According to one dictionary, the word redemption means: ”forgiveness or absolution for past errors” and “protection from disgrace.” I like this term because it encompasses forgiveness and also because hope often comes along as a result. All three, redemption, forgiveness and hope, are intertwined in powerful ways. The interesting question is, who grants redemption? Who determines who is to be forgiven? Since I do not practice religion I cannot hand this job over to a God, and I find that even my religious friends differ in their understanding of how this works. In my teaching and involvement in racial equity and justice the entrenched and rigid believers of a narrow doctrine, or a certainty of political stance, are often the least forgiving of students or colleagues or parents. They are the least willing to grant redemption.
When you combine racism with a narrow path to redemption and a student of color makes a mistake, is tardy, does not complete a task or asks a challenging question, he or she may be placed in classes for “at risk” students. A white student may not be treated this way as readily. Given our tracked schools, placement in a class for unmotivated students limits access to upper level classes geared toward college success. Ultimately, students understand the lack of high expectation perpetuated in the lower level classes and they experience hopelessness. I wonder if we can teach the necessity of redemption. Can we pass along the value of forgiveness to those who persist in their belief that some kinds of students will never make it? It might be a worthwhile to try.
When I taught in programs for some of the toughest students in our city, many of the most effective teachers and staff with whom I worked felt that no matter their mistakes, or the crises in their lives, or their behavior in years past, these students could turn their lives around. I have seen eighteen year olds decide that they wanted to stop gang banging and focus on schooling. I have seen kids who came from families notorious for crime and prison life, succeed with grit, determination and support from adults around them, to graduate and go on to college. I have worked with many young men and women who felt sincere regret for their failure and truancy, and with help from their parents and counselors, ministers and principals, they were able to keep on track to graduation. The best teachers are ready to turn over a new page again and again as their students struggle with complicated lives, pregnancies and slip-ups. These educators are present with a structure that promises to control chaos, with an insistence on excellent work and with a human flexibility in how and when work gets done. They demand quality and cut deals when necessary. They have an inner sense of the power of forgiveness.
I am concerned that our system is not as flexible now as it was when I was in the classroom ten years ago. The rigid curriculum, the assumptions about “urban kids” (often code for kids of color), the elimination of art, poetry, music from our schools altogether have led to a lack of connection to and lack of engagement with students. Because the emphasis today is so heavily on a narrow view of skills and also not on deep knowledge and a critical approach to learning, those students who do not have skills early on are seen very quickly as not likely to succeed. My students at Carleton College said they could tell by third grade who would make it and who would not. Elementary students themselves can sense this as soon as fourth grade and thus become disillusioned with learning. The classroom becomes entirely separate from their real lives. It is the grade when African American boys tend to turn off to school.
My colleagues often engaged students through story, through discussion, through reaching beyond the textbook or lesson and taking advantage of teachable moments. Such approaches are not emphasized in many schools where I have consulted recently. Instead, the emphasis is on scripted lessons timed to the minute and day, making teachers robotic neutral dispensers of one size fits all learning. Such prescriptive teaching is most often put in place for the poorest schools with the students most in need of creative, flexible and forgiving teachers. The schools that succeed, even when their student bodies are 90% poor and 90% students of color allow teachers to create new ways to meet students’ needs, encourage these teachers to explore critical thinking and give them time to make connections to students’ families. A group of these schools, called the 90-90-90 schools, have that name because they also graduate 90% of their students.
I wonder if, in the spirit of redemption for all of us: teachers, students, families, principals, we couldn’t listen to each other before we decide any of us is relegated a hopeless future. If we can’t do this, for each other, for the young men and women, the boys and girls in front of us each day, we will ultimately forfeit true democracy. If I determine what you are capable of by the time you are nine years old, if I decide that based on your past mistakes you are not worthy of my time and energy at sixteen, why am I in the classroom at all?
It may be that the hardening of lines, the adversarial stances we take, the blaming of one group over another, are hurting our students as much as any one method, any one system of education. Without a holistic understanding of what goes into the lives of everyone in the system: the teacher who has two young ones at home and needs to leave on time each day, the student whose mother has left home and comes late to school after seeing his younger sisters off for the bus, the principal whose husband is ill and must be at the hospital in the late afternoon, we will certainly create a system that requires rigidity and heartlessness.
Without the complexity of forgiveness and hope, redemption and grace, for all of us, we will create places of grim and lonely isolation. The last thing we want to lose is our belief in every child who comes before us. The last thing we want to give up is the joy and wildness we find in the unplanned, the spontaneous moments of learning. Perhaps this spirit of openness and inclusiveness can soften the hardening lines and perhaps poetry and music and art can revive a spark of hope in our students and teachers. All of this can happen if we are ready.