The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, April 23, 2004

The best thing I've done with disaffected, ready-to-leave older kids recently is to give them a date, a lesson objective, access to all the materials available, and some decent time to prepare, then asked them to prepare and teach a lesson to the rest of their class. Nerves make them prepare much more carefully than I would have, a keener sense of the endurance levels of the intended audience makes them more sharply aware of interactivity, perspective makes them focus on issues more relevant to their interests. And it's opened my eyes to exactly what their interests are.

Music runs their lives.
Stereotyping, and peer pressure are subjects of the keenest interest to them.
The war in Iraq continues to act as a pressure on their consciences, and they're keen to understand how the world can be this way.
Violence is both a permanent threat and an issue - they want to understand how to deal with it.

But the surprise of the term is how hyper enamoured these kids are of racial identity. At least one lesson in four will be entirely focussed upon race or the issue of racism, and it opens every sleepy teenage eye in the room.

It's a multicultural school, with kids grouping themselves partly by ethnicity for years - I used to feel safety in numbers was the reason. But there's been little actual racist aggravation. If there's anything, it's kept at the level of tension.
A few years back, there were difficulties with Caribbean kids picking on African kids. These days, open violence is restricted to any student who appears to have openly espoused a racist principle - yet the majority are also fiercely against immigration, seeming to suggest that ethnic identity and racism aren't isssues considered in depth on the whole.

I thought this indicated a level of harmony. These kids acting as teachers have taught me to think differently.

School runs on hierarchies, and race is a part of a hidden hierarchy. Finding out what that structure is, and where their place on it may be is a wickedly important topic for a teenager.
There's a tendency for white Europeans to regard themselves as having no race, and I think there's a follow on tendency for liberal city teachers to regard students as having no race. Yet for kids, race is an indicator of not just allegiance, but of the future. (If they're moving into an unequal, selective world, they want to know the odds for their success there.) And they're fascinated by their own potential - for good or to be harmed.
Once you look around through their eyes, why would you not be fascinated by race?

Chirpy teenage Millwall fans Paul and Ryan had a class of naughty school leavers rapt when they posted up on the board two pictures, and the caption 'what turns this sweet baby into this heartless thug?'
Discussing another picture - a Benetton advert depiction of multicoloured assortments of happy babies - they struggled to pin down exactly where it is racism comes from in the human psyche.
They spotted parallels between sport, school, The Troubles, Hitler, media monoliths, and Iraq. Given free rein, their conversation veered intelligently through discussion of the criminal gene, through nurture, and into media influence. Their conclusion? Racism comes from power struggles, from propaganda, from the need to control.
From history, in essence.

Teenagers have ever formed into tribes. Why have I pretended that race isn't ever a factor in this? Suddenly I walk along the same corridor I have trodden for a decade, and I see, not children in a dark uniform, but black kids, asian kids, turkish kids, eastern european kids, irish kids - I'm so used to assuming these are not real categories, I've forgotten how much children want to know their categories. Sometimes are eager to grow up and find what their category in the world is.
I find myself counting the black kids in a corridor. Watching a chinese kid (very much a minority group here) walk between classrooms, I try to work out which ethnic group she's chosen to align herself to. Following a group of white, blue eyed 'heathers' through the library, to see if they join up with anyone not of their ethnic group once they hit the playground.
Race is another hidden hierarchy, and a topic of riveting interest inside schools... To them, and thanks to them, now, to me.