Together, We Are More

by Darin Jensen

So, you’re reading Teacher-Scholar-Activist. I’m glad you’re here. Chances are that you know me or Patrick Sullivan or Christie Toth. And you know that we all shout about things relating to the community college—an institution in which we’re deeply invested. We think this is an important space to gather P-16 educators in building a community of teachers who pursue democratic values in education both in and outside of their classroom.

For me, I’ve voted in every election I could since I was 18 years old. I have given money to candidates, signed petitions, and walked in parades. I have also been a classroom teacher and administrator for what’s coming on 20 years now. It hasn’t been enough. It just hasn’t.  Part of Teacher-Scholar-Activist is meant to address that gap in my life. I need to work directly to influence democracy and education—two things I see tied together in affirming ways. This website is part of the response to that need.

For some time, I have tied my work to democratic activism. I have taught in community colleges—the institution type that serves the most vulnerable students—most of the first-generation students, most of the refugee and immigrant students—most of the students of color—most of the working class and working poor students. I have come to believe that working in an English classroom to develop students’ literacy skills gives them access not only to economic opportunity, but also to democratic opportunity. Arming students with critical literacy allows them to understand and resist the dominant discourses about them and their communities. And my students believe in education, too. Just last night, I was working with a Karen student whose parents have done backbreaking work in meat packing plants and restaurants to build the smallest window of opportunity for their daughter and other children to get an education. Now, we know it’s naïve to think that most of the students will get as far as they’d like—systemic racism and oppression and the destiny of one’s zip code are powerful. But there’s hope.  And hope is good.

But it isn’t enough. I look around at my state of Iowa which is considering vouchers, which has already destroyed collective bargaining rights, which is considering a bill that would mandate professors’ political parties, and which has struck a blow against women’s health, and I shudder.  I look at the national landscape with its spike in hate crimes, executive orders seemingly meant to create a police state and terror amongst immigrants, journalists left out of press conferences, waves of anti-Semitism, islamophobia, and racism, and I shudder.

I respond in small ways. I’m not a movement-leading person. I wish I was, really. So, I volunteer at the adult literacy center and with a homeless shelter to teach reading and writing to refugees. I volunteer at the local food pantry unloading trucks of donated food that remind me of all the Hamburger Helper and canned green beans I ate as a kid. And I work on this website.  For me, these are activist moments. And they are direct moments where I engage in the conversation of our culture to model the way I want people to be. It’s an expression of my values.

In my classroom, I have modified my first-year writing curriculum to talk about fake news.  We’re working on information literacy as well as the outcomes of composition I.  We’ve written an essay defining fake news. We’ve created a website multi-modal composition where the students had to “teach” an audience of 13-yr olds about fake news. Now we’re comparing and contrasting stories in the news sources. We’re discussing the importance of accuracy in sources, and rhetorical positioning, too. I don’t know what the students will take with them, but it feels like the attention to the conversations going on in our country is good for them.

I don’t write all of this to brag. Really. I was raised in a Midwestern Lutheran home where one just didn’t talk about oneself. One went to work. So instead, I say it to catalog what I’m doing, to outline my small moves toward activism. I help feed people and I help people to learn to read and write because that is a kind of power;  I help people to think critically about the torrent of information that washes over us every day because that, too, is a kind of power. These are small moves. I know that.

But I want Teacher-Scholar-Activist to be a place where we share our small moves—where we collect them and add them together. I want it to be a place where we bear witness to the work educators are doing in and out of the classroom to hold up our democratic and humane values. I want it to be a place where all the little local actions can come together to weave a larger tapestry. It sounds hokey. That’s ok. I think the student I worked with last night would have appreciated that. I think some of the students I teach appreciate that. I think my children appreciate that. And that’s what lets me sleep in a world filled with troubles and greed.

I hope that you’ll like Teacher-Scholar-Activist and follow it on our WordPress site, Facebook, and Twitter. I hope you’ll join us in writing about the local activism you are engaged in both in and out of the classroom. I hope that you’ll share the things you’re reading that make you sane and give you hope. I hope you’ll share the actions you are taking in your community.  After all, as Red Green said: “We’re all in this together. Keep your stick on the ice.”

Darin Jensen is an adjunct English instructor at Des Moines Area Community College. He is a co-founder of Teacher-Scholar-Activist. He teaches, writes, and works in his community. He’s also going to catch all the Pokémon one of these days while walking with his black lab.

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Photo by Maxwell Jensen 

 

 

Choosing Belle Ryan

On February 17th, at 2 in the afternoon, I got to witness a “topping off” ceremony at my son’s school.  This involved the placement of the “final beam” that solidified the foundation of our new elementary school building.  On that beam are the signatures of all 300 plus students and staff of the school, tying my son to this building, where he began his school career, for the rest of its existence.

I loved the ceremony, but I am also aware of its meaning, as I look back at where I was slightly more than a year ago.

When I took Braxton to his potential new school for Kindergarten round-up, I was feeling fear and uncertainty.  I had found that as people around me had gone through the process of choosing a school for their child, all my previous beliefs seemed to be in question.

I am a high school English teacher in an urban public school.  This is a role I have proudly had for 14 years and any opportunity that I have to boast of my school, my students, my staff, I have always taken it.  And not just because I AM proud, but because we often seem to need it.  Because being a teacher or student in any school in my district means, in a lot of ways, always being on the defensive.

My school, Burke High School is one of 7 high schools in the Omaha Public School District.  The largest school district in the State of Nebraska. We serve an incredibly diverse group of 51,000 students hailing from every part of Omaha and almost every part of the world.  And with that size, with that diversity, come so many amazing things, but its fair share of challenges.

Our schools appear in headlines fairly regularly.  It is considered acceptable to make broad generalizations about us as though they are true, because sometimes, some of our kids and staff make poor individual choices.

We have lower test scores, which to some people means we have less educational quality.  We have high rates of poverty and there are all sorts of assumptions that come with that.

Which brings me back to where I was on that day with my son for Kindergarten round-up.   When I was in school, I lived in and attended school in the Millard district, which is a more affluent part of town.  Before I taught in the Omaha Public Schools, any district but my own wasn’t really even on my radar, let alone all the politics surrounding it.  However, as soon as I became a teacher in the OPS, I intended to place my children in district schools as well.

And that seemed to be a no-brainer, until the time came.  Then I found myself listening to the ways some people talked about us.  They always had raised eyebrows, sideways glances and whispered comments.  Or even overt comments vowing to “never send their children there”.  People I knew were moving just to get away from us.

And I started to wonder if I should do the same, to “make the best choice for MY child”, that everyone seemed to think couldn’t be a school in the Omaha Public Schools.

So I looked into other options.  I started to question our choice of a neighborhood school.

I wondered.  What did those whispered comments, raised eyebrows and sideways glances about my district contain?  Did they contain danger for my child?  A lesser education?  Did they contain bad teachers?  Bad kids?

So, I went to the Kindergarten round-up scared, with transfer paperwork in hand.  I feared what I would see when I walked in the door.  I watched the kids, the parents, the teachers with those same raised eyebrows and sideways glances.  And what did I see?

I saw excited kids and parents.  I saw warm, friendly adults inviting me to their building.

Then came the classroom tour, and surely in here, is where I would see “those” kids and “those” teachers, right?  But all I saw was engaged kids, having fun with their experienced, warm, friendly teachers.

And most importantly, I saw a neighborhood school, of which the attendees were proud.  There were enthusiastic smiles, decorations for the 100th day of school, students wearing their bulldog gear.

And I asked myself, what was I actually scared of?  And I couldn’t name a single thing.  And then I remembered that the high school where I teach is a school that gets the whispered comments, sideways glances and raised eyebrows.   And I remembered, that none of what was said about us, by those who didn’t know us, was actually true about us.  I remembered that if people only knew us from the headlines, then they didn’t actually know us.

The only thing that was scary was that Belle Ryan was the school I didn’t know.  And when it was the school I didn’t know, then it was lumped together with all those other schools I don’t know.  And it became synonymous with the headlines of those failing neighborhood public schools.  Those headlines that never tell the whole story, that never capture the full picture.

As I attended that ceremony on Friday, watching that beam be placed in the final skeleton of our new building, I know that it also signified our commitment to something bigger than myself and my child. I know that we are now a part of our school in our district.

When I started this journey, I was troubled and somewhat ashamed at the ways in which the overarching narrative about public schools could make me question something that I had believed in so strongly for over a decade.  I found myself lost and frightened and questioning my own judgement.  As a teacher and an advocate for public schools, I realize that the ultimate way to counter the narrative is to actively show our commitment.  I can see now how strong the forces are that wish us to believe something different than the truth about our schools.  Whether it be through negative news stories, arbitrary measurements of our students’ abilities, constant “crises” in education, comparing apples to oranges day after day after day, or legislation designed to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, the constant bombardment can become difficult to navigate.

However, as is true for anything that we don’t know or are uncertain about, the best way to find out is to experience it ourselves.  To walk in those doors and see what is really there, not what we are told is there.

 

 

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Jenny Razor is a High School English teacher in the Omaha Public Schools and has been for the past 14 years.  She was formerly a regular contributor to the MOMaha blog in Omaha, Nebraska, has been published on Sammiches & Psych Meds, as well as The Good Mother Project.  She is a former Nebraska Writing Project board member and believes her best contributions to her teaching, her parenting and her world are on the page.  She is married and has two boys, ages 6 and 2.