Cat and Mouse: Notes from a youth alternative education program

What follows below are notes from a May 1 workshop on bicycle mechanics. The

purpose of the course is teaching analytic thinking strategies through handskills. This was

week eight of a ten-week program.

 

 

The students are getting very comfortable in the workshop, so much so that they seem

to feel that they no longer need to heed my instruction (at least when my instructions are

organizational, eg, ‘stop talking and work on your bike’). I’m uncomfortable with what an

authoritarian this makes me. I’ve been reading Paulo Freire again, and I would prefer to

be teaching ‘with them,’ but it seems that their teenage attitude to the class is still to push

me to my limit, thereby testing their own abilities in challenging my authority. The boys

are the most obvious case, but [a female student] also participates in this resistance,

mostly by avoiding work. She sometimes feigns illness or ‘lightheadedness’.

I’m not sure how to teach ‘with’ them because it’s hard to convince them of the

necessity of the course. I think they are only half-way sold on the idea that the course

actually has to do with analytic thought processes. They probably don’t see the value in

that, either, as frankly I’m not sure I would if I were them. They are in this program because

the state understands them as NEETs [Not in Education, Employment or Training] and

apparently they won’t have particularly improved job prospects after this (or so the

students say). Analytical thinking is probably lower on the list than, say, CV building or

job skills.

This is an important problem, and one Freire would have my head for: How can I

imagine these individuals as lacking in analytical thinking skills, never mind connect this

lack to their ‘success’ in society, without their explicit agreement? What authority or

expertise do I have to teach them? Some, surely, for the though I’ve put into it; but this is

the problem with experiential instruction. If you want to respect different kinds of

knowing, you have to start with the idea that these kids already know a lot; we all learn

from our varied experience. But, then, how is my unique knowing preferable to theirs?

Furthermore, if I do come up with reasons to believe that they are somehow deficient

in their analytical thinking process, how can I justify teaching them if they don’t see the

value in it? At the moment, they enjoy the process of fooling around in a workshop (as do

I). [One student] even said that he’s glad he joined [the program that brings them to the

workshop] because he gets to come to [the bicycle mechanic program]. Just to be clear,

this is 4 hours a week, of their 24 required hours, and 10 weeks of their required 24. It’s

encouraging to hear that [the bicycle workshop] makes it all worth it, but it saddens me to

think how awful the rest of the program must be. Anyhow, I’m concerned that they are only

enjoying [the bicycle mechanic program] as a break and a social outing, and don’t realize

the value of what I’m trying to achieve. I suppose this can be said for much education

when young people are involved, but it’s still an uncomfortable attitude to hold. I would

be excited to come up with a strategy that actually involves their input to the curriculum. I

think this would also improve their attitude towards the program. I try to be as much of a

peer as I can, but one can only do so much.

Looking at these notes a few days later, I’m struck by how I have ended up employing

the same tactics that I designed this program to deconstruct. The bicycle mechanic program

I facilitate was meant to inspire resistance to traditional forms of education, especially

hierarchical, linear instruction. In a sentence, the idea was that the greater purpose of state-

led institutionalized education is to reproduce social distinctions, rather than foster real

thinking skills. Something totally outside of traditional education practice – like this

handskills-in-intellect workshop – should challenge this model and prove how thinking

and learning can have very different shapes from what we experience in the classroom.

I see in my notes, however, that I use the term ‘resistance’ to describe how the students

are reacting to my teaching. Obviously, this divide is unintended. I had hoped to teach with

the students, to resist together problematic social reproduction in education; what I see

happening, to some extent, is a copy-cat scenario in which, instead, I become just another

classroom instructor whose authority demands undermining. The frustrating part is that I

totally agree with that attitude; authority for authority’s sake requires resistance, pure and

simple.

The challenge left is to get the students on my side, so that future classes can go

through the program learning with, rather than from, me. I see two major barriers here: First,

I will need to overcome not only the student’s own conditioning and expectations, but

mine as well. All of us have come up in a classroom environment, so this is deep-seated

learned behavior. More importantly, though, I will have to convince the students that what

I am teaching is worthwhile. This is a particularly daunting challenge, because the students

and I do not have a shared worldview here; they lack the specific language and theory base

that I have constructed the program around, and I lack the lived experience of being in their

position, knowing what they know and wanting what they want.

I’ll leave this off with a question: Is it any less presumptuous of me to have designed

an ‘alternative’ curriculum, if it still imagines them as having yet to discover the skills they

need to live full lives as inspired, creative thinkers? How do I combine what I know with

what they know, so that we can go through this process together, and not fall into the same

old cat-and-mouse games?

 

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