Monday, December 12, 2016

When Schooling Subtracts…

“School subtracts resources from youth in two major ways. First, it dismisses their definition of education which is not only thoroughly grounded in Mexican culture, but also approximates the optimal definition of education advanced by Noddings (1984) and other caring theorists. Second, subtractive schooling schooling encourages subtractively assimilationist policies and practices that are designed to divest Mexican students of their culture and language.” (Valenzuela, 1999, p.20)

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It is easy to use the words education and school interchangeably. For most of my life I did. Now I hesitate to do so. School is an institution. Quite frankly, it speaks to a prescribed and systematized curriculum, type of learning, and socialization process. Leaving aside (for now) the inherent political and sociological contestations of this system, one hopes that if you progress through school you posses a certain type of education. This education according to different folks is supposed to make you a good person, or a good citizen, or a good worker, or now-a-days a good STEMist.

But there are different types of education. Education is not limited to the school. There is the education inherent in one’s community. There is the education inherent in one’s family. There is the education inherent in one’s culture. There is the education inherent in clubs. There is the education inherent in religion. There is education inherent in the medical clinic, the after-school program, the sports team, the museum…

You get the idea.

Schools, though, often claim a monopoly on education. This makes sense. Their whole purpose after all is to educate the child. Schools have a recognizable type of education. Cynically, one could simplify this to the “game of school”. Using academic speak, you could call this the “grammar of schooling”. If you identify, understand, and follow the rules, chances are you get to keep playing. The longer you play, the better you do.

But what if the school’s type of education is in opposition to the other types of education a child receives? 

What if one was forced to choose between the school’s type of education and, say, their communities’ or their families’ or their cultures’? 

These are questions that Angela Valenzuela took up in her classic book Subtractive Schooling. She wrote about a conversation with one student, Frank. Frank was described by teachers as a C-student (let’s leave aside the fact that teachers still designate students this way as if it is an inherent quality), one working way below his potential. In fact, teachers claimed Frank to be a brilliant thinker. Unfortunately, they also characterized him as passive, indifferent, and apathetic. Frank saw things differently. He said that the school prized individualism and competition, a type of “caring” Frank resisted. He saw this traditional notion of school “caring” in opposition to the concerns of others and the community. Frank explained:

“I don’t get with the program because then it’s doing what they [teachers] want for my life. I see Mexicanos who follow the program so they can go to college, get rich, move out of the barrio, and never return to give back to their gente [people]. Is that what this is all about?” (Valenzuela, 1999, p. 94). 

This “out-of the barrio” motif (Valenzuela, 1999, p. 95) is rooted in deficit approaches to communities, peoples, and students. Deficit models basically hold that students need to be fixed. In plain terms, their myriad types of educations are lacking and not worthy of a place at the “official home” of education — school. Deficit models hold potential student strengths as weaknesses. One of the most common manifestations of this is language, although I could just as easily use home-life stereotypes, motivation of students, clothing, etc. Rather than seeing a home language other than English as an asset, or an advantage, schools typically frame it as a problem to be remedied. And thus the child becomes a problem as well. The idea is to make students English proficient as quickly as possible, even if this means damage to a first language. Extreme programs like “English only” and rapid “Americanization,” as well as more implicit ones, force students to make a decision. Do I erase my culture and ways of knowing for their type of education? For so many of us, we didn’t have to make such a decision. On the other hand, it is sad that so many do.

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In his must-read book For White Folks… Chris Emdin talks about the structures in schools that “do not lend themselves to giving students a voice or space in which to be valued and respected for their experiences” (p. 66). Similarly, educator Chris Lehmann wrote, “If we want kids to care about their education, we are going to have to encourage their passions. If we want kids to believe in themselves, we will have to help them build on their strengths, not just mitigate their weaknesses”. Yes, this can be very, very hard work. There is not a standard curriculum. There is not a set of “best practices”. There is not a professional development series that achieves instant success. It is more than a cultural day or a lesson plan template. It takes honest reflection. It takes a willingness to change. It takes real vulnerability. It takes humility to say — what I think is right might not be. Our type of education is not the only type. Or gasp — even the best type.

It is even harder for educators who were successful in this system to recognize that it might not be successful for all. I know that is super hard for me to do even though I struggled and resisted at various points in my schooling. It is also something that I find myself grabbling with more and more. Recognizing the types of education that honor, that uplift, that empower all students should be a central focus of teachers and schools. If we are not doing that we need to check ourselves right soon. Without a more thoughtful response schools might continue to subtract from students as they claim the exact opposite.

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