It was a December day, when elementary school students are bursting with energy and on the lookout for surprises that the season brings. I had arranged for a special visit from a guest whom my students idolized—my son, a college freshman. They had heard countless stories of his high school football days and faithfully asked me each Monday about Saturday's game. On this particular day, his friend Alfred, also a student athlete, came with him.
Wearing their college football team regalia, they both wowed my students by answering questions and sharing wisdom. We escorted the young men to lunch in the cafeteria, and I introduced them to my various colleagues. Everywhere, they were met with smiles and warm greetings.
Alfred, who had never been to my school before, kept shaking his head. I became curious whether he appreciated the fandom bestowed on him by my students. Despite my characterizing these two as great academicians, my students were ultimately impressed with their athletic potential. Still, Alfred's reaction had nothing to do with my students. It was about the school itself.
When I finally inquired, his response hit me like a ton of bricks: “It feels like a prison.”
Momentarily stunned, I ran through a mental inventory; this was a normal day for us, the children were smiling, the school building was clean, the environment was orderly. It turned out that Alfred was reacting to the right angles of the corridors, the students walking in straight lines, and the compliance in the air. Alfred, a Hurricane Katrina survivor, moved to our state when he was in middle school. He said my school felt like his own elementary school, which was several states away.
Immediately defensive, I asked, “Does my classroom feel like that?” And of course he said no. But what would he say? I have a good relationship with him and my son's other friends. They know and respect what I do. I know that they benefited from having that teacher who looked out for them throughout high school, from whom they could solicit advice, who kept tabs on them long after they left their classroom. I tend to be that teacher in my school.
This got me thinking about our mathematical practices. Does the expectation of compliance, as evidenced by the straight lines that Alfred noted, work against the mathematical practices we promote? Are our students free to notice and wonder why school is set up the way it is? Do we allow them to engage in discourse about who and what we highlight (https://www.mariandingle.com/blog/measures-of-center) in the classroom? During a three-act task, are students free to reject the question we guide them toward? Are we really teaching them to take risks?
Was Alfred ever allowed to notice patterns about which students are tracked into accelerated programming and then wonder how he could jump tracks? How many students have I seen assigned to academic boot camp for remediation or rewarded with free time as if school is the anti-thesis of freedom (Bell 2015)?
Alfred is an intelligent young man who remains on the dean's list in college. But he never once considered a career in education. None of my son's friends have. Perhaps the time has come to ask students how our classes feel. Perhaps they can tell us what they need. When I stop to ask these questions, I am le? with more than I bargained for. Schools are for education, but who is educating whom?
BellMonita K. 2015. “Students Prisoners?” Teaching Tolerance. October 192015. https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/are-your-students-prisoners. Accessed June 7 2019.
Marian Dingle, firstname.lastname@example.org, has taught elementary school for 20 years in Georgia and Maryland. As a Heinemann Fellow, she conducts action research about the ways in which cultural identity influences student efficacy, agency, and mathematical outcomes.