“In my opinion the immediate goal of even committed anarchists should be to defend some state institutions, while helping to pry them open to more meaningful public participation, and ultimately to dismantle them in a much more free society.”
― Noam Chomsky, On Anarchism
I can defend public schools to a point. I can defend some charter schools even more, depending on how well they are open to meaningful participation from their students and families. Especially those students and families who are traditionally underserved. You know who they are, students with special needs, students who grew up on the rez and are now in the city, students who live in ghettos and have a hard time seeing a way out, refugees who are learning their second or third or fourth language to participate in school and rise up, students who identify as a gender other than the one the school registrar says they should. All of these people are your people and they come to your classes. It’s summer now so in the fall, they will come with excitement, a blend of emotions ranging from thrill to terror. You will have their attention while they read you and decide. They will decide whether or not you take them seriously, whether you are there to guard the gates from the likes of them entering, or to supply them with keys, weapons, and wings.
Most of us as teachers are in public schools built for the industrial revolution. We don’t want to be gatekeepers for the powers above us, we want to help our students to rise up. Often it feels like they don’t want our help, that they would rather stay outside the gates. A self-fulfilling prophecy predicting failure is more comforting sometimes than embracing the cruelty of false hope. So we will start the year with the best of intentions and then feel like failures ourselves. The ones that need to be engaged the most won’t always rise to the occasion and we will look fraudulent. That is not a small part of what it feels like to be a teacher. I would go so far as to say that if you never feel like a fraud or a failure, then you haven’t really thought about the consequences of your presence in a classroom. You haven’t risked trying anything that will reach the ones who you should have been there for in the first place: the lost causes, those kids who “don’t want to learn”, the ones who “just don’t care”.
The not caring that gets referred to by so many teachers at so many schools is a front. It’s a challenge to see whether or not we care. So we rise to the challenge at different levels in ways we can, and then we fall short. It happens every year, we fail them. But sometimes they give up in-spite of what we offer them. They may be able to engage and pass your class, but they feel that the entire system is rigged against them so that your one class can never be enough. They might appreciate what you do, but you are still so otherworldly to them and their struggle that they can’t quite bring themselves to thank you or even engage.
I taught a student the past two years. He repeated my class and received a D- the second time around. I saw him cry once during a test. He refused my efforts to talk about it. I taught the class in Spanish, it was algebra 1. His first language was an indigenous Mayan tongue, his second was Spanish. He had programmed his phone to English when he arrived so that he could learn. He would alternate between sitting in the back of the room and sitting up front to engage. I would try to help as best I could. He couldn’t come to tutoring because he had to work. I realize there were all these forces beyond my control but I still feel like I failed him, and he isn’t the only one. I have felt this way at the end of each of my twenty years so far in the classroom, and I hope it never goes away. If it does, then I know I have given up.
The system within which most of us teach asks us to teach in a kind of a straight-jacket. It asks us to teach, but not with all the tools. It asks us to help kids think critically, but not to criticize too much. It asks us to care, but not get too close. With so many kids in your care, you need to keep them in line, not allow them to find their own personal path. It asks you to guard the gate.
I have been thinking about this gate for a long time, how we don’t start out as teachers who want to stand guard, but end up keeping people out all the same, because that is what is expected of us. Here are some tools I have gathered for working in a gate-guarding institution, that I hope will help you in your own struggle to pry that gate open, and eventually dismantle the whole thing.
Be a Human Being – This sounds obvious but our students don’t often see us this way. They are shocked when they see us out it public. They think we are grading their essays on a Friday night, planning lessons all day Saturday, and then going to work on Sunday to clean and organize the classroom! (By the way, if you are doing this, stop. No one is going to make a movie based on your dedication and you won’t be put on a postage stamp.) Find ways for your students to see you as real. In my experience, the only way to do this is to see them as real. Learn stuff about them individually, shake their hands as they enter the class and when it is their birthday, tell them “Happy Birthday!” Find out who plays sports, who is in drama, go to their games if you can, go to the plays. Ask them about that band on their t-shirt without cracking a joke.
Plan Real Projects – Your projects don’t need to be perfect, they can’t be. They just need to create a scenario where students can apply content from your course into something resembling the real world. Yes there are projects that are better than others with this. Ones that take kids to the steps of a state capital, that have them designing solutions for the homeless, building gardens in urban environments that feed real people. But there are others that only hint at that because of state and local demands placed on the content that they are supposed to be teaching. That is okay as long as you are bringing more of the world to your students, so that when they go out into the word they’ll know how to bring the best of themselves to it.
Don’t Teach Everything – There will be teachers who boast that they “cover” every item in the state standards, or in the textbook, or whatever. Don’t worry about that. If there are too many standards, then the majority of students aren’t learning them all anyway. As a math teacher, I generally go by the rule that if I can’t fit the math content into my project, or at least a meaningful lesson where it is applied to something or has some kind of other appeal to intrinsic beauty or art or philosophical questioning (which are each applications in their own right), then I don’t worry about teaching it. I wait until after I have had my exhibition for my final project, where I have planned a couple of weeks to prepare for the district final exam. In those weeks students have a choice to dive into topics not covered previously, or to review past topics in order to prove that they have learned them and raise their grade.
Give Multiple Methods to Show Learning – In my classroom the gradebook is a list of objectives they have learned, not assignments they have or haven’t turned in. They show evidence of learning for those objectives through quizzes, portfolios, projects, peer tutoring scenarios, presentations to me or to the class, or some other method that they come up with. If they want to know how to raise their grade, I look at their lowest objectives and say, “It looks like you haven’t shown evidence that you learned how to solve systems of equations by graphing, or properties of exponents. Here are some ways you could demonstrate that understanding… ”
Be a Human Being – Did I already say that? Good, it can’t be said enough. Let students see you fail and pick yourself up. Give yourself room to fail and recover. Laugh about it. Scold them for not doing their best and show them that you mean it by offering real support. When they do fail, talk about their sports teams with them anyway, laugh with them anyway, then get back to work with them and show them that you think they can still learn. Chances are they won’t remember one single lesson you taught them about the content, but they’ll remember the teachers who believed in them and helped them to believe in themselves.
Let’s build some meaningful participation, let’s create a free society, let’s cook up some anarchy!