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The student as education insurgent

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Educating for Insurgency, by Jay Gillen, makes the case that the transformation of our schools depends on recognizing the critical role of young people in high-poverty schools.

Gillen is a Baltimore math teacher who helped organize the Baltimore Algebra Project, a student-run collective that provides tutoring services and engages in political advocacy. The project was inspired by and draws on the legacy of the iconic Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leaders Bob Moses and Ella Baker.

Gillen’s book centers on a discussion of what he calls "schools of poverty" and the efforts to reform them. He compares the organization and norms of the plantation during slavery with today’s schools.

The view of slaves as lazy and resistant to authority is carried over in the attitudes toward students, which are sometimes overt but more often coded, by many of today’s educators. Today’s schools of poverty, no less than plantations in slavery times, rely on repressive discipline.

… The official policies of most schools for adolescents in poverty assume that without "consequences" (the 20th century euphemism for "punishment"), students would do no work at all, probably would not even bother attending school or classes, and would, most likely, run amok. A whole panoply of physical movements are alternately prescribed and proscribed: where the students must or may not sit; where they must or may not go; which doors they are required and which doors they are forbidden to use; which books or materials they must or may not touch; which websites they may see or must not see; when they must stand and when they may not stand; when they may use the bathroom; when they may eat, when they may or must leave the building; when they may or must speak. All these modal constraints depend utterly on punishments and the threat of punishment. Well-run schools, like well-run plantations, are places where the “consequences” for violating requirements are swift and certain.

For Gillen, efforts at fixing these schools break down because students are seen as objects, to be manipulated for the purposes of others, rather than as subjects, who are actively engaged in shaping their own learning.

The other blind spot he identifies is the tendency to take student behavior literally. Things are not always what they seem for Gillen, who draws on the work of philosopher Kenneth Burke and novelist Ralph Ellison. Young people are experimenting with different personae and acting in a cultural context that is not always apparent to adults. Schools of poverty are contested territory in which student resistance, primarily in the form of non-conformity, challenges the role of these schools as the means for reproducing the social relationships that serve those with power.

The portrait of robust official optimism with scientific, data-driven methods on the one hand, and disengaged, indifferent, and sometimes disruptive students on the other is all too familiar in the “lower-performing” schools in high-poverty communities. Neither Skinnerian behavior management nor moral exhortation seems to make a dent.

Gillen points out what should be obvious. Adolescents have their own preoccupations that don’t connect with what educators insist should be the focus of learning.

The ordinary exchange in schools and classrooms for adolescents in poverty is the regular adult contortion to produce compliance and the students apparently supercilious choosing to comply or not comply with official procedures as they go about their other affairs.

For students in affluent settings, the rewards for compliance are sufficient to induce a critical mass of students to conform. Not so in schools of poverty. Students are not blind to the inequality and harsh realities of their schools, even if they do not always express this understanding in political terms.

Gillen uses an extended discussion of teaching the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in segregated schools of poverty as a way of getting at the fundamental disconnect at work here.

“If the student or the teacher is thinking at all,” Gillen reasons, “the contradiction between the lesson and the setting is bewildering.”

Depending on the teacher, there will be a variety of explanations, all typically falling short of an honest analysis that might square with the experiences of students. The result, necessarily, is distrust in the official, mandated curriculum and instructional program.

The Baltimore Algebra Project classroom

Gillen’s target audience is teachers and, as a classroom teacher himself, he is acutely aware of the difficulty for teachers who are honestly trying to come to terms with their role. Overt and aggressive subversion of the official school program is likely to get one marginalized or fired. The idea, anyway, is not to be the heroic adult who stands up for students; it is to be an organizer in the tradition of Ella Baker and Bob Moses. It is to create what Gillen calls “crawl space,” where students and their teachers can engage in a process of communication, building authentic relationships and figuring out what a classroom that connects with the interests of students looks like. In this space are laid the foundations for a larger insurgency.

Gillen does not attempt to fully describe the Baltimore Algebra Project or its idealized classroom. Rather, he provides some sense of it from a series of anecdotes. In this classroom, students make critical decisions on what and how to learn, with teachers providing support and guidance. The focus on math is partly because proficiency in this area is widely seen as an indication of intellectual mastery and a stepping stone to high status. For adolescents in schools of poverty, demonstrating mastery (including earning money tutoring other students) provides a degree of cover when the project takes up political campaigns that challenge the educational and social status quo.

Building alliances

For effective alliances between youth and adults to develop, in schools and elsewhere, Gillen says: “We have to do away with the idea that young people will be wild without adult control and coercion, but that means we also find ways to teach and develop an alternative relationship. Older adults and teachers simply can’t let go and see what happens.”

Gillen invokes the image of courtship as a way of describing how the necessary changes in this relationship might play out. Building relationships based on equality and shared purpose, he suggests, will not be straightforward.

We must start by adding some obstacles of our own making, because that is how human societies have always gone about bridging the differences between classes, genders and castes … we need ways to help the “sophisticated” teachers act more humbly without giving up their strengths and we need ways to help the students see themselves as able and even in some senses dominant, while remembering that they are not yet fully formed.

Youth organizing and the challenge for teachers

In his conclusion, Gillen cites the efforts of youth organizations, including the Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change, to organize a campaign for a National Student Bill of Rights that would add enforceable rights to the U.S. Constitution. Gillen also cites the positive efforts of these same youth groups to intervene in Philadelphia’s ongoing school crisis.

As many readers are certainly aware, students and youth organizations have been at the forefront of fights for education justice that have erupted in our city. The development of these organizations and their nurturing of youth leadership are something we all need to better understand.

Gillen ends with laying out what he sees as the challenge for teachers and other adults in terms of supporting these struggles.

“Can we learn to help young people rehearse their roles as organizers in relative safety, figure out with their families how to keep them fed and housed while they take political risks and develop political consciousness, give them room and time to heal when things go badly and encouragement to continue in the face of powerful opponents? And can we do all this while the young people study their math, while we help them read and write, while we celebrate their human impulse to learn and to create, and while they work out how to fashion all this insurgency for themselves?”

Ron Whitehorne is board president of Youth United for Change, as well as a coordinator for the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).

Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty
by Jay Gillen
AK Press
170 pages

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