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    Won t Learn From ,You!on the Role ofAssent in Learning

    Herbert KohlYcars 180 ClIICof my fifth-grade students .medillbis grandfather Wilfredospeak English. Hesaid thatIRIUCrbowbard you lried10u=tch him,ignom wbarcver words you tried to kaChfon:ed you 10speak to him inSpanish.I got 10bow hisgmndfatber I askedSpenisb.wbeIber I could teach him8IIdhe tOld me unambiguously thatdid DOtwanllO learn. Hewas frighrened.said. that his pandchildren wouldneverSpanish i f be pve n l ite therest ofadultsIIIdspoke Englishwilh the .'1bc:n. be said.1heywouldnotwho theyweR. At the endof our

    be adamandy Ihalcouldmake himIeam to speakfamiliesand culturescouldnotiftbe children lost theirparents'thatleaming whatwantedyou to learncan sometimesyou.I discussed WJlfredo's reflections withand they interpieted hisas a cover-up of eithel'hisownfeartrying to learnEnglishor his failure to doTbesc x p l n t i ~ ho\ycver, showaof RSpect fot Wilfredo's abilitytowhat is p p r o p r i e ~ n g fandhis grandchildren. Byaan butingto Wd redo and refusingto .the loss his family wouldduough not knowingSpanish,Iumed a cultural problem intoaproblem: they turnedrefusal to learn inlO failure to learn.I ve thought a lot aboutWilfreda'srefusal10learnEnglish andhavet sympathy for hisdecision.I grewup inbilingual familyand ina house

    by my parents. born in New Yorkand grandparents, born in the YiddishPolish part of he Jewish .in EastEurope calledthePa1e,know what it is like10facethe problemandthedissolutionofIn addition I have encounteftldnot-lcamingduoughoutmy30yearsleaching, and believe that such not .isoften anddisastrouslymist3kcn

    for failme to learnor the inability to learn.Learninghow to not-leam is anintellectual and social challenge;sometimesyou have to wort.very hard at it It consists

    of an active, often ingenious,wiUfulrejectionofeven the most compassionateand wdl-designcd teaching. It subvertsattemptS t remediation asmuch as it rejectslearning in the rust place.It was tIuoughinsight into my own not-leamingthat Ibegan 10understand theillnerworld of

    . .How can feliche... . am fo dl.Ungul.h willful not-l.amlng It OIIIl.IIu,..

    studentswhochose10not-learnw.hatlwanted to leaCh. Over the years I ve cometo side with them in their refusal10bemoldedby a hostilesocietyand have come10look upon not-learning as positiveandhealthyin manysituations.Not-learning lends to lake place whensomconehas10deal with unavoidablechallenges10heror his personal and famoyloyalties. integrity, and identity In such

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    I Won't Learn From You!coatiauedsilWldons. thereareforced choices andno \apparent middlegroood. To agree to learnfrom a strangerwhodoes notrespect yourintegritycauses a major loss of self.Theonly IItcrnadve is to DOl-learn and !ejectdlcirwodd. .In dlccowsc of my reaching career, Jhave seeD childn:n choose to DOl-learn manydiffaau sk:iI1s, ideas. auiIudes,opiDioas.lDdvalues.At firstI confusedDOt-learning withfailing. WbcR JhadyoungsimJn myclasses wbow= substant i a y ~ in adiog J assumedthatIhey bad failed to learnIiowto read.'ThcIdcnlloobd f thesources of theirfaiI_ in Ie8dingrxograms theywacc:xposed to, in theirIdationsbipswilliteaebm and other adults in authority, in thesocialandeconomic conditions of their .1ives.11SSUIIledIbatsomed1ing went wi'ongwhea dley faced a written text that eitbel' .tbcymade errors theydidn'tbow how toc:caec:t. U WCl'Cthevictimsof bad teaching.Othercausesof failure I searched for weremismatebes between the students' languageand daC language of the schools, or betweenthe students' experiences and thekindofcxpcrience presupposed by their teachers ortheJCadjng texts.lad of thesecases I assumed thatmystudenas had failedat somethingtheybadtried10 do. Sometimes I wascorrect. and .thea it was easy to figureouta stratesY tohelpthemavoid olderrors and learn,freeoffaUurc. But there were many cases I cameupon whereobviously intelligent studentswere beyondsuccess or failure when itcame 10readingU ocher school-relatedlearning. They bad consciously placeddlcrnsdws outside the entiresystemthatwas trying to coerce U seduce them intolearning and spentall of their dme andenergy in the classroom devising ways of

    not-learning and short..Qn:uitingdaebusiness of learning Iltogether.1bey wereengaged in a struggleof wills withauthority,andwhatseemed10 be at stalcefor them was nothing Jess than their prideand integrity.Mostof themdidnot believethey were failures or inferiorto SludeltlSwho IUCCCCded on Ibeschool's terms,anditwas 10 distinguish them fJom thewounded self-effacing students who wanted10 learnand had not been able10do so.

    Barry'sNot-LearningI remember onestu!lent. Barry.who wasin one of my combined kindcrgancn firstfOrM,. r ~ ~ c : r ~ in Rertcelev in !he 19105. He

    had been heldbackin the fust gmde by hispreviousteacherforbeing vdefUUlt. and nOtready for the dem8nds ofsecond grade." Hewassent to myclassbecause it wasmuld-age,mded.andtheprincipal hoped Jcouldgd him to catch upand goon withother slUdents his I by theend of1hcyear.Barry was oonftdeot andcocky but DOt rude. Fromhiscomments int was clearthatbe was quiac sensitiveand intdligenLTheother SIUdeats in thedassJeBpeCted himas the best fiPca andathlete in class,andas a skilledandfannySfO Y tener.DuriIlg Ihefirst,weekof school one of thestudentsmendoned to medialthdrlast .year's teacher was afmid ofBany. rve seena nwnbel' of cases wbelewhile teacherstreat veryyoungAfricanAmerican boysas

    i f chey were17, over six feet tall, addicted10drugs. andmenacing. Barry was a victimof thatmanifestation of racism.Heevidenlly wasgiven therun of theschoolthe previousyear - was allowed10. wanderaround thehalls at will, tduse participationin groupactivities,andavoid any semblanceof academic work. Consequenlly he fellbehind and was not promoted from fIrSt tosecond grade.Thefust limeI asked Barry to sit downanda d wich me hethrew a temper IanbUmandcaned me 111 kinds of names. We nevergot near a book. I had10 relate10 hisbehavior, nothis reading. 1bete was no wayformerodiscoverthe levelof hisslcills or.his knowledge of bowreadingworb.l Uicd10gd him10read a few more limesandwatched his responsesto me verycarefully.HisIInlrums WCI'C clearly manuCaetwed onthe spot. They te alU'8lCBY or notreading. He nevergotclose enough10abook 10 have failed to leam how10 read.The yearbefore,!his response had the

    Until we learn to distinguish not-learningfrom failure. and respect the truth behindthis massive rejection of schooling bystudents from poor and oppressedcommunities I f wil l not bf) possible tosolve the major problems of education inthe United States today,.

    effecthe wanted. Hewas let aloneandas abonusgainedstatus in theeyes of theotherchildren as someoneteachers' feared. Notreading, as tragic as it might becomeinhisfUlW'e, was verysuccessfulfor himas akindergartner. Myjob asa teacherwas togd himto feelmore empowered doingmtding than practicing his activenotlearning to read.I developed a straIegy of empowenneilt(or Bany anddidn'teven bolher withtbinking about remediation. I wasconvinced hecould learn 10read pedecdywen if beassellted to learn how to read,Thescrategy was simple and involvedacalculated risk.I decided to fOJCC himtoRad wich me and then make it appear toothermembers o( Iheclass thatheread sowen chat his pastresistance was justa game

    hecontrolled. The goalwas to havehimshowme up inclass,as if his pastfailurewas a jOke hewas playing 00 us aU, anddisplay to Ilie entireclassm.ding abilitybedidn't know hehad..I prepaIQt myselffora bit of drama. OneMondayafternOon I askedBarry 10comeread wich me. Naturallyanof theOCherstudents stoppedwbale\'eC.1hCy weredoingand waited for the show. They wanted tosee ifBarry wouldbe able to not-read onemoretime. He lookedat me.thenturnedaroundand walked away.I picked upabookand went ro him. Then I gentlybutfumly sat him down in a chair andsatdown myself. Before he could Ihrow theinevitablelanlnam I opened the bookandsaid, "HeR'. the page youhave ro Jead.ilsays, "This isa bug.This isa jug. This is abug in the jug.' Nowread it to me." Hestarted10lqUinn andput his hands over hieyes.Only I could.seea sly grinforming Ihe snucle a look at the book.' had givenhitheanswers,told himexactly what hfhad

    d J

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    .do to show meand abe rest of theclass thathe knew how 10 read all along. It was his'decision:10 go onplayinghis not-learninggame or ICCCpt my face-saving giftandopenup the possibility of learning 10 read. I'offered him the possibility of enaering into ateaehing/leaming relationship with mewithout forcinghim 10give upanyof hisstatus andfortunately heaccepted thegiftHe mumbledwrbis is a bugL this isa jug..This is a bug in a jug," then tossed abe bookon the floor,and.turning10 oneof theother

    children, saiddefl8lltly, "See,llOld you Ialready knowhowto read."This ritualbatllewas repealed allweekand inlO Ihenext,subsiding slowly as hefeltthat the same was'no longernecessary andthat he was figuring out the relationship oJcaer fOsounds,wordsandmeaning. After a.whileradiog became just another oneothe things that Bany didin class. I neverdid anY.RmediaI teachingorRated himasa failed'reader. In fact. I was able to reachhim by acknowledging hischoice10notlearn andby Uicking himoutof i tHowever, i hehadrefusedassent,there isnoway1could have forcedbim 10 Ieam10Thatwas a very important lesson tome.It helpedme undersland the essentialrole wiD and freechoiceplay in Jearningand laughtme the importance oftowardsIt'alningin the largercontextof thechoicesma1ce as theycreate livesand identitiesthemselves.Over the years I've bown manyyoungsters whochose to actively not-learn'whatschool, society,or theirfamilies triedteachthem.Not all of themwere)OfeIltial victimsof theirownchoices 10

    Forsome, not-learning wasathatmade it possib