Tag Archives: Paulo Freire

Reading Class, Connecting with Students, Teaching Linda Christensen

In Teaching for Joy and Justice, Linda Christensen tells the reader that “equating success with wealth starts early—think of Cinderella’s magical transformations. Through clothes we can move from scullery maid to princess.” (71).  Of course, this made me think back to the original non-Disney version, where the ugly stepsisters chop off their own toes to make them fit into the glass slipper. Being very visual, I can see the blood smearing on the glass and have images of the slipper filling up.  And I think this is about right in some regards; many in our culture would wound themselves, mar themselves to fit into the idea of beauty, especially beauty expressed through the material and the body.  Christensen goes on to write “students play out this story on a daily basis. Children begin ranking and sorting each other based on those material possessions: clothes, toys, electronic gear, cars” (71).  My students’ experience proves this to be true over and over again.  And, when I examine my own story—growing up working class in an increasingly middle-class suburb, I know that what I thought was my own unique anxiety over clothing and status wasn’t unique at all, just painful in the way that I hacked at my own toes to fit in.

We write about class every quarter in my Fundamentals of Writing Class at Metro.  It’s a terrific course and I have a textbook called Seeing and Writing that allows the students and I to look at things through both text and images.  It’s a smart book.  Interestingly, the chapter called “Confronting Class” is one of my students’ favorites.  I actually begin with a piece of a documentary called “People Like Us” which always engages my students by pissing them off.  One of my students, we’ll call him Hank, was watching the documentary in this disengaged way.  He’s already resisted our conversations on race and gender, struggling to see how these related to him.  But when a woman in the documentary made a snarky comment about driving a Ford in a true blue blood old money voice, he erupted. “Fucking bitch, what does she know!”  Now I know I’m probably supposed to admonish Hank in this moment, but I didn’t.  Instead I saw it as a way into him, into our conversation.

Hank dressed like a middle class guy and wrote his first essay on snowboarding, which has some decidedly middle-class markers.  I think it’s safe to say that none of my poor students from North and South Omaha have ever been snow boarding, or skiing or water skiing.  Heck, neither have I.  But Hank suddenly revealed that his father was a mechanic.  He wanted to stand up for that Ford and for the people who drove Fords.  The documentary had punctured something for him.  I seized upon it and we began writing about class.  Hank gave me an essay about when his parents sent him to a parochial school in Omaha during his elementary school days.  Hank went the first day wearing his shoes that lit up.  They were worn shoes, but they were cool to him and they were what he had.  None of the other students had light up shoes, they were considered infantile.  And all of the students had new shoes, something that was expected for the first day of school.  This painful memory served as the motivating force for Hank to go on to become a drug dealer. And that choice led to him watching his friend die in front of him.  He had to have his own money to have clothes to fit in with everyone.  He had to pass as middle class or as cool.  I saw Hank with new eyes then.  He had been performing his identity. His middle class clothes and the stories of middle class exploits, including vacations and cars weren’t exactly true or untrue—they were what he wanted others to see because he was carrying the legacy of being laughed at for light up shoes and his father being a grease monkey.  His anger about class was bright and hard and gave us a place to build on his writing and thinking.

Hank’s story and the narratives in Christensen’s chapter “Can’t Buy Me Love: Teaching About Clothes, Class and Consumption” brought me back to several memories from my own childhood growing up a working class kid.  I don’t think that I ever thought about clothing until I got to Harry Anderson Middle School in the sixth grade.  Suddenly clothes were a competition just as Christensen describes in her chapter.  I didn’t know what was cool.  Didn’t own what was cool, and suddenly I had been marked.  I had found that “clothes [were] class. And coming from my class background, I wanted desperately to fit into [my classmates’] world” (71).  I began begging my parents to take me shopping at Richman-Gordman’s rather than at K-mart.  I quickly learned that the blue light special was a special mark of shame.  In the sixth grade, I can remember sitting on a gazebo bench with my friend who had migrated from the same elementary school to this enormous, terrifying middle school, and grabbing the back of his shirt and twisting it so that I could look at the label.  I was desperate to compare, to consume, to fit in.  I wanted my foot to fit into the glass slipper.  I remember the fads, coca-cola branded clothes, Guess, t-shirts with ivy league college logos on them (I believe I convinced my mother to get me a Princeton shirt, which I feel laughably embarrassed even writing now), and Ocean Pacific.  Dear God, I needed OP clothes to be cool.

It didn’t end there. In the seventh grade, my friend Brian and I had finally been invited to a party and we dressed ourselves up in new shirts and jeans and liberally, much too liberally, splashed Brut cologne on ourselves.  We were anxious to have it right—to perform the right codes so that everyone at Emily ‘s house would accept us somehow.  I can remember my cousins laughing at us in the driveway.  They knew we’d overdone it.  And Brian’s shirt’s color was coming off and was turning his skin and unhealthy corpse colored green.  Of course, we’d totally misread everything.  When we got there everyone was in t-shirts and we still didn’t fit in there.  I can remember nothing about that night’s party except for an ugly sixth grader making out with the seventh grade girl I had a crush on.  Clothes hadn’t allowed me to fit in; there were still many more things that seemed to leave me out in the cold.

Christensen tells her readers that writing about these things is “part of [her] yearlong campaign to get students to examine what is taken for granted and normalized” (75).  She sees it as part of a literacy that is vital for students to become aware of because “too often, school allows students to stay isolated in their private feelings and observations” noting that “their emotions and interpretations are at the mercy of advertisers and a culture industry that rarely have young people’s best interests at heart” (75).  Hank and I were just like that.  Our private observations about class and clothing had led us to conclude that we weren’t worthy and that we had to fit in at any cost.  I see this with more and more with my students as I learn to read this phenomenon more adroitly.  The awareness that Christensen raises here is the awareness that Freire calls for us to have as he urges us to read the word and world.  As I’ve taught in a community college over the last six years, I’ve learned to read class and to look back and see how much better I might have managed the world I was slogging through if I had been taught the kinds of literacies that would have allowed me to raise my consciousness along these lines.  Teaching that now is an opportunity that I’m terrifically grateful for and one that my students respond to in a ferociously positive manner.

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Rhetoric of Love in the Classroom

One of the things that I think that happens with my students is that many of their educational experiences have dismissed their reading of the world.  The experiences and perspectives that they bring to the classroom are not validated and are instead thrown away.  Then comes the banking system and the oppression.  The student’s language isn’t appropriate in an academic context, so throw it out—the student does not dress right or act right or talk proper—they’ll never get a job.  So many teachers work from the perspective of deficit and limitation.  Just last week I was sitting in a meeting full of English teachers and someone in the back said “they have to have the foundation of the academic essay by the time that they leave developmental writing.”  It’s shit like this that makes me cringe.  I want to hear how my students read the world and hear what their voice and vision is.  Simply imposing a staid and stodgy form on them so that they can be “academic” is fruitless.  Students disengage in this moment.  They cannot read the world the way that those who have been indoctrinated by the academy and it’s arrogant for us to assume that they need to do so.  Reading the world in the classroom must be reciprocal and recursive rather that unidirectional.

And what I’ve just written is a political act—because if I get a student to believe that their reading of the world is legitimate, then they might resist that rejection in a different and more productive way the next time they encounter a teacher.  It’s still too easy though—teacher power in the classroom can shape us in surprisingly insidious ways.

Students have a right to read the world with their experience.  I assert that this is both a Freirian and a poststructuralist moment.  I’ve been thinking of Corder’s 1985 article “Rhetoric as Love” recently and want to come back to his notion of the self as a narrative.  He writes that the person/subject is always stationing that self within its narrative, that is her or his history and identity (17).  Corder goes on to discuss how these narratives come into contact with one another.  Freire would seem to agree with this sentiment in that his consciousness-raising pedagogy asks the student/person/subject to understand their history and its context.  What Freire is drawing on the student to do then is to understand their narrative in ways that it hasn’t been understood before—and through that process to give the narrative and the history and the subject value.

Return with me then to the English teacher who is demanding that the student understand the academic essay by the end of a developmental writing course.  That demand is for the student to adopt a particular way of creating narrative, and it is one without regard to the student’s own story and history.  It seems, in some way, because of its demand for dominance, to be destined to fail.

Not long after I heard this English teacher, I heard another English teacher telling her colleagues that she was going to start administering a test at the beginning of her classes to see of students could follow directions.  I eavesdropped.  She went on to tell her colleagues that the test would be like one that she had to take when she was in high school.  It would have a series of instructions, with the last one being something like: don’t do any of the other instructions, just write your name on the paper and turn it in to the teacher.  This colleague of mine was sure that this would show students the importance of following directions.  I was silent.  For me, that exercise only ensures humiliation and the disengagement of students.  It would make them feel stupid.  I would be right there with the students too—I’m the type of student who dives right in—I want to do well and please the teacher after all.  But my colleague had a different story for that and a different history.

And I think that the arguments that these teachers are making are serious ones.  The kind of high stakes arguments that Corder argues make people feel threatened when they are opposed.  The arguments as I seem them are: 1. Students should be able to write academic prose; and 2. Students should be able to follow directions.  I like both of those.  And heck, I can follow directions and I can write academic prose, but I don’t think those skills are the most important thing about me, nor do I think that they encompass my personhood in totality.  And there, I think, is the rub.  When we are interested only in one totalizing narrative of what it means to be a student, then we marginalize and dismiss, even oppress, other ways of knowing and learning in the classroom.

Corder wants to see argument as emergence, a sort of Burkean entry into the parlor, but more interior—Corder wants argument to invite us to know the other and for the other to know us.  It’s a much riskier prospect than making sure those darn students get it right and failing the ones who don’t.  Corder makes the assertion and that argument and rhetoric must begin, proceed, and end in love (28).  For me, this move sounds like Freire and his admonition that the oppressed must not become the oppressor and that the binary relationship must be broken.

But what does that mean in the English classroom and how are students going to meet standards if you just love them? I don’t want to be glib here, because being a loving teacher is my goal and my attempted practice.  I know that my students write more and think more than they ever have because they feel valued and heard—two words that I would argue are conditions of love.  I have students who want to keep their narrative—the one where I’m a jerk and responsible for their failure—I can’t always change that.  But if we talk about how we are creating a classroom space and then we work to enact it, then amazing things happen.  They become writers and thinkers and those words become part of the way that they identify themselves in the world—the are more conscious in the Freirian sense.

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Kids these days!

If you haven’t read Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed column, “Obama’s Homework Assignment” in the New York Times from the 18th of January, then take a minute and do so.  Then come back here because I think it’s something we should talk about.

As I read this I realized that not many readers would find much to quibble with here.  Friedman covers ground that is often traversed in our discussion of education in the United States.  We might sum it up as follows: kids don’t work hard these days; kids don’t care; the United States’ educational standards are low; we are falling behind other countries.  And because of all of this, we had better get it together or we’re doomed.  Moreover, he aims this at the President who has little power in education because education is largely controlled by states in our system.

And he’s right: my fourth grader probably doesn’t know as much math as fourth graders in a number of other countries.  What’s more I have students in my community college classroom every day who don’t do their work and who don’t seem to care or who seem so resistant to the kinds of writing and thinking tasks found in the college English classroom, that I have despaired about why they are there at all.  But this doesn’t really tell the whole story.  And what Friedman is leaving out is really worth our attention.

First, this business about low standards is pretty relative.  One of the most succinct accounts of this comes from Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary where he notes “statistics are often used to demonstrate educational decay” and that in “1890, 6.7 percent of America’s fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds were attending high school” rising to 94.1 percent by the end of the 1980s. He notes that the definition of functional literacy in the 1930s was “three or more years of schooling” in the 50s it was sixth grade and it was only “by the late 1970s [that] some authorities were suggesting that completion of high school should be the defining criterion of functional literacy” (6).  And now I can’t think of a week that goes by without hearing someone, especially the last two presidents, call for community college or some college as the benchmark of education.  And while this isn’t a comprehensive view of standards, it does show that, in general, we are asking more of students than ever before and we are educating more of our population than we ever have.  Joseph Harris in his great book A Teaching Subject: Composition Since 1966 tracks a similar trajectory in writing instruction.  And anecdotally, I’ve been doing pre-algebra with my nine-year-old son and I’m sure that I didn’t see this kind of math until at least the sixth grade.  Really, folks, standards are going up, not down, but it’s too easy to talk about education in terms of crisis.  And it’s easy to manipulate people because we want our children to be well-educated and able to navigate the world.  But as Rose points out, “it’s our cultural fears—of internal displacement, of loss of order, of diminishment—that weave into our assessments of literacy and scholastic achievement” (7).  This position isn’t to say that there aren’t dire problems in U.S. education, there are, but we need to have a complete picture rather than run from one Chicken Little argument to the next.

Second, why are all of these kids so darn de-motivated? Could it have to do with 13 years of No Child Left Behind? Could it have to do with students not seeing real opportunity out there?  After all, why work for it when structural oppression will prevent many students from getting to where they want to go anyway?

Not doing homework is a form of resistance; it is a form of disengagement and I would argue that it’s intentional.  When students’ knowledge and experience isn’t taken into account, then students disengage.  It isn’t that the students are bad, rather it’s that they don’t see themselves as vessels to be filled by the teacher.  We’ve known this too, for a long time.  But still, we insist on engaging in what Paulo Freire calls the banking model in his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In this model, education is seen as the depositing of knowledge into passive students.  Friedman’s choices for his two models seem to reinforce this.  The first teacher is giving them extra practice and trying to make education fun, but nowhere is there a move toward authentic engagement or negotiation of power in the classroom.  Go back and read what Friedman quotes the teacher as saying.  Isn’t the teacher really presenting her instruction as “a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. … The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence (58).

And then, when the teacher isn’t successful with the banking model, she is blamed for not filling up the students correctly.  Both the teacher and the principal misunderstand education on a fundamental level.  They are still predicating what composition scholars call the “current rhetorical tradition,” which concentrates on old forms that limit the role of the writer and real thinking, often reducing writing to mechanistic five-paragraph essays, which no one likes to write and no one likes to grade.  Is it any wonder then that Friedman’s second example of the teacher who laments that more and more students don’t turn in work is in that situation? It’s a bitter irony that Friedman has written so much about 21st century market realities but uses what are ostensibly teachers practicing 19th century methods as his example.

Finally, Friedman does not tell us what all of this education is for in our society.  I take it from his concentration on competition with other countries and his selection of work ethic and responsibility, that he is inferring that education is for workplace readiness.  Friedman is really predicating his neoliberal fantasy that everything is going to be fixed by the market—heck just look at The World is Flat for an explication of his ideas on the subject.  So it is this deep theoretical underpinning of his op-ed, finally, that I resist.  Education isn’t just to make us competitive in the world—it isn’t just to prepare us to succeed and survive in the marketplace.  There are other uses for education.  And perhaps it is this overemphasis that students unconsciously resist.  Perhaps they don’t want to be mere agents in the marketplace.  Perhaps they want a different world.  I know I certainly do.

I want to add that I do not want to set Friedman up as a straw man here.  He is certainly right to point out that increasing numbers of our students are apathetic and disengaged in the classroom.  But I think that the lack of engagement and apathy comes from a lack of hope in students, rather than a lack of responsibility.  I think that many of my students see how difficult the world is and cannot see a way forward, especially when much of school is so invested in the banking system of knowledge all the while using 19th century pedagogy.  It’s simply a bit disingenuous for Friedman to not tell the whole story with standards and to leave hidden the motivation for education in his and other neoliberal estimations.

I’ll end with this: I remember a colleague of mine who taught drama at high school.  She was called on the carpet one day for not taking attendance—the principal said that she was marking a student there who had been marked absent in the rest of his classes.  My colleague explained that he was, in fact, there.  The student was engaged in her class and her teaching methods. She didn’t use the banking system and the student responded.  She was training him to be a better person, rather than just a worker and he responded.  So perhaps the question isn’t what’s wrong with kids these days, but rather what are our motivations for educating students and are they the right ones?

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