The Work of Feelings in Public Schools
Outrage over the San Francisco Unified School District’s plan to whitewash the Victor Arnautoff murals inside George Washington High School (and the current plan to wall the murals off so that no one may view them) was widespread. I shared in that outrage. What wasn’t widespread but was even more outrageous is what the battle over the Arnautoff murals revealed about the purpose of a public education in America. This essay will not dive deeper into already explored questions about free speech, properly contextualized American history, political correctness or even despair over the fact that a great work of art was nearly destroyed. Arnautoff painted the Life of Washington murals on still wet plaster, making them difficult to move without destroying them. The murals in the hallways were intended as a reminder about what gets taught in the classrooms. The desire to cover up or destroy the Arnautoff murals is not a symptom of political correctness. Instead, it reflects how public school curriculums train students for the marketplace.
Former San Francisco Unified School Board member Matt Haney describes his outrage over the Arnautoff murals this way: “If you’re a Native American student and you walk into the lobby and see your ancestors being murdered in art, that feels dehumanizing.” Virginia Marshall, president of the San Francisco Alliance of Black School Educators, agrees. Arnautoff’s murals remind her of “my great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother who were beaten and hung from trees and told they were less than human.” Paloma Flores, a member of the Pit-River Nation and coordinator of George Washington High School’s Indian Education Program, adds, “it’s not a matter of offense. It’s a matter of a right to learn without a hostile environment. Intent does not negate lived experience.” If this sounds like a school board overreacting in the name of liberal political correctness, it’s not. Flores’ stance is backed up by state and federal policy.
In 2014, the Obama administration, in concert with the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, released a school discipline guidance package which identified a pattern of disproportionate discipline directed at minority and disabled students in America’s schools. The accompanying “Dear Colleague” letter from the Department of Justice established the right to learn without a hostile environment as a federal civil rights issue. Since the release of this school discipline guidance package, twenty-five states have passed laws limiting zero tolerance policies and suspensions in schools. School districts have responded by replacing traditional discipline with restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS). Originally an arm of special education law and explicitly referenced in the 1997 and 2004 revisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support advocates for meeting student misbehavior with care rather than discipline—an approach long deemed effective in helping special needs students cope with a world they experience differently. As a result of the Obama-era guidance on school discipline, schools have adopted PBIS as a way to meet the needs of the general student population, many of whom may be victims of poverty, racism or various forms of abuse and neglect.
The idea that childhood trauma drives adult behaviors first emerged from an obesity study conducted by Dr. Vincent Felitti, who in 1985 sought to understand why more than half of the obesity patients his clinic served dropped out of treatment. While conducting a routine interview, Felitti misspoke and inadvertently asked one of his obesity patients how much she weighed when she first became sexually active. The patient’s response, “forty pounds,” was jarring. Felitti’s patient had been sexually abused at four years old. Her obesity was not a current problem but a longstanding solution for a traumatic childhood experience. A subsequent megastudy identified not only a need to better prevent childhood trauma, but also a need to change our public systems, including education, “so that we don’t further traumatize someone who is already traumatized.”1 Adverse Childhood Experiences or “ACEs” range from physical, sexual or emotional abuse to neglect and household dysfunction like divorce. According to PBIS.org, more than 40% of students in the average high school class have three or more ACEs. For Felitti, ACE scores of four or higher were associated with radically increased risk of chronic disease later in life. “Some of the increases are enormous and are of a size that you rarely ever see in health studies or epidemiological studies. It changed my thinking dramatically,” said Dr. Robert Anda, a medical epidemiologist who worked with Feltti on ACES. PBIS determines ACEs a little differently than Felitti and Anda did. Just as it makes sense to understand the stress of special needs students based on their subjective experiences of the world, PBIS calculates ACEs based on the core principle that “we do not get to decide what is stressful or traumatic for someone else.”2 In other words, schools need to be assessing classroom systems with a trauma informed lens not solely because some students have three or more ACEs, but also because stress responses vary. What isn’t traumatic to one student may be experienced traumatically by another.
When looked at through a trauma informed lens, longstanding problems in schools like poor attendance, cutting classes, chronic tardiness, disengagement, not completing schoolwork, bullying and disrupting class can be understood as motivated by traumatic experiences. If this is true, berating a student who is habitually tardy to class only contributes to a student’s “fight or flight” reaction—and subsequent avoidance of class. Why not tell a student who is tardy, “I’m glad you are here,” in an effort to turn his fear into something positive? It’s a strategy recommended by Daniel Coyle, who in his national bestseller The Culture Code reviews recent neuroscience research on the amygdala and the role it plays in student behavior. “It works like this: When you receive a belonging cue, the amygdala switches roles and starts to use its immense unconscious neural horsepower to build and sustain your social bonds. It tracks members of your group, tunes in to their interactions, and sets the stage for meaningful engagement.”3 In other words, the “fight or flight” alarm can be marshalled for the purpose of education. All it takes is issuing cues that students belong.
Researchers discovered that one particular form of feedback boosted student effort and performance so immensely that they deemed it ‘magical feedback.’…I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them. That’s it. Just nineteen words. None of these words contain any information on how to improve. Yet they are powerful because they deliver a burst of belonging cues. (Culture Code, 56)
If these nineteen words can create, as Jay Van Buvel, a social neuroscientist at NYU says, “a big, top down change, a total reconfiguration of the entire motivational and decision-making system” (Culture Code, 25), then teachers and students can begin their work.
For years, I’ve taught Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to juniors in high school using techniques like “magical feedback,” techniques meant to foster belonging as a means to begin our work. O’Brien’s novel in stories about the Vietnam war is something students typically know little about. So we begin by connecting the novel to students’ personal experiences, by transforming the act of reading the novel into the act of belonging. I give what I hope amounts to a spirited performance of the title story, “The Things They Carried.” Students read along, and I observe with some excitement how the story’s formal inventiveness, its many lists of items soldiers hump through the jungle in Vietnam: “P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets,” violate a central principle of sentences—that sentences are supposed to create relationships between words. O’Brien’s lists are more like film montage than the traditional sentences students are used to. The lists make the novel feel real, and I can’t wait to discuss this with students as well, how the content of the novel (this is after all, a real war) and the novel’s ability to feel real are two different things. By the time we arrive at O’Brien’s line about soldiers carrying “a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried,” the lists have left me breathless, which makes sense because for O’Brien, the intangible items people carry are the heaviest burdens, for they can never be put down and “require perfect poise and perfect posture.” I always hope that just reading the story aloud conveys to students that part of the greatness of a story is that, unlike conversations, you can go back and look at the words in a text, which never change, and consider all the things they might mean.
But before we can get to any of these things about what the novel might mean, we have to connect ourselves to the novel and to each other. So I ask students to empty their backpacks and to do what O’Brien did—write about what they carry. Students draft lists: chewing gum and car keys and phone chargers and forgotten sandwiches. They list intangibles like “heavy hearts” and “fear of failure.” I ask students to estimate the weight of text messages they have sent which were never responded to, of glances in the hallways, of laughter with them—and at them. That student in a recent staff meeting who was berated by his mother for missing school and not doing his work carries the secret that his mother had left him and his little brother alone all week while she took a trip to Las Vegas. Another student recently had “a procedure” to address her Crohn’s disease. Students carry these things. They worry about their parents losing jobs, about having to move again, about how often their parents argue, about divorce, about lung cancer, or as one student wrote—about her father’s late stage Alzheimer’s disease. Like novels whose commitment to realism entails description after description, each student is filled like a ledger with things she carries, hidden behind smiles and yawns, behind tardiness, missing assignments and difficulty putting away a cellphone so as to concentrate on class.
We do a roundtable. Each student shares at least one item from each list, something tangible and something intangible—and how much each weighs. “A million tons of sadness,” sighs one girl, whose seatmate then hugs her. By the time we finish the introductory activity, nearly a week of class has passed. But we are now ready to begin the novel. Yet we can’t. The problem is that the “top down change” and “total reconfiguration” Coyle promised only applies to activities about belonging. The tools of belonging have nothing to do with—and actively discourage—students from reading the novel. Students have told me as much when we try to pivot from belonging activities to the novel: “I prefer a class where what we work on is something I already know.” “Like what?” “How I feel.” When we reach this point, as we always do, I can’t help but think that this impasse is the real goal of our curriculum. After all, the last time one of my colleagues tried to discuss a text and what it means in a curriculum planning meeting, in his case, Julius Caesar, he was told by an administrator, “the days of escorting students through a text are over. That ship has sailed.”
So what do English teachers talk about in curriculum meetings when texts and what they mean are proscribed? Generally speaking, teachers talk about ways to get around reading novels and considering what they mean. PBIS and its work on belonging are one option. Social emotional learning and innovative pedagogy round out a trifecta of curriculum strategies that circumvent reading texts and considering what they might mean. Why should students do something as passive as reading a novel when they could be doing group work that builds social emotional skills, provides opportunities for leadership and generates a stream of belonging cues? The idea is always that belonging cues will increase engagement on other tasks. But belonging cues necessarily evacuate content. Take this anecdote from The Culture Code, in which Coyle describes a person given “a moderately tricky puzzle” to work on. After a few minutes, an administrator pops back in with a note from a colleague named Steve who worked on the puzzle earlier that day. This note transforms the performance of the person working on the puzzle because Steve’s concern delivers a belonging cue. How does Coyle know that the effect is due to belonging cues? Because, “here’s the thing: Steve’s tip was not actually useful. It contained zero relevant information” (Culture Code, 22). This is how curriculum is designed in a public high school. The whole point is to find ways for the class to proceed with “zero relevant information.” It’s no surprise when students who experience this curriculum understand that reading a novel and considering what it means is not the point. Nor is it a surprise when, despite my best intentions, I stop trying to shim the text in there somewhere and instead embrace the curriculum of belonging that students and administration want. I take the chapter in which O’Brien articulates the most cowardly decision of his life, forgoing a plan to run away to Canada to escape the Vietnam War, and instead of engaging the novel, I ask students: have you ever run away from a difficult decision you had to make? Write down your response anonymously, then crumple the paper and throw it. Pick up a paper that isn’t yours and let’s talk about what they all say. We move the desks into a circle. This tells students they have to participate. This tells students they belong. This tells students they are expected to be fully present. And it works. These pedagogical strategies make students more active. The strategies are quite clever about that. However, the whole thing works by evacuating the content and teaching students that texts don’t matter.
If the first principle of curriculum meetings is to find ways to use texts as vehicles for belonging and social emotional skills, one has to ask: does this curriculum serve students who seek a quality public education? Schools say it absolutely does. Today’s job market demands social emotional skills. Employers want to hire employees skilled at listening carefully to others, skilled at understanding how others feel and what they need or want. Employers want to hire employees capable of working as a team. Articulating the difference between the author, Tim O’Brien and the character Tim O’Brien, who is the speaker of the novel, is largely irrelevant in the general economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) 2018 list of the fastest growing jobs backs up this claim. 4 Home Health Care Aide and Personal Care Aide clearly require skills like understanding how others feel. Jobs like Photovoltaic Installer and Wind Turbine Technician may be growing quickly, but these jobs only employ 6500 people each. Home Health Care Aide and Personal Care Aide jobs employ 3.2 million.5 In fact, according to the BLS list of the largest occupations in the American economy,6 which includes Customer Service, Retail Sales, Waiters/Waitresses and Receptionists—more than 20 million jobs directly entail the social emotional skills that schools have made their primary curriculum. If public schools want to prepare students for the real jobs that are likely to be available—they are not wrong to focus so much on feelings (and so little on reading and understanding a novel).
Yet, as of May 2018, a Home Health Care Aide gets paid a median salary of just $24,200 per year.7 Personal Care Aide, Retail Sales and Customer Service pay similar wages, well below even the national median salary of $50,000 per year.8 Public schools that design curriculum to focus on belonging and social emotional skills are training students for low-wage jobs—and non-ironically calling this training equity and inclusion. Valorizing equity in this way—at the level of feelings—doesn’t only mean pushing aside teaching novels and covering anti-racist art if it makes students feel bad. It also means cultivating a principled indifference to the real wages of the working poor, including those who work for public schools. Full-time school safety monitors in my district make $19,000 a year. Full-time teaching assistants, who work seven of eight periods each day, make $29,000 a year. Bus drivers, secretarial workers, custodians, cafeteria workers, grounds crew, substitute teachers and tech workers who repair student chromebooks don’t fare any better. Half of the staff in the average high school work for low wages. The way schools see it, getting paid $19,000 to do an essential job like school safety is perfectly equitable because schools believe (and teach students) that market wages are fair wages as long as they are not artificially lowered by discrimination. Which is really just to say that public schools can’t ignore the demands of the job market any more than they can ignore state or federal laws about PBIS.
Yet the novels schools circumvent by embracing a curriculum of social emotional learning are the only form of critique independent of the dictates of the state—and of the market.9 This independence comes from the fact that unlike a pure commodity, the features of a work of art exist because of what that work of art means. The features of a commodity exist because someone has forecasted that these features will sell on the market. In one case, meaning matters. In the other, meaning equates with sales. This is why you might close read a novel for what it means—and why no one close reads fashion trends like wearing shorts with a blazer for what they might mean. A great novel may be available for purchase, but its greatness is precisely that its meaning isn’t what’s for sale. Schools want to believe that their curriculum of feelings satisfies their two masters, promoting the kind of equity valued by the state while servicing the demands of the job market. But it’s not hard to see that the pathway to a more equitable society isn’t likely to lie in preparing oneself for a job market in which low wage jobs are the largest and fastest growing jobs available. Teaching students to reject what novels mean in order to jockey for position within this job market is a means of hiding inequality—not correcting it. The Arnautoff murals don’t simply confront students with images of a troubling past that make some people feel bad. The murals’ critique of historical exploitation negates everything schools have taught students about how to achieve an equitable future and how to succeed in the economy of the present.
Schools may be beholden to the state and to the market. But schools can still teach students that novels are more than just vehicles for discussing our feelings—and that how one feels about a novel is not the same thing as one’s interpretation of what that novel means. Teaching students in this fashion would equip them to consider critiques of society which are not beholden to the notion that better preparation for the job market is the pathway to a more equitable society. Teaching students in this fashion would equip them to question any version of equity that pays poverty wages to the largest groups of workers in society. Making this change to the curriculum wouldn’t mean giving up on taking trauma, inclusion and job preparation seriously. Nor would it mean admitting that public schools have been wrong to think that the market values feelings. After all, as Coyle relates, getting feelings right leads to profit:
Group culture is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. We sense its presence inside successful business, championship teams, and thriving families, and we sense when it’s absent or toxic. We can measure its impact on the bottom line. (A strong culture increases net income 756 percent over eleven years, according to a Harvard study of more than two hundred companies.) (Culture Code, xxviii)
A school that refuses to overlook, as Coyle happily does here, that salaries don’t soar 700% when corporate income does, would be far more equitable than one that teaches students to value a sense of belonging in place of a livable wage.