Kids remind me of the need for healthy school communities

I’ve been finding the general scene in education quite overwhelming lately. In short, I believe we’re moving in the wrong direction and have been for quite some time and that this movement is coming from the very top of the hierarchical structure that attempts to control public education in the United States and trickles on down to the state and local governance and to the districts, schools, and classrooms.  I try to keep a positive outlook on most things, so this is a difficult reality to come to terms with.  Once I admit that, what’s next?

In my 8th grade English class we’ve been analyzing and writing about the themes of oppression and resistance in literature.  As a review, I gave students a quick exercise: write down a few examples of oppression in the world and a few examples of resistance.  In my morning class, a student asked me, with a look of confusion on his face, “Hey, Ms. Sacks, wouldn’t school be an example of oppression?”

“An interesting question,” I said. “What makes you say that?”

“Well, in school we’re forced to do a lot of things and can’t do other things.”

“You have a point,” I said.  Later, when students shared, “education” was given by a few students as an example of resistance.

In another class later that day, I heard a table of students having a discussion about whether school was an example of oppression or resistance.

I decided to change my plans for the next day and give an in-class writing assignment.  The question was, “Is the institution of school in the 21st century oppressive, or is it a key to resisting oppression, or is it both?”

I thought I might be shooting myself in the foot.  Thirteen year olds are adept at righteously criticizing anything and anyone that stands in the way of their independence.  I braced myself for a barrage of criticisms about how unfair the school rules are, thinking that this would still be a worthwhile question for students to explore.

I got a little of what I expected: 

“School is oppressive because students have to wear uniforms.”

“School is oppressive because they force us to do work when we don’t want to.”

There were many positive views on education as well–more than I expected:

“School is the key to resisting oppression because there are people who can help you with your problems.”

“School keeps you off the streets.”

“The teachers fill our minds with positive thoughts.”

“School helps you resist mental oppression by learning new things.”

“Education helps you have a good career and life.”

What took me by surprise, however, was that the majority of students who believed that school is oppressive wrote passionately about how students oppress other students:

“School is oppressive because of the bullies who bother you every day.”

“School is oppressive because of the students who call you racist things for your color or your culture.”

“School is oppressive because of all the girl drama.”

“School is oppressive because of the fights and violence.”

“School is oppressive because of how kids treat each other and act out, so others can’t learn.”

Though most students recognized that school was both oppressive and one of the keys to resisting oppression in their lives, the majority seemed to feel that other students were their biggest burden in school.

This was a potent reminder that while teachers and administrators spend PD meetings analyzing data from our most recent assessments using the latest methods, students live much of their lives in our buildings with precious little attention paid at the systemic level to how they are treating each other.

On the one hand, this has been somewhat the norm for middle school.  I remember my own middle school experience in the late 80’s, where a distinct hierarchy of students existed.  Kids at all levels of the hierarchy experienced social anxiety. I also remember certain teachers upholding the hierarchy in subtle ways. I thought the middle school movement and progressive education in general made some progress in addressing the social emotional needs of early adolescents, especially throughout the 1990’s.  It’s beginning to look like we’ve taken a big step backward.

My students’ response to my question could be seen as an example of internalized oppression. Our education system neglects the social emotional development of kids in a wide variety of ways, often in the name of accountability–from making higher test scores the top instructional priority with a “by any means necessary” mandate, to increasing class sizes and cutting art, music, and recess out of the school day.

One of the unintended results of current educational policies is the breakdown of healthy school communities, leaving many kids angry, fearful, isolated, disempowered.  One way kids attempt to feel powerful in such an environment is by putting other students down.

In my next post, I’ll share one way we’ve resisted this oppression in my classroom.  I mean, it is teachers and school leaders who can and do solve this problem with kids.  However, we are all being pushed in a direction that downplays and ignores the importance of social emotional development; yet kids’ needs don’t change just because the policy focus does.

Is it within the realm of possibility for policy makers to recognize the tremendous value of educating our nation’s youth to be socially and emotionally healthy human beings?  To encourage and promote the essential work of creating positive learning communities inside schools?

[Image credit: rps.psu.edu]