At the conclusion of a recent Twitter beef I had with a few very passionate teachers, I was compelled to quote the renowned fictional character Yoda of the Star Wars saga. The line was from a scene in The Phantom Menace in which a young Anakin Skywalker was being assessed to see if he was qualified to be trained as a Jedi. During the assessment, Yoda sensed fear in Anakin and informed him that “fear was the path to the dark side.” “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate, leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”
The issues surrounding so called Ed Reform conjure up some very powerful emotions amongst teachers. I entered the conversation because of what I considered to be the venomous bashing and blaming of Randi Weingarten for allegedly aligning with “enemy” Bill Gates, who many believe is the leader of the evil empire out to destroy public education.
I defended Randi. Not because I think she’s perfect, but because I believe in her leadership. She has fought for labor her entire career and she continues to fight against corporate and political enemies. A daunting task that might break even the best of us. She remains strong. She remains committed. And she remains unbroken. Healthy critique is always positive, but blame and personal attacks are juvenile and counterproductive.
During my Twitter beef I continuously asked the teachers a simple question: what is your plan? Actually the question is not that simple at all. It’s a question that can’t be answered without deep intellectual engagement and reflection — sometimes with those who oppose us. It’s a question that can’t be answered if we give into our fear. Our anger. Or dare I say, our hate. If we do give into these self destructive emotions, we are bound to embody the characteristics of oppressor ourselves.
I’m reminded of the words of Paulo Freire. Considered by many to be one of the most brilliant champions of social justice in the 20th century. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire consistently warned against intellectualism or activism in isolation. Stating: “It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organized struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves. This discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection: only then will it be a praxis.”
I’m concerned that the passionate comments shared by many teachers border on activism without serious reflection. Which might illustrate a giving into our anger which will not lead us to praxis. My goal is praxis. My goal is empowering those that I serve. My goal is the long term health and vitality of our historically oppressed people and communities. I am not concerned with insulting people. I am not concerned with playing the blame game. Let’s discuss ideas, values, beliefs, and expectations. And let’s organize and do something about it.
Jeet Heer also makes the point in a recent article in The Republic. Discussing the concept of pragmatism generally, but more specifically as it relates to the recent beef between Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson. Heer states: “Among the left, there is a hyper-pragmatism that is suspicious of abstract thought, that insists on myopic focus, that extols activism as the highest good, and that deplores any debate among intellectuals as a waste of time while the world grieves. Confronted by any sort of intellectual critique, activists hyper-pragmatism responds by saying this doesn’t matter.”
The point is, the Ed Reform conversation is much more nuanced. We need the activists and intellectuals. We need to march and reflect deeply. And guess what, we might need Bill Gates and Diane Ravitch together to move our agenda forward.
To be clear, I’m against annual high stakes testing tied to teacher evaluations. But I don’t have a problem with the common core standards themselves. Yes, I would’ve liked more teacher input, but as they are I think they can be useful. How else are new English and math teachers going to know what to teach? What else are they going to use to design curriculum? They need something to guide their knowledge of grade specific learning targets. I agree that in early childhood some of the standards are developmentally inappropriate and special Ed students and ELL’s are treated like crap with the new standards and system. There is no space to meet kids where they are intellectually and that is horrible Ed policy.
For the record, I began my career as an elementary school teacher. My school had 1500 K-4 students in one of the poorest communities in the South Bronx. I taught there for five years before moving on to teach and serve as a dean in a high school. During my first year, I was a K-4 math teacher and wasn’t given a single resource to begin my career. I took initiative to connect with colleagues and acquire books or something to guide my planning. The school also had four principals within the five years I was there. There was no rhyme and reason to curriculum and instruction and obviously kids performed poorly. Yes, definitely because of poverty, but also because the school was a hot freaking mess. There are schools like this all over the country. This gave the billionaires and politicians the ammunition to come in and take over. Further, any “curriculum,” more accurately called a program, given to me throughout my career, was published by a private company. Whether McGraw Hill, Pearson, Prentice Hall or others, private industry has been making billions off our kids for years. The fervor against this now is misplaced and seems more like activism.
Like Freire, I call on teachers and principals to be activists. Teaching is inherently political — especially in low income communities of color. I call on us to unite with parents, doctors, and other “servants” to transform community. If I had the power of the universe, I would focus on closing the language and executive function gap from conception to age five. I would do this by leveraging children’s services for parenting classes, dispatching a visiting nurse service to the homes to support parenting, I would implement Tools of The Mind nursery schools curriculum along with Montessori education through early childhood. Foreign language and technology would be a part of elementary curriculum and we will transition to interdisciplinary project based curriculum in the upper elementary and middle school years with heavy student voice and choice. The middle to high school years would be experiential, expeditionary, and driven by inquiry, collaboration, metacognition, creativity, and obviously critical thinking. We have to get literacy right and we have to mobilize the community to transform politics and create jobs. Ultimately, I want to graduate kids who possess empathy and are leaders and creators in the world.
Education should be designed for kids to find their element. To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson, our element is when our passion aligns with our talents and we feel in the zone. Said another way, school should be designed for students to self actualize. After this, lifelong learning takes care of itself.
Let’s begin to have local community and congressional meetings to continue to organize intellectually and actively. May the force be with us all!