Unsettling Education

Searching for Ethical Footing in a Time of Reform

by Brian Charest (Volume editor) Kate Sjostrom (Volume editor)
Textbook XIV, 236 Pages

Table Of Content

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We thank our series editors, Les Burns and sj Miller, as well as Megan Madden and Monica Baum at Peter Lang Publishing. Thanks, too, to Carolyn Lesnick and Josh Staub for formatting and cover art, respectively.

Our mentors Bill Ayers, Todd DeStigter, Kevin Kumashiro, and David Schaafsma have provided continual guidance and insight.

Many colleagues and friends, too, deserve our appreciation: Chris Bass, Lauren Bell, Mikela Bjork, Jake Burns, Amy McGrail, Sarah Donovan, Angela Gutierrez, Nicol Howard, Abby Kindelsperger, Kate Manski, Russell Mayo, Manulani Meyer, Sarah Rutter, Jennifer Tilton, Beverly Troiano, Andrew Wall, and Christopher Worthman.

Special thanks to this volume’s contributors, all of whom challenged us to “unsettle” our thinking on schools and schooling: Deborah Bieler, Mikela Bjork, Kevin Carey, Alex Corbitt, Sarah Donovan, Noah Asher Golden, Matthew Homrich-Knieling, Will Hudson, Glynis Kinnan, Avi Lessing, Russell Mayo, James McCoyne, Angela Whitacre de Resendiz, and Samantha Young. And special thanks, of course, to their and our students, past and present.

Finally, we are grateful to our families for their support and encouragement.

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Last fall, Christopher, a former student of Kate’s, entered student teaching excited, but exited unsettled. He documented his development in narratives such as this one:

This is Freshman English. There are rules here. This is supposed to be the year that we “prepare students for their entire high school experience.” These kids are not babies anymore. This is High School. And yet, I am reading “Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?” [O’Brien, 1975] and all I can think about is how the Vietnam War feels like what we are doing to these kids. The first sentence in the story: The platoon of twenty-six soldiers moved slowly in the dark, single file, not talking. Twenty-six soldiers; twenty-six students in a class. Single file lines. No talking. Aren’t these elements of the story the things we should dislike about the training that occurs in war? Earlier in the week when doing vocabulary with the sophomores, one of the students says, “School is a synonym for prison.” The class chuckles and I am left wondering whether I should copy this onto the board and validate the student’s contribution. I smile and editorialize: School sometimes feels like a synonym for prison. I cannot tell if my mentor teacher is amused. I erase the vocab for the day and we move on. Back in Freshman English, our protagonist, Private First Class Paul Berlin, “pretend[s] he [is] not a soldier.” I write in the margin of my text: Pretend=Imagination=Childhood. What is this thing that we call childhood, that we need to beat out of people in order for them to “go out into the workforce/go fight for their country”? The students do not wear dog tags on metal chains, but they do wear plastic IDs on cloth lanyards. Straining my eyes throughout the day, I cannot identify the students’ faces or names on their plastic IDs. The students do, however, get castigated for not wearing theirs.

Christopher was deeply unsettled by how his host school’s practices seemed to erase his students’ unique identities, the “faces and names” on students’ plastic IDs unidentifiable even up close. He worried that, despite educators’ best intentions—indeed, he liked and respected his mentor teachers—schools ← 1 | 2 → sacrificed children’s imaginations in the name of productivity. Christopher found that he was no longer sure why he was doing work that so blatantly contradicted his understandings of what education was about.

During the weekly seminar that accompanied student teaching, Christopher asked “Why?” a lot: Why must he mark down students for using incomplete sentences in their class notes? Why did his peer spend more time having students label elements of a story’s “arc” than engaging students in conversation about the story’s meaning? Why? In Christopher’s understanding of education and learning, asking this question—Why?—was a fundamental piece of what school was supposed to be about. In this view, schools become spaces where students and teachers engage in a process of critically examining the prevailing orthodoxies. The issue for Christopher, however, was whether or not he would be able to carve out spaces to ask critical questions about the organization of the school, the design of the curriculum, and the need for things like standardized examinations.

During seminar, Christopher also apologized a lot; he could tell he was unsettling otherwise happy student teachers. These happy student teachers, it seemed, were more interested in starting their jobs than in asking the kinds of questions that Christopher wanted to ask about the purposes of education. Eventually, Christopher just kept his questions to himself, but his narratives, such as the following one, show that his concerns only grew:

We are in an impromptu department meeting. The department head is showing us the new Excel sheet that was made for checking students into “Auburn [school pseudonym] Hour,” the school’s new RTI period. In the first column is a list of students’ names highlighted in red, signifying that they have not been checked in today, because there is no Auburn Hour today. The department head demonstrates how students are checked in to Auburn Hour. There is a handheld scanner like one would find at a checkout line that will be placed on every teacher’s desk for use during Auburn Hour. At the beginning of the period, the teacher is supposed to scan the barcode on the students’ ID card that is hanging from their necks, and then the students’ names will go from being highlighted in red to being highlighted in green on the Excel sheet. This is supposed to streamline the attendance-taking process. There is a new student teacher at the meeting who is enthusiastically nodding at everything that is said about the new streamlined spreadsheet. After explaining other logistics to the new attendance-taking process, the department head brings up the topic of “Won’t” students. The department head says that if the students who keep getting assigned to Auburn Hour are “Won’t” students that teachers should remove those students from the attendance sheet and assign them to a study hall instead. A teacher asks what the study hall is like. Someone says it is silent and the students just sit there. Auburn Hour, the department head says, is for “Can’t” students, not “Won’t” students. In this school, there are “Can’t” students, and there are “Won’t” students. ← 2 | 3 →

Christopher is clearly attuned to the ways that schools dehumanize the young people in their care, reducing them to scannable bar codes and to “‘Can’t’ students” and “‘Won’t’ students.” Again and again throughout his student teaching, Christopher zeroed in on moments of opportunity—a class period devoted to supporting struggling students, a student’s critical (if flippant) inquiry into the purpose of prison-like schools—when humanizing students was possible. Why did these missed opportunities seem so discomforting to Christopher, while many of his peers—including the “new student teacher … enthusiastically nodding”—seemed willing to ignore or gloss over them so quickly? How was it, in these instances, that schooling became “settled” in ways that allowed the participants to, as Maxine Greene notes, “accede to the given” of the institution and leave so much unsaid and unchallenged (1998, p. 7)?

We believe that all of us—educators, administrators, parents, and community members—should be uncomfortable when students, teachers, and learning are objectified. We also believe that to counteract such objectification, we need a conscious and deep ethical commitment to the work of schools, as well as a political analysis to go with it. Enthusiasm for kids (or spreadsheets) isn’t going to be enough to wade through the contradictions and challenges of education without sacrificing our young people’s humanity. This book tells the stories of those who have worked to articulate a humane understanding of the role of schools in society and worked towards solidarity with students, colleagues, and community members. Their stories are not heroes’ tales. Indeed, sometimes these stories leave us to confront more questions—questions that unsettle our understandings of teaching and schools. That’s okay by us; we believe education is in need of some unsettling right about now.


When Kate last observed Christopher student teach, he used discussion of Brave New World as an opportunity to invite students to consider what they think education should and could look like. Though he tried to remain buoyant throughout the class period, his spirits steadily sank; though he finally coaxed ideas out of a handful of students, they were narrow in scope (“teachers should explain directions more”) and, ultimately, uninspiring. Worse yet, when Christopher tried to offer an alternative vision of education, he struggled to paint it in any particularity. It was as if the purposes and practices of schools had been settled, even for Christopher. This collection of stories, we hope, can help teachers like Christopher—teachers who intuitively understand ← 3 | 4 → that education can be so much more than test scores—to develop a political analysis and a voice to articulate a new vision for schools.

What’s Supposedly Settled

The last two decades of reforms have tried to reduce education to the teaching and learning of that which can be measured on standardized examinations. Education becomes “settled” precisely when there is some agreed upon “stuff” that we call the curriculum (and standardized examinations to go with it) that we import into our schools. The curriculum and the examinations are developed, packaged, and then disseminated to our schools, neatly wrapped in the perceived efficiency and neutrality of scientific language. We are told that all teachers in all schools should simply implement this curriculum using the “best practices” defined by those elsewhere. Students who fail are either the victims of “bad” teaching or, worse, lack sufficient grit or have yet to embrace a growth mindset.

The examination has, in many ways, become the single most important factor in many schools today. Not only does it inform and produce the need for future testing, but it also informs teacher training and licensing, provides or denies access to further education, and influences instruction and curriculum development. There is currently a national movement underway (and this is already happening in many states) to link teacher evaluations to student performance on these exams, raising the stakes even higher for both teachers and students.

This scheme to link teacher ratings and salaries to student test scores has been euphemistically termed “merit-based” pay. The seduction of these common sense reforms is undeniable, because the logic of these reforms appeals to deeply held beliefs about rewarding those who work hard to raise test scores (good teachers) and punishing those who do not (bad teachers) (Kumashiro, 2015).

Standardization in this system comes to mean fairness and equity, though, interestingly, these terms are never used in relation to community investment, school funding, or extracurricular or economic opportunities. In the latter realms fairness, equity, and standardization are irrelevant. The neighborhood or community from which a student comes, in fact, becomes irrelevant, too, since what matters here is access to curriculum, a good teacher, and the individual’s self-discipline and work ethic. We are compelled to understand, through the logic of neoliberalism, that where you are from has nothing to do with where you might go.

Suggesting that the purposes of school and the role of the teacher are settled (i.e., uncontestable and immutable) is precisely how neoliberal education ← 4 | 5 → reformers have framed the remaking of public schooling as a market-driven proposition. Wrapped in the logic and efficiency-speak of science, technology, and business, the rhetoric of neoliberal reforms helps to mask the problems and contradictions inherent in neoliberal policies—ones that diminish the work of teachers, decrease funding for social services in urban areas, privatize public schools, and ignore the political, economic, and social conditions affecting schools and their surrounding communities (Harvey, 2007). The effects of the misleading but powerful narrative of neoliberal education reform continue to ripple outward, reshaping the way we understand the work and preparation of teachers, the responsibilities of students and our responsibility to them, the nature of learning, the value of schools and communities, and, of course, what counts as knowledge.

Unsettling the Roles of Teacher and Student

The purpose of the teacher in the neoliberal framework is to implement the curriculum which has been aligned to the state-mandated, standardized examination. The student’s job is to learn the tools and tricks to perform well on these standardized examinations. This scenario ignores the contribution and potential of students and teachers to collaborate as fully human agents capable of defining their needs and interests. Teachers are never explicitly told not to attend to the complex humanity of students and their lived experiences, yet the entire accountability apparatus looms in ways that compel teachers to do just that.

In his book, Educating for Insurgency, Jay Gillen notes that “imagining that the purposes of schools are settled is a way of hiding the political role of young people” (2014, p. 50). We might add to Gillen’s analysis that such an approach also neutralizes the role of teachers in paradoxical ways—both underscoring teacher agency and denying it simultaneously—since once the goal of school is made clear, isn’t it the teacher’s job merely to make sure that students reach it? Gillen tells us that this understanding “misrepresents the sociological and political problem,” and that “the problem is that the social and political purposes of the country are contested, and young people are already participating in working toward a settlement of the contest, even while their political role remains unacknowledged” (p. 50). In this way, too, the role of teachers in public schools is also contested. Teachers, like students, continue to push back and resist efforts to standardize curriculum and learning outcomes. Teachers, like the ones in this collection, suggest that there are, in fact, many ways to organize schools, design curriculum, and understand the purposes of education. ← 5 | 6 →

What makes a good teacher and how should one approach working with young people? What are the purposes of schooling and how do our practices reflect these priorities? We believe schools should be spaces where these questions are explored openly and honestly with all participants.

Why Now’s the Time to Unsettle Education

As Christopher’s narratives at the beginning of this introduction show, some schools are not sites of such questioning. We find this of urgent concern given recent research findings that education reforms are effectively producing a new kind of teacher—one that conceives of herself in the seemingly incontestable terms of scientific validity embedded in the assessment technologies now being used to evaluate both teachers and students. What happens—and what does it mean for students—when teachers are interpellated through this new framework for understanding the work of teaching? What happens when this new teacher subjectivity emerges—one that essentially denies the full humanity of students and teachers?

In their article, “Making accountable teachers: the terrors and pleasures of performativity” (2017), Jessica Holloway and Jory Brass suggest that the neoliberal education policies of the last several decades have resulted in a “shift in the construction of teachers’ … subjectivity” (p. 1). After comparing teacher interviews that coincided with the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and those concurrent with Race to the Top (RTTT), Holloway and Brass determined that the increase in accountability mechanisms (including the addition of value-added measures) in the intervening decade effectively “fabricat[ed] a new kind of teacher” (p. 20):

To illustrate: whereas teachers in the earlier study complained that NCLB expected them to “‘Produce. Produce a test score. Produce on the AP exam. Produce diplomas’” despite their conviction that standardized tests were not “‘any measure, whatsoever, of what [students] learned,’” teachers in the later study questioned neither the drive to production nor the assessment of that production. As one teacher said, “‘all you have is what you produce, and you have to produce the best product that you can, which is who can perform on a test’” (p. 10). In this way, there has been a “normalization of the marketized teacher [and] the managed teacher” (p. 1), as well as what Holloway ← 6 | 7 → and Brass call a “collapse” between the “governed” (teachers) and the mechanisms of governance. The “accountability apparatus” is no longer external; one is a score determined by constant surveillance (Foucault, 1977).

It takes a concerted effort to resist the particular pressures of this heavy, neoliberal surveillance, but without resistance, we face what Marx (1844) described as the inevitable alienation experienced by a worker in a market-based culture: alienation from the product of labor (from students); from the act of labor (resulting in the de-professionalization of teaching); from our “species-being” (our “own bod[ies], as well as … [our] spiritual aspect, [our] human aspect”); and from others (colleagues, students, school and neighborhood communities) (pp. 31–32).

When a teacher must operate in such a system of commodification, no interaction is spared from alienation. How, then, can we thrive—not just survive—as teachers? How can students thrive—not just survive—in schools? In this volume, we share stories of how teachers have resisted state and local mandates to teach to the test in dehumanizing ways, how such teachers have sought to de-commodify educational spaces, how they have enacted their ethical commitments to students and communities, and how they have theorized such practices, sometimes even reconsidering their role as teachers and the very purposes of schooling.

We get in close to the work that teachers do with students and unmask not only the ways that teachers resist, but also the contradictions and failures that teachers work through each day as they struggle to negotiate the spaces between their ethical commitments to their students and the work they are told they must do to keep their jobs.

Given Holloway and Brass’s findings regarding the insidious and corrosive effects of market-based reforms on teachers’ identities and goals, the need for such stories and theories has never been more urgent. All of us are implicated when we allow policies and procedures to push us away from our ethical commitments to students, to justice, to equity, and to humanity. This book, then, seeks to reveal the ways in which teachers and teacher educators struggle to resist education policy of the last two decades—policy that has distorted the work of teaching, undermined the work of teachers and teacher educators, and obstructed the progress and potential of students, especially in our most underserved communities.

Whether you relate to Christopher or even to the other student teacher he describes—the one “enthusiastically nodding” at the “new streamlined spreadsheet”—we encourage you to let the following stories first unsettle you. Then, we invite you to use these stories to ask questions about what it would mean to find ethical footing wherever you walk in our educational landscape. ← 7 | 8 →


Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Gillen, J., & Moses, R. P. (2014). Educating for insurgency: The roles of young people in schools of poverty. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Greene, M. (1988). The dialectic of freedom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Harvey, D. (2007). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.

Holloway, J., & Brass, J. (2017). Making accountable teachers: The terrors and pleasures of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 33(3), 361–382. doi: 10.1080/02680939.2017.1372636

Kumashiro, K. (2015). Against common sense: Teaching and learning toward social justice. (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Marx, K. (1959). Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844. Moscow: Progress. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/preface.htm (Original work published 1932)

O’Brien, Tim. (1975). Where have you gone, charming Billy? Redbook, 145(1): 81, 127–32.

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Section I

The Promise of Unsettling Moments

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It seems that everywhere we turn these days we encounter the claim that feeling unsettled is essential to growth. In education textbooks, we read of the disequilibrium integral to Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. At Curriculum Night at our children’s schools, we hear references to Lev Vygotzky’s Zone of Proximal Development as teachers preview the necessary discomfort students will feel as they stretch their brains. Friends send us links to TED Talks about how important it is to get comfortable with discomfort.

So why does so much within our public education system feel settled? In the following chapter, “Against Measurement: Making a Case for School Play,” high school teachers Avi Lessing and Glynis Kinnan suggest that it is difficult to make schools safe for students’ intellectual experimentation and failure—and thus eventual innovation—when “external … performance metrics trump all.” In other words, teachers pressured to continuously document linear student growth and students pressured to continuously achieve high scores will find it difficult to linger in the unsettling moments necessary for authentic development. Kinnan and Lessing propose that students’ processes and present should trump a preoccupation with students’ scores and future. Moreover, they insist on the value of “nonachievement, rupture, spontaneity, nonconformity, uncertainty, puzzlement, nonclosure, and tentativeness” in the classroom. As they show through stories of both planned classroom projects and unanticipated classroom moments, such “immeasurables” can “enrich the experience of all the people who inhabit schools.”

Like Lessing and Kinnan, elementary school teachers Angela Whitacre de Resendiz and Will Hudson suggest that unsettling classroom moments hold great potential for both students and teachers. In their chapter, “Calculating Justice: Using Mathematical Mindsets for Teaching from a Social Justice Perspective,” Whitacre de Resendiz and Hudson recount a moment ← 11 | 12 → so unsettling it would have been easier to sidestep than face head on: the moment when a white first grader naively suggested that her black schoolmates “dance for us” for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Indeed, Whitacre de Resendiz and Hudson and their colleagues weren’t able to address the inadvertently offensive comment in the moment—shocked, they “brushed over it”—but they were sufficiently unsettled by this inability that they undertook “a reexamination of privilege, racism, and the inadvertent perpetuation of systems of thought and action that marginalize and, in many ways, dehumanize students and teachers alike.” Identifying one of the problematic “systems” as the hurried drive for production in schools, Hudson and Whitacre de Resendiz worked to create time and spaces for the “questions, uncertainties, and mistakes” that lead to stronger communities and lasting learning. In the process, they found a framework for their efforts within current conversations around developing mathematical thinking. “Regardless of content area,” they suggest, “challenging discussions and deeper understandings all require a willingness to ask questions, think creatively, look for patterns, and take chances.” Through many classroom examples, Whitacre de Resendiz and Hudson show how they have used Jo Boaler’s “Positive Norms to Encourage in Math Class” to facilitate “deep, analytical, and honest discussions related to historical and justice-related topics” in hopes of “lay[ing] the groundwork for empowerment.”

The unsettling moment that prompted former high school teacher and current teacher educator Noah Asher Golden to find a new framework for teaching for social justice was when a “harmless interaction” between him and his high school student was “‘misrecognized’ as a drug deal” by undercover detectives. With a new, visceral understanding of one way his minority students were “misrecognized,” Golden became committed to understanding and dismantling the misrecognitions that occur on multiple levels, up to the national level where social systems and accountability measures “misrecognize the strengths and talents of so many people.” In this section’s final chapter, “Challenging Misrecognitions through Reflexive Teacher Education: Knowing and Growing in an Age of Commodification,” Golden suggests that “understanding misrecognition … is key for those of us who dare to take up the role of educator.” Recognizing that race- and class-based misrecognitions are not the daily experience of most teachers, he proposes a teacher education grounded in critical reflection and engagement so that teachers will be less likely to unwittingly enact misrecognitions of their own. Drawing on the work of Paolo Freire, Golden calls on educators to “continue being curious to know, and expand this knowledge so that we can grow.” His experience has shown him that by growing out of “reductive framings of success and ← 12 | 13 → opportunity,” we can “work with our students to challenge the misrecognitions that can shape opportunities and outcomes.”

All of the chapters in this section highlight how much growth is possible, for students and for teachers, if we let ourselves be unsettled. To be sure, when we slow the rush to production in favor of stopping to ask questions when discomfited, we make ourselves more present to our and our students’ humanity.

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1. Against Measurement: Making a Case for School Play


Where are you going? How are you going to get there? How do you know when you’re there?

—Professional Development Session on Writing Teaching Objectives

Being able to be comfortable with vulnerability is a really important interpersonal skill, as well as being good for self care. I guess for me becoming a person is about figuring out that everyone else matters.

—Excerpt from a letter from Sam, a former student living and working in China

I do not expect to enjoy high school.

—Anonymous statement from an incoming freshman, class of ’22

The sixth-grade teacher assigns the students to research a topic of their choice under the general subject of health, and then to present their findings in a talk to their classmates. One boy, whose father is a dentist, gives his report in front of the class on how to care for teeth. He has a model of a mouth that he borrowed from his dad. He speaks well and he is in command of his material. Another child, a girl, gives her report on wolves. Clearly deeply invested in the topic, she talks passionately without using notecards and maintains consistent eye contact. She plays a record of wolf vocalizations and presents a chart of wolf body language. She ties her presentation to the topic of health because she says that wolves are being unfairly slaughtered, that people wrongly fear wolves as dangerous.

The boy receives an A for his presentation; the girl gets a B because she did not hew closely enough to the directive to research a topic on human health.

—Memory from grade school

We are veteran public high school English teachers. Our well-funded school of 3,200 students serves an economically and racially diverse community ← 15 | 16 → close to the border of Chicago. Both of us have been around long enough to have borne witness to the ways in which educational practice has been influenced by the advent of technology that facilitates the accumulation of data.

Like many teachers in the nation, we were horrified to watch as Al Franken pressed Betsy DeVos to delineate her views on the merits of a proficiency versus growth model of assessing student achievement and it became ever more clear that the then candidate for Secretary of Education had no acquaintance with the debate that Franken was referencing. Certainly, anyone under consideration for the nation’s top education position should have been sufficiently familiar with the educational zeitgeist to have known what Franken was talking about. Our dismay, however, strikes deeper: indeed, we refute the premise underlying Franken’s questions that the two models, proficiency and growth, are appreciably different, based as they both are on a belief in the value of measurement, certainty, and closure, and we worry about the notion of school that is implied by both the proficiency model and the growth model, which reduces school into a sorting machine.

The proficiency model sets standardized benchmarks and then evaluates students on the basis of how well they achieve these fixed markers. In comparison, the growth model also establishes a fixed point of competence that students are expected to meet, but it differs from the proficiency model in that it requires a baseline assessment of each student and then evaluates not only whether or not the student meets the benchmark, but also how significant the student’s growth is relative to where she started. Under current educational practices, the growth model also has a corollary: 25% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on her ability to demonstrate via an established metric that her students have improved over time in her classroom. In other words, the growth model is pressed into service to establish that the teacher has “added value” to the student’s profile.

While it may be true that a growth model represents a more inclusive way of recognizing student achievement than a proficiency model allows for, we question the premise that the primary function of school is to measure and quantify narrow aspects of students’ and teachers’ performances. It is our purpose here to flush out some hidden drawbacks to a growth-model incarnation measuring student performance and then to further interrogate the assumption that measurement itself is an unqualified good. Finally, we conceive of ways we might complicate notions of education to emphasize relationship, non-achievement, rupture, spontaneity, nonconformity, uncertainty, puzzlement, non-closure, and tentativeness, which may enrich the experience of all the people who inhabit schools. In sum, we suggest that the emphasis on ← 16 | 17 → measurement is antithetical to a spirit of play and playfulness, which should more properly inform the practice of education.

Interrogation of Measurement

The Growth Model and Fetishization of the Metric

Even if we leave aside for a moment the more fundamental question of whether we can feasibly measure learning and teaching, we can still notice some problematic aspects of a growth model of student achievement. Indeed, the act of measurement may function to constrain what it purports to measure. This is especially true when student growth is tied to teacher evaluations. For example, in our classrooms, if we were not obliged to submit proof of student growth to administrative overseers via metric evaluation, graphs, etc., we would design writing assignments that build in complexity so that students would actually grow by grappling with new challenges. But a growth model requires that we give students the identical task at least two times so that we have an accurate comparison. In this respect, the metric itself assumes more importance than the learning. Indeed, in a classroom that is not focused on proving growth, a test itself can be an instrument of learning. A test, for example, might be used to challenge students beyond what they had previously done. But tests that are designed to serve a growth agenda have a different, more overtly utilitarian function because they exist to make a case to an administrator who needs to make a case to a board or a district or a state.

Moreover, if the teacher’s own performance evaluation is based in any significant degree on her students’ ostensible growth, she will have strong incentive to make sure that the students register on the metric as having grown. In other words, instead of being free to attend to students’ actual needs, which could certainly involve challenging them at a level slightly above their zone of comfort, she will be compelled to design a post-assessment that will graph well. For the teacher, the project of learning must take a backseat to the project of proving the learning.

In some cases, moreover, time that teachers could be using to enrich their own practice must be devoted to the designing of baseline instruments that only establish what was already known. For example, in Glynis’s classroom, students and teacher focus a lot on vocabulary. If Glynis were to measure student growth on vocabulary acquisition, she would first have to design a baseline quiz, which is to say, a quiz that students would take before they had been exposed to the words in class. Predictably—and this has been borne out by experience—students would do poorly on this quiz. Students could ← 17 | 18 → legitimately decry as busywork the experience of taking a quiz for which they were not prepared, for which the outcome was virtually certain, and for which the raison d’étre was bureaucratic convenience divorced from student welfare.

These shortcomings, though, would perhaps be quibbles if the underlying premise that measurement itself is an unqualified good could stand up to scrutiny. In our view, however, the emphasis on measurement is fundamentally misplaced because it forestalls so much of what we value about education.

Measurement: The Negation of Play and the Disavowal of the Now

In his TED Talk, psychiatrist and play researcher Stuart Brown (2008) argues that play is essential to human and other animal development. He notes that there are many kinds of play—body play, imaginative play, object play to name a few—but he says that the quality that distinguishes play from other activities is that it has no reason to exist other than itself. Play is done for itself rather than for a goal or some ulterior objective. Brown claims that, “If its purpose is more important than the act of doing it is, it is probably not play.” His research suggests that play is good for the brain, that indeed it is essential for optimum development of humans and other animals, and that play deprivation results in neurological deficits. Interestingly, Brown also suggests that the opposite of play is not work but depression.

When students are trained to care about their performance on a metric or to regard that performance as the point toward which they are striving, they are schooled against play. When they are taught that the teacher knows what the outcome of their learning should be and that they will be measured by how close they come to that ideal, they are being denied the opportunity to simply engage in intellectual play for its own sake. Pondering, imagining, wondering, speculating—modes of intellectual play—are forestalled when students are driven toward a predetermined goal.

In such a paradigm there is no room for valuing experiences that have intrinsic meaning; instead, thinking, being, and experiencing are subordinated to the production of the score on the metric. This is why students raise their hands when a classroom discussion appears to have veered “off track” and ask if what they are talking about will be on the test. They have been conditioned to believe that value derives from performance on a metric or a rubric and that anything outside of that laser-focus is extraneous. Moreover, the rigid definition of the goal that the teacher must provide in order to ensure the accuracy of the assessment acts as a constraint on both the teacher’s and the students’ opportunities to be creative, to envision learning in novel ways. The teacher is not free to create an open-ended project for students in which she might be surprised by their responses, nor is she free to regard students ← 18 | 19 → as co-creators of learning. Instead, the emphasis on measurement inscribes a hierarchical relationship between teacher and student.

At the famous-among-teachers Westtown seminar, in the summer of 2004, Fran Norris Scoble, a head of an independent school, started her talk with the following question: “Is school good for our souls?” That question bowled us over. It threw into stark relief the fact that most schools do not ask that question, and because they don’t, the answer is too often no. Perhaps Scoble’s question is another way of asking whether or not schools are places that authenticate the value of play; the soul, if nothing else, is suggestive of good-in-itself. Too often, even as schools preach growth and growth mindset, they act from a place of deficit and not-good enough.

In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (2002), the character Miss Scatcherd is the type of teacher who is so determined to make her students conform to her definition of achievement that she fails to recognize the extraordinary intellectual and spiritual gifts of Jane’s friend Helen Burns. Miss Scatcherd focuses on how Helen misses the mark she has set for her, not how invested Helen is in moral questions or how she is guided by her religious principles. Jane says, “Burns wore on her arm ‘the untidy badge’; scarcely an hour ago, I heard her condemned by Miss Scatcherd to a dinner of bread and water on the morrow because she had blotted an exercise in copying out. Such is the imperfect nature of man! Such spots are there on the disc of the clearest planet; and eyes like Miss Scatcherd’s can only see those minute defects, and are blind to the full brightness of the orb” (p. 64). Indeed, we know that many students find school to be a stultifying, creativity-crushing experience that seems to have little relevance to them as human beings, and that many of them regard school as a hoop they must jump through to get to the next hoop, which is college. School feels neither playful nor soulful to them. We both worry how the full brightness of our students’ orbs dim in the way we narrowly conceive teaching and learning.

As Avi’s student Jennie wrote in her final reflection:

One source of Jennie’s dismay is that she has been given no sense that the present is important and meaningful in its own right. She has been encouraged to train her focus on the future, specifically on what she wants to do (presumably what job she aspires to) rather than to regard the present as ← 19 | 20 → an opportunity to safely explore and play around with her possible interests and passions. In fact, she cannot explore her personal growth in a way that she finds meaningful because she feels compelled to attend to quantifiable markers.

In one of his lectures, the Buddhist scholar Alan Watts makes a comparison between the creative act of engaging with music and the conventional notion of school. Watts says of school,

In Watts’s view, such a mindset misses the point as the present is subsumed by the future. As he puts it, “it was a musical thing and we were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.” In a classroom where measurement metrics predominate, there is no room for singing and dancing in the moment because the now is merely that which must be overridden by the future. It is no wonder then that students like Jennie feel discouraged about more school on the horizon when in the present they have not had the opportunity to discover what makes them happy and curious about life.

Limitations of Instruments of Measurement

As teachers, we live inside a powerful contradiction: we succumb and abide by the system and simultaneously fight to subvert and transform it from within. In 2004, shortly after returning from the Westtown seminar, Avi developed a senior year rite-of-passage English class dedicated to being good for students’ souls.

He was adamant that seniors should have a class that presses the proverbial pause button before they leave compulsory education for college or gap year programs, before their childhood, in effect, would end. The field of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), which is now ubiquitous, had just established state standards in Illinois. The standards’ language was language school administrators could understand. Avi didn’t mention the word soul to sell the class; he used language around student targets like “will become more self-aware.” Of course, that was the goal, just not one that could be easily measured, let alone described. ← 20 | 21 →

In Avi’s senior class, students write personal essays, develop oral history projects, practice mindfulness, and play theater games to build their social and emotional ability to empathize with their classmates, develop self-awareness, and expand their capacity for attention. As part of their oral history study, students do a project inspired by MacArthur genius grant awardee Anna Deveare Smith’s “On the Road” work. Smith travels around America interviewing people whose words she transcribes exactly and then renders as verbatim monologues to create one person plays. One of her essential questions is the following: If we cannot or refuse to embody someone who is different from us, how can we possibly have empathy for them? (2001). She’s been called the most empathetic person in America (Smith, 2018).

For his most recent evaluation, Avi attempted to measure students’ growth in empathy. While he remained dubious of the requirement to measure growth, he decided to try and make it a worthwhile exercise. But even when a teacher has the best intention to design an instrument to measure student growth specific to his class, the challenge is appreciable and hidden limitations of the measurement tool may emerge.

On the surface, Avi’s project seemed tailor-made for measuring growth in empathy. He was thrilled to teach students the skills they would need to become more empathetic, by training in listening and attunement, reserving judgment, and understanding another person’s life circumstances. After assigning each student a partner who they did not know well, Avi gave them a pretest asking them to measure how much empathy they felt for their partner. Then, five weeks later, after the students had participated in activities meant to make them more connected, gone to Storycorps (a national oral history organization) to learn to conduct oral history interviews in one another’s homes, and transcribed and edited their partners’ words into two-minute monologues that they then memorized and performed for one another, he gave them a questionnaire as a post-test to see how much their empathy had grown.

That night, Avi visualized spectacular graphs with lines angled sharply upward, perhaps bearing the heading Extraordinary Growth. He knew the power of graphs because for months he had been meeting with the superintendent to emphasize the results of a yearlong study in SEL, which were mostly ignored until a colleague’s husband, who led a prominent Chicago sports team’s marketing department, organized all of the information in a few graphs, and the superintendent banged his hand on the table and said, “Now this is what I’ve been waiting for, Avi.” Avi was confident that the data would show that students had gained more ability to be empathetic; indeed, he fantasized that now they were perhaps the most empathetic kids in the ← 21 | 22 → whole school, and he hoped that their newly cultivated empathy would correlate with higher GPAs, fewer absences, and more incentive to finish college.

The actual graphs were more shocking than merely disappointing, with several of the lines not bound for the sky but diving towards the dirt. Many of the students reported growth, but, strikingly, a number of students too large to dismiss reported that they went down in empathy. A teacher’s nightmare: after five weeks of training in empathy using the methods of the most empathetic person in America, Avi’s students had become less empathetic. And this was the instrument Avi was to use for his own evaluation!

Avi tracked down some of the students, curious about their reactions and concerned about his professional rating. Their responses all amounted to different versions of the following feedback: “You see, Mr. Lessing, when you partnered me, I thought my empathy was pretty high because why wouldn’t it be? I’m an empathetic person. That’s why I think I gave myself sevens across the board. But when I interviewed my partner and found out about their lives, I realized I didn’t know anything about them. In some of those exercises you did in class where we had to repeat back what people said, I couldn’t do it, because I was spacing out all of the time. Empathy is hard, which is why I lowered myself to 4’s in my ranking.”

Avi talked to several students whose scores went down but who grew tremendously—though not exactly in a way that could be captured between the perimeters of a pre- and post -test. In this case, the baseline assessment, which was an exercise in self-reportage, proved not to be a waste of time, but also not to be accurate. In fact, its value was precisely its inaccuracy: it helped illuminate for the students what they had not understood about themselves. Undoubtedly, students did become more empathetic despite the fact that this was not represented on the graph; moreover, they became way more aware of themselves and how much future growth they could achieve if they could only be more present now.

Empathy wasn’t a skill you learned once forever more. It wasn’t even a goal to reach, because why would you want to finish being empathetic? It was like Alan Watts said: more of a musical thing.

A linear, objective, numerical tool to measure what happened was inadequate to the task. Avi understood his students by talking to them, and they understood themselves through their relationships with others and their reflections. They were practicing the three R’s that neurobiologist Daniel Siegel (2009) re-envisions for schools beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic: reflection, relationship, and resiliency—all things that resist numerical representation. Indeed, Avi’s students having taken a step backward on the metric was really a step forward in their becoming more empathetic people. ← 22 | 23 →

How would the system of professional evaluation, also represented numerically, accommodate this extraordinary moment in Avi’s career? It couldn’t, and he was downgraded from “excellent” to “proficient” on the student growth segment of his evaluation. Apparently, he added less value to his students’ growth in empathy than the year before.

Alternative Conceptions: Making Space for Relationships, Pleasure, Uncertainties, Personal Experience, Connections, and Wonder

While we think that there is a place for evaluation of student growth—and indeed we are especially enthusiastic about it when it is used to help students self-reflect, as it was in Avi’s class—we think that school should mostly be a place that’s good for the soul, where students play, which is to say, school and the classroom should value the act of wondering, of free thinking that is not conscripted to a tightly prescribed goal; it should value experimentation, including the failure that is an inevitable aspect of risk-taking; it should value pleasure that arises in the present and in the context of others. It should be a place that supports Keats’s (1970) notion of negative capability, where one is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (p. 43).


When we conceive of education as something that is valuable in the moment, that is in fact happening right now, rather than as something that is simply preparation for a future circumstance, we recuperate a recognition of the importance of relationships. When we privilege the present, relationships—between students and teachers and students and one another—can be seen for the significant aspects of school experience that they are. The emphasis on measurable outcomes tends to devalue both student and teacher in that it attempts to reduce that which is complex, nebulous, or subjective to discrete, clearly locatable data points in the past and in the future, whereas a recognition of the value of relationships in the moment confers dignity on both students and teachers.

When Glynis was in high school in the seventies—the same high school in which she now teaches—one experience stands out far above the rest. Her sophomore English teacher, James Berkley, a preternaturally cheerful middle-aged man with a buzz cut, dressed in a perpetual tweed jacket, sometimes read short stories to the class. He did not offer any pedagogical justification to ← 23 | 24 → the students for these endeavors. They were simply presented as pleasurable experiences, where the only obligation was to enjoy oneself.

Berkley read the stories because he loved them and he believed the students would too. These were the most moving moments of Glynis’s academic life as an adolescent. She can still conjure Mr. Berkley’s voice as he read the final devastating sentence of “The Scarlet Ibis.” There was no test, no assessment of the experience, no metric for capturing Glynis’s growth as a student. But she was affected in a way that spoke to her soul; she went on to get a Ph.D. in English literature and obviously to become a teacher herself. School was rendered meaningful for Glynis because James Berkley gave her a no-strings-attached gift simply through generously sharing and celebrating the joy of literature.

When we recognize that relationships between and among teachers and students are central to the experience of school, important in their own right, we value the whole human and we recognize that pleasure is rightfully a component of school. When we look through a relational lens, students’ stories, mishaps, wariness, enthusiasms, and concerns are not something we dismiss, deny, or shirk. In the process of valuing a student’s life, and students’ lives together, we seek meaning in their presence, in the present, without regard always to the immediate task, or how we may show immediate measurable growth. Paradoxically, an education that lingers in the present, that makes space for play, that nurtures relationships, may lead to the more meaningful and sustaining growth in the future that we wanted all along: the kind to which we refer when we talk about lifelong learners, or college persistence rates, or increased happiness and satisfaction in life.

Risk and Uncertainty

We maintain that school should be a place where students can feel free to experiment, mess around, try things on a whim, and fail, without dire repercussions for them or the teacher. In Glynis’s classes of seniors she works with the students on their college application essays. The greatest challenge is to get the students to tap into their unique voice in order to write lively, distinctive pieces. Indeed, many students will say that they feel they were quite creative and imaginative when they were little kids, but that their experience in school has diminished their ability to think outside the box. In this respect, schools’ emphasis on metrics undercuts the purported aim of preparing students for success in the marketplace, since the ability to think innovatively is one of the characteristics potential employers most demand. But students will not be able to develop their creativity if it is not safe for them to fail, or ← 24 | 25 → if they have been conditioned to believe that external, potentially irrelevant, performance metrics trump all. When Glynis works with the students on their essays, the students are willing to experiment in their writing because they know in advance that they will all receive full credit for their work, and they know they can rework their material as much as they want to. Some students volunteer to have their essays workshopped by the whole class precisely because they are having problems with their material. They know that the idea is not to receive praise but to spark inspiration, not just for themselves but for others too. Their failures may provide rich opportunity for innovative revision for others as well as themselves.

In general, educators don’t have a language that truly values mistake-making, failure, falling apart, not knowing, being wrong, reconsidering, second-guessing, screwing up, going the wrong way, getting triggered, getting in over your head, all of the challenges that truly make up so much of living, and of course, school. These nonlinear aspects of life deserve our attention as educators, and not just because educators should be normalizing rather than pathologizing self-doubt, but also because these moments that first appear as regressions, or irrelevant pleasurable digressions, have the potential, especially with mentorship, to stimulate great growth. The growth we seek is not the transitory, fabricated kind revealed in pre- and post-tests, but the kind that transcends school per se and entwines people’s academic skills and their personal experience.

While we sympathize with the desire to be sure that all students are learning, we suggest that high stakes testing, monitoring, and tracking may be having adverse psychological effects on students. In the New York Times Magazine’s article “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Anxiety?” (Denizet-Lewis, 2017), two alarming statistics emerge. One is that the American College of Health Association found a significant increase in the number of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety.” The other is that since 1985, when the higher institute at UCLA began asking freshmen if they were overwhelmed by all that they have to do, the percentage of students reporting feeling overwhelmed has risen sharply. In 1985, it was 18 percent. In 2016, it was 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent. The number of young people who have been hospitalized has more than doubled. In our school, 32 percent of the sophomore class (well over 200 students) reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some of their usual activities (Center for Prevention Research and Development, 2016).

These statistics suggest that our emphasis on a narrow notion of academic success may be backfiring, and that we pay a price for neglecting students’ ← 25 | 26 → social and emotional learning. In his TED Talk on success, Alain de Botton (2009) lays out the classic situation that creates anxiety all across America. “It’s Sunday night and just as the sun is starting to set, and the gap between my hopes for myself and the reality of my life starts to diverge so painfully that I normally end up weeping into a pillow.” That scenario is of course amplified for school-aged children and doubly amplified in adolescence, because young people face significant instability and change because of the way their brains develop (Siegel, 2015). As clinical psychiatrist Richard Friedman (2014) writes in the New York Times,

When schools emphasize measurement and judgment they inadvertently foster a climate for anxiety through the implication that worth must be continually re-established on the basis of performance metrics. One corollary of students’ high anxiety is a reluctance to experiment or deviate from a formula that has proven successful in the past. If we do not privilege a student’s social and emotional experience of school, we do nothing to help students cope with their particular challenges, and we undermine their potential for creativity.

Personal Experience

In Avi’s class, self-care and getting to know others aren’t merely feel-good sprinklings of fun or play that he gets to once he’s taught the important material. Writing narratives, for instance, is one of the most real and substantial intellectual pursuits capable of capturing a students’ own process in making sense of their lives, in thinking about their own thinking. In fact, researchers who listened to the stories of young people who had recovered from a psychiatric illness, “came to recognize personal narrative as a resource and a tool, a way of grasping how people maintain meaning over time … They found that those who were able to process difficult material had richer and smoother narratives” (Apter, 2006). But there’s an inherent risk in telling a story, or processing difficult material, which brings up fundamental questions about the nature of school and what is and what’s not supposed to happen there.

For instance, this year, Avi’s student, whom we will call Tonya, was triggered by a story that another student, whom we will call Miranda, shared. ← 26 | 27 → Tonya spoke to Avi before the next class, asking to share her experience with the whole class. When she did, she made a request for trigger warnings for stories in the future. Another student objected, saying that trigger warnings could make the process of telling stories even more fraught, since a trigger implies that there’s something potentially troubling about one’s story. The back and forth raised all sorts of questions from the students, ones that Avi didn’t have answers to in the moment. The conversation also became racialized as a student of color asserted, “No one ever gave me a trigger warning for any of the experiences I was about to have. It’s a guarantee that I will walk into triggering situations left and right.” The conversation was rich and bold; students spoke who had never before uttered a word in class; the learning was authentic and suddenly real, neither abstract nor abstruse; students were dealing with some of the most difficult material in their own lives. They were grappling with how and whether to share their own stories, how to react to others’ stories, how to be honest without being hurtful, how to be triggered but stay in the room, how to recognize and validate difference and its impact and still maintain faithful communication.

That day, all the students were present, engaged with the problem of those questions, but not all of them had revelations. Their growth was all over the map. Some students may have felt that was the deepest learning of the entire year. Others may have felt it was far too intense for a high school English class in the middle of the day. Avi didn’t deliberately create an experience that would send the students into a dizzying 48-minute bell-to-bell conversation, but, once it began, he didn’t try to shut it down and divert the class to his planned lesson. He recognized that what was happening was a form of the most serious kind of play, with all its attendant riskiness, and he was a participant in its unfolding. Life, whether it’s work, relationships, or even one’s free time, rarely follows our expected script. Falling off track then in school sometimes provides the most rewarding moments of all.

While schools can purport to value openness and transparency, the safer bet for the teacher is to maintain strict control of the classroom. When things are unpredictable, in-process, or in a state of becoming, we are in unfamiliar territory where we don’t know what we don’t know. Students may discover the teacher to be at just as much of a loss as they are. Once, much earlier in his career, when Avi sought to begin a teacher group that would focus on what to do when you—the teacher—get triggered in the classroom, the head of the counseling department, with great exasperation, said, “Well that shouldn’t happen!” The counselor’s point was that teachers should not ever be in a situation where they feel challenged on an emotional level, that they should structure the class to obviate such a possibility. But when teachers ← 27 | 28 → authentically share leadership of the class with their students, the teacher is no longer the sole determiner of what happens in that space. When we conceive of education through the narrow lens of measurable growth, students are denied the capacity to grow in important life skills that cannot be measured. They don’t learn how to step back, or engage in difference, or sit stunned in their seats, or lean how to process what is happening. That ability also erodes for the teacher. Conversely, an experiential learning environment creates space for the unplanned, the unknown, the unmeasurable, and the previously unexperienced.


At first glance, the idea of welcoming mistakes, growth that involves stepping back, and working with resistance seems counterproductive and inefficient and bodes poorly for teacher accountability. But by embracing a pedagogy that includes mistake-making and doubt, where growth is the goal but not the guarantee, we may have the power to enliven what we’re teaching, break down barriers between us and our students, and connect our and our students’ personal and academic lives together. A pedagogy that welcomes intrusiveness, impediments, and obstacles makes the classroom more like life, infinitely more complex to navigate, and thus correspondingly more valuable to experience.

In 2015, Avi initiated a Social and Emotional Learning Coaching Pilot at our school. Fifteen teachers participated in the program in which the goal was to integrate social and emotional learning with academic learning. The idea was to take some of the tools that were used in different classes—such as project-based learning, mindfulness, and partner exercises—broaden their use, and observe the impact. The evaluation, designed by a professional evaluator, and conducted by multiple parties inside and outside the school, involved interviewing teachers, organizing focus groups, and conducting observations. We coded the interviews and wrote multiple reports of our findings. Administrators listened politely, but that was the extent of it. It was qualitative research, and there were no graphs to support our work. We couldn’t make correlations to the bottom lines to which all administrators seem beholden—GPA, SAT, attendance statistics.

But you can’t truly understand the impact of a teacher, a class, or school, unless you actually go see and talk to the teacher, observe the class, walk around the school. For instance, two teachers at our school, John and Lindy, teach a new leadership class which is designed both to develop junior and senior leaders and to provide mentoring for freshmen and sophomores. By ← 28 | 29 → conventional evaluation, the program has not met some of the performance metrics that schools typically equate with success, like correlations to higher GPAs, better test scores, and other things that can be counted. And yet, according to the participants, the class has been wildly successful in its own terms. Students have had the opportunity to practice techniques that enhance their social and emotional learning, and then to reflect on the effectiveness of those techniques. Students themselves say: “I’m more compassionate”; “I’m more patient because I’ve learned to work with people younger than me. While my freshmen are getting work done, it motivates me to get work done, so I’m more diligent”; “I feel like I can talk to different people in the school now.”

The most important student responses are sometimes, at first glance, the ones that are tangential, idiosyncratic, even obstructionist. The format of school discourages potentially useful interruptions; instead, we tell our students “to get back to work.” Long before they reach our classrooms, students have internalized that being a good student means handing in the work, getting through the day. Sure, completing things is important, as is the ability to set and meet goals and be held accountable, and even to measure certain types of growth. But not at the expense of everything else. If we are going to bemoan our students’ lack of creativity or drive, we should look for offbeat opportunities to spark and engage that are unplanned.

Avi’s student Asha took his senior rite-of-passage course first semester. She was a smart and artistically gifted young person, who could sometimes be overwhelmed with her life. Even as she completed the work for the class, and had a great rapport with her partner, Payton, she also dealt with a tremendous amount of anxiety. One day, months after the class ended, Avi exchanged hellos with her in the hallway, aware of the looming hall clock that was counting down the minutes until the start of the next period. Asha looked pale and like she wanted to say something more, so Avi lingered, though a part of him was anxious to move on to class. But Asha wasn’t moving. She took a couple of deep breaths. And then after 30 seconds, she said thank you, smiled, and went off happily. This little, delicate moment recalls a scene from Natalie Goldberg’s (1994) memoir The Long Quiet Highway which reveals how worthwhile experiences come sometimes from doing less, not more, from being off the track, not on it. She relates her only memory from high school, the time her teacher took her to watch the rain fall by the window. She writes: “Thank God for that rain out the window and for Mr. Clemente who allowed us in ninth grade to listen to it for no reason, in the middle of the day. That one moment carried me a long way into my life. I didn’t know it then. At the time, I think, it made me a little nervous—it was too naked, ← 29 | 30 → too uncontrolled, too honest. I thought it odd. In those days I was watching my step, making sure I knew the rules, keeping things in control … here was Mr. Clemente who asked me to listen to the rain, to connect a sense organ with something natural, neutral, good. He asked me to become alive. I was scared, and I loved it.”


In his book The Art of Wondering, William A. Covino (1988) argues for reconceiving of the teaching of writing as a form of wondering. Though his work specifically focuses on writing, we extrapolate his remarks to apply in general to the project of education. Covino identifies the epistemological crisis of our era as “the failure of objectivity, Cartesian rationality, and detachment to account for our complicated perception of a world in flux where matters are never settled” (p. 121). He argues that students “should trade certainty for ambiguity, trade preservative writing for investigative writing, trade conclusions for ‘counterinduction’” (p. 130). We propose that schools should do something similar themselves, and should train students accordingly.

Our students are disserved by the notions of certainty and closure that a reliance on performance metrics inscribes. They need the ability to understand multiple perspectives, to be comfortable with ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty. They need strategies that help them regulate their experience of the present; they need ways of relating with others in and through similarity and difference, ways of understanding, as Sam implies at the beginning of this piece, that one person’s personhood is intimately connected to another’s personhood. They need to feel that pleasure in school is an expectation, not the exception.

The narrative we related at the beginning of this chapter, the one about the girl who did her report on wolves, was Glynis’s experience as a child. How do we understand that story? What is more important, following directions or following passion? Students’ personal experiences or the nation’s mandates for accountability in public education? The way we as educators wonder about things matters, as does the way we frame our answers. What if, to the questions: Where are we going? How are we going to get there? How will we know when we are there, we answer more tentatively, more provisionally, in ways that allow for us to revise, adapt, linger in a space of uncertainty, confusion, and doubt? What if we value a spirit of wonder rather than an ethos of conviction that we already have the answer? What if schools could accommodate ostensible failure so that Avi’s empathy growth experiment could be recognized as a success? What if we include in our curriculum as guiding questions: Who are you? How are you? How do you relate to others? What if ← 30 | 31 → we ask Jennie not what she wants to do with the rest of her life, but about her hopes and fears in the present? What kind of curriculum and pedagogy would be inspired by the pressing dilemmas she presents?


Apter, T. (2006, July 21). The bounce: What we can learn from troubled teenagers who get back on track. Times Literary Supplement, 3–4.

Brontë, C. (2002). Jane Eyre. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Brown, S. (Director). (2008). Play is more than just fun [Video file]. Retrieved October 21, 2018, from https://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital?language=en

Center for Prevention Research and Development. (2016). Illinois youth survey. Retrieved October 21, 2018, from https://iys.cprd.illinois.edu/

Covino, W. A. (1988). The art of wondering: A revisionist return to the history of rhetoric. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

de Botton, A. (Director). (2009). A kinder, gentler philosophy of success [Video file]. Retrieved October 21, 2018, from https://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_a_kinder_gentler_philosophy_of_success?language=en

Denizet-Lewis, B. (2017, October 11). Why are more American teenagers than ever suffering from severe anxiety? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/magazine/why-are-more-american-teenagers-than-ever-suffering-from-severe-anxiety.html

Friedman, R. (2014, June 28). Why teenagers act crazy. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/29/opinion/sunday/why-teenagers-act-crazy.html

Goldberg, N. (1994). Long quiet highway: Waking up in America. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Keats, J. (1970). Letters of John Keats: A new selection. R. Gittings (Ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Lindberg, D., & Watts, A. (Directors). (2016, July 26). Music and life [Video file]. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHnIJeE3LAI&disable_polymer=true

Siegel, D. J. (2015). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA).

Siegel, D. (Writer). (2009, November 12). The power of mindsight [Video file]. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nu7wEr8AnHw

Smith, A. D. (2001). Talk to me: Travels in media and politics. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Smith, J. (2018, March 5). Opinion: Anna Deavere Smith is the most empathetic person in America. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/opinion-smith-anna-deavere-smith-empathy_us_5a905997e4b01e9e56bb8287

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2. Calculating Justice? Using Mathematical Mindsets for Teaching From a Social Justice Perspective


“Maybe They Can Dance for Us”

Each week, all the students in our school meet in one room for discussion, problem-solving, or students’ presentations of their ideas for the school. During one such meeting, a teacher explained that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was approaching, summarized who Dr. King was and why we celebrate him, and asked students to think of ways we could mark the holiday. Some students suggested reading books about the Civil Rights Era; some thought creating a bulletin board or display was a good idea. And then it happened. A rather precocious, white, first-grade girl, who we learned later had discussed in her classroom that some schools and community events feature African music or dance for Black History Month, suggested that some of the Black students could present a song or do a dance for us. Teachers’ faces went into shock as we looked at each other. Did a white student just suggest that Black students (“They”) should sing and dance for non-Black students (“Us”)? Yes, yes she did, and several kids, their brows furrowed and mouths agape, seemed to have gotten what just happened.

We teachers were suddenly faced with a litany of internal questions, none of which had easy answers. How could we address this comment without crushing this child? How could we explain the weight of the historical and polarizing racist imagery she had just conjured? How could we make clear to all present that this was hurtful? How could we do it in the thirty minutes available without stirring up more confusion or unresolved harm? How could we protect those students who were offended, angry, or confused? How could we unpack this in the moment as a multi-age group? ← 33 | 34 →

Well, we didn’t. We let the comment sit there a few moments and then brushed over it thinking that those students who got what happened “got it” and those who didn’t hear the offense wouldn’t need any further discussion. And so we moved on. We were not prepared. As a faculty, we were fairly well-versed in history, racial inequity, and activism. We were well-spoken, vocal, and “good” at navigating nuanced conversation. But, in this moment, we failed. How did this happen to us? And how were we to pick up the pieces and make sure it didn’t happen again?

Angela’s Response

A student in my third-grade class went home deeply affected by the all-school meeting, so I spoke with her mother about her and her sister’s reactions at home. The younger sister cried about dancing for the white kids, and my student was angry. The following day we discussed as a class what went wrong, how teachers should have reacted, and why what was said was so upsetting to some of us.

In discussing the incident as a faculty, it became clear that we had not done the work to know how to call someone’s racism out in a productive way. We knew how to agree with other adults that leaned in the same direction, and we knew how to impart facts and ideas. We did not know how to really open ourselves up and be completely present, engaged with children in difficult, open dialogue about sticky topics where we might not have all the answers. I am haunted by that all-school meeting, and always will be, because I know that my inaction, even if only delayed by a day, will be a story that lives in several children’s memory.

These are the moments that make teachers, particularly white teachers, afraid to open discussions about race, gender, sexuality, class, and social justice. Indeed, some of our faculty later suggested we should simply avoid discussing such potentially unpredictable topics in mixed-age settings. It can be easier to do nothing, because if we do nothing, we can feel as if we have caused no harm. But not knowing what to do is not an excuse for inaction.

The discussion I and my students had the day after the all-school meeting was deep, honest, and meaningful. I cried, and students cried. We talked about our discomfort and opened up to each other in a way that wasn’t about saying the “right” thing, but about using the right tools. We stopped excusing and protecting ourselves and started explaining and asking questions.

As a facilitator of that discussion, I used a lot of “I statements” to guide students through how I analyzed my thoughts and actions. More importantly, however, I started asking the group open-ended questions like, ← 34 | 35 → “What were you feeling? Why do you think you felt that way? Does anyone have something to say about that? What are you wondering about now as we’re talking about this?” Asking such questions allowed students to talk about a full range of emotions both related to that moment and to racism in general. Several comments were about wanting to understand racism and what it was, where it came from, and how it worked but not knowing how or when to ask. One child spoke about wanting others to understand how racism felt but not wanting to always be the person having to explain it or point it out.

And here I made a conscious choice not to always just nod and thank, not even to rephrase and reaffirm, although I believe these to be effective discussion tools. While acutely aware of the risk of exploiting the existing power imbalance between teacher and students, I did not want to facilitate a feel-good talk about everyone being right in their own way. I chose to say so when I thought some comments lacked context, history, truth, or respect. I analyzed and unpacked bias, and I talked openly about why such analysis and unpacking were important. We discussed how even unintentionally racist comments are still painful and that when our friends are oblivious to their racist behavior it can hurt more. We talked about the importance of saying what we really felt and not what we assumed was “right,” even at the risk of being critiqued, because it gave everyone a chance to learn to recognize and combat racist ideas in a safe space. We talked about not liking what someone may say but still being able to like them as a person. And this conversation carried on well beyond that day. We created a working definition for racism. We began referring to racist behavior, distinguishing between the actions and the person. Reframing the conversation allowed us to be critical of each other and hold each other accountable, without alienating each other or suppressing genuine expression.

Because I have the privilege of working in a private, progressive school that is based on democratic, project-based learning, our class chose to start a new project on racism. The project involved several activities where we explored racism not as “hatred” of a group of people, but as the systemic “othering” of one people and the privileging/centering of another. I learned in this project that, while the content was important, the way in which we learned to discuss the content was equally so. We weren’t trying to have definitive answers; we were trying to understand better this complicated thing called racism, get comfortable exposing our discomfort, and ask better questions. Furthermore, we were trying to do it in a room full of eight-year-olds and one grown-up. I knew we weren’t going to replicate this project every year, but surely we could replicate something about the process. There was a ← 35 | 36 → familiar framework evolving that would not formulate clearly in my head until many projects and several years later.

Will’s Response

I spent the first ten years of my career as a public school teacher. In the schools where I taught, racism and bias were common and pervasive. From hearing white teachers telling students of color that they weren’t speaking “correctly” to observing students struggle with biased standardized test regimes, I witnessed low-income students, immigrant populations, and students of color be marginalized and penalized. At the time, my efforts at pushing back against this system were sporadic and ineffectual; I had yet to develop a sense for myself of how to teach for justice and equity. However, beginning my first year as a sixth-grade teacher in a new middle level program at a small, progressive, and independent school, I quickly understood that I was no longer in a situation where I could hide behind systems that silenced important and challenging discourse. On the contrary, my very privilege and ability to make an impact within this school community required me to begin the process of interrogating and addressing my own shortcomings, biases, and even fear.

Looking back on the morning described above, I realize my inaction in that situation set me on a trajectory towards developing a deeper understanding of what it meant for me, a white heterosexual male, to teach for social justice and anti-racism. When the student made the suggestion that Black students dance for us, I remember feeling uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed. I wasn’t shocked or mortified. Rather, I saw this as a young child whose choice of words had uncomfortable implications. In the moment, we glossed over the comment and moved on. But that was the beginning of a reexamination of privilege, racism, and the inadvertent perpetuation of systems of thought and action that marginalize and, in many ways, dehumanize students and teachers alike. The process has been challenging. It has been difficult and painful as I have had to reconcile my own past actions, or inactions, with who I am and want to become personally and professionally.

Social justice and anti-racist work is ongoing, and I have found that, for me, there are no easy answers, no ready-made solutions. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: questions, uncertainties, and mistakes define my efforts more than solutions and comfortable outcomes. To be sure, so much of learning is about being comfortable with mistakes, with not knowing exactly what to say or how to approach a topic or problem. As a teacher, I take this to heart and encourage my students to become more comfortable with discomfort as it is an integral component of growth and learning. Big problems, or real-world ← 36 | 37 → problems as we like to call them, do not come with an ordered set of steps or predetermined solutions. They can often be approached from a variety of angles and always require one to struggle and to grapple with uncertainty.

Maybe it goes without saying that a change in one’s thinking is a critical component of deeper understanding and growth, but I didn’t internalize this truth until I began thinking about math differently while working with K-2 students who were learning English as a new language. We were working on counting and learning numbers when I unexpectedly developed a deeper number sense for myself. Most notably, I grasped the different representations of number and the series of abstract leaps that take place between them—from quantity of objects, to the words we use to name that quantity, to the symbols we use to represent the quantity. As a young student, I had often struggled with mathematics, but suddenly, with a small group of young students from around the world, I began to think about mathematics in a new way.

What was interesting about this case, in particular, was that the change in my thinking was fundamental to how I viewed and thought about number. I would argue that similar fundamental shifts are necessary in the way we approach teaching history and working for social justice within our classrooms and institutions—namely, that this kind of work requires a reconsideration of the rudimentary context of our own thinking. Moreover, I would argue that much of what we consider best practices in mathematics can also be applied to teaching for justice and equity.

The Framework Was Already There

We, Angela and Will, have come to believe that social justice teaching is more than stories of struggle with happy, victorious endings of freedom and civil rights. Social justice teaching requires that we provide students with the analytical toolbox that allows them to be active in their own education, develop agency within the classroom, and transfer their empowerment to self-advocacy and democratic action against the larger social and economic structures they will encounter in their own lives.

We are privileged to teach in a context that, by its very existence, is an act of resistance against the dominant educational system currently enforced by policy makers who often have little to no experience in education or child development. Nevertheless, while we are afforded a level of autonomy not always available to teachers in other settings, our ability to create, curate, and even reject content does not make us immune to the larger social context in which racism, sexism, heterocentric thinking, religious biases and ← 37 | 38 → marginalization occur. Though the context of our teaching may be different, our efforts to offer social justice-oriented curriculum present challenges similar to those encountered by teachers in other, more conventional, educational structures.

It was through one of our many discussions about these challenges that we realized that the existing conversations around math instruction and developing mathematical thinking in children can be applied across disciplines, specifically to history and social justice-oriented teaching. Regardless of content area, challenging discussions and deeper understandings all require a willingness to ask questions, think creatively, look for patterns, and take chances. Indeed, mathematical thinking used as a framework for deep, analytical, and honest discussions related to historical and justice-related topics provides a safe vehicle through which teachers in conventional settings can use the existing standards-based guidelines to create a model of real “critical thinking” that lays the groundwork for empowerment. To this end, social justice teaching and learning is a habit of mind that opens doors to a more comprehensive view of the world and society, one that fosters community and whole-child, whole-teacher development.

In addition to Common Core and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards for mathematical practice and processes, we have found Jo Boaler’s book, Mathematical Mindsets (2015), to be a useful resource for framing an approach to mathematics that can be applied to the teaching of history for social justice. Boaler sets out the following tenets for creating a mathematics classroom rooted in inquiry, creativity, and discourse:

Positive Norms to Encourage in Math Class

Boaler’s framework has helped us consider curriculum and instruction generally and also specifically address some of the challenges of teaching history and engaging in social justice topics. We hope that having a framework will help other educators and those who work with children feel more comfortable engaging in social justice topics as well, understanding that all good ← 38 | 39 → teaching and all good learning is about developing strategies, experience, and understanding, not about following a program.

Everyone Can Learn Math to the Highest Levels

This tenet pushes back against the idea that there are some people who can do math and others who cannot. Boaler writes at great lengths about this misconception and its dangers. It gives students and teachers an excuse for not understanding math, which limits their development as mathematicians. In the realm of history and social justice, we see a similar dilemma: many teachers feel unqualified to teach around topics of justice such as race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and historic and systemic inequalities. They fear so much saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all. Similarly, when we found ourselves faced with the uncertainty of how to respond to a child’s suggestion to have the Black students in our school dance for “us,” we did not know how to respond. And so we didn’t.

As teachers, we all have strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes those fall along subject lines. It is commonly accepted that to be well-rounded we teachers must train ourselves in our weaker areas. Social justice is another area where we can grow. It requires dedication. It requires extra reading, workshops, seminars, and all the things other subjects require. But it also requires that teachers, particularly white/male/hetero/privileged teachers, accept that it is hard work to allow oneself to be vulnerable and to recognize when we inadvertently perpetuate and fail to recognize the benefits of privilege that many of us enjoy in a systemically unjust culture.

Those of us who do receive privilege in multiple aspects of our lives need to recognize that it can be tiring and painful to keep explaining one’s own experiences to others and justifying one’s very self to those who have always been recognized and justified by the dominant culture. All teachers benefit from honing their skills as discussion facilitators and mastering the subject matter, but in the case of teaching for social justice, this is work that needs to be done especially by privileged educators—particularly those privileged in multiple aspects of intersectionality.

As educators, “I just don’t get it” and “It’s not my thing” are unacceptable barriers to learning, be it in math or social justice-oriented history. These types of mindsets perpetuate the myth that some can do the work and improve while others don’t have it in them and just can’t. This is a disservice to the teacher, the learner, and ultimately to all of us who are vulnerable to injustice. Developing a greater sensitivity to and understanding of different perspectives on race, gender, culture, class, sexuality, and ← 39 | 40 → ability changes us all for the better and helps to mitigate the fear to broach these topics.

When mathematics provides opportunities for open-ended exploration, practice, and creativity in problem-solving, then all students can learn to the highest levels. We’ve seen this in our classrooms whereby students willingly persevere through challenging mathematical scenarios, ask questions, explore ideas, and engage with others in mathematical discourse. We foster these same mindsets in ourselves and our students when it comes to history: What happened? Who is telling this story? What perspectives are most dominant, and which are being left out? How can we think about this in a different way?

After that morning meeting, many of us went back to our classrooms and began the dialogue, stating how what was said made us feel and encouraging students to share their thoughts. We then began to do the work of unpacking and exploring racism and stereotypes, historical hurts that linger to this day.

Everyone can engage these subjects if they bring their humanity and humility. Doing so will make for better teaching, a better classroom experience, and a better world. Just be prepared to struggle, and recognize that learning is not always comfortable. To learn is to challenge oneself to push beyond the known, to compromise one’s own comfort to gain a deeper understanding.

Mistakes Are Valuable

Learning is a precarious business, fraught with peril. Creating a space that feels safe is essential and, in this space, we must learn not to fear mistakes but to recognize them as critical components of growth and learning. In math class, valuing our mistakes may mean modeling interest and excitement when mistakes present opportunities for discussion and deeper understanding. Indeed, mistakes are valuable because they can help us discuss and understand our assumptions, our perspectives, and even our metacognition. They are valuable because to err is human and we want to keep our humanity alive in a classroom, not stifle it in order to memorize right answers.

Often, students and teachers do not value mistakes. We tend to value product over process. When we overemphasize the product—the correct response—we lose sight of the value in trial and error, in just trying to figure something out. The right answer becomes the goal, and anything that falls short of that goal is felt as a demoralizing failure.

While miscalculating a division problem might generate negative feelings about one’s aptitude in mathematics, mistakes made when talking about gender, class, or race can hurt at a much deeper level. This means the teacher and the students need to have open and clear conversations not only about how to welcome mistakes, but also about how to respectfully and productively call ← 40 | 41 → out others on mistakes. This is one of the most difficult aspects of classroom culture to create. People of privilege are generally very responsive to the idea that they get to make mistakes. It is letting that mistake get analyzed in a way that is honest and productive that students (and teachers) don’t often like, but where true growth and learning occur.

Following the morning meeting when the student asked for an MLK dance, the faculty felt some degree of discomfort with both that child’s statement and our failure to adequately respond. Looking back, it would have been very easy to shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh well, that was awkward. Better luck next time.” The reality is such that, within the classroom, there is always a next time. This is why we have to do the work now so that we can be better prepared when the time comes, because it will. This child was not intentionally making a racially prejudiced comment with the intent to hurt others. However, this child was speaking from within a larger cultural and historical narrative where various forms of systemic oppression have been normalized and woven into the fabric of our society.

Doing the work means recognizing that mistakes are essential to teaching for social justice. We want our students to learn to analyze their words and behaviors, to understand historical contexts, and to develop awareness of institutionalized injustice, systemic misrepresentations, and cultural influences that engulf and confuse them every day. We want this so that they may build better relationships and a stronger resistance to a culture of oppressive norms and social marginalization. To accomplish this goal, we must do this work ourselves and recognize the value of the mistakes that we will make along the way.

Questions Are Really Important

Students tend to ask fewer questions as they get older. Afraid of being seen as inept or contrary, they may not seek the help they need to understand. But students need to ask questions to think through their work from their own perspective; otherwise, they are memorizing and parroting, not learning. In math, it is important for students to ask why they should perform a specific step or why they should apply an operation to solve a word problem. Math teachers may explain why students should “carry the one” in an addition problem such as 15 + 27, but are often confused when a student “carries the 2.” The student has understood that 5 + 7 = 12 and that one of the numbers stays and one gets moved over. It may take several times before the student really understands the relationship between “carrying” and place value. They need to ask the question, “Why do I move the ‘one’ and not the ‘two’?” The forming of the question is part of the learning process. ← 41 | 42 →

Within many settings, stepping aside and placing students’ questions at the forefront of learning remains only an ideal because educators are also expected to show results in the form of standardized test scores, which then impact student advancement and teacher evaluations. As a consequence, many of us find ourselves in a nearly impossible situation where we cannot, without great risk, enact the type of teaching that we know to be best.

That being said, the importance of questions cannot be overstated. It is through their questions that students are able to take ownership of their learning. In addition, the questions that we, as teachers, ask of ourselves form the basis for own learning and growth. Taken together, the questions that we ask can serve to provide direction for the learning that takes place within our classrooms and to help us better understand the world and our place in it.

What types of questions should we ask? How do we structure our questions so as to get the most impact, the biggest bang for our buck? There are countless resources on classroom questioning structures, but the process should not be that complicated because we ask questions all of the time, and children are geared towards asking questions. It’s a part of their programming.

One of the most powerful questions we can ask is, “Why?” It is a good question to ask about history, the world around us, and our own conceptions. Teachers often use this question to mean, “Why are you saying this or giving this answer?” Other versions of “why” that can be easier for children to engage are: How so? What do you mean? Tell me about that.

In many cases teachers are asked to follow the classic Bloom’s Taxonomy when asking questions—ask lots of questions that test basic comprehension/regurgitation and move into some higher level questions involving synthesizing or analyzing information in order to arrive at a unique conclusion. The problem is those higher level questions are not really meant to question the material itself. When studying history, we have found the following questions to be helpful for examining historic and current events. Who was/is involved? Whose perspective is being included and whose version is being excluded? Who are you identifying with? What might others think or feel about this event? Who benefited from this? Who did not benefit? How were people affected? Who made this decision? What effects might be connected to now? How does this connect to you?

Ask questions. Encourage and engage questions. Understand, though, that the work is not about finding facts for the sake of facts, but about asking questions that will help both you and your students arrive at deeper understanding. We should strive for understanding, all the while recognizing that ← 42 | 43 → our understanding will be imperfect, that we will always have to be seeking, rearranging, and reorganizing what we think we know, as well as the methods and pedagogies we employ in our work. If we arrive at the point where we think we’ve got it all figured out, then we’ve reached a creative impasse, a point where we are no longer learning, and where our effectiveness as educators will begin to diminish.

Math Is About Creativity and Making Sense

Math is about creativity and making sense, and so is childhood, and so is life, and so should be our approach to history. The traditional algorithm in mathematics is a tried and true formula, and sometimes it is the easiest and best way to arrive at a solution, but we should recognize that the algorithm was arrived at through creativity, by working through problems in a variety of ways to arrive at a point where accuracy and efficiency meet. Creativity in problem-solving suggests that there is not a single approach to solving a problem. Moreover, though long division and rounding and regrouping are helpful and important skills, complex problem-solving and the deeper understanding and processes contained therein cannot be arrived at through a prescriptive approach. Students need space and time to create sense of situations and circumstances. This presents significant challenges within any classroom, but especially the classroom held hostage by the dictates of predetermined content and curriculum.

Though not easy, providing students with open-ended situations that require them to develop and apply creative strategies is more cut and dried when we are dealing with mathematics than with historical narratives and perspectives. There is a wealth of resources for presenting young students with engaging, open-ended mathematical situations, but what about for history? How can we approach history creatively, and what kind of sense are we trying to make?

We posit that a great deal of the creative and sense-making work of teaching history must be done by teachers themselves. There are no easy solutions, and historical timelines are often more significant in the information they leave out than what is included. We are all victims of misinformation, of bias, of a failure to recognize our position within a wider continuum of privilege, oppression, and resistance. As history teachers, we must inquire deeply into our own preconceptions and misconceptions. The creativity in teaching history comes from how we contextualize and present the information that students are expected to learn as well as from modeling creative sense-making for students to emulate. ← 43 | 44 →

Angela’s Example

In my third-grade class, we often have small groups or individuals studying different topics or subtopics. I try to sit and read with each group as they’re researching. It morphs into a bit of a storytime-like lecture, with ample time for questions and discussion. Usually nearby students begin listening in, and I let that happen.

On this particular day, I am finally sitting down with my Aztec group who has been asked not to read or look at images on certain pages until I can sit with them. In almost every children’s book on Aztec culture we have gotten from the library there is an explanation of the importance—and a large, gruesome illustration—of human sacrifice in Aztec culture. My own child is in the group and is highly invested in this project. She knows her own ancestors were Aztecs. She is already sad that much of the reading has focused on war and not on math like the books on the Maya. My blood boils for the hyper-inclusion of this aspect over many other aspects of culture that are not included in these simplified books.

It is tempting to ignore the racism of reducing a culture to shocking “savagery” and to simply tell the students what is on the page quickly or keep pages discussing sacrifice off limits. But this is actually a great opportunity to talk about cultural bias and historical sources. I talk to my students about how most information about Aztecs was written by the invading Spaniards:

They get my point right away. And the conversation takes off with much of the rest of the class listening. We go deep about how we read history with caution, knowing who wrote it and looking for the many angles that always exist. I could have just printed out some articles about the medical and mathematical advancements I know the Aztecs to have made, but doing so wouldn’t have had the same effect. The students needed to make sense not only of the Aztec world, but also of the Spaniards of the time and the book publishers of today. Why would bias seep in? Because human sacrifice is awful and yet fascinating. Why does the over-representation of this aspect of their ← 44 | 45 → culture continue? Because if we don’t try to see the humanity of others, if we don’t learn to be creative in making sense of history, we will only see the awful and the fascinating, thus reinforcing the prejudices and stereotypes that we need to dismantle.

Math Is About Connections and Communicating

Mathematical understanding is more about identifying the connections between different concepts, or ways of representing quantities and relationships, than memorizing facts or being able to follow the steps of an algorithm, such as long division. We should encourage our students to see the relationship between fractions and ratios, for example, or how multiplication and division are repeated addition and subtraction. We want students to see the connections between quantities, discover patterns, make generalizations, and communicate their thinking and observations. The goal in history, as in math, is for students and teachers to see beyond isolated facts and events to the connections and relationships that tie them together.

Accomplishing this goal can be a daunting task. As educators, we must push ourselves to approach the subjects we teach with a wide and encompassing lens. In the same way that helping young learners develop a strong number sense prepares them for the rigors and abstractions of algebra and beyond, providing students with a sense of the interconnectivity of history prepares them to look more deeply and with a critical eye at the world and contemporary society.

Will’s Example

At the beginning of every school year, students go through an extended process of exploring and sharing their interests and concerns. We make lists, find connections, and identify themes. This year, my sixth-grade students chose “History and Identity” as the theme for our first project. As so often happens, events that were being reported in the news began filtering into the classroom. With the increasing media attention on the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at Standing Rock, students were angry and confused about what was going on and wanted to know more.

Students asked questions and researched the history of the region and the indigenous peoples’ ongoing struggle with the United States government and private companies over land and water rights. They learned about the various iterations of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the systematic reduction and appropriation of native land, and the partitioning of the Great Sioux Reservation through trickery, dishonesty, and violence. Students were able to develop a deeper understanding of how the contemporary conflict over sacred land ← 45 | 46 → and water rights is an extension of events and trespasses extending back to the 1800s. In so doing, students came to see that this was not a new struggle, but one that has been ongoing for generations.

But once we begin to see patterns and make connections, how do we communicate our thinking? In the case of our group meeting, what could we have communicated that would have made the connections and implications of the first grader’s comment more visible and tangible? In the DAPL project, how could we communicate our learning in some way that would rise above an undercurrent of “us and them” or a sense of feeling sorry for “those” people?

In the context of teaching and learning history, one of our primary objectives is to help students develop a sense of empathy. By developing empathy, we are all able to better relate to and communicate feelings of struggle or marginalization. There is a danger in this, though; we must always be aware of privilege, in whatever way it presents itself, and not assume that the experience of being picked on, excluded, or betrayed by a friend is the same as systemic oppression and discrimination. To do so runs the risk of devaluing the lived experience of those who have endured treachery, injustice, and atrocity.

As part of our DAPL project, students chose to write letters of support to the council at Standing Rock. I encouraged them to incorporate what they had learned about Lakota history and culture to communicate a connection to their own lives. One of the most compelling letters came from a student of Palestinian descent. He spoke of studying the Battle of Little Bighorn and how this reminded him of stories that his mom would share of growing up in Palestine. Another student wrote of the discrimination directed towards her sibling with special needs and the unfairness of how she was treated. Yet another student spoke of indigenous language and how her twin struggles to speak, and how she is one of the only people that can understand her.

Connecting their own experiences to the past does not automatically link students to others, but it creates an opening where students can begin to understand how their personal stories are complex and play a role in the development of their own perspectives. Making connections is about learning to uncover patterns and recognize cause-and-effect relationships. It is also about seeking out ways to make history relevant to our own lives. Communicating our observations and emotions around something we have learned or the connections we have made can change how we are able to hear others speak. We can come to listen and learn without assuming we have the answers, instead knowing we are working to better understand. ← 46 | 47 →

Value Depth Over Speed

Even in our teaching situation, we feel the pressure to do more, to move more quickly. This is a mindset that is pervasive throughout the whole of society and something that we need to push back against in all areas of our lives. In mathematics, the prevailing attitude is that speed is synonymous with being good at math and that slower students have a lower aptitude than their peers. We tend to focus our attention on the students who find answers quickly, or who always have their hands raised to offer solutions. The slower, deeper thinkers can easily be ignored. Even worse, these students can develop negative and self-limiting attitudes about their own competency in mathematics that can have long-lasting consequences.

We must make time to take time, to do the work of deep learning and community-building. This is what much of this chapter is really all about—the importance of orienting ourselves towards the development of community. Building a community with members who are willing to struggle and challenge one another in order to emerge stronger and better is one of the most stalwart forms of resistance there is.

It takes time, commitment, and hard work to build community. In order to do this work, we must take the time to ask questions, search for patterns, and make connections. When we look deeply into our own lives and the lives of others, we take the steps towards community-building. Our work as progressive educators is rooted in democratic ideals; we bring questions and issues to the table, we discuss, we vote, and often we have to go back and vote again. This is a time-consuming process, and it flies in the face of prevailing attitudes around the importance of quickly accomplishing tasks and meeting curricular goals. However, it is imperative that we look for ways to model these processes and look deeply into the world, our place in it, and how we relate to one another.

Will’s Example

Unfortunately, even within a democratic classroom where dialogue is a key element of the decision-making process, some student voices may not always be heard. One year in my sixth-grade classroom a group of students encountered a difficulty in how they were having discussions and debates. I observed that certain students were consistently silent while others dominated the conversation. I brought this up with the class and students quickly identified the problem as a tension between the fast/loud and slow/quiet talkers. The fast and loud talkers were usually the first to get their ideas out there and tended to dominate the conversation, and this was causing friction and some hurt feelings among other students. In the discussion that followed, the “slow ← 47 | 48 → talkers” explained that they didn’t feel like they were being given an opportunity to speak and share their ideas and opinions. The more outgoing students countered by stating that they felt as if they were trying to give space for other voices, but that some of their peers weren’t stepping up and making their voices heard.

As this conversation continued, it became clear to everyone that there were different perspectives at play, but that both sides had valid points that needed to be taken into consideration. The more effusive students were able to step back and really hear how some of their peers needed more time to order their thoughts and to figure out how to communicate their thinking. They were also able to understand how their peers were often feeling left out, slighted, and even ignored. Likewise, the quieter students came to understand that their peers were not being intentionally overbearing, which helped to mend some hurt feelings. In the end, all students were able to agree on new rules for discourse where the loud and fast talkers would focus on stepping back while the slow and quiet talkers would concentrate on stepping forward and making their voices heard.

Math Is About Learning Not Performing

Much as many teachers often think that the younger years are for memorizing math facts rather than learning to become thinking mathematicians with number sense, analytic skills, and a bit of wonder, we often hear that social justice topics are for older students or even adults. But we believe that if our students are not too young to experience injustice, they are not too young to learn the vocabulary to express its harm and the tools to dismantle its source.

Angela’s Example

I know giving my third graders the skills to battle injustice to be a moral imperative, and I also know they are capable because my eight-year-old students constantly amaze me with their abilities. We are currently undertaking a study of maps, graphs, and infographics. I found several books that were cultural atlases of some kind or other, but, as typically happens when looking for books for our research, I found that many books focused primarily on North American and European cultures, countries, or cities. I expressed this disappointment each time I brought in a new book and let the class know that if I tossed out every Eurocentric book I found, we’d end up all sharing one or two books. We agreed that we could use the books but needed to be aware of this bias and of subtle misrepresentations in order to be less susceptible to their marginalizing effects. ← 48 | 49 →

Not long after, we were looking at some infographic examples and discussing scale representation and a white boy raised his hand to ask, “Isn’t that a racist infographic though?” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” he replied, “it is showing the size of a human for comparison, but the human is a light-skinned man. Aren’t most humans in the world dark-skinned women? So isn’t it racist to make that the average human?” This student is not performing a set of skills in order to impress the teacher. He is not attempting to regurgitate facts in order to get a right answer. Our focus at the moment was not on recognizing racism, nor on over-representation. He was genuinely contemplating what he understood about bias and applying it. He was asking the question because he needed to engage his thoughts in dialogue with the group in the moment. This is learning.

Just as we want our students to develop a mathematical mindset, to recognize math all around them, to engage math as a useful tool, and to enjoy the mental exercise of math, we teach them to develop a justice-oriented mindset. We want them to develop the skills of analysis and vigilance to understand, deconstruct, and reconstruct the world around them. We want them to question whether a given fact or representation or social norm is truly as it is presented or if it has been shaped by the many -isms and pitfalls of our educational system and the systems beyond. We want them to take this seeing and questioning with them when they leave the classroom. Real-world analytic skills are the foundations for change. Students need to be encouraged to think, not to perform. We have got to stop teaching overt, historical discrimination as a series of events with memorized dates and names and start giving students the tools from early on to recognize and come to terms with the enormity of privilege, implicit bias, and subtly imposed power structures.

Frameworks Become Foundations

As educators, we are on the front line of a critical endeavor, which is to harness and direct the energies of our students towards cultivating the fullest expression of their own humanity. In so doing, we strive to help our students learn to value themselves and others, and to believe that everyone can learn and participate to the highest levels. As teachers, we work to build resilient and inclusive communities where we are able to recognize the value in our own mistakes, struggles, and shortcomings so that our students can do the same. This is challenging, relentless work, but it’s not without its rewards. The struggle for justice and equity in our schools, homes, and society is ongoing, with no end in sight, but we are invigorated by the successes in our own classrooms and the relationships we build with others in our profession who ← 49 | 50 → aspire to do the best work possible under what are, unfortunately, increasingly challenging circumstances.

We must continue to ask questions, and we must encourage our students to do the same. Working within a social and educational paradigm that values answers and ready-made solutions over open-ended exploration means that we will often find ourselves swimming against the tide of mainstream thought and the status quo. However, it is through the questions we ask of ourselves, and the questions that our students ask about the world around them, that we are able to take ownership of our learning. As we pursue these questions, we engage in creative exploration and interrogation of our world, its systems and institutions, and we begin to make sense of how the different parts fit together and impact our lives.

Be it in mathematics, history, or in teaching for equity and social justice, our work is to discover what is meaningful for us as individuals and for our students. In the process, we open ourselves to different perspectives and experiences. For many of us, this questioning and creative exploration can reveal and help us understand how privilege, the words we use, or even the things we fail to say impact other people, oftentimes in negative ways. Even though this can be painful and challenging, we can identify our mistakes and begin to rectify our errors, to understand where we went wrong and how to do right. Therefore, we must strive to take our time, even when faced with the expectation to do more, always faster.

Learning is not about performance; it is about process. The emphasis on learning as that which can only be revealed through an artifact, measured with a grade or test score, or somehow quantified as data fails to discern the complexity and richness of what learning entails. Learning as performance is a destructive notion that undermines the joy and excitement of childhood. As teachers, we understand implicitly that kids are full of questions and curiosity, and they are relentless when set on the trail of something that they are interested in. Children and young people also have a deep and innate sense of justice, fairness, and equity. Our role then is not to point out to students what they don’t know, or how to do something right, but to cultivate the habits and tendencies already inherent in children who are made to run, play, and learn.


XIV, 236
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2019 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XIV, 236 pp., 1 table

Biographical notes

Brian Charest (Volume editor) Kate Sjostrom (Volume editor)

Brian Charest , PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Redlands. He has presented locally and nationally and published articles on teaching, equity, civic engagement, community organizing, social justice, ethics, and radical pragmatism. <B> Kate Sjostrom</B>, PhD, is a lecturer and assistant director of English education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research and teaching focus on writing teacher identity development in the context of education reforms, as well as on the potential for teacher-writing to build teachers’ advocacy.


Title: Unsettling Education