Ode to Dewey: Powers, Prophecy and Dignity of Teaching

I believe that this educational process has two sides – one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.

Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897

The last few days have been dreadful— a real deep freeze. Not only has the weather been unbearably cold, but our boiler collapsed on New Year’s Eve leaving my family without heat and carbon dioxide scares for three days. On the third morning, I lay paralyzed with madness. I was cocooned in an old blue sleeping bag, several layers of fleece and wool covered feet. In that moment I thought, I’m losing my mind. Trust in my existence waned. I sank deep into my sofa and considered what happens to our body, mind, spirit when outer conditions become increasingly challenging?

My eyes land on the portable heater we borrowed. The steady hum muffles my brain. It didn’t help that I had seen the Mountain Between Us and The Zookeeper’s Wife over the holiday. Everything felt like it could spiral out of control in a minute. What happens when outer conditions become increasingly challenging, arduous and pained? What happens to us when the world fails us, when society fails us— as it happened for the millions of Jews, Poles, Slavs during World War II, the African slaves for over three hundred years, for the Puerto Ricans after the hurricane?

It’s only been three days and I’m feeling bi-polar. I am tight lipped, sullen and defensive. Then suddenly, I’m running outside with a surge of energy and gratitude for life. I log onto the internet. Diane Ravitch posted Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed on her website. I want to read it, to feed my intellect, but I can’t. I’m too cold and lethargic. I decide it makes better sense to drive my daughter to school. I can do this, I think.

I am driving her to school and a yellow bus suddenly stops holding us hostage in the middle of a narrow block. Usually I’d feel agitated, but I’m warm so I relax and observe the scene. Shortly, a mother appears out of the house ushering two children. She zips a coat, tinkers with a hat, hugs, kisses and onto the school bus, one by one they go. There are four cars behind me. The longer we wait, the more I become breathless, the more I surrender to this image— the love and devotion for our children and their education has the power to stop a stream of traffic. It is in an instant a lesson on how our inner world can dictate social consciousness.

I am zooming down the West Side highway. My high school age daughter snoozes in the back seat and I am filled with gratitude for her life, my freedom, her school. The dead boiler and the cold feels temporary and insignificant suddenly. I think about the day to day life of a teacher and school leader who choose a life of service. They build learning communities for children and families who may be experiencing hardship and challenges caused by cracks and gaps in society. We hear stories of fires, natural disasters, trauma. We imagine or know intimately the life of a refugee where suffering and displacement are prolonged. Homelessness, family illness, separations, poverty. So many of us come to school as part-time survivors. How should we approach teaching and learning when our outer conditions appear to be increasingly challenging? How might we design learning communities that are conscientious, that are responsive to the frailty of our society, structures and political arrangements that often fail us miserably? How can we institutionalize our universal love and devotion for the inner and outer lives of all of our children?

When I get back home, I am ready for Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed.

I highlight and bold so many beautiful lines. I interrogate his thinking. Then, I close my lap top and think, what is the best way to share my day’s important discoveries.

I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.

       Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897


Moving from Mindfulness to Advocacy

“In its position on The Gates of Hell, The Thinker occupies the center of the lintel and presides over the figures of the damned that populate the doors below. Behind him a chaotic dance of death takes place. He sits apart, stripped of clothing, and no symbol remains to assist us in his identification. He is perhaps the poet, the creator, the judge, the sculptor – all of these or none.” The Thinker, Rodin, The MET, NYC

Yesterday I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I meandered into a long, rectangular room until I was face to face with Rodin’s most famous work, The Thinker. It was a smallish sculpture that hovered over three others, each triple in size. To the left, there was Adam who seemed to be emerging. To the right Eve who hid her face in shame. Between them, a group of male bodies called The Three Shades. When I approached the tiny inscription on the wall, I learned that The Thinker belongs to a greater, albeit unfinished masterpiece called The Gates of Hell.

I was stunned. All these years, I never knew. The Thinker is the central figure of a bigger vision! A chaotic dance of death and multiple figures of the damned. What is the purpose of this Thinker? I ask myself.  I had arrived at the museum fixated on another question which I realized was sort of the same: How do we move from mindfulness to transforming our world through education?

According to Dr. Chris Goto-Jones in a course he designed called, Politics of Mindfulness, the mindfulness revolution which is led primarily by white, middle class Americans, does not require any particular change in values or economic systems, but simply involves our becoming able to relate to them differently—with more patience, gentleness and compassion. Further he adds, for a ‘revolution,’ this movement seems to show remarkable conservatism.

In the field of education, I have often observed how the mindfulness movement for teachers and schools is about coping with stress. It can be interpreted as an individual therapeutic device or a way to accept (albeit with compassion and awareness) the way things are.

In my view, there is something missing in this perception of mindfulness. For me mindfulness is a spiritual act, one that leads to reciprocal transformation. It is an act of Conscientious Engagement that engenders courage, advocacy, seeking out and defending truth. As intended by ancient wisdom and tradition of Buddhism—mindfulness is about freedom from suffering for the self and for all living beings. That is because mindfulness leads to enlightenment which is the full destruction of any illusion of duality—in other words, there is no “other.” Freedom, in my mind, can never be an individual state , but rather only exists in community.

What is the value of The Thinker in society? A poet, a writer, a teacher, for example—a person who makes a life out of reflecting on knowledge, on interrogating our purpose as human beings, engaging with extremely complex topics in such a way that we can evolve and grow. This is at the heart of education, isn’t it, the passing on knowledge, skills, values, and beliefs from one generation to the next? What is the value we place on education?

I am asking these questions not just because of the recent proposed 9.2 billion dollar cut to the education budget, but because we are living in a world that is increasingly driven by dramatic, public displays of Actions that beg us to reflect on what we value—

Politicians grandstanding, television cameras taping, Twitter feeds feeding, soldiers fighting, angry people protesting, police arresting, bombs bursting, madmen hating, guns killing, teenagers drinking, escape pills popping, campaigns circulating, business deals signing, stocks investing, prison guards guarding, retirees redecorating, shoppers consuming, birthdays at Disney…

After a long time of feeling lost in chaotic thoughts, I step back from The Thinker and I accidentally crash into a mother wearing a hijab. She is holding the hand of her young daughter who looks about six. My sandal almost pops off so I bend down to fix it. When I stand up to regain my balance, the mother apologizes several times and she scurries away, her beautiful daughter looking back at me with luminous eyes. In that instant, I remember who and where I am. My mind flashes back to that time when I was waiting to meet a principal in a small Bronx elementary school. At the center of her office there was a small round table surrounded by books. One book was propped up in the center so I grabbed it and read it. It was called, What Do You Do With An Idea?

I was transformed. By the time the principal arrived, I was soft-hearted, open and clear minded. Any school leader with this book at the center of her office, on a child sized table matters deeply to our society. Without knowing anything more about her, I loved her and her role in the world instantly.

This year I published a book. And even though my writing miraculously found its way out into the world thanks to my editor at Routledge, I still sometimes get a little lost. It’s so easy to forget one’s whole journey, one’s purpose. Who am I and do my words and actions matter?

My goal for writing the book was to provide a guide for others like me to move from thinking and mindfulness to action, to develop every day practices that matter in the real world of schools and institutions, always keeping equity in mind. I believe that we can build an egalitarian society if we can envision it but I am not sure if everybody believes this is possible and if they do, they may not know how to be proactive. Sometimes, I feel we are fragmented…those who sit in meditation and do yoga and believe in small acts of kindness and those who are riled up, rightly angry and speak out passionately against injustice. What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!

How do we pull these worlds together? Do we share the same language, the same dream?

I also believe we are each equipped with a divine intelligence to move us in the direction of unity. Sometimes, it’s easy to get lost, to forget our power, to know what we do and say matters very much in the world, be we are very equipped for greatness. We will move beyond this.

In my book I discuss six principles that I envision will help us move from mindfulness to transforming our institutions in society, starting with education organizations and schools. I outline in detail the rationale for these principles and provide real world examples of the practice. It is just a beginning. Moving forward, I will rely on each and every one of you, those of you in the field, to share back, to respond, to help keep building this new language and an understanding for this important work.

Take a look first.

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Entitlement: Knowing Your Place

In The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol wrote about the apartheid conditions of America’s public schools and begged educators and policy makers to do something about it. That was in 2006 and not much has changed. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared education ‘the civil rights issue of our generation’ however sub-standard education conditions continue to be the norm for low-income children of color, particularly for blacks and Latinos. Half of all black and Latino children grow up in or near poverty. Half of all black and Latino boys fail to graduate from high school. Fully two thirds of black men without a high school degree will serve time in prison as some point in their lives.[1]According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 50.3 percent of students identify as black, Hispanic, Asian or another nonwhite ethnicity. White students no longer make up the majority of students in California and Texas.  In New York City, nonwhites make up somewhere between 58 and 65 percent (depending on whether Latinos identify themselves as white) and if we step back and consider the population of the globe, you will find that whites make up only 16 percent of the total population with Asians being the majority. With numbers like these, it becomes clear we need to consider our use of language in this country especially when it comes to the term minority. Putting a false label like minority on the majority acts as a pernicious mental barrier that blocks us from really unpacking the systemic and structural elements of white privilege and apartheid-like conditions of our schools.

The truth is if you are a Latino in New York City, for example (or a member of any of the ‘non-white’ ethnic groups) you can and should stop identifying yourself as a minority and should refuse to be labeled as such.  Furthermore, you should consider it an act of protest just a powerful if not more than laying down in Grand Central station with a placard on your chest. Changing the language we use in conversations around race, equity and human rights can and will get us closer to seeing the true nature of who we are as a society. Misleading labels perpetuate false notions of entitlement for some and second-class citizenry for others and tearing them down can heighten our perception of how we identify ourself and others as we struggle for sustainable change.

In response to the Eric Garner case in New York City, many whites across the nation communicated that it was the first time they felt an overwhelming sense of injustice. According to them, unlike other incidents of police brutality this was different because there was clearly no evidence to dispute the criminal nature of the killing. In the midst of outrage and protests that took hold of our city (in great part due to the connection with Ferguson events), I was confronted with mixed feelings about how to engage in constructive conversations around social justice and race particularly with educators. I thought a lot about Rebecca Klein and her article in the Huffington Post entitled A Majority of Students Entering School are Minorities While Most Teachers are Still White.  I realized that although I was in New York City and represented the majority in numbers, I was still perceived as a minority. How does this perception inhibit or strengthen my voice when I talk about injustice and equity?

The incongruence of being labeled a minority is magnified when my work with educators often takes place in all brown communities. I’ve noticed an overwhelming reticence to allowpeople of color to take ownership of an event and how it is shaped publicly even when the event has direct implications for communities of color and especially if the conversation can leverage a movement for equity. Freire calls this phenomena false generosity. False generosity is when a group of people who are historically seen as pedagogical authorities and hold leadership positions in the field who for all intents and purposes want to transform the unjust order but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation.[2]  Unless we see the relationship between power and language in society and examine who are positioned constantly in positions of leadership aka the ‘executors of transformation’— we are never going to make a change.  It is time we ask ourselves: What does equity “look” like rather than sound like?

There is a plethora of research behind the notion of power in language.  Using a term like minority to identify a person is a tool of power. There is also power in the notion of pedagogical authority— that is who we by default turn to for decision making. Who do we associate with critical thinking and strategic planning in our society? Who is the expert?

Refusing to use the label minority is about understanding  your  place. It is about entitlement and staking a claim in a situation with full confidence, determination and leadership. Entitlement is the precursor to agency. Without a feeling of entitlement, one cannot take action. Language and labels such as our antiquated use of the term minority can make those who are central to a situation feel marginalized and less equipped to act.

At a time when we are struggling to make sense of recent current events that remove blinders from our eyes and for educators in particular who work in schools that are microcosms of society— we need to consider different, long lasting forms of protest that will change how we see the world.  Reject false labels and challenge the language of status in society. Refuse to label yourself or others a minority or try seeing yourself as a minority if you are white and live in a city like New York.  Dare to change the conversation by engaging in the real practice of equity.

[1]Warren, M (2014) Transforming Public Education: The Need for an Educational Justice Movement. New England Journal of Public Policy: Vol.26: Iss1, Article 11.
[2] Freire, P (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.94-95)