My Fellow Educators,
The country needs us to be brave. Teaching is, and always has been, a political act. Teachers are an essential part of passing on this country’s values and stories to the next generation. What we decide to bring in and what we decide to leave out tells our students what is important.
Standing up against racism and bigotry is important.
The events in Charlottesville this week can not be left outside the classroom. Our young people need to know that bigotry, racism, and hatred will not be condoned or ignored.
Some of you are starting classes in the next few weeks and these events will be on your students’ minds. Some of you will be starting any day now. Our students need to know that they will be safe in our schools and you can help them.
Your students of color may be concerned for their safety or the safety of loved ones. Your students of color may be angry or sad. Your white students may run a range from frustrated, to embarrassed, to confused, to sympathetic to the white supremacists. There may be risks in addressing such a charged issue so early in the school year before you have classroom cohesion. These are risks worth taking.
As educators we have a unique and specific opportunity to interrupt cycles of racism and oppression. It’s part of the job and to ignore this national situation only serves to bless it as status quo – too uneventful to even discuss. That is a message that I am unwilling to send to my students.
I don’t pretend that this will be easy and in some communities you may be risking reprimand or angering parents and members of your community. I also recognize my privilege in working for a community that supports, and calls for, educators being involved in antiracist work. That privilege and my role as a district administrator give me even more responsibility to actively support an antiracist agenda.
So what do you do?
I’m going to imagine scenarios where you choose to teach about the events in Charlottesville in the first day or two of the school year. I also want to leave this open-ended enough incase another event occurs between now and the start of school and you are forced to bring that up too.
Secondary – (grades 6-12)
I don’t think it matters if your students are in 6th grade or 12th grade, you should be able to leverage the mainstream news reporting. I argue that your main mission is to ensure your students safety in the school setting and then expose possible misconceptions and misunderstandings about the nature of the events while providing some historical context for events like this.
My first step would be to reassure every single student that you are there to ensure their physical and psychological safety. Ensure them that you condemn white supremacy and every student in your class is equally worthy of love, dignity, and respect.
Instructionally, I would begin with an open ended check of prior knowledge to get your baseline. I would then move on to sources like Reuters that provide extremely factual accounts to set a baseline in case students have not heard much before coming to class. It is likely that many of your students will already have opinions before they come to class.
As a social studies teacher, I also feel an obligation to contextualize this current situation within a history of white nationalism, white supremacy, and racism in this country. My go to here for support is Teaching Tolerance, the educational arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have a huge bank of lessons that will help you structure your investigation and interrogation of bias. It’s worth looking through to see which speak to you. You can also sort this database by grade level and topic to find the one that will fit.
It might take a few days and while there might be a voice in your head questioning your ability to get through the curriculum I argue that taking this time to demonstrate your caring and support for your students’ identities will pay off throughout the school year regardless of your subject area. A student who is afraid for their physical or emotional safety will not learn trigonometry, history, or chemistry.
If you are not a social studies teacher you may want to check in with someone in your social studies department to see if they can give you a bit of a crash course in the history.
Elementary – (grades K-5)
I think teaching about this at K-5 would be much more difficult and I would expect students to come in with more confusion and emotion. I would also expect that any pushback you experience would be magnified with this age group amid cries of ruining children’s innocence and concerns to that effect.
While you might need to tread lightly, I still do not think you can ignore current events with young children. There is plenty of evidence that children’s racial identity and understanding of social hierarchies begin to develop before they reach kindergarten. As such it is just as important to deliver messages of inclusion and equality in the elementary classroom as it is with adolescents. One could even argue that it is more important since patterns are less solidified at earlier ages. That also makes things stickier.
As with the secondary classroom I would focus on beginning with a message of the importance of everyone being valued and loved in the classroom. I would bring the students together with a message of unified community that honors and respects our differences while also identifying the ways in which we are similar.
I would likely bring up the events, but I would refrain from using video of the events themselves. I would summarize based on mainstream reporting. Most of the videos I have watched include images of violence and hateful language that I would not want to expose young children to. That said, I would continue to educate myself as much as possible so that I could empathetically and carefully respond to any questions students may have. It is also possible that even very young children will have seen images from the news and they may come in already upset. The best thing you can do is support yourself with information and support your students with empathy.
If you narrow the Teaching Tolerance database to K-2 and Race&Ethnicity you will find 16 lessons that bring up race in developmentally appropriate ways including examples of anti-racism. There is some overlap with the 3-5 band along with additional options.
On Educational Activism:
I understand that I am specifically calling for an activist teacher and that activism in teaching can be frowned upon. I also argue that there is no neutral here. Teaching itself is active. Simply “calling balls and strikes” is a fallacy in this field. One cannot stand in some safe intellectually removed middle ground in matters of oppression and hatred.
Every single choice is political. Do you include Malcolm X in your Civil Rights unit? That is political. Do you swap out a Shakespeare play for August Wilson? That is political no matter which way you decide. Maintaining the status quo is a political act. Whether you choose to discuss Charlottesville or choose not to discuss Charlottesville you are making an inherently political choice.
I would rather stand on the side of justice and compassion than the side of oppression and hate.
If public educators are charged with protecting and growing every student in their classroom it is therefore critical to adopt an activist stance because your classroom has students who experience oppression.
I also argue that this requires administrators (like myself) to proactively support teachers. Administrators at the building, district, and state levels need to stand arm and arm with their teachers to protect students. There is no alternative. I will say unequivocally that I support educators in promoting social justice in schools. Supporting oppression and hatred, even through silence, is unacceptable and indefensible.
Last fall I had the opportunity to bring racial identity legend Beverly Daniel Tatum to my district and she gave us an important metaphor for understanding the importance of representation. Dr. Tatum urged us to ensure that every student shows up regularly in the class picture and in showing up we need to make sure that our students look good in that picture. We are the adults and it is our responsibility. These events in Charlottesville are an opportunity to remind our students of color that their lives matter in the classroom.
There is no alternative and I have great faith in your capacity for empathy and compassion. Time to activate that power.
Teacher, Teacher of Teachers, Administrator
“Mr. McCormick, I need to sharpen my pencil!”
Me: “Again? Seriously? You just sharpened it.”
“I know, but it broke.”
5 minutes later.
“Hey! He threw paper at me!”
“I didn’t throw it AT him! I threw it TO him!”
5 minutes later.
“Mr. McCormick! Why did the chicken cross the road!?”
Me: “Eli, Jayden, get back to work. I need you to focus today.”
It’s my student teaching year. I’m twenty-five years old and I’ve been at the school for maybe a week or two. Jayden and Eli are nice kids. They’re good friends and really excited to be in class together. They’re 11 years old and love to skate. I’m pretty sure we would have been friends in middle school. They’re also completely bonkers.
Class with Jayden and Eli is tough. They both continually distract themselves, each other, and their peers. They crack jokes constantly. They intentionally break their pencils so they can go sharpen them. Thank God I teach 6th grade. I can’t imagine having them for a full day as elementary students.
While I liked both of them Jayden and Eli were a pain in my neck. I worked a lot with my cooperating 6th grade teacher to figure out how to plan around them. Split them up? They yell across the room to each other. Put them together and they’re constantly talking to each other. In the back of the room they’re always off topic. In the front of the room they want to have individual conversations with me while I’m in the middle of giving instructions.
Exhausting. Never mind the other twenty-eight students, and that was only second period.
One day was worse than normal. Their energy was off the walls. Joke after joke after joke. Constant requests to go to the bathroom. They were so present in my brain that I have no memory of the lesson was but I remember the two of them clearly. At my wits end I was ready to kick them out of class, but didn’t want to kick them both out of class together and in frustration I said something to the effect of “I swear, you need to go run around the school and get some of this energy out.”
They whipped to attention. I had an opportunity to shut them down, or I could show them I cared.
Let’s pause for a second.
At this moment I could have sent them to the office. By the standards of the school I would have been well within my rights to do so and my principal would have had my back without a doubt. Jayden and Eli were far out of line and it would have solved the immediate problem. I also would have been in good company with my colleagues. Trouble is, they would just be in class tomorrow. And the next day. Despite their craziness these two students are my students and as a teacher it’s my responsibility to help them learn. They can’t learn if they’re not in class. They’re also not learning at this moment and they’re making hard for the rest of the class to function. Something had to be done.
So much of teaching occurs in these tiny moments. A kid does something crazy because they’re a kid. How do you react?
A student asks a complete non-sequitur. What’s your response?
A kid makes an unexpected connection. Do you engage it or shut it down?
Speed is pretty much a giant metaphor for teaching. (I’m not even really joking that much… Maybe first year teaching?)
A master teacher has to carefully balance how they respond to the unexpected in a fraction of a second, while everybody is watching, and with full knowledge that these little moments can have enormous impact on students. Teachers don’t get do-overs.
So I had 2 wild young boys in front of me. I could kick them out of class or come up with another option. I still don’t even know why I made this choice, but I chose another option.
“Go run to the flag pole,” I said in exasperation.
“Huh?” they asked in unison.
“Look out the window. We can see the flag pole right? Go outside, run as fast as you can to the flagpole and come back in. You have 1 minute, go! I’m timing you.”
They bolted for the door, hit the flag pole and came back panting. I didn’t actually time them, but they were quick. They were also tired. And while I can’t remember if they focused on the lesson that day, they did calm down enough that I could actually run the class.
We did it again tomorrow. And the rest of the week. They started racing each other and the flag pole run became a routine with a bit of clarification.
- No running until you’re out of the actual building.
- I need to see you touch the flag pole.
And it worked pretty well. When they got extra wild they’d go run to the flag pole. Every once in a while another student would join them if they felt the need or desire. Under a minute and Jayden and Eli would be completely reasonable for the rest of the fifty minute period.
It’s Still Social Studies. Not Phys Ed:
As you might imagine, they would start looking for ways to run to the flag pole after a little while. An intentionally loud pencil break. An extra-obvious interruption. Particularly on a nice day (a prized luxury in the Northwest) they would look for excuses to go for the run.
We changed the rules.
They only got to run to the flag pole if they got to class early. If they were in class to check with me before the bell, they could race to the flag pole and I wouldn’t mark them late if they got back after the bell. This turned the behavior intervention into something of a privilege and I would routinely get small groups of five or six students running together. No one ever got hurt and it just became a feature of our class. They were never late again.
This didn’t solve everything for Jayden and Eli. They still cracked jokes and got distracted but it got them tired enough that I could get through class with a reasonable amount of redirection. I no longer had to use all my energy simply to keep them focused. I could actually teach.
I didn’t know the positive links between student exercise and cognitive function at the time. I also didn’t ask permission to let the kids run outside during Social Studies. I made a choice in the moment and it worked out pretty well. No one told me that running would work. When they got complacent we made adjustments.
I also allowed other students to opt in if they wanted to so it became part of the class community to run to the flag pole. I never did it with another class.
These momentary adaptive decisions are what make teaching work or not work for students. Every Social Studies class reads some non-fiction. Every Social Studies class works on expository writing. Only my second period 6th grade class during my student teaching year ran to the flag pole.
When Beverly Daniel Tatum recommends a book on institutional racism while speaking at Harvard, you take note. When she puts it in her top 3 recently published books you just go buy it. (Or order it during her talk perhaps….) When it comes to understanding systems of racial oppression, Tatum knows what she’s talking about and Daria Roithmayr’s Reproducing Racism blew my mind. Once I got past my initial desire to throw it across the room, that is.
My desire to throw the book (at a slim 180 pages it would have flown well) was not due to any faults on Roithmayr’s part. Quite the opposite. The book is excellent and Roithmayr’s has a very compelling premise that most of our models of racism are wrong. She claims that instead of thinking about racism as individual actions rooted in hatred and bigotry, racism operates much more like an economic monopoly that has been able to lock in racial inequalities by coming to the market first and then operating like a cartel in favor of white people.
I wanted to throw the book across the room because Roithmayr’s is incredibly convincing. And hundreds of years of racial economic and educational collusion is a pretty depressing thought for a country that purports to run on meritocracy. It’s easy to say that “racism is a problem that wasn’t created overnight, so we won’t fix it overnight” but when presented with a series of economic, mathematical, and legal examples about why inequalities are locked-in and the country is getting more unequal, it got hard to see a path forward.
Positive feedback loops (If You’re White)
The most poignant, and unexpected, example that Roithmayr uses to illustrate this example of lock-in is Polya’s Urns. Polya’s Urn is a mathematical model that essentially works as follows:
- You have a single urn and inside are 1 black ball and 1 white ball. (2 total with 1B: 1W)
- You draw a ball, then replace the ball, adding another ball of the same color.
e.g. if your first draw is white, you replace the white ball and add another white ball. (3 total with 1B:2W)
- You draw again, not with double the odds to draw white.
- You keep drawing and replacing and you arrive at some sort of balance fairly quickly.
- You can run a bunch of different tests of the model at Wolfram Alpha and you will get different results, but those results will be established within a relatively small number of draws and they become very difficult to alter.
The connection here for Roithmayr is that the first few draws establish a path and then it continues to be come easier to continue down the path that’s already been established. In terms of structural inequalities, the decisions to favor white people in job markets, schooling, housing, and the law all act like draws in Polya’s Urn because they provide preference for white people (draw) and then enrich white people (adding back another ball) thus creating a feedback loop that makes it easier to keep selecting white people. Chattel slavery in the United States can be seen as two-hundred and fifty years of draws in favor of whites that establishes an environment that is very difficult to change. (And it’s not like we added a lot of resources back to Black people in 1863 and “forty acres and a mule” is still a relevant metaphor for broken promises. But I digress…)
How does the feedback loop work?
Just using the book cover (with a small adjustment in sequence) as a diagram we can think of it this way:
- A series of high quality schools and teachers will give you access to good colleges and schools in the United States have high levels of racial inequality.
- This access to education gives white people access to the best jobs. This is true in terms of skills, behaviors, and social networks.
- Better jobs make it easier to purchase a house.
- The job and equity in the house enrich those who can access them.
- This wealth can then be passed down to future generations.
This could be relatively race-neutral on the face. After all, a person of color would benefit from the same access and the same structures. Sure, theoretically I guess…
We don’t live in a theoretical space and neither does Roithmayr. She looks at policies and practices that excluded people of color from accessing schools (segregated schools), housing (redlining and restrictive covenants), jobs (union membership) and legal status (status as a human being, voting rights, ability to naturalize and establish citizenship). When these historical and structural factors lay on top of one another we get locked-in systems of inequality where if we just stop discriminating on the basis of race (to paraphrase Chief Justice Roberts) we will still maintain and exacerbate levels of racial inequality.
It’s compelling. It’s also depressing as hell for someone who works on anti-racism in schools.
If racism is so locked in, do we just give up?
I was tempted. For a second. But this is why you finish books.
I’m glad I read to the end and didn’t throw it across the room in frustration because Roithmayr’s pivot to solutions argues that once we shift our thinking about racism from individual acts based on hatred into a model where white people have acted as a racial cartel we can think differently about solutions and Roithmayr has some equally compelling avenues for solutions:
- Limit Feedback Loops – While she does explain how an institution might reduce the power of white positive feedback loops, Roithmayr quickly dismisses this one because it is politically untenable to reduce white access to power in this way. (It’s an assumption that’s worth investigating, but I tend to agree.)
- Integrate Feedback Loops – Most obviously, this would show up as integrating classes that provide high school students with better access to college. These could be AP, IB, or honors courses as well as world language and high level math.
- Develop Parallel Loops – These often show up as affinity groups. HBCUs and the National Pan-Hellenic Council are strong examples of positive feedback loops that provide benefit to people of color in a higher education setting.
- Change Social Norms – This is a slow process and Roithmayr describes this mostly in terms of switching costs. My own work has focused a lot on this idea by trying to normalize conversations about race and racism in schools. We can’t change the problem if we don’t talk about it and silence on race is a strong social norm in this country.
- Hire A Critical Mass – The key here is to hire a significant number of people of color in a short period of time. This helps people of color develop community within the organization while also acting as a significant influence.
- Use Legal Remedies – In schools this would be changes to policy and could show up a developing more objective criteria for school discipline.
There can also be substantial interplay and overlap between these areas of influence. By hiring a critical mass of people of color in an organization, you can shift social norms in powerful ways and policies can help you do that.
I’m still digesting a lot of this, and it’s already shaping my perspective to working toward improving racial equality in schools. I’m curious to see of honing my understanding of how racism works, particularly with neutral-facing policies will make the change process more effective. For the first two-thirds of the book things felt hopeless. After reading I am more hopeful because if Roithmayr is correct in her assessment that inequalities are locked-in and getting worse, and if Martin Luther King Jr. is correct in his assessment that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice then the arc only bends toward justice because of the people who are pushing hard to bend the arc. We need to keep applying pressure and Reproducing Racism helps me target where to apply force.
I recently had the opportunity to attend Harvard’s institute on Race, Equity, and Leadership in Schools along with a substantial portion of my district’s leadership. The group included my superintendent, members of cabinet, and a building leader from each school. While there were some logistical challenges inherent to running anything for the first time, I must say, the Harvard Graduate School of Education puts on a good show.
There were 12 90-minute sessions across 4 days with a continuous stream of HGSE’s heavy hitters. There were too many different threats to try and bring together any sort of holistic summary beyond the obvious: equity work is difficult work that requires continuous attention and a coordinated approach. Equity work is also absolutely critical to the success of our public schools and our fundamental tenets of democracy and justice.
What follows below are 4 daily summaries that I originally sent as emails to my team at the end of each day. They are somewhat informal and written while in the flow of the institute so they have an immediacy that I think is valuable. I’ve edited some of them for length.
Day 1 – 21, March, 2017
I’m writing this at 2:45 AM because I’m so excited that I can’t sleep and I process things through writing. If I write a bunch of it down now then I can go into the next day confident that I won’t forget as much of what I already learned.
(Please don’t send me a stack of messages about sleep and self care. I’m typically pretty good about sleep. My wife is also away so there’s no one to kick me back to bed.)
We’ve only scratched the surface of what this week has to offer and I’m already spinning with ideas about what we can do in the district to move our equity work. I hope you’re all taking good notes because we’re getting gems by the second and I know it will take a long time to process all of this material.
What a way to begin. Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot is absolutely the national treasure that Dr. Jewell-Sherman said she is. Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s frame using View, Voices, and Visibility immediately landed with me and I think we can learn a lot from her encouragement to proactively find examples of positivity while still remaining honest and critical. She also took a very powerful both/and approach to her work encouraging us to look at cases for their ugliness alongside their beauty and how we can be analytical while we build solidarity. Avoiding either/or thinking is revolutionary in itself because of how directly it pushes back against a dominant narrative of scarcity and otherness.
In the second session, Dr. Jewell-Sherman echoed this both/and thinking by encouraging us to think of our work as containing challenges and opportunities together. That we can be busy and excited. Her sentiment that we need to find individual measures of success in addition to the measures we can’t control was also particularly resonant for me as professional learning can often be very intangible.
As I expected, Dr. Tatum was remarkable. She is a legendary name for good reason. I appreciated hearing her confirm many of the messages she spoke about when she was with us back in November. It was helpful to hear her reiterate the ABC of Affirming Identity, Building Community, and Cultivating Leadership. As always, Dr. Tatum’s metaphors are spot on and this time around the antibiotics metaphor really struck home. I think our district is still early in the course of antibiotics and we’re seeing some of what she described. Some people are starting to feel better and it could be easy to stop taking the medicine, others have backed away and are feeling uncomfortable and need to press on, while still others perhaps haven’t really begun to take the medicine.
This is lifelong work in many ways while at the same time balanced by great urgency to serve our students in a way that supports each and every one of them.
If I take a pile of notes they will be there for me six months from now when I’ve forgotten 80% of what I’ve heard. I’m excited to be a nerd with all of you this week so we can learn some things to help every one of our students get the kind of school experience we would want for our own children.
I hope Wednesday has just as much material. I hope that I end the day feeling just as full with a burning desire to write down every single phrase, idea, possibility, and metaphor.
I hope my hand hurts from taking another pile of notes. That’s what we’re here for.
See you all in a few hours.
Day 2 – 22, March, 2017
Figured I may as well do this again after the positive response from so many of you. Here goes:
Day 2 left me wanting more time to talk with all of you about how to take this massive amount of new learning and turn (some of) it into action and opportunity for our students. It will be critical for us to make sure that this week doesn’t die on Friday afternoon in the same way we had to be vigilant after the PD day back in November. The continuation of this work lives in our daily actions and our ordinary choices. I expect many conversations with all of you to unpack your ideas and contextualize them for your place in the district.
More intellectual heavyweights today. I expect nothing less from Harvard.
I really appreciated Dr. Murnane’s economic perspective and it aligns with a lot of other things I’ve been reading lately, though from another perspective. In particular I’ve been thinking about which knowledge/skills/behaviors schools reward and which knowledge/skills/behaviors we punish. I think schools disproportionately punish social behaviors and reward them inadequately. I think the claim that “social skills aren’t on the test” is a red herring. As schools, and leaders, we can create ways to recognize and values social skills. If we let ourselves get beholden to the MCAS, or SAT, or College Board exams I think that’s like the carpenter who blames their tools. While those external measures are important and cannot be ignored, they are only one aspect of what we can assess. We still choose how grades work in our schools and I think Dr. Murnane made a strong economic case for developing our students social abilities.
Dr. Allen was incredible. I find her argument for a more connected society to be deceptively simple and I still haven’t spent enough time marinating on the idea to really know what to do with it. At the same time, I find that the concept aligns effectively with my lived experience. I am a better, more ethical, and more knowledgeable person for the combined bonding and bridging ties that I hold.
I’m a fan of metaphors so here’s a picture from my notes. You have the assimilationist melting pot, the multicultural tossed salad, and then the connected society woven tapestry in the middle. We know the melting pot and in the salad each ingredient retains its structure and can be pulled apart. In the tapestry the different threads retain their color, but you can’t pull one out without destroying the tapestry. Enjoy:
Dr. Lahey – good lord. I had a powerful experience with my partner and I definitely got to a place I wasn’t originally expecting to get to. I was struck by how complex and highly individual transformative work is and it made me think that we can only tolerate so much change at once without completely freaking out. I can’t imagine processing more than one or two items in this fashion and this experience is helping me realize the importance of doing a smaller number of changes and taking the time to process those changes deeply. My initial goal is tied to an extremely powerful piece of my identity and it will take a great deal of thought, reflection, and energy for me to unpack whether I’m up for making that kind of change.
I think it will be important to figure out how we dedicate the time and space necessary for thinking through the complexity of the kinds of adaptive changes necessary to make the institutional changes required to ensure that our most vulnerable students are getting the experience they need to achieve excellence.
Day 3 – 23, March, 2017
I imagine you’re expecting this by now. Here’s day 3:
If you’re planning a conference and you know it’ll be seriously content heavy how do you ensure that your participants will stay with you on the third day? You lead off the day with Karen Mapp.
Dr. Mapp is not here to play around and I deeply respect that of her. I think more than anything she made the work to engage families so completely tangible and accessible. Take the time you already have and repurpose it. Stop vaguely encouraging teachers to connect with families – teach them how to actually do the work. Throughout her session Dr. Mapp took a straightforward approach and operated from a clear position that this is work to be done. She didn’t get overly technical or bogged down in unnecessary details. I also appreciated her reliance on family and teacher voice to make her points in a way that only those doing the work can really do. I ended that session thinking that her premise is just so obvious that I can’t imagine not making some changes in our approach to family engagement.
The Panel impressed me and while the panelists had a host of powerful advice and information I was particularly impressed by Dr. Mason the moderator. Moderation has an enormous influence on a panel’s usefulness and Dr. Mason balanced expertly crafted questions with her own input and levity to great effect. I appreciated each panelist’s immediate honesty and willingness to speak from their lived experiences. I was particularly struck by Dr. Gutierrez’s story of returning to her own community and still needing to earn family trust, acknowledging that by taking a job within the system she became representative of the system.
I was (over?) hyped for Dr. Lee’s session on the legal history of integrated/segregated schooling. As an undergraduate history major and an educator this is 100% my jam and Lee did not let me down. From the beginning I appreciated Lee’s stance that combined a powerful and righteous outrage at injustice with a deep critical hope that there is opportunity for progress. I knew some of the history (see bonus section below) and he also introduced me to some new cases like Rodriguez (1973) and Millken (1974). Overall I think it’s critical that educators have this historical knowledge of how schooling is structured and I’m thinking about how to develop a PD series for our educators on this topic. I also LOVED the question about how we might intentionally create areas of convergence in order to facilitate civil rights improvements. There’s so much here to unpack.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Irvin Scott as his session title was released late and there was no pre-reading for the session. In general I think it was a solid introduction to the concept of using stories to open dialogue. I definitely appreciated the that he built in a good amount of discussion, though it left me wondering if the structure was more suited to a smaller group or a longer session with more opportunity for depth. I was fully engaged throughout the session, but my notes are very sparse being mostly limited to my own story notes and the 7 points from Denning’s Telling Tales article that Scott referenced. For now I’m thinking that the session might inform my stance and how I open dialogue but I don’t have anything terribly specific to point to just yet. That may change with time and processing.
(Tangentially related: the poem “Opportunity” that Scott read made me think of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” or “My Shot” from Hamilton which could be more relevant if you wanted to use them with students.)
Day 3 Bonus Section:
Lee’s recommended reading included Ian Haney-Lopez’s White By Law and I can also recommend it highly. (Dr. Tatum recommend another Haney-Lopez book Dog Whistle Politics.) The text is a brilliant history of the legal construction of race in the United States. My wife put it in front of me after she read it for a law school class and I fell in love with her all over again after I read it. (Yes – I am a colossal nerd.)
Day 4 – 24, March, 2017
A short day with only 2 sessions so I may as well finish the job:
Dr. Jewell-Sherman and Dr. Grassa-O’Neil kicked off the morning with a very tangible session that covered ways to open up a safe space. I was already familiar with the Courageous Conversations agreements and compass and I agree that they are extremely helpful tools. (That was my introductory book to equity work.) I hadn’t considered using the compass for a 4-corners activity and I think that could be interesting to help people think about the different ways we process using moralizing, feeling, action, and thinking. Race the Power of Illusion is a remarkable documentary. I’ve used it before and it’s also used in the IDEAS course to great effect.
In speaking with a couple other participants, we agreed that this could have been more useful at the beginning of the conference as a way to set the tone for other discussions and potentially limit the norm-setting time in the small-groups.
Dr. Barth’s session surprised me. I’ll be honest that I was a bit skeptical when he started and through the multiple small discussions I really learned a lot and I appreciated how he used the participants’ words to make his points. I’m definitely curious about unpacking methods of school governance and working more to increase opportunities for student talk – especially in the upper grades. In addition, I was struck by how forcefully he made the argument for removing tracking systems that gate entry into the most rigorous high school classes by naming tracking as the most important lever toward equity. I also think that in many ways it’s one of the easiest. (I use easy with a giant grain of salt because I know the many implications for students, educators, and families involved with AP access and how it relates to personal identity. I do think that AP access is easy relative to some other variations of systematic oppression.) I thought it was a good choice to bring Dr. Barth in to the conversation and I always make a point of listening closely to elders so that I can learn from their many years of experience before me.
Overall I am so appreciative that all of you took four days away from your buildings and other work to step into this space together. And I am thankful that I work for a senior leadership team who is willing to commit that kind of time, attention, and money to this work.
I have 46 pages of notes and I know that it’s going to take me some time to sift through out and figure out my next steps. I am hopeful that this shared experience can galvanize us toward making changes for the betterment of our most vulnerable students in our schools and the students we are currently underserving. The data that Dr. Scott shared Thursday afternoon isn’t all that far from our data.
No one should pretend that this work will be easy or that we will solve things quickly and I hope that despite these challenges you can all remain engaged and committed to the urgency required to help each student who comes through our doors.
See you on Monday to debrief and discuss,
I’m pretty sure I first discovered Malcolm X through Spike Lee’s biopic starring Denzel Washington. Somewhere around 1995 in the 6th grade. I have some vague memories of my parents explaining things to me before the movie, but not too much.
In Ms. Kramer’s 6th grade class we had to do a “Famous American” project. The assignment was do some research, read a biography, then put together a snapshot biography of that person’s life highlights and give a presentation as that person in a way that illustrates why they are an important historical figure. The culminating event was called the “Night of the Notables” in which we all dressed as our notable person and had to represent the person to visiting parents.
I picked Malcolm X. 12 year old white kid in the suburbs was about to research, write about, and present as one of the most polarizing political figures in American history. What could possibly go wrong?
What’s strange is nothing went wrong. I picked Malcolm and I don’t remember my teacher batting an eye. I don’t remember anyone questioning me or giving me a hard time. No comments like “why did you pick a Black guy?” I wanted Malcolm X, I got Malcolm X.
I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X as the biography and did research. I made the snapshot biography. When it came time for the presentations I wore a suit (maybe glasses?) and presented. No fake facial hair, no blackface. It didn’t even cross my mind and thankfully no one suggested it. During the Night of the Notables I was right next to a girl who studied Ayn Rand as her notable American. My 12 year old self didn’t get the irony. I don’t remember any reactions from other parents.
As I think about the 52nd anniversary of Malcolm’s murder, which comes a few short days before my own birthday, on February 21st it strikes me that ever since that project I’ve felt an unspoken affinity for Malcolm. I’m not black and I didn’t grow up with his experiences, but I identify nonetheless. As a 6th grader I took on his persona and had to put myself in his shoes – to cross identify with why he said what he said. I had to figure out why this man would call people “white devils” or felt the need to speak so strongly for uplifting Black people in this country. Somehow even in his early and most militant stages I never felt like the target of Malcolm’s fire and I’d like to think that this early experience helps me be a more understanding adult.
I’m also struck, in this current racially and politically charged moment in my lifetime, at how normal it all felt to me then. As I’ve gotten older and as I’ve taught high school, I realize that a white kid in the suburbs even knowing of Malcolm X is not that common. Reading the autobiography? Taking on Malcolm’s persona for a presentation? That’s quite rare. Someone probably should have told me that those are all strange or that I was taking a risk, but no one did. And I’m glad. I might not have done it.
My parents, teachers, and peers all helped normalize the idea of cross-identification for me. I have no idea how much of that was intentional, or accidental. I can even imagine a situation where all the other parents at the Night of the Notables were too stunned to even bring it up, whispering behind closed doors about this strange kid, potentially wondering if my “commie-pinko-hippie” (my words) parents had pushed me to make the choice as a way to “make a statement.” They didn’t. They all let me make my own choices.
My proudest moment of the whole experience actually came a few months later when I showed the snapshot biography to my older cousin. (I still have it, but it’s buried in storage at my Mom’s house. It’s one of the few school projects I’ve kept.) We were going through the book I made and on the page covering Malcolm’s Hajj I wrote about how he changed his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. This helped her understand who was being referred to in Lauryn Hill’s verse in “The Beast” when she rhymes: “The subconscious psychology that you use against me / If I lose control will send me to the penitentiary / Such as Alcatraz, or shot up like el-Hajj Malik Shabazz / High class gets bypassed while my ass gets harassed” When she told me that I helped her learn something I was over the moon. (This was about 1996 so it’s a pre-Wikipedia, pre-Genius internet.) When she later bought me the album for my birthday “The Beast” quickly became my favorite track. More than anything that interaction cemented in me the idea that I could teach things to people older than me through study. This wasn’t part of the original lesson.
The fact that I could choose to study and portray Malcolm X as a 12 year old white kid in suburban America significantly shaped my life. I hope that as an educator I’ve learned from the model that Ms. Kramer set for me in 6th grade. I hope that when my students took on potentially risky academic choices that I was able to support them and help normalize their ideas in a positive way. I also hope that now as a teacher educator I can help teachers feel comfortable supporting their students in these areas.
Even twenty three years later I look out for anything that relates to Malcolm X and I have a personal connection to his work. The experience was one of a handful of truly memorable school assignments and there are so many ways that it could have been stifled. My teacher could have encouraged me to pick a safer choice. My parents could have raised concerns about me portraying a Black revolutionary. My peers could have made fun of me. Instead I was allowed the space to make my own choice and I poured myself into the project. As a result that lesson sticks with me forever when so many others are gone.
One week ago at the New Teacher Center Symposium on Mentoring and Induction Chris Emdin used Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and urged me to examine which parts of society I am willing to be deliberately maladjusted to. The next day Monique W. Morris urged me to respond to behaviors demonstrated by Black girls, particularly those behaviors we consider unacceptable, from a place of love and healing. For the past week these ideas have been flying around my brain like particles in the Large Hadron Collider creating new possibilities and new ways of thinking as the concepts smash into each other.
Standard Operating Procedure:
Currently if a young Black girl comes to school intoxicated schools are structured to respond with punishment. You cannot be intoxicated and remain at school.
Currently if a young Black girl comes to school with a weapon schools are structured to respond with punishment. You cannot carry weapons and remain at school.
Currently if a young Black girl comes to school in clothing that violates the dress code schools are structured to respond with punishment. You cannot violate the dress code and remain at school.
More subtly Black girls are pushed out of schools for disrespect, disobedience, defiance and a host of other subjective violations. This is not unique to Black girls, but Black girls are overrepresented in every single discipline category from the most benign to the most severe.
If schools are structured, not to respond with love and healing, but instead to respond with punishment does critical love then require a position of intentional maladjustment in order to exist in the school environment?
Both Emdin and Morris were excellent speakers with a strong combination of academic credentials, anecdotal story, and personal history. The whole time though, all I could think was: “this shouldn’t be that hard.”
This stuff should be baseline. None of this should be controversial. None of this should be revolutionary. But it is. The fact that Morris needs to say that Black girls are sacred and worthy of love tells me that we live in an environment where this is not the status quo. The fact that Morris needs to explain that she centers Black girls tells me that this is a revolutionary act. The fact that Emdin has to say that neoindigenous (his term for urban) students’ interests from outside the school building are artifacts worth of exploration tells me that this is not standard operating procedure.
I can’t tell if I’m naïve or arrogant (both?) when I think that this shouldn’t be hard – that we should be able to assume that teachers care about and love their students. It is hard though and schools are highly resistant to change.
Why is it a challenge for educators to act with critical love toward the children and adolescents in their care? More specifically, why is it a challenge for white educators to act with critical love toward the children and adolescents of color in their care?
I could say institutional racism and sexism. I could say a history of class warfare. I could say centuries and decades of oppression that are passed down from generation to generation through epigenetic inheritance. I could say all of the above. Oppression, like liberation, is intersectional. Emdin made it simpler though and I’m biased toward explanations that cut to universalizing root causes.
Broken people break people. Hurt people hurt people. Broken teachers break students. And healing is hard work. We’re not adjusted to school as a healing place.
You want to make schools a place where we can heal students? You need to heal the adults. This, is not standard operating procedure. Standard operating procedure in schools ignores the need for healing and instead pushes teacher and students to leave their personal lives at the door in favor of a neutral academic environment. This simply does not work. We need to change what we’re adjusted to, and it’s not a new idea.
With all the talk last week about the importance of identity, love, belonging, trauma, and emotional health I’m frankly shocked that no one brought out Maslow. Maslow published the Hierarchy of Needs 1943. We’ve had access to this knowledge for seventy-four years. For seventy-four years we’ve been able to make claims that in order for people to self-actualize (which is what all our educational standards shoot for) we need to make sure that people have their physiological, physical, belonging, and esteem needs to be met. And yet all the time we have students entering our classes without these needs met.
Students come to class hungry and without sleep. Some students come to class intoxicated. Some students are homeless and come to school without shelter.
Students come to class from physically unsafe homes, through physically unsafe streets, into physically unsafe schools.
Students come to class from psychology unsafe homes, throughout psychologically unsafe streets, into psychologically unsafe classrooms.
Students come to class wondering if they have value. Wondering if anyone will miss them if they just stopped showing up.
Some students experience only one of these circumstances. Many students experience all of them at once.
And then we ask students to pay attention to the history of the Byzantine Empire, or to analyze The Iliad? Or when we’re really excited we ask them to do deep personal reflection and self-actualize in class? Please.
Students need us to see them as fully formed and worthy human beings. Emdin drew a parallel to graffiti writers who literally risk jail and their lives climbing buildings to write their names – to have someone see them. Morris spoke on how Black girls are trying their best to cope with trauma on their own by self-medicating, running away, or fighting, yet when they need healing the most, schools push them out and punish them.
Closing the achievement gap (or repaying the educational debt we owe students) will require that students of color are capable of self-actualizing within the school environment. The standards require it and to paraphrase Morris equity without a standard of excellence is not equity.
We need our students of color to succeed on their own terms as well as the terms of the dominant society if we have any hope of continued success for this country. People of color have the demographic dividend in this country and across the world. Our country cannot be sustained by an ever-shrinking ruling class. (Feel free to look at the bleak world of Lazarus) The small ruling class model does not have a history of long-term success and tends to end in horrific bloodshed. I am unwilling to accept that future for this country.
So if we want to close our gap (or repay our debt) we need students to be capable of self-actualization. This then helps us define or work. Maslow and Wiggins makes it easy for us: just backwards plan and move each step in the pyramid.
We want self-actualization: Do our students have high esteem? Yes – let’s go. No – work on esteem.
When working on esteem: Do our students have love and belonging covered? Yes – work on esteem. No – work on love and belonging.
If broken people break people then our first step is to heal the adults. Healthy adults are required for this work because we need to be able to stay present and calm when a student insults you. We need to know that a student’s outburst is more often a symptom of some underlying need for validation or healing than it is an intentional act of aggression.
The next step is to know our students. We cannot pretend to heal our students without knowing their authentic selves. This is the core argument for Emdin’s reality pedagogy model.
Accept What Is:
The core premise of Emdin’s reality pedagogy is that regardless of our opinions about it, we have to accept and interrogate our student’s realities. Particularly the realities of the neoindigenous because their realities are the least often reflected by the status quo. This is the path toward affirming identity and moving a student toward self actualization.
If your 6th grade student’s favorite movie is Scarface because their favorite rapper rhymes about Tony Montana then guess what – that’s their favorite movie and it’s an important reference point for their identity. You will make a stronger connection with your student if you see the movie and can connect this schema to the work of your class.
Is Genghis Khan similar to Tony Montana? Both self-made men interested in expanding their control that get brought down by hubris? Perhaps. And how many other literary figures or world leaders could be connected that way? You’ll only know that if you engage with your student’s interests. You don’t have to be an expert and you don’t have to like it. If you know enough though it will make you a better teacher for that student.
Emdin’s example includes the hypothetical of what if your student comes in singing “I wish I could f___ every girl in the world“? (Also interrogate if that student is male, female, Black, white, Latino, Asian?) Regardless of your opinion of the song, the song is already a part of the student’s reality. The student will engage with it whether you are there to guide them or not. If you can engage with them then you can bring this part of their reality into the classroom and interrogate it. Is this a sentiment that they truly believe? Does this extend to sisters, aunts, mothers, cousins? What’s their relationship to the message of the song? The mental shift is that teachers can’t reject things they don’t like out of hand because those touchstones are already real to our students. We have to work with the students to understand the meaning and context of the world they exist in. Even when it is uncomfortable or repugnant. If we are thoughtful we can also make explicit connections to the ideas, issues, and values in the standard curriculum. How many of Hemmingway’s protagonists could have written the same song under different circumstances or in a different time? What does this tell us about their misogyny? There’s a whole lesson right there.
I can imagine many teachers blanching at the thought of anchoring a lesson around Lil’ Wayne and a hook with an F-bomb in it, never mind the misogynist content. And you’re probably right to blanche and instinctually reject the idea. It’s a huge risk in most schools. We are adjusted to a certain version of school with written and unwritten rules. This is why in order to change standard operating procedure, we have to get maladjusted to the status quo. This shows up instructionally as described above, and it can also show up in discipline.
Respond With Love:
During her talk Morris rejected the school-to-prison pipeline when it comes to Black girls. Instead she offered a model that is more like a sexual abuse to prison pipeline. Under this model young Black girls are abused or assaulted, they then come to school exhibiting a variety of unhelpful coping behaviors like bringing a weapon to school, self-medicating or being aggressive. These behaviors typically violate school policy in some way, often the behaviors show up under the catchall of “disrupting the learning environment.” Students are then referred for discipline related to the violation (often suspension) and in many circumstances these violations escalate to the juvenile justice system. Black girls are then pushed out of school and prevented from additional learning due to how these coping mechanisms present in the context of school.
This brutal pattern forms the basis of Morris’ book and the premise for why she argues that we should instead respond to these behaviors with love and healing instead of punishment. These girls are not “misbehaving” in order to cause trouble or to “disrupt the learning environment.” They are responding to trauma in the only way they know how. And schools push them away. It doesn’t have to go like this. Schools could be places for healing instead.
On it’s surface this change again seems simple. Instead of referring students to the juvenile justice system or suspending students, you respond with interventions designed to heal the trauma at the root of the issue. The violence or self-medication is a symptom. We should treat the cause.
Yet this change in response stands in direct opposition to standard operating procedure on school discipline. In order to make this fundamental change educators need to be maladjusted to the idea that students who violate school policy should be removed from the school environment. And educators need to accept their students’ realities no matter how difficult or uncomfortable that is for the educator. Morris began to flip this narrative when she said: “Can we all agree that there is no such thing as a child prostitute? Instead we have girls exploited and forced into sex work.” This is an enormous paradigm shift away from criminalizing coping behavior, particularly in schools that use zero tolerance policies linked to criminal justice. It takes a healthy, bold, and confident educator to reject school or district policy at possible risk to their job and their livelihood.
Decide to Be Creatively Maladjusted:
Maladjustment is not a safe choice, but the stakes are high. The lives of our current students are the lives of this country’s future adults regardless of how they turn out. We shape the future through action and inaction at the same time.
I like the idea of individual teachers taking this on at a grass roots level. It has a satisfying revolutionary appeal: individual teachers opting out of referring students for suspension or teaching lessons rooted in students’ realities. That’s not going to fix things though. We have an enormous issue of scale when it comes to PreK-12 public education in this country. It takes larger commitments from all levels of the organization.
Oakland Unified School District is one district leading this work by making a move toward restorative justice across the district. This is the kind of change to policy that, when combined with day-to-day work supporting students, can allow teachers to take risks from a safer position. District leadership can create policies and guidelines that support and protect teachers when they actively engage students. We can recreate the standard operating procedure, but in order to do so we have to be maladjusted to the current one.
After the clip that Emdin used to illustrate the concept of maladjustment King asks for an International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Emdin made a claim that this association exists and that it’s hip hop. I think that public education can do it too.
What’s the point of education? We have millions of teachers and students in our schools all across the country spending innumerable hours in classes year after year. So what’s the point?
Well, if you believe Dr. Chris Emdin, (and after hearing him speak, reading his book, and then spending a day with him I am inclined to do so) the point is healing. We embark on this moral endeavor in order to heal people.
Healing? Wait a minute! That’s not what the brochure said this was about.
The written description for the session was the Emdin would cover his 7 C’s of Reality Pedagogy that he describes in his book, but instead he opened his soul and shared the fire that keeps him motivated and hungry.
Summarizing a 6 hour intensive session into a single post is a pointless task. (And at the rate this man speaks? Forget it. I won’t even pretend to try that.) If you want to know what Emdin talked about I’ll bend your ear as long as you’ll let me. I promise. For this purpose though I’m going to give you the same-day snapshot on what I want to do next with the three areas that are currently sticking out. By the time I get home in three days I might be sitting with something completely different.
“The goal of teaching is to heal. Broken people break people.”
As soon as the first hour of the day Emdin shifted away from the advertised topics into a concept of humanizing pedagogy (pulling directly from Ladson-Billings, Freire, and Giroux) that allows students to be fully themselves while also pushing them toward excellent outcomes and in doing this he dropped the massive claim that “the goal of teaching is to heal [and] broken people break people.” The room sat up a bit straighter with a “what did he just say about me?” look on their face.
Emdin did not say this to indict teachers – he was speaking to a room full of mentors and coaches. Instead, he positioned the coaching role as a parallel healing role with teachers. If we want teachers to be healers in the classroom we need coaches in place to heal the adults. Broken teachers will break students. Broken principals break teachers. Broken parents break children. We see it all the time and we can change that.
Emdin’s fire comes with a large serving of truth.
This made me want to take a more direct role in supporting our novice teachers. I want to help heal some people. I’ve done it before as a mentor and it’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever been a part of.
As a district level administrator I’m a few steps removed from teachers, let alone students, yet I run the mentoring and induction program for the district. I’m also working on building a case for more robust support of our novice teachers. After today I am thinking that I should take on a couple of novice teachers and mentor them directly in the way I would want mentors to work. This would let me lead by example and create a concrete example for our senior leadership to work with. Just like modeling instruction as a coach. If I can make this work it would let me film myself and my coaching to further make the case while also making more direct impact on our educators.
I definitely have space in my schedule to take on a couple of teachers and it shouldn’t be too hard for me to identify a couple people who would be willing to get some additional support so that I can demonstrate how effective mentors can support the individual person in their role as a teacher and move a novice teacher toward a healing role. All with explicit district support given my level of formal authority.
Call Their Name:
[By writing graffiti] “kids risk their lives to get their name called. So call their name.”
Emdin repeatedly touched on ideas of humanizing and recognizing youth as valid and worthy naming that most explicitly in the quote above. There’s a brutal simplicity in the idea that young people will climb buildings and hang off bridges, literally risking their lives, in order to write a name, a name of their choosing, in a public space. The need to affirm identity is literally being written in bright six foot high letters. What if we provided that affirmation in schools?
Emdin told the Decepticons’ origin story as a group of Brooklyn Tech High School students who were unable to actualize their identities at the prestigious exam school. This can be read as a cautionary tale for everyone who might read Emdin’s book and think “well, I don’t teach in the hood, so I’m all set.” The story about the Deceptz builds a sense of urgency, not from the fear that any group of educationally disenfranchised youth of color will spontaneously start a violent gang, (New York in the late 1970’s has a very important historical context after all) but more that the rise of the Deceptz highlights the need to shine a light into the underperforming areas of apparently successful schools. We can’t neglect small populations of unsuccessful or disenfranchised students just because their small numbers have a small impact on our aggregate ratings.
I don’t know yet what this means for my day to day work, but we need to make sure our students can affirm their identities while working to achieve at high levels in school. If schools are working correctly students shouldn’t need to look outside the school to be their authentic selves. There’s a long way to go here, particularly for students of color.
For me to help make this happen it could mean working on curriculum, running classes for teachers, supporting evaluators, or all of the above.
“What are you willing to give up in order to save lives?”
Emdin posed this question fairly early in the day and then proceeded to reject its premise. The initial premise is the idea that a teacher gives up time working on academic content (the curriculum) when they take time to learn about students’ identities or engage students through shared social capital. He (and I) rejected that premise from the perspective that without engaging with students at a human level and understanding them as fully formed humans (with ever evolving brains, souls, and identities) we will never actually teach them. There’s a lot of work to be done here within school systems.
In my work I can typically get educators to agree with the idea that they need to spend time getting to know their students or building community. Those educators will often mention taking time at the beginning of the year. Maybe a couple days, perhaps as long as two weeks. That’s not enough.
The beginning of the year is important – it’s critical, but it’s insufficient. Students change over the course of ten months, sometimes in very dramatic ways and teachers need to create routines and rituals that allow students to consistently and reliability check in. It could be a simple as an identity based Do-Now (entry task, warm-up, take your pick of terms) activity, or as complex as asking students to journal and turn journals into formal writing. Length and depth are less important than consistency and repeated opportunity for students to positively leverage their many identities. Again, I tend not to have problems convincing people that this is a good idea. The challenge comes from implementation.
The classic tension is that teachers have “so much content to cover” and this mentality can prevent teachers from doing the community and connection building work that they know is critical to ensuring student success. This is where I think we need to change the common perception of teaching. Paulo Freire stated that “there is no teaching without learning” and that is where I want to get every teacher. With this perspective the claim that “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it” can’t exist. It becomes an impossibility. Instead you have to take the perspective that no matter how many times I’ve said it, or presented it, or asked students to learn a concept – if they haven’t learned it, my work isn’t done. If a concept or topic isn’t important enough to go back to, perhaps it shouldn’t be there in the first place.
This then forces an examination of content and methodology. You can’t teach every topic on the curriculum at the necessary depth. I have never seen an attainable syllabus. (Including ones I’ve written.) Therefore we need to attempt to teach less and think critically about which concepts are worthy of teaching with depth and which topics can be merely presented to students for exposure. I want to help our teachers and curriculum coordinators figure out how to make this happen. We need our students to be with us and mountains of research show that we only get quality learning when students trust that teachers understand and respect them. This takes time and it takes work. We need to make it acceptable to take the necessary time. We’ll never get students learning otherwise.
There was so much more and I have so many questions about where to go next.
Emdin took the whole room to church for six hours talking about the power of Pentecostal preachers to enrapture and audience while living as an example of that very same power. I expect that I will be unpacking, rethinking, and applying what I learned for quite some time.
Throughout the day Emdin helped me take ideas and concepts that have been floating in my head and in my practice and put those ideas into words. His declaration of teaching as a healing act aligns directly with that I knew to be true about the best teaching, but struggled to articulate. He lives Freire’s concept of a humanizing pedagogy, but leverages a vernacular that is much more accessible than Freire.
In his accessibility Emdin is also explicit in naming how to accomplish these lofty tasks. He makes it sound so easy – because it is. You’re trying to make content relevant to your students, but you don’t know what their culture is like? Play dumb, ask them. They’ll tell you. We just have to get over our own fears and hangups and remember that we’re here for students’ lives. The stakes are high and our comfort as adults isn’t a good enough reason to not try. If we’re ever going to turn education into the system we all say we want we have to actually find the courage to take the actions we know to be effective. This day took me many steps closer and I look forward to the challenge.
“… Today marks the fifth anniversary of the initial outbreak of hostilities between the United States of America and the so-called ‘Free States.’ It is also the third day of a tentative ceasefire, and despite all predictions, it appears to be holding.” … “For the few remaining residents of the beleaguered island of Manhattan, a formal ceasefire is of little consolation when faced with the realities of the war zone they live in: looters, roving gangs of neighborhood militia, insurgents, car bombers, contract killers … this is daily life in the city.” … “Tune in for what will be, we’re sure, unforgettable television.”
So begins Brian Wood’s DMZ with “Every day is 9/11!” scrawled on a wall. A second American Civil War is in full swing and Wood gives readers an indictment of the role of media in active combat areas, criticism on our inability to talk to each other in this country, and the everyday lives of non-combatants.
Wood hits all the right universal questions: When is it appropriate to rebel against a government? What is the proper role of the media in a war zone? What is the appropriate role of government during a civil war? When it is (in)appropriate to use deadly force, or suicide bombing? And perhaps most importantly: what does it mean to be a non-combatant in the middle of a combat zone?
DMZ is highly usable in an American Government class, or current issues course, and it could probably be used near the end of a U.S. History course.
Modern Civil War:
The obvious topic here is whether or not the United States will have a second Civil War, but this is not necessary a unique topic. Orson Scott Card explores this in his Empire series very effectively and a quick search will find plenty more examples.
The concept, as explored by Wood, is that a second civil war would not divide by North/South, or East/West, or even by specific states. Wood’s second civil war would divide along ideological lines that do not nicely correspond to geographic lines – a topic that feels more plausible now than when it was first published in 2006. Wood’s divide is red and blue. Urban and rural. The vast majority of the story focuses on the island of Manhattan as a demilitarized zone microcosm of the greater war.
DMZ is about far more than a second civil war though, the piece lives through it’s characters and their experiences as non-combatants within the context of war.
Morgan Spurlock captures this in his introduction to the 8th volume Hearts and Minds:
Insurgencies. Suicide bombers. Nuclear Armed States. These are all scary scenarios that could be ripped each day from the world’s top stories, but in the hands of Brian Wood and [artist] Riccardo Burchielli, they create something much more frightening. …They open our eyes and our ears to events that, while fictional in the frame of this groundbreaking creation, are links in the chain of our global existence. Each story, each character and each page is undeniably tied to the whorl in which we live, and for me – that is DMZ’s greatest triumph.”
And that’s just it. DMZ resonates. DMZ reads like truth in a way that can only be achieved in fiction and is reinforced by the combination of words and images that can only be found in comics. Brian Wood makes sense from the first page through to the last panel of issue 72.
At its core, DMZ is about telling the war story of the non-combatants. The people who have to live in a war zone they never asked for. The people who are trying to survive despite everything working against them. This story goes untold all too frequently.
There are plenty of war stories about soldiers, and politicians, and reporters. Since World War One, and again after Vietnam, our narrative about war shifted in a strong way away from honor and glory, and into the realm of horror and brutality. For soldiers. We’re still missing stories of civilians.
Wood gives us regular people. He gives us war on Main Street. He shows us the doctors, the teachers, the lawyers, and the small business owners. These are the people who live under nightmare circumstances and can’t put a spin on it. They exist amidst constant terror and their behavior reflects that desperation. And from a 2017 perspective, they are the kind of people fleeing violence in Syria and coming to use for refuge. DMZ is the everyday reality that a war zone creates for the non-combatants.
The beauty of using fiction to discuss political issues is that it forces students to get beyond our sound bites, spin, and the 24-hour news cycle. You don’t have to discuss Republicans, or Democrats, or specific – highly polarizing – political policies. You can discuss Matty Roth, Parco Delgado, and the Free States of America. The hope would be that these fictitious symbols for very real ideas can free students to discuss the ideas in a civil manner, investigating ideas and making reasoned judgments. The concept works in English class when we use Of Mice and Men to examine race and class. It can work in social studies too.
DMZ spans a total of 72 individual comic books, collected in 12 trade paperbacks. Unless you’re running an entire class on the current political climate as depicted in comics (which sounds fantastic) it’s unrealistic to use the whole run. So what do you use?
The piece that sticks strongest in my mind is the “Day 204 Massacre” collected in the Friendly Fire volume. The volume explores justifiable use of force alongside issues of perspective. The story centers around whether or not soldiers should have fired into a (potentially) peaceful protest. This is the same question as who shot first on Lexington Green, but Wood’s setting and storytelling are exactly right for the current time. He is brutal without being excessive. He is honest without losing nuance. Wood speaks the language of the millennial generation – students who are uninterested in sticking to pre-defined categories. Unpacking the perspectives in the “Day 204 Massacre” align directly with how social studies asks students to understand multiple causation and the reliability (or not) of eyewitness accounts.
There’s strong language and plenty of violence throughout so a high school teacher will have to take care when using DMZ. I argue that there is enough thoughtfulness and commentary to justify the violence. There’s no more violence here than in All Quiet on the Western Front, or The Things They Carried – DMZ just has pictures.
In But What If We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman puts forth a fairly straightforward question and then follows it out to a number of logical and illogical conclusions. Illogical conclusions are not a criticism – they’re part of the point.
Klosterman’s essential question (as you may have guessed from the title) is whether or not we’re wrong. Not on an individual level, like being wrong about specific decisions, but more globally like whether we’re wrong about things like how gravity works, or how we understand reality. (He specifically stays away from climate change. Then doesn’t.)
A book positioned to investigate questions like “what if we’re just living in a giant computer simulation?” could very easily slip into undisciplined pseudo-inquiry more akin to late nights of questionable sobriety in bars, dorm rooms, or on the roofs of buildings. Klosterman (mostly) saves himself from this by keeping close to the book’s subtitle “Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past” and it is this perspective that makes the text potentially useful in a school setting.
Fictional Future History
At the most obvious level, some select chapters could be a really good hook into why we study history and how historians actually purport to know anything to begin with. I could see using these early in a history class to position the study of history beyond “to avoid repeating past mistakes.” The chapters on rock music (4) and freedom (9) are good for this in that they use very specific historical examples to think about how future historians might think about our time. Those two chapters hew most closely to the premise from the subtitle.
My preference, however, would be to use the chapter on television, titled “Don’t Tell Me What Happens, I’m Recording It.” In this chapter Klosterman examines how future generations might use television to understand our present. In doing so Klosterman makes a strong argument for how historians use cultural artifacts by imagining if ancient Egyptians had TV saying: “From a sociological vantage point, the most compelling footage would be the national news, closely followed by the local news, closely followed by the commercials… What we’d actually want from ancient Egyptian television is a way to look directly into the past…” (pgs. 162-163) I think this could make for strong classroom discussion fodder on the purpose of history. Unfortunately the chapter somewhat undermines his overall theme. If anything, the book is somewhat disjointed and could be considered a series of essays. (Klosterman insists that the book isn’t a series of essays in the first couple pages, but does so in a way that doesn’t instill confidence. Again, this is sort of the point of the thing.)
From a certain perspective I agree with Kolsterman and his argument is supported by the value current historians place on items like newspapers, political cartoons and the like. Klosterman’s central premise, however, is about wondering if our current assumptions hold true, so it’s also possible that TV will be treated more like art where were retroactively ascribe importance to works based on their lasting impact. (Klosterman examines this at length in an earlier chapter, referencing Melville coming to a substantially different conclusion about books than he does about TV.) There’s plenty of meat for discussion here as to the purpose of history and how different types of history might place different value on the same artifact.
So How Do I Even Know Anything?
In later chapters Klosterman strays a bit from his subtitle and the book takes on a different feel of using the idea that we might be wrong in order to inform our current life choices. Specifically, Klosterman spends a few pages exploring current societal preferences for certainty, simple answers, and quick resolution, writing:
But I think there’s a greater detriment with our escalating progression toward the opposite extremity – the increasingly common ideology that assures people they’re right about what the believe.
I don’t think the notion of people living under the misguided premise that they’re right is often dangerous. Most day-to-day issues are minor, the passage of time will dictate who was right and who was wrong, and the future will sort out the past. It is, however, socially detrimental. It hijacks conversations and aborts ideas. It engenders a delusion of simplicity that benefits people with inflexible minds. It makes the experience of living in a society slightly worse than it should be. (pg. 239)
This quote (and the few pages around it) are classroom gold when it comes to discussing epistemology. This most obviously fits into a course like IB Theory of Knowledge (which is an epistemology class) and it also fits well into government, or really any class where students are expected to discuss perennial issues like balancing individual and collective rights. I would love to unpack this section with students to see how they interpret Klosterman’s claims that people’s high level of confidence in their beliefs is actually detrimental while attempting to balance healthy skepticism with self confidence. We have to believe something, don’t we?
So Should I Read It?
The book’s arguments are often shallow and there is more than enough internal contradiction to keep a stickler busy for a while. The book also unendingly self-referential and while that works most of the time, it’s a bit overused. But What If We’re Wrong is imperfect, but it’s worth your time. (The whole thing is a quick 260 pages.)
Klosterman is posing questions that are inherently unanswerable at our present moment and “there are intrinsic benefits to constantly probing the possibility that our assumptions about the future might be wrong: humility and wonder.” (pg. 253) At it’s heart the book is an homage to complexity insisting at every turn that things might not turn out the way we expect and that our assumptions might be wrong. This is a critical message that isn’t being presented very often.
If we want to be open-minded we have to continually maintain the possibility that we are wrong. We have to be willing to change our minds in response to new evidence. It’s healthy to stay reminded that important some things are unknowable. While Klosterman wrote the book before the presidential election, it feels like perhaps the perfect premise for the Trump era of high certainty and declarative tweets.