Pitching in and helping out

In this post I’ll unpack one brief moment that happened at B-Club last week, and connect it to theories that we have been discussing in my Teacher Education class (which links theory to practice through our work at B-Club). This is exactly what I’m asking students to do, so it’s good for me to try the task myself.

Our class is centered on sociocultural learning theory. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who lived at the time of the Russian Revolution, is generally credited with being the father of these ideas. Brazilian pedagogue Paolo Freire searchis similarly credited with establishing an approach to liberatory pedagogies, another foundation for UCLA’s Teacher Education program.search-1

But long before either of these men were born, there was a rather little known educator and philosopher, Joseph Jacotet, whose ideas about education resonate with both a sociocultural and an emancipatory approach to teaching and learning. Jocotet’s ideas were brought to light in 1991 by Jacques Ranciere in a book called The Ignorant Schoolmaster.images

In his “method of equality” Jacotet argues that the teacher’s job is not to explicate (what Freire would call the “banking model of education). Instead, the master’s job is to “create the conditions for the desire to learn” to emerge.” This is what we try to do at B-Club, as I explain in my book (Language, Learning and Love):

“At B-Club we try to create the conditions for the desire to learn to emerge. We provide laptops, books, magazines, recyclables, and a variety of paper, pens, and markers for kids to express themselves in drawing and writing, as well as in dance, music, movement, speech and other semiotic forms. We make things, using all kinds of tools and technologies: pens, paper, markers, tape, cardboard tools, laptops. Our focus is on the creative process, and on watching that process unfold, with supports, rather than pre- determining where it will end. We then try to follow their lead, or move with them, creating room for them to lead as well – rather than steering them where we might want them to go. We nurture minds and hearts, looking for what kids love, and where they became animated.”

So last week I was seated at our writing table with a third grader whom I’ll call Eva. I had written a question on a blank page in our group journal: “¿Qué hiciste en B-Club hoy?” I was hoping that the question (along with a new pack of brightly colored gel pens)search-2might create the conditions for the desire to write to emerge.

Amelie (another third grader) came over to our table and looked at the notebook. She asked me, “What does that say?”

I looked at Amelie quizzically, thinking to myself, “Why is she asking this?” I read the sentence to her. She looked at me. There was a long pause. She said, “I don’t know what that means.”

Very slowly, it dawned on me that the question was written in Spanish, a language that Amelie doesn’t understand. But Eva was listening in, and was way ahead of me. She knew exactly what was going on. She offered the translation: “That means ‘What did you do at B-Club today?’”

This brief moment illustrates something I have seen many times in my research on child language brokering (translation and interpretation done by the children of immigrants).images-1 Bilingual kids are attuned to language. They read subtle social cues. They know when translation is needed. And they step in to offer it. Eva was far more attuned than I to the fact that Amelie needed translation. I was not nearly as good at reading the social cues (nor at remembering which kids read Spanish and which ones do not).

Amelie – who may not read Spanish, but who is growing up in a multilingual community – knew some things, too. She didn’t try to sound out the words on that page, using her English reading skills. She took one look at the page and knew that she didn’t know what they meant. She recognized that the words were not in English. Implicitly, she seems to know that there are some things she can read and some things she can not. I don’t think many kids growing up in a monolingual environment, where they are only exposed to print in one language, would necessarily realize that.

Eva’s translation for Amelie also illustrates other ideas we will be discussing in our class. We can operate in a bi- or multi-lingual community by pooling our linguistic resources, and helping each other out. In our community of learners there is space for people to offer help to others. Expertise can be shifting and shared. One person (the teacher?) doesn’t have to be the provider of all information, or the source of all help. People can pool the resources they have. Children have much to contribute, if we let them.

In many classrooms in the United States, space for collaboration is limited. Talk and movement and ways of participating are often tightly regulated by the teacher. I’ve seen kids get reprimanded when they offered help to others: told to “keep their eyes on their own paper” or “do their own work.” They are expected to stay in their seats, keep their eyes on the teacher, be quiet, listen, and follow directions. Classrooms also generally segregate kids by age, and often by “ability,” language, or other forms of supposed homogeneity, so kids don’t get to see “more expert” others at work, and learn from them.

Barbara Rogoff, search-3a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has contrasted these typical ways of socializing children in U.S. schools (and to a large extent, in middle class U.S. homes), with the ways Mayan children participate in community endeavors in Guatemala. (See her TED talk: http://www.tedxsantacruz.org/talks/dr-barbara-rogoff/) She shows children observing what happens around them, and “pitching in” with whatever’s needed. They don’t wait to be told what to do, and they don’t expect to be compensated or rewarded for doing so. These aren’t chores; they are full-fledged forms of participating as members of a social group.

What if we created more space in classrooms and schools for people to help each other out, and to pitch in? What if we valued the idea of noticing who needs help? What if we didn’t emphasize the importance of “doing your own work” as much as the value of offering assistance to others? What if we didn’t set things up for all help to get channeled through or organized by a single authority figure (the teacher), but instead all members of a community were expected to assist each other? What if we established a set of core values (like our Acuerdos at B-Club), and then asked everyone to live by those agreements, and to enact them in their practice?

What if we then took those values out into the world?


  1. The education we receive in the classroom, including the idea of individualism (worrying about yourself & your own work) reminds me of the emphasis on being independent in America. Your analysis of a different type of relationship and community in the classroom, that opposes the banking system of teaching or a single source of knowledge, requires a shifting from our traditional classrooms. Running a classroom like a community with equal participation, value, and care for each member would be a wonderful shift that would hopefully shift into a reconstruction of our society, the values we hold, and mostly how we care for one another.

    • admin

      October 4, 2016 at 6:23 am

      Thanks, Evelyn! I sometimes forget just how profound these seemingly small shifts really are. I learn all the time by checking my own initial responses to things, and asking, “What if” questions to consider other possibilities. I also think we tend to create false binaries. We set up independence in opposition to dependence. But what about INTERdependence?

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