The Providence Journal, Sunday, March 9, 2008
Six boys schlep into a second-floor classroom at Calcutt Middle
School for what would have been afterschool detention in any
other school. At Calcutt, it’s afterschool re-engagement.
The boys are all mumbling complaints, but young Edwin grouses
his head off. “This is like the Training School [a state prison
for youths]. You have no right. This is really stupid.”
Georgeann Lewis, the school’s behavior specialist who runs this
program, asks, “What’s your name?”
Edwin, a very funny kid, flashed her a poisonously dirty look.
Stifling a laugh, Lewis cajoles, “Humor me. Not everyone in the
room knows who you are.”
Edwin spits out his name.
“Thank you,” chirps Lewis, “now get rid of the coat and the
complaints.” Edwin turns his griping down, but not off. The boys
Only one of the boys has been to re-engagement before. He
skipped his first detention. You skip one — you automatically
Most secondary schools use afterschool detention as one of
several ways to punish misbehavior. If a student gets detention,
he or she has to stay after school, usually for a couple of
hours, sitting in silence with a book or doing homework. The day
of detention, he or she can’t play afterschool sports, hang with
friends or go to drama-club rehearsal.
“Bad” kids who get a lot of detention don’t bother with sports
or drama because they’ll get thrown out of the activity for
repeatedly failing to show up for practice or rehearsal.
In the past, Calcutt used standard punishments for misbehavior,
such as detention and in-school suspension. But the more its
low-income, Central Falls students got punished, the more they
bucked the rules. The school had become a war zone. Teaching and
learning took a back seat to dealing with discipline.
Then four years ago, the new principal, Elizabeth Legault,
decided the school would no longer punish kids for misbehavior.
She and her staff changed the discipline practices so that the
responses to all wrong-doing are mandatory opportunities to
learn better social and emotional skills. For example, in-school
suspension became in-school support.
But a few problems remained intractably persistent — mainly
cutting class and blowing off required work. So this year the
school turned afterschool detention into a two-hour lesson, with
reading and writing assignments, that teach social and emotional
Lewis says, “My mantra is that a mistake is an opportunity to
learn. I throw the academics into re-engagement because that’s
what we’re doing here at school.”
Much as in an Alcoholics Anonymous group, each kid introduced
himself and stated his offense. These boys mumbled their
offenses so inaudibly, they all had to repeat them at least
once. In the course of the confessions, Lewis realized that
three of the boys are friends who get into trouble together.
This time they ganged up and “disrespected” a certain teacher,
which I assume meant they had insulted her. Lewis gave a
mini-lesson on making your own choices and resisting
group-think, especially when the group is having a stupid idea.
The boys were surprisingly attentive and nice to Lewis. She was
an ace at joshing and play-fighting with this age group. Her
recurring theme was “You give respect, you’ll get respect.”
With each boy she brainstormed how to prevent future afterschool
re-engagements. One sixth-grader was kicked out of class when,
for the umpteenth time, he didn’t have his homework. With comic
exasperation, Lewis asked how he might fix that. “Do the work,”
was the wide-eyed concession. “Do you think you can do that?”
Lewis asked. The boy nodded and seemed contrite. “Brilliant.
Good idea. Let me know how it works out.”
After working on the specific offenses, she got the boys to help
her define the words “reputation” and “character.” When they
were done, she made her point with an example:
“Edwin’s character is that he runs fast, is a really good
football player, and he’s very, very funny.”
At this happy description of himself, Edwin puffed up and
performed a little victory dance in his seat. We all laughed.
Lewis held out her two hands, weighing each description. “His
reputation, however, is that he’s a pain in the butt, and he
doesn’t do his school work. Take a look at that. It sounds like
two completely different kids. People know your reputation
before they know your character. How do you want to be known?”
The kids got that dazed look of pre-teens trying to process
The boys then answered three questions in writing, including,
“What do you struggle with?” Lewis will read them later for
clues as to what might be going on with each boy.
Then she spent the final hour reading them a terrific memoir
about bullying, called Rowing the Bus, by Paul Logan. Together
they stopped often to discuss the behavior of the characters in
the story. At least for me, the time flew.
As she dismissed them, one boy asked if he could come back.
Lewis smiled and promised to connect with him soon, but
hopefully not in re-engagement. Lewis didn’t consider it
counter-productive that he’d like to come back. She was not
trying to make them hate re-engagement, and it was great that
they wanted to discuss their behavior. However, she was making a
mental note that he and another boy seemed quite bright and
probably needed more challenge, a subject she’ll take up with
Explicitly teaching kids how to behave is a huge favor to them
and everyone around them. In return, the kids reward Calcutt
with high attendance, no problem with graffiti, upward-trending
test scores, and a strong sense of school pride.
Calcutt is doing a bang-up job of preparing their inner-city
kids for success.
Punishment does not prepare any kid for success.
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