Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Northwest Conference on Teaching for Social Justice / Rethinking Schools / It Gets Better


A few Saturdays ago I was able to attend the Northwest Conference on Teaching for Social Justice, which I decided to attend very last minute, but immediately felt pumped about the minute I walked in. I had really wanted to spend my Saturday being lazy, but instead I got to attend a keynote by Sonia Nieto and then panels on GLBT Educators, Comic Books & Social Justice, and Transgender Youth. How cool is that? Really cool, is what. The annual conference is put on by local chapters of Rethinking Schools, an organization I was first introduced to through a textbook for a class last year, Rethinking School Reform. In particular, one essay in this book by Linda Christensen, a local influential Portland teacher and now a big part of Rethinking Schools, on the possibilities of untracking English at Jefferson High--classified as Oregon's only black school, now under threat of closure--kind of blew my mind with its awesomeness. I was left in awe of the potential of the effect one teacher can have on making their classroom more equitable and enriching all of the students' lives in the process. And by 'enriching their lives,' I mean learning more academically, learning more socially, and learning more about a better world. Since then, I have deduced that pretty much anything Rethinking Schools, which is a non-profit made primarily of teachers (as opposed to businesspeople or politicians) and which is primarily a publishing outfit, is part of is awesome. And the seemingly limitless amount of neat-o things there were to attend at this conference was just so lovely.

In my brief student teaching experience thus far, I have already experienced how much teachers moan and groan about professional development involving diversity, equity, multiculturalism, etc., and some of that is warranted. At the same time, many of those teachers are also the ones counting down the years until they can retire. And I am ready to take their place. The truth is, teaching is a political act. That doesn't mean your teaching has to, or should be political, but you better bet what you decide to teach or not teach and say or not say has an effect on those kids' lives.

(And if you don't think the purpose of education is to help make a better world, then why are you even there?)

Case in point has been the recent highly publicized slew of teenage and young adult suicides over bullying and harrasment, many of which deal with GLBT issues. Although I agree that we have a crisis on our hands, and I am grateful for the media attention, I do also believe that it is not a new crisis. This stuff has been happening--both the bullying, and the suicides--forever. Literally. I also don't believe schools can ever wipe this stuff out, or that teachers can be saviors to every kid, but I do believe there can be huge changes made in schools. Like not being afraid to actually talk about hate speech. Like not being afraid to actually talk about homosexuality with students. Like not being afraid to actually talk about anyone who might be different from you. These kids are not being taught about fairness, equality, and humanity from their families; they are not learning about them from the media, politicians, or video games. Of course, a lot of families do teach good things; not all media, politicians, or video games are bad. But for a lot of kids, the only real stable influence in their lives are teachers. So, teach stuff.

There have been a number of amazing things circulating about these issues. First, Ellen's impassioned speech on her show made me cry. Then, there was Dan Savage's amazing campaign, It Gets Better. This not only made me cry, but the message is so extremely simply and powerful and true and good and what kids need to hear. The invitation for people around the world to post their own It Gets Better stories on their YouTube site is the epitome of the power of social media, fo' real. Then there is the Bullied documentary, which is so brilliantly free and open to show in all schools. And, a little less polished and much straighter to the point, I think my favorite of all might actually be what Sarah Silverman said.



Overall, I feel like I have meaning and purpose in my life for the first real time, like I really like what I'm doing, like I could and must do this for the rest of my life, and that feeling is much bigger than any words I could think of to describe it. And although I do think it's essential for kids to know that it does get better, my main purpose when I'm in my own classroom, or my own library, is to help the lives of kids get better right now.

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