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Whom Are You Following?

My life as an activist feels more involuntary than voluntary–like Paula it seems I was born to it rather than “chose it.”  This natal gift however, has not always been comfortable.   (And as someone who abhors “innateness” theories, this explanation also doesn’t seem very satisfactory.  Paula, this is a little bit of a lazy woman’s way out?)

In other places I’ve written about my early school experiences and my high school as sorting-mechanism-hell, so I am not going to perseverate on these.  Except to say that whenever I am in classrooms observing, I can always relate to bored, turned off, distracted, distressed, numb students.  Oh yes I can.

In the last week I had occasion to watch the 1983 movie version of Jane Eyre with two of my teenage children, who are writing papers on it for feminist literature.  In one of the opening scenes of this movie, the 10-year-old Jane, in a fiery confrontation, calls out her conformist, shaming, weak-minded guardian Mrs. Reed (go to 4:28 in the video), proclaiming with a child’s verocity and moral compass her “right” to object to injustice and mistreatment.  I was transfixed.  Jane Eyre has always meant a lot to me; I believe I’ve read it about a half-dozen times.  But in this version, at this moment, what I saw was Jane Eyre’s child-rooted sense of passion:  the way in which she proclaimed a right to personhood and fair treatment, in spite of her low-status in the household–and although she was female, the subject of bullying, not yet grown up. (Let us note for the record that activists come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, classes, eras.)  Jane Eyre was living what Frederick Douglass, at almost the same moment in the mid-19th century, was writing.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will          continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”  Frederick  Douglass.

I follow Jane Eyre and Frederick Douglass, with pride and humility.  They teach powerful lessons about refusing consent to your own oppression.

And then there are other parts of activism:  the creation of movements.

Last week in my work in a district in California, I was sitting with the principal of a large comprehensive high school of almost 1950s cast, along with some “activist” teachers (there were some) who had just gotten the faculty to vote on a change in the bell schedule so that “extra remedial time” could be given to students who were failing.  Students who were performing well “got time off.”

So I said hey, stop, let’s wait a minute.  The construction here is that learning is awful, something nasty to be avoided, and the “treat” for complying and producing appropriate learning behaviors is to get your ticket to punch out, to go the break room, and to not have to engage.  And I said that that we might want to be working towards a model in which learning was pleasurable, that engaging in learning activities was not constructed as a punishment in the building, but actually relevant, challenging in a good way, and something that students might actually want to do.

There was a lot of silence –like what?  What is she talking about?  Huh?  Come again?

So what I’m thinking here is, what we are saying at COOP is pretty simple.  But it’s also pretty challenging.  As Joe and Chad point out, there can be blank stares.

How are we combining Jane Eyre-like ferocity with enlightened movement creation?

Who are your followers?  Are you an enlightened follower?


About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


23 thoughts on “Whom Are You Following?

  1. That is a great video! Who is our shirtless one?

    Posted by dloitz | May 14, 2010, 5:31 pm
  2. Apt questions, Kirsten. I’ve been trying to avoid being a formal leader, and I’m uncomfortable with the idea of having followers – you know, apart from the Twitter kind. I work with some people whom I think would join me in different types of work. I’m unsure of their dissatisfaction, however, or if theirs is like mine. I need to have more local conversations and come out of my shell a bit.

    Your story is a little heart-breaking. I hope someone heard you or hears you here.

    Your post reminds me of another question that a colleague asked today:

    What in your proposal would be impossible without it?

    That’s such a good question. There is nothing in what we want that is impossible now, but what we want goes largely undone – undone in that it’s not done; undone in that the system undoes what we try to do with our teaching and learning.

    This goes back to our questions about what we must do and how we can transform our pedagogy.

    It’s all possible; renegades are enacting it; how do we bring others to similar dissastisfaction and action?

    How do we define and describe healing dissatisfaction? Healing responses to it on our kids’ behalf? On the world’s?

    I don’t want to go around in circles, but I do hope to spend one more week on this: how does an educator grow from being dissatisfied with students to being dissatisfied with him or herself to being dissatisfied with the system? How do you survive the dissatisfaction with yourself? How do you realize it’s the system telling you how to feel? How do you take on that system? How do you acknowledging the difficult choices ahead of you and journey onward anyway? How do you avoid the temptation to transfer dissatisfaction with yourself or the system back on to students, parents, admin, or other teachers? How do you decide to act?

    I’ll try to pick one of those and post on it next week, unless we go in a significantly different direction, topic-wise.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 14, 2010, 8:10 pm
    • Hi Chad, I’m the same as you, don’t really want to be a formal leader, and uncomfortable with followers. The story sounds a little more heart breaking than it actually was I think, and is more about how CRAZY some of these ideas sound within the walls of the principal’s office. (It was almost like John Holt had come back from the dead and escaped into the room. Who’s he? We don’t want him here. Those voices don’t speak here.)

      I am very interested in describing our own MUST DOs, and this process of transferring dissatisfaction not onto our colleagues, students, the system, ourselves, but into ever more assured action. The thing that I saw so powerfully among the deschoolers of the 1960s (forebears in naming the dysfunctions of the system) is that most of them ultimately withdrew from the system altogether. And that made them politically and socially very easy to marginalize and characature. How do we avoid that? Almost everyone in an AERO discussion going on now about this dilemma


      has gotten out of mainstream school.

      I will write a more fulsome post about all the work in California last week, which really was overall quite positive.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 15, 2010, 12:01 pm
  3. Our shirtless one is the ideal of democratic education and authentic learning.

    Posted by Adam Burk | May 14, 2010, 11:31 pm
  4. I.Loved.That.Video.

    Posted by Joe Bower | May 15, 2010, 1:23 am
  5. Gregory Berns talks about this in Iconoclast. He discusses how the “lone nut” needs but one follower in the beginning. Just that one follower can be pillar of stability for the iconoclast – the trick of course is developing a following that has more than two nuts.

    Posted by Joe Bower | May 15, 2010, 1:26 am
  6. Who is the shirtless one?

    That’s a matter of perspective. In my journey, I know I am not the shirtless one. For me, the shirtless one was Alfie Kohn. I saw him dancing as the “lone nut” and I joined in.

    But geographical distances cause perception issues. Here in Red Deer, Alberta, people didn’t see why I started to dance. They didn’t see that I saw Alfie Kohn dancing. So they see me as the shirtless one.

    It’s also very true that Alfie Kohn knows that he was not the shirtless one. He saw someone else dancing, and he joined in.

    The kind of progressive educational reform that I want is stuck, and has been stuck at that two to five follower stage. I have yet to see the momentum shift. I have yet to see anything that resembles a tipping point.

    Posted by Joe Bower | May 15, 2010, 1:33 am
  7. Joe, I’m really more hopeful than you at this moment, if I’m hearing you right. What I feel and hear is that thousands of teachers and administrators are really beginning to let in the reality that this baby isn’t working, not for them and not for kids, for lots of reasons. (I want to say again how strongly I believe that the TOOLS we have increasingly available for learning are changing the face of school. As Illich would have predicted, it is our TOOLS, not our thoughts, that are changing the system.) I’m not sure people know what to do about that, but I do think the perceived immutability of system is changing.

    But what I hear you saying is that YOU feel alone, and that’s a significant problem. Am I hearing you right?

    (Alfie Kohn is a friend and was here recently for dinner. The idea of him dancing shirtless in a field is a great image.)

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 15, 2010, 12:14 pm
  8. Kirsten, I do need to be careful. I give off very mixed messages.

    To those here at the Coop, and other like-minded professionals that I meet on Twitter or through blogging, I temper some of my enthusiasm. I seem to be less optimistic amongst this like-minded crowd. I’m not sure why, but it might have something to do with my wanting to have some proper checks and balances amongst the already optimistic crowd (let me be clear, I am not a cynic – but I am a skeptic)

    However, back in my physical world, I am incredibly optimistic in my discussions with other teachers – in particular those who are not like-minded. I think I do this because they are quite apathetic, and I think they need to see that there is something to get really optimistic about. That change not only *can* happen, but it *is* happening.

    I seem to be like a bit of a chameleon when it comes to be optimism/pessimism with educational reform.

    I need to think about why I do this. Perhaps this is not the best way to come across with people.


    Posted by Joe Bower | May 15, 2010, 2:42 pm
  9. And yes Kirsten, I do feel a little alone.

    I am frustrated by how many teachers will speak their mind in private over a beer but say little to nothing to our superiors or even colleagues.

    Some are scared.

    Others are uninformed.

    And still others are flat-out apathetic.

    I’m vocal. Opinionated. Informed. And some people really don’t like that.

    Posted by Joe Bower | May 15, 2010, 2:54 pm
    • Joe, I really hear you on both counts, on offering a counterbalance to the prevailing mood here–whatever it is–and also that this is hard, lonely work.

      I come at this from my own vantage, having studied the group that went before us–the radical school writers of the 1960s, to see what happened with them. Most of them opted out of the mainstream system. So what I tremendously admire about everyone here is that as hard as it is, folks are hanging in there and trying to do the work IN SCHOOLS while they are actually teachers and administrators. I think that’s so powerful and important. I see COOP as a critical support and strategy discussion: what are our commonalities, our differences? How can we complicate each other’s views and move out of some of the simplicities of “seeing?” To whom do we turn for bravery and bucking up?

      I am so glad to know you in this way. (Just to know you in general!)

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 17, 2010, 8:12 am
  10. I think the problem with education is the lack of purpose…When children are younger the stars or great job is a delight to have and pleasing their parents and teachers is purpose enough, plus on some level they perceive that they truly know nothing and their way to independence and adult world privieges are through learning all that they don’t know so for the most part, if they have a trust in their caretakers, they will follow willingly most that they can for their age… by the time the kids are in high school and have seen the in and outs of those “awards” and “rewards” and judgements, much of the adult hipocracy and how those who have the “power ” over them do not always carry it out to the best of their ability, for the right reasons or for the good of those they are in charge of… they not only not believe in them, some downright rebel against them while others just sell themselves to it for their agendas…depending on your values and dna makeup (or both)…actually I think that is the bottom line, ..A teenager is discovering his or her values, doubting all they were taught througout their lives because they are now in the presence of the values of others and other teachings…so what they thought was true as “the right way” now had many options for others…and for the most part, higher grade students and teenagers are much more social and community oriented than goal oriented so the grade is worthless in relation to their peers, and most prefer to live the moment with their peers , or trying to absorb as much of their surroundings in order to create their own set of values than recluse themselves for a grade to help them for perhaps a college in a future they are not ready to tap into because of its uncertainty and confusion ….The two ways to face these dilemmas…to follow others who seem to have the answers or the way, to attempt to find the answers yourself even if you are drumming to your own tune.. So the answer to “whom are you following”will have to have some explanations before we can answer that… like “when?” …I think we c follow different people at different times for different reasons… at some points we are lost and think we have no better alternative, at times we don’t want to work at finding our own alternative and its just easier to follow someone else, sometimes we admire somoene and want to learn from other experiences and we are open to different, we follow the mainstream because we don’t want to risk learning or getting confused by having other alternatives , perhaps we are not sure that our ways are good enought to be the driving force of our acitons , perhaps can’t take criticism or are not strong enough to explain convicitons or differences… Perhaps we were never taught to do anything else but follow other people’s instructions or rules…so after we ask ourselves when, then we must ask ourselves why…and then we will truly have our “aha” moment and see whom….

    Posted by NORMA | May 16, 2010, 9:57 am
    • Hi Norma, I’m glad you’re joining the discussion too, and thank you! It’s great to have you here! Here’s what I’m wondering. Do you really think children when they are young think they know nothing? I think children inherently understand that they already know a lot, and because knowing is fun they want to know more. Then they lose the desire to know more because they’ve had a lot of bad experiences with “knowing.”

      What do you think?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 17, 2010, 8:16 am
      • Hi kirsten!! I think children understand that they know very little compared to their caretakers…they understand that they everyday they know more and that it is the way to personal growth and independence…providing they trust their caretakers they are usually in awe of us and think we know everything and can solve everything…they want to model us or their surroundings and they constantly do…”i can tie my shoe” ” i can do it” “what does that say? ” i can write my name” and the forever “why” “how come” “what if” want to dress like us, act like us etc…too soon they are made to feel that some questions are dumb or innapropriate, some learning is more important than other, the way some learn get more acceptance than others…they are told what and how and when, made to truly feel they know nothing because only what they are told counts is what is counted, the rest is technically nothing…etc. That is when the joy of learning is squashed, and when the innate wisdom of children is squashed in the name of “knowledge” when we are telling them that learning is to pass a test, and then to make the next grade , and then to graduate, and then to get into a good college, and then to get a job, or that it is done so that they are not reprimanded or that they get praise,d or they are not judged as failures or judged as leaders or talented or whatever…Instead of coninuing with their original understanding that we learn from everything around us and from all our mentors and thus grow into the next level where we can learn more and continue to grow and the path of learning leads them to the result of becoming more like their mentors and the natural outcomes are gratifying …we now tell them that it is the goal that counts and the rest is just a unilateral path towards it that has to be done in a certain way to reach a bar that is pre-determined as important and only those who do it that way are important.. “I only know that I know nothing” is our wealth…not “I am told that i know nothing” …xooxo

        Posted by norma | May 17, 2010, 9:44 am
  11. Norma,

    Thanks for joining the conversation. You have some really interesting points. I wonder how you would restructure high school to shift the focus from grades or goal to more of a social purpose driven community. For me one of the ways is Project based learning…. and returning the idea of apprenticeship….right of passage to teen life. I think college has not change enough in the last 100 years and while I think everyone should seek higher education….I don’t think college are the best place to find your passions, your purpose or even your values.

    Did you hear about the 1 week 1 job project done by a 21 recent grad…. he spend a year working a different job each week….to find his passion.

    Thanks for joining the conversation….hope to hear more from you in the future.


    Posted by dloitz | May 16, 2010, 11:23 am
  12. Loved this video, loved the shirtless one too.. its not easy finding your passion, but maybe because we are looking too hard or in the wrong places?? We may not see our passion because we are too busy making plans?? or some of us perhaps may find many?? we have different aspects within our lives and personalities and so we have different momentums in our lives for different things… I do believe however that no matter what we are looking for or think we should be trying to find, we nevertheless always have to be passionate about everything we are doing…even if the task at hand is not “our passion” or our choice, we can and must find something within the task that can transform a grind into a window of opportunity …. an accidental type of teaching….As much as we all strive for the big milestones ,its ususally not the big things that make our lives feel on purpose, its all the little things that we encounter along the way … and in that encounter, most likely ,it is that your larger passion will come through. In an educational system where we are training kindergarteners to get ready for middle school, and middle schoolers to get ready for high school, high schoolers for college, college students for the business world, the business world for retirement or we are telling the kids they are good at something and they should perfect it, or they are not good at something that they should be good at so they have to fix themselves…it seems that we are not allowing for anyone concentrating on finding the purpose, passion or appreciating the journey of it all without a goal, reward, remuneration or “accountability” and without accepting that it will all come, if you are doing whatever you are doing with a passion and care….Are we good at what we enjoy or do we enjoy what we are good at????
    I think our school system tries but its not easy and we can and must always strive for better. The more experience you have and the more interaction you have with others and other ideas and other circumstances the more you learn and the more you grow…so yes, projects are great, and apprenticeships too…but mostly the understanding that education and learning is not just a goal , its not unilateral,its a multi- dimentional path, a neverending process that we build on constantly, f and change course on constantly, according to the variables presented…

    I have studied abroad and despite the rumors, the models of schools are certainly not as good as ours, even if they keep comparing test results and performance…first we need to define “BETTER” and second I believe that the difference is that in other countries the social and economic realities don’t allow for much choice or planning so they must focus more on the tasks at hand and their daily struggles that don’t allow for much thought on what they want to do but rather what they need to do and the social economic spectrums are clearly defined by pre-set elements and going to school is one of them.

    The social/community aspect is given because there is so much need that only by combining efforts and helping eachother can they survive. There is very little possibility for change of circumstances within their social or economic circle so their purposes are pre-determined, and those who want to break away from all that use school as their ticket to the US!!

    Posted by diluma | May 16, 2010, 3:18 pm
  13. DiLuma, Are most of us authorized to find our passion in our contemporary lives? Is that a message we are giving to children, young adults, our peers, ourselves?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 17, 2010, 10:19 am
    • Hi kirsten!! It’s Norma, I don’t know why I have two names…I am sibernetically challenged!! I don’t belive we are giving the message that we are authorized to find our passion because there is a very rigid measurement of what should be and what is important .., although we should not only be authorized but encouraged to find our passion regardless of what that means to the “standard” …our actions as a society lead us to encourage what is “best” for our lives or what we can be” successful” at…” Socrates said something to the effect of ” we can’t truly deem ourselves wealthy until we know what we are doing with our wealth”…”wealth” being able to have so many definitions or synonyms…

      Posted by norma | May 17, 2010, 10:39 am
  14. Who am I following, or more properly, trying to follow? Julie Brennan, Maria Droujkova, Bob & Ellen Kaplan, Amanda Serenevy, Pam Sorooshian, Dan Meyer, Shawn Cornally, Maria Andersen, Deborah Meier, John Holt, and so many more. All but the last two are math educators. I’m working on a book, Playing With Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and the Internet, which will include many of the people I listed.

    Next fall, when I go back to teaching math at a community college, I hope this year of listening to others and engaging online will have helped me become more of the teacher I want to be.

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | May 19, 2010, 11:32 am


  1. Pingback: Transforming a Lone Nut Into a Leader | The New Agency - May 21, 2010

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