Derik, one of the students in the sixth grade class with which I work, has been struggling since the beginning of the school year. He has a violent home life, limited family support, and probably (though he has not been formally diagnosed) some serious emotional and learning issues which are genuinely debilitating for him as a student. When he feels even slightly overwhelmed or inadequate–faced with a math sheet he doesn’t understand, or a writing assignment he doesn’t know how to start–he completely shuts down, often placing his head on his desk, and refuses to do work. When he gets to this point, he rejects help, does not want to be talked to, and is often belligerent to anyone who attempts to reach out to him. These episodes occur multiple times a week, and during harder periods multiple times a day. When they do, it is usually impossible for Derik to get out of his rut, and he often does little to no work for the rest of the day. As a result, he has fallen far behind in nearly all of his school assignments.
Derik is a part of several different special education and therapeutic programs in the school, all of whom have had little success connecting with him and helping to support him in his academic and personal endeavors. Virtually all of them have recommended that he spend as little time in the classroom as possible. They all suggest that he work with specialists in his areas of academic weakness, and that he be separated from the other students when he experiences his moments of shutdown. My mentor teacher Mr. Jackson–who is highly familiar with each of these programs, and an extremely venerable specialist in his own right–disagrees with most of these suggestions, and has been fighting tooth and nail to keep Derik not only in school, but in his classroom. Every time a counselor or specialist tries to remove him to another room, Mr. Jackson insists that he stay and be a part of the lesson that all the other kids are doing. When he shuts down, no matter how often, Mr. Jackson directs him to sit in another part of the classroom where he can observe the lesson, even if he is not participating. “Even when he is sitting at a far table and doesn’t want to work,” Mr. Jackson has explained to me, “I see him watching the lesson, listening to what I and the other students are saying. I would rather have him here, observing the lesson and learning something than away in a room where he is isolated from the rest of the class.”
I have recently been looking into graduate schools of education, and have been having an extremely difficult time finding programs or departments which maintain specifically social justice, radical, or ethnic studies-based approaches. When I asked Mr. Jackson where I might locate a radical teacher training program, he told me it was likely I would never find one. “These programs at their best will only give you the credentials you will need to function at the most basic level in the classroom. Brining social justice into your teaching–making your classroom a space that fights the status quo and the institutions you are a part of–that can only come from you, from your experiences and knowledge of the world. That’s something you have to figure out on your own.” I was still absorbing these words of wisdom when he posed a question I was unprepared to answer: “Do you think the way I run my classroom is radical?” I was caught off guard, and not exactly sure what the most appropriate way to respond was. I did think that much of the setup and activities of his room were deeply progressive, though they were not always what I had envisioned in a radical learning space. Before I could come up with some answer to the question, Mr. Jackson spoke:
“Derik is struggling in this class everyday. He is probably dealing with some serious depression and anxiety, though no one knows for sure. Everyone is at all loss for what to do for him, but they all want me to take him out of the classroom. But I refuse. He is my responsibility, and he is a part of this community, and I am committed to keeping him here where he can benefit from discussions even when he is not participating, and can still feel connected to and involved with what is happening in our classroom. That is radical. Jamika,” –another student in the class who is three grade levels behind in almost every one of her subjects– “has a special ed. plan which demands that she spend more than half the day bouncing around between different classrooms, working with specialists whose plates are already too full, and who are working with so many students that they don’t get the time to know any of them. When they come here to take her out, I won’t let them. I’ve been teaching long enough that I know how to meet her where she is, and I can provide her with the special attention I know she won’t get with overworked specialists. I make special assignments for her in each lesson, giving her work that is at her level without alienating her, calling her out or separating her from this community. That is radical pedagogy. You might not see me talking about socialism, or a vocal political philosophy of some kind. But I take responsibility for every student in my class, and I fight to make sure that they each stay equal and active parts of this community, and that is radical.”
This significant insight provided by my mentor teacher has given me a great deal to think about over the last weeks. While working towards a radical curriculum is something I still feel passionately about–one which resists competition, job preparedness and standardized testing, and places focus on the needs, histories and perspectives of the immediate learning community–how pedagogy aids in the creation of a radical learning space is something I have given less serious thought to. The pedagogy which helps to govern a learning space is not merely a disembodied philosophy, theoretical musings which have no real relation to what actually occurs amongst and between students and teachers. It has everything to do with how comfortable members of the community feel in their learning space, how able they are to make their voices heard, how much power they have in calling out what is not working for them, and how invested they feel in their own learning as a collective endeavor. To engender this kind of classroom is no small feat, and requires deep commitment in equal parts from students, teachers, family members, staff, administrators, and anyone else who has a stake in justice-based learning. And in the end, as my mentor teacher so profoundly illuminated, that commitment is just as much about how we fight to teach as it is about what we fight to teach.