WWJ(or M or C or B or H or P or S)D?

May 20, 2008

Let’s begin with a principle, and with a life.

The principle—at the center of the thinking of Jesus and Hillel
and Mohammad and Confucius, of Plato and Homer, at the heart of the
Declaration of Independence—expressed here as Article 1 of the 1948
Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free
and equal in dignity and rights.  They are endowed with reason and
conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of
brotherhood.” And we might add sisterhood.

And the life: Here is a woman living in the “global south.”  She
is forty-two years old, mother of six children, three of whom are
still alive, and grandmother of eight.  She subsists on $1 a day,
sleeps in a shelter without electricity or plumbing, arises each
morning to begin again the never-ending search for clean water, food,
and fuel.  She is single and illiterate, and she has never seen a
doctor.  She has recently developed a tumor in her neck that gives her
persistent pain.

How should we think of this woman in light of this principle? What should we do?


May 8, 2008

  1. A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court (Beacon Press, 1997)
  2. The Good Preschool Teacher: Six Teachers Reflect on Their Lives (Teachers College Press, 1989)
  3. To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher (Teachers College Press, 1993)
  4. To Become a Teacher: Making a Difference in Children’s Lives (Teachers College Press, 1995)
  5. A Light in Dark Times: Maxine Greene and the Unfinished Conversation (Teachers College Press, 1997)
  6. City Kids/City Teachers: Reports from the Front Row (The New Press, 1996)
  7. Teaching for Social Justice: A Democracy and Education Reader (The New Press and Teachers College Press, 1998)
  8. A Simple Justice: The Challenge of Small Schools (Teachers College Press, 2000)
  9. Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment—A handbook for parents, students, educators and citizens (The New Press, 2001)
  10. Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiques of the Weather Underground 1970 – 1974 (Seven Stories Press, 2006)
  11. Fugitive Days: A Memoir (Beacon Press, 2001)
  12. On the Side of the Child: Summerhill Revisited (Teachers College Press, 2003)
  13. Teaching the Personal and the Political: Essays on Hope and Justice (Teachers College Press, 2004)
  14. Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom (Beacon Press, 2004)
  15. Teacher Lore: Learning From Our Own Experiences (Longman, 1992)
  16. Prairie Fire (Red Dragon Press, 1976)

Charles Dickens/Walt Whitman

May 7, 2008

Charles Dickens published Hard Times in London in 1854—that’s over 150 years ago. In the opening paragraphs, Dickens describes with fierce precision the first thing future teachers need to know. This is the fraught world of 19th-century English schooling, remarkably like the one new teachers will face in modern America:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!”…

The speaker, and the schoolmaster…swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

There is good news and bad news to keep in mind regardless of where you are in your teaching journey. The bad news first: You can’t be a wise teacher before you’ve been an innocent and naïve one, smart before foolish, experienced before inexperienced. Learning to teach takes time. You are a work in progress. Keep going.

The good news? You can hold onto your humanistic ideals as a teacher, negotiate the troubled waters of teaching, continue to grow, and learn for your entire life in classrooms. Committing to the task of continuous experimentation, investigation, inquiry, and study is essential. One way to proceed is to engage in an intergenerational dialogue with other teachers, a space for problem posing and problem solving, historical and theoretical considerations, storytelling and critical reflection.

There’s so much more to learn. Too often future teachers have experienced little more than a few courses in educational philosophy and psychology, the history of education, then the methods of teaching, and finally a synthesizing moment when everything is theoretically brought together in student teaching. This approach structures the separation of thought from action, rips one from another, and walls the mind off from the body, weakening both. It’s lazy at best, miseducative always. But worse, it ignores the humanizing mission of teaching.

The humanizing mission focuses on the humanity of students, multi-dimensional creatures with bodies, minds, hearts, spirits, and also hopes, dreams, aspirations, and desires. These are some courses we might have wanted to take in college: Turning Toward the Student as Fellow Creature (Not Dirt Bag of Deficits); Building a Republic of Many Voices Where Each Can Be Heard, Each Seen; Creating Community with and for Students and Families; Finding Critical Allies in Parents and Community; Developing Courage and Confidence; Becoming a Student of Our Students; Lifting the Weight of the World; Resisting Orthodoxy; Teaching Toward Freedom, How To.

There’s a message here, of course, about what is to be valued and hwy, just as the message in the existing standard curriculum tells us what is to be valued and why. I want teachers to resist the mindless and the soulless in teaching in favor of attention to the ethical and intellectual dimension of their efforts. I want teachers to be aware of the stakes, aware as well that there is no simple technique or linear path that will take them to where they need to go, and then allow them to live out settled teaching lives, untroubled and finished. There is no promised land in teaching, just that aching persistent tension between reality and possibility.

I want teachers to future out what they’re teaching for, and what they’re teaching against. I know I want to teach against oppression and subjugation, exploitation, unfairness, and unkindness. I want to teach toward freedom, for enlightenment and awareness, wide-awakeness, protection of the weak, cooperation, generosity, compassion, and love. I want my teaching to mean something worthwhile in the lives of my students and in the larger worlds they will inhabit and create. I want it to mean something in mine.

I want future teachers to commit to a path with a certain direction and rhythm: Love life, embrace your students, breathe in and breathe out, love your neighbors, open up, listen, love yourself, be generous, act and doubt, learn from your students, question everything, talk with everyone you meet, defend the outcast and the despised, challenge and nourish yourself and others, become a student of your students and allow them to become a teacher to their teacher, seek balance. I want future teachers to develop a wild and eclectic and dynamic list they can refer to when the night is dark and they feel themselves to be far from home. Here is Walt Whitman, in one of his many prefaces to Leaves of Grass, offering advice to his fellow poets:

This is what you shall do:

Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number for men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…

That’s a list to laminate and carry along in your backpack, a list to tape to your wall. It’s written to poets, but it stands as advice to free and future teachers, too, a nice start to our own lists. The important thing is this: Don’t let your teaching life make a mockery of your teaching values.

Social Justice and Teaching

May 7, 2008

Teaching for social justice might be though of as a kind of popular education—of, by, and for the people—something that lies at the heart of education in a democracy, education toward a more vital, more muscular democratic society. It can propel us toward action, away from complacency, reminding us of the powerful commitment, persistence, bravery, and triumphs of our justice-seeking forebears—women and men who sought to build a world that worked for us all. Abolitionists, suffragettes, labor organizers, civil rights activists: Without them, liberty would today be slighter, poorer, weaker—the American flag wrapped around an empty shell—a democracy of form and symbol over substance.

Rousseau argues in regard to justice that equality “must not be understood to mean that degrees of power and wealth should be exactly the same,” but only that with respect to power, equality renders it “incapable of all violence” and only exerted in the interest of a freely developed and participatory law, and that with respect to wealth, “no citizen should be so opulent that he can buy another, and none so poor that he is constrained to sell himself.” The quest for equality and social justice over many centuries is worked out in the open spaces of that proclamation, in the concrete struggles of human beings constructing and contesting all kinds of potential meanings within that ideal. Nothing is settled, surely, once and for all, but a different order of question presents itself: Who should be included? What do we owe one another? What is fair and unfair? And always, the enduring questions in education: Education for what? Education for whom? Education toward what kind of social order?

If society cannot be changed under any circumstances, if there is nothing to be done, not even small and humble gestures toward something better, well, that about ends all conversation. Our sense of agency shrinks, our choices diminish. What more is there to say? But if a fairer, more sane, and just social order is both desirable and possible, that is, if some of us can join one another to imagine and build a participatory movement for justice, a public space for the enactment of democratic dreams, our field opens slightly. There would still be much to be done, for nothing would be entirely settled. We would still need to find ways to stir ourselves from passivity, cynicism, and despair; to reach beyond the superficial barriers that wall us off from one another; to resist the flattening effects of consumerism and the blinding, mystifying power of the familiar social evils (such as racism, sexism, and homophobia); to shake off the anesthetizing impact of most classrooms, most research, and of the authoritative, official voices that dominate the airwaves and the media; and to, as Maxine Greene says, “release our imaginations” and act on behalf of what the known demands, linking our conduit firmly to our consciousness. We would be moving, then, without guarantees, but with purpose and hope.

Education is an arena of struggle as well as hope—struggle because it stirs in us the need to look at the world anew, to question what we have created, to wonder what is worthwhile for human beings to know and experience—and hope because we gesture toward the future, toward the impending, toward the come of the new. Education is where we ask how we might engage, enlarge, and change our lives, and it is, then, where we confront our dreams and fight our notions of the good life, where we try to comprehend, apprehend, or possibly even change the world. Education is contested space, a natural site of conflict—sometimes restrained, other times in full eruption—over questions of justice.

The work, of course, is never done. Democracy is dynamic, a community always in the making. Teaching for social justice continues the difficult task of constructing and reinvigorating a public. It broadens the table, so that more may sit together. And we engaged what Bernice Johnson Reagan called “the sweetness of struggle.”

February 29, 2008

May 7, 2008

February 29, 2008

Chicago Tribune Editors:

We write to voice our support for our colleague, Bill Ayers, who was the target yesterday of Jonah Goldberg’s mean-spirited muckraking journalism. Goldberg asks why Bill Ayers is allowed to have a job as a college professor, despite his leftist views and political activities from some forty years ago? The answer is simple. Professor Ayers has degrees from University of Michigan and Columbia University’s Teachers College. Over the past twenty plus years he has earned the reputation of a cutting edge scholar of education, and made major contributions to our understanding of schools and the institutions impacting children. Ayers has authored, co-authored or edited 14 books and dozens of scholarly articles and book chapters, some of them award-winning. His books have received praise from the likes of Jonathan Kozol, Studs Turkel and Scott Turow. He has been invited to lecture around the country and internationally on pedagogy, curriculum, the politics of education, and the small schools strategy for educational excellence. He has served on numerous university and community-based committees. These professional accomplishments meet and exceed the threshold of what is required to teach at the University of Illinois (UIC). Moreover, the Academy does not exclude or persecute prolific and hard-working faculty for unpopular beliefs or controversial ideas. During the McCarthy era of the 1950s one could be fired simply for the hint of left of center views or association with people who held those views. Perhaps Mr. Goldberg is nostalgic for an earlier time. We are not.


Barbara Ransby, Associate Professor of African American Studies and History, UIC

Beth E. Richie, Professor of Criminology. Law and Justice and African American Studies, UIC

Lisa Yun Lee, Director, Jane Addams Hull House Museum at UIC

Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms by Mara Sapon-Shevin

May 5, 2008

Widening the Circle is an ambitious, impassioned argument for inclusive schools powered by a vision that goes far beyond the mutilated version of ‘mainstreaming’ common in American schools today. To Sapon-Shevin the current state of affairs is a caricature of inclusive education, reductive and impoverished, a place where every student is defined by a putative deficit, imprisoned in a label. She shows us that huge questions of democracy and freedom can be discovered in a simple game of musical chairs, that our deepest values are enacted in our everyday classroom practice. Her goal–breathtaking in its sweep–is to break through the walls of the prison, and to set us all free. A dazzling manifesto and call to arms.