Seattle educator Wayne Au envisions the public school arena as having “tremendous potential for creating positive social change and promoting social justice.” It’s a perspective that brings well-deserved attention to the potential of our youth in public schools. Au puts this perspective into practice in his teaching, his curriculums, and his writing.
Au’s book Critical Curriculum Studies: Education, Consciousness, and the Politics of Knowing (Routledge, 2012) provides thought-provoking analyses of traditional educational models while offering alternatives that reflect the growing diversity in American public schools. He recognizes marginalized groups not exclusively in terms of race, but also in economic, political, and social contexts. According to Au, school curriculums often reflect the power struggle in the greater community, thus shaping our identity and outlook upon the world.
Currently, Au is an assistant professor in education at the University of Washington, Bothell. His course subjects include multicultural studies, educational policy, and graduate courses for teachers in secondary education. Au introduced an undergraduate course in hip-hop music and education.
The hip-hop genre has a rich cultural, historical and political history that can also “make classroom spaces that honor students’ authentic selves … [and serve as] one entrance among many to engage African American and Latino students,” Au said.
Au also taught at the Middle College High School, an alternative high school program of the Seattle School District that was based in South Seattle Community College and recently moved to High Point Center. His subjects included language arts and social studies, in which he introduced what he calls a “subversive curriculum.” Part of this curriculum included using sources such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which presents the viewpoints of women, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups in American history. Au also used role-playing with his students, who reenacted the U.S. Constitutional convention. In this scenario, freed slaves, African Americans, and poor whites might be represented in addition to bankers and politicians. By doing so, Au hoped to provide entry points that were relevant to students’ experiences.
A graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle’s Central District, Au recalled a time in the late-1980s when students within the Seattle School District were bussed to other areas of town in an effort to promote desegregation policies.
“I was from Green Lake, but I would take a 45-minute bus ride to Garfield every day.” Conversely, students in the Central District commuted to other areas as well. The school also offered Advancement Placement (A.P.) as well as “regular” classes, a form of “tracking” described in his book: “Tracking is the practice of sorting students based on perceived abilities or occupational goals.”
Ironically, Au observed that the A.P. classes were eventually comprised of predominantly white students, while the regular classes comprised of poorer and African American students.
“Even though the school itself was supposed to be a desegregation model, inside the school, there was a school within the school,” Au said.
When Au later taught language arts at Garfield, the department was in the process of de-tracking, or combining students of various levels and skill sets.
“The 9th grade class was mixed,” Au said. “How I approached it would be reconceiving writing … as a process and not just an end product to get students to engage in the process. That means multiple drafts, feedback from peers and teachers, and moving through that process. At the end, you look at each student and ask: ‘Have they grown or progressed? Have they grown as a writer?’”
Au writes in Critical Curriculum of another school’s efforts in de-tracking—in this case, the history department of a Berkeley, California, high school. Although the majority of teachers supported this move toward social equity, they were met with opposition from parents who were concerned about their children’s eligibility in attending elite colleges. These tensions reflect the existing power structures and the ensuing perpetuation of class boundaries amongst students.
While Critical Curriculum appears to draw those in purely academic professions, the book has wide appeal and application. This is attributed partly to the wealth of personal experience that Au has gleaned as a teacher, which he shares in rich anecdotal detail, and his thorough research into the implications of social, political, and historical climates upon human consciousness. With varying degrees, many Americans have been shaped by the public school system. Au challenges us to make connections with educational curriculum and our worldview.