Sunday, September 02, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (Civil Disobedience)

In this series entitled "Why I Teach The Way I Do," I've now written about what I think it means to be a citizen in our society and our proper relationship to the institutions we've created to help us manage how we are to live together as equal and free people. In doing so, I've written about the role of obediencerules and their "enforcement," fairnessmorality, and what I believe children should actually be learning in school.

Today I write about civil disobedience.

Civil Disobedience

We live in a time when there exist committees of men and women who come together to decide what our children should learn: what they should understand from the literature they read, what kinds of equations they should be able to solve, what scientific processes they'll need to know, which dates and important battles they must recite. These men and women in their collective wisdom, pick and choose from the infinite universe those bits and pieces that will define what it is to be educated in this school or that school, in this district or that district, in this state or that state, and (I'm quite confident the effort is underway in this era of internationalization) in this nation or that nation. These committees determine not only what children are to learn, but by when they are to learn these things.

This committee-created standardization is then enforced through a system of "benchmarks," measured through high-stakes standardized tests that, bizarrely, focus almost exclusively on the even narrower areas of literacy and math. It's a system of dog-eat-dog competition, pitting teacher against teacher, school against school, district against district, and state against state in winner-take-all cage match for funding and jobs.

It's happening, of course, with a propagandistic veneer of benevolence, even philanthropy, promoted by the promise of "serving students," a faux outrage about old methods that are failing us, the soaring rhetoric of egalitarianism, and with the strangest sight of all in our times, apparent political bipartisanship, bought and paid for by for-profit education corporations that have only just begun to raid the money that we the people have quite rightly set aside for the purpose of educating our children.

I could go on, and have, but I've tried to make this introduction as concise as possible because I've already dealt extensively on this blog with what those of us in the progressive education bubble deride as "corporate education reform."

Needless to say, I do not believe that this situation "serves children," let alone democracy, which as I complained of before is never mentioned in any of our public discussions: these efforts to impose an anti-democratic, top-down corporate-style super-hierarchy on our schools is quite explicitly an attempt to turn public education into a lucrative system of vocational training.

One of the main reasons I teach the way I do, and write about it here on this blog, is that I want parents to be dissatisfied and suspicious of what is being planned for their children who are so much more than the rhetorical "workforce of tomorrow." I want teachers to feel frustrated and even outraged that if they are to truly serve the student in their classroom instead of the theoretical student proposed by these committees, they must do so subversively, and at the real risk of finding themselves on the street. I don't know what form it will take, but increasingly it looks to me like the push back will ultimately need to take the form of civil disobedience: a student's rights movement lead by parents, teachers and the students themselves.

That's right, one of the reasons I teach the way I do is because I'm a rabble rouser.

The history of progress in our nation is one of rabble rousing, of civil (and sometimes not so civil) disobedience. Thomas Jefferson correctly predicted that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract our notice, we could be relied upon to set them right, from the American Revolution right through our various civil and labor rights movements.

And I try very hard to not be a hypocrite about this. It's my hope that as a teacher-servant to the families and children of Woodland Park, that I avoid the kind of top-down curriculum I decry. I see my role in our play-based curriculum, not as the arbiter of what the children ought to learn or by when, but rather as an administrator of invitations to explore. Most of us in the preschool world are familiar with the idea of viewing art as a "process" rather than a "product," and I strive for this to hold true for everything we do. I provide materials, information, circumstances, challenges, and sometimes even examples, but so long as the children stay within the confines of the rules that we've agreed upon together, what, or even if, they learn is entirely up to them as individuals and as a community.

This leads often to a messy, noisy process, one that "borders on" or appears to be "controlled" chaos, but just as often it results in a circle of small heads bent over a single shared mote, discussing minutiae. That's what democracy always looks like, whatever our age.

In fact, democracy, when it functions as it should, is itself a play-based learning process, one in which we all engage or not, bringing our own wisdom, knowledge, perspectives, and temperaments to the table. And together, through the process, we can be counted on to set things right, chaotically perhaps, slowly perhaps, difficultly perhaps, but without rebellion.

I've written before about civil disobedience in my own classroom, about times that the children have risen up against me as I attempt to impose my will upon them against theirs. People outside the progressive education bubble very often envision our school as an out-of-control, law-of-the-jungle kind of place, a Hobbesian dystopia, but that is not how it plays out, unless, of course, I chose to not listen to the will of the people. And then it is not the children who are subject to correction, but me. When I, for instance, attempt to hold the children at circle time beyond their attention spans or patience, the "rabble" lets me know it, first on the fringes as children begin to squirm and fidget. I know it is beginning to happen when I hear myself repeating things like, "I'd like you to sit on your bottom." When it's just one or two children, I may keep going forward with the things I've planned, things I hope we can explore together, but if my invitation doesn't compel the rest of of them, if I've overstepped my authority and tried to make their bodies or minds do something for which they are not ready, if there is something else they would much rather be learning, I better wrap things up and move on unless I'm prepared to deal with a full-on rebellion.

This is not misbehavior. This is democracy. This is not a "problem" in our classroom, but rather an important part of how the children learn to be in charge of their own learning.

I don't know if we've yet reached the moment for civil disobedience when it comes to the corporate education reform. Maybe we can still afford to be "polite." Maybe there are still "proper channels" that need to be explored. Maybe there are hidden allies somewhere among our elected representatives who have listened and are preparing even as we speak to take a leading role. Maybe. Right now, however, I worry that we are being drowned out by the well-financed corporate reformers who control the microphone, that our objections are merely bouncing off the insides of our bubble, echoing back to us, creating the false illusion that the rabble is more roused than it is.

But every day, every day, I hear from parents or teachers who are angry, or desperate, or confused, people who know that schools can and should do so much better than turn a greasy profit and prepare children for corporate jobs; schools that "teach" the skills we know the future, and democracy, will demand: creativity, flexibility, resilience, motivation, and the ability to work with others. If it were my circle time, I'd be thinking about starting to wrap things up, but it's not. It's ours and only we can decide what must happen next.

In the meantime, I will keep attempting to rabble rouse by teaching as I do and then writing about it.

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Anonymous said...

I teach college level, and I just wanted to let you know I learn a lot from your blog. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for keeping it real. I look forward to your posts as an oasis of sanity amid the bureaucratic ideology that creates schools that seem much more like jails than places of learning.

Luke Jaaniste said...

I like the idea of an 'invitation to explore' and democracy as itself a play-based emergent phenomena.

The grammar in your final paragraph reads ambiguously. It sounds like you think "that schools can and should do much better than… 'teach' the skills we know the future, and democracy, will demand: creativity, flexibility etc."

Maybe you actually mean that.

Because it got me thinking: by replacing the factory/office workplace (as a model for skills needed for future employment) with the entrepreneurs' world (creativity, flexibility etc) are you not still playing the game of Educate for the-Workforce of Tomorrow? -- you've just changed the parameters of what that workforce might be/need.

I'm just wondering if that's a rhetorical move on your behalf (you choose an angle that speaks to those that think in terms of the future workforce) and whether you might really think more about being-human that being-suitably-skilled-for-work (work of course being an important but only one part of being human)… "Invitation to explore" for instance suggests we are exploring who we are, and that this exploration might turn up many different ideas/forms/practices which we cannot predict and thus not comment on in terms of usefulness to 'the workforce', 'the nation' and so on.


dsoleil said...

I believe that as long as we have the freedom to provide alternative educational models outside the system that we can create change. The change we seek is coming because teachers are no longer the sole providers of "academic content." Thanks to the internet, new technologies and things like MOOC's, universities are changing more rapidly than ever before. And, if K-12 education is supposed to prepare students for "higher education," they are next in line for a paradigm shift in how we educate students. Surely the system will go kicking and screaming into the future, but change is upon us.

I am part of a group of forward thinking parents and educators who are opening a school on Tuesday. It creates a completely different educational paradigm for education in our geographic area and we are proud to open the Sudbury School of Atlanta. It is a model that empowers students in directing their own learning and operates within a democratic structure.

Civil disobedience comes from a situation that mandates obedience. Get outside the public-run systems and we can be the change we want to see in the world. It all starts with the first step...

Anonymous said...

I love this post! We decided to unschool our children for exactly these reasons, but I know that unschooling is a choice that would not work for everyone. We just decided that we'd like to work to change the system from *outside* the system, instead of watching our children's curiousity and individuality get slowly ground down by it.

-A Fellow Rabble-Rouser