Pedagogy, Theater and Radical Organizing in Schools of Poverty
By John Duda, Truthout
Students from City Neighbors Charter School, Preserving Baltimore's Civil Rights Heritage at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum (Photo: Baltimore Heritage)
"It is hard to imagine, for example, that watching "The Wire" is actually a very good form of preparation for teachers who are about to begin teaching in Baltimore's segregated schools. They would be better off reading King Lear or As You Like It . . . "
It's not hard to imagine a book where a line like this could come off as smug, entitled, insufferable. It's more difficult to imagine a book - and this is really our problem, and not the author's - where such a claim can be seen for what it is: a radical truth.
The "radical" here is important - there are, at this point, numerous books testifying to the dismal state of American public education in the communities, primarily of color, that have been marginalized and abandoned by our increasingly austere system. And beyond the exposés of the moral scandal of de facto educational apartheid in the contemporary United States, there are many detailed critiques of the particular neoliberal history of the test-obsessed epistemological apparatus that undergirds this system. But what Jay Gillen offers in Educating for Insurgency is something vital and missing - a rigorous analysis of the terms of student struggle in what he calls "schools of poverty."
Others can see the tragedy of squandered educational opportunities and the unfortunate pathological consequences of poverty that render poor children of color "unable" to learn - but Gillen has more rigorous eyes. He sees, even in the most aggressive acts of refusal on the part of the "worst" students, not the unfortunate and pathological reactions of ultimately passive victims, but the strategies active in historical subjects coming into historical self-consciousness, collectively doing the work of the "old mole," whose burrows undermine the foundations of the current system and presage the irruption of revolt that will inaugurate something new. Deftly, Gillen weaves together this kind of subterranean articulation of autonomous power with:
You may not have had the chance, as I have, to witness Jay Gillen's singular, powerful and unassuming dedication to the autonomy of the students he teaches and mentors, as a public city school teacher and as a mentor of the Baltimore Algebra Project. (One memory in particular stands out for me - the scene was the of the plaza in front of City Hall, tents in a public square protesting austerity a good couple of years before Occupy made it cool.)
The issue was whether or not the multiday occupation, repressively tolerated by the office of then-mayor Sheila Dixon, should escalate into a hunger strike - I remember seeing a group of high school students standing in a circle coming to consensus about the way forward for the action - passionately, but with grace and the deepest respect for each other's perspectives - while Jay, the adult "in charge," watched from the sidelines, carefully making space for the students to make decisions and mistakes on their own terms.)
From the steps of the state capital in Annapolis to the site of the proposed - and defeated - $73 million youth jail, the Baltimore Algebra Project has been at the forefront of youth activism here, building a sustained political voice on top of an impressive youth-run business tutoring their peers. You can get a sense of this as a reader of Gillen's book in the photos reproduced on the inside covers of the book; in the way these students stand, caught in the act of speaking, shouting, marching, you see the confidence and maturity of young adults standing up against a world that was not made for them, acting with the dignity of the self-organized, not the awkwardness of the illustrative token.
Why, then, is Lear better preparation for a new teacher in Baltimore City Schools than "The Wire"? It's about the pretense to realism if we choose the latter - the idea that what the teacher confronts is facts, some unfortunate - like a school system for black children crumbling, alternately unheated and sweltering, lacking basic necessities like toilet paper - and some to be imparted to the students within the limits imposed by this system, forming their "education."
Gillen indicts both the realism that hampers our ability to actually understand the problem in terms that acknowledge the transformative potentials hidden beneath the supposedly objective facts, and the realism underlying the culture of testing, which assumes that similarly neutral, objective facts can be poured into a student's head, with the level taken periodically to see how many have been retained.
Why is education never just about "facts?" Gillen's account uses the powerful example of trying to teach the standard curricular-mandated lesson about the Brown v. Board of Education decision in a de facto segregated school of poverty in 21st century America. His hypothetical teacher is well-meaning, and wants to teach the students about an important moment in history: In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in education is illegal; the long and steady march to full equality took another steady and confident step toward . . . what? An America where black lives still don't seem to matter all that much?
What does the student learn? They learn that over a half a century ago the very situation they find themselves in was declared unjust, and yet it persists. They learn that the law - and the history that tells its story - was not made for them, and they see in the manifest contradictions of the official curriculum and the emptiness of the educational process they are subjected to: bodies to be managed, and in the best case made able to recite back enough facts to justify this management on one standardized test or another.
What would it mean to do otherwise? The challenge Gillen poses to his fellow teachers isn't to make learning more engaging, more hands-on, or more relevant, but to stop treating students as objects. Hence - theatricality. Lear, with its staging of the way social roles are staged (and thrown into disarray), serves as a better guide than any gritty realism because what a teacher needs to do is understand that they are not saving young people, but sharing the stage with them and playing a supporting role. To treat a student like the subjects of their own lives requires a different pedagogy and a different politics, especially in schools of poverty.
For Gillen, the pedagogy required here involves an attentiveness to the way that students make their own plans, but not under conditions of their own choosing, paying attention to the way students rely on indirect vernacular formalisms to express their autonomy, what a less attentive teacher might too often dismiss as "acting out."
As for the necessary politics, Gillen is refreshingly blunt: The role of the teacher in schools of poverty is to help students prepare the insurgency that will overturn the system of educational apartheid. If change comes to American schools, it won't come from starry-eyed reformers or a bumper crop of "good" teachers - it will come, like the end of slavery did, as a result of the thousand and one acts of resistance and rebellion on the part of those the system is designed to contain and manage. The role Gillen calls on teachers to play is not a rhetorical one, bringing propaganda into the classroom, but a profoundly human one.
Being as human as Gillen insists we need to be takes courage, and nowhere in the book are the stakes of this demand clearer than in his reconstruction of a scene with his student G.P., who repeatedly tells him "Get the fuck out of my face!" in the course of a geometry lesson.
The remarkable thing is not that Gillen refuses to accede to the logic of discipline and punishment (i.e. by not "picking up the phone" and invoking the security/police apparatus and all it leads to). It's that he goes beyond simply refusing to be complicit with educational injustice, reading his student's cries of refusal in terms of love and struggle, and acting his part accordingly.
If "the corrupted atmosphere of American schools of poverty makes complex, intimate communication between teachers and students nearly impossible," Gillen's incredible book is a key guide to reestablishing this possibility, with an eye toward revolution.
John Duda is a founding member of Red Emma's, a worker cooperative radical bookstore and cafe in Baltimore, and the communications coordinator at the Democracy Collaborative.
Jay Gillen, Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty (AK Press, 2014)
Why Does Democracy Need Education?
by Edward Glaeser, Giacomo Ponzetto, Andrei Shleifer
from: National Bureau of Economic Research
Across countries, education and democracy are highly correlated. We motivate empirically and then model a causal mechanism explaining this correlation. In our model, schooling teaches people to interact with others and raises the benefits of civic participation, including voting and organizing. In the battle between democracy and dictatorship, democracy has a wide potential base of support but offers weak incentives to its defenders. Dictatorship provides stronger incentives to a narrower base. As education raises the benefits of civic participation, it raises the support for more democratic regimes relative to dictatorships. This increases the likelihood of democratic revolutions against dictatorships, and reduces that of successful anti-democratic coups.
read entire report:
The ACLU is committed to challenging the "school to prison pipeline," a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out.
"Zero-tolerance" policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while cops in school lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.
The ACLU believes that children should be educated, not incarcerated. We are working to challenge numerous policies and practices within public school systems and the juvenile justice system that contribute to the school to prison pipeline.
see video: Gone Too Far: Our Kids in Handcuffs
Meet Kyle Thompson. Kyle is part of a national trend where children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
Blogs & Commentary
Read the most recent blogs on policies and practices, including the overly strict enforcement of draconian zero tolerance policies, increased use of suspension and expulsion for younger and younger students, and referrals to the police.
Education and National Security
By Lawrence Davidson, To the Point Analysis
Education and Architecture In Black: Two Sides of the Same Coin
By Mike Perry, The Hampton Institute
Public education must lead fight against poverty - With over half of all students now from low-income families, an effective, equitable system is key.
BY THE EDITORIAL BOARD
In the fight against poverty, public schools are the first line of defense. Teachers, counselors and administrators are in the best position to notice when a student is not getting enough food, doesn’t have the proper clothing or is otherwise experiencing something at home that makes learning difficult, and it is those adults who are in the best position to see that student gets the help he needs so that school is not such a struggle.
It is an expensive and demanding responsibility for schools, one that goes far beyond the basics of education. But it is important, as for the first time in at least 50 years, more than half of the students in U.S. public schools come from low-income families.
Every decision related to education, from funding to curricula to support services, must be made with the needs of poor and near-poor students in mind. Lucky Business/Shutterstock.com
That means that every decision related to education, from funding to curricula to support services, must be made with poverty and near-poverty as a consideration. Failure to do so – that is, failure to create an educational system that provides as much opportunity for those at the bottom of the income scale as those at the top – will only widen inequality and stunt economic growth while making a mockery of the promise of upward mobility.
The challenge is only becoming more immediate. A report by the Southern Education Foundation found that, as of 2013, 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, up from 38 percent in 2000 and 32 percent in 1989. In Maine, around 43 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals, up from around 30 percent in 2000.
There are a number of reasons for the increase – a rise in single-parent households and immigration, increased enrollment at private schools by those with means and stagnant wages amid rising costs – but the latest recession is not one of them.
Instead, this is a long-term trend that has survived booms and busts, starting first in the South then spreading to the West and beyond, so that now public schools in four-fifths of the states, including Maine, have very high proportions of students from low-income families.
Those students, more often than not, enter school behind academically and struggle to catch up. They have more unaddressed physical and mental health problems than their peers, as well as behavioral issues, all of which call for extra attention.
They also don’t have the same access as others their age to enriching out-of-school activities, such as those involving art, music and sports. They don’t get tutoring, or get to go on family trips.
With every year, they fall further behind. Low-income students have higher rates of absenteeism. They score lower on standardized tests. They are more likely to drop out, and less likely to attend college.
Now, with more than half of public school students facing those obstacles, we run the risk of cutting our economy off at the knees. Left unchecked, too many Americans will become adults without the skills or knowledge to compete in the global workforce.
The solution is a commitment to public education and all it has to accomplish.
That means not only valuing and rewarding the best educators, but also funding the pre-K and literacy programs that help low-income students get a fair start to school, as well as the preparatory and counseling initiatives that help them apply for and go to college.
That also means supporting the school-based social service programs that feed, clothe and counsel low-income students, and keep them engaged and learning after school and during the summer break.
It’s not easy, and it is certainly not cheap. But it is necessary. Failing to provide an equal public education to low-income students is unfair when they make up a third of all students. When they make up more than half of all students, it’s a potential disaster.
What's Missing From Common Core Is Education for Democracy
This is my third post in a series "Reclaiming the Conversation on Education." In the first "reclaiming" post I discussed what schools and education should be like in a democratic society drawing on ideas developed by the philosopher John Dewey in the early decades of the 20th century. The second "reclaiming" post responded to critics of Schools of Education. These critics promote mechanical scripted instruction and reject the idea that teachers need to have a broader understanding of the nature of our society and how children learn. In this post I examine the importance of education for democracy as fundamental for achieving and maintaining a democratic society.
Something is missing in Common Core's single-minded focus on skill acquisition, education for democracy, and this is a serious lapse.
According to its mission statement,
The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.
Common Core standards are supposed to "provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn" and be "relevant to the real world." But "real world" expectations are defined as preparing students for "success in college and careers" and "to compete successfully in the global economy." As best as I can ascertain, in the entire document, there is no real discussion of life in a democratic society and the role of education in promoting democratic processes and democratic values.
The view of education promoted in Common Core, devoid of substance and disconnected from life in a democratic society, was endorsed by President Barack Obama at a meeting with United States governors in 2010 and is at the heart of the federal Race to the Top program. Unfortunately, President Obama seems unaware of the consequences of this type of narrowly focused education.
Democracy is hard to build as we are witnessing around the world. It requires a sense of shared community, respect for democratic values such as minority rights, concerns for the well being of others, freedom of expression, and the right to be actively involved in the political process. It requires a sense of being part of an inclusive and diverse body politic, of citizenship. White man's democracy supported by the enslavement of Africans broke down in the United States in the 1850s and led to civil war. Despite the collapse of communism, the countries that emerged from the former Soviet Union remain far from democratic. In India, which calls itself a democracy, government is largely corrupt and most of the population is impoverished. China, the most populous country in the world, is more capitalist than communist, but it still has an authoritarian state.
Without a sense of shared community based on democratic values, democratic processes can be meaningless. In 1933, Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany and the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany through constitutional means. In Egypt today, as happened in Iran in the 1980s, a religious party without a commitment to a broader sense of community and democratic values that respect the rights of minorities and an open exchange of ideas, used democratic processes to achieve power and then used power to suppress the rights of others. In Libya and Syria, without a sense of national community and shared democratic values, the collapse of dictatorships brought civil war, not democracy, and the rise of anti-democratic forces.
Although President Bush promised to export freedom to Iraq and Afghanistan when the United States invaded those countries, and that they would become democratic models for the entire Middle East, anti-democratic forces either control them or are on the verge of acquiring power.
Meanwhile, in Washington DC, the democratic process is stalemated by a lack of commitment to democratic values by the Republican Party, which would rather bring the whole house of cards down than compromise. The Republican Party, which has a voting majority in the House of Representatives, under the so called Hastert Rule refuses to even allow proposed laws to be discussed and voted on unless a majority of the Republicans agree to the proposal in advance. This allows 118 House Republicans from Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Virginia, Mississippi, and Missouri to veto any action no matter what a majority of the House wants. It is a Republican Party dominated by a more rural, more White, South and West, so the wishes of the rest of the country, more urban, more diverse, and more populated, are completely ignored while the country plunges deeper and deeper into economic malaise and social decay.
The national Common Core Standards are NOT responsible for current and future civil wars in Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan. They are NOT responsible for the political stalemate in Washington DC that has virtually incapacitated the Obama administration, preventing it from dealing with pressing economic, environmental, and social issues. But Common Core does share something with disasters overseas and at home. They all have roots in a mistaken concept of what it means to live in a democratic society.
The sad thing is that citizenship, democratic values, and preparation for an active role in a democratic society are at the core of many earlier state standards and are prominent in the curriculum goals of the National Council for the Social Studies. But these are being ignored in the Common Core push for higher test scores on math and reading exams.
The New York State curriculum standards being shunted aside by Common Core stressed citizenship throughout K-12 education with a Participation in Government class typically taken by students in the senior year of high school. This class was designed "to increase the student's awareness of their rights and responsibilities as a citizen" and "to engage students in the analysis of public policies and issues that are relevant to individual students."
Preparation for citizenship in a democratic society was a "major aim of education in the State of New York." Starting in Kindergarten students learned how the Constitutions of New York State and the United States and the Bill of Rights are the basis for democratic values in the United States. "This civic mission" was "based on the democratic idea that active citizenship in the form of political participation is essential to the health and well-being of both the person and the polity."
The National Council for the Social Studies took a similar stance in a 2001 task force report on revitalizing Citizenship Education.
According to the report
"National Council for the Social Studies believes that a primary goal of public education is to prepare students to be engaged and effective citizens. NCSS has defined an effective citizen as one who has the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to assume the "office of citizen" in our democratic republic . . . For our democracy to survive in this challenging environment, we must educate our students to understand, respect, and uphold the values enshrined in our founding documents. Our students should leave school with a clear sense of their rights and responsibilities as citizens. They should also be prepared to challenge injustice and to promote the common good."
The report specifically called on students to "embraces core democratic values and strives to live by them" while accepting "responsibility for the well-being of oneself, one's family, and the community" and to actively participate in civic and community life.
Democracy requires that Americans see themselves as citizens, not just consumers or employees. Common Core, by ignoring the fundamental values that make democracy possible, does education and the United States a tremendous disservice.
of Various Subjects