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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.

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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.

 

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?

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.

Why we should all support Africatown right now – Rally and Press Conf. Sat

1 Nov

Below is a call to action from the More4Mann coalition regarding the future of the Horace Mann school building, and the future of Black youth across our city.  There is a rally and press conference at 2 PM at Mann, 24th and Cherry  in Seattle.

Whether or not you agree with the tactics  and rhetoric of  More4Mann and the Africatown Innovation Center they are building , you have to admit they have created a situation where the severe obstacles facing Black youth can no longer be hidden behind school district smokescreens.  They have refused to leave the Mann building until the  District takes these issues seriously, and partners with them to actually do something about it.  This is a historic opportunity to start head-on confronting the institutional racism that our passive aggressive middle class politicians want us to ignore.

Needless to say, every powerful act of Black liberation in the US tends to create a backlash from people who are scared to do what it takes to dismantle white supremacy, and are even more scared of the  new world that young black geniuses might build if they’re armed with a powerful education.  

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There has been a media backlash this week against the More4Mann movement.   I’m worried that it might be part of certain faction’s efforts to sabotage the Africatown programs and to force Supt. Banda to back down from the public comittments he has made to partnering with the More4Mann movement.  Banda had said publicly, on record, that he would  allow the Africatown Innovation Center to rent space in another district building during construction at Mann, and to return to the Mann building in the fall.  We need to hold him to this promise, because the district has not yet committed to it in writing. 

  We encourage everyone to engage in the debates and to write comments on these articles: 

Even more importantly, everyone in the city who cares about fighting racism in the schools, and anyone who cares about Black youth should come out to the press conference on Sat at 2 PM.   This is  bigger than simply a local struggle in the C.D.   It is a growing, broad-based, city-wide, multi-communal movement with leadership from accomplished educators and activists of African descent.   

I went to the Black Education Summit held at the Mann building on Oct 5th, and I was totally energized and inspired to hear the presentations of educators like  Dr. Joye Hardiman, Marcia Tate Arunga, and Dr. Debra Sullivan.  As a teacher who works in the ‘hood, I’ve sat through hours of boring, useless, naive, and dishonest professional development trainings on race and diversity. All of them talk about race very narrowly in terms of multiculturalism and awareness of white privilege.   This may be better than nothing,  but they fail to recgonize the need to decolonize our entire curriculum, to change every aspect of the learning culture and institutional structure of our schools in order to meet the needs and desires of students of African descent.

None of those trainings have really illuminated  the cultural assets and intellectual strengths that  students of African descent bring to the classroom.  None of them have really helped me relate better to my students.  None of them have affirmed my love for my students, or my efforts to be a part of their community, on their terms, in ways that can help them see their own potential, their own futures, not some  teach-for-america-white-guilt-freedom-writers-I’m-gonna-save-the-poor-black-kids bullshit.

I knew Africatown was the real deal the minute I heard highly experienced Black educators speak about things I’ve experienced in the classroom and have never head any teacher,  from any racial background, talk about.  Like the fact that students need to see us teachers as whole, three dimensional people, not simply as distant, flat authority figures who fill bureaucratic roles.  Many Black students want to pose and answer high-level critical questions and want to co-create knowledge with their teachers.   They love to play with langauge and to create rich, literary narrations of every aspect of life, including informal interactions.  They are bored answering questions if they think their teachers already know the answers to these questions and  are not telling them.

I had learned some of these  things from my students, my friends, my mentor teachers, and my coworkers.  But I was constantly looking over my shoulder, doubting this knowledge, thinking maybe I was being “unprofessional” for teaching this way.  These aspects of my teaching seem to work for my students,  but I’ve been worried some district official will walk into the room and censure me.  It was incredibly empowering to hear accomplished educators with years of teaching and research experience affirm that yes, this is how we should teach.  It made me want to put every ounce of energy I have into teaching and learning with my students.  

Imagine if every teacher in the district could experience that?  Imagine if the Africatown educators set up a thriving pilot program at Mann.  Imagine if they research and analyze their own practices over time.  Imagine if they offer professional development to teachers in other schools based on their findings, so that we can replicate their successes in our classrooms?  

Despite what the critics are saying, the Africatown educators are not being racist when they say that Black students learn differently.  They are  simply pointing out a fact you will NOT learn in a 28 day Black history month unit that spends the first two weeks on slavery.  That fact is this: the  Black community has not only experienced oppression and victimization but also resistance, creation, and cultural brilliance.  The community has struggled hard to maintain and grow aspects of what several of the Africatown educators call an “African centered epistemology” – the belief that human beings are inter-related and we can only  know ourselves and grow ourselves through each other.  This is such a powerful antidote to all of the individualism, competition, standardization, and bureaucratic boredom of capitalist education that we’ve been railing against on this blog.  It is a unique  cultural expression of the idea of “from each according to ability, to each according to need” that many of us are fighting for in all aspects of our lives.

In other words, I think that an African-centered learning process is not only different from what other district schools have to offer.  It is better.  Students of all races could benefit from learning this way.  The haters should step out of the way and the district should partner with More4Mann and allow them to work with teachers across the district to make this happen.

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We are hosting a Press Conference this Saturday, November 2nd at the Horace Mann Center (24th and Cherry).

MORE 4 MANN

THE POWER OF WE!

The community mobilization around the Africatown Center for Education and Innovation at Horace Mann has reached a critical moment, and we need all hands on deck.  Many of you are also working on developing an African-American education agenda for Seattle Schools and we invite you to join us this weekend.  Let’s unify, and shift the paradigm for our youth.

We intend to announce the positive educational outcomes and programs we plan on developing for our youth in the community; and announce our forthcoming partnership with Seattle Public Schools. Come and learn about many of the successful programs created and organized by parents and community members.

We need every parent, child, youth, and community member that is able to attend in support.  We want to present a unified community and message to the media.  We are taking responsibility for the education of our children and providing the district an opportunity to rectify past inequities and ineffective methods to educate our children.

We will no longer accept and allow sub-standard resources, results, programs and policies directed to our young geniuses.  The 2012 Seattle Public Schools Data for African-American Students highlights the crisis-

  • Only 48.5% of African-American 10th graders met or exceeded standard for Algebra
  • Only 29.1% of African-American 10th graders met or exceeded standard for Biology
  • 26.9% rate for short-term suspensions for African-American middle schoolers (highest number in the district)

We will no longer accept these types of results.  We have amazing parents, students, activists, educators and leaders in our community.  We have resources, and we have the solutions.  We will only accept a narrative that begins to aim for 100% graduation, 100% African and African-American students ready for college AND career, and 100% of our students matriculating to post-secondary options with a network of mentors, and a strong positive identity in-tact.

Join us Saturday. Facebook the event. Invite a friend. Bring your children.

  • If you only have only 1 hour in the day- I’ll see you at the Press Conference at 2 pm.
  • If you have an extra hour- arrive at 1pm and join us for a meal beforehand.

The paradigm has shifted, and we’re not turning back.

See you Saturday!

How to Overthrow the Illuminati (Theory)

24 Oct

cropped-illuminati-blog-final-renderTeaching in the ‘hood, I hear a lot about the Illuminati.   Some of my smartest students are hardcore conspiracy theorists, and they are quite good at preaching about the Illuminati,  a secret group of elites who supposedly control the world.  When we get into dynamic class discussions about police brutality, about the economic crisis, or about hip hop,  someone will inevitably bring up the Illuminati as an explanation for why Black people are oppressed, for why politicians or hip hop artists mislead people, or for why society increasingly seems like it’s on the verge of breaking down.

pamphlet-coverMy friends and I wrote this pamphlet to engage with these young intellectuals.   We argue against the Illuminati conspiracy theory, but we do so in a way that aims to engage with the questions these folks are trying to answer, instead of patronizingly dismissing them as ignorant:

Illuminati theory helps oppressed people to explain our experiences in the hood. Society throws horrible stuff in our faces: our family members get locked up for bullshit. Our friends kill each other over beefs, money or turf. Our future is full of dead-end jobs that don’t pay shit. We struggle to pay bills while others live in luxury. On TV, we see people all over the world dying in poverty, even though we live in the most materially abundant society in history. Most people act like none of these terrible things are happening. Why does this occur? We start looking for answers, and Illuminati theory provides one.

We believe Illuminati theory is wrong, and we wrote this pamphlet to offer a different answer. We wrote this pamphlet because we know people who think about the Illuminati usually want to stop oppression and exploitation. They’re some of the smartest people in the hood today. Forty years ago, Illuminati theorists would’ve been in the Black Panther Party. Today most of them sit around and talk endlessly about conspiracies. This is a waste of talent.

I am sharing this pamphlet mostly to reach any youth reading this blog.  For teachers reading this, I also wonder whether it might be useful in the classroom?  I imagine if you teach a lesson on the Illuminati theory, your students will probably be engaged and interested since many of them are studying this stuff  already on their own.  I’m not sure if you can get away with assigning this pamphlet as part of such a lesson; it may be too direct and too radical for most schools.   But at the very least, I hope it can serve as a reference to help get you started.

In any case, I will cover the printing costs of a class set of pamphlets for the first person who manages to teach this text in a school classroom.  I will do the same for the first person who convinces your colleagues and administrators that teaching it aligns with the new Common Core standards we are required to teach.   If you do that, send me your lesson plan, and we can post it here so others can use it. 

We tried as hard as possible to make the pamphlet a considerate text, meaning we define key vocabulary within the narrative, or in the glossary, and attempt to break down complex social theories in everyday language, with references to daily life experiences.   The intended audience is not necessarily all youth; it is written for intellectuals in the ‘hood who are already interested in the Illuminati, so it presumes some level of prior knowledge.  But it is intentionally written in a non-academic way with as little jargon as possible.

We are trying to reach intellectuals in the ‘hood because we think they could have a tremendous impact on the world  if they end up catalyzing social movements, but their conspiracy theories are holding them back.  Also, we see many of these young intellectuals dealing with similar problems that older  intellectuals and activists are dealing with; they are asking “why do more people around me not see what’s  wrong with our society?  If they do see it, why aren’t they willing to take action to change it”?

Many academics and activists answer these questions by suggesting that they are the only enlightened ones,  destined to teach others who are too blinded by false consciousness, too brainwashed by the media, by their privilege, or by their religion.  Young intellectuals in the ‘hood develop an analogous explanation when they say they are the only ones who are not fooled by the Illuminati’s lies.  These elitist reactions to our alienation fail to help us overcome it, and fail to explain why more people are not fighting back,  and how this might change; instead, they simply widen the gap between the intellectuals and everyone else.

We need a theory we can use to overcome this alienation, to catalyze the processes through which we all  fight back together.  Conspiracy theories are a roadblock in the way of this.

I am confident that some of my students will  overcome his roadblock and will come up with  new explanations for their social oppression, and creative strategies for overcoming it.

How to Assassinate Boredom: Reading and Writing our Lives

4 Oct
Thinking Outside the Book

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

Metacognition: Thinking about our thought processes

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

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

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

Objective: You decide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching myself to teach my students to teach themselves 

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

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

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

The vulnerable creativity of reading and writing 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The social origins of boredom and television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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