In 1968, Toni Cade Bambara made a radical decision. At the time, Bambara—writer, activist, and more—was teaching a remedial writing class at the City University of New York. There, she met students who had been subjected to years of educational racism: underfunded schools, substandard conditions, outdated textbooks, and instructors more interested in disciplining students than nurturing their creativity or intellect. (She called this the “criminality of education”).
These students deserved more. They deserved learning that would teach them to navigate an unjust and unequal society, and to transform it. That semester, in a stuffy classroom equipped with minimal resources, Bambara decided to turn the “content, direction, and goals of the course” over to her students. In doing so, she placed her so-called “remedial” students in charge of determining not only what they would learn, but also how and on what terms they would participate in the course.
This decision was shaped by Bambara’s involvement with the movement for community control, whereby Black and Puerto Rican parents seized control of their local public schools in order to change the schools’ racist, colonial, and paternalistic policies. By transferring decision-making power to students, Bambara was an early practitioner of what Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis call “cocreating a syllabus with students.” And what was true in Bambara’s classrooms remains so today: as Davidson and Katopodis write in their new book, The New College Classroom, involving students in this planning process allows them to rethink “the assumptions of the educational system they have inherited.”
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