Teaching, Writing as Activism?

To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology.

Paulo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer

Low self-esteem and doubt are evil, tiny demons, and both have plagued me lately with a question: Are teaching and writing activism?

In the past several months, from Ferguson to Bree Newsome’s removing the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds in South Carolina, the public in the U.S. has had to confront the power and tensions with activism.

The activism connected with race and racism across the nation also prompted for me a question about what exactly counts as activism as well as what are our moral obligations when faced with bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, and all forms of oppression.

To do nothing, to strike the “I’m not political” pose, we must admit, is itself a political act, one that tacitly reinforces the status quo of oppression and inequity.

To proclaim “I don’t see race” is to be complicit in the very racism those who claim not to see race pretend to be above.

Activism broadly is taking action for change, and despite the cultural pressure that teachers somehow stand above activism and politics, despite the perception that writing is not action, both teaching and writing are types of activism—although each of us who are teachers and writers has decisions about how that looks in our own careers and lives.

For me, the urge to teach and write is grounded in confronting a world that is incomplete, inadequate, and then calling for a world that could be.

More than a decade after I began teaching high school English, I discovered critical pedagogy and social reconstructionism during my doctoral program—and was able to place my muddled and naive efforts at teaching-as-activism into a purposeful context.

As a K-12 teacher, I always held tight to the autonomy of my classroom to do what was right by my students—usually against the grain of the school and the community, and often in ways that were threatening to my career.

The curriculum we offer our students and the pedagogy we practice are activism if we embrace that call.

Instead of the prescribed textbook and reading list, I augmented what my students read and pushed each year to change, to expand the required reading lists to include women and writers of color.

My first quarter of American literature began with Howard Zinn’s reconsideration of the Columbus discovering America myth and then built on adding Margaret Fuller to the traditional examination of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

The second half of that first quarter focused on Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation as well as an expanded sub-unit of black thought—including Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. We considered whose voice matters, and why, along with complicating the often oversimplified presentation of MLK as the only black voice in U.S. history.

In the 1980s and 1990s of rural upstate SC, these texts and conversations were rare and hard for my students, resisted and rejected by the community (my birth town), and challenging for me as a becoming-teacher. And much of this I did badly despite my best intentions.

Beyond my classroom, as department chair, I worked to de-track our English classes as much as possible (reducing the levels from 4 to 3), but also ended the practice of multiple texts per grade level that in effect labeled our students walking down the hallways. I also had the department stop issuing grammar and vocabulary texts to all students, moving those texts to resources for teachers who wished to use them.

Then, I did not think of that teaching as activism, however.

So I share all this not to pat myself on the back, but to acknowledge now how our teaching can—and I would argue must—be activism. To detail what teaching-as-activism looks like in the day to day.

I share also to note that when working within the system as it is handed to us, we are being political in that we are complicit when we passively work as agents of practices that are a disservice to our students, and ourselves.

Activism is teaching for that which we want to be and thus against that which we witness as wrong.

None of this is easy or comfortable, and I recognize in hindsight, to work against the system has real costs, even if we do not lose our jobs, which of course serves no one well.

My journey to embrace writing as activism was much slower developing, but along the way I have shifted much of my energy toward public work because I believe that also to be activism—raising a voice in the pursuit of change, putting ones name behind words that challenge.

But it is the writing as activism that gives me greater pause because writing is a solitary and often isolated thing (although teaching is often a profession in which we are isolated from each other, and fail in teaching in solidarity because of that dynamic).

My dual vocations as teacher/writer are significantly impacted by my privilege as well as the perceptions that teaching is not/should not be political and that writing is not really putting one bodily into the fray.

Thus, my vigilance lies in setting aside paternalistic urges, working beside and not for, and seeking ways in which my unearned privilege can be used in the service of others who are burdened by inequity.

As teachers and writers, are we activists, then?

I say that we can be, that we must be.

But how that looks is ours to decide; grand and small, our impact on the world is in our daily actions, our daily words.

And I am always, always anchored in my high school classroom, where my efforts to open the world to my students, to foster in them a belief that the world can be different, the world can be better were often subtly taped to my wall—the words of Henry David Thoreau:

Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.

A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong.

I think to be a teacher is to confront our doubts, to break through the stigma we may feel about our desire to make a difference, to change the world, to be activists.

These doubts and these callings are shared by writers as well, I believe.

Yes, teaching and writing are activism, activism we should be proud to own.

7 comments

  1. Lloyd Lofthouse

    When I was teaching, my students asked me questions about what I thought of hot button issues, and I told them but I told them and used facts from reputable sources. When asked, I often said well talk about it tomorrow in class and then I brought along books and magazines that offered support for what I was going to tell them and I lined those books up on a table at the front of the room where they could all see where I was learning my facts.

    What’s interesting is that not all teachers are liberals. In fact, most are moderates with progressives and conservatives at either extreme. It’s true that more teachers are registered democrats than republicans but still about a third of public school teachers vote republican and the majority of teachers think of themselves as progressive moderates instead of for left liberals.

    For instance, the high school where I taught had at least two if not three tea party supporters in the history department but also had moderate progressives. Most English teachers were progressives but even the English department had a conservative voice and in the PE department there were a lot of conservatives who acted more like red necks and/or Joe the plumber.

    Children don’t just ask the liberal or progressive teachers questions on hot button issues to hear what they think. Children are curious and ask all of their teachers so they are exposed to all sides. Then they make up their own minds.

    For instance, my students also heard that I was a vegan (I became one in 1982, seven years after I went into teaching), and I told them why I lived that lifestyle and what I ate.

    Most of the kids I worked with had no idea how many food choices there are out there. They thought meat, cheese, eggs, potatoes, pizza, milk and sugar were all they had to eat. When a kid asked me how I survived without eating those foods, I wrote the number 1,500 on the board and waited.

    Someone would always ask what that meant. My answer was, that number represents most of the other food choices that we have besides the BIG SEVEN that the average American eats.

  2. howardat58

    Are you familiar with the “Algebra Project”? This is activism via math, and it appears to work. Developed by Robert Moses in the early 80’s, and aiming to bring back “personhood” to the black kids in inner city schools, where they are generally treated as “things” or “objects to be processed”.
    Of course writing is subversive, unless a la Common Core the kids are being “trained”for a life of technical report reading and writing. Large slabs of English literature are of necessity subversive. Unfortunately, when considered as “Art” the messages get garbled.

  3. Elsie L. Olan

    Great piece! I agree, “teaching and Writing are activism.” Isn’t this why we do what we do with writing and teach the way we teach?

  4. Pingback: COCAL Updates | Majority Rule

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