When I originally started this blog, I started with a pretty self-important diatribe against the systemization of education, especially in the form of standardized testing, rubrics, and the like. I find myself wanting to return to that discussion again, especially in the wake of the ongoing debate fueled by a post on Clay Burell’s Beyond School blog. On the other hand, I feel the urge to exactly ignore that discussion, because ultimately it leads to an us-against-the-administration discussion, or a persistent feeling of hopelessness, futility, and desperation. Because I did not get into teaching to feel desperate, nor to feel oppressed by or to battle the administration (hey, I am the administration), I hesitate to the point of intentional inertia to enter that discussion.
In my misty-eyed freshman forays into postmodern theory, I wandered across this theory about how power works. I believe both Michel Foucault and Judith Butler are contributors, though I could not for the life of me trace the exact place or documents from which my understanding of the theory arises. (Does that make me a plagiarist, or a scholar?) The idea is this one: that any center of power (the government, the media, the Internet, the school, etc.) is always already oppressive insofar as you are always in relationship with it. Power occurs within a kind of matrix, with the object of power being near the center or at the center of the matrix. Everyone within that matrix (citizens : government, consumers : media, users : Internet, teachers/students : schools), the subject of power, is always either drawn toward that center or is pushing against it. Regardless of a subject’s posture, though, the center is reaffirmed: slide toward it and you acknowledge its power, rebel against it and you do the same thing. Protesting the government reaffirms the power of the federal administration; leaving in frustration a teaching post does nothing to dismantle the school.
I really hated this realization when I had it, or when it was handed me. I felt suddenly existential: why bother to do anything then? The only solution against what most certainly was an entropic system, then, was to ignore it altogether. Pretend the power doesn’t exist. Don’t try to change it, just don’t participate. If I want to teach (and I do), and I leave a school because the policies and the way those policies batter the living happiness out of students and teachers alike are too much for me to bear, I don’t get to teach and the school doesn’t change. The students continue to be beaten senseless, and the only teachers left in school are those who are willing to participate in the madness, or who simply (horrifyingly) agree with it.
So, how does one ignore the power of the school?
Jonathan Kozol: “The first thing I did was to rip down from the walls and blackboards all of these materials – “obedience” quotations and the rest – and to stash the social studies textbooks in a box and seal it shut and stuff it in the closet … I introduced a few familiar poems of Robert Frost, some early lyrical poems of William Butler Yeats, and some beautiful posters of the streets of Paris and its skyline…” (from Letters to a Young Teacher, p. 13).
One of my favorite high school teachers was a certain Mrs. Meyerle, who taught me the five-paragraph essay. She used a couple of class days to explain the reasoning behind the form, told us we’d rarely actually write in it, and then moved quickly on to helping us discover what it was we wanted to write about. She fulfilled the expectations of the curriculum in as little time as possible, trusting entirely in our ability to master it quickly, and then, almost without missing a beat, kept the actual learning happening.
Do these exemplify behaviors that ignore the power of the school? I’m not sure.
When I enter the composition classroom, one of the first messages I send to students – either specifically or more palatially – is that some of them are entering a classroom for the first time where English is not only actually interesting, but where they have power over their own language. I refuse to give tests (and now, as chair of my program, have removed them from all our online templates), and deny fervently and repeatedly that there is a correct way to write. Instead, I lead students through a process of ideation, creation, and revision. I let them explore their own authorities (both over their ideas and their words), and give them lots and lots of room to make mistakes.
When I first introduced this approach to composition people balked. “Um, you’re not going to teach them grammar? You’re not going to teach them spelling? You’re not going to enforce plagiarism rules?” To which I responded, both in word and deed, “I don’t need to. Grammar is useful only insofar as it is common sense; so, I’ll teach common sense. Spelling is overrated; many of the world’s geniuses can’t spell. And I’ll teach them authorship, not plagiarism.” I take this approach to composition because I’m interested in genius, not conformity. The world’s writers break rules, bend them, make new ones. Why shouldn’t my students be allowed the confidence to set the standard rather than wonder if the standard applies to them?
The result, in the first semester of a test-run of this approach, was explosively successful. Attrition rates in composition classes this past semester bottomed out; where in the past a class of 25 would narrow to about 12, now they winnowed down to only about 20. Faculty came to me laughing and complaining that the course required them to really teach rather than just grade. Students reported that they finally understood the ideas behind plagiarism, while at the same time feeling incredibly confident in their own voices and ideas. Some even chose to submit their semester’s work for publishing online; and more than one, allergic at the start of the semester to writing, started blogging.
Has this course changed the system? No. The community college system in Colorado still requires the same outcomes, still requires the same standards. Does this course resist the system? Maybe a little. Primarily, though, it ignores the system by examining on its own an approach to composition. Students meet the state requirements demanded of them, but without ever really knowing they’re doing so. Plus, they leave the class enjoying writing, trusting themselves, and feeling (maybe most importantly) that school hasn’t failed them.
Johnathan Kozol again: “Establishing a chemistry of trust between the children and ourselves is a great deal more important than to charge into the next three chapters of the social studies text … Entrap them first in fascination. Entrap them in a sense of merriment and hopeful expectations” (from Letters to a Young Teacher, p. 15).
There is no standardization around merriment and hopeful expectations. There is no rubric for fascination. But these are human things, removed from the power struggle of “schooliness” (thank you, Clay), and they are more important than measurable skills to a life spent learning.
(An interesting perspective on teachers’ role: Teacher as Daemon and Jester)