Thursday, May 5, 2011

29 Apr 11 - I Would Sing - (Re) Framing Education for Liberation and Democracy

...we don't need no thought control / no dark sarcasm in the classroom...
Pink Floyd

Hey, blogspot readers, meet SouthSide - the social activist! Recently she attended an unconventional conference where educators, teachers, social activists, organizers, etc from all walks of life and backgrounds came together for one common goal - to celebrate the themes inspired by the work and life of Bill Ayers. Held at Chicago-University of Illinois campus, the unconference conference (so titled by Master of Ceremonies, David Stovall) didn't feature long winded boring speeches or reading of panelists' bios followed by one set group of pre-arranged action plans and/or agendas. No, blogspot readers, this was a "working" conference where a collective of ideas, plans as well as agendas that were individually suggested within different groups during the afternoon session. To be honest, this wasn't any ordinary conference SouthSide has ever attended that she didn't fall asleep on or did a whole page of doodlings while the panelists spoke. According to Rick Ayers, Bill's brother, he has "...seen other conferences like [I Would Sing] built around someone's unique contribution..." He also went on to say this conference was " a certain way a reflection of the work of Bill Ayers..." adding "...thinking forward to future work in relation to him and his work..."

Before the conference got under way, SouthSide set out to learn more about Bill Ayers, his life work (thus far) and more, blogspot readers. She discovered, before his recent retirement, Bill Ayers was a Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at University of Illinois, founder of both the Small Schools Workshop and Center for Youth and Society and has written extensively about social justice to education and the cultural contexts of schooling. He has authored books about teaching as an essentially intellectual, ethical, and political enterprise like Teaching The Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom (with Rick Ayers) and Teaching the Personal and the Politcal: Essays on Hope and Justice. Plus Bill's articles have appeared in numerous scholarly and popular journals. Bill Ayers has been called a terrorist, a thorn in people's side and a radical by social media because of his anti-war activities in the Gaza Striop as well as Daley Plaza. He's also known as a "white anti-racist" activist and tells the truth about racism, imperialism, capitalism, injustice and criminal treatment of young people in high schools today according to opening remarks by Barbara Ransby. Bill Ayers had addressed "...important themes and dilemmas in his books ...what is education ...what is the role of education and is education a human right..." SouthSide felt honored to meet and talk to the radical social activist in which this conference was organized to honor his work. Bill was excited about it happening but didn't feel it's a summary or eulogy of his life however an attempt to illuminate things and push them forward. is your responsibility to change society if you think yourself as an educated person... ~ James Baldwin (1963)

The unconference conference (also referring that this wasn't a "Bill Butt-naked [retirement] Party) opened with David Stovall excitedly firing up the attendees by announcing "'s a conference in which we can do something to make a change and difference in social justice..." Then William Schubert welcomed the attendees saying " our work can bring ideas to life..." that we "...have to embody them in order to make a difference in the world..." William likened our ideas to the dissertation process in which the Question wasn't asking but a problem we would want to explore while the Conclusion wasn't the end but how the results will make a difference. He was followed by Gabe Lyon, co-founder of Project Exploration and part of Conference Organizing Committee, spoke briefly how putting together this conference was one of the best democratic experiences ever. She said "...[it's] the beginning of working together ...networking ...for social justice change..." Afterwards, Barbara Ransby gave a detailed background about Bill Ayers highlighting that his retiring wasn't the end but "...moving onto another phase of his life - social activist..." She pointed out that education can be used as a tool or weapon in society and students can be teachers to the older generation. Barbara also left the attendees with a thought about "...telling the truth ...especially in this day and age (citing FBI raids, et al)..." concluding "...we need to tell the truth..." not just the negative but the postive too. And the reason why we're attending the conference was " honor a career that has told the truth..."

Before breaking for lunch and afternoon working sessions, there were two panel discussions. The first one, Teaching for Social Justice, featured six speakers - Hubert Dyasi, Brian Galaviz, Ali Jennings, Isabel Nunez, Joel Westheimer and Lavie Raven with Therese Quinn moderating. Therese opened with a quote by James Baldwin in which she noted it clearly described Bill before talking about a movie called Art School Confidential (very good movie SouthSide highly recommends seeing it). She used this film as an example of how certain teachers who inspire students but not in a conventional way however people like Rush Limbaugh like to tell the opposite about teachers in a negative way. Isabel saw this as a demoralization of teachers today in which she strives to help her students reach that vision of what teaching can be. Joel stated that democracy needs to have the ability to create critical thinking people while Lavie said we "...must work with children in what they want to see ...a world they want to live in..." Hubert noted that " grow up thinking they cannot think for themeselves... in Ali agreed saying "...parents are shocked..." that she doesn't give her students the answers. Many agreed teachers aren't allowed to think for themselves which was why Brian switched from teaching to counseling because he had to constantly line up his curriculum with everyone else across the board. Lavie stated "...we need more Brown men (i.e. people in general) as teachers..." The panel was open to the attendees for comments and questions in which many expressed the following "...first conference without pre-package crap..." to "...very engaging and interactive amongs the panel..." to " is not imaginative [anymore] ...parents and community leaders need to reprofessionalize the education system...allowing teachers to teach in a way they want and allowing kids to ask questions without being restricted to rigid curriculum..." and from Joel - "...[we] have the power to effect kids in a deep meaningful way in which no CEO of a fortune 500 company could ever do..." Hubert ended the panel discussion by relaying a story about a school in Brooklyn, NY where students and teachers placed their fears and despairs into garbage bags before burying them during a funeral-like service and then had their hopes and wishes married (to them) with an actual minister performing the ceremony.

The second panel, Education Beyond Education, featured another group of six speakers, Rashid Khalidi, Gabrielle Lyon, Erica Meiners, Harish Patel, Randolph Stone and James Thindwa with Crystal Laura moderating. The group was asked "what it means when we decoupled education from schools?" in which James saw education as "...a built-in contradiction..." saying "...teachers need to think outside of the box..." Harish sated education was a " sense not [an] US sense..." while preparing the student to be a humane person. Gabe answered the question by asking one herself "what is the purpose of education?" and then gave a brief description of the purpose of Project Exploration which helps students get out of the classroom box to discover and wonder via science education. Plus she added a quote that she remembered a teacher telling her "...never allow school to interfere with your education..." The panel had lively discussions about having "...responsibility to go beyond the classroom ...[owing] something to the students and [owing] society who put [professors] into the positions..." (Rashid) and " day job to build leverage when I was hired by University of doing work outside the university..." (Erica). Randolph, a law professor, encourage (as well as require) his students to work on social policy issues (i.e. prison re-entry programs). There were other discussions about social activists taking some downtime and how to organize teachers before opening the panel to attendees for more comments and questions. Ming (Fang He) wanted the panelists to consider thinking about " in between as well as the need to improvise while social activism..." meanwhile Tina (a conference attendee) addressed seeing a lot of in-fighting within the education fields and Bill felt something was missing by the entire discussion - the changing economic scene.

After a lunch break, it was time to split the conference into working group sessions was the time to begin the task of "...seeing ourselves within a movement..." for social change. Some groups had to be paired together because very few attendees had signed up for them. Sessions like "Paradox of living in-between in exile" by Ming Fang He and "Connections/intersections between inner and outer self and world" by Isabel Nunez where they would discuss, plan and act during this time and do a presentation during the Working Groups Reports at the end. This gave SouthSide the perfect opportunity to observe everyone brainstorming and bouncing ideas off each other as she walked around group to group. She briefly chatted with Kris, a representative of Rethinking Schools (a nonprofit organization for over 30 years where they publish progressive educational materials and magazine but with a focus on urban environment) selling books with such titles - Beyond Heroes and Holidays: a pratical guide to K-12 anti-racist, multicultural and staff development and Open Minds To Equality: a sourcebook of learning activism to affirm diversity and promote equality. Kris told SouthSide that through Rethinking Schools materials/books teachers "...can incorporate social justice teaching within education..." plus add what's "...not taught in [today's] history book..." SouthSide asked Kris what she thought about the conference so far to which she replied "...a lot of energy flowing in this room..." Then SouthSide met with the unconference conference's dynamic MC - David Stovall to get his thoughts about the day so far. He answered "...a way for folks to do two (2) things - see a way of connection with their work and strengthen their network...the type that support what they do..." also adding "...folks staying all day is a good thing..." SouthSide grabbed Gabe for a quick minute of her busy time to hear her thoughts about today's conference and she replied "...what a privilege to be in this room...a lot of ideas evolving through discussions...many possibilities happening today...we're [all] here at a time when education is weak..." And as SouthSide walked around from table to table, you could feel that energy flowing ...permeating everywhere within the deep discussions happening. For example, Rick Ayers' group (Social Justice Curriculum, liberatory pedogogy, changing the narrative) had listed some suggestions on their board such as parent-led enriched programs and use examples to increase engagement. Meanwhile another table discusses using like as a big classroom and evolving freedom while challenging your own understanding. Lastly another group thought of creating rituals that capitialize our skills and demonstrating love (listening, dialogue, connecting and sharing). Don't think these ideas and/or thoughts to be just for today only, blogspot readers, there's a reason behind this working group part in which SouthSide will reveal in a minute.

Each table came to podium (actually sending one or two representatives) to share their action plans. Due to the long list, SouthSide will simply highlight one point from each group. Table 1 - suggested creating a curriculum that engages the students with questioning; Table 3 - examining the many layers of cultures (yes, white people have a culture too); Table 5 - challenging political leaders into taking on of the standardized achievement testing and see how they respond (this garnered the most applause; Table 7 - therapy at teaching and administrative level; Table 8 - invite six (6) teachers to dinner with a discussion topic - what is the quality of education today?; Table 9 - challenging the public and private doconomy; Table 10 (entire group) acted out their action plan to show everyone has a skill that's vital to education; and Table 11 - re-instatement of Pell Grant in the prison systems for prisoner higher education services. On Aug 7th (exactly 100 days from the date of this conference), a website would have been created where attendees (and everyone else who couldn't make it) can access and see the progress of the suggestions/ideas in action ...our radical thinking coming to life, blogspot readers.

To end this unique yet extraordinary day, Bill Ayers first gave thanks to the Potawanomi and Illiniwek tribes who "owned" the land where the conference was held as well as a big shoutout to Rethinking Schools and Teacher's College Press. Then he announced after receiving a text to say UIC will have a faculty union adding "...good working conditions create good teaching conditions thus creating good learning conditions..." Bill commented on the centered themes of the day in which he called radical lessons such as "...we're each a work in progress ...and we still have more work to do..." and "'re living in the history of the making...what you do or don't do makes a difference..." Bill also said that life " always a contradiction..." and solving the contradiction " a myth..." which he quoted Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities " was the best of times was the worst of times..." He stated it was true back in Dickens' day as well as now suggesting we should embrace the moment for all of its contradiction-ness. Bill ended his comments with the following advice " in the contradictions...don't give up...jump out of bed hopeful every day..." saying " and justice - we want to live fully in the contradictions..." After Bill and David had officially ended the day-long conference with their mini panel discussions, SouthSide briefly chatted with a couple of the attendees to get their final thoughts about the day. Laura said "...[it's] really inspirational...had the opportunity to build with people I never thought I would if I wasn't here..." Now she's inspired to talk to people since she usually stays in the background. Gloria (of DePaul University) had this to say "'s wonderful to be with someone I just met ...lots and lots of resources, ideas and steps forward..."

One amazing note about this day - SouthSide was energized! She was ready to make a social change starting with her youngest daughter's school ...thinking waysof getting more parent involvement. Plus she wasn't the only one ready for action - ideas and discussions were still flowing amongst the attendees outside the conference room in the hallway and even outside in front of the Student Center. People were fired up ...inspired and ready to make a change! It was simply inspiring to see netowrks being made, blogspot readers.

Until next time, support your local scene,

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