Illustration: Michael Duffy
Imagine the following scenario: Students enter a classroom with the desks and chairs neatly arranged in straight rows. They hesitate at the door, make a quick assessment of the room, and choose a place to sit. They work their way down narrow rows of chairs, careful not to disturb the tight arrangement of furniture. They sit quietly, deposit backpacks under their seats, place a notebook on the desk, and look straight ahead to the front of the room and the much larger teacher desk that stares back at them.
Shortly before the class is scheduled to start, an adult figure enters the room, writes his or her name on the front board along with the name of the class, and assumes a seat at the big desk or the podium standing by its side. School is in session.
Welcome to day one of your first lessons about power, pedagogy, and their relationship to physical and symbolic capital. I have watched students file into my classroom for 35 years. Never have I seen them try to change the arranged furniture, nor ask to do so. Instead, they arrange themselves according to a prearranged design.
I teach humanities at Portland Youth Builders, a high school completion school in one of Portland’s poorest neighborhoods. Normally, the chairs in my class are arranged in a large circle. This day, I arrange the chairs in rows. Students walk in the door, stop suddenly, look at me, and ask, “What’s this all about?”
I ask them to take a seat and offer no explanation for our newly arranged room. I take attendance and ask if anyone has any thoughts they want to share before we start class.
Delia says: “I don’t like this. I have to turn around to see who’s talking. Can we change the chairs back to the way they usually are, please?”