English Seminar Class
Ninety-seven percent of the students in this class are White-American. They are in this GATE class (Gifted and Talented Education) because they are deemed very smart, in the high percentile, according to whichever assessment is used to profile them. They will all excel in school because they have been academically socialized to fit the standard expectations of this school system. They are expected to succeed, it is obvious simply in the work they are assigned and the work that is expected of them.
They are in 8th grade and read books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Grapes of Wrath. They comport themselves with a sense of confidence and maybe a bit of entitlement that comes form an environment, a society, that has always told them, “You deserve the best,” “You deserve it all.” They will graduate from high school. All will probably be accepted to great colleges and go on to live what society deems successful lives.
English Class (In a low-performing school)
One hundred percent of the students in this class are youth with skin the color of earth. They seem out of place, working too hard to belong, too hard to fulfill the expectations they have been given. If they get a good enough teacher who cares, they may hear her or him say they deserve better, they deserve more. But the rote curriculum and testing pedagogy they have to adhere to somehow seeps into their soul and tells them, “They are not good enough,” along with society and power structures led by people who don’t look like them. How can a test be the only tool with which our schools appreciate or depreciate the intelligence and wisdom of our students? Despite what the caring teachers in their lives tell them, they internalize what they see. The world doesn’t expect them to be “Somebodies.” They manifest these low expectations through unruly and rebellious behavior, a form of subversive resistance against a system that doesn’t expect much from, and for them.
At the end of the day, neither group of students is liberated. The students in the English Seminar class will live the dream society wants them to dream, not their own. They will perceive success in the same way society does – wealth, status, productivity, class achievement, competition, perfection, control, and power.
The students the color of earth will go on believing they aren’t good enough, undeserving, and unworthy. They’ll live their whole lives reaping the consequences of a dream deferred. Their unruly and rebellious behavior will only proliferate the notions of unworthiness and low expectations.
That is until. . .
each breaks out of the shackles that imprison them to the illusions and perceptions of the world. Both groups of students are requested to sit in confined desks all day, to engage in curriculum, policies, and rules set by others, and to adhere to the goals and visions of those in charge. Neither group is asked to authentically participate and engage in their education. The same compulsory, standardized pedagogy is used on both groups of students: read the book, analyze it, answer questions, take a test, and occasionally create a poster or varied art project to go along with some thematic aspect of the book. The group with the “higher” expectations may be asked questions that are more in-depth and their answers may require 500 words instead of 100. Ultimately, neither group is asked to create, invent, and think beyond the extent and limitations of the classroom.
A student once asked me to describe what the greatest issues in education were. Simply put, I responded, “It is a system that denies students their genius.” It keeps them trapped in scripted, test-driven curricula that doesn’t inspire them to explore and wonder, two fundamental aspects in the journey to finding one’s own genius. “How do we change that,” asked the student. Resistance is all we have. Start it, however small. Revolution is the accumulation of many small acts of resistance, which collectively becomes a surge on the power systems . . . and then it’s lights out! Revolutionary action is any collective action that rejects, and therefore confronts, some form of power or domination, but it is not a singular event. Every student has a genius inside of them – their journey is to find it, with or without the help of the school system. This is where their resistance must begin. To act as if they are already free.
At the core of any great revolution stand those who are the most effected by it. Liberation will arrive only when the students are not simply on the receiving end of educational reform, but when they themselves are the masters and protagonists of their own struggle for liberation. When the students can no longer tolerate the conditions under which they are currently being “educated,” they will mobilize and organize. Ten years ago it would have been unheard of to witness fast-food workers leave their jobs and risk getting fired in order to protest deplorable wages and working conditions, but just a couple of months ago, hundreds of fast-food workers in 100 cities across the country walked off their jobs to demand dignity and sustainability.