“If we can’t teach history, we’ll make history!”
–the sign of a striking teacher
I have been asking teachers on the picket line how they addressed the strike with their students in the days before it started. A teacher this morning said that the administration had told them that they could teach students about labor history and the concept of strikes, but they couldn’t mention the current strike. This is a good example of the mandated disconnect that puts real learning out of reach in many schools. When we don’t teach the strike, we’re telling students that learning is supposed to be about other people and other times, not about engaging intelligently with the matter of our lives here and now. Your current reality, we tell the students, doesn’t count, doesn’t figure in to what you know, what you can do, what you learn.
I’m sure a lot of teachers are wondering how they’ll teach about the strike when they go back to school. I know hundreds of teachers who incorporate civic learning into their English, Arts, Language, Math, Science, and Social Studies classes. They know that first and foremost students aren’t learning how to parse a sentence or write an equation; first and foremost students are learning how to make sense of their world. Students are learning to look closely, to ask questions, to listen to one another and to speak clearly. Teachers want students to understand the social conditions and historical forces that impact their lives – and to develop creative, healthy, and wise ways of shaping the future. The key text is the student’s own life, and her relation to the larger community. Any day in any neighborhood in Chicago offers plenty of material for civic learning. But a civic learning approach to the strike yields especially potent implications for education for democracy.
I’m particularly interested in what the teachers are modeling for their students by striking. They are stepping outside of the school; they are joining together and supporting one another; they are taking risks; they are analyzing and sharing that analysis in compelling and creative ways. They are striking for and with the students. They are each giving voice to the hundreds of students they work with.
The teachers on the picket lines are also addressing questions that are central to students’ lives:
How do you respond when you’re being threatened? Teachers are modeling civic power: they have talked, argued, thought, decided, and are carrying out their decision. They have sought and found power in community. They are showing students a way of responding to threats, bullying, and disrespect that isn’t violent or fear-based.
What does it mean to work? Strikers make it abundantly clear that work is not just about doing what’s right in front of you, keeping your head down and your nose to the grindstone. It’s certainly not about doing what you’re told. Working must also include putting your head up and looking around and responding to what’s going on.
How do I prepare for the future when things are uncertain? The striking teachers have to take things one day at a time, very literally, and they manage it by keeping track of what’s going on around them, keeping in communication and collaborating. Every moment brings change, but by holding this moment in a bigger frame of the long-range vision, the teachers keep focused, strong, and brimming with the grace and humor that makes life good all around.
When classes resume, the lessons of the strike will live on.