By Nick McDaniels — In the winter issue of Rethinking Schools, Linda Christensen, one of my teaching heroes, wrote an article titled The Classroom to Prison Pipeline. As with all of Chistensen’s work, this article is insightful and engaging, proposing a central flaw in the disciplinary practices of schools. Her writing forced me to take a look back at a post I wrote about a year ago in which I discussed the possibility that there may be a few students who infringe so deeply on the rights of other students to a quality of education that they might deserve to lose their rights to a quality of education. I am constantly an advocate for all students, but, as many teachers will tell you, there are some students, in an era of relaxed discipline and dwindling alternative programs, who make the job of teaching very hard and the job of learning almost impossible.
Christensen posits that removal from class for disruptive students, or worse, suspension from school is part of what she calls the classroom-to-prison pipeline. She is right. And in truth, it is clear that we cannot suspend our way out of behavioral problems in school. After removal from class or suspension, students whose behavior is so problematic that they required removal from the educational setting rarely come back as changed persons, or worse, they don’t come back at all.
Christensen argues for a curriculum, not just teaching, that is student-centered, which will engage students, cut down on problematic behaviors, and reduce the risk of dropping out or incarceration. She admits that through her patented student-centered poetry activities (see her amazing books here) to “cracking the class,” but also that there are still struggles to overcome. In her defense here, as Douglass taught us, if there is no struggle, there is no progress. Christensen and her co-teacher are surely making progress.
Now though, I am about to say something that I figured I’d never say after years of reading Christensen’s work. On this one, she is too conservative. She is not pushing hard enough or far enough in describing the revolutionary curriculum we need. Her ideas will slow the flow through the classroom-to-prison pipeline, but this is simply inadequate when the lives of our children are at stake.
Instead of simply making students the center of the curriculum, we need to make their struggle the center of the curriculum. We need to capture the waves of enthusiasm our “apathetic generation” of students has found with tragic cases like Trayvon Martin’s and those brought to light by the Kony 2012 video. We need to design a curriculum that exposes our children to the injustices they face and that those like them around the world face, and we need to give them opportunities to do something about it. This winter, an inspiring group of students, teachers, and activists built a protest one room school house on the grounds of a proposed hundred million dollar youth jail in downtown Baltimore. The experience for all involved, from those arrested in the protest, to those who read about it from across the country, was incredibly empowering.
These experiences, though newspapers, literature, or real life activism must become part of our curriculum if we want to break down the classroom-to-prison pipeline. We need to teach students to be activists, to be fighters, to embrace the struggle. If we want to slow the flow through the pipeline, we need to engage students and keep them in class as Christensen suggests. If we want to stop the flow completely, we must give our children the inspiration and skills to crush the pipeline altogether, to dismantle an unfair justice system, to smash racism, and to demand schools, not jails.