Archive | June, 2013

In Class the Monday After Pride Weekend

30 Jun


Happy Pride weekend everyone!  This is a time to celebrate the struggle for sexual and gender equality for all people. However, as this post at ColorLines points out, “for too many queer and transgender folks, the heightened visibility that comes along with Pride can also attract unwanted attention.”   Most schools are not in session right now, but for folks  like me who are teaching summer classes, it might be a good idea to take a few minutes  this weekend to think about how we will address issues of gender and sexuality in the classroom on Monday  morning, and how we will deal with any homophobic bullying if it comes up.

Some of our LGBTQ students may be participating in the Pride parades, and other students may be curious, questioning, supportive, critical, or hostile after seeing the parades on TV or on the streets.  This is a possible teachable moment, a chance to build solidarity and awareness in the classroom, as long as we prepare ourselves to facilitate respectful and meaningful discussions.  This post will attempt to help with that, and will also share some suggestions for how to approach these issues year round.

Let’s start with some context

As Colorlines reports,

“Across the country, recent hate crimes against members of the queer community have made national headlines. In New York City, the murder of 33-year-old Mark Carson in the iconic West Village neighborhood prompted some of the largest rallies for LGBT rights that the city’s seen in years.”

Unfortunately, this kind of oppression is rampant in US. schools:

“According to recent gay bullying statistics, gay and lesbian teens are two to three times as more likely to commit teen suicide than other youths. About 30 percent of all completed suicides have been related to sexual identity crisis. Students who also fall into the gay, bisexual, lesbian or transgendered identity groups report being five times as more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe after being bullied due to their sexual orientation. About 28 percent out of those groups feel forced to drop out of school altogether. Although more and more schools are working to crack down on problems with bullying, teens are still continuing to bully each other due to sexual orientation and other factors.”

As teachers, how can we confront this bullying and build solidarity with our LGBTQ students?  The federal Department of Education announced this week that it is proposing that schools collect data about anti-gay bullying, in the hope that this will encourage teachers to intervene more directly to stop it.  Some teachers might grumble that this is just one more top-down imposition pushing us to do the impossible with dwindling resources.  But we should be confronting bullying anyway – out of care for our students, not because of the feds. And if we don’t have the resources to do this, we should organize ourselves to demand  access to them.

When our students say “that’s so gay”


These ads are witty, but they miss the problem: people don’t say “that’s so gay” because they’re ignorant, they say it because gay people have less power in the classroom; that is what needs to change.

This document by the San Francisco Unified School District contains some useful suggestions for how we can respond when we hear students say things like “that’s so gay”, referring to something they don’t like.  This is not a matter of policing students’ language; it is a matter of power.  Once, one of  my students described a particular rapper he didn’t like as a “faggot” and I challenged him on it.  Instead he said, “okay, then… he’s a homosexual.”  This doesn’t make it any better -the underlying assumption is still there: homosexuality is synonymous with weakness and gay folks are considered a group that is easy to dominate or ostracize.

In other words, what matters are the power dynamics behind the language.  Teachers need to be perceptive to see how students use words in social context, and to challenge them at this level; this is much more useful than verbally scanning for certain slurs and banning them from the classroom without discussion.   The root problem is that many students see LGBTQ identity as something negative, and LGBTQ people as legitimate targets of harassment and bullying.  So they can casually refer to music, books, tests, or people they don’t like as “gay” without really thinking about it.  This is what needs to be challenged.  If the teacher remains silent, this sends the message that the school as an institution is validating the dominance of straight students over LGBTQ students.  Our silence is not neutral; it screams our casual, flippant endorsement of social relations that make the classroom less accessible to LGBTQ students.  It contributes to a culture of silence where LGBTQ students might be less likely to come to us for support if they are facing bullying.  For all of these reasons, we should speak up.

Of course, this is a process over time;  we can’t just  harshly call out our students and then walk away.  We need to build respectful relationships with our students so that they will actually care when we explain why we think they should change their behavior.  A big part of that means listening to what they say and taking their ideas seriously on a daily basis; that way, if we challenge their language they won’t perceive it as us just shutting them down or imposing our politics on them, which happens all too often in schools.   Also, LGBTQ students are not passive in these situations; they are not voiceless victims who we need to save.   If we have all built an overall classroom culture based on respectful discussion, then students will hopefully have the confidence to speak up and call out  homophobic language or behavior themselves.  This can be more meaningful than the us as teachers lecturing about it, and if students speak up we should affirm that.  However, if noone does, we have a responsibility to intervene and should not hold back out of fear of imposing our views on the class.

“It gets better”? 

Mainstream,  middle class gay rights approaches to school bullying often emphasize the message  of the “It Gets Better” videos; these videos aim to tell  youth that they can go on to overcome this bullying and can achieve respected middle class lifestyles as they get older.  This message was taken up by the Seattle Police, an institution that spends far more time sending  students to juvie based on racial profiling than it does defending any of them from anti-gay attacks. (The SPD’s stance  was parodied in this video after a case of police brutality at last year’s Seattle pride.)

In any case, the “it gets better” message overlooks the particularly devastating effects of bullying on transgender folks, from higher suicide rates to long-term unemployment.  It also overlooks the fact that a middle class, respectable lesbian or gay lifestyle is increasingly unattainable for most working class LGBTQ youth.   The ongoing economic crisis is driving up the youth unemployment rate and is hitting non-white youth the hardest.

This will not change through positive thinking, it will only change through struggle against the system.  As my friends wrote during last year’s pride: “it doesn’t get better, we rebel to make it better.”    The “it gets better videos” make it seem like students can simply ignore the bullying in order to focus on getting the academic skills they need from school in order to go onto college and a rewarding career.  But given the socioeconomic reality most of our students are facing, they need  more than pre-professional academic skills.  They need classrooms where they can learn how to organize, struggle, and fight for themselves and each other.

As teachers, we can start by learning and teaching the history of struggles such as the Stonewall Riots which kicked off the LGBTQ liberation movement.  This was not a court case conducted by lawyers or a parade organized by well-funded nonprofits with middle class leadership.  It was an uprising started by working class queer folks, including transgender folks and people of color, fighting against police brutality.

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“I set myself an assignment, to get every race united”

28 Jun
A young intellectual's rejection of institutional education

A page from a young intellectual’s notebook

This poem was written by one of my students, and I am sharing it with his permission.  He self-identifies as indigenous, from Oaxaca and South Park.    In this poem, he talks about how school reproduces white supremacy, and concludes that in order to stop this he needs to set himself an assignment, to unite the  races against the system, replacing the rich white people’s state apparatus with multi-racial “self-government”.

In my experience, this poem is a solid representation of a growing anti-racist and anti-capitalist philosophical tendency among the youth I work with, most of whom have dropped out or fallen behind in school.  I have met dozens of students like this author, who are tired of the Eurocentric curriculum, high stakes testing, and discipline of the schools.  They say these exist only to prepare them for non-existent jobs or mountains of college debt they will never pay back.

They say they are tired of the beef  (conflicts) that high school concentrates, where the classrooms become like  prison yards dividing and conquering Blacks vs. Mexicans vs. Natives, with the help of police who instigate this violence in the name of  controlling gangs.   They are also struggling to create an  intellectual milieu of  thinkers who are willing to learn from each other, through hip hop, independent  social media,  some critical engagement with anarchist and communist revolutionary literature, and  social movements like Occupy, anti-police brutality protests, etc.   At times, this intellectual tendency  is expressed as criticism of current events (such as the Seattle media’s portrayal of May Day protestors mentioned in this poem), and other times it is expressed as conspiracy theories about the Illuminati (which can go in either left wing or right wing directions).

While some teachers and other adults may dismiss this author because of his stridency, his “slang”, or his spelling errors, they would be missing out on a chance to understand the frustrations, the ideas, and the desires of one of the people who will be most likely to create  movements that will shake this society to it’s core.

I also want to mention that some of the students who reject and criticize school also defend their schools from budget cuts and other neoliberal attacks; students have walked out on this basis across the country.   Some have emphasized they want some stability in their lives, and are looking for this in classrooms which they don’t want disrupted by school closings and repeated teacher layoffs and transfers.  Isn’t it possible to desire this stability while still rebelling against the control and conformity that come along with it under the current system?

In any case, if these youth can manage to create ways to learn and “do their research” together as this poem says, they just may be able to develop the theories and strategies necessary to start a movement.  And that movement might flow back into the classrooms, shaking up the education system in some necessary ways.  It just might infuse classroom discussions with a defribulator’s voltage  of critical, social creativity and self-government – enough to break through  the schools’ control systems, creating more freedom for all of us.

Reading for Revolution (Parts 1 and 2)

26 Jun

I recently wrote two articles on struggles for critical literacy, which I posted over on the Black Orchid Collective blog.  These are part of a 3 part series called “Reading for Revolution”.  The first article, “Steal the Ability to Read this Book”,  makes a case for seizing the reading skills that slave-masters and capitalist bosses have systematically denied oppressed communities.  It also highlights the importance of literacy in revolutionary movements historically and today:

There is a reason why the slave masters made it illegal for slaves to learn to read.  In the hands of  oppressed people,  written words can be revolutionary.  They were back then, and they still are today.

Of course, the written word would not be powerful without the spoken word.  Spoken words have always been a weapon of struggle, from the storytelling of the West Africangriots through tales of resistance told in code on the plantation so the masters couldn’t understand.

But the written word builds off these oral traditions in equally powerful ways.  It allows oppressed people to communicate with potential comrades who are not immediately in their presence – and that’s crucial when they’re trying to overthrow a global system of oppression.   It allows for stories of events like the Haitian revolution to spread to places like the plantations of the  US South, inspiring uprisings there, even if people there had never met someone who had participated in Haiti’s revolt against slavery.   Texts like Walker’s Appeal, smuggled into the US South, were powerful calls to rise up, calls that the masters needed to silence at all costs.  Hence, the masters imposed illiteracy – they made sure potential rebels wouldn’t know how to read these revolutionary texts.

That forced illiteracy continues today with school systems that put a lot of effort into training students to be good capitalist workers – or future obedient prisoners.  They do this instead of teaching students how to teach themselves to read.  They present reading as something that is boring, dry, and whitewashed, instead of showing students how to love reading, and how to find strength in it over the course of their lives.   This is especially true for Black youth, and youth who are economic refugees from the places around the world that the US dominates through its empire.  As Dead Prez put it, “They schools ain’t teachin us, what we need to know to survive. They schools don’t educate, all they teach the people is lies”.

This is not an argument for abandoning struggles to defend and transform public education.  As I wrote earlier, I am all for expanding the kinds of struggles teachers, parents, and students are waging, from the MAP test boycott to fights against austerity budget cuts and privatization.

However, when we say “defend and transform”, this transformation needs to confront the ways in which the school  system is deeply embedded in the historical process of creating and recreating institutionalized race and class hierarchies in our society.   In order to fight these, we’ll need to build spaces outside of the schools where we can learn from each other and can grow through struggle in ways that are not currently possible in public school classrooms.  We can use this new knowledge to fight for better education in the classroom as well.   Part 2 of Reading for Revolution makes a case for these kinds of movement-based study groups.   I am currently working on Part 3, which will provide some practical suggestions and curriculum materials for how to conduct study groups.

For the full articles, please  click here