|llustration by Jon Williams/Real Change|
Don’t be put off by the awkward title. In “Educating for Insurgency,” Jay Gillen writes about a subject that nobody in the education debate wants to face: that the chief result of most schools in poor neighborhoods is to prepare students to accept a lifetime of subordination, unemployment and poor-paying jobs, not to put poor kids on equal footing with their better-off peers. Luckily, he proposes an alternative.
The education reform movement has tried to blame the difference in educational outcomes between schools full of children in poverty and those from more prosperous backgrounds on everything but poverty and racism. It finds fault in teachers, in parents and in insufficient focus on core curriculums. It proposes to apply “science,” as measured by test scores and behavioral modification, to fine-tune discipline and curriculum. It’s as if, Gillen observes, children are automatons who will absorb learning if only the right inputs are applied.
Gillen cuts through this fog, combining realism — schools as we have organized them simply don’t function for children in poverty — with an incisive radical purpose — to motivate children in poverty to learn, schools will have to teach them to change the society that oppresses them. Most children and youth will not see a reason to learn, or to focus on learning, until the institutional purposes of schools are in line with their own, autonomous purposes as human beings.
Gillen is not just a dreamer or an academic with his head in the clouds — he’s a teacher in Baltimore Public Schools, deeply involved with a project that he believes exemplifies a way to get young people to learn. But he’s not a history or a social studies teacher. He teaches math.
That’s right, math.
The Baltimore Algebra Project is a nonprofit run by high school students and recent high school graduates, using grant money to hire students and former students as math tutors. By all accounts, it’s been a success in spreading math literacy, as well as giving young people jobs in a city where the youth unemployment rate is high. The project’s website boasts that it has paid out more than $2 million in wages to youth in the 15 years of its existence.
But, as Gillen puts it, getting funding to teach math is just a way to create a “crawl space” — a concept he takes from the Project’s founder, civil rights veteran Bob Moses — that gives students a place where they can try out new roles and ways of being. It provides students ways of organizing themselves and becoming accountable to themselves and others; of practicing democracy and learning how to demand from the school district and from the society at large the things they need.
Source: Real Change News