Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Issue of Representation in Schools: Be the Revolution

The issue of representation is the deciding issue in education in this century.

As the division between "economic haves and have nots" increases at accelerated rates and the clarity between actual and fictive is rendered less clear through personal, institutional, and national educational practices and beliefs—how we position and are positioned matters. Such action often sets a trajectory that for some children is nothing less than fatal, while for others affords them the kingdom.

Allow me to be specific. Across the last 30 years, in the K-12 public schools, I have heard teachers, administrators, parents, community members, and even students utter these statements.  Additionally,  I have uttered some as well:

  • He's a shop kid.
  • She tries, but she's special ed.
  • I just got two bilinguals in my general ed class. Now what am I suppose to do? 
  • Mrs. X, your son is just not honors material.
  • You should see what my honors kids are doing...
  • My special ed kids need me to take it slower. They are incapable of doing x. 
  • Let's face it: bilingual students just learn differently.
  • My honors-child cannot and will not be in class with non-honors children. They will slow him down.
  • What are we going to do with all the level 1s? They are bringing down our school profile. 
  • Place all the bilingual students in course x. No exceptions.
  • Give me the band kids, they're fabulous in math. 
  • These partially proficient kids need to be placed in... 
I want to suggest that as these phrases become accepted discourse at a school, the language and the meanings carried shape expectation by turning opinion into "the" truth.   Further, the language also homogenizes people who may share some similarities (perceived and real) by limiting their definition to a single group identification so that terms such as: bilingual, special education, honors, shop, band and so on carry specific meaning. In these scenarios, the child is no longer multifaceted. She is bilingual. She is special ed. Such categorization locates actual performance beyond the realm of possible by lodging it within an epic construct that becomes institutionalized and across time is often thought of a defining tradition: At School X, this is what we know to be true. As new faculty and students join existing faculty and classmates, they learn these truths and in doing so, essentially render a dynamic place of learning into an epic world where the "past is locked into itself and walled off from all subsequent times by an impenetrable boundary..." (Bakhtin).

As our beliefs about children solidify--it becomes more difficult to engage in new thinking; to consider other possibilities. Odd traditions find permanence in places where epic stances are the norm.  Again Mikhail Bakhtin states, "tradition isolates the world of the epic from the personal experience, from any new insights, from any personal initiative in understanding and interpreting, from new points of view and evaluations. The epic past is an utterly finished thing, not only as an authentic event of a distant past but also on it's own terms and by it's own standards; it is impossible to change, to re-think, to re-evaluate anything in it."

I think about all of the rhetoric regarding "reform" of schools and the too-easy placement of public schools as places of chronic failure.  I can't help but think while those who are often far removed from actual schools banter questions about reform and reform models from lofty places--those of us who actually work in schools could exercise a profound and lasting revolution by taking a single action.

If we consciously took a stance to resist categorizing children and instead dwell in possibility, the revolution would be upon us.  Rather than limit ourselves to definitions of children via fixed categories, imagine what might happen if we practiced seeing possibility in other and uncertainty in ourselves.  Imagine how different the learning trajectory for both child and self might be.

Profound change has always rested in our hands.  Now is the time to accept responsibility and shape the outcomes that are so possible.

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