Another School Is Possible

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Education was a thread amongst the many issues up for debate during the European Social Forum in London. One specific seminar claimed that “Another School Is Possible”. Ealing National Union of Teachers branch has sponsored the participation of US education-activist Bob Peterson at this session, and its secretary Nick Grant interviewed him about his work.

What are the core ideas of the Rethinking Schools organisation?
We advocate the reform of elementary and secondary public schools in the United States with an emphasis on urban schools and issues of equity and social justice. We stress a grassroots perspective combining theory and practice and linking classroom issues to broader policy concerns. We are an activist publication and encourage teachers, parents, and students to become involved in building quality public schools for all children.

What are the key aims of the RS organisation?

Rethinking Schools seeks to build a movement for more equitable, just, and critical education for all students. We understand that a key part in winning the struggle for educational justice is the linking of those struggles with broader social movements. This linkage, however, should take place not only in the general political arena where teacher unions fight for socially just policies, but in the very curriculum and structure of schooling itself, where teachers and their organizations promote critical global justice pedagogy and create structures that promote access and power to the most disenfranchised sections of our society. Rethinking Schools tries to promote these kinds of activities through clear analysis of policy issues, thoughtful descriptions of critical teaching practices in all subject areas, reviews of progressive resources, and reporting on organizing for educational justice. We do this in our monthly magazine, the books we’ve published and our web site: www.rethinkingschools.org

Recently we’ve initiated a program called “From the World to our Classrooms” in collaboration with the group Global Exchange. We’ve organized curriculum tours of educators from the United States to go and visit social justice activists on the border of Mexico and the US so that teachers can meet and learn first hand from workplace, women’s, community and environmental activists. On return to their schools teachers advocate solidarity policies within their union and create curricula to help teach about these matters.

How is your organisation structured?

Rethinking Schools started in 1986 from a study circle of teacher and community activists. Many of us had been active in the civil rights, anti-war, and women’s movements and we wanted to bring the same kind of critique and activism to work around schools. We started small on my kitchen table with a can of rubber cement and an old Apple IIe computer. We’ve grown a lot in the last 18 years! We are a “non-profit” independent organization that is not affiliated to any trade union or political party. We operate as a non-hierarchical organization with no “executive director” and try to make major decisions through consensus.

We are based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin but have editors on both the east and west coast of the U.S. We have 11 volunteer editors, a small staff of five people and a network of supporters, friends and volunteers. Individual editors are connected to other union, professional or political organizations in which we organize.

In the UK City Academies are modelled on the US Charter school idea. The recent collapse of a Charter school company in Los Angeles and the underperformance of Charter school kids in national tests suggests that this flagship of out-sourced education is not working. Would you agree?
To any rational observer one would have to say such experiments are not working, but that doesn’t stop the folks who are pushing privatization of public services and market-based “solutions” to the educational problems that exist in the United States.
There is a very well-financed network of foundations, think tanks, wealthy individuals, and right-wing political organizations that have significant capacity to continue the political campaigns on these issues. Their goal isn’t the betterment of education, so they are not deterred by reports of school failure. Their goal is clearly privatization of one of the few remaining public sector institutions in the United States, along with the destruction, or at least the weakening, of the two major teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

But these folks are smart. They’ve used the problems of the public school system to their advantage. For example, in Milwaukee, the city with the nation’s largest publicly-financed private school voucher program, the right wing foundations have been able to buy off a group of leaders in the African-American and Latino communities so that they support vouchers and have turned against public schools. The fact is the teacher unions and progressives who support public education have to realize that it’s not enough just to expose the aims of the right-wing but to figure out ways to act on the legitimate concerns of oppressed nationality communities. This is particularly difficult given the significant cut backs in school budgets. It’s the fine line that most public sector unions have to walk; on the one hand to defend the public sector and services, and yet be critical and pressure those in power to improve them. If we don’t do this strategically, we open ourselves up to losing the battle for the hearts and minds of significant section of the urban community.

The anti-war editions of your journal must have made an impact. Were they well received?

Our special editions that we put out, both after the September 11 attack and after the launching of the second Iraqi war, were well received in some quarters, and of course, hated in others. We distributed over 100,000 copies of our special print edition of “War, Terrorism and Our Classrooms,” and another 100,000 pdfs of the issue were downloaded from our web site. That certainly shows some serious interest in our work. At the same time, the right wing, especially the right-wing media, went ballistic on this matter. For example, a Milwaukee-based radio talk show personality got hold of our special edition on Iraq and used it to try to get me fired. For 16 straight days my school principal, the school superintendent and I received phone calls and emails demanding that I be fired or worse. Actually a couple people suggested I move to France, but they never offered to pay my way so I rejected that idea. Seriously, it got ugly, and in a few cases in other parts of the United States teachers were fired. For the vast majority, however, the post-9-11 and post-Iraq-invasion, flag-waving jingoism had the effect of intimidating teachers from teaching about this and other controversial subjects. Resistance to this kind of wide-spread acceptance of the status quo is one of Rethinking Schools’ key messages: We believe that teachers have a civic and moral responsibility to have their students study issues of global injustice, and ask deep questions, probe “received” wisdom, even at the risk of being labeled “unpatriotic.”

Is the US anti-war movement generally still growing?

Yes it is very much alive, but it still hasn’t regained the strength it had in the pre-Iraq invasion days of February 2003. The recent demonstration of a half a million people in August in front of the Republican convention, however, shows significant sentiment against the war. It was the largest demonstration in the history of our nation at any political convention. While Kerry supporters were evident in the demonstration, the vast majority were focused on anti-Bush and anti-war messages. In one section of the march, people carried nearly 1,000 black cloth-draped coffins, representing the number of US personnel who’ve died in the war. It was very moving. Comments by Kerry that he’ll “do a better job of winning the war” than Bush, upset big chunks of the anti-war movement. I think the Kerry voter registration efforts have drawn mainly from the labor movement and other social movements, like the environmental and women’s movement, although some from the anti-war movement. Mobilizing hard core anti-war folks to work for Kerry has not been as easy. That’s not to say people won’t end up voting for him. Bush is so reactionary on virtually every domestic and international matter, that people know it’d be a disaster if the Bush-led cabal of right wing ideologues, free-marketeers and Christian fundamentalists continued in power for another four years.

How do you maintain a dissident pedagogy inside otherwise hostile systems?

I maintain my pedagogical approaches in a couple of ways.

First is my politics and commitment to justice. This may sound corny, but what alternative is there? A lapel pin I like to wear reads “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” Well, I’m paying attention and I’m outraged. If teachers think that they should be “neutral” in a world so filled with injustice, then they are just modelling moral and civic apathy. Is that what we want to teach our children? That being said, I don’t believe the role of political teachers is to didactically teach students and try to convince them of certain political positions. Not in the least. What we need to do is something much more complicated, much more in the spirit of the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. We need to help students interrogate their world, to use all forms of text and media to better understand it, and to see the importance of being subjects, not objects of history to be acted upon. This means providing alternatives to establishment media and school texts, encouraging debate, questioning, and role plays where all “official” positions and dominant forms of thinking are fair game. Ultimately it means engendering the kind of social action we know is necessary to help create a more just world.

The second way I maintain my sanity is through my close friends and comrades in Rethinking Schools and other political organizations. History teaches us that social change comes through social movements, and I am inspired by the social movements — whether they be in Chiapas or Palestine or in the barrios of East Los Angeles in the United States. More importantly I know that only by working together in our political collectives, our trade unions and broader political organizations and parties can we move forward. My hope is that people will see the need to move beyond much of the left-sectarianism that has plagued progressive forces for so many years and understand that a new world is only possible with a bold, non-sectarian approach to social justice politics.

Bob Peterson, editor of Rethinking Schools, is a fifth grade teacher at La Escuela Fratney, a bilingual (Spanish/English) school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is also a writer, activist, and co-editor of the book, Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World available at www.rethinkingschools.org