Alfie Kohn’s “Bad Signs” and Patricia Smith on “Keepers of the Second Throat”

My new issue of Rethinking Schools just arrived.  I love Rethinking Schools.  They are a low-budget publication with minimal advertising– and they are, as far as I, a mother with a child in a public school, is concerned, the heart and soul of the world of progressive K-12 education.  I’m going to get all bossy here in this post. Whether you have children or not, whether you have school-aged children or not, if you don’t yet subscribe to Rethinking Schools, you should.  And you should ask them to start your subscription with the Spring 2011 issue.  We need them out there doing what they do.  Even better– when I went to insert the link, I see a special gift for you.  The whole Spring 2011 issue is right there online, for free, for you to read the actual articles that I am about to write about.  After reading several of the pieces, there are two I couldn’t help writing about.  One that made me laugh out loud, then hopeful and the other that made me cry while my heart filled with hope.  We’ll start with tears and hope.

The poet extraordinaire, Patricia Smith (Blood Dazzler and Teahouse of the Almighty), whose work I have referred to several times before, writes a piece called “Keepers of the Second Throat“.  It is a rich, honest and beautiful piece, in four sections.  It’s about language, the colonizing and de-legitimizing of language, the erasure not only of voice, but of people, their lives and their history.  The erasures in this piece are about black people, Patricia Smith’s people, though I do think of Patricia Smith as my people.  Her piece begins, “Chicago not only stole my mother’s tongue, it also stole all her yesterdays.”  She also writes about teaching in a sixth grade classroom and her fight to give her students not just language, but their own language, un-corrected, un-“fixed”, and through their own language, she wants to give the important knowledge of their right to tell their own stories, about their own lives.

She finishes this section saying, “I celebrate every single word a child says, every movement of their pen on paper, and I’m mesmerized when those stories begin to emerge.  I stop what I’m doing and I listen.  We’ve got to teach that every utterance, every story is legitimate… In the beginning, it doesn’t matter if anyone wants to hear.  What matters is what you have to say.”

I hope you will read this article and then hold it in your heart and back pocket– as you talk to young people, all people, about their true stories.

On to laugh-out-loud hope.  Alfie Kohn, whose name I know, but whose work I am not very familiar with at all, contributes a piece called Bad Signs.  The sub-title reads, “Because they’re so pervasive in schools– and accepted so uncritically, it’s worth digging into the hidden premises of inspirational posters’ chirpy banalities about self-improvement.”    I was especially thrilled to read this for three reasons.  For one, it relieved me of the obligation to write something similar, though these signs have gotten under my skin since the first days we walked through the door of my daughter’s school.  In finding that Alfie Kohn, an educator and writer of books, is especially bothered by this trend too– I was relieved of feeling like the crankiest, most fault-finding person on the planet.   Secondly, I just liked sharing this perspective with him.  And third, the piece made me laugh out loud.  Hard.  It is hilarious, and he offers some important thinking about the not-so-hidden subtext reflected in those posters as well as his thoughts about what he believes should be reflected on the walls of our children’s schools.  One of my favorite lines is when he comments on a poster that he has seen in many different kinds of schools– one which reads, ‘Only Positive Attitudes Allowed Beyond this Point’.  He writes, “I found myself imagining how its message might be reworded for satirical purposes.  Once I came up with “Have a Nice Day…or Else.”

I have no way of knowing whether this kind of thing makes you laugh until tears roll down your cheeks as it did for me– but it was good to have a laugh with Alfie Kohn.  I hope that our public schools will continue to exist, not privatized, not full of advertising.  I hope that more and more, rather than less and less, they will be real places for young people to learn, to speak their minds in their own voices and languages and to have a chance to do what Rethinking Schools and Patricia Smith and Alfie Kohn do so well– try out new and original and hopeful ideas on behalf of children, on behalf of us all.

One response to “Alfie Kohn’s “Bad Signs” and Patricia Smith on “Keepers of the Second Throat”

  1. Ines Anchondo

    Thank you, Laura for your words and the links to this magazine. I am a fan of Alfie Kohn. If anyone does it, he does it. He speaks truth to power. I like all his books about schools but my favorite is still Punished by Rewards. It is like a parenting bible.

    Your words ‘laugh-out-loud-hope’ are so inspiring.

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