Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Violence of School

When we are not accepted, bodies are open to violence. Violence is thereby a symptom of anxiety for those threatened by their inadequacies of not reading others’.

-sj Miller in “A Queer Literacy Framework Promoting (A)Gender and (A)Sexuality Self-Determination and Justice”rtjrby9gc

For those of us working in K-12 education, the risk for violence to the bodies of the children in our classroom should constantly be at the forefront. K-12 education is mandatory, so whatever violence to which children are susceptible is entirely our concern and domain. Bullying is not simply a fact of life to which children should acclimate; it is a power dynamic, often physically imposed, that endangers the bodies of particular children. Bullying does not occur in a vacuum, however. In schools, we set up the social parameters. These behaviors are okay or not okay. These languages are okay or not okay. These identities or ways of being are okay or not okay. Once we have done that, established a hierarchy of social identities, bullying and other schoolyard violence will enforce those hierarchies.

If we encounter violence in our schools and classrooms, our first question should be: what have we done to create the social conditions for this violence? To clarify, in what ways have our behaviors, mindsets, curricula, teaching strategies, and language indicated that we do not value (and thereby condone violence toward) a particular kind of student?

If we can ask these questions without self-defensiveness and with real inquiry into the social conditions of our schools, we will be able to identify the institutional structures that mandated the violence.

Regarding “the real world”

Sometimes adults defend violence toward children by arguing that violence in the real world will be commonplace and that we must teach them to cope with it. By making such arguments, we are perpetrating the violent structures in spaces beyond schools. We are encouraging our students not to rage against or speak against violence but to accept and condone it.

Schools are not preparatory spaces. We are not getting children ready for “the next thing.” School is a real place where children are real people. The violence and behaviors we advocate in school do not “prepare” children to cope with the world outside of school. Instead, we actively create the hierarchies, privileges, biases, and power dynamics that exist in spaces outside of schools. If we want some other way of being to happen in “the real world,” we should put our energy toward making that way of being happen in schools.

Not just bullying

Of course, the violence that occurs in school, the violence that we require, condone, and participate in, is not just bullying. It is also apparent in the stereotypes that get perpetrated, the labeling and gatekeeping that we do, and in the teaching practices we use. When we decide what kind of reading, learning, and educational experiences students deserve based on test scores or formative assessment or other forms of tracking, we are committing violence against the children who are oppressed by these practices. When we fail to use texts that represent our children and their communities, when we don’t imagine that our children can attend college or succeed in school, when we value certain types of responses as “authentic,” we commit violence against these children. This intellectual and emotional violence sometimes results in physical violence and almost always in continued oppression.

Empathy and consent

I am not arguing that we should have no mandates or requirements in school. But perhaps we should undergo a radical reconsideration of what we do mandate. What we require is what we are likely to get, after all. I would put forth that that two domains we barely teach or learn at all in schools would constitute a starting point for such a radical course change.

Empathy, for teachers, would mean considering the feelings, positions, and needs of each student, their families, and even the community in which the school is situated. For students, this would mean consideration of the feelings, positions, and needs of their classmates, teachers, and communities. What would conflict resolution look like if we mandated empathy? What would collaborative learning and classroom interactions look like if empathy was the norm? In our current system, oppressed people must constantly practice empathy already. In a world where black people are murdered by police officers on the regular, constant vigilance about the emotional status of white authority figures is necessary. Similarly, women are often hyper-aware of the moods of men, partially because they are socialized for conflict minimalism, but also because the risk women face for physical danger from men is much higher than the reverse. Queer people, too, are so often the targets of physical, verbal, and emotional violence that they must maintain an awareness of dominant straight mindsets at all times. The quote I used at the opening of this post is taken from a Queer theorist, in fact. By all this, I am saying that empathy must not only be the less powerful empathizing with the powerful. Teachers must begin this revolution by empathizing with their students.

Consent is really antithetical to the compulsive attendance of K-12 schools. What would consent look like in school? What would grading look like? What would social interactions be like between students and between students and teachers if interactions were not requirements but invitations?

We no longer have the luxury to sit around sighing about violence in the world. It is time for us think about how we are mandating systems of violence in schools and take action to make schools different.

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Posted by on July 11, 2016 in Teaching


The Juno Metaphor

This morning I was asked to explore some science articles and videos on the interwebs. Yay, science! I glanced through a few of the suggested resources, then moved on to Googling Juno. I’ve been hearing about Juno all week but really didn’t know much about it and what NASA hopes to learn about Jupiter. It turns out that NASA is investigating Jupiter’s magnetosphere and whether the planet has a solid core. There is more to it… the NASA site is really cool.

So in order to construct Juno, NASA scientists had to study the environment Juno would have to endure, in this case tremendous amounts of radiation. Juno is the product of research and preparation.

It’s a lovely metaphor for inquiry. There were some questions scientists wanted to answer, so they studied as much as they could and prepared their study, June itself, to go to Jupiter. There are certainly environmental factors that the scientists didn’t/couldn’t plan for, but they made the best decisions they could based on the information at hand.

So that’s the result of my inquiry this morning: a nice metaphor.

For the NASA scientists, the results of their inquiry into Jupiter will be an understanding of how Jupiter was formed and more information about the history of our solar system. For me, I’ve reached a neat understanding of inquiry and meta-cognition.

I am not convinced that the outcome for either of us (me or NASA) will be an argument. In many school-oriented inquiry projects, the final destination is argument, a position, a case. Is that how all inquiries turn out?


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Posted by on July 7, 2016 in Uncategorized


The Empathy Project

This week I have been thinking about the ways in which education encourages argument, competition, and antipathy; we do this in both curricular content and in the structures of school. I wonder what content and structures would look like if the goals shifted.

When it comes to empathy, I am a work in progress myself. There are many people with whom I absolutely don’t empathize. In fact, I’m sure I’ve uttered those exact words: I just don’t understand how… I just can’t understand why… 

Before I try teaching empathy, I think I’ll try practicing it. My goal is to seek out some of the kinds of people with whom I find it challenging to empathize.

It sounds easy. face-985965_960_720



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Posted by on July 6, 2016 in Uncategorized


Counter-argument or Empathy?

Those of us who teach argument know all about teaching counter-argument. Imagine, we tell our students, someone who might disagree with you. Now, what arguments might they make in response to your argument? And how will you annihilate that response?

Jonathan Swift taught us how to do this, and we learned his lesson. Eat the babies! Yaaaassss! How would modern argument look if Swift had never taught us that suggesting infant cannibalism was a perfectly reasonable persuasive strategy?

Teaching counter-argument has that sort of military strategy feel to it. It feels like teaching counter-insurgency or something.

Here is an alternate assignment:

  • Have each student go and find an actual person who disagrees with their position.
  • The student should listen carefully to that person’s perspective.
  • Then the student should write about and describe that person’s perspective. They should also return to the person they interviewed and ask for feedback on how well they have represented that perspective.

What would “argumentative writing” look like if we asked our students to empathize deeply first? 2000px-hicolor_apps_scalable_empathy-svg


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Posted by on July 5, 2016 in Teaching


Toward a curriculum of consent

The legendary Dr. Heather Coffey pointed out to a group of NWP teachers that there is something problematic about “allowing” our students to do something (when we design our objectives or class procedures). I want to allow students to express their thoughts. This definitely establishes the teacher as the institutional authority who allows or disallows behaviors.

I would contend that, instead of using a different word, we really need to think about what we are allowing and not allowing in our classrooms. We can say that we are “encouraging,” but if we are grading and assessing certain kinds of work and behaviors, then we are actually still allowing.

We can teach content that is appropriate to our curriculum. We can teach diverse authors that represent people of all races, ethnicities, genders. We can teach social justice.

If our teaching itself does not inhabit representation and social justice, then our content is meaningless. If our teaching continues to be authoritarian, directive, and competitive, those values are being inculcated more effectively than the surface values of diversity or inclusion.

Bear with me for a quick detour. The thing that has frustrated me the most as the parent of a middle school boy is the abstinence-only sex education he has received. That the school refuses to teach basic birth control and disease prevention is one thing. That the concept of consent is not taught is a significant problem. The more I considered this problem, the more I came to realize that there is no consent throughout K-12 curriculum. In fact, K-12 schooling is founded on utter lack of consent of children; K-12 education is compulsive.

What would a curriculum look like if it were founded on principles of consent? What would our classroom contracts and permission forms look like if students could actually say no? silence_does_not_equal_consent

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Posted by on July 5, 2016 in Uncategorized



The violence of argument

The base assumption of argument is that the writer is trying to change another person’s mind or actions. The verbs we use are:

  • to convince
  • to persuade
  • to prove
  • to prevail upon
  • to establish

Would you add anything else to that list?

Even if our goals are great… to encourage critical thinking, to invite passion, to create community, to advocate for social justice… if we pursue those goals using the same tools of the oppressors, then we are not changing anything. We are only changing the bosses. The traditional tool of oppression is violence. Demanding that people change their minds or agree are emotionally and mentally violent actions.

What if we redefine argument? Instead of convincing or persuading, argument could be about listening, empathizing, and collaborating?




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Posted by on July 5, 2016 in Uncategorized


What is argument?

I promise you that argument is a thing. Using the most pedestrian definition possible, I have them pretty frequently. Here is a quick rundown of the last few arguments I’ve experienced:

  • With my husband. Issue: yucky food in the sink.
  • With a stranger on Facebook. Issue: sexism, specifically against HRC, is a thing.
  • With a cousin on Facebook. Issue: racism, specifically the use of the confederate flag in a Trump advertisement.
  • With two of my close friends. Issue: why I argue on Facebook so much. Do I have unmet needs?

So what’s an argument? Each of these arguments involves conversations I have with other people about competing ideas on a given topic. The argument with my husband is a solid example: I am unhappy when there is yucky food in the sink because I like a clean sink and must touch yucky food in order to make cleanness happen. My husband, on the other hand, values the convenience of tossing food (pre-yuckiness) into the sink. So we could construe argument as the discourse emerging from our conflicting values on this topic.


The argument happens because I want something (a clean sink) that I see my husband as precluding or impeding. But the real issue is perhaps my desire for a clean sink or perhaps my aversion to touching yucky food. Those are issues inside myself that I choose to externalize.

Let’s take a close look at one of my other recent arguments. A friend of mine posted an article about Hillary Rodham Clinton on Facebook. I read the article and the comments posted by friends of my friend (i.e. strangers). One of the commenters made some comments about HRC that contended that she is a lying liar and furthermore “shrill.” Also unqualified. I objected to the gendered nature of these comments and replied to his comments. My intention was to draw awareness to his (unconscious?) use of misogynist language in regard to HRC. This, as you might imagine, did not transpire in that manner. Although on the surface, this argument seems as though it is the discourse surrounding conflicting ideologies, once again the real issue is with me. I am the interpreter of those comments who is troubled by misogyny. My interpretation and my desire for someone else to be different than he is is at the root of the argument.

I don’t think I’m any closer to understanding what argument is. But I do have questions about whether it even has anything to do “competing ideologies” or “discourse.”


Not my actual sink.

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Posted by on July 5, 2016 in Uncategorized