Real-life learning

Today, Tokofsky and Wilson High School’s Paola Tejeda discuss whether curriculum is relevant enough to students’ lives. Wednesday, they debated social promotion; Tuesday it was class size; and Monday they chewed on teacher motivation. Friday will wrap with the biggest obstacles to high-quality schooling.

No ‘relevance’ without ‘rigor’
By David Tokofsky

We love debates in America; it’s part of the democratic republic. I think, however, that there ought to be some checks and balances when it comes to the subject of “relevance” in schools.

Today, leftist educators teach students that Relevance, Rigor and Relationships are more important than the old, right-wing “Three Rs” of Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic.

But relevance without rigor means that we will discuss science without math and physics. Someone has to teach kids their times-tables (and by third grade at the latest). Relevance without rigor will lead to social studies teachers bemoaning the war in Iraq without teaching Physical Geography, the Economics of Oil, and World History.

Similarly, relationships without rigor and the original Three Rs will end with kids sitting in circles discussing their feelings about their families, or issues such as gangs, without any grounding in the great thinkers of psychology, sociology and anthropology who help us frame these debates. Structure and discipline are not the enemies of relevance.

Kids need to develop critical thinking skills, but the search for relevance and relationships without rigor will end up with teachers and students picking and choosing their topics like morsels in a cafeteria or items for sale on EBay.

Granted, the narrow-mindedness of Sacramento politicians and Washington reactionaries drive curriculum toward requirements rather than electives. Nonetheless, teachers can teach the standard curriculum -- which today is rather strongly driven by multicultural voices and bottom-up relevance in science and social studies -- and still cover all Six Rs at once.

Everything in our debate this week comes down once again to great teaching. This naturally requires teachers to develop relationships with students and their communities. Great teaching implies teachers framing and even leading discussions of relevance without making every topic link to MTV or the Disney Channel. Only rigorous work, involving research, discovery, imagination and discipline, drives young people to value their efforts.

Can you imagine the head football coach at Fremont High having his players sit around and discuss their feelings about upcoming games, without any drill-and-skill activities such sit-ups, bench presses, blocking and tackling? Can you imagine the musical instructor at Washington Prep High just sending the kids on stage without rehearsals? I imagine the repetition of rehearsals will indeed work to strengthen the weaker scenes, rather than happily repeating the most popular scenes to the detriment of the musical as a whole.

Many teachers in America don’t relish engaging students. This good work is tiring and undervalued. Additionally, the state and national standards too often become the catechism of autocratic discipline; thus instruction degrades the very meaning of the word “discipline.”

Didn’t “discipline” derive from the same root as “disciple”? Isn’t a school really a place for the teaching of schools of thought, and not just some widget factory named PS 1, PS 2, or Public School No. 3? We give our schools separate names; our Bill Gates-funded schools-within-schools have separate identities of their own.

Still, students can smell form without substance. By high school, students almost instinctively know that calling a school a “social justice academy” does not mean that they will become fluent in the history of social justice. If they are not taught the basics -- if they do not know history, and don’t read the seminal writings about justice, peace and community -- the students will only be able to mimic some ranting newscaster on Fox News. Discipline matters; relevance reinforces. Reason ultimately requires passion, but also knowledge and structure.

David Tokofsky is a former board member of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Teach strength, instead of perpetuating oppression
By Paola Tejeda

Like Amandla and Mr. Tokofsky said, not teaching students what they need to learn in order to go to college and be critical thinkers is oppression, too.

Since before the East Los Angeles Chicano blowouts of the 1960s, students have been asking their schools to make learning more relevant. This is not an excuse. It’s a demand!

Most schools teach a negative view of our culture. Doing this makes students of color disinterested in education. Instead of using curriculum that disengages us, we need to learn from the places that really empower students to do better with their lives. If schools do that, then we would be more interested in reading, writing, math, history, geography and public speaking.

For example, Somos Raza attracts students to learn because they study the problems facing them as Latinos, and challenge what they are taught in regular classrooms. Members meet after school and on the weekends, organize rallies, unite black and brown students, and clean the streets to improve their communities. They believe that schools are lying to them, so they study the beauty of their culture and learn about their true history.

By not learning the truth, Latinos are learning how to continue their own oppression. Crenshaw High School Somos Raza member Jonathan said, “They’re brainwashing us in school.... Learning is about knowing the truth.” When it’s the truth, it’s relevant, and you want to learn more.

The Nubia group at Crenshaw High School studies topics about black culture, especially African American women. Since the media portrays black women negatively, and since they barely exist in school curriculum, members are challenged to think differently about themselves. They study hyper-sexualized images of black people, mistreatment by men, European women’s standards of beauty, and self-hate.

Like Somos Raza, students have a voice in the group. As Crenshaw High teacher and Nubia founder Monique Lane says, “Their ideas are just as valuable as mine and other adults’.” They consider themselves a “family” because they have different opinions, sometimes argue about ideas, and always learn from everyone else’s story. Most classes just tell you what to believe, and don’t give you a chance to challenge one another.

Crenshaw Cougar Coalition (CCC) and the Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) motivates students to be involved in their school. They discuss political topics and are educated about their community. They see themselves as the extension of the School Site Council, stay informed about the school’s budget and hiring, and, like student Jerome says, “fight for democratic control over schools.”

They are tired of the problems in their schools, and they’re even more tired of being disrespected by a school system that doesn’t believe that they are a strong and intelligent community. These organizations are engaging their students because they actually address and change the problems they face.

What can teachers learn from these groups? Instead of teaching one-sided information, teach students what they need to know to be strong people. That would be “relevant” teaching. It’s more engaging to learn how to become strong than to learn how to stay weak.

If students of color can engage with their culture first, it’s easier to learn about others. Schools become even more empowering when people learn how to resist being controlled by society. We have a right to an education that empowers us and helps us succeed in trying to make a difference for ourselves, our cultures and our communities.

Instead of books written by people from far away, schools can teach from programs that are doing empowering work with local youth. This would help students of color become more informed about their world, more engaged with their learning, and more successful with their education. Instead of boring students with irrelevant activities, we can teach them to be leaders who can change their own personal lives and eventually the history of the world.

Paola Tejeda is a senior at Wilson High School in El Sereno.

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