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Student Resistance: A teacher's best teaching tool

Student resistance is a recurring theme throughout this blog and podcast - and for good reason! Resistance can be a teacher's best teaching tool! Although we see resistance as a positive in terms of resisting oppression, we typically only allow that definition on the grander scale, not acknowledging day to day resistance as being equally as powerful.

Daily acts of resistance are often given a really bad rep, particularly with young people. We hear that our students are resistant to learning or in the case of mental health, we hear that young people are resistant to treatment or counseling. But what if we actually start to look at the resistance that we see as negative, the daily acts that sometimes, admittedly, drive us crazy as educators or therapists, as resistance to something else; something much bigger and actually, quite rational and reasonable.

This reframe can help us to see that our students are doing their best. I mean, really, who is actually resistant to finding success in school? Or to getting mental health support? People are resistant to things they've learned are unhelpful or actively hurtful, so if they're resistant to your lessons, classroom policies, therapeutic approach, try to consider that on the surface that's what they're resisting, but look deeper, and you'll see that resistance for what it is - a resistance to shame, public humiliation, fear that they'll be unable to make change or that strategies won't help, fear that they'll feel foolish or stupid, or fear that they can't be taught or can't be helped. When you start to look at it this way, that resistance to learning becomes something else all together and allows you to approach your strategies differently so that your students can embrace their acts of resistance and begin to identify what it is they are truly resisting.

I encourage you to consider the students who are often resistant in your classes. Chances are they have had negative school experiences that have them thinking your class won't be any different. And really, what's worse: trying really hard and feeling like a failure incapable of learning, or not trying at all and failing but being able to attribute that failure to not trying, rather than lack of ability?

Once you've identified your resistant students, narrowed down the real things they're resisting, it's time to empower that resistance in ways that will be helpful and will allow students to truly understand the depth of their own resistance. Doing this will build trust with your students and provide them with the type of environment they feel confident taking risks in. They'll begin to actively resist their many fears while also naming what those fears are. They'll be able to identify the many ways they resist in a day through an empowerment model that honours their experiences and embraces their strengths.

My favourite assignment to give out every semester, particularly in my English classes, but I have done similar tasks in drama, is a resistance photo essay. I begin by discussing and defining resistance, as I did above. I reframe the acts of resistance and have students free-write on what resistance means to them. This process is a deep dive into the negative connotations associated with resistance and how we can redefine and reshape what this means to students.

I typically employ this strategy at the start of a semester to get students to already begin to see their resistance differently and to understand that I see it differently too! This is a quick way to build trust and relationship, and has actually helped increase attendance, because when we're proud of our student's resistance, they are too, and they do more of it - in all the ways that are helpful to them!

There are many ways to go about increasing awareness around resistance, and many take the shape of conversations both in group discussion and in one-to-one conversation. If you're looking for an assignment that I've used for several years and have found to be useful in addressing this topic with students, check it out on my TpT store here!

What are some acts of resistance that you notice that you'll reframe? Let me know below!


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