“Teaching As A Subversive Activity”

The year that I graduated from college, a book was published that greatly influenced how I viewed education. In fact, many books and authors influenced my early view of education: John Dewey, Paulo Freire, J. Krishnamurti, A. S. Neill, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol. But one stood out in terms of supplying specific techniques I used in the classroom — and almost ended my teaching career before it began.

 

I was in graduate school to get my Masters in Teaching English. It was the summer of 1971. I had finished most of the graduate courses in English and education, and one course remained which was supposed to get me ready for teaching in September, my first teaching job in the U. S. (I had already taught in the Peace Corps.) The course was called something like “Teachers As Agents of Change.” I was excited to learn how to meaningfully change the world with teaching. But when I arrived in class, the professor handed us a syllabus with assigned course work and research– and nothing looked subversive. Nothing asked us to challenge the status quo, do something about inequity, or be anything other than basically a passive recipient of his knowledge. So, I asked him, “When will we learn how to be agents of change? And how can we learn how to do it if we don’t practice it?” He said that we would have a discussion of this question in a class at the end of the summer. This shocked me. How could we learn to be “agents of change” by learning through the same methods that we wanted changed? And time was limited. In September, we would all have to step into classrooms. We needed to prepare.

 

Many of the students agreed with me. It was a different time period. Rebellion was in the air we breathed. The class revolted. Instead of kicking me out of the class (which he looked ready to do at first), the professor negotiated with us. The students were divided into four groups. Each group would have to design their own curriculum, arrange speakers and assignments, come to a better understanding of the state of education and how to improve it in a classroom, and then teach these strategies to ourselves.

 

The book that started this personal revolt was Teaching As A Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. The book began by stating the authors beliefs about the main problems in American society, most of which would be familiar to us today, even though the priorities might be different. The first problem mentioned was, “The number one health problem in the United States today is mental illness…” (Mental illness conceived as a result of social conditions and not solely as a personal problem.) Then there were a whole litany of other problems described, including crime, frauds perpetuated by large corporations, the “credibility gap” or the spread of misinformation, Civil Rights (or the denial of such), the environment (pollution), etc.  And international problems, like the Bomb, the war, the Middle East. The other belief they held was that something could be done about these problems. The majority of the book was about what a teacher could do to improve education and thus contribute to solving overall social problems.

 

The authors called for eliminating content standards and replacing them with questions that focus instruction on process and active learning. Such questions include: “Will your questions increase the learner’s will as well as his capacity to learn? Will they give him a sense of joy in learning? … Will the answers help the learner to sense and understand the human condition and so enhance his ability to draw closer to other people?” The prevailing viewpoint at the time was that content and pedagogy were entirely separate. Content was what students were supposed to learn and existed prior to and independent of any particular student or group of students. The method of teaching was also separate. It was considered merely how the content was taught. The content, not the method, was what determined the importance of a course. Postman and Weingartner wanted to change this.

 

The first skill they discussed was “crap detecting,” being able to critique social, political, and other cultural forces, and discern the lies, deceptions and biases. They emphasized learning through inquiry and questioning. They had students study how language structures what they saw as real and analyze the effects of rapid social change. They discussed “the medium is the message.” Marshal McLuhan wrote his famous book of that title, although the phrase was first introduced in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in 1964. McLuhan’s message was, as  summarized by Postman and Weingartner, “The most important impressions on a human nervous system come from the character and structure of the environment within which the nervous system functions.” Or, borrowing from educator John Dewey, what you do is what you learn.

 

This book influenced my whole career education (and influenced the book that, I hope, I just finished writing and is scheduled to be published in October), inspiring me to learn how to get better at teaching through asking questions and not just imposing answers. When teachers lead students into substantive inquiries into relevant aspects of their lives, they learn about their world in-depth, learn how to uncover questions and construct answers. In this way, they develop strong intellectual skills. They also discover one of the keys to mental health, namely creating meaningful and deep mental, physical and emotional lives based in supportive relationships.

 

What books have greatly influenced your working life and emotional well-being?

 

*Mural by LACS students.

 

There Are Alternatives

I realized recently that there is a great irony in my blogs. For most of my adult life, I opposed what I thought was happening in public schools. Now, I am defending them.

 

In the early 1970s, after teaching for a year in a “normal” or traditional public school context, I taught in a private “free school” until it closed, largely because there wasn’t enough money to keep it going. In 1985, I started working in an alternative public school, which was then called the Alternative Community School. (The name was changed to The Lehman Alternative Community School or LACS after the original principal and founder, Dr. Dave Lehman, retired.) What is meant by a “free” or an alternative school is not always agreed upon or clear. Today, ‘alternative’ is often used to refer to schools for high needs or “underachieving” students. However, it has an older definition, influenced by the progressive movement of the late 19th, early 20th century, as providing something meaningfully different from the predominant model of a public school. I can think of five characteristics of this difference which many of these schools share.

 

First, alternative schools are small. The free school I worked in had 20-30 students. LACS had 185 students when I started teaching there; by the time I retired, it had grown to 310 students, largely due to school district pressures. Traditional public schools are larger, at their worst factory-like institutions where students face great pressure to conform and can easily feel lost. The high school I attended, although at the time was considered a fairly good school (especially for the white middle-class students), had over 6000 students. The alternative is a community of learning, where everyone in the school knows, by face and hopefully by name, everyone else. Teachers and students get to know each other comparatively well, which fosters empathy and support.

 

Secondly, following A. S. Neill, Alfie Kohn, John Holt and others, alternative schools focus more on intrinsic and not extrinsic motivation. People have a natural drive to learn, as learning is necessary for survival. So, alternative schools aim to develop in students this personal and natural motivation. Traditional schools often track students and use grades to rank student learning. By ranking and comparing students they create competition which motivates through fear and hope of reward while undermining or hiding away intrinsic motivation. LACS and other alternative schools do not track students and some replace grades with detailed, narrative evaluations which give students deeper and more personal feedback on their learning. They motivate by documenting growth—and demonstrating that what students do is seen and heard by teachers.

 

Intrinsic motivation is developed by incorporating student interests, concerns, identity, and ways of learning in both the content and methodology of instruction. So, thirdly, the curriculum is tied more to real life concerns and the student’s own authentic and personal questions. I think the label “free schools” was inspired by the “freedom schools” of the 1960s.  As far as I understand it, freedom schools arose as part of the civil rights and voting rights movements. For example, in Mississippi, during the summer of 1964, schools for citizenship were created. In order to change the socio-political system and awaken “the conscience of the nation,” students needed to learn how to think and communicate well. Alternative schools, inspired by this struggle, aim to create a curriculum that has real meaning for students, that teaches critical thinking and talks about issues like justice, rights and power.

 

Fourthly, alternative schools are democratic. Decision making is not limited to administrators but shared with the entire school community. In this way students learn how to speak their minds. They learn that what they do day by day, even outside the formal classroom, is part of the curriculum.

 

There’s a fifth characteristic that is not always stated. Education is not just about preparing for the future and getting and holding a job. It is about learning how to live and learn right now. It is about empathy, compassion and relating not only to others but to our world. There are depths to the human heart and mind that can neither be measured nor ignored and education must be about those depths.

 

So, why have I changed my attitude toward public schools?

 

To begin with, I was upset when I discovered that what I was hearing in the news about the state of public education was often inaccurate or lacking context. Public schools, instead of failing their students, are mostly doing the best job possible considering the economic and other realities they are facing.

 

Also, a democracy requires an educated citizenry. Privately owned schools, because of agendas other than the simple education of their students, cannot do this. Only a public system has a chance at creating a situation where all children have even a relatively equal chance to learn and succeed. It’s very debatable right now that we have either a functioning democracy or an educated citizenry—but without public schools, the situation would only get worse.

 

My last school was and is a public school. And it is only one of many. There are schools and coalitions such as the Coalition For Essential Schools spread through several areas of the nation providing an alternative.  They should be supported against “reforms” that could destroy them. Contrary to what “reformers” are saying about the state of education in the U. S., these schools are doing for children what schools should do for children. Despite frequent cuts in staffing over the years, these schools continue to show the enormous possibilities inherent in a public school. They are giving students what they need to grow up, develop their minds and hearts, and discover their gifts. As one LACS student put it: “The school took me in. I went from a situation where I was led by the hand– or tied by a rope to other students—to one where I could decide where to go and what to do.” By needing to make meaningful choices, he learned the responsibilities of choice. Stimulating classes gave him “enough to think about for the rest of my life.” He learned how to learn (and think and communicate) because the school became the context for his life, not something removed from his life. Learning was not just academics. It was about the reality of living.

 

It is schools such as these that not only should be defended but modeled.

 

*The mural of Rosa Parks was painted by LACS students.