Transformative Education

(Second straight post that started as a comment but kept going …)

Chris Lehmann has a phenomenal post about the goal of his new school not being just a great school, but a transformative one.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of human transformation as I work on my thesis. I am looking at the Citizenship Educaiton Schools, a program organized by Septima Clark at the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center) and later MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The schools taught reading and writing to 40,000-60,000 illiterate southern black adults from 1957-1965 in order that they could pass the literacy test to register to vote. While the teaching of literacy (in a mere 80 hours of classroom time at that), was an incredible accomplishment in itself, the true power of the program was in its transformative effect on its students and teachers

For students, the schools were not just about learning literacy, but about doing some work to undue to horrific psychological effects of living in the terrorist state that was the Jim Crow South. The schools not only taught literacy, but also the basic knowledge necessary to be a citizen, such as with whom one could advocate about improving their lives. I can hardly imagine the effect these schools must of had on a woman in her 60’s who was able to read and write her own name for the first time. The students, most of whom were women, also enabled them to teach reading and writing to their husbands and other family members. Andrew Young (one of King’s top advisors, and former Congressman, Ambassador to the UN, and mayor of Atlanta), said that the entire Civil Rights Movement was built upon these students. The Citizenship Schools transformed the students in such a way that it eventually transformed the country.

But the Schools also transformed the teachers. The first teacher was a Charleston beautician named Bernice Robinson. Robinson was chosen because of her lack of teaching experience so that she would not look down upon her students. As the program grew, teachers were sought out who had a similar background: some education and independent stature within the community, but not professional teachers. By stepping into the classroom, these people were transformed into leaders in their communities, and in many cases would assume those leadership roles in wider arenas of influence. Robinson, who previously had worked on NAACP voter registration drives but had no community leadership experience, went on to the hundreds (and probably well over a thousand) of other Citizenship School teachers and observed dozens of schools across the South. She was transformed in a significant (though completely unheralded) leader in the Civil Rights Movement by her work in the schools.

Now, the Citizenship Schools responded to a serious crisis situation, which made their power for transformation what it was. Thankfully, the degree to which transformation was necessary in the 1950’s and 60’s does not exist. But in many ways, the difference is only one of degree. As I start to transition from grad student/historian to high school teacher over the next few months, one of the things I will be thinking about is how I can help build an educational community that has a similar effect. I’m thrilled to see Chris thinking about the same issues, and I can’t wait to see how his process and school develops.

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