“It’s about being able to read,” calls out one exasperated student, and others follow in punctuated style amid the whispers.
“It’s about reading comprehension….” “It’s about grades….”
Then, over the murmur, comes another answer: “It’s about being able to understand things after we graduate.”
This is a good moment, though certainly not one I had planned when I walked into Aliquippa Senior High School for the weekly Humanities Ladder session.
This isn’t even supposed to be the discussion, according to my neat lesson plan. Instead, the students are slated to discuss Michel Foucault’s theory of power. We have fallen behind and I have an ambitious lesson plan to catch up. The most recent sessions have gone well and I feel that my student mentor, Jordan Hare, and I have built a good rapport with the students. I am optimistic.
Then we arrive at class.
A small rebellion has taken root. It was the last day of the grading period and the most recent test has not gone well. A handful of students are arguing over their scores, others wander into the confusion and join the ranks of the dissatisfied. The energy escalates even as the bell rings, marking the start of class. Jordan and I look at each other and I mutter, “I don’t think this is going to go well today.” She agrees.
After some minutes, a curt instruction ends the overt protest and sends the students to their assigned seats so we can begin. This is not the seamless transition we experienced in past weeks. Chattering students find their spots, while others already in place shake their heads and exchange anxious looks
For the moment I am lost. I have no idea what to do. My entire lesson plan is shot. There is no way I am going to convince these students to dive into a discussion of power relations and the handout I had put together is a dead letter.
Not knowing where to go from here, I start where they are.
I ask them what the test was about. Students look dismissively out the windows, at their desks, or at each other. “Reading comprehension,” someone spouts.
A wash of relief spreads through me. With this starting point, I can lead them to Foucault’s relations of power.
I begin by following up: “What was the test really about?” I ask.
One irked female student offers a narrative overview of the test structure and nature of the questions.
I press them to use a wider lens. What was the test was really testing? What was it really about in the bigger picture?
Here’s where I began this post. The students are frustrated, but they are talking and starting to view reading comprehension not as task or test, but as a necessary skill.
Using their ideas, we start to talk about problems of going to court; that courts are hard to deal with and understand; how there are behavioral expectations there; that the bureaucratic system is difficult to understand and navigate; that the law is arcane. In all, I lead them down a path to see the courts as a set of specialized knowledge systems, and that those knowledge systems are expressions of institutional power. We briefly repeat the exercise looking at hospitals.
Now that they are looking at the problem using a lens of power, I bring them back to school. The previous week, we had talked about the school as having institutional power, but now we transition to consider schools as providing introductions to knowledge systems, training them to navigate the latticework of knowledge systems that will shape their lives. They settle into the idea of knowledge as power.
They begin to see that the test was not about the story they read, or the questions asked, or the grades they received. Their education is about being empowered to grapple with a court system, digest complexities of hospitals and insurance, to figure out their taxes.
I bring them back to Foucault
“Relations of power are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relationships (economic processes, knowledge relationships, sexual relations), but are immanent in the latter; they are the immediate effects of the divisions, inequalities, and disequilibriums which occur in the latter….”
We spend the rest of the class working through these ideas.
As I look back, I’m fairly certain I didn’t convince them to disregard grades in favor of a sense of empowerment. But they did walk out of class thinking differently about tests, school, themselves, knowledge, and power.