Post-Its on the Brain
Teaching and the pursuit of blank spaces
I’m not entirely exaggerating when I say I stay in this job for the office supplies.
Despite the proliferation of online tools like Flipgrid, Padlet, and PearDeck, tried-and-true office products like Post-It Notes, Sharpies, and multi-colored jumbo kraft paper have remained my favorite ways to get the creative juices flowing.
By the end of each year, my classroom walls are literally wallpapered with colorful kraft paper, which my students and I clutter with clusters of sticky notes. This year we ran out of brite green kraft paper, rendering the reliably glorious rainbow of thought incomplete (I ended up settling for brite blue followed by dark blue instead). But barring these supply shortages, we steadily add to this repository of thought throughout the year, giving our stark cinder blocks a much-needed facelift.
At its best, this approach creates a flurry of color and activity that feels purposeful and energizing. From time to time, we return to these clusters of color, snapping a picture to take on a walk-and-talk, or back to our seats for some silent writing and reflection. Occasionally a student will thoughtlessly pass up the provided Sharpie Ultra Fine Point markers in favor of an unsharpened pencil or some other unapproved writing utensil. And here’s a protip: never give students a full pack of Post-Its — unless you want to look at an animated bouncing ball for the next three months.
But aside from these unfortunate aberrations, our thinking and handwriting is usually admirably bold and precise.
We must also mention in passing those who use their classroom whiteboards as platforms for Post-Its. Although this can be a nice look, we know the tackiness of Post-Its quickly renders the surface unsuitable for Expo Dry-Erase Markers. One of the greatest ironies of dry-erase white boards is how quickly they degrade into oily wet-erase boards. One can only remediate this sorry state of affairs by regularly bombarding it with treatments of Formula 409 and WD-40, which can temporarily restore the board to its unsullied whiteness.
Okay, I’m done. As you can see, it takes a lot of effort and micromanagement to maintain these blank platforms, continually providing and preparing them as a neutral substratum for our thinking. As it turns out, this whole process isn’t just limited to office supplies. We seem to seek these blank spaces a lot in education. And, just as the maintenance of these spaces in my classroom exacts a rather outsized environmental impact, so too can more figurative blank spaces have an impact far beyond their seemingly neutral veneer.
Sherri Spelic has done a lot to open my eyes to this phenomenon, first through her inquiry into whether so-called “organically forming communities” are necessarily inclusive or inviting, and second through her examination of design thinking as being largely blind to “social dilemmas fueled by historic inequality and stratification.” Spurred by these and other insights, I’ve begun to see how the impulse to create and maintain blank, so-called neutral spaces is at best a deliberate ignorance of systemic injustice and at worst a manifestation of white supremacy culture, which often masquerades as blank, invisible, and, well…white.
Turns out, much of education reform presumes or at least prefers a blank space that will allow our colorfully transcendent ideas to really pop. It’s so much harder, so much more frustrating to have these ideas bogged down in the shadows of the sensible world. Like Plato, we’d prefer that our “candidate” inhabit the pure, real world of Ideas. Also like Plato, we’d prefer our candidate be a free white male, one who can more easily avoid any shackles of immanence, child rearing, discrimination, racism, oppression, etc.
Here’s just a few of the unexpected places where this insidious tendency has shown up in recent years.
Should it surprise us that we’ve spent so much time holding up this great northern land as an educational ideal? While we write off accomplishments of Asian and Asian-American students as lacking in Western-style creativity, these Finns have the right idea with their blond, progressive-looking kids who kick butt on international exams by following a strict regimen of recess, healthy lunches, and no homework. What better place than this snow-white, idyllic imaginary to project John Dewey’s ideas without thorny political or social issues to worry about?
As Nicole Stellon O’Donnell points out,
…articles about Finland don’t address poverty, rates of youth incarceration, the availability of affordable medical care, the availability of maternal/paternal leave, the impact of the rise and influence of religious fundamentalism on public education, or the monetization of our education system by entrepreneurial edu-corp reformers. They certainly don’t discuss the impact our history of slavery, genocide, and segregation has upon school systems.
The notion of applying a little Finnish permafrost to the morass that is America’s racist past and present may be attractive to some. And although some of Finland’s ideas might benefit American schools, fetishizing it as we have over the last decade amounts to a denial verging on erasure.
Close reading has been defined in a lot of ways, but it is most commonly considered a “text-dependent” technique of reading, one that focuses on the text as an autonomous entity, existing apart from historical or political context, author intent, and audience interpretation. Louise Rosenblatt, tracking the development of this trend through the 19th and the 20th century, observed how the reader was relegated the role of an “invisible eavesdropper.” Although this movement peaked with New Criticism in the mid-20th century it enjoys a zombie-like revival as the preferred approach of the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT and AP exams.
As I’ve written before, the dominance of this so-called “objective” approach is not without consequences. Since white culture is the only one for whom this kind of cultural “invisibility” is possible, close reading, by it’s very nature, prefers and privileges white writers, readers, and characters. Nonwhite writers who are admitted into this canon must aspire mainly toward this white standard of universality, invisibility, racelessness. From the standpoint of the College Board and it’s current CEO, David Coleman, such an objective approach allows arriving at a measurably “right” interpretation of a text possible, giving the testing industry the semblance of validity and reliability it needs to maintain its absolute sway over education.
AP English Literature and the Pedagogy of Whiteness
Why content and the canon is only part of the problem
But by excluding personal and critical responses and prohibiting questions around power and privilege, this approach all but guarantees that the right answer will be the white one.
This one first came to my attention from a now-deleted guest post on Cult of Pedagogy’s website. The teacher was promoting the benefits of civic discourse on “the most emotional of issues” with “No heated exchange. No emotional meltdowns. Just good debate.” These debates deliberately tackled recent ripped-from-the-headlines topics, spotlighting social and political events that have sparked controversy and outrage. Many teachers — including Marian Dingle, Jessica Lifshitz, and Christie Nold — immediately expressed concerns.
Unfortunately, what seems at first glance like an opportunity for students to hone generalized debate skills is often a direct affront to more marginalized students’ humanity. Benjamin Doxtdator summarized the subsequent “debate” that unfolded around the article, which suggested such questions as “Should the Confederate flag be flown in public places?” and “Does America still have a major issue with racism?” These questions, which may seem merely academic to a student from an “agent” group, are actually often traumatizing to students from “target” groups, for whom these issues represent genuine threats. Add to this the strong implication that students who can silence any “visceral” reactions and approach the issues “rationally” are the winners, and you have a recipe for oppression and trauma masquerading as “open debate.”
Ultimately, the activity is a ritualization of tone policing, a strategy of erasure and silencing wherein oppressed groups must discuss lived experiences like oppression, inequality, and injustice with “civility.” It also flourishes within the larger phenomenon in which teachers are increasingly expected to be nothing more than guides on the side, peers at the rear, and facilitators. Neutrality in a society premised on an unequal distribution of power and resources does not constitute fairness; it is a reinscription the status quo.
It’s always interesting to check in on the Twitter educelebrities on days when something like the attacks in Charleston or Charlottesville occur. Or when an unarmed black man has been gunned down by police. Or on those days when Donald Trump is still in the White House.
On second thought, it’s not that interesting. It’s infuriating.
To save you the time of using Twitter Advanced Search to track down the date ranges and handles, it’s the same thing as it is every other day — usually something about fist bumping kids in the hallway, unleashing the power of intrinsic motivation, or believing in your heart of hearts that all students can learn. As a minor luminary in the world of “going gradeless,” I’m sorry to say that many a flagrant act of discrimination or violence occurred with little or no response from me as my buffered tweets steamrolled over whatever reprehensible event had occurred that day. Neither did I acknowledge the day-to-day harms inflicted in American schools through our whitewashed curriculum, inequitable funding, and disparate use of disciplinary measures.
As social justice minded educators wrestle publicly with daily incidents of marginalization, violence, and death, educelebs tweet a constant stream of positivity, seemingly locked in a permanent “DiCaprio strut.”
Like the other educational obsessions mentioned, there’s probably an extent to which an inspiring, insipid quotation isn’t all that harmful. But a large percentage of these aphorisms are not merely that. Instead, they often come from powerful white male thought-leaders — many of whom are no longer or have never been part of our overwhelmingly female profession — creating an impossibly high bar for educators often teetering on the brink of burnout. It has also been disconcerting to see some of these personas interact with teachers who dare to push back on their platitudes. Behind the curtain of their Oz-like power is often a sad, bitter little man who doesn’t want his brand getting dragged or sullied by subtweets.
But what’s wrong with believing that all students can learn or in creating a generically positive space that could foster the potential of all students? The problem is that no such space exists. While my more privileged students may recognize it, seeing it as a springboard for their own agency and development, others are hindered by deep-seated systems and practices that, as Shana V. White states, “both harm and exclude marginalized people.” Positivity is toxic when it blindly bulldozes over these realities.
Arguably the greatest irony in education reform is the way it can partake of the most regressive and dehumanizing impulse of all: the impulse to erase, to elide, to whitewash, to wipe clean, to start fresh — without ever reckoning with and addressing harms past and present. This won’t get us where we need to go. Instead of abdicating our responsibility to contribute to a more just, equitable society, H. Richard Milner IV argues that teachers must instead develop a “robust repertoire of skills to support tough talk in the classroom.” After all…