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.
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.
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?
Friday morning, I woke up, fed my kids breakfast, drank a large glass of water and went to the gym. A pretty typical day at my house, but when I walked outside, noticed that it was much colder than usual. On the drive to the gym, the sky was filled with dark clouds, through which slips of red sun peaked through. It was ominous. I don’t know if that was a harbinger of what was to come when I was to meet with the Secretary of Education, or just Fall in Seattle. Either way, I didn’t like what I saw.
In February, Betsy Devos, was appointed the US Secretary of Education, even though she has no background in education, except giving money to organizations that are homophobic, or anti- union, or anti public school, or all of the above. Her big thing is school choice, which is the push for students to be able to choose what schools they attend. While it makes sense that students not be relegated only to the schools in the zip code, her desire for school choice is actually an extension of Jim Crow.
School choice has its origins in white supremacy. After Brown vs the Board of Education, many schools in the South still refused to integrate their schools. To get around integration, school districts would use the vouchers that were provided, to send only white students to private schools. The black students would be denied vouchers. In Virginia’s Prince Edward County, in fact, they even managed to close the entire public school system, making it extremely difficult to get an education, if you were black. Black families that had the means to do so, moved to northern states, but those that could not, cobbled together a form of home schooling, or, in most cases, were forced to leave the school system permanently. It wasn’t until 1980 that the private schools decided to allow black students to attend. The Fuqua Academy, as it was called, only did so, so they could keep their non-profit status. The result was that only 1% of the Fuqua student body was black, though the black population of Prince Edward County was almost 40%.
In 2013, the black student body still only made up 5%, or 17, of the 363 students. Virginia was not alone, and during the 50s and 60s, white students left the public school system, to enroll in private institutions, using federal and state vouchers. In 1990, Alabama was recognized as having the greatest educational inequities, disproportionately impacting black students and students with disabilities. It was to be resolved in the state courts, but was blocked by the state attorney general. That person is now the US attorney general, and his name is Jeff Sessions. The same Jeff Sessions who reversed a policy to allow transgender students to use the school bathrooms that fit their gender identity. He also says the Department of Justice will no longer protect gay or transgender students from workplace discrimination, and that he will not seek federal oversight on police departments suspected of abuse.
But I digress…
Today, the school voucher system, promoted by Secretary Devos, targets low income students, yet some districts place no barrier on financial means. Of the students receiving school vouchers, 60% of them are white, while only 12% of students receiving vouchers are black. In 2013, those numbers were 46% and 24% respectively, so the gap has actually widened. As reported by the Century Foundation, the students that benefit mostly from school choice, are the advantaged students that are eligible, whom tend to be middle class and white. The voucher system has effectively made economic segregation increase, which is the exact opposite of its intentions, yet it is where education reformists, like Devos, tend to hang their hat.
Friday afternoon, I took my kids to the playground, in the hopes of letting them blow off steam. Also, I was afraid they were going to kill each other. There was no school and they were getting a little cabin feverish. At the playground, they had fun, and I enjoyed watching them play, in a way, only children can play: without abandon. It was still chilly and overcast outside, but I was looking forward to my dinner with Devos.
The 1000 seat dinner was to be thrown by the Washington Policy Center(WPC), a non-profit, think tank that promotes sound public policy based on free-market solutions. The WPC has been around for years and they have a large base of supporters, that come from across the entire state of Washington. The WPC focuses on solving problems with the environment, agriculture, healthcare, education, and more. The one commonality is that all of their solutions are free market based. Free market is another word for capitalism, and, as we know, capitalism is all about making that “skrilla.”
My kids and I walked back home, ate some snacks, and then I changed clothes. The dinner was labeled as “business attire,” so I had to break out my flyest gear, and put on a tie. Looking like the black Mr Rogers, with a deconstructed Afro, I jumped in my car, turned up the Led Zeppelin, and drove to Bellevue. Where else in western Washington, but Bellevue, would someone attend an event honoring Betsy Devos?
I arrived at the Bellevue Hyatt, to see several hundred people protesting the arrival of Secretary Devos. Signs ranged from the punny “IKEA has better cabinets,” to the plaintive “Fully Fund Education.” I also a couple signs that were basically just expletives. I understand their sentiments, but they lacked originality, or focus, which ended up taking away the potency of the protest.
New Secretary, Who Dis?
I took a few pictures, fist bumped some protestors, and headed towards security. To my surprise, I entered the hotel and walked to registration, without any trouble. I was repeatedly asked if I was here for the event, by different police officers, but when I told them, “yes,” they pointed me in the right direction. The first thing I noticed when I walked into the venue was that this was a very well organized event. I got my name tag and table number within seconds, with clear signage for the bathrooms, coat check, and beverages. The second thing I noticed was that the beverages were cash only. The least expensive ticket was $350, and for that amount of money, I would have liked a complimentary Coke. But, like I said, it’s about that skrilla.
I was on the early side, and walked around to read some of the literature. There were pamphlets discussing the need for transparency in how the state uses money for transportation related issues, and the need for us to reduce carbon emissions to create a greener environment. I read about the need to protect our agricultural workers and the need for more local control of government spending. I read many statements that rang true and fact based articles that supported the positions espoused by the WPC.
An hour passed while I was reading, and no one spoke to me. To be fair, I also didn’t seek conversation with anyone else. As I was taking notes about what I was reading, a woman walked up to me and asked me if I was a reporter. She didn’t say hello, or greet me, in any way. She just abrasively asked if I was a reporter. I told her “no, I’m an educator.”
“Oh. Ok. I just wanted to see if you were a reporter.
“Have a good day.”
“Ok. You too.”
I don’t know what to make of that interaction, but I’m happy she spoke to me. It made me look up from my reading, to notice that more people had arrived. As I looked around, I noticed that I was one of three faces of color. This is Bellevue, but I was still a bit surprised. I kept walking around and began to examine the other attendees. They were mostly people of my age, or older. Definitely white and definitely middle to upper class. There were some young people present, that were members of the Young Americans group, who were to attend the dinner in the next room. Devos was to speak to them after speaking with the older folks, like me. That dinner was for those under the age of 39.
“Are you also alone?”
“I’m sorry? Oh, yes, I am”
A gentleman of about 65 and his daughter approached me and we began to talk about how we didn’t know anyone at the event. They were a nice twosome and quite friendly. During our conversation, they asked why I had never been to an event before. I told them I had recently moved from New York, and was relatively new to the Washington Policy Center. The gentleman looked at me, and asked about rubber rooms.
“Well, they closed I think.”
“Still, the fact that they existed makes no sense!”
“Why they can’t fire teachers that are useless, is beyond me.”
It was at this point that I realized why the anti union argument was gaining traction, with WPC and organizations like WPC. Rubber Rooms were rooms that teachers, that have been, or will be disciplined, must go to, while they are waiting for a decision about how to handle their cases. The Rubber Room is basically a purgatory sentence for classroom teachers, and to my knowledge, only existed in New York City. The teachers receive a full salary, must sit in that room for an entire school day, without leaving, save for lunch and bathroom breaks, until a decision has been made, on whether or not, they can go back to class. That may be a week, a month, a year, and some cases, close to a decade. If a teacher is accused or misconduct or incompetence, they go to the Rubber Room. This practice supposedly ended years ago, but I can see why it frustrates most people. I also understand how this practice is associated with teachers’ unions. However, many teachers are exonerated, and the process is supposed to be less than 30 days. It is equally important that we understand that this happened in NYC and is not representative of all teachers or unions or all school administrations across the country.
The gentleman’s daughter left for the bathroom, and he told me that his grandchild, his daughter’s kid, suffers from seizures. The seizures prevent the girl from attending a public school that can meet her needs, so she attends school online, which is supported by school vouchers. His complaint was that Washington state doesn’t do enough for parents. Whenever school choice is debated, I hear stories like this family’s story. I get asked how I can be against charter schools and vouchers, when I hear stories like this one. My answer is simple:
I am not against school choice.
A parent or guardian should have every right to choose the school that best fits the needs of their child. Zip code or wealth shouldn’t dictate the educational tract of a person. It is a choice that a family makes for their family. The government, nor I, nor anyone should make that choice for anyone else. In my many years as an educator, I have worked at traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, and religious- based institutions. Although I may like some places more than others, it was always about the students and responding to the culture of the youth being served. The question we should be asking ourselves is not “is school choice the answer?” The question is: “why are people so invested in school choice?”
The Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000 provided tax incentives to businesses that are located in, and hire residents of, economically depressed urban and rural areas. Most charter schools are in lower income neighborhoods serving mostly students from that area. Businesses that invest in charter schools can double their investment in seven years. The number seven is important because the tax incentives last for seven years, before they expire. In order to keep receiving tax breaks, businesses diversify their portfolios by building more and more charter schools in those areas. Of course with the influx of money, comes the prestige associated with money, which leads to gentrification, which leads to why more wealthy white students go to charter schools, than the students that are meant to be served. In effect, charter schools are one of the leading cause of gentrification, and wealth disparity.
All about that skrilla.
The doors open and I sit down at my table, next to an older white couple. We greet each other and I also say hello to the other 7 people at my table. Everyone is white, except me. They are all smiles, so I smile back. The older couple to my left ask what brings me to the event.
“I wanted to hear Devos speak.”
“Do you like what she has to say?”
“No, but I’m willing to listen.”
“What do you do, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I’m an educator.”
“Retired police officers.”
Of course, I would sit next to two police officers, at a Betsy Devos event, surrounded by 900 white people.
“Why don’t you like school choice?”
“I’ve got nothing against school choice, but it’s not the answer to solving the problems with education.”
“Yes, we need more teachers working on the bad behavior of students. Those kids won’t learn any other way.”
“Don’t you agree?”
“Absolutely not, the answer isn’t discipline. First we must understand the needs of students and meet those. If we look at the maladaptive behaviors of young people and blame them, because their maslovian needs aren’t met, then our education will continue to operate a system with opportunity gaps. We must look at the teacher training programs and how teachers are prepared to teach. We teach them in a 20th century modality, ignoring the 21st century world, in which we live. The curriculum doesn’t reflect the students being served. I don’t just mean students of color. I mean all students will benefit from having subjects taught in a manner more accepting of different cultures and perspectives. If we end white supremacy, we can solve education problems.”
“Well, I’m sure you know more than I do, about education.”
I apologized for my rant, and she said she appreciated it. It was the rare time I was able to speak with someone, in real life, that had completely opposing views than I. She began talking about her friend, who was a teacher, that was underpaid. She spoke about how Washington was great because it was so welcoming. It was a good conversation.
“Hello and welcome to the Washington Policy Center Annual Dinner!”
The evening’s emcee came out to wondrous applause. He made a joke about the hippies protesting and a joke about the Huskies. I didn’t understand what he was talking about, so I started to eat my salad. When I looked up again, everyone was standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. I stood up, clasped my hands behind my back, and looked at the 100 foot wide USA flag, that was the backdrop for the stage. When the Pledge finished, we all sat down. Then the emcee asked everyone to stand for the National Anthem.
I did not.
My table mates looked at me and then turned their heads. Everyone else sang the song, with hands over their heart. When I could see the stage again, Secretary Betsy Devos was standing at the podium, and addressed the audience.
I wish that I could say that she said something amazing, or that she said something completely onerous, but she did not. She spoke her speech and smiled, in a way only the very wealthy can smile: without joy. She spoke about three students(all of them were of color) that were able to choose their school. One of the three made a video that told the typical sob story of being poor, black, and uneducated, until she was given the opportunity to attend a charter school, where her life changed. She now works with Devos at the Department of Education.
The crowd roared with praise.
Secretary Devos spoke about how school choice saves lives and is the way to go. She said there was no “one size fits all” model for education, then she said school choice will improve education. Then she left the stage and went to the room next door, to speak with the Young Americans.
My cop neighbor table mate asked if I changed my mind about her. I told her I agree that there is no “one size fits all” model, but that school choice is wonderful for those that have the resources to choose a school. School choice is a band aid that only some people can have. The rest of society has to find other ways to cover their wounds.
Somehow, we started talking about police violence and she said that that doesn’t really happen, where she lives, in Kent. I looked at her wondrously. I asked her if she thought Black Lives Matter is anti-cop? She said yes. I talked about how black people were killed by police and we were only saying that our lives also matter. She said, again, that that wasn’t an issue in Washington. I spoke about the several police cases, in Washington, where cops have killed black people. She stared at me. It was at this exact moment where I felt like everyone in the room was also staring at me. My other table mates kept their backs to me, and I went to take a bite of my fish. Before I could a woman came onstage, to say a prayer. She was black which surprised me, but then I remembered how “we shole is gud at chu’ch,” and sat with my hands on my lap.
When the prayer ended, I took a bite of my food, looked at my watch, and excused myself from the table. Not one single person acknowledged that I was leaving. As I walked out, I heard the emcee talk, again, about hippies, but this time it was referencing how the Huskies were losing to those “hippies” at Berkeley.
When I got in my car, my shoulders relaxed. I drove out of the parking lot, playing an old A Tribe Called Quest song.
“Oh my god, yes oh my god
Oh my god, yes oh my god”
I couldn’t have said it better, Busta.
I got home and watched Dave Chapelle’s newest comedy special. I hugged my kids and kissed my wife. When I woke the next day, I grabbed my bag to head to the airport. Today was Saturday, and 45 youth and I were headed to Arizona for Macklemore’s concert.
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.
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.
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