Monday, September 13, 2010

Planting Seeds Of Revolution

Last week on the first day of school at Shadle Park High School in Spokane, Washington, an English teacher handed out the lyrics to a song called "Commencement Day" by the Seattle hip hop duo Blue Scholars and was suspended pending an investigation. It's not clear whether the school objects to the sprinkling of swear words or the content of the lyrics themselves, but I suspect it's more the later than the former because when I walk the halls of my daughter's middle school I hear much worse language and while I'm far removed from high school, I'm confident that there was no one in my graduating class with virgin ears, just as I'm equally certain that no one has ever emerged from a US public high school whose eardrums haven't vibrated to the beat of f-bombs and s-bombs.

No, I'm pretty sure the school is concerned about the content.

I wasn't familiar with this act until last week, but Charlotte's dad Rob, a fine, respectable citizen by anyone's standards, tells me that "Commencement Day" is a song from one of his favorite albums. Having listened to the song and read through the lyrics, I have to say I find it a thoughtful critique of public education.

But peace to the people who don’t ever preach in the front of a classroom
All day long, planting seeds of revolution,
We dedicate this song.

Because isn't that what a teacher really does, after all, plant seeds of revolution? I'm certainly trying to plant those seeds, even as a preschool teacher. I want the children to think, to question, and to develop their own ideas about how the world could and should work, you know revolutionary ideas. I want them to know that they can speak up, stand their ground, and be heard even if it seems like "people ain't gonna change," because "there might be somebody out there, you never can tell."

Humanity always winds up placing its hope in the next generation, but what hope is there if we haven't planted the seeds of revolution? That is the essence of education, it seems to me, planting those seeds, and if we aren't doing that then, really, isn't it just indoctrination? If all we're doing is treating children as empty vessels to be filled with officially approved facts and formulas, then how can things ever get better? And there is always room for improvement.

Revolution in thought, in art, in science, in politics, in education, this is the way we move forward as a species. I can understand this might seem threatening to the defenders of the status quo, those who are afraid of change, who are threatened by the idea that the world isn't already a perfect place. They tend to conflate "revolution" with "rebellion," and it certainly might include that. They are worried that they might have to learn a second language, or absorb a new theory, or change how they have always done things. Revolution is hard and for the most part it must be lead by the young. We old people, when we feel the world spinning out of control tend to look backwards to supposedly better times, but there's no turning back. This thing only moves forward and it is fueled by revolutions, both large and small.

One of my proudest moments as a teacher was the day my Pre-K students revolted against me, in fact they rebelled. I've written before about our examination of Martin Luther King, one of the 20th Century's most important revolutionaries:

Traditionally, I introduce our Martin Luther King, Jr. Day material in our Pre-K class with an object lesson in fairness by taking something like these jewels (which are really just bits of plastic from our art supplies) and imbuing them with value by making them seem scarce. In a normal year, I’ll say something like, “I’m going to give each of the girls one of these jewels,” which elicits howls of protest from the boys. I then take the jewels back and instead exclude the girls to similar effect. Tears are not uncommon. I’ll then give them only to children with curly hair or stripped shirts or other arbitrary dividing points until someone suggests just giving one to everyone. After all, that’s the fair thing to do.

This year, however, something happened that has never happened before. Even before I was done distributing the jewels to the girls on the first round of the activity, Annabelle said, “That’s not fair, you should give them to everyone.” While the boys sat in silence, the girls, already clutching their prized jewels, joined Annabelle, “Give them to everyone.” I tried to continue the process of unfair distribution, but I had a mini-rebellion on my hands. Katherine said, “You should either give them to everyone or don’t give them to anyone,” and she tried to hand hers back.

I gathered all the jewels and tried to plow forward with my plan to give them only to the boys, but the protests grew louder. Instead of the usual tears, I was looking out at genuinely angry little faces. “Give them to everyone!” “That’s not fair!” “We should all get one!”

I felt like the segregationists must have felt. This is why I want the children of Woodland Park to know it’s okay to question authority. I’m here to teach children so that they can grow up to be well-educated citizens, and there is no more important responsibility of citizenship than to stand up to authority when it is being arbitrary and unfair. I didn’t just let them “win,” they compelled me to give up on my nefarious plans through a powerful, peaceful protest that relied on words and reason.

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Marissa said...

I'm proud of your kids! That was amazing.

jaimeep said...

As someone who graduated from HS in Spokane, I was really hoping this teacher was from my alma mater! Sadly not, but I do remember examining music lyrics in an English class in 9th grade. Even widening my definition of "prose" to include lyrics was a huge leap as a 14 year old!
Bravo to all teachers who are asking their students to think and question by using material that is RELEVANT to them.

Saya said...

I love this song. I have it in my iPod.

Hurray for those teachers who teach critical thinking skills, instead of just feeding information what they are told to feed. I strive to be one of them :)

That's just too bad that those "real" teachers are the ones always get punished! Changes must come, within ourselves, teachers, parents, citizens...
But a lot of them are "miseducated" and do not have enough critical thinking skills as this education system is prone to do to us... frustrating....

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

What were the admins afraid of? Students co-constructing their reality? Critical thinking? Proposing that education be relevant?
Tragic response.