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10 Ways Teachers Can Turn Stress Into Community Building & Action

10 Ways Teachers Can Turn Stress Into Community Building & Action

 The work we do in our classrooms is essential. It is, I believe, the foundation of democracy, and the space where possibility is at its most limitless. Our classrooms are where worlds are changed, art is created, and scientists are born. Our classrooms are where the arts of inquiry and critical thinking are developed, where morality and ethics are made tangible, and where the nature of humanity and our place in it are examined.

But our classrooms are only a starting point. If we want to genuinely engage with our communities and fight for our civil liberties, if we want to avoid hypocrisy when we teach about the power of the individual, about civic responsibility, and about the importance of community, we need to push ourselves beyond our own comfortable and self-imposed borders.

Here are a few steps we can take.

1) Provide opportunities for your families to come together and talk. So often, parents only come to school events in order to receive information — how to talk to your children about sex, how to check their grades, how to support them with homework — that they don’t have many opportunities to engage with one another as human beings.

At my school we hold a monthly platicas, a community circle for parents. It is, without fail, my favorite hour of the month. In these circles, we talk about family traditions, about our stress around the holidays, and about our own experiences. We share stories and we build community.

2) Organize a community event. I love potlucks. They are my absolute favorite school events, and not just because I am a bad cook who happens to love home-cooked food.

Food tells stories about identity and culture that words often fail to express, and sharing food with one another is, by its very nature, an exercise in vulnerability.

You don’t need a reason to hold a potluck. Just have one. Let people come together to talk and laugh and see what comes. If you want to make it more of an event, host dinner and a movie. I only have two rules for potlucks: kids eat first and teachers serve the food.

3) Form a student activist group. My school has the Restorative Justice League; yours can have something with a less cheesy title. You don’t want to just learn and talk about what’s wrong in the world, and neither do your students. Empower them. Let them empower you. This is a self-sustaining project that cannot help but alter the identity of your school.

It is important (and difficult), however, to avoid false generosity. Remember, this isn’t your group, it’s theirs. Let the kids choose the areas they want to tackle. Let them develop the plans. Be there to facilitate, not to promote the causes you care about.

4) Make your school a community center. This year, our Restorative Justice League students have organized a series of events called “Coffee, Donuts, and Justice.” So far, the events have focused around immigration rights. We hosted a Saturday event bringing in DREAMers, community organizations, and an immigration attorney to speak to our families in order to provide them with information and resources and to answer their questions around immigration.

Learn about what your community needs, and bring those resources on campus.

⬆️ This, perhaps more than any other item on this list, is imperative.

5) Write letters. Write to Congress and Big Business. But also write to your local mosque, to a school on the other side of the country, to refugees, or to aid agencies. Write to heal and to show solidarity. And they don’t have to be old fashioned letters, e-mails work too (a great 21st century skill to teach).

6) Attend protests and talk about them with your students. Show them that you’re engaged with the world and that sometimes showing up does make a difference. This isn’t even about the politics of whatever you stand up for; it’s that you stand up at all.

7) Learn from community organizers & organizations. Learn what is around you, and learn from them. There are plenty of organizations that have been running events and organizing for years. Collaborate with them, bring them to events on campus, or simply ask questions and learn.

8) Collaborate with other teachers. Don’t try to do any of this in isolation. You aren’t alone and you don’t need to be. Talk to teachers at your school, in your network or district, or online. There are plenty of educator communities, from EduColor to #edtechchat, that you can find a few that speak directly to your interests and passions.

9) Read. Bell hooks. Jeff Chang. Pedro Noguera. Jeff Duncan-Andrade. Angela Davis. Leigh Patel. Michael Eric Dyson. Wesley Lowery. Srdja Popovic. Eduardo Galeano. Camus.

10) Take care of yourself. If you burn yourself out, if you’re too tired to teach or organize, let alone do both, then you aren’t doing anyone any good. Give yourself permission to escape. Whether that means taking a hike, cooking a meal, watching cartoons, or escaping into a science fiction novel, let yourself turn away from the news for a while.

 

In full transparency, I don’t do everything on this list. I need to reach out to and learn from more community organizers; I need to learn more about the organizations and resources that already exist in my community; and I need to take better care of myself. I’m tired. You’re probably tired too. Rest, take a deep breath, and rejoin the fight for our students.

Over his nine years in the classroom, Dan Thalkar has taught 4th through 8th grade humanities. By his own speculation, he probably watches more cartoons in his free time than most of his students. He also enjoys poetry, critical race theory, and Kendrick Lamar.

 

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Teaching the Gray Areas of Conflict: an Opportunity for Critical Thinking

Teaching the Gray Areas of Conflict: an Opportunity for Critical Thinking

Dan Thalkar

Dan Thalkar

Middle School Teacher, Los Angeles, CA

I try to teach and learn. Middle school teacher in Los Angeles.

We like tidy narratives. Heroes and villains. Beginnings, middles, and ends. You need only look at the latest Marvel Blockbusters to see the formula writ large. There is an inherent danger to this structure, as we impose labels and story-arcs over people and events that rarely, if ever, conform to such a convenient structure. The opposite, though, the absence of narrative, is no better.

Unfortunately, for an example of the latter, you could just watch the news.

Not only do we increasingly like our current event stories to be clear-cut, they often seem to move so quickly that there is no time for ambiguity or complexity to evolve. Google “news cycle” and you will see a plethora of quantitative data and existential hand-wringing about the increasing speed — or complete erasure — of the news cycle. “Donald Trump killed the news cycle,” writes the Columbia Journalism Review. “Self-contained storylines that once would have risen and fallen in distinct waves of public attention have given way to information overload and frequent confusion.” The New York Times opines that, “. . . nothing matters long enough to matter.”

Labels and the illusion of character arc are still present — look at any recent story about North Korea — but context is left behind.

Forget simplistic narratives; it seems that in the news we’re often left with no narrative at all.

What does this mean for educators? It means that we need to complicate. . . everything.

We can no more teach Westward Expansion as a clear-cut moral story than we can allow our students to believe that a story no longer being talked about consistently is equivalent to the story no longer existing.

Any educator who teaches in the humanities or has the opportunity to develop students’ civic engagement, whether in class or an advisory period, has the responsibility to help students make sense of the world around them.That means identifying fake news, reading multiple sources, and identifying bias and assumptions. It also means acknowledging that very, very few events have easy-to-trace beginnings and ends or fit into convenient, all-encompassing summaries.

Case in point: Syria. The war there, which started in 2011, is still happening. It is also very, very complicated. The same can be said for Yemen, which also isn’t exactly in great shape, though you aren’t likely to hear about it either if you glance at the latest headlines. And the justifiable uproar of family separation has masked the potentially more destructive removal of asylum for those seeking refuge from domestic abuse or gang violence.

It’s impossible for every teacher to help their students fully understand every one of these issues. It’s impossible for any person to fully understand every one of these issues. But we can refuse to buy into the mindset that nothing matters long enough to matter.

We should work with our students to identify issues they are interested in, research context, and follow events as they unfold over the course of a school year. This is different from just learning history or just talking about headlines.

It’s a shift in the way we perceive time and learning. Instead of a predetermined lesson or objective, we have ambiguity. Instead of a backwards-planned unit, we have uncertainty. Instead of resolution, we have the beautiful, chaotic mess of life.

If we want our students to genuinely enact democracy, to engage with the world, then our classrooms need to authentically engage with the world while it is happening. As John Dewey wrote, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

I am not advocating that we forego curriculum in order to only follow current events, or that it’s even possible to track every major news story. (What counts as a “major” news story, anyway?), but I am advocating that we open our classrooms to uncertainty and vulnerability.

Watching the world unfold in real-time is a terrifying, wondrous proposition. Follow any story closely enough, and conflict will arise in your community. Students will have differing opinions, will question why something matters, will venture into realms that are uncomfortably personal. Rather than seen as a cause for concern, we should view this for what it is — a beautiful opportunity.

Conflict within the context of learning is an opportunity not just to speak about civics and civil discourse, but to actually practice it. Not just to speak about restorative justice, but to struggle through it. Not just to theorize about right and wrong, but to wrestle with its embodied meaning for us as human beings.

So, as you develop your curriculum for the upcoming year, schedule some room for ambiguity. Give students a chance to decide what stories they want to follow. Learn what matters to your community. Make a few predictions about issues that you think will become increasingly important. And then, over the course of the year, get to know the people involved. Research the places, the histories, the futures. Help students see the connections between the content you are studying and the events unfolding around them.

Situate your classroom in the world and dwell there. Let the world matter long enough to matter.

Kiddom seamlessly connects the most critical aspects of teaching and learning on one platform.

For the first time, educators can share and manage digital curriculum, differentiate instruction, and assess student work in a centralized hub. Learners can take assessments online, see student performance data with the click of a button, and teachers have the insight and tools they need to create individual learning paths.

Ready to bring digital curriculum to your school or district?

Connect with us in a 15-minute meeting to learn more about available pre-packaged curriculum, and how the Kiddom education platform can support your learning community.

Celebrated Summer

Celebrated Summer

Dan Thalkar

Dan Thalkar

Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA

Dan lives and teaches in Los Angeles. Over his nine years in the classroom, he has taught 4th through 8th grade, and in his free time he probably watches more cartoons than most of his students. He also enjoys poetry, critical race theory, and Kendrick Lamar.

Ah, summer. Sweet, sweet summertime. A time for relaxation and peace, for lengthy samurai novels and Bruce Lee movie binges.

A time for families to be separatedviolent crimes to risecelebrities to kill themselves, the Supreme Court to legitimize inhumane practicesthe openness of the internet to succumb to the inevitable pressure of capitalism.

Hurray for summer.

I always appreciate this break. This year, I desperately needed it. This was a long, emotionally draining year, at the end of which I didn’t know how much more I had to offer. How many times can you hear children say ‘I want to die’ before it no longer burns?

And so I am incredibly grateful for afternoon naps, for waking up early to catch all of the World Cup games, for sitting outside with a beer in the middle of the afternoon (or, in the present moment, late in the morning). Yet, the world stubbornly refuses to relax and abide by a teacher’s schedule. The world keeps happening. As a result, summer is also when I tend to feel most impotent and lost.

These last few weeks have bordered on the surreal. Our president wants his people to respond to him the same way Kim Jong Un’s are forced to respond. Thousands of children have been ripped from their parents and held in cages — but, by the way, says Border Patrol, even though they are technically cages, let’s maybe not use that word? — and, though that may no longer happen, there is still no plan to reunite the families, and there is now a path toward indefinitely detaining entire families in cages and former Wal-Marts. We’ve left the U.N. Human Rights Council. We were never the most conscientious members, but the symbolism stings. And the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court.

This is our country. If history has taught us anything, it’s that this has, more or less, always been our country. We are habitually unjust to the oppressed. We have a lengthy tradition of exclusion and internment. This is us.

History has also taught us that we can fight, and we can be better. This is the pocket where I try to live as a history teacher. Our society is unjust and oppressive, but we are descendants of a long and proud legacy of resistance and love.

Lately, it’s been a lot easier for me to tap into anger than love. I don’t quite know what to do with myself. Venting brings me no relief. Phone calls and marches, though I do both, never feel like enough. I make meaning of myself and the world through teaching. I process current events with the kids in my classroom. It’s where I find hope and where I feel useful. I can’t teach right now. I also realize that I really, really need to take a break from thinking about teaching right now. I need to breathe.

When I was younger, my anger was enough to give me energy and push me through. It isn’t anymore. It probably never should have been. If I’m going to be my best come August, I need to let myself heal.

This work is consuming. We’re never good enough. We never do enough. We never see enough, hear enough, speak enough, listen enough. There’s always more to learn, more to plan, more to systematize, more to refine, more to interrogate. This work will consume you, if you let it.

Don’t.

We can’t do this work if we burn ourselves out of oxygen, be it through anger or passion. What I’m trying to let myself learn this summer is that it’s okay to feel impatient. It’s okay to spend time with discomfort. It’s okay to sit with my feelings and thoughts. It’s okay to heal.

Whatever you’re doing this summer — whether you’re working summer school, planting a garden, or sleeping and watching Netflix — please, please, let yourself heal. I know it’s hard, considering what’s happening in the world. If you’re anything like me, then teaching is part of your healing process. That’s fine (I tell myself), as long as it isn’t everything. We are, all of us, gloriously multifaceted. When we let what we do define us, when we let what makes us angry control us, we limit our humanity. This, in turn, limits our effectiveness as educators — and partners and parents and siblings and friends.

And so, as I watch the news and fume or phone Congress and feel impotent, I am simultaneously plotting new ways to teach civic engagement and finding new comics to read. I’m learning more about the origins of human rights so that I’m better able to teach them, but I’m also going for walks and letting myself process. I’m watching documentaries I might want to show in class, but I also just watched Power Rangers. I’m letting my mind wonder and wander and seeing where it takes me. I’m spending a lot of time with Walter Benjamin and the Bhagavad Gita. My theory is that the more whole I am as a person, the better I’ll be as a teacher.

I don’t know if any of this will make me a better person, but it feels right, and so I’m listening. If it does, if it helps me heal, then I’ll be better for it and able to keep growing when the school year starts. If it doesn’t, well, at least I watched Power Rangers.

 

On Walking Out

On Walking Out

Dan Thalkar

Dan Thalkar

Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA

Dan lives and teaches in Los Angeles. Over his nine years in the classroom, he has taught 4th through 8th grade, and in his free time he probably watches more cartoons than most of his students. He also enjoys poetry, critical race theory, and Kendrick Lamar.

Have you ever seen ninety 13-year-olds spend 17 minutes together in silence? It doesn’t happen often, but it happened today.

We walked out.

We didn’t go far — just to the sidewalk outside our campus — but it was enough for teachers to cry, students to inspire themselves, and one counter-protester to show up.

A group of 8th graders did the bulk of the planning, making a presentation, putting up flyers around campus, and brainstorming how we would spend our 17 minutes. Ultimately, they decided to spend it creating. We ordered a bunch of sidewalk chalk, and for 17 beautiful and heartbreaking minutes approximately 450 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders covered the area around our campuses with their hope, love, anger, sadness, and determination. I have never been simultaneously more proud and sad as a teacher.

These kids, they didn’t question why this is an issue. They know it in their bones. They know it because they’ve never known an America where school shootings weren’t regular parts of life, where active shooter drills weren’t always routine practice. They think increasing security is a bad idea and arming teachers a terrible one. They also often speak about how nothing can be done about it, that “this is just the way things are”, that no one is going to listen to kids anyway.

Which is why today mattered so much.

Afterwards, while we were processing, one student said, “I felt powerful and encouraged. Like working together we could make a stop to it.” Another said, “It feels relieving. We learned all about this and got to form our own opinions. If we feel mad or passionate, it feels relieving to let it out and do something about it.” The general consensus, more simply, seemed to be That felt good.

During those 17 mostly-silent minutes, some kids talked to each other, and some kids laughed and made jokes. Of course they did. How else do you cope with the magnitude of what you’re up against? How else do you say enoughwhile simultaneously wondering if our school could be next? How else do you even focus on learning every day?

Or maybe I’m projecting now. How else do I cope with the magnitude of what I’m up against? How else do I say enough while simultaneously wondering if our school could be next? How else do I focus on teaching every day?

Maybe that’s why I cried.

I cried twice, actually. Once, in the classroom, looking at their faces as they prepared to walk out. Christ, they were determined. There was no doubt, no confusion, no nervous smiles. Only determination and pride. As they settled into themselves, the feeling in the room changed. They became, for a moment, transcendent. And so, charged with purpose, we walked out.

 

 

The second time I cried, it was through sheer awe. Everywhere I looked, kids were brainstorming ideas or helping one another color in hearts or writing down Bernie Sanders quotes or covering every available surface with #enough. Everywhere I looked, I saw love.

Then a neighbor across the street showed up with his “Don’t Tread On Me” flag and ruined the mood.

I was having my emotional moment when a couple boys came up and asked me if “don’t tread on me” was an NRA, pro-gun phrase. When I told them yes, they said I should turn around, because a guy was waving an NRA, pro-gun flag across the street. He waved me over, and I crossed the street so we could chat.

The conversation, while not-quite friendly, was civil. He wasn’t upset about their protesting — he said he’d have no problem if they marched or made signs — but about their covering the sidewalk with anti-gun slogans and images. He said it was vandalism, and in his day he’d have been arrested. What he really meant, I think, was that he didn’t like what he now had to see outside his front windows.

We went back and forth for a while — at one point he said he’d call the city and report us — before eventually ending the conversation. We had a right to protest, and he had a right to protest our protest. I went back to my side of the street, and he stayed on his.

In hindsight, I wish I had thanked him. See, until that moment, the forces we were opposing became invisible. We live in Los Angeles and aren’t exactly surrounded by conservatives or NRA supporters. The entire school, including our principal, supported and was involved in the walkout. Seeing someone oppose them suddenly made the act of walking out and protesting more real. It made them feel powerful. Afterwards, a student said, “Him coming out really put things in perspective with me. It sounds cheesy, but we have to understand that there’s gonna be people who bring us down. All of us together was really powerful.”

I’m also glad that they were able to see civic discourse. He and I disagreed, and I think it’s ridiculous for a grown man to try and intimidate a group of 13-year-olds, but we were able to actually talk to one another. That isn’t much, but it’s something.

Kids developed consciousness today, felt how good communal action can feel.We spent a few moments reflecting on the fact that, for 17 minutes, we were part of a movement involving thousands of other students, all acting with the same purpose. We were connected. That connection is humbling, addicting, and worth chasing.

I don’t know where we go from here. In my class we recently finished writing Activist Letters about either abolition or gun control (the gun control option was a late addition) and are in the midst of a unit on social change. I’m curious to see how this action spills into our other work. I’m working on developing a plan with kids for the April 20 walkout day.

And everyone — teachers, kids, and the few proud parents who drove by to take pictures — gets to go home and say I did something today

Also — a few minutes after I talked to our friendly neighbor, a city anti-graffiti van rolled up. They were there to clean up some actual graffiti and confirmed that we were, in fact, well within our rights.

 

 

 

 

Written By: Dan Thalkar

Testimonios: The Personal is Political

Testimonios: The Personal is Political

Dan Thalkar

Dan Thalkar

Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA

Dan lives and teaches in Los Angeles. Over his nine years in the classroom, he has taught 4th through 8th grade, and in his free time he probably watches more cartoons than most of his students. He also enjoys poetry, critical race theory, and Kendrick Lamar.

Q: Are you proud of me? A: I am proud of you.

I like to argue. It’s part of why I love teaching history — the entire course is an examination of the slippery notion of truth. We get to ask big questions, like “What makes us human?” and never have to settle on a right or wrong answer. It’s liberating. When dealing with the Big Questions, 13-year-olds can be just as right as any of the books we read or thinkers with whom we argue. It’s all uncharted territory. History is dialogical in that way; it’s a free-wheeling conversation about the point of it all.

Of course, entry into the conversation isn’t always free. Voices are erased, altered, oppressed, or ignored. It happens at family dinners, and it sure as hell happens in the wider historical narrative. My students and I wrestled with this truth during a recent Voices of Resistance unit. The content was Westward Expansion, the Mexican American War, and early anti-immigration laws. The conversation was inclusion, importance, existence. We spend so much time talking about the power of our voices, constructing our arguments and perfecting our narratives, that it’s easy to overlook how much wisdom surrounds us. More importantly, we spend so much time looking for wisdom that we often miss the breadth of knowledge that surrounds us. So, my students and I asked ourselves, what stories need to be heard? What stories need to be told?

What happens when we listen?

In order to answer these questions, we joined the rich tradition of testimonios. Testimonios originally emerged out of struggle, when people in Latin America began speaking out after war, violence, and suffering in their countries. Though often based in suffering, they are actually grounded in hope and triumph, and their power comes from the telling of the story.

A testimonio is a narrative of enduring and overcoming oppression. Testimonios speak truth to power and, in the face of oppression and potential devastation, sing. The telling of the story is a way to regain power. Crucially, the narrator’s testimony represents the experiences of all of the others who lived through or experienced something similar, finding the universal in the particular. The individual is the collective. A testimonio could be the story of a family’s immigration journey. It could be the story of a woman fighting traditional gender roles. It could be the story of a single father. It could be the story of living through the LA Riots. Of working multiple jobs. Of becoming a citizen. Of joining the Gold Rush. Of escaping a life in slavery. Of us.

Our guides were Rigoberta Menchú, the women of Testimonios: Early California Through The Eyes of Women, 1814–1848, and myriad speakers from Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Together, we examined history from the bottom-up. We discussed how the grand sweep of movements pales in comparison to the miraculous perseverance of the individual. And we wondered what stories had been lost to that great sweep of time.

From there, of course, we had but one option — we had to ensure that our stories, our histories, were not lost. We had to record the testimonios of our communities. Students interviewed grandparents, parents, siblings, family friends, admired entrepreneurs, and others, and wrestled not just with what to ask them, but how to honor their voices. Do we keep the interview in Spanish, or translate it to English? Do we “correct” grammar and diction, or leave it as is? Do we record a Q & A, or weave together a story? I, happily and unhelpfully, answered none of these questions. We honor their voices and we make intentional choices. The form those choices take, I said, is up to you.

The result was a dazzling collage of voices, perspectives, and experiences. None of the testimonios were the same, and yet a common, proud thread wove through them all. Every speaker, while recounting stories of heartbreak and triumph and triviality, demonstrates pure, unabashed love for the child interviewing them. In so many, you can hear the children asking for validation — say that you’re proud of me, so I can record it forever. Read these all at once, and the weight of their love will break you.

We’re not reading them all at once. I set up a class blog and am posting a new testimonio each weekday. We now begin each class by reading a testimonio. At the end of the first week, I asked each class, if someone from rural Pennsylvania was reading these, what would they know about us? One student raised her hand and said, “They’d know that we have things in common and that we’re people, too. They’d see past the stereotypes, and maybe we would connect.”

Sometimes, telling a story is the most political act you can take.

In these posts I’m usually railing against something or exhorting teachers to take some sort of political action. This time, I humbly ask, read their testimonios. Listen. And if you are so moved, encourage your students to do the same. There is so much brilliance around us. What happens when we listen?

 

Kiddom seamlessly connects the most critical aspects of teaching and learning on one platform.

For the first time, educators can share and manage digital curriculum, differentiate instruction, and assess student work in a centralized hub. Learners can take assessments online, see student performance data with the click of a button, and teachers have the insight and tools they need to create individual learning paths.

Ready to bring digital curriculum to your school or district?

Connect with us in a 15-minute meeting to learn more about available pre-packaged curriculum, and how the Kiddom education platform can support your learning community.

Community Organizing in Education

Community Organizing in Education

Dan Thalkar

Dan Thalkar

Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA

Dan lives and teaches in Los Angeles. Over his nine years in the classroom, he has taught 4th through 8th grade, and in his free time he probably watches more cartoons than most of his students. He also enjoys poetry, critical race theory, and Kendrick Lamar.

When President Trump was elected, I was flooded with emails from former students. Should I walk out? Will protests do any good? Are our hearts in the right place? Will anything we do make a difference?

While reading the myriad One Year Later thought pieces that flooded the internet over the past week and growing increasingly depressed over how quickly not normal does, in fact, become normal, I realized that to a large degree, my students’ questions have shaped my approach as a citizen and an educator over the the past year. Are our hearts in the right place? Will anything we do make a difference?

Though I’m nowhere near finding answers to those questions, the searching has increasingly drawn me toward community organizing. If we approach teaching through the lens of community organizing, we suddenly have access to the tools and language our students need in order to move from questions to action.

Through the lens of community organizing, teaching isn’t just about imparting knowledge or building skills, it’s about developing the capacity and wherewithal and desire to actually use that knowledge and wield those skills in a change effort. It’s about empowering students with the agency to move forward after asking, “Will anything we do make a difference?”

Unfortunately, when educators discuss community organizing, students and families are rarely viewed as the agents of change. Far too often, we claim that title for ourselves. At a professional development recently, I attended a workshop on Community Organizing 101. It was fine. It was also abundantly clear that I viewed the role of the teacher in community organizing through a very different lens than the facilitators and other participants.

There was a lot of language about wanting to create change the community. About how to mobilize other teachers and have house meetings. Through this lens, organizing is separate from teaching. Teaching, in fact, might just be a pit stop until public policy work is available, after those two years in the classroom give you the credibility you need to impact policy in low-income communities. This lens also reveals an inherent power structure: by organizing the community, you are claiming to know their needs better than them, to be the advocate they do not have, to be their selfless savior.We run the risk of Lorax Syndrome. I am the teacher who speaks for the communities.

I’m painting with a broad brush here, I know. Public policy is an important endeavor, and we need more teachers to play a role in directly shaping policy. We need players at all levels of the game. However. When a conversation about community organizing has minimal acknowledgement of children and families — you know, the actual community — we have a problem. The problem, I think, is one of perspective. There is no need for the bifurcation of teacher and organizer, not when they are so naturally intertwined.

John Dewey famously wrote, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” As such, we do not merely educate of the world, we educate inthe world. If we view the skills and content as something our students will need later, then we’ve already lost them. I teach middle school. Kids can’t comprehend an ethereal “later”. They can barely comprehend their own mortality. They know now, and each moment is the most important moment. Each experience, each love and heartbreak, the most profound experience. Each child at the center of their own universe, creating the dazzling multiverse that is a classroom.

If I teach my kids how to write an argument or how to deconstruct an author’s claim, if together we learn about the branches of government or anti-immigration laws, if we wrestle with the legacy of slavery or the impact of Manifest Destiny, if we ask what it means to be human or what it means to be American, if we engage in the messy business of the world, if we do all of this and do not somehow chart a path forward, then I am implicitly teaching them that oppression is simply the way things are and the way things have always been.

I need to do better. Collectively, we need to be better. I frequently fall short — my class is definitely characterized as depressing and I struggle with not privileging issues that I think most matter — but the lens of community organizing provides me with standards toward which to aspire. We learn these skills, we wrestle with these truths, in order to change things now. Along with teaching reading and writing and history, it’s about teaching problem analysis and advocacy methods and activism.

I try to let the kids guide the issues and provide them with the language and tools they need to carve their visions into existence. I try to point them towards platforms where they can share their voices. I try to help them see their own participation in the great lineage of voices speaking up against oppression. I try to help them network with local organizations. I try to provide opportunities to experience different perspectives and different communities. I try to engage in action research and root cause analysis. I try to situate their own wisdom and experience at the heart of every project and to provide ample time for us to learn from one another. I try to ensure our classroom is always in the beautifully messy state of co-creation.

Students who are empowered to be organizers will show their inherent greatness. They’ll direct their own letter-writing campaigns, organize community events situated in cultural identity, wield social media like a weapon, turn every school function into a fundraiser, argue school policy, educate their families. They’ll give a damn.

Maybe, instead of viewing community organizing as something that happens outside of the classroom, we should consider the potential our children and families have to organize around what matters most to them. Maybe if we viewed our classrooms as hotbeds of organizing, our students would see a sense of purpose in schooling.

Our society is currently a roiling mess of angst and id. We know this. Our kids know this. If education is to play a role in transforming our society, then maybe it’s time we stop doing things for our kids and communities. Maybe it’s time we start doing things with them. Where they organize, I’ll follow.

Speaking of Revolution…

Speaking of Revolution…

The other day in class, we were scheduled to talk about America’s Great Men, its leaders of revolution — Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, Adams.

Instead of the Great White Dead, however, we talked about a friend of mine, a former science teacher of my students. He is undocumented and was recently profiled in a New York Times article about undocumented teachers who are DACA recipients.

We cried. We spoke of fairness. What is fairness? We talked about courage and revolution and justice. What is justice? We discussed fighting and change and hope. What is hope?

What is hope?

Oftentimes, I don’t know. I think of the student who sobbed on my shoulder, muttering, “It isn’t fair. It just isn’t fair.” I think of how the day after this lesson, many students, wrote some variation on the theme of “the world is fucked up and I am angry” for their writing journals. I think of how often that thought runs through my head. I think of the one or two students who said they don’t care. And then, before I collapse into a nihilistic puddle, I talk to the kids and we storytell our way into hope.

We had talked about DACA before. On that Tuesday when Sessions spoke for Trump, we discussed immigration laws and the economic impact of the decision. We wrote letters to my friend and our former teacher. But something was different after we read the NYT story, after we saw his picture and read his words. Something broke.

One of my students noticed the change and offered her insight — it was different because whereas before we were discussing news, now we were discussing family. We were opening our hearts.

After reading and discussing the article, everyone wrote a response to the question, “How will you stand up for what you believe?” Their answers boiled down to two central themes: I will stand with others and I will demand that my voice be heard. They felt the impact of their teacher sharing his story, and now they wanted to share theirs.

We’re going to work on a family narrative project soon. We’re going to have a community potluck of cultural dishes (because what tells stories better than food?). For Latino Heritage Month, we’re going to ensure that the brilliant complexity of the Latino experience is represented as best we can. We’re going to leverage social media. We’re going to partner with a school on the East Coast and learn from other perspectives. We’re going to stay angry and, probably, cry some more. We’re going to talk, and write, and talk, and write. We’re going to speak our worlds into existence.

Our students’ voices deserve to be heard. Education is about many things, but I would argue that among the most sacred of its responsibilities is helping students find their voices and ways to use them.

Far too often, the study of history and literature is positioned as a passive act — let’s learn about what other Great People have done. Let’s study their stories, write a compare and contrast essay and analyze theme. Maybe we even take it a step further and have students write their own stories or examine history through the lens of counter-narratives. These are all, no doubt, important skills and techniques. But they are also profoundly limited and limiting. What a wasted opportunity it is to explore our human existence and then not join in the transcendent stream of co-creation.

Be in the world, and journey there with your students. Write letters to congress. Analyze youth grassroots organizing movements. Bring in outside speakers and go on volunteering field trips. Connect with the media organizations in your community. Help the kids develop their own media organization. Mobilize their inherent social media brilliance. Amplify their voices and celebrate their songs.

The student who sobbed, “it’s so unfair,” is right, of course. The situation is fucked. We can stay there for a while, in the place of feelings and frustration and anger, but then we have to process and fight. The oppressed don’t need pity, they need solidarity. They need movement from learning to action.

We didn’t end up getting to Washington, Adams, or Jefferson that particular day (though we did read excerpts from “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine’s brilliant urgent plea to the proletariat), but we did speak of greatness and of revolution. We did speak of courage. We did speak of Great Americans fighting to build a more just, more fair nation.

I’m worried for my friend. I’m worried for my students and my families. I don’t know that anything I do will make a difference. I do know, however, that I’m not alone in that fear. I know that if we hang together, we will not hang separately.

Eventually we did learn about Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton and Adams. I wouldn’t be a very good American History teacher if we skipped over these guys. We explored their ideas and ideals, their hypocrisy and their courage. And we questioned how they hold up against the Greatness around us, and if their courage and might could match ours.

What is hope? It’s the story we tell.

Written By: Dan Thalkar

Categories

Welcome back. Now smile.

Welcome back. Now smile.

We’re going back to school soon. You’re probably going to hear some teachers talk about how they won’t smile at their students until October. At some point, an older teacher might have given you the advice to start the year off cold and gradually warm up to your kids. But only once you’ve broken them in.

Ignore this advice. This advice is bullshit. Smile. Laugh. Be a human being and treat your children like human beings.

Schooling is often a dehumanizing process. We do not teach within structures naturally designed to inspire joy, love, and agency. The pressures around us to develop strong test-takers, to produce children who spark, to teach critical thinking (but only if what they’re challenging is safe and approved), to break identity and relationships into a tidy set of lessons, is often overwhelming.

Don’t give in to it on your first day back.

Don’t give in to it at all.

Give your kids a hug when you see them. Tell your students a few stories about your summer. Share an embarrassing story. Provide opportunities for them to share their stories. Develop a culture where it’s okay for kids to laugh with each other, where it’s okay for kids to laugh with you. It will be louder than the stoic next door. It might take you a bit more time to get into the standards. You might find yourself having more conversations with kids about their choices and their words than you usually do. I hope you find yourself having more of those conversations.

Those conversations are when we, as a collective, are at our finest. They’re when we build relationships, when we build community, when we build love, and when we build high-performing classrooms. See, people learn better when they feel safe and validated. They learn better when they feel included. They learn better when they don’t want to let one another down, and when they can call one another out when they do. They learn better when the focus is on education, rather than schooling. They learn better when the process belongs to them, too.

We are complex creatures. To erase our humanity, to reduce us to action/reaction, input/output, or to a script, is to devalue and dehumanize us. Celebrate our complexity. Embrace our messiness. Wonder. About us; about yourself. Learn. Seriously, learn. Not about classroom management or popular new educational trends, but about the human beings with whom you co-exist each and every day.

You aren’t lowering the stakes by smiling on the first day. You aren’t establishing a year of low expectations. You’re doing the precise opposite. You are constructing one of MLK’s Beloved Communities; you are dancing in the margins of Gloria Anzaldúa’s borderzones. You are setting yourself up for a year of stories and change.

Am I being overly optimistic right now? Hell yeah I am. It’s the beginning of the year. I have to be. Things are going to be messy. There are going to be days where I lash out, where I’m more punitive than I’d like to be, when I rely upon my power too much. There are going to be kids I feel like I just can’t get to. Some days I’ll feel like they only respond to yelling, and so I’ll yell. It won’t feel good.

We need the messy, beautiful, chaotic joy of living to be embedded in our classrooms.

I’ve been around this block before. I am under no illusions that classrooms are utopian, harmonious places. But then again, I’ve never particularly trusted utopian narratives. We need a little friction. We need the messy, beautiful, chaotic joy of life to be embedded in our classrooms. We need to let kids screw up, love them, expect better of them, and help them expect better of themselves. We need to grow together.

For many teachers, summer is a refuge, a time to recharge. Netflix and chill. But it isn’t so idyllic for everyone. Maybe you or your colleagues are returning to your classrooms while living through your own trauma. Many of our students certainly will be. For many of them, summer is a time of heightened family conflict and missed meals.

So when they walk in your classroom on the first day, they don’t need your bullshit about how serious school is. They don’t need your insecurities projected onto them. They need your love. They need to know that laughter and learning go hand in hand. They need to know that it’s okay to be vulnerable.

We all do.

 

 

 

Written By: Dan Thalkar

When I Talk About Defiance

When I Talk About Defiance

Dan Thalkar

Dan Thalkar

Middle School Teacher, Los Angeles, CA

I try to teach and learn. Middle school teacher in Los Angeles.

J flipped her teacher off the other day. A quiet, straight-A student, J generally isn’t one to act out. She comes to school, cinches her hoodie tight, and goes about her business. Except, of course, for that time she threw her teacher the bird.

J didn’t have much of an explanation for what happened, just a general, “I was feeling angry. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.” We shrugged our shoulders, talked to her parents and had her write an apology letter, and moved on. J’s a good kid. It won’t happen again. We have bigger issues to deal with.

Except, well, do we? There are plenty of kids who more regularly commit larger harm, but what does it say about our community when one of the “model students” starts lashing out at teachers? And, more importantly, how have we not taught her more effective modes of protest?

It is logical for our young people of color to feel rage. They are deeply enmeshed in a web of injustice and oppression that they feel but do not understand. Why would they not react by hiding within their hoodies, flipping their teacher off, or ignoring their instructions? This is their defiance.

Defiance is an ugly word in education. In California, it’s no longer legal to suspend students for “willful defiance”, but defiance and compliance are still part of the standard nomenclature when describing student behavior. He was being defiant and wouldn’t sit down! This is a great class — they’re so compliant. She was being defiant and talking back. It was so rude.

Defiance — bold resistance to power — is not something we encourage from our students. Of course, we like to tell ourselves otherwise — we design engaging math projects analyzing mass incarceration, we study the civil rights movement, we show our students pictures of us at protests, and we preach about the importance of voting. Maybe we even bring in police officers and community activists for a panel with our students. Maybe we tell our kids how powerful they are, that they must be activists to fight for themselves in this unjust, oppressive society. We are all for liberation struggles.

Unless they’re directed at us.

Hey, we have standards to teach. We have 34 other kids in the class. We are running on four hours of sleep because we were up all night writing feedback on your essays. We have your best interests at heart. How dare you be defiant.

At best, these mixed messages are confusing; at worst, they are deeply traumatizing. Students, especially our boys of color, do not need us to remind them that the world has deemed their feelings irrelevant, their very being ancillary. They come to us with this knowledge. Then we tell them they matter, they have the right to speak up… but they should not be defiant. It isn’t nice. It isn’t respectful. It isn’t responsible.

Our school system was designed to produce nice, respectful, responsible workers. For all of the reform movements over the years, this hasn’t really changed much. Compliance is rewarded, defiance is punished.

By stifling our students, we aren’t just silencing them and teaching them how to be obedient workers, we’re backing them into a corner. Of course they flip us off, ignore our instructions, refuse to turn in work for our classes. Self-harm is the only form of recourse — of defiance — we leave open to them.

What if, instead, we operated from a pedagogy of defiance? Imagine the novelty — speaking truth to power includes speaking truth to us. Even if we don’t want to hear it. Especially if we don’t want to hear it. We do not fail our students if they leave us defiant, we fail them if they leave us unable to articulate their defiance.

Defiance should be a celebratory act. I have a voice and I have power and I will rise up! It should be joyous. Hear me sing! It should be communal. We are here!

Celebrating defiance will not be easy. It will require us to humble ourselves and let go of our control. It will have to involve our whole school communities. It will be messy and flawed. It will require us to educate with, rather than to or for our communities. It will require us to re-educate ourselves.

I’ve heard plenty of teachers extol Paolo Friere with one breath and praise students for being compliant with the next. Our lip-service social justice will not serve us here. A pedagogy of defiance is going to involve some serious soul-searching if we are to move from theoretical to actual liberation.

If we truly embrace the discomfort of defiance, we begin to see the world through a different lens. We remove the shiny veneer from American Hero Martin Luther King, Jr., and remember that in his day large segments of America wanted him dead and thought him dangerous. Remember that his defiance was scorned. We see defiance as a noble pursuit, and learn how to wield it with wisdom and purpose. We see our history, our movements, and our people, in a clearer light.

Most importantly, by elevating defiance we provide our students with options. As their sphere of power increases,their actions are no longer limited to reactionary self-sabotage. Instead, they can draw from a rich lineage of defiance in order to assert and empower themselves. And so we develop a community where truth, and not niceness, is a sign of respect.

In elevating defiance, I am not endorsing the false generosity of low accountability and expectations. Defiance, I believe, entails the opposite. Many of our students have not yet developed the consciousness to articulate what they are actually raging against; they may not even know. We have to build a foundation.

Harming one in the community, even if that one is yourself, harms the community and must be addressed. We hold choices to a higher standard and, when we speak up, have purpose behind our words. We analyze the sources of our own feelings and reactions. While honoring defiance, we learn that it is a precious resource, and that each time we misuse or abuse it, it loses power. We lose power. Rather than judging and labeling students for their defiance, we see it as a symptom of an oppressive disease and seek to understand. We seek to help them understand. We seek to help them own their stories.

We need not just mindsets and philosophy, but the critical thinking and literacy skills necessary to actually name and engage with our worlds. Critical literacy must be explicitly taught, the tools our young people need to access, question, and critique their worlds instilled, and a sense of agency and empowerment developed. Without this foundation, our rage is impotent and self-destructive. Learning to read is a revolutionary act.

Like I said, this isn’t easy. But it’s doable. Even aspiring to the ideal, I believe, is transformative progress.

I do not want compliant students. I want students to tell me when I’m being oppressive, to let me know when they think an assignment is bullshit. I want my classroom to be a lab where students can experiment with their voices and discover their transcendent powers of creation and transformation. Rather than hide or submerge their anger, I hope for them to transform it into something beautiful. If they feel like flipping me off, I want them to think about why and to feel emboldened to speak their truth.

The myriad interlocking systems of oppression our children of color are raised within will not disappear overnight. They may never disappear. But if we empower defiance, we can snip a few threads, and from there, who knows what unraveling will begin.

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Dear Donald

Dear Donald

Dear Donald: You’ve been on my mind a lot lately. You’re the first thing I think about when I wake up, the last thing I think about when I go to sleep, and my dreams — oh lord, Donald, you are all up in my dreams. You’ve got me feeling some kind of way.

Ours is not a healthy relationship. It leans more towards abuse than support, but be that as it may, I can’t quit you. I would hazard to say that I’ll be dreaming about you an uncomfortable amount over the next four years. So, if I can’t leave you, I may as well talk to you. In fact, I’d like to thank you.

Thank you for reminding me that “post-racial” is a bullshit phrase that signifies nothing more than a deliberate misunderstanding of what racism actually looks and feels like.

Thank you for reminding me that in a populist movement, pathos always beats logos.

Thank you for reminding me of my roots. I grew up in rural Northwestern Pennsylvania, which turned out very strongly for you. I live in California now, and it’s easy to forget how dangerous entire communities ascribing to a single story can be. Because that’s what you tapped into at a primal level, right? The story that the Rust Belt lost its sheen, not because of inevitable technological and economic changes and decades of stubborn loyalty to a lifestyle that did not return the favor, but because of Democrats, affirmative action, and those goddamn immigrants.

Thank you for forcing us to examine our demographics and realize that — holy shit — we are more segregated now than we have been since the Civil Rights Movement.

Thank you for revealing that not everyone thinks segregation is such a bad thing.

Thank you for enabling the worst in us. I don’t know if you’re following news that matters, but hate crimes saw a large spike the week you won. In towns across the country, Muslim Americans were told that they do not belong. In schools around the country, Latino students showered with deportation chants and fake deportation letters. In schools across the country, silent teachers modeled cowardice.

Thank you for teaching me that I cannot make assumptions about my fellow educators, for revealing that many of them are uncomfortable challenging the status quo in any real way and would rather silence our children’s questions than stumble towards justice with them.

Thank you for consistently modeling who we do not want to be, for allowing me easy, lazy examples when discussing racism, privilege, misogyny, corruption, bullying, othering, and good-ol-fashioned meanness.

Thank you for enabling one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking days of teaching I have ever experienced. Teachers at my school were texting one another at 1 a.m. on election night, trying to decide how to discuss this reality. We held healing circles. We read Langston Hughes. We paused first period to watch Hillary’s concession speech. We paused second period to watch President Obama’s speech. We wrote letters, because if you know us, maybe you won’t hate us. We drew self-portraits, because if you see us, maybe you won’t hate us. We dreamed our dreams, because if we love us, maybe it won’t matter that you hate us.

Thank you for reminding me how powerful community is. You almost broke me. I couldn’t sleep Tuesday night. Couldn’t see a way forward. Couldn’t find much beyond despair. I spent most of Wednesday morning crying in fits and starts. Every time I looked up, there was someone else crying, and we could hug and lift one another up. Or someone would cover me for a restroom break so I could spare my children from the worst of my sobs. By the end of the day, I was so surrounded by love and by the insurmountable optimism of 12-year-olds, and you cannot kill me anymore.

Thank you for, in your bigotry and small-mindedness, unleashing our greatness. Your fear-mongering, hatred, and small, selfish angers cannot match us. See, that’s the thing about anger, Donald, it consumes itself. In the years ahead, you are going to hurt us. You are going to make our lives more difficult. You are going to make us feel unsafe and unwanted in our own homes, in our own bodies. But your efforts to other us will also make us discover our bodies again, and even we might tremble at how beautiful we are. We aren’t going anywhere, Donald. We aren’t backing down. We aren’t cowering before you. We are standing and we are speaking, and you and everyone who supports you is going to be forced to see us. When you see us, Donald, when you know us as human beings with faces and flaws and bottomless stores of strength, you are going to realize how small you are.

Thank you for underestimating love. When we talked about what we should do next, none of my students spoke of destruction. None of them spoke of acceptance. We decided that a title will not force us to respect you, that our respect for that title means that we cannot force ourselves to respect you. So, rather than subscribe to your story of America, we are creating our own. “America will be. . .” is our project, our protest, our citizenship project. We are developing and sharing our dreams for America. We are learning about trauma and healing. We are learning from the wisdoms of our elders and the mistakes of our past. We are practitioners of restorative justice, of truth and reconciliation. We are artists and we are poets. We are designing a community day of healing and justice, where we will practice empathy and learn about our rights and stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us.

Lastly, Donald, thank you for being wrong. You tapped into the fears and anger — not all of it unjustified — of a disappearing white America, and you called it greatness. You spoke of making America great again, and you thought you knew America. You do not. You don’t even know the again of which you speak. Come to East LA, Donald, and meet America. Come to Watts, come to Baltimore, come to St. Paul. Come visit us, Donald. Talk to my 7th graders who are wise beyond their years, wiser than you, and realize that you never knew us at all. Realize that our greatness will undo you.

Sincerely,

Dan Thalkar
Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA

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