Monday, June 7, 2010

Moving From Academia to Activism

I read an interesting blog post recently that contained some gems of wisdom I'd like to share:

"Teachers need to show what they stand for, and more and more we need to stand for something beyond doctrinal platitudes...it is activists, not obedient employees, who make a difference, who make the world a better place." 

--Denis G. Rancourt, "Academic Squatting: A Democratic Method of Curriculum Development." (April 13, 2007, from his blog, http://activistteacher.blogspot.com)

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about my own call to activism. It began in high school, with concern for the environment, and continued in college because of my work with prominent Democratic politicians. My activist streak deepened as a result of being a news reporter, as I investigated and reported on many horrifying stories about groundwater contamination and the health problems that seemed to be caused by living near nuclear reactors.

Currently, I am very concerned with the need to reform American education by moving away from high-stakes testing to more equitable, fluid and creative ways of teaching and gauging learning.

I want to see more focus on the arts in schools (I am considering launching a local afterschool arts program for students), and I know there's a real need for teachers' intellectual freedom to be both protected and encouraged.

If we want our students to develop the brightest possible minds, then we need them to be taught by brilliant, creative, out-of-the-box thinkers and doers.

I keep reading how the best corporations are encouraging creativity with, for example, free days for brainstorming and personal projects and new ways of working with non-standard hours, more amenities on campus. Why shouldn't schools do the same?

I love reading about classrooms where a teacher managed to get new furniture such as movable tables with swinging foot bars and stools. Why were these needed? Because students learn better when they can move, when they aren't trapped, when they can collaborate and discuss things more easily. Such a simple idea, but most schools wouldn't allow a teacher to do what s/he knows is best, and that's very sad.

We are confined by rules, but we need to show our students, I think, what can be done despite the rules, and what amazing changes can happen when people take action to make their world a better place.

Teachers teach because they care about youth, and what better way to show that you care than to be active in the community, to engage in intellectual discussions, to encourage knowledge of the big issues?

Teachers need to move from academia to activism. I believe that teachers should write about the problems facing their students and the nation, the world , and get involved to change things and act on what they know is right.

That's what I am trying to do now. This summer, I am taking my brainchild, The Full Potential Seminars for Students, to several states in an effort to jumpstart young minds that may have been stalled due to the distractions of popular culture or the boredom caused by stodgy school curricula.

I became inspired to act on the problem of unrealized student potential when I considered how students can become engaged in their own learning, and why--perhaps--they haven't been.  The first step, I think, is to get students interested in something, anything.  How can teachers find out what a student's interest is? Try wide exposure to a variety of topics through reading, viewing of films and art, and captivating, active discussion of the issues.

I am lucky that many things have always interested me, but all a "bored" student really needs is one overriding academic passion with which s/he can begin.  From there, the student can pick up speed quickly, reading more, thinking more, making amazing connections. At that point, the student easily develops the potential to change him or herself and, later, to change the world.

Students need to find that one interest and then fully explore it through reading and studying (not a chore at all when you love what you're learning!), experimenting and writing about what was found.

We all have a calling and a purpose. We all have untapped potential. My current activism involves helping students discover what they most want to do, which--oftentimes--is part of what they were meant to do.

It's never too early and it's never too late to work on realizing your Full Potential. What do you most want to learn about? What do you most want to do? Look into a new idea, work at it, and then get out there and show the world what you can do.

32 comments:

  1. Many people may not be activists because they don't know enough about what is happening out there in the big, bad world. Once you get out there and start living in it, you realize many things. Key is probably exposure to wide array of view points, as well as wide travel and wide reading.

    You're a great role model! Keep on trucking!

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  2. Agreed--definitely. I grew up traveling and reading (especially during marathon car trips), and becoming a reporter helps you to see all sides of a story and to dig deeper into many areas you'd never considered exploring before.

    Thanks for your note!

    Best,

    EC

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  3. I just read about your plight in philly.com and am so upset -- I seem to remember this thing about why America is so great I think it was called "freedom of speech."
    I wish you luck.
    Plus (you don't need to poet my comment) but it's wickedly easy to find your blog.

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  4. Enjoy your post ND employment. Probably should go into the 'established' liberal bastion of Public education. This kind of thing could never happen there. Teachers Union would make sure of that. You need union protection to ensure you have your freedom to fill the minds of your students with the correct doctrine.

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    1. Anonymous should really go fuck himself with a large, Lisbeth Salander type instrument.

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    2. Yeah. (Laughing)

      The anti-union "teacher haters" are very tiresome, not to mention wrong about everything. See my posting about why it's wrong to run schools like businesses...that's the sort of line that comes from these fools.

      Best,

      EC

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  5. Funny how these Republican parents believe in smaller government until they want the school board to fire a teacher over a matter of free speech...

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  6. I just read about your situation on Philly.com (linked by CNN) and I have to say that I am extremely disheartened by what has happened to you. Too many people nowadays have no clue whatsoever why they support a particular political ideology, and instead base their opinions directly off of gut reaction and buzzwords. I think the assignment you gave was a fantastic idea; and I think that we need more of this type of teaching in school. Instead of regurgitating a political point, encourage kids to actually THINK about their beliefs and why they hold them so sacred. When I was in high school many years ago, we were encouraged to dialog about the issues of the day, and to see them from BOTH sides. It seems anymore that people can't even do that...adults OR children. It's sad...

    My mother always taught me that any position that can't stand up to argument or criticism is a pretty crappy position, and it's a lesson I've kept with me all my life. I just wish more people had learned that lesson. Today, more then ever, it seems there really is a war on education. I fear for the future where our children can't even come up with their own beliefs without them being dictated to them first by the "authority of the week".

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  7. Agreed--I don't really mind what opinion anyone has about a particular issue, but I want people to know why they feel that way (not knee-jerk).

    Thanks for reading!

    EC

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  8. I'm rooting for you, keep up the good fight! We're sorely in need of more teachers who care.

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  9. Not sure, but I think your site has a virus. I keep getting a pop-up saying Twitter needs to authenticate my identity and asks for my twitter name and password.

    Also, you should not have been fired.

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  10. Our daughter went to the Academy of Notre Dame from 6th grade to Senior year. When she came home from school the first day, she exclaimed - this school believe that women can do anything they believe they can achieve. Her previous (private) school taught the girls to not think out of the box and mainly do what ever the boss man said to do. At Notre Dame she was challenged and taught to think on her own. Many different views of subjects were discussed and encouraged. When she moved on to a prestigious university, she was told that she could not run for representative for student government because she was not a man. Notre Dame had taught her that she could do anything she aspired to and achieved. It also prepared here to be able to discuss issues with a top faculty and top students from around the country. She eventually got on Student Government. The discussion of these incidents in the Philadelphia Inquirer draw one to the conclusion that Ms. Collins was making a sincere effort to teach the students to think. That's what Notre Dame helped do for my daughter. I hope that spirit is not lost.

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  11. Just read of your situation on Pharyangula. Hope things get sorted out. I get the impression you are the kind of person who will be snapped up pretty quickly. There are thousands round the world rooting for you:-)

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  12. I just read the Inquirer piece about your blog and the allegedly inflammatory post that ultimately resulted in your firing. I could rant and rave prolific about the specifics as they are laid out in the Inq. piece, but I'll limit my rhetoric to simply offer you support and say I thought that freedom of speech was a basic constitutional right available to all American citizens.

    I'm going to read the Feb. post (if it hasn't been removed...haven't checked yet), but even without reading it and simply reading what you wrote in this June 7 post, it's obvious that you're reasonable, smart as a whip, creative, and prudent. Writing about a teaching/learning experience generally is well within the bounds of your right to freedom of speech, given that you in no way identified the student. You were not criticizing a student; you were giving an example of an assignment completed that missed many points that were taught prior to the assignment.

    It's a sad state of affairs that a basic constitutional right is being trumped by a student's right to privacy that wasn't breached in the first place. It seems that tuition paying parents' values also trumped your basic right to free speech in the context of relatively anonymous blog.

    This was an interesting situation that unfortunately changed your employment status, but that will only be a temporary state. Hopefully you'll find a place where you are NOT a sitting duck with no one having your back. Good luck!

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  13. Found my way here from Pharyngula. It's a shame the school lost someone who actually cares about teaching students and gets that they should understand why it's important to examine the rational for their beliefs rather than become polarized on issues for purely emotional (knee-jerk) reasons.

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  14. Thanks for the messages of support. The Feb post that started the chaos was taken down about 10 hours after I put it up...so it's not there, if you're looking.

    If I can piece it back together, I will.

    Best,

    EC

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  15. I have older daughters who went to the Academy of Notre Dame. I remember even back then there was a culture of fawning over the moneyed people. It eventually turned me off, and I sent my younger daughters elsewhere. Ms. Collins, you will also be better off elsewhere; you seem like a passionate, intelligent, and caring teacher.

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  16. I want to lend my support from New Zealand. I tend to see the Democrats as no better than the Republicans, so I can't offer ideological solidarity. I simply can't believe in 'lesser of two evils' politicking. But your situation, now, is horrible. Like others, I found my way from Pharyngula. I'll be thinking about this today, and I hope you're well. If only the USA would live up to its admirable constitution, we wouldn't see this sort of injustice.

    Take care!
    Matty Smith.

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  17. Having read the Inquirer story, I certainly feel sorry that you have lost your job. I support independent teachers. I also support a syllabus created by a teacher for their students, not by an administrator for a teacher.

    Because I wasn't privy to the actual conversations, I must refer to the Inquirer article that quotes an interviewee as saying that your own actions escalated the situation. After an agreement not to communicate further about the situation on your blog, the article purports that you posted a story with fictional names referring to the specific situation for which you had agreed not to discuss.

    I consider myself to be an independent thinker and believe in the examination of an array of ideologies and philosophies. I firmly believe that even though I do not espouse many political/religious/philosophical opinions, I must at least examine them personally to make that decision. That said, that is why I am asking these two questions.

    I guess my first question would be, do you think your actions escalated the situation? Also, do you have any comments on the White family's question of whether you might've made the catalytic blog entry about their daughter if her views were liberal?

    I truly believe your passion for teaching will result in quick re-employment and success in the future. I certainly understand the sensitivity of the situation and respect your decision should you choose not to respond. Best of luck in your endeavors, and please continue your passion for teaching our future generations!

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    1. See reply (typed very quickly--apologies for typos) at bottom of page. Scroll down!

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  18. Found my way from pharyngula. I went to ahold school myself, oddly enough in Texas. I think the situation is somewhat different as it was a secular school. We were taught the mechanics of argument, the scientific method, and politics, debate, etc. Teachers sometimes made their views known, but they used it to frame arguments and encourage points and counterpoints from students. Mostly, I should say (there are always a few bad ones no matter where you go). Anyway, you remind me of that kind of teacher, the ones you could hold in esteem because they enjoyed sharing knowledge like you do with this blog. Right on, sister!

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  19. Elizabeth, I'm so sorry you went through what you did in your last position. It would be a loss if you decided to abandon the profession because of these jerks. Have you considered looking for a job in a more progressive school, such as a Montessori or Waldorf school? Or perhaps a public school in a more progressive area. You have much to offer students as a role model. I hope you can find the strength to heal and return to the profession.

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  20. We need more teachers like you, and more schools where critical thinking is not just allowed, but encouraged. Whatever happens, staying true to yourself is very important. All the best.

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  21. It is saddening to see the tyranny of educational 'administration' continue to take its toll on educators who really care about teaching. I only wish that everyone involved in your situation had read 'The Closing of the American Mind' by Dr. Allan Bloom. I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Bloom before his passing in 1992 and I'm sure he would be the first one rising to your defense.

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  22. Thanks for all the kind notes. I get my fair share of hate mail (which obviously I am not going to dignify by posting), and it is heartening to know that so many people have the critical thinking capacity, the open minds, and the ability to empathize and be supportive.

    Best wishes to all,

    EC

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  23. There was a teacher in Lawrence, Kansas last year in a similar situation, but oddly enough it was his conservatism that got him in hot water in this progressive community. Fortunately, his students went to bat for him, even started a grassroots movement with a Facebook group Save Mr. So & So. Ultimately, the board was convinced he was unjustly removed & he was reinstated.

    I am angered that teachers are be punished for doing something that they all OUGHT to be doing; that is reflecting and improving on their teaching. The ignorance of new media in education leadership is astounding to me, especially when we need to be preparing our children to function in this new media world.

    It is no wonder then, that the vast majority of teachers are fearful, risk-averse creatures terrified of experimenting & trying new methods that have never been tried before. I have always had the attitude that if an employer didn't want me, I didn't want them either. I hope you feel the same way, and soon find your niche where you can be the best person you can possibly be. A reasonable school system with an eye on the kind of education our kids really need right now ought to be all over snatching you up and putting you to work... that is if you can stomach the idea.

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  24. Thanks, Bill.

    I always simply tried to improve my teaching and to spread the word via my blog (to other teachers) about what I think works.

    Will stories like mine make teachers even more timid? Perhaps. But my hope is that someday soon, teachers can be freer to communicate about teaching.

    I can't even tell you how many people are leaving me comments like, "I hope you never work again, you liberal scum!" Nice--right?

    Of course I would still like to teach. It's the climate that has to be right (and I am Catholic, so you would think I'd be a good fit in a Catholic school). Progressive is what I need. College level, probably.

    But the task now is get my books published and eventually land a university position. That or get back into communications writing.

    We have to think about what we're truly best at. I am a very good teacher, I know, but the writing (although I've denied it for years) is where I most need to be, I think.

    Thanks for your kind note.

    Best,

    EC

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  25. Margaret Mead:
    "A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

    Though when the quote popped into my mind as I started reading your post, I remembered it as, "never doubt that a small, committed group of people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Not sure why the disparity, but I am glad I took the time to look it up.

    Dornier Pfeil

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  26. Great quote, thanks for reminding people about it, Dornier.

    It's so funny that I've been getting messages all day that read like, "You activist scum! Eww! I don't want an activist around my kids!"

    Apparently, people forget that if weren't for activists, there would have been no Civil Rights movement, and women would not have the vote.

    Some people are so scared of everything, every good change. It's truly crazy.

    But at least we have hope that the good activists will help to change things.

    Best,

    EC

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  27. I had such an appalling wireless connection yesterday I didn't even realize I had sent that post let alone have it succeed in getting thru. I found the quote I posted on brainyquote but I found one closer to what I remember on wikiquote later on. There are prolly lots of variants floating around.
    Anywho.

    The subject of your post, non-orthodox teaching methods, has a proponent you may wish to look up if you are not already aware of him. His name is John Taylor Gatto and I first learned of him from an article in HighTimes magazine(Jan 2004). If you can get past the source of the article it is an excellent intro to his thinking, tho only an intro, it is decidedly lite on details. Or just google him. Hope this is useful to you.

    You may also find something of interest in this episode of the Splendid Table.
    http://bit.ly/cVJMt2

    the audio link
    http://bit.ly/aQv26V

    Dornier Pfeil

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  28. Here is a very late response to the questions posed on June 9 at 9:01 P.M.

    1. Do I think my actions escalated this horrific situation?
    Well, obviously they may have, but that was not my intention. Also, you have it wrong: there was no agreement that I would not blog anymore. The "agreement," which was casual, was "don't make fun of us." That was never my intention. My intention is/was to spread the truth. After I got death threats and terroristic taunts screamed in face, I "replayed" those taunts in dialogue in my blog. Why? Because no one says those sorts of things to me, no one threatens my family in front of my bosses and gets away with it scot-free. I expect you'd do the same. Unfortunately, the Phila Inq reporter or his editor was too timid to quote me on what happened, and reported it indirectly, which led to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

    2. Would I have criticized a more liberal paper? Yes. If that paper incited hostility and spread incivility. These were the primary caveats of the assignment. The politics behind the incivility were unimportant to me.

    Hope you understand this now.

    I am not sure why people are suddenly reading this post so long after the fact, but there it is. My new memoir TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL (coming very soon) will tell the entire, sordid story.

    Best,

    EC

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