[On September 27th, I posted a description and analysis of the first hour of the first day of school at Mensch Prep Charter School (the name, like all other identifying details, is invented.) This post picks up where that one left off.]
After breakfast is cleaned up at each table, there are a series of coordinated bathroom visits. Then, Mensch Prep's principal, Nonyameko Pertinax (if I have to invent names, I'm not going to invent boring ones), announces that they're going to learn a song. The teaching of the song, which turns out to be "Shave and a Haircut" (sung without lyrics) provides another opportunity to reinforce habits of when to speak and when not to speak in class, and it is a rigorous exercise in that most fundamental component of discipline and maturity—self-control.
The song is taught as a call and response: Ms. Pertinax sings the "shave and a haircut" part, and everyone else sings the "two bits;" but first the kindergartners have to listen to the song with "teachers only," i.e. Ms. Pertinax sings the call and the rest of the faculty sings the response. That's harder than it sounds, because like any well-constructed song "Shave and a Haircut" begs for its resolution. When Ms. Pertinax sings "dum da da-dum dum," many children are compelled to sing "dum dum!" along with the teachers.
At this, Ms. Pertinax shakes her head in long, back-and-forth sweeps—she was expecting the errant voices no doubt; she knows the siren-song force of "Shave and a Haircut;" but her tone is unsoftened by that understanding; like a surface of polished steel, her tone cannot soften or falter. "This time is teachers only," she reminds them, "This time is teachers only—Dum da da-dum dum."
"Dum dum!" sing the teachers, accompanied by a bright tinkle of kindergarten falsettos. Ms. Pertinax shakes her head again. The teachers move through the tables, giving reminders to students whom they saw singing along.
They practice again and again. With each repetition of song and instructions, the errant voices grow fewer, until finally, after about fifteen tries, not a single kindergartner is heard singing along with the teachers. Ms. Pertinax never hesitates or compromises—only when she has every single child in the room following her directions will she continue to the next part of the lesson.
This is not merely a feat of patience; it is a feat of courage, of implacable stubbornness. When only five faint, faltering kindergarten voices sound beneath the chorus of teachers; when only three are heard, momentarily, on that first "dum" of the two bits; when she has repeated the exercise so many times that eighty-something children are waiting in silence, and only two are still confused—still Ms. Pertinax begins again, with no hint in her ringing voice that she is the least satisfied with this unfinished task.
To stand up before a room full of people, no matter how small, and stubbornly demand perfection requires a very specific personality-type; most of us would falter and compromise, settle for something less than perfect obedience to our commands. Indeed, a half hour after the events herein described, I watched a first-year Mensch Prep teacher lead the students in another call-and-response song; the routine was the same, beginning with a teachers-only version, but the new teacher lacked, or had not yet developed, Ms. Pertinax's iron will. She made the students sit through the teachers-only version a few times, but there was still a faint tinkle of errant 5-year-old voices accompanying the faculty, when she announced that the scholars were ready to sing.
(Green as she was, this was not a weak teacher, from the little I saw of her—her voice was engaging; her body-language confident—nor does her compromise seem like a big one—after all, only a few students out of eighty-something were still singing out of turn—but from an orthodox reading of No-Excuses pedagogy, that compromise had significant implications. In his Taxonomy of Effective Teaching Practices, a tremendously insightful document widely studied within the No-Excuses community and constituting the most explicit delineation of ideal No-Excuses classroom practices, education analyst and consultant Doug Lemov describes a principle of classroom management which he calls 100%. In Lemov's words, "There's one suitable percentage of students following a direction given in your classroom: 100%." Many teachers, he explains, are tempted to move on as soon as most of the students are following directions; after all, that handful of faltering errant voices isn't really getting in the way of the lesson. According to Lemov, however, doing so "causes students to see non-compliance as an option, to contemplate a choice between compliance with the teacher or the freedom of their untrammeled peers."
The children in this post are learning habits that they will take with them when they head off to their classrooms. During Ms. Pertinax's instruction, and that of the dean of students, who led the breakfast lesson in my first Mensch Prep post, the kindergartners were learning to do exactly what their teacher tells them. The moment that requirement was relaxed, even slightly, they began to learn that there was wriggle room. Of course, such loosening is inevitable—most teachers need years of experience to master the technique of 100%, and perfect management is as theoretical as a frictionless surface. The true test of a No-Excuses school may not be how perfectly it can maintain discipline, but how comfortably and peaceably it can accommodate imperfection.)
You might imagine that the obsessive control and repetition in Ms. Pertinax's instruction would take the fun out of singing "Shave and a Haircut," but watching this lesson, I felt not monotony but dramatic tension. Like Roger Rabbit hiding from Judge Doom, the kindergartners hear the inexorable call of the shave-and-a-haircut—that simplest and most primeval of songs—but they are forbidden to answer; and with each repetition, the tension builds, the unscratched itch tingles more terribly. Finally, when they have all learned to control the impulse to sing, and that implacable head teacher announces that it's now "Scholar's Turn"—how sweet it is to sing out the eternal, elemental answer to "Shave and a Haircut!" I can't know, of course, whether my sense of dramatic tension was shared by the students; I'm not inside the head of a kindergartner—but all I could think of, when those kids finally got to sing, was Roger Rabbit bursting through the wall of the bar, singing exultantly, "Teeeewwww Biiiiiitttthhhhh!" (If you don't know what all this Roger Rabbit business is about, click here—if you're in a hurry, jump the play-head about five and a half minutes into the clip; if you have the time, watch from 1:24. It's not exactly pedagogical theory, but it's good stuff.)
After a few triumphant renditions of shave and a haircut, Ms. Pertinax announces that they will now "sing it with claps"—i.e. clap out the rhythm, again as a call and response. Of course, they have to do it "teachers-only" before the scholars get to clap—a much easier task this time around, though it still takes a few tries. Once it's the scholars' turn to clap, they practice the call and response several times. And here, I belatedly realize, we have come to the crux of the lesson.
Why, you ask—why is learning to clap "Shave and a Haircut" the second lesson of these children's scholastic lives? To understand the importance of this lesson, you have to know about clapping in. Clapping in is one of the many classroom-management tricks peculiar to the No-Excuses movement. The method is simple: you teach students a rhythmic call-and-response routine (like "Shave and a Haircut") and anytime you need to silence a room and get everyone's attention, you clap out the call, and everyone in the room claps out the response.
The effect is remarkable. Instead of the shouted demands for silence; the individual recriminations ("Amber, Kyle, zip it") and begrudging compliance; the gradual, messy descent into rankled, simmering quiet—there is the crisp "clap clap clap-clap clap," and the crisp reply, its immediacy rhythmically dictated—and then silence.
If you've never seen a clap-in, you might be surprised that it works; on the surface, a group of children has no more reason to clap in unison when clapped at than they do to zip it when a teacher calls for silence—but this mysterious force of the uncompleted rhythm calls to them; like Mensch Prep's new class of kindergartners, like Roger Rabbit in the barroom, they must reply—and even after clapping in has become a well-worn classroom routine, something in them seems to rejoice, however momentarily, in that reply. The beauty of the clap-in is not merely that it produces silence, but that it produces willing silence; it calls students back to a game that they have agreed to play with their teacher.
Occasionally an especially raucous class must be clapped in twice before the full chorus of claps answers the teacher's call and total silence is achieved, but only in the most chaotic classroom, wherein the students have turned mutinous, does the clap-in fail to produce silence. Of course, maintaining that silence is another task altogether, requiring other, more elaborate strategies—e.g. having an engaging lesson plan—but that first brief window of silence is crucial. Without it, nothing else the teacher does matters, because the students aren't listening to her.
The purpose of these observational posts is to collect ideas and examples of good schooling and good pedagogy; Mensch Prep's first few hours of instruction are good examples of both, but I have a second purpose in reporting all this: I hope to demystify the No-Excuses movement. Outside the movement and its advocates, among the progressives and the humanists, the strict regimentation used by the No-Excuses schools and the various tricks by which they seek to manipulate students' behavior have lead to accusations that they are militaristic and that they engage in brainwashing. I'm trying to dispel the decidedly sinister shadows that have crept over this discussion, by throwing light on the specific procedures used in these schools, and showing just what this so-called "brainwashing" consists of. (I am not arguing that this method is perfect or ideal or that heavy regimentation should be of no concern; please see my comment in the discussion below.)
The sooner we all—teachers unions, charter schools, progressive educators, No-Excusesists, etc.—realize that we're all on the same team, all trying to improve education in America, the sooner we can stop constructing absurd bugaboos and start thinking clearly and talking sense.
 ^ That is, the head of curriculum and instruction at the school; not the person in charge of finances, hiring, etc.
 ^ Lemov's taxonomy is described in his book, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College, Jossey-Bass, 2010