In this episode, we talk with Rethinking Schools first-ever Executive Director, Cierra Kaler-Jones, about the past, present, and future of Rethinking Schools, especially as we enter another potentially contentious year of educational culture wars for 2024, and her vision for how educators can demand power for those who need it the most within our school system.
Cierra Kaler-Jones, is the first ever executive director of Rethinking Schools, a nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization dedicated to sustaining and strengthening public education through social justice teaching and education activism. Cierra is a teacher, a dancer, a writer, and a researcher. Most recently, she has been director of storytelling at the Communities for Just Schools Fund, a national collaborative that links philanthropy with grassroots organizing, which grew out of Black parents in Mississippi demanding justice for their children in schools. Cierra is also on the leadership team of the Zinn Education Project, which Rethinking Schools coordinates with Teaching for Change, and has hosted many of their Teach the Black Freedom Struggle classes, which launched in March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic.
Transcription generously provided by Katy Wells.
0:00:32 Nick Covington: Hello and welcome to episode 145 of The Human Restoration Project Podcast. My name is Nick Covington. Before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this episode is brought to you by our supporters, three of whom are Randy Ziegenfuss, Corinne Greenblatt, and Elizabeth Johansson. With an additional shout out to all of our year end funding drive donors. Huge thanks to you all. You can learn more about Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, and connect with us everywhere on social media.
I'm joined today by Cierra Kaylor-Jones, the first ever executive director of Rethinking Schools, a nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization dedicated to sustaining and strengthening public education through social justice teaching and education activism. Cierra is a teacher, a dancer, a writer, and a researcher. Most recently, she's been director of storytelling at the Communities for Just Schools Fund, a national collaborative that links philanthropy with grassroots organizing and grew out of black parents in Mississippi demanding justice for their children in schools. Cierra is also on the leadership team of the Zinn Education Project, which Rethinking Schools coordinates with Teaching For Change, and has hosted many of their Teach the Black Freedom Struggle classes, which launched in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. In this episode, I talk with Cierra about the past, present, and future of Rethinking Schools, especially as we enter another potentially contentious year of educational culture wars for 2024, and her vision for how educators can demand power for those who need it most within our school system. You can learn more and subscribe to Rethinking Schools, which as a fellow subscriber, I would highly recommend, @rethinkingschools.org. Be sure to grab their winter issue, Children Design for Justice, which focuses on student redesigning community and service learning for social justice. So joining me today is Cierra Kaylor-Jones. Cierra, thank you so much for joining me today.
0:02:32 Cierra Kaylor-Jones: Thank you for having me. I'm really looking forward to this conversation.
0:02:36 NC: Well, if we have any listeners who may be unfamiliar with you, Cierra, and the mission of Rethinking Schools, could you just introduce yourself and speak to the broader project mission of your organization?
0:02:49 CKJ: Absolutely. So I'm Cierra Kaylor-Jones, and I'm the executive director of Rethinking Schools. The first ever executive director of Rethinking Schools! I started in January, and it truly has been such a privilege and such an honor because I started with Rethinking Schools as a writer for the magazine, I had written a couple of pieces, and also a volunteer with the Zinn Education Project, which we co-coordinate with a partner organization, Teaching For Change. But at Rethinking Schools, we are the nation's leading grassroots publisher for racial and social justice in education. We have a quarterly magazine that reaches over 6,000 subscribers across all 50 states, all Canadian provinces, and worldwide. But we actually have found that people share the magazine quite often. So we're finding that our total readership is about 10,000 people. We also have a number of books. And all of these books and the magazine, the resources that we put out are story rich. They center the first person experiences of educators, organizers, activists, parents, and young people about their particular experiences in schools.
0:04:02 CKJ: That's one of the things that I love most about the work, is highlighting the stories and using writing as a political tool. Especially now when we're seeing book bans, we're seeing the attacks on racial and social justice teaching, we're seeing the attacks on LGBTQ plus young people. By centering our stories, we're centering the history that they are trying to erase from our textbooks and from the media. So, I'm really excited to do this work and to talk more about how people can get involved and support.
0:04:35 NC: A follow up to that then Cierra, I'm curious to just know how this first year has gone for you and for Rethinking Schools. What were some of the big goals that you had coming into your first year? Here we are, just weeks out from the end, from the start of a new one. What have been some of the highlights? What have been some of the challenges so far that 2023 has given you?
0:05:01 CKJ: Sure. So coming in, one of my largest goals was to just listen and learn. Rethinking Schools has a 37 year history that is so rich, and it's a beautiful and powerful legacy. So I came in with this orientation to just learn as much as possible to help us figure out how we begin to transition into the next phase of our work. I think we're really fortunate in that we are an intergenerational organization where there are many editors who have been involved in the organization for 30 plus years. But now they're looking to support a new generation of leadership to be able to step in, to learn together, to grow and strategize together, but also to leave it in a place that it's flourishing and thriving. So I'm really looking forward to just bringing more folks in to the volunteer experience, bringing in more writers, particularly writers that have never written for the magazine before, supporting, specifically, black and brown teachers who are navigating many challenges on top of what has already proven to be a difficult and tumultuous time to be a teacher. And so, really, those were some of my major goals.
0:06:19 CKJ: And it's been really fruitful because we are in the process of many book projects. So we are just coming out with our first audiobook ever, which is really thrilling for us, for The New Teacher Book. So that has just hit audiobook platforms. And we also came out with a third edition of our book, Rethinking Multicultural Education, which is a completely brand new book from the other editions, and I have a piece in it. So that was also really exciting for me. And I'm really honored that I get to continue to write for the magazine and to edit pieces alongside helping to shepherd and guide the organization forward. And I'll just say some of the challenges, you know, we are, again, at a time where the opposition is trying to completely dismantle public education and they're trying to take away trust in public education. And so they're doing that through the book bans, through the attacks on racial justice and social justice teaching, through some of these anti critical race theory bans, pushing back on and creating non inclusive spaces for LGBTQ plus young folks. And we just see the ripple effects of that.
0:07:33 CKJ: I've talked to many teachers who are also experiencing termination. Teachers have been let go. We just had a webinar a couple of months ago where we highlighted the stories of folks like Melissa Tempel in Waukesha, Wisconsin, who is actually a former Rethinking Schools editor. She was terminated for having her students sing Rainbow Land by Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus. And so we talked to her. We talked to a number of teachers just about what it means to teach at this particular time. And so that's proven to be a great challenge.
0:08:08 CKJ: I also had a teacher in Massachusetts reach out to me because we have this beautiful pullout poster in one of our magazine issues that has a Black Lives Matter poster, and it has an illustration of children dancing. She put it up in her classroom and the principal came in, said, “You have to take that down”. And she was, like, resisting. She's like, “I am not taking it down.” And it went all the way up through the superintendent, and she received a letter just reprimanding her for having that poster. And so that has certainly been a significant challenge on top of just some of the real challenges that nonprofits are facing nationwide.
0:08:48 CKJ: We saw a huge surge of people dedicated to racial justice in the summer of 2020 with the racial justice uprisings, where people were buying our books, people were engaged in the conversation. And there's still that engagement. There's always going to be that core group of folks who are committed to education justice, no matter what. But the trends show that there has been significant drop offs, and that impacts us. It impacts us financially, it impacts the work that we're able to do. And that certainly has been a significant challenge, in light of this pushback, also having the drop off. And part of it is because of the chilling effect of this legislation. That even when it's not happening directly in a school district, teachers still may be fearful for their jobs and for their livelihood, rightfully so. And so, how do we continue to fight back, to push back, but also, how do we provide affirmative visions? What can education look like and feel like in the future if we're committed to liberation? And that's one of my biggest goals as executive director, is to create a space internally and externally for educators, organizers, activists, parents, and young people to be able to come together and figure out, okay, what do we do in this moment? But also, how do we catalog our stories so that they don't get erased and that we can pass them down about this moment so we can learn from it? Just as many moments throughout history we've needed to learn from. And also, how do we provide a vision for the things that are going well? How do we provide a vision for what education can be in the future if it was rooted in equity, in justice, in joy, and love?
0:10:34 NC: That's an incredible vision. And I'm really curious just to think if, in light of that chilling effect that you had mentioned, if you have had conversations with teachers, with teacher leaders, with people who are organizers, as you had mentioned, who are doing this work, who are coming up with ways to sort of have an end run around the powers that be and the forces that might say, you have to take down a Black lives Matter at school poster, even if there may not be a policy to support that. What kinds of ways are you working with those groups to both, I suppose, to push back in overt and upfront ways and in public ways, and perhaps what are ways that you're hearing that have been effective for teachers to really help them push the envelope in spaces where they're at?
0:11:29 CKJ: Yeah. So there is so much resistance happening, and I think that's one part of the larger story that mainstream media leaves out. They love to tout these large mom for liberty groups. You know, the well funded, highly vocal groups. But there's so much organizing and there's so much pushback happening. And so I've talked to many teachers who have said, “You know what? I don't care about these laws. I'm going to continue to teach.” And a lot of those stories appear in the pages of our magazine where teachers are directly resisting. We have a great piece from folks in Tennessee in one of our issues that's all about uncovering oppression. And they talked about how teachers are actually experiencing the anti CRT legislation and how they're pushing back. And a lot of them have said the same thing, that no matter what, I'm going to continue to teach the truth, and no matter what, I'm going to break the law, essentially. And with Zinn Education Project, that we co-coordinate with Teaching For Change, we actually have a Teach Truth pledge where thousands of teachers have pledged, publicly pledged, to teach truth regardless of the law. Yes! I'm so glad you signed it. And to just name some more of the pushback, there was an outlet that actually took the pledge and organized it by state and school district and shared all of the teachers’ names and sent it to school districts. And so a lot of the teachers were getting letters from their administration saying, “Hey, you broke the law. You could be up for losing your job.” But they said, “I'm going to keep my name on this list anyway.” And in June, over the past couple of years, we've also had the Teach Truth Day of Action. So, people go to a historic site and make their pledges public. Either, if they're an educator publicly declaring their continuation of teaching the truth, or community members that say, “I will continue to support educators.”
0:13:34 CKJ: What we're also seeing a lot of is people showing up at school board meetings in support of the teachers that are teaching the truth, which I think is a really powerful method because we do see the opposition showing up at school board meetings and trying to take over the school board meetings, trying to get teachers terminated. So we're seeing, also, that same wave of folks, but just on the other side that are really making their support known.
0:14:00 CKJ: And another thing that I'll name is that with our book, Teaching for Black Lives, we have a whole campaign around this book. And that's edited by Jesse Hagopian, Wayne Au, and Dyan Watson. Just a beautiful, powerful book that has made such significant waves. And so, it provides teachers with support, resources, and encouragement to teach young people honestly about systemic racism and how to organize for justice. The book has just been a huge campaign, including a website. We have study groups throughout the United States. So, we've had 300 plus study groups across multiple states. And in these study groups, what we're hearing from teachers is that they are reading, they are studying, they are gathering and figuring out how to use some of the core tenets in their curriculum and their pedagogy, but also they're organizing for more equitable policies. So, we've heard of educators as part of the study groups who are advocating for restorative justice programs instead of zero tolerance and police in schools. Or they're advocating for more Black teachers. They're advocating for more opportunities to come together to bring the community to be a part of the schooling experience. So, through these study groups people are really organizing and advocating for necessary change and are actually having some successful wins. So, we're really excited about that.
0:15:37 CKJ: And then another thing, too, that I'll mention, we have another book that has study groups - Teacher Unions and Social Justice. And so, many of the teachers who have been experiencing termination and pushback are also turning to their unions, and we are also putting pressure and the onus on unions to support their teachers, especially in light of this. And with the social justice and teacher unions book, we've heard from a number of groups that, similarly to the Teaching for Black Lives study groups, they've used the book as a grounding to really figure out their strategy to how to approach their union, how to change their union, and how to make sure that their unions are more inclusive. So it gives me a lot of hope in a time that can feel very hopeless. And so, I'm hoping that people really pick up on some of these stories of collective power, camaraderie and leaning on one another, because that's really what we have to do in this moment.
0:16:45 NC: And I found, I participated in the Teach Truth Day of Justice in Iowa City. Gosh, was it back in June? Now I have a placard on my wall. June 10 is what it was. But, that was really just such a powerful moment of solidarity for people in Iowa in particular, for which, coming off the last legislative session, where there was so many visceral attacks, particularly on LGBTQ rights, identities, representation in schools, just to be able to hear, which is really the power of that meeting in Iowa City, was to hear from young people themselves about the impact of these. So just as you had said, the purpose of the Rethinking Schools magazine, and perhaps the project, is to document these stories and use those as the jumping off points for action. I still, you know, think of those stories and even communicate in parts with some of the people that I met on that day. So, that's an amazing opportunity. I'm putting it out there for other people to get involved.
0:17:46 CKJ: Yes, please.
0:17:48 NC: From what I can tell, too, it's awesome, if you go to the Rethinking School's website, listeners, and click on the books, you'll not only be able to find the various virtual and physical copies of those books, but that's too where you can find that information for how to get involved in the study groups. There are very often study guides and other free resources that come with those, too, that are awesome supplements, to both supplement the book, and frankly, they kind of stand by themselves, too. That New Teacher Book, I think, I haven't read all the books in the Rethinking School's repertoire, but I can really vouch for that New Teacher Book being a real valuable guide, edition, for people to check out if they haven't done that yet. And again, that comes with resources for people to get involved with, too.
0:18:38 CKJ: Oh, thank you.
0:18:40 NC: You'd mentioned so many opportunities, past webinars. You mentioned the Teach Truth Day of Action over the summer. Let's look ahead to 2024. What's on the docket? Are there specific events that people can kind of get on their calendar or ideas, publications? What can people look forward to from rethinking schools headed into the new year?
0:19:01 CKJ: Absolutely. So, we are actually in the process of several new book projects. Some updates to previous books and then also some completely brand new books. So I'm really excited to share that we have a book in process right now about how to support trans students, particularly in this moment of anti LGBTQ plus legislation. We have an updated version of a climate justice book. And many people that are a part of the Teaching For Black Lives study groups continue to ask, “What is the next book that we can study?” And so, people are really interested in the climate justice work. And it's so important right now, especially as we continue to experience climate injustice, and recognizing that it's not just something that should be relegated solely to science classes, but in all classes we should be having these critical conversations about how to organize for climate justice. We have a book on reconstruction in the works, and we also have another writing book from Linda Christensen in the works, and we have an arts education book in the works, which I'm particularly really thrilled about. I come to this work as a dance educator, and so I'm really looking forward to being able to share some of those resources in a really curated way.
0:20:25 CKJ: And, we're also continuing to work on creating virtual spaces and in-person spaces for people to gather and be in community. A lot of the feedback that we get about our webinars is that teachers who are in places where they are isolated, or maybe the only person in their community, in their school community, that's really thinking about their curriculum from a social justice oriented lens, is that when they come to our virtual convenings, that they communicate and are in community with other educators who are in similar positions, and so they're able to find support from other educators, and it helps people to not feel so alone. So, we'll have more webinars. We have a webinar actually happening next Wednesday, and that is the virtual book launch and celebration for Rethinking Multicultural Education, the third edition. So several editors will be in conversation as part of that celebration. And then, we're also leaning into offering more writing workshops for people to write, for the magazine, to write for the books, but just to write, to create spaces for people to process and reflect on their experiences, and then also to be able to document that. So, I'm really looking forward to those spaces, to be able to not only tell stories, but think about what does it mean to build narrative power in this moment? What are the narratives that we want to promote? What are the narratives that we want to share? And, how do we help people envision this future that we're trying to build? And part of that for us is, through the writing process.
0:22:13 NC: Incredible. If people hear what you're saying about this upcoming year and are feeling excited about getting involved in the things to come, what are the best ways for those conscientious, interested, either educators or people connected to education in some way, too, who want to learn more and get involved? What's the best way for them to do that?
0:22:34 CKJ: Yes. So if you are interested in volunteering for us, reach out to me personally. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. So, we are looking for volunteers in a number of areas, particularly fundraising, support for different book projects, and just many, many ways that people can get involved. We're even looking for tech support for webinars in these writing workshops. So, if you have a specific area of expertise and are willing to share that with us, I would be so grateful. And I know our whole community would be grateful for any support you could offer. And then also, there are other ways to get involved too. If you're interested in writing for the magazine. If you go right onto our website, we have a submissions tab, so feel free to reach out to us. We really engage in a developmental editing process, so if you have an idea and feel stuck on where to even start, that's how I got started. I was talking with an editor and I said, “Okay, here are three ideas that I have”. And we said, “Okay, let's run with this one.” And I was supported through ideation all the way through publication. So, we want to make sure that we're supporting people. Please share your teaching stories and your organizing stories with us.
We would love to hear. Then, you know, come to some of our online events. The Zinn Education Project also hosts monthly online People's Historians series. So, it's called Teach the Black Freedom Struggle, and it is a conversation with a historian and an educator. You may see a familiar face on there facilitating at times with my comrade Jesse Hagopian, and we talk about a number of different topics with different historians. And then people get to go into breakout rooms and actually be in conversation with one another about the resources and about how they might teach it, or how they're already teaching the topic, and then we continue on with the conversation. So, we love to see people show up through there and also are always looking for support for facilitating some of those small group conversations. So, many ways to be involved. If any of it interests you, or if you have another idea, please reach out to me. I'm really excited to grow and expand our community as much as we can.
0:24:51 CKJ: One thing that I also love to lift up for folks is using Rethinking Schools materials in university settings and teacher education programs, or even just for professors in other disciplines as well. I am an adjunct professor. I teach a course on teaching digital and media literacy and popular culture in grades k through 12 with a number of current educators and preservice educators, and Rethinking Schools all over my syllabus. And one of the things that my students always comment on is how they appreciate the partnership between the theory. So, we have critical academic articles alongside a Rethinking Schools article where they can see what some of this actually looks like theory into practice. So as we're talking about teaching pop culture, pairing it with an article about how to actually do that, or how a teacher has done that, and they can really see it come alive. And I've heard that from so many other teacher educators who have assigned some of our books, our texts, as some of their required texts for the course. There was even an educator that I just met at the National Conference on Social Studies in Nashville and NCSS who said that instead of a textbook, she actually has all of her students subscribe to the magazine. And so, I love that model of trying to break down this hierarchy in materials and really provide things that are tangible, especially to folks that are going into the classroom. So if that's something that you all are interested in doing, feel free to reach out. We can offer some type of support or some type of discount so you can make these materials available and accessible to your students.
0:26:44 NC: And I can't recommend enough to people, even just subscribing to the magazine or gifting a subscription too. My perspectives are broadened every single time that it arrives in my mailbox, and I'm so grateful for the writers, authors. The stories that you decide to curate for those volumes are really both affirming, challenging, invigorating, and in all of the best ways. And I think it's one of the best education publications that I get in my mailbox on a regular basis. So again, I'm here as both a fan, obviously, but also Rethinking Schools’ work has been incredibly influential on our own here at Human Restoration Project. So we owe you all an incredible debt. We couldn't do the work that we do without the voices, the staff, the people that you all have on board as well. So, we're looking forward to what you're doing in 2024 and how, hopefully, our missions can help support one another going forward, too. So, thank you, Cierra, for joining me today for this conversation.
0:27:42 CKJ: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me. And thank you so much for the work that you all do. I've been really grateful to just be in continued conversation and partnership. So, looking forward to more to come.
0:27:54 Awesome. Thanks, Cierra.
0:27:55 CKJ: Thank you.
0:28:01 NC: 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 www.humanrestorationproject.org