Resistance, Hope & Democracy | IDEA

Resistance, Hope & Democracy

Posted by Jonah Canner on Feb 24, 2010 - 11:46 AM

I used to direct an after-school program, which was housed in a public school classroom, and I tried to implement a democratic meeting with my middle school students (a diverse group in terms of race and family income). As well-intentioned as I was, the students didn't respect me as a leader because I was offering them decision-making power. They seemed so used to an authoritarian school day that they didn't know what to do with an unexpected dose of freedom. It was also just a drop in the bucket compared to the way they spent the majority of their time. How would you have handled this situation?
- Redwood City, CA

I have a few thoughts regarding your situation but first I must say: Kudos for trying to bring democratic meetings to your after-school program. It is hard to do anything with middle schoolers, let alone something that could unleash the awesome power of their uncontrollable energy. The thoughts I will share have to do with resistance. The advice I have to give has to do with scaffolding and modeling democracy.

Democracy is a system that is at the heart of our human nature. If you observe toddlers on a playground, they interact in a very democratic way. They share their toys, they decide together what game they are going to play next, and when one of them gets upset or feels that he has been treated unfairly, he lets the others know. Then, most of the time, the system is disrupted by parents swooping in and "taking control" of the situation. But on the rare occasions that the adult acts as a mediator instead of an "authority," the young people are able to resolve the conflict and their hurt feelings.

Then we enter school and it all gets thrown out the window. For a healthy child growing up in a positive home, entering kindergarten could be the most disempowering experience of her life. We all have our stories of that traumatic first day of school; left alone in a room full of strangers while our mommy tells us that it will be okay and hands us over to this strange grown up teacher person with an overzealous smile.

How can it possibly be okay? Here I am in this strange place with this strange lady telling my to come sit on the carpet so I can meet the other children. What if I don't want to sit on the carpet? What if I don't want to meet the other children? What if I want to explore, to create, to be curious? What if I want to figure it out for myself?

Eventually we get used to it. We learn the culture of school. We learn that when you come to school you put your things in your cubby and you go sit on the carpet for the morning meeting so that the teacher can tell you what you will be doing that day. After a while, it seems natural enough.

What you are supposed to forget is that all of these school things that we do are learned behaviors. As human beings it is not natural for us to gravitate to a large institutional building, into a specific classroom (which aside from the number on the door looks like every other room in the building), onto a carpet or an assigned chair at an assigned desk, to wait for the instructions of a person called a teacher so that we can begin our day. A human being begins their day when they wake up. A school child's day begins when the teacher says, "Good morning, class."

There is a natural resistance on the part of children to the idea and the structure of school. As human beings, we do not naturally want to learn about history every day at 11:00 or Math at 2:00. As school children we are not supposed to have curiosities that go beyond the "subject" that we are supposed to be studying. We are not supposed to make connections between science and history or the language of math and the study of literature. If we change the "subject" we are labeled disruptive; if we continue to make connections, we are told that we have a short attention span; if we have curiosities that go beyond the material that we are studying we have trouble focusing; and if we are uncomfortable sitting in a chair all day long, we suddenly have Attention-Deficit-Disorder and need to be medicated.

So what happens to that resistance? Does it disappear? Do we lose it as we assimilate to the culture of school? Some of us do. The least successful students fall victim to that resistance. They can't set it aside and their resistant actions get them the label of "the bad kid." Many of them don't make it through high school. Some of them barely get by. A lot of them end up in prison.

The most successful students bury it. They decide early on that the best thing to do to is to get on board. They calculate that their lives will go better if they find a way of adapting to this new, unnatural structure. And throughout their schooling that decision serves them well. They are showered with praise, they graduate high school, go on to college, and build "successful" lives. The rest of us find ways of channeling our resistance. And it is this category of the rest of us that I will talk about.

Young people figure out quickly who will tolerate what kind of resistance. Substitute teachers have no agency, and many of them will tolerate anything short of an armed revolt as long as they can get through the day. On the other hand, strict and scary teachers require a more subtle form of resistance: a note passed to a crush, graffiti on an adjacent desk, an eye roll behind their back. When I was in high school, we subverted the intimidating authority of one teacher by having an ongoing tally throughout the year of the number of times he used the compound word "what-have-you" in his lectures. With a week left to go in the school year, he reached 500. The class immediately broke into applause and we handed him a card congratulating him on the feat.

Your middle schoolers are no different than my classmates and I were. School, as it exists today, is a game. And you broke the rules. The rules of the game clearly state that you (the adult) are supposed to impose authority. This rule goes all the way back to that first day of kindergarten. The teacher calls the students to the carpet for the meeting. The teacher starts the day by saying "good morning, class." The teacher gives the assignment. The teacher does the grading. The rules also state that they (the "kids") are supposed to do whatever they can get away with to disrupt you. They are resistance fighters, and you are an oppressor in a totalitarian regime.

So when you come in and say, "Ok, guys, now you get to make decisions," you are either really bad at the game or worse; breaking the rules. If you are bad at the game, then it's simple, they pounce. It's a students dream come true. An opportunity to take all of that pent up resistance and manifest it into an all-out war against this undermatched opponent.

But if you are breaking the rules, if you are acting intentionally, then you are dangerous to the system. And as much as they want to resist the system, they have grown dependent upon it and are unwilling to let one "class-traitor" upset the balance.

It is even more than that. They are afraid. If you are for real, then it is possible that you represent a respit, that you represnt hope. But hope is dangerous. Hope opens the door to disapointment. What if you don't come back? What if you fail? What if "they" find out what you are doing? What if you're not for real? And so they resist. They resist because they are scared. They resist because they want to see if you can take it. They resist because that's what they know how to do.

Offering Democracy isn't enough; you have to be able to back it up. That is where scaffolding and modeling come in. Start your democratic process slowly. Begin by offering choices. Build relationships. Remember that democracy, at its core, is about people coming together to figure out the best way to organize themselves. Remember that it is an organic process, and remember that you are in an artificial environment.

Change is scary, and you are not going to get a group of middle schoolers to be participatory democrats overnight. If they need you to be "in charge," then you need to be "in charge." Show them what it looks like to be in charge respectfully. Show them what it looks like to be confident. And by doing that, you get to challenge them to take control of their own lives, one step at a time.

Keep the questions coming,


I'd rather know some of the questions than have all of the answers.

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