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What is Power?

Written by Antero Garcia
May 06, 2013

David Niesler, Katie Sovine, and Dusti Waite

What is Power?

Power structure surrounds all of us at all times. It is displayed at home, in the workplace, and in school. Power is issued in the way we want to regulate things to keep order and structure to what needs to be accomplished. Unfortunately, power can sometimes be abused and is easily appointed to one group of people over others. Here, we will be taking a look at how issues of power work within a classroom setting and how it affects education.

“Children have the right to their own language, their own culture. We must fight cultural hegemony and fight the system by insisting that children be allowed to express themselves in their own language style. It is not they, the children, who must change, but the schools. To push children to do anything else is repressive and reactionary.” Here, Lisa Delpit, a huge advocate for incorporating culture as a tool within the classroom, comments on how we should try to restructure our education system in order to ensure that teachers are doing what they can to provide equal opportunity, voice, and education to all students no matter the background, race, intelligence, status, etc.

What Does Power Look Like?

The power structure takes many different forms and is unfortunately something we cannot always control because of how innate it is to conform to. Power is established just in the way that students sit and the teacher stands. Immediately teachers are given some sort of power that formulates how their classrooms will function and learn. This power is beneficial because it allows teachers to lead their students to success, but it can also be dangerous. Based on how that power is asserted within the classroom can affect how students see their education as well as how they see their fellow peers. If students are not able to share an equal amount of power, they will create cultural hegemony, where students who come from traditionally oppressed backgrounds would normally not gain any feeling of importance or purpose.

Unfortunately, issues of power are usually formed between cultures and statuses. For instance, within education, in this case, a lot of the times White, middle-class students get the most opportunities and privileges. This can be fostered through curriculum, language favoring, and the choice of materials which usually have a White, middle-class audience in mind. It is seen that schools do not currently try to focus on stimulating cultural awareness and appreciation within the classroom.

What Now?

Thankfully, although issues of power are hard to regulate, we are in the process of making culture, whether based on status or ethnicity, a valuable tool within the classroom. Many different programs have been created to help teachers become educated on this subject as we try to go against cultural hegemony. Voices are now being heard and issues that come from unbalanced power established within our world and within education is surfacing and prompting educators from all over the United States to re-think what they are teaching, how they are teaching it, and how they approach diversity and culture within their classrooms.

Here is a video of Lisa Delpit addressing questions about how to reach out to every student even if it is within a culturally diverse classroom.

                                   Lisa Delpit

                Paulo Freire

Literacy as Power

Questions of power are at the heart of what we hope to accomplish as teachers of reading. The accusation of language skills should enhance students’ ability to interact with their world, but this is not necessarily what happens in the classroom. Early in the semester, while grappling with the works of Paulo Freire, Donald Macedo, and Henry Giroux, we discovered that without care a language arts classroom can how unintended consequences. Rather than a place where students can become empowered by language, it can become the site where status-quo ideas of cultural-hegemony are manufactured and imprinted on students. In this scenario the language arts classroom merely oppresses students with dominant-class ideology which results in push-back from students—who can’t help but be aware of the disempowerment they are experiencing.

According to Freire and Macedo, “literacy becomes a meaningful construct to the degree that it is viewed as a set of practices that functions to either empower or disempower people.” If our classrooms are giving students the tools they need to decipher language, but those tools are only being used to absorb dominant-class ideologies that ultimately serve to disempower them, the language arts classroom has become a tool of oppression, and students will naturally reject it because of their own sense of self-preservation.

Emancipatory Literacy

The alternative proposed by Freire is an emancipatory model of literacy.

“Within this perspective, literacy is not approached as merely a technical skill to be acquired, but as a necessary foundation for cultural action for freedom.” – Giroux

If we want students to have a transformative experience in our classrooms, where their learning goes beyond technical grammar skills to an emancipatory literacy that gives them the power to critically interpret their world, we must get beyond bombarding them with endless canonical literature.

“Educators must develop radical pedagogical structures that provide students with the opportunity to use their own reality as a basis of literacy.”—Friere/Macedo

This doesn’t mean throwing out the canon, but it does mean that student’s need to have the literacy skills to apply a work to their own reality. If a work has a colonialist message that would seek to obliterate a student’s culture through assimilation, students need to be taught the critical skills to push back.

The juggling act of honoring students’ culture while making them literate in the language of power:

An emancipatory theory of literacy requires students’ community and language to be honored in the classroom:

“Literacy, in this sense, is grounded in a critical reflection on the cultural capital of the oppressed. It becomes a vehicle by which the oppressed are equipped with the necessary tools to reappropriate their history, culture, and language practices.”—Friere/Macedo

but it also requires students to learn the codes of the dominant culture they will need to pass through the gateways in their paths.

“Empowerment should also be a means that enables students to interrogate and selectively appropriate those aspects of the dominant culture that will provide them with the basis for defining and transforming, rather than merely serving, the wider social order”—Friere/Macedo

It is our responsibility as educators to include various aspects of culture in to our classroom, particularly incorporating the ethnic backgrounds of multi- cultural students in the community and in the school.  Creating an inclusive classroom atmosphere and developing a teaching a curriculum infused with inclusivity are two primary means of diverse pedagogy.

     I personally saw strategies in how to display this sort of cultural blend in my E 401 class.  Doctor Antero Garcia pulled in text such as The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan and also took us on various field trips throughout the semester to demonstrate altering cultures in some cases, but also to explore our own in Fort Collins, Colorado. One field trip told a different history of our city through the eyes of the Latino culture.  The Museo de las Tres Colonias is a museum that exposes the upbringings of the Latino community in Fort Collins.  The museum also displays the significance of their participation in the sugar beet industry while also commending the Latino community’s contributions to building neighborhoods in the city.  The museum is shown in the image of the man telling his story to our class (image #1).  The museum is aged, small, and low- budgeted.

On the other hand, we took a trip to the Museum of Discovery, which is very high- tech, interactive, and has a high budget. This is the privileged museum of the two (image #2) It was fascinating to see how privilege truly does take a toll in our own community, but also in our schools and throughout the country. Professor Garcia displayed this to us, while also making this realization and learning fun and engaging. We all need to involve cultures in to our classroom in these ways, making it a tool.

#1 The Museo de las Tres Colonias

#2 Museum of Discovery

In The Silenced Dialogue Delpit explains that educators must “empower the powerless.” No matter what culture one comes from, they need to be literate and capable of communicating in today’s society in order to be successful and begin to transform the codes of power in our society. This is a known fact and it is a major reason why we spend so much of our time preparing students for standardized test. We need to discuss this truth with our students so that they know the importance of literacy and their education. But, we also must find ways to welcome diversity into our content and use culture as a tool.