A New Kind of Classroom

Critical Pedagogy in Action

By Bill Bigelow

This had been the first year for a Literature in American History course that i co-taught with Linda Christensen, an English teacher, at Jefferson High School. Jefferson is the most racially integrated high school in Oregon. The school enrolls 1500 students – about 45% black, 45% white and 10% Southeast Asian. Our class involved 37 students, two class periods a day, five days a week, for a full school year.

Linda and I had discussed, planned for – fought for – the course for over a year. We wanted to engage students in a class that moved heart and intellect and urged a radical rethinking of assumptions about U.S. society and the students’ place in it.

The Classroom as a Model For a New Society

Linda and I recognized from the begin­ning that all teaching is political. Both the pedagogy and content of a class are shaped – consciously or not – by visions of the kind of society one is attempting to create, or re-create. We wanted our class to model, as much as possible, values and social relation of a fully egalitarian, democratically directed, humane society – to be a living critique of all varieties of domination.

From the start, we rejected the notion that students were merely empty vessels waiting to be filled with our academic wisdom. Too often classrooms are centers of alienation: students listen, record, re­cite. In different combinations, this is the year-long pattern. The class is both model of and conditioner for a hierarchical society in which the vast majority have little meaningful involvement, individually or collectively.

Most activities in our class sought to encourage students to see each other as teachers, thinkers, critics. We arranged the class in a circle to encourage student-to-student interactions. Students regularly read their papers to one another, talked with each other in editing groups, built alliances through role playing, and solved problems in small groups. Our goal was to engage students in experiences which implicitly criticized the status quo and suggested possible alternatives. Where we fell down was in not talking with students about the political “whys” of our different pedagogies – making conscious the larger implication of our participatory methodologies. As Paulo Freire points out, “by criticizing traditional  schools, what we have to criticize is the capitalist-system that shaped these schools” and, we could add, explore with students alternatives to this system. But it won’t happen by osmosis; students need to consciously reflect on the broader significance of their new experiences.

At times, Linda and I got mired in the cleverness of our lessons and the narrowness of our disciplines. We lost sight of the fact that it isn’t innovative techniques which characterize our teaching – nor how humane we are, how well we involve students, or how engaging our discussions are. Ultimately, the depth of our analysis of the larger society – its contradictions· and possibilities – determines how truly liberated our classroom  is. Do students leave equipped with analytical tools to critique dominating social and economic structures, and do they feel capable to play a role in fundamental change? This is the goal – rather than developing historians or writers, though both are desirable.

We encouraged our students to ask “why?” about social phenomena, historical and present, and to understand that people making conscious their dreams of better lives, and working for those dreams, can make a difference. But we hoped they would do more than dream. In order to believe change is possible people need to see themselves as capable of taking action. At times, our classroom became a center for organizing – as when students challenged the school administration and military when  the Armed Services  Vocational Aptitude Battery was being given. Students, many of them from our class, were so insistent in raising questions of military personnel that the test couldn’t be administered and the military left, vowing never to return. The resulting euphoria – and for some, fury – spilled into our classroom. For a tense and passionate hour we guided students’ arguments and analysis of what had happened – meanwhile fighting off interruptions from irate vice principals and counselors.

Students Challenge Teachers

At times, student challenges were directed at us. Once, Linda and I exchanged new steel desks for older wooden models. But the students had liked the new desks and were angry at our arrogance for not consulting them. Linda playfully defended our action in a poem about the old, worn, wooden desks that “hugged your brother, your mother, and your mother’s mother.” One student angrily responded with another poem: “When told-of our past, we cry for the mistakes our ancestors made. We press forward disregarding the patterns of our roots. But we are bound to chairs in which their minds were first etched. We plead to the ones with power for a small favor: an exchange of desks. Then we can shake off the arms that cradled our parents in their strangling clutch, and let new ideas jump their footsteps to form a better world. In the room at the end of the hall is the future of the state, wrapped in wooden ideologies of the past.” Inspired by poetry and posters, students organized stand-up strikes until we caved in and returned their desks.

Part of the vision we want students to experience is that working together for changes, which themselves are collectively imagined, can be exciting and rewarding. But we often failed to encourage students to examine critically the group challenge or activity itself. What made it successful or unsuccessful, satisfying or disappointing? How is this experience indicative of the possible components of a new society? A perfectly egalitarian classroom is obviously not possible while certain individuals wield more power than others. This is especially clear when it comes to grades: we give grades, students don’t. And grades are power. But this limitation notwithstanding, how grading is performed and understood also projects a definite political stance. In our class, while students were credited with completing assignments regularly, we refused to grade this work. We urged students to motivate themselves with internal or collective incentives, such as the satisfaction of learning something new about oneself, the joy of creating a fresh metaphor, the appreciation-from the class for a moving poem or well-argued performance while role playing. Of course, ultimately we had to issue final grades, and these we gave only after students wrote about their progress and contributions to the class and we had a chance to hold private conferences with them.

Unfortunately, like many of the important and, I think, successful changes we implemented, we didn’t engage students in a discussion  of  the political implications of our change. Grades as motivators reflect a larger society characterized by external motivation. Students conditioned-to work (or not work) for the grade slide on easily to jobs where they expect few rewards beyond paychecks and health benefits. Grades function,  long  after  students  leave  the classroom,  to counter  worker  discontent with oppressive conditions. But we didn’t talk explicitly  about all this with students and so deprived them of critically understanding our reform. It’s something I recognize now as a consistent problem with our class: to simply institute a better sys­ out students analyzing and under­ tem with standing the change is inadequate. The implication is that students learn automatically from changed conditions, but they don’t.

Students’ Lives and Language as Social Texts

Perhaps our greatest success throughout the year was in creating an atmosphere where we could hear students’ real voices and real experiences. We engaged students in writing poems, essays, and stories which linked themes we were studying in literature and history to students’ lives. In read-arounds, all students were encouraged to share their writing with the rest of the class, although any student could choose to pass. What  we heard was the most beautiful and powerful patchwork of teenage life I’d ever encountered. Students shared writing about racism, child abuse, class discrimination, alcoholism, love. Ira Shor suggests in A Pedagogy For Liberation that, “critical inquiry can produce a literature from the grassroots.” I began to taste that potential in my own classroom. One would have to be a stone to remain unmoved by the writing of our students.

Linda and I wrote and shared along with the students. Pity the teacher who, on occasion, neglected to complete the assignment.

Too often; however, we failed to search out the social meaning implicit in students’ stories. While the read-arounds exposed class members to a kaleidoscope of real life, we almost always pushed on with the day’s work after hearing the read­ arounds. It was a literary show-and-tell. This is not to say that the read-arounds were a waste of time – far from it. Students bared their souls before the class, and the shared intimacy was a strong community-building experience. We also were inspired by and learned from a myriad of styles of writing and usage. Finally, the read-arounds were a key motivator in stimulating the students. They weren’t simply writing for a teacher audience, they were writing for each other. The result was deeper reflection, clearer thinking, and better writing.

But we had a gold mine on our hands and we settled for a copper mine. We could and should have encouraged students to listen to each other’s writing for common themes which emerged  to provoke further discussion and reflection. For example, we read an account of Frederick Douglass resisting the orders of his overseer. Our assignment was to write about “a time in your life when you stood up for some animation became more intense.” For students, there is an “intrinsic motivation” in describing and understanding their own experiences, Freire adds. This, of course is true and I’ve shared here some experiences which I think demonstrate this truth. But I’m uncomfortable at the limited way in which both Shor and Freire understand the term “student reality.” It seems that for them “student reality” is something out there: the family, the workplace, the community. The teacher is thus relegated to generating reflection on reality, but not as an additional creator of reality. Neither Shor nor Freire speaks of the powerful experience in which we as teachers can engage our students. They acknowledge that teachers direct the dialogical process – but for them this process is largely contemplative. The teacher dialogues solely with ideas, not experiences s/he has had a hand in creating. 

Organic Goodies

Linda and I sought to engage students in experiences which could then be the shared source for reflection. For example, in one lesson, the Organic Goodie simulation, students are asked to imagine they are workers in a society which depends solely on the production and consumption of Organic Goodies. I own the only Organic Goodie machine in our society, and proceed to drive down wages, lay off workers, pit workers and unemployed against each other, and hire police to guard my machine. It’s a rowdy class period with students organizing unions, striking, and at times staging insurrections to seize control of my Goodie machine. The outcome is unpredictable, but it is always a powerful experience which produces a thoroughly involving discussion about the choices students made to revolt or sit passively, the meaning of individual property rights versus community rights, the source of wealth_in society, etc.

This experience is every bit as real as what Shor and Freire are calling “lived reality” – which actually means, for them, life outside the classroom. True, the teacher r(s) have initiated the experience, but this makes it no less the students’ experience. The students feel, think, -plan, choose. That it is a simulation does not demote the experience.to second-class status. True, students are not, in fact, being exploited by a ruthless boss, but the interactions in the classroom are still real and can be quite powerful. Student reactions and choices form the basis for classroom dialogues about important issues.

Freire points out that “conflict is the midwife of consciousness.” Our heavy use of  role plays, simulations, and debates takes this idea ·as the starting point. We try to reproduce social conflict in the classroom to illuminate the cause of war, obstacles and opportunities to building alliances, and appropriate tactics for social change. We’re not simply aiming at a transference of our knowledge to the students, but for students to make understandings real and meaningful through interpreting their own experiences in the role  plays as well  as life’ “out there.”

Historical Perspective

There is also an advantage in not focusing exclusively on students’ experiences outside the classroom. Students often become defensive when examining their own social realities; they have difficulty gaining a critical distance from their own lives. It’s unfamiliar,·uncomfortable. In a society not experiencing fundamental change from the grass roots and lacking popular alternative dreams, most students adopt consumerism provided by life in capitalist society. Students dream of fancy cars, flashy clothes, life in the NBA, swimming pools – things. $u$ie signs her name with dollar signs. In this ideological context, studying historical conflict or conflict in other societies creates a reflective distance. Students can consider issues of social class and transformation without feeling immediately that their lives are being called into question.

Another advantage of creating classroom experiences with students is that often their lives are so different that they share few outside life experiences in common. At Jefferson we have students from all over the city, from the privileged hilltops to the flatlands of Albina. An Organic Goodie simulation creates a common experience about which students can bring their diverse understandings for reflection.

While I am critical of Linda’s and my first year effort together, I am anything but gloomy. Designing a class that critiques the entire society, offers visions or an egalitarian democracy, and thoroughly engages each student is a tall order. The struggle continues As Paulo Freire says, “We are not teachers, we are becoming teachers.”

Bill Bigelow teaches at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon.

This article was originally prepared as a paper for a course led by the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. The texts for the session included Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and A Pedagogy for Liberation by Paulo Freire and Ira Shor. A version of this article first appeared in Equity and Choice, Winter, 1988.