Monday, November 1, 2010

More on Mensch Prep: "Shave and a Haircut" Like You've Never Seen It Before

[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[1], 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 onlyDum 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%."[2] 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.[3] 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.

[1] ^ That is, the head of curriculum and instruction at the school; not the person in charge of finances, hiring, etc.

[2] ^ 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

[3] ^ See, for example, this post, from the vociferously anti-charter blog Schools Matter or this one.


  1. Your comments at the end -- and Jim Horn's post in the first of the anti-charter blogs you link to -- raise questions about control, autonomy and leadership that go beyond education to the nature of the individual in society. Americans, liberal Americans in particular, have such a reflexive antipathy to authority, such a love of self-reliance and dissent, that it's like an article of unquestioned faith. As a result, they often fail to see that children need to experience external authority before they can develop the inner strength that makes self-reliance and real (not reflexive) dissent possible. For fear of "dominating" children they would deprive them of the very experiences that, in real life, protect them from domination. As Lawrence says somewhere, human beings have a deep spiritual need for leaders and superiors, people who model to us the behavior we hope to attain. But modern society -- "democracy" -- denigrates those needs and cuts us off from the experiences that would satisfy them.

  2. Although you've demystified the procedures used in the school (and why they work), I'm not sure you've dispelled the sinister shadows of brainwashing. My overwhelming impression from your description is that these students are learning a habitual, automatic, unquestioning obedience. Surely this is innocuous enough in Kindergarten, but what are the long-term consequences? My fear is that such procedures are germinating a generation of mindless automatons who will be easily manipulated their entire lives. What is the place of freedom and creativity in such a classroom?

  3. If the class were an orchestra -- even a children's orchestra -- and the conductor insisted that each instrument come in at precisely the right moment, and made them go over the piece again and again until every single one got it right, few would call it brainwashing. Teaching children to bend their unruly wills to a group endeavor or to external rules does not, of necessity, destroy freedom or creativity. In fact, it seems central to the development of the individual will. Unless you are able to follow rules, how can you freely break them?

  4. Looking back at my post, I see how I have appeared to take a position I do not hold. I did not mean to imply that the strict regimentation of No-Excuses education is ideal for children in general or for poor, inner-city children in particular. I think that the advantages of that regimentation are easy to observe and easy to measure, and I am reluctant to disparage a model that is currently doing more for inner-city youth than any other program or model that I know of; at the same time, I have enough of the romantic and the humanist in me to be unsettled by the channeling of all natural childish expression and exuberance through teacher-approved outlets.

    The debate is ongoing for two years now in my own mind. Is my longing for the ecstatic rebellion of childish creativity against adult constraint merely a result of the essentially un-rebellious nature of my own childhood? Is the unconscious, automatic acceptance of the benevolent authority of the parent—and of the school as extension of the parent—the precondition for self-expression and individualist exploration?

    The truth is that we cannot know the long-term impact of heavy regimentation in the elementary- and middle-school years. My intent in the last two paragraphs of my post was not to squelch criticism of No-Excusesism but to take the boogeyeman out of it, to show that its intent is benevolent, that its processes are not painful, and that its design is careful and intelligent; whether or not it is a good idea is a philosophical matter.

    I urge my readers to see education in the immense and complex terms that it exists in the actual classrooms of America; to see that it is too big to be encompassed by any single philosophy; and to search not for what disturbs or offends them in schools but for what works, for the insightful and the ingenious and the beautiful—because we need every good idea we can find; the project of education is an endless and impossible one.

  5. As a teacher, I can see the appeal of running a classroom where only 100% compliance is acceptable. It takes the back and forth about rules out of the picture and makes everything run much more smoothly, and may even take the stress out of the kids' experience. Henry's orchestra comparison is interesting. But most people in an orchestra have chosen to be there and to participate in a shared project. School is not a choice for the kids. I remember being in kindergarten at a suburban public school and waiting anxiously for the other kids to shut up, waiting for the group when I was ready to go forward, and being angry that I was being controlled. This kid will always be in the room, their voice singing as part of the whole, but the voice inside their head saying something else.

  6. There is, of course, a deeper philosophical question that I am skirting, regarding the essential value of controlling children’s behavior. Continuing to skirt that, I want to point out that the waiting for perfect compliance that you’re seeing in this post won’t have to happen very much, if things go as planned at Mensch Prep. True, that first day must have been a bit frustrating for those children who got the direction early on; but if all the kids develop the habit of following directions—and obedience is a habit more than anything else—then there will be no need for such time-consuming struggles later in the year. To quote Doug Lemov again, “when a teacher makes ‘minor’ requests discretionary, getting everyone to oblige her when she needs it most will require her to risk either an authority weakening bout of pleading or a pitched and public showdown with some of her students—probably her toughest ones.”
    Good classroom management is invisible; the students do not feel that they are being controlled, but willingly follow directions. Is it possible, Rebecca, that you rankled against attempts to control you in Kindergarten because your teacher exercised her authority inelegantly? We have all experienced the strict, demanding teacher who does not seem to be stifling us so much as requiring the best of us. I’m not trying to dismiss the idea that school can be repressive; of course it can be. The philosophical question regarding freedom and control has not been addressed, and I have no intention of addressing it now. I am only trying to suggest other lights in which to view our observations and experiences.

  7. Ha, you're smart. Yes, my kindergarten teacher certainly exercised her authority inelegantly, and part of the reason I rankled at her and the "lunch ladies" was because my parents exercised their authority elegantly and completely. It was invisible. So teachers and aides' attempt to control us seemed clumsy in comparison. I agree that if authority has to be exercised, the no-excuses way is preferable, but the long-term effects of my parents "requiring the best of me," well, that remains to be seen. Still, I would have rather gone to a progressive school.

  8. I should clarify one thing: No-Excuses is not synonymous with benevolent authoritarianism. The N-E community has developed many sophisticated techniques for exercising authority elegantly and invisibly, but I’ve seen No-Excuses schools where the rules feel harsh and repressive and where students constantly bridle against them; where order is maintained by the threat of punishment not by pleasant collusion of faculty and students. One of the essential characteristics of elegant authority is that it is efficient; it regulates only where it has good reason to regulate. The strict regimentation of No-Excuses schools can sometimes lead them to violate this law of good government and stray into the petty and the punctilious. The invisible and painless exercise of authority is an ideal that all schools strive for; it is never perfectly achieved and is not the exclusive product of any one movement.

  9. In today's paper, there's a profile of the Def Jam rapper formerly known as Jamaal Barrow, who was sentenced in 1999 to 10 years in prison for assault, gun possession, etc as part of Puff Daddy's entourage. Now a practicing orthodox Jew named Moses Levi, he explains his attraction to Judaism: "What I do get is boundaries... Definition and form... That's what [the Sabbath] is. You can't just do whatever you want to do. You have to set limits for yourself." "All these rules, rules, rules" (he says with his hand on the Talmud) "but you know what you have if you don't have rules? You end up with a bunch of pills in your stomach. When you don't know when to say when, and no one tells you no, you go off the deep."

  10. In these comments, people variously distinguish between elegantly exercised and inelegantly exercised authority, and express concerns that repression of children's impulsive exuberance will produce an army of angry, defeated, or mindless automatons. The arguments make me think about the Victorian period and in fact, most of human history, when children's behavior was extremely constrained compared to American kids today. This constraint was perhaps greater for "upper" than "lower" class kids, and no doubt varied within cultures and families, but in general, children were quite severely disciplined and punished, and many social behaviors and conventions were rigidly required from a very young age. Children were expected to be seen and not heard, not to speak unless spoken to, not to contradict their elders, etc. Yet many Victorians grew up to be not only disciplined, but creative, independent, sometimes revolutionary thinkers as well as exuberant, self assured artists, poets, social critics, inventors and conservationists. Today, American children have more freedom, fewer constraints at home, at school or anywhere else. (For many kids, there is no real authority available to them at all, elegant or inelegant, but that is another story.) Do Americans kids, with all their freedom of self expression grow up to be more creative and independent minded than the constrained Victorian children? It doesn't really seem so, does it? ...If anything, I suspect that in general and within obvious limits, more demands and greater constraints gave Victorian children an advantage. I suspect that (again, within limits) too little authority, too little repression of impulse, and even too much self-expression is as limiting to children's development as too much authority and too little self-expression.