Thursday, April 21, 2011

What Does it Mean to Be Disobedient?

In Reuben's Fall: A Rhizomatic Analysis of Disobedience in Kindergarten Sheri Leafgren describes a scene that takes place in a school hallway.  Reuben, a kindergarten child, has fallen, hard enough that Sheri hears it as she is teaching in a nearby kindergarten. As she steps out into the hallway she sees this:
In the aftermath of Reuben's fall, Julian--one of those spirited, full-of-verve, curious, "bad" children whom I had coveted for my own classroom--had left his place in the back of the line to reach Reuben where he had fallen near the front of the boys' line and, as I arrived at the door, was helping him off the floor, asking "Reuben, are you okay?"
As the other children steadfastly maintained their places in their straight, boy and girl lines, Mrs. Buttercup shook her head, held up two fingers, and said to Julian: "That's two, Julian. You are out of line and you are talking. You're on the wall at recess" (p.15).
Leafgren explains that being "on the wall at recess" means that the child would spend part or all of recess standing against a wall in the playground unable to play, but able to see his/her peers at play.  Imagine what that must be like for a five-year-old full of impulse and verve. Julian like Reuben is a kindergarten child. I quote this scenario as I am wondering about what it means to be disobedient in the context of school, specifically primary grades and what essential cultural truths we hope children will learn by what we privilege.

I have mostly found discipline rules in schools that are determined outside of context to be inherently mean-spirited and dangerously simple.  What I mean by this is how can it be predetermined that if student A does X then the punishment will be Y.  To issue punishments without context is idiotic.  And yet, I would be lying if I also did not say that in many schools where I have worked, there's always a contingent of teachers like Mrs. Buttercup who clamor at the bit to dole out the punishment or to make sure that some administrator or dean doles out the punishment regardless of the context. Ask the Mrs Buttercups and they will tell you that children must learn right from wrong and seem to believe that their personal truths are universal.

Some years ago my son was disciplined for yelling out in class right after an announcement had been made indicating that third graders would be trying out for the school store.  He said to a friend across the room, "Yes!" His teacher determined that yelling out was wrong and the punishment was that he would remain in the classroom by himself while all the other children and the teacher went to the school store to try out for what would be a year long privilege of selling things in the morning to other children. In this suburban classroom, my son was the only boy of color. He was 8. A few days later we learned about the incident when my son in tears told us that he was "bad" and was punished and how embarrassed he was to be left behind. He explained that he had wanted to sell things at the store--a topic he and his friends had been talking about since 2nd grade. "I didn't mean to yell out. I just was excited."

We assured our son that he was not bad and that saying "Yes" because you're excited happens.  The next week, my husband and I talked with the principal and the teacher and whereas the matter was resolved, the injury was not. At this meeting, all of the adults were white (including my husband and me) and the principal assured us that no one at the school saw color and everyone treated all children the same. The principal did not believe in white privilege.

Then, like now, I question what children are learning, not through the official curriculum, but rather through the understory that is taught alongside the official content that helps children, like Reuben and my son, learn how and unfortunately if they are valued by meaningful and powerful adults in their lives. "Being good" is a culturally derived stance, not a universally given truth. Teachers have enormous power in a young child's life and ought to keep that clearly in mind when they attend to what children do and say through punishment.

Work cited:
Leafgren, Sherri L. 2009. Reuben's Fall: A Rhizomatic Analysis of Disobedience in Kindergarten. Walnut Creek, CA: Leaf Coast Press, Inc.


  1. The distinction that I think you touch on without stating directly is that "being obedient" is not the same thing as "being good" and "being disobedient" is not the same thing as "being bad." I think it's important for young people to learn that being good-but-disobedient can result in getting in trouble; it's unfortunate, but sometimes the "real world" works that way too.

  2. Yes it does work that way and when you are older it may even be important to know that. I would just hope it could hold off a bit for 5 year olds and that educators would make that a mission.

  3. Yeah. I was thinking the same thing - five is a LITTLE young for that particular real-world lesson. I mean, I talk about it with my students... but they're in high school!

  4. Even in high school I think we sometimes forget they are still kids. They are suppose to make lots of mistakes and we are suppose to learn alongside them.


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