I came out of the Progressive Education Network Conference last weekend with some questions about the people and the relationships in schools.  It is a common thing to hear in the progressive ed circles “we teach people, not subjects,” in distinction to the prevailing focus on knowledge acquisition and skills (and, correspondingly, evaluation of teachers and of students) in schools.  Here are some moments that stood out for me.

Francisco Guajardo told a story about walking down the street of their town with his father and his father drawing himself up respectfully to introduce him to “the most important person in this town:” the teacher.  And his career stemming out of that moment of trying to make sense of the contradiction between the respect for teachers that was etched into him at such an early age and the devaluation of teachers he saw throughout his life.

This was part of a panel discussion, which, when opened up to audience participation, turned to the matter of privilege — how to teach our kids about their privilege.  If it makes them uncomfortable/alienates them/shuts them down, is that something to avoid, be very careful of? or confront/engage? Francisco went from talking about his father to talking about his son: My 10 year old didn’t want to take the test, so we got the law changed.  I talk to my son about his privilege.  These are important conversations to have with your children.  An audience member said: but I am a parent who doesn’t know how to have these conversations with their children.  Can’t the school help us with this?

I was sitting in the back of the auditorium with the only high school students who came to this part of the conference: Gage Park HS students, who had woken at 5 to get to this conference on their day off school.  They wanted to spend their day at this education conference.  I asked them what did they think of it?  Robin was outraged at the imbalance of power she saw in Francisco’s story.  “He just picks up the phone and makes a call and gets the law changed.” I argued that it wasn’t that simple — Francisco also talked about what a struggle it is to get laws changed. But I agree with them in the sense that we know he has the resources to keep on fighting.

Expressing some frustration with all the talking and little signs of action, the students kept emphasizing how “we all need to come together.” I asked, why aren’t people coming together? “They don’t know what it’s like for us.”  Why don’t they? Why are people so isolated from each other?  What would it take to come together?  I came away from the conference feeling that the only way “coming together” is really going to happen is under students’ leadership.

Xian and I organized a workshop at the conference to tap into precisely this perspective.   Entitled “social justice education by youth, not at youth,” we wanted to create space for exploring how youth allies can build platforms for students’ voices and actions.  The workshop itself — which Xian and I struggled to organize in such a way to keep the Gage Park and Francis Parker students participating front and center, even though they hadn’t had as much opportunity to prepare — was one such platform.  In the workshop, students stressed the importance of their leadership in getting parents involved in struggles for quality education in schools.  Markeith said, “we have to show that we’re serious about our education, our abilities, and our will.  So we have to take the lead.”  One of the things Markeith was suggesting here was that leadership both emerges from and lends itself to power that you earn.  Which is perhaps the counterforce to unearned privilege, the specter of which haunted this conference at one of the wealthiest schools in the city.

The Parker students and the Gage Park students communicated the expectation of themselves and their peers that they would engage in the struggle for earned power.  By doing so, they illuminated a foundation for education for social justice that crosses generational, neighborhood, class, and race lines.


“To be engaged learners, students need their teachers to be engaged learners.”

On Tuesday night, a group of classroom teachers and community educators launched an inquiry series to explore the connections between our work.  Joan pulled threads, which are posted on our ning site and below.  I’ll re-post my response below also, and will continue to incorporate reflections coming out of the series in this blog.



November 1, 2011


There were a mix of recollections – from childhood and adulthood, as a student and as an educator. What all of them had in common was a layering and depth of experience, that allowed us or our students to see ourselves in a new way that opened possibilities, changed our expectations and understandings of ourselves and the world. Something important changed because of this experience.

A number of the experiences were over time; a few were one time. They all seemed to live on into the present for us, in who we are and the underlying purposes of work we do and the way we choose to live in the world.

Many of our stories were tied to the land, a sense of place, an understanding of the natural and human history of a place.  For some of us this place was local, around Chicago or in it. The idea that history is not just in the past, but we can go to a place a connect with the history. We can study and come to know the human connection to space experientially (helping to build an Indian village over time using the original tools while learning from elders the way to be in the space; finding a piece of flint that had been used by native dwellers to make arrowheads and learning how to make them now; researching laws about living on the river, standing in Grant Park hearing stories from the ’68 Convention; seeing artifacts in the Chicago History Museum that were connected to you because you had studied the Fort Dearborn Battle as a character who had been there.)  There was an underlying sense of reverence, seeking deep roots and seeking knowledge, seeing the ecological systems, and a link toward present commitments to working around issues of environmental and human capacity, possibility and justice.

Some stories spoke to “opening glass doors” which took some significant risk, work, commitment, time, and always at least one other person, often supported by a program, creating an experience, to open the door – both ways – so we discovered a passion and saw something new in ourselves, new possible paths in the future (going to college, being an artist, “belonging” in the Planetarium as a person who knew a thing or two about space, seeing a way to create experiences for children that would connect them with history, human suffering, and being a part of the ‘arc toward justice.’ )

Sometimes these experiences took place because we were seeking something (deeper roots, meaning in our work, what it feels like to be a minority) or saw something unfair (some people get to live right on the river, some historical figures have artifacts in the museum and some don’t, a person left this place because she saw me, a white person, here). Sometimes they happened to us and opened our eyes and hearts to new connections, and new worlds (the world of art beginning with tissue paper, wire, and encouraging questions from a new adult about what this person created.) Questions, our own and others, were central to many of our stories in opening things up or carrying them forward: a sign of interest in us and our work, as a way to see injustice and begin to work toward more justice, a way to connect or to share a personal passion which became one of ours, and created a group of people who shared and carried forward this passion.

Our words and phrases about engaged learning at the end of our meeting harkened back to the stories: field trips! Collaboration. Teachers as engaged learners. Sense of place. Resonance. relevance. connection. grounding in place and people. sanctity and reverence. expanding the boxes. wholeness. inclusiveness. community connections. multi-voiced.

I hope others of you will add the threads you heard and felt…

and here’s my response:

Why didn’t we do this in school???  I was struck by the theme of knowledge, practices, approaches that are meaningful to me NOT included in classroom learning for many of us.

I was also struck by the frequent references to “outside” — whether that be physically outdoors or something different from the routine, expectations, norms that usually bound us.  Nature, outdoors, were described as spaces of release, risk, resistance to bounds, requirements, conventions.  POSSIBILITY.

What came out of the evening’s process for me was a strong sense of us (learners, teachers) as wild things.  How we sought out forests and open spaces, whether they were empty lots down the street or materials that invited new parts of ourselves to emerge and create.  These inviting wildernesses had their corollaries within us: a key question, a demand that we adjust our way of being to be part of a larger consciousness.  These adjustments were polar opposites, though, to the behavioral and mental norms of school life, which for some of us reduced rather than expanded our sense of being.