Teacher activism: NJTAG’s infancy, the politicized classroom, and teaching #Occupy
I’m glad that some fresh posts from colleagues influenced me to write a response quickly, so this post will be not only a combination of two planned posts (a move I was thinking of anyway), but also, in this relative haste, it will be short and sweet (well, short for me, at least).
My original post of the two was intended to, not uncritically, examine the first month or so of an organization I helped found, New Jersey Teacher Activist Group (NJTAG). The second post was going to address the idea of teaching the occupy protests and our role as educators in actively joining and promoting grassroots efforts for economic and social justice.
But in the meantime, a few online arguments have shaped the idea, enlivened the debate, and altered my blogging plans.
So let’s talk about NJTAG first.
Amidst the existential crisis our profession faces from policymakers and “reformers,” with an eye toward more engagement with the families in my district who don’t get to be “squeaky wheels,” and in an effort to further develop the activist pedagogy I employ and the educator-activist synthesis I promote, I wanted to help start a group of education workers dedicated to fighting for progressive education practices and related policy. After I re-connected with Katie Strom (blog, Twitter) — a former teacher and current teacher educator and doc student — this past summer, we realized a lot of the ideas and plans we had individually were overlapping and we needed to work together. We went to the SOS rally together and when we got back, NJTAG was born.
We are in our infancy, for sure. We are still building a base and forming an identity. We have chosen to still “get out there” as we shape this internal dynamic. We held screenings of “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman” with dialogues after the film each time. We have planned a workshop called “What does teacher activism look like?” in order to really deepen our excavation of our activist identity and assess our current capacity. NJTAG is not perfect, and we have work to do in this long fight, but it’s a start.
Some of the most rewarding NJTAG experiences have been trips some of our members have taken to the “Occupy Wall St.” protest site in lower Manhattan. Along with allies from NYC education organizer/activist groups such as Teachers Unite, Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), and New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE) and other comrades, NJTAG members have participated in two “grade-ins” for public education and facilitated an anti-Columbus Day teach-in.
It is at this intersection of education, activism, and the occupy “movement” (I hesitate to use that word just yet) where the plot of this post thickens…
I need/want to be brief about this….There are a lot of tentacles to this subject and I’m really passionate about this stuff…But I’m not going to say as much as I normally might for a lot of reasons, including: 1. Some good stuff has already been posted by fellow teacher-tweeters to which I might not add much, and 2. the gap between my ideas and those of the specific teacher whom I’d rebut, and those like him, is SO big and there are SO many things I’d like to specifically refute that A. it’s useless because we practically speak a different language about teaching and B. you’d be here forever.
Even before this digital age dust-up, I’ve used this blog and other media to tout the value of a politicized classroom and social justice pedagogy. I’ve also been saying on Twitter and Facebook that educators need to support the “occupy” protests, attend them, and teach in favor of them. For me the idea is simple: Say what you will about strategy and tactics, but what #occupy is protesting, what they are against, is as close to an empirical, indisputable example of economic injustice as we’re going to get– or else those words have no meaning and social studies education is impotent.
So on Sunday, as I was again tweeting about #occupy, this tweet from @Dontworryteach came up:
Now I’m not sure what @Dontworryteach meant by “fired up…about Osama.” I’m going to hope she meant #sschat was abuzz about teachable moments, not that they took part in the mindless death-cheering and chest-bumping that followed that bread-and-circus nonsense. Either way, many #sschat folks chimed in on this #occupy topic, including me discussing my ideas about teaching in favor of #occupy. Soon, @UkiahCoachBrown disagreed, and we argued for a bit. And yes, I was unapologetically caustic. So pretty soon, he blogged about teaching occupy and my ideas about activist pedagogy in general. A few folks I know are expecting a response, but where can I go? First, I want to say I’m sometimes misquoted in the posts, but that’s not a huge deal. The ridiculous ideas he uses are.
As in his tweets, @UkiahCoachBrown’s first post uses some version of the trite, reductive, simplistic meme of “what’s it about, they have no unified message, I don’t know what they want,” etc. Where do I begin? If someone is still saying that, I’m dealing in an alternate universe. Where do I go? We can talk about the democracy/consensus process; the notion of participation and conversation before articulating demands; the modeling of alternative social arrangements at the same time you oppose something; the occupation sites as areas of intellectual growth, with teach-ins, skill-shares, etc.; the Declaration of Occupation, points of solidarity, and message on why there are no demands yet; the fact that they are so democratic and so self-critical that they have internal conversations about how representative and inclusive they are of various marginalized, de-privileged groups; the idea that the problem in America (and the world) is so profound, so systemic, so much a part of the fiber — the DNA — of our society that it will take a long time to unpack together and will require supposedly “unrelated” conversations about race, gender, war and war profiteering, imperialism, education, the arts, the war on drugs and the prison-industrial complex, and LGBTQ issues. We can discuss how heteropatriarchal capitalist white supremacy is not addressed by hastily constructed 5-point plans and sound bites. But honestly, what’s the point? If someone is just going to parrot this zombiethink nonsense and join nuance-impaired America, what can I possibly do?
His further analysis is flawed, and totally misses the point. For example, even if history judges these protests as not having meant much, that does not change the fact that what they generally oppose is as indisputably wrong and immoral as other injustices like slavery (I never said the occupy protests and their impact thus far were on a par with the abolition and civil rights movements — only that the wrongs it opposes are similarly indisputably wrong, even if you think the injustices aren’t equal). The only reason this is a controversial idea or that we are scared to politicize our teaching isn’t because #occupy is some fringe group or radical idea or one of many “equal ways of seeing things.” It’s because class identity — solidarity among regular folks — has been beaten out of us by war/nationalism, media, propaganda and, sadly, education — specifically timid, toothless (one might say conquered or occupied) teaching like that of @UkiahCoachBrown. Yes, I do weep for his students — but I also weep for him and the millions of others even less critical than he, swept into the inevitability of capitalism and the “giant web of nationhood” (thanks, Howard Zinn). Coach is a victim, too – and I have to remember that, even as I vehemently attack his ideas.
So what do I do here? I can pick apart his posts every which way – but I’d have so much to say, and so much is wrong, I’d be refuting him line-by-line. You don’t want to read that.
Look, I’m sure this guy is a pretty good teacher. I’m sure he cares about his students, chooses materials as thoughtfully as he knows how, plans lessons well — all that. Now I can employ good methodologies, good technique — but if it’s devoid of soul, if it doesn’t help students become agents of change, if it doesn’t explicitly make a distinction between that which is just and that which is unjust, I’m not doing my job. My post on activist pedagogy speaks for itself, so I’m not going to re-hash my feelings on supposedly virtuous neutrality-for-neutrality’s-sake. There may be two or more sides to a lot of stories, but there aren’t always two or more equal sides to a story. @UkiahCoachBrown emphasizes how he shows “both sides” or “the other side.” Fine, so do I. I use some opposing viewpoints – but not as having equal validity, as myths debunked by #occupy and protests like it. What, here, is this supposedly equally valid “other side”? Are we going to say 40 years of deregulation and wealth transfer that caused yet another profound crisis with conditions not seen since the Great Depression is somehow defensible? Are we going to entertain the faith-based economics of the right? How many graphs, charts, articles, etc. does Coach need to see? Are we going to say it’s OK to approve the idea of corporate personhood, the level of influence money has on politics, or the Citizens United decision? The trickle-down unicorns, tax-cut cult, and other anti-#occupy economic ideas simply don’t have facts or history to support them. They are, as I said, faith-based. People who espouse them are child-like, stomping their feet and shouting,”No no no!” in the face of reality. Yet coach disagrees. He thinks these ideas warrant some sort of “equal time”- so he is so far gone, my words will do nothing.
(This isn’t the first time Coach Brown and I have disagreed. When I called for a boycott of the National Council for Social Studies convention in DC because of their choice to invite private-doner-heavy-and-six-figure-salary charter guru Geoffrey Canada as one of their keynote speakers, Coach similarly called my opinions extreme, denied we’re in a “war” over public education, and revealed himself as one of these nauseating “the answer is usually somewhere in the middle” guys.)
Let me make one slight digression to further elucidate my point on neutrality and debate. In my graduate history class, we have read and discussed two books about inter-ethnic and inter-racial conflict in Chicago and their effect on housing and the urban landscape there — the “making of the second ghetto” as it were. We have some lively discussions and not everyone agrees on everything. We interrogate authors’ arguments and debate the relative culpability of youth subculture and their masculinity crises, outright violence, immigrants “becoming” white, class and material conditions, governmental institutions, business interests, and community organizations. But all this debate occurs within and around a grand indisputable — that an injustice was perpetrated upon African-Americans in Chicago at the time by individual, social/cultural, and institutional forces. So I’m all for unpacking #occupy and analyzing strategies and tactics, debating its real impact and historical significance, analyzing its message, and monitoring media coverage. But I am not going to budge — inside or outside my classroom — on the general premise, the grand indisputable: that the class war waged upon us has gone too far and warrants some good ol’ class war back the other way.
So, @UkiahCoachBrown? We might as well be teaching on different planets. We are different species. I know I’ll get flack for this, but he’s got AP, Gov & Pol, and Econ classes and (let me be polite about this) people who teach that stuff generally are hardly known for their activism. Here are some of his gems:
- “…unknown if the Occupy Movement was going to become more than just another disgruntled ‘I’m pissed off at the world’ protest.”
- After using a phrase “the rantings of activism” (now being an activist is to rant?) he says: “People get so wrapped up in what they believe that anything less is considered flat wrong. That’s what an activist does, and that’s why it takes one hell of a cause for me to become an activist in anything.”
- “…far be it for me to tell any 17 year old kids that Occupy is a just cause, or that the protests are simple outrage at nothing in particular.”
- “The closest thing the Occupy Movement relates to seems to be, oddly enough, the Tea Party Movement…both contain mostly middle class, affluent people. Neither is bad, neither is good…”
- a post was actually titled “Here’s the problem with ‘Social Justice'” [emphasis mine]
- “There is a misunderstood idea…social justice can only be promoted by those that are actively engaged in trying to rob Peter to pay Paul, whether it is by regulation, taxation, or some combination of policies that target groups of people that have become economically successful.” [this is not a joke – I’m not placing this in here to see if you’re paying attention — he actually said this]
- but here is perhaps my favorite: “In fact throughout history nothing has brought forth more egalitarianism than the ideals of the free market.” [funny if not so dangerous…I wonder how he feels about market ideology “reforms” in public education]
- and, while I’m pretty sure I didn’t say “genocidal maniac” in my post, Coach removes Columbus and other ideas from my indisputable category this way: “I would disagree with the blog post author that Columbus is an easy point for a genocidal maniac, or that the atomic bomb was murder, or that the Equal Rights Amendment was necessary.”
Folks, this is why we are where we are. Again, Coach Brown is not alone and is a victim himself. But nobody benefits from “education” like this more than the powers-that-be. I, for one, will not co-sign hegemony. If you read any of those quotes and praised them for their sober reasonableness, or agreed with them, then you and I similarly can likely never overcome the chasm between us. I come from a tradition that acknowledges when we spend our Life in Schools we must recognize Education is Politics, see Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and see Teachers as Cultural Workers who are at their best when Teaching to Transgress.
Lost in all this was my intention to include and praise some thoughtful related posts, and a few resources I’ve used to teach about #occupy #ows #occupywallst:
Katie Strom’s post right after our first grade-in
the Occupy Education tumblr
MLK would #occupy if he was alive
Michael Kaechele’s more sober version of much of what I have to say
Steve Lazar (the man I might be had I more emotional balance and restraint of mouth and pen, and a damn good writer):
- drops truth about #occupy and teaching
- discusses direct democracy at #occupy
- gives you some resources for teaching #occupy
Thoughts on representation within the #occupy group
a Temple prof responds to skeptics of #occupy
Christopher Emdin explains why teachers are at #ows on HuffPo