“If you’re not challenging systems of power and privilege, then you’re perpetuating them.”
I’ve heard this line in some version over the last few months, at various workshops and other PD, including more than one NCTE session last fall. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, especially in the context of teaching and my role as an educator. In what ways, I wonder, have I perpetuated systems of power and privilege instead of challenge them?
I wonder about this whenever I choose materials for class, whether I’m putting together a curricular unit or recommending a book for independent reading. The other day, Shawna Coppola tweeted the following, and it reminded me again of how important it is for our practice to be dynamic and responsive to the world around us.
Declining to discuss current events w/ Ss = educational malpractice
— Shawna Coppola🏳️🌈 (@ShawnaCoppola) March 10, 2017
The more relevant we can make the work we do with students, the more we can show them why what we study really matters beyond our classroom and not just for the test on Friday, the better I think our students—and our society—will be.
And so as an English teacher, I ask myself: How can I choose content that will broaden students’ experiences? How can I create opportunities for students to develop empathy? To develop the skills to be critical readers of themselves and the world? How will this text or this lesson empower students to change the status quo?
Because the thing is, the status quo doesn’t like change. In fact, it actively fights against it.
I grew up in a relatively affluent suburban district with excellent public schools, much like the students I teach. And like the students I teach, I always knew that it was a privilege to grow up in the environment that I did. But that privilege is a responsibility—a responsibility to change society for the better.
The thing is, when you have privilege, it’s actually hard to change society. It’s hard to challenge the system that afforded you that privilege. It’s easier to go along with the status quo—to check off all the boxes to all things you’re supposed to do. And while you’re checking off those boxes, it feels like you’re doing something positive, that you’re taking action.
But the truth is, when you follow rules that perpetuate systems of power and privilege, you’re not really acting in the world as much as you are fulfilling a prescribed role. Or we might do nothing, but that is also a choice—a passive one, one that seems harmless enough (maintaining the status quo always seems that way), yet still a choice, a decision to keep things the way they are. To perpetuate rather than challenge.
As I continue to dwell on these issues, I think about the types of questions I can encourage my students to ask more frequently—questions that I hope will empower them to challenge the status quo.
- What voices are represented in a text? What voices are absent?
- Who has power? Who has been disempowered?
- Are the voices represented fully developed? In narratives, which characters are fully developed? Which characters are not? Why?
- What might this text look like from another character’s point-of-view? OR, in non-fiction, what might this argument look like from another stakeholder’s view?
When I hear teachers talk about school and the goals they have for their students, I hear a lot about getting kids ready for college or career, preparing them for the “real” world. But the more I think about it, school shouldn’t really be about getting students prepared for the world as it is, but for the world as it should be. Education should be aspirational and schooling, disruptive.
This post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.