I held lots of romantic ideas about what a classroom community could and should look like before I actually started working with kids. I imagined a learning space organized, run and determined entirely by students, one where creativity reigned and authority was nonexistent. I envisioned a room without walls, a curriculum without requirements. I dreamed of a truly deconstructed schooling, free of grades, codes and oppressive strictures of any kind. This vision became challenged, however, as I embarked on my journey as an aspiring educator, first as an after school tutor and coordinator, and more recently as a classroom teacher-in-training.
After a very short amount of time in the company of kids who had been entrusted to my care, I came to understand how necessary structure was to ensuring their safety and success. From walking a group of ten year-old boys five blocks to the library, to guiding a group of third graders through a math worksheet; from refereeing a friendly basketball game, to passing out snack; from introducing the work of a new poet in a writing workshop, to mediating a heated debate about sexual identity, it quickly became obvious to me that structure was imperative to effective communication, and scaffolding a community with trust and respect.
I also came to understand that structure was an expectation placed on me by other members of the communities I belonged to. Any experienced family member, caregiver, educator or guardian knows how important structure is in providing expectations and outlines for young community members as they grow into their own places. In order to gain the respect and consent of the community as an educator, it was given that I would continue to set these same expectations for the children in my care. Yet these new realizations and community expectations caused me some confusion. As an oppressed person with radical politics, a core belief I held was that all structures had to be radically challenged and ultimately dismantled for a truly just world to be realized. How could I aline this belief with being a classroom teacher, and with the expectations placed on me by family members and caregivers from my own community?
Gioconda Belli, the renowned Nicaragüense poet, writer and thinker–who is perhaps best known for her involvement with the Sandinista forces during the Nicaraguan Revolution–speaks powerfully to this very question. Belli once wrote that July 19, 1979, the day the FSLN entered Managua and declared victory against the U.S.-backed military dictatorship, was one of the most terrifying days of her life. Even though the struggle she had invested herself in for so long appeared to be over, and the revolutionaries with whom she had fought were victorious, she found herself feeling lost. She had existed in opposition to Las Contras for so long, had constructed all of her spiritual, emotional and political energy against them so completely, that when they were finally overthrown and her own party was in power, she felt as though she no longer had a purpose, a passion with which to push her struggle forward. She realized in that moment, as she would later describe it, that as difficult as it was to challenge an oppressive order, it was even more difficult to democratically arrive at new and just order which could take its place. This is where the real struggle, the real need for creativity, imagination, and compassion, comes in.
Where Belli’s profound realization leaves off is, I believe, exactly where an insurgent form of education picks up. For when we examine any community of which we are a part–be it queer, working, immigrant, family, religious, academic, etc.–we see that there is always structure, in the form of tradition, ritual, language, art, or something else beautiful. Structure is not the inherent enemy, and providing structure for the members of our community who need it is not something we should feel guilty about. Instead of demonizing structure altogether, what we should ask as educators as we attempt to construct communities of learning is: What is this structure molded after? What is it designed to do? Who designed it? Was it created collaboratively? How is this structure going to support our vision of a community? Who gets to determine if this structure is working properly? If this structure needs to change, who has the voice and the power to change it? By asking these questions, a concrete vision of a learning space can be adopted, one which does not need to forfeit any radical and romantic visions like the ones I had before I actually began teaching. What I believe all of our communities have the power to teach as (and what I think anarchist-educational politics would have taught me if I had originally understood them with more nuance) is that structure is oppressive when it is determined by the elite for the benefit of a few. When we are creative, collaborative and visionary about it, the ways that we structure our classrooms, our lives, and our own communities are entirely up to us.