Ryan is a young, talented teacher colleague of mine at Providence Day School. Please give him some feedback on his first venture into the blogosphere…
Simone Weil, a 20th century philosopher, once wrote, “Two prisoners in contingent cells communicate by blows struck on the wall. The wall separates them, but it also permits them to communicate.” I’ve been thinking about this scenario in the context of classroom discourse (i.e. classroom reading, writing, talking). What am I doing as a teacher that enables students to have access to skills and opportunities to strike blows against the walls of their learning? How can I get them to notice these intellectual boundaries in the first place?
Early in my career, I taught students for whom these questions were matters of survival. Disenfranchised, socioeconomically disadvantaged students need to learn and acquire a discourse outside of the dominant discourse, which in turn would allow them to critique and counteract that domination. Currently, my students are already fluent in the dominant discourse. They need the critical discourse as much as any other student, but the impetus for them to push up against the walls they encounter is different. The same questions remain about what I can do as an educator to offer students critical discourse in a way that encourages without indoctrinating—empowers without overpowering.
The goal of empowerment through critical discourse tends to be a common enough objective for teachers. Like everything else, this goal and its realization seems to be dramatically affected by the way we as educators have begun to embrace technological advances in the name of pedagogical progress. Tools of progress for professional educators should be critiqued with the same kind of critical discourse we wish to encourage in our students. Having made my way to a technology conference or two (although now it seems quite hip to call them conferences on “curricular innovation”), I would challenge all of us to think a little harder about the ways technology as curricular innovation creates new cells and new walls. I think Weil’s prison metaphor remains apt in this case. Who are we excluding when we bring technology to bear on our teaching just for the sake of having technology in our curriculum? While technology allows us to tap out new messages in different ways to our students, we’re also constructing new kinds of walls and cells that imprison in novel ways.
To use an outdated example, I was working at Duke University when a grant was used to provide all first year students with iPods. Lectures became available as mp3s, music wasn’t just for music class, foreign language instruction could take place anywhere—the possibilities were endless. Yet, I couldn’t help noticing how I could always identify the first year students because they were the students on the bus or on the quad or in the library locked away behind headphones disconnected from students around them. I am all for curricular innovation, even in the form of technology. However, I think we need to recognize how all of our innovation locks and unlocks in ways that we may not even understand unless we stop to critically discourse about these ever changing prison walls. Our only true failure would be if we stopped discoursing or the walls changed so fast we forgot they were there in the first place.
So my friends…keep tapping on those walls.