Where does violence start in schools? Educators and law enforcement officials are looking at the origins of violence in order to identify ways to end it, or at least mitigate it. In the process, perhaps it would be worthwhile to ask ourselves about one's own school experience. I invite you to remember. Conventional classrooms prohibit curiosity and expression while encouraging competition among students. To stand out, it is necessary to anticipate a predetermined answer by the teacher as soon as possible and silence the others. To encourage competition in this way is to generate an aggressive culture in which many lose in order for one to win. Sometimes you decide not to stand out, not to speak up, in order to maintain friendships. The disastrous results of this choreography, which include loneliness, depression, and violence, should not surprise us, although we seem to have failed to realize the causality between official repression and youth disobedience. Rebellion excites more repression, and in the spiral between authoritarianism and resistance, the original sin does not lie with the students.
We need to change the choreography of the classroom, all the classrooms, the subject, whatever. Rounding the square space into circles and workbenches is a low-cost change with great social-emotional, civic, and cognitive returns. It is difficult to install peace and coexistence with teaching contents; They tend to be boring because they are predictable and familiar. On the contrary, it is achieved in different, collaborative ways that enable people to be different from each other, to be citizens who are admirers of other citizens. To live in circles is to recognize everyone, face to face, and to recognize oneself as a member of the group. It is of little use to address the issues of justice and respect through conferences in which the issues remain as slogans, without major impact on behavior. It is that behavior changes thanks to new behaviors, points of view and new voices, turning the gaze to encompass all the people in the classroom and thus recognize the possibility of forging an authority among all.
How do we cultivate the pleasure that comes from learning the lesson, and not just heal the pain that the student body feels when they don't learn it? The challenge of starting from the cognitive to the emotional seems difficult, if it has been pursued institutionally. Generating satisfaction and even joy through curricular textbooks may not seem feasible, and I fear that the challenge is not among the main objectives of the education authorities. The bet of most cutting-edge educators today is rather to improve mental health in order to improve academic scores. And although there are no improvements in the national exams, social-emotional education prevails, apparently for reasons of restorative justice and coexistence.
So far, however, the gamble has not produced satisfactory results. Violence continues to increase and reading comprehension levels are falling. Families as well as local authorities and the World Bank, which seeks to encourage effective practices to justify its support for ministries and secretaries of education, are disappointed. Surely we would prefer to see improvements, rather than stay with the rate of lack of comprehension of simple texts in more than 80% of children. Despite statistics showing rising literacy rates, reading comprehension rates reveal losses. Digital activities that engage young people in rapid communication networks jeopardize education, although they seem to exercise reading and writing. Reading and writing take time because they go beyond getting information, they include interpretation and critical thinking. Intelligence literally means reading between the lines. Today, more people know how to read and fewer understand what they have read.
The spirit of leisure ("school" in ancient Greek) that disarms the unnecessary conflict between play and work is periodically resurrected in alternative education, for example with Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Rabindranath Tagore, Paulo Freire and others. Today it is renewed in a simple variant that is easy to replicate and scale. It's called Pre-Texts and it's a methodology that is appropriated in just 15 hours of training. Its playful, almost mischievous name is a nod to the process that seduces even people who are reluctant to read, because the texts serve as raw material, excuses to create something of their own, original. The fuel for grabbing onto a challenging text and owning it is emotion, sometimes rebellious. And the win-win result bolsters both mental health and school development. Pre-Textos collects good everyday practices and valorizes them as vehicles of the most advanced pedagogical avant-gardes. It provides a rigorous and friendly education, effective and economical.
Someone reads a text aloud while drawing a cover for a personal edition. The scene combines two popular Latin American practices. One is that of the "reader" in the tobacco factories, who reads aloud literary, historical, and philosophical texts selected by the workers. The other "cartonera" practice is by recyclers who make good, beautiful, and cheap books out of used cardboard. We started this way because we facilitators assume that most students don't like to read. That's why we don't assign readings or deliver sermons about it. To start, we kindly invite anyone who wants to read aloud. At the end of listening to the reading, each one asks a question to the text, also out loud. In Pre-Texts, no one asks people questions because they are not subject to scrutiny. They are researchers scrutinizing a text.
After the main prompt of making art out of a text, comes another iconoclastic step. It's "beating around the bush", giving free rein to curiosity, reading for pleasure, looking for texts related to the one we read in class to "publish" the findings on the clothesline. Unlike teachers who insist that we don't beat around the bush – that we don't dream, digress or ask tangential questions – in Pre-Textos we take advantage of concerns to energize more readings. Bringing a "branch" and hanging it for all to see implies having read, researched, groped, and thought about how to defend the contribution in relation to the source text. In this way, intellectual curiosity develops along with an appreciation for other people's contributions. They look interesting because of their different interests and points of view. Diversity enriches knowledge and deepens interpretation.
If we were to adopt a text on restorative justice in schools as a starting point for a shared exercise in research and speculation, what practical proposals would we come up with to address the current dual crises of justice and education? The students, together with their mentors, will ensure peace as a necessary condition to develop their creative and exciting works, based on challenging texts, thanks to the teamwork of their classmates.
Doris Sommer is a professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literature at Harvard University and the creator of Pre-Textos and the NGO Cultural Agents. Part of this text was published in the magazine Escuela y Pedagogía de Bogotá
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