||Teamwork and People Power: Liberatory Teaching in the Elementary Classroom
The Third Year
My third year was pivotal. It was the year teaching for justice started to take shape in my classroom. After two years at Foshay, I went to Wilton Place School to try my hand at teaching Fourth Grade. Before my third year, I read another important piece of information that would further my development as a teacher. It came from the pamphlet, Education to Govern: A Philosophy and Program for Learning Now! written by activist and theorist, Grace Lee Boggs. In it, Boggs wrote about how the curriculum could be built around the needs of the community.
"Instead the schools must be structured into groups of youngsters meeting in workshops and working as teams. These teams are then encouraged (1) to identify the needs or problems of the community; (2) to choose a certain need or problems as a focus of activity; (3) to plan a program for its solution; and (4) to carry out the steps involved in the plan. Thus the weaknesses or needs of the community become assets in the learning process rather than the handicap or drawback which they are presently conceived to be."
This solved my dilemma of when and how to fit teaching for justice into the curriculum. Instead of being just another subject or lesson, teaching for change and social justice would become the curriculum. It helped organize and provide guidance on how to structure my class. Where the State and District were pushing a Standards- Based curriculum, I could push another kind of standards-based on peoples needs: Education as "redefined to make it responsive and accountable to the community."
I was eager to try this new approach immediately. The "weakness" of the new classroom was that it was filthy. So with mops, sponges and elbow grease, students and I spent the first day cleaning and decorating. Cleaning the room together laid down a very concrete understanding of how people could work collectively to benefit one another. A similar message about speaking with a unified voice was repeated when we posted want-ads around the school advertising the need for a classroom couch.
The first step moving students away from their own needs to the benefit of others, involved reading with Kindergartners. After role playing and practicing, students made posters advertising their services to Kindergarten teachers. Soon, once a week 20 of my students were partnering up with Kindergartners. In following years, my students would visit up to three classes a week and also help them write. In Classrooms That Work: They Can All Read and Write, authors Patricia Cunningham and Richard L. Allington describe the benefits of cross-age tutoring:
Schools that have put these buddy systems in place report that they do as much for the self esteem of the big kids as they do for the literacy development of the little kid.
In addition to the reading benefit, theres also a contribution to building a caring community at school. Older students learn to nurture, and younger ones grow to emulate them. Both groups of students experience how their educations can be used in meaningful ways.
These lessons shouldnt be limited to teaching reading. Teachers and schools spend enormous time and energy disciplining kids, but very little time creating physical and social environments where students interact cooperatively for the benefit of themselves and others. With guidance and trust, all students could learn and contribute meaningfully by running schools as self-sustaining places.
Its during Kindergartner Reading, that introduces students to the idea of "sharing your education." This is exactly the same message many college students are encouraged to do: Take your educations back to your communities. Yet when college students ignore this mission and think only about moving into high paying jobs, we shouldnt be surprised. Without previous exposure and experience as active learners, students grow up to become passive citizens. Boggs makes the point:
Finally, you cannot deprive young people of the rights of social responsibility, and social consciousness, and the ability to judge social issues during the many years they are supposed to attend school and then expect them suddenly to be able to exercise these essential rights when they become adults.
Teachers at all grades must prepare students not just to survive or compete in society, but to contribute to its improvement. This is why definitions of "high achievement" and "quality education" must grow to include teaching for change. If we dont, we risk teaching students to accept and perpetuate societys inequalities.
Getting Busy Beyond the Classroom
Cleaning the room, getting a couch and reading to Kindergartners all required the class to work together for one purpose. But since organizing campaigns and social movements require many more people, it was important that students practice mobilizing others. Two activities let us do this in meaningful ways.
The first was Hurricane Mitch, the storm that hit Central America. The majority of the students families were from Central America and many were not sure if their relatives were safe. With posters in hand, students went from classroom to classroom collecting canned foods and medical supplies to support the local relief effort.
The second activity had students taking on school district bureaucracy. Wilton Place had a problem with roosting pigeons, but for several years our administration was getting the run around from the district maintenance office, the school board and the buildings architect. Our class took up the cause. Together we wrote a presentation script, divided parts and practiced public speaking. In groups of three and four they presented petitions to 36 classes and collected over 650 signatures. Their petition read:
"We the students, parents, and staff at Wilton Place Elementary School have a health problem with pigeons. At lunch they roost above our benches and poop on us. Kids also push and scream because they are scared of getting hit by droppings. This is unhealthy because pigeons can carry over 300 diseases like salmonella. But we have a solution. We want the school district and/or building architect to put up wires above the lunch patio to keep the pigeons away. Please sign the following petition if you agree and want to keep Wilton Place safe and healthy."
By keeping the pressure on the District, by the beginning of the following school year pigeon netting was finally installed. It was a victory that the whole school took part in.
Another step towards teaching for justice involved 4th graders supporting fasting janitorial and food service employees at the University of Southern California. Workers and supporters were protesting the schools attempt to outsource union jobs. Making a connection for better wages and working conditions was easy. Most of the students parents did similar service-sector work. After a presentation from USC professor and activist, Laura Pulido, the class created art work and wrote support letters. Student, Pamela wrote the following letter:
Dear USC Workers,
Hi, I am a 4th Grade student from Wilton Place School. I am writing because I support you because you are fighting for your rights. You have to do this and dont give up. Maybe the letter we wrote will help because we are kids.
Kids are the most important people in this nation. Please dont give up, because if you give up, you are going to lose everything that you are fighting for. Without you, your school would be a mess.
Keep on fighting for your rights and win. After you win, Steven Sample will give money and treat you right.
At the same time they wrote letters to workers, they also wrote letters to USC President, Steven Sample. Alvaro asked him why he was tying to fire old workers and take away their benefits. "Dont you know that people need to take of their families? Dont give me any excuses because U.S.C. is rich."
Student letters and artwork were hung on tents used by fasters. Local 11 union organizers told me that people who had previously paid little attention to the fasters were now slowing down to read the letters. They even said some were so touched they cried. Its an example of how effective student activism can be.
Throughout these projects, student motivation was high. It was exciting to see the classroom humming with groups divvying up speaking parts, practicing their lines, running out the door with petitions in hand and returning to add up signatures. For teachers wanting to get their students active in social issues this is an important point. Its an example of how so-called "basic skills" can be taught through a social justice curriculum. Teachers dont need to wait until their students learn to read and write before they get them involved. Kids learn to read, write and speak while solving school and community problems. Theyre eager to master these skills because success depends on their ability to communicate clearly and effectively.
At the same time students learn technical skills, they also learn to empathize, strategize, organize and take action. Boggs defines it as learning with your "hands, head and heart." Instead of being "mystified" by the world, they understand it and see it as changeable. Rolando Capote captured this idea when he said, "Mr. Osumi, we should call our class the Problem Class because if you have a problem, you can come to us."
Students as Writers of History
The last project of the year was in some ways the most important. Inspired by the children authored book, Got Me a Story to Tell, our class published a journal about personal stories titled, Coming to California and Making it Better, Fourth Graders Write and Draw about History, Family and Activism. Students interviewed their parents about immigrating to Los Angeles. Cristal wrote about her familys journey to the U.S.:
When my parents came to California they felt happy because they got here safely. They had fun when they were coming to California because they saw new things like flowers that werent in El Salvador. My parents told me that it is different and confusing to be in California because here it is cold and in El Salvador it isnt. They felt lonely because they didnt have that many friends because people thought that they were strange.
By having students document their own histories, I was building the curriculum around their lives. I was also still covering the States 4th grade Social Studies theme of California History.
The journals publication was kicked off by a book signing party. Over 50 kids and parents came to school on a Saturday to eat, dance and share their stories. I knew we were scratching the surface of something special when I saw parents and children huddled close, following along with those reading aloud. Everyone celebrated their lives that day. No standardized history book could have ever done that.
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