Teaching the Taboo, by my brother Rick and me

March 24, 2011

The challenging work of teaching pivots on our ability to see the world as it is, without blinders or limits, and simultaneously to see our students as three-dimensional creatures—each a work-in-progress making his or her twisty way through a propulsive, uncertain history-in-the-making. As they enter our classrooms we must reach out and recognize our students as full human beings with hopes and dreams, aspirations, skills, and capacities; with minds and hearts and spirits; with embodied experiences, histories, and stories to tell of a past and a possible future; with families, neighborhoods, cultural surrounds, and language communities all interacting, dynamic, and entangled. And with a couple of basic questions: who am I in the world (or who in the world am I)? What are my choices and what are my chances?

This is the knotty, complicated challenge of teaching, and it’s the intellectual and ethical heart of teaching the taboo: it demands sustained focus, intelligent judgment, fearless inquiry and investigation. It calls forth within us an open heart and an inquiring mind, and it reminds us that every one of our judgments is necessarily contingent, every view partial, and each conclusion tentative. It requires that we refuse to simply pass on the received wisdom and dogma of the day, but rather that we develop along with our students dispositions of patience, curiosity, imagination, respect, wonder, awe, and more than a small dose of humility.


The challenge involves, then, an ethical stance and an implied moral contract: we offer unblinking recognition, and we work to communicate a deep regard for students’ lives, a respect for both their integrity and their vulnerability. We begin with a belief that each student is unique, each the one and only who will ever trod the earth, each worthy of a certain reverence. Regard extends, importantly, to the larger community—the wide, wide world that animates each individual life—since reverence for a specific person cannot be authentically expressed or realized while disparaging or despising the everything that brought forth that individual. Esteem includes insistence that students have access to the tools with which to negotiate and then to transform all that lies before them. We must try to do no harm, and then to convince students to reach out, to reinvent, and to seize an education fit for the fullest lives they might hope for. Another part of the work of teachers, then, is to see ourselves as in-transition, in-motion, works-in-progress.

Teaching the taboo is characterized by a spirit of cooperation, inclusion, social engagement, and full participation—classrooms become places that honor diversity while building unity. Democracy is based, after all, on the sense—at first intuited, and later more deliberate—that every human being is of incalculable value, that each is unique and distinct and still part of a wildly diverse whole, and that altogether we are, each and every one, somehow essential. We recognize, then, that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each, and conversely, that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all. This core value has huge implications for educational politics and policy, and big implications for curriculum and teaching as well, for what is taught and how.

Teaching the taboo is sustained through a culture of respect and mutual recognition that encourages students to develop the capacity to name the world for themselves, to identify the obstacles to their (and other people’s) full humanity, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands. This kind of education is necessarily eye-popping and mind-blowing—always about opening doors and opening minds as students forge their own pathways into a wider, shared world.

The City as School: A Radical Imagining

March 19, 2011

I want to build an educated city, a school without walls where we can live in search of, rather than in accommodation to. I want us to accept ourselves as works-in-progress, searching and unfinished, on the move in a dynamic, going world, with Chicago our commons, our performance space, and our workshop.

De-couple education from schooling: all human beings are learning from birth until death—learning, like eating and breathing, is entirely natural. It’s wasteful to think of education as a K-12 affair, or to think of education as preparation for life rather than life itself.

I want a city poised to learn more in order to achieve more in terms of human enlightenment and freedom.

An educated city would take seriously the notion that residents are the sovereign, neither objects to manipulate nor subjects to be ruled. Education, formal and informal, would become focused on the creation of public citizens.

Schools would be places where the dreams, aspirations, knowledge, and skills of youth are sensible starting points for learning, where democracy is practiced rather than ritualized.
Imagine how much safer, livelier, and more peaceful our communities would become if we reorganized education in this fundamental way—instead of keeping children isolated in classrooms, engage them in community-building activities with audacity and vision: planting community gardens, recycling waste, creating alternative transportation and work sites, naming and protesting injustices around them, organizing neighborhood arts and health festivals, broadcasting a radio show, rehabbing houses, painting public murals. By giving children and young people a reason to learn beyond the individualistic goal of getting a job and making more money, by encouraging them to exercise their minds and their hearts and their soul power, we would tap into the deep well of human values that gives life shape and meaning.

A Letter from my Brother to my Son

March 18, 2011

Letter to a young teacher

by Rick Ayers

Huffington Post Blog

March 15, 2011


So my nephew Malik, a fabulous renaissance man who has taught sixth grade math, science, and Spanish as well as coaching basketball and baseball for the last six years, was given a pink slip.  Again.  It’s a March ritual around here.  School districts are dealing with slashed budgets and are not certain of enrollment.  In response they send out a flurry of layoff notices.  I’m pretty sure Malik will be hired back.  He’s got some time in, he’s a beloved teacher, and he is extremely successful teaching students in his working class and low-resourced middle school.

But the whole thing is infuriating.  I texted him to say I hoped he was doing OK.  He texted back, telling me that he would never advise a friend to go into this profession.  I was so sad to think about this response, the kind of feeling that so many teachers get at this time of year.

I tried to send him back some words of encouragement.  I’m a teacher educator, after all, and it’s my calling to encourage people to become teachers and help them to be successful.  I wrote him something about the fact that the pink slip is an insult, only that, but he would certainly still have a job.  But as I thought about it, I realized this is one insult piled on top of the many others that are being offered to teachers.  While there is a small problem of some bad and ineffective teachers hanging on to their jobs, as there is with bad, ineffective, lazy lawyers, doctors, nurses, architects, bankers, cops, financial analysts, cooks, firefighters and farmers,  there is a huge bleeding gash in the system – the 40% of new teachers, mostly excellent teachers, who quit in the first three years.  They are discouraged, demoralized, scorned, and ridiculed by the media, politicians, and bosses.  I want you all to hang in there.  So here is my attempt to pull together my thoughts.  It is my “letter to a young teacher.”

Dear Malik,

We are, sadly, living in the year of hating teachers.  Whether it’s Wisconsin governor Scott Walker rewarding the super-rich while complaining about the high compensation of teachers or Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan applauding the mass firing of teachers and endorsing the teacher-bashing rhetoric of the right, we’re having it hard these days.  After decades of “devolution” of federal funding and escalating military budgets, state governments are de-funding education.  Policy wonks fantasize about making schools in the US that look like those in Singapore – with compliant students who study desperately to make the grade – and the President talks about education designed to compete with China and India – as if that were the purpose of education in a democracy.  The national discussion of education, driven by right wing media and think tanks, suggests that teacher education, teachers, teacher unions, and just about everything else about schools is worth trashing.  Professor William Watkins may be right – these people may really have in mind closing down public education altogether.

On the teacher profession side we find plenty of despair.  Teaching, like the other caring professions, has been regarded as women’s work and therefore worthy of less respect and pay.  And now teachers are being forced more and more into mindless scripted curricula, which amount to low-intelligence test-prep exercises.  Teacher education programs are cutting back their offerings and fewer people, particularly with math and science degrees, are willing to go into teaching.  Getting that March pink slip is just another turn in the barrage of insults teachers suffer.

As I was thinking about this, and how to respond to you, something dawned on me.  I think we pretty much should stop waiting for respect.  It’s not going to come, not for a long, long time.  We know we are creative, growing professionals who are engaged in one of the world’s most demanding jobs and we know we should be honored for our work with children and adolescents.  But perhaps we should simply stop thinking along the lines of that framework of professionals who should be respected.

Here are a few other ways we might frame our job:

First, the miracles.  We teachers fight for success in the classroom every day and many days we fail – like health professionals, it’s part of the job and we try to learn from the losses.  But sometimes we work our magic and it comes out right.  That’s when you want to leap up and give a fellow teacher or a student a high five.  Yes, we get both emotions, twenty times a day.  We have the honor of being with these students more than any other adults – laughing and crying, seeing transformations before our eyes.  And we usually find ourselves in a wonderful community of teachers – intense, funny, brilliant, and deeply ethical colleagues who help us through.

I remember when I first went into teaching.  I had been a restaurant cook for ten years and I knew the slog of production:  bring in raw materials, work on them, push product out the door, charge money, get a little pay.  Mostly it was hard, physical work.  I remember how amazed I was when I first started teaching:  I could get paid for reading, writing, talking, and listening?  What a delight.  And it was the most intellectually and ethically challenging job I could imagine – on the level of course content (we are always scavenging, studying, borrowing, innovating, learning more) and even more on the human interaction dimension (constantly studying the kids, doing close observation, trying to figure out how to be successful at inspiring, encouraging and challenging them).  We get joy, real joy and satisfaction, from our students.  Yes, that’s the secret delight of this profession, working with inspiring colleagues, knowing these kids and being with them through the small and large changes in their lives, knowing their families and the heroic struggles of the communities they come from.  We have the coolest job ever – we are privileged to be working with young people every day.

Secondly, as that t-shirt says, “Be an activist, be a teacher.”  We might head off to work with more joy and positive feeling if we think of ourselves as organizers. Teaching, after all, is not only community service, it is a project of social change. We don’t go to work to blithely reproduce the inequities that exist in our society.  We want students to learn, not just the ropes of the game and the gatekeepers, but their own power, their own capacity.  We want them to have the creativity and imagination to know that another world is possible; we want them to have the skills to make it so.  If you were organizing Mississippi sharecroppers in the 60’s or Flint auto workers in the 30’s, you would not be waiting for someone in power to say you’re great.  You would expect to be insulted and vilified.  But you do the work because you know it’s right.  We teachers do this job because we are change agents. A lot of people jaw about social change and activism but teachers do the work every day.  Like an organizer, you are fighting for broader goals, ones tied to the doors you open for this student, the progress you make on that project.

We go back to work again and again for those goals, not for the ones defined by those who are selling off the public domain and the promise of equality, justice and the common future, the policy wonks who seem to be in charge today.  My hero and heroine teachers are not the savior types you see in the movies.  They are people like Septima Clark teaching in rural South Carolina, Paulo Freire organizing in the mountains of Brazil, Father Lorenzo Milani transforming peasant kids in Tuscany, Sylvia Ashton-Warner empowering Maori children in New Zealand, and so many others.  They got no respect.  They changed the world.  Like organizers, we learn the hard lessons of social change – it never comes when we are patronizing and hand out charity; it only succeeds when we respect the people we teach and act in solidarity with them.  And, like organizers, we are energized by the knowledge that we just might win together, by the knowledge that we do win small victories every day.

Thirdly. . . there is no thirdly.  Just those two.  The joy of working with kids.  The commitment to organizing and social justice.  The pay is bad but, really, not that bad.  One can have a decent, if modest, living doing this.  And we may be scorned by idiots but we are revered by parents, communities, and students. All in all, not such a bad gig.  Of course I’m pretty sure you’re going to stick with it, Malik.  And I hope you encourage other friends to join our ranks.  We need them!


Tio Rick


OBAMA’s secret gay life: An exchange

March 17, 2011

Below is an exchange between Sharon Kass, the homophobic hate monger from Washington D.C., and moi.

Dear Prof. Ayers:
I understand that Barack Obama has a “secret” gay life. Any information you could give me on that would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you.
Sharon Kass

Dear Sharon,
You’re up awfully early, but then as advocate and activist, the day is never long enough, right? How is the campaign going?
You must know deep inside that the world would be a healthier and happier place on every level if we would all (even you!!) get in touch with our essentially queer selves.
Instead of letting GLBTIQ folks openly into the military (the position of some silly liberals) you should support my idea that ONLY gay people can join the military (kind of like the ancient Greek armies); rather than support the simple demand of GLBTIQ folks to marry and enjoy full civil rights, you should support my proposal that ONLY queer people will be allowed to marry from now on. Make love, not war, and no more yucky man on woman/woman on man freak shows.
My two proposals taken together are sure to solve a zillion current social problems starting with defusing the militaristic and violent culture that permeates our society today.
Are you persuaded? Why so resistant? Do you have a little secret? I have an idea: let’s play truth or dare (you bring the Santorum, and I’ll bring the previously undiscovered tapes of…). Let the party begin!
xxx Bill

Cyprus Oral History Project: Seminar Notes

March 11, 2011


March 8, 2011


A wide-ranging group gathered in Nicosia for the first seminar in a series on doing oral history in Cyprus: a musicologist doing a study on folk-lore and songs, an environmentalist, an ethnographer who had just finished nine-months of field work in a mountain village, an historian who wanted to better understand the value of oral sources, an American teaching on a Fulbright, a computer teacher, teacher educator, graphic designer, and students from gender studies, sociology, education, and history. The mix was rich and hopeful.

Before introductions we began with a quick-write: five minutes on oral history, and reasons for taking this class. When we went around the circle and introduced ourselves, reading excerpts from the writing, it was immediately clear that there was a lot of wisdom in the room. People used words like “grass-roots history,” “history from below,” “the power of stories,” “different narratives,” “beyond the dominant story,” “voices from the margins,” “history of the everyday,” “personal meaning,” and “memory as history.” We were on our way.

Discussion was wide and smart, and contradictions were the focus of energy and debate: language/translation, subjective/objective, technique/stance or approach, total relativity/truth. Nothing was resolved, but simply naming the complex and contested territory felt illuminating.

There was as well a persistent question of representation—how do oral historians make and frame an archive (web, interactive, film, installation)? What are some of the creative ways people have communicated their work to and for a public?


March 9, 2011


Everything was reviewed and revisited, revised and re-opened—conflict and debate, contest and contradiction driving deeper. Other issues were added to the list: How open and how pre-planned should we be? Is the interview a Q and A event or an interpretive/relational event? How do we begin to find and select participants? How random, and how deliberate? How broad or how narrow do we reach for participants? How aware are we of our preconceptions and frames? Do we need a specific research question to organize the interviews, or is a phenomenon of interest adequate? Is an interview protocol advisable or should we ask an open-ended question and then follow along? How skeptical or credulous should we be? How aware should we be of the historical record and past events that are likely to surface? When does analysis begin, and how; when does it end? How stable/unstable is the record we make? In some ways, while irresolvable, these questions point, not only to rational research approaches, but, as well, to differing dispositions of mind and feeling.

In the course of the seminar we drew on slave narratives, 9/11, Tiananmen Square, events unfolding in Egypt and North Africa, events in front of our eyes like illegal migration, prostitution, and taxi drivers, demonstrations in the North against Turkish troops on the island. Again and again we saw the ability of this work to confound rather than confirm, to surprise and disrupt rather than to settle things. It’s a wildly weird, diverse, and queer world out there, and while illumination, enlightenment, and liberation are always possible, getting to the bottom of things, once and for all, becomes more elusive as each page is turned. Oral sources are the first draft of history, the interview the first draft of biography.

Participants spent the remainder of class interviewing one another, and then reporting to the group about the process. This exercise was in turn raucous, sober, thoughtful, emotional, revealing and concealing. It was also critical as we considered why the interviews went as they did, what questions were initiated and which pursued, how narratives were shaped and why. This could easily lead to a follow-up with a set of questions to drill still deeper.


March 10, 2011


We reviewed short excerpts from interviews done recently for the Cyprus Oral History Project. While short, each provided us many entry points to explore problems and possibilities with this work. Here are some of the questions that fueled our conversation:

Is it advisable to have two interviewers with one interviewee?

How do you become aware of and negotiate issues of power in the relationship?

What are the approaches, from formal to casual, available to interviewers, and how do you make your own style work for you?

How autobiographical can one be?

How important is it to come well-prepared, both technically and in terms of content?

How does one interrupt, or press beyond the surface of a well rehearsed or oft-repeated story, and should one? Is authenticity the point, or is the reason the story is told over and over what’s really interesting?

The most complicated and revelatory discussion was about the complex nature of language: When the interviewer says, “I want to talk about the events around 1974,” that carries enormous significance here. It points to a particular year as pivotal, as having elevated significance, and it locates the interviewer as part of a particular narrative, and distant from other possible narratives. One participant responded, “I’d rather start with 1958 and 1959…” which is quite a different signifier.

So the power of words to frame responses: Turkish coffee/Greek coffee—it’s the same coffee, or is it? Is there not a Cyprus coffee? No! What are we drinking with the coffee, and with our mother’s milk?

What is a refugee, and what an exile? Who are the missing, and who the dead? What is a war of liberation, and what is a catastrophe? What is fighting for freedom, and what is terrorism? Who is an illegal immigrant, who an undocumented worker? Is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?  It depends, and it contains a narrative.

And so we reflected together on “I want to talk about the events around 1974,” and posited alternatives: “I’d like to talk about the modern history of Cyprus, and how we came to where we are now;” “I want to talk with you about the Cyprus issue as you have experienced it;” “I’m interested in your perspective on the Cyprus conflict, the things you or your family has experienced in your lives.”


Sandro Portelli, March 3, 2011

March 6, 2011

I met Alessandro Portelli late in the afternoon in his small office at the University of Rome, up a winding stone staircase from the courtyard and down the narrow hallways through knots of students awaiting classes, lounging on wooden benches and sharing hugs, notes, news of the day. He was finishing an interview with a reporter, and I sat nearby. Sandro Portelli has a round, animated face, twinkling dark eyes and bushy eye-brows, half-glasses perched on his nose. He laughs easily, with a quick boyish smile that makes him look suddenly half his age.

Portelli is professor of American Literature in the Department of Language and Literature in the School of the Humanities, a center of important innovative scholarship and intellectual courage for many years, but clearly occupying no exalted space—if real estate is any indicator— in the larger scheme of things here. He’s best known in the states for The Death of Luigi Trastulli which marked a critical turn in oral history, a turn toward memory, not as an inferior and broken lens on reality, but as significant in its own right.

His shared office is crowded with four desks and eight chairs, and it wants a good cleaning and a fresh coat of paint. But the walls and bulletin boards are bright and busy, bustling with life—political fliers, posters and cartoons, book and album covers, iconic photos of Elvis and Malcolm X. He and his colleagues appear to share a political perspective and a distracted professorial aesthetic. And in the short time we were all together, they expressed a shared belief that the Italian university is quickly becoming a parody of the American: less and less commitment to any serious intellectual project in favor of performing rituals of accreditation and certification, with the bean-counters increasingly in control.

Class was a few steps down the hall, but we managed to be late. Portelli had joked earlier that a professor is someone who thinks a year is nine months and an hour 50 minutes. When we arrived a dozen students—all undergraduates attending an open-admission, tuition-free program—were scattered about the small lecture room, and Portelli took to the lectern.

The class was “Cultural Translation” and the focus this evening was misconceptions in translation, and reading for meaning. He began by reciting the opening line of Huckleberry Finn: “You don’t know about me.” Translate that into Italian. What seemed straight and simple at the start became within five minutes layered with paradoxes, bristling with problems of rhythm and perspective, the meter of common speech, and the contested matters of meaning. The conversation turned to the theme of indefinite or indistinct boundaries, a theme that dominates the whole book, and is introduced right here: there is no thick bright line between knowing and not knowing; you don’t know me, but here goes.

Professor Portelli handed everyone the opening paragraph of Rebecca Harding’s Life in the Iron Mills, originally published in 1861 in the Atlantic Monthly: “A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works? The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable. The air is thick, clammy with the breath of crowded human beings. It stifles me. I open the window, and, looking out, can scarcely see through the rain the grocer’s shop opposite, where a crowd of drunken Irishmen are puffing Lynchburg tobacco in their pipes. I can detect the scent through all the foul smells ranging loose in the air.” Translate that into Italian!

And we did. For more than an hour we unpacked those sentences, wrestled with sound and significance, marveled at the choices Harding made as she artfully rendered a scene of ordinary life and then planted it in our imaginations. Portelli illustrated again and again how inadequate the dictionary is in the complex art and work of translation: scent and smells, clammy, immovable, and muddy—without context and culture the choices, word by word, are baffling. Every word is a signifier that evokes a signified; these are inseparable but distinct qualities, like a sheet of paper with a front and a back. But signifiers are based on convention alone; the signified, on the contrary, is an open space of imagination and meaning-making, huge and varied, filled with possibilities for new creations. To move from signifier (English, say) to signifier (Italian) without entering the critical space of the mind is to distort and mangle, and possibly murder the entire affair.

“When you read, don’t translate,” Professor Portelli told his students. “Just drift along, try to understand, pick up perspectives as you go, but always use your own experiences and your own life to imagine what the author means.” He noted that formal schooling had told these young working-class kids that they don’t know much, and that they should curb their experience and learn the important things here. “This is wrong,” he said. “Your experience and your knowledge are critical starting points for this work.”

“We spent an hour on translation of a single paragraph,” he declared as class ended. “And that seems to you painfully slow and perhaps a bit tedious.” But, he continued, this is an exercise in reading, an approach that is applicable to watching TV or looking at the newspaper or having a conversation with friends. Unleash your imaginations; explore the mental images evoked by words; rely on meaning-making before technique.

Later we were joined by Mariella, an economics professor and his partner of close to 40 years, and they took me for a late dinner at a new restaurant in central Roma recommended by her niece, “an excellent cook.” The food was light and wonderful, the conversation a rushing river tumbling from politics to work to family, spilling its banks and hurrying on.