Education by Consent

Don’t wanna

He looked like the toddler offspring of Paul Simon and Crazy Frog: all exuberant curls and a rubber-band mouth stretched across his small face. It was at breaking point when I saw him, eyes clamped shut, Jagger lips flopped open in an unceasing howl. His tiny body, taut as a tug-of-war rope, pulled against his grandma’s hand.

My class, older by a few years moved into the classroom and settled into worksheets. The image of the tiny frog-face and its owner’s belly-roar of anguish distracted me from the grammar presentation.

What good is there in forcing a tiny, hysterical child into an ESL class, or any class? His brave, futile resistance was engendered by a dangerous notion: the tone-deaf, compassion-free insistence “education” was more important than his distress.

Agency

The little boy was experiencing education as an affront to his agency and personhood. He won’t understand those words for another decade or so but children, like all animals (human and otherwise) understand the difference between agency and imposition.

“So what?” you might ask. “Kids never want to go to school. You have to make them.”

If that is the case, instead of accepting it as a fact, we need to ask, why?

Children are curious to the point of being maddening, not to mention fearsome mimics. They will dog your steps demanding to know how things work, how to do things, imitating your words and actions until you’re half-afraid to move. They don’t hate learning. If they hate school it is a sign that education, as it is currently conceived, doesn’t serve them.

Coercion versus consent

Despite his protests, this little boy had “education” imposed on him by force majeure. 

Nobody, but nobody, likes to be coerced. Not even if the activity is ultimately something they would have chosen any way. We adults hate being pressured, bullied and ordered around. Children are no different (if anything, I suspect, more sensitive to it, because they haven’t yet had their spirit deaden by years of “education”).

Coercion leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Activities that we might have sought out and enjoyed of our free will become tainted, unpalatable.

When education becomes an object of coercion, we create an ugly frequency that distorts the interaction of teachers and students; parents and children. Curiosity atrophies into suspicion as the act of learning is irredeemably conflated with authoritarianism — with long-term repercussions.

One of my close friends is an intelligent, organised, motivated, assured woman whose self-perception is that she is not a good student. Why? Because as a child and teenager, she was obliged to endure rote, deadening conventional education. Unable and unwilling to conform, she adopted the label they imposed: poor student.

As an adult, she went back to school and performed astonishingly well, earning high marks and taking on leadership roles. Now, she returns to her university every year to give a talk to incoming students.

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Freedom to learn

Children, like adults, need to be active participants in their learning. The first duty of an educator is to inspire them with the possibilities and delights of learning, not drag them screaming into classrooms and force them to fill out worksheets.

Once learning has been established in kids’ minds as a positive, rewarding experience, in which they have agency and the freedom to express themselves, they will be willing and able to cope with the inevitable patches of boredom and incomprehension.

Seeking consent in education doesn’t mean we have to entertain children, or pander to their every whim, but it does mean giving them a fair say.

 

Man being … by nature, all free … no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. –John LockeChapter 8

 

 

 

How to Make your Best Students Better

The one percent

As a kid, and through high school, I loved standardized tests. Because I was the maddening specimen who scored in the 99th percentile without a flicker of effort.

Given the bias in standardized tests, it’s not surprising. I was a white kid who had been reading voraciously since age four. I was going to ace anything that measured “verbal” skills, which are, of course, in the context of the tests, reading and writing skills.

Being a killer test taker had advantages. My high school SAT and ACT scores got me into an Ivy League university, and scooped a National Merit Scholarship to help pay for it. Not bad for a poor kid from a decaying seaside town in Oregon.

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Feeding the need

Being Little Miss 99th Percentile felt good. My teachers liked it because I brought up the class average. I liked it because it got me positive attention. My parents? They didn’t care, which is perhaps why cared so much. Acing those tests was more than an academic achievement, it was much-needed validation. Terrified of losing that, I gravitated towards subjects that came easy: English, history, communication, psychology.

Unfortunately, one thing they didn’t teach in first-year psych was that effort counts for more than “intelligence”. Though, to be fair, the results of Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck’s landmark study on the relationship between praise and motivation weren’t published till 1998, my second year of college.

Mueller and Dweck gave kids a series of tests. One group was praised for their intelligence, the other for their effort. They found that the children who were praised for intelligence were reluctant to try more difficult tests, while those praised for effort were eager to try harder tasks.

Kids singled out for “intelligence” were afraid of doing anything that might show them up. Like those kids, I avoided challenges, got good grades and learned almost nothing.

Opportunities lost

Each month, as I make my student loan payment (still chipping away at that. Thank you American tertiary education system), I think about the classes I avoided: Spanish, math, organic chemistry. I went to university planning to major in chemistry and go on to med school. Sophomore year, I changed to English lit.

It was the right decision, made for the wrong reasons. My motivation wasn’t love of literature and language but fear of math and science. If I couldn’t waltz into an exam and out with an A, I wasn’t even going to try.

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The teacher’s view

Looking back, I wish teachers had pushed me more — especially in the subjects I was good at. Maybe, then, I would have realized my skills weren’t “innate” and would have learned to apply myself.

But, as a teacher myself, I can’t blame them. Having a “good” student, one who enjoys and seems to effortlessly absorb the material, is a treat. S/he is one student you don’t have to worry about, one whose enthusiasm and aptitude makes you feel good about yourself as an educator, even if you don’t really deserve the credit. It is tempting to praise the student and more or less leave them to his/her/their own devices.

Tempting, but an abdication of responsibility. Perhaps the student is doing well because h/s/t are an adept learner. In that case, you should see the work gradually improve. If you don’t, chances are they’re coasting on an existing skill set. And without intervention, they may well be self-limiting to stay within that safety zone.

Breaking out of the success trap

How do you challenge a student in an area where they excel? Here are three ideas:

Process

Once, in a job interview, I was asked: “How do you write?”

It was the first time anyone had asked about my process. Formulating an answer made me realize that I had one, and that it could be applied to other tasks.

If you have a student who shines at art, trigonometry, whatever, as them how. They might think it’s a dumb question (I did) but they will discover the work that goes into their accomplishments. Recognizing their own effort and process will help them see themselves as learners, and start to generalize those skills.

Cross-pollination

Use your students strengths to address their weaknesses. If, for example, your  student loves history but hates math, have them research the history of a mathematical concept, e.g. Who was Pythagoras and how did he come up with his theory? Thus tackling something hard becomes a chance to show off what they are good at.

Let them be the expert

Once your students have assessed their own process, reinforce that by giving them an opportunity to be the expert. Pair or small group work is a good setting to allow students to display their strengths. Set up assignments where they teach each other and grade them on how well their classmates do.

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Life-long learning

We tend to think of “life-long learning” in terms of adults but, to deserve the title, it has to start in childhood. The best, that is highest-achieving, students are necessarily the best learners. They may, in extreme cases, be learning very little.

Helping them uncover their process, use their skills to address new challenges, and share their strategies with others will develop those crucial skills.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should I Have Come Out to My Students?

“Do you consider yourself part of the LGBTQ community?”

The text caught me off guard. Of course. Then I realized: Why would he know — I never said anything. 

I’d shared a link to an article about queer culture witha former English students (let’s call him Jay). He’d responded with an applause emoji — and the question.

Jay is out and proud as a Catholic teenager in a small, conservative Spanish town. His joie de vivre made every class a delight. I admired the hell out of him, but never said anything about being bi.

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Playing safe

I’ll just be supportive, I thought.

So I taught poems by Mary Oliver and CP Cavafy, brought Attitude magazine to class along with Vogue and Wanderlust, and expressed due reverence for the fierceness of Queen Bey and Lady Gaga. That’s cool, right?

Keeping quiet

Jay’s question got under my skin because, really, he shouldn’t have had to ask.

“Definitely,” I responded. “Wasn’t quite sure about bringing it up in class.”

The more I’ve thought about it (and it’s been a lot) the poorer an excuse that seems.

I didn’t want to distract from class. My personal life isn’t important. Blah blah.

Yet I had no qualms talking about my husband, or dating men. I just elided the fact I also date women. That’s not being “appropriate”, it’s cowardice.

Taking it easy

Truth is, being straight is easy. Despite short hair and a penchant for Doc Martens I am a cis woman married to a cis man. That is so socially acceptable it obscures anything ambiguous or complicated. It brings the perpetual temptation to not mention anything that would threaten my hetero privilege.

Once, a woman I was seeing was verbally attacked over her holiday plans. My date said she would feel uncomfortable going to Russia. Instead of sympathizing this woman railed at my friend for trying to “flaunt her lifestyle”. Basically, she thought if my girl didn’t fake straightness for the benefit of Russian bigots she deserved to be gay bashed.

This conversation, which took place at a party in Ibiza, shook me. If people are like that on an island renowned for anything-goes hedonism, I don’t want to know what the rest of the world is like. So, it was/is, easier to don the invisibility cloak of straightness.

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What makes an ally?

Self-identifying as queer and a queer ally to myself means jack if I play it straight to the world at large. My silence amplifies jerks who think love is “flaunting your lifestyle”.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud of introducing my students to Cavafy and Oliver, of watching Gaga videos with them and discussing gay representation in mainstream media. But it wasn’t enough.

If I were 100% straight, it might be. As a (married) bi woman, I have a responsibility.

Cleaning out my closet

Being married is part of what stopped me from saying anything. If I were single, or dating, saying “I’m bi” probably wouldn’t raise too many awkward questions.

But I could imagine…

Wait, aren’t you married? Does your husband know? Is he bi? Do you date other people? Does that mean…? 

My students are sharp — a thousand times more woke and with it than I was at their age (or a decade later). They could have asked questions that I don’t have answers for.

That unnerved me. Which is precisely why I should have opened up.

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A real education

Being a good teacher means not pretending to know all the answers. I’m comfortable not knowing a grammar construct, or the meaning of a word, so why so awkward about admitting I haven’t solved the mysteries of love?

I’ve asked myself over and over, Should I have come out to my students? The answer is, insistently, yes.

Not just because Jay deserved to know I consider myself part of the LGBTQ community, as he gracefully put it, but because they all deserve to know that love and attraction are fluid and multi-faceted. They deserve to know that you can try things, change your mind, fall in love with one person and still be attracted to others. They deserve to know that you never have to stop exploring, questioning, loving. They deserve to know that marriage doesn’t have to be a house in the ‘burbs and 2.4 kids (though that’s available).

Like I said, they’re sharp. Chances are they already know (or suspect) much of this. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make it okay for me to sit back like, you’re on your own. 

Be there for each other

We all need allies. Every single day. And in our increasingly mean-tempered world, unity and kindness are the life-rings we have to throw to each other.

That means owning who we are, in all its delicious complexity, so others (especially, if we’re teachers, our students) have space to claim their own delicious, complicated selves.

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