I think subverting the status quo in public schools is – at some scale – an overt political act. While some subversive teachers keep low profiles, their students know the score: together, those teachers and their kids are daring something different, something more meaningful than dutifully donning whatever costume-jewelry curricula is de la mode.
Teaching is an intensely political act, but the tension between teaching as cultural reproduction and teaching as production of a new culture defies convenient political shorthand. For example, the decision to “plan” a classroom around inquiry instead of state standards isn’t a particularly democratic or republican one. Depending on community standards, it may not be a conservative decision or a liberal one. Maybe it’s both – or maybe its libertarian-socialism which is decidedly inconvenient for our system of public education.
I think the question, “How do we teach?”, is becoming as important as the question, “Whom do we teach?” If we are teaching everyone the same thing in the same way, and that way is biased and privileges the privileged, how we teach must be unpacked and countered constantly and urgently. School as a “common cultural experience” is indefensible when it defends a culture of inequality.
I’m thinking about how I teach a lot this week – moreso than usual – because of Ethan Zuckerman’s DML 2013 keynote, “Beyond ‘The Crisis in Civics.’” In his talk, Zuckerman shares a “matrix” of political tactics with both a “thick and thin” axis and a “symbolic to impactful” axis.
Sumamrizing from Erhardt Graeff’s excellent liveblog of the keynote: Thin acts require little participation, while thick acts require individuals to invest a significant amount of time in them. Symbolic acts bring attention to an issue, while impactful ones use political levers to cause change. Those political levers are legislative, authority-based, public-opinion oriented, and do-it-yourself. [Misinterpretations are mine - please correct them in the comments!]
How do I teach? Where does my teaching fall on that matrix? What levers does my teaching employ? How does my work align with – or deviate from – school? When do I take the “thin” out while there is “thick” work to be done? Do I stick with the “symbolic” because I am too afraid to risk the “impactful?”
The real crisis in education isn’t the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or even the standardization of education in the United States. The real crisis is that we teachers have not yet countered the thick, impactful, legislative, authority-based, and public-opinion oriented work of pop ed reform with enough DIY work of our own in any quadrant of Zuckerman’s matrix. We are modeling teaching – a civic act – as a conformist one. Collectively, we are doing the system’s thick, impactful work in communicating to our kids what society thinks of them and expects of them according to the biases in the system.
The people driving the standardization of education in our schools and classrooms have no place in them. We bring their agenda to our kids, or we don’t. It’s as simple and difficult as that. We’re teaching against the clock while even every thin and symbolic act counts. Can we even manage some “slacktivist” teaching by dragging our feet on delivering our kids to the curriculum? Can we give up reconciling what we know is right with what we’re told is correct, and stick with the former?
For all my failures, I will try to succeed in being different, and if my tiny work – the work I’ve chosen – will only ever be symbolic, I believe in my kids. I believe in their community-, inquiry-, maker-, and technology-infused power to participate meaningfully in shaping a culture better than the one that produced me and from which I can only imagine saving them.