This post is based on an observation of a No-Excuses charter elementary school, which I conducted a couple weeks ago. You will hopefully be seeing more of this kind of thing on this blog. I will never post anything about a school without the permission of the school's administration. As will often be the case in observation-based posts, names and distinguishing features have been modified in this post to hide the identity of the school described.
Not Until the Arm Drops
When I arrive at Mensch Prep Charter School, at 8:00AM, the new class of kindergarteners is already seated silently at six long tables in the florescent-lit cafeteria of PS xxx, in whose old, brick DOE building the young charter school is housed. The children occupy only a small space in the center of the cafeteria, which is built to seat a few hundred, and they are surrounded on all sides by teachers—the whole first-grade and kindergarten faculty is here, to provide as much adult attention as possible, on this, the first day of school of these kids' lives.
The eighty or so five- and six-year-olds arrived at Mensch Prep about half an hour before me and have already been divided into three homerooms, each named after a prestigious American University—though, in the tradition of No-Excuses charters, the word "homeroom" has been replaced with "cohort." The students are almost all African-American, with here and there, a white or Hispanic kid mixed in, and they are dressed in uniforms of light blue and navy.
The dean of students is standing in an open space beyond the ends of the tables, addressing the students. Behind her, a sheet of chart-paper is tacked to a column; it reads:
E very bottom on the bench.
A lways say please and thank you
T rash to the middle
"When my hand drops," says the teacher, holding one arm up above her head, "you will say 'A.' When my hand drops, you will say 'A.'"
There is a steady rhythm to her voice and a pause around the name of the letter A which the children, apparently, feel compelled to fill. "A," they chant.
The teacher shakes her head. "I didn't drop it yet. I didn't drop it yet. When my hand drops, you will say 'A.' She smacks the forearm of her raised right arm with her left hand. "When my hand drops, you will say, 'A.'"
A few kids, still confused, chant "A."
The teacher shakes her head again. "I didn't drop it yet. I didn't drop it yet. When my hand drops…" There is a steady, ringing clarity to her voice. Its cadences are consistent with every repetition; it never quickens, it never drops. It is never satisfied with less than perfect compliance, it never grows impatient or falters. It is implacable, demanding—a voice that kindergarteners must fear to disobey, yet a voice, I suspect, that is rarely if ever raised. It is a remarkable performance.
It takes a few more tries before she can say, "When my hand drops, you will say 'A.'" and get dead silence. Then, without any special to-do, she drops it, and eighty voices ring out: "A." She does it a few times, and the voices grow louder and more confident with each repetition.
"A is for 'Always say please and thank you.' A is for 'Always say please and thank you.' A is for, 'Always say please and thank you.' A is for 'Always say please and thank you.'" The arm is back up in the air. "A is for always say please and…" she drops the arm, and eighty voices ring out: "Thank you." She does it again. And again. And again. And then we're on to "T"—T is for trash to the middle.
The kids are down here to have breakfast, but they won't eat until all the rules have been rolled out, very carefully, one at a time. After she's covered the EAT acronym, the teacher resets everyone's attention. "All eyes on me," she says 4 or 5 times. "I have Princeton's eyes on me. I have Stanford's eyes on me," she says, addressing the individual cohorts. Then she goes back through the list of rules: "Scholars, you're about to get your breakfasts. You will keep every bottom on the bench. You will keep every bottom on the…" the arm drops. The children chant.
A Meticulous Meal
Soon, the teacher at the front of the room turns control over to the teachers at each table, who now begin more specific breakfast-procedure instructions. The tables are side-by-side, so each teacher speaks in a carefully modulated voice—loud enough to be heard by everyone at her table, but not so loud as to disturb instruction at the next table. The students must be silent to hear the teacher, and there are an extra couple teachers at each table to redirect any students who are losing their focus. The instructor at the table nearest the door has a sweet face and a gentle voice, warmer than the teacher who addressed the whole room, and less fearsome.
"Scholars, all eyes on me," she says. "All eyes on me. All eyes on me. I know it's hard on our backs. I know our backs are tired. I know our backs are tired, but all hands are folded. All hands are folded. All hands are…" Her arm drops. They chant.
The teacher takes a white paper bag and sets it on the table. "This is your breakfast," she says. She opens the bag an inch and smells the contents. She smiles. ". Mmmm…." She smells it again. "Mmmm…." The children nearest her are leaning forward to try to get a look inside the paper bag. "Show me excited hands," says the teacher. The children hold up their hands and wiggle their fingers. "Excited hands, excited hands—ok, back to folded." The teacher folds her hands, and so do the children. She looks around to make sure there are no stragglers, before continuing. "When I put it in front of you, you won't touch. When I put it in front of you, you won't touch. When I…."
There are a lot of things a kindergartner at Mensch Prep needs to know before she starts her breakfast. She must wait to take her food out of the bag. When it's time, she must take things out one by one. Anything she wants, she should put on top of her paper bag. Anything she doesn't want, she should push gently to the middle. ("I don't want milk. That's ok. [reassuringly] That's ok. I'll just push it to the center. I don't want it, I just push it to the middle. I don't push it hard, I push it gently to the middle. Everyone show me pushing gently. Show me pushing gently. I'm gonna push it to the middle. I'm gonna push it to the…[hand drops, children chant].") Her trash should go to the center of the table, along with the things she doesn't want. If she has a question, she must silently raise her hand straight up. (Bent-elbow hand-raising and hand-raising accompanied by calling out are quickly corrected.) She also needs to know how to open a carton of milk and a box of cereal, and there's a whole mini-lesson on that.
Finally, the breakfast bags are passed around, along with reminders of the rules at every step of the process—and at last breakfast begins. It is a quiet, orderly affair. The only sounds are the whispers of teachers and the crinkling of paper, plastic, and foil. Training for breakfast took over an hour, but breakfast itself is over in ten or fifteen minutes, the garbage pushed to the center of the table and collected, a couple milk-spills quickly mopped up with paper towels. Any food remaining in front of a child is accounted for—"Is this yours? Do you want it? No? Then push it to the center."
The Benefits of an Orderly Repast
Let's take a step back. What exactly are the teachers at Mensch Prep up to? Why do they spend over an hour teaching kids how to eat breakfast? And why are they so obsessive about details? Why is everything so procedural, so uniform? What about self-expression? What about kids being kids?
I don't presume to tell anyone how to weigh one set of values against another—nor have I come to any final conclusions of my own regarding those weights—but I can give insight into the very specific and, I suspect, carefully thought-out purposes of the instruction depicted above. A lot is getting done in that first hour or two of kindergarten at Mensch Prep, and no matter what one's philosophical convictions, one ought to understand the purposes of the breakfast-procedures lesson before passing judgment.
On the surface, this is a lesson about how to behave during breakfast, and in that regard alone, it's a valuable use of time. As the first activity of the morning, breakfast will set the tone for the entire day. Consider a school day that begins with an unstructured breakfast. Anyone who knows children knows that, without structure and guidelines, eighty little kids in a room together will devolve into a shouting mob. Some children learn good mealtime behavior at home, but even among middle-class kids, these are probably the minority; among inner-city kids, they are even rarer, and the emotional stress of poverty, parental alcoholism, and all the other woes of the inner-city often exacerbate children's natural unruliness.
An unstructured breakfast will be a raucous, wild affair. It will take longer to eat and longer to clean up; it will involve innumerable little incidents of impoliteness, teasing, and bullying; it will force teachers to raise their voices, to admonish and punish children. It will be an activity in which teachers are pitted against students, in a frustrating, often losing battle to try to keep them under control, and it will thus set up a negative relationship between teachers and students at the beginning of the day. Students will head off to class feeling rambunctious; many of them will be nursing wounds from soured social interactions; others will be feeling rebellious and affronted by teachers. Teachers, for their part, will leave such a breakfast feeling jangled and short-tempered, their energies already sapped at the beginning of the long and demanding school day.
By contrast, teachers and students alike will leave a Mensch Prep breakfast feeling calm and ready for class. Students will already be in the habit of following directions and obeying rules. Those who arrived at school in a bad mood will have had a chance to calm down and, if necessary, get some one-on-one attention from a teacher who will have the time, energy, and patience to address their bad mood in a calm, firm, yet warm tone. Teachers meanwhile, will not be left to clean a messy cafeteria, and they will head to class feeling empowered and confident—the importance of which feeling in teachers cannot be overstated.
How to Act in School
But this is not merely a lesson in how to have a great breakfast. The breakfast-procedures lesson teaches a number of habits and behaviors that will be valuable throughout the school-day and year. Some of these are general habits, like raising your hand without calling out, not speaking out of turn, and keeping your eyes on the teacher who is speaking. Others are specific Mensch Prep procedures, like chanting responses when a teacher drops her arm—I'm sure that this trick will be used regularly in classrooms to indicate when students should chant a response. Even emotions are expressed through a stylized, teacher-approved, non-disruptive gesture—e.g. the "excited fingers." You can call this stifling—and maybe it is—but with twenty-five emotional little creatures in a classroom, it can save a tremendous amount of time over the course of the year and prevent small emotional outbursts from derailing whole classrooms.
The breakfast lesson is a very clever context in which to start teaching school procedures and habits, because the topic of the lesson—breakfast—is one that all students are familiar with and interested in; you'd be hard-pressed to find another subject with as universal and intrinsic an appeal as eating. The familiarity of the content—as opposed to, say, a lesson on mathematics—no doubt helps the students to feel comfortable in their new surroundings, away from parents and surrounded by unfamiliar adults; and their desire to eat keeps them paying attention.
The Tight and the Loose
Free-play and self-expression may not be accorded as high a value at Mensch Prep as they are at a progressive kindergarten, but that doesn't mean there will be no place for them. Generally, No-Excuses schools are most rigid at the beginning of the year, in order to establish a calm, disciplined culture; if the school succeeds in teaching good manners and habits, it can then begin to loosen the rules a little, by giving kids quiet talk-time during meals, free-play time during gym, or open-ended projects in class.
In our legitimate effort to safeguard children's autonomy and self-expression, we have to ask ourselves: does self-expression need to happen at breakfast? Plenty of cultures in the course of history have demanded that children be silent and well-behaved at meal times—that hardly seems to have squelched, say, the Victorian imagination.
I'm not trying to dismiss concerns over loss of independence and creative expression. I've definitely seen No-Excuses schools that never succeed in giving kids autonomy; where the administration's talk of loosening structures as kids mature never seems to become a reality; where intellectual and behavioral self-dependence develop far too slowly, and after years at the school, students' good behavior seems to remain dependent on constant oversight and redirection by teachers. Often, though, this seems to occur not because the school was too rigid but because the initial lessons of discipline, respect, and focus were never fully internalized.
It's extremely difficult to determine the long-term impact of a No-Excuses education on a child's creativity, independence, and self-reliance. It's a very big discussion, and I'm tempted to get both tangential and speculative at this point, so I'm going to cut myself off, at least for the time being. My readers, I'm sure, will make up their own minds.
(Further observations of day 1 at Mensch Prep Kindergarten are recorded here.)
 A confusing substitution, since "cohort" has another relevant meaning in the context of education and the social sciences. Confusing reassignments of meaning seem to be a trend in the world of contemporary education, where the word "standard" has come to refer to an individual piece of knowledge within a curriculum—e.g. adding polynomials is "an 8th grade math standard"—clearly, a different meaning from the one we use when we talk about raising standards of education. It's not entirely clear what purpose this kind of language re-appropriation serves. It seems, on the one hand, to help create a sense of unity within a school or movement; but it also sounds a bit like corporate word-salad (indeed, a lot of No-Excuses schools draw some of their inspiration directly from corporate culture) and like anything that builds group unity, it tends to alienate those outside the movement.
I wrote, in the introduction to this blog, about the polarization of debate over education in this country. I am prepared to be shown that there is some value in these reassignments of words to new meanings, but at the moment they seem to me more an encouragement to pedagogical factionalism than anything else.
 The last of these, called "tracking the teacher" in No-Excuses lingo, may not have been a rule at your grade-school, but it's ubiquitous in No-Excuses classrooms, and it's one of the many clever tricks that No-Excuses educators employ—you cannot force a kid to pay attention, because attention-paying is invisible, but a kid who is tracking the speaker is very likely to be paying attention; I've found in my own teaching that a student who is watching me is almost guaranteed to be listening to what I'm saying. In this way, No-Excuses educators take an invisible and unmeasurable goal and tie it to a concrete, visible proxy. (The use of such proxies, in fact, is fundamental to No-Excuses pedagogy—more on this in future posts!)
 Group responses are another good way for a teacher to let students show, en masse, that they are paying attention. Speaking words back to the teacher also helps them (the words, of course, not necessarily the ideas) stick in the kids' heads. Middle-school teachers usually indicate when they want a group response through tone of voice and pregnant pauses, but presumably with kindergarteners it's useful to have a more explicit indicator.