Education: We Can Build It Better, Stronger; We Have the Technology!

To me, feminism is about empowerment–empowerment for everyone, regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, race, class, nationality, etc. My grounding point, the center from which all of my equality-focused mentality springs from, is admittedly women’s issues, but I see that as the Archimedian solid place to stand from which I will move the world. I approach things from a feminist frame, but ultimately, I am focused on empowerment and equality as a universal experience (it’s all tied together, anyways).

I am a graduate student of education. In May of 2011, I will receive my masters degree and be thrust out into the world to teach high schoolers English (and hopefully sex ed). In my mind, education is power. I am not horribly concerned about whether or not my students get chills down their spines when I have them read Virginia Woolf or if Langston Hughes makes them want to cry. That would be the icing on the cake. Ultimately, I am concerned with giving my students literacy–the ability to make themselves heard, to have a voice.

Margaret Atwood wrote, “a word after a word / after a word is power.”

Countless studies have traced violent behavior to a sense of powerlessness–people will fight to feel that they aren’t powerless, and I can’t blame them. Who hasn’t wanted to scream or shake someone when you felt they weren’t paying proper attention to you? Infants cry to exert power over their parents. We move past crying, but not necessarily as a move for the better.

The ability to express yourself, to make your voice heard, is power in a most elemental form. We do not elect presidents because they come to our neighborhoods and punch us; we elect them because they communicate with us. Musicians stir us because their songs resonate with us. Books and films have incited social change. The internet carries words, whether written or in a YouTube video or any other format. Speech–communication of ideas and experiences–is a fundamental piece of humanity. Communication is power. English education, in its most basic form, is education in obtaining agency.

I’ve been told by many people that I am “wasting my talents” by pursuing a career in teaching high school, that I could be doing far more important things, like social research. I say piss off to that–isn’t it time we started giving people a voice, instead of speaking for them? Damn skippy we should!

The education system we have in place right now is failing us. Aggressively. Students are dropping out, and even those who are graduating aren’t necessarily coming away with skills or competencies. They don’t necessarily have confidence in themselves or any heightened sense of power and agency. School, to most students, is a waste.

How do we change that?

I don’t know. I’m scared. I’m absolutely terrified of what awaits me in September of 2011. If I’m lucky, the world WILL end in 2012 and I won’t have to face more than a year and a half of crippling failure as a teacher. But since I really just don’t think that’s going to happen, I’m trying to learn how to help others learn.

I also think a lot about how I can be a good teacher in the Boston Public School system–I’m a white girl from southwestern Connecticut. I’m coming at this from a wildly different background. As was discussed on the BARCC blog, how do I empower groups that I am not a part of without being patronizing? How do I remain aware of my privilege and still affect positive change?

I want to build up my students to think of themselves as talented, capable individuals. I don’t want to spend my time policing grammar worksheets or drilling vocabulary. I know there will be some of that, but what else can I do?

For my first project in my Graduate Research Methods course this semester, I considered the potential of utilizing NaNoWriMo in the classroom. NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, is an unofficial program that challenges participants to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. As a eight time participant (oh god), I can assure you, that is a lot of writing. It’s a HUGE challenge. Three of those years, I didn’t finish. Some of my finishes are really just exceptional crap. But it’s a skill-building and self-esteem bolstering experience–even though I wrote a whole lot of truly shitty prose, I did it! Do you have any idea the kind of high you get? The way the confidence in your writing ability shoots through the roof? (And, as one participant I surveyed for my study pointed out, after writing 50k words in a month, a 5 page paper for school doesn’t really seem daunting at all anymore.) Plus you have to practice time management, self-discipline, and goal setting. You learn planning and outlining and how to think on the fly while you write. It stretches your creativity. You don’t have to love writing fiction to get an incredibly useful experience out of NaNoWriMo.

Strikingly, during my survey, one of the questions I asked was what the negatives of the experience are. I interviewed 13 people, of whom 3 said that they could see no negatives, and well over half of the remaining participants included vehement mitigating defense of the drawbacks that they saw. 100% of respondents said that they will do NaNoWriMo again, and several included extra notes on how they feel that it is an important, valuable experience, and that everyone should try it at least once.

Am I onto something here? I don’t know. NaNoWriMo has launched the “Young Writers Program,” which provides classroom resources to help teachers implement the program in their classroom, opens up discussion forums for students, and provides resources for the students participating. I think it’s a great idea. I think it’s innovative, unique, and infinitely more pro-student than a battery of tests and papers.

Will every student come out of November feeling empowered and with a greater sense of their own potential? I don’t know. Should the fact that “it’s barely been done before” stop me? Oh fuck no. Our education system isn’t working. I’m excited to try something new, to shake things up a little and see what else we can do for our students to bring their voices to the forefront of the classroom experience. Education should be about empowerment and encouragement, not regurgitation of information. Can I help my students feel more confident, more capable? Can I use my lessons to impart ideas of power that don’t center around violence? Can I use literature to challenge traditional notions of violence and gender? What if I could help my students see power as communication, not force? Is it possible that I could help turn the tide of domestic violence and sexual violence?

I know it sounds like I’m holding myself to exceptionally high standards, and I can assure you, I have a very cynical view of how much of an impact I’m really going to have, especially in the first year or two while I’m still learning. But if we don’t go into education with a bit of ridiculous pie-in-the-sky dreams, what will keep us going? It’s certainly not the respect we get (why yes, Man With A PhD Who Told Me On Our Date That I Am Pursuing A Pointless Career, that actually didn’t thrill me) or the admiration of our society, and it certainly isn’t the appreciation of our students. I’m not even going to touch on the salary issue. No, going into education is like throwing yourself against a cement wall repeatedly. We can know that we’re probably only going to make small cracks on it. But I’ll be damned if there isn’t part of me that refuses to give up the belief that if enough of us throw ourselves against it together that we’ll break through and it will be awesome.

It has been shown again and again that education leads to all kinds of great things. Open minds, higher salaries, better living conditions, lower crime rates… Education should absolutely be viewed as a feminist issue, a gay rights issue, a racial equality issue, and ultimately, a human rights issue.

The power of education is not in question. The question is how to unlock that power.

Alright class, that’s the bell. You can put away your notebooks and proceed to your next class. But for homework, please review this New York Times article on improving teaching, and for extra credit, look into this book on better pedagogical methods. I’ll see you all tomorrow for our next lesson.


03/08/2010. Tags: , , . Uncategorized.


  1. Jose Marquez replied:

    At the end of this post, you link to a book on better pedagogical methods. As it happens, a number of my friends are educators or educator-minded, and I am also interested in such things (so put me in the later category); over on Facebook, I posted this a while back:

    • Cuppy van der Cake replied:

      Oh wow, that is SO COOL! We never even got into binary stuff until really late in school–somewhere in high school. That’s such a great experiment! I’m seriously geeking out over that. It’s so great the way he was able to get the kids to DERIVE BINARY! Damn. AWESOME. What a great link. Thank you so much! 😀

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