is best suited to such cultural creation, it is the actual institution that has taken the place of these other formal settings in all industrialized countries, especially in the United States.

    Often, schools fail to do this important work through a misguided notion of what kind of education is appropriate in an egalitarian society. Nonetheless, it seems to us that all the students we teach in CLTL have the right to "success" in a truly democratic classroom, not just an "opportunity" to learn, but a right to active exercise of language, taste, and ethics, exploration of their own individual powers and ideals in relation to a growing sense of how others speak and judge and evaluate, and in short, the discovery and creation of standards, rather than merely a requirement to live up to those standards. "Failure" means being left out of the most essential aspects of civic life. We want to establish a classroom in which no one will be left out.

    Homework, insofar as it fosters this kind of success, is all to the good. But we must not let a coercive or punitive attitude infect our invitation to literary experience. Forced reading is worse than none at all. It kills the spirit of both the reader and the book. Therefore, we have a very permissive attitude toward homework and usually let delinquents discover for themselves that it's more satisfying to be able to join in the discussion than it is to feel embarrassed and at a loss because they haven't read what the others are talking about. At the same time, we make sure that even those who shirk their homework can contribute something to the conversation. To do this, we spend 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of every class writing answers to some searching question that grows out of the reading but does not require precise knowledge of a text. For example, we use one of the following prompts:

  • Please pick one big lesson you learned in your childhood and tell the story of how you learned it and what difference it has made in your life.
  • What can people who are "weak," because of youth, illness, poverty, prejudice, or a history of being in trouble with the law, do to change their lives and make themselves "stronger"?
  • How can people survive hitting bottom? Why do some people cling to their anger, pride, or self-pity, while others are able to find something new to believe in?

  • To meditate and write on such questions briefly before discussing them is something every member of our class can do. In this way, we can function together as a group, regardless of how much or how little individuals have prepared at home. Sometimes the readings figure prominently in discussions, sometimes not at all, but in our small groups, no one fails. Some who start out resisting their homework end up discovering they like to read after all; others say something more like this:

    "I hate to read, but it was a challenge to myself. I haven't been in school for twenty years! The goal was to eliminate six months from my sentence. The ultimate prize upon completion of the program for me was expressing myself in class, through homework and in groups."

    Or this:

    "Through the course of this program I've learned how to communicate with people a little better. It seems like before I came to this program I was going numb. I can't remember the last time I picked up a book to read it or even skim through it. I also have a better relationship with my girlfriend. I try to think about other people's feelings now. It just isn't about me any more."

    Let me move on now to a few final remarks that focus on tone and atmosphere, rather than rules, and that may illustrate some of the risks and benefits that come with bringing people back to school long after their original compulsory education.

    In general, it is better to let students find their own way to the give-and-take of the classroom, a setting where few of them have ever been comfortable. Early in every semester, for instance, there are always some in our classes who raise their hands, like little children, asking where the water fountain is or for permission to go to the men's room. It takes two or three times to break them of the habit. "Just go!" I say, "You don't need to ask." And I don't worry about the other habit, also formed long ago, of using a "call of nature" as a brief escape from class. The "numb" student just quoted was invariably the first to finish writing his class exercise, and after a minute or two of staring at the floor, he would get up and amble out.

    Others did the same thing when they finished, though rarely more than two at any one time. Were they having a cigarette? I never saw anyone in our class smoking, just as I never heard them swearing and cursing, but then I rarely saw them outside the schoolroom or courthouse. My guess is that they often did have to relieve themselves, but that they also felt bored waiting for others to finish writing and perhaps uneasy about their own lack to say more. They were uncomfortable just sitting there, quietly thinking, though that was what I hoped people would get used to. Little did they realize that their comings and goings furnished the timetable for our writing stints. I would always wait till everyone was back in the room before assigning people to their small groups for discussion. I wanted everyone present when serious conversation began.

    Fewer students left for the toilets once we had broken into small groups, and I remember a comic moment one night that puts all of this in perspective. It was the sixth or seventh class, and we were talking about facing a crisis, how one can sometimes come back from hitting bottom to become a stronger person. One of our most engaged students was telling his group about living for a few years in an all-white community in which his high school classmates had shunned him, even in the basketball team locker room. One day, he found himself alone in the showers with a white teammate and opened a conversation. He made a joke and got the fellow to laugh. Soon they were walking home together every day after practice. The suburb was near Chicago, and he offered to take his new friend to visit the black neighborhoods there. Before long he was guiding tours of his teammates through the South Side.

    This student was retelling a story that he had written in his homework that week. In the write-up, he had compared his high school experience to the way that small group discussions in our class also helped bridge racial boundaries. And indeed, in his small group that night he was doing the same thing, for he had them all, black and white, on the edges of their chairs, and with others picking up the mood, the conversation was very lively. Eavesdropping myself, I was totally absorbed.

    Suddenly the speaker stood up, and announced that he needed to pee, that he had needed to pee for quite a while but didn't want to miss anything. They laughed, and as he left, he told them not to talk about anything without him, and in fact, he was back in two minutes. At the end of the evening, this group didn't want to break up. They kept at it long after all the others had handed in their writing and vanished.

    This was our class at its best, the men in the circle establishing their own agenda, mutual trust, and conversational decorum. Much of it in this case was due to the man whose story I've just told. At mid-semester he wrote the following avowal, not in answer to any assignment, but out of sheer exuberance:

    "I really like this class. I think it's the best thing that the court has ever done. I find myself using this class when I'm on the street. Certain things that we read about. I encounter the same things and I think what that person did, and I add that with what I think. And most of the time I come out on top.

    "I'm also learning about things that black people did that I never knew, thanks to this class. Knowing is half the battle.

    "Another thing is, I've met white guys that I probably wouldn't have spoke to on the street, but being in this class and breaking off in groups, you get to meet and talk to them one-on-one. By being in small groups, you can get a better understanding of each man's view on life and other situations. Black, white, Spanish, or what have you."

    Although it means ending on a dissonant note, I must tell the sequel. This man, whose delight in our class was so evident and contagious, was the very man mentioned at the beginning of this essay, who had to be told at the last meeting of the semester that he had collected more than his allowed absences (more than three, in fact) and could not graduate. He had been warned; now it was too late. He argued with the probation officers, was shown the attendance sheet with his five signatures, and stomped angrily out of the room.

    I still ask myself: Did we serve him well? Was his another failure experience, or not?

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