Finally, a true use of the word empower: “Friere maintains that the goal of a literacy program is to help students become critically conscious of the connection between their own lives and the larger society and to empower them to use the literacy as a means of changing their own environment” (Fiore and Elsasser, p.87).
Although the Frierian model does take more time than a more traditional method of teaching (sometimes called the “banking” approach – teachers have knowledge and 'deposit' it in their students), I've seen it result in much 'deeper learning' in my own classroom and find it well worth the investment. When trying to get students to pass a high stakes standardized test such as the English Exam at the College of the Bahamas or the Standards of Learning (SOL – consider the many interpretations for this acronym...) test in Virginia, it can be hard to balance the need for real learning that can't be measured by an exam and the real need for students to pass the test in order to advance academically. However, if we raise our own consciousness, we might question whether these standardized tests are crafted intentionally to limit critical thinking, encourage rote memorization, and thwart students from asking critical questions, thereby making the populace easier to control... Thus all the more reason we should teach against the test. Whether you agree or not, I submit the following anecdote from my first semester in a public high school classroom illustrating my attempt to incorporate a Frierian pedagogical model.
My students were 90% African American/Black and attended a low-income school. 3/4 of the student body was on free/reduced lunch, my door didn't lock (yet we had frequent lockdowns), the heat/AC sometimes didn't worked, the lights would go out unexpectedly, the clocks would stop, bells would ring at the wrong time, student's weren't allowed to take books home, etc.
More than the actual (inadequate) conditions of the school, I was bothered by my students' complacency that this was 'OK.' I knew that they understood these conditions were not ubiquitous across all schools; many would complain after attending a sporting event at Deep Run or another west-end school that those looked like a “shopping mall” compared to ours. It occurred to me that the students were seeing our school as just “old” and they wanted a “new” school, but they lacked the historical perspective of why our school was in such bad shape.
So, I went to the school library, borrowed old yearbooks, and designed a lesson about white flight. At the outset, I asked the students to judge from the pictures which school the yearbook came from. I walked around the classroom showing pages from the 1960's; the students seemed not to notice the change in sartorial styles and agreed the yearbook came from a present-day west-end school because all the students were white. They were shocked to learn it was their own school's yearbook from many years ago. We then looked at sample yearbooks by the decades up unto the present. Once the students realized that our school was not just “old,” but suffered from the effects of white flight, they were outraged.
The next class, we read an article about Barbara Johns, the 16-year-old civil rights activist who led a walkout in Prince Edward County in 1951 to protest the unequal conditions of black and white schools (her case became part of Brown v. Board). I wanted students to see that people their age could make a difference. I was so proud of the lesson, I showed it to the principal. I'd love to report that all my students engaged in authentic, meaningful tasks like writing letters to the editor or to local public officials, but despite our robust class discussion, some students refused to write anything, others wrote only a few incomprehensible sentences, and a very small number wrote letters to the school newspaper (a much less grand scale than I had imagined).
It wasn't until later in the semester that I saw the lasting impact of the lesson. After a student was shanked (stabbed) and the offender was suspended for only 10 days, the students felt unsafe. Unbeknownst to me, they planned a walkout to protest the unsafe conditions and wrote a letter explaining what they were doing and why and passed it out during the protest. Well, the walkout turned into chaos as the peaceful, well behaved protesting students were joined by hordes of knuckleheads that just wanted to skip class. Also, the students did not understand that 10 days was the maximum time the principal could suspend the student without school board approval – so it was only one step in the process. However, despite all of this – including my getting called into the principal's office as I was assumed to be the instigator – I was very proud of my students for putting their learning into action.