I gave this speech at the Clinton School for Public Service in Little Rock, AR as part of Noble Impact’s NobleTalks series. For those who read the last post, I deviated from this text somewhat after my visit to Central High School. Special shouts to Chris Thinnes for hearing me say this aloud in the wee hours of the night.
Good evening, class.
Thank you for having me here in Little Rock, AR.
We are living in the best of times and worst of times, but the one place that always gives me hope is my classroom.
My classroom has four turquoise-painted walls, long, tall windows, and a bookshelf that’s about seven feet high.
In the back, I keep a poster of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, centered so every time I see myself getting tired, I can look at him with outstretched hands greeting the thousands of onlookers who are listening to him give the greatest speech of the 20th century. In the speech, he spoke truth to power by speaking to the aspirations of his people, not just his own.
Just to the left of that poster is a huge bulletin board dedicated to our lives mattering, images and quotes from the current street movement, one which I’m still learning from.
In my classroom, a typical student might ask, “Mr. Vilson, what’s the answer?” I tell them, “I don’t know.” They’re visibly frustrated, and they ask again, “What’s the answer?” I tell them, “I don’t know.” They get mad some more, smoke coming out of their little ears, and they ask, “Yo, Vilson, what’s the answer to this?” To which I reply, “I don’t know.”
They eventually learn to ask the right questions, and I say, “Well, have you thought about this?” I then proceed to pepper them with questions they hadn’t considered and reflect back the answers they told me.
After a few minutes, they say, “I think I got it.” And I say, “OK, good. Bye.” and walk to the next table.
In a small, yet simple act of deflection, I managed to decenter myself and put the onus of learning on the students so they can take ownership. I ask them to imagine “What if I wasn’t there? Would you still learn?” I don’t quit until they’ve learned how to ask good questions, not just of themselves, but also of the content they’re learning and the teacher himself.
And if they can question me, they can question others who are supposed to be authorities. Behind the scenes, I’m focused on what they’re hopefully going to learn and toss my curriculum guide to the side when I don’t feel it’s appropriate. When visitors come, I tell them to talk to the kids about what they’re learning and move about my business. Instead of telling students they’re wrong, I tell the students, “they’re on the way.” I’ve created an environment where they’re on the path toward liberation and empowerment.
In other words, the best move I made in my entire career was stepping away from the center of the learning. Once away from the center, my kids filled that void, and I developed my own agency as well.
But what does activism look like from the classroom?
According to the dictionary, activism is the doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals, sometimes by demonstrations, protests, etc.
There are interesting parallels with activists and teachers that I’d like to explore here.
We generally accept that there are three elements to our job: pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. We start class with a warm-up activity, we jump into a lesson, we let the students get to work, and we close it out somehow. We repeat ad nausea until we give an exam, then we do it over again until the school year ends with minimal interruptions.
At what point do we actually get to activate?
Also, it begs the question: are we change agents or agents of the state?
We see time and again how our jobs as educators ought to be a service to the public, a gift to our children that they’d get a knowledge base and a set of tools to make all of our lives better. Unfortunately, on the path to finding standards, we kept standardizing our schools, our craft, and our minds.
The more we check for “quality,” the more we see shortcuts, constricting rubrics, over militarized pedagogies, and cutthroat assessments. Are we teaching students or processing them for compliance and obedience?
Are we change agents or agents of the state?
Our system was created specifically to oppress and cap the capabilities of our most vulnerable youth, and, instead of radically transforming this system, we have people playing ping-pong with our children’s education.
But here’s the thing: when adults in our position can subvert that agenda, we can transform the experiences of the children in our classrooms from simple receptacles of knowledge to transformers of this knowledge. If they can’t solve the problems we created, they can create better ones than ours.
And what’s more, educators already have the tools to get activated.
- We already do plenty of preparation for our day, planning our work step-by-step.
- We already know how to change our voice depending on the people we’re interacting with.
- We can change pace depending on the moment.
- We already have a vast platform.
- We came into the profession with our eyes on the prize.
- We can come together with like-minded individuals to affect change.
And, as so many activists do, we lose sight when we see the pushback. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Every time we activate, we’re willing to risk the consequences.
Here’s the key to the work: we have this thing called “teacher expertise” that, once we grab hold of it, we can do serious work.
Instead of following the textbooks line for line, what if we tossed the book to the side and have the kids work with the content itself?
Instead of screaming and yelling at the kids for order, what if we spoke to them about their dreams and passions?
Instead of kicking kids out of class, what about keeping them in class and helping them work through their feelings so they can do the work?
Instead of giving away the answers, what if we kept asking questions until they came away with the answers themselves?
Instead of simply digesting the latest professional development session, why not create our own and model the sort of learning we want to see from our own students?
Instead of leaning on one narrow assessment to determine whether our students learned, why not open up different avenues for students to express themselves?
We need educators who not only grab hold of their educator voices, but use their individual and collective will to make students believe in them. We’ve grown tired of meetings that don’t speak to us, of policymakers and funders who don’t understand why we’re in this profession, and of passersby who think we’re only good for summers off.
Anytime we can deconstruct the ways our school systems continue to silence students, educators, and parents from giving our students the fullest, most human experience, we are activated.
To that end, I might never be the perfect educator-activist, either. But it’s no secret that it’s my classes that ask the hardest questions of their other teachers. It’s my classes that set up meetings with administration and write letters. It’s my classes that learn to advocate for themselves in school and outside of school. It’s my classes that know, should something go down in their communities, their TVs, their homes, I’ll set aside the lesson plan for the day and give them both of my ears.
When Mike Brown died, when Aiyana Stanley-Jones died, when Trayvon Martin died, when justice isn’t served, they know they have someone in their school who embraces them for their fullest, most human and flawed selves. They have a space where the adult doesn’t suffer from adultism. I will listen. I will care. I will show compassion. I will love. In Spanish and English if need be.
And how could we not? Our love for our students must go deeper than love for content.
When you look at the students’ eyes, how many of you see yourselves?
How many of you feel their frustrations?
How many of you see their dreams as equal or bigger than your own?
If ever we become desensitized to their experiences, we must remind ourselves that our students still feel.
Let them feel you. Let them feel the passion and fury. Even if you never utter these words, may they always know that you left everything in those four walls.
Are you a change agent or an agent of the state?
Hopefully you can answer that question the way that I have.
Change is possible. Take your part.