A Lesson in Freedom for Me

Joe Truss tweeted “Let’s be clear: students of COLOR, immigrants, and poor folks are most left out of the literate society. LITERACY is LIBERATION. What are we going to do about it?” To which I responded, “Have you read @CarlaShalaby’s #Troublemakers? Great read for reflecting on the question.” To which, he asked me to tell him about it.

Thus, this blog post is my inspired response. I listened to the audiobook, so forgive any quotes that are not perfectly transcribed. All the quotes below are from Carla Shalaby’s beautifully written, life-changing Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School. Her book paints a portrait of a few elementary-aged students who are considered troublemakers as well as walking us through their interactions at school and at home.

I read Troublemakers as a part of Dr. Val Brown’s #Cleartheair book chat on Twitter. This book was simply breathtaking for me, literally. From the beginning, Shalaby acknowledges the reasons why enslaved people were not allowed to learn to read or write and discusses the power that exists from being literate and being able to organize. She caused me to ponder on my own time as an English teacher, and I so wished I had had my hands on Troublemakers before I started teaching. While I believe that I strived to inspire interest in social justice and that I gave students tools to question at least the media, I did not treat my subject as a life-or-death, freedom-or-oppression subject. To have done so would have been nothing short of revolutionary, especially considering the statistics Shalaby reminds you of related to the trajectory of a student’s life if they are not on-level reading by third grade.

In short, she considers school as a place for students “to practice freedom,” a place where children can “lift up their voices… to say what they need.” She sees students who are considered troublemakers as canaries in a coal mine who can point to poison in the air. However, considering the educational reality for many of us, “marginalization is the punishment for not conforming to the mainstream.” We are comfortable with “changing children instead of changing the classroom demands” and “incarcerating people from whom we could learn the most.” It makes me think about three of my former students who died in such violent ways; I wonder if I could have impacted their path had I shifted the goal of my subject so that it was not just reading and writing, but reading and writing to be free.

She calls us out for hypocrisy in many ways, but two things really stood out for me:

  1. How can we claim that education is the great equalizer when there are places in the country where school conditions are extremely filthy and underfunded and under(fill-in-the-blank)? She states that the fact that “these children are required by law to attend these schools is perhaps the clearest and most concrete evidence I can offer of our collective national commitment to throw away lives, particularly the lives of poor young people of color. A nation committed to the insistence that only some lives matter.”
  2. How can we claim that we love working with children when “It is increasingly routine and shockingly acceptable to drug the fragile developing brains and bodies of young children into compliance and docility[?]”

While these were two questions that bubbled up for me, there are a hundred other questions I could pose to acknowledge the hypocrisy of the American education system.

She challenges us to move away from the idea that “Good students sit still, and they listen. They follow directions. They conform. They take orders. They adhere to the standards of childhood as a marginal social position and to whiteness as the ideal.” And to acknowledge that exclusion has a “well-documented ineffectiveness to curb the behavior.” She does this through detailed observations of a few students in class and at home. As I walked through the stories with Shalaby, I could see myself as a student in the children, but I also pictured former students and wondered how I could have approached them differently if I had viewed their “behavior issues” as a canary in a coal mine, to determine what I needed to change.

While I cannot undo anything about my past teaching experience, I have been working to convince anyone I can to read Troublemakers because, for me, it was truly a lesson in freedom.

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