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Learning at its Best

Who Is the ‘We’: An Education for Us

We need an education which is created collectively, and speaks to each learning community's specific needs.

The week before November break at my school saw much of the pageantry and lead-up which precedes the Thanksgiving recesses in so many U.S. learning communities. The hallways were filled with handprint turkeys, and almost every classroom was engaged in some discussion of the encounter between European and Native Peoples which occurred sometime in the early 17th Century. As a teacher-in-training, I had the opportunity to observe and even lead some of these discussions at various moments. While some of the lessons were more nuanced and radical than others, participating in so many of them in the course of only a few days left me with a significant question to reflect on: How do we construct the ‘we’ of our learning communities, and how are state-sanctioned events and holidays key tools in the forging of that construction?

In the kindergarten class in which I tutor, the students were asked to draw pictures of the things they were thankful for. A list of the words they had come up with–my dog, my cat, my toys, my family–were written on a board for them to copy under their drawings, giving them extra practice with learning their letters. When the students gathered on the rug to show the drawings they had worked on, the teacher asked some students to explain what it was they were thankful for. One student shared that they were thankful for their house, another for the food they would be eating on thanksgiving day. At this the teacher remarked, “That’s right. There are children in other countries who don’t have enough to eat, or places to live. Some children in other places have to work when they are young and don’t even get to go to school. We should all be very thankful that we do have those opportunities.” This pronouncement shocked me, not only because I had hoped that we were past teaching such generalizing and misguided views on the global community, but also because I knew for a fact that there were children in that very class, sitting on that rug, who had come to school that day from homeless shelters, who did not have enough to eat in their houses, who had been born in other countries themselves, and whose family members had not completed school out of economic obligation. That the common ‘we’ of that space should erase them and their lives so completely was something I was unprepared for.

In another classroom with older students, I sat in on a more complex discussion about Native perspectives on the holiday of Thanksgiving. Here the students were led in a lesson aimed specifically at disarming the bread-breaking myths so often told around the holiday’s inception, and understanding the event’s legacy as one which marks the beginning of a genocide–not a friendship–and which is cause for mourning in many oppressed communities. Yet even in the midst of this conversation, through which the teacher adeptly drew on student’s own knowledge while simultaneously challenging their thinking, he remarked, “Native People had been living on this continent for generations before we arrived, ultimately bringing our religion and government.” And, while I had deeply appreciated this educator’s careful and questioning approach to a grossly simplified history, it gave me a strange sensation to be told how Native Peoples had lived before our arrival, knowing that I (and surely many of the other kids in the class) had Native ancestors. And as the descendent of African slaves and other colonized peoples, whose religion and whose government, I wanted to ask, did the British settlers ultimately bring with them to the soon-to-be colonies?

In both of these cases, the ‘we’ of the classroom was not merely a question of syntax or semantics. It was a carefully constructed (or at least unquestioned) model of who that learning was compromised of–a way of normalizing, simplifying and regulating what stories and experiences were allowed to exist there. In both examples, once the ‘we’ model had been produced, it was used to co-construct a ‘them,’ first in the children of other geographic locations, then in the Native Peoples of the Americas. Instead of being used to paint a complex and capacious illustration of our learning community, it was used to erase the stories and perspectives of poor and working people, to deny the inequities and imbalances in our immediate locale, make invisible our own complex racial histories and identities, and to imagine Native cultures and communities as time-frozen, agency-lacking, and dead to our current moment. Above all, it imagined students and teachers alike as completely complicit within each of those myths–locked into gratitude for the supposed opportunities they lorded over others–and given no chance to question the master’s narrative, or to examine their own accountability in our current model of the world.

“Who are we?” is a question that does not go unasked in many learning communities, and is often a part of the first assignment or class project at the beginning of a new quarter. The answer to the question is often related to the melding of individual identities into a melting-pot kind of vision for the classroom, painting it as a uniquely colorful space. This is exactly the kind of construction of ‘we’ that I believe must be challenged. As we attempt to encourage our students to think more critically, we have to present them with more complicated and critical questions, and there is no better place to begin than with trying to understand what makes our learning community what it is: Who are our people? What communities do we belong to? What, as learners, is our obligation to those communities? What experiences do we represent that cannot easily be seen by glancing at us? Who is missing from/who is silenced by our ‘we’? Who benefits from their being left out?

Each learning community becomes empowered by determining what its specific terms are, then insisting that it be addressed on those terms, engaged in the questions which it deems most pertinent and necessary for its own survival. These terms can only be found through a real and a radical discussion about who that learning community is comprised of, and what the specific needs of its ‘we’ are. A radical education requires that we define our ‘we’ with intent and honesty, and do so with the clear goal of illuminating oppressed histories, not watering them down.

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About rad fag

I am a multiethnic, mixed-class, queer man who is dedicated to radical education, brown feminist theory and community-committed activism. I am interested in the transformation of public education into a genuinely justice-based social institution, and am always excited to exchange experiences and ideas with those who share that passion. Please check out my blog, RADICAL FAGGOT, at radfag.wordpress.com.

Discussion

11 thoughts on “Who Is the ‘We’: An Education for Us

  1. good post – culturally responsive teaching, hidden curriculum, power & privilege, white normativity….

    Posted by iteach4change | December 16, 2011, 12:44 am
  2. I am an Anglo-Australian, working class (with middle class education) Woman who delights in online tutor:mentoring of the psycho-social student tribe and is committed to intentional living, reusing and recycling, social care welfare and justice and waging nonviolence actionism.

    Particularly I am keen to collaborate and enable a movement within education to align with critical reflection, learner focused, constructivist and open education. To return to ‘edu’ ~ to ‘draw out’ ~ that de emphasises external motivations and reconnects with the delight, excitement and challenge of curiousness for discovery, risk taking and learning as an adventure.

    Posted by Char PSI Tutor:Mentor | December 16, 2011, 1:17 am
  3. The word “we” (typically used metonymically), whether referring to the “we” of the people, teachers, middle-class or any other group, fails to encompass the complexity of social relationships. “We” seems to impair, rather than clarify communications except to the extent that it reveals who possesses the authority to speak.

    “Thanksgiving” gives rise to sentiments in Indian Country that are different from those most U.S. Citizens experience. Even the word “occupy” prompts a different response.

    Is it not curious how the language of one person’s joy is another’s sorrow?

    Posted by Brent Snavely | December 16, 2011, 8:37 am
    • This gives me a lot to think about: Is it possible to imagine or speak in terms of a ‘we’ which is not exclusive, or does not set itself up in opposition to a ‘they’? Is it okay for there to be a ‘they’ if it leads to an understanding which helps us to reveal systems of oppression or domination? These are questions I have not asked myself before. Thank you for your challenging comment–I will need to keep reflecting on it.

      Posted by rad fag | December 16, 2011, 11:07 pm
  4. Great post! Thank you for so sensitively describing and bearing witness to white middle class normativity in school, often, usually, as you describe, unconscious. Check this, on disrupting identities…

    “Recent research on social class and whiteness points to disquieting and exclusive aspects of white middle class identities. This paper focuses on whether ‘alternative’ middle class identities might work against, and disrupt, normative views of what it means to be ‘middle class’ at the beginning of the 21st Century. Drawing on data from those middle classes who choose to send their children to urban comprehen- sives, we examine processes of ‘thinking and acting otherwise’ in order to uncover some of the commitments and investments that might make for a renewed and reinvigorated democratic citizenry. The difficulties of turning these commitments and investments into more equitable ways of interacting with class and ethnic others which emerge as real challenges for this left leaning, pro-welfare segment of the middle classes. Within a contemporary era of neo-liberalism that valorises compe- tition, individualism and the market even these white middle classes who express a strong commitment to community and social mixing struggle to convert inclinations into actions.” http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/people/staff/reay/Reinvgorating_Democracy.pdf

    What does your post suggest to you about your own work, rad fag, and your role in your classroom to be?

    Posted by Kirsten | December 16, 2011, 9:25 am
    • Thank you very much for reading, and for commenting. I think you pose an important question for me to reflect on as I continue on my journey with eduction–and I will certainly need to take some more time to read carefully the great article you posted here. I think at this particular moment, the questions posed here suggest to me that my role in a learning community might be to help facilitate or structure discussions which can help us define who ‘we’ are, but that must be a role which is taken on in conjunction with students, families, parents, and all the bodies which comprise and are connected to our community. Defining the needs of our learning community collectively requires that I as a teacher pose questions to my students about who we are as a group, instead of formulating my own inevitably limited definition. It is about recognizing both where I need to step up as a leader, and where I need to step back to let other voices and ideas inform me, and shape the process of learning that ‘we’ embark on together. But your questions is a very rich one, and I’m sure I will need to keep answering and re-answering it for the rest of my life.

      Posted by rad fag | December 26, 2011, 2:47 pm
  5. I’ve been working with a friend and mentor on a community-schooling model that takes into account 7-generation thinking. We’re trying to imagine a space and community that could both sustain itself 7 generations into the future and acknowledge, invite, and be built for the contributions of the past 3 generations of its community, its current adult generation, and its next three generations of children. If schools could rely less exclusively on the relationship between a single teacher and class, and instead create a place where people of diverse ages and opinions could gather, communicate, question, compromise, and learn – then we’d be more we.

    How would any of us go about building such a place? Is it desirable?

    Best,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 16, 2011, 9:40 am
    • I think that is highly desirable! In my city of Cairns, Australia, a group of us are working toward creating a micro-community that uses social gatherings around recycling, natural disaster preparation and permaculture to enhance relationships and leverage the potential of diversity of thought and experience.

      Posted by Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor for Higher Ed) | December 16, 2011, 4:11 pm
    • I agree with Char, I think your vision sounds admirable and exciting! I think challenging the traditional ‘we’ isn’t simply about how we talk about how our community, but how we gather, share space, communicate, and reshape the learning process as a collective struggle. I think the goal of the model you describe here is totally desirable, and way of creating and sustaining learning communities which is deep contrast with how we have been socialized to imagine it being done. I would love to hear more about what you all are mapping out for this vision, and how you would want to bring it into fruition.

      Posted by rad fag | December 16, 2011, 11:15 pm

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