David Isaac Hernandez-Saca is a third year doctoral student in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in Special Education Leadership for School-Wide Equity and Access at Arizona State University. His bachelor of arts (BA) and master of arts (MA) in education degrees are from the University of California, at Berkeley. His undergraduate major was in race-relations in U.S. history and a minor in education with a concentration in equity and participatory research. His MA in education was in the field of language, literacy, culture, and society studies (LLCS). During his MA program of study he focused on problematizing the construct of Learning Disabilities (LD). Before receiving his MA he had the privilege of working at an independent private school in northern California for students who were labeled with Learning Disabilities, Emotional Behavioral Disorders, and Autism in the public school system. He provided educational programs from homeschooling to individualized instruction. He was there for 2 years and was both an interim director and multi-subject teacher for grades 8-12. Hernandez-Saca’s current research interests include the emotional and social impact of learning disability (LD) identification on identity and human development as it relates to equity issues in (special) education and current movements for inclusive education. Although he is interested in historically marginalized and culturally and linguistically diverse students an emerging population of interest is Latino(a) students with learning disabilities.
I remember the first day I arrived at Manzanita School in the Bay Area. What immediately stood out to me was the small “one-room schoolhouse” feel that made me feel like I was stepping into an early 20th century schoolhouse rather than a present day alternative school in a bustling area. I entered the school greeted by the starkness of a classroom adorned with white walls and white curtains hanging on both sides of the two windows in this one room. Eight tables with two chairs each sat in neat rows forming an aisle down the middle of the room, ending at the headmaster’s desk. Little did I know that that headmaster’s desk would be mine for nearly two years after I entered that summer morning.
I later learned that Manzanita was actually a two-room schoolhouse. The “little kids’ room” served preschool through sixth graders, while the “big kids’ room” served seventh through twelfth graders. I became the headmaster of the “big kids’ room.” There were a total of 25 students in the school, all labeled in the past with one or more special education labels: learning disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorder, Autism, Emotional Behavior Disorder, or some combination.
Day after day for the first two weeks, I saw the same thing. Every morning my students would drag their heavy feet into the classroom and their eyes seemed glued to the clock for the remainder of the day. At lunchtime and dismissal their heavy feet would suddenly become energetic as they jumped out of their seats. The students seemed more engaged with the hands of the clock than they were with the actual instruction.
This was not how I imagined teaching would be. My students were going through the motions of “school”—completing assignments, listening to my lessons, and following instructions. Everything seemed under control, but under the control of what?
According to Antonio Gramsci ideology refers to a common sense worldview that is taken for granted. Yet, it structures human interaction, thought, worldview and thus behavior (1971) without being noticed. Ideology is like DNA; it’s what you are made of but you’ve never seen it. Ideology is also like swimming in water in that it is both making us lighter and keeping us afloat, albeit we are often unconscious of this. Becoming aware, however, that we can get out of the pool and back into it (if we wish) is revolutionary thinking! But once you come to that revolutionary consciousness, that is, that you were put into the pool (through your past and present socialization) and are able to get out or jump back into it, something quite special happens: hope for transformation arrives.
I looked around my stark classroom. The student were making it through each day but were not engaged in learning the way I had imagined they would. I felt a knot in my stomach. Something felt wrong, but I could not name what that knot in my stomach was from. The physical and emotional feelings of discomfort pushed me to interrogate what I was doing. I was ready to stop floating, get out of the pool, and examine the ideologies that kept me floating through those first two weeks. I knew dispositional ideologies could be a powerful tool for critiquing my teaching experience. What dispositional ideologies were controlling that classroom?
The white sterility of the room felt like a hospital. Was this starkness communicating a need for sterility? Was this a form of triage? Did students with disabilities need hospital-like settings? Maybe that was why they walked around like silent patients shuffling around a hospital ward; could they possibly be responding to the created-environment?
I stood at the back of the room. My eyes followed the wide aisle splitting the rows of tables until they hit the headmaster’s desk. Why were the tables arranged like this? It had a certain familiarity. I was suddenly reminded of another environment that was structured very similarly—my church. Long wooden pews facing the position of power at the front of the church, but at the front of this room in lieu of a pulpit was the headmaster’s desk. Were the students supposed to sit silently and listen to me preach?
I lowered my tired body into one of the seats. Did this room support what I believed about learning? I thought back to my own experience as a student. What moved me and stayed with me? My history teacher considered himself a Social Reconstructionist (an academic method of critiquing taken-for-grant narratives of history that serve to perpetuate the status quo by constructing counter-narratives from alternative historically marginalized people or factions of society). When we examined new historical perspectives through the lives of people such as Ida B. Wells, Sitting Bull, and Frederick Douglass I remembered the prickling of my skin. Although their lives were very different from my own, I could somehow see a reflection of myself in their lives. If that classroom could reconstruct perspectives of these lives, the possibility to reconstruct who the world had told me I was also existed.
I looked around the classroom. The white walls stared back at me. No reflections.
I went over to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and bought posters of Sitting Bull, Malcolm X, MLK, Einstein, Frederick Douglass, Margaret Mead and other influential intellectuals and United States heroes. I also put up a poster of the periodic table of elements and a poster of famous women of the United States. What might this classroom now reflect? Lives of intelligent strong women, different perspectives and understandings, complex identities? Other possibilities?
The next day, as the slow heavy feet walked into the classroom, a slow hum formed as surprised reactions began floating through the classroom. Their gazes moved through the room. Brain pointed at the poster of Sitting Bull and shouted, “Who is that man?”
“After we get these tables rearranged into groups we’ll discuss him.” I knew posters and group work would not transform the experiences of all 25 students, but creating a disturbance, like the posters, created the possibility to connect with my students and connect them to learning in new ways that opened up the affective streams into learning.
Ideological consciousness—that pause and interrogation—helped me to veer from the motions of schools that come so naturally. My own ideologies help me make sense of the world and move through the day without having to think about everything, but pausing to think about your ideologies can be a powerful tool in purposefully structuring your practice. My dispositional ideologies, in a sense, allowed me to reconstruct what I believed school, teaching, and learning should be. In my subsequent blogs, I’ll continue this story about how my interrogations of dispositional ideologies allowed me to continue re-mediating the classroom environment to open the doors to re-mediating how my students and I began to explore their own learning through content, emotion, and interaction.
Gramsci, Antonio (1971): Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank the Equity Alliance’s amazing staff for allowing me this opportunity and forum to tell my story. I am grateful and thank them for pushing me through the writing process. At the beginning stage special thanks to Cynthia Mruczek and JoEtta Gonzales and Taucia De Gonzalez and Elizabeth B. Kozleski towards the end.