Who should #occupytheclassroom?

I think we, the teachers, have to bare some blame for setting the conditions that led to the Occupy movement.  Too many of us (and as radical as I try to be in the classroom, I fall far short of where I need to be) are the gatekeepers of knowledge, the sole determiners of success and failure, and hold monopolies on the administration of justice.  In our classrooms, far too many of us are the 1%.

Let me start with a confession: I find most protests dumb.  I’ve been to a few in my time.  I believe I was at the first protest against George W. Bush’s election in 2000 in the country (and ended up getting my first byline for that one).  I marched with millions at the 2004 Republican Convention.  I’ve been to more UFT marches than I could list.  At every one, I’ve felt stupid.  There’s lots of people shouting, but no one listening.  The good protests got a story in the paper the next day, and were then forgotten.

I find most protests stupid in part because there is no risk involved.  Marches in the Civil Rights Movement and against the Vietnam War, which until September 17 have provided the dominant template for most American protests to follow, were acts of civil disobedience where people were beaten, arrested, and killed.  The courage of those marchers changed people’s minds.  When I march with the UFT, along a barriered corridor provided by the NYPD after the protest as been given an official permit, it does no such thing.

What started on September 17 at Liberty Plaza though, provides a new template.  I was slow to notice this.  I made my first visit to the Occupy Wall Street protest on September 30 just to see what was going on.  I expected to make a lot of snarky remarks to my partner, and then leave.  But there was something going on there.  I’ve been back three times since: once to take my in-laws from North Carolina to the #NoComment art show, another to hear Slavoj Zizek speak, and third to be part of a teach-in put on by my friends at the NJ Teacher Action Group.  Last night I Occupied Times Square.  It was the first time I ever felt like my presence at a protest meant something.

I think there are a lot of brilliant things about Occupy Wall Street, but two are more important than any other.  First, this occupation, and the others like it around the world, provide a space with a range of way for people to participate.  Do you want to make signs and chant?  Go for it.  Do you want to take a corner and hold a grade-in?  Great.  You can move in, or just stop by.  It allows people to enter as participants in a variety of ways, or to stop by and converse as interested observers.  But there is no way to participate from the sidelines, which brings me to the second point: the only way to support the movement is to enter into a conversation or physically do something.  You have no choice but to engage, just as the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement forced people on the sidelines to take a moral stance.  And anyone is welcome to engage, through the direct democracy of the movement, and as a member of the human mic.  Even if you can’t make it there, you can engage online or through their live stream.  The folks down at Liberty Plaza are providing a new template that is oddly old fashioned: they have brought a little bit of Athens to the 21st century.

Yes, there is not a clear message or a list of demands.  That is part of the point.  There is no right answer here; only just processes.  The occupiers have not given a 140 character or 10 second sound-byte that can be easily dismissed or disagreed with.  They are demanding to be part of the conversation, and they are demanding that people engage with them in conversations.

I think this thing has legs, and can be applied to a range of situations.  So I was quite excited when my dear comrade, and fellow teach-in participant, Jose Vilson coined the #occupytheclassroom tag.  Last week, Jose wrote:

Before teacher-bashers filled the coffers of national education committees, people stood boldly in the classroom and decided upon pedagogy for all. With the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, some reformers have found a way to inject themselves into the pedagogical side of teaching. They’ve made a lasting impact on policy via No Child Left Behind / Race To The Top and these pieces have cemented a corporatist view upon all educators’ jobs. All the while, by recent research, nine out of 10 teachers across the nation have been rated satisfactory. Akin to the #OccupyWallStreet movement, this movement makes us the 90%, doesn’t it?

Now it’s time to take things back.

I had high hopes at this point, but I have to admit some disappointment at Jose’s list.  Four of his five ideas involved teachers putting themselves out there in various ways.  The fifth was taking care of business in the classroom, though without any vision for what that looks like.

I like Jose’s second stab at defining Occupying the Classroom on GOOD a little more, but it’s still about occupying the system.  Which we need to do.  But to occupy the classroom needs to be something different.

Occupying is about Direct Democracy.  It’s about recognizing power inequalities.

It’s an affront to models where 1% have exponentially more say than 99%.  If it’s anything, it’s an attack on the teacher-centered classroom.  The original call for occupation notes this:

We call for workers to not only strike, but seize their workplaces collectively, and to organize them democratically. We call for students and teachers to act together, to teach democracy, not merely the teachers to the students, but the students to the teachers. To seize the classrooms and free minds together.

Jose is not wrong though; only teachers are not the ones who should be occupying classrooms.  Teachers should be occupying the education system.  We should be occupying Tweed Courthouse and other Boards of Education.  We should be occupying the test producers and textbook publishers.  We should be occupying Arne Duncan’s front yard and office.

But at the same time, perhaps our students should be occupying our classrooms?

I think we, the teachers, have to bare some blame for setting the conditions that led to the Occupy movement.  Too many of us (and as radical as I try to be in the classroom, I fall far short of where I need to be) are the gatekeepers of knowledge, the sole determiners of success and failure, and hold monopolies on the administration of justice.  In our classrooms, far too many of us are the 1%.

Classrooms do need to be occupied, not just to ensure teachers can do their jobs well, but to create the conditions for real democracy.  That will involve giving up some of the power we as teachers have, just as the 99% want an appropriate share of the power that the1% holds in this country.  This involves some real risk on our part, but opens up a world of possibilities.  One of my favorite educational theorists, Henry Giroux, recently said in an interview:

[D]emocracy doesn’t work without the formative culture that makes possible the skills, the knowledge, the ideas, the modes of dialogue, the modes of exchange, that can actually provide the foundation for people to be critical and engaged social and individual agents. If you don’t have that formative culture, democracy becomes empty. What you end up with is actually a culture that is so wedded, in this particular case, to a neoliberal logic, that people can only see themselves as individuals, they can only see themselves as competitive, they hate the social state, they have no understanding of solidarity; and what I have been arguing for at least 35 years is that you have to take seriously that education is a fundamental part of politics, and that we’re not just talking about schools…

It seems to me that until this question of pedagogy – of the articulation of knowledge through experience and how people relate to the world – until education is seen as a fundamental dimension of politics, we’re in real trouble, because if you don’t do that you can’t understand social media as a profoundly important political educational tool. If you don’t do that, you can’t understand how people come to internalise understandings of themselves that are at odds with their own possibilities for freedom. 

So here then, is an invitation to conversation.  What is a democratic classroom?  I have some ideas that I will elaborate on eventually (and are implied in much of what I have written here earlier), but the thing about this occupying movement is that it’s not about individuals on soapboxes.  It’s about creating communities where we have hard and complex conversations with ourselves.  It’s about a revolution that not only won’t be televised, but that also can’t be captured in a 140 character tweet.

I will offer this: we could learn a lot from how the occupation requires one to become an active participant in something that does not have a clear center or leader.  And if we don’t, our students might start demanding it from us.

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