Is There Room for Politics in The Classroom? by JJ Notier

Indians Lose Again.  That’s the newspaper headline in Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven that made me sit up in bed, crying, knowing that my life had changed irrevocably.  Indians Lose Again.  That headline flashed to mind a few weeks ago when Cleveland’s racist-named baseball team lost the 2016 World Series, for the third time in 21 years, and I thought about the Native American protesters I spoke with, outside Wrigley Field.  They were in front of the Fox News World Series booth, but their protest wasn’t broadcast.  The ACLU says that Standing Rock protesters, mostly Indians, are being shot with water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas, in violation of their first amendment rights;  we’ve mostly missed their story too.  In the Alexie short story “Indian Education” the protagonist is an Indian who grows up going to schools on the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene reservation, but attends high school in a nearby farm town:  “Last night I missed two free throws which would have won the game against the best team in the state. The farm town high school I play for is nicknamed the "Indians," and I'm probably the only actual Indian ever to play for a team with such a mascot.  This morning I pick up the sports page and read the headline:  INDIANS LOSE AGAIN.  Go ahead and tell me none of this is supposed to hurt me very much.”  When I read this story, in 1997, my heart raced, and my stomach sank because this new knowledge brought new responsibility.  I couldn’t go back to work at a high school where the mascot is the “Indians” without publicly protesting this poisonous, painful racism.  Yes, it was “just a mascot,” but if I teach young people that overlooking racism is the best way to survive in the world, then I’m living a lie.  Bringing in Ho-Chunk and Winnebago speakers to talk about Native American history, or insisting on calling Indians “Native Americans,” doesn’t make up for silent participation in institutional racism.


So when someone asks me whether there’s a place for politics in the classroom, my brain explodes. Politics isn’t a strand of existence that we can tease out from the rest of life.  Humans are social creatures, and society is political.  Nothing about education is objective, mechanical, or automatic.  Does public school “level the playing field”?  No.  Politics on the metropolitan, county, state, and federal level prevents public school from providing appropriate education for every child.  Yet, when Title IX passed in 1972, the world changed for the better--for women and men. Prohibiting discrimination based on sex benefits everyone.  It is not yet politically expedient to assert that every child’s well-being is the responsibility of every adult.  If the federal government implements a voucher system advocated by the billionaire Betsy DeVos, whom the president-elect has chosen for Secretary of Education, classrooms, public and private, will face increased challenges to providing equity.  The first amendment guarantees freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. Some religious schools interpret Paul’s assertion in I Corinthians 11:3, that “the head of the woman is the man,” as a statement of male superiority.  Will students using public vouchers in private schools be protected by Title IX?  Will we violate one taxpayer’s freedom of religion to support someone else’s?  These political questions shape the classroom, inside and out.  Does this mean I should tell my students what to think about political issues?  No.


Telling students what to think is not educational; Giving them tools for thinking is.  Even teaching that it’s OK to write a sentence with an implied object at the end is a political task.  For all writers, I teach the “rules” of grammar that describe our language, but for the strongest writers I ask them to take responsibility for the choices they make in the construction of each sentence.  Make each sentence do what you want it to do.  


When students take responsibility for the choices they make in their own writing, reading becomes a deeper, more relational task--more political.  My Sophomore English students are studying and memorizing “The World is Too Much With Us,” by William Wordsworth:  

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune...”


My students are learning to ask what semicolons, dashes, and exclamation points do in this poem, and each question they ask brings them into a closer relationship with the text.  I used to be more tempted to “explain” this poem; now I just teach it in November and December, during the height of the buying season.  Wordsworth’s objections to the excesses of “getting and spending” were aimed at the alienation caused by industrialization, not pure commercialism, but the meaninglessness of relationships made shallow translates to every generation.  When I let go of wanting my students to embrace my reading of the poem, genuine learning occurs.  One of the tasks of teaching English is to deepen the human experience by paying attention to the relationships between language and life.  I’m not always in tune with my students.  I try to move them toward responsible relationships with language and with each other, and I fail.  All teaching is political because it asserts an active framework for a body of knowledge.  When there’s no room for politics in the classroom there’s no room for life.



(In October of 2000, Niles West High School stopped using “The Indians” as its mascot.)

First Day of School by John S. O'Connor

I’ve always thought Chemistry teachers had it easy.  They get to blow stuff up or set things on fire on the first day of school.  Ideal attention grabbers.  But when I mentioned this to a chemistry teacher at school, he blew up, reminding me there was barely enough time to take roll and make it through the Course Expectations sheet.

The first day is always difficult – a room full of frightened strangers settling in to spend a year of their lives together.    Emotions can overwhelm– and I’m not just talking about the students.  At the end of my very first class as a teacher – a 6th grade class in Brooklyn – I nearly hyperventilated.  When the bell sounded, a little boy named Jimmy stayed after to reassure me that it was all going to be okay if I could just learn to relax. 

There’s something comforting about reading a script, a list of rules to establish order in the classroom.   It’s a universal ritual that happens everywhere, every year, in nearly every subject.  As a teacher for the past 20 years and a student 20 years before that, I’ve come to know this routine well.  It’s what Nietzsche called “the eternal return of the same” and what the rest of us know as school.

         One year, though, while I was reading my own Welcome to the Course sheet, my words suddenly sounded like a strange perversion of the Miranda rights:  You have the right to remain silent.  You have the right to visit the bathroom, but only under certain conditions.  You have the right to suck on hard candy, but you may not chew gum.  If you do not bring a spiral notebook to class, the state will not provide one for you.

         Many teachers even have their students sign a behavior contract on the first day.  I wanted to lose this legal language and get right into our class.  As education philosopher Jerome Bruner says, “Legal stories are interested in the way things are; literature” – my subject – “is interested in how things might be and what might happen if…. “

          So, we started with a descriptive writing exercise.   We needed a short text, so I drew the letter “M “  on the board and asked students to list things it looked like-- mountains, ocean waves, a roller coaster, a crown.  I drew the letter upside down and asked:  Now what does it look like?  Two ice cream cones, empty pockets, lovers holding hands, bicuspids.  I drew the letter on its side in both directions and the images kept on coming:  shark teeth, a baby bird feeding, a pair of lips. 

For homework that first night, and as an on-going assignment, I asked students to see the world differently – to discover three things about the world they didn’t know before.  Where they went to make these discoveries was illuminating:  most went to the computer, a couple asked their parents, a few in every class left their houses and went outside to make discoveries – a spider web covering a hole in the screen door, a cicada husk by the curbside, the sudden proliferation of Cubs flags and campaign posters. 

Some of the rule bound school language emerged at the start of class the next day.  One boy asked if it was okay that he’d discovered four things about the world instead of three.  The following Monday a girl asked, with no trace of irony, “Do we still have to discover things about the world or are we all through with that?” 

“We’re never through with that.  This is an assignment for the rest of your life,” I said, half-expecting her to write this life-long homework down in her academic planner.

What they discovered was secondary to me.  The important thing was that they were discovering -- not how the world is but how it might be seen.   Since this is the greatest challenge in any classroom, I thought, why not start the first day by igniting our students’ curiosity, setting ablaze their imagination.