“We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. So any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible-and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people must be prepared to ‘go for broke.’”
— James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers“
In the summer of 1964, as part of the fight against voter disenfranchisement and school segregation in Mississippi, CORE, SNCC, and the NAACP established Freedom Schools. These schools provided students an education in Black history as well as served as organizing hubs for voting rights. This was dangerous work. The KKK and others threatened and shot at organizers and bombed homes and churches. And yet the Freedom School educators persisted.
In the 1980s, Nicaragua undertook an effort to revolutionize their public education system. Prior to the revolution in 1979, illiteracy was the norm, and their education system was in a dismal state. In order to transform their country’s education system, they empowered “popular educators”, to ensure that everyone, including rural and poor citizens would have access to education. As a hallmark project of the communist Sandinista government, popular education was a target of the U.S. backed contras, and so popular educators were among the hundreds of civilians murdered by the contras. In spite of this violence, popular educators persisted.
On August 12, 2017, white nationalists marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. One person, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, lost their life. Deandre Harris, a 20-year-old Black man was beaten by a gang of white supremacist thugs. A community of Jewish worshippers was forced to leave through the back door of their synagogue, taking their Torah scrolls with them. Three days later, Donald Trump declared, “I think there is blame on both sides.”
White supremacist violence is not new to the United States of America, but it is hard not to feel that we are living in disturbing times. The question is, how will educators respond? Given what’s at stake, and given what educators in the past have been willing to risk, can we afford not to “go for broke”?
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As long as I have been a teacher, I have tried to make my classroom a space for reshaping the future. I want my classroom to be a space where my Black and brown students learn about their history and feel empowered to use their minds and voices for positive change in the world. But I do not think I have yet “gone for broke.”
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what that entails. But I know that I cannot justify doing anything less. For starters, in means taking full responsibility for making sure all my students get what they need to be successful in school. If I have students who require extra services, I need to demand they receive them. And this year I cannot allow any of my students to remain flat in reading or math, nor can I accept any excuses if they do.
Next, I need to push myself to have honest, difficult conversations with my colleagues. That might mean pushing back against co-workers to insist on using valuable instructional time on test prep or “drill and kill” strategies. Or it might be working to interrogate the biases of co-workers who insist our students aren’t capable of the same learning as white kids in Westchester County or Staten Island.
Thirdly, I need to continue to unpack my own biases and assumptions. I have to identify the ways my biases are hindering my teaching. Then I must work to liberate my practice from them.
As I enter my ninth year teaching, I know these are just baby steps. And when I compare them to the sacrifices of the Freedom School educators and the popular educators, I feel a bit ashamed. Still, I know that I have to start somewhere, and I must approach even these small goals with a sense of life-or-death urgency.
The Freedom School educators of Mississippi and the popular educators of Nicaragua were willing to give their lives for the freedom of their students. We, the educators of the United States in 2017 may not need to risk our lives, but we need to be willing to risk something. The alternative is a society that continues to devalue people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and people who worship faiths other than Christianity.
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So what will you risk this year? Maybe it’s risking something as simple as your own comfort, by starting a difficult conversation with a colleague or principal. At the very least, we must commit ourselves to creating classrooms that honor and love all our students. Whatever ideas come to your mind, please share them in the comments. Our students are depending on us to take a real risk this year. So, let us make this school year the year we teachers truly “go for broke”.
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