Book Review: The Students Are Watching

The Students Are Watching- Schools and the Moral Contract

Somewhere along my journey of teaching, I realized I had started paying an awful lot of attention to more than just the content of what I was saying and having students do in class. I was paying attention to the messages and values communicated through the classroom rules, routines, and activities I was designing for the students. I started to purposefully promote particular values in my classroom.

There was no singular moment (that I can recall) where I decided to align the happenings of my classroom meshed with values that I felt were important. Yet now I find myself thinking (perhaps too much) about what the classroom structures and routines are really telling students. Do they emphasize fairness? Do they treat students as valuable individuals?

"What does it tell students when we make them sign in and out to use the bathroom? That we feel they're trustworthy? That we assume they're going to abuse the privilege? Do the safety and security benefits from having a record of students out of the classroom outweigh the implicit message to students that we don't trust them? How does a school community decide upon these routines?"

Similar issues are discussed in with greater clarity, insight, and detail by Nancy and Ted Sizer in their book, The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract. The each look at the routines and rituals of a school through the lens of common verbs that happen in all schools: Modeling, Grappling, Bluffing, etc.). Throughout the book it is argued that we (as individual educators as well as school communities) need to think through how we model or grapple or bluff. We are teaching students about what things we value- whether we've taken the effort as a community to design our routines to closely match our values or not.

In my own experience, I've found schools will pay lip service to values- such as treating every student as an individual- while sadly lacking to provide structures that allow students to be known as individuals. The book doesn't condemn these schools and those that work in them as being hypocrites or incompetent. Instead, it points out that rules and routines are often well intended, but without specifically thinking through the procedures (and including students and parents in the decision making process) we often fall to a default mode of that which is easiest. However, the easiest routines usually put the adults' needs ahead of the students' or allow a subgroup of students to get lost in the system.

I found The Students Are Watching a challenging read. I often would stop part way through a passage and think through my own practices and how I might improve them. It doesn't purport to provide a silver bullet to solve all of a school's problems, but it does provide a tangible framework for thinking more carefully about what values our schools are actually promoting- and whether those values are the values we really want to be promoting.

Go read this book. If you need a copy, I have one I'm no longer reading. I'd be happy to send it along if you're interested- as long as you don't mind some of my messy writing in the margins (see below).

[Update]: This article on The Slacktivist is a sad example of a school's decision making process teaching the students and community about the real moral values of the school. In this case it's further exaggerated due to the school being a religious school.