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Running To The Edge

by Jose Vilson on March 7, 2011

in Jose

Dennis Littky, radical educator and co-founder of Big Picture Learning, wowed everyone with his TEDxNYED speech on Saturday. The man with the colorful kufi and grey beard might have struck the unsuspecting (and uninformed) as discordant in contrast to the business casual of the rest of the crowd or aloof because of their own prejudices, but he removed all doubt of his passion and intelligence without so much as one PowerPoint slide or high-tech wizardry. TEDxNYED is wont to having the fanciful and aesthetic come before any audience member could glean anything from a speech.

Not so with Dennis.

While I’m intentionally not recapping his speech here (for fear that I’ll totally misquote him), I’ll give you the last jewel he bartered to the rest of us:

“If you’re not standing on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”

Perfect words in the now crowded discussion about education in this country. What’s happened is less about solutions and more about regurgitating problems. For those keeping track, the same problems with the current education system are the same problems with the education system of every decade for the better part of the last century. The huge attention drawn to K-12 education has a whole nation of soundbite kings with fold-able podiums in their suitcases, ready to sell us their schemes for education.

Yet, No Child Left Behind still leaves an entire generation of children ill-prepared to answer the set of daunting problems facing this world, much less answering some of the questions we’ve already answered. Governors stripping the rights of local workers to come together and bargain cry echoes of hypocrisy as they don’t even wince at the idea that a corporation as a “person” exists to place them upon their seats. Media heads nudge the most common reporter to hysteria, and help brand anyone who speaks for the people with McCarthyist fervor. Entertainment and marketing execs have our whole country hypnotized into a dilapidated culture of values, urging youth to adult-erate and the old to act oppositional but never reciprocate, and balance is off-key.

All the while, people like me across the nation stand in the middle of this teeming mass of confounders, getting a chance to jump above the fray to see people actually near the edge, where the rest of us need to be.

It’s not that I think all mainstream people are somehow corrupt, misguided, or uncaring. Some are. Many just don’t see it the way I do. Or some of you do. But the edge is where all the action happens. It’s where the proverbial beginning of human civilization happened. It’s where disasters naturally occur and the place where wars begin in earnest. It’s where people found ways to make unknown territories into horrors unforeseen. It’s where we fear what keeps us grounded the most. The gravity and courage it takes to get to the edge cannot be overstated.

It’s also the place where we built things that connected more of us together.

Those who find their way to the edge know the landscape better than anyone, and now that the mainstream has been forced into this corporatist vision for education, we have to live on the edge. We have to speak up and out about what we believe is a wrongheaded version of the story. We have to dissent against those who insist on separating us by age, class, race, and gender. We have to show more than outrage for the ways our children have been pushed by this system into virtual and real prisons for private profit. Those of us on the edge have to speak up about the overwhelming majority who may not have the words for it, but nod their heads knowing that something just ain’t right.

Those of us with a present and future voice who only point out problems run the risk of running in circles or, worse, running off the edge with Wile E. Coyote. If we’re willing to innovate enough to find solutions and humble ourselves enough to support others with good solutions, then we see the edge. Once that edge becomes clear, let us stand together while we draw the lay of the land, drawing less on paper and more on each other’s passion for this.

Jose.

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Prisons vs. Schools, In a List

I‘ll start by saying I’ve taught now for the better part of six years, all in public school. As an NYC Teaching Fellow, learning how to teach while teaching isn’t the best part of the job. Teaching, however, is. It’s a liberating experience because it’s the answer to the question of “What will you contribute to the Earth’s future?” Those of us who consider ourselves advocates hold high expectations when it comes to how much we should contribute. With teaching, the giving of self is built into the profession, and the hard part is making your teacher self good enough that you’d approve of the future you’re helping to build.

Unfortunately, schools aren’t built that like. The present brick-and-mortar school is still under the architecture of early 20th century. Whenever I go to well-to-do schools, the architecture screams “Succeed!” in contrast to the message of “Fail!” for impoverished schools. In well-to-do schools, every space is well-lit, all of the chalkboards (if there are any left) are spotless and fresh. The desks are close to pristine, the temperature in the school is just about right, and the hallways feel a bit more spacious. In less privileged schools, the paint in the hallways still can’t light up the classrooms enough, the schools vary too much in temperature, and the places where kids can get lost are as abundant as the gates and trash areas within the school crevices.

What’s most apparent in the classes I’ve visited is that the well-to-do schools have a lower ceiling than the poorer schools. So the buildings are sending them the messages only a few of us spot. For wealthy kids, the ceiling is reachable, so sky’s the limit for you. For poor kids, the ceiling is unreachable, so we’ve set the limit there.

I’m not saying those confined in factory-style schools should give up; if anything, you have the responsibility towards helping students find liberation in the most personal way possible. We live in a situation where teaching is either an exercise in helping students conform or re-learn. Studies have shown that thoughts and actions are truly independent from one another, so as educators and thought leaders, do we actually act upon the beliefs we have about our students or do we perpetuate the pathology? Do we ask kids to ask the right questions about our society and how it’s affecting our lives or do we just ask those who we think are capable of making something of themselves?

Are we asking kids to bisect angles because it’s good for an exam or because we believe it’ll inspire them to become the architects for their own futures?

People think that by setting kids free, I’m saying let them run amok in the classroom. To the contrary, I’m asking people to teach the students self-discipline without making them objects in your own fantasy about a well-behaved class. Instead of discouraging students from misbehaving by constantly yelling at them and giving them the “because I said so,” why not encourage them by showing them alternate ways of expressing themselves? In the public, we say we don’t have too much freedom with the content we deliver, but we have plenty of freedom to maneuver in the way we address students. We can create environments that mitigate the circumstances, make kids feel like they’re welcome, and convince them that we have a means for them to seek their own freedom.

If we don’t get the behaviors that lead to revolution, then we’re permitting them to continue the behaviors that often lead to their own demise. That’s the thing about freedom, too: we don’t recognize it unless we’re in constant reflection. Some of my own family members didn’t realize how their childhood landed them in prison until they got on the bus. For a kid like me, I thought they had freedom because they stood out at all times of night, rarely did any school work, and rarely heeded any adult’s advice. I envied that because of the relative rigidity of my own upbringing.

Then I looked back and saw something I couldn’t have seen at the time: with the teachers I had, I was picking up the tools for my own liberation, learning to ask critical questions of the world through my own lens. True freedom insists on discipline, and the ability to detach yourself from the distractions of the world in order to understand it better. That isn’t what every teacher taught, but by the time I got out of college, I sewed that all together myself. Once we’ve done our own peace-building, we’re well on our way to freedom. As educators, if we’re not fully vested in the idea of critical pedagogy, we should strongly consider how our actions are shaping the world.

That’s the reason many of us came into the profession anyways. I don’t have this all down, but whenever I do things in this direction, they work more often than not.

Let’s build schools that help us pull down that ceiling. Let’s de-emphasize schooling and more about learning. Let’s teach them extraction, and asking the questions behind the bubble sheet. Let them have breakfast; give them some! Make sure they clean up after themselves, though. Walk away from the chalkboard and repeat their names when they say something important. Implore them to say “I don’t get it” and don’t berate them for it. Don’t take their failures personally, but be sure they know why you’re disappointed. You’re planting seeds even when you’re not the only one tending the farm.

Let them ask why they go to school. Give a generic answer to start. But when you and they are ready, give them the real answer. Then, give them yours. By then, I hope it’s the same as mine.

Jose, who was inspired by @dcinc66 to do this, even if he was tongue-in-cheek about it …

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Young Lords Party Garb

Young Lords Party Garb

Today, I had the grand opportunity of going to the 40th anniversary of the Young Lords Party at the Hispanic Methodist Church on 111th and Lexington St. (NYC). Just coming within a block of the small church gave me goosebumps. The sheer number of people swaying back and forth, trying to wedge into the lines, rocking their nicest Sunday clothes or some simple rev gear (like yours truly) set a scene for the merriment inside. Once in, the walls held media from stations and outlets all across the city and nation, burgeoning revolutionaries, people who just wanted to know what the hype is about, and of course, the Young Lords themselves.

A big part of me wants to go into major detail about the lovely procession, the speeches and descriptions, the poems and the reflections, the prayers, and the sheer electricity and vibrancy of a people struggling to find a collective voice while they saw in those 30-40 people in front tell their tale of the history and legacy of revolution in this country. As each Young Lord came up, the crowd grew more inspired; from the very beginning, the cacophonous clapping became a united rhythmic applause while waiting for the guests of honor. Each moment where a person provided a poignant thought or a uniting memory, the glow of the people enveloped every word with nothing but love. Needless to say, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt anything like this.

I kept reminiscing about some of the revolutionaries I’ve was so privileged to hear and read, plus some of my own formulations about social justice and how we as the “next” generation approach these ideas. Unfortunately, too many of us (myself included) have waited either too long or look to too many other people to make these ideas happen for us so we can “join.” Some people confuse, for instance, scoring points in a slam or making comments on TV as the end-all-be-all for what we deem as revolution. Yet, many studies have proven that people’s thoughts and actions are pretty independent of each other.

In other words, just because people say something or believe something doesn’t mean their work is in that “thing.” For all we know, they could be working towards against their own people in their destructive behaviors and professions (or, G-d forbid, their own self-serving agendas). For true activists in my observations, they’re either working directly in the service of the people or using their influence to provide for the people. We need people in the front lines and we need people behind the scenes. More importantly, we need people. Active and invested people.

Personally, it also means that I’ve gotta learn how to speak up. And so do all the people that went to that event. While many of the younger revolutionaries in that room really want to find inspiration from our predecessors, they’re looking at us like, “What you gonna do?” It’s our task to respond. It’s our time. Let’s move.

Jose, who wants a little less conversation, and a little more action, please …

Me With a Young Lords Event Pass

Me With a Young Lords Event Pass

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Speak Your Truth

March 5, 2009 Jose
Denzel Washington as Melvin Tolson, The Great Debaters

Today, in the middle of the labor union’s “demonstration” near City Hall, NYC, I had a thought: “Is standing here freezing my ass off looking at a big TV screen of something that’s happening a few blocks away while packed like sardines against other protesters really the sort of demonstration we want to hold?” After […]

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What Will It Take?

August 19, 2008 Jose

In Beijing, China, the International Olympics Committee told the Chinese government to ease up on their treatment of people. The Chinese government, in turn, invites protesters to register at their local police department and, when the Olympics come, to just stand in one of the designated protest areas and they can do as they please. […]

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Re-Evolutionary

March 27, 2008

Outside of my reading material and a couple of Google searches done under “Jose Vilson,” it’s pretty hard to find any real inclinations of my deep political thought. But after reading Assata Shakur’s latest statement about turning 60 (July 2007), I feel the need to say something most of my readers know but I haven’t […]

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