Archive | Race RSS feed for this section

“Mis palabras” – perspectives on police brutality by a young writer

28 Oct

This is a guest post by a high school student in Seattle, describing how police arrested her partner with guns drawn outside her school.  She reflects on this incident in the context of recent waves of police brutality and anti-Black violence in Ferguson and across the country.  

Mis palabras

I have come to an ending point in life on how everything is and has changed. I remember when I was younger, I used to want to be a cop, but now we all don’t like them. Why? Because they are not doing their job.

How are they not doing their jobs? This is how. They go out shooting people for no reason, For example Mike Brown got shot. I feel like it was because he was a black male. To the cops all black people are bad, so if you’re black and you make a mistake, you’re going to deal with them.

Also Trayvon Martin got shot for no reason and police did nothing to the guy who shot him. Who has more say? A black kid or a white guy, of course we all know the answer to that. I feel that police are going around doing this because they think they are better than anyone. Bet you if they take the badge off they would be everyday people like us.

Recently Vonderrit Myers was shot in St. Louis because someone had called the police and told them he had a gun. Once again, he had no weapon. He was just going to buy a sandwich and he purchased it. Another life taken for no real harmful reason, all because they thought to see a gun.

In Louisiana, a 22 year old man named Victor White was arrested, handcuffed behind his back and put in a police car. The police said that he shot himself in the back while he was handcuffed. In the final review of the body, they had said that the gun shot went through the front of his chest, not the back. The police had tried to hide that they had shot him. We won’t know the truth I am guessing, they can say something but the police will be the only ones to know, right?

All of them are black males. To me its discrimination. It makes me think what if I was black would I be walking around scared to get shot, to be worried about my every move, not able to feel safe in my own community? We have cops going around thinking they can just come and shoot people and make it seem like they’re the good guys, that they did it because of danger. No, that’s not right. Can I come in any police’s face and feel like I’m in danger and shoot them, will I have a word to say I was in danger and get away with it? I don’t think so….

Something just happened in my school, a place where I felt safe and we are supposed to feel safe to come. It is no longer a safe place for me. They took some one I care for, my partner, my best friend. The way they took him was the worst. I won’t be able to forget that they had cops everywhere, guns pointing at him. And I bet you they did all this because they thought he had a gun too because he is black, because they felt danger. He is a young man that had done nothing wrong. To come to my school and arrest him in that way… I think to myself every night what if it was his life next? What if they would have shot him just because he was black? That’s what it’s all about now in my opinion.

When I’m alone, I always think to myself what would the world be without the cops? Would it be better or would it get worse? In my opinion, I think it would be better because I can do a better job than they do. I would be able to keep my community a safe place, making sure I don’t discriminate based on your color. I sit back and think how it was back in the day when slavery was happening, how black people had no rights to defend themselves. Is it happening again? Are we going back to something that was worked so hard on to have black people be safe and have rights?

By: Katherin Arana

Advertisements

What if we renamed ADHD “cognitive nomadism”?

20 Oct

I recently read an interesting article on ADHD which suggested that the genes that cause it are a legacy of nomadic ancestors:

One genetic variation that causes ADHD-like traits is more common in the world’s nomadic peoples. Researchers think that traits such as impulsive behavior, novelty-seeking, and unpredictability might help nomads track down food and other resources. So the same qualities that make it challenging to excel at a desk job may have been an advantage to nomadic ancestors.

I am skeptical about this,  given the long history of empires attempting to dominate  nomadic peoples, and the roles of education and medicine in this domination.  Will this research be used to further stigmatize and pathologize the descendants of nomads who have migrated to the US because their peoples and cultures were destroyed by U.S.-backed wars?

US Empire claims to be orderly, organized, and efficient.  It encodes these characteristics as normal, able-bodied, white, sane, male, straight, professional, and healthy.  People of color, queer people, gender non-conforming people, indigenous people, and people with disabilities are coded as the opposite of these traits.   The system deems them a problem that must be contained like an Ebola epidemic so that they don’t contaminate the body politic.

When schools suggest students with ADHD should be medicated and taught to conform, are they helping students navigate daily life in the empire, or are they playing into this system of control, cutting off potential creativity and rebellion?

I’m wondering what the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari would say about ADHD.  They are strong advocates of nomadic ways of thinking and living, and argue that nomadic practices are part of contemporary struggles for freedom. They claim nomadic tendencies exist not only among indigenous peoples but also in the heart of empires, destabilizing them.  They say that all human beings have a tendency to deterritorialize, to roam outside of the settled concepts, routines, traditions, and institutions that shape us; they argue this is a crucial part of creative cultural production.  Their work has been extended by decolonial, Marxist, queer, and anarchist theorists who aim to destabilize borders, empires, and fixed / frozen social identities.  It  has also been extended by people who see migration and the creation of diasporas as potential ways to break down and move beyond the constraints of capitalist nation states.

To be clear, I’m not trying to romanticize nomadic life, ADHD, or migration.  All of these involve real struggles and real human longings for consistency, commitment, community, and self-organization.  Deleuze and Guattari also recognized this when they said that every deterritorialization is also potential reterritorialization. I also don’t mean to deny the practical strategies people with ADHD use to survive day to day life in our society, or the importance of giving youth  chances to learn these strategies.

I’m just saying that those genes that express traits labeled ADHD are not vestiges of  savagery that must be remolded in the name of progress.  They are important expressions of human biodiversity and neurodiversity that  could help create new futures.  Saying they are not adaptive to modern desk jobs implies that cubicles  represent the end of history, humanity’s final resting place. What if nomadic  impulses might help us all collectively wander and fight  our way to something better? What  if they are remnants of courage and curiosity that enable a future exodus from our overstressed, boring  society?

The postmodern liberal arts education I received at a particularly progressive Ivy League university gave me the privilege to explore, to roam through concepts,  genres, and discourses at will.  There were a lot of things about this school that also tried to force me into alienation, despair, careerism, and anxiety.   But I did get to  spend four years reading what I wanted to and staying up late in the dorms discussing it.  If I said something off topic or showed up late it was seen as a mark of an eccentric intellectual, not a problem to be controlled.

Most working class students of color have none of these privileges.  They are expected to learn what the system tells them to learn and if they get bored or restless they are punished and stigmatized as defective.

Given that, I wonder:  is there a connection between schools’ attempts to keep students on task and the state’s attempts to police and limit the movement of human bodies, especially bodies it encodes as black and brown?   Should we be teaching students with ADHD to adapt to the routines of the capitalist empire, or should we be adapting the ways we learn so that youth can unleash their positive forces of deterritorialization? Maybe they’ll end up creating social movements that transform reality  and free all of us from cubicles.

——————>>>

I explored some ways to embrace cognitive nomadism in a previous blog post, Freestyle Learning in the Rhizomatic Cypher.  This includes suggestions for how to organize learning activities that build on the power of curious tangents, rather than attempting to herd students into fenced-off fields of study.

Culturally incompetent cultural competence trainings

6 Oct

I recently had an insightful conversation with a coworker and mentor who has deep roots in communities of color in Seattle. We were discussing cultural competency and how a lot of trainings around that focus on formalized social service techniques and objectified cultural knowledge, rather than informal relationship building, caring, and networking.

This implicitly downgrades the importance of the already existing informal networks among communities of color. It downgrades the agency people have to produce and reproduce culture and resilience in the first place, e.g. the ways in which my coworkers of color know our students’ grandparents, aunties, friends, etc., which builds trust between us and our students.

Instead of teaching people how to honor these relational networks and how to earn a place within them through showing respect, many cultural competency trainings focus on teaching white people objectified sociological knowledge about communities of color; they impart this to white people through a kind of banking-model pedagogy that encourages white people to treat everyone else like characters out of a sociology textbook, as if people of color only exist as the opposite of white privilege. A certain social and emotional distance is maintained.

This results in white people who are hypervigilant about their privilege and are versed in calculating techniques of social interaction with people of color, but don’t know how to actually build mutually caring relationships that could challenge that privilege.

As Andrea Smith talked about, this also ends up reinforcing the white colonial subjectivity, the anthropological mind. People with this mindset are self-critical and self-reflexive, but from a distance. They continue to use people of color as mediums for their own self-reflection, as if people of color exist only to help white professionals check their privilege and overcome their biases.

As a result, cultural competency training never gets to a decolonial process of creating knowledge and selfhood together, through collective power and love.

It also implicitly assumes that people of color cannot overcome their own biases, and that the informal relationships among them are possible sources of corruption or inappropriately emotional connection. It values abstracted, reified, homogenous, and unchanging “cultures” rather than the millions of different ways in which people constantly change their cultures through relating to each other in creative ways.

In this sense, many of the methods through which cultural competency is taught are themselves Eurocentric and culturally incompetent.

MORE 4 MANN COALITION CHALLENGES SCHOOL DISTRICT’S BAN OF AFRICATOWN ARRESTEES

25 Jul

There was a hearing this morning concerning Seattle Public Schools’ decision to ban several people from district property because of their involvement in the More4Mann movement.  This coalition attempted to challenge the school to prison pipeline by taking back a district school and setting up educational programs attuned to the needs to Black youth.  Here is the press release from More4Mann

9 a.m. Friday, July 25, 2014 Judge Kimberley Prochnau

King County Superior Court, 516 3rd Ave., Seattle

Courtroom E-201    Supporters and journalists encouraged.

 

The More 4 Mann Coalition of Historic Africatown (in Central Seattle) is continuing to challenge the unconstitutional “EXCLUSION NOTICE” imposed upon three of our members by the Seattle Public School District since last November, in direct violation of the First Amendment.

The three members, Omari Tahir, Greg Lewis and Leight J-K, appealed this decision to the King County Superior Court.  Judge Prochnou will hear the appeal at 9 a.m. Friday, July 25, in Courtroom E-201, at 516 3rd Ave..

The Exclusion Notice bans the three members of the More 4 Mann Coalition from any and all public meetings and community events held on any SPS property for one year.

Former Seattle Public Schools social studies teacher Omari Tahir has served as the elected co-chair of the Seattle Alliance For Black Education since 1970. Greg Lewis is a martial arts and fitness instructor. Leith Jasinowski-Kahl  is a local longshoreman and community activist who has served as a member of SPS’s Horace Mann-African American Community Partnerships Task Force since August 22, 2013, at the request of outgoing Superintendent Jose Banda. In September, that task force reached overwhelming joint District-Community agreement on thirteen (13) clear recommendations (attached), which the More 4 Mann Coalition continues to support.

We believe this perverse and backward “Exclusion Notice” to have been concocted by loyalists of SPS General Council Ron English, and his old-guard faction within the School District. This is the same School District (and Ron English faction) that has always welcomed the infamous former Urban League chief James Kelly into its facilities, even after he brought a firearm onto Rainier Beach High School campus and publicly threatened people with it in May of 2002 (http://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/City-right-to-bring-charge-in-gun-case-1091852.php ).

Last Autumn, Ron English sabotaged the Superintendent’s pragmatic efforts at multicultural dialogue, and abruptly shifted the District’s tone and policy. In early November, the District suddenly and unilaterally began addressing the More 4 Mann Coalition as “tresspassers” instead of Partners. The District also sent a letter to task force member Leith Kahl, threatening to exclude him from Board meetings if he so much as mentioned Ron English by name, title, or pronoun (also attached). 

The Ron English machine is using District Exclusion Notices and Seattle Police to silence its critics because it does not want Seattle’s taxpayers to pay attention to the record of Ron English’s involvement in the 1986 through 2005 process of privatizing Queen Anne High School (http://seattletimes.com/html/education/2002440838_queenanne15m.html ), the illegal 2003 “transfer” of the African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center’s Coleman School Building to the Seattle Urban League (http://www.aahmcc.org/a-brief-history/ ), the theocratic 2010 giveaway of MLK High School to a religious institution (http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2015242396_mlk06m.html ), and the Seattle Public Schools Small Business Contracting Program Scandal of 2011 ( http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2014375410_potter03.html ). A thorough review of this long related train of abuses and usurpations would lead most taxpayers to conclude that Ron English is not a good steward of public resources, and that he should, at the very least, be let go from his job at SPS.

The District still had yet to implement any of these task force recommendations by November 19th, when a Seattle Police SWAT Team raided the Mann building at Ron English’s desire, arresting Leith, Omari, Greg and one random bystander who was not a Coalition member. They were each issued the District’s one year Exclusion Notice at the time of their release the same day. Not a single task force recommendation had yet been implemented by December 12, when we appealed the Exclusion Notice within the District’s internal Kangaroo “appeal procedure”, where it was of course upheld by THE SAME PERSON WHO HAD WRITTEN IT IN THE FIRST PLACE.  Not a single recommendation had been implemented by December 19th, when we appealed this matter to Superior Court.

Since then, we are happy to report that at least ONE important task force recommendation was achieved, when SPS signed an interim re-location lease agreement with one of the More 4 Mann Coalition’s affiliated organizations. However, to date, less than four out of the thirteen task force recommendations have been achieved. 

The programmatic and visual presence of ALL Africatown activities have been, at least temporarily, displaced from 2401 E. Cherry Street, the historic heart of Africatown. This was the opposite of both the letter and spirit of the task force’s recommendations, and of the School District’s stated intent in convening that task force.

Our attorney will therefore ask the Superior Court to quash this unlawful exclusion notice.

 

12

Don’t deport our students; classrooms should be sanctuaries

29 May

A few years ago, one of my students told me something that made me furious at the U.S. government: she said she was afraid to come to school because she thought ICE might show up in the classroom to deport her.  We strategized together about what to do if this happens.

I was left outraged that we even had to have this conversation. The classroom should be a sanctuary where all students can learn, without having to worry about being kidnapped by the state and removed from their families and communities.

This was just as heartbreaking as when another student asked me if you need to purchase a password in order to become an American citizen, as if the United States is a VIP club that is simply too expensive for people from his community.

These kinds of situations are becoming increasingly common; students will come in to class depressed, worried their parents or siblings are about to be deported.  Many are from working class immigrant communities that are slated to be left out by all of the comprehensive immigration reform proposals tossed back and forth in Congress.  They are the ones the Democratic Party is willing to jettison and the Republicans are ready to demonize as the “bad immigrants”, not the good Dreamers.  Many of them have gotten entangled in the criminal justice system because of racial profiling or because they had to hustle to get by since they can’t access legal jobs.  They can’t afford college because of rising tuition.  They are marked as gang members simply because of the neighborhoods they live in.  When congresspeople talks about increasing security, they mean kicking out people like them.

But where are they supposed to go?  Many Mexican youth can’t find jobs in either the US or Mexico, and are facing violence in both places.  They are a generation that is getting squeezed out of both countries, and have nowhere to go unless they fight back.  They are the North American cohort of millennial youth, children of the economic crisis who are facing a precarious future.  This generation is rising up all over the world, from the Arab Spring to the migrant worker strikes and riots in China’s Pearl River Delta.

Many of the mainstream immigrant rights groups don’t want to take up their cases because it is seen as too difficult to convince the government that they “deserve” to stay.  But when I talk with them, I don’t see threats to national security, I see intelligent, caring, creative young people who are active in their communities and are trying to build lives here.

As a teacher, I feel blessed to be connected with undocumented activists who are developing innovative organizing strategies for stopping deportations.  The National Immigrant Youth Alliance is at the forefront of an emerging movement of undocumented folks who have been reuniting families torn apart by deportation, particularly through the recent Bring Them Home actions. 

If I weren’t connected with these folks I’d be depressed and helpless when my students share these stories.  But now I can suggest some ways they can build solidarity to stop deportations, and I know there are skilled activists who can support them in this, people who come from similar backgrounds and have faced their fears together.

For this reason, I strongly encourage readers to support NIYA’s current efforts to free four young people from immigration detention.  One of these youth was deported right from his high school classroom, and has been imprisoned in detention for 71 days after trying to cross back into the U.S.

As a history teacher, I often facilitate conversations among students about past social movements such as the civil rights movement and Chicano/Chicana labor struggles.  Students will debate whether or not things have gotten better since then.  I think that 40 years from now we will remember stories of students being deported from our classrooms and will see ICE’s practices as barbaric, analogous to the oppression communities of color faced before the 1960s.  But that will only happen if we all take action to prevent the state’s ability to kidnap, deport, and imprison youth today.

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.

 

Bill Gates’ Pipelines to Hell: Reflections on the 2012 Education Policy Throwdown

10 Feb

On March 1, 2012, uplifted by the spirit of Occupy, a group of us picked a fight with the largest private foundation on the planet.   

Two years later, we are now facing the very real possibility that in addition to reproducing the education pipelines that lead to prison, precarious labor, or privilege, Bill Gates is encouraging his fellow billionaires to railroad highly explosive Bakken shale oil and Tar Sands bitumen through the middle of our city.

“The 99% Challenges the Gates Foundation to an Education Policy Throwdown”

Back in 2012, we challenged the education policy experts at the Gates Foundation to a street-style debate as part of a coordinated National Day of Action for Public Education.  (We even delivered a fancy engraved invitation .)

We joined together to protest the outsized influence that the Gates Foundation wields to push its neoliberal education model.  To our amazement, their staff actually came out to debate with us when about 300 or so of us descended on their palatial headquarters in Seattle.

 

Frankly, considering that this was their full time job, the Gates Foundation policy experts were woefully unimpressive in this General Assembly style interaction.  The parents and teachers in our crowd gave them quite a drubbing over some key issues that these “experts” are clearly getting wrong:

  • Standardized Testing and Teacher Pay – the Gates Foundation was (and still is) one of the major players in the push to tie teacher pay to standardized test results.  A member of the crowd (an editor at Rethinking Schools magazine) nailed them over the numerous studies that showed the volatility of test scores from year to year.  Teachers with stellar scores one year are painted as failures the next.  Gates Foundation experts sheepishly agreed.

  • Racist Origins of Standardized Testing  – Another participant stumped them completely by asking about the origin of standardized testing.  The Gates Foundation experts were not aware that the tools they promote were originally designed by the Eugenics movement to apply assembly line models to classrooms in attempt to prove the ‘genetic superiority’ of whites.   Standardized tests continue to do what they were designed to do — maintain a system of racially segregated education.

  • Charter Schools – the Gates Foundation was (and still is) one of the major players in the push to advance charter schools.  As we have pointed out repeatedly in words and actions, the public schools are failing youth of color and working class youth.  It is understandable that many parents, communities, and progressive teachers will want to build alternative schools that have some degree of autonomy – ability to develop their own curriculum, to set their own schedules, etc.  Many people start charter schools thinking that they will offer such freedom; Bill Gates, on the other hand, wants charters in order to help take capitalism to a whole new level.

The charter movement may have started with good intentions but it has rapidly become a tool of corporate privatization rather than a viable laboratory where new forms of teaching can blossom and spread throughout the public system.   Charter schools become just as bureaucratic and authoritarian as public schools – some even more so, because charter-ization often paves the way for military academies or militaristic, heavily disciplined forms of teaching.   Many charter schools have admissions requirements, which makes it easier for elitist schools to maintain class and race segregation; this can also lead to discrimination against students with disabilities, which federal public education legislation was designed to prevent (whether it actually does that effectively is another whole conversation, but charters can make it worse).

Many charters are non-union, which means their teachers are more stressed out due to longer hours and lower pay. This can make it harder for them to focus on building relationships with students.  It can also mean the teachers have less academic freedom and can be fired more easily for teaching something that the administration doesn’t like.

When Bill Gates and his foundation push for charter schools they are not pushing for the dream of parents and teachers who want to opt out of an oppressive public school system.  They are pushing for their own dream – a corporate controlled education system with fewer public roadblocks in the way of billionaires who want to fashion education to suit their own goals.

The crowd made these criticisms of charter schools perfectly clear to the Gates Foundation.

People over Experts

At the “Education Policy Throwdown” we learned firsthand that what these “experts” are doing is not driven by observation or science.  They are paid pseudo-scientists who are paid to go find facts that support the preconceived ideology of Bill Gates.   They manipulate public policy behind the scenes by selective funding of research and by creating an atmosphere where everyone in academia is afraid to point out that the 800-pound gorilla has no clothes.

We also learned that they are vulnerable.  When called out into the streets to actually explain themselves to the public that they foist these policies upon, the Gates Foundation is simply defenseless.  

Gates’ Policies Are Still a Train Wreck

So, what else have they gotten wrong regarding education?

  • Small Schools Initiative:  The Gates Foundation spent over $2B convincing school districts to break their large schools into smaller “academies”.  Gates later admitted that the results were “disappointing” AFTER districts spent their OWN capital dollars physically re-architecting their campuses around a rich guy’s baseless hunch.  (BTW, ask the folks at Seattle’s Cleveland High School about this one.)

  • Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project:  The Gates Foundation spent years trying to validate their preconceived belief that teacher effectiveness can be scientifically measured.   They were wrong.  According to the National Education Policy Center, their “…results do not settle disagreements about what makes an effective teacher and offer little guidance about how to design real-world teacher evaluation systems”.  (This study even won the NEPC’s 2013 Bunkum Awards, recognizing lowlights in educational research).

Bill Gates and his foundation get it wrong because their policies are based on the neoliberal belief that the most important dimension of a human being is their contribution to the economy.   This ingrained belief expresses itself in systems that make the role of education to simply prepare workers for the labor market.  

In fact, this is the explicitly stated goal of their post-secondary education program:  “Our goal — to ensure that all low-income young adults have affordable access to a quality postsecondary education that is tailored to their individual needs and educational goals and leads to timely completion of a degree or certificate with labor-market value.”

Bill Gates is also wrong because he is a hypocrite.  He brags about the quality of his own relevant and relationship-based education at Lakeside, yet funnels everyone else into the pipeline that creates worker bots.
Preach One Thing, Invest in Another

Hypocrisy, or something darker, must motivate the investment portfolio of the Gates Foundation.  According to an analysis of their 2012 tax returns by Mother Jones Magazine:

  • They preach nutrition, but invest billions in MacDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Burger King, etc.

  • They preach support for the working poor, but invest billions in Walmart

  • They preach about fighting climate change, but invest billions in fossil fuels like Exxon Mobile, Arch Coal, Peabody Coal, Baker Hughes, etc.

  • WORST OF ALL, they preach that they will not invest in companies with “egregious corporate activities”, but invest in private prison companies like GEO Group and G4S Corporation, which operates 19 juvenile prisons in the US.   (GEO Group publicly stated that their profits would suffer from “reductions in crime rates” that “could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences,” along with immigration reform and the decriminalization of drugs.)

The Gates Foundation directly profits from maintaining the School to Prison Pipeline and from maintaining the dysfunctional economic status quo.

However, as we have written about on this blog before — our struggle is not JUST against the School To Prison Pipeline, but against ALL of the pipelines that systemically strip people of power and possibilities.  The pipelines to prison, to precarious employment, to overworked technology labor, or even to the stressed managerial class* are ALL BAD for the people in them.  (*Note that suicide now kills more 40-60 year old white males than car accidents).

Next Target, Higher Education

Bill Gates and his foundation continue to build the pipelines that perpetuate privilege for some and prison for others. Their latest target is now the university system, which they seek to destroy and rebuild in their own techno-capitalist vision.

The Chronicle of Higher Education released a detailed report that sharply criticized their new approach, which they state is “designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology, and…narrowly focused on equipping students for short-term employability.”

One structural change promoted by the Gates Foundation is the channeling of Federal Student Financial Aid toward schools that do not require ‘credit hours’, instead allowing students to demonstrate competency by completing online training.

According to the Chronicle’s report, the tremendous financial power wielded by the Gates Foundation creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within the administration of colleges and universities.   Few are willing to speak out against Gates’ vision of education as job preparation.  If schools follow this vision, we all lose the many other critical roles that colleges have played in society.  The university will no longer be a place for reflection on the meaning of human existence (or other such “non-productive” activities).

Automation and Education in the Era of Robots

The Gates Foundation goals are shaped by Gates’ plans for the next era of capitalist accumulation.  As Gates, Jeff Bezos at Amazon.com, and other tech company titans push for increasing automation of the workforce, more and more workers will be replaced by robots.  As this happens, society could be increasingly divided into new classes – those who own the robots, those who manage them, those who serve these two groups, and everyone else who is deemed a “surplus population” and targeted for mass incarceration and other forms of social destruction.

If this stratification proceeds, the corporate owners would need to reproduce it in the schools.  Since charter schools make the  education system more flexible, their presence might help speed up this process.   Gates and his technocrats might push for elite, holistic, creative schools for the future robot owners, heavy STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) schools for the future robot operators, discipline-based job training programs for the future servants, and prison-like schools for everyone else. Some teachers might become highly-paid professionals training the global elite and their programmers and engineers.  Others might become low-paid service industry workers who deploy automated “teacher-proof” online curriculum, punishing students who don’t pay attention to what Bill Gates wants them to see on the screen in front of them.   

The Gates Foundation is already deploying electronic bracelets on students’ arms that measure their arousal levels in the classroom;  they could use this data to help automate teaching, creating online and cybernetic technologies to replace teachers.  This might seem far-fetched, and it is admittedly decades away at least.  But the world we live in today would seem extremely far-fetched to early 20th century auto workers.  Little did they know that the time-study researchers watching them do their jobs would use this data to  replace them with robots.

Bill Gates Might Just  Blow Us All to Hell

Clearly Bill Gates has been wrong about many things before and will be again.

However, one his miscalculations may cause immediate searing and painful death to some and will likely accelerate the death of all of us through climate change.

You see, according to Forbes Magazine, Bill Gates is the person that convinced his friend Warren Buffet and his investment company, Berkshire Hathaway, to invest in Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) and Canadian Railway (CN).   

Bill is pretty clever, and he saw that all of that Tar Sands and Bakken Shale Oil might not be able to get to market in China, ESPECIALLY if the Keystone XL pipeline was not approved by the Obama administration.  So, Berkshire Hathaway invested heavily to increase the capacity of these rail systems so that they could carry more of these petroleum products.

The cruel irony is that last month, the State Department ruled that Keystone XL will have no impact on CO2 emissions because, even if it not approved, the oil/tar in the ground would get to the market anyways via the newly expanded rail capacity.   The result is that the staggering amounts of Canadian Tar Sands will now be strip-mined and sold overseas, accelerating the pace at which the planet will become a climate-ravaged hellscape.

The Gates Foundation holds more than $10B worth of Berkshire Hathaway.  They took a minimal risk in the railway investment — even though the rail lines may have profited more without Keystone XL, they win.  They can afford to take risks and lose a few.

 However, folks in the pathway of their rail cars filled with these highly explosive materials are not so lucky.  Perhaps Bill Gates should have educated himself on one of the key themes of Greek literature – Hubris.  His unwarranted self-confidence puts our schools, our communities, and our climate at extreme risk.