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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

A Call To Action

Recently I saw a series of tweets sharing this link: In Defense of Public School Teachers in a Time of Crisis – Henry Giroux. The interesting thing to me is that it was written 15 days ago–what took it so long to become a RT by so many?

The writer is all over democratic schools and classrooms–much of what we’ve been talking about here and much more eloquently than I have been.  So in looking at this week’s question, “How do we act as catalysts of change within our present circumstances?”  I’d love it if you’d stop reading here, go read the post, then come back and engage.

The phrases that jumped out at me included:

  • Social engagement…collective responsibility…

We are the world. Our behaviors and actions do affect who we are as an individual and who we are as a society. Without supporting our students to be thinking activists, we do ourselves, our communities and our future a disservice.

  • Culture of questioning necessary for students to participate in critical dialogue

Do we really want our students to question, to think, to dialogue about deep, heavy topics that challenge us all to examine who we are, what we believe and that also ask us to take a stance and espouse our own beliefs?  Is that something we signed on for when we decided to become teachers?

  • Question authority

Are we ready to encourage our students to do that? What happens when they do?  Can we teach them to do so respectfully and hw do they know when it is appropriate and when it is not? IS it ever not appropriate? We certainly need to find a balance between setting up our kids to question authority and following basic rules that govern the simple workings of our classrooms and schools.

  • Active citizens in the Global Public Spheres

Are our parents, administrators and  peers ready for that?  Our kids certainly are!

  • Embrace the specificity and diversity of children’s lives;

Do we honor differences or attempt to  meld them to the mainstream?

  • Embrace a vision of democratic possibility:

Do we even discuss democratic possibilities with our students?  If not, we simply must begin including those in our current event conversations–in our daily talks, giving students the experiences to help them develop clarity of their own thoughts about democratic actions.

  • Do we give our students hope and belief that civic life matters, that they can make a difference in shaping society? Do they have a voice in our rooms, in our schools? Do we involve them in our budget battles, our goal setting, our school running in any ways that matter?
  • About imagining a more just future...

THAT’S WHY I BECAME A TEACHER–to help our future leaders envision a better world.

  • Do we, on a daily basis, talk with our students about “the interface of private considerations and public issues” in ways that support their thinking about those as they go about the rest of their day?
  • “Teachers represent a valued resource and are one of the few groups left that can educate students in ways that enable them to resist the collective insanity that now threatens this country.”

Sound familiar, Adam? You referenced the collective insanity in one of your posts–the insanity where we are killing our resources, our world, our environment.  We simply MUST educate students to be caring, responsible stewards of our world.

  • teachers should be viewed as engaged intellectuals, willing to construct the classroom conditions that provide the knowledge, skills and culture of questioning necessary for students to participate in critical dialogue with the past, question authority, struggle with ongoing relations of power and prepare themselves for what it means to be active and engaged citizens in the interrelated local, national and global public spheres.”

For me, this is probably one of the most powerful sentences in the whole post.  Allowing students to give voice to questions that challenge the status quo, that build and sustain a “culture of questioning” is critical to helping them be engaged intellectuals themselves.

  • A safe space where reason, understanding, dialogue and critical engagement are available to all faculty and students.

This is a description of Thomas Jefferson’s academical villages–where professors and students met in the pavilion gardens in the evening to discuss the matters of the world, the matters of the heart. .  and how different are those matters? Do we talk with parents about how they can support us as we work with their child to think critically about the democratic underpinnings of their interactions with society? Do we council parents to scaffold their child being able to make informed and responsible choices about their actions? Do we give students opportunities to make choices in our classrooms and our schools?

  • Socially responsible agent

Do they get any practice in their world of school to be socially responsible? to be activists?  to act on their beliefs?

  • Do we ask our students to “liberate humanity from the blind obedience to authority” or do we model expecting them to jump when we say jump and then ask how high?

  • Public schools as laboratories of democracy

Are our public schools laboratories of anything?  If so, what, and what do we believe they should be laboratories of?

I absolutely would love to work in a  school where teachers considered it a laboratory of democracy. I would love to work in a school where teachers gave kids some choice in the classrooms–even if it was just of of projects, of seating, or even of group members.  So, how can I act as a catalyst for change in my present circumstances?

I can model things I’d like to see in other rooms as well. . .so I let my kids sit with whomever they want, wherever they want when they come in my room.  I do have rules about that–make wise choices, or I’ll have to make them for you.  (In other words, dont cause a disturbance, or I’ll ask you not to sit there.) And, because part of what I want is for kids to undersand about LOTS of other kids and not become clique-ish, the rules in my room about sitting are

1.  No single gender tables.  We need to get to know each other.

2. No sitting at the same table more than 3 out of 5 days a week.

3. Aim to sit with someone you haven’t sat with this week by Thursday or Friday.

I’d love to feel my school is a safe space where reason, understanding, dialogue and critical engagement are available to all faculty and students. So, in my room, I don’t tolerate teasing or put downs.  I don’t allow bullying. We talk openly about supporting one another.  I push kids to teach other kids and NOT look to me as the expert. I ask kids the hard questions and let them ask me hard ones, too.  I talk openly with them about social code-switching, and the need to understand various rules in various places. (The thing I find hardest is that kids handle hard question better than most adults.)

I work hard to work with adults in ways that impact upon their hearts. That often means I begin a conversation (where I intend to push) with a story–about me in a hard place, or a kid who’s having troubles and I work to get the other person in a sympathetic, connected mood before asking a hard question or making what I think might be a controversial suggestion.

Do I always succeed in helping people move toward more democratic practices?  No. . . but I try. And for me, that counts.

So, here’s MY Cooperative Catalyst pledge: As a caring adult, I am committed to facilitating a positive and rich learning environment, where the negative and unnecessary wounds traditionally inflicted by schools, will not have a place. I will build a culture that honors, listens to, nurtures, and empowers all learners. I will not tolerate events, actions or words that cause any student to think or feel that they are stupid or worthless. I will create a haven where students feel free to explore new areas and thoughts, take risks, and stay connected to the inherent joy of learning. I will not employ methods which replace this intrinsic motivation with external gauges such as praise, gold stars, or grades. And while I sign this pledge with all good intentions, I will utilize the tools, awareness, and network of peers that I have to ensure that I stay true.

And, I’d like to add David Loitz’ words as well:

Ideals are not weapons, but we must stand up for them. We should not put down other efforts to change the world, if they don’t match ours, but instead seek to share a space for thinking and caring and ultimately a education that helps to move the human race closer and closer to truth and well being.

I pledge as a educator, a learner, an advocate of children, as a dreamer and lover of life.
I pledge that I will look to the past for ideas, but will seek to create new answers for old problems. I pledge that learning does not happen just in schools or is merely a preparation for life but is the act and art of living.

I pledge to thank all the teachers in my life from the mentors of my youth to the new buds that grow on the trees every spring. I will seek stories and wisdom from creative imaginative people young and old.

I pledge to do and be.

Thanks, David, for sharing on our pledge page.  🙂

Readers–will you join our pledge or make your own to be a catalyst for change?

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


10 thoughts on “A Call To Action

  1. Wow, Paula, what a great powerhouse post! I can’t possibly take it all in now. I will be commenting throughout the week as I come back to it.

    Thanks for the shout out! “Sound familiar, Adam? You referenced the collective insanity in one of your posts–the insanity where we are killing our resources, our world, our environment. We simply MUST educate students to be caring, responsible stewards of our world.”

    I would like to add we are not only killing the planet, but each other, while enslaving our grandchildren in debt for the advancement of a very small percent of the population! I won’t go on, but let me tell you the insanity is mor pervasive than I think any one of us wants to acknowledge!

    As always you come through with some great examples of how you do this work in your classroom. I, too, have practices to make sure students are getting mixed up to interact with others outside of their most intimate friends. We acknowledge first of all that having close friends is important and okay, but that we much be aware of how we may be intentionally or unintentionally exclusive. We then discuss strategies and role play to ensure we have the tools and awareness to do otherwise. We have appreciate circles where who we will give feedback to is chosen at random, and those are always beautiful experiences.

    More later…thanks again for the fantastic start to this week’s conversation.

    All the best,

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 26, 2010, 5:14 pm
  2. Great way to begin the week, Paula – thank you for your questions, practice, and the Giroux article – excellent read. The questions about student opportunities for activism and the point about teachers’ collective responsibility have stuck with me and started my Thursday post.

    Your description of the Academical Village and the weather of late have me pining for some kind of open-air-conversion classroom with roll-up garage doors replacing one wall and walk out patios surrounded by class-tended gardens. Learning space activism here I come. And to think I once drooled over a plasma SmartBoard. Callow youth.

    I remember a game we played in my first and maybe second years of teaching called “Revolution.” I was teaching 6th grade language arts. We must have been reading some historical fiction set during the time of the American Revolution, a 6th grade history topic in our division. Essentially, the class split into 3 factions – democrats, monarchists, and the undecided, who, depending on their jobs, had reason to support either the democrats or monarchists. The democrats and monarchists had a certain number of days to broker deals with the undecided and with the other party to try to establish shared government and a majority. Certain roles could only meet with their equivalents in the other party, but the undecided could meet more freely with members of both parties who were allowed to mingle with commoners. The poor king couldn’t meet with anyone and had to work through ministers. We threw in some spies who could pass documents and tell secrets at lunch and in other classes. Then, once a nominally democratic super-party formed and out numbered the monarchists, we had a congress – chaired by whomever cut a deal to lead the democrats – with democrats and the undecided getting the rights to propose bills and vote, and with the remaining monarchists granted only the right to propose bills. Students passed bills into law by a simple majority. I was too young to cede much control over instruction or curriculum, but the kids got food, drink, and music players into the classroom.

    We finished with some written reflection about our decision-making during the game and the ultimate consequences of our actions for class rules.

    Then I stopped using the game. I think I stopped partly because I moved into the 7th grade and partly because I threw myself into SOL-data analysis and 24/7 SOL-aligned instruction and assessment. We had some choice. We had several different types of assessments and rubrics. Some of us had fun. But we never got back to roles for everyone and students setting class rules while having fun. (I might touch on this in my post. It’s entirely possible to become an effective change agent for improved test scores.)

    Something to dust off and improve for next year.

    Thanks for the reminder, Paula –

    Given our democratic bent, your story-telling approach and classroom culture practices, and Adam’s appreciation circles, are you ready to go lateral and hand over building-level governance to teachers and students? What role do you see building-level and central-office administrators playing in more democratic schools?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 26, 2010, 7:31 pm
    • Chad,
      I believe the role of support folks from outside of the building is just that–support. They are the connectors (to others in our division and out) who can challenge us, questions us, share with us and help us grow in various ways. They are the pushers–the ones who question us, who offer new thoughts, who challenge us to share our thoughts and practices (even when it’s hard) and who scaffold OUR learning to new levels through their work.

      The building level admins? Another conversation when I don’t have to run out the door. 🙂

      Love, love, love, your story. . . would love to sit and talk about it with you in detail!

      Keep telling your stories,


      Posted by Paula White | April 27, 2010, 7:14 am
  3. Thanks Paula,
    I love this post. I feel that you have really thought through your catalyst and what you can currently do. I believe it is essential and important that teachers become aware of the importance of creating students to be rational, social represenatives to better serve, innovate and change the world. Although I am a social studies teacher, I recognize the importance of serving this need for each classroom, and each student.

    This needs to happen inside and outside of socials tudies classrooms but often times, schools emphasize this for social studies classrooms but not for other classrooms or the entire school environment itself. I love your pledge…especially your own part, because it is your own, I will have future questions and comments throughout the week.

    Thanks once again,

    Posted by Casey Caronna | April 26, 2010, 9:35 pm
  4. This passage really struck a chord with me tonight:

    “teachers should be viewed as engaged intellectuals, willing to construct the classroom conditions that provide the knowledge, skills and culture of questioning necessary for students to participate in critical dialogue with the past, question authority, struggle with ongoing relations of power and prepare themselves for what it means to be active and engaged citizens in the interrelated local, national and global public spheres.”

    This is no easy task and truly takes a powerful intellectual to be able to actualize this. With our current climate of creating standardized curriculum, I don’t ever see this as part of the conversation. To develop the capacity to enact critical dialogue requires a certain degree of fluency in history paired with mentoring in how to interpret it. I think this is an area where teacher colleges may be particularly weak. Not to beat a dead horse, but at Goddard you will not get through the first day without hearing about Freire and getting involved in deep conversations about critical pedagogy. Is this happening elsewhere?

    Aaron, I’m especially interested how you approach this in your classes, not that we all can’t find ways to bring into our classrooms, but yours might be most clear.

    An example from my class, was introducing a lesson, “Cultural Anthropology 101,” in literature as we read “Water Sky” by Jean Craighead George. We learned about what influence cultures (climate), what makes up a culture, compared and contrasted Eskimo culture with “white man’s.” Talked about why “white men” thought it was their place to tell everyone else how to live. Especially while they had the most exploitative and wasteful relationship with natural resources. It was a great class, enhanced their understanding of past classes including themes on Cuba and Westward Expansion, and is something they have carried forth in their learning.

    I would love to focus more on this passage in future weeks if others are interested.

    Thanks for highlighting it Paula!


    Posted by Adam Burk | April 27, 2010, 8:51 pm
    • Adam,
      I definitely am interested in continuing to talk about the ideas expressed in that quote. The idea of a “culture of questioning” is one that seems to be emerging as a thread in our posts. Joe’s hippo posts is a perfect example. Are there other threads people see emerging yet?

      Is there someone doing a study of our posts? This seems like it would be a great research project!

      Always analyzing,


      Posted by Paula White | April 28, 2010, 6:30 am
  5. Paula, How have you sustained yourself as a professional adult (I understand the power of the relationships with kids–you don’t need to explain that) in your school for so long, if it is not a laboratory for democracy? What can we learn from your adaptations? How have you gotten stronger through adversity, but also what’s been missing?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 28, 2010, 9:06 am
  6. in my school for so long? Well, I’ve been teaching for 35 years in this county–17 in my first school, 8 in the next, 1 in the next, 4 in the next and 5 here. I sustain myself professionally by change–in grades, in schools, in assignments, in professional development lead roles, in the activities I do with kids, and through the various adults I suck in to help me. 🙂 I have a M. Ed + 30, going on 60 (our county only pays for the +30, but seriously, I have almost 30 beyond that second 30.)

    I go to conferences (both as a presenter and participant), am active in many social networking realms and seek out additional certifications–such as NETS*T, Google certification, am an Apple Distinguished Educator, etc. . . so I have an incredible network of folks outside of my county as well–and have since the 90’s.

    I’ve moved so much because I need a principal who can handle a really smart teacher who asks lots of questions and is pretty self-sufficient–and who can be really pushy. I move to be with certain principals, NOT to avoid situations or change grades necessarily. One of my principals said of me one time that I was probably the most aggravating teacher he’d ever worked with but he always had to NOT get mad when I was in his office pushing, because I was always pushing for the kids–and he’d also never seen a more active–or persistent– child advocate. Not every principal can handle that strong of a personality, so I move when I get the luck of having one who is not ready to take me on.

    I seek out learning opportunities for myself, have served on things like the Virginia Society for Technology in Education (VSTE) Board of Directors and Conference committee, helped write the first NETS for teachers with ISTE, am currently taking a series of 4 courses to be certified as a state eTeacher, and have taught all grades K-5, including many combination grades, have been a technology integrationist, and am now a Gifted Resource Teacher. Change is my constant.

    My county has been a laboratory in many ways. I’ve referenced the county conversations we used to have, and frankly, we’re always in the forefront of things being implemented–PLCs, RTI, etc. What I’ve missed is the comraderie over time of really smart people working with me in the same building to nudge each other along in our philosophy and following it in the classroom, to challenge and think together as we plan.

    What others can learn from my adaptations is that movement–between schools, grades or areas of the system you’re in–is a growth catalyst. No matter how you move, the varying circumstances make one think differently. Change is good.

    Posted by Paula White | April 28, 2010, 5:10 pm
  7. Paula, you illustrate so well the importance of good matches between teacher-leaders and administrators. I’m curious about administrators’ perspectives, too. Any ideas about possible invites for guest posts on supporting teacher activism from the front office?

    I sometimes worry about coming across as a serial changer rather than as a change agent. Nine years, three schools, three grade levels, two of them twice, two roles, one for just a year, two subject areas, too many ideas about what to do next – next being tomorrow, this summer, next year, in my next role (whatever it is). There’s a lot to reflect on in your comment, as well as in your post.

    I’m thankful to Kirsten for asking you her questions.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 28, 2010, 7:12 pm

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