Talking About Diversity in Education with Marian Dingle

Marian Dingle is one of my favorite bloggers, though she’s only written two blog posts — I hope for many more! The most recent of the two is a couple of things at once, including an expression of the idea that people have this somewhat strange, absolutely fundamental desire to be understood by someone else. Her first post asked a simple, basic question: why should we care about diversity? That question forms the basis of this conversation. Marian has been teaching for 18 years in Maryland and Georgia and tweets thoughtfully from @DingleTeach.

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I thought we could start by talking about your blog post about TMC [the conference] and diversity, and your question — why should we be more diverse? Do you feel like MTBoS [the community] or TMC is any closer to answering that question for itself than it was last summer, when you asked it?

Because TMC meets only once a year, answering the question has been difficult. I’ve participated in online communication with a subset of folks, but it’s just not the same as face-to-face discussion with a larger group.

I’ve also had several fairly deep online conversations with people one-on-one, and people are in various stages of comfort in answering the question. I do wonder how much of a concern the question is for the majority of MTBoS, though.

I don’t know if you’re counting me in your tally of people you’ve had fairly deep conversations with, but I’ve felt that you’ve pushed me to think more clearly about diversity in a lot of ways.

For example, there was a certain point in this past year when I said to myself, “Diversity matters because it’s a fancy name for affirmative action, and affirmative action is a good thing.” But when I shared that with you, I think you essentially told me, nobody wants to feel like they’re an affirmative action case — they want to feel valued for who they are.

Do you think there’s a way for a focus on diversity without making people feel like affirmative action cases?

My point was that everyone wants to feel valued. I’d much rather be sincerely invited for my value than my presence tolerated.

It’s all about the why. There are plenty of educators at TMC who do not work or teach with any people of color. It’s important to me that they, or other non-persons of color, are really clear of their reasons. It’s unfair for people of color to have to prove that they belong in a group of self-described like-minded mathematics educators, when we have to do this in nearly every other facet of our lives.

Have there been times when you’ve been in school and thought, this is something that just wouldn’t happen if diversity were better in this space?

Maybe it’s a bum question. Feel free to pass on it. Or to tell me the question you wish I had asked.

Question: Tell me about a time when you felt your ability or competence as an educator was questioned because of your color. Was it an issue of diversity?

In my ninth year of teaching, I began teaching third grade in an affluent, mostly White school and district with few teachers of color. Every January, students were tested for eligibility for the gifted program, which began in fourth grade in math. Both teachers and parents could recommend students for testing. While my competence had been questioned in different ways, it peaked when I recommended “too many” students, which included students of color — this per the gifted teacher and my teammate.

Some of those kids did end up qualifying for the program, and I later discovered that the gifted teacher had been asked to vacate her position since the students were performing poorly. Fate intervened, and I was asked to assume her position. Whispers ensued followed by interrogation about my qualifications from colleagues. Apparently, this was a coveted position.

To avoid a similar situation with parents, my principal agreed to a meeting with parents to introduce me and a brief question and answer. That summer I held a math boot camp for the fourth graders, and parent conferences for all. It was my attempt to make them comfortable with me, but also to gain insight into their expectations. The vetting process continued with the fifth graders, who also asked me if I was in a gifted program as a student, and if I’d skipped any grades. I was also given math problems to do.

Things went well, but my experience highlights what we have to go through. No one asked me to do any of the “extras”, but I knew they had to be done to be considered equal. After I proved myself, students and parents saw my worth, and the program grew. Had there been more teachers of color before me, that road may have been easier. It’s never easy being first.

I want to get back to the idea of a quota, and how that could be problematic. Suppose that this school — or TMC, or some other space in education — decided that they wanted to recruit more Black or Hispanic teachers, and so they created a quota. I hear you as saying that this would create a situation where the teachers filling the quota feel they have to prove themselves, to prove that they belong.

Did I get that right? You said earlier it’s all about “the why.” How then does “the why” fit into this?

As far as TMC, I’m saying that even before we hit the quota stage, there has to be an articulated reason for the quota in the first place. What’s the benefit? For whom? Is it for political correctness? I think some have an answer to this, but most don’t. At least not an answer that they are comfortable with. That’s the work – to really get at *why* this is a goal. Does that make sense?

If it’s about a school, then there’s a history of eliminating and limiting the number of teachers of color, and yes, a quota would seem to remedy that. Still, if it is only about filling that quota, it’s not sustainable. Experiences similar to mine and much worse will likely ensue. Some forethought should be given about retention.

I think I see what you mean. Like, if the purpose of a quota was “we have a lot to learn from Black educators” then that diversity policy would not put those educators on the spot. Like, the whole premise of the policy would be that Black educators are valuable, so those educators wouldn’t have to prove themselves. But if the purpose was something that didn’t affirm the value of those educators, there would be a situation where people have to prove themselves. Is this sounding like your take?

In part. But even if it’s “we have a lot to learn from Black educators” then there is the question of who is benefiting. What exactly can be learned? Why can that knowledge be obtained from teachers of color? And who does that benefit? Care should be taken with that line of reasoning.

Sometimes answers to the “why diversity” question can border on exploitation, and it’s a kind of exploitation which is pretty pervasive in schools now. For example, Black male teachers are often assigned discipline duties because “they are good at it” and Black educators are given more students of color because “we are so good with them”.

So, to come to TMC and be expected to “teach how to teach Black kids” is another form of what we experience daily. No thanks.

Right. “Hey, we really want you to come to this conference so that you can teach us about how to handle diversity and racism issues.” That seems to me a close parallel to the exploitation you’re talking about in schools.

Can you imagine a “why” that would justify a demographic quota for you? The alternative seems to me for diversity to be more about a culture change that indirectly changes the demographics of a community or a conference, which feels a bit more slippery to me.

Honestly, I don’t think I’m comfortable with a quota, which is not to say that one isn’t needed. What I’d like to imagine is that it happens naturally. That is, I wish it would happen without being forced. Yes, we need to have uncomfortable conversations, but then after the smoke clears, it should get easier. Naive, perhaps.

I am still advocating for articulating a reason why we believe in diversity. And then, if it’s needed, we should take steps to make that happen, a quota being one option among others.

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[Marian sends me Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers.]

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This looks really cool and interesting. Does it all resonate with you?

I just skimmed it but pretty much. I’d add that I was once in an all-Black space: administration, staff, students, families. For 3 years, my children and I lived without racism directly affecting me in the workplace or my children in their schooling. I’ve missed that kind of freedom.

This reminds me of something I first learned about from Dana Goldstein’s Teacher Wars, that a lot of Black teachers left the profession after Brown v. Board of Ed, because before the decision they had been teaching in all-Black schools. Mandated integration also greatly expanded the opportunities for racism.

Right. Black teachers were not hired at White schools — explicitly told they weren’t qualified to teach White students. That began the Black teacher shortage. Black schools were closed, Black teachers were fired, and Black students entered White schools.

I know that this isn’t the same because Jews and Black people are in vastly different social situations in the US, but college was my first time out of an all-Jewish environment, and my first teaching job was in an all-Jewish school. I really like my school now, but my wife teaches at an all-Jewish school and all the time I’m like, ok, how amazing would it be to teach in a place where I don’t have to explain myself? Do you ever think about going back to work at an all-Black space?

I completely understand that feeling.

I won’t go back to that particular space, due to other reasons, but I have imagined what it would be like somewhere else. At this point in my life, I see the value in being that person in my students’ lives that they’ve not seen before. It’s so much more than breaking a stereotype. My pedagogy is most valuable in a space where there are multiple cultures represented. That’s my strength.

It seems to me that the thing you’re doing for your students — being the person they’ve never seen before, challenging stereotypes — it’s so valuable. But would it be OK for a school to ask you to play that role? I think probably not, and for the reasons we’ve talked about earlier, that this feels like a justification for diversity that comes close to exploitation: “Come to our school/conference, so that you can break our stereotypes!” It seems like the role you’re describing is so important, but it can only come from the choice of the educator. If it came from the school, conference or organization, it would feel exploitative.

And then I suppose it gets back to what you were also describing above: ideally, spaces in education should transform themselves so that educators naturally want to play these roles. But I’m left with the question, is it possible to engineer a natural development like this?

That’s the question precisely. If racism is structural and systemic, is there any manner of individual pursuits, even if coordinated, that are sufficient to tackle it? My gut says no, yet I persist anyway. It’s human to use what agency we do have, right?

I want to not have to explain/prove my humanity, yet I do. Quite the conundrum.

So you can employ quotas, but then there’s the chance that people are made to feel like they don’t belong. The alternative though seems bad too, which is to let things take their natural course. I think in the case of an organization like TMC, that means embracing non-White educators when they come along and trying to be welcoming, but not really doing much to change the fundamental demographic facts of the organization.

But being welcoming is no small thing. The work begins with attending to personal bias, and really taking a hard look at what is happening in your work space. Maybe that involves looking at equity. Do all students have access to opportunities? Do all colleagues? Or maybe if you are in a non-diverse space, analyze that. Is it by choice?

There’s a lot to be said for making people feel welcomed and considered. I think that’s a matter of being human, and not a big ask. But not ever having the conversation will never get us there. There are a few talking about these things, perhaps more than I know. I hope so.

What I hear you saying is that you actually think “welcoming” is a very good place to focus the attention of a diversity conversation.

Yes, precisely.

One last thing I’m wondering — are things simpler when there has been clear discrimination in the past? Like, suppose that TMC was 100 years old and had a policy at some point of not accepting Black educators to the conference. Would that provide a clear “why” for a quota, justifying the policy without making people wonder if they really belong?

I think we’re past having to have a historical reason we can point to (i.e. exclusion policy) in order to bring other voices in. That gets into another dialogue of assigning blame that’s not helpful. We know what we have now, so the questions become: Do we want to change it? Why do we want it changed? How will we do that? In that order.

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Talking about teaching and politics with Taylor Belcher

I’m not sure how to format this thing, but it seems jarring to just drop you into a long conversation without context. But what context do you need? Taylor (@teachbarefoot) is someone who I chat with often online. As the conversation below makes clear, he’s incredibly thoughtful. I reached out to Taylor after a conversation we had on Twitter about whether teaching should be political or not. As part of that conversation he wrote “While I understand many of you see politics as a part of education, I do not. And I’m not particularly interested in the opinion that my pedagogy isn’t sufficiently political.” Read on, though, and you’ll see that there are interesting layers to his position.

By the way, this was a lot of fun and I love this format. If you’d like to chat with me about something there’s a good chance we can turn it into a post like this. Pitch me ideas! 

Maybe let’s start by talking a bit about our teaching situations. I teach at a fancy-shmancy private school in New York, and the vast majority of my students would self-identify as progressive or liberal. I’d say that my students are, on the whole, very politically engaged. My students are mostly white, mostly well-off.

Myself, my default lens for seeing the world is a liberal one, but with a lot of doubt and some deviation. On any given issue I might deviate, but I have bleeding-heart values. So I’m not exactly in tension with my students’ political views, but I’m probably less-progressive than most of them.

How about you?

I teach at a public school in South Carolina. It’s a big school (over 2,200 students) in a huge district (6 high schools, 4ish middle schools, and double digit elementary schools). The school itself has students across the whole economic spectrum from the really well off down to “Mr. Belcher I don’t have internet at home”. I have the “lower track” math classes, students who scored below a certain threshold on some test in 8th grade. They take Algebra I in two parts. The school itself is about 65%ish African American and the rest is split rougly evenly between Caucasian and Hispanic with a some Asian students, but my classes are either entirely African American or almost entirely.

I am not sure where my political views and those of my students line up, mostly because I haven’t asked them and I don’t usually share mine. But also I don’t know how much students are exposed to my brand of politics before college. I was card-carrying Libertarian for a while, and lately I have felt more sympathy for anarchist views and I don’t really know if students know about those views and I don’t usually tell them. Last year during the election students would ask me if I was voting for Trump and I gave an emphatic no, but I also told them I wasn’t voting for Hillary either. They were confused. “Who are you voting for then?”

Most of the political conversations that I have had from students have come from them being worried or confused about what is going on in our country. When they have asked me about events or expressed concern I have given them time and space in class to share their thoughts, and I may make a comment, but I mostly let the students talk to each other. (I had an English teacher in middle school who let us talk through the Iraq war when it started. She didn’t share her views but just let us talk. I have tried to emulate that.) I did express firm support for my students. It was important to me that they feel safe in my class and that they know I was for them and their well-being.

The closest I have come to sharing my political views was when the state had a mandatory constitution day. We were required by state law to incorporate the constitution into the lesson. I tried to have the students talk about whether the Bill of Rights granted rights to people or merely enshrined protections for rights that already existed.

What sorts of things make your students worried or confused?

A lot of the anti-Hispanic things that Trump said during the election worried my Hispanic students, but they responded to it in different ways. Some of them expressed concern for whether they would be allowed to stay. Others would make their usernames Trump2016 in Kahoot. I think the latter behavior was a defense mechanism or some way to take back control or comfort, but I don’t know for sure.

Shootings by police worry my students as well. I have let them talk about that and tried to navigate the weirdness that is leading a group of non-white students in a discussion on race. I find it is much easier than talking to people on twitter about race.

I also forgot to mention that my school is the school where the police officer flipped a student out of her desk and it made national news. I was not working at this school at the time but the administration still asks us not to comment on it.

Wow.

So there are a lot of people in education who say that teachers need to bring politics into their classrooms, and I think they’d really applaud what you’re describing. You let your kids talk about the political things that are worrying them, you don’t shy away when they ask you about who you’re voting for, you know what worries your kids.

What would you say are your limits? For example, would you ever teach a lesson that analyzes data about police misconduct?

Yes I probably would if I was teaching a stats course, but I would want them to draw their own conclusions from the data.

I had students who were complaining about the dress code at school. “Mr Belcher why do we have a dress code. They are being racist about enforcing the codes.”

I told them if they believed that was the case, then they should request demographics data on dress-code write-ups from the administration and I would help them crunch the data. They never followed up on it.

I’ve also tried to get some of my students to stop smoking weed by showing them incarceration rates by race for marijuana. (That didn’t work. One student got suspended and another is in juvenile detention. Both for drugs.)

When/if I bring politics in the classroom I want students to discuss / share / defend ideas rather than arrive at a certain conclusion. I don’t want to indoctrinate my students politically anymore than I want to indoctrinate them religiously. I don’t believe it is appropriate for me to do that as their teacher and not their parent. As my friend, @chrisexpthenews would say, I don’t want to act in loco parentis.

What are your limits / what have you talked about with your students in the classroom?

One thing that I think gets lost too much in these discussions is that kids don’t really care what we think about politics. Or, at least, I’ve never gotten the sense that I could really influence my kids too much by telling them what I think. If political indoctrination was easy, there would be a lot more of it.

I think my limits are about the kids and making them feel bad, hurt, or like there’s a pile-on. Once, when doing a lesson about systems of equations and the minimum wage, one kid started talking about how there’s a trade-off between minimum wages and unemployment. A bunch of other kids started piling on this kid. These kids were a group that usually had no trouble disagreeing respectfully, but politics was different, and this kid started feeling lousy and he withdrew.

I don’t regret doing the lesson, but I hate to think what that kid would have thought if I had sided with his opponents, or if the lesson had taken a clearer pro-minimum wage take. (As it happens, I think controversies about minimum wage are genuine, and you look at some of the things that happened in Seattle when they raised wages and economists seem split on whether it’s a disaster or not.)

There was another time when there was a big protest happening outside a courthouse right by our school. It was a protest against police misconduct, and so many kids wanted to go that the school decided to let kids miss class to go to the protest. Kids came back in the middle of my class period — there was no way we were going to learn any math that day, and kids were having an increasingly heated argument with one kid from the class.

I decided to make it a conversation, and I tried to really control who was talking, whether you were attacking someone, etc. Again, it was a pile-on, with one kid who saw herself as anti-Anti-police (I thought she was quite wrong) getting whacked around by the other kids in the class.

I’m not sure about whether I made the right move that day, letting kids talk about the protest. The school had already given them the chance to engage politically during the school day. Their politics had been honored, and all I think I accomplished was make a righter-wing kid feel ostracized by her peers.

We live in super-liberal Brooklyn, and the kids aren’t on the losing side of the demographic lottery, for the most part. School is already a place that feels like it honors who they are, mostly, I think, both politically and in other ways.

I guess my big limit is that I don’t want kids who disagree with the dominant view in the room to feel badly. I care about those kids too, you know? They’re just kids

I completely agree with wanting to protect the kids. Adults can’t handle political discussion a lot of the time either and I think you can feel humiliation and social exclusion more intensely as a teenager.

And I agree with the kids probably not caring either. When I was a student in high school I didn’t particularly know or care what my teacher’s politics were. I wasn’t exposed to regular political views of my teacher until college and even then that was rare.

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I was thinking about what you said about how teachers who want to bring politics into classrooms would applaud what I was describing.

I don’t know if they would or not, but I really think that if a teacher chose not to do the things that I described, they aren’t doing anything wrong. I feel that way sometimes when edu-twitter talks about teacher responsibility when it comes to white privilege too. I may or may not already be doing things that are “approved” when it comes to my role in race relations in our country but I am not interested in whether they think I am doing enough or the right thing or not.

It frustrates me when I see teachers on twitter tell colleagues to leave the profession because those colleagues don’t check off all the boxes on some list.

Thanks for bringing this up — let’s spend a second talking about this.

So it makes sense to me that you’d want to say that a teacher who doesn’t do these things isn’t doing anything wrong, in the same way you’d probably be OK with a teacher who structured their lessons in a different way than you do. Like, I’d be perfectly OK with a teacher who approached congruent triangles differently than I do, because in teaching there are a lot of different ways to go about things. This is a limitation of the “best practices” approach to teaching that people often criticize.

But just as there actually is some understanding or skill having to do with congruent triangles that we’re all mostly aiming for, there’s probably some non-negotiable having to do with classroom environment that you share. Meaning, OK, maybe you would be OK with other teachers not doing what you do, but that’s because it’s not really at the heart of things, you know?

Maybe you don’t — I’m being super unclear, I know — but is there some other value, or practice, or core whatever that you think is really the non-negotiable? Like, a level deeper than talking politics with your kids, or sharing data about arrest rates. Does that make any sense?

Yeah, that’s pretty much what I was getting at and I think it answers your second question too. I don’t have a political learning objective in my goals for my students. If there aren’t best practices and only different effective practices, then there may be effective practices for helping students become more politically educated, but that’s not one of my goals. If I taught a course where we never talked about anything except abstract nonsense and my students learned the abstract nonsense well, I would be happy.

This may be my pure math background / bent a little bit though. I am also not interested in whether my class prepares students for a job or “real-world applications”. I only want them to be able to do math and hopefully enjoy math. And I understand the argument that “everything is political and choosing not to include politics in class is a political choice”. I am fine with that charge. The political choice I am making is to just have fun doing abstract nonsense with children. I think there has to be a space for that. (And there should be a space for politics too. Just because everything is political doesn’t mean we have to politicize everything, if that makes sense at all. Like, “Yes, I understand. But let’s talk about that in another setting.”) And at the risk of repeating myself, I don’t mind (necessarily) if other teachers feel the need to explicitly politicize their math classroom. It’s their math classroom and since politics is a learning target for them, they are using their effective practices.

So I guess to me the deeper value when it comes to math class is just doing and enjoying math.

Four answers to “Should teaching be political?”

[This one sort of ran away from me. It started with just taking some notes about the historical sources and kind of just exploded from there. This all is very provisional for me. I don’t trust the commentary. Mostly you should read it for the sources cited. OK, caveat lector etc.]

I. 

George Counts was a fire-breathing advocate for using school to influence students’ political views. Specifically, Counts comes down in favor of the political indoctrination of students:

You will say, no doubt, that I am flirting with the idea of indoctrination. And my answer is again in the affirmative. Or, at least, I should say that the word does not frighten me. We may all rest assured that the younger generation in any society will be thoroughly imposed upon by its elders and by the culture into which it is born. For the school to work in a somewhat different direction with all the power at its disposal could do no great harm. At the most, unless the superiority of its outlook is unquestioned, it can serve as a counterpoise to check and challenge the power of less enlightened or more selfish purposes.

This is from Counts’ 1932 talk, “Dare Progressive Education Be Progressive?” It was delivered in front of the Progressive Education Association, and caused quite a stir:

The challenge of Dr. Counts was easily the high point of the program. Following the dinner meeting at which he spoke, small groups gathered in lobbies and private rooms to discuss, until far into the night, the issues raised in Dr. Counts’ sharp challenge. These discussions were marked by a general willingness to accept the viewpoint of Dr. Counts that the schools have a real responsibility for effective social change. There was, however, a considerable difference of opinion as to how this was to accomplished. The method of indoctrination, advocated by Dr. Counts, was widely questioned.

I took this quote from Richard Niece and Karen Viechnicki’s very interesting article on Counts’ talk. They cite many contemporary educators’ reactions to Counts’ talk. They ran the gamut, from complete agreement to shock at his frank talk of power and imposition on the child. For his progressive audience, it was the talk of indoctrination of the child — as opposed to commitment to the child’s own natural flourishing — which was truly shocking. Counts was trying to steer his audience away from children and towards socialism.

Niece and Viechnicki think that Counts’ speech split the progressive movement in a way that ultimately led to its dissolution. “The chasm between child-centered supporters and social welfare advocates became too vast to bridge.”

In 1935, three of Counts’ talks — including his live-wire PEA lecture — were reprinted as Dare the School Build a New Social Order? Intriguingly, the section on indoctrination was rewritten to include an anecdote about Counts’ discussion with the Commisar of the Soviet school system:

The advocates of extreme freedom have been so successful in championing what they call the rights of the child that even the most skillful practitioners of the art of converting others to their opinions disclaim all intention of molding the learner. And when the word indoctrination is coupled with education there is scarcely one among us possessing the hardihood to refuse to be horrified. This feeling is so widespread that even Mr. Luncharsky, Commissar of Education in the Russian Republic until 1929, assured me on one occasion that the Soviet educational leaders do not believe in the indoctrination of children in the ideas and principles of communism. When I asked him whether their children become good communists while attending the schools, he replied that the great majority do. On seeking from him an explanation of this remarkable phenomenon he said that Soviet teachers merely tell their children the truth about human history. As a consequence, so he asserted, practically all of the more intelligent boys and girls adopt the philosophy of communism. I recall also that the Methodist sect in which I was reared always confined its teachings to the truth!

Counts is just absolutely delicious in the way he stares power in the face. He’s just so quotable:

That the teachers should deliberately reach for power and then make the most of their conquest is my firm conviction…In doing this they should resort to no subterfuge or false modesty. They should say neither that they are merely teaching the truth nor that they are unwilling to wield power in their own right. The first position is false and the second is a confession of incompetence. It is my observation that the men and women who have affected the course of human events are those who have not hesitated to use the power that has come to them.

People just don’t talk like that anymore, unless they’re part of antifa or something. It’s a blast.

II.

Is Counts right? He is absolutely insistent that teaching involves imposition and indoctrination. Another juicy quote:

There is the fallacy that the school should be impartial in its emphases, that no bias should be given instruction. We have already observed how the individual is inevitably molded by the culture into which he is born. In the case of the school a similar process operates and presumably is subject to a degree of conscious direction. My thesis is that complete impartiality is utterly impossible, that the school must shape attitudes, develop tastes, and even impose ideas.

I think it’s clear that Counts, at some level, is right. School is an imposition; teaching is an imposition. So is parenting.

But there are impositions, and there are impositions. Counts correctly notes that all education is an imposition on a child. Then he says teachers should unilaterally take control of the curriculum and train children in the truths of socialism in the hopes of creating a class of socialist revolutionaries. Woah, Counts!

“Any time you watch a TV show it changes your mood, how you think,” George Counts might’ve said, “so the question isn’t whether or not to use TV for mind control but how.” George Counts is the sort of fellow responsible for Facebook’s emotion control experiment. He’s really into controlling people, but then again he’d be happy to tell you that himself.

It’s true: all education is an imposition on the student, parents and communities, but should we or should we not try to minimize this imposition? That’s the question that George Counts doesn’t ask.

Personally, I like to think of our education system in terms of tensions and equilibria. It’s not a question of the amount of imposition but the direction of those impositions. Some parts of society want us to impose professional training on children. Others want political training. We also want to use our powers of imposition to impose a safe environment, where kids are happy and safe.

And I think this is more-or-less how schools should be. They should be places that find points of balance between the competing needs of students and communities. At school, we use our powers of imposition towards contradictory ends so that a broad range of students can get something out of these institutions.

It’s true — there’s no neutrality in school — but we shouldn’t mistake the slurry, messy non-neutrality of schools for an institution with a particular aim and purpose. Counts’ vision would be a disaster for public education, I have no doubt.

III.

W.E.B. Du Bois was not a fan of George Counts’ take on education. In a 1935 address to black teachers in Georgia — a few things I’ve read say that he was addressing the Counts controversy in this talk, but I can’t see where exactly — he began by deemphasizing the ability of schools to effect direct social change. “The public school,” he says, “is an institution for certain definite ends. It is not an institution intended or adapted to settle social problems of every kind.”

Du Bois, however, was a big believer in the ability of knowledge to erode social barriers, eventually:

Now, of course, indirectly, and in the long run, all men must believe that human wrong is going to be greatly ameliorated by a spread of intelligence; that the spread of such intelligence beyond the confines of a narrow aristocracy and the pale of race, down to the masses of men, is going to open great and inexhaustible reservoirs of ability and genius. But, mind you, this intelligence is the essential and inescapable step between the school and the social program, which cannot be omitted without disaster. The school cannot attack social problems directly. It can and must attack them indirectly by training intelligent men, and these intelligent men through social institutions other than the school will work for a better organization of industry, a juster distribution of income, a saner treatment of crime, a more effective prevention of disease, a higher and more beautiful ideal of life without race, prejudice and war.

Du Bois goes on to criticize the ability of progressive education trends — “new methods of teaching” — to address the needs of black children. Du Bois takes aim at the entire progressive education enterprise, preferring a sort of early version of the “back to basics” approach:

What we need, then, and what the public school, college and university must supply, is intelligence concerning history, natural science and economics; and the essential key to this intelligence is a thorough, long-disciplined knowledge of the three “R’s.” To assume that instead of this, and be allowing the curriculum of the public school to encroach upon thorough work in reading, writing and arithmetic, we can cure the ills of the present depression by training children directly as artisans, workers and farmers without making them intelligent men, is absolutely false.

Du Bois, though, is clear that this sort of training can’t possibly help the impoverished and oppressed break through all on its own. School can educate, but the rest of the work happens outside the institution.

There’s a fascinating moment when Du Bois talks about his disappointment of his daughter’s education in a progressive school:

My daughter attended as a child a first-class kindergarten and a progressive grade school. But there was so much to study and to do, so much education rampant, that when she went to a real school and entered the fifth grade, she had to stop everything and learn the multiplication table. The learning of the multiplication table cannot be done by inspiration or exortation. It is a matter of blunt, hard, exercise of memory, done so repeatedly and for so many years, that it becomes second nature so that it cannot be forgotten.

I remember a parent-teacher conference with the mother of a student of mine who was black. I couldn’t tell if she was particularly concerned about my class, but she was very clear about her concerns: “My son is a black boy, and he’s going to leave school a black man in a society where it’s not easy to be that. I want to make sure his math won’t hold him back.” I hear that parental concern in Du Bois.

Du Bois, like Counts, is just so direct and quotable. (“The pressure upon Negroes is to increase our income. That is the main and central Negro problem.”) They also shared a love of communism. (Du Bois would suffer terribly at the hands of McCarthyism, an episode I know basically nothing about.)

While reading Du Bois’ address, I found myself thinking of James Baldwin’s remarkable Talk to Teachers, and Baldwin’s closing message:

Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them –  I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.  I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.  I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it.  And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth.

Du Bois would probably have little patience for this project, and he’d probably also take issue with Baldwin’s characterization of the purpose of schooling:

The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.

This comes much closer to Counts’ progressive view on the role of school, but Baldwin has no interest in indoctrination. He is interested in self-sufficiency, the ability to decide. Baldwin just wants school to tell the truth about the world, so that students don’t blindly make their choices.

I do think that something like a mish-mash of Baldwin and Du Bois is possible in our schools today. Baldwin was not a teacher, and (as far as I know) didn’t have any concrete views on curriculum, not like Counts did. Where do those lessons about America come? How are they learned? Is Baldwin talking about the curriculum, skills and knowledge, or is he talking about the space between all that stuff?

So much happens in the empty space of school. Kids are formed by the ephemeral qualities of school just because school is where they are for (if all goes well) more than a decade of their lives — everyone’s influenced by their environments, no? Kids will make friends, find adults to admire and despise, and learn a way of moving through their world. Kids really do take something from all that other stuff when they leave — though what any particular student takes with them may vary. Tricky, maybe impossible to engineer, yes, but there are chances in school to help children really understand their place in the world, and we shouldn’t lie.

IV. 

Eric Gutstein is a professor of math education at University of Illinois. Following Paulo Freire, he talks about math education for reading and writing the world. In other words, math education should help you understand social injustices and also lead to you battling them.

Gutstein’s pedagogy is nicely encapsulated in his article Teaching and Learning Mathematics for Social JusticeThe piece is his account of the two years he spent teaching social justice math at an “urban, Latino high school.” His approach is a version of real-world math, and he is a big believer that engagement with personally relevant mathematics leads to better learning and more positive feelings about math.

Much to discuss in Gustein’s work. I’m interested, mostly, in the Counts’ question: are we OK with indoctrination?

There is no clear and direct statement, ala Counts. We do get a very measured statement that seems to address the concern of imposition of political views:

I did not try to have my students answer questions so much as raise them. Questions such as why females, students of color, and low-income students score lower on SAT and ACT exams are not easily answerable–and students did raise that question in one of our projects…And I did not want my students to accept any view without questioning it. I did share my own opinions with my students because I agreed with Freire’s contention that progressive educators need to take the responsibility to dispel the notion that education can be the inactive transfer of inert knowledge and instead to promote the idea that all practice (including teaching) is inherently political I take Freire to mean that educators need to be explicit in their views while at the same time to respect the space of others to develop their own.

There is a lot of “yes, but…” going on here. Yes, I share my political views with my students, but I don’t ask them to accept them on my authority. Yes, I show my students examples of social injustice, but I don’t offer simplistic answers. (Though Gutstein in his paper describes prompting his students to explain why they thought a given injustice arose.  I think that this inevitably supports students in forming definite answers to the questions he raises.) For Gutstein, we are to be explicit in our political views and design math lessons around them, but we are to also give students space to develop their own views. (Where?)

Counts might have caused a fissure in progressive education by placing a wedge between child-centered and social justice progressives; Gutstein represents an attempt to reconcile these forces in his own pedagogy. For that matter, it aims to satisfy Du Bois by claiming rigor and mathematical sophistication for his students, and Baldwin too by aiming for student independence in deciding what to believe, as long as they’re armed with the truth.

And what would Counts say? I imagine this would bother him. After all, how can you claim that you’re leaving room for students to develop their own views when you’re hand-picking topics to support your political views? (Counts on curriculum: “the dice must always be weighted in favor of this or that.”) He would see in Gutstein a contradiction, an attempt to erase himself from the role of political influencer even though he totally echoes Counts’ line in saying teaching is inherently political.

If teaching is inherently political, then why not own up to the attempt to politically influence your students? Own up, man!

For better or for worse, though, we aren’t living in the 1930s. (Come to think of it — of course it’s better that we aren’t living in the 1930s.) Back in those days communism was a semi-respectable political view, fascism wasn’t funny, an educator like Counts could earnestly go around talking about power grabs, and everyone had the distinct feeling that the world was about to fall apart at the seams — they were correct. School was up for grabs, along with everything else, and advocates for social reform wanted a piece.

This is not the world we live in now. We’ve been through the 20th century. Schools are now places of compromise, as reflected in Gutstein’s rhetoric. George Counts, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin all tug at school, along with like seven other totally different tuggers.

And because of all this — because schools are places of compromise, and because they should be — I am generally not excited by teachers trying to help their students come to take one side in a political controversy.

It’s not that I want politics out of schools. There’s no reason for that, and politics is part of the story that we need to tell — Baldwin is right. Du Bois is also right: schools have enough trouble teaching the curriculum, and can only create social change indirectly, by educating students who go on to create institutions for good.

Counts, however, is wrong, and to the extent Gutstein echoes him I think he is wrong as well. True: there’s nothing “natural” or apolitical about education. But I think we do our best job when schools accurately reflect the incompatible desires our society places on schools, rather than taking a particular social desire and running with it. So while schools will never be politically neutral, I think in our lessons we should try.

Something I Wrote on NCTM’s Membership Forum about Equity and NCTM Policy

I also think there should be an opportunity to review NCTM’s policy commitments and their relation to equity at the national conference. It’s not at all clear to me that the policies that NCTM gets behind lobbying for in DC help to reduce inequality. This should be a matter for member discussion.

My understanding — just from things that I’ve read — is that much of NCTM’s lobbying happens as part of the STEM Ed Coalition [http://www.stemedcoalition.org/about-us/our-leadership/]. Here are aspects of the STEM Ed Coalition platform that trouble me, from the perspective of equity:

  • They call for expanding accountability measures and testing to include science, but testing regimes are frequently used to support inequity in practice.
  • They call for private money to flow into education to support STEM education, though in practice private money has been used to support inequity.
  • The foundation for their STEM platform is the belief that STEM jobs are necessary for national security and economic reasons. This kind of nationalistic justification is often used to support inequities in education — after all, it’s in the national interest to have our very best students, and only our very best, in STEM.

If NCTM wants to put equity at the center, then NCTM policy needs to be revisited at the conferences.

A Quick One, On Politics and Teaching

I’m watching Grace’s talk (which you should watch too) and thinking about her question:

Is teaching necessarily political?

This is a question that I find tremendously tricky — though I sometimes feel alone in finding it so, and I often do a terrible job explaining my trouble. I’ll try again here.

In watching Grace’s talk, I see a difference between two ways of arguing for viewing teaching through a political lens:

  1. You should adopt a political lens because it will help your students, and because it’s the right thing to do.
  2. You must adopt a political lens because teaching is political, and you have to open your eyes up to reality.

The second metaphor is behind talk of being “woke.” Right? It’s saying things just are a certain way. You need to see teaching as political just as you must see the world as round. Wake up!

This reminds me of a favorite passage from Maimonides’ treatise on sin and recovery:

“Ye that sleep, bestir yourselves from your sleep, and ye slumbering, emerge from your slumber, examine your conduct, turn in repentance, and remember your Creator!”

To see teaching as non-political is to slumber; to realize that it’s not is to open your eyes.

For whatever reason, though, this language feels wrong to me. It’s the first way of putting things that I’m much more comfortable with. Not that teaching is necessarily political, but that we can choose to see it as such, and that we should because it’s the right thing to do.

(I feel nervous sharing these rough thoughts. Some might accuse me of getting caught up in language, but what can I say? The question is one of language, and I’m caught up in it.)

In a comment on one of Grace’s incisive posts, I tried to draw an analogy between teaching as necessarily political and teaching as necessarily spiritual to try to make sense of this all. I’ll quote it here, but definitely go and read Grace’s post in its entirety:

Is teaching spiritual? Well, to someone who sees the world through spiritual lenses it certainly is! Every interaction — each moment — is stuffed with spiritual potential. Our sense for the spiritual is, arguably, tied up with the experiences of kindness, connection, understanding. We’re also capable of casual cruelty, and that mundane disregard for other people is the opposite of what it means to be spiritually engaged in a moment. In short, each moment in teaching is potentially spiritual, so let’s go out and say it: teaching is spiritual work. (Even when you fail to sense it, or treat the moment as mundane.)

At the same time, the classroom is not a religious center and there is a great deal of spiritual activity that would be inappropriate in a classroom context. In that sense, teaching is not spiritual, i.e. there is not widespread agreement among parents, students, educators and other stakeholders that there ought to be spiritual activity in the classroom. (Certainly not that there ought to be any particular sort of spiritual activity present.)

So is teaching inherently spiritual? It depends what you mean.

(a) A spiritual person (I guess I am) could say, yes, absolutely. Teaching is, or it can be, spiritual work. (And the absence of spiritual meaning is taking a sort of spiritual stand, too.)
(b) On the the other hand, spirituality is not an agreed upon purpose of schools or schooling. So you can bring spirituality to the fore of your classroom, but there are risks involved. (Like losing your job, or offending someone who has a strong opposition to spirituality or your particular spiritual message.)

We might also ask, SHOULD schools be more spiritual?

All of this feels as if it’s closely parallel to what we talk about when we talk about whether teaching is political.

The way of thinking about this that I find most natural is that teaching is not necessarily political, though it’s possible to see all of teaching through a political lens, and I really think that you should. 

Why see teaching through a political lens, if it’s not necessarily political? Because it’s the right thing to do for your students. It’ll sensitize you to a host of issues that — whether or not they help increase test scores or get kids into college — will make your classroom a more humane place for your students. People need to be loved and understood; your students are people. A political perspective helps.

But I admit to being entirely unsure of this, and confused as to whether there is really any real difference here. Is there anything important at stake between these two ways of arguing for seeing teaching as political? Are these just two ways of saying the same thing, or two fundamentally different perspectives on politics and teaching?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if I’ve articulated where I’m at in a way that can convince you that I’m not trying to stir up shit or to cause trouble, and I also don’t know if I’ve convinced anyone that this is coming from a place of really sincere concern for doing right by my students. I don’t know why this question feels important and elusive to me, but it does.

And now go watch Grace’s talk! It really is great.

How to argue for the appropriateness of scientists marching on Washington

This piece (“Science Has Always Been Political”) has a conclusion I absolutely agree with:

The argument for Science Marchers should not be to keep your government hands off of science; instead it should be that science and objectivity can have a complex political history, and that the discovery of facts can have a cultural and social basis—and “alternative facts” can still be lies.

And I’d think the argument for the importance of scientists marching politically should be straightforward. Scientists have no special obligation to avoid politics. The government is a major source of science funding, and so these institutions necessarily influence each other. If scientists have the ability to positively impact our society and government they, like any citizen, should act. The march has such a potential and, therefore, a political march on Washington is appropriate.

This is not the argument the piece provides, though, and I find the arguments provided unnecessarily convoluted. Not that this is like my area of expertise or anything. And, since Moses, Jenn and I had been going back and forth on this issue yesterday, I thought I’d write a post about it. Not because I have views that I’m confident in here but because I need space to stretch out on this discussion.

Here is our twitter discussion, by the way, in case you want to click through and see too much tweeting:

Thanks to Moses and Jenn for being so reliably thoughtful, and thanks to Moses for thinking to share this piece with me even though I’m sort of perpetually annoying about the relationship between politics and science/math.

The piece starts strong, from my point of view. Apparently, some scientists don’t know what “political protest” means:

Some very vocal scientists—even some of the March’s organizers—seem unaware of the political history of their profession, or they assume that the politics is a sideshow that can be separated from the business of uncovering the truths of nature. Even one organizer of the march tried to make this distinction,calling it “a protest, but…not a political protest.”

This is nonsense, and the piece correctly identifies it as such. A march on Washington that isn’t a political protest? I don’t even know what that means…

But the piece goes beyond pointing out this ridiculousness. Instead it argues that politics is inseparable from science.

What does that mean? First [Argument #1] that scientists have, historically, been interested in who is permitted to join the scientific community.

Questions about who could be a part of a scientific community and what kind of knowledge they could obtain were a matter of political control from the very beginning. The London-based Royal Society, established in 1660, initially restricted its membership to economically independent men, under the pretext that anyone else would lack the mental or moral capacity to set aside their self-interest and fairly observe the results of experiments.

Over 350 years later, some scientists still imagine their own purity, that quiet consensus within their own circles means that science is apolitical. (emphasis mine, -MP)

This is a political question, hence science is political.

I object a bit here. We slide very quickly from saying that who is permitted to do science is a political question into saying that science is political. Those aren’t the same thing, though. Granted that banning women from driving trucks would be political; is it political to drive a truck?

My objection here is entirely to the sloppiness of the argument. There’s no reason to overly complicate things: being a science professional puts you in contact with political questions. Why go the extra step to say that science — as a body of knowledge — is political?

A second argument [#2] for the political nature of science follows this first one. Scientists have gender, sexuality, race, nationality, religion and many other views. These political factors influence their ideas, and therefore their ideas are political:

The science-purity position argues that if Newton’s laws are true and right, his ideas are an objective truth that has nothing to do with his sexuality, race, nationality, or religion. But this position (mostly advocated by people in positions of privilege afforded to them by race, gender, language background, or other identities) often conflates positions of political privilege for political neutrality.

I completely grant that Newton’s scientific ideas are influenced by his  identities and other views — every human is a whole human. Likewise, the inventor of the corkscrew necessarily had many identities and views that influenced his invention.

Is opening a bottle of wine therefore political?

I think we have to distinguish between Newton’s ideas and the ideas of Isaac Newton. Newton had his own ideas. Ideas have a life beyond the person who caused them to become well known, don’t they? (If they don’t, then is using a corkscrew a political act?)

Agree or disagree with my analogy, this seems to be taking us into very weird and abstract territory. What does this have to do with the appropriateness of marching on Washington?

third argument: Since some scientists have been political advocates, we can also be political advocates too:

The claim that politicizing science is something new also overlooks advocacy by figures in the history of science or casts the work of white male scientists Robert Oppenheimer and Linus Pauling as apolitical.

What if Oppenheimer and Pauling were wrong to politicize science? This is sort of a non-sequitur to me.

Likewise:

It imagines that ethical disasters such as eugenic sterilization,scientific racism, and using the imprimatur and prestige of science to justify sexual inequality and oppression are disconnected from the pure scientific facts themselves.

This is obviously an instance when science was influenced by racism and other awful political views. But it offers no response to the critic who says, precisely! Politics should stay out of science.

Argument #4: 

From a historical perspective, imagining science as apolitical is itself a kind of political argument

I’m not sure what “from a historical perspective” means here. Like, in the past, if you said science was apolitical you were making a political argument, so if you’re doing that now you’re probably also making a political argument? That’s my best read.

But we’re spending all this time trying to convince people that science has to be political. At what point is the article going to get around to telling us why science ought to be political?

The final argument [#5] is that since science is not objective — it’s truths are influenced by the people and societies who produce them:

The science march may be united in opposing “antiscience” abuses by the new administration, and it has attracted the interest of more than 100,000 people, but two camps are quickly coalescing: those who believe science is objective and those who know objectivity is social.

Therefore…therefore…?

I don’t see how recognizing that the ideas of science have social origins impacts whether science is political, or whether scientists ought to be engaged in politics.

If somebody challenged the appropriateness of teachers striking, I would want to argue that we’re people and can do what we want. I’d argue that teachers need to protect our own interests, there will be no long-term harm to students, and that if you want to blame someone you should blame those who refuse to agree to our reasonable demands.

I wouldn’t go straight to the social science, the philosophy, to Plato or Aristotle.

The arguments in this piece don’t make a ton of sense to me, but more than any particular argument, I don’t understand the overall approach. If people are challenging the appropriateness of mixing science with politics, you don’t want to just argue that politics is inextricably bound with science. You want to argue that these political actions are appropriate.

Why not make that argument? Wouldn’t that argument resonate more widely than these very abstract points?

 

 

[It’s-My-Blog-So-I-Can-Write-About-Politics-If-I-Want-To Edition]

One of my favorite pieces on learning begins with a story:

Once upon a time, an astute and beneficent leader in a remote country anticipated increasing aggressions from a territory-hungry neighbor nation. Recognizing that the neighbor had more military might, the leader concluded that his people would have to out-think, rather than overpower the enemy. Undistinguished in its military armament and leadership, the country did have on remarkable resource: the reigning world chess master, undefeated for over twenty years. “Aha,” the leader said to himself, “we will recruit this keen intellect, honed so long on the whetstone of chess, teach him some politics and military theory and then outmaneuver the enemy with the help of his genius.”

Would this be a good idea? Could the chess master apply his skills to the battlefield — or would he have difficulty applying the insights of chess to human warfare? More generally, are cognitive skills context bound?

I think an entirely sensible answer to these questions is, maybe, who knows. It depends on the person. Some skills, for some people, become so much a part of who they are that they cease to be skills at all. There is no clear place where the skill stops and the person begins.

I can imagine that chess master developing an instinct towards caution in her gameplay. And then maybe, because she’s thoughtful and sharp, she starts seeing her life in terms of chess. Not right away — it takes many years. But she starts to understand her life partly in terms of chess, and she starts noticing opportunities in her life when that same chess-born instinct towards caution applies. And now there’s a two-way street between chess and her life, and the things she learns in one arena sooner rather than later show up in the other.

For me, teaching is structured empathy. I spend all my time trying to understand how other people think, in the hopes of changing how they think. This isn’t to take a stand on whether teachers should primarily be talkers or listeners. I sure hope that even the talkers out there spend a lot of time worrying about their students’ thinking. (For that matter, I’ve always found that talking is an important part of listening.)

I mostly worry about how other people think about math. I know a thing or two about how people think about numbers or shapes, but I couldn’t tell you how people think about molecules, slavery or elections. I’d have to spend a lot more time listening (and talking) in order to know anything about that.

At the same time, like that chess master, it seems as the habit of listening is no longer easy to separate from the rest of my experiences. In this sense, my teacher identity has taken over its host.

Yes, this piece is a plea for listening.

In school today I saw a lot of sad students. (Mostly happy ones.) The adults did a fantastic job supporting students today, giving them room for their fears and sorrow. If you’re living in NYC in 2016 you don’t experience a lot of elemental forces that leave you feeling powerless, but an election is (of course) entirely out of your control, and that’s a feeling that can leave you reeling if you haven’t developed a taste for powerlessness.

Take a day or two, and listen to the kids. Hear their fears and stories, understand how they think. But sooner rather than later we need to listen more widely, to voices that are literally far away from us. (Thanks, urban/rural polarization.)

You can’t persuade people if you can’t listen. You can’t continue the fight against bigotry if you can’t listen. You can’t fight racism if you can’t listen. The only way to challenge your neighbors is to understand them, with the tenaciousness and curiosity you’d bring to a kid with a bizarre strategy for solving an equation.

I can’t think of a much better use for a classroom than helping kids understand that you’re supposed to understand how the other 50% of the country feels.

In my attempts to understand why we elected DJT, demographics are conspiring against me. My values, education, incentives and experiences all stack the deck against understanding what the hell is going on out there.

The piece that has helped me the most to understand what just happened goes like this:

The rural folk with the Trump signs in their yards say their way of life is dying, and you smirk and say what they really mean is that blacks and gays are finally getting equal rights and they hate it. But I’m telling you, they say their way of life is dying because their way of life is dying.

We’re supposed to understand each other. I can’t figure out whether that’s trite or not (it is) but sometimes we teachers are trite.

Teachers and Activists

Ta-Nehisi Coates identifies as a writer, but not as an activist:

Screenshot 2016-07-23 at 10.38.56 PM

This seems entirely sensible to me. Being a writer does not make you an activist, even though Coates’ writing is obviously politically relevant.

And (I’ll add) it’s good that to have both writers and activists. They answer to different calls and do different work. I wouldn’t want every writer to be an activist. I wouldn’t want every activist to be a writer.

Should every teacher be an activist? (Jose didn’t ask this question, but he got me thinking.)

We live in a world that finds it useful to use mathematical achievement as a loose guideline for how much money you should make. So, yes, there is something inherently politically relevant about teaching math. If you teach well, you have the chance to slip a person through the social machine.

Kids form their identities in our classes. School is part of the government. Every experience that a child has in school either supports or contradicts the hypothesis that their country has their best interests at heart. So there are political stakes to teaching math.

Does that mean that every teacher should be an activist? (Could be an activist? Is an activist?)

Perhaps this is a matter of semantics. What makes someone an activist? I take it the term refers to those who actively agitate for political outcomes. And perhaps that term can include many different forms of agitation, and maybe that can include the act of teaching math itself. Maybe teaching math in a certain way is a form of activism.

Personally, though, I think this runs the risk of mishandling the political energy of math educators. Teaching well is something teachers are already trying to do. What do we gain by seeing this as political activity?

I would rather see a more limited and ambitious use of the term. To be a teacher and an activist is to be a teacher who organizes or campaigns towards a political goal. And more teachers should be activists: they should form groups that push teacher organizations, districts and schools to adopt better policies.

Activism is important. It takes skill, not everyone can do it, and lots of people should. At least, that’s the activism I’m interested in.