Subtractive Schooling

What happens when schools disrespect students’ cultural heritage and when teacher fail to listen to the students?

Editors Note: The following is adapted from Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring, by Angela Valenzuela. In her introduction, Valenzuela explains subtractive schooling as a process by which schools “subtract resources” from U.S.-Mexican youth in two major ways.

First, the schools dismiss the definition of education grounded in Mexican culture, in which the term “educación” assumes that an individual student’s “progress” is lodged in the caring relationship developed between teacher and student. “Although educación has implications for pedagogy,” Valenzuela writes, “it is first a foundational cultural construct that provides instructions on how one should live in the world. With its emphasis on respect, responsibility, and sociality, it provides a benchmark against which all humans are to be judged, formally educated or not.”

Second, subtractive schooling “encompasses subtractively assimilationist policies and practices that are designed to divest Mexican students of their culture and language,” Valenzuela writes.

Subtractive Schooling is based on a three-year ethnographic study at Juan Seguin High School (a pseudonym), a predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American school in Houston.

By Angela Valenzuela

When teenagers lament that “Nobody cares,” few adults listen. Whether it is offered as an observation, description, explanation, or excuse, the charge that “Nobody cares” is routinely dismissed as childish exaggeration. But what if it were not hyperbole? What if each weekday, for eight hours a day, teenagers inhabited a world populated by adults who did not care – or at least did not care for them sufficiently?

The following incident expresses one way in which students at Seguin High School responded to this lack of caring – and, in this case, how the teacher listened to the students and together they built a new dynamic in the classroom.

MUTINY IN THE CLASSROOM

In the fall of 1994, the school’s journalism teacher, Mr. Chilcoate, was asked to teach a couple of freshman English classes. These classes differed from others in the department because Mr. Chilcoate deliberately integrated the standard ninth-grade English curriculum with his own journalistic approaches and interests. Despite his efforts to make the course interesting, he was finding it difficult to adjust both to teaching the regular curriculum and his feisty freshmen students. Mr. Chilcoate’s job was made even more difficult by scheduling problems – he met his students for the first time three weeks into the semester.

One morning in late October, when I encountered him in the hall, Mr. Chilcoate was visibly distressed. He blurted out that he had “blown it” with the students in his first-period class. “I lost my cool when they complained about a writing assignment I gave them,” he confessed. The assignment was to write a personal essay. He explained that the students obviously were not yet ready to write about their lives, but that morning he had simply lost his patience with them. He lamented his too-quick decision to discharge one of the more vocal students, a female, from his classroom. This tactic had far larger ramifications than he had either intended or anticipated. The student he sent out of his class was then caught “skipping” by an assistant principal; and the rest of the students, when they found out, were even angrier with him than they had been initially.

Because Mr. Chilcoate and I had developed a respectful, collegial relationship partly as a result of my having spoken about college to students in his classes on other occasions, I felt comfortable asking him if I could help in any way. He responded readily, asking me if I would be willing to talk to his class the following day. I agreed.

After introducing me to his class of approximately twenty students, Mr. Chilcoate left the room. Except for a couple of African-American students, the class was comprised of U.S.-born Mexican youth. When I asked the group to form a circle so that we could talk, one male student refused.

“You don’t need to talk to me,” he said curtly, with an irate expression on his face.

“That’s cool. I’ll talk to the rest,” I responded, agreeably.

Although this student continued facing the front of the room, away from the circle that had formed, he tipped his head back and sideways, toward a female student sitting next to him. Then he began carrying on a separate conversation while I was trying to talk. His action momentarily tested my patience and undermined my confidence that I could make a difference in this tense situation.

I decided to ease matters by fully introducing myself and by asking the students for their permission to tape the conversation, explaining that I planned to make it part of my study. Predictably, the students liked the idea of having their thoughts and feelings appear in a book. In an assortment of soft voices, they expressed their willingness to talk openly about the antagonism that had developed toward Mr. Chilcoate. First, the students described their teacher as coming into class “with an attitude,” and then they recounted how he had unfairly ejected the female student. Once these basic points had been made, the following exchange about Mr. Chilcoate took place:

Angela Valenzuela (AV). I heard he exploded. He told me. He feels real bad about that.

MALE STUDENT 1. He was screaming at us.

AV. Yeah, he feels real bad about that.

MALE STUDENT 1. (expressing disbelief). Aaahhh!

FEMALE STUDENT 1. He doesn’t make the class interesting and nobody wants to learn what he’s teaching.

MALE STUDENT 1. He doesn’t know how to teach.

FEMALE STUDENT 2. If we take out our paper, he’s all slow and he tell us to get! What are we going to “get up” to? [To] listen to what? There’s nothing to listen to! He talks like he’s real tired. Aaaah he talks all slow.

FEMALE STUDENT 1. He wants this to be an English class and all we do is like journalism class. He wants us to be writers and we don’t wanna be.

AV. But writing is good in all your classes, though. Right?

FEMALE STUDENT 2. (unintelligible). Yeah, but he wants us to write ten minutes straight and he wants us to write about our lives.

MALE STUDENT 1. He’s over here making me think of my tenth birthday (everyone laughs).

AV. You don’t think that is interesting?

FEMALE STUDENT 2. Nothing that he does is interesting.

MALE STUDENT 1. I don’t like his office.

AV. So, uh, is there a way, a better way to deal with…

MALE STUDENT 3. Bad teachers.

AV. … with bad teachers?

FEMALE STUDENT 2. … He ain’t a bad teacher.

AV. He’s not a bad teacher?

MALE STUDENT 1. He just needs to chill out sometime[s].

FEMALE STUDENT 2. … He has a nice personality, but what he teaches is not right. I don’t like what he teaches.

SEVERAL VOICES. Yeah.

MALE STUDENT 1. He needs to chill out.

FEMALE STUDENT 2. He needs to have a better temper.

AV. So do y’all act up in all your classes?

MALE STUDENT 1. Well …

FEMALE STUDENT 2. Nooooo!

FEMALE STUDENT 1. Yeah, the ones we don’t like (chuckle).

AV. You act up in the ones that you don’t like?

SEVERAL VOICES. Yeah, the ones we don’t like (chuckle).

AV. Is that a rule?

MALE STUDENT. Our rule.

FEMALE STUDENT 1. (In a loud voice and obviously not completely understanding what I meant by “Is that a rule?”). It’s not a rule. It’s like you’ve been bored and so you’re going to act up and make it funny.

AV. Which classes are boring?

FEMALE STUDENT 2. Reading, math, science …

MALE STUDENT 1. All of them? (much laughter). All of them except ROTC.

AV. You don’t have any classes that are real interesting to you – that you go into and you say, “Man, I enjoyed learning this!”

FEMALE STUDENT 1. Not usually.

MALE STUDENT 1. I got zeroes in all of my classes.

AV. You got zeroes in all of your classes? Why?

MALE STUDENT 1. I don’t do my work.

FEMALE STUDENT 3. Aw, you be sleepin’ all the time.

MALE STUDENT 1. Yeah.

AV. Doesn’t it scare you a little bit?

MALE STUDENT 1. Why … [unintelligible]?

AV. To, uh, you know, to like …

FEMALE STUDENT 1. To be in the ninth grade all your life? (much laughter)

MALE STUDENT 1. It doesn’t matter to me a lot.

AV. Well, a lot of people aren’t … You know that 25 percent of the ninth-grade class, a full quarter, was repeating the ninth grade for at least one time? Some were repeating it three and four times. How many years have you been in the ninth grade?

MALE STUDENT 1. Two.

AV. Are you going to get out of the ninth grade?

MALE STUDENT 1. No. (laughter).

FEMALE STUDENT 1. (laughter). Yeah, in two more years!

AV. So you mean it doesn’t bother you?

MALE STUDENT 1. I don’t know.

AV. You think it will?

(Male student 1. did not respond.)

FEMALE STUDENT 3. It gonna bother him when he sees his friends [unintelligible] graduate and they walk across … [unintelligible].

The discussion grew increasingly serious and the topic shifted to the school’s lack of caring teachers. After several students expressed the view that teachers do not take time out for students and that most of their classes are boring, the defiant student spun around on his chair to face the group.

With a deadly serious look, he stated flatly, “There’s nothin’ to do. All the teachers are boring.”

“So do you really blame the teachers?” I asked.

“Most of them,” he responded.

The female friend at his side concurred, saying, “Yeah.”

Although most students participated in the ensuing discussion, the same students who spoke above dominated the conversation. In response to a question about whether there were any classes that interested them, the students mentioned ROTC, gym, a biology class, and an English class. They described the teachers in these classes as making the classes fun and interesting, with a lot of different activities. For the most part, however, students expressed the view that most of their classes were boring. Only one student maintained that she liked all of her classes, “except for this one [Mr. Chilcoate’s],” she clarified. “We don’t even work [in this class]. We don’t do nothin’.”

A male student who had not spoken previously offered this opinion about teacher caring: “If you don’t want to learn and all that, if you don’t want to compete, it’s not their [teachers’] fault.”

A female student retorted that teachers and students share responsibility for learning. “It’s half ‘n half. Like if they see that the kid is failing, why can’t they go and try to help him? They don’t do nothing with him. Like you’re going to kick him out or let him fail and not do nothin’? They don’t want to help him.”

In silence, the remaining students tacitly agreed with this young woman’s opinion.

I asked the students whether they felt that teachers cared for them. They either shook their heads “no” or they said nothing.

“So, when you say they’re boring, do they at least care for you?” I asked.

“No,” a female student replied, “if they really cared, they wouldn’t be boring and they would show in other ways, too, that they cared.”

“Like how?” I questioned.

“Like show us somehow that we are worth their time.”

“Like how?” I pressed.

“Like maybe show that they care about our life.”

Another student agreed, “I’m tired of teachers telling us about their lives. I don’t care about that.”

“Yeah,” chimed in a third, “I got this one teacher who tells all the time about her dog. That’s stupid.”

As the hour drew to a close, I suggested to the students that they think about a workable solution so that the entire semester would not be lost. Except for a female student’s comment that Mr. Chilcoate should apologize to the student he kicked out of class, no other suggestions were voiced. When the bell rang, Mr. Chilcoate stepped in and the students dashed out.

In communicating to Mr. Chilcoate a general summary of what his students had told me, I mentioned specifically that the students thought that dismissing the female student from the classroom was unfair. The students felt that he should have spoken to her first. I gingerly broke the news to him that the students’ chief complaints were that they were bored in his class and that they were not prepared to write essays on topics they considered highly personal. I could tell that Mr. Chilcoate felt badly, and I left thinking how difficult it can be to pick up the pieces and go on, especially when you are already trying hard and feel uncertain about what your next step should be. I also knew from previous conversations that Mr. Chilcoate was suffering from an extended illness which had literally slowed him down in the classroom for weeks at a time. I feared increasing his burden but felt obliged to at least provide him with an honest summary.

As I had hoped would be the case, Mr. Chilcoate rose to the challenge. He asked his students to write down on a piece of paper (without their names) a particular criticism they had about the class. He then collected all of the papers, read through them quickly, and arranged them with the most inflammatory comments at the top of the list. This is how he described to me what happened next:

    I told them, “Okay, so the class is boring and another student here says ‘F___ you.'” Just as I expected, the students immediately reacted, appalled by what some of their fellow classmates had written. One indignant female student said, “We were raised to respect our elders and it’s not right for anyone to be so disrespectful.” Other students chimed in with similar comments. So, as I expected, I wasn’t able to get through the rest of their comments. We spent class time discussing how to improve the classroom situation without being rude or hostile.

    So, then I continued, “What this communicates to me is frustration.” And immaturity, as well, I thought, though I couldn’t say [that]. “But the kind of frustration that exists here is not clear, and it needs to be spelled out. What are you frustrated about? About me? The materials we are using? About my approach to teaching? Exactly what kind of frustration do you feel?”

Mr. Chilcoate said that he got excellent feedback from the students. And he apologized publicly to the young woman who he had offended and dismissed from the class. Though the students were initially uneasy with the process of talking through their problems with the class, Mr. Chilcoate said that the experience “empowered them.” He guessed that they had never been in a situation where they were given control over their own learning, communicating their desires, concerns, and wishes. “The students were very constructive in their criticism,” he said. Subsequent class periods consisted of varied kinds of activities that galvanized all of the students into greater participation. After several weeks, Mr. Chilcoate felt that the class had moved in a sufficiently positive direction for him to feel tentatively successful. He noted, however, that there was one holdout – one student who insisted on remaining marginal. I could only guess who.

That Mr. Chilcoate chose to try to resolve the problems in his classroom by empowering his students reflects not only his skill as a teacher, but also his commitment to authentic caring. Mr. Chilcoate is well thought of by sophomores, juniors, and seniors who know him. They regard him as one of their most caring teachers. Mr. Chilcoate’s point of departure in his teaching is always his students’ lives, perspectives, and experiences. His journalism students’ writing appears in an impressive school-sponsored student publication, East End Stories. Many of the stories are about romance, problems in relationships, and the negative effects of gangs and drugs. The students have also transcribed some of the folklore and legends told to them by adults who reside in their East End community.

Through his patient coaching, modeling, and individualized attention, he educates each class of students into an understanding of their own experiences as events of worth and value. Mr. Chilcoate laments his inability to speak Spanish and admits that bilingualism would draw him even closer to the students in his classes. Nevertheless, he derives much satisfaction from his relationships with students and from observing and nurturing their intellectual growth. It saddened me to hear that he had decided to get out of teaching at year’s end. His teaching combined several special qualities that mostly worked well with this community: large doses of patience, a personal concern for each individual student, and an all-encompassing love of the East End community and its stories.

So, how could a teacher like Mr. Chilcoate have had such a dismal classroom experience? What could have gone wrong for a teacher with so much integrity? The answers lie mainly in the structure of schooling. His students did not know him prior to their arrival in his class, partly because as ninth-graders they were new to Seguin, but also because the school’s chronic scheduling problems resulted in their not being assigned to any English class until several weeks into the semester. That they entered Mr. Chilcoate’s class already hostile and disaffected is hardly surprising, given the clear institutional message they had received from Seguin counselors that their education is a secondary concern that can be held hostage to bureaucratic imperatives. Rather than engaging in damage control with his new students, Mr. Chilcoate attempted to make up for lost time. He moved too quickly. As he himself realized – too late – he had not allowed the class sufficient time to develop a trusting relationship with him and with each other before he assigned the personal essays.

In accordance with authentic caring, Mr. Chilcoate’s apprehension of “the other” – that is, his appreciation of his students’ culture and their educación model of schooling – enabled him to successfully navigate through troubled waters. Retaining his own dignity, he made a public apology and then steered his class into a conversation that brought out the best in them. It is thus no accident that one student drew on her collective cultural experience with resounding disapproval at some of the criticism aimed at Mr. Chilcoate, to implicitly silence the extremists among her classmates: “We were raised to respect our elders and it’s not right for anyone to be so disrespectful.”

Angela Valenzuela is associate professor in Curriculum and Instruction and the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin.

The above is reprinted from Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999). Reprinted with permission.