We like tidy narratives. Heroes and villains. Beginnings, middles, and ends. You need only look at the latestMarvel 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.
Guest Post by: Dan Thalkar (@dthalkar) Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA
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.
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.
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.
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?
When President Trump was elected a year ago, 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.