Schools must ‘shut up and listen’ to students

07/29/2014 7:00 AM

07/29/2014 5:51 PM

Christopher B. Knaus proposes what some educators might consider a radical way to improve student performance in urban schools.

He explains it in his book “Shut Up and Listen: Teaching Writing That Counts in Urban Schools.” It’s a way to “transform our schools from the silencing, oppressive places they are.”

Knaus is a professor of education and director of educational leadership at the University of Washington-Tacoma. He has taught in urban schools and worked with African American and Latino students to understand the silencing effect of Eurocentric curriculum, teachers and instruction.

“African American students consciously resist educational silencing through maintaining a voice that reflects cultural values and forms of expression,” the book notes. Often, however, that voice earns students of color no points with teachers because it is worlds away from how mostly white educators were raised, taught and grade.

Knaus, who is white, explains that he grew up in a poor, abusive home. He became combative and didn’t do well in school.

“I struggled with a lack of control over my life, and much of my day-to-day issues in school were results of my attempts to gain whatever control I could, through violence, apathy, trash talking, and through drugs and alcohol,” Knaus wrote. “Indeed, my point is that educators do not value students who live in complicated realities of struggle, where poverty, racism, violence, abuse, neglect and the willful ignorance of all of these runs our schools.”

Educators must address the silencing effect they have on children and how it shapes the “academic failure for students of color, poor students and a host of other oppressed students.” Many teachers and schools sidestep or ignore the racism that students of color endure. That sets up minority and white students for failure.

Schools must teach what students need to know to thrive, Knaus said. “Educators are responsible to teach about what racism is, how it operates, and how to address it.

“My teachers never did this, and as a result, I grew up angry with my schools for teaching me lies.”

At least one teacher got it right and helped Knaus become a successful student, earning a doctorate and traveling the world.

“I learned that students like me need caring adults, need our basic needs met and need an engaging and relevant curriculum,” said Knaus, who includes students’ work in his book. “Without these needs met, students will do what I did: tune out.”

Right now, a great emphasis is placed on academic achievement scores, which only measure students’ ability to express “white values and white-normed language.”

Knaus said, “If the purpose of school curriculum is to maintain white supremacy, then it should be no wonder that urban students of color often argue that they must devalue who they are in order to do well academically; that is precisely what the formal school curriculum asks students of color to do.”

Knowledge must be “democratized” in education.

“Black youths have answers to how our nation’s schools contribute to societal segregation, poverty and racial animosity, and it is in the interests of schools to prepare youth to express such voices,” Knaus said. “Schools should be in the business of developing the skills in youth to identify problems that shape their inequalities, and then to testify about such inequalities.

“Transforming schools into such proactive roles requires doing something dramatically different; something that we, as a society, have yet to try: empowering and affirming children of color to express themselves, providing forums for such expression, then shutting up and listening. And isn’t that exactly what we want from children — active, critical thinkers?”

Schools have to be the training ground for such emergence. Without it we’re doomed to the same old problems with no hope for solutions.

To reach Lewis W. Diuguid, call 816-234-4723 or send email to ldiuguid@kcstar.com.

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