The Joys and Challenges of Public Schools: An Activist Roundtable
Curtis Gomez is working towards a Bachelor's degree in education at Curry College, and working at the Morris Community School in Cambridge, MA. Kathleen Kelly is a pastoral minister and social worker and the parent of a fifth-grader at the King Open School in Cambridge, MA. Lisa Graustein is a humanities teacher at the Codman Academy, a charter high school in Boston, and an anti-racism and diversity trainer. James Noonan is a Program Specialist at Peace Games, a Boston non-profit that partners with schools to involve teachers and students in a comprehensive nonviolence education program. Sara Burke, Co-Editor of Peacework and the parent of a fourth-grader at the Lee Academy Pilot School in Dorchester, MA, gathered with these activists in August, 2008, to talk about what we're learning in our public schools.
How did you come to your involvement in public schools -- and what is most engaging to you about the work you do there?
Curtis: I went through public schools as a student with a learning disability. A lot of teachers only taught one way, but kids have many dfferent ways of learning. Coming out of that experience, I wondered how I could be a positive role model and create change. I had seen how, faced with behavior issues, sometimes teachers give up on kids. I went into education because my tolerance for kids' misbehavior is higher than that of some teachers, and I'm not willing to give up so fast.
I work in after-school programs, where I
get to know other parts of the kids besides how they do in school.
And because I am a young black man with tattoos -- and I'm
also a father -- I'm able to lead by example and
relate to kids in important ways.
Kathleen: I attended suburban, homogenous public schools growing up, and wanted a more diverse experience for my son. The school my son attends started in the 1970s as a small, alternative magnet school, but in 2003 due to city-mandated school consolidation, it merged with a traditional public school that struggled with many of the educational problems common in urban schools. The challenges in communication and cooperation have been intense, and although there have been lots of successes, we are still working to enhance the sense of community.
When my son was in the second grade, the
brother of one of his school friends was shot and killed, in the
kind of violence that is much more likely to strike some parts
of our city than others. This tragedy made me more aware of the
separate communities within our school and city, and of how different
our experiences were. I recognized how my privilege separated
and isolated me from others. I began to see that in order to create
a healthy public school community we all had a lot more listening
to do, especially those of us who are most accustomed to doing
the talking and being heard.
Lisa: As a college student I co-directed a conflict resolution program that worked in schools around Boston. This showed me the huge variety among schools and the range of issues they deal with day-to-day. I have worked as a classroom teacher or consultant to schools ever since.
I am interested in making schools into places
where young people get to be all of who they are. For this reason
I am drawn to schools with a social justice component, like Codman
James: After I got my education degree, I decided not to go into teaching, at least not right away. I joined Peace Games working at an elementary school in Roxbury, Mass.
As I worked to help the Roxbury school integrate peace education, I found many teachers who were justly disillusioned by years of having outsiders paid to come in and dump curricula on them, and then leave. No-one stuck around long enough to see if the curricula were actually used, or how they worked -- and in fact, the materials were often shelved as soon as the specialists were out of the building.
I needed to learn. So I spent a lot of time talking with teachers, and just watching them teach. As in most schools, I found brilliant and creative professionals, who had lots to teach not only their students but me as well.
How does working in public schools serve your vision of a more peaceful world?
Kathleen: I believe that if I keep all kids in mind, my child will get a far better education than I ever did. I have had too much experience with the impact of "my family/my child" decisions on public schools and society. I grew up in a public system that was 98% white. When I entered college, I was woefully unprepared for social and intellectual interactions with people who were different from me.
The best education is not limited to opening up economic opportunities, but develops our capacity for open, critical thought. But if we want this to occur for all our children, it cannot be happening only in the curricula. It has to happen throughout the school community and the community-at-large. That means that we need to be open to listening, and willing to be changed by visions and experiences different from our own.
Too often, where there is good energy to try something new, there is also this idea that there is some other group of people who are going to drag it down, and part of the project becomes figuring out how to have "our" vision maintained as the one true vision within our own community. What kind of learning environment can we create -- and what kind of society! -- when we bring all the groups together and really listen to each other? That is the project of public schools.
Curtis: Schools should be a place for kids
to learn and grow. All the adults involved need to change their
attitude from "It's broken and it can't be
fixed" to "What's a different approach?"
Of course kids will make mistakes -- school is supposed
to help them anyway, that's what it's there for.
Schools are the bridge between family and society. They should
be like community centers, another home place for kids.
Lisa: Our school stays open until 7:00 pm, long past the end of the academic day, to provide a safe and welcoming place where students can get help with their schoolwork. This year we are hiring 80 tutors to help 9th- and 10th-graders with their academics, so that these kids will have the support they need to succeed.
But in order to really fix our schools,
we all need to start taking responsibility for the racism,
poverty, and violence that are what's really undercutting
them. I can teach kids academics, and more and more schools are
making good efforts to give kids the services they need. But in
the urban schools where I have taught, there is an underlying
current of grief, trauma, and despair that is a huge part of my
Kathleen: So it's about taking responsibility
to move beyond whatever privilege we have
to stop thinking
that some other community or school doesn't have anything
to do with ours -- or even within a school, to think that
this part is about me, but not that part. I'm
trying to understand how this pushing away happens, and learn
how to talk about it with people.
James: In the second half of each school year,
Peace Games has students in kindergarten through 8th grade do
"Peacemaker Projects." Finding an organic way to
get kids involved changes how kids see themselves -- and
how adults see them -- in some amazing ways. Whole classrooms
engage in a process of figuring out something that needs doing,
either on their campus or out in the community, and then they
work to get it done. A good Peacemaker Project meets these standards:
It involves everyone, it creates change, and it is do-able in
the time available.
Lisa: Like all good organizing! It's
something real and it makes a difference, and everyone counts.
What sustains you through the frustrations of dealing with the many obstacles to change?
Lisa: The kids -- they are the reason I love my work. They deserve amazing schools. Even when everything else is crazy -- the messed-up system, the inadequate building our school is in, the things our students weren't taught at their previous schools, the hassles they face just getting to and from school -- I remember that they deserve better, and they don't have to do anything to deserve better.
Kathleen: My involvement in public schools
has allowed both me and my son to have friendships I'd
never imagined, and has brought me experiences that I'd
never imagined. Like Lisa, I am thinking not just of the smooth
parts but of the points of conflict where powerful opportunities
for learning and connection occur.
Curtis: I see myself in these kids. When they
act out and get into conflicts, they are expressing themselves
the ways they know how. The process of helping them get through
those conflicts, and being able to relate to them, is my touchstone.
James: Often, my touchstone is the teachers,
because they have accepted the imperfection of the system and
are determined to make something of it anyway. No matter how well
we do in any classroom, there will be frustrated kids and frustrating
interactions. How do teachers muster the courage to say to kids,
"I'm not going away"? Teachers often joke
about their jobs being "in the trenches" or "on
the front lines." While this sometimes reflects a hostile
attitude, I believe it also resonates with some teachers who love
and respect the kids. For them -- and for me -- it
sometimes feels like a war within ourselves, against all the forces
trying to draw us into other schools or districts, or less demanding
jobs in the system. I respect the people who stay.
What are the best opportunities you've seen for people who aren't directly involved already to engage constructively and creatively with public schools?
Lisa: Some schools have a service component.
Schools experimenting with projects like this need points of entry
into the community: local adults to come in and share their expertise
with students, and especially workplaces willing to welcome workgroups
and student interns.
James: One important step is for people to
inform themselves about schools and what is happening in education.
Read the education articles in your paper, and check out a few
alternative journals like Rethinking Schools too. There
are also, of course, many excellent books available (two I would
recommend off the top of my head: Other People's Children
by Lisa Delpit, and anything by Alfie Kohn). For extra credit,
write to your legislator about what you've learned. Let's
not assume that there is nothing that can be done to make positive
Kathleen: My process wasn't about reading, but about the discipline of paying attention when a question arises in you, and reflecting on where it might be trying to lead you. What was your experience of schooling, and how is that refracted in what you know about the public schools near you now? Where are public schools going? And where do you fit in?