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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


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

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.

Guest Post by: Dan Thalkar (@dthalkar)
Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA

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.


Dan Thalkar
Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA

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