“Everything I teach my students are things they already know. I just teach them that they already know them.” - Frantz Jordan-Jerome
I was co-leading a lesson with my mentor teacher during the week of Thanksgiving, in which we were attempting to get at a more complicated telling of the pilgrims’ arrival in the present-day Americas. We started out by asking the class what myths or stories we had all been brought up to believe about the first Thanksgiving, and began writing them up on the board. All of the classic tropes were there: The arrival of the Mayflower, bearing the religiously-oppressed English onto Plymouth Rock; the deadly winter; the encounter with Squanto, who taught the pilgrims how to survive in the harsh, new terrain; the friendship struck up between settlers and Natives; the final feast, given in thanks for the pilgrims’ survival, to which the Indians were graciously invited; the two communities joining hands over a meal of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. Once we had accumulated a sizable list, we turned back to the students and posed a simple question:
“Who knows what was actually eaten at what we now call the first Thanksgiving?”
A few students’ hands shot up–a fifth grade teacher whom they had had the previous year led a similarly critical curriculum. Several of them correctly pointed out that things like deer, squash and corn had comprised the majority of the Thanksgiving meal, and that it was debated to this day whether turkey was served at all. One student also stated that the Wampanoag people who had been invited to the feast ended up providing most of the food when the pilgrims were unprepared to meet the needs of the large gathering. We added both of these points to the right side of the board, opposing our original list of stories and myths.
“Now, given that we know we got at least one part of the story mixed up–that is, what was eaten at the first Thanksgiving–might there be other parts of the story that we didn’t get right? Could there be other things here in our list of stories and myths that we need to question if we want to understand what really happened?” The students thought for a few moments, then began to raise their hands.
“Had anyone from another country been to that part of the Americas before the pilgrims?”
“Why did the Wampanoags decide to help the pilgrims? How did they feel about the pilgrims living there?”
“What were all the different reasons that the pilgrims had for leaving England?”
“Did any Native People die during the harsh winter when many of the Europeans died?”
“Was anyone at the first Thanksgiving other than the pilgrims and Native People?”
We were going down our list of myths item by item, adding questions for each bulleted point, when I noticed a student in the front row raising his hand. Brendan, who has been struggling since the beginning of the year and rarely offers up his opinions or ideas without being urged to, had his hand up. When I called on him he asked, “How did they pay?”
A few students snickered, and one asked exasperatedly, “What are you saying?” I asked the students to quiet down, then turned back to Brendan.
“Can you elaborate on what you’re asking?” Brendan thought for a second.
“How did the pilgrims pay for the ship, and the trip to come across the ocean?” I was instantly floored by the shrewd insight of his question, and excitedly added it to the board. Immediately, the question Brendan had asked sparked more around the room:
“What happened to the Mayflower after the voyage? Was there a crew which worked the ship?”
“What happened to the crew after the voyage? What did they think of the pilgrims’ trip?”
All of these questions were added to the board, alongside the original myths. Each student then chose five of the different questions we had asked as a group to research and answer on their own. Yet for me, the most exciting and challenging part of the lesson had already happened.
By asking students to pose their own questions, the opportunity had been created not only for students to pursue research in the areas which most interested them, but also for their own experiences and perspectives to shape the kind of inquiry we engaged in as a class. I, as a middle-class educator, would never have had the wisdom or foresight to present a classed reading of the first Thanksgiving, but a young person in our classroom did. And it should come as no surprise, either, that the student who posed the most perspective-shifting question was working-class themselves, an identity which played a large part in their fraught relationship with the classroom and school. It was an exercise which focused not on memorizing or reporting correct answers, but one which called on students to ask their own critical questions, which had encouraged him to speak up. The point of the lesson was not for students to match their knowledge with that of the teacher, the textbook or the requirements of the state (the goal being to evaluate which ones did and didn’t come up short), but rather to create a space for them to bring their original thoughts into the fold, to rely on their own knowledge and experiences to lay a foundation for the dialogue in which we then engaged as a class.
Once, in an after school poetry workshop I was co-leading with a friend, one middle school student took a simple freewrite prompt and crafted a poem which dealt forwardly and unflinchingly with the gentrification of his neighborhood, poignantly describing the complex and painful class and race interplay as he and his community were slowly being forced from their homes. When my partner approached the student after the workshop to tell him what an incredible poet he was, he looked at her with genuine shock and said, “But I failed our poetry unit in school.” Why is it that the doctrine which we call education so rarely asks students what they are interested in learning about? Why is it that, with even less frequency, it recognizes how much students already know–indeed, what they might have to teach their teachers, and the elders of their communities? The purpose of asking these questions is not merely to critique traditional education, but to imagine a kind of learning which is a genuinely collective process, one which has the capacity to incorporate the voices of the entire community. Just as our class’ conversation would have never benefited from Brendan’s radical perspective if my voice had been the only one allowed to direct it, the only way for a truly transformative education to be realized is for those members of our communities who are traditionally silenced–be they immigrants, poor people, women, queers, or simply students–to ask questions, challenge the master narratives, and reshape the structures which have hitherto only existed to oppress them.
This past week at my school saw much of the pageantry and lead-up which precedes the Thanksgiving recesses in so many U.S. learning communities. The hallways were filled with handprint turkeys, and almost every classroom was engaged in some discussion of the encounter between European and Native Peoples which occurred sometime in the early 17th Century. As a teacher-in-training, I had the opportunity to observe and even lead some of these discussions at various moments. While some of the lessons were more nuanced and radical than others, participating in so many of them in the course of only a few days left me with a significant question to reflect on: How do we construct the ‘we’ of our learning communities, and how are state-sanctioned events and holidays key tools in the forging of that construction?
In the kindergarten class in which I tutor, the students were asked to draw pictures of the things they were thankful for. A list of the words they had come up with–my dog, my cat, my toys, my family–were written on a board for them to copy under their drawings, giving them extra practice with learning their letters. When the students gathered on the rug to show the drawings they had worked on, the teacher asked some students to explain what it was they were thankful for. One student shared that they were thankful for their house, another for the food they would be eating on thanksgiving day. At this the teacher remarked, “That’s right. There are children in other countries who don’t have enough to eat, or places to live. Some children in other places have to work when they are young and don’t even get to go to school. We should all be very thankful that we do have those opportunities.” This pronouncement shocked me, not only because I had hoped that we were past teaching such generalizing and misguided views on the global community, but also because I knew for a fact that there were children in that very class, sitting on that rug, who had come to school that day from homeless shelters, who did not have enough to eat in their houses, who had been born in other countries themselves, and whose family members had not completed school out of economic obligation. That the common ‘we’ of that space should erase them and their lives so completely was something I was unprepared for.
In another classroom with older students, I sat in on a more complex discussion about Native perspectives on the holiday of Thanksgiving. Here the students were led in a lesson aimed specifically at disarming the bread-breaking myths so often told around the holiday’s inception, and understanding the event’s legacy as one which marks the beginning of a genocide–not a friendship–and which is cause for mourning in many oppressed communities. Yet even in the midst of this conversation, through which the teacher adeptly drew on student’s own knowledge while simultaneously challenging their thinking, he remarked, “Native people had been living on this continent for generations before we arrived, ultimately bringing our religion and government.” And, while I had deeply appreciated this educator’s careful and questioning approach to a grossly simplified history, it gave me a strange sensation to be told how Native Peoples had lived before our arrival, knowing that I (and surely many of the other kids in the class) had Native ancestors. And as the descendent of African slaves and other colonized peoples, whose religion and whose government, I wanted to ask, did the British settlers ultimately bring with them to the soon-to-be colonies?
In both of these cases, the ‘we’ of the classroom was not merely a question of syntax or semantics. It was a carefully constructed (or at least unquestioned) model of who that learning was compromised of–a way of normalizing, simplifying and regulating what stories and experiences were allowed to exist there. In both examples, once the ‘we’ model had been produced, it was used to co-construct a ‘them,’ first in the children of other geographic locations, then in the Native Peoples of the Americas. Instead of being used to paint a complex and capacious illustration of our learning community, it was used to erase the stories and perspectives of poor and working people, to deny the inequities and imbalances in our immediate locale, make invisible our own complex racial histories and identities, and to imagine Native cultures and communities as time-frozen, agency-lacking, and dead to our current moment. Above all, it imagined students and teachers alike as completely complicit within each of those myths–locked into gratitude for the supposed opportunities they lorded over others–and given no chance to question the master’s narrative, or to examine their own accountability in our current model of the world.
“Who are we?” is a question that does not go unasked in many learning communities, and is often a part of the first assignment or class project at the beginning of a new quarter. The answer to the question is often related to the melding of individual identities into a melting-pot kind of vision for the classroom, painting it as a uniquely colorful space. This is exactly the kind of construction of ‘we’ that I believe must be challenged. As we attempt to encourage our students to think more critically, we have to present them with more complicated and critical questions, and there is no better place to begin than with trying to understand what makes our learning community what it is: Who are our people? What communities do we belong to? What, as learners, is our obligation to those communities? What experiences do we represent that cannot easily be seen by glancing at us? Who is missing from/who is silenced by our ‘we’? Who benefits from their being left out?
Each learning community becomes empowered by determining what its specific terms are, then insisting that it be addressed on those terms, engaged in the questions which it deems most pertinent and necessary for its own survival. These terms can only be found through a real and a radical discussion about who that learning community is comprised of, and what the specific needs of its ‘we’ are. A radical education requires that we define our ‘we’ with intent and honesty, and do so with the clear goal of illuminating oppressed histories, not watering them down.
This piece was also featured as a guest post at Cooperative Catalyst.