Tag Archives: High School

Workshop And March Tomorrow: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline

19 Jan
info graphic from SuspensionStories.com

info graphic from SuspensionStories.com

where:  Garfield High School, 400 23rd Ave, Seattle, WA 98122

when: Mon, Jan 20th, workshop from 9:30 – 11:00 AM

march begins at 12:30 –  if you want to march with us, we’ll be meeting right across the street from Ezell’s Chicken.

what: The workshop will expose and analyze how the system stratifies the population through a set of “pipelines”. While some students are channeled into futures in management and the professions, and some into a working class, however insecure, still others are left to expect the least opportunities plus the threat of incarceration in the largest prison system in history.

Teachers, students, former inmates, and activists, will share how this is all fitting into a pattern of especially insidious racism, as well as other forms of discrimination.

You are invited to discuss these perspectives, and your own, with us. We will also discuss how we can inform, agitate, and organize together, to undo and overcome this oppression.

This workshop is one of many that will be held as part of the larger, annual Martin Luther King Day event at Garfield High School.

We will be marching together in the larger march, with posters and chants against the school to prison pipeline.  Look out for us across from Ezells at 12:30 if you want to march with us.

A free-standing isolation booth, now banned in Oregon.  (Source: KATU News, posted on http://www.policestateusa.com)

A free-standing isolation booth, (Source: KATU News, posted on http://www.policestateusa.com)

One of the teachers speaking in the workshop is the author of this piece, about how she and her students turned the isolation room in their classroom into an art project.

Here is the Facebook event page for tomorrow.  Please invite your friends.

The workshop is being  organized by a really dynamic coalition of people, including  folks from Africatown/ More4Mann, some of the organizers of the Youth For Justice rally this summer, folks from Free Us All (the prison hunger strike support committee), artists/writers from  High Gods Entertainment, Creativity Not Control, and folks from Washington Incarceration Stops Here (the group organizing against the new juvenile detention center in Seattle.)

Check out the links for more information, and check out those groups or others if you’d like get involved in struggles against the school to prison pipeline here in Seattle. There are lots of ways to get involved, from organizing and fighting back,  to educating and creating art and music on the subject.  We’ll see you out there!

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High School Students Self-Organize

2 Aug

Here is a video of the Youth for Justice rally that high school students in Seattle organized last week, in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. This video shows some great spoken word poetry and hip hop; in several of their poems, students spoke about the school system and how it needs to change.

Unfortunately the video only covers the beginning of the rally, not the end where students lead an un-permited march through the streets and a blockade of a major downtown intersection. They defied several police dispersal orders and engaged a crowd of onlookers coming out of their jobs and out of the mall. There were no arrests, probably because the police realized that to arrest such a defiant group of people, they’d have to mace them – and it would look really bad to mace a bunch of youth of color in front of a crowd of onlookers with cameras, especially in the midst of all the anger about Trayvon Martin’s murder.

This rally was unique because it was youth led and it was militant. It wasn’t simply a matter of adults organizing and facilitating it, then prioritizing youth voices. It was a matter of youth organizing and facilitating it, and deciding which adults they would allow to speak during the open mic. Often when there are defiant actions like this, some activists will claim that those who disobey police orders are putting youth of color at risk. Noone said that this time around, because the action, from beginning to end, was clearly lead by youth of color themselves.

Several of my friends were remarking how the youth were better organized than many adult organizations, and they were able to invite the crowd to participate without letting adults take over or talk down to them.

Teachers: how can we teach in ways that support this kind of student self-organization, instead of thwarting or coopting it?  I am out of town right now visiting family, but I will share my insights on this question when I get the chance.  In the meantime, if anyone has thoughts, please feel free to share them in the comments.

The Speech I Gave at the Youth for Justice Rally

24 Jul
Youth for Justice Rally

Youth for Justice Rally

The Youth for Justice rally today was amazing!  Over 100 high school students in Seattle came together in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin.  They also expressed solidarity with the ongoing prison hunger strike, and  demanded an end to ICE Holds. (ICE holds are when  the King County jail holds prisoners to be deported; inside their chambers, the County Council was debating whether to drop this policy, while we rallied outside).

The students were better organized than many adult activists, and they spit some powerful poetry expressing a sharp analysis of the system we live in, including the education system.  Their solidarity and care for each other was moving, especially since it crossed racial lines.   The mainstream media coverage doesn’t really do it justice – if the youth share their experiences, poems, speeches, or videos of the rally, I’ll post them here.

In the meantime, here’s the speech I gave, calling for teacher-student solidarity in the struggle against white supremacy:

I am a public school teacher.  And there are some politicians out there who think that my role should be to stand up in front of you and list a bunch of  facts about history.  They want me to make you write these  down so you can regurgitate them back  on a standardized test.  If I don’t do that, they will try to get me fired.  What  those people don’t understand is that truth is not in a textbook or a test, it is out here in the streets.  Truth is here in your poetry and your courage and your unity. It is here in the fact that you are not simply learning history, you are making it.

So I am not going to stand up here and lecture you.  In fact, you are the teachers, and I am and the student.  Because what I’ve learned from you today is that solidarity is alive.  It is not just an idea or a slogan, it is here in your words and your actions.

  In the California prisons, the Black and Latino gangs have declared a truce so they can strike against the prison guards who deny them an education and torture them in solitary confinement.   You have taken that spirit of solidarity from the prison yards into your neighborhoods, your classrooms, and here into this park.   I see  non-Black youth here supporting Black youth who are being targeted by the George Zimmermans of the world.  And I see non-immigrant youth here supporting immigrant youth who are being targeted by La Migra, and the ICE holds that the politicians up there enforce.   This is the kind of solidarity we need to tear down white supremacy and to replace it with freedom.

You’re giving me hope that we can build that kind of solidarity between students and teachers. We all know that Black youth are 3 times as likely to be expelled from Seattle public schools as white students.  If you all decide you want to fight that, some of us teachers will get your back.  We all know that they are cutting funding for education and youth programs, while they’re spending 210 million on a new juvenile detention center to lock ya’ll up.  If you want to fight that, we will get your back.    We all know they are trying to deport immigrant youth who they label gang members, and we know that they put that label on you simply because of who you kick it with at school.  If you want to fight that, we will get your back.

Teachers across the country are fed up with this system.  Seattle teachers successfully boycotted the MAP test this spring and defended a teacher at the Center School when he was transferred for teaching anti-racist curriculum.   So if they try to  get us fired for teaching about the Black Panthers or the Chicano movement, will you get our backs?    If we demand smaller class sizes and enough time to build caring relationships in the classroom, will you get our backs?

This, right here, is where the real learning happens, not on some scantron bubble test.   We make the road by walking it.  We write the story by living it.  And together,  we can tear down all the borders and prison walls that divide us.

Youth Rally For Trayvon and the Prison Strikers

18 Jul

This week people have taken to the streets in mass protests across the country, furious that George Zimmerman was acquitted after killing Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager in Florida.   High school students in Seattle are moving this struggle forward by organizing their own rally on Tuesday, the 23rd, at 1:30 in front of the King County Courthouse.   They are pointing out that Trayvon’s death is part of a racist system, the same system that denies them a meaningful education.  By taking action they are learning through practice, and making history instead of just taking tests about it.  They are also teaching the rest of us that this generation is tired of being imprisoned, miseducated, and gunned down.  Like the prison hunger strikers, they are showing it is possible to come together across racial, communal, and neighborhood lines.

1003150_1394139197472221_1337673584_nHere is the call to action they posted on their Facebook page:

We the youth are deciding to come together in solidarity to protest on the behalf of trayvon martin and against the other injustices of the system. We the youth of color are profiled by police, we are more likely to get arrested and go to jail then finish high school, and our families are scared for our safety. We are tired of every obstacle that stands in our way. We are looked down on as the minority but together we are the majority. We are asking for other youth and adults to come together in solidarity to help protest with us. Not just for trayvon martin but for other youth that may have lost their lives. All races, ages, and neighborhoods are welcome to come!! We were inspired by the strike at the California and the Green hill prisons and we participated in the rally at the King County prison.

It is significant that students are making connections between the West Coast prison hunger strikes and the struggle against racist vigilantes like Zimmerman, seeing both the prison system and violence by individual vigilantes as obstacles to their growth.  I have been surprised that more people are not making these connections.  One of the students involved in organizing this rally also did her own hunger strike last week, in solidarity with the striking prisoners.

One student also wrote:

Youth in my community are devastated about the many injustices of our system. people think that just because we are young we have no say or even care about what goes on in our justice system, we are labeled as a minority but together we are the majority. I believe that if we come together and make our voices heard we will make a bigger statement of how serious we really are. Treyvon Martin, john t Williams these are not the only injustices. if you want to stand up for human rights don’t be afraid to fight. There is going to be a cypher session and poetry will be read. This page is for youth to organize, adults we would like for you to stand with us because this is not over we demand justice. come support us justice for everyone.

Please spread the word, and if you can, please print out the flyer above and pass it out.  Thanks!

 

“Do you need a password to become a US citizen?” and other heartbreaking student questions

4 Jul

citizenship-billboard_c-1919_loc_3g03808v1-e1368817317418Every once in a while a student will ask a question in class that breaks my heart because it reminds me of the utter absurdity of our society.

Don’t get it twisted – I’m not heartbroken because  the students’ questions themselves are absurd. I’m not calling them stupid.   I’m heartbroken that we live in a  society where students have to ask these kinds of questions in the first place.

For example, students should never have to ask their teachers “what will you do if  la migra [immigration agents] come try to pick me up in class and deport me?”  Students should also never have to ask “can you give me something to read at home, because I don’t think it’s safe for me to come to school anymore.”   These are questions that make me wish a  revolution could start by the end of the class period.

I felt this heartbroken when a student asked “don’t you need a password to become a U.S. citizen?”  His family had moved here from another country and he was  asking this because he  automatically assumed he was not a citizen since he never got his password.

I wondered where this student was coming from with this question.   Was he noticing that he is is denied privileges that others have?  Was he thinking that other people must be  buying access to some password that  unlocks these privileges,  like  purchasing a subscription to Netflix?  Was he thinking that U.S. citizenship is like a piece of software, where you download the free trial but you have to pay a fee to unlock the deluxe edition?

The social studies teacher in me wanted to lament the fact that this student’s misconception was never cleared up in elementary or middle school civics lessons.

But the revolutionary in me recognized  a much deeper problem: that this student’s perception is actually alarmingly close to how U.S. citizenship really works.

In fact, you generally do need a password to become a U.S. citizen, and it looks  like this:

arm

Historically, immigration laws were designed to keep out people who did not have this skin color.   In fact, the  U.S. Naturalization Act of 1790 defined citizenship itself as white:

“All free white persons who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof… that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to the rights of citizenship.” (quote from here)

It isn’t just white skin that  has historically defined what it means to be American; it is also white behavior.  And white behavior means taking an “oath of allegiance” to the U.S.  It means obeying the rules, staying quiet when you are oppressed, and, most of all, aiding the system in keeping down Black folks, indigenous folks, and people in other countries who are  rebelling against U.S. imperial control.

white male privlege

White skin privilege was the last refuge of the miserable.  Poor, working class white folks might come back to their tenements or homeless encampments, exhausted at the end of a day of back breaking labor, but the system wants them to think “at least I’m not Black” instead of “I want to go on strike.”  The system wants them to think, “I can move up in the world as long as I don’t unite with non-white folks to fight back.”

So in other words, the same password that unlocks the privileges of the deluxe edition of U.S. citizenship also locks us inside of it.  As Noel Ignatiev put it, white skin is a set of golden handcuffs. That’s why my friend Desert Rat wrote a song that goes “White People suck, so be pale pink if you have to.”

Books like Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White document how some groups were historically denied the white password to full citizenship, but they gained access to it over time, usually by positioning themselves as loyal citizens willing to side with the Anglo elites against Black people.

Whiteness is not the only divisive password to citizenship that the capitalist system has created.  Another one is the “model minority myth”.  After decades of racist, explicitly-anti-Asian immigration laws, middle-class East Asians were recruited to the U.S. after 1965 to fill technical jobs.  Racist politicians have tried to pit them against Southeast Asians, working class Asians, Black and indigenous folks,and other immigrant groups; they say that because some Asians can move up in society, U.S. immigration policy is fair and racism is not something we should worry about anymore.  This hurts Asian communities and everyone else. 

This process of divisive “password protection”  is also playing out in the debates over comprehensive immigration reform going on right now.  Congress is aiming to pass legislation that will create a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented folks, at the expense of increased immigration enforcement vs. the rest.  This is an attempt to create a caste of so-called “good immigrants” who can be turned agianst a subordinated caste of so-called “bad immigrants”.  It’s a classic strategy of divide and conquer.

This will directly affect our students. While some of them will have access to Deferred Action and possibly the Dream Act, and will be able to go to college and get papers, others will be labeled “gang members” and will be deported because they have criminal records, even if it’s for minor offenses.  Considering the fact that many of our students are labeled gang members simply because of the neighborhood they live in or who they hang out with at school, this will severely divide and disrupt communities, including our school communities.

If this is what Congress means by a “pathway to citizenship” then it’s no surprise that my student is mistaking the process for a “password to citizenship.”

Citizenship may be expanded for certain groups, but many youth will be left asking why they’ve been denied the password to the deluxe edition.

I am a teacher because I want to help my students create the tools necessary to answer these heartbreaking questions.   I am a revolutionary because I want to struggle for a new society where we can spend time asking new questions,  because these ones will have already been answered decisively through collective action.

——–

What kinds of questions break your hearts?  Feel free to share in the comments section, and we can discuss.

In Class the Monday After Pride Weekend

30 Jun

images

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

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

Let’s start with some context

As Colorlines reports,

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

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

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

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

When our students say “that’s so gay”

gay_xlarge

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

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

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

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

“It gets better”? 

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

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

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

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

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