The Clappety-Clap Bullshit [On Character Education]

Jose VilsonJose9 Comments

The Joker in The Dark Knight

In different spheres, educators of all stripes have had conversations about this idea of “character education.” Before this year, I too used to equate character education with all the positive things about schools that concentrate on the socio-emotional as well as the academic sides of students. Especially during my time at Nativity Mission School and Xavier High School, I found myself immersed in lots of reflective activities and spiritual discussions. While we searched for how we defined ourselves as men for others, we also wanted to find how best to do God’s will. As a Catholic, Jesus’ examples were the guiding force behind my burgeoning values and perception of the world. I didn’t always follow it, mind you, but at least I had a solid foundation of how to interact with others in a peaceful, well-intentioned manner.

The crap I hear these days is on some other shit.

A few examples:

  • Schools giving students an hour of instruction, then lining up the students in front of the class, taking them all on a class trip to the bathroom, and re-seating them for another twenty minutes of more instruction.
  • Schools paying kids for doing homework, doing well on exams, and generally staying out of trouble.
  • Districts installing metal detectors in front of a school that neither asked for it nor merited the metal detectors
  • Teachers complicit in telling students how they must sit, stand, and pay attention through a series of claps, stomps, and / or other inane motions.

For one, we can’t say we’re preparing our kids for the future if we give them instructions that aren’t natural to what professional adults do. Most adults get to go to the bathroom whenever they please, and (in an effective work situation) don’t have to listen to one person speak the entire day.

Secondly, none of these things actually help students actually build character. Why do we think consistently portraying students as criminals, thugs, and untrustworthy miscreants will actually benefit this country? We’ll ignore the fact that our country still over-drugs, over-feeds, under-nourishes, over-feeds, over-tests, under-loves, under-empowers our children to do better for themselves and our country.

Let’s be honest, too: we like to think about the words “character education” for only specific kids. It’s not just our Black and Brown kids, but other kids who have neither the resources nor the advocates to really fight for them. Character education is tainted to me now because it sounds more like “We’re gonna teach these kids a lesson,” and not “We’re going to teach our children.” Whereas I once thought character education meant guidance and care, it now feels like one stop short of jail.

We certainly have schools that house children with lots of baggage (mine included), schools that accept all children and take him in despite their more difficult behaviors. Some of these schools ought to be commended because they do this with limited resources and environments that only care about their bottom lines. Frankly, for some children, breaking through to them that they have multiple pathways towards personal success (that doesn’t involve the risk of jail) doesn’t resonate with them because that’s all they’ve ever seen. For them, the work of educators and supports around them becomes that much tougher.

Yet, we still have others (some educators included) that, no matter how well-resourced, still think children should fit in their little squares, implicitly creating a generation of children who obey, never take ownership, and never think for themselves, complaints that adults lob at children whenever they get fed up with their own ineptitude.

When I discussed all this with my fiancee, she snickered and said, “… I just don’t believe in that clappety-clap bullshit that these assholes do.” Sounds about right, miss. What a bunch of … characters.

Jose, who likes Louisville thus far …

Comments 9

  1. I totally agree with you… We should focus more on what children will need in their adult life… I think communication skills are much more important than chemistry or physics… Discipline is a crucial factor, but we should teach the children discipline out of respect, not with force like prisoners…

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  3. Before I worked in earlier childhood and at an IS, I would have generally agreed with you….but coming from your own background teaching at a Catholic school- c’mon, the clappity clappity has its merits. For instance when different groupings are going on, and the teacher wants to grab everyones attention in a positive way. The “clappity clap” “1-2-3 all eyes on me” is in fact reaching through to multiple pathways and in multsensory affects (i.e. auditory, tactile and verbal senses are all used.)

    And honestly, there is a time and place for everything. Especially with the rules being such as they are. Sometimes it’s not appropriate to whoop and holler in celebration. And there are fine lines between giving a kid a pass, telling all kids they can only go between such and such times a la the line and then the wall runners. Teachers and students should be allowed to experiment. Sometimes these experiments fail such as the recent case of the High School in which bathroom passes were all plungers. Clever but uh….. There are clear cases of innovation, I, myself learned the French Alphabet because of a little nursery rhyme. Yet, singing it during math class can be as distracting and rude as a joke that was told without the consideration of its audience. Again, I do think that students need that important time and place lesson.
    Teachers subtly do more than that. We teach kids how to wait their turn, consider their answers, problem solve, and hopefully respect each other.
    And in real world terms, the clappity clappity is like an ambulance, some are annoyed by the sirens, but we all scowl and look unfavorably about the person or car that refuses to pull over and respect the momentary yielding of our own self importance. Reasons why we all try to keep kids quiet during fire drills….you never know what’s coming when the alarms are going off, but the bells and whistles signify something you need to pay attention to is coming.
    -“Chester Kent”

  4. Post

    Thank you both for your comments.

    I didn’t teach in a Catholic school; I learned in two of them: my middle and high school. I’m not just referring to the multisensory things we do to grab attention. I’m referring to the whole institution of what we deem as discipline, which is markedly different than an “emergency.”

  5. And then there’s the whole issue about the word “discipline.” Do we mean it as punishment? Tit for tat? Negative reinforcement? Or are we teaching students about summoning the will to accomplish a necessary task? It takes self-discipline to sit myself down at a desk and grade papers (never my favorite activity) instead of reading blogs… ooops.

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  6. The sad truth about character education is that it can’t even fit kids into square little holes. It is completely ineffective. There was a conclusive study about it which proves that it does absolutely nothing except waste time and money.

    October 2010, a federal study, the largest and most thorough ever conducted, found that school-wide Character Education programs produce exactly ZERO improvements in student behavior or academic performance.

    It’s no surprise. Besides the fact that there is no theoretical basis for character education, just take a look at the lists of values and goals of the dozens of competing CE offerings. The lack of agreement between the lists is one of the most damning aspects of character education! And, like you say it is obvious that the majority of the values follow a conservative agenda, concerned with conformity, submitting to authority, not making a fuss…

    One thing all these programs do agree on is what values are NOT included on their lists of core values. Not found, even though they are fundamental to the history and success of our nation are such noted values as independence, calculated risk, ingenuity, curiosity, critical thinking, skepticism, and even moderation. “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” the famous saying by Ms. Frizzle on the much celebrated TV show, The Magic School Bus, embodies values that would be antithetical to those found in today’s character education.

  7. Thanks for this, Jose. It’s challenging. I agree with Chester’s points regarding the place of clappity clap in the younger grades. It’s far preferable to nagging, yelling, repeating yourself, etc…the type of responses teachers typically resort to when they don’t have a lot of clappity clap techniques in their teaching repertoire. I’ve also seen the clappity clap techniques used effectively (sparingly) in middle schools.

    That said, I don’t want to lose the forest for the trees. Your point as a whole is well-taken. We need to think critically about what our classroom routines teach our students about independence and problem solving. Too often the way we manage our classrooms sends the message that we value compliance, not creativity.

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