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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Photo of a door opening to an empty school hallway

"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious -- makes you so sick at heart -- that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all." -- Mario Savio, December 2, 1964

Earlier this semester, I shared this quote with my students as we discussed the Free Speech Movement, which began on the Berkeley campus 50 years ago this month.

Now this quote feels painfully personal and relevant.

Justice Not Served

I say this in light of the grand juries decisions in Ferguson and New York to not indict police officers in the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Since those decisions, the nation has been reeling from the protest and outrage that has been directed at the judicial system and police in general.

I am also outraged. For those who have are not fully informed on what has been happening, you can read, "10 Hours in Ferguson: A Visual Timeline of Michael Brown's Death and Its Aftermath," and this Huffington Post article, "A Timeline Of Events Since Eric Garner's Death."

As educators it is time for us to do our part in "stopping the machine" and no longer continue the disingenuous role of taking neutral positions in matters that are about the life and death of our communities. Being above the fray in such matters is not in the best interest of our students, and ultimately makes us complicit in what are essentially, as I see it, criminal acts.

Critique of a Neutral Stance

Even as I started writing this post, I found myself moderating my words, neutralizing the phrasing of the subject so that those who might be on the fence, confused, or firmly on the side of those who support the grand jury decisions can feel included in the conversation. However, as an educator, a human being, and a person of conscience, it is time we say enough is enough, and that such a neutral stance is irresponsible and does not serve the most vulnerable of students, who, by the way, are not always identifiable by their gender, color of their skin, or age.

As educators, we are expected to keep our feelings and opinions out of the discussion so that we can make room for students to form their own informed opinions. However, we must also model courage, clarity, and a sense of fairness and justice -- and in no way at all can neutrality be part of this equation.

I am asking for educators to take a stance for what is human and in the best interest of health and wellbeing of our students. For us to do this, we must be clear about what our values are, and make it clear to our students that while we are open to debate about certain topics, about others we are not.

When Neutrality Is Inappropriate

Would we take a neutral stance on child prostitution or genocide? When we make space for students to discuss or even debate similar issues, don't we make it clear to them that these are acts of injustice that must be remedied and addressed? If we don't make this clear, are we merely muddling the issue? When students are looking for clarity and conviction from the adult world, does it really help to say "now what do you think" after presenting a parade of facts?

Teachers are not machines designed to recite facts and then ask students for their thoughts. We decide what is presented, how it is presented, and what might be the possible responses or results for what tell them. We do this within the framework that, if we are doing it well and thoughtfully, leads students towards gaining a deeper understanding.

We humanize the subject matter by making it relevant beyond the recitation of facts.

For example, here's a scenario that we would never take place in the humanized classroom:

Okay students. Today we will be reflecting on the assigned reading about the Trail of Tears by having a mock debate. I want one student to take the side of the Native American perspective, and another to take the side of Andrew Jackson, who, speaking about forced removal of Indians from the land, said:

"They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear."

Any volunteers?

Humanizing Teaching

While best practices does not exclude such a scenario taking place, it would also include a framework that makes it clear that genocide and ethnic cleansing does not represent the best of who we humans can be. And of course, good teachers value making connections to world events, so isn't it "interesting" (actually, frightening) how the above quote eerily reflects the stance some in this country have taken towards the poor and, in particular, African Americans in dealing with violence and policing in their communities?

Or what about slavery, or the Holocaust of the Jewish people in Europe? Would any sane and informed teacher really allow the policies that led to these tragedies to be debated, treating both the opposing side and the perpetrators of these tragedies equally?

How close to the present does this assumed neutrality that teachers are expected to take become a shadow act, a false representation of the human dramas that so often permeate our classrooms?

And if I am arguing for dropping the pretense of neutrality, does this mean that if a teacher truly believes that those grand jury decisions are in the best interest of their communities, that they then should shape any classroom discussion accordingly?

I guess I would have to argue yes, but with the caveat that anyone who takes such a stance can only do so by dehumanizing the victims. And I would stand with any teacher who wants to also present police officers as human beings who are also shaped and informed by a dehumanizing system.

Acting with Courage

So, as educators, we must make lead our students to be not only good at test taking and remembering facts, but to become fully human and empathetic beings.

It means that we must stand up for justice for Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and all the other victims of a system that has relies too much on violence and oppression of the less fortunate so that we can have "peace" for those who are privileged. We must show them that outrage, anger, and despair are the very things that push us to act courageously, and by doing so, give our communities hope and our lives meaning.

So, I ask every educator what I ask myself in times of crisis: What are you willing to do to stop the machine?

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Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thank you for this wonderful, thoughtful, timely post! It makes me think of Howard Zinn's book (and the film), You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

(2)
SoundMind's picture

Using phrases such as "what are essentially, as I see it, criminal acts." or comparing the acts in Ferguson and New York to "genocide or the holocaust" indicates a passionate stance on the issue. In this instance I think it would be prudent, and the right thing to do, to take a neutral stance. That is not to say do not discuss the incidents but tread lightly.
What this article seems to advocate is Politics from the Platform (desk). This a dangerous and deplorable thing which should not occur in a classroom. Just because you happen to believe, based on what you have read, that things are a certain way does not mean they are. The word "informed" in the article seems to actually mean "informed and think like, and believe, what I do." Other men and women read the same things and formed other opinions which are no less legitimate than yours. An attempt to sway kids over to "your side", because that is what it is, is not the right thing to do. When there is too much opinion inserted, such as, these are criminal acts, then it becomes the wrong thing to do. Grand Jury may have been wrong but they heard more evidence than anyone else. Should have the two cases gone to trial? I think so but, it is not my place to tell a student that this is the way he or she should think and believe.

Parents? Well, what if parents hear of attempts, in our classrooms, of a teacher who is directly influencing the political opinions of THEIR children. I would suggest that Not being neutral when it comes to racism and intolerance is the right thing to do. The wrong thing to do however, is to sway student political opinion toward your personal side; this has no place in the classroom. Just a thought.

Stacey Goodman's picture
Stacey Goodman
Artist and educator from Oakland, California.

This blog post is not about the specifics of this case, but the decades of, yes, criminal acts by police officers against African Americans and people of color in general. This phase of our history has been thoroughly documented by Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow http://newjimcrow.com/praise-for-the-new-jim-crow. What is clear in this book is that segregation and the treatment of African American as second class citizens is comparable to other historic atrocities in our history.

This is not about swaying kids to my side or another, but also being clear about what is just, and standing up for what is right. And if teachers only taught what they directly experienced and did not teach what they've read, that would not be considered what most of us would consider an education.

So I ask you, at what historic moment, or what year in our nation's history would you drop the pretense of neutrality? That is not a rhetorical question, but a question directed at you. Would you allow students to debate the merits of Jim Crow? Would you allow students to defend Nixon's bombing of Laos? Would you allow the students to defend the use of chaining and beating naked people without a trial or due process as cited in the recent Torture Report? I mean, really, which side are you on?

Stacey Goodman's picture
Stacey Goodman
Artist and educator from Oakland, California.

Thanks for the positive feedback. I need to see that film - thanks for the recommendation.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

The resulting anxieties students--and teachers--take into the classroom in response to a crisis can affect student learning, as documented by psychological, cognitive, and neuroscience research. Individual crises, such as managing with the loss of a family member or recovering from a difficult break-up with a significant other, can affect an individual class member's learning and performance. College students who took part in a journal writing exercise or who listened to a story that addressed themes relevant to the terrorist attacks showed greater improvements and fewer signs of trauma.

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