Category Archives: Personal Interest

Are Children Really Starved for School?

I cannot count the amount of times I’ve heard from parents or other teachers, in speeches by politicians, or on some news media regardless of whether it’s more ‘independent’ or more ‘mainstream’ that children are starved for school. It feels like almost everyone is in agreement with this idea and that it’s something that’s completely true just by the nature of it having been said a number of times.

But my observations of and conversations with students have led me to an entirely different conclusion: They’re starved for society, they’re starved for access to people (adults and other children alike), and they’re hungry for more collaborative learning opportunities.

And most of these do not require a school.

Most adults seem to conflate the socialisation of children with going to school. This is probably because it’s one of the only institutions that is intentionally made for children (even if it doesn’t always seem like it), and it’s one of the few places where they can find some freedom (even though school can have seriously rigid curriculums and terribly inflexible rules). It’s a space that is (supposedly) meant for them.

Plus, as adults, many of us have been indoctrinated into how important school is. I know I was.

This conflation has been going on for ages. Despite the fact that most children were initially educated in the home and a lot of learning and education took place almost anywhere, we’ve managed to change our minds in only a few generations and assume that the socialisation of children can only happen in schools.

Why do we assume that children can only socialise in places that bombard them with tests? 

This is something that I’ve noticed with regards to families who choose to homeschool their children. Simply googling the phrase “homeschooling socialisation” brings up a number of papers and articles that elaborate all the ways in which it’s antisocial and stifles children’s social skills, harming them for life and causing irreparable damage to their ability to socialise. All of this is despite the fact that there is no evidence backing up this claim, and the evidence that does exist starts from the most biased of places: the very researchers making that claim and searching for anything that supports it.

It’s interesting because if you talk to parents who homeschool, many of them put in a lot of work to ensure that their children’s needs are being met both socially and educationally. Most of those parents consciously try to enrol their children into programs that allow them to socialise with other children, that give them the opportunity to participate in the community; they consciously build schedules that enable them to work with other kids who homeschool or to interact with children at public parks and playgrounds.

Much of this research rarely, if ever, pays attention to everything that the families who actively engage in the educational process, those who have gone out of their way to learn something alongside their child or have found someone else who could. Many of the people doing this research never really look at all the ways that parents and their children interact with the educational process; they rarely look at how complex learning can be and how varied it needs to be to engage everyone, instead backing up the assumption that all children must attend the state-sanctioned system because they won’t learn the appropriate ways to socialise.

They won’t learn the obedience that the state requires to continue. They won’t learn their place in the world.

Oh, and just to note, much of the research rarely ever makes a distinction between families who remove their students because they believe the state has failed them and has created an unsafe environment for their children (such as the parents of queer or disabled children) and the parents who remove their kids because they’re angry about school claiming support for queer children and how that impacts on their so-called “religious freedoms.”

But this conversation about the socialisation of children has continued into quarantine, and it’s found a new target: Online school.

There have been a lot of issues with moving schools online. Namely, the biggest issue was the speed at which most schools required it be done by their teachers due to sudden closures in most places. Since nearly every school on the planet hadn’t made any such plans to accommodate students who couldn’t attend in person before the pandemic (such as disabled or chronically ill students), they were woefully ill-prepared to shift to the online environment. This was an active choice that was made by the people in control of this system; they consciously decided to exclude people to their own detriment.

Plus, many teachers simply didn’t have the training or the tools, especially because they were never prepared for the possibility of having to teach at home (and rightfully so, since they assumed their work was in the classroom). Teachers and students alike may not have had reliable access to the internet; some of my own friends in rural parts of the United States were running through their data plans because they didn’t have stable access to the internet (and their employer refused to reimburse them for any charges they incurred in order to do their job). A lot of families had shared devices (if they had one at all) that the whole family used, and schools refused to take this into consideration; this impacted both teachers and students.

The way it was implemented was a total mess, and it showed us a lot of the pitfalls of our current school systems. Namely, it showed us how ill-prepared they all were to educate anyone because the people running them actively refuse to listen to anyone who had been fighting to improve accessibility, attendance policies, and every other aspect of the school before the pandemic happened.

Plus, some teachers and professors have gone seriously overboard in trying to control students at home in the same way they did in the classroom, which should’ve been sparking a lot of questions. Why are children required to spend six hours on the computer in some places, as if synchronous learning is the only option? Is there a reason for giving students homework and expecting the parents to drop everything and create a home-school environment according to a curriculum they had no choice in? And why is it that a teacher would think it’s fine, for example, to call the police on a 12-year old Black boy for playing with a Nerf gun in his own home?

It’s completely possible to talk about all the problems encountered without completely throwing away online learning and implying that students must be inside of a school building in order for them to learn or “get an education,” but we need to address these problems for what they actually are: These are problems that were created by unjust systems that have created inequality which have been negatively impacting families for years; they are issues that are being caused by trying to enforce irrelevant rules that are designed to control people and teach them obedience within their own homes.

Exactly none of these so-called “problems” need to be happening, but they persist because people who want power refuse to imagine what things could look like.

We’ve been doing this for hundreds of years as we’ve slowly reformed a system that is no longer, if it ever truly was, functional for most people. We’ve had so long to take note of everything wrong with the system and of all the things we could get rid of or change, but we’ve collectively refused to engage with them.

We could be offering a range of educational opportunities to everyone; we could be allowing them to engage with education outside of school and in contexts where they can apply what they’ve learned. We could be making everything far more accessible to all students, and we could stop pretending that grades have any actual meaning. We could allow students of all ages to work together; we could enable more asynchronous learning, even in offline environments.

We could be taking some time to experiment and some time to dismantle the schools we’ve built in favour of something healthier than what we’ve built before.

Perhaps, as some curriculums tell students, we could be doing more critical and creative thinking.

What is the Place of an Anarchist Educator in Current Educational Systems?

Most school years seem to start with the same question: What is the purpose of education? For many anarchists, we recognise that education is really important in developing the core of how social values are shared throughout our societies. Those of us working in currently existing education systems often find ourselves frustrated by a range of issues, namely the overly restrictive rules that are enforced on all people within the school ‘ecosystem’, the conflation of education with schooling, the hyper-focus on choosing the ‘correct’ educational path in order to achieve a career, and the lack of community inclusion in the development of any educational programs.

Sitting through a number of meetings taking place throughout the school year, it’s hard to figure out exactly how to function within current education systems and whether or not it’s even beneficial. There are a lot of questions that run through my mind when I’m participating in these meetings:

Why isn’t the school run in such a way that more voices are heard? These meetings are often run by someone who holds a title like ‘coordinator’, ‘principal’, ‘school manager’, or ‘educational director’; many of these people give presentations that tell teachers what they will do, even though they will never be responsible for implementing those programs or policies. It’s unclear to me what their purpose is when they refuse to collaborate and only wish to dictate, especially when they seem to hide in their offices away from everyone else.

Where are the student voices in the development of an environment that’s supposedly made for them? Why are we dictating what is best for them and how they ought to learn? How come we always assess the students in the same ways, either through standardised tests or identical assignments? Why aren’t we asking them to look through their past work and showing us where they think they improved? And how come we can’t allow them the opportunities to design their own projects and learn or showcase skills they’re interested in?

Why are we forcing students to complete subjects or participate in classes where they’re uncomfortable? One of the few things I remember from my (really bad) teacher training class for history content is that the instructor said you “need to be prepared to explain why your subject matters.” What he seemed to have forgotten is that I don’t get to choose what history is taught in my classes; that is set by the state or national curriculum.

How do I justify to my students focusing so much on cis men in our history and literature classes and seem to forget about the accomplishments of literally everyone else? How do I justify the focus on white people, the glorification of colonialism and imperialism, the excessive use of euphemisms about slavery or genocide in many materials, and systematic erasure of the achievements of Black and Indigenous people? How do I justify books leaving out the systematic displacement and murder of Romani in World War II and those that pretend nothing’s wrong today? How do I justify ignoring and overlooking the existence of disabled people because able-bodied and neurotypical people are uncomfortable acknowledging us? And what about the constant erasure of any and all queer history? Y’know, just to name a few.

I can’t justify any of that, and I shouldn’t have to. The only thing I can (and actually) do is try to add in sources that increase the range of history and literature my students are exposed to, but that doesn’t guarantee my students’ future teachers will do that or that students will acknowledge the information now. How can I teach equality and freedom when the curriculum tries to hide everything that proves we aren’t as free or equal as we’re told? How do I encourage my students to explore when the school doesn’t support it and often actively works against explorations of curiosity (either through blocks to websites or selections of library books)? 

Why do we force students into the same schedules? Teenagers often need a later starting time, but not all people live on the same schedules anyway. Why do we deny the learning that people do outside of schools, which is often more effective than what they learn in schools? Tons of students have shown us that they’re learning more outside of school, especially with regards to their own activism.

And how do I, in this current economic system, maintain my job without getting fired because I might work for the one person who hates what I do and hates me for doing it? Teachers who try to expand upon the curriculum to highlight the reality of events, to encourage students to remain curious, and help them access more information or opportunities are often the people most targeted by administration with abuse and/or firings.

So again, I have to ask, where does an anarchist educator fit in? And how can we exist if we’re required to uphold the status quo that we disagree with? And more to the point: Can we fit in at all?

That’s the crux of the debate which is one I have with myself all the time. There’s never going to be one single correct answer. I believe my existence in a school helps to normalise anarchism even if I’m not directly talking about it, as it’s better for an actual anarchist to discuss the idea when it comes up and to address confusion (like when people use the word ‘anarchy’ to refer to ‘chaos’ and then assume the same of anarchists). It’s probably better for us to exist, even if we’re doing most of our work indirectly, than for us to be completely removed from the current society.

Plus, a paycheck is helpful to continue working on other activist causes.

But I also know that I’m stuck in a system that forces me to act in ways that are antithetical to my beliefs and often invalidate my identity. The state, unless students acquire paperwork to be excused for a reason they consider ‘valid’, requires that students be at school a certain number of days or risk failing, which I don’t agree with at all.

I’m required to teach certain topics because they exist on a test or a state curriculum. If I overlook too many of the rules I disagree with, I get targeted for harassment (affecting both my mental health and financial stability). And it’s not always safe for me to be an open non-binary queer person or to talk about my disabilities, and I’ve received complaints for “indoctrinating children” for simply recommending novels with openly queer characters and “scaring” them for including stories centered around disabled people.

In Slovakia, they openly segregate disabled children from mainstream schools. While they have developed schools specifically for children with disabilities, many public schools don’t even have the proper equipment to accommodate physical disabilities, such as a stair lift or elevator (and I’ve been told about public schools where the parents had to do fundraising to get an elevator installed instead of the state doing the job it claims to do).

I’ve visited another school in the country that is split into two, segregating Slovak Roma children from “Slovak” children because the “Slovak” parents retain anti-Roma beliefs. For the Roma students, almost none of their teachers are Romani or have connections to their community, forcing them to participate in the dominant culture and ignore their own (or risk getting in trouble). And, by the way, this segregation is illegal. (And while the European Commission called on Slovakia to desegregate their schools? It’s not like anything happened, which would only be shocking if anyone expected states and “political unions” of states to do anything useful to protect all people.)

Working in education systems requires some form of a desire to want to reform them, to alter them while still maintaining what’s “good” about them. But how do you improve schools like the ones above? How do you make them work for everyone when they were never designed for all people? COVID-19 has shown that a lot of our whole system is inaccessible and broken; students (along with their parents and communities) have found alternative ways to learn and work together, but we’re still pushing everyone to go back to normal.

And so I keep finding myself in a predicament: Do I continue working in schools and hope that I influence the next generations to continue pushing for gradual change? Or do I find another avenue, as an educator, to work towards organising a philosophical shift that just isn’t happening?

Because I don’t feel good in the schools, and I don’t feel good out of them (for as long as they exist).

I guess I’ll just have to keep doing both. For now.

Rethinking My Place in Education: Teachers with Disabilities

Today, I started work at a new school. It’s the sixth school I’ve worked at in ten years, and that… feels heavy. It feels like I’ve worked in too many places and haven’t been able to actually find a place to stay put, to be part of the community. And when I finally find a place in the community, I feel like I have to leave for some reason that’s usually related to the school’s administration: obvious mental abuse, genuine corruption, and willful ineptitude.

Perhaps it’s also worth mentioning that I’m a teacher who is “special needs” (a term that I loathe with every fiber of my being). I have ADHD. I’m dyslexic. I have an audio-processing disorder. I also deal with depression and anxiety. Accommodations for a range of disabilities are almost never met for any students in the building, and they’re definitely not there for teachers who require them.

So unlike neurotypical (and able-bodied) teachers, these are concerns that I often put front-and-center. What are we doing to ensure all students’ needs are met? What are we doing to improve access for all students (especially those often overlooked in the school)?

And the answer is… not a lot. The COVID-19 pandemic has really made people more aware of the inequitable situation for disabled students everywhere. In the United States, we’ve seen 15-year old Grace, a black girl with ADHD, who was arrested (not supported) for not doing her homework; a week later, Mary Ellen Brennan, an irresponsible judge in Michigan, refused to free her because she “would be doing [her] a disservice.” Not once was she given the support she needed to succeed. This is probably one of the most extreme of recent examples, and it’s unlikely that Grace would’ve been detained had she been white.

There’ve been other cases in the United States (like a teacher who abused an autistic student last year because he wouldn’t do what she wanted), but it’s not limited to that one country. In Australia, a 2019 government report showed that at least a third of disabled students had either been restrained or secluded while at school (not to mention almost half were bullied by their peers and the school staff). Only a year earlier, in Victoria (the state where Melbourne is), ABC reported that disabled students were discouraged from enrolling or turned away from mainstream schools. A teacher in Somerset (UK) was banned for abusing disabled students earlier this year, Slovakia was still “struggling” with segregating Roma and disabled children in schools in 2018 (and based on personal experience, still is), the European Schools (which EU staff can use for free) denied the enrollment of boy with a learning disability three times in 2018, disabled students in Canada face a higher risk of abuse than their non-disabled peers, and it was found earlier this year that nearly one in three disabled children in New Zealand were denied enrollment at schools.

There are way too many examples.

And all this without mentioning the state of the buildings for some schools, potential access to interpreters and assistants, and the technologies or materials they choose to implement. A lot of disabled students have been heavily impacted by a lack of inclusion in their classes because of COVID-19. Many of these places are the most physically, mentally, and socially inaccessible places I’ve ever experienced. It’s beyond ridiculous.

But all of this is literally focusing on just the students. If this is how we’re treating our students, how is it that we treat their teachers? For starters, where are the disabled teachers?

For a lot of my students, I have been the only disabled teacher they’ve ever encountered in their schooling; I’m usually the only disabled teacher in the room, and my disabilities aren’t immediately obvious. Many people call them “hidden disabilities” or “invisible disabilities;” I prefer to call them “overlooked disabilities,” putting the onus on someone else. For me, they’re neither hidden nor invisible; people usually recognise there’s “something wrong” with me (and that is how they phrase it, not me), but they can’t quite put their finger on what it is.

When I ask for accommodations that help me to be better at my job, people often tell me that I’m “being difficult.” I’ve asked for my own classroom, office space, or to share an office with someone who really likes being quiet so that I could sit down and concentrate on my work while having as few distractions as possible; I’m told this is unreasonable and that I should “find my own quiet place to work” (which are often student areas that are traversed by students and in hallways). I’ve asked people to make sure I have a week’s notice of events or changes so that I can plan accordingly (and get myself used to the idea of it); they tell me this is inflexible and that I should adapt easier. I’ve asked people to stop using two-column handouts for lots of text because I get confused about the flow of text; they tell me they’re “conserving paper” (because apparently it’s too difficult to use one column and print it double-sided). I’ve asked for a different (but similarly priced) set of organisation tools for my classroom to keep myself on track only to be told that “others might get jealous” and that “everyone needs to be the same;” I was told if I wanted the system (rather than needed it), I’d have to buy it myself.

And these are the small things I’ve asked for. I’ve never had the courage to ask for anything else because I can’t even get the basics.

We spend what amounts to zero time thinking about disabled teachers, but we do exist. Frustratingly, the few times I see calls for more disabled educators in schools, it’s always in relation to “special education” teachers. (By the way, I hate that phrase, too.) Why don’t we consider that disabled teachers need to be everywhere? In all the subjects? That we’re not relegated to caring only about disability because we can also love and be passionate about history, science, maths, or whatever while also bringing our own perspective to it?

I am that person, but I mask that when I interview at schools. I have to because I usually won’t get the job (because I’m “too difficult to deal with”). When I enter the school, I tell people so they know what to expect; my colleagues expect me to be an encyclopaedia on developmental disabilities, as if my being ADHD means I know everything about autism or OCD. (Note: It doesn’t. My being ADHD doesn’t even mean I know everything about being ADHD.) They expect me to be their go-to for everything “special education” because I’m often the only person who seems to care or advocate for the needs of disabled students in my schools.

Not to mention, it’s exhausting. It takes such a toll on my health. And mentally? There are days where, even if nothing really bad happened, I’m still constantly frustrated by the people I work with because my brain will cycle through things that they’ve said: comments about me, comments about students, or passive-aggressive grievances about how difficult a situation (involving a disabled person) is. And, to top it off, as a person who was diagnosed in an entirely different country, my diagnosis doesn’t travel across borders like I do; I can’t even get treatment for it without being re-evaluated because my evaluation isn’t considered valid. 

And I’m not alone.

While this is one of the many reasons I want to stay in the teaching profession, it’s also one that makes me want to leave the teaching profession. Despite all the changes to disability policies and laws, our governments and societies are still doing disabled people everywhere a massive disservice.

I want to stay for kids like my friend’s daughter: a dyslexic person who said she “couldn’t read books,” but started trying after she had me, a dyslexic language and literature teacher who loves books. I want to stay for kids like one of my students last year: a boy who was described as lazy by everyone else but was inspired to research ADHD more after hearing about how it affected me and recognising elements of it in himself (and then working with me to figure out which coping strategies helped and which ones didn’t).

Kids need to see us. They need to see all of us. We need more disabled teachers in every school in every subject and every position.

But this also makes me want to leave schools, to stop working in them and find another path in education because I don’t believe in any of this; I don’t believe things will change through the ‘normal’ channels (because they’ve already failed us before). And I don’t want to continue wrecking my health for a system that doesn’t care about people like me.

(And, y’know, we really need to abolish schools. Please.)

Stop Debating, Start Discussing; or Why Debates Don’t Work and What To Do About It

From the perspective of a super-online person and a teacher who engages with super-online kids, it seems like everyone has run into what are called the ‘Debate Me’ Bros. They’re usually white men who invite people on their Twitch stream to ‘debate’ them, and it seems like the goal is to  ‘own’ the guest and berate them into admitting they’re wrong because they’ve so thoroughly explained to them why they’re wrong.

Or so that’s what we’re supposed to believe because that isn’t what actually happens.

What’s really occurring is that the person “inviting” the other person onto their stream has already made their initial point: “I’m right, you’re wrong, and I refuse to acknowledge your ideas as correct or useful until you test them against my obvious superior intelligence.” Since these invitations usually start as an aggressive response to something considered “wrong,” the atmosphere these so-called ‘debates’ take place in is generally pretty negative and just as aggressive.

For the audience, they generally have their minds made up before the ‘debate’ has even begun: it’s rare that the fans of a participant side with the other person, so they’re probably going to view these debates as “my guy won” moments. Almost no one will actually have their views challenged, and many of the people observing will leave more entrenched in their beliefs than when they began.

These debates are a mess, and I don’t see any positives in them.

Plus, as a teacher who sometimes teaches debate and used to participate in debate (and political) clubs as a student? They’re an affront to the actual skills of debate because “scream and interrupt as much as humanly possible” are incredibly ineffective, inappropriate, and just downright rude. And because some of these streamers are watched by my students? They come away thinking that’s how you debate. (For me, the only benefit to the VODs these streamers leave behind is that I can use them as examples of “what not to do” and teach students how to critically analyse an argument or recognise when there isn’t an argument at all.)

Oh, and that they’re just entertainment. (Maybe. For someone. Not for me.) And it’s entertainment that we need less of (especially considering who the ‘Debate Me’ Bros are and how little educated they are on topics of demographics they’re not a part of).

So, if we shouldn’t be ‘debating’, what should we be doing?

I’ve been thinking about this since I watched Sana Saeed’s video about The Dick Cavett Show and how it impacted late night television (and beyond). She discusses all the techniques that he used to both differentiate his show from other late night shows and make it a show that people wanted to be on because of the experience. And while I know she’s discussing late night television? I feel like it’s pretty applicable to the streams that many people watch.

And I think, honestly, we need to learn to have genuine and authentic conversations, and they need to be largely planned but unscripted. They need to be inclusive of a range of people and perspectives, and they need to really prompt us to ask questions and encourage us to be curious. More than ever, we need discussions that ask us to interrogate our own ideas and help us improve upon them or, at the very least, integrate more information to help us develop them over time.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what engages me into the different podcasts and YouTube/Twitch streams that I follow, and it finally clicked for me: They’re largely media that incorporates conversation. While I enjoy long-form video essays (on more than one occasion) and informational podcasts, the ones I listen to the most encourage questioning what you’re listening to and integrating new knowledge.

And they’re generally more inclusive of people whose voices need to be heard and are more respectful of the guests they bring on (and many of them even accept guests who ask to be on to discuss a certain topic). They’re people who generally know how to question their guests to elicit conversation.

This really clicked for me when I was listening to older episodes of Delete Your Account, a podcast hosted by Roqaya Chamseddine and Kumars Salehi that discusses stories from the news and media. Specifically, I’d been listening to one of their older episodes from 2016: Slavery Never Ended. The format of this episode includes three separate interviews: first with Azzurra Crispino of PAPS and IWOC, second with Cole Dorsey of the Oakland IWOC, and a strike organiser within the prison known only as “D.”

Each person is discussing the issue from their own perspective. Azzurra’s discussing it from the perspective of a prison abolitionist, Cole is discussing it from the perspective of a former prisoner who now organises with IWW and IWOC to support prisoners, and “D” is discussing it from the perspective of an (at the time) incarcerated person. And certain questions in both Azzurra’s and Cole’s interviews were redirected to the next person because they knew more about it or had experience with it. These techniques, whether they realised it or not, lead to the audience questioning who they get their information from and integrating knowledge that they should get from people closely related to the subject (but that not all people have equal experience and so they should redirect to someone else who does have it).

But every single person interviewed felt open and genuine, while Roqaya and Kumars seem to have an outline of questions they want to ask (but not a script that they’re following). Each question led to the next topic or elaborated further on something to get a better understanding of what was happening. Sometimes the questions seemed pleasantly surprising to the guests; at one point, Azzurra mentioned that she wished more people asked a question about who else was involved in the work around the prison strike.

And it’s not limited to this episode. Almost all of their episodes work like this. It’s fantastic.

Since recognising this, I’ve been noticing this about some of the other things I enjoy watching or listening to. In every normal episode of Citations Needed, Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi interview someone related to the topic who comes across as genuine and honest; they always seem to have experiences and knowledge that are rarely seen or discussed elsewhere, and the interviews never feel scripted. They feel like discussions the participants enjoyed having (and this is especially true of the episode The Pro-Gentrification Aspirationalism of HGTV’s House-Flipping Shows, where Nima even admits that he likes watching these shows, even though he knows what their messaging is).

And then there’s Emerican Johnson/NonCompete’s Radical Perspectives Panel and interviews by Rishwajeet Singh/leftclicktv. Both of them share a lot of the qualities that I mentioned above. They seek out people who are involved in the discussion they’re having, they engage with meaningful questions, and they all encourage everyone asking questions. As hosts, both EJ and Rishwajeet show they’re engaged in the conversation; they both know how to guide the conversation but not take it over. (For examples, I’d check EJ’s recent interview with Ty Underwood and John Dorsey from comradery.co and Rishwajeet’s recent video about Belarus with Quinsberry.)

The skills all of (but not limited to) these people are what I wish more ‘left’ media would incorporate. In every example, the hosts have figured out how to guide conversations, when to clarify, and how to explore topics in really natural ways; the people being interviewed or coming onto stream as guests are related to the topics they’re discussing, referring to other people’s experience or expertise when they know they need to. Many of them even outright say when they don’t know enough about something, and being able to admit that is also helpful.

It shows that we don’t have to know everything. It encourages curiosity in the audience to explore those topics, and it even sets up possible discussions and panels for the future.

Debates don’t do this, and they weren’t designed to (even when done ‘properly’ and not in the ‘Debate Me’ Bros aggressive style). But panels and discussions have this opportunity, and I think we need more of them.

(And if you have any suggestions for me? Feel free to send them to me at @whatanerd on Twitter.)