Wednesday, October 23, 2013
A Letter to Jean Anyon
This is a letter in dialogue with and memory of Jean Anyon, whose students opened a "letters to Jean" blog in her memory last month.
I first read Radical Possibilities about seven years ago when I was teaching kindergarten at a public school in a large urban district. I have been rereading the same copy this week and found a bit of marginalia on the first page of chapter one: "Okay, schools are part of that [the proactive role of the federal government in maintaining poverty]. So do I subvert from the inside? Is that the only way? How long can I maintain?"
The question remains for me today, especially knowing that I taught in the public school classroom for only another year and a half after I wrote that note to myself. I wonder about the toll and possibility for teachers when the work of teaching feels and materially exists as so isolating and individual. I think that your message in Radical Possibilities for collectivity and public discourse are crucial to social change and it has left me wondering about the interplay between the narratives of teaching that are "on the airwaves" right now. I wonder about how to remake the idea of what teaching is to include an activist agenda.
Last week Steve Forbes wrote in his op-ed piece in the LA Times about the "heroic effort of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker" to diminish labor union rights. The article is titled, "Trampling the Rights of Teachers," and spins the unions as separate from and not supported by teachers. This is certainly the story of teacher unions I have long heard in the south. Here in North Carolina, a right to work [for less] state, the idea of collective action seems distant. And yet in other parts of the country labor union issues are alive. I am imagining that if the labor movement was really as dead as it sometimes appears, there would be no Steve Forbes articles hyping up anti-labor.
Just over a year ago the Chicago Teachers Union massive striking made the deal for a contract with pay raises and continued honoring of higher degrees and years of experience (and concessions for portions of teachers' evaluation to weigh student test scores per state law).
In the face of the current cuts to teacher pay in North Carolina, how is Chicago an image of possibility for teachers here? I wonder without labor unions what power is possible in our Moral Monday protests?
At the end of the Chicago strike Mayor Rahm Emmanuel said, "“This settlement is an honest compromise. It means returning our schools to their primary purpose: the education of our children.” I wonder about the mayor's purpose of schooling as separate from the action on the streets. In Service and Solidarity, John Trimbur names the need for seeing schools as sites of labor rather than places to get "ready" for work. Schools are already deeply entrenched in issues of work and workers and this is a source of learning and engagement in the authentic context of social struggle for teachers and their students. I wonder how we might name new counter narratives for the purposes of schooling.
In an article in International Socialist Review David Harvey says that to create social change we have to appropriate or create social institutions for the purpose of change with the idea in mind that these institutions can become the organs of a different social organization. What are the possibilities for appropriating or reclaiming spaces and time chunks inside schools and re-narrating these as sites of collective action? Teachers meetings? The teachers lounge? Three minute walk throughs? Peer observations? Parent-teacher conferences? Advisory committees? Teacher preparation?
In imagining what this could look like, I'll take on the last one for a moment. There was an article in Sunday's New York Times, "An Industry of Mediocrity" in critique of teacher preparation programs. It seems university teacher's colleges are another place in danger of private takeover and one that like the public schools could be a site for social action. The article calls for more rigor, higher standards for program entrance and training in entrepreneurial charter schools not college classrooms. These are interesting demands for pre-service teachers in states like North Carolina whose pay is being cut and where there are no pay increases associated with further university scholarship. So I wonder, rather than more "rigor," what if teacher preparation engaged students in understanding labor rights, community organizing and macroeconomics? What if Chicago CTU Local 1's 2012 striking was an image of possibility for teaching and learning? What if pre-service teachers found and considered together a history of teacher activism and engaged together in the kinds of critical literacy work that their students and no doubt they themselves if they become public school teachers will need.
Jean, your work has shown me images of (radical) possibility for social change in schools. And these beginning images seem to fodder more images, like that of Chicago. Since this counter story has come into my frame of reference, I can name it more easily as part of the work of teaching and learning. The stories are out there. I see one role for me as a literacy teacher and teacher advocate is to collect and share these stories and name them as teaching and use them as mentors to my own teaching practices. I am left wondering, though about my old question about sustainability. And maybe critical pedagogy's answer is that this struggle must continue resurfacing over and over, with no utopian ending available. Maybe another answer is in a shift in the question from how long can I maintain to how long can the social protest maintain? To focus on my own role and primacy is probably to continue the thread of teacher martyrdom. I wonder about striking the balance then, between an important focus on people, their lives and experiences and the systematic and collective-bound story necessary to unwind the grasp of individualism, private ownership and surplus value.