“Caminante, no hay puentes. Se hace puentes al andar.” – Gloria Anzaldúa
As was mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been looking into graduate programs lately, and have been having a difficult time finding ones which cater to my specific needs and interests as an aspiring educator. After expressing some of my confusion and frustrations to my mentor teacher during one of our daily checkups, he asked me to do a simple exercise which ended up being extremely informative and empowering. He reminded me that it is always easier to critique the world we have than it is to imagine and work actively towards the one we want. Instead of focusing on what was missing from the programs I had looked at, he told me to direct my attention to the kind of learning environment I was hoping to one day find. “Make a list,” he instructed me, “of your ideal classroom, your ideal teaching situation. For now, think about what you want to see instead of what is being made immediately available to you.”
I sat down during my lunch period and brainstormed a list of everything I wanted in a classroom, all the things I dreamed of for myself and my community as an educator:
– Kids, teachers, staff, administrators, families are equal partners
– Curriculum is question-based, with lots of room for creative projects
– Kids’ knowledge, ideas and opinions are actively incorporated into the classroom
– Kids help determine and shape curriculum
– Gardening/outdoor activities and trips
– Cultural history of the community is at the core of the curriculum and classroom
– Families are an integral part of the classroom/school community
– Arts are given a place of honor
– All present identities are actively acknowledged and incorporated, including gender, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, class, race and nationality
– Learning projects are connected to/manifested in the community, and have outspoken political goals
– Policies of the classroom/school/school system are frequently called into question by the curriculum, giving students the opportunity to challenge and change them
– Teachers/staff are a community, meet often, plan curriculum collectively, share ideas
– Emotional/personal/community skills and lessons are given just as high priority as academic skills/growth
– Dance is taught in the classroom
– Space is multilingual
– Music is played often
Once I had finished writing and began to look over the list, I was surprised to see, in actuality, how much of a vision for my ideal learning community I already had. I showed the list to my mentor teacher, who read it and asked, “Now, why are you expecting a graduate program to teach you what you already know? These are the things that will make your classroom into what you want it to be. A program will credential you and provide you with the background needed to make you a viable candidate for a classroom teacher, but all the things that matter and that will matter to your kids will come from you.” I realized in that moment that while “incorporating student knowledge” had been listed as a key commitment in my vision of a classroom, I had failed to trust my own knowledge in attempting to realize those very commitments. For me, this exercise was a forceful reminder that as oppressed people, new and more just models for learning, for working, for living and building community have to come from us, and that the more we look to the systems and institutions which generate injustice to show us the way, the more we will be misled.
As radical thinkers, organizers and activists, I do think we have a tendency to spend more time calling out the oppressive institutions which govern and regulate our lives than we do putting in the effort and creative energy required to imagine the just forms of organization which we want to build in their places. This is precisely the conversation which the countless occupations occurring around the planet are attempting to initiate, and which we must all engage in if we hope not merely to critique the current orders in which we find ourselves, but to actually struggle towards whole new ones. Whether you are an educator, worker, unionizer, parent, organizer, student, community member or anything else, take time out to make a list of your own. Ask yourself or your collective what your vision for a just society is, what it comprises, and all the things it involves. After making it, look back, and ask yourself the same questions my mentor teacher asked me:
– What items on this list are in my power to institute? How do I imagine initiating them?
– What can I institute on my own, and what areas require a collective effort? How do I go about getting the support for those efforts?
– How can I continue adding to this list? Who else can help me contribute to this vision?
– Of the items that are not in my power to institute, what am I missing to do so? Time? Money? Structural support?
– What next steps can I take to garner the things I am missing? A community meeting? A request? A protest? A takeover? A teach-in?
Asking these questions can help us not only to arrive at a more concrete vision of the spaces and structures we are struggling for, but also on how to take direct action to effectively initiate and advocate for their being immediately instituted.
Radical Black feminist Toni Cade Bambara is famous for teaching that “there are no models”–no examples we can easily locate which can tell us how to structure a just society, as all the ones we are accustomed to are deeply violent and inequitable at their roots. The realization that there are no models is at once terrifying and liberating. We come to understand that creating just structures is entirely dependent on our own visions–a daunting responsibility, but one which is grand enough to encompass our greatest hopes and wildest dreams. As we embark on the journey, we have to let go of the doctrines forced on us by oppressive and conservative institutions, learning instead to trust in our own wisdoms, our collective knowledge, remembering all the while that we must build the bridges to justice as we walk.