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.


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