Counter-Narrators

“All my life I’ve been tracked.  I’ve been told you need to leave your community to be successful.  Now I know that’s BS. My message is not that I’m intelligent but that we are intelligent. Because our collective knowledge and abilities are more powerful than that of any individual. And that’s powerful, so measure that!”  The Curriculum Director walks back down the aisle to the cheers of the students.  Administrators and teachers are sharing their stories of academic struggles and achievements, especially surrounding the stress of the ACT test, which some of the students will be taking next week.  Each story ends with words that claim intelligence and power.  Another teacher speaks into the mic, “I’m intelligent because I’m honest, thoughtful: a reflective person who believes everybody in my community deserves quality education. That’s powerful, so measure that!”

In this special assembly, the Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy faculty are educating students as “Counter-Narrators,” and, like all the curriculum at this alternative public school, this lesson is liberatory.   This is a school that educates students who didn’t fit or weren’t accepted in the traditional school system, and who also mostly come from low-income, immigrant families.  The faculty has collaboratively developed a Praxis model of curriculum design, based in Paulo Freire’s work on liberatory education, to deeply engage the strengths and challenges of the community.

So, no lessons fit within the boundaries of one single discipline; rather, all learning directly relates to students’ lives and connects their experiences to a larger social analysis.  And it addresses one of the several competencies that all curriculum is driven by.  The competency this assembly addresses is Voice vs. Intimidation* – and the contrast with the kinds of knowledge and skills that standardized tests measure is crystal-clear.  “By claiming your intelligence,” the Principal tells the students, “you are manifesting what will happen for you.” 

Students then come to the mic and share their test-taking stories, and related challenges.  One student shares, “I am intelligent because I am never ashamed to see errors in my reasoning.  That’s powerful, so measure that!” Another says, “I am intelligent because I have the ability to adapt and adjust to my environment. I practice the virtue of humility; I accept feedback and learn from it, even if it’s negative. And that’s powerful, so measure that!”  Each voice I hear makes me wonder again, “well, how would you measure that?” And shouldn’t students’ education be based on supporting them in the strengths they identify and care about, rather than information dictated by people from outside their community, that is irrelevant to their lives?

I learned about the school’s “Counter Narrators” campaign at an event a few months ago, a forum on the problem of over-testing in Chicago.  At that time, Alejandra Frausto, the Curriculum Director of RLLA, held up the t-shirt the students designed.  On the front, it said, “Counter Narrator,” on the back was an Einstein quote: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything is counted that counts.”  Alejandra spoke about the multiple meanings of “counter narrators” – through this campaign, the students are telling a different story about themselves and their community.  The students are transforming the story that casts them as dropouts and gangbangers and claiming their creative agency, deeply rooted in community values and support. But their “Counter Narrators” campaign is also drawing attention to the opposing senses of “counting” as a numerical operation and “counting” as what matters. 

The community counts, critical consciousness counts, solidarity counts. So, when confronted by the mandate that they assign the ACT test, the school community takes this emblem of individual competition and success that contradicts their values, and they transform it.  They surround the test-takers with the love and wisdom of the community.  They put the test in the context of the narratives and counter-narratives they study and act on.  As Alejandra explains, “the students take the exam, but they are very critical about what’s happening.” 

The students at Rudy Lozano know what counts, and they know how to counter intimidation – the kind they experience on the street, and the kind they confront within themselves.  And that’s powerful, so measure that

 

* RLLA Voice vs. Intimidation Competency:

         Manifest a “voice” that articulates one’s place and that of others simultaneously for justice in the world

         Communicate effectively with the world

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