This lesson is part of a larger vogue studies curriculum, a unit aimed at teaching ballroom scene history to the ballroom scene, other queer people of color, and our allies. The unit works on both discussing history and teaching vogue dance, combining the two to show a comprehensive history of the scene, and promote voguing as a tool of political action and resistance. In the stage in which it currently exists, the curriculum begins with outlining a basic timeline of ballroom scene history, then breaking down each point on that timeline for deeper inquiry. This lesson comes at the earlier part of the unit, just after the basic outline has been presented, and uses vogue’s initial foundation in Riker’s Island Prison as a starting point to understand and challenge the prison industrial complex:
1. Think Back: At the start of the lesson once participants have gathered, remind the group to think back onto the origins of vogue that they have just begun to learn about: “Where did voguing start? With whom, and how?” Ask participants to write down or share out all the details they can remember from earlier lessons and discussions, and make sure the group is on the same page by listing the details they share in a column to the board.
2. Intro and Explanation: Ask participants if they have ever heard of the term ‘the prison industrial complex’ before, and if possible work together to provide a definition for the group: “The P.I.C. is a term for a group of systems that work together to create violence in our communities, and rely on incarceration as the only answer to that violence. Today we will be talking together about how to better understand the P.I.C., how it relates to our own communities, and how we can challenge it. Ballroom scene history is key in giving us some examples which can help us answer these questions, as we will see soon. Angela Davis, a Black feminist and member of the movement to abolish prisons, has said that examining the experiences of the most marginalized members of the prison system can shed the greatest amount of light on the larger structure. Today we will be using vogue to look at our own experiences as queer people of color to expose the P.I.C. and think about how the creativity of our communities can be used to resist it.”
3. Visual Organizer: Pass out copies of the graphic organizer Transgender Youth and the Prison Industrial Complex–shown in the image to the right of the first paragraph (provided by the Prison Moratorium Project and FIERCE NYC.) Ask participants to take a view minutes to read the organizer to themselves, taking note of what they see, observations they can make, and any questions they have. When folks have had sufficient time, ask them to share out their observations, comments and questions, and add these to a new column on the board.
4. Making Connections: Briefly go over the entire organizer piece by piece, incorporating new observations and attempting to answer questions as a group. (Keep in mind at this stage in particular that sex work, homelessness and other points that appear on the organizer may be sensitive or controversial subjects, and that some present members are likely to have been or be navigating many of them. Approach their discussion honestly, attempting to make them visible and empowering, but also without forcing participants to talk about uncomfortable subjects or share beyond what they are willing to.) Once solid sense of the organizer has been made, ask participants: “How do the points on this organizer relate to our own community? How do they relate to the ballroom scene as we know it?” Give ample discussion time to this as a group, and make as many connections as possible from the ballroom scene to the points on the graphic organizer. Add these to the board, and ask participants to add them to their own organizers.
5. Transition: ” Discussing these connections is important because it shows us that even if the term P.I.C. is a new one for us, it is something that we and our communities have been struggling with and fighting against for a long time. As we move to the dancing portion of our workshop, we will leave the notes from our discussion up on the board. Keep them in mind, and as we are moving, think about how some of these themes show up in vogue movement, where you notice them and can find them, and how vogue works to challenge some of the problems we talked about today.” From here, transition into the movement activities planned for the day. Participants in the workshop will be learning the basics of the vogue styles of new way and vogue femme, so will most likely be practicing specific moves or working on improvisation. As participants are working together or receiving individual attention, try to work in discussion of the day’s themes as they relate to specific moves, styles, and ways of dancing. Try and keep the connection from the earlier discussions in the back of folks’ minds as they are dancing.
6. Closing: “Did folks think of any connections between the movement we worked on today and the discussions we began the workshop with?” Let folks share out any reflections or ideas that are on their minds. “Let’s return to the graphic organizers we were working with at the beginning of the day. Take a look back at them. The subtitle says, ‘disrupt the flow.’ How does voguing and the ballroom scene as a whole break up the flow between the pieces of this complex? How can we as a community use voguing in the future to keep challenging and disrupting this system?” As participants make suggestions, add them to a final column of concrete strategies for challenging the P.I.C. These could include anything from ‘sharing our knowledge’ and ‘teaching this history to our friends,’ to ‘using dance at a demonstration or protest’ and ‘supporting sex workers’ rights.’ While this is a challenging closing activity, push participants to come up with as many concrete strategies for resisting the P.I.C. as possible, and have a few examples ready in case the group gets stuck. Wrap up the workshop from there, and if you can, allow folks extra time to talk and practice further in the space if they need to stay longer.
“How do people who are starving go on a hunger strike? How do people who have no money boycott goods?” – Arundhati Roy, Field Notes on Democracy
Violence is a question which comes up almost inevitably when working with young people. As a teacher, mentor and tutor I’ve had to break up plenty of fights, many of them physical. Raised as I was, a middle-class person of color, I would often attempt to address these interactions through discussion and reflective mediation. In the conversations following altercations I would ask students what they thought the best way was to handle a conflict in our community–be it a classroom, school or other setting. This I hoped would help get students thinking about empathy, the kinds of relationships they wanted our community to be built with, and their role in nurturing them.
These conversations were sometimes a positive step towards fostering such thinking between students, addressing conflicts at their roots and encouraging students to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their own communities. Yet they were just as often ineffective, adding to students’ agitation and furthering the conflict. It were these failed attempts at resolution that often forced me to confront violence in our community in ways I had never been made to before.
Often in asking students to deal with conflict peaceably, responses would be, “My mother told me if someone hits me to hit them back,” or, “I’ll get in more trouble if I don’t hit them than if I do.” It became obvious that my approaches and assumptions about physical violence were not the same as many of my students, their families, and our larger community. After talking, I started to think more about what impact my upbringing had on my understanding of and ability to sidestep violence in my own life. I started to think about why I had been discouraged from fighting to resolve problems, both at home and at school, and why this had largely worked for me. I thought about family members of mine from different economic backgrounds who, while I had always abided by the rules of school, were suspended regularly for getting into physical fights. I thought about the complex range of reasons why someone might be encouraged to fight–from violent masculinity, to parenting, to the need for survival of their own surroundings–and how schooling does a very poor job of recognizing or engaging any of these. Just like the larger criminal justice system to which it is so inexorably tied, the immediate and obvious tactics employed by oppressed people to navigate the structures which oppress them is precisely what school targets for punishment, labeling them as the most offensive kinds of infraction.
In a recent talk on Indian economic history and the current struggles raging in the Kashmir region, Arundhati Roy spoke about the middle-classing and institutionalizing of feminism, and the complex nature of armed resistance. Non-violence, a political approach so associated with and romanticized in India’s past, is a tactic which requires a middle class, Roy argued. Non-violence on the part of the oppressed, she said, is only effective when there is a middle class to witness it, be made aware of injustice through its performance, and lean on their own power to sway economic and social tides. When a middle class isn’t watching, is distracted, doesn’t exist, or is otherwise uninvested in the struggles of the poor, non-violence is useless, and may even be deadly:
The debate about armed resistance versus non-violence, that one is moral and one is immoral, is really absurd, because…it’s immoral for [middle class] people who are in Delhi to tell a person whose village is being surrounded by a thousand security guards and burned and the women are being raped to be non-violent. It’s an immoral suggestion unless you are willing to go there and act in their defense…And while academics and historians and writers and journalists like to lay their morality on people, people, I have seen, can be Moaists in the forests and Gandhian in the street.
I have been thinking lately in conjunction with all of these points about the difference between violence and militancy–the difference between action which is destructive, and action which works consciously to destroy debasing and unjust systems. What will it take for us to imagine and create the ways of organizing that will be meaningful, effective and true to the vision of our communities, and how do we build them collectively, with every single member invested and involved? What role in this do parents and teachers have? What Roy’s talk suggests is not that non-violence is impotent or wrong, but that it is a tactic more than a philosophy. Sometimes it is useful, and sometimes other kinds of action are needed. Every day, oppressed people make their own decisions about what type of action will work for them, their families, their communities. It is this wisdom and understanding which our movements must learn to rely on.
This discussion is relevant for myself as an educator, because I need to think more deeply about the kind of action and political engagement I am making possible for the communities I teach with. I want to build healthy, communicative, supportive relationships in my classroom, my neighborhood, and wherever else I am doing work. But I also want to respect the wishes and perspectives of every member of my community, and teach the next generation militance, encourage young people to envision their own means of living, resisting and surviving in ways that have never occurred to me. How do we diverge from a status quo of sexist, racist and classist violence while encouraging militancy and resistance? How do we challenge systems of domination in ways which are sustainable, and authentic to ourselves?
Special thanks to Caitlin Sheehan.
I recently (finally) quit a job I had as an academic tutor at a magnet school in Chicago. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, magnet schools are public schools with ‘higher standards’ and ‘better reputations.’ They often receive different or more funding than traditional public schools, and one usually has to apply to get in. They were invented several decades ago in the wake of white flight, as a means of keeping cities’ wealthy inhabitants from completely fleeing to the suburbs and thus decimating urban economies. The school at which I worked had been converted into a magnet in the last five years, resulting in a sharp race, class and geographical contrast between the older students with whom I worked, and the younger ones, who tended to be whiter and wealthier.
Like most magnet schools, this one had a good reputation, and parents often worked hard to get their kids in, traveling at great expense from all over the city to get their kids to class. What I came to learn as a tutor is that the school’s good standing is based almost entirely on its higher-than-average Illinois Standard Achievement Test scores, the public school state test. The school’s environment and philosophy were pervaded not only by the desire for high scores, but the value of state-determined skills, and the ability of each individual student to meet them. Mandatory after school tutoring for “low” students, in-class skill drilling and other depressing measures were an integral part of the school culture, and while these attempts to raise scores can be witnessed at any public school in the months before a big test, the gusto with which this school pursued them, the pride it took and the genuine belief that it was positive for students was shocking to me. Its efforts were largely supported by parents–especially those of more privilege–and its regularly high scores secure its place as a “good school” within the failing system.
Though my stint at the school was difficult, it demonstrated the destructiveness of standardized testing in ways I had never imagined, and solidified for me the true dangers of acquiescing to the demands of the state. Upon leaving, I have been reflecting on what lessons I learned, and some of the new understandings I’ve gained about how standardized testing specifically exacerbates the struggles of our communities rather than addressing them:
Racism and Classism – It’s been long documented by critics of standardized testing that the thing their scores indicate with the most reliability are the race and class of the test takers. Whereas schooling itself makes certain assumptions about the resources, values, identities and experiences that belong to its students, standardized testing works to further entrench these assumptions rather than resist them. By deciding which students, schools and communities are failures, standardized testing reinforces the racial and economic segregation of school systems and individual school communities. “Low” and “high” become the inevitable descriptors, the two categories into which all students are sorted, the euphemisms for their entire identities as learners. Whom each category is comprised of tends not to be surprising, and how their scores allow them to be treated by teachers, staff and community members is not hard to guess. More and more evidence suggests that schools that are under the most pressure and state surveillance increasingly suspend and expel low performing students at higher rates, sometimes for the sole reason of raising the school’s scoring average. The stigma, lack of opportunities and resentment these students are made to bear only add to the pressure and prejudice they must face in their larger worlds.
Behavior – Any experienced educator can tell you that when students of any age are excited about what they are learning, engaged in determining what their own learning looks like, respected and esteemed by the learning community, and responsible for maintaining it as equal partners, the need for “discipline” all but goes away. Behavioral issues, and the tactics which teachers spend hours a week implementing to combat them, are mostly if not entirely the result of forcing students to learn in prescribed ways what is uninteresting and disempowering. The disjointed, shallow, and repetitive nature of standardized tests and their preparation eliminate student voices even further from the learning process, and gives educators even less opportunity to listen to and respond to the needs of their classrooms. The relevant, empowered and collaborative curricula our communities are starving for is made all but impossible to realize, and students naturally resist the force with which the state demands they conform to its own economic desires. The result is more disruptions, more frustration and alienation, more violence, more punishment, and more students suspended, demoralized, and fed into the prison system–an alternative which works just as well for the state.
Student Autonomy and Ability to Learn – It should go without saying that students are the most adversely affected by standardized testing. It denies them their creativity, ability to ask questions, to explore their own interests and pursue the knowledge which they deem relevant–all the things that should be at the foundation of any type of learning. That state testing removes these most fundamental characteristics makes it all the more difficult to see the bigger struggle: That public education itself, even when it is properly funded and supported, relies on the meek obedience of young people. It expects that adults will control their learning and make most of the decisions about what student participation should look like. The fight that is still in the midst of being fought, even when it’s being obscured, is the fight for an education envisioned, designed and controlled by its own students. Standardized testing also draws attention to this, for nothing educators, families and professionals are saying publicly now is any different from what young people in schools have been saying for years. If student voices counted for something, and if young people had a real say in the structuring of their own learning, standardized testing would have been nixed decades ago.
Bullying – Blogger Amanda Levitt wrote poignantly on her site this last year that the superficial attention we tend to give bullying–telling bullies to play nice, and reminding the bullied it gets better–fails to understand bullying as a symptom of a violent and prejudiced social order, one for which we all need to be held accountable. Bullying is not individual kids being mean, but the aggression, sexism, harassment, queerphobia, racism, classism, ableism and fat phobia young people have learned in other places coming into practice. This astute observation needs to be tied to the reality of standardized testing. Not only does state testing reestablish the hierarchy and judgement of the larger order–the state dominating teachers, teachers dominating students, high and low students dominating one another–but it discourages the critical conversations necessary to realize and challenge those orders. Standardized testing not only teaches bullying, but constricts our ability to do what we ought to do to address it at its roots. And try facilitating timely, supportive, ongoing reflections on big social issues and our ability to combat them, when the future of your job–and your school–depends on a test there’s no way to prepare for.
Community Health – Given all the other dynamics and values which testing evokes, it should be logical that is in no way healthy for the members of learning communities. On all levels, it eliminates people’s ability to advocate for themselves, express their needs, and to reshape those things which are not meeting them. It demands, in fact, that communities place the wants of the state before their own most basic desires, and ruthlessly punishes those who do not comply. It expects exhaustion, rewards silence, and fosters undeniable resentment, racism, classicism and hatred. It teaches young people to hate school, hate their teachers, hate “learning” as defined by what the state forces them to digest. It teaches teachers to hate their students for resisting what they are required to teach them, and to hate one another either for complying themselves, or else pushing back and making life difficult for the school. It breeds suspicion, anxiety and stress across the community, pitting parents against educators, neighborhoods against schools. It banishes, it cuts off resources, it sends people to jail. It undermines and destroys learning communities, plain and simple, and has no place in an education aiming for relationships of support and compassion.
The dynamics I have described here were each a part of daily life in the school at which I recently stopped working. They represent a model which is being ramped up by the state and private sectors, despite protest, overwhelming public opposition, and the obvious consequences for our communities. The struggle for public education is approaching a tipping point. Further resistance, action and solidarity are needed to demand an education controlled by the people, not by business and not by the state.
Hip hop activist Rosa Clemente recently posted a video response to a Rick Ross lyric on emcee Rocko’s new mixtape The Gift of Gab 2. The line goes, “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it/I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” Clemente calls for more than petitioning, facebooking, or an attack on the finances of mainstream artists and their record labels, but for new action and a change in our relationships. She calls for women and men in the community to denounce rape culture, and for the leaders and elders of hip hop to speak out against its hold on lyricism. She asks that we actively teach young people to combat rape culture, and create a climate of respect for women and for consent that starts early.
I was moved by Clemente’s video, but also by her ability to react immediately to unacceptable forms of violence, and her push to address and hold responsible the perpetrators of rape in our communities while also understanding rape culture as larger than just male, just heterosexual, just hip hop, and just the hood. I wanted to share her video and share her tenacity. How can we learn to organize ourselves so that we are ready to respond to any threat to our communities, be it violent, economic, cultural or spiritual? Where do we find the strength to be alert to all forms of injustice as they are perpetrated against us? I believe if we could react this fiercely, cohesively and compassionately whenever we or our people are under attack, it would be much harder for the powers that be to mess with us.
A group of good friends of mine and I had a long talk the other night about segregation in Chicago, and the different communities with which we associate. The conversation got complicated when we each started describing which neighborhoods in the city we frequent normally, where we feel most comfortable and where we don’t. Eventually we got to the question: Is it racist or classist to avoid an entire region, like the South Side for example, because you don’t feel safe there? Many in the group maintained that no, it is not; The South Side is dangerous, has higher instances of gang violence, queer bashing and crime than other regions of Chicago. The fact that it is largely Black and has overwhelmingly less resources than other parts of the city has nothing to do with the choice to avoid it. Others pointed out that the feelings they had about certain parts of the South Side were the same ones they had about certain blocks and areas in their own neighborhoods in other parts of the city. Some streets are ghetto, some hoods are ratchet, be they Black, Brown, immigrant or poor, and it is real instances of danger which dissuade folks from spending time there, not the specific identities of residents.
In Chicago, CPS and the mayor-appointed school board continue to push forward a plan to close 50 public schools in the next year, largely in poor Black and Brown neighborhoods, despite community protest, resistance and activism. The city is also, as it is often reported, the current murder capital of the U.S., not merely in terms of the sheer number of violent deaths, but also for murders of those younger than 18. The coinciding of these facts is not coincidental. It has been pointed out again and again by families, experts and community members that the best way to predict rises in violence in a community is by noting how many social services have been cut from it. When jobs leave, welfare is rescinded, access to housing is disbanded, clinics are shut down, and programs lose their funding, real outlets which support, empower and unite communities are shut off, leaving members to look for other ways to sustain themselves, instate their power, and relieve the stresses of daily life–stresses which increase as resources diminish. The question of school closings, then, is not simply about access to education and employment for oppressed communities, but is an issue of life and death. And just as Arne Duncan loves to talk about closing failing schools to give children the education they deserve, but never explains how a system of public education allows any of its schools to fail, the bald distinction of good and bad, failing and successful, blames oppressed people and communities for the conditions they’ve actively been made to endure.
How we understand and talk about these issues as they relate to our own communities has everything to do with how we react, respond and resist their occurrence. Our inevitable discussions of good and bad blocks, good and bad schools, good and bad regions, allows us to paint each of our communities in certain lights without ever asking how and why they got to be that way. It naturalizes poverty, crime, hunger and unemployment, as though certain populations were just more prone to them. It makes it seem as though violence is a mere cultural or regional difference, as opposed to how individuals respond to the social and economic rug being wrenched out from under them. It obscures the fact that law enforcement and policing protect certain populations by containing and instigating violence in others. (Why do we imagine that the best way to stop gun violence is by sending in more people with guns?) It allows us to believe that class and race have little to do with how resources are distributed, instead of being deeply embedded in the economies, real-estates, and geographies of our cities.
‘Ghetto,’ ‘safe,’ ‘cheap,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘nice,’ ‘upscale,’ ‘gang-related,’ ‘abandoned,’ and ‘good’ are all code words for the inequities which exist between different communities–inequities which we know run along predictable lines of class, ethnicity, ability and educational access. They are codes which mask not only the conversations about injustice we are attempting to have, but also the forces and factors which are the root causes of those injustices. When we say a neighborhood is getting ‘better,’ we don’t mean it’s getting better for its original residents. We mean that certain populations and the social ills they’ve had foisted on them are being forced somewhere else. More and more, they are being forced from the city altogether. They are pushed by corporations who pay no taxes, and by the business interests of politicians. They are pushed by the real-estate market, and the belief that one actually gets rid of poverty by getting rid of poor people. Every conversation we have which ignores the fact that violence and a lacking of resources are forced onto our communities, not native to them, supports this belief system.
Yet perhaps the greatest barrier to justice the good/bad dichotomy poses is that it teaches us to see other oppressed people as foreign. It builds boarders between ourselves and communities of other races and classes, but also between those in our own communities who need our compassion and support, whose suffering under the same regimes of austerity looks different than our own. As long as we turn our fear, stress and anxiety on one another, we will never be able to turn our rage, creativity and strength on those who starve our communities. As long as we see each other as alien, we will never be able to build our collective force for radical structural change. We cannot fight back if we are constantly fighting each other. Instead of thinking of violence as normal for someone else, let’s see it as demoralizing and destructive for everyone, an issue we need to understand as belonging to our whole communities if we are to dismantle the systems which make it appear natural.
Teachers for Social Justice in collaboration with Rethinking Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union will be hosting the 12th Annual Teaching for Social Justice Curriculum Fair tomorrow, Saturday the 17th of November at a new location, Kenwood Academy High School. There will be speakers, exhibitions, and free curricula and materials made available all day, and check out some of the amazing workshops on the schedule. You can preregister online here. I’m so hyped!
12th Annual Teaching for Social Justice Curriculum Fair
November 17th, 2012
Kenwood Academy High School
5015 S. Blackstone
10am to 5pm
Many of the educators I’ve been working with this semester have been challenging me to think more critically about the expectations and requirements placed on teachers in public classrooms. They have been pushing me not to accept the limitations and barriers in public schooling, but to devise concrete strategies for using them as a framework from which empowering discussions and lessons can be constructed. What follows is a potential lesson plan that could be used to frame a social studies classroom or unit, acknowledging the material required to be learned by the state. It is a starting place which might lead a community not to resign itself to the assigned material, but to imagine as a collective how to creatively approach that material in ways which render it useful, instead of limiting. This lesson would most likely work best with middle or high school students.
1. Freewrite: At the start of the lesson, the quotation “History is a Weapon” will be written up on the board. Ask students to take five minutes and do a freewrite response to what they see: “What does this statement mean? What history is it referring to? What does the word ‘weapon’ mean here?” (5 mins)
2. Share Out: Ask a few students to go around and share what they wrote for their freewrite responses, trying to get as many different perspectives on the quote as you can. Allow students to respond to each other’s responses, and gauge where the group stands in their understanding and approach to the quote, and the questions it raises for this particular group. (5 mins)
3. Introduction: “Today we will be starting our first social studies unit of the year. Before we do so, however, we need to create our own framework for how we as a community are going to approach the social studies. In other words, we need to come up with our own ideas and guidelines which we can use to help us understand all the new subjects we address here together. The exercises we do today are going to help us get there.” (5 mins)
4. Think-Pair-Share: “Let’s read this new quote out loud together and take a moment to discuss it:”
History isn’t what happened, but a story of what happened. And there are always different versions, different stories, about the same events. One version might revolve mainly around a specific set of facts while another version might minimize them or not include them at all.
We cannot simply be passive. We must choose which perspectives will help us move forward: those which teach us to keep things going as they are or those which push us to work to make a better world. If we choose the latter, we must seek out the tools we will need. History is just one tool to shape our understanding of our world. And every tool is a weapon if you hold it right. (Paraphrased from the introduction to the History Is A Weapon website.)
“Take a minute to reread and to think on your own about what this new quote is telling us. At the end of a minute, turn to a partner and tell them any thoughts you are having about any part of the quote—ways you agree or disagree, ideas it is giving you, or anything else. When we are done talking in partners, we will come back as a big group to discuss our thoughts all together.” When the collective regroups, use the discussion to give students ample time to dig in, disagree, and deeply process some of the complex ideas of history as a weapon. Return again to the use of the word ‘weapon,’ and conscientiously underline the idea of a tool of empowerment, not violence against people or communities. Don’t move on until this concept has been given adequate attention. (15 mins)
5. Demonstrate: “We are now ready to come up with some of our own guidelines as to how to make history—all the different subjects we will be addressing in the social studies here together—into a weapon, a tool for empowerment and change.” Go to the board and begin do draft some initial guidelines for all to see, based on the previous discussion. Title the guidelines ‘How to Make History a Weapon.’
“We said in our discussion that we have to learn to look at events from many perspectives, and begin to ask questions about what those perspectives teach us, and why different people come to different conclusions about the same event. I think these are some great first guidelines.” Add these initial guidelines at the top of the list.
How to Make History a Weapon
- Look at every new idea and event from multiple perspectives
- Ask why each different perspective exists
Ask students if they are satisfied with these guidelines for how our collective will approach the social studies. (5 mins)
6. In Partners: “What we are going to do now is work with a partner and try to add on to this list. Use your freewrite, the second History is a Weapon quote, and our discussion to help you come up with a few of your own ideas about how we can make history into a weapon. After a few minutes we will return back and share what we’ve come up with.” Give students as long as possible to come up with some of their own steps and guidelines, circulating and supporting any groups that get stuck or confused. (8 mins)
7. Drafting Our Guidelines: “Let’s share out all the new guidelines we’ve come up with.” As students make new suggestions, add them to the original list:
How to Make History a Weapon
- Look at every new idea and event from many perspectives
- Ask why each different perspective exists
- Ask how new information will change our own perspectives
- Ask what kind of action we can take based on new information
- Learn and be knowledgeable of the history of our own community
- Learn and be knowledgeable of the history of other communities that share our struggles
- Ask how new information relates to our own community, and to ourselves
- Learn and be knowledgeable of many perspectives, not just our own or people like us
8. Closing: “Why is having these guidelines important? How will we use them in the future?” Give students a few moments to share their thoughts, and to reflect on the significance of what they have just created as a group. “What we have just done is come up with our own guiding framework which will help us approach and analyze every new concept and event we learn about together in social studies. When we have time, we can write up and decorate this list, and put it up where we can all see it. We can also keep adding to this list as the year goes on. Every time we begin a new unit, or take on a new topic, we can return to these guidelines and use them to help us approach that topic as something which can empower us to make change.” (5 mins)
I have been performing my graduate observations this semester at a Mexican cultural school, housed within another larger CPS school. The cultural school was started in the 1990s by a small group of artists, teachers and community members local to the immediate neighborhood. It was founded with a focus on small class size and arts-based curricula, all with an emphasis on Mexican/Xican@ culture and history. The school is completely bilingual, and most of the teachers and staff are Xican@ and fluent Spanish speakers. Yet of all the truly remarkable things about the school, one of the most notable, and rare in any CPS school, is the constant presence of parents and other adult community members throughout the school day.
The school houses an adult learning center on its first floor. This unique organization, though it exists as a nonprofit independent of school funding, was founded by teachers, parents and community members only a few years after the school itself was created. The catalyst for the center’s beginning was a recognition on the part of parents and community members that none of their families’ educational needs could be met if other immediate threats to their health and wellbeing were not actively and simultaneously addressed. The neighborhood in which the school is located is largely poor and working-class, and is home to a large number of recent and undocumented Mexican immigrants. The parents who founded and continue to staff the center advocated for GED, English language and basic literacy courses–all the things they understood to be necessary for their own survival in the local economy. They fought for funding which could provide free classes, and free childcare during those classes–a complete necessity to making their own learning possible. In 2012 the center is staffed by volunteer and partially paid parents and community members, and serves around 300 adult learners weekly, from neighborhoods all over the west side, with and without children in the local schools. It features all the original courses, plus dance, aerobics, and workshops on understanding rights and protections for immigrant communities. The center also actively refers those in need to trustworthy legal and financial counselors, and provides emergency resources for any families struggling with bills or other basic requirements. As a result, an incredibly vibrant adult learning community exists in the school space, and parents and families are familiar and welcome in the school at all times.
In my years as a tutor, school staff member and student of education, I have heard it bemoaned on innumerable occasions (usually by wealthy and/or white educators) that poor and Brown parents are completely uninvolved in their children’s schools, and actually do not care about their children’s education. These frustrations are usually expressed based on white, middle-class markers of parent involvement–joining the PTA, chaperoning and organizing school events, fundraising, and showing up to teacher conferences. The idea that parents who don’t exhibit some or all of these behaviors are indifferent about their children’s futures is, of course, culturally biased, and a failure to recognize the mountain of reasons why poor, working, immigrant and Brown people may be unable or unwilling to participate in their kids’ schools in such ways. Yet aside from being deeply bigoted, this accusation misses an even larger point: That the greatest advocates for the education of oppressed communities have always been the allied members of those communities.
In his recently published piece The Struggle for Black Education, Brian Jones notes that claims that Black parents are uninvested in their children’s learning are particularly ludicrous and offensive. Not only have Black parents fought harder than anyone in U.S. history for the educational rights of Black kids, but, Jones argues, they have also been key pioneers in the formation of U.S. public education itself. From underground schools and lessons held during slavery, to the demand that the state provide funding for schools for ex-slaves during reconstruction–a novel idea at that point in U.S. history. From freedom schools in the Jim Crow south, to the battle for integration across the nation in the 1950s and 60s–a struggle which Black communities understood to be as much about a redistribution of resources as equal access to quality education. Only this last Friday, I joined several hundred Black and Latin@ parents and community members in a vocal rally outside of the Chicago mayor’s office to protest the forced closings of up to a hundred neighborhood schools, proposed by the Emanuel administration for the coming school years. Similar legacies of struggle exist in virtually every ethnically, culturally, geographically and economically oppressed population in U.S. history, and continue into the present. The notion that any demographic of parents doesn’t care about its kids should be fundamentally questioned, but especially when said demographic has advocated for its kids over generations in ways that business, the state, and the classes who control them never have.
I believe that what the model at the school in which I am observing suggests is not a unique commitment on the part of a particular group of parents, or the clever organizing of administrators or policy makers. Indeed, members of this adult learning program are adamant that standard school models which try to incorporate adult learning are based entirely on “student achievement”–meaning standardized test scores and college entrance–and incorporate parents not as esteemed community members but as poisonous influences who need reprogramming on the part of middle class educators. What makes this model special is that it is community designed, created and controlled, and that it understands the learning needs expressed by every member of that community to be necessary for building a truly inclusive and effective learning model–for every student, in every capacity, at every age. Instead of bewailing the lack of parent and family involvement, educators may want to ask how current models of education conceal the ways in which parents are deeply involved in their children’s learning, and how traditional schooling may stand in the way of meeting the real needs of oppressed communities.
The reasons that oppressed parents hold colonial models of education at arms length are the same ones which alienate, dissolution and disrespect oppressed students. When we as communities control our own classes, our own learning spaces, and determine for ourselves on a local level what an empowered and relevant education should look like, I think it highly unlikely that we will be accused of being lazy, absent, or indifferent again.
There is a great tradition in Chicago of Saturday schools–classes, programs and workshops led by community organizations and members on Saturday mornings and afternoons. Most prominent and ongoing in immigrant communities, especially in Polish and Greek neighborhoods, many of these programs started as a means of addressing the needs of immigrant students which were not being met in the larger school system, and of maintaining cultural practices in a new city. They commence in religious temples, halls, lodges, and the homes and apartments of community members. Often placing a heavy emphasis on language, many of these schools also teach history, dance, folklore, art, music, and a host of skills which have not been taken up or given the same value by the public schools. While some of them have been absorbed by larger projects and after school programs, many of them remain as they began, run by the community for the community, with the intent of providing for students what the system cannot, and keeping cultural bonds alive.
One of the last events I participated in before moving to Chicago was a vogue workshop I co-organized with one of my close friends. He, a youth organizer and dance teacher, encouraged me to lead a workshop for a queer youth group he coordinates in one of the local cities. I agreed, and the studio where he teaches dance classes provided the space. On the day of the event we gathered as a group in the studio, and before we began dancing, sat to have an introductory discussion about the art from–which was originally created by incarcerated TLBG folks, and exported to a larger scene of poor, working, immigrant and Brown queers. We talked about the roles of trans folks, homeless people, and youth in the development of the form. We talked about sex workers and their important relationship to the ballroom scene, and to voguing. We debated the role of the mainstream in propelling and diluting the art form, and addressed many more complicated questions as a group. By the time we were ready to dance, I was feeling energized and ecstatic about the enthusiasm of the gathering, and the purpose with which the participants were taking on the challenge. And I found myself wondering, why haven’t I tried something like this earlier?
I am currently enrolled in an Elementary Education masters program, and so asking all kinds of questions about the nature of learning and school. What teaching the vogue workshop helped me to remember is what oppressed communities relearn every day: The systems which are in place to educate us, like those which exist to house, feed, and clothe us, have been designed to limit our abilities as thinkers, organizers and community members, not nurture them. If we can recognize this, then whose approval our we waiting for? Whose credentialing? Whose funding? Whose licensure? Our survival thus far has depended on our finding ways around the structures which indoctrinate our minds, appropriate our resources and denigrate our spirits. Our traditions persist because we have found so many gaps through which to smuggle them, cracks in the walls where enough light gets through to keep them growing. It is in these openings where the most valuable kinds of learning happen–in the kitchen, on a basketball court, at a house party, a family gathering, a church service, the playground, the street corner. Even as educators who work in the public sector, the kinds of teaching we are obligated to perform, the skills we are assessed on, are easily the least significant kind of knowledge building we engage in. How do we keep finding these cracks and embellishing them?
This is not to say there are not real limitations to and obstacles in the way of radical education and organizing. Earning a living, and the bodies which oversee those transactions, are one concern. Finding the time, the funding, the support and resources to do what needs to be done may be another. Yet isn’t it precisely the traditions we hope to pass on, the knowledge we already rely on for our daily survival, which point out how we can evade those limitations, and do the work which is most meaningful to us, and empowering of our people? Instead of seeing ourselves as running on a deficit, can’t we start to notice the resources we already share amongst us–the spaces for learning which it is already within our power to create–without anyone’s funding, without anyone’s approval but our own?
We know that schooling–as distinct from learning–does not welcome certain kinds of knowledge, does not share certain political commitments, does not have the capacity to acknowledge all the kinds of learning that its participants are engaging in constantly. So why do we continue to imagine it as the primary place where teaching should happen? Feminist scholar and education philosopher Nel Noddings has written controversially on what she calls the importance of engaging students in self-defined learning. On talking to a student who says he hates math, she writes: “What matters to me, if I care, is that he find some reason, acceptable to his inner self, for learning the mathematics required of him or he reject it boldly and honestly.” I suggest that we fight to find ways of teaching, learning, and engaging our whole communities which struggle to bring about the exact kind of education we desire, and that if the structures in place deny any of our vision’s necessary components, we reject them boldly and honestly, and work on building our own.
“The classroom shares a genealogy with the technology of the prison.” – Dylan Rodriguez
The Chicago Teachers’ Strike represented both a galvanizing and fracturing shift in the U.S. political discourse, whose unexpected occurrence revealed both rifts and allegiances which are usually left masked. Newspapers and media sources held up as bastions of “liberal” thought were shown to be as biased and uninformed as their “conservative” counterparts. Political parties were revealed to be far less uniform in opinion on the subject of workers’ rights, and their leaders to hold far more beliefs and commitments in common than their campaign ads might let on. Communities which see themselves as aligned saw themselves splitting, and groups which rarely acknowledge one another became allies. The myth of our democracy, that the U.S. should and does always fight for the little guy, became troubled. Who the little guy was–Teachers? Students? Families? Schools?–became ambiguous, and how to fight for him–Federal funding? Charters? Unions?–became equally unclear.
As a participant in some of the pickets in my neighborhood, and rallies across the city, one of the most surprising points of solidarity I saw growing was between the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Police Union. While truck drivers, sanitation and postal workers, and countless others honked their horns and shouted their support while driving past the picket lines in front of local schools, I was shocked to see how often patrol cars also honked and their passengers waved. At rallies where officers were present as crowd control, they gave space to the participants, did little to provoke responses or undermine the events, and even occasionally spoke with members of the Union and showed open support for the gatherings. I don’t know that I can recall any other kind of political movement in which I have been involved–ones which, like the Teachers Strike, included labor, anarchists, pacifists and members of the occupy movement–in which police were not seen as immediate enemies, and were even thought of as distant partners in the struggle. This solidarity was exciting for me, as I come from a military family, and have relatives who have long been involved in law enforcement. The ways in which many communities I am connected to have traditionally demonized the police has always been a problem for me, as I know how officers suffer many of the same frustrations, economic oppressions, and lack of opportunity as those they have been designated to police. Even so, the unexpected bonds between unionized workers that arose during the strike, while I found encouraging, also caused me to question what it was about this movement that made it seemingly easy to call on the police as allies, and which voices might be missing within those bonds.
Seeing public school teachers and police as tied through their identities as working people and unionized labor is a potentially new way of understanding their relationship. That being said, it leads to new questions about their ties as state employees, overseers for oppressed communities, and participants (willing or unwilling) in the school-to-prison pipeline. The criminalization of oppressed youth through the institution of schooling–implemented through one-strike policies, the handling of discipline with outside law enforcement agents, and high-stakes tests which encourage the suspension of underperforming students–has skyrocketed over the past two decades. As a result, schools have increasingly become the starting point from which many oppressed youth begin their journeys through the court and prison systems. This is difficult for our national culture to come to terms with, as schooling is often described as the antidote for high incarceration rates. Experts often cite the increased likelihood of those who don’t graduate high school to end up in prison, and “Fund Schools Not Prisons” is a common call. Indeed, many of the key characteristics of the school-to-prison pipeline were precisely what the demands of the Teachers’ Strike were attempting to combat. Yet what is it about the nature of public schooling that lends itself to be linked so seamlessly with the prison industrial complex? What do these institutions have in common at their foundations that make them remarkably similar in many of the mechanisms they employ, the myths they purport, and the kind of society they produce?
The solidarity which arose between the CTU and Chicago Police grew from multiple points; A shared local history of class and geography; Similar grievances against the city which the Police Union has filed in recent months; The fight for unionized labor that almost all working people are currently struggling with. Yet I wonder if the ability of these two parties to recognize and support one another might indicate the deeper connections between the systems they represent; The need to protect and promote the economic interests of the powerful, which public schooling and law enforcement have both historically served; The pervasive cultural belief that teachers and police are revered guardians, and the difficult realization that they may be the opposite; The complexities of being an oppressed person who is simultaneously empowered by the state to restrain, regulate and indoctrinate other oppressed communities; The fraught relationships to their own communities that both educators and police grapple with. The shows of solidarity between public educators and police have just as much to teach about these joined realities as they do about workers’ rights and union power.
Radical educator Dylan Rodriguez has said that one of the primary points he tries to stress to his undergraduate Ethnic Studies students is that the classroom as a space is not designed to accept them as they are. Its purpose is to colonize, and it is vested with the mechanisms needed to shape its subjects into the tools of their conquerers. How would public schooling change if imparting this kind of information was a pedagogical commitment in every classroom? As the links between the lives of teachers and police grow stronger, what will these links teach all of us about our relationships to systems of power, and how those relationships must change if we are to effectively oppose them?