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Engagement, Teaching

Content and Relationships: A False Dichotomy

A review of The Rose That Grew From Concrete: Teaching and Learning with Disenfranchised Youth by Diane Wishart. The University of Alberta Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-88864-516-6

The Rose That Grew From Concrete is an account of working with and teaching disenfranchised youth in Wild Rose Alternative School (WRS), a private school in Edmonton. Diane Wishart addresses a number of contentious topics – such as special education, labeling students, white privilege, and race and class – and highlights conventional school structures, policies, and practices that further marginalize these students.

At a time when high school completion, high school success, and student engagement are foremost on the agenda of most provincial governments and school jurisdictions, Wishart’s book serves as another reminder that those we single out as the most deficient, the most oppressed, have the potential to inform us of the changes needed to create an education system for today’s world.

My former teaching partner and I spent a number of years team teaching in a school similar to WRS. Images, sounds, and stories from a hazy past suddenly floated clearly into focus as I encountered fragments of conversations with WRS students and teachers.

“The teachers judged me on my marks and treated me by their judgments… and they’d be like, ‘Ok, this kid’s like basically a waste of time.”

And so, you know the middle-class people don’t talk to the poor people and the white people don’t talk to the Native people. So if you’re Native and poor, forget it.” 

Like Wishart, I felt indignation as students came to be defined by their behaviours, wearing labels and codes like “oppositional defiance disorder”, “attention deficit disorder”, “code 42”. These students were far too frequently known only by their deficits. While many critical educators working in schools like WRS search for more liberating practices to aid the exploited, they must at the same time guard against the preoccupation with critiquing and interpreting while evading the responsibility to act.  

Throughout the book, Wishart makes it clear that the staff of WRS was deeply committed to critical pedagogy, to building relationships with their students, to creating a culture of belonging and respect. They understood the need to engage these youth in questioning, critiquing, and understanding the larger forces giving rise to domination and oppression. Wishart also documents the ways that teachers used literature and the arts to create encounters with those ideas.

Although creating such a critical pedagogy is the stated aim at the outset of the book, the resulting tension is evident throughout. While coming to understand themselves and the forces of oppression and domination in a larger context, these disenfranchised youth want, at the same time, to belong to that larger society – to get jobs, to belong, to achieve material success.

Ethical inquiries into disenfranchisement cannot avoid confronting the question of the relationship between the individual and the community. Too frequently, the assumption is made that the needs of the individual are at odds with those of the community. As Wishart moves into this space, she insists that the way through this conflict emerges when we discover our fundamental need to relate to one another.

It is exactly on this point that I found myself agreeing with – and yet searching for more from – this book. I wanted to see the same need for students to relate to and connect with the topics and ideas they studied. While Wishart documents some attempts at re-visioning and interpreting curriculum for these students, she projects a defeatist resignation. Finding few ways to interpret the official provincial Programs of Study, she laments content coverage, standardized testing, special needs funding, and inadequate teacher education.

Caught in the false dichotomy between content and relationships, Wishart comes down on the side of relationships, while at the same time providing glimpses into the ways that relationships are formed through engagement with photography, media arts, and drama. Unfortunately, these encounters seldom seem to be part of students’ day-to-day experiences with academic core subjects.  Curriculum theorists and learning experts challenge teachers to reinterpret curriculum, to design learning encounters around an idea that demands and requires the engagement of teachers and students, alike. Disciplines, when treated as living things constantly under renewal and construction, hold the potential to be personally liberating and politically enlightening, for they require both participation and contribution.

Failing to deconstruct the historical underpinnings of industrial education – that system built on the need for fragmentation, isolation, control, boredom, and even special education – Wishart remains complicit in critiquing and interpreting what is rather than imagining what might be. An alternative school for disenfranchised youth holds the potential for informing the system about what needs to change, how to re-create itself, how to address the malaise and sense of inadequacy that are linked to larger societal tendencies. Throughout the book, Wishart illuminates the problems at the centre of our current schooling endeavour. However, she fails to acknowledge that it is not enough to identify, critique, and interpret what is; rather, the challenge is to change it.

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