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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.

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.   

Seahawks lesson plan – writing / discussion prompts

6 Feb

As everyone knows, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, and over 700,000 people flooded the streets of Seattle today for a victory parade.   I’m hearing rumors that 1,500 Seattle Public Schools teachers called in sick, and I imagine many more students skipped to attend the parade.  For all the teachers out there who want to turn this into a “teachable moment” tomorrow, here are some writing and discussion prompts I made that might be useful.  I’m going to assign them in my classes and we’ll see what kind of discussions get going.

Just in case someone questions whether this is “academically rigorous enough”, these prompts meet one or more of the  WA State EALRS (state standards) for grade 11 Social Studies skills:

5. SOCIAL STUDIES SKILLS The student understands and applies reasoning skills to conduct research, deliberate, form, and evaluate positions through the processes of reading, writing, and communicating.
5.1 Uses critical reasoning skills to analyze and evaluate positions.
5.2 Uses inquiry-based research.
5.3 Deliberates public issues.
5.4 Creates a product that uses social studies content to support a thesis and presents the product in an appropriate manner to a meaningful audience.

Super Bowl Writing / Discussion Prompts

Objective: to analyze literary and social themes in popular sports through written  reflection and verbal discussion

Please choose two of the following writing prompts, and write two paragraphs for each, on a separate sheet of paper.  As you write, please provide specific details from the Seahawks season/ postseason, from your life, from other sports, or from other texts (books/ articles/ movies/ songs/ etc).  If you are not a football fan, no problem, several of these prompts can be done even if you don’t care about the Seahawks.  Once we are done, each student will share one of your responses verbally with the class and we will discuss these themes together. 

– What does it mean to be an underdog? Write about a time you were an underdog and you succeeded at something when everyone thought you were going to fail.  Or, write about a time when you aim to be an underdog in the future.

– Write about a movie or book or song about being an underdog.  What happened in the story?  What lessons can we learn from it?

– Some commentators have said the Seahawks are a “team of misfits”.  What do you think they mean by that? What are some other teams of misfits that have done important things in history? Do you consider yourself a part of a “team of misfits”?  Why or why not?

– What does it take to build a team?  Is a team good only because of its best players?  Or is a good team one where every single player can shine, even if they are not all stars?

– What role do you think the 12th Man (the fans) played in the Seahawks victory?  Do you think the fans actually helped them win?  Or is this a myth (a story we create to make meaning out of our lives)?   Why do you think people are so drawn to being the 12th Man?  What do we get out of it?

– After the superbowl, they gave the trophy to Paul Alllen, former Microsoft executive, and owner of the Seahawks, saying he could bring it back to the 12th Man. Do you think this is fair?  Should the trophy go to the owner, to the players, or to the fans?  Why?  What does this say about our society?

– Please choose three quotes from  Seahawks players (e.g. Marshawn Lynch saying “I’m just ‘bout that action, boss”, or Russell Wilson asking “why not us?”).  What message do you think each player was trying to get across about his perspective on life?   Do you agree or disagree with his perspective?

– Over 700,000 people flooded Seattle for the victory parade.   People skipped school and work for it.  Could you imagine that many people coming out into the streets for any other reason?  What other situations would you like to see that many people caring about?  Why?   (If you’d like, you could write a short story describing what it would be like for that many people to get together for another reason, e.g. to stop global warming, to end poverty, etc.)

– The Seahawks have brought a lot of attention to Seattle.  What do you think defines Seattle right now?  What are the 5-10 most important things about this town?   Extra (if you can): Do you think the “real” Seattle was shown accurately on the TV coverage of the Superbowl, or were there biases towards certain sides of Seattle, and against others?

– Please summarize the controversy around Richard Sherman’s comments.  Do you think the response to him was racist?  Why or why not? What does this show about American society in 2014?

– Choose your favorite sport.  Who do you think is the best player in that sport today?  Please back up your argument with specific evidence; please consider a possible counter-argument, and argue against that counter-argument.

– Some of my friends have argued that the Superbowl is a massive distraction from more important issues and problems in our society that we urgently need to deal with.  They have said the rich people who run our society want us to party and forget about all of the problems they are causing.  Do you agree or disagree?  Why?

– Both Colorado and Washington state legalized marijuana the same year that the Seahawks and the Broncos went to the superbowl.  Do you think these state’s teams’ athletic success is evidence supporting arguments for legalization?  Or is it irrelevant?  Why?

Police arrest SPS “community partners” at Horace Mann during ongoing negotiations

20 Nov
Police making arrests at Horace Mann today; photo by Alex Garland

Police making arrests at Horace Mann today; photo by Alex Garland

Today the Seattle p0lice arrested four members of the Africatown / Central District community in the Horace Mann school building; they also took steps to prevent community members from retaking control of the building. One of the arrestees told me the police arrested them at gunpoint. 

While the mainstream media is presenting these men as “occupiers“, as a violent threat, or as some splinter group, they are, in fact, part of the  broad-based More4Mann movement: a coalition of predominantly Black parents, teachers, students, and community activists who want the Horace Mann building to be a public resource for the Africatown/ Central District neighborhood and for students across the district.  They want to use the building to create a school that can support Black students who are facing disproportionate suspensions and lack of culturally relevant education in the Seattle Public Schools.

As I wrote here, I was worried that the media and school district officials would try to separate the educators in this coalition from the people remaining in the building, splintering the broad-based nature of the movement.  But those divide and conquer tactics didn’t work; the entire coalition held a rally on Nov 8th to support those who remained inside the building after district and police threats had made it unsafe for the educators to continue holding classes there. The coalition put out a unified press release, which you can find at the end of this post.  The media was there interviewing people at the solidarity rally, but they didn’t actually publish what they saw, probably because it looked like this:

kids support More4Mann

And this clearly doesn’t fit with the narrative they’re trying to push.

People inside the building reciprocated this solidarity with their own public statements, like this one:

LET THIS BE KNOWN: I am a More for Mann Coalition Task Force member, seated to discuss the future use of the Horace Mann building with the school district, as are two of my co-workers, Gabriel Prawl and Purnell Mitchell. My two co-workers have asked me to post the following on behalf of all three of us: WE HAVE NOT AGREED TO MOVE, AND WE ARE ANGRY THAT MANY OF OUR TEACHERS HAVE BEEN PUSHED OUT INTO THE COLD BY DISTRICT THREATS AND INTIMIDATION! We don’t think it’s right that they were forced to shut down their classes or face the threat “tresspass” charges from the district. It isn’t right that the school district refused to sign the lease on the interim space it offered them. It isn´t right that the school district hasn´t cleaned the mold, filth and birds nests out of that space. It isn´t right for them top make our teachers teach in the rainy streets. It isn´t even right that the school district attorney Ron English and the board members who listen to him are bullying Superintendent Banda into threatening to throw the cops at our community, and are punishing Banda for even convening our task force at all.

So the mainstream media is either too lazy to investigate or too corrupt to tell the truth. It is crystal clear to anyone paying close attention, that those inside the building and those outside in the community are on the same team.  This means that Seattle Public Schools officials will not be able to make all of this go away by arresting a few people inside  – today’s raid will probably  galvanize the broader coalition to keep fighting against racism in the schools in general, and for community control of the Mann building in particular.

This afternoon, supporters of the movement rallied outside the East Precinct where the people arrested were released. 

 Upon release, they called for everyone to mobilize tomorrow at the school board meeting at the John Stanford Center, 2445 3rd Ave S., Seattle, WA, 98134.  

This could get really interesting, because supporters of the Indian Heritage School and AS1/Pinehurst are already planning on rallying at 3:30 before the board meeting, to prevent the closure of their programs.  On Facebook, leaders of the More4Mann Movement and leaders of the indigenous Idle No More movement have been exchanging statements of solidarity, supporting each others’ causes.   Thinking they just crushed a marginal opposition, school district officials may have just helped consolidate a multi-racial movement against them. 

The media is, as usual, missing all of this context.  By calling the men arrested “occupiers”, they fail to see that trying to use a public building for the purposes of publicly educating youth in your own neighborhood is not an act of occupation.  That’s like saying you are occupying a neighborhood park by allowing your kids to swing on the swingset.  But I guess this is how the pro-gentrification Seattle establishment views the remnant of the Black community in the Central Area – as squatters in their own ‘hood.

And yet, this is the same Seattle whose politicians like to make a public show of engaging in “dialogue” with communities of color.  In fact, the people arrested are part of  the  same exact More4Mann coalition that Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Jose Banda has been calling “community partners”.  It is the exact same coalition that Banda and his staff are currently negotiating with to lease space in another district building while the district renovates the Mann building.

Contrary to the Seattle Times’s sloppy reporting, the district has not signed this lease yet, for the reasons outlined here. At least they hadn’t by Nov 10th, the date of the last post on More4Mann’s blog. Neither the district nor the movement has announced any finalization of the lease, so my assumption is the Times is going off of outdated promises that Supt. Banda had made publicly but the district never followed through on.  The deal was that the Africatown educators would move out of Horace Mann as long as the programs they were doing in the building continue elsewhere.  But no satisfactory place for these programs was every guaranteed in writing.  Also, the Africatown workers’  demands that Black folks have equal access to the school construction jobs were also not met. These are the reasons why people were still in the building today. 

So by asking the police to raid them, SPS is responsible for a raid on the very same coalition that has been running programming for Black youth in the Mann building for months, programming that Banda and other SPS officials recognized for its cultural relevance and  its alignment with the  district’s strategic goal of overcoming what they call the “achievement gap” between Black students and white students.

In fact, at least one of the people arrested is actually part of the very task force that Supt. Banda set up to negotiate with the Mor4Mann coalition and to work toward this goal. This means that Seattle Public school staff worked with the Seattle Police to arrest at gunpoint someone who they claim to be negotiating with, during ongoing negotiations over a new lease and new partnership. I guess that’s what “dialogue” looks like to them. 

It seems to me like one of two things is going on here.  Either 1)  the district leadership’s behavior is dangerously erratic and it’s policies around racial equality are completely incoherent or  2) the district is sending a clear message to all of its “partners” that negotiating  with politicians might involve them calling a group of people to kidnap you at gunpoint in your own neighborhood during the middle of the negotiation process. What a way to solidify a partnership! 

But all of this is getting obscured by the sensationalist media narratives.   Kiro TV claims that one of the people inside the Mann building called them and suggested they were prepared to snipe cops from the rooftop.  But nowhere does Kiro prove that this call actually represents anyone in the More4Mann coalition, or that it even came from within the building.  According to Seattle Weekly, Omari Tahir Garrett, one of the people arrested today, “claims the call was a prank from someone trying to make them look bad, and vowed to press on.” 

All of us should press on, despite all this negative media and and the police raid.  The issues that MOre4Mann has highlighted are still unresolved.  The community’s refusal to relinquish control of the Mann building has pushed the district  leadership to talk about these issues, but I don’t think we should take their words seriously since they also just coordinated the arrest of someone on their own task force.  

Let’s learn from Africatown, and start taking matters into our own hands.  Let’s organize in all of of our schools and neighborhoods, against racist discipline policies and in favor of culturally responsive education.  We could take direct action, such as campaigns to reinstate students who are unfairly suspended, or efforts to replace aversive discipline policies like isolation rooms.  And, most importantly, we should support Africatown and the Indian Heritage program tomorrow at 3:30 at the school board meeting. 

 

More4Mann press release (Nov 8th 2013, coinciding with a rally outside the Mann building): 

Imminent Eviction of Black Community Education Center by SPD

The Seattle Police Department has issued a notice to the Africatown Center for Education & Innovation to remove this needed community resource from its location at the Horace Mann School as soon as 6pm tonight, November 8, 2013. The Seattle School Board has refused to negotiate in good faith with Seattle’s Black community to preserve necessary programming at Horace Mann, Africatown’s only location, which benefits cross-cultural communities of color in Seattle’s Central District.

The Seattle School District has, in spite of comment from Seattle’s Black community, chosen to return the NOVA Alternative School to Horace Mann. Overwhelming community support in the Central District and among the Black community for continuing ACEI’s mission has been ignored by the Seattle School District’s push to relocate NOVA from its current spacious and sufficient location central to its student body on 20th Ave E.

ACEI has put down roots in reclaiming Horace Mann School *for* the Black community and has brought in cross-cultural programs that benefit many Seattle children, from bilingual Spanish/English education for grade schoolers through the Seattle Amistad School’s summer program at ACEI to fostering shared community responsibility through the Africatown Center Children’s Collective where we bring the proverbial village together to promote an Afrocentric curriculum for young minds.

It is imperative for Seattle’s Black community that we retain this resource and that the School Board speak to us in good faith about discussing future possibilities for Africatown at Horace Mann. We can work with the Seattle School District to create a better, Afrocentric focus for Horace Mann School, a school in the very heart of the Central District and we are more than willing to do so. However, the Seattle School District has given ACEI nothing but bad faith and now impending eviction.

For more information on the programs offered by Africatown Center for Education & Innovation, please see http://www.africatownseattle.org/africatown-center/.

Caring Not Control

17 Nov

This is a guest post by our friend Lowell, an elementary school teacher in the Seattle metro region. She writes about how she and her students turned the isolation room in their classroom into an art project.  This is part of an ongoing series on isolation rooms and the school to prison pipeline. If you have experience with isolation rooms or aversive discipline in schools and would like to contribute, please contact us at CreativityNotControl AT gmail.com.

safe_space

artwork by a Justseeds artist

During the interview for my current position teaching students with emotional and behavioral difficulties, the interviewer asked if I was familiar with the practice of aversive discipline. I replied tentatively that I was aware of the term but not how it was applied in this particular setting. Immediately I felt uneasy with such language and what this topic meant for the day-to-day expectations of the position. Aversive discipline, she explained to me in a vague way, consists of physical restraints and the use of isolation rooms. I said yes I was familiar with such methods and understood them to be absolute last resorts when all other methods failed to protect the child and others nearby during a crisis.

The interview continued on to other topics. However, I remained unnerved by the concept of aversive discipline and its application in institutions. I thought to myself, why would something be deemed a ‘discipline’ technique if it truly is used as a last resort to ensure protection after all other methods had been exhausted? The term discipline implies repetition, a technique applied repeatedly to reduce unwanted behaviors. Discipline implies subjecting students to experiences that the adults involved know are undesirable, even painful in some way, to the children. Thoughts swirled around in my head during and after the interview- my experiences of children being further escalated and traumatized by such methods, research proving the damage caused by repeated application of this discipline, and the high percentages of students with disabilities being funneled from the education system directly into the prison system.

Despite my unsettling feeling that the district promotes the use of aversive discipline in its schools, I accepted the job.

Upon walking into my new classroom, I was faced with reality of my decision. I saw a bright red button next to a door that led to the isolation cell commonly referred to as the “time-out room.” I imagined all the fear and trauma that students associate with that room, students classified as socially and emotionally vulnerable, students with learning difficulties and layers of hardship stacked against them. I began asking around. Teachers in the school. Other EBC (emotional and behavioral classroom) teachers and para-professionals in the district. I wondered how other professionals viewed that room. Stories began to unravel. The teacher that came before me used the room almost daily, I learned. I heard stories that students were frequently told that if they did not comply with teacher prompts they would be sent to the time-out room. After hearing one para’s experience, I asked, “Do you think these methods worked?” He just laughed. If scaring children into compliance is considered working then maybe, he said. As I continued to listen, all I could think was that such discipline could only be successful in achieving one thing: it teaches children to be fearful of teachers, fearful of school, fearful of institutions and other authorities. It teaches them that if they do not comply with such authorities they will be locked up and isolated repeatedly.

I thought to myself: they should be scared.

In August, I met the families and youth that I’d be working with over the course of the year. Story after story, the students shared their experiences with the time-out room. They were scared of it and scared they’d be spending time in it again this coming year. I explained my philosophies and personal style. Almost every family that I met broke down in tears, tears of relief that their child would not spend another year in and out of forced isolation.

Carrying each story close to me as I made preparations for the first day of school, I wondered how this year would play out. Should I speak out directly against aversive discipline practices? Should I gather support from peers? From families? From my principal? From my union rep? As a new person in the district, it was difficult to know whom my allies were and if I would be retaliated against for speaking out, or even for rejecting aversive discipline methods in my own practice.

After speaking with trusted people, both inside and outside the profession, I decided I would attempt to transform my room and the time-out room in order to help the students heal. I wanted them to become self-advocates and to reclaim the classroom and time-out room for their personal expression. This could be a starting point, I thought.

Since the beginning of the year, the students and I have discussed such concepts as safe spaces, self-advocacy, and how to care for one another as members of a community. Through these conversations, the powerful presence of the time-out room has begun to shift. Additionally, no one has been forced to use the room or been forced into compliance with the threat of the room hanging over their heads. As a result, the students have begun to trust me, themselves, and each other, trust that we can provide care for one another and use the support resources in our community that we were actively cultivating. We have since covered the door of the time-out room in student artwork, depicting these community resources such as the ways the students contribute to our safe space, what a safe space looks like, and what resources they use for support within the safe space. Every now and then, the students will share stories with one another of their experiences being sent to the time-out room. I generally just listen in on these conversations, witnessing the amazing support that ten and eleven year olds are capable of providing one another. I like to remind the students in these moments, that they don’t need to be sent to that room, that no one does. But I think they might already understand this on their own.

Recently, a new family joined my program. The first thing they asked me was if their child would be subjected to use of the time-out room. They explained how often this happened to their child previously. They were concerned about its effectiveness. I simply directed their attention to the time-out room door with a smile and pointed out how our students had covered it with their artwork and that is the extent of how we use it in our classroom. The mother responded with a smile and an exhausted sigh of relief.

When one reads the files of any given special education student classified with an “emotional/behavioral disorder” one can find account upon account of aggressive behavior, opposition, noncompliance, etc. The reports reflect how these young people have extensive histories of being shuffled around from school to school, placement after placement as each incident occurs, often escalating in nature as the students grow older. As these children move through the education system, they acquire trauma after trauma, carrying the wounds of rejection inflicted upon them by institutions designed to control them, institutions in which they just can’t seem to fit in. They almost never receive appropriate or adequate care. They are shamed, yelled at, handcuffed, isolated by adults who demand compliance. These are children, however, and we are the adults. What exactly is our job as teachers and adult members of a community?

If school is meant to exist as a place of care, of curiosity, and growth, it has failed. However, the harsh and punitive environments of many of our special education classrooms and the policies such as aversive discipline reveal that is not why school exists.

It would appear that our true job as teachers is to prepare children to maintain the status quo, to fit neatly into their predetermined places in society as determined by their race, class, and gender. Poor students of color with special needs do not fit neatly into the mold of productive members of society, but rather have been deemed non-conformers, impossible to control. These are the students that we have decided need to be locked up and that will not change when they are no longer of school age. This is the school to prison pipeline in its most glaring form.

How many teachers feel inadequately prepared or supported? Too many. The teachers who resort to using the time-out room most frequently are certainly among them. Rather than paying for additional highly-trained therapeutic staff for classrooms, our administrations build time-out rooms. The structure leaves teachers overworked and unsupported, which feeds the process of reproducing oppression by controlling poor children of color, their minds, their bodies, their stories. Some might say the overuse of aversive discipline is a symptom of funding issues or bad leadership, a bad teacher here and there. However, this process is deliberate and pervasive. Classrooms, particularly self-contained special education classrooms, are not designed to honor children’s voices, experiences, and their histories of resisting unfair practices and policies. Once we’ve succeeded into forcing children into compliance, we will also have succeeded in breaking their intuitive sense of fairness and justice, succeeded in upholding the mission of compulsory education in our capitalist society.

In schools there are a variety of mechanisms in place to uphold the notion of aversive discipline as something useful and common sense. The very existence of time-out rooms in classrooms serve as a concrete symbol that they are needed and should be used. Our schools are drenched in such symbols, from metal detectors to cops in the hallways. These are the same symbols that dominate our streets, commercial spaces, and most institutions in our society. In the absence of a strong movement stating otherwise, these symbols dominate our perceptions of people and how we interact with one another. In my experience as a special education teacher, I have found, more often than not, other educators view aversive discipline as a common sense option, reaffirmed by the many social and environmental cues around them.

The proliferation of aversive discipline as common sense brings to mind the struggle faced by prison abolitionists to confront the notion that prisons are common sense, that we need prisons in our society and that solitary confinement is a reasonable response to noncompliance. We need to change these notions of common sense that our institutions and economic systems dictate. We must create the changes necessary so that it becomes common sense to support people and to never lock them up.

The struggle for Horace Mann is not over: time to get clear on a few things

8 Nov

Since the summer, members of the historically Black central district community in Seattle have taken back the Horace Mann building from the Seattle Public Schools (SPS). Calling out the district for it’s racially biased suspension rates, lack of culturally relevant curriculum, and general oppression of youth of African descent, they have been running their own educational programs in the building, called the Africatown Innovation and Education Center (AIEC).  Hundreds of Black youth have participated in learning activities there over the course of the summer and fall.

 The school district wants to begin renovations on this building immediately, so that it can be turned over to a majority-white alternative school called Nova (even though many Nova teachers, parents, and students do not want to displace the AEIC).  Africatown residents have refused to move, delaying construction and creating an accelerating political crisis for the SPS leadership.    For background info, click here and here.

Horace Mann is located at 24th and Cherry St., Seattle.  Barring a police raid, there will be a Black labor movie night and disucssion there on Fri at 6 PM.  I encourage everyone to go by and check it out for yourself.

This week, the struggle kicked into high gear. In this post, I’ll attempt to provide an update based on my own observations as a participant in recent movement activities, as well as  info from reliable sources within the movement.  My goal is to provide an orientation for supporters who might be starting to get involved right now.

It’s especially important to orient ourselves because there’s been a wave of negative media attacks on the More4Mann movement  that threaten to sew confusion among supporters.  The movement responded with a powerful press conference on Saturday, and a strong presence at last night’s school board meeting.  As Kiro 7 reports, the board meeting was packed, with people waiting in line to get in.

The agenda for the Nov 6th board meeting was supposed to include a vote on whether the school district would lease space to the AIEC  to continue the educational programs they had started in the Mann building while Mann is being renovated.  This was part of Superintendent Jose Banda’s public, verbal promise to help facilitate their temporary move to another building, part of the partnership he said he wanted to develop with the AIEC educators to help close the racial achievement gap.  However, SPS legal counsel Ron English later informed him – suspiciously late in the process – that he could not make this sort of deal on his own and that it would have to be put up to a school board vote.  This delayed the negotiations, causing libertarian-minded opponents of  both Africatown AND Banda  to become more and more enraged about how much money is being lost due to delays in renovations at at Mann.

The board was supposed to vote last night, but Banda asked for a delay, using the excuse that he wants  more time to negotiate an effective solution.  I wonder if the real reason might be that he was worried he might loose the vote if it was taken tonight. This would be a problem for him because  he has staked a good deal of his political capital upon presenting himself as someone who can dialogue with activists from communities of color, and if the board prevents him from bringing a deal to the table, then he can’t claim he diffused the crisis and instead the community might just turn up the heat on the district even further.

Two of the board members (Patu and Peasley)  seemed supportive of Banda last night, and another two (Debell and Carr) seemed openly hostile.  The rest seemed on the fence, but I think they’re leaning against Banda because they kept criticizing him for “losing control of the building” and allowing Africatown residents to “occupy” it, violating district policies.   Ron English intervened only once in the meeting, reminding the board that Banda couldn’t just table the vote on the lease- that  the decision to table it would  itself have to be put up to a board vote.  They eventually did vote to table it, but some of us read this as Ron English and his bureaucracy reminding Banda who really calls the shots.

It is important that supporters of Africatown pay attention to these serpentine political twists.  I’m not saying we should have faith in any of the politicians, or see any of them as our allies.  But we should take inspiration from the fact that the actions at Horace Mann have created political tensions among the city’s managerial class, tensions that we could possibly exploit to further push our own agenda.

Banda’s opponents seem particularly angry at him because they think he has been too soft on people who have “broken the law” by holding a building to pressure the district to negotiate.   Lynne  Varner, Seattle Times mouthpeice for the corporate education “reformers”, has this to say in her recent blog post:

“ Banda has the right instincts to listen when people demand attention, particularly when it comes to the long-standing problems around academic disproportionality.  But he should not put up with, nor subject his employees, to bullying, threats and intimidation. At this point, talks about a district-Africatown partnership ought to be off until cooler heads prevail. If the group wants to get serious, get rid of the fringe element  horning in on what could be a promising community partnership.”

Melissa Westbrook  from the  Save Seattle Schools blog is worried that other groups will get the idea that they can also occupy buildings in order to get what they want.  For example, will Pinehurst  / AS 1 families and teachers occupy their school in order to prevent the district from closing it?  As I wrote here , I agree with Melissa that a cascading chain of direct actions is a possibility right now; while she thinks it’s a looming disaster, I think it’s a great idea.  In fact, I think the kind of direct action that Africatown folks have taken is exactly what we all need to do to save Seattle public schools – and transform them to meet our needs.  Black folks in the Reconstruction South took action to create public education in the first place, and it’s no surprise that the attacks on quality, relevant, anti-racist public ed. have focused most viciously on Black communities, from Philly to Chicago to Seattle.  So it’s also no surprise that the fightback is beginning most intensely in Black communities, and the rest of us should spread it into our schools and neighborhoods.

To keep this pressure going, activists at Horace Mann have set up barricades (visible in this news report).  Supt. Banda and Peggy McEvoy announced at the board meeting tonight that they were coordinating with the Seattle Police to forcibly remove people from the building.   Both sides are entrenching, and things are clearly coming to a head.

As a result, people across Seattle, and across the country are paying closer attention to this struggle, and to the much needed conversation that it has provoked about racist practices and policies in Seattle’s schools.  As numerous speakers asked on Sat’s press conference and tonight’s meeting: “would the district even be addressing these issues of racial inequality if people had not refused to leave the Mann building?”

Residents of the Central District/ Africatown, members of the Black community more broadly, veterans of the Occupy movement, and others have been attending events at Mann, and I would not be surprised if a lot of people decide to mobilize in defense of the movement if Banda does call in the cops.

At the same time, racist elements are also showing up.  Last night, a white man came by the Horace Mann building and called several of the people there “racist n*****s” .  At the school board, a man said that Africatown’s anti-gentrification rhetoric is simply designed to manipulate “people who don’t understand the hard work involved in owning property.”

Given these rising tensions, it’s especially important that supporters of the movement seek clear information from More4Mann organizers, and that we don’t trust the distorting narratives that will inevitably be spread by district officials, cops, mainstream media outlets, and hostile social media forces.   Here are some predictable  narratives we should refuse to fall for:

  1. “squatters” vs. “phds”

Tonight at the school board meeting, Superintendent Banda recognized a fact that the movement stressed heavily on the Sat press conference – that the curriculum for the AIC is being developed by highly experienced teachers, professors with PhDs, researchers, and educational consultants.

This is true. But the movement also includes working class parents and students, including folks with a wide range of experiences, from Microsoft tech workers to people who did time in prison.  Movement spokespeople have been stressing the presence of folks with PhDs  so much recently in order to counter a backlash  of distortions coming from folks like Melissa Westbrook and others who have described Africatown as a bunch of squatters with no expertise and no capacity to actually teach students.  These people are putting pressure on Supt. Banda, calling him irresponsible for even negotiating with the More4Mann movement for this reason.  (it’s worth noting that Westbrook is something like a “kingmaker”; she was influential in taking down a previous superintendent, Dr. Goodloe Johnson).

Tonight, it seemed like the Africatown Educators and Supt. Banda were both trying to convince the fence-sitting board members to recognize the expertise that the educators bring to the table, so that the board would sign the lease allowing the educators to rent space from the district (in portables at Mann and possibly at Columbia Annex) where they can run the AIC programs until the Mann building renovations are complete.

This rhetoric of “squatters vs. phds” might be a turn off to those of us who believe that education should not be something that only state-certified teachers can do;  many of are fighting for a future where teaching and learning are infused throughout society instead of enclosed within narrow professions.  We are trying to create a present where teachers, parents, and students all learn from each other.

This rhetoric might also alienate possible supporters from the Occupy or anarchist movements.  Many of them have experience squatting or occupying buildings in order to survive,  and/or because they are trying to take back resources from the system to start building a life worth living.

It’s important to keep in mind that when Africatown educators say “we are not squatters”, this is just a  temporary tactic being used by people who have themselves been taking back a building from the school district in order to build the kind of future they want.  It’s also just one tactic within a broader diversity of tactics that make up the overall strategy the movement is putting forward.

Finally, taking back the building has not just been a bargaining chip in a grand reformist strategy.  People have been serious about creating a free, autonomous zone at Mann, and the building has functioned as a hub where people can meet each other and grow community; in that sense, going there has reminded me of some of the best moments in the Occupy camp (but without some of the problems that came along with Occupy’s majority-white demographic).

Finally, people are rejecting the “occupier” and “squatter” labels because it’s  insulting to be called a squatter in a building that was once a historically Black school in a neighborhood that has rapidly gentrified.  Africatown folks insist they are not occupying the building, they are simply taking it back for their neighborhood, and if the district comes in and takes it over, they will be the ones “occupying” it through the force of their occupying army – the Seattle Police.

2) Responsible activists vs. violent radicals

Tonight Banda introduced another, more divisive element to the mix.  He said that the “responsible” educators he is negotiating with have all left the building, and that those who remain in the building are not part of Africatown and hence are not part of the ongoing negotiations.  Right after Banda said that,  Peggy McEvoy reported how she was working with the Seattle Police and their legal team to prepare to remove these “other people” from the building even as Banda continues to negotiate with the educators.  Banda openly supported this.

 While Lynne Varner is trying to lump the people in the buidling in with the educators in order to shame Banda, Banda is trying to separate the two groups in order to make himself look like someone who only negotiates with what he called “certified community organizations.”  Personally, I don’t trust Banda and I think that most of his attempts to negotiate have been attempts to coopt and diffuse the movement.  But, in the  the face of mounting pressure to his right, he might exchange the carrot for the stick; he might decide that he needs to send in police in order to show his critics that he can take charge of the situation.

He had tried cooptation first because he probably knows that violent repression could just create a bigger backlash of anger against him and against the city government.  So if he does opt for the stick over the carrot, then he will probably instruct the police to apply force in a very precise and strategically focused way, in order to shape the political narrative in ways he can control.

Based on my experiences in past movements, the media often assists the police and politicians with this sort of operation, manufacturing the false claim that certain crucial elements of the movement are somehow outside of it, in order to isolate these elements and control the movement as a whole.  We saw this with the whole “good Occupiers” vs “violent anarchists” divide that Dominic Holden and other journalists pushed during Occupy, which helped the police justify some of their repression.   I predict there will be an increasing slew of media reports presenting the people who stay in the Mann building as violent extremists in order to justify a  violent police attack on them, sending a clear message to other movement participants that they will be spared this repression as long as they distance themselves from the people inside.

We should all resist this pressure to distance and isolate them. 

It is important to emphasize that this rhetoric about a split in the movement is Banda’s and the media’s, and is NOT coming from the Africatown educators themselves.

It is true that the Africatown educators are negotiating with Banda and the school board to rent a new space for their programs.  It is also true that they made a tactical decision to move their educational programs out of the Mann building temporarily in order to secure their classes and equipment, leaving other movement participants to secure the building itself.  Folks can certainly debate the pros and cons of this tactic, but we need to be clear on this: it is NOT true that they have given up on trying to take back the Mann building. Noone has publicly renounced that strategic goal which has always been central to the movement.  More importantly, noone has denounced the Africatown residents who continue to hold the building.

According to Brother Preach’s interview with Kiro News , the folks inside are staying there in order to create a place to educate Black youth.  In other words, they continue to reiterate the main, shared goals of the overall movement.

It is unclear to me exactly what the educators are demanding in their negotiations with Banda.  They may be demanding the right to return to Mann  in the fall after renovations, or they may be  demanding a permanent presence during renovations.  At several of the educational summits, spokespeople for Africatown have suggested they want to maintain a presence during renovations, and at the summits, press conference, and school board meeting, several organizers argued  that the portable space offered by the school district negotiators is not adequate.

This statement was just released by people who have remained inside the building, arguing that

“The portable they have offered, and essentially forced upon Africatown educators, is unsafe, unclean, has no bathroom, and is not ADA compliant. Also, there is a birds’ nest in the ceiling. (see attached pic. And, the portable is open for you to see for yourself). More pics to be posted at allpowertothepositive.blogspot.com and elsewhere. The 2nd portable on the property is full of mold and unsafe, as is the Columbia Annex. Because of this, the educators cannot fully move out of Horace Mann and/or do youth programs, since they cannot set up in hose portables in that condition or store their stuff in any of the offered locations!”

One Africatown source said that it may be possible to  continue educational programs in the Mann building itself while the new extension is built, then they could conduct these programs in the extension while the old building is renovated.

Africatown folks will handle all these details in the course of their strategizing and negotiations.  But what all of this adds up to is this: there is no split in the movement, just a diversity of tactics.  The people who remain inside the Mann building right now, behind the barricades, are also part of the More4Mann and Africatown movements, and are also fighting to create a community there, where Black youth can learn and grow.   They are not some radical “break away faction” or “violent extremists” or whatever else the media will want you to believe.   They have the same goals as the educators  and folks with Phds who are trying to negotiate with the district.

3. negotiations vs. direct actions, or “control your people, then we’ll talk”

Significant pressures might be put on the Africatown educators to get the other Africatown residents out of the Mann building. The district and opponents in the media might argue that the none of their demands will be met until they convince people to leave.  Or, the district might offer a barely inhabitable building for their programs, saying “we would have given you more if those people resisting the police eviction hadn’t given you all a bad name”.  It’s kind of like a union negotiation where the bosses say they’ll only give the union leaders what they want if they show they’re able to control the rank and file workers, e.g. sucessfully convincing people to end a strike.  Usually this doesn’t work because it is exactly the threat of disrupting business as usual  that brings the bosses to the table in the first place and when that’s taken away, the bosses can do what they want.

In fact, right now – before any eviction defense actions – the district isn’t offering much; hence, the lovely portable with a birds nest in it.

The best way for the educators to get what they are demanding is for all of us to keep up the pressure, through a variety of tactics focused at Horace Mann and throughout the city. Some people might continue to hold down the Mann building.  Others might provide them with food, water, etc.  Others might engage in social media outreach.  Others might start organizing  direct action campaigns against suspensions or racist discipline on a school-by-school basis.  The key thing is that we all need to remember that the act of refusing to leave Horace Mann is what sparked this movement in the first place.  Without that direct action, everything else we do could easily be brushed back under the rug and ignored.

Finally, it’s important to remember that Africatown is a neighborhood, not an organization.  It is a term that residents of the Central District have given to their neighborhood, signifying their desire to counter gentrification and to create a vibrant cultural hub among people of African decent.  Just like there are many organizations and political tendencies in Chinatowns with different priorities, so too are there different tendencies within Africatown.  The task force of Africatown residents that has been negotiating with Supt. Banda never claimed to represent or govern all of Africatown, and should not be held responsible for everything that people in Africatown or their comrades might choose to do.

It’s an old white supremacist tradition to collectively punish people of African descent for the behaviors of one or two people who the colonial settler judicial system / lynch mob decides are “criminals”.  It’s also an old white supremacist tradition to tell Black leaders that they can only get respect if they separate themselves from the rest of their people.  Non-black supporters must  separate ourselves from the  mob mentality that produces both of these pressures and must confront this bullshit whenever we see and hear it.

4)  white outside agitators

One thing we know for certain is that the power structure is going to move swiftly against both those in Africatown  who move from Mann and those who stay, so long as the Africatown movement keeps effectively developing a specifically pro-African public education project.  As the empire attempts to crush yet another Black renaissance in Seattle, workers and peoples of all nationalities and cultures must decide which side they are on. Trying to be neutral simply means to side with the empire. At the same time, those who aim for the principled course of supporting and defending their Africatown neighbors must realistically expect to be branded as “outside agitators” by media and even by some fellow activists.

This is a predictable tactic that we’ve seen deployed in the Oscar Grant rebellions and the East Flatbush actions against police violence.  By claiming that all direct action is done by  “white anarchists from the suburbs”, the system can try to silence and preempt direct action in communities of color. Ultimately, this claim rests on the racist idea that Black people are too cowardly or too stupid to take action to benefit themselves, and that when they do take action they must be manipulated by white agitators.

In any case, the facts are clear: those who began the action at Horace Mann are people of African descent, and so are the majority of people who continue to hold the building. If you see non-Black people there, this is simply a testament to the broad-mindedness of Africatown organizers who are building a beautiful home and are graciously inviting in guests.  It should also serve as a slap in the face of all the critics who are crying “reverse racism”, claiming that being pro-African means being against every person of European descent.

Here is my advice to those of us who will inevitably be called outside agitators:  it is a lump that can and must be taken in stride, as Seattle’s Black population deals with much worse stress on a daily basis than being called a negative political term. The key is, while not being intimidated by such terms, to also not behave in any ways that said terms would accurately denote. In other words, respect the  self-initiative of folks in Africatown, and its truthful saying that “nothing about us without us is for us”. This doesn’t mean uncritically deferring to every Black person you meet or waiting to take initiative until someone gives you orders.  If you have concerns or disagreements, don’t hide them.  But don’t come in telling people what to do or acting like a condescending savior either.

Note: This is also about equal access for Black workers 

The folks who are staying in the building are also protesting the fact that Black construction workers are not being given clear information about where to apply for the construction jobs at Mann and at other school renovation projects funded by the  BEX levy.  For more info, see the open letter  from members of the African American Longshore Coalition and A. Phillip Randolph Institute, or check out their film series

Conclusion 

I encourage everyone reading this to get involved in the movement.  This is a crucial struggle that will shape Seattle public schools for years to come, and could forge the kinds of solidarity necessary to reverse the attacks on public education and to challenge institutional racism in our schools.  Don’t believe the hype, investigate everything you hear critically, and stay in touch with the Africatown organizers.  There are many ways to take action – choose one and take it as far as you can!