Just Numbers

 Their hope bursts out of a system designed to thwart it.

                                                        –Program Notes, Just Numbers

Darius pokes his head around the corner to make sure the coast is clear.  He holds his breath, all senses on alert.  Is there graffiti warning him of new territorial shifts? Not this morning.  He sprints to the bus, gets on it safely, and can breathe while the bus takes him across the city and drops him off a few blocks away from his school.  He gets off and skirts dangerous territory, passes under an overpass where new tags are going up.  The taggers look at him but don’t follow him.  Darius survives another morning commute.

And gets to school 5 minutes late.  He is sent to the principal, and to detention.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of brains to understand that a child whose commute is anything like this is not in a state to learn.  And that rather than sitting that child in detention, or in a test, or test prep, we adults need to offer healing now and community safety long term.  Once our children are safe, we can turn our attention to education.

Darius’ story is one of six that, along with impressive ensemble poetry, make up Just Numbers, the new Chicago Slam Works play.  Why do adults need to watch other adults performing a play from kids’ perspectives?  Because we aren’t listening to the kids’ voices.  Students are hidden from public view in their schools, in segregated neighborhoods.  But over and over the students in the play remind us: they aren’t blind; they see exactly what’s going on.  They see they are pawns in a game of powerful players whose rhetoric of student achievement masks self-serving economic and political machinations.  Students’ actual lives, interactions, and thoughts are presented against a background of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s speeches on education policy, which sound distant, irrelevant, and offensively glib.

Chicago Public School students are very clear about what they need: safety, health, parents who can be present for them, who are not forced to work multiple jobs, who are not in prison, killed, or deported, and teachers who will not be replaced next year or next week.  And in the classroom: an education that respects students’ intelligence and humanity.

In case white parents in Chicago – half of whose children don’t go to CPS — don’t understand why teachers voted to go on strike next week, this play offers a point-by-point lesson: from the questionable funding, operating, and staffing of charter schools, to the high-stakes testing forced on Black and Brown children.


This is not public education.  Public education means that all children are valued, that people hold accountable the system, its architects and decision-makers, not individual teachers and students.  Many Americans have bought into the education reform emphasis on test scores, but the world’s most successful education system rejects testing — and calls out the testing profiteers.  Finnish education minister Pasi Sahlsberg insists: a successful public education system is based on equity of quality education.  It values informal learning and emphasizes reciprocal trust between students, teachers, parents, and administrators.  “Measuring of what matters in school is difficult, if not impossible. It is character and mind that matter… not being among winners in knowledge tests.”

Public education requires that the voices of people in schools – students, teachers, and parents – are at the center of decision-making about schools, both in the classroom and in the district.  Not bankers, realtors, and politicians.  Let’s act like a public: let’s listen to public school students and teachers, take seriously their stories, their questions, and their ideas, and demand that our leaders stop treating them like “just numbers.”


Borderlands Consciousness

curious jorge at NDSG
I have been living in a language carnival over the past month, with several very different languages rolling through me and around me, as well as new questions about what kind of language gives us access to our inner strengths and to other people.

February began with a visit my Immigration Justice Civic Engagement group made to Heartland Alliance, for a conversation exchange with the ESL students, who hailed from Burma, Iraq, Ethiopia, and many other countries. The people we talked with have refugee status, which entitles them to a few months of services like housing, English classes, and job training. Certainly, it isn’t enough time for people to be able to get their feet on the ground – yet, the fact that these services do still exist speaks to our country’s immigrant-welcoming heritage. But the contrast with immigrants who are not designated refugees is striking. I see people from El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico fleeing violence in their countries not welcomed and stabilized but put in jail and deported.

A painting I saw as I walked into a conference a couple of weeks later pointed to this problematic contradiction. The text on the yellow “Curious Jorge” poster read:

Syria= refugee
Afghanistan= refugee
Latin America = ILLEGAL ALIENS

For generations, this country has sorted immigrants into legal and illegal, deserving and undeserving – contributing to a contradictory relationship to immigration in this country, but also an unhealthy relationship to culture. At this conference I learned about approaches to culture, language, and education that are healthy and generative. “Embracing the borderlands consciousness,” the conference’s keynote speaker Monica Valadez said, “we gain strength.”

The conference was in McAllen, Texas, right on the border with Mexico, and it moved fluidly between English and Spanish. Francisco and Miguel Guajardo and their many colleagues, students, and family members hosted the 3-day event, the annual North Dakota Study Group meeting. Alongside coalition-building to organize against corporate-driven education, the people in the meeting – community organizers, teachers, students, and professors from South Texas and from all over the country – considered the relationship of language and culture, and the informal education associated with plática, which, the Guajardos’ students explained to me, is culturally grounded conversation.

immigration justice art2 ndsg

Plática is learning that begins with one’s own experience, in connection with others, and grows outward from there; it leads to both keen critical analysis and deep cultural affirmation. Whereas much of academic discourse pretends to “objectivity” and disregards the specificity of people’s local, home, and inner experience, plática lives in human bodies and real space. The Guajardos write about plática as a base of their research, teaching, and writing, and learning plática from their parents:

The constant pedagogical tool was the plática, which made sense to us at every level. Plática was performed in language we understood, through an expressive cultural form that felt natural, and in a way that was respectful and affirming. It was a teaching and learning experience that conferred great privilege to our lives, the lives of our children, our students, and our communities (Guajardo & Guajardo 2013, p. 162).

This is language of learning that doesn’t stop at the doors of the school, but that affirms the human beings in home spaces as well as school spaces. The NDSG conference focuses on the power of school-community relationships, and the educators at the conference go out to learn from local community organizations in the same way that my Parker students do for their civic engagement learning. My group visited La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), the local United Farmworkers group founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. LUPE organizes in the colonias of the Rio Grande Valley, in which some 300,000 people live — and where they have to campaign to gain public services like lights, sanitation, and transportation. As LUPE’s sister organization Equal Voices Network emphasizes, organizers “bring the government to the people.” LUPE leaders gave us a handout that included this description of community organizing; it resonated with what I have been coming to understand about language:

Organizing does two central things to seek to rectify the problem of power imbalance – it builds a permanent base of people power so that dominant financial and institutional power can be challenged and held accountable to values of greater social, environmental, and economic justice; and, it transforms individuals and communities, making them mutually respectful co-creators of public life rather than passive objects of decisions made by others. — Mike Miller, Organize Training Center.

Language that is prescribed and controlled by faceless powers prevents people from developing as “co-creators of public life.” So, it’s no wonder that decision makers keep low-income and immigrant children in schools that ignore and devalue their home language, knowledge, and culture. Test-based education, just like English-only policies and de facto school segregation, ensures that the populace will be “passive objects of decisions made by others.” Local, place-based, culturally affirming practices, on the other hand, provides people with space to grow as human beings who see clearly, love fiercely, and act collectively for justice.

Against an Economy of Learning



Dog people in Chicago know that Dog Beach is a space of boundless curiosity, delight in strangers, and freedom.  Usually dogs live their lives bounded by separate houses, yards, streets; their encounters with each other and the world are multiply controlled. At Dog Beach I never see fights; tensions are quickly dissolved in the sand, the flying feet, and in the sheer multiplicity of dogs.

We human companions exult in our dogs’ romping that so pungently expresses our own love of play.   Even when we aren’t partaking of the sniffing, capering, pissing extravaganza, we do loosen up with the other humans on the beach following their dogs around.  We are all offleash.

The dog beach is the best analogy I can find to the mode of learning I saw during my night at the San Francisco Exploratorium last Thursday.  Hundreds of people running around following their noses, their senses, leaving their marks in sand, in light, in sound waves, reeling past crazy mirrors as omnipresent and enticing as the lake here at Chicago’s Dog Beach.  A dazzling display of curiosity.


I had stumbled upon Adult Night at the Exploratorium, which I think much more closely resembles Dog Beach than the usual family experience during the day.  While the Exploratorium specializes in “offleash” play, “Adult play” at the Exploratorium is an especially offleash experience.  True, kids don’t get enough chances to play and explore, but generally they get more than adults.  And adults are cripplingly play-deprived.

For me it was a novelty to be at the Exploratorium without kids in tow, observing, wandering, listening, touching – just taking it all in. I realized how habitually I formulate, distill, analyze, express – focusing on output and not a whole lot on input.

Back in schools, we teachers also habitually concern ourselves with the output of our students; the economy of learning in this country dictates that the value of inputs is measured by output.

Play defies this economy.  Play is input that resists measurable conversion into output.  This doesn’t mean the input just sits there though.  When I look at some of the ripples of the input of my childhood experiences of the Exploratorium, I realize they are actually waves – forceful and generative.  For example, playing with the many different kinds of mirrors in the Exploratorium, the way faces and bodies merge, shift, and multiply, entered into my developing understanding of multiple and overlapping identity.  It drew me to be fascinated by complexity and ambiguity, and attentive to patterns – interests that enable me to keep learning.

Giant Mirror Exhibit at The Exploratorium

There is an extravagance and dignity to the activity of taking in without having to put out right away.  It is vital that people have as much access as possible to exploration that is not constricted by forced output and rigid measurements, whether they be tests for children or evaluations for adults.  Even in places like Chicago, sorely lacking an Exploratorium, we can trust in “offleash” play to help our children — and we adults — grow as human beings.

Questioning action against a background of education reform

At a time when people from outside of public schools are deciding what public education is and will be, in our cities, we teachers in private schools hesitate to speak up.  We don’t want to be making pronouncements about good education without knowing what it’s like to teach in high-poverty neighborhood schools.  At the same time, we know we can’t silently ignore the fact that our public school colleagues are under pressures that seem to be worsening year by year.  So, how do we respond to the assault on public education?

Recently I have been a part of groups of private school teachers from all over Chicago and all over the country who are asking these questions.

Their responses are strikingly different from those of the education reformers who are making changes from outside of the public schools.  The reformers are fixated on taking action at all costs.  They talk a lot about “fixing the broken education system,” and implement measures that they think will do so.   If they ever ask themselves if they know what they’re doing, they give no sign of it.

The private school teachers, on the other hand, are full of questions – of themselves as much as of the world around them.  As education leaders of the best schools in the country, they know to ask themselves often whether they know what they’re doing — and how they know if they know what they’re doing.  Self-examination is indispensable for good education, whether you are a teacher or a student or an administrator.

Education is about questions, uncertainty, doubt. It is about listening and looking and thinking and changing your thinking.

Sometimes education is about action too – but not apart from ongoing inquiry.  I call this activation: the inner change that shapes the outer work.  Education reform that is all action and no inner work betrays the very essence of education.

My colleagues are very aware that they don’t know enough to be able to advocate for a particular course of action.  Two separate groups of educators I met in the past two weeks determined that being in solidarity with the public schools meant they need to learn a lot more about what is going on in and around them.  To do so, they need to find ways to be in dialogue with people in public schools.

Where is this dialogue happening?

One of the consequences of recent education reform actions is that my public school colleagues, at least in Chicago, are increasingly unavailable for dialogue.  The pressures of increasing standardization and teacher evaluation, in addition to other destabilizing factors — from poverty and violence to the effects of school closing and massive staff cuts — are taking a huge toll on teachers and students.

These are not good conditions for dialogue.  In one of our recent progressive educators’ meeting, one teacher asked why our public school colleagues hadn’t come.  Another teacher said, “why would we expect them to come to our meetings?  We should be showing up where they are instead.”  Our inquiry, then, starts with relocating ourselves.

We in the independent schools don’t yet know how to be in solidarity with public schools.  But we have a better sense of the questions we need to ask, and where we need to ask them.


“All my life I’ve been tracked.  I’ve been told you need to leave your community to be successful.  Now I know that’s BS. My message is not that I’m intelligent but that we are intelligent. Because our collective knowledge and abilities are more powerful than that of any individual. And that’s powerful, so measure that!”  The Curriculum Director walks back down the aisle to the cheers of the students.  Administrators and teachers are sharing their stories of academic struggles and achievements, especially surrounding the stress of the ACT test, which some of the students will be taking next week.  Each story ends with words that claim intelligence and power.  Another teacher speaks into the mic, “I’m intelligent because I’m honest, thoughtful: a reflective person who believes everybody in my community deserves quality education. That’s powerful, so measure that!”

In this special assembly, the Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy faculty are educating students as “Counter-Narrators,” and, like all the curriculum at this alternative public school, this lesson is liberatory.   This is a school that educates students who didn’t fit or weren’t accepted in the traditional school system, and who also mostly come from low-income, immigrant families.  The faculty has collaboratively developed a Praxis model of curriculum design, based in Paulo Freire’s work on liberatory education, to deeply engage the strengths and challenges of the community.

So, no lessons fit within the boundaries of one single discipline; rather, all learning directly relates to students’ lives and connects their experiences to a larger social analysis.  And it addresses one of the several competencies that all curriculum is driven by.  The competency this assembly addresses is Voice vs. Intimidation* – and the contrast with the kinds of knowledge and skills that standardized tests measure is crystal-clear.  “By claiming your intelligence,” the Principal tells the students, “you are manifesting what will happen for you.” 

Students then come to the mic and share their test-taking stories, and related challenges.  One student shares, “I am intelligent because I am never ashamed to see errors in my reasoning.  That’s powerful, so measure that!” Another says, “I am intelligent because I have the ability to adapt and adjust to my environment. I practice the virtue of humility; I accept feedback and learn from it, even if it’s negative. And that’s powerful, so measure that!”  Each voice I hear makes me wonder again, “well, how would you measure that?” And shouldn’t students’ education be based on supporting them in the strengths they identify and care about, rather than information dictated by people from outside their community, that is irrelevant to their lives?

I learned about the school’s “Counter Narrators” campaign at an event a few months ago, a forum on the problem of over-testing in Chicago.  At that time, Alejandra Frausto, the Curriculum Director of RLLA, held up the t-shirt the students designed.  On the front, it said, “Counter Narrator,” on the back was an Einstein quote: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything is counted that counts.”  Alejandra spoke about the multiple meanings of “counter narrators” – through this campaign, the students are telling a different story about themselves and their community.  The students are transforming the story that casts them as dropouts and gangbangers and claiming their creative agency, deeply rooted in community values and support. But their “Counter Narrators” campaign is also drawing attention to the opposing senses of “counting” as a numerical operation and “counting” as what matters. 

The community counts, critical consciousness counts, solidarity counts. So, when confronted by the mandate that they assign the ACT test, the school community takes this emblem of individual competition and success that contradicts their values, and they transform it.  They surround the test-takers with the love and wisdom of the community.  They put the test in the context of the narratives and counter-narratives they study and act on.  As Alejandra explains, “the students take the exam, but they are very critical about what’s happening.” 

The students at Rudy Lozano know what counts, and they know how to counter intimidation – the kind they experience on the street, and the kind they confront within themselves.  And that’s powerful, so measure that


* RLLA Voice vs. Intimidation Competency:

         Manifest a “voice” that articulates one’s place and that of others simultaneously for justice in the world

         Communicate effectively with the world

“’Bad teacher?’ We don’t know this word.”

I am on an education tour in Russia, Finland, and Sweden and will write a few posts along the way.  Today was my first day in Finland.

I spent the morning with Linna Eeva-Kaisa, a Senior Advisor in the Finnish National Board of Education.   As she was talking about teacher professional development, I asked if they hear the terms “bad teacher” vs. “good teacher” in Finland.  She got a horrified look on her face.  “We don’t know this term,” she said.  “That would be humiliating for teachers!  We don’t evaluate teachers, we respect teachers.  Of course we have teachers who haven’t yet gained command of their subject matter or method and we support them.” 

Eeva-Kaisa emphasized that trust is at the center of education in Finland.  “Trust is embedded in the system.  It’s a chain of trust that filters down at every level.”  She said that a group of Israeli educators visiting Finland asked her “how do you teach trust?”  You don’t teach it, she explained, you share in it – in Finnish schools everyone can trust that they will be respected. 

A few elements of this trust that struck me (and that contrast with much of what happens in schools in the U.S.):

*Continuity – they call it evolution: no dramatic changes, but careful, consensus-based improvement.  Eeva-Kaisa asked, “when you have change, who benefits? Who benefits? It’s only those who have the power, not people in general.”  And nothing in the education system changes with changes in government.

*Assessments are teacher-developed for their own classes and the assessment data is used in classroom instruction.  ”We abolished inspections: people don’t work well when they feel someone’s always looking over their shoulder.”

*People in Finland want to be teachers because it is an independent job; you have autonomy and respect.

To hear a government minister speaking in truly educational terms about education is stirring.  A key part of these educational terms is the notion of humility.  More on that in the next post.

Teaching Stepping Up

Implicit in the recent testing boycott of Seattle teachers is the understanding that the work of educators goes beyond delivering content in the classroom.  Teachers owe it to their students to take a stand when opportunities for learning are obstructed.  Seattle teachers emphasize that taking a stand is in itself educational:

When someone asked the teachers if they were worried about what lessons students might take away from their collective defiance of the district, Mario Shauvette, chairman of the math department, stepped forward. “I’m teaching by example,” he said. “If I don’t step up now, who will? I’m taking charge of what I do here.”

One of the many problems with standardized testing is that people who are strangers to the lives, concerns, and knowledge of students are making the decisions about what constitutes important information for students.  Thus, students of the 21st Century are hostage to an anachronistic notion that there is a set body of information and skills that must be assimilated — even it is based in the values and concerns of previous generations that may or may not still apply today.

As more and more teachers – and students, and parents – step up in defense of a meaningful education, they will provide the terms that policy makers need to learn if they want to be taken seriously.

When teachers step up, usually it is by the side of their students.  In a recent teacher education class, one of my students observed a school board meeting.  Her reflections are illuminating:

I witnessed firsthand how much being a good teacher should extend outside the classroom. More than just planning and teaching lessons, it’s about being an advocate for your students, acknowledging their achievements, trying to improve the structure of the school and curricula, and encouraging them to use their voice in their education. Many of the students in the audience were there for the first item of the agenda: awards. The school board recognized the winners and finalists of National Merit Scholarships, National Achievement Honors, and National Hispanic Scholars by having their own teachers give personalized speeches. However, those same teachers who presented awards at the beginning of the meeting, along with others, spoke out in favor of the proposed change in the structure of the freshman year. As one teacher read aloud their letter to the administration, a group of at least ten teachers stood behind her in silent support. Other teachers attended as sponsors for the school’s new MSAN (Minority Student Achievement Network) club, who spoke for themselves about how they wanted to help combat the achievement gap in their district.

In the same space and at the same event, at one moment the teachers are representing the school, at the next moment they are challenging its policies.  What remains consistent is their focus on the conditions for student learning.  This scene is one of thousands happening every day, where teachers draw attention to the frame of their work.  They model for students a metacognitive stance as they consider and organize around the conditions of learning.

Finally, the scene that had the greatest effect on me occurred [when a] board member demanded that the Principal “control [his] staff!”  Every teacher (the majority of the audience) walked out of the meeting in protest against the implication that they had less of a right to speak than or should be kept under control by authority.

Through their words and their silence and their bodies, the teachers at this school board meeting expressed a small slice of the vast range of response teachers use in their work to stand up for their students and to sustain one another.  How will this work be measured?  Perhaps by the changes in education policies that will swell and spread as teachers continue to step up.