What is school?

Deconstructing 'school' by listening to the voices within


As part of a poetry unit, a group of 7th Graders were asked to describe their feelings about school. Their task was to write from the point of view of School. The results were very telling. Responses fell into two very distinct categories, that I will be labelling as Prison Tales vs. More than a Building.

Listen to the voices within...

School from the perspective of 7th Graders

Prison Tales

  • Too many guidelines
  • Too restricted
  • No freedom
  • Boredom
  • Waste of time
  • Frustration
  • Cellmates

The students who recorded their feelings of prison were mostly boys. They felt as if there were too many rules and regulations to follow. They felt as though sometimes they got in trouble for behaviour that was silly and not necessarily negative behaviour. Their actions were often misunderstood and situations escalated with little to no conversations. Their voices of the situation were often ignored or neglected.


More than a building:

  • Making memories
  • Gaining wisdom
  • Gaining friends
  • Welcoming
  • Being creative
  • Being accepted

This was a mixture, but mostly of girls. They were not overly concerned about the academic but did include that math was one of the major concerns. It created a lot of stress and anxiety, but the overall environment of being with their friends and socializing was a major aspect of being in school. They felt that the classroom was a place to make mistakes and a safe space to learn about who they are as they develop a sense of identity.

Power of Dialogue between Students and Teacher

This was an invitation to a small group of students to be part of the conversation that is not only about them, but for them. A lot needs to be addressed at this particular moment, as this was not an easy task for the students or myself, the teacher. It required students to be genuine and authentic about their feelings; some seemed to struggle with sharing their truth as opposed to trying to say the right thing and impress the teacher, while others truly took a stance and allowed for their true feelings to be present. On the other hand, it was also daunting for me since I had to be willing and honest about accepting the students' responses. It was necessary for both, the student and teacher, to be vulnerable.


Conversations resulting in Questions...

How do we engage in conversations that help unpack students' understanding of what school is? Are we willing to question, co-create, and consciously construct together a new meaning for school? If so, will these conversations honor students' voices, value their perspective, and be addressed respectfully?



By inviting students to be part of the conversation, the aim is for both students and teachers to shift their understanding of what school is. It allows teachers to work with the students that are directly in front of them. Paulo Freire suggests that teachers should start at the point of where the students are. That teachers are not to impose their thoughts or opinions, but to listen and make connections with where the students are and help move beyond that point. Teachers must actively questions their students and tap into their knowledge without imparting too much of their own. The goal is to empower students, to establish the foundation for students to be active participants in their own learning. The students should be working with their teachers to help shape their own understanding of what school and their educational experience will be, and teachers should be listening whole-heartedly and engage in raising critical thinking.

As students and teachers continue to work together, they create a feeling of community, one that has a sense of shared commitment and a common goal. bell hooks offers this as the ability to establish an inclusive community, one that is created from the diverse contributions and abilities of all those involved. By responding to the students' issues, ones that may arise from their work, teachers can work towards empowerment, for both students and the teacher.

Since this is a shared effort, the hope is there is no deficit thinking, no assumptions can be made because it comes directly from the students' voice. No experiences are better than others. Each student approaches the task using their own lens, their own experiences, backgrounds and knowledge. All members, educators and students, learn from one another. In this inclusive community, cannot be and is not the only expert. Lisa Delpit speaks about the issues of silencing students. Often times, teachers deny students' their own knowledge and therefore disempower them. When students are silenced, they feel ignored and do not want to learn. At which point, teachers can try but there comes a point where they too will not want to teach.

We cannot continue to silence students' experiences, intentionally or unintentionally. It's not an easy task. John Portelli reminds us that deficit mentality can be embedding in our daily practices. In his article, Leadership for Equity in Education: Deficit Mentality is Major Challenge, he indicates that teachers, many times, have unwittingly reproduced such mentality without even recognizing it.

So, I suggest the possibility of actively being committed to the process of self-actualization. As bell hooks states so that we are able to teach in a manner that empowers students. I believe that if students are giving the space to interact with their teachers on an authentic level, one where they express their feelings and those feelings are acknowledged and addressed. I believe that students who echo frustration and disappointment may have an opportunity to build a healthy relationship. Learning becomes reciprocal- the students bring in their lived experiences and teachers should be actively seeking to integrate that into their teaching.

If we teach today's students as we taught yesterdays, we rob them of tomorrow.-- John Dewey


Delpit, Lisa D. (1988). The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children. Harvard Educational Review; 58, 3, 280-298.

Freire, Paulo. (1985). Reading the World and Reading the Word: An interview with Paulo Freire. Language Arts. Vol. 62, No. 1: 145-152.

hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, London: Routledge.

Portelli, John P. Leadership for Equity in Education: Deficit Mentality is a Major Challenge. Guest Contributor.