Recently, I attend a meeting of the Austin Social Justice Teachers Inquiry Group, during which we talked about… politics. A scary word in a school. Big “P” Politics referred to ways teachers can be involved politically beyond the walls of their classroom; little “p” politics meant bringing current events and social justice into lessons and activities.
One concern that always comes up when talking to other teachers about bringing social justice to their classrooms is, “I don’t want to lose my job.” I’ve invited fellow teachers to rallies, meetings, and protests; I’ve shared resources discussing issues ranging from immigration to racial profiling to standardized testing. Too often I get rebuffed with the question, “Am I allowed to that?” In this post, I want to give on example of how I’ve incorporated little “p” politics in my classroom, as well as the experiences of another fellow teacher.
Right now, my 8th graders are working on persuasive writing. I found about 15 texts for them to use as anchor texts, discussing different political issues (i.e. immigration reform and the school-to-prison pipeline). I also included articles about standardized testing, homework, school uniforms, and school lunches — issues less social justice focused but more salient in my students’ lives. We analyzed the essays and decided which arguments were the most effective and why. We compared two different sides of one issue and tried to figure out which one we most agreed with.
We’ve spent some time discussing how writing an essay isn’t necessarily going to be the most effective strategy; it’s great to learn persuasive techniques but how we need to know different ways people can make change happen. Our list included speeches, videos, rallies, boycotts, protests, petitions, and sit-ins. We talked about Cesar Chavez, and how if there had been only one farm-worker standing up, s/he probably would have been fired and forgotten about — to make change, you need a lot of support.
In class today, the students were especially riled up about their uniforms (surprise — they hate them). They were pretty discouraged about being able to change this, as the uniform policy applies to all of the schools in our system. What was I supposed to tell them — you’re right, you have absolutely no power, you can’t change your circumstances? Obviously… I told them they had the power to change anything they wanted, if they were organized and had a good strategy.
They asked me if they could boycott the uniforms for a day, if they could organize the rest of the 8th graders to sign a petition asking to have more free dress days, and then all show up to school one day without their uniforms. “Will we get in trouble?” someone asked. “Well, they can’t suspend all of us,” someone replied.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud.
The next period, I printed off some articles advocating against school uniforms and other examples of student organizing that has been successful — students in California boycotting their school lunches, for example. I very carefully explained to the students that I wasn’t giving them permission to be out of uniform or officially endorsing any of their actions. They understood: “Don’t worry, Ms. Lane. We won’t tell you anything else, so you don’t know what’s going on. This is our thing.”
While this is happening, I can’t help but think of one woman at the ASJTIG meeting, a veteran teacher from San Marcos, and the assignment she gave her 4th graders. They discussed the issue of the City Council controlling a particular riverfront tract of land — should it be made into a park? or should the city build apartments to bring in more revenue? The 4th graders almost unanimously decided they wanted a park. Since they were studying persuasive writing, the teacher had them write letters to the mayor, asking for the park. When the mayor received the letters — which were against the policy he’d already decided on — he contacted this teacher’s principal to complain that she was using her classroom to push students towards a particular political position. The teacher was reprimanded by her principal, and warned about doing this kind of thing in the classroom again.
Yes, there is risk involved. But I would argue that this is so urgent, it is worth the risk. Those students in San Marcos got a real-life lesson about the nature of our democracy, and the power of collective voices to bring attention to their concerns. We must teach students academic skills, but we must also teach them how to apply those skills in a real way — not just for the sake of getting an A or passing a standardized test. Teachers can turn complaints into campaigns, by planting seeds of possibility. Students often feel so disempowered, disengaged from their schools — like they have no control over their classrooms, their family lives, their society. We should not only be discussing issues they care about, and taking them seriously, but helping them speak truth to power by amplifying their voices and concerns.
Maybe I’m a little reckless when it comes to bringing the world into my classroom. Maybe we should just talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta — not expect our students to model their lives around activism and social justice. But it’s not about bringing my politics into their lives — it’s about allowing them to discuss the politics they see in their own lives. This is not me guiding my students to see my side of the issue, but helping them to articulate their deeply held beliefs, to communicate their opinions and feelings effectively — and act upon their beliefs, to successfully bring change to their communities.
So: today it’s 8th graders and school uniforms. Tomorrow… who knows. The possibilities are endless.
*Originally published on January 29, 2013 at Cooperative Catalyst.