Troublemakers

But despite the attempted removal of the weeds, this hope of a community never formed. “I just couldn’t build the community I am usually able to build,” Emily lamented. Her disappointment was palpable.

One reason for this is that exclusion does not build community–it destroys it. The problem with weeds is that when you pull up one, many more sprout with a vengeance. It isn’t the behavior of the children that threatens community; it is the response to that behavior, the use of exclusion, that threatens community.

When a child is excluded, it teaches the other children that belonging to the classroom community is conditional, not absolute, contingent upon their willingness and ability to be a certain kind of person. In this paradigm, belonging is a privilege to be earned by docility, not a basic human right that is ensured for every child.

-Carla Shalaby, Troublemakers, p. 162

Troublemakersby Carla Shalaby, might be one of the most impactful books I have read on education. She makes a compelling argument for education as a place to “be love and practice freedom,” and looks at all students, and especially the “troublemakers,” with empathy and an authentic desire to understand, rather than to control and coerce. She follows four of these “troublemakers” to their first- and second-grade classrooms, and the portraits she paints are both tragic and moving.

First, thanks to Grace for first writing about the book, Becky for lots of thought-provoking discussion about it, and Val for leading the #ClearTheAir discussions exploring further. These reflections have me thinking about the role of teachers in educating students to be thoughtful citizens — interpreting “citizens” broadly, not necessarily as citizens of this country, but as young people who can and will inform the future of democratic government.

I see education for thoughtful citizenship differently today than when I started teaching; I want to be an educator who, in ways small and large, prepares students for a world where citizenship includes questioning authority, insisting on respect and dignity, and protesting effectively. I believe — and Shalaby articulates — that these skills are taught, or untaught, in schools. I recognize that many would call these political values, and teachers aren’t supposed to be political. But our present moment is a reminder that silence is a choice, and the status quo is a political value that we perpetuate by closing schools off from political perspectives.

In trying to understand what Shalaby’s values will look like for me, it was helpful to put into my own words the values I want for students:

  1. Dissent. I want students to be able to question authority, ask “why?”, and “what if?”, imagine a better world, and cultiavte the tools to work toward it.
  2. Compassion. I want to look for the best in students, believe that they are growing and learning as humans, to honor their dignity, and to teach students to do the same for those around them.
  3. Freedom. I want students to recognize their agency in valuing what they want to value, doing what they want to do, and being who they want to be.

These are ideals. I’m not sure what they look like in practice, but I do know they can inform the small, everyday interactions that shape students’ experiences in school. I also know that the way that the institution of school is organized is antithetical to these values in many ways. Still, I want to shape those interactions with Shalaby’s perspective on what it means for students to be “indigenous” to classrooms:

Duncan-Andrade reminds us that, in the words of one educator, the students are all “indigenous” to the classroom and therefore “there are no weeds in my classroom.” The young people are indigenous because they are the natural part of the school community. They are indigenous to the neighborhood to which the school belongs, and they are indigenous to the culture of childhood that dominates the classroom.

Given the realities of school segregation and the demographics of the teaching profession, young people have much more in common with one another–culturally, socioeconomically, linguistically, developmentally–than they do with thier teachers. The young people comprise the community. The teachers are the interlopers, the oustiders, the ones who come and go, the ones who don’t fundamentally belong. The children are a community garden long before the teacher arrives on the scene with her own outsider tools, so when she pulls a “weed” she disrupts the balance of community by creating the threat that any child, at any time, can be excluded at will. She leverages power and authority to show that she is the ultimate arbiter of community belonging.

pp. 162-163

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