We “sit down, shut up, get in line” and are bored shitless

Write about the things that you’re doing. That’s part of scholar activism for David Stovall, the guest speaker this week. What is the story we don’t talk about? What are the things that have gone missing? He asks these types of questions in high school social studies classes. When I asked him via Skype about the mental health crises in the country, and specifically in the southern and western parts of Chicago, he said schools simply do not have the resources to even begin to address most mental health concerns. The money is not there, we’ve been told. In the same vein as life on Main Street, law enforcement is used to treat mental illness in schools. To be fair, there are token mental health professionals. Another question Stovall asks: Are students being respected? Loved? Hated? Schools have proven themselves to be places of violence, physically, psychically, and in other ways. Some schools are trying to bring in trauma-informed care and restorative justice.

Some scholars are “marking, crossing, exceeding, and disrupting the colonial conditons of knowledge production,” as Scott Lauria Morgensen explains in “Destabilizing the Settler Academy: The Decolonial Effects of Indigenous Methodologies.” Stovall talks about these conditions of knowledge production, especially in the K-12 arena, where many students are neither respected nor loved. We can all remember our own school daze, rule days and/or our children’s, returning home reporting how we/they are bored at school. Or that we/they were punished unjustly. This is totally unacceptable. “Why are young people getting in trouble? It’s not because they are ‘deviant.’ It’s because they are bored shitless…How do we tell the babies? Sit down, shut up, get in line. All day,” as Stoval explains. He asks, “In your K-12 experience, how many folks felt like when they were in school, there was something seismically wrong, that you could never articulate? Like you are sitting there, thinking ‘this is not right and I’m about to start a rebellion because it’s not right’?”

Breaking news this week reveals an “epidemic of despair in white, working-class America,” in Jay Bookman’s article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “Among middle-aged white Americans with a high school degree or less, the death rate from drug and alcohol overdoses quadrupled in the 14-year period between 1999 and 2013. The suicide rate in that group rose by a heart-breaking 81 percent. Death by diseases associated with alcohol abuse rose by 50 percent.” The Daily Caller even put 2 cents in. What life skills are we not teaching? Can we be honest in health class or biology class or psychology class about these topics of discussion with our children? They need to be prepared as human beings for life after high school. What survival skills did you learn in school? It is deceitful to not teach these things. This is but one example of Stovall’s advice to compare and contrast the words “school” and “education.”

In most schools, students are dehumanized as a matter of routine. That’s part of the experiment we are all participating in. “We do what we’re told,” as Peter Gabriel sang. As Jeff Duncan Andrade points out, it’s not just PTSD that some students are experiencing, it’s CPTSD. “Complex PTSD,” an idea from Harvard, describes toxic stress. He says, “What they’re seeing in children’s brains and bodies because of the reoccurring toxic stress in more complex than what we see in soldiers. So a puzzle we can’t put together in soldiers has thousands more pieces for children.” Stoval sees this as an intentional marginalization and containment of certain parts of the population. As Marilyn Manson said in Bowling for Columbine, “I woudn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say. And that’s what no one did.”

He notes that schools have morphed from extensions of the community into centers that more closely resemble factories and prisons. In response, he and others have launched TEN, the Teaching Excellence Network, with its UTQI, Urban Teacher Quality Index. It is hosting its Community Responsiveness Fall Conference today from 8 to 4 today in Oakland, to ask questions such as: What is a community responsive learning community? What are the biggest challenges to family involvement? How can you engage families? How is TEN data used to become more community responsive in the classroom and in the schools? Who do you see as a caring teacher? Who do you feel has expert knowledge of you, as a student?

The pressure on teachers is overwhelming. The statistics are staggering. In the 2013 Atlantic article, “Why Do Teachers Quit?” by Liz Riggs, it says that around half of teachers leave within the first 5 years. About 1 in 10 leave before the end of the first year. 15% leave every year overall. “40% of teachers who pursue undergraduate degrees in teaching never even enter the classroom at all,” she reports. “To improve the quality of teaching, you need to improve the quality of the teaching job,” Richard Ingersoll says in the article. But as Stovall pointed out, “Institutional change is very difficult. The mistake people make is trying to do this individually. Collective work is critical. For our sanity we have to gather in places that are external.” He cautioned us against isolation and warned us that the institution will not necessarily help address isolation and may even employ divide and conquer tactics.

At the same time, he says, massive social movements start in groups smaller than this classroom. Affirm each other’s sanity. He wrote his dissertation in a room every night with four other people. The academy might try to force you to abandon the behaviors of the human condition. So it is necessary to work outside the academy also. “This work grounds you and keeps you sane.” Otherwise, “You will go crazy.” He recommended researching the work of Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, who, with the communities’ involvement, changed their high school curriculum significantly.

Stovall said one essential step is to bring the community into the university. He encouraged us to “suspend our notion of expertise,” and listen to all community members. “I am not an expert on someone else’s condition,” he points out. Scholar activists are “humble concerned citizens grappling with power.” During our discussion we roundtabled about how to engage with citizens whom we fundamentally disagree. One way is to not see it as a fundamental disagreement. Some ideas are finding common ground, remaining calm, recognizing humor and humanity, and working premise by premise. The scholarly conversationalist will be able to listen and understand data and the scientific research methods. Speaking of data, Stovall illuminated some numbers. 1 in every 350 people in the U.S. is a student in a New York City public school. So what percent of the entire U.S. population is students? Can anyone out in the blogosphere “alphabet” this?