Ashley Lamb-Sinclair: I love the idea of school as a place to practice freedom. Can you elaborate on what that means to you?
Carla Shalaby: School as a place to practice freedom is both a radical idea and a common-sense one. It is a common-sense idea because schools are populated by human beings—and human beings have an unalienable right to be free, simply by virtue of being human. I start the book by defining freedom as this inherent right of every child to be treated as fully human and to intentionally learn to refuse any less-than-human treatment. Still, it is controversial because the schools we have now are committed to control through punishments and rewards—sorting, ranking, competition, and the treatment of young people as objects to be acted upon rather than human beings who themselves act in and on the world. So we have to rely on our imagination to conjure a vision of a school committed to freedom, and that’s unfamiliar and abstract to educators, and threatening and scary to the powers committed to maintaining racial caste systems in our country.
Lamb-Sinclair: Why did you set out to do this research?
Shalaby: I started this project because I think young children are just the most insightful and genius and incredible people among us, but I’ve sat in hundreds of classrooms over the years where, with astonishing consistency, they are treated as undeserving of basic human respect, let alone the reverence I feel they deserve. And I couldn’t help but be particularly drawn to the troublemakers for their insistence on being powerful in an institution actively designed to exercise power over them. How could anyone not be curious about them?
Lamb-Sinclair: You discuss in your book that you intentionally chose strong teachers in notably successful schools. Why did you choose high-quality schools and teachers for this research?
Shalaby: We don’t have collective agreement on what makes a school or teacher “strong” or “successful,” so I hesitate to ever speak in those terms, but basically I chose these schools and teachers because I wanted to disrupt the stereotypical perception of troublemaking as a problem of concern only in under-resourced or otherwise struggling schools. The bottom line is that in every kind of school there will always be children practicing the act of refusal because that’s what human beings do in constrained conditions, and young people are human beings and the classrooms we have now are constraining (that’s a mild term). What teachers have to understand is that if children are doing what you’ve asked, it’s because they’ve chosen to, not because they have to.
Lamb-Sinclair: The teacher in me who struggles with “troublemakers” in my own classroom wants to know how to “fix” the problem, yet I agree with your ideas about freedom in the classroom. How should educators approach this book and what should they expect to learn from it?