Redefining the “Perfect” Student
How can students be empowered to change society when they are educated according to the status quo? How can we tell them to use their voice, when they are told that they don’t have anything important to say, or that the way they say it isn’t “right” (read: “white”)? Why are the lived experiences of students not considered valuable knowledge? Why is the “perfect” student the one that only speaks when spoken to, and never questions the teacher?
How do we change this? It’s not enough for the students to simply revolt; the opposite of educational oppression is not more oppression, it is collaboration and cooperation, in the spirit of collegial pedagogy.
When the teens came to Muhlenberg for the first time, I was teamed with Michelle, Nia, Desiree, and Alysha. When we split the class up into groups, Alysha let out a deep sigh and clicked her tongue when she realized that she would be separated from her friends for the duration of the class period. Michelle encouraged Alysha: “come on, join our group we only got three.” Her face remained the same but she took small steps towards Michelle and watched her friends leave with their group. Nia and Desiree seemed to be close; they were giggling at their phones and sitting close to one another from the moment they arrived.
We set out to capture the “Heart of Healing” within a photo. Michelle was the first to volunteer to take the camera. I tried to prompt conversation with all of the girls on our way to Victor’s Lament but the only one who engaged was the ever-gregarious Michelle. Alysha twiddled a rolled up piece of paper in her hands and tightened her backpack straps, while trailing behind Nia and Desiree who were giggling to one another and periodically pushing one another’s arms as they laughed.
It was Michelle who managed to open the other girls up to the activity. Perhaps it was her unabashed show of interest in photography or her gregarious nature, which did this. She was the first to give Hailey and I direction as she took our photos. She placed each of the girls near each post and stepped back for a wide shot. She then looked at the photo, put her bag down and jogged closer for a few more shots. “Time for close-ups” she said as she ran towards us once again. She came up right next to to me and said, “look that way” as she gestured to the fishbowl. She other girls gathered near the opposite pole, and Michelle soon turned her attention there. She said something to make them laugh and then took a few photos. Nia then continued the banter and made Alysha and Desiree giggle for a shot.
After that, Nia and Michelle asked Michelle for the camera. Nia pointed to the Zen Garden and looked back over to me. I followed behind and saw that she was positioning Alysha and Michelle on the bench, again trying to make them laugh for a picture. Michelle motioned to the fountain and mentioned that the reflection might look good in a photo. Alysha and Michelle both took turns capturing reflections in the water before we headed in. Michelle then took one final candid shot, pausing to frame us on our walk down academic row.
I was lucky to see the converse of this in our second visit, with regard how comfort and vulnerability go hand-in-hand. Owen and DeAndre were separated from their respective group of friends. Michelle gravitated towards Hailey and I from the get-go, “you already know,” she said as she went in for a fist bump. Mr. Ward guided Soemie into the group. The teens did not appear to be close friends; they avoided eye contact with one another in the beginning and did not illustrate any prior friendship, at least not one similar to that of Nia and Desiree.
Michelle expressed that she did not want to be filmed, but would love to operate the camera. Soemi also wanted to operate the camera and mentioned that she didn’t want to be interviewed. Owen and DeAndre agreed to be filmed but seemed timid and almost at a loss for words during the interview. When asked, Owen noted that he prefers to be left alone when he is having a bad day. He went on to say that his friends are the same way.
Perhaps they felt unsure about their answer. This could have been because they were negotiating their masculinity and the concept of caring, they simply hadn’t had enough time to put their thoughts together, or they simply weren’t comfortable enough in the setting. Both boys let out a sigh before answering the questions and expressed their dissatisfaction with their answers after filming. Owen even said “sorry” to which I said, “not everybody needs the same thing, it’s just your point of view.”
In the first episode of Lyrical Advisory that we (Brooke, Maddie, Autumn, and I) recorded with Egnar, Jeremia, and Deandre, they began without missing a beat. Egnar took the reigns and prompted us to introduce ourselves into the microphone as his guests. The conversation was centered on hip-hop culture but the teens organically moved the conversation to a topics like mass incarceration, the prison system, as well as consent. In the second episode (with Eddie), we had an in depth conversation about the nuances of crime and how it could be addressed. Eddie and Egnar also shared some personal experiences with crime on this episode, which I believe to be indicative of their comfort or trust.
Egnar mentioned the podcasts that inspired them: The Breakfast Club, No Jumper, and the work of DJ Akademiks. But, he followed up with a smirk and a “we better though” with which we all agreed. This did not seem hubristic in nature, but rather a manifestation of his confidence in his project and abilities. He had this confidence for good reason; he expertly moved the discussion along, asking questions, and artfully seguing onto different topics.
Egnar was considerate of his cohosts and guests, and encouraged everyone to partake in the discussion. He continuously checked to make sure that we (Maddie, Brook, and I) knew what they were talking about when it came to artists’ beef; he encouraged Jeremia to explain Famous Dex’s actions at his recent concert, perhaps because he knew more about it or he knew Jeremia wasn’t the type to interrupt. He frequently checked in with DeAndre, who was the most soft-spoken of the three and hadn’t said very much throughout the episode.
From the very beginning, he subverted the usual educational structure and took control of the recording session. We brought in the microphones and that was it- the podcast was theirs and theirs alone, but they still made us feel like valued guests (on a professional podcast, no less). After our second and third sessions with Egnar and his rotating cast of cohosts, we developed a sort of rapport. In our final interview at Building 21, Egnar took control once again; we asked him a few questions about our work together and although he noted that some of them were “tough” questions (which they certainly were) he wasn’t phased, eventually turning the microphones on us. We joked around and talked about memes and I was genuinely sad that our time together had come to an end.
Michelle encouraged her peers through her energy and unabashed enthusiasm. She did so in a way that I would never have been able. This illustrates the importance that student-student interaction has in education. It is often difficult for educators to prompt enthusiasm in students; when I was in high school, I often felt embarrassed to express my excitement for projects if my peers did not do the same. During the interview session, she was far less outgoing, seemingly matching the tone of the other teens. It was almost as if she took the cues from the other students and toned down the excitement she exhibited during the prior visit.
Egnar is another excellent example of how students can facilitate others’ success. He’s a very talkative guy; he participated in the introductory portions of all of our sessions, asking questions, and making jokes. When we worked on Lyrical Advisory with him, I was amazed by his natural ability to facilitate stimulating conversation.
Students have far more power in the classroom, even in the traditional baking model of education, than they realize. Students have the power to influence one another. This structure hinges on the oppression of students, and oftentimes those students who are gregarious and outgoing. This is not necessarily the fault of teachers alone; the schooling system reflects asymmetric power structures in society. Certain lexicons and speech patterns are undervalued in the classroom, yet co-opted for profit in the entertainment industry.
We need to change what it means to be a “perfect” student. The perfect student is one who encourages others and asks questions, not necessarily one, which serves the status quo. In order to change this definition, the banking-model must be abandoned.
These assertions came from my own experience in school; as a person with ADHD I was often the subject of discipline in the classroom. Very few teachers took the time to understand why I might be exhibiting such behavior. I have trauma and insecurity attached to my time in school, though it is only recently that I realize the larger issues at play.
Students have the ability to derail a lesson (as I’ve seen from experience) so why are they told that they have no power in the classroom? Why is the perfect student that only reflects society, rather than one who criticizes and seeks to improve? Why are we letting all of this potential power go to waste?