06 August 2010

"I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I'm scared."

Valedictorian Speaks Out Against Schooling in Graduation Speech

Detective McNulty and Stringer Bell
exchange a look.
The first season of HBO's television show The Wire is absolutely brilliant in its take on systems that have been corrupted to their very core and what happens when (mostly) good people attempt to work within the confines of their rules. More importantly, it explores what happens when people attempt to work within the system as if it is fair. It's inherently not. Police work and the subsequent court battles are one such system; the Game, the name given to the system of drugs, hustling and betrayal by the individuals involved, is another such system. The thing they have in common is futility; it's a running motif throughout the first season, which I just finished watching for the first time, and I expect it to continue throughout the rest of the series.

Attempting to change the system from within, or even attempting to live above or away from it, becomes futile. Like Sisyphus and his rock, there is no variation; a person like Detective McNulty or D'Angelo Barksdale may want to prove they can effect change in their respective field, but when everyone else has succumbed to the attitude that "business as usual" is the only approach, it becomes impossible to make those differences happen.

Keep in mind that this is a television show, albeit a brilliant one, and this is just my interpretation of one of the many things the show tries to say. Maybe I, like Detective McNulty, am my own fatally optimistic worst enemy by hoping that The Wire is wrong. That's where Erica Goldson comes in. She graduated from Coxsackie-Athens High School back in June and gave the speech linked above.

As a teacher, this is quite the inspiring speech because of -- not in spite of -- its blunt honesty. More than anything, it is my greatest hope that my students figure out how to think, especially for themselves. That's something I'd love to see them demonstrate on a regular and consistent basis, and it saddens me when they clearly don't. Writing a coherent paper or knowing not to fragment sentences comes secondary to a student that can see the Game for what it is. Make no mistake, as it stands right now, education is every bit the Game that The Wire shows every other system to be. It beats original thought and new ideas out of students so that it can measure its own progress as a way to pat itself on the back. Effecting change becomes next to impossible and teachers have to resign themselves to the incremental progress they may or may not see in the students they teach for an inkling of hope.

Erica figured that out. Those caught in this particular Game oftentimes fail to see it. She stood up when an opportunity arose and made it known that she saw school for what it is and what it can be. She yearns to change the system but knows that it has to be done at the individual level. It's a student's job to question and explore. Reality is based exclusively on perspective and, as Erica says in her speech, students must "create your own perspective." In a culture that has thus far encouraged students to regurgitate the opinions of others in lieu of their own and where opinion is something that can be obtained from Sparknotes, there is an urgent need for students to take ownership of their own education.

It is our job as teachers to be the "avant-garde" educator that can get students to see the world for themselves instead of as the perception that the system would like them to have. This inevitably means going against the system, butting heads with it and making life harder. The easier road is the one where a teacher puts their head down, goes along with the latest educational fad and toes the company line; in my short time as an educator, I've found myself guilty of taking this easier road. I want to be able to keep buying DVDs of The Wire, after all. That becomes hard to do when there isn't a source of income present.

My goal is to reflect back over the course of this new school year on Erica Goldson's speech while I'm trying to incorporate learning objectives and scales into my teaching. I want to encourage students to recognize the Game around them and hopefully impart a little bit of my own experience to encourage said students to speak up and challenge me with -- and not to mention form -- their own opinions.

And if that doesn't work I will just give up. No, wait--!

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