A Draft Of My #TEDxRevolution Speech: A Kid’s Responsibility to Freedom

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose12 Comments

Prisons vs. Schools, In a List

I‘ll start by saying I’ve taught now for the better part of six years, all in public school. As an NYC Teaching Fellow, learning how to teach while teaching isn’t the best part of the job. Teaching, however, is. It’s a liberating experience because it’s the answer to the question of “What will you contribute to the Earth’s future?” Those of us who consider ourselves advocates hold high expectations when it comes to how much we should contribute. With teaching, the giving of self is built into the profession, and the hard part is making your teacher self good enough that you’d approve of the future you’re helping to build.

Unfortunately, schools aren’t built that like. The present brick-and-mortar school is still under the architecture of early 20th century. Whenever I go to well-to-do schools, the architecture screams “Succeed!” in contrast to the message of “Fail!” for impoverished schools. In well-to-do schools, every space is well-lit, all of the chalkboards (if there are any left) are spotless and fresh. The desks are close to pristine, the temperature in the school is just about right, and the hallways feel a bit more spacious. In less privileged schools, the paint in the hallways still can’t light up the classrooms enough, the schools vary too much in temperature, and the places where kids can get lost are as abundant as the gates and trash areas within the school crevices.

What’s most apparent in the classes I’ve visited is that the well-to-do schools have a lower ceiling than the poorer schools. So the buildings are sending them the messages only a few of us spot. For wealthy kids, the ceiling is reachable, so sky’s the limit for you. For poor kids, the ceiling is unreachable, so we’ve set the limit there.

I’m not saying those confined in factory-style schools should give up; if anything, you have the responsibility towards helping students find liberation in the most personal way possible. We live in a situation where teaching is either an exercise in helping students conform or re-learn. Studies have shown that thoughts and actions are truly independent from one another, so as educators and thought leaders, do we actually act upon the beliefs we have about our students or do we perpetuate the pathology? Do we ask kids to ask the right questions about our society and how it’s affecting our lives or do we just ask those who we think are capable of making something of themselves?

Are we asking kids to bisect angles because it’s good for an exam or because we believe it’ll inspire them to become the architects for their own futures?

People think that by setting kids free, I’m saying let them run amok in the classroom. To the contrary, I’m asking people to teach the students self-discipline without making them objects in your own fantasy about a well-behaved class. Instead of discouraging students from misbehaving by constantly yelling at them and giving them the “because I said so,” why not encourage them by showing them alternate ways of expressing themselves? In the public, we say we don’t have too much freedom with the content we deliver, but we have plenty of freedom to maneuver in the way we address students. We can create environments that mitigate the circumstances, make kids feel like they’re welcome, and convince them that we have a means for them to seek their own freedom.

If we don’t get the behaviors that lead to revolution, then we’re permitting them to continue the behaviors that often lead to their own demise. That’s the thing about freedom, too: we don’t recognize it unless we’re in constant reflection. Some of my own family members didn’t realize how their childhood landed them in prison until they got on the bus. For a kid like me, I thought they had freedom because they stood out at all times of night, rarely did any school work, and rarely heeded any adult’s advice. I envied that because of the relative rigidity of my own upbringing.

Then I looked back and saw something I couldn’t have seen at the time: with the teachers I had, I was picking up the tools for my own liberation, learning to ask critical questions of the world through my own lens. True freedom insists on discipline, and the ability to detach yourself from the distractions of the world in order to understand it better. That isn’t what every teacher taught, but by the time I got out of college, I sewed that all together myself. Once we’ve done our own peace-building, we’re well on our way to freedom. As educators, if we’re not fully vested in the idea of critical pedagogy, we should strongly consider how our actions are shaping the world.

That’s the reason many of us came into the profession anyways. I don’t have this all down, but whenever I do things in this direction, they work more often than not.

Let’s build schools that help us pull down that ceiling. Let’s de-emphasize schooling and more about learning. Let’s teach them extraction, and asking the questions behind the bubble sheet. Let them have breakfast; give them some! Make sure they clean up after themselves, though. Walk away from the chalkboard and repeat their names when they say something important. Implore them to say “I don’t get it” and don’t berate them for it. Don’t take their failures personally, but be sure they know why you’re disappointed. You’re planting seeds even when you’re not the only one tending the farm.

Let them ask why they go to school. Give a generic answer to start. But when you and they are ready, give them the real answer. Then, give them yours. By then, I hope it’s the same as mine.

Jose, who was inspired by @dcinc66 to do this, even if he was tongue-in-cheek about it …

Comments 12

  1. The list alone says a lot about the state of education. The children of this nation need the elders who have an in-the-moment understanding about this subject to speak out. Even if it seems like it is just a whisper in the midst of the national conversation. People who have listening ears get the message and hopefully they pass it on.

  2. We need a critical pedagogy if only because the only available alternative to teaching a critical faculty to our kids is the retreat into 20Th. Century European-style fascism we’re watching in Wisconsin and elsewhere in Rust Belt, North America. Crisis induced dictatorship, the administration of fear, and politically driven genocide. Dig the great inventor Bucky Fuller’s “The Critical Path.”

  3. Thank you, Jose. Your writing moved and inspired me. Just what I needed on a gray Friday after a challenging week. I look forward to sharing your thoughts with the teachers I work with.


  4. “As educators, if we’re not fully vested in the idea of critical pedagogy, we should strongly consider how our actions are shaping the world.”

    Please excuse my denseness, but should we not strongly consider how our actions shape the world even if we’re fully vested in the idea of critical pedagogy? (Maybe I need to discover what “critical pedagogy” means….)

    As a side note, let me again say how much I enjoy your words. I used to save lives–I now make lives worth saving. You remind me of this every time you post…..

  5. Jose, right now I’m in the middle of reading Deborah Meier’s “In Schools We Trust”, and I can see some of what she is saying in your post here, especially in regards to your conclusion, in which you point out that students require an environment in which they feel safe enough to risk failure in order to truly learn. And that safety can only be built up through the rapport and trust and respect that you get when–as you stated–“instead of discouraging students from misbehaving by constantly yelling at them and giving them the “because I said so,” why not encourage them by showing them alternate ways of expressing themselves?”

    I agree fully that this kind of environment must be cultivated for students to grow. This is the focus that so often gets misplaced when we put too much stress on accountability via shallow, singular measurements. Students must feel secure and safe enough to put themselves out there, and teachers have to feel secure and safe enough to learn along with their students.

  6. Post

    Thanks everyone!

    Deborah, elders are definitely important in this movement. So are the young ones. Just hoping we can bridge the gap of generational knowledge.

    Matt, yes we do. The revolt in WI is an important model for the rest of us.

    Carrie, let me know what they think too, and thanks.

    Michael, “critical pedagogy”. Check Paulo Freire. Point to Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

    Mark, thanks for dropping by. We need to make this effort scalable and involved. More of us need to have this sort of mindset in the classroom, myself included. I have to do a better job of looking at critical pedagogy, too. Let’s do this.

  7. Let me call your attention to a potential problem in your list — accurate, but mislabeled. Uou’ve repeated an error made throughout education. What you list as “negative reinforcement” is, instead, punishment.

    Negative reinforcement would involve removing something that is painful or distasteful in response to actions from the kids. Delivering something painful or distasteful is punishment, as is removing something that feels good or is “tasty.”

    It may be a subtle difference, but it makes enormous differences in effective serious behavior modification.

    I should also warn you that this comparison is not popular among educators, and generally they do not like to have attention called to it. I think it’s embarrassing. Our older son was in a middle school that prided itself on test scores, but where there were serious problems with misbehavior especially among the top achievers. We got a meeting with the principal with a group of parents of about 25 kids. We asked for upgrades to physical education and a dedication to making sure kids got out to recess, as our children had asked. The principal explained that phys ed classes had been given over to drill for the state’s tests to raise the scores, and that the faculty thought recess should be abandoned to give more time to learning. I mentioned that such a program would handicap children aiming for a Rhodes Scholarship because it was unbalanced, but I’m not sure she heard me. The principal went on to explain that the school was headed toward silence at lunch, and that the children would line up to change classes, marching single file, in silence, with their arms behind them. She seemed quite proud of her dedication to making the place like a badly-run monastery.

    As I looked around the room I saw the parents of most of the schools top achievers, all the kids who got perfect scores on the state test, the creativity competition champions, the state poetry champions, the top athletes in their grades for the district. I imagined most of those children had never faced such punishment.

    The principal took particular offense when I pointed out that convicted murderers on death row in Huntsville, Texas, got more recreational time, and that I thought if they treat our children like criminals, they will get criminal behaviors.

    Our son flowered at another school in the district where recess always involved outdoor activity and where the physical education instructor and principal agreed to make phys ed classes physical more than mental.

  8. Post

    Ed, thank G-d this is just a draft, right? You’re probably aware of what I meant to say. You make great points about effective human management in the classroom. It made me think about some of the spaces I’m familiar with around the city. :: sigh ::

  9. Oh, yeah, I know what you meant. It’s a very technical complaint, too — only two of us in the world would ever notice it, Dr. Perry W. Buffington and I — but it’s worth noting.

    And I agree with what you say.

    You might want to take a look at what this guy has to say, “How the public school system crushes souls”:

    I’ve been meaning to write a response, about how the public school system can set souls free to soar . . . but I’ve not gotten it done.

    See what he says.

  10. As New York State Teacher of the Year John Gatto wrote, “School is like starting life with a 12-year jail sentence.”

    The difference is that children have not done anything to deserve such a sentence.

    Jan Hunt, Co-editor, The Unschooling Unmanual

    1. Post

      Jan, thank you. I’m going to read JTG’s book when I get a chance, if not this year, the next. School can be reminiscent of a 12-year sentence if done maliciously. :-\

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