In this month’s Something to Talk About blog post, Haeny Yoon writes about finding freedom in classroom spaces and reimagining what it truly means to think outside of the box in school.
My six-year-old niece brought home a worksheet from school that said, “Think Outside the Box,” featuring a box resembling a computer monitor. And while the goal of this worksheet was to encourage kids to engage in activities without screens, it got me thinking about all the ways we actually resist teaching children to think outside the box. By all accounts, school is a place where children are placed into boxes constantly. If they don’t fit, they are taught to try. As an adult, I am still confronting the vestiges of boxed thinking in myself, educators, and the preservice teachers I spend time training. For many of us, we’ve been taught at a young age how to conform and perform successfully: rules and regulations for how to behave in school, tests measuring our capacities in comparison to others, systems of rewards that clearly outline what is valued, remediation for those that do not meet the “standards,” and exemplars articulating what constitutes “good” work.
By all accounts, school is a place where
children are placed into boxes constantly.
If they don’t fit, they are taught to try.
Ocean Vuong, writer of On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, describes coming of age as a Vietnamese refugee and immigrant to the U.S. He, too, reflects on the confines and limitations of rules in telling his story, “I am writing because they told to me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free. Because freedom…” His words continue to resonate with me, making me wonder what would happen if we broke free…if we reimagine school as a place where we unbox our imaginations and cultivate spaces that truly welcome those on the outside.
Un-standardizing the End Product
Schools are familiar places for many of us—the smell of books, the feel of linoleum tiles, bins of materials, and desks. Children have always been expected to produce something tangible – artwork, writing, seasonal crafts, and other artifacts that serve as end products. When they are displayed, they are uniform and neatly placed on walls (mostly by teachers) to account for progress and growth. Arguably, these displays are meant to show concerned administrators, anxious parents, and curious others that learning is happening. However, what if we break free of standardized products and display artifacts at school meant to show children rather than show products? Children enter school with identities, interests, and passions that often go unnoticed and unrecognized. I collaborated with a kindergarten teacher whose classroom displayed the work children were invested in—their popular culture interests and writing and drawing that were outside of the boundedness of curricular goals. Stories born out of imaginative connections with Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and other artifacts of childhood filled the space, walls, and conversation of the classroom. Through these intentional moves, the teacher shifted what “products” gained attention and visibility. Children looked around the room and saw unique work drawn and put together by their classmates, constructed in both formal academic times as well as informal play times. While she also displayed uniform work (as this is often the job of school), she also displayed artifacts important to children’s everyday life.
However, what if we break free of standardized
products and display artifacts at school
meant to show children rather than show products?
Disciplinary Systems of Power
“Give me Five!” This was the mantra I used as a classroom teacher all throughout my K-5 teaching career. As I raised one arm to the sky, and spread out my hands into a five, the children promptly followed (at least, enough of them to feign compliance). Eyes on the speaker, mouth quiet, ears listening, hands free, and body still. There is a version of this practice nearly everywhere in many classrooms across the country—whole body listening, self-regulatory practices, the conflict wheel, and norms for participation in classroom discourse. Children learn to embody this behavior, realizing that rewards and punishments are directly tied to how efficiently and effectively they perform. Teachers enforce these rules because they are also rewarded and even bound by a set of expectations, measuring their worth and competence as professionals. At the same time, we live in a world that relies on resistance to disrupt inequities and imagine better futures, particularly for individuals who do not fit predetermined categories of race, gender, ability, and citizenship. We encourage people to become engaged citizen yet restrict children’s movements and ways of being through demands for quiet and still bodies, fostering compliance and submission over agency and resistance. As a former classroom teacher, I am fully aware of the necessity of setting boundaries and expectations, yet I have also encountered many instances where rules inequitably serve to perpetuate ableist, racist, and classist ideologies. Rather than trying to manage children first, perhaps we need to set up the conditions for hearing children out. If we are truly invested in engaged citizens who change the world, we must make space for diverse ways of being. A useful practice might be to take note of who is excluded from our classrooms as a result of these rules. Who benefits from these rules? How are they inequitably applied to certain identities (e.g. Black boys, emergent bilinguals, children with disabilities)? Rather than compliance, rethinking the rules means loosening the boundaries so that children understand difference as an asset rather than a deficit.
If we are truly invested in engaged
citizens who change the world, we must
make space for diverse ways of being.
Sitting with Discomfort and Tension
With the COVID-19 pandemic against the enduring pandemic of racial violence, children are experiencing and participating in a world fraught with turmoil and tension. They are taking part in difficult conversations, observing (in)action, encountering limitations to their agency and voice, and understanding the threats to their own livelihoods. Therefore, teachers might find themselves in the middle of uncomfortable conversations and hard truths even in classrooms with very young children. For example, Trevor, a kindergartener diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, was both a history and geography buff. He was a gifted writer, made elaborate and scaled maps of the world, and soon became interested in world wars, particularly WW II. To demonstrate his newfound learning, he made maps and flags of France and Germany and drew swastikas all over his paper. Unsure of how she was going to approach the conversation, the teacher sat with him and listened to his process rather than immediately reprimanding his actions, prohibiting him from following his interests, or leaving it up to his parents to unpack. The teacher learned that Trevor watched countless documentaries and read stories, and accumulated knowledge about both the French slogan, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” alongside Nazi slogans. After spending a good amount of time just listening actively and inquisitively, she took the opportunity to explain the significance of the swastika as hurtful and symbolic of hate and death, even for members of his own family (Trevor was Jewish). Later on, Trevor crossed out all the swastikas on his paper, on his own. The teacher was masterful in her interactions with Trevor—her default was to be a curious listener instead of a presumptive, judgmental adult.
I wonder what is gained or lost when we engage children as intellectual beings who are working out issues that they might not fully understand yet? What if we intervene as a curious listener and facilitator of tough conversations—even the ones that we ourselves have not fully worked out nor understand?
As educators, we are fortunate enough to be in the company of children who push and challenge our thinking. We encounter children whose families, communities, and experiences are different from our own. The classroom can be a beautiful space of co-construction, of diverse ways of being, of learning for both students and teacher, and an imaginative place where out of the box thinking can really happen. But first, we need to imagine freedom from one-size-fits-all curriculum. We need to disrupt rules/regulations that act as tools for suppression rather than expression. We need to engage willingly and courageously in conversations that don’t come with ready-made answers. Because freedom…
About the Author
Haeny Yoon is an Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is still learning to think outside the box and is fortunate to do this in the company of children and teachers who graciously contribute to her research, teaching, and thinking. Follow her on Twitter @haenyyoon.