My year in teaching school and my politics…

All the personal struggles and surprises aside, I’ve spent the bulk of the last year focused on learning how to be teacher. Now, with the first, tiniest amount of free time, I’ve noticed my mind pedaling around the same question: how far have my grad school stint and my career choice pushed me away from my revolutionary ideals?

If we look for the answer in my participation in organized and explicit social movement activities, then the response that reflects back is dazzlingly clear: I’ve been almost completely M.I.A. I’ve missed basically all of the major political events and initiatives in Seattle for the last year. I missed Occupy, I’ve missed all of the major Seattle Solidarity Network fights, I’ve missed the port workers and transit organizing, I’ve missed organizing against the new youth jail, and I haven’t been to a single radical educational or discussion event. Given that pretty much my entire identity has been wrapped up in radical politics since I was 14, this is a drastic change. It’s a stark absence from the world I know best, and I’ve certainly felt the void.

But the question cannot end there. If it did, then not only should I be depressed and disappointed in myself, but my integrity should also demand that I rethink my decision to be a teacher. Yet that’s not at all how I feel. The truth is that I’ve felt largely satisfied over the last year. I feel well-grounded in my politics and strategic vision, and I’m optimistic about my ability to integrate a teacher’s approach to social change with the more traditional social movement work that I’ve been missing lately. In fact, as I’ve been thinking, I’ve realized that my original question might be inappropriate.

Perhaps a better question is: how has my time focused on teacher education contributed to my revolutionary ideals? Yeah, with that question, things get a lot more interesting.

In many ways, my year in teacher-education-land has been a useful retreat from the often insular world of radical organizing. First, it’s given me personal space to build new relationships outside of the radical subculture, and that has been healthy and rewarding. More importantly, though, it’s given me the opportunity to think about movement dilemmas using a variety of new lenses. More than ever, I believe that education is central to revolutionary movement building, and getting intensive, formal training in educational theories and techniques has really expanded my political toolbox.

I’d like to elaborate on some of this here.

Let’s start with some basics. Revolutionary organizing, at its root, is about facilitating people’s personal transformation. It’s about transforming people’s relationships to their own sense of power and potential, their relationships to each other, and their relationships to larger social institutions. Some can disagree with this and frame it differently. They might say, for example, that it’s not so much about changing people, as about changing the structures that hold people’s true natures back, but that’s a mistake. The “structures” are almost never actually structures—we’re not fighting against giant concrete slabs, after all—but rather very human social relationships that need to change, which means individual people, values, and decisions that need to be transformed. I will gladly debate radicals all day long about this: revolutionaries are in the business of helping people to change. I think that’s our necessary starting point.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? Teachers are pretty much in the same business. Teaching is all about organizing a social environment, and facilitating experiences, that allow people to grow deeper and more sophisticated connections with themselves, each other, and the world. That is, teaching is about helping people to grow and change toward their higher potential. Teaching and learning are both intensely personal while also being highly social—much like radical organizing. And, at its best, teaching is a process of supporting people to realize their full potential as historical agents.

That said, revolutionary organizing and teaching are also markedly different. Public school teaching begins in a context of coercion, and it does involve state-mandated content. It is riven with elements of social control and indoctrination. I don’t need to go that far into all this, because I think we can just take it as a given. I’m not under any illusion that just by being a school teacher I’m doing radical work. I’m not. Teaching is not enough to make more than a small dent in the armor of this system.

The point, though, is that there are some tips and techniques in teaching that are almost directly transferable to revolutionary organizing.

I think at this point it’s probably most useful to just list some examples off.

Know Your Students, Know Yourself. This one is kind of a gimme, but teachers are taught to know their students well, and to use a wide variety of techniques to do this—icebreakers, interest surveys, one-on-one conferences, pre-assessments, open houses, field trips, etc. Teachers are also taught to be grounded in their own identity, style, and preconceived notions about students—including being aware of our institutional privileges. As radicals, this seems like all obvious stuff, but how well do we actually implement trying to know our people? How do we use data? How do we use internal movement surveys? Do we do one-on-one conferencing between new folks and movement veterans—I know they do in some cities—or use other forms of relationship building beyond parties or go-arounds at workshops?
The political parties are absolutely obsessed with data-mining, microtargeting, and knowing everything they can about their constituencies. If I walk into a radical info-shop or social center, on the other hand, people often won’t even look at me or acknowledge me. Seriously, I’m 31 and I’ve been an anarchist for 16 years, and I’m still scared to enter radical spaces because so few people make a friendly effort to know me!

Metacognition and Learning Strategies. A big thing in teaching these days is this idea of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. The idea is that helping students to explicitly think about and articulate how they think will help them think better. For example, it’s not enough to know the answer to a math problem, it’s potentially more important to be able to describe how one found the answer, and why the method worked. Teachers are also encouraged to identify the tricks that skilled readers/writers/quantitative thinkers use and to explicitly teach those to students as learning strategies. Students learn how to infer meaning in texts, make predictions in stories, visualize numbers in a wide variety of ways, or break unknown words into their component parts.
We need this in a big way in revolutionary work. Everything is so mystified and loaded with jargon, that especially new organizers feel like they have to read dozens of books before they can hold their own with veterans. This is a mistake. There are very real tricks to thinking systematically and strategically about political realities, and those tricks can be taught. Similarly, manipulative and abusive politics are rife in our movements because people are using techniques and tactics that most of us aren’t metacognitively aware of. We need more awareness of when we are creating straw positions, when we are using anecdotal evidence, when we are creating false dichotomies, imagining zero-sum situations, etc.

Students Need Regular, Specific Positive Feedback. Current thinking about classroom management and “discipline” in schools is that students respond best to warm classrooms that offer a ratio of 4 specific, positive pieces of feedback for every 1 piece of constructive criticism. However, the positive feedback can’t be hollow or like “everyone gets a trophy because we’re all equal.” It should actually be relevant to the student and their actual participation. Both positive and critical feedback should be framed with an understanding of the student as being in a process of learning, without an imposition of artificial deadlines. Further, feedback should be pretty much constant, so that students have a regularly updated sense of their progress toward their various learning goals.
In revolutionary work, criticism is one of those things that we’re particularly bad at. From the group-think of criticism/self-criticism, to passive aggressive notes and open letters—which usually means humiliating people publicly because we’re too scared of a one-on-one discussion—to just straight-up name calling—can’t we just ban attack words like “liberal,” “bourgeois,” “reformist,”–we are mired in terrible ways of handling difference. We also are pretty terrible about giving new people information about how they can learn and grow from mistakes. In fact, do we even learn from most of our mistakes on the radical left? Not so sure.
In the context of a caring and stable political community, the teaching tips of 4-to-1 positive feedback and consistent delivery of specific feedback could do some amazing things.

Zone of Proximal Development. So, there was this soviet-era educational theorist named Vygotsky, who current teaching theorists love. Vygotsky was all about social learning, the idea that we learn less from a teacher depositing knowledge in us, and more from working in a group with our peers. People who like Paolo Freire would find things to like in Vygotsky’s thinking. Well, one of Vygotsky’s ideas was that all of us have our current ability levels, but we have also this whole extended level of potential which is what we are capable of with the support or presence of a more capable peer. This is the zone of proximal development. The idea, then, is that with strategic cooperative grouping, students can develop their learning even faster because the support and modeling of their peers expands their potential.
This is a very simplified gloss of the idea, but it’s useful for thinking about mentoring and division of labor in revolutionary circles. We don’t need a rigid system of step-up/step-back all the time. We also don’t need individual role-rotations, where veteran organizers swap out of a role and new people swap in. If we have mixed ability working groups that share tasks cooperatively, people actually can show remarkable abilities to grow rapidly, without having to throw new people to the wolves, and without having to shut down veterans’ experiences entirely.

Scaffolding. Another very popular Vygotsky related idea is the idea of scaffolding. The theory here is that human beings build their learning as a web of relationships to prior experiences and knowledge. So, knowing this, teachers should use students’ prior experiences as a foundation, and then build supportive scaffolding up so that students can move higher and higher toward whatever the learning goal is. Scaffolds can take many forms. They can include visuals to aid texts, or blocks and manipulatives for students to physically work with in a math class, or just helping students have pre-requisite knowledge before taking on advanced concepts.
I think this idea of scaffolding is especially salient for revolutionary organizing. Most people do not have a lot of prior experience with radical ideas, with collective self-management, or with confronting systemic oppression. However, they do have many, many experiences with surviving and navigating said oppression. Organizers should consciously think about how their tactics and initiatives help scaffold different experiences for people to learn new, relevant revolutionary skills. We should explicitly ask ourselves what future ideas and skills our various events and actions are scaffolding. Are we building only militant confrontational skills, or only academic skills, or only meeting and discussion skills? How do we scaffold for a future society if we don’t know what that society will look like?
One group that I think is an excellent example of revolutionary scaffolding in action is the Seattle Solidarity Network. By taking on small, winnable fights against bosses and landlords, and organizing hundreds of people in collective action in these fights, they are scaffolding many critical skills and attitudes that will be useful for whenever a time for larger, more protracted radical campaigns are necessary.

One More For Now: Inquiry-Based Learning. In teaching, there are many different philosophies about how to actually present new content. One strategy is inquiry-based learning. This is closely connected with Freire’s problem-posing education. The idea is that a teacher presents a dilemma or situation, and provides access to a variety of pieces of authentic information (texts, resources, tools, etc), and students are tasked with building their own understanding by trying to create an approach to the problem. Once again, this is a gloss, but that’s the big idea.
This should be really common in revolutionary educational work, but it’s not. Rarely do we have workshops in which people are actually using authentic data sources (newspapers, statistics, past activist experiences) to develop realistic approaches to scenarios. Instead, most of our workshops use highly abstracted games or veiled scenarios that often inspire only shallow thinking about solutions. We learn big concepts from these activities, like how to select a target, or how to make a fun chant, but we don’t develop high-level strategic and tactical thinking skills. The nuance is usually not there, and I believe the ability to handle the nuances of radical politics is one of those metacognitive tricks that keeps some people in radical work, while others burn out and quit.
I think our revolutionary workshops and education projects need to—as they say in the teaching world—develop higher expectations.

Okay, I’m still getting back into the groove of blog writing, so I think I’ll cut this off here.

The point should be clear by now, though. Although I’ve been away from revolutionary work for a long time now, I’ve been learning a whole bunch as I prepare to become a teacher. I’m excited about applying some of that learning to social movement work in the Seattle area in the near future.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi

3 comments

I stumbled upon this from a friend’s facebook page, and I just had to say thank you. This is a truly well-written, insightful, grounding piece, and as a fellow “radical”, organizer, and enrichment educator, I very much appreciate it. Keep ’em coming! Solidarity.

Wow, very flattering, Julie. Thanks for the the warm comment!

I’ll hope to check out your page more, too, when I’m not drowning in planning for next week’s classes!