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The following is a transcription of a speech by Dr. Denisha Jones on July 26th, 2022 titled "Education as the Practice of Freedom - Learning From the Movements." The video can be accessed on YouTube.
Chris McNutt: Hello and welcome to our second flipped keynote session at our conference! As a reminder, our keynote today will be followed by a Q&A panel session on Wednesday, July 27th at 11AM ET.
As always, I wanted to let you know that this conference and presentation is directly supported by Floop, the feedback-driven learning platform. And Rethinking Schools and City Light Books assisted in marketing. Further, we are thankful for our supporters at Human Restoration Project for allowing us to continually serve this community.
It is genuinely so cool to have Dr. Denisha Jones with us here today. Jones’ work is inspirational, through her work with Black Lives Matter at School as well as a play advocate and defender of childhood. Dr. Denisha Jones is a member of the national Black Lives Matter at School steering committee and co-editor of Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice. She is an educational justice advocate and activist who serves as Executive Director for Defending the Early Years and Assistant Executive Director for the Badass Teachers Association.
In addition, she is a researcher and professor, serving as the Director of the Art of Teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, focusing her work on utilizing the Black Lives Matter at School curriculum and highlighting the power of play as a tool for liberation. Thank you so much, Dr. Jones, for being with us today.
Dr. Denisha Jones: Hello. Thank you for listening to my keynote today. My name is Denisha Jones and I have been a teacher educator for the past 19 years. I began as a kindergarten teacher and also worked as a preschool teacher and preschool director, before transitioning into higher education. Currently, I’m the director of the Art of Teaching program at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. My research and public scholarship has centered on dismantling the neoliberal assault on public education, documenting how the Black Lives Matter at School movement enacts Black cultural citizenship education, and advocating for play as early childhood liberatory pedagogy. Though these may appear to be three disjointed areas, I believe they have a common thread: education as the practice of freedom.
In her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks put forth a vision of education centered on freedom. She believed that the classroom remained the most radical space of possibility in the academy. She urged us to “open our minds and hearts so that we can think and rethink, so that we can create new visions”. So that we can “celebrate teaching that enables transgressions, a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom”. My talk will explore the movements documented in my research and work as an education justice advocate. But first I want to unpack the boundaries.
I knew I wanted to be a teacher since I was 12 years old, thus it was shocking when I finally became a teacher and I did not enjoy it. I loved learning and naturally assumed that I would love teaching. I did well in school so I thought working in schools would feel like a right fit. I was unprepared for teaching to feel stifling and schools to be constraining. I realize now that it was the boundaries that suffocated me and imprisoned me. The boundaries turned my dream of being a teacher into a disappointing reality. Since leaving PK-12 education I have spent my time in higher education studying the boundaries in an effort to prepare future teachers so they may enter the profession ready to resist the boundaries.
I began by trying to identify and name the boundaries to better understand how they operate. In the beginning I believed it was the various systems of oppression entrenched in our society filtering into public education. However, now I have come to understand that education designed to suppress freedom is the boundary. This type of education is a form of colonization. Joel Spring documented various methods of educational colonization including cultural genocide, deculturalization, assimilation, cultural pluralism. Each of these methods were used in the founding of this country against BIPOC people as English colonists brought forth their beliefs in cultural and racial superiority used to justify stealing the land and enslaving Africans. For those oppressed by educational colonization we must learn the historical roots of this boundary so that we may unshackle ourselves from the chains of colonization.
Once we understand how the boundary was created we can see how it operates today. The current attacks on critical race theory and attempts to ban teaching so-called divisive concepts perfectly illuminates how the boundaries are strengthened and maintained. Coupled with the rise in white nationalist propaganda and domestic racist terrorist attacks, educational colonization works to further the dehumanization of marginalized people.
Despite these attempts, I have studied movements in education that push against the educational colonization boundary and move us closer to hook’s vision of education as the practice of freedom. The first movement I will discuss is the Black Lives Matter at School movement. I argue this movement attempts to thwart the dehumanization of Black lives by enacting a curriculum for Black liberation.
As the murders of Black boys, girls, men, and women by police and violent vigilantes received visible attention due to video recordings and prolonged protests, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was born. Three Black women, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to demand an end to the systems and structures that make Black life disposable.
In 2016 as the assault on Black life continued with the killing of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling, teachers in Seattle Washington organized the first #BlackLivesMatter day of solidarity in a public elementary school. Despite the attacks that ensued including a bomb threat to the school, the teachers at John Muir Elementary wore t-shirts, collaborated with Black-led organizations, and created a curriculum to support students’ understanding of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. A month later, educators across Seattle spearheaded a city-wide Black Lives Matter at School day with over 3,000 teachers participating in the second #BlackLivesMatter solidarity event in school.
The ushering of Black Lives Matter at School, as a national movement, came from the principled, strategic, and organizing efforts of educators from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania who witnessed the Day of Action that took place in Seattle and expanded it to a Week of Action. Members of the Caucus of Working Educators (WE) Racial Justice Organizing Committee (RJOC), inspired by the events in Seattle, came together to plan a week of action for students in Philadelphia. Tamara Anderson notes how their work was not prompted by a specific local event but rather a response to ongoing issues that plagued the Black and Latinx populations in their district. They intentionally set out to make their event inclusive of issues beyond education such as housing, poverty, and fair wages. Thus they invited parents, college faculty, and local organizers as partners to help build what became the Black Lives Matter Week of Action. As word of the week of action in Philadelphia spread they immediately received pushback. Those opposed to racial justice labeled #BlackLivesMatter as anti-police and a terrorist organization. They responded to this pushback by re-centering the narrative on the truth of the Black Lives Matter movement, a grassroots movement for “freedom, liberation, and justice.” They also faced fear with truth by using the blueprint of Black Lives Matter’s thirteen guiding principles, which emphasize inclusive values, including restorative justice, globalism, and trans affirming, and, the power that resides in being unapologetically Black and no longer silent or invisible. The thirteen principles laid the groundwork for their planning and curriculum, and eventually, for the week going national.
On January 21, 2017, the Caucus of Working Educators posted a link to their Black Lives Matter Week of Action Calendar of Events on Facebook. The Google doc compiled links to K-12 curriculum resources to teach the 13 Guiding Principles on different days of the week, and information on activities and events planned throughout the city. In addition to the Week of Action calendar, the Philly organizers prepared a FAQ guide with talking points for educators, families, and parents as leverage for teachers to receive support from school administrators.
In the summer of 2017, members of the Caucus of Working Educators presented their Week of Action at the Free Minds Free People conference in Baltimore, MD. After they shared their organizing story, a signup sheet was circulated for those interested in taking the week of action national. As word spread of a movement to bring #BlackLivesMatter to schools, the national Black Lives Matter at School (BLMAS) Week of Action was born. A national steering committee of Black educators across the country, including those who began the movement in Seattle and Philadelphia, worked together to identify three national demands and formally declare the first week of February as the national week of action. In February 2018, the first national BLMAS week of action took place in 20-30 cities.
Today Black Lives Matter at School has grown from a Week of Action to a Year of Purpose with four national demands and endorsements from both national teachers’ unions. A curriculum committee curates K-12 lessons and resources for higher education, teachers organize curriculum fairs to demonstrate how to best teach the 13 guiding principles, supporters wear shirts designed by students selected from national and local contests, and youth are encouraged to organize rallies centered on the demands. Though the national steering committee offers outreach for new members, collects national endorsements, and plans national events, the work of Black Lives Matter at School happens primarily within groups of local educators and activists. In 2020, after the police killing of George Floyd and the uprisings for racial justice across the country, BLMAS created the Year of Purpose to expand the work beyond the Week of Action and ask educators to reflect on their own work in relationship to antiracist pedagogy and abolitionist practice, persistently challenging themselves to center black lives in their classroom. The 13 guiding principles are embedded throughout the year allowing educators to explore them before, during, and after the week of action. The Black Lives Matter at School curriculum provides the opportunity for schools to teach Black cultural knowledge, a Black history that centers resistance as foundational to Black struggle, and a curriculum affirming Black humanity.
In addition to the 13 guiding principles curriculum, Black Lives Matter at School promotes four national demands: 1) End zero-tolerance discipline and implement restorative justice, 2) Hire more Black teachers, 3) Mandate Black history and ethnic studies in the K-12 curriculum, and 4) Fund counselors not cops. In his historical analysis, Brian Jones connects each demand to “echoes, precedents, and activist ancestors” connected by various iterations of similar struggles. He describes Black Lives Matter at School as a do-it-yourself movement that combines a call to actively affirm Black lives and teach Black history today, while also making demands but not waiting for those demands to be met.
Despite false claims that #BlackLivesMatter is a violent terrorist organization spouting racial hatred, the 13 guiding principles assert that the movement is clearly grounded in a set of beliefs that affirm Blackness and model a commitment to racial justice. Anti-Blackness is sustained in educational colonization when Black history is solely taught through the lens of enslavement, respectable Civil Rights heroes, and individual narratives of acceptable Black people (i.e., athletes, entertainers, and the first Black president). These depictions teach children that Black history is the story of pain and struggle, and the only Black people worth celebrating are those who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to achieve the American dream, in a mythical color-blind post-racial America where all Black people have boots with straps and the American dream is placed within their reach. Thus, year after year, Black children and their classmates are inundated with messages of Black inferiority, Black pain, and salvation through white benevolence.
The 13 guiding principles disrupt the traditional dehumanization through educational colonization by providing contemporary Black cultural knowledge. This cultural knowledge is needed to sustain a pedagogy for Black lives. Those who teach the curriculum during the week of action enact a Black Lives Matter at School pedagogy connected to the historical push for culturally relevant teaching and representative of the current social movements and challenges to public education. The Black Lives Matter at School pedagogy affirms Black lives, resists neoliberal reforms, and presents a vision of education for liberation. Thus, the work of Black Lives Matter at School to teach the thirteen guiding principles transgresses against the dehumanizing of education colonization and moves us to a space where education becomes the practice of freedom.
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop introduced us to the metaphor of books as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. She said, “books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”
If books can be mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors, so too is the curriculum. As a mirror, the curriculum should reflect to each child an image of their authentic self as an agentic learner. Through the sliding glass door of the curriculum, the child should be invited to delve deep into a history that affirms and honors their ancestors and the lineage they inherited. The window of the curriculum should portray a future you are welcomed to participate in through engagement as a citizen who belongs to the community. Educational colonization ensures that the curriculum mirror does not reflect marginalized children, the sliding glass door is filled with lies and historical misrepresentations, and the window to the future is blocked.
I propose that as the BLMAS movement continues to grow and expand, it can serve as a tool that centers Black liberation in the curriculum. The 13-guiding principles of loving engagement, empathy, restorative justice, diversity, globalism, trans-affirming, queer-affirming, collective value, Black families, Black villages, intergenerational, Black women, and unapologetically Black, ensure that the mirror affirms Blackness, the sliding glass doors invites Black children into learning their history, and the window pushes them to enact a future of Black liberation.
The pedagogy of BLMAS is grounded in affirmations of Black lives that allow all children, but especially Black children, to develop a love and appreciation for Blackness. This affirmation of Blackness reconstitutes the curricular mirror allowing Black children to see their whole selves proudly reflecting their place in the world.
Beginning with age-appropriate language for young learners, the BLMAS curriculum disrupts the traditional curricular violence inflicted upon young children that insist their history begins with the horrors of African enslavement. BLMAS utilizes the 13-GPs as the contemporary Black cultural knowledge needed to expand and liberate Black minds. African American cultural knowledge can serve as a type of liberatory pedagogy for citizenship education. Beverly Gordon stated that we must develop emancipatory pedagogies if we are to break free from the master narratives imposed and indoctrinated on us. By teaching the 13-guiding principles we build a sliding glass door to a history filled with not only the struggle for Black liberation, but also the persistence of Black joy, and the centrality of Black humanity.
The BLMAS curriculum invites Black students to freedom dream about a future of education committed to Black liberation. Through the annual Student Creative Challenge, the movement asks youth of all ages to dream of a world where Black Lives Matter, schools are safe spaces for Black youth, and to imagine the mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors needed for Black lives to matter in school. Freedom dreaming opens the curriculum window to a future where Black liberation is the now.
In addition to organizing locally and serving on the national steering committee, I conducted research with teachers who participated in multiple Black Lives Matters at School week of action and the Year of Purpose. From the interviews and examination of lesson plans we found how early childhood teachers the 13-GPs provided space for young children to grapple with big ideas and see themselves and others as change agents providing a grounding in the present to recognize injustice. Moving beyond the idea that they were citizens in the making, the teachers focused on their current capacity as civic actors, thus opening a window to a future where Black Lives mattering is the norm.
Additional analysis of participation in this movement revealed how teachers support students unlearning and relearning Black history, center students as active contributors in the current movement for Black liberation, and provide opportunities for students to recognize and challenge systems of oppression in the present and the future. The 13 guiding principles allow for a revision of the curriculum that includes Black culture, provides accurate teaching of Black history, and prepares students to challenge injustice. As a vehicle for enacting Black liberation, the Black Lives Matter at School movement breaks the boundary imposed by educational colonization.
The second movement I want to discuss is the true play movement, or what I hope will become the global true play revolution. As an early childhood educator, I valued play as important for young children, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to true play that I understood play as a tool for liberation. Through a friend I learned about the Anji Play philosophy. In a rural province in China called Anji, a woman named Ms. Cheng enacted a philosophy of true play for all the government funded kindergartens that served 3-6-year-olds. After 18 years of observing children play, creating environments that fostered true play, and working with teachers to understand how true play flourished, they were ready to share the Anji Play philosophy with others in a two-year fellowship program which I joined in 2019. I was aware of ECE teachers in the US who offered full-time free play programs but I wondered what play advocates in the US could learn from play pioneers in other countries.
As my luck would have it, the first annual True Play Conference was taking place in Anji China the first year of the fellowship and I got to attend! The conference included visits to half a dozen Anji play kindergartens and presentations by Ms. Cheng, Chinese early childhood experts, international child developmentalists, and teachers and directors from Anji Play pilot sites in the US and abroad. The entire experience left me in awe as I contemplated the power of true play to foster freedom and liberation.
In Anji true play is defined as “is deep and uninterrupted engagement in the activity of one’s own choice. True play is most frequently characterized by observable experiences of risk, joy, and deep engagement. This is the deepest manifestation of learning, growth, and development. True Play flourishes in places of love where the materials, environments, and decision-making attend to the needs and differences of the individual and the group. When given space to reflect, those who experience True Play and those who take part in deep and engaged observation of True Play will create ecologies that prioritize the understanding of learning and development in their respective communities. Educators and policy-makers committed to True Play protect the child’s right to experiences of True Play, and make True Play a priority in their decision making about education.”
My experiences attending the True Play Conference in Anji, China and learning about the Anji Play philosophy led me to advocate for play as the antidote to neoliberal and global education reforms that sustain the schooling colonization project. Based on the principles of love, risk, joy, engagement, and reflection, the Anji Play philosophy provides a blueprint for understanding how the freedom to learn leads to the freedom to teach which then leads to collective liberation.
Love is the foundation for all the relationships in Anji Play and is demonstrated through reciprocal demonstrations of loving and caring for one another between the teachers, children, parents, and community. Love is all around in Anji kindergartens. Only with love can the children be free to engage in self-directed true play. Risk is a natural component of true play. Only through risk do children learn how to problem solve and truly express themselves. But risky play is only possible through love, and love and risk lead to freedom. The child is free to explore their full potential in collaboration with others, and the teacher is free to see the child as they are without the constraints of standards, scripted curriculum, and assessments.
Joy comes from the love and freedom to take risks. Only through the freedom to engage in uninterrupted true play can joy manifest. Joy is abundant in Anji Play, evidenced by the children’s smiling eyes and the constant sounds of laughter, the universal language of play. While experiencing joy, love, and the freedom to take risks, the children are fully engaged. Though most children who participate in adult-guided play are engaged, the depths of concentration and experimentation during true play revealed a level of engagement that was truly mesmerizing. Combined with hours to explore, design, build, and collaborate, children could sustain deep engagement that many would think beyond their capabilities. Reflection is also key to the Anji play philosophy. After hours of uninterrupted true play, the children draw play stories and engage in scaffolded discussions known as play sharing. Teachers share photos and videos of their observation of the play, while children use their play stories to reflect on what they accomplished.
Joy, engagement, and reflection are the keys to liberation for both children and teachers. Through the freedom to take risks knowing they are loved, the children are liberated from deficit orientations, and adult imposed limitations on what play should look like. While liberated, they exhibit a type of confidence that only develops through freedom and love.
As the opportunity to engage in true play freed the child, it also liberated both the teacher and the children. The teacher was liberated from the traditional deficit views of young children and free to see themselves as a co-learner with the children. The children were liberated from environments that focused on survival and were free to thrive and teach their teacher how they learned through play. The freedom to play liberated both the teacher and the child and became our best option to end the educational colonization project.
My time observing the Anji Play philosophy in action allowed me to deepen my understanding of how educational colonization operated within public education. This story from Carl Sagan notes sheds some light on the problem. He says “you go talk to kindergarteners or first grade kids, you find a class full of science enthusiasts. And they ask deep questions! They ask: “What is a dream, why do we have toes, why is the moon round, what is the birthday of the world, why is the grass green? These are profound, important questions! They just bubble right out of them. You go talk to 12 graders and there’s none of that. They’ve become incurious. Something terrible has happened between kindergarten and 12th grade.”
He is right something terrible is happening, it’s educational colonization. Children arrive bright and inquisitive to an institution that trains them to be quiet and obedient. Normed to white middle class values, schooling attempts to force all children to conform to these narrow expectations. Those who do are rewarded with good grades, praise, and accolades while those who don’t are labeled as at-risk, disruptive, and troublemakers. Both are denied their freedom. Both are left to survive and not thrive. And the educators who enact educational colonization, consciously and unconsciously are denied their freedom and also left to survive.
The freedom to learn and the freedom to teach threaten educational colonization. When education is driven by children’s innate curiosity they are free to learn. When classrooms support self-directed learning through questioning, they are free to learn. When the schedule is full of time to tinker, build, experiment, and wonder, they are free to learn.When children are trusted to take risks and collaborate with each other, they are free to learn. When the goal of education is to foster agency, they are free to learn. The freedom to learn makes educational colonization impossible.
Educational colonization means forcing teachers to deny children their agency, their freedom which in turn robs them of their agency and their freedom. When teachers are free to teach they can harness the power of observing children to learn from them. When teachers are free to teach they can prioritize creating nurturing relationships with children, their families, and the community. When teachers are free to teach they have sufficient time to support authentic learning experiences and create relevant and engaging curriculum. When teachers are free to teach they become partners in unleashing the potential of every child entrusted in their care. When children are free to learn, teachers are free to teach.
This freedom will impact every aspect of education. The freedom to teach and learn means leads to authentic worthwhile assessments instead of standardized testing that comes from the schooling colonization project. The freedom to learn and teach supports moving from knowledge competition to knowledge documentation. The freedom to learn and teach means we can measure what really matters and center learner driven assessments. The freedom to learn and teach supports learning through multiple perspectives. When education becomes the practice of freedom, all systems that impede freedom are rejected.
Education as the practice of freedom means teaching the truth. The hard painful truth. The uncomfortable shameful truth. The Black joy as resistance truth. The truth that will ultimately set us free. Education as the practice of freedom means teaching truth as an act of love, teaching truth as an act of freedom, and teaching truth so we may thrive. When we teach truth as an act of love, we must first learn to love ourselves. Through this act of self-love, we learn who we are, whom we come from, and where we are headed. As we learn to love ourselves, we work to unlearn the lies and distortion and relearn the truth that was intentionally kept from us. Armed with that truth, we are then able to love our students and their families. As we love them, we bring truth to them each and every day. We use truth to help them develop love of self and love of their people. Cognizant of how the world is designed to mask this truth, we take our time dispelling the lies and distortions and showering them with truth as an act of love.
But before we can experience the self-love that comes from teaching truth, we must reckon with our history and the history of public education. Before we can make education the practice of freedom we must understand that education was designed to maintain the status quo. Who were schools designed to serve? How do current practices maintain inequality? How do we address the roots of inequality if we refuse to acknowledge them or worse label them “divisive concepts”? Education as the practice of freedom requires acknowledging and accepting our history so that we can liberate our minds and liberate society. We teach this truth and an act of freedom.
Through that freedom we are liberated and through our collective liberation we can thrive. It is not enough to merely survive educational colonization which has turned schools into sites of toxic stress and extracted an education debt from BIPOC children.
Gloria Ladson-Billings argues that “the historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral decisions and policies that characterize our society have created an education debt.” Instead of looking at disparities each year, she encourages us to think about how the education debt was enacted over time, leading to the so-called achievement gap. Today, the achievement gap narrative marginalizes low-income children of color by reinforcing a racist idea. Diane Levin and Judith Van Hoorn documented through interviews with experienced early childhood teachers how the education reforms designed to close the achievement gap narrowed the curriculum, increased testing and decreased time to play. Thus, instead of paying down the education debt, a focus on the achievement gap widens the debt by focusing on reform. As schools are expected to increase achievement measured by test scores, schools often become sites of toxic stress.
The growing body of research on adverse childhood experiences, trauma, and toxic stress should inspire educators to ensure schools are spaces for healing, resilience, and thriving. The research makes it clear that exposure to adversity in the early years can lead to behavior problems in schools, poor health outcomes, and negatively impact language development and high school graduation rates. Race-based trauma, historical trauma, and collective trauma also impact children and their ability to thrive. Traumatic stress from racism is often exacerbated in schools through the use of an alienating Eurocentric curriculum, discipline policies that unfairly target children of color, and the increase of high-stakes standardized testing. Thus, schools become spaces filled with toxic stress for children of color that manifests into what Bettina Love describes as “the educational survival complex, in which students are left learning to merely survive, learning how schools mimic the world they live in, thus making schools a training site for a life of exhaustion.”
What is most promising from the research on childhood adversity is the emphasis on providing children with protective factors to build resilience and mitigate trauma and toxic stress. Protective factors support children in managing their stress and building their resilience in the face of adversity and trauma. If the school curriculum, policies, and practices can create toxic stress, then we must tear down the current system and rebuild schools as protective factors for all children. We must accept Bettina Love’s call for abolitionist teaching that “is built on the creativity, imagination, boldness, ingenuity, and rebellious spirit and methods of abolitionists to demand and fight for an education system where all students are thriving, not simply surviving”. The demand for a liberating educational system must begin in the early years. Early childhood education and care must embrace liberatory and emancipatory pedagogies that center the abolition of oppression in all forms. We are meant to thrive. To live lives full of joy, happiness, dreams, hopes, and peace. We thrive through self love, love of our people, and freedom to live. Truth is our ride to get to the world where thriving is the norm. We teach truth so we may thrive.
Paulo Freire said, “education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which mean and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of the world.”
We have seen what happens when schooling is used as a method of colonization. We know what conformity to the current system means for the future. Our only option is to center freedom in our schools.
Borrowing from James Baldwin, I leave you with this revision, “If the concept of education has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If education cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of it.”