Where does violence in schools begin? Educators and justice authorities ask themselves about the origins of violence to identify ways to end it, or at least mitigate it. In the process, perhaps it would be worth asking ourselves about our own school experience. I invite you to remember. Conventional classrooms prohibit curiosity and expression while encouraging competition among students. To stand out, one must advance a response predetermined by the teacher as soon as possible and silence the others. Encouraging competition in this way is generating an aggressive culture in which many lose so that one can win. Sometimes you decide not to stand out, not to speak, to maintain friendships. The disastrous results of this choreography, which include loneliness, depression and violence, should not surprise us, although it seems that we have not realized 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.
It is necessary to change the choreography of the classroom, all the classrooms, the subject, whatever. Rounding the square space into circles and work tables is a low-cost change and great socio-emotional, civic, and cognitive performance. It is difficult to establish peace and coexistence with academic content; They tend to bore because they are predictable and familiar. On the contrary, it is achieved with different, collaborative forms that enable people to be with each other in a different way, to be citizens who admire other citizens. Living in circles is recognizing everyone, face to face, and recognizing yourself as a member of the group. It does little to address the issues of justice and respect through conferences in which the issues remain slogans, with no major impact on behavior. The thing 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 recognizing the possibility of forging authority among everyone.
How to cultivate the pleasure that results from learning the lesson, and not just heal the pain that the student feels when not learning it? The challenge of starting from the cognitive to reach the emotional seems difficult, if it has been pursued institutionally. Generating satisfaction and even joy through curricular texts may not seem feasible, and I fear that the challenge is not among the main objectives of educational authorities. The focus of most cutting-edge educators today is rather on improving mental health to improve academic scores. And although there are no improvements in national exams, socio-emotional education prevails, apparently for reasons of restorative justice and coexistence.
However, so far the bet has not produced satisfactory results. Violence continues to increase and reading comprehension levels are dropping. Families, local authorities and the World Bank, which seeks to encourage effective practices to justify their support for ministries and secretaries of education, are disappointed. Surely we would prefer to see improvements, instead of being left with the rate of lack of understanding of simple texts in more than 80% of children. Despite statistics that show increasing literacy rates, reading comprehension statistics reveal losses. The digital activities that occupy youth in rapid communication networks endanger education, although they seem to practice reading and writing. Reading and writing take time because they go beyond obtaining 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 read.
The spirit of leisure (“school” in ancient Greek) that dismantles 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 is called Pre-Texts and it is 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 to grasp a challenging text and take ownership of it is emotion, sometimes rebellious. And the result, win-win, reinforces both mental health and school development. Pre-Textos collects good everyday practices and values them as vehicles of the most advanced pedagogical avant-garde. It provides a rigorous and friendly, effective and economical education.
Someone reads a text aloud while we draw 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 “cardboard” practice is that of recyclers who make good, pretty, and cheap books from used cardboard. We start this way because we facilitators assume that most students do not like to read. That’s why we don’t assign readings or give sermons about it. To start, we kindly invite anyone who wants to read aloud. After finishing listening to the reading, each person asks a question to the text, also out loud. In Pre-Textos no one asks people questions because they are not objects of scrutiny. They are researchers who scrutinize a text.
After the main prompt of making art with a text, comes another iconoclastic step. It is “going around the bush”, giving free rein to curiosity, reading for pleasure, searching for texts related to what we read in class to “publish” the findings on the clothesline. Unlike teachers who insist that we do not go around the bush – that we do not dream, digress or ask tangential questions – in Pre-Textos we take advantage of concerns to stimulate more readings. Bringing a “branch” and hanging it for everyone to see implies having read, researched, tested, and thought about how to defend the contribution in relation to the source text. In this way, intellectual curiosity develops along with appreciation for other people’s contributions. They seem interesting because of their different interests and points of view. Diversity enriches knowledge and deepens interpretation.
If we adopted a text on school restorative justice as a starting point for a shared exercise of research and speculation, what practical proposals would we come up with to confront the current double crisis 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 creator of Pre-Textos and the NGO Cultural Agents. Part of this text was published in the Escuela y Pedagogía magazine of Bogotá
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