Tag Archives: code-switching

The Perils of Classroom Discipline: or, Why The Superintendant took away my Hickory Switch

Sometimes fear, even perceived fear, is a powerful motivator.

Once in a while, when one of my classes gets particularly unruly, I like to pick up a pointer.  It is one of those old fashioned wooden jobs that makes a wonderful whistling sound when it hurtles toward someone’s backside.  I’d hold it, wield it, swing it here and there, and the children would stop and stare at me.  Some have a look of utter terror.  One child has the gumption to ask, “Mr. D, why do you love that pointer so much?”

My response: “Because it reminds me of a time when it was legal to beat you.”

Now, I would never hit a child, of course.   My students also know I won’t hit them, but it’s never far from their minds that one day…just one day…Mr. D could finally lose it and wallop someone into oblivion.   Perceptions of fear, violence, and even insanity have become cornerstones of my discipline–well, that and a good ear for the mood of the class.  Almost the entire school is convinced that I’m insane, or at least neurotic.  It could be because of my obsession with historical minutia and the need to look at details to get the bigger picture.  Or it could be my habit of talking to myself at times, which is often necessary to get my thoughts in order.  Whatever the case, it keeps students in check, and actually gets them to do work…although most probably finish assignments “just so that nutjob can get off our backs!”

Let’s face it, the days of Sister Mary Margaret wielding her Yardstick of Righteousness are over.  Classroom discipline, or “classroom management” as the educational establishment likes to call it, is a whole new universe of approachs, studies and strategies designed to encourage (not shame) children towards acceptable behavior.  Even instilling fear has become a no-no, although neither my kids, nor their parents, seem to mind it from me.  New approaches today focus on self-motivation–allowing students to figure out for themselves what is acceptable and what is not.

A recent Wall Street Journal article discusses these new techniques in early childhood classrooms.  According to the article, discipline problems in children are not only rising, they are also starting at a younger age.  The causes of this are varied, including “pressure on teachers to stress math and reading over emotional skills; family instability; a decline in playtime; heavy use of child care; or a rise in learning problems such as attention-deficit disorder.” 

In view of this dilemma, some classrooms have, according to the WSJ, resorted to a two-prong approach: an increase in time for dramatic or pretend play, coupled with lessons on self-control allotted through the curriculum.  Dramatic play lets children play out roles in society for various amounts of time, allowing them to figure out for themselves where the behavioral limits lie.  Using assigned roles in working groups for math and reading lessons helps children understand limits and appreciate respect for their peers. 

For younger children, especially in preschool, the PATHS approach is gaining in popularity.  While most students today are encouraged to verbalize their emotions, younger children who are just learning to communicate need different skills.  According to the article, “children are encouraged when upset to emulate Twiggle the turtle, a green puppet who pulls into his shell: They stop, cross their arms over their chests, take a deep breath and give a name to their emotions.”  As always, good behavior should always be encouraged and rewarded.

Dramatic play is a very good tool for discipline in that, like critical thinking, it allows students to gain ownership over behavioral issues.  A bald, fat know-it-all (like me) or a dictator dressed like a penguin (like Sister Mary Margaret) have often used discipline in an authoritative fashion, imposing our will on others whether they like it or not–and they usually don’t.  Playing out roles or scenarios allows children to make their own codes of behavior from an early age.  Thus, their behavior will not only improve, but those lessons will last longer into their schooling.

The other approaches, such as behavioral lessons in curricular workshops, or emotional workshops such as PATHS, are also effective, particularly in younger children.  They also allow children to figure out acceptable behavior with as little adult interference as possible.  Children often lash out because of a sense of no control, and these programs help to give that control.

My worry about these approaches is twofold.  First, these strategies have to be implemented at an early age or they won’t work.  With older children, dramatic play and emotional gestures just will not yield the same results.  While the results of these approaches will be seen in the future, there are plenty of discipline problems in the here and now.  Many children from ages 8-12 have already been hardwired to behave in certain ways based on a myriad of factors, including their home life and their neighborhood.  Are there no discipline approaches for these children, short of an extreme regression therapy?  I say this because it is my demographic, and I have to deal with these students–hence the insanity.

Furthermore, and I hate sounding like a union rep, but these strategies leave out the important role of good parenting.  Why must teachers essentially “mommy” other children when parents are, in essence, the ultimate arbiters of discipline?  It doesn’t matter which approach or strategy is used on a child: if it isn’t followed through in the home, it is a waste of time.  Unfortunately, many parents, especially in struggling communities, are simply overgrown children themselves–though there are many exceptions.  If we cannot trust adults to behave as such, there is little more we can expect from the children.    Don’t believe me?  I refer you to a previous post in the Neighborhood about a foul-mouthed toddler.  Enough said.

If you are a fellow teacher, you know that discipline is the hardest thing to master.  Even the best teachers are often saddled with classes forged by Lucifer–I’m familiar with a few this year.  The best advice I can give?  Keep the door closed, keep the kids busy, do what works–and if all else fails, ask for help.  There is no shame in asking to send Johnny for a time-out in another classroom.

Or just act as if you’re batshit insane.  It works for me.


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Royal Flush: Our Fascination with Royalty

obamas_queenFor a democracy, the United States still goes loopy over royalty.

No matter how successful or hard-working a “commoner” like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett may be, they still take second place to a paper sovereign with inherited riches and a genetic code taken from a Cracker-Jack box.  I’m convinced that in three generations, the monarch of Great Britain will be an incongruous blob with one eye and a deformed limb.  It’ll still probably qualify as either Henry IX, George VII or Blobby I.  The crown of St. Edward will be covered in protoplasmic ooze on its coronation.   I wouldn’t want to be its dresser at Balmoral–you try putting a kilt on a blob. 

We still have these people, in various capacities in scattered countries across Europe (the Asian and African ones tend to be a little more autocratic).   Their centuries of inbreeding have produced a virtual subspecies of human that is impervious to natural selection.  All of them could drop a semi-literate bubble boy at any time, and he’ll still be Duke of WhatdaF**k or whatever.  One thing is certain though; no matter how dim-witted or deformed, all royals are sticklers for etiquette and protocol.  They are the only things monarchs still control with an iron fist–and we Yanks can never get it right.

The most notable recent gaffe occurred in 2007, when George W. Bush mistook Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain for her demented porphyria-stricken uncle George III.  In a famous faux-pas, Bush suggested that the Queen helped celebrate America’s bicentennial in 1776, not 1976.  It resulted in a look from Her Shortness that would have cost Dubya a half-hanging and a set of boiling instestines a few centuries earlier.  He was not alone: who can forget the elderly elf speaking below the podium upon meeting Bill Clinton…oh, wait, that was the Queen.  Evidently, the advance folks forgot the tricky business of height differential–and knowing Bubba’s nature, Her Majesty should have had Handi-Wipes down there.

This week, Barack Obama becomes the 11th Commander in Chief to greet the octagenarian monarch, and this had to go right.  Gordon Brown’s still trying to find a region 1 DVD player that takes 220 Volts of two-pronged goodness.  But as always, we figure out how to screw it up somehow, at least according to the British press.  First Lady Michelle Obama did away with the “optional” curtsy (who knew a curtsy was “optional”?), instead going straight for the good ol’ American handshake…oh, the horror.  Poor Barack was so confused about the rules that he twitched his head up and down like a punch-drunk bobblehead doll.  At least the Queen took it in stride–it also helped that Prince Philip, Shorty’s main squeeze, did his own foot-in-mouth routine.

The American faux pas in front of a crowned head of Europe is a tired cliche.  Okay, we get it: the Yank in the ten-gallon hat slaps King ThunderJowls on the back, the nobility stands aghast, and monocles fly everywhere.  Thank God that the Queen never met Lyndon Johnson…he’d probably mention how his Haggar slacks ride his crotch like a wire fence.

The British press obsess about this perceived affronty, and they have a point.  Without a monarchy to kick around, Great Britain would just be some run-of-the-mill European socialist welfare state with lukewarm food and ridiculous fashion sense.  To be British is, for many, to be the Queen’s subject, and it behooves a subject to protect his/her sovereign from all enemies, foreign and domestic.  To save us some embarrassment, it helps that we Americans should learn at least the basics about meeting these people–the forms of address, whether to bow or curtsy, etc. 

Yet on the same note, Great Britain, and all constitutional monarchies for that matter, should cut us mere commoners a little slack if we fumble at the dinner table or offer the wrong hand.  We’re just not accustomed to treating people differently if they don’t deserve it.  Why couldn’t the Queen make money honestly like Bill Gates, crushing competitors like insects?  Or be a professional basketball/football/baseball player?  Even if you can’t make an honest living, at least have the common decency to make a fool of yourself in public–just ask Paris Hilton.  It takes hard work to flush a reputation down the toilet and not care. 

So give us a break, your Highnesses.  Rigid social order is a little foreign to us, and we need all the help we can get.

NOTE: This does not apply to absolute monarchies, especially those where the monarchs wear bedsheets and sit on huge stores of petroleum.  They always get the curtsy.

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What to do when a baby drops an F-bomb: a primer on code-switching


You know the only people who are always sure about the proper way to raise children? Those who’ve never had any.” – Bill Cosby

The parent-teacher conferences are an amazing way to see parents and children interact with no supervision.  More often than not, it is the parents that need the correction.

Take this example: as I was walking down the hall to a classroom, I noticed a young boy with his little sister, a child of about 2, in a stroller.  Mom was sitting next to them, filling out forms and waiting to hear about Junior’s lack of focus for the umpteenth time.  The little sister then drops her sippie cup and climbs out of the stroller. As soon as little brother asks her to pick up the cup, I expected a little cooing sound, or a soft laugh from the little sister–the kind of sound most of us are conditioned to hear from toddlers. I heard the following:

“Fuck you!”

Boy did you hear it. She blurted that f-bomb so loud you could hear it over the Bruckner Expressway. The whole hallway, a sea of parents with children in tow, stopped in freezeframe, waiting to see which unfortunate soul will claim parentage of this potty-mouthed urchin. Mom was not only embarrassed, she quickly snatched the offending child and whisked them all into the classroom to hide from the shame.

Our natural instinct is to blame the parents, and with good reason. Kids are a sponge at an early age, soaking in the sights, smells and sounds of their environment. That a toddler could cuss with such ease says a lot about the home life and the level of discourse. We never could blame a child from, say, Senator Kennedy’s flock to display such behavior, although young Patrick picked up a lot from his dad–saucy language and all.

However, it is also the case that Mom, like many parents in the neighborhood, have a difficult time establishing limits on certain language in certain areas. If everyone in the building, and everyone on the block, dropped curses and slang like a walking hip-hop album, then it’s no surprise that kids will pick up on that. In short, many parents know little about code-switching.

Code-switching was a linguistic tool in use ever since immigrants settled in this country, although it was not studied in depth until the 1940s. It is a tool of both assimilation and identity for individuals that straddle cultural divides or socioeconomic divisions. The code being “switched” is the vocabulary and linguistic nuances used in everyday life. Translated into plain English, this skill allows people to speak one way at a business meeting, another way at home, and even another way with friends.

One group that has become almost synonymous with this is African Americans. The predominance of a black middle class in this country has led many researchers to conclude that code-switching is an integral part of their success. It allows black professionals to excel in the workplace while still maintaining cultural ties through family and friends.  

Even African Americans in popular culture have used code-switching. Don’t believe me? Ask Clair Huxtable, the stern but loving mother from The Cosby Show, played by Phylicia Rashad.  Notice how she speaks to outside adults and colleagues as an attorney–it is usually in a bland, friendly, almost stereotypically “white” manner.  Now wait until Theo gets in trouble with Cockroach again (a popular theme in the series) and you see a very different Clair, one that would probably ruffle the feathers of the starched suits at her law firm.

Naturally, code-switching has its critics.  Many “old school” educators charge that allowing the choice of codes between situations legitimizes what could be considered incorrect or “bad” English.  This permissiveness would then hinder children from studying “correct” English as displayed in the accepted annals of literature.  Never mind that most of the accepted “classics” came from vernacular English considered filthy in its time.   Parts of Beowulf (especially the beginning) consisted of jokes on farting and urine.  Most of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales reads like a medieval Spring Break (complete with free-flowing beer and public nudity).  Let’s not forget William Shakespeare–his raunchier plays make a Penthouse letter look like the King James Bible.

On the other hand, many critics contend that code-switching is just another form of racial heirarchy.  They contend that changing language to suit environments unlike their own is tantamount to “acting white” or worse–being an “uncle Tom.”  The simple fact that a person must change their language in certain situations places a value judgment on certain environments: the whiter the people in an area, the more “proper” and formal the tone and vocabulary. 

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this one.  Until culture changes otherwise, professional attire and etiquette is dictated by European norms in this country.  As much as individuals should strive to celebrate their identity, the needs of the marketplace dictate that a person must act in different ways in different areas.  As much as it would delight me, Snoop Dogg would not speak to a bank CEO in the same way he would to Dr. Dre.  Conversely, President Obama would not bust out into rap and black vernacular in a press conference.  If he did, I doubt he would have gotten anywhere close to his majority of votes he received in 2008.

There are cultural values that are universal, regardless of the code we use.  Disrespecting adults is not allowed in any language.  Abusing peers is not permissable in any language.  Much of what is considered “foul” language is common across socioeconomic and cultural divisions.  Like it or not, no child should be able to drop an F-bomb without some sort of intervention. 

In general, most of my students understand how to code-switch pretty well.  Walk into my school and you’ll see students addressing teachers politely, with a hearty “Good morning, Mr. D!” and so on.  In fact, the children who have difficulty in this regard are considered crazy or obstinate by their peers.  It also helps that the teachers themselves cultivate this in each classroom, which makes teaching and learning that much easier.

If I were a parent, I would introduce a child to code-switching early.  That way, the kid will not embarrass the parents by using coarse language when its inappropriate. 

Instead, the child can focus on more important things, like studying hard, or reading a book–or flinging an eraser at your friend’s head just hard enough to leave a mark.  Now that’s a marketable skill.


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