Though there are many legitimate and neurotic fears that parents of young children carry around with them, few are as terrifying as the fear of losing or misplacing their child’s favorite stuffed animal. Common are the stories of panic and frenzy, usually taking place at the most inconvenient times or places. Arriving at the rented vacation home in Cape Cod only to discover that Dad left Mr. Lion on the dining room table back home, and he is either going to have to drive six hours back to New York or track down Grandma and convince her to climb through the fire escape in the kitchen window to retrieve him, bring him to La Guardia and find somebody who is flying up to Hyannis. I’ve heard stories of parents who came “this close” to temporary separations over accusations of who actually put Elly the Elephant in the washing machine. I’ve heard of parents who had to bring their child’s stuffy to the pediatrician for check ups, insurance-be-damned, because their child was convinced that the stuffy had caught “chicken pops” and was in “sooo much pain!”
Psychologists call these stuffies “attachment objects” and explain that children value them because they imbue them with life-like properties. They are, in a fashion, invented siblings. They have feelings, wishes and personality traits. They confer comfort and reassurance. They are non-digitalized avatars. They are capable of experiencing joy, physical pain and consciousness.
In Dominique Smith’s new book about classroom management, Carrots or Sticks, she tells the story of a kindergarten teacher who used her knowledge of these attachment objects to try to keep order in her classroom. On the first day of school, this teacher asked all of her kindergartners to bring in their favorite stuffed animal, which she then labeled with each child’s name and lined up along a shelf by the window. When a child misbehaved in her class, she retrieved that child’s stuffed animal and carried him to over to another shelf and made him face the wall. Smith writes, “The looks on students' faces after doing this displayed heartbreaking sadness and anger.”
No kidding! Given that the child she is punishing considers the stuffed animal to be alive, the teacher was actually using the technique of dictators and street gangs called “collective punishment” in which they keep order with the threat of harming family members of those whom they believe are not behaving. Only in this case, the teacher was resorting to humiliation rather than dismemberment. Still, the impact is similar in that it invokes in the child fear and contempt.
Smith uses the story to help us reflect on the purpose, not only of classroom management, but of the classrooms themselves. She points out that a good school teaches not only content and academic skills, but social skills, as well. And the better schools do this explicitly. She writes, “There are two aspects of an effective learning environment: relationships and high quality instruction. When students have strong, trusting relationships, both with adults in the school and with their peers, and their lessons are interesting and relevant, it’s harder for them to misbehave.”
Smith is describing the philosophy of East Side Middle. It is our goal, and it seems from past years that we are quite successful at reaching our goal, to help create smart and engaged citizens. Rather than teaching obedience, we are giving them the tools of engagement. We are inviting them to help us create nurturing and exciting classroom communities. We are helping them develop responsibility and giving them ample opportunities to pursue their own curiosity. After all, what is the value of teaching American History without teaching our students how to be better Americans?
I’m sure their stuffies would agree.
Welcome to another great year at East Side Middle School. Go Tigers, roar!