“You’ve got to make it about power. It IS about power.”
This was the advice I gave to an instructor who wondered how she could get students to care about the work she was assigning–the same work they were ignoring. There are so many instances right now running through my head simultaneously that I’ve used in my own classroom to help students see how neglecting their education is submitting themselves to the influence and coercion of others.
One anchor quote that my students and I investigated for several months is one by Stephen Biko–an activist against Apartheid:
“The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
I put this quote up on the board for the first time in class towards the end of first semester and asked students to debate the merit of the argument that Biko had posited. The debate started as most debates start–with students generally standing on one side of the room representing their position–in this case strongly disagreeing with the quote. Students who disagreed said that a bullet through the head would quickly prove what’s a better weapon. They mentioned tanks and whoopings from parents. But it took one student’s question from the other side of the room to get the class to question a lot of what they understood about power: “Wait, remember the lesson on self-hate?”
To start, students saw power as something external–existing outside of themselves. After this issue of self-hate was offered, the idea that knowing oneself and one’s world are where power could reside.
Students then started discussing the element of fiction known as “man vs. self” and how we can sometimes be our own worst enemies. Other students started highlighting examples like (our class favorite) of Malcolm X feeling most “free” while in prison but intellectually liberated after having transcribed the whole dictionary by hand. The students spoke of the story of Helen Keller and how she beautifully spoke of a dark world of shadows until Anne Sullivan gave her the words to illuminate her soul, desires, hopes, etc.
Then they turned onto personal examples that we had highlighted in class of how true education is challenging and we have the power within ourselves to learn and explore but we’ve become puppets who believe we need a single “teacher” to read us the next line in this play we call school. Liberation starts by liberating our minds.
All of this came out of a 15 minute debate the students self-facilitated for themselves. What a better testament of power in education than to be able to critically observe our world without the dependent need for a single teacher every step of the way.