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Is the right-wing attack on teachers sexist?

20 Apr

The right wing says: because taxpayers put food on our table as teachers, you each get to be our bosses and you get to micromanage every minute of our time. If we care for your children in ways that appear inefficient, you can fire us. They would never tell the shareholders in a company that they get to directly manage production line staff, nor would they tell taxpayers that they get to directly manage the daily routine of the president or the joint chiefs of staff, who they also claim “work for the people”. In fact, they don’t think working class people should manage anything. But, curiously, they do tell white hetero men that they get to manage how their wives spend their time and how they raise their kids- “because they put food on their table”. Now, consider that the majority of teachers are women, and that we participate in the upbringing of children. Does anyone else see a pattern here?

Freestyle Learning in the Rhizomatic Cypher

3 Apr

Recently I’ve been wrestling with a question many teachers face: what should we do when our students’ learning journeys roam out of our carefully constructed lesson plans? We call these moments tangents, but what if they are actually creative lines of flight?

My formal teacher training didn’t prepare me to answer this question; the only solution I was taught was to suppress these tangents in order to make sure students meet my learning objectives.  I’m experimenting with new approaches now, based on my students’ interventions in the classroom, the philosophical work of Deleuze and Guattari, and the dynamics of hip hop production.

My teaching masters program was useful as far as masters’ programs go; my professors were certainly supportive of my efforts to teach critical literacy, ethnic studies, and open-ended discussion to youth who are considered “at risk” by official society.  They gave us plenty of intellectual ammunition to hurl back at the corporate eduction reformers who want to control and standardize learning at the expense of teachers, my students, and youth from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

However, my professors’ hostility to standardization operated at the level of society, not at the level of the classroom.  They taught us to advocate for our right to create our own lesson plans, free from the proto-totalitarian influences of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the other billionaires who want to recreate education in the image of their machinery.   But they emphasized that our lessons themselves must be tightly planned. If they had any political program, it might be summed up as “all power to the teachers, the professionals who know how to craft effective plans, tailored to their specific situations.”

I’ve partially bought into this, out a desire for my own labor to be creative and well done.   I also see its usefulness in terms of challenging the informal social hierarchies that permeate every classroom.  For example, teachers need to intentionally plan to check our own biases.  We need to intentionally organize our classroom layout and our activities so that students talk to each other, instead of simply talking to us, the people they’ve been trained to treat as authorities.  And of course, we need to plan to differentiate the curriculum, so that students with disabilities are not left behind.

All of this certainly can advance beyond the banking model of education, where the teacher deposits knowledge in the students’ brains, which they then regurgitate on the test. But it still assumes that the teacher is the one who should set the pace, rhythm, direction, and content of the democratic discussions that our lesson plans are supposed to foster.

Teachers divide learning activities into discrete bundles, which we call learning objectives.  We choose these objectives so each assignment builds on the previous one,  in chains of increasing cognitive complexity, beginning with understanding facts and moving through application and  analysis toward independent production of original work. My best lessons are tightly organized in these ways, and my students certainly build up confidence and motivation when they meet the initial objectives.

However, sometimes they use that confidence in ways that surprise me, and that diverge from the learning objectives I had in store for them further down the road. In many ways, these moments remind me of social movements I’ve been a part of, where crowds in motion suddenly change the political terrain, making our well-crafted strategies obsolete overnight.

Similarly, my students’ thinking becomes nomadic, roaming right out of the lessons I’ve mapped out for them.  They open up entirely new lines of flight that lead into uncharted and possibly dangerous intellectual and emotional territories.  For example, we are talking about religion’s role in society and suddenly a student shouts out “I’m gay, does that mean I won’t go to heaven?”, or we’re talking about  some contemporary political debate and suddenly three students demand to know why the economy crashed and a fourth wants to figure out whether it has something to do with the Illuminati and a fifth makes a speech against conspiracy theories, prompting a debate that engulfs the class for the rest of the period.

I’m not talking about the moments where  bored students tactically lay out a piece of  tangent-bait hoping the teacher will get derailed so they don’t have to do their classwork. Usually those tangents are even more predictably scripted than our lessons.   I’m talking about moments where students go on tangents precisely because they are NOT bored. Moments where the planned learning activities open up a vortex of emotion and thought  because they touch on concepts, issues, and experiences that students usually do not get a chance to discuss in their daily lives.  Something one student says resonates with the others, and it unfolds a waterfall of thoughts that students didn’t know they urgently needed to talk about until that moment.  Now they are not going to want to talk about anything else – except for everything else that relates.

No matter what the teacher does, these new thought-machines have taken flight and are forming brainstorms of connections with each other, unfolding into wider and deeper layers of complexity at a pace the teacher can’t keep up with.   The thinking we are doing together has become bigger than the teacher, and bigger than the students, and it demands space to form more and more connections.

Recently I’ve been reading the works of the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, who shed some light on these moments.  They argue that the universe is composed of pure difference constantly folding and unfolding itself into new identities.   The forms and identities that exist at any given moment are real, but they are not the only way the world might have ended up, and they are constantly changing themselves into something else.  New possibilities are always opening up, as people and things leak out of our identities in all directions.  We open up lines of flight that break from the paths society has charted out for us, becoming nomadic, creating new lives.

This process does not fit neatly within the borders of the individual person.  It leaks out of our minds, bodies, and identities.  It happens within the individual, and among individuals as we interact, overlapping with our selves.   Lines of flight are like desires, but we  are not talking about “my” desires, or yours.  We are talking about creation that seems to take a hold of me, you, and others, unleashing life we didn’t’ know we had in us.

In this sense, learning is not about discovering perfect truths that represent a stable reality composed of separate people and objects.  That kind of learning leads to understanding , posing objectives like “students will identify what these things are, and show this on a test”.   It objectifies things, and thus it objectifies knowledge.  Instead of seeking understanding, Deleuze and Guattari argue that the really interesting pursuit is learning to think – which often involves learning to feel.   Thought does not simply discover things, it creates new lines of flight.  It creates concepts and desires that traverse our bodies and minds, weaving among each other and the people, machines, plants, animals, cities, economies, words, and music we interact with.

This is the kind of learning that my students seem most excited about, and when it erupts in the classroom, I’m reminded of why I love teaching/ learning.  It is not simply about planning  for social change; it is a movement with its own velocity and rhythm.  Teaching/learning is about creating new concepts together with our students, going on  nomadic journeys together in ways that undermine and cross society’s borders.  Learning this way is always potential anarchy.

As Dave Cormier puts it,

I want my students to know more than me at the end of my course. I want them to make connections i would never make. I want them to be prepared to change. I think having a set curriculum of things people are supposed to know encourages passivity. I don’t want that. We should not be preparing people for factories. I teach to try and organize people’s learning journeys… to create a context for them to learn in.

To borrow Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphor, learning is less like a tree, and more like a rhizome.  Learning like a tree implies hierarchy – you start with the roots, the base of knowledge, then you build upward in a predetermined trunk of application and analysis, and only then can you branch out and create fruits of your learning.  This is similar to how I was taught to structure my learning objectives in graduate school – each lesson must build off the previous one in a planned way.

In contrast, a  rhizome is a root structure with no clear beginning and end, no up or down.  It can expand itself in multiple directions by creating networks, intertwining with soil, tress, and other rhizomes, and for this reason it is both innovative and resilient.   It is organized, but not in a centralized or standardized way.  It self-organizes, just like my students do when they push a class discussion into fruitful tangents.

This process reminds me  of hip hop, which is no surprise considering that my students are both producers and consumers of hip hop’s cutting edges.  Hip hop, at it’s best, does not follow a formula.  It does not build on previous cultural genres in a linear way.  Instead, it pulls little pieces of previous songs together into new networks of beats and samples.  Then it pulls pieces of experience together into networks of rhymes that refer to each other and to life in exploratory, playful ways.

A Hip hop freestyle “reads” or interprets the current moment, writing its interpretations into new concepts immediately (without the mediation of approved intellectual categories).   Concepts, images, sounds, senses, and experiences relate to each other in ways that don’t try to capture reality; instead, they sample and play (with) it.

For example, the emotional resonance of a certain beat combines with the stress a rapper puts on a specific word which evokes new ways that word is being spoken in particular cities that are going through their particular crises, resistances, and renaissances.   Hip hop is learning, combining culture, current events, politics, and many other discourses and structures.  But it connects things together that didn’t have any obvious connection before hip hop spun and palpated them into networks of sound and color.   Hip hop is about growing rhizomes and nomadic journeys.

Unfortunately, students who immerse themselves in these journeys are then inserted into tidy boxes called classrooms, where they are expected to take their headphones off so they can consume and produce knowledge  using methods originally designed to train workers for factory assembly lines.

No wonder they rebel.  Many of the so-called disciplinary problems  in classrooms might actually be a subterranean class struggle between nomadic rhizomes, and the structure that aims to chop them into pieces of identity so it can channel them into official trajectories of career, family, conformity, citizenship, gender, and race.   Schools are the explosive meeting places where students’ rhizomatic journeys crack the system’s concrete, and roses grow through the cracks, as Tupac famously narrated.

So maybe teachers should organize classrooms in ways that participate in this rhizomatic learning instead of choking it with linearly planned lessons modeled after tree trunks and assembly lines.   Maybe we should create learning environments where students can sample and reorganize thoughts in new ways, like many of them do when they produce hip hop.   Maybe we should let our classroom discussions become freestyle cyphers, where students can immediately interpret each other’s thoughts into new lines of flight.

I’m still exploring how to do this.  But one thing I’ve started to do is to make freestyle creation of concepts the learning objective of the lesson itself.  That way,  tangents become the point, and the whole class becomes a set of tangents, like the roots of a rhizome.  I plan out lessons to share what skills students need to know in order to prepare for this, so that no one is left out (e.g. I teach them how to do an internet news search, or how to check for bias in a source).  But then I let them think in multiple directions, allowing the objectives and the curriculum to emerge out of the process.

For example, we’ve recently been doing freestyle research cypher sessions.   Students sit in a circle and each gets a copy of a Freestyle Research Worksheet and a laptop***.   The teacher writes a few topics on the board, choosing from  a survey of student interests conducted earlier.  Everyone starts by researching one of those topics online, finding articles, images, and video related to it, and filling out their worksheets with this information.  Whenever they find something interesting, they share it with the whole class, and the teacher projects it on the overhead projector and asks students what they see/ hear and what they think about it.  These discussions then encourage other groupings of students to research topics related to what was discovered. Eventually different groupings emerge based on what students are interested in pursuing further, as they wander into related topics or concepts.  At the end, we have an open discussion about what we’ve learned, and students write reflections integrating their new ideas together, drawing connections between the different topics.

I recognize there is a danger that students might simply touch on topics superficially, especially when there is not enough time to explore each of their interests in enough depth.  It is important to keep track of issues or topics that might need further elaboration and to come back to them, possibly using these cyphers as jumping off points to construct more traditional lesson plans with scaffolded objectives. This could help students develop the background knowledge necessary to analyze particularly difficult issues that come up and could make future freestyle research discussions more fruitful.

In any case, this is an experiment, not a perfect answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this post.  I am curious how other teachers and learners might answer this question in different ways.  That’s why I’m throwing this post out into the blogosphere –  which, of course, is its own rhizomatic learning process.


* The worksheet has multiple cells in google doc form, which students can fill out electronically and can share with the teacher and each other so they could collaborate on filling it out together if they want. This also makes it easier to project their findings onto an overhead screen.

**We are luckily enough to have laptops that work, which is not guaranteed in this era of austerity.  It could also be done with archives of newspaper clippings, photos, artifacts, etc.  I’ve also allowed students to use their smartphones, which lessens the conflicts students and teachers are always having about whether they should be allowed to use their phones in class.


Workfare and Prisonfare (The School-to-Work and School-To-Prison Pipelines)

30 Jan

ImageHere is a guest post by Carol Issac, one of the people we have been collaborating with to organize workshops and actions against the school to prison pipeline.  She prepared the following research for the workshop we did on Martin Luther King Day, but she didn’t get a chance to present it because we ran out of time (there were a bunch of great presenters, and over 60 people participated).  Her research documents some of the bleak futures that await exploited youth these days; the pipelines that confine their lives begin in the classroom with averse discipline, isolation rooms, and disproportionate suspensions.  After a process of sorting by race, class, and gender, many of these pipelines end in forms of incarceration or state-controlled / criminalized labor. 

Workfare and Prisonfare 

In these times, there are two major forces whereby the government and the current ruling class punishes the poor.  In general, one method goes after the men and the other after the women.  Mass incarceration is also called “prisonfare”, and the replacement for welfare is called “workfare”.  They are two sides of the same coin.  While men are the primary target of mass incarceration, women, as single mothers, are the primary target of the major change in aid to the poor, the 1996 law that struck down welfare and replaced it with a work program.

We are not a nation that values solidarity, but we did, for a long time, legislate what could be called semi-compassionate social services to aid “the poor and handicapped”.  Since then, gradually during the last century, poverty changed from simply a human condition to something regarded as a moral problem.   Much of society now sees poverty as a failing of the individual, a manifestation of an irresponsible lifestyle.

There is still, however, a “deserving poor” who are a small and special subcategory somewhat worthy of charity but even they are not spoken of by society at large as “our brothers and sisters”.  The corporate media does little to point out our common connection with each other, so it is not an everyday part of the public thinking to feel more than a distant responsibility and assume we have some agency or such to take care of the “others”.  Solidarity is not a societal value here.  When compassion is its nearest common replacement even too much of that is suspect.  Instead of being “soft” we have come to prefer a strong response.  A virile warning is common, and too much charity is a weakness.  The “sting of necessity” is valued as a way to push the lazy to “get a job”.

Social service programs have been steadily reduced, especially since the ’70’s backlash, and those surviving are either inadequate or they are administered through a practice called “churning”, a term for the bureaucratic practice used by agency staffs that indicate the many little practices, tricks and harassments used to prevent a client from obtaining their rightful aid.

Where once we had a welfare program, in 1996 under Clinton that changed into a “workfare” program.  The title of the act applied was an insult in its very wording:  “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act”.   Its purpose was to wipe people off the welfare role, and into unskilled work under demeaning conditions.  Since it mainly took care of women, as single mothers, this program micro-manages poor women.  By the time this law went into effect, already every other poor household in America was not receiving the benefits for which it was eligible.  This was designed to punish the poor and make them accept their abject poverty as intransigent, i.e. the way things are.

To get even less income than they did previously, women now had to work instead at jobs chosen by the government that are too precarious and ill paid to offer security.  The programs vary per state, but, in general, they are for the lowest wages, do not provide child care assistance, or do so for less time than actually needed sometimes at distances that create great hardship.  The result is that this kind of employment is both risky and prohibitively costly for young mothers.  The unlivable income makes parents supplement with what they can get from their already fragile larger family networks and from the current precarious standby, illegal street commerce, all of which keeps pushing them deeper into poverty, the shadows, and powerlessness.  Some, in time, opt out and do things like give their children to family or friends who might be able take care of them while they go homeless alone.

Workfare policy does not aim to reduce poverty but to punish it. It carries an implied warning:  Even if you are working more and earning less, there is a fate worse, a status lower, than hard and unrewarding work:  homelessness.

In Washington, homelessness is not legally a reason to remove children from a parent; however, there was a precedent setting case in May 2013 wherein the prosecution, which was the state of Washington, got around its own law.  It  used homelessness, plus other less than stand-alone factors, to concoct a preponderance of circumstances that together were judged sufficient reason to remove a child from the custody of a parent permanently.  They created what can be pointed to now as a case that will bolster similar methods of decision making for cases in the future as though it were a piece of legislation decided by our Olympia lawmakers.

The poor seeking aid are routinely treated like offenders under criminal justice supervision.  The supervision is increasingly performed by private contracted businesses that do everything from mental health diagnosis and management, the client’s schedule management, transportation of children to and from visitation facilities when a parent’s rights are limited by court and a child is put into foster care, training for jobs that don’t exist or are precarious, or even for parenting skills that in some manner the state deems are appropriate and others are not.  All the while this is happening, the staff of these state and contracted organizations are acting like minders and writing up observations of the clients actions, words and perceived attitudes for the use by government agencies such as the courts.  Vetting of these agencies and staff for their adequacy appears unchallenged.

This past spring in a King County Superior Court courtroom one of these minders testified that she observed a client visiting with her own almost three year old when the mom was saying to the child, “Oh,___, some day I am going to get you a house and a car. …”  The state prosecutor, an assistant attorney general, used this testimony to illustrate how the mother was filling the child with non-credible expectations thus adding to the case that she was an unworthy mother. This went unchallenged in the judge’s lengthy decision.  The case had no jury, and the records were sealed, a common occurrence in cases involving juveniles.  This instance illustrates the level to which the micro-management is normalized, invisibl-ized, and seriously affects the minute details of the life of the poor.

While the social services are cut and made into tools that demean, there has been legislation that creates benefits for the class with wealth or the middle class.

The class that benefits most from social security and government protected pensions is the class that gets the best jobs.  Home owners, in general, get a break on taxes if they have a mortgage.  There are many benefits that are really a sliding scale of favors for those with more, while those with less become the recipients of less and less.


“Punishing the Poor:  The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity”  by Loic Wacquant  2009  –  Professor Wacquant is at the University of California, Berkeley  and is a MacArthur Award Winner.

Observations of trials 2013

Jock Culture, Rape Culture, and the need for Educator Hiring Halls

26 Oct

img_4351*trigger warning: sexual violence*

Following up on Veryl’s post about coaching yesterday, I’d like to share this article from the Nation about how jock culture supports rape culture, as well as this article about sexual violence at Notre Dame, my alma mater.  Both report stories of young women who were raped by members of school athletic teams, and then faced terrifying retaliation for speaking out.  Between these atrocities and the notorious Steubenville case, it should be increasingly clear to the public that America’s schools are breeding grounds of misogyny and rape culture, and that we need to put an end to this. 

Our comrade Kloncke has written some insightful and practical analysis of the struggle against rape culture in Steubenville, emphasizing the need to seek justice outside the court systems which perpetuate patriarchy and white supremacy: 

One thing is certain: none of the steps toward legal justice, halting and probably insufficient though they may be, would have happened without the bold interventions of ordinary people.  If Alexandria Goddard hadn’t grabbed those horrific tweets before the cretinous creators had a chance to delete them; if Anonymous and KnightSec had not continued releasing media to the public; if people of Steubenville, Wierton, Pittsburgh, and other surrounding towns had not come out to protest LOUDLY, over 1,000 strong in a town of 18,000; the police and the courts would have dampened and silenced the story of the assault, and Jane Doe would never have received support from all over the world — Malaysia to Minnesota, Warsaw to Wheeling.

Having spent some years in the activist scene of the Bay Area and other places, I’ve seen a lot of rallies and protests.  But the February 2nd protest in Steubenville was one of my favorites.  For one thing, it felt truly “survivor centered,” without losing touch with the political context — a difficult balance to achieve.  Brave people stepped up to the mic to tell their own stories or read aloud the stories of others: for some, this meant breaking a silence of 20, 30 years, or more.  It was breathtaking.

I also admired the rally because the audience would just shout out their opinions, unsolicited!  It was a call-and-response with the emcee; it was a conversation.  In an era of progressive NGOs in bed with politicians, or top-down protest styles that expect only two responses from the audience — cheers or silence — this protest was a refreshing example of mass participation, though still in small, nascent form.

We need more of this.  We need democratic, mass organizations linking up rural, exurban, and urban areas so that when shit goes down (and it will, again and again), we can decide, through organized bodies of people, how to take action.  When it comes to that democratic participation, and weaving together of neighboring towns, the Steubenville area could really get ahead of the curve.

At the same time, Kloncke points out that we need to move beyond simply responding to flashpoint crises: “Support is clearly necessary, but the problem is rampant, so the danger of burnout looms large…  In addition to supporting survivors of sexual assault, we must ask ourselves how to drain those stagnant pools: how to intervene in the conditions that allow rape culture to thrive.” 

I agree.  Education organizing and feminist anti-violence organizing should not necessarily be separate “issues”; the struggles we are waging in our schools should challenge rape culture on a day-by-day basis, as I wrote here.   Kloncke lays out some suggestions for the kind of demands and goals we could fight for in our schools: 

Sports. A focus on sports institutions as locations of rape-enabling power and authority would be great.  This is not to vilify organized sports, or lump  all athletes together as domineering scumbags.  But statistically, athletes are shown to have more rape-supportive attitudes.  And let’s remember: playing on a sports team, especially in high school, is a PRIVILEGE, not a RIGHT — even if the football team is the biggest social or economic game in a deindustrialized town.  It’s a little mind-numbing that Big Red has yet to exact any penalties on other players associated with the Rape Crew.  Why should they leave it up to the courts?  The Ohio High School Athletics Association specifies penalties for playing on unauthorized teams, for using drugs and alcohol, and other infractions.  NO MENTION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT.  That needs to change.  Parents, teachers, staff, students, and supporters, together, can make it change.

It says something profound about our economy and prospects for young people, as well, that commentary on the Rape Crew includes hand-wringing about whether the case will ruin Mays’ and Richmond’s chances at a decent future.  If their prospects are so bleak, what about other young people who would never qualify for an important sports team?   Throughout the country, as sports maintains its role as an economic juggernaut (from high schools to colleges to the pros), we need to demand decent resources for everyone, according to need — not just for the MVP’s.

Accountable Coaches. The second reason a school-and-sports-based strategy is useful is because it reminds us that we, the people, ought to be able to demand high-quality, well-trained anti-rape role models, educators, and resources in public schools.  Young people deserve nothing less.  And while the intention of the NFHSA reform is commendable, it’s also naïve.  A single mandatory course is not going to significantly shift the attitudes of those coaches (not all, but many) who’ve believed their whole lives that “boys will be boys” and sluts deserve what’s coming to them.  Again, these misogynist views are opinions held by a significant proportion of our society.  Why wouldn’t we demand more of our public figures, our educators, our mentors?  Instead of offering education to incumbent coaches, why not make them prove they are capable of upholding the anti-rape responsibilities that (should) come with their position?  An exam or licensing process, with a certain Pass/Fail ratio and follow-up training to support even those who pass, might not be out of the question.  (Hey, a girl can dream, right?)  And it’s weird that we’d even have to say this, but here goes: any coach who allows something like a “Rape Crew” to form among their players, under their watch, is clearly incapable of doing their job properly, and should be relieved of their duties.

Meaningful Education. Finally, in addition to demanding accountability from educators and coaches, working-class people can demand relevant and meaningful education for students — including education about rape (tellingly, many of the witnesses on the stand today didn’t seem to know what it is), rape culture, and the failures of the criminal justice system to address the root causes and conditions that allow sexual assault to flourish.  When public school teachers in Seattle, Washington recently organized with students and parents, refusing to waste precious life energy on useless standardized testing, the struggle awakened people’s imaginations to all the important knowledge that could be created in the classroom, instead of teaching to a test.  Rather than perpetuating a culture where survivors are shunned and silenced, we could be supporting students, young and old, in developing their own brilliant responses to sexual assault independent of the legal system.

Rape culture is so pervasive that it can seem overwhelming and impossible to confront.  I think Kloncke’s suggestions  provide some concrete starting points for possible struggles in the schools.   They highlight the kinds of demands we might be able to win if we develop our capacity and build a broad-based and militant teacher-student-community alliance. 

Kloncke’s point about accountable coaches also gets at a core issue in teacher/ educator/ staff organizing that I’ve written about here.   In reaction to the corporate ed reformers’ emphasis on teacher evaluation and accountability through standardized testing, a lot of Leftist and liberal teachers  have fallen into the trap of trying to defend the public schools as they currently exist.  This is not tenable, because our schools are breeding grounds of white supremacy, patriarchy, and class stratification.  We need to transform the schools, and this means being accountable to working class communities, NOT corporate think tanks and hedge funds.  Teachers and coaches should welcome  working class feminist efforts to fire coaches who condone “rape crews” and to replace them with coaches who can serve as anti-sexist role models. In fact, we should join such efforts, and look for moments in our schools where we can initiate them ourselves.  No amount of seniority and no union contract should protect a coach if there is clear evidence that he is complicit in encouraging rape.  

As a long term goal, I think we should fight for the power to make hiring and firing decisions that affect all teachers , coaches, and anyone else who works with youth, instead of leaving these decisions up to unelected administrators.  Teachers, students, and community members should be able to decide who teaches and coaches our youth.  Port workers demanded and won control of hiring and firing on the docks in the 1930s, ending the racist and humiliating shape up system (similar to the process by which day laborers are hired at Home Depots today).  However, over time these hiring halls became nepotistic and exclusive because they were run by the union itself as a private club,  not as a public organization run by the working class as a whole. Hence workers had an incentive to try to get their brothers, sons, and inlaws onto the job, which in Seattle has resulted in discrimination against Black workers.  To avoid this kind of outcome, a teacher/ coach/ education worker hiring hall would have to be run democratically with input not only from teachers but also from students and their families.  

Ultimately, this would be a revolutionary demand, because it would point the way toward a society of popular councils, assemblies, and committees instead of  one that is run by professional classes above society.  In the meantime, we can prefigure this goal by organizing ourselves and taking direct action to push the administration to fire individual misogynistic coaches and to hire coaches who know how to challenge rape culture. 



How to Assassinate Boredom: Reading and Writing our Lives

4 Oct
Thinking Outside the Book

Thinking outside the book: a 3D graphic organizer I made,  illustrating the reading and learning process.  A number of the pen-strokes that compose the image are actually cursive words, notes on the underlying texts, which run together, below and to the left, right through the borders of the page.

Metacognition: Thinking about our thought processes

( One part Zen mindfulness, one part revolutionary consciousness, one part creative activity.  Mix and stir vigorously )

Reading Strategies: thought processes we use to create meaning from a text

( Don’t worry if this meaning spills outside the borders of the text; this is natural, and to be expected )

Objective: You decide.

(  As long as you’re aware of what you’re doing )

These are the  concepts I’ve been teaching the past few weeks.

When I first meet them, most of my students think reading is boring because they think it involves scrolling through the text looking for the trivial piece of information the teacher wants them to regurgitate as the correct answer.  I want them to be able to use reading to assassinate their boredom.   But to do that, they have to stop putting their lives on hold the minute they start reading.  They have to learn how to relax and allow their lives and the text to flow together by becoming aware of their own thoughts and feelings as they encounter the text.

I want them to do this together, because it’s more meaningful that way.   As Hegel argued, we can only grow  when we spar with other peoples’ minds.  And in a society based on oppression, we only develop when we  overcome the roles of  master and slave that we work ourselves and each other into.  I want each student to recognize that his thoughts and feelings are simply one trajectory of possibility emerging out of the text and the world; his peers bring different experiences and ideas to the table as well,  experiences shaped by the races, genders, and classes this society has assigned them into.  The experience of reading blooms when we all declare and transform these experiences, and when we actively rebel against the systems of power that confine us to our identities and elevate some of us over others.

Reading together is one moment among many when this can happen.  Really it’s about active listening.  It’s about the texture of a cypher, the cheers and hollers of other peoples’ voices that shout “go in”, pushing us to freestyle life, instead of just watching it from the sidelines.  It is the chorus of  emotions that give us the courage to speak freely.

I want my students – and all of us –  to replace our awkward, Facebook-fueled self-consciousness with that rush of grace that comes from adding a chapter to the much larger story we are all reading and writing together.

If they are going to do this, they need to remember that both their lives and the text are human creations, produced with specific cognitive technologies: tools and strategies that they can all learn to wield gracefully.  Neither the text nor its interpretation is set in stone by a permanent authority who can never be challenged.   A text is not a sacred object that must be protected from the rest of the world.  You can draw on it with your pen.  You can draw insight out of it with your mind, breaking the borders between the text and the world.  You can even draw it as a weapon as you set out to change this world.

Teaching myself to teach my students to teach themselves 

Reading this way can be dangerous.   But that’s exactly why I encourage my students to try it at home.  I do myself.  In fact, I’ve started using my own teaching methods, teaching myself to enjoy reading more actively.  And it really works.   I have decades of education and two masters degrees behind me, but it feels like I just learned to read!  (Maybe I’ve unlearned some of the boredom I had picked up in school.)  In any case, I want to read everything I can get my hands on.

So recently, when I sit down to plan lessons, I start with these questions: what do I do in order to love reading this much?  How can I share this love with my students?  How can I teach them to teach themselves,  like I teach myself?

When I read, I imagine the sights, sounds, tastes, touches, and smells conveyed in a text.   I  think about how people I know – friends and enemies – would respond to the text.  Would they debate it, would they draw all over it, would they throw it at me in frustration, or would they use it as a tool to solve problems in their lives?   I’m working on part three of my Reading for Revolution series, which will map out these reading strategies more specifically.

The vulnerable creativity of reading and writing 

All of this requires seeing the text as an open-ended process, an ancient yet relevant technology.  It is one-third-magic, one-third machine, and one-third living organism.  It flows like the rhizomatic neural networks of tree roots in the movie Avatar  So do our identities and our consciousnesses.

The text is fallible, contradictory, and unfinished – just like us.  But it also has potential running in every different direction, just like us.  We could get lost running down the rabbit hole that every clue leads us into.  So part of reading strategically means finding the most  promising and meaningful paths, and letting some of the other ones go. Good authors drop hints that point in these  directions, but they never leave you a hyperlink saying “click here.”

That’s because they don’t want to impose all of the answers.  And, in all honesty, they may not know them yet anyway.  Every book is a rough draft waiting for a new edition, a sequel, or a counter-polemic.  The author longs for readers who will not only understand, but will finish the process started in the text.  A good author draws from currents of life that came before, and provokes an explosion of new discourses that flow outward from that point onward.

In that sense, writing is a vulnerable act;  you leave tentative ideas for others to complete or destroy.   Reading in public is also vulnerable, because it it involves blurring the boundary between your consciousness and the text, and this inevitably involves sharing a bit of your consciousness and the experiences you bring to the text.

Let’s be real: most of our classrooms right now are not safe enough places for youth to do this, especially if they are women, gender nonconforming folks, LGBTQ folks, youth of color, or working class and low income students.  So the first step in teaching metacognitive reading strategies needs to be establishing a respectful, egalitarian, communal class.

It is also important to explicitly reaffirm that it is more beneficial to fail and to understand why then it is to succeed and not know why.  That’s my class’s mantra.   Over the long run, those who fail wisely will learn more and will create new forms of success that the people who set the original standard for success could never imagine.   Students will only open up in class if the teacher and students collaborate to turn down the volume on all the (inner) voices that say “you are not good enough”, “you are crazy for thinking that”, “you’re a freak”, “you’re too ______”,  “your’e not _____ enough”, “if you think that , they’ll all say______”.

As researcher Brene Brown argues , vulnerability is the key to creativity.  So working through shame is the starting point for living a vibrant, connected life.   I would add that it is also the starting point for any type of social transformation.   Schools construct a veil of shame around reading, especially for those high school students who have been tracked into classes and labeled “stupid”, “remedial”, or “below standard”.

This is so destructive because it sacrifices everything good in life at the altar of perfection.   The manic obsession with testing contributes to this awkward sacrifice by pitting students – and teachers – against each other in frenzied competition to meet and exceed abstract,  arbitrary, and often inaccurate standards.   When there is a test to prepare for, who has the relaxed state of mind necessary to gracefully make mistakes?  Who has the committed flexibility necessary to analyze these mistakes  and learn from them? In the name of rigor and progress, we destroy experimentation and growth.

The sacred texts are still unfolding –  write now as you read

As teachers are always saying, good writers show ;  they don’t tell.  They leave something for the reader to imagine, and their assertions are experimental and unfinished.   A poet uses a metaphor instead of a blunt accusation.  A scientist shares her test  results and ends with a tentative conclusion, knowing that truth is embedded in a process of refinement through future experimentation.   The most brilliant intellectuals all respect the fact that we create and recreate our minds.  So when we apply our minds to a text, we create our experience of that text, just like the author created the text itself.

And what we create is not just an abstract fantasy.  When we learn, it literally reshapes the neural networks in our brain, uprooting some and branching out to intertwine with others.  Chemical particles move and blood rushes to feed cleavages, folds, and swerves of growth.  Our consciousness is a  human production, because our brains are parts of our bodies, and  our bodies are parts of the world.  The world is always changing, and part of that change is the product of our activity; we transform ourselves as we transform the world.

When we become mindful of this process, we can hone it.   Our brains are organs, and we can exercise them just like we exercise our arms and legs.  We can start by honing in on one aspect of life that we’ve neglected or repressed, and we can move beyond the boring, confined answers we’ve already come up with, wrestling with that problem from new angles we didn’t think were possible, and solving it – not only in our minds, but  in lived, embodied practice.  Our thoughts emerge out of the physical world that births our embodied brains; we return them to the physical world by using our hands and the rest of our bodies to make new things, and to care for new people.

This is human labor conceived as self-activity, as embodied creativity.  Our labor breathes as part of the earth’s metabolism, shaped into consciousness by our blood, sweat, and tears (of joy and sorrow).   But usually we can’t see this, because we spend our time working too hard, to the point where it all just seems natural and numb.   Meaning given and unchanging.

The social origins of boredom and television

We miss all of this because we get used to producing for someone else – a boss, a teacher, the test, the marketplace – instead of creating freely for ourselves and each other and the earth.   We watch the hours until we can clock out, go home, and passively consume officially approved texts – TV scripts, song lyrics, whatever we can sip on to dull the pain or banish the boredom.  We have lost the ability to entertain ourselves, so we have a desperate need to be entertained.   We’ve lost this ability because the most entertaining thing a human being can do is to create ourselves together, and it’s hard to do that from a couch, cubicle, assembly line, or classroom desk.

Because our pre-packaged entertainment is never enough,  it leaves us bored and disconnected from ourselves and each other.   We take that boredom back into the classroom with us.  And that leaves us indifferent when we are exposed to the very tools we could use to produce our own shows and our own lyrics – or even better yet, to produce a life we won’t feel the need to escape from.

So here is the secret they won’t tell us on TV or in the classroom:  we have the capacity to  read and write the stories of our own lives, through our literal literacy, and also through the self-activity, the many-sided capacities for labor and physical transformation that lay dormant in our minds and bodies, waiting to be awakened through social learning and rebellious life.

Hey NSA: you can read this, but you can’t read my thoughts about it

Before I go further with that thought, maybe I should stop and check to see if they’ve made it illegal yet.    Who knows – many good and true things, from wildcat strikes to tent city occupations, are illegal.   As we try to transform the world, there is no doubt that the government will try to stop us.

But as my students often tell me, learning is the one thing they can’t take away from us.  What’s most amazing about creative, critical literacy  is that it can never  be fully surveilled because it can’t even be fully measured.  Like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, it changes the minute you try to observe it.  Trying to read our minds is like trying to crucify a jellyfish.

They haven’t figured out how to plug our brains directly into the internet yet, so the tentative, provocative, exhilarating, and sometimes scary thoughts that we all experiment with when we read and write have time to gestate.   They are not immediately posted on our Facebook walls, Twitter accounts, or some NSA spy’s console, to be measured, trolled, liked, disliked, co-opted, sold, mocked, or repressed.  And here’s another thing that’s not a coincidence: they also can’t be tested.  Bill Gates will be so disappointed when he finally figures that out.

When we travel to worlds created by a book, we can continuously co-create these worlds with the author, in a graceful dance that is sometimes risky because it requires that we step out of the characters we have written for ourselves and confined ourselves with in.  When we enter these words and worlds, this movement is not traced on Google Maps, Facebook, Foursquare, or the FBI’s computer networks.  We go off the grid, out of bounds, and beyond the law.   We even slip out of the confines of the book, the page, the text itself.  Someone else reading the same book might not even detect the traces of our departure.

The NSA and FBI should be worried about this.  They are pretty stupid to think they can scare everyone into paranoid self-consciousnes through online surveillance.  Especially when there are all sorts of subversive books hidden in plain sight in your local library.  They should be worried that some of us might read those books and get inspired to take actual,  physical action to begin co-creating the worlds we imagine.  They should be worried that we start creating them not simply as an afternoon fantasy or a highbrow hallucination, but as an actual, material reality – a movement, an uprising, a revolution, a commune.

To get to that point, we can start by teaching ourselves how to create our lives like the author creates the text, and we can write draft after draft without jumping ourselves because the first one isn’t perfect.   Revolution doesn’t operate on a schedule with school bells and factory whistles.  The draft we discard one day may end up being the basis for building the tools we need to win our freedom.

To the administrators, testmakers, and state surveillance experts, the results of our studies look like idle doodling, a waste of time that can’t be tested or measured.  For now, they let this slip through the cracks because it looks like passive, infantile rebellion, not dangerous insubordination.

That’s because they can’t see that our doodles and daydreams are actually graphic organizers we use to remember our way to the futures we aim to create.  They are not entertainment or fantasy; they are plans.  They are cookbooks full of recipes for transcending capitalism’s disasters.  They are blueprints for dwelling places occupied by free people who build them for each other, not for profit or a test score.

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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Learning for Liberation, not for Labor

13 May

Word.  Enough said…