A Frida Kahlo poster sits in the back corner of the classroom
Her eyes staring
at children lost
A woman who made it her life’s purpose
to peel the most wounded layers
of her soul, discover
contemplates the children
scabbed in pain and disappointment
untamed with explosive uncertainty
Her stare is dignified with self-confidence
her eyes relentlessly focused straight ahead
unfaltering vision, unwavering balance
What would she say if she could speak?
A woman who lived her truth,
now in the presence of children
living an incomplete truth, assaulted by
misconceptions of identity and love
Would she be disappointed in me?
Would she tell me that I have failed the children?
The children’s eyes are empty with indifference
Schoolized notions of success and intelligence
Maybe she wouldn’t say anything
Hand them a canvas
Let them brush abstract strokes of unjaded color
Until they could discover the definition of their soul
What makes a child whole? As an educator, what role do I play in inspiring students to live their truth? How can I participate in providing each student a personalized experience within a community of diverse and complex learners? How do I thread each student’s stories into the fabric of their educational experience? These are questions that I contend with as I work with Michael, a third year repeating ninth grader or Sulema, a National Junior Honor Society student who’s going to college, but has no idea how she fits in the world around her. Every 12 seconds a student drops out of school. Too many students are disenfranchised from an educational system that uses compulsory, bulk schooling in an era of standardized-testing and one-size-fits-all benchmarks. In a true democratic educational system, inequalities based on motivation, language ability, academic ability, learning styles, social and economic status, race, and gender would vanish. M.K. Gandhi’s notion of democracy was that “under it, the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest.”
When I ask students who are disconnected and disillusioned with school what they envision would be a more fitting education model, they just shrug their shoulders. If we are to truly empower our students and give them ownership of their learning, they must also participate as stakeholders at the decision-making table. Recognizing that students and their parents must have access to the same information that educators have in designing school systems and structures, is the first step to moving toward a more sustainable and collectively empowering and liberating system. Those, whose experiences are developed through the lens of oppression, especially youth, are conditioned to accept all other oppressions that exist in society. After all, how can we teach a group of individuals to be kind, compassionate, and caring citizens when obedience and submission are emphasized over independence and choice. There are many voiceless groups, and the most voiceless of all tend to be the children. They are ignored, silenced, neglected, or punished simply because they are not adults. If we are to truly revolutionize our society, we must understand that the most powerful reform is lead by those who are most effected by it.
I’ve recently been reflecting on the idea of powerlessness vs. self-determination. Powerlessness is at the very least a condition that the students we serve in public education are very well acquainted with. I reflected on the paradigms and perceptions that teachers have toward students who are “apathetic” or “lack responsibility” or are deemed just plain “lazy.” I hear comments like, “students these days are just entitled and want everything handed to them” or “students have no work ethic.” “What is disturbing about students’ attitudes and behavior may be a function of the fact that they have little to no say about what happens to them all day. They are compelled to follow someone else’s rules, study someone else’s curriculum, and submit continually to someone else’s evaluation” (Alfie Kohn). Certainly Kohn hits at the core of what may be at the very least destroying students’ passion and fire for life. We tell students not to limit their imagination, yet we paint a pretty dim picture for them; we tell students they can be anything they want to be in life, yet we dictate what they have to learn; we tell them they must be problem solvers, yet we give them pretty scripted lessons and provide scaffolding for the scaffolding; and we tell students to take responsibility for their decisions, yet they get very little opportunity to make decisions and use critical judgment.
The idea that public education is the societal equalizer and that at its roots it is the foundation for developing a true democratic country is at best ironic to me. One would assume that a country like the United States so committed to the idea of democracy, would invite it’s children to sit at the decision-making table. The irony is that students are rarely invited to become active participants in their education; their job is to be passive learners and do as they are told. So their sense of powerlessness grows and grows and manifests itself in various forms of indirect resistance: they arrive late to school if they even attend at all, they start fights, explode and cuss out the teacher, vandalize school property, or simply stop bringing their notebook and pencil.
How is powerlessness the antithesis of self-determination? Anyone who does not have control over their learning, their interests, and their desires will not have any sense of purpose or determination. In fact, when people feel completely helpless and limited, they tend to fall into deep states of depression and other forms mental distress. It’s no coincidence that depression among children and especially youth has been on a rise.
Our society complains about students’ lack of discipline or lack of responsibility and yet children spend most of their lives being ordered around and supervised with suspicion. If we want children to become responsible, then we must give them responsibilities. If we want children to make decisions, then we must give them opportunities to make decisions. Constance Kamii wrote:
We cannot expect children to accept ready-made values and truths all the way through school, and then suddenly make choices in adulthood. Likewise, we cannot expect them to be manipulated with reward and punishment in school, and to have the courage of a Martin Luther King in adulthood.
There must be a shift in power to build a community that will motivate change – power cannot be held hostage by a few. When power is concentrated in homogenous groups, there tends to be a natural redundancy that occurs in ideas and solutions. It is the collective power that brings about creativity, exploration, and innovation. Ultimately to talk about the importance of “voice and choice” is to talk about democracy. If we truly want to create future adults who will sustain democracy in our country, then we must “maximize students’ experience with choice and negotiation” (Kohn).
Schools can become invigorating academic institutions where people, young and old, pursue their passions and discover their meaning within the vast wholeness of the universe – a universal uplift of the masses. The greatest capacity for a leader to make change is found in the heart. Most importantly, a leader must see himself/herself as a part of a whole that can only exist in harmony if the good of the individual is contained in the good of all. An Aborigines woman stated with firm conviction, “If you have come to help, then you can go home. But if you see our struggles as part of you survival, then perhaps we can work together.”
From a very young age, my grandmother always modeled for me what it was to treat people with dignity, and at the forefront of everything I do is the idea that we are all valuable and deserving human beings regardless of our thoughts or behavior. Even though I have been part of a machine that systematically implements a pedagogy of poverty and oppression, I am constantly learning and searching for ways to listen, learn from, and validate the students I work with. And when there are situations where I can’t compromise with them, I am honest and walk them through my thinking process and the conflicting forces I am faced with. It is also important for everyone to learn something that my father taught me a long time ago – Ubuntu. It’s a concept in the Nguni group of languages, which is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours.” (Desmond Tutu). As long as we dehumanize our children by taking away their voice and power, we will continue to exist in a state of illusory democracy.
My ultimate dream is to create a school where students create an inner voice that is more deeply connected to who they are, and for them to learn to use it to live an authentic life; a school where social norms and social constructs do not dictate who they are meant to be nor the yearnings of their heart. What this looks like – I’m not sure. But I believe it is possible.
In Living In the Light Shakti Gawain states, “If you truly see your children as powerful, responsible entities and treat them as equal to you in spirit (while acknowledging that they are less experienced than you in form), they will mirror the attitude back to you. The same applies in the relationship between teacher and student.