By Kenneth Saltman

Chicago Public Schools, the mayor, and countless editorials would have readers believe that the CTU strike “hurts kids and serves only adults.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  When I marched downtown on September 10 with the 50,000 other teachers, parents, and citizens I was pleased to see how many brought young children to march.  Those children and the children in Chicago Public Schools are learning crucial lessons from the strike:

  1. Courage and Ethics: Children learn that when workers are cheated and abused and insulted by employers the right thing and the only thing to do is to take a stand with others even if it is risky.  Children need to understand that they can’t rely on the beneficence of those who have financial interests and values that are diametrically opposed to their own well-being.  Children also learn that this isn’t just a matter of self-interest it is also an ethical matter of standing up for others who are being mistreated. Continue Reading »

By Michael Bennett

One of the things radical teachers do is ask our students and ourselves to think about how issues, texts, “facts,” and artifacts are framed.  When we get fancy, we might ask how socio-political and cultural apparatuses deploy dominant discourses that provide ideological cover for inequitable power relations.  When we are less high falutin, we are asking what gets left out of the picture and why.

In this instance, I want to ask about a literal picture: the Academy Award-winning film The Artist.  After viewing the film, a friend and I had a heated discussion (as we often do; we argue passionately about any and everything).  She focused on the charming content of the film; I couldn’t let go of what seemed rather sinister messages lurking just outside the frame.  I’m curious to know what others think. I suspect the discussion could provide a useful teaching tool for thinking about issues of framing and ideology.

Continue Reading »

By James Davis

The celebrated children’s writer Daniel Pinkwater has the ignominious distinction of featuring prominently in the standardized English Language Arts (ELA) test administered in several states.  A story from his novel, Borgel, highly truncated and heavily edited, was used last week, accompanied by multiple choice questions that New York’s 8th graders had to answer without referring back to the story.

The questions crafted around the story by the testing company, Pearson, pushed students, parents, teachers, and principals over the edge, generating a maelstrom of anguish and indignation.  Among the questions were:

(1) Why did the animals eat the pineapple? A) they were annoyed B) they were amused C) they were hungry D) they wanted to.

(2) Who was the wisest? A) the hare B) the moose C) the crow D) the owl.

Although Pearson has not responded thus far, New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott caved under pressure and struck this segment from the exam.  This is not the first time Pinkwater’s whimsical tale has been pressed into testing service, and the students who have been subjected to it in recent years are sufficiently numerous and enterprising as to have created a Facebook page, “The moral of the story is Pineapples don’t have sleeves,” with nearly 12,000 “likes.”

Could this be the beginning of the end of standardized testing?  Continue Reading »

By James Davis

What do radical educators think about the charge that the #OWS movement is ignoring race?  Does it comport with your experience?  With the accounts of others you know?  Does the homogenizing rhetoric of “the 99%” obscure the disproportionate burden placed on African Americans and Latinos since the 2008 crash?  Does such a strongly class-inflected movement inevitably turn race into a subordinate, epiphenomenal issue?  How does the fact that the President is a Black man who polls very well among African Americans affect the way we approach these questions?  Below you’ll find some links I copied from the ColorofChange email I just received.

“Occupy Wall Street’s Race Problem,” The American Prospect, 10-24-11
“Is black America sitting out “Occupy Wall Street”?,” The Grio, 10-6-11
“Reflections on #OccupyWallStreet,” Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, 9-28-11
http://act.colorofchange.org/go/998?akid=2250.3176.IpDJHO&t=27 Huffington Post, 10-14-11
“Call Out to People of Color,” Racialicious, 10-6-11

By James Davis

It’s hard not to feel moved by the sheer enormity of the encampment at Occupy Wall Street.  I went with my family on “Columbus day” and was inspired by it despite (and maybe because of) its messiness, its unruliness, and the irreducibility of its many messages to a unified political position, much less a policy proposal.  But even though I find the criticism of the occupiers misplaced (“What do they even want?” “Why don’t they offer solutions?”), I’m no anarchist and my enthusiasm was tempered by the sobering realization that what the occupiers actually spend a lot of time doing is defining their own internal procedures.  Admittedly I’m saying this based on limited exposure to one General Meeting.  But even as the occupation has taken on broader symbolic significance over the past two weeks, prompting unions, community groups, and even the Democratic party to gamble on affiliation or endorsement of various kinds, its participants have been compelled to turn their attention inward toward Zucotti Park as much as outward toward Wall Street, the media, and their fellow travelers on the Left.  In this respect I left feeling like Occupy Wall Street has a lot to tell us about radical teaching and radical learning but maybe not in the obvious ways.

Never mind (for the moment) the substantive claims the occupiers make about the depredations of the financial system, I’m talking about how a community that’s as closely scrutinized and as committed to egalitarian principles as this one even functions and sustains itself.  The group was caught up with issues that, on one hand, seem exceedingly mundane given the vast political energy they’ve tapped into: proper vs. improper ways to get “on stack” to publicly address the group, what kinds of body language constitute “violent” behavior toward others, etc.  On the other hand, it was also caught up with some fairly urgent internal procedural matters: what to do about the fact that some people are doing drugs in the park at night, the fact that some occupiers aren’t even necessarily aware of the political dimension of the demo, or the fact that the commitment to non-violence has not been practiced consistently among the demonstrators.  These are difficult issues to resolve for a fluid group keen on inclusivity and the decentralization of authority.  They were trying hard, however, and it struck me (and I guess this is an implicit question to readers) that in addition to teaching about radical ideas themselves, perhaps a bigger challenge to radical educators is to create spaces and institutions in which people can practice alternative procedures to those that prevail in most of the contexts in which we operate: that is, extremely hierarchical ones with clearly centralized authority.  Whatever happens to Occupy Wall Street, its fate seems tied to the occupants’ ability to manage the tension between its ethic of decentralization and its burden (if it can be put that way) to channel the discontent and the imagination of the political Left.  What are the radical spaces and institutions that prepare people to perform a task this challenging and complicated?  A person doesn’t just step into that park knowing how to navigate it and articulate that knowledge to others.  How might radical educators teach the procedural skills of radical movements in the process of teaching what we might call content?

Finally, in terms of teaching ABOUT Occupy Wall Street, I wonder whether people are using amateur video footage in (or out of) their classrooms?  Here is a clip that I found very interesting, amateur in one sense, though the videographer is actually a professional filmmaker (“The Battle for Brooklyn,” on abuse of eminent domain to create The Atlantic Yards, is his latest).

By Paul Lauter

I read regularly a kind of groan about the current economic and political situation of the United States.  “Don’t the millionaires and billionaires,” it says, “understand that by resisting the need for them to pay their fair share of taxes, and the consequent defunding of education from pre-school to the University of California, they are undermining America’s future?  We need to call this error in their ways to the attention of the rich.”

Bullshit.  Most of the rich know quite well what they’re doing.  What they see that the Dimocrats seem not to see is that the United States is heading down the tubes.  Seeing that, it follows like cramps after spoiled hamburger, that you would get as big a piece of the action as you can . . . while the action lasts.  Why put good money into education—or other social services, for that matter—if the payoff for doing so, a) won’t occur until long after American society, as we know it, has hit the iceberg and, b) will provide life-jackets for others rather than for you and yours?

Are they right?  Well, it does not take a cynic to wonder whether the Disunited States, like the Soviet Union before it, will survive as an entity.  To be sure, the USSR faced the problem of disparate nationalities preferring not to continue to fetch and carry for Moscow.  They spoke different languages in different churches, mosques, and markets.  Whereas here, there are plenty of birthers even in the Peoples’ Republic of Vermont and plenty of agitating foreigners even in Corporative Arizona.  We’re much more mixed.  Or are we?  And will we stay that way?

More and more I hear of parents moving because they do not want to bring their children up in a state in which a main concern is flying the Confederate flag, or building a Berlin wall against infiltrators from the south.  There were, and are, many Russians in Estonia, for example, which has not prevented the government from pursuing a nationalist, and often Russophobic line.  What degree of lunatic fundamentalism—market or Christian—in a state will begin to alter its population significantly, drawing some, exiling others?  Are we so sure that “it can’t happen here”?

However that might be—and perhaps this is more of a fantasy for graphic novelists than politicians—the behavior of those with a superabundance of wealth and power cannot be changed with the hope that the truth will make them, and us, free.  Let’s start from the idea that the rich know what they are doing, that there is a method—traitorous to the future of the United States—to the apparent madness.  What then?  How does one deal with traitors to the polis?


By Richard Ohmann
“Devote one hour each semester in every course to discussing the status and character of campus labor.  These issues are relevant to every discipline and every subject, no matter what the catalog course description says or what conservative polemicists claim.  The AAUP’s 2007 statement Freedom in the Classroom helps define your rights as a teacher.”
–Cary Nelson, “A Faculty Agenda for Hard Times,” Academe Online
This is #17 of Nelson’s 30 suggestions for improving our weakened profession.  (He is President of the AAUP.)  Good idea.  The condition of campus labor has a legitimate place in class discussion, whether the subject of the course is Intermediate Italian or Intro to Macroeconomics.  If I were still teaching, I’d try to pick up on Nelson’s suggestion.  But how would I use that hour, in my imagined literature class at Wesleyan?  Gwendolyn Bradley asks a similar question in a note on the Academe blog, “Talking to Students About Working Conditions”:  “Readers, do you find that your students are aware of the facts of faculty employment and working conditions–including poverty wages and lack of academic freedom protections for many faculty?”
Many of my students were on their way to professional careers.  Almost all of them thought their intelligence and creativity should be allowed to flourish–and of course be well compensated–in jobs granting them freedom to conceptualize tasks, not just execute orders from bosses.  If I had a group of those students today, and if they did not know that 70% of university teachers are now pieceworkers on “poverty wages,” did not know how the labor of those teachers is being broken up into scientifically managed fragments, did not know that adjuncts have little control over their work, did not know that those teachers could be fired any time for stepping out of line or offending a student–such revelations would be shocking and also personally discouraging.
But if I were adjuncting at a community college or a for-profit, would revelations like these stir a similar reaction among my students? Can we expect students who have suffered “the hidden injuries of class,” but never glimpsed professional futures for themselves (as did the subjects of Richard Sennett’s book by that title), to identify with highly educated teachers suffering the degradation of a profession?  The commercializing of higher education may seem an outrage to people in or entering the professional-managerial class, but plenty of other people see this shift as promoting access to college and efficiency in matching curriculum to future work–not to mention as a suitable rebuke to privileged elites like me and many of you.  How would you set up your hour of talk on campus labor, with those students?  I think I’d ready myself for some serious disagreements about work, education, and class.  I like Cary Nelson’s proposal, but wouldn’t expect instant solidarity–much less rage at capital–to come out of that hour.

By Joseph Entin

On Monday, September 26, I, along with at least 3 other folks from the RT board, and 500 other members of our union, PSC-CUNY, descended on the CUNY Board of Trustees meeting to demand that the university adequately fund health care for adjuncts, who do more than half of the teaching on CUNY campuses. About 100 of us made it into the meeting room, where we stood silently in the audience holding paper signs urging CUNY to “DO THE RIGHT THING.” Early in the meeting, as CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein was droning on about CUNY’s participation in various economic development projects, all of which sound as if they are designed to reinforce various corporate initiatives, someone next to me starts rustling his sign. The rustling makes a low noise, and I think I see Goldstein glance up briefly, as if looking for a fly he hears buzzing across the room. A few other protesters gently shake their signs, and the signs in unison create a rustling sound that reverberated around the cavernous meeting space. Soon everyone in the room who is holding a sign starts waving them, and a tide of sound builds, gently at first, and then louder and louder, until Goldstein is almost inaudible, drowned out by a hundred rustling pieces of paper. Some of the Trustees glance around, or fidget, or sniffle, apparently uncomfortable. Then, Goldstein looks up and addresses those of us assembled in the room, reading from a prepared statement: he admits that we have a “legitimate concern” and announces that, for the first time ever, he is going to include funding for adjunct health care in the budget request he will submit to the state legislature. Stunned, and gratified, we applaud and file out. As we gather with our colleagues who have been demonstrating outside the meeting, our union president announces the victory, while warning us that it is, of course, merely a first step, and will require a great deal more collective action to enforce.

In general, I feel remarkably pessimistic about the present political conjuncture, and many signs – from the prolonged high unemployment in the face of historic corporate profits, to the execution of Troy Davis—give me little hope. But I was heartened that Goldstein publically admitted the ethical force of our demand for adjunct health care, and it made me wonder if a new outrage about economic inequality, at least — if not about racism, and militarism, and sexism — may be brewing. In addition to Goldstein’s decision, this week saw the circulation of sensate candidate Elizabeth’s Warren statement, captured on video at campaign event, that “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody,” and the growing attention to Occupy Wall Street, which is being led by many college and college-aged people, and links to which students in one of my classes posted on our course blog. Maybe I’m grasping at straws, and maybe these seemingly positive signs do not amount to anything. Any optimism I feel tends to be fleeting, and may only last as long as the caffeine coursing through my system thanks to the strong up of coffee I had this morning. But I had to ask: do you, radical teachers, see any evidence of emergent, progressive possibilities in the current moment?

By Bob Rosen

Watching with rising nausea the endless patriotic and militaristic boosterism surrounding the 9/11 memorials the other week, I thought ahead to later in the semester when, in my general education Introduction to Literature course, I’d be teaching a thematic section on war. One poem I’ve used often is “’next to of course god america i,” by e.e.cummings. (You can find it at: http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/eecummings/313 .)

The first thirteen lines of this 1926 poem consist of words uttered at a graveyard by a politician or military bigwig on Memorial Day or some other patriotic occasion.  The last line reads: “He spoke.  And drank rapidly a glass of water.”

The speech runs together scraps of patriotic song lyrics and other banal phrases to create the effect of mind-numbing and mind-numbed repetition — this speech, or something like it,  has been given many, many times. “‘next to of course god america i” is a pretty tendentious poem, but (and?) I like it a lot.

What always distresses me (but, finally, has stopped surprising me) each time I teach this poem is the difficulty students have seeing the anger and sarcasm that animate it. Despite cummings’s mockery in lines like “america i/love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh/say can you see,” as well as absurd talk of “these heroic happy dead,” most (though, fortunately, not all) students won’t or can’t see that cummings is parodying his speaker’s mechanical jingoism.

By the time we get to this poem, students have already shown they can read poetry and they have a pretty clear sense of where I’m coming from politically.  But there’s something about patriotic talk — especially with “god” mixed in — that they have a hard time thinking about critically. (Perhaps they watch as much TV news as I do.)

Eventually I get the class to agree that cummings is “probably” making fun of his speaker, but I always end up with a squirmy feeling that I’ve been too pushy. I’d welcome any suggestions on how to approach the poem, or suggestions of an alternative, since I may be ready to give up my attachment to “‘next to of course god america i.”

By Jacqueline Brady

Often when we write about our teaching, we discuss what works well in the classroom. Today, however, I want to reveal a consistent problem, a disappointment really, that I have encountered when using documentaries in my basic writing classes at Kingsborough Community College: Too often when I screen documentary films in class, my basic writers fall asleep or otherwise disengage from the viewing experience in some obvious manner.

At first glance, this problem might seem pretty mundane. After all, my students lead tiring lives and probably do need a chance to rest.  But I don’t want to let my students off the hook so easily, particularly when I see that they have endless energy for other challenging aspects of my class. And I find it depressing that so many of my basic writing students seemingly cannot stay focused on a 90-minute documentary that directly connects to their writing assignment.

In particular, I am thinking of students in my English 92 writing course.  Over the past three years, my English 92 has been linked with an early American history course.  I work closely with the instructor of that course and we share one major writing/research assignment in a unit focused on slavery.  For this unit, students are required to write a paper in which they design a museum of U.S. Slavery, explaining what historical content their museum will include and why.  To reinforce the historical themes that my linking partner teaches, and to give examples of how these historical themes might be represented visually in a museum, I show “Traces of Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” Katrina Browne’s documentary about coming to terms with her heritage as a descendent of the largest slave trading family in the U.S.

I naively and repeatedly show this documentary to my 92’s with the assumption that my students will eagerly engage it, not only because it offers such a unique perspective, but also because it so clearly reinforces aspects of the high stakes writing assignment described above, which counts towards grades in both my writing class and their history course. I also assume that my students will appreciate the opportunity to watch a documentary as a break from the other kinds of demanding reading and writing work that we do everyday in class. For these reasons, it is always surprising to me how many students do not (cannot?) stay focused during the film. In most cases, they simply fall asleep. And if they don’t snooze with their heads on their desks, they show other signs of acute distraction–texting, leaving the room, studying for other classes, etc.

It is easy to discern the most obvious reason why my students may find this specific film boring: Traces of the Trade is largely about the history and guilt of rich white people.  But I have seen my students react in a similarly sleepy fashion to several documentaries that connect more closely to their own lives. This includes RIZE, David LaChapelle’s exciting documentary about Krump and Clown dancers, two youth subcultures in South Central L.A.
The repeated experience of seeing basic writers fall asleep during screenings of documentary films leads me to believe that it is not so much the topic of the documentaries that alienates my students, but rather the form itself that puts them off.  I really don’t want to give up on documentaries as an effective teaching tool, but I have yet to find a solution to this problem beyond 1) explaining beforehand that documentaries offer a different viewing experience from movies with clear story lines and 2) requiring that students take notes because they will have a quiz on the film after watching it.

And so, gentle radical readers, I’d like to turn these questions over to you: What experiences have you had when screening documentaries in your classes? And what ideas do you have about how to teach documentaries effectively?