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Learning Shouldn't Be Easy to Shake Off


Dear Diane,

Perhaps the most revolutionary thing we can do, as educators, is provide examples of adults who use their minds freely and toughly, in the interest of raising smart, feisty youngsters!

On a recent visit to Wesleyan, where my granddaughter is a student, some teachers and students played with the question of whether schools should provide young people with opportunities to act on their ideas. After all, teenagers have historically always been activists, not just scholars. I think probably yes—but, if so, don’t we need to be equally prepared to support the “actions” that we disagree with as those we agree with? Given the power relationships in a school, that may be unrealistic. This, too, is another one of those complicated balancing acts.

But I’m so glad you raised so vehemently your view of “the street” and “popular culture.” Probably we need to examine our use of these phrases. “The street” is my shortcut for where kids spend their time when we’re not watching them. I want schools to serve as a place where students exercise the same “habits of mind” to thinking about the “street” (or popular culture) as we ask them to bring to bear on history, and science. We’ve paid too high a price for saying to one large group of kids, “park your ‘other’ self outside before you enter ‘our’ house of learning.”

Our debate reminds me of the distorted controversy about Ebonics (the colloquial speech of some African-Americans) that took place a decade ago. The idea wasn’t to “teach” the kids Ebonics, but to understand where it did and didn’t correspond to “standard” English, to see that all languages have rules. In short, the idea was to use Ebonics as a tool to understand grammar and language rules rather than pretending it was just “bad” English. By bringing it out of the closet of taboo subjects, it could be studied, examined, explored. It was an explosive subject, but that’s because it’s so fraught with a history that we all need to better understand, not hide.

In fact, “bullying” isn’t acceptable on the street. The “street” (the kids’ out-of-school-and-home culture) is more complex than that. It was one reason we had a column in Mission Hill’s weekly newsletter describing what kids did during recess in the school’s back yard—to help us understand the rules and language of their “free” play, in all its complexity.

By the way, I think the kind of schooling I’m describing might be far more accountable, in the true sense of that word, than any federal mandate could achieve. I stopped last week before I got into how schools might be governed—which is at the heart of accountability—so that we could focus on “content.” But, of course, they overlap. I sometimes think that our difference lies in part upon how we can imagine our roles. I immediately imagine myself the recipient of mandates—the one who has to obey (or sabotage or get around them). Perhaps you see yourself as designing them? As a thought experiment I wish we’d both imagine what it might be like if Bush’s favorite educators had had the power to design our course content; what basic concepts, ideas, facts might he impose? Perhaps I want a wall of separation between state and classroom.

But in addition, I’m an opportunistic educator. One takes advantage of the moment, the setting, and the people on hand, One plays to their strengths, and to the time in history one is living through. One “uses” everything available to excite the (controlled) passions of the young. And their teachers' passions, too. Because it helps the retention rates of both.

And finally, anything worth learning shouldn’t be easy to shake off. We studied physics for two years at CPESS, and covered half the usual textbook. It wasn’t enough for kids to know that light travels in a straight line. We wanted them to consider what ideas about light preceded this “discovery”—as well as what they thought before we showed them Truth! We wanted to "uncover" more than we wanted to "cover."

But it all goes back to the question that isn’t asked: So, what’s it all for? (And, who decides?)

A good friend sent me the mission statement of a school I respect, High Tech High. Their answer: “To succeed in today’s global and knowledge-based economy.” So I wonder, should I have a right to say that this is not okay as its primary mission? (And, does "succeed" mean make a lot of money?) Can I demand—and under what rules of the game—that all U.S. schools must first and foremost justify their work as meeting, and thus understanding, the demands of a democracy? Is that or isn’t that akin to George Counts’ chutzpah?


P.S. How rare it is, Diane, to be reminded of our educational history—thanks.


Thanks for lending some clarity to the notion of "popular culture" as part of the curriculum.

I was surprised to hear Diane paint the common culture with such a one-sided negative brush--"vulgar language, misogynistic and homophobic attitudes, racism, violence, and crude behavior."

That probably parallels what was said about Shakespeare's work at the time. I think it's vital for educators to learn about and teach about "street culture" and what Elijha Anderson refers to, in his book of the same name, as the "Code of the Streets."

What kids bring to the classroom is just as important as what teachers bring. Often more important.

The best schools I see all include the critical study of popular culture, including music, art, the new poetics, performance art, the digital media, etc...

Check out the work that Rick Ayers's students did at Berkeley High, writing, editing, publishing and updating each year, a hip-hop language dictionary.

When I first started teaching in NYC public schools, long ago, in 2005, I was a little more in favor of bringing "popular culture" into the classroom than I am now. I don't mean to imply that "I know better now," for that is to trivialize the issue. Rather, I think we need clearer definitions still.

Deborah, how can the students apply "habits of mind" to their lives outside the classroom, if they do not spend time developing those very habits of mind? Where should the priority lie? And do all aspects of their outside lives have a place in the classroom? Where does one draw a line or polygon?

On several occasions when there is a fight at school, I tried to discuss it with my students: what led to it, how it escalated, how it could have been avoided. The students generally participated eagerly and thoughtfully in such discussion for a few minutes, then reverted to glorifying and re-enacting the fight itself. The pull towards the thrill element was so strong, I found I had to change the subject to prevent a new fight from breaking out of their very excitement. Did they get something out of the earlier part of the discussion? Maybe, maybe not.

By contrast, if I teach them something like Gilgamesh, which has a lot of fighting but in a remote time and place, replete with magic, they are able to enjoy it without exulting in it or imitating it, and it does not eclipse other aspects of the narrative: the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu; Gilgamesh's devastation over Enkidu's death, and his ultimate reconciliation.

In The Activity School (1926), Michael J. Demashkievich writes, "If [the child] is not being indoctrinated, with regard to his beliefs--religious, political, economic, historical, or of whatever kind they may be, by the teacher or by books that the teacher can suggest him to read, he is so by not always enlightened elders at home, or by his street friends" (p. 128).

Of course, Demiashkevich had in mind the richest sort of "indoctrination"--in the meanings of words, the origins of ideas, the great works of literature, history, philosophy, poetry. It's hard to take any quote out of the context of this brilliant book. Still, his point rings true: we must offer our students something they do not have, as well as a point of perspective on their lives.

In What Is the Good Life? philosopher Luc Ferry argues that we should read the Ancients not only for their similarity to us, but for their "radical alterity." "We discover an intellectual universe that possesses the charm of sunken cathedrals, but we also have a chance to understand ourselves better through comparison with others. If we want to become conscious of ourselves, we need to find a way to see ourselves from the outside" (p. 136).

So I have three questions for those who believe in bringing the "street" into the classroom:

(1) How do you handle the overwhelming pull towards the cruder aspects of the street, the aspects that Diane rightly deplores?

(2) How do you make room and time for the kind of study that gives students perspective on their lives, the kind of study that requires years of hard work without shortcuts?

(3) Given that there are limited hours in a day, and even fewer hours for lesson planning, and given that an excellent lesson in literature or history can stay with a student for a lifetime, where should a teacher's priorities lie: in preparing excellent lessons, or practicing sensitivity, spontaneity, and responsiveness? (Granted, both are necessary, but in what proportion, and what sort of mixture?)

Two corrections to the above comment:

Paragraph 3, sentence 1, word 6 should be "was," not "is" ("On several occasions when there was a fight at school,...")

Paragraph 5, sentence 1: "Demiashkevich," not "Demaskhievich." (The spelling in paragraph 6 is correct.)

Diane and Michael,

First, thanks, Diane for the reference to Michael Demiashkevitch! I'll look for that old book sibnce it sounds great and I've never heard of it.

I think that I agree with you Diane--that we can and must do both. The power of new and surprising ideas, or old and familiar ones in unexpected loctions and times serve as provocateurs, intentionally designed to stir up the "popular" culture--the one we live amidst and thus often don't see clearly enough to question. The idea is precisely for school to be a place to question, revisit, to distance oneself so that when coming "home" again, lo and behold "home" is never quite what it was.

It's like traveling to exotic places. It ruins tyhings if eone is always comparing, but there comes and time and place for articulting how the experience has changed us.

But for that reason we cannot wall the two experiences off from each other, or treat them like enemies, or demand that to enter the one requires rejecting the other. We want to be there to join in the discussion about how the old and new, the familiar and unfamiliar connect. The "habits of mind" were the vehicles at Mission Hill and CPESS for examining both of them. We sought to use the same "habits" for both. The kid who came up to the office after a fight was asked the same set of questions as those we asked in the classroom about the study of physics, or ancient history...


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