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Subverting the Master(’s) Syllabus

Patrick Camangian (pcamangian [at] usfca.edu) is an assistant professor in the department of Teacher Education at the University of San Francisco, co-director of the East Oakland Step-to-College program, and an English teacher in historically dispossessed communities of color since 1999. His research interests and areas of expertise include critical pedagogy and transformative teaching in urban schools, critical literacy, culturally empowering education, and urban teacher development.

Teachers don’t believe that you can handle the truth
But the truth is these suits can’t stand it when youth
Begin to question the conditions and backwards traditions

Geologic of Blue Scholars1

Teachers who use “transformative teaching” in urban schools understand that Geologic’s scathing critique of U.S. miseducation is a sentiment felt by a generation of dispossessed youth in “urban” communities, and that they must create curricula that are responsive to the articulated needs of young folk struggling to navigate the oppressive conditions of their everyday life. Education policies like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” assume that what is being offered in schools is worth taking seriously, worth racing toward and not away from. However, policies like these, much like those of colonialists, aim at dispossession and dislocation; they seek the social control of young people through a form of cultural terrorism of the mind.

Schooling has been one powerful way to reproduce colonial repression by justifying and perpetuating, inside the classroom, existing power relations and, whether intentionally or out of the teachers’ own ignorance, hiding from students, especially those of color, alternative histories. This prevents students from learning the societies and cultures from which oppressed people come and the great things those societies and cultures have achieved. If students from oppressed groups are not aware of the histories that have shaped them, then no one is likely to know what has shaped anyone. In the words of James Baldwin, “Because if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either.2

By mystifying reality, schooling is able to promote the idea that if you are compliant enough and study hard in school, then you can “achieve,” you will not get “left behind,” and you can “race to the top.” Everything will be all right for you. You will not be poor, you will have a nice job; and you will be better than those “other” people you left behind in “that” community.

The education of urban communities of color in the United States began with the experience of dispossession, with what Marx called “the primitive accumulation of capital.” The enslavement of Africans and the theft of the lands of indigenous Americans and Raza (a contested, politicized term used to connote the unity of people of Latin American descent) enriched white capitalists and set the stage for the rapid growth of the nation’s economy. Those who did the dispossessing never intended to educate their victims. There was “education”: the seasoning process for enslaved Africans, the indoctrination of Indigenous Americans in boarding schools, and the many other subjugation practices imposed on communities of color. These were part of a “civilizing mission,” meant both to pacify potentially resistant people and to train them to behave in servile ways.

What is remarkable is that schooling continues today along the paths set out so long ago, albeit in more sophisticated ways. For example, a lot of what prospective teachers are taught in their credential programs narrowly points, at best, to issues of race, class, and academic achievement to describe the so-called failure of students of color in urban schools. They are rarely exposed to research that recognizes that the performance of dispossessed students of color is negatively impacted by their histories of colonial subjugation and by the dominant narratives that silence their experiences as historically marginalized people. The impression is given that these problems have been recognized and dealt with. As a result, even “socially conscious” teachers often come into urban schools unprepared for how oppressive and dehumanizing these institutions are for young folk—that is, until they show up in the classroom and have to confront these issues with their students. One of the reasons for this unpreparedness is that these early-career teachers have been taught that the problems of race inequality are simply cultural, without learning how deeply ingrained in the system such colonial oppression has become.

The often harsh realities of the classroom are intensified when teachers overlook the immediate material conditions and particular needs of historically dispossessed youth. The result is that dispossessed youth of color commonly experience irrelevant, racially hostile classroom curricula and impersonal, culturally biased teachers. The systematically alienating consequences of this range from being pushed out of school to falling for the school-to-prison traps set up for them.

What can be done about all of this? Of greatest importance is the need for teachers to utilize the assets and cultural wealth that children bring into our classrooms, channeling their personal frustration and social dissatisfaction against the very social system that undermines their existence. Furthermore, if we truly want to help students transform their circumstances, we must be able to teach our students to love themselves, love their people, and love their histories, while confronting the pain of their suffering and finding ways to help them heal from the trauma caused by the colonial conditions they find themselves in. To do this, our teaching must allow young people to explore the depths of their grief and foster a deeper sense of control over their individual and collective destinies. If we do not show students that we care about them in this way—through what we teach and how we treat their humanity—then regardless of how revolutionary the teaching framework is in our classrooms, our students will sabotage what we are trying to teach, and the result will be widespread student disinvestment in school and multiple levels of resistance to our teaching. Ultimately, the educational debt we owe to communities of color will never be paid.

Subverting the goals of the standards-based classroom requires teachers to help students acquire literacies that are critical, transformative, and revolutionary. We must, then, look beyond the classroom, because traditional “academic” literacy is too limited, and its attainment will not get our students where we want them to be. We certainly want students to learn the skills of powerful communication. But, more than these, they need the type of literacy, an ability to read the world, as Paulo Freire says, that leads to revolutionary transformation in their actual communities.3 Absent this skill, young people are at the behest of power. Not only should we teach critical thinking, but we should also prepare young people to deal with the material conditions of their lives. The current approach to schooling, at best, teaches children the literacies necessary to participate in the system, but when teaching on the side of the oppressed, we want to help students develop the academic skills and critical consciousness to transform it.

Drawing on a historical-material, ethnic studies approach to transform the standardized English curriculum in classes I teach, I seek to prepare students critically to make sense of their objective reality, problem-pose their liberation and oppression, and engage in academic work that is connected to the needs of their community. Paying close attention to the interrelated conditions that shape their worldviews, I develop curricular units that are inclusive of both school content and students’ lived experiences. Clearly, I do not do this because I believe in the indoctrinating principles of schooling, but because I recognize the ramifications of not preparing students to read, write, and navigate in order to change their and their community’s circumstances. To subvert the master(’s) syllabus, each unit I plan adheres to the following:

  1. Designing instructional units in which students can draw from their lived experience in order to study the immediate social conditions that shape their lives.
  2. Analyzing issues in the interests of the oppressed.
  3. Positioning students as experts of their own knowledge.

The following teaching took place at a unionized public school during my time in South Los Angeles, an underdeveloped community plagued by tensions that were symptoms of structural inequities positioning communities of color to struggle against each other for a limited set of resources. Pressures from the No Child Left Behind mandates influenced the administrative push for standards-oriented curricula that I was able to subvert by presenting “controversial topics in a very organized and standards based fashion,” as documented by my annual principal teaching evaluation. One way I moved students from competitive to collective social orientations in our classroom was to teach them to listen to, understand, and respect one another’s experiences.

I usually begin every year with autoethnographies. Autoethnographies are cultural narratives that build toward critical social analysis. Writing them becomes the beginning of theorizing from lived experience. Without the critical social analysis, they can become simply narcissistic storytelling. Another way to think of autoethnography is to look at the etymology of each root word: auto(self)/ethno(culture)/graphy(writing) is writing about yourself as a member of a larger social group, whereas an auto(self)/bio(life)/graphy(writing) is simply writing about your unique individual life. For this assignment, students are expected to write and recite a narrative essay that fulfills the following three requirements: (1) to examine the oppressive effects of society; (2) to connect their experiences with other oppressed people; and (3) to offer a strategy for social change. In this way, students learn to theorize from their lived experiences.

An example of what this looks like can be seen in one student’s analysis of identity—who he was, what he stood for, and why. In the performance of his critical cultural narrative, he told a story identifying himself as a strong-arm robber from a crew he led named, “Stick Up Kids.” His analysis captured some of the contradictions, pressures, and anxieties experienced by many young men of color in South Los Angeles. While the summary of his experience was important, more important was his analysis:

I started thinking, “Why do I jack people?” And as I was sitting back watching TV one day, being in the generation I’m in—I’m only 16—that I try to be so competitive with grown [men], especially [men] I see on TV. I start thinking, OK, so if that’s supposed to be an American dream…when you see a Hip-hop rapper, what’s the image of a successful rapper? You see four or five gold chains, money coming out his pocket—that’s like the American dream where I stay at. Cuz I stay in the hood. That’s as good as it gets. It’s either, you’re gonna play sports, deal dope, rob and steal or rap….Fuck going to school. None of that.

In this assignment, this student started questioning why he was robbing people in his community. The autoethnography unit allowed him to take the time to reflect critically on his identity, and gave him the opportunity to question what he once believed to be rational behaviors. Turning his attention to the positive qualities of his community experience, he realized he had the potential to use his leadership qualities for something more beneficial to himself and his community.

Bottom line, if I could get the same reaction I got, to do something positive, instead of wanting to [rob people], and have that many [black men] down for me, and follow my word, like they was, but let’s do something positive….It’d be a much better place. I know [I] ain’t perfect, or whatever, but ain’t nobody perfect….I know that it all gotta start with myself. I just gotta find a more efficient way to get by on life, just like y’all. So, you know (sigh), I’m hoping those that are real close to me—like my homeboys—will one day realize that we spend so much time and energy into robbin’ [people], that if we spend some of that time and effort on doing something positive, and we seeing the same type of rewards, maybe we could pretty much stop playing ourselves and climb out the grave.

The autoethnography assignment was a small curricular intervention to the simple autobiography. Assignments such as these help move students’ thought processes towards a more personally responsible and community reflective direction.

In order to teach in and against a corporate media climate that heavily shapes the identities of urban youth, I designed another unit for students to look more closely at how commercial music informed their worldviews. Students drew on readings from Gloria Anzaldúa, Paulo Freire, Malcolm X, and others for an analytical lens to examine the social, political, and cultural processes through which ideas of race, class, and gender were constructed in the music they listened to. After writing formal essays, students wrote poetic interpretations of these and performed these pieces to the class. Taking our learning beyond the four walls of the classroom, students used their work to participate in an on-campus assembly, organized by another teacher’s student-organization, to address black and brown tensions on campus. A standing-room-only crowd of students engaged in a community forum, addressing issues raised in presentations, related dialogue, and one another’s poetry.

We could see how the critical writing in this poem drew impressively from my student’s profound reading of both social theory and his world:

Castrated minds incarcerated in the prisons of time
Incomplete paths with no knowledge of self
With untrained eyes we see ourselves as someone else
Shaped with the oppressors mold is the image of our souls
The image of our goals
To be rich
To be famous
Go down the list and what you find is
These things are listed under the American dream
When we so endlessly chase and don’t know why
Only way we could explain is that the media put it in our brains
Or should I say the system
Along with the music
Even what we watch on TV
Even our schools
See schools produce patriotic fools
Who are then used as tools
To reproduce their so-called values
Or should I say, their hegemonic views
Put it to our heads, this is what they use
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the Divided States of America
And to the racist public for which it stands
One nation on stolen land
Whose main principle is division, exploitation, false generosity for all
All means Blacks and Browns in case you didn’t notice
My bad, I’m sorry, could I requote this?
All is the grassroots
Revolutionary troops
Him, her, you, me
The people this nation doesn’t want us to be

Ultimately, both writing assignments empowered students to study issues of privilege, social control, and oppression in society. Sharing their writing through oral presentations is important because we do not want to run the risk of continuing to segregate our students from one another. Much of the isolation students experience breeds hostility, and writing, by itself, ignores this concern. Political writing helps students develop social critiques inside the very educational context designed to oppress them. Allowing students to be honest about the ways they feel about themselves and the world helps them feel comfortable and open in schooling spaces that otherwise alienate and silenced them.

Arizona’s Senate Bill 2281, which basically bans ethnic studies curricula in public schools, is built on the premise that teaching practices like these teach students hate, but I argue that learning to redefine reality is, as Freire conceptualized it, “an act of love.” Revolutionary teaching is, rather than hateful, a process of helping students move toward self-actualization, where young folk are allowed to learn critically about and voice their humanity in relation to the history and material reality in which they find themselves implicated. This self-actualization is often marked by the very anger and frustration that can guide their newfound desire to transform the world, one assignment at a time. By no means am I saying that our political action should stop at the four corners of the pages that the students write, or the four walls of our classroom. Instead, I agree with Eric Gutstein, a member of Chicago-based Teachers for Social Justice, who says that, “[P]olitical relationships go further. They include taking active political stands in solidarity with students and their communities about issues that matter…providing opportunities for [young folk] to join in struggles to change the unjust conditions.”4

However, as classroom teachers with revolutionary politics, it is our responsibility to create socially and academically empowering opportunities for our youth to learn in their own images, in their own interests, and in their own voices. Dispossessed youth of color are continuing to experience the brutal consequences of educational irrelevance in schools, and this requires us to connect our curricula to their daily realities. Doing otherwise makes our “socially just” approaches irrelevant, ineffective, and irresponsible.

If we want to be more effective with our teaching, we have to help those we teach to grapple with their struggles in ways that channel their energy against the social forces that undermine their humanity as ethnic peoples. Theresa Perry’s philosophy of writing is applicable here. For her, we must, “Read and write [ourselves] into freedom…to assert [our] identity as a human! Read and write yourself into history! Read and write as an act of resistance, as a political act, for racial uplift, so [our students] can lead [oppressed] people well in the struggle for liberation!”5 To make this type of learning happen for our students, we must find critical and creative ways to use whatever content is imposed on us to facilitate the development of their liberatory selves.

Notes

  1. Blue Scholars, “Commencement Day,” in The Long March EP (Seattle: MassLine Media, 2005).
  2. James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,” The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 329.
  3. Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo, Literacy: Reading the Word and the World (Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1987).
  4. Eric Gutstein, Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics: Toward a Pedagogy for Social Justice (New York: Routledge, 2006), 132-33.
  5. Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, and Asa Hilliard III, Young, Gifted and Black: Promoting High Achievement among African-American Students (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 19.
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