Today’s guest is T. Elijah Hawkes. Elijah served as a public school principal for over a decade, including as the principal at Randolph Union in Vermont, and was the founding principal of the James Baldwin School in New York City. Currently, he is a director at the Upper Valley Educators Institute and an advisor at the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University. In addition, he is the author of various articles on democracy, public schools, and adolescence including appearing in The New Teacher Book and Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Identity. Further, Elijah is the author of School for the Age of Upheaval: Classrooms That Get Personal, Get Political, and Get to Work, which we’ll be talking about in this podcast. Further, his second book, Woke is Not Enough: School Reform for Leaders with Justice in Mind will release soon.
In this podcast, Elijah and I (Chris) will talk about an education that gets personal, gets political, and gets to work. It's all about how we can channel the anger of adolescents toward fulfilling, actionable livelihoods toward changing structures and systems that challenge and oppress them. Further, we'll discuss the growth of extremism, how dialogue has broken down and the difficulties in performing this work.
T. Elijah Hawkes, Director of Leadership Programs at the Upper Valley Educators Institute and Education Advisor at the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab at American University, as well as a former principal.
0:00:04.0 Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to Episode 113 of our podcast. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm part of the progressive education nonprofit, Human Restoration Project. Before we get started, I want to let you know that this is brought to you by our supporters, three of whom are David Buck, Josh Tetenbaum, and Zoe Weil. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. Today's guest is T. Elijah Hawks. Elijah served as a public school principal for over a decade, including as a principal at Randolph Union in Vermont, and was the founding principal of the James Baldwin School in New York City. Currently, he is a director at the Upper Valley Educators Institute and an advisor at the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University. In addition, he is the author of various articles on democracy, public schools and adolescence, including appearing in the New Teacher book, and rethinking sexism, gender and identity. Elijah is the author of School for the Age of Upheaval: Classrooms that Get Personal, Get Political, and Get to Work, which we'll be talking about in this podcast, and a second book, Woke Is Not Enough: School Reform for Leaders with Justice In Mind will release soon, so welcome, Elijah, to our podcast.
0:01:26.5 T. Elijah Hawkes: Thanks so much, Chris, it's been great to start to get to know you and your work through the podcast, I've been listening to a few episodes recently, and it's great work you all are doing.
0:01:34.0 CM: Awesome, thank you, thank you, I appreciate it. School for the Age of Upheaval, it's about telling the stories of students who essentially need to have their needs met, they're young people who are looking for a purpose and identity, they're often struggling, like for example, you have the story of a young man, he's soft-spoken, but he came in with volumes and volumes of lyrics that I think many adults who, reading the book, would say are harsh or vulgar lyrics, you have a socially-awkward student who was violently bullied and he struggles to effectively communicate that with others. It's a collection of various stories of students who are facing adversity, and a lot of times these stories involve violence or threats or things that I think... Things that people don't really wanna talk about, that are just part of the school experience, especially for educators working with young adolescents. The connections that I've read in this book really connect a lot to just the violent world today, and the growth of social media, getting involved in circles that you don't want folks to get involved with.
0:02:36.0 CM: And the quote that really stood out to me that I'd like to open with is you write that educators mustn't minimize the potential that violence holds as a means to know oneself and find a sense of power, agency and identity, and that leads into this idea of what you call creative destruction. Let's just start with that. I'd love to hear more about it.
0:02:57.3 EH: The books are divided into two parts, the first part features the stories of young people who are either doing or contemplating violence to themselves or others, and the second part has to do with the kinda curriculum we can create that can help them channel their pain, sometimes their rage, sometimes sorrow, trouble can go by many names, but helping them channel that in more productive directions that are productive for themselves, productive for their local schools and communities, and productive for the wider democratic society. Violence is a way of having an impact on the world, if you harm yourself, you're having an impact on your body, if you harm others, you're having an impact on their body, if you punch a sheetrock wall and your fist goes right through it, you're having an impact on that sheetrock wall. So force and violence is a way to see yourself in the world, to see yourself reflected back to you and have a sense of power and agency, however flawed and unhealthy that might be for yourself and for your society in the longer term, destruction or violence and force is a way to have an impact and to know yourself in some way, so it's important that we channel what is a very natural aggression and what is unfortunately a very common pain across our society today in directions that are healthier for young people, for their societies, for their communities and for our broader nation.
0:04:19.0 EH: That's where we get to curriculum that is personal, that gets political, that supports students' metacognition, and that helps them get to work doing things that need doing in their communities, in their schools, so they can have a sense of purpose, belonging and selfhood that don't depend on causing pain to themselves and others as a way to get there.
0:04:37.8 CM: Yeah, yeah, you write about in that curriculum piece, exploring that in our life, helping folks channel that into something that's greater, what I would see as almost like an activist stance, where folks are able to stand up for themselves and for others by channeling into that energy towards movement-building or coalition-building, and you just mentioned actually the subtitle there that the classrooms that get personal, get political and get to work, in the work itself you also talk about getting meta, do you wanna elaborate a little bit further on what that means to have classrooms that are personal, political, going towards work and that are meta?
0:05:15.5 EH: I was thinking about some of the students whose stories I shared in the book, and then I was thinking about a student whose story I didn't share in the book, I don't think, and his name was Josh, I knew him in New York City when I was principal at the James Baldwin School, and coincidentally, I knew another student named Josh here in Central Vermont, where I've been working as a principal for the last 10 years before I made a career shift just last year, both young men were being raised by single moms who are struggling and working hard and not earning a dignified enough wage to have the life that they want for their children. These two boys both named Josh have some interesting things in common. They both punched walls.
0:05:56.0 EH: I'm remembering particular Josh from New York City one day, he punched the concrete wall in the boys' bathroom, or maybe he punched the divider between the stalls, I can't remember, but I think he broke his wrist and he was in my office after it happened and ended up writhing on the floor and really like a tremendous demonstration of pain and turmoil, and it was partially related to the pain in his wrist, but it was also because we were calling his mom, and he didn't wanna burden her with his trouble that day because they had recently been evicted from or booted from the shelter that they were staying in, they were recently homeless, and he just couldn't bear the idea that his pain would again fall upon the shoulders of his struggling mom.
0:06:40.5 EH: And the pain that he was feeling, the reason why he was so enraged that day and frustrated, I guess I don't know. I don't know. I don't know how he would name his emotions, and that's part of the point, he was pursued by someone who had come to the school or into the school community with a gun, so he had gotten in trouble in the streets, and so now his life was in danger and he was so frustrated with that circumstance that he punched the wall and broke his wrist, and then was in tears with the idea that we would call his mom. So there's a young man that needs a school that is gonna get personal, get political, get metacognitive, and get to work with him. And by that I mean, in terms of getting personal, that Josh will see his story as one that other people are also living, if he's able to hear stories of young people struggling in similar circumstances reflected back to him through the curriculum, whether it's social studies, whether it's through the arts or whether it's the English classroom, if he can hear those stories and even perhaps have the invitation to tell his own, he will feel less alone with that pain, if he can be in the company of adults who model metacognition and self-regulation and help him name his own emotions, he'll be able to control them more than have them control him, he could forecast what might happen if I punch this wall, he could forecast in his mind and think ahead with some skills of self-regulation and self-control.
0:08:04.1 EH: Well, I really don't want my mom to get called so I'd better not punch this wall, even though I'm feeling really angry right now. So getting personal, getting metacognitive is an important first step in achieving a sense of balance through your day and through your world, and not letting your rage and your pain control you, and finding ways to turn those struggles into strengths, but on top of that, Josh and his society need that school to have a curriculum that gets political because the struggles his mother and his family are enduring are struggles that other families and moms are enduring, and if more than one person is enduring something, if your personal story intersects with others, all of a sudden we have a policy discussion because we're having conversations about lives that are shaped by similar circumstances, in similar ways, by people who are making rules that determine to a large degree how we live our lives in some pretty basic ways, so he needs a curriculum that gets political also, and has conversations about housing and low-wage work and why a majority people shift now to the State of Vermont, why a majority of jobs in Vermont don't pay a wage that could pay your average cost of housing.
0:09:12.9 EH: These two boys both named Josh, they need a curriculum that gets political so that they can understand that there's something that needs breaking in this world, there's something that needs to be undone, and it's not my hand, and it's not my friend, and it's not my peer, but it's this structure that is political, and that ties right back to the choices that people in power are making, that's partially what I mean by getting political and also creative destruction and rebuilding something healthier, and that also dovetails with getting to work and being able to see your impact on the world in different ways, pushing the curriculum out into the adult world, which is also the world of childhood, like pushing outside the walls of the school, so that you are doing work that the community needs doing, and a lot of this is just about interrogating what the needs are of the children in the community and orienting the curriculum in the direction of those needs.
0:10:05.7 CM: As you're speaking, I can't help but think of a lot of Jonathan Kozol's work surrounding coalition building, but also just the stories that he would tell about, especially impoverished schools and the systems that these schools faced, in terms of like environmental issues both in the community and at the school itself, the lack of economic opportunity for folks that were there, the lack of economic opportunity to fund the school, let alone the families, and it seems like there's a call of action there between changing the curriculum and getting personal, that calls upon educators to themselves become political advocates for students, recognizing the fact that the classroom itself cannot fix poverty, that it is going to have to go beyond that with educators demanding change in their local communities and nationwide for that matter, especially given the current events of today and the forces that would be heavily against any idea of including a curriculum that would, for example, specifically call out the discrimination against black lives. It wouldn't happen in many communities without a lot of blowback. What advice would you offer educators that want to do the work in this book, but the political forces at bay are gonna make that very difficult for them?
0:11:26.4 EH: Yeah, great question. Obviously, this book came out a few years before the more acute divisiveness in our society that we see today, by saying it's more acute today, I don't mean that it wasn't there before, but of course it's being given new voice in schools or a new site for those divisions to play out. My advice is partially about, and I've heard you mention this on your podcast, is connecting with other people and forming networks of solidarity no matter how small because this work can only be done in coalition, in the best case, it's gonna be done in multiracial, working middle-class coalitions of people who care about the welfare of the children that we're rearing together in our schools and in our homes and in our other public spaces. So that's one word of advice, but at the level of the school, the strongest foundation for any of this work is a strong relationship with the family of the child, and so it's really important that the curriculum and the teacher and the school find ways to value every family, that doesn't mean valuing everything about every family, there are families that are waving the confederate flag on their front porches, Dad gets up and goes to work and he works for...
0:12:42.4 EH: Wherever he might work, but the grandmother stays home and does X, Y or Z, or the great-great grandfather was a veteran in World War II. There are elements of their family that the school can value and there are elements that they may not need to value but the point is to value every family, and in doing that through the curriculum, making sure that the family feels visible, seen and understood, one lays a foundation of trust upon which you can do almost anything, and without which you can do very little, so that's key, is that...
0:13:15.1 EH: And in this politically polarized climate, it can be hard to do that because we retreat to extremes, all of us, where it feels a little bit... Not necessarily in the extremes feel safer, but with people of like mind, it can feel safer, and so it could be a teacher who's reaching out to a diverse array of families, diverse ideologically or diverse in other ways and trying to find connections with them that lays the foundation for this mutual project of raising this child together, 'cause that is what's happening in the schools, that can be really hard in today's political climate, but it's very essential. It can look really simple, like this eighth grade teacher that I used to know and respect so much, every year she started with "where I'm from" poems, where the children write about, through the objects of their world and their memories, they write about where they're from, and those go up on the wall and we take pictures of them, and then at the end of middle school, those pictures of those "where I'm from" poems are projected out in a slide show for all of the families to see because they come for an eighth-grade passage ceremony.
0:14:17.4 EH: The people in that auditorium know that the school values elements of who they are and where they come from, whether they chop wood for a living or whether they work at the hospital, so that's the foundation, Chris, I think, is work projects, dispositions that ensure that every family feels valued in some way. Whether they tell you that or not, you in good faith need to do that work.
0:14:40.3 CM: It seems like in order for us to form that coalition, it has to be a scenario where people are still remaining, at least at minimum, respectful to all the young people that are involved, recognizing that in order for us to change the minds perhaps of those that are misguided, no matter what political allegiance or background they might have, it's going to require someone to reach out and help them, they can't be ignored or have anger taken out on them, sadly, I've seen that, I perhaps might have been guilty at it at times teaching social studies where sometimes you can't help but go like, "Why are you even thinking that?" And being able to find ways to react to that in a way that's healthy, that helps the child grow. However, I think what's also interesting is that you are a school leader, someone who had to support teachers in this work, and I know that school leaders are the ones that typically are going to face all the family pushback, at least the first line, how do you then, from your angle as an administrator, support that work without it dividing the community? If that makes sense.
0:15:49.4 EH: It will reveal certain divisions, sure, and part of the work of the school leader is to walk towards it and to ensure, again, that the work is being done in coalition, you may have teachers in your faculty who are ready to meet and have conversations with the dissatisfied parent themselves, on their own, you may have teachers who are newer, of a different disposition in terms of the work, who may not be ready for that, and so you can step in and support that, or there may be other administrators on the team. You need to build a team that is able to function like a coalition with different people at different talents, skill sets and dispositions, because one size won't fit all.
0:16:32.1 EH: If I'm a school administrator of a certain identity, I may not want to meet with that parent because of what he just said about race in America or about women, but maybe there's someone else on our team who can do that, so it's about creating this coalition of people who have different skill sets and dispositions, who are able then to go toward the division and create dialog in that space with those community members who are stakeholders in the school, who are part of families or others that are paying taxes to support the enterprise of public education, who entrust their children to you every day, and so you need to walk towards those family members and engage them, and if possible, one-on-one or small group conversation that isn't rushed, it's simplistic, but it's not... Or it's simple, but it's not simplistic, it's...
0:17:24.1 EH: Sometimes I think progressive education, writ large is about going back in time more than it is going forward, it's about returning to simpler ways of doing things, like Debbie Meier boils down assessment to the idea of sitting with a child and talking to them about what they know and what they've done and what they'd like to do, so boiling it down to more simple interaction. So that's a basic role that the school principal can play, is to embrace those conversations with people who are not satisfied with the way things are going, and to close the door and have those conversations for as long as they need to be had, because even if those people leave that meeting feeling like you disagree with them still, or that they may even leave that meeting feeling like you need to be removed from your role, like your ideas are so divergent from them, but at least they've been heard, that in itself is something, that in itself is a step towards... Or a step away from more harmful ways of addressing our problems. I've been reading Rachel Pinefeld who writes about democracies that devolve into political violence, and one thing she says in that book, or maybe in her essays is, "All violence in these domains is local."
0:18:43.0 EH: We wanna paint the more grim picture, we see violence playing out locally, and we know that that's happening in certain communities, and so that violence, that local violence can be averted through stronger relationships, and sometimes it's just a matter of a small degree, ensuring that people feel heard rather than not heard, ensuring people feel a small degree of trust with you rather than none, those things matter. So that's something that school leaders can do, and also of course, and I've heard you say this in your podcast as well, the work that we want teachers to be doing with students, we need to be doing and modeling at the level of the faculty groups and the faculty meetings, and so walking the walk and talking the talk has to happen at the level of faculty conversation as well, and school leaders have, among their most important responsibilities, determining who meets when and what the meaning agenda will be. Even if you've got a distributed leadership structure, you still have a great deal of ultimate responsibility for what the professional conversation is about, and so you need to decide what you have space and time for in your annual meeting agendas or your three-year or five-year plan and make the space that needs to be had for these kinds of conversations as they intersect with the work, you can learn from each other and learn from mistakes and model the risk-taking that's involved in creating dialog in a time of polarization.
0:20:09.5 Advertisement: Conference to restore humanity is an invitation for K-12 and college educators to engage in a human-centered system reboot, centering the needs of students and educators toward practice of social justice. The traditional conference format doesn't work for everyone, it's costly to attend, environmentally unfriendly, and it doesn't allow everyone to engage or have a voice in the learning community. Our conference is designed around the accessibility and sustainability of virtual learning, while engaging participants in a classroom environment that models the same progressive pedagogy we value with students. Instead of long Zoom presentations with a brief Q&A, keynotes are flipped and attendees will have the opportunity for extended conversation with our speakers, Dr. Henry Giroux, the founding theorist of critical pedagogy, Dr. Denisha Jones, educator, activist, and co-editor of Black Lives Matter at School, and the Circle Keepers from Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City, a student collective focused on social justice. And instead of back-to-back online workshops, we are offering asynchronous learning tracks. You can engage with the content and the community at any time on topics like anti-pastoral pedagogy, disrupting linguistic discrimination, designing for neurodivergence, promoting childism in the classroom, and supporting feedback over grades.
0:21:30.0 Advertisement: The Conference to Restore Humanity runs July 25th through the 28th. And as of recording, early-bird tickets are still available. It's $150 for four days with discounts available for individuals from historically marginalized communities, as well as group rates, plus we'll award certificates for teacher training and continuing education credits. See our website, humanrestorationproject.org, for more information, and let's restore humanity together.
0:22:02.6 CM: It sounds like he was very much breaking down those barriers to learning, but also breaking down the barriers to just a general dialog to help people learn from one another, and it makes me think about... It's like a question on how to navigate this ecosystem. How do you navigate or rationalize between understanding the need for communication, the ability to empathize, having dialog across the aisle, while also knowing where that line is, where it's like, "Hey, I can't have a dialog about this. This is the dividing line." But then I also think about how far that line's been pushed in recent years, at what point do the dialogs break down and then we still don't know what to do?
0:22:51.1 EH: We need a mixture of vigilance and curiosity as we approach the conversations about who we are as communities, about what we should be learning, about the welfare of our kids, we need a combination of vigilance and curiosity because the hate speech is there, the derision is there, the threats and the intimidation and the fear, all of those tropes are there, and so we need to be vigilant about not allowing them in these spaces of working, in these spaces of child rearing.
0:23:19.2 EH: At the same time, I guess I would continue to say that there's almost always a place for someone on the team to continue to have a dialog with the person who holds harmful or potentially harmful views. And I've had disagreements with other progressive educators about this. I remember a recent... Not so recent, but there was a teacher who was called out by a state representative for something that a parent had told the state representative was happening in that teacher's classroom, and the teacher was emoting, seeking some camaraderie and solidarity with others about this on Twitter, and so there was some dialog of support for this teacher on Twitter, and there was then another state representative who weighed in actually because she started to see the conversation and said she was gonna pursue sanctions for this other state representative for what he had said about the teacher, which had been reported to him by a parent.
0:24:15.9 EH: My first contribution was to ask the teacher what their principal's stance was or what their principal was doing to support them 'cause I'm curious, like, is the principal moving towards these community members to engage them in conversation? And then when I saw the tweets about how the state senator was gonna be sanctioned at the state house potentially for what he was doing, I again said that while that may be in order, I still have the hope that there might be some dyad or triad of dialog between the stakeholders in this community as part of this problem-solving. And one person replied back to me and said, "I just don't think calling in always works, sometimes you just can't validate ideas by engaging in dialog about them."
0:25:00.9 EH: My perspective is slightly different. I would certainly say that in classrooms, in our hallways, in our public spaces, there's certain speech that can't be tolerated, and we have laws that require that we do not tolerate it, and bullying and harassment laws, and policies and procedures are there for us to lean on, as we must, but my perspective is that if someone is perpetuating racist speech in my community, if I can engage them in dialog, it may keep them from doing more harm, it's not about validating their delusion, it's about keeping that delusion from doing more damage. Because I'm an educator, part of my job is to figure out people's motivations and find ways through inquiry, the sharing of stories, personal stories and historical facts to shift mindsets, that's what we're doing as educators. So there's really no better people qualified perhaps for this work. A parent came to a soccer game, and after the soccer game, it was a really tense soccer game between two rival teams, the school that I was at and our neighboring school, and it was like 0-0 for the whole game, and then it went into overtime, it was still 0-0, so there was this huge energy that was never released, there was never like some outcome of the game.
0:26:14.4 EH: I guess what I'm saying is the tensions persisted as my team was moving on their way into the building, and the other players are getting into their cars and trucks and trying to leave the parking lot, and their paths were crossing, the trucks and my school's players. And there were some students who were black and other kids of color who were on the team, and the kid and his truck leaned out and said, "Move," and tossed the "N" word out at our students. And I could hear from across the parking lot that there was some tension and I didn't quite know what it was about. I ran over, the mom in this car had also said, "Move", and used the same "N" word towards the students in our school, so I did my best to de-escalate that situation in the moment, and then I gave the mother a no-trespass order. She was not gonna come back on school grounds. I had to use my authority to be vigilant to ensure that that kind of harm was not gonna happen again on school grounds. I worked with the police, they delivered the no-trespass order. At the same time though, I also asked her if she would meet with me to talk about what happened, and she refused or she declined, but I still felt like that was within my capacity to do.
0:27:19.4 EH: I can be vigilant but I can also be curious, and that's the kind of stance that we will see in a lot of resources that are being produced these days to help people with the potential radicalization of youth. I'm thinking of resources from the Western States Center, the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, they're producing toolkits for educators and caregivers to help in this moment of polarization with what you do when you hear conspiracy theories, or what you do when you hear humor that just isn't that funny because it actually has racist or a misogynist undertones. What do we do in those cases? And you'll see in these toolkits, like this one I have right here, Confronting conspiracy theories and organized bigotry at home, a guide for parents and caregivers from the Western States Center." It's also good for teachers and administrators. You'll see a mix of vigilance and curiosity there, ensuring that you're not shaming the young person for holding certain ideas, but you're yet being vigilant in ensuring they understand that they're not appropriate or that they're harmful. So that's a stance that administrators can take and model as we engage in dialog spaces in a time of significant division.
0:28:31.9 CM: I appreciate the framing of vigilant but curious. It reminds me of... I was the e-sports coach, and the curriculum on esports from the National Foundation of Collegiate Esports, whatever it is, is all based around social-emotional learning with a heavy focus on tolerance, like online tolerance and anti-bullying and harassment. I was always shocked by doing these lessons that were all framed around like, Is this funny? Did you share this meme? Just like run-of-the-mill internet stuff, how deep those conversations quickly became once we started talking about the implications of racism and sexism, intolerance with young people, and how insightful they were.
0:29:17.0 CM: The same people who were the ones proliferating these things, sharing them online, posting them at Discord or whoever it might be, were also the same people who could open up and say like, "Yeah, I recognize the harm in this at this level," and deconstructing it with them to the point where they would leave that class questioning whether or not it was okay or not. Now, I don't know if they still might be doing those things but at least in the back of their mind, there is something there that could be channeled towards something for good later on, which I think is a pretty normal part of growing up.
0:29:45.6 CM: I think most people in their adolescence have done things they're not super proud of, where as we got older, we reflect on those things with hopefully some kinda mentor to guide us, to channel that into something for good. So I totally understand this path you're winding down to tell these stories and then turn that into something that's useful. So let's talk about that for a second in terms of this curriculum that is being built out of this book, and then your work at large, and what would be like a healthy rebellion?
0:30:14.4 EH: It starts with designing curriculum with the needs of young people, their families, and the community, and the broader society in mind. Oftentimes we educators will think about relevance, like we want our curriculum to be relevant and engaging. So what is relevance? Oftentimes, we think about relevance as mapping to interest, and it certainly does, and it certainly can, but if there's a deeper level, if you ask a young person what they're interested in, you'll get things that they're interested in, and that may be very engaging for them, but it also risks being somewhat temporary and fleeting, or at least at a risk of not mapping to a deeper need in some way, but if we ask ourselves and we ask our young people about their needs, about their basic needs, we're bound to discover, because we don't live in a perfect society, because we live in actually a society where there's tremendous injustice, by asking about our needs, we're bound to discover... Bound to discover unfairness and injustice, that needs to be understood, and if we can awaken, not that it needs to be awakened, if we can tap into the ideological powers of young people to identify and call out what is not fair and then ask them what needs to change in their world, then we'll be on our way towards healthy rebellion.
0:31:32.1 EH: It's not about every class being necessarily about public policy, but it is about teachers having an awareness that all of our work, all of what we do and all of how we live has a policy context to some degree. That said, if I think about the young people who took the microphone and took to the streets after the terrible massacre in Parkland, Florida, those young people had in part been in classes, some of them in an AP history classes where they studied gun policy and regulation, but they'd also been in the arts, they'd also been in theater, they'd also tapped into the power of self-expression and finding voice in other ways, so these young people were equipped with all kinds of skills, knowledge and dispositions to become leaders, some of them very public activists, and I'm sure others behind the scenes, leading in different ways, so the curriculum in all kinds of ways, when we orient things towards authentic audiences, when we orient the work towards public presentation of work, when we orient the work towards doing things that the community needs doing, we're giving young people the skills they need to build a better world. That said, it can certainly help even though it's risky for the teacher to be asking very specific questions that hone in on the policies that need changing.
0:32:52.9 CM: It sounds like, too, that you could use the arts as a way to balance talking about things at school that could be traumatic or maybe so deep that it's uncomfortable, with also having a more, I don't wanna say shallow, it's not shallow, but just like an emotional healing process, because we're also dealing with a space that's recovering, I don't know if that's the best way to frame it, from the pandemic, still ongoing pandemic along with the various school shootings, racist atrocities, it seems like every other week, there's a new thing that young people are dealing with that they have to heal from, that they're gonna be able to get through. And I would imagine that there is, in addition to a space for channeling that anger, also a space for just like, "Let's just have fun together and play and be kids." Where does that fit into like this?
0:33:49.8 EH: Yeah, it's super important, and the book doesn't stress that perhaps enough, the importance of play, the importance of extracurricular life at the school, it's hugely important, and I think the book doesn't discuss that enough, the importance of play, the importance of athletics, the importance of the arts as a means to find one's voice, to find belonging, especially if the mentorship and the coaching is mature and healthy adults doing the work for good reasons, those aspects of schooling and childhood are hugely, hugely important.
0:34:25.8 CM: I'm gonna paraphrase here. You had sent out a thing on social media, on Twitter, the other week about, I wanna say, and this is sad that I have to say this, I wanna say this was a response to the Buffalo shooting, where obviously a young person with incredibly racist views went and murdered people in a mass shooting spree. And you had something, something that came to the idea of, this was a kid that was in classrooms, and what is drawn from that are, what are the implications for classroom educators or for schools and systems and classroom leaders to the fact that so many mass shooters are either high-school age or just graduated from high school?
0:35:07.6 CM: How do we talk about that? How do we even begin the discussion of something that is so traumatic and horrifying? 'Cause you don't wanna blame teachers. You wouldn't wanna sit there and go like, "Oh, these teachers failed this kid," because it's so much deeper than that. But at the exact same time, there is space, as you were just talking about with the resources that you mentioned, to help deradicalize kids because it's not necessarily this is happening in school, it's usually happening online. So where do we start there? What does that look like?
0:35:38.5 EH: Yeah, you're absolutely right to say that educators don't need another dose of blame or shame, especially in the wake of something of that nature. And I know the feeling of failure that one can have when you realize you haven't understood a child's pain or aggression or their likelihood to do violence to someone else. We had two boys removed from our school a bunch of years ago, and they were gone for a full year before we were able to get around to some restorative process to bring them back. They were gone because the police and their families and state agencies had decided that they were planning something terrible for the school, and the sense of failure among the educators who felt we knew these boys from middle school up into early high school years was profound. That said, do we want to feel like we matter in the world or not?
0:36:29.8 EH: We wanna feel like we matter, so if I'm an educator and I matter, then what I do in school is shaping a young person to some degree or another, so as much as I can, I wanna shape them in the right direction. So this boy who killed 10 black people in Buffalo, he was a writer. His manifesto is more than 100 pages long. He has things to say about race, nationhood, identity, he has things to say about these matters. And so when... And I don't know the school, so this is a very superficial judgment, but if one compares the degree to which this young person is writing and thinking about race and nationhood and identity, compare it to the course catalog for that school. I downloaded the course catalog, I started to do this after these mass shootings, I just wanna know what high schools these young men have attended, and then I do... And again, it's a superficial exercise, but I think it's indicative of something about the leadership of the school and about what the community values. Download the course catalog, word-search "democracy," it appears once in a 50 to 60-page high-school course catalog.
0:37:43.6 EH: It's a... US history survey course, democracy is mentioned once. Alright, let me search for freedom. This young person wants to talk about these things. Freedom comes up once in this 50 to 60-page course catalog, it's an art class, the teacher is talking about how students have the freedom of determining their materials or final projects, so it's not about freedom in a political sense. Search for the word race or racism, how many times does that word come up in the course catalog? Zero times, not once is the word race or racism mentioned in a comprehensive high schools course catalog here in the United States. That's the school this kid went to, so we have to take on some responsibility for holding these conversations which are of essential and indeed life or death-importance to our country. And we have to recognize that we educators, and I also should say, Chris, that after 16 years as a principal, I've stepped away and I'm now working with people who are becoming principals, so I can't claim to be in schools the same way I was last year, and I know that other educators who are listening to this may want or need to know that, but my sense of what we're striving for now as educators, whether we're in schools or supporting educators outside of schools, is that we need to be striving for coalition and solidarity.
0:39:04.0 EH: Our sense of success needs to shift a little bit from whatever it was maybe when we started our careers, like what we thought we were going to be able to achieve, the goal actually is solidarity in the work, the goal actually is sustaining in this struggle for a more just democracy. And that's gonna be achieved in small and big ways day-to-day, sometimes just by having a shoulder to cry on from somebody who's there to support you. There's a different mentality I think that educators need today as we enter into this work, and it's certainly not to reproduce school that we knew, most of us as young people 10 or 20 years ago, it's something different and it has to do with solidarity and coalition and keeping the needs of our democracy in the foreground and knowing that that depends upon our ability to get personal, get political, combine our personal stories with historical facts in ways that build our sense of what's true, that can guide us towards what is right and what needs doing.
0:40:03.0 CM: The framing of being able to make a difference I think is a very positive way to look at that, in the sense that we know that the reason why these things occur is the result of many failed systems, whether it be like gun control, mental health in school, there are so many different things that go into this, but knowing that an individual educator can at least attempt through ability that they have to make things better I think is powerful, I think it's the reason why people become teachers, is they wanna make a difference and they wanna help people, and a lot of times that's super uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable to have those conversations at times. I was a social studies teacher, and a lot of what I did in the classroom was open dialog, like Socratic seminars, talking about current events, and you would hear students express things that were highly uncomfortable, especially...
0:41:01.6 CM: I taught at a magnet school, so we had students that were working class, upper class, conservative, liberal, students who identified in various ways, and students that rejected those identities in various ways, and many times students would say things sometimes without even recognizing that were highly offensive, and navigating that as a teacher at times was traumatizing, it was like people will do things and you're like... That made me feel terrible knowing that I had to hear that, and of course, we'd attempt to work through that, but it's a lot of work, it takes a lot of mental effort.
0:41:34.3 CM: I just convened a group of folks over the last couple of months, we called it the Strong Schools Dialog Series, and we were trying to... We actually look ahead to the 2024 election, indeed January 2025, and imagining unfortunately that maybe something else like what happened will happen again in terms of a contested election, in terms of a very divided American people, and wondering, what can we do in the next couple of years to prepare our schools for 2024-'25? What can we do to keep our schools strong such that we're committed to having these conversations, we're not just keeping it superficial, we're not avoiding the hard topics, but we're doing it in an even more careful way, where we can support each other in it? And we came up with three recommendations, and one of them was about what we called "slow instruction," like Socratic seminar, like a very... Like the days are gone I think where like maybe when I was in high school, where the social studies teacher might say, "Oh, you know what? Let's have a debate today, or let's have a discussion about this instead," I think that may be well-intentioned and perhaps appropriate like, but maybe somewhat impulsive shifts towards having whole class dialog now, it needs to be approached much differently, unless you've gotten months and months of creating that safe space, you really need to plan, you need to plan for like four weeks to have two days of student-to-student dialog.
0:42:58.1 EH: It's a different... It's a different context, but we can still do it if we're careful. The other thing I was gonna say about making a difference, Chris, is I'm remembering a teacher who came into my office and closed the door, and this is a teacher who had worked with students with emotional disabilities and learning disabilities, and she came with an activist kinda orientation, she just went the extra mile for these young people and their families, and for years and years and years and years, she got them to the finish line.
0:43:29.1 EH: They graduated, maybe it was five years, maybe it was six years, maybe it was in the regular four years, maybe it was through an alternative program, maybe it was this or that, but they graduated, and now she's starting to notice things were going in a different direction. Oh, there's that kid. And then the addiction issues, or there's that kid and they're living in a trailer with a parent and livestock, or there's this kid who's homeless, or there's this kid whose father has such extraordinary paranoia and there's so many guns in the house, and he's just so anxious every day.
0:44:00.4 EH: The list was long of kids that she was realizing might not actually graduate for all of her efforts and hours. There is a risk that that teacher would leave the profession because actually making a difference in the same way she was used to is actually getting harder, and it's only gonna get harder, Chris. Like our society is not an upward swing when it comes to meeting the basic needs of the broad populace, but we just need to re-shift how we calibrate success. And again, one thing that made the difference for that teacher, I think, to help her persist in her career, even though it's taking a different path now, but she's persisting in the work is in part because of the sense of solidarity she had with other people in the work.
0:44:37.7 EH: But it's also because she started to teach a bit more about the policy context, about racism in our society, past and present, she started to bring an analysis of the forces that were destroying these families' lives into the work, because if it's just about the individual child and helping them overcome insurmountable odds without interrogating those odds and trying to change them from a policy perspective, the work will start to feel like Sisyphus' rock, but if we can start to understand like, "Where did this mountain come from? Who built this mountain that we're rolling this rock up? Oh, okay, it's those people, it's this political class allied with these corporate oligarchs allied with a cowardly media that are actually passively and actively conspiring to build an insurmountable mountain that only ends in a cliff for so many families." But solidarity with others in the work and turning our attention both on the individual needs and the society in which they live and bringing that into the curriculum is actually part of sustaining ourselves as educators 'cause we'll find hope in each of those three things.
0:45:48.1 CM: Thank you again for listening to Human Restoration Project's podcast. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.