Why ‘Bad’ Kids Make Better Students

Maybe youth have a better sense of what their education should look like than their teachers do.

Having become more interested in pursuing education as a career while I was in college, I applied to work for an urban summer teaching initiative. This particular program recruited high school and college students to work with “academically promising” middle schoolers from low-income backgrounds, with the goal of preparing those students for college themselves. After joining up with the organization, I came to find that it was extremely conservative, and was itself a pipeline for Teach For America, Teaching Fellows, Uncommon Schools, and all manner of other privatized forms of education. The middle school students which it recruited were, of course, bright, eager, talented, and devoted enough to their own learning that they elected to spend six weeks of their summer taking extra coursework. While I enjoyed my students and grew concretely as a classroom educator by participating in this program, I noticed many troubling things in my short time there.

In the two summers that I spent teaching with the organization, the curriculum, which was already stilted, became even more “skills-based,” focused on drilling students with the quantifiable knowledge required to pass state tests and entrance exams for mostly private schools. The students, dedicated as they were, tended to stomach this learning with little or no complaints or questions. Everything presented by teachers and program directors was accepted as fact–the best and most necessary type of learning which would provide students with the tools they needed to be “successful.” Teachers and directors alike would often acknowledge how lucky we all were to be working with such “ideal students.”

I also spent most of my college career working at an after school program in the local community at which I attended school. The program was community-based, student-run, and supported a wide age range of youth who all lived in the Section 8 housing development in which the center was located. The students in this program were often stigmatized by members of their surrounding neighborhoods, and by the teachers and administrators of their schools, as being dangerous, belligerent, and incapable of learning. While these common conceptions naturally infuriated me, they also confused me, for the students whom I worked with during the years I spent at this program were the smartest, wisest and most enthusiastic kids I had met anywhere. The reason, I came to understand, that these kids were often labeled as bad (in addition to obvious classism and racism) was that they ask questions: “Why do I have to do this?” “Why are we learning this?” “How is this going to help me?” “Who says this is what I need to know?” were all common questions at our program during homework time. As a tutor, these questions often frustrated me when I could not come up with concrete answers. It was only when I began to look critically at my own educational trajectory that I came to realize how important–how radical–the questions that these kids were asking were, and that it made sense that I could find no good answers for them. These students could see, far better than I could when I was there age, that the tasks their education was calling on them to perform had nothing to do with their history, their knowledge, or their needs as oppressed people. Rather than following along blindly with the curricula which had be laid out for them, they were actively working to challenge that material, and, whether they knew it or not, to challenge the bodies which had determined that curricula, to these students’ detriment.

Traditional models of education have other words for ‘bad’ students: ‘Resistant,’ ‘non-compliant,’ ‘disobedient,’ ‘defiant.’ In a radical form of education, aren’t these precisely the types of students we want? Aren’t the questions that the students at my after school program were asking the exact types of questions that all students should ask if they want to get to the root of what their learning consists of, who determines it, and what good it is going to do for the larger world? When we expect students to comply with the agendas that we, the state, or private bodies have set out for them, we are expecting them to be comply with the status quo, to examine the world through the terms in which it already exists, rather than with their own critical lenses. A radical form of education should determine the curriculum with the aid of student input, and should put aside skill-drilling for the sake of asking the questions that really matter, and which connect the learning community back to the world in which it operates. The questions that our students pose to us are pathways into this radical type of learning, and should be welcomed, appreciated and treated as serious points of inquiry, not dismissed as a lack of dedication. Insubordination should be celebrated in the classroom, for only when the students themselves begin to question the lawful order therein can it really begin to come crashing down.

4 responses to “Why ‘Bad’ Kids Make Better Students

  1. Great piece! Haven’t you ever thought that it may not be the kids but the teachers? Or the reason why the kids act so different in those two programs you mentioned, are not because they are smarter or better, but because what the authority has labelled them as? Being told you are less than or greater than what you really are, can mess with someone’s (in this case kids’) mind or mental state?

    • Thank you for your thoughtful questions. Yes, I think you are exactly right that the way members of these two different communities had been taught to think about themselves had everything to do with their relationship to the institution of school, and to their own identities as oppressed people. The role that we as teachers and mentors had in reinforcing those beliefs is certainly a responsibility that we have got to take up. I do think that my peers and I had more autonomy and flexibility in being able both to question and challenge those kinds of beliefs in our after school program–which was independently run–as opposed to the private program for “promising students.” You are right to point out that while the perspectives of certain students may hold a particular power for shaping a radical education, the goal is to acknowledge, respect and incorporate the views, opinions and ideas of all members of our communities, and not merely to flip the hierarchical paradigm of who is smarter than whom. Great point.

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