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Schools, Excellent Mistakes, and Really Bad Ones

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Earlier this week I ran across a school-related news item that had so many things wrong about it that I just can't shake it from my mind. You've probably run across it, too.

A Florida high school student, Kiera Wilmot, apparently discovered that a couple of more or less benign ingredients, sealed into a container, could erupt into a mildly explosive mess. It was a science experiment gone wrong--so wrong, in fact, that the student wound up in handcuffs and is now, despite apparent exoneration--charges dropped, record cleared--finishing out her year in one of the educational penal colonies that some districts (in this case Polk County) reserve for students judged too disruptive or dangerous to mix with a general population of high school students.

The American Civil Liberties Union was on the case, as was the world of social media. A giant petition and a legal intervention got the girl sprung from the jug and her record restored.

My head swims when I ponder this all. The oh-so-wrong parts:

1) Okay, science projects can be good things, done well. Kiera's teacher apparently warned her off the traditional baking soda-and-vinegar volcano as being academically beneath her, but the idea of a fun-to-watch reaction seems to have remained on the table. "Someone" suggested the foil and cleanser approach, but I wonder whether there might have been more communication and feedback from the teacher. I'd just observe that an important part of project-based learning is to create solid pathways for regular check-ins and communication so that the teacher knows what the student is up to and can intervene or offer advice at critical junctures during the process. Maybe this was happening and is just not a part of the story as reported. (There is also a bit of confusion, in that early reports said that Kiera's experiment was not related to a school project; her blog, originally written for the ACLU, maintains that it was.)

2) Zero-tolerance policies are overwhelmingly not good things, and in this case I can't even figure out what was being not tolerated. Was it messy and potentially dangerous behavior? Okay, that's one thing, but the shift in interpretation from a demonstration of something ill-advised to something criminal (or terroristical? Is that what the school officials thought? Really?) just seems crazy. Handcuffs on a "model student" held in the principal's office? This just seems another frightening example of what happens when police become a "natural" part of schools' disciplinary landscape. I get that this may sometimes be needed, but to me police will always be an unnatural presence in schools, a symptom of something so disheartening that I can scarcely bear to think about it. Kiera's treatment may have been made worse, suggest some commentators, by the fact that she is black.

3) This was a learning opportunity lost. In many schools the lesson that Kiera might actually have learned was one that we like to talk about all the time--about learning from mistakes, about being allowed to take a risk and fail without dire consequences. If nothing else, Kiera might have gone away from this experience knowing that things don't always work quite the way you think they will. A thorough debrief with the science teacher might have opened her eyes to all kinds of nuances in chemistry, physics, and experimental design. My boss likes to quote Daniel Pink's mantra from The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: "Make excellent mistakes!" Kiera certainly made an excellent mistake, a doozy, but small-minded educators turned the lesson into one likely to suppress curiosity and the experimental spirit in her and her schoolmates. Instead, the lesson kids received was "Don't do anything that's going to attract the attention of the authorities, even if you might learn something from it."

There's something about these stories, and they appear pretty regularly in multiple variations, that just chills the heart of a teacher, that makes me want to scream. I'm sure the school officials are filled with self-righteous resentment that the ACLU and the thinking public shamed them, and I doubt they'll change their tune or their policies.

Madmen turn schools into crime zones; so do gangsters and drug dealers and sexual predators. But girls with ill-conceived science projects are none of the above, just like little boys with sporks. When did we lose sight of the idea that sometimes kids really are just kids, who need to learn from their mistakes in schools without being arrested?

Schools are supposed to be places where kids learn, where excellent mistakes lead to Aha! moments and not to chafed wrists and rap sheets. I'm glad the ACLU was there to protect Kiera, and I'm glad that the weight of social media was there to cast a spotlight on the adult idiocy behind her ordeal.

But I don't think this story ends until Kiera is out of the disciplinary school (with the Orwellian name "Bill Duncan Opportunity Center"--opportunity for what?) and can study German and play cello once again in a school orchestra. It's great that she can attend Space Camp, but until she's back in a regular school, she remains the victim in an active crime scene.

And "zero tolerance" policies? Let's remember who we're dealing with here: kids.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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