Updated: Feb 5, 2019
Key Words: Critical pedagogy, critical theory, cultural curriculum, deficit curriculum, Title 1, at-risk youth, school-to-prison pipeline, overcrowding
Introduction and Context
My first teaching job 17 years ago was in a private school just outside Atlanta, Georgia. The majority of the children came from affluent households and there were very few children of color. The classes were small – 14 children per class – and discipline was strict. So strict was the headmaster that desks were required to be in rows, students in uniforms, and demerits given for the slightest offense. The combination of small class size, strictly enforced discipline, and strong parental involvement made this an easy entry into teaching -- it was also stifling. After three years, I tendered my resignation and took a job teaching in a large Title I, minority-majority high school in the northern suburbs of the city. The school, built in 1958, is one of the oldest in the district. Not originally designed to house almost 3,000 students, additions over the years have created a warren-like design with low ceilings, dark hallways, and odd twists and turns. Overcrowding, poverty, and racial conflicts contributed to this school having the highest school crime rate in the county. After seeing a fellow teacher get knocked out and taken away in an ambulance during a student fight, I came to see my students less as children and more as threats, but this perception was shattered by the following experience with a high school student who opened my eyes to the threats facing my students every day.
Events, Actions, and Outcomes
One of my students was a young black man named whom I’ll call Darius. Darius was an easy-going fellow, respected, and liked by his peers. Darius barely made it into class on time. Once he actually slid into class feet first as if sliding into home base almost knocking me down in the process. Upon taking his seat, Darius would remove the gold grill that covered his upper teeth and carefully place it on a handkerchief on his desk. One day, he said, “Missus, I need to holla at cha.” Shocked, I asked him what I had done to him that made him want to yell at me. The other students began to laugh as they explained, “What he means is he needs to talk to you.” Embarrassed by my ignorance, I asked Darius if we could talk after class, but he insisted that he come to see me early in the morning. He needed to speak to me in private.
The next morning, I found Darius waiting outside my classroom. I invited him in and he told me that he wanted an “A” in this class and he wanted my help to earn it.
“Okay, fine, good. Yes, I will help you,” I responded.
“But you can’t let anyone know,” he implored.
“And put all my graded papers face down.”
Yes, I nodded.
He continued, “and don’t be saying nothing about my grades.”
I nodded again in agreement. He thanked me and left before anyone saw him. He never did come in for help, but he became my best student in the class.
A few weeks later, we began reading aloud a short story, “The Scarlet Ibis,” by James Hurst. The story is about two brothers – the elder (known only as “Brother”) who is born healthy and the younger named Doodle who struggles from birth with physical handicaps that hinder his mobility. The older brother begins a training regimen to make the younger brother strong and the younger brother (who idolizes his brother) is determined not to let his brother down even at his risk to his health.
Over the two days we read the story, I noticed that Darius crossed himself in a blessing each time Doodle’s name was mentioned. Keenly engaged in the story, Darius’s face displayed his concern for Doodle’s welfare and when Doodle dies at the end while trying to keep up with his brother, Darius blessed himself and wiped a tear from his eye. After class, once everyone had left the room, I told him I saw him bless himself at each mention of Doodle. I asked why.
“I have a little sister like Doodle. She stays in bed. When I leave here, I go home and change her feeding tube and sheets if I need to.”
He paused and then continued,
“She’s not as strong as Doodle.”
And with that, he left the room. Until that moment (and I am ashamed to admit this), I hadn’t considered the complicated challenges facing my students. I thought in terms of grades, test scores, and discipline.
Darius taught me to see my students not as threats but as threatened– threatened by a society that places so much pressure on students academically while putting systemic barriers in the way of their success. His desire to do well in school was threatened by a system that made it almost impossible for him to succeed. As a brown-skinned young man in a Title I school, Darius had the cards stacked against him (Watkins, 2001). His sister’s disability was yet another obstacle for him. Add the overcrowding of the school, the policing of students, and the lack of a support system and Darius was certain to fail. But of course, the system was never designed to help students. It was designed to be efficient and economical (Callahan, 1962; Franklin, 1974: Kliebard, 2004).
The oppressive physical environment is but a reflection of an oppressive educational system, particularly for students of color like Darius. Students outside the norm (as defined by white, male academicians) are often cast out of the educational system as defective products (Flannery, 2015) with Black students expelled at a rate three times that of whites, and Black and Latino students accounting for 70% of police referrals at schools (U. S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2004). Fed on a curriculum of deficit, students come to believe that they are worthless. Not surprisingly, this self-loathing has manifested itself in increased rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, and drug overdoses among America’s youth (Brody, 2008; Mojtabai, Olfson, & Han, 2016). Students, particularly students of color, are at risk -- are taught they do not measure up, that they are unworthy of up-to-date facilities, and unable to change the hand they were dealt.
I do not know how Darius was able to persevere given such challenges; however, I do know that I do not want to contribute to the threatening home and school life in which he lives. Because of Darius, I learned that it is every teacher’s responsibility to be aware of the struggles each student faces and to provide a safe haven for them.
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