Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Two Most Dangerous Words in the English Language

Language is central, of course, to how people relate to each other and communicate, both as individuals and groups. Language is how we negotiate power. If there is any realization at the intersection of peace education and English class, it's the realization that words matter. I have yet to meet a kid who agrees with that childhood playground rhyme that "words can never hurt me." If a kid disagrees with this view, I prod him or her to consider if people get into fights over words. Of course they know this is true, and that people wouldn't bother fighting over them if they were not significant.

Words can privilege or render invisible. Words can liberate and empower, or confine and label. I've repeated on this blog my concern that we do not focus nearly enough attention on critical and creative thinking in high school. Frankly this is a reflection of an anti-intellectual streak in our cultural at large, but it is also I think just easier to grade spelling tests or objective questions on a short story than to vigorously engage with and debate complicated ideas. I'm hardly observing anything new what's stopping us? Why is this conversation still necessary?

One of the critical understandings I want my students to have is the danger of "black and white" thinking. Either ors and false dichotomies abound, and they trap us. They trap how we understand ourselves (women can be smart or pretty, not both), X group of people is either good or evil. Everything from useless products to gangs to wars can be sold with such sloppy thinking. So I recently told my students to guess the two most dangerous words in the English language. Many of their guesses I won't repeat here *ahem*. One student, recalling the Ladder of Hate, said "genocide". Not a bad guess. I then tell them the two most dangerous words are "always" and "never." As they're puzzled by this, I prompt them to connect these words to the Ladder of Hate to understand why. Through discussion, they come to see that you really can't stereotype without those extreme words. Also, avoiding those words forces us to speak, and therefore think, in more subtle, complex ways. I ask them to give me examples of something that is *always* or *never* true about people, and they find how hard it is to do. My hope is this discussion will give them pause and encourage more reflection on the words we choose to define a person or an idea. It's counterculture, but essential.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Of Classrooms on a Cart and Testing

What a strange couple of weeks this is shaping up to be! We're beginning the end (if you will) of A Long Way Gone, but due to security concerns that are greater than usual apparently, all the teachers have been teaching "on the unit", that is, in the common living space each unit comes equipped with here at the Detention Home. I'm not a fan, and have a new found respect for the Social Studies teacher who teaches there permanently! I can't imagine. It's been fine, but the distractions are doubled and the kids are antsy. I turned it into a writing prompt, asking them which they preferred: having classes "on the unit" or in the classrooms. Most of them, not to my surprise, preferred classes in the classroom. Some felt unfairly punished for the behavior of a few students; others said it was harder to concentrate or focus in a space they are used to having as their "living room". I've only been seeing about half of my kids, since the rest have been on room restriction, due to various infractions. Yikes! No one can really learn, especially when one is already starting with lower skills, in such a "stop and start" manner. Given rumors of riots, though, I understand the need. I look forward to some real critical analysis of how it came to this and the plan for preventing such problems in the future. And I was glad to hear the underlying (and sometimes quite explicit) racial tensions between the Hispanic and African American kids acknowledged. Addressing this will be key to security, peace and to learning.

Tomorrow should really be the last day that we're on the units, though, since we have another round of SOL testing coming up on Wed-Fri. This will be the third time this year that we've tested kids! That seems stunning to me. I can understand once a year, but especially given the limitations of standardized testing to begin with, what is this really accomplishing? It's funny, as I look over the testing schedule, I just finished reading an article about a local teacher who apparently inspires her kids. A real pleasure to read it--but I have to wonder, with articles like that, and yet a system that enforces teaching to the test, what mixed signals a new teacher must be receiving! No wonder the retention rate for new teachers is still so low, even after years and years of political and educational leaders trying to keep them! On a more positive note, it looks like a colleage of mine who was caught up in the war in Sierra Leone will indeed be able to come pay us a visit--something I hope will really bring the memoir to life as we finish it.