Table of Contents

  • Free Our Climate Crisis Is an Education Crisis

    Edited By the editors of Rethinking Schools Why is there so little teaching or discussion of climate change in classrooms?
  • Cover Story
  • Free Got Coal?

    Teaching about the most dangerous rock in America

    By Bill Bigelow Students play a game promoted by the coal industrythen dig beneath the surface to look at the realities of mountaintop removal mining.
  • Coal at the Movies

    Classroom DVDs on coal and mountaintop removal mining

    By Compiled by Bill Bigelow Video resources for the classroom, plus links to activist websites.
  • Science for the People

    High school students investigate community air quality

    By Tony Marks-Block Ninth graders develop science literacy as they become neighborhood environmental experts and activists.
  • Features
  • Who’s Bashing Teachers and Public Schools and What Can We Do About It?

    By Stan Karp To build an effective movement against the top-down strategies that are ripping public education apart, we need to take a closer look at who wants reform and why.
  • Keepers of the Second Throat

    By Patricia Smith When Chicago stole my mothers tongue, it also stole all her yesterdays. A poets lyric plea for teachers to nurture their students voices and stories.
  • Talking Back to the World

    Turning poetic lines into visual poetry

    By Renee Watson Student poetry about what raised me is woven into graphic art.
  • Bad Signs

    By Alfie Kohn What are the real messages in the inspirational slogans covering classroom walls? Plus some better alternatives.
  • Fuzzy Math

    A meditation on test scoring

    By Meredith Jacks A middle school writing teacher reflects on a day spent scoring districtwide math tests.
  • Support That Can’t Support

    My induction program experience

    By Elaine Engel Are peer mentoring programs bowing to the pressure to teach to the test?
  • Departments Free
  • Action News • Wisconsin Uprising

  • Good Stuff

    By Herb Kohl
  • First and Second title both empty, Update me!

  • Scholastic Inc

    By Bill Bigelow

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Bad Signs

Bad Signs

You can tell quite a lot about what goes on in a classroom or a school even if you visit after everyone has gone home. Just by looking at the wallsor, more precisely, whats on the wall sits possible to get a feel for the educational priorities, the attitudes about children, even the assumptions about human nature of the people in charge.

A chart that I created more than a decade ago called What to Look for in a Classroom listed some Good Signs along with Possible Reasons to Worry (Kohn, 1999, appendix B). Among the latter: walls that are mostly bare, giving the building a stark, institutional feel; and posted displays that suggest either a focus on control (lists of rules or, even worse, punishments) or an emphasis on relative performance (charts that include grades or other evaluations of each student).

Because Ive done so elsewhere, I wont take time here to explain why such lists and charts make me shudder. Instead, Id like to consider a few signs and posters that are generally regarded as innocuous or even inspiring.

No Whining

This signwhich sometimes consists of the word whining with a diagonal red slash through itsends a message to students that seems to be I dont want to hear your complaints about anything that youre being made to do (or prevented from doing). To be sure, this is not an unusual sentiment; in fact, it may be exactly what your boss would like to say to you. But that doesnt mean its admirable to insist, perhaps with a bit of a smirk, that students should just do whatever theyre told regardless of whether its reasonable or how it makes them feel. If we might respond with frustration or resentment to receiving such a message, why would we treat students that way? No whining mostly underscores the fact that the person saying this has more power than the people to whom its said.

Of course, the sign could be read more literally. Perhaps its just a certain style of complaining, a wheedling tone, thats being targeted. Frankly, I dont love that sound either, but should someones tone of voice really take precedence over the content of whatever he or she is trying to say to us? Im less annoyed by whining than I am by the disproportionate reaction to it on the part of adults. Its fine to offer an occasional, matter-of-fact reminder to a child that people tend to be put off by certain ways of asking for something, but our priority should be to make sure that kids know were listening, that our relationship with them doesnt depend on the way they talk to us. Besides, young children in particular need to have some way of expressing their frustration. We dont let them hit, scream, or curse. Now were insisting that they cant even use a tone of voice thats, well, insistent?

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