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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 4/19/18

Tomgram: Belle Chesler, A Teacher Listens to Her Students

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If you want a classic formulation from our new Gilded Age, here it is, as described recently in the Guardian: "A head-on assault on teachers for their long summer vacations would 'sound tone-deaf when there are dozens of videos and social media posts going viral from teachers about their second jobs [and] having to rely on food pantries.'" That's advice for what not to criticize in a "messaging guide" produced by the State Policy Network (SPN), an "alliance" of 66 right-wing "ideas factories," funded by such luminaries as the Koch Brothers, the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart), and the DeVos family (that is, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos's billionaire relatives and Amway heirs). It's part of a right-wing stealth strategy for finding just the right approach to discrediting America's restive red-state teachers, chafing under seemingly never-ending tax-cut regimes in states like Oklahoma, programs sponsored by those same plutocratic luminaries. As an approach to governing, such tax-cutting, now decades old, has -- you won't be surprised to learn -- mainly been a giveaway to the rich (just as Donald Trump's recent tax "reform" bill will be). When it comes to what formerly were known as public schools but that the right now calls "government schools," the results have been catastrophic. Oklahoma, for instance, has cut per-student funding by 28% in the last decade.

In the past, SPN went after another set of villains (if you happen to be a billionaire), a crew opposed to an inequality gap that never seems to do anything but grow. In fact, it has recently come close to reaching the record heights of the previous Gilded Age in 1913. I'm talking about unions. Now, however, it's those ungrateful striking teachers that are SPN's target and for good reason. In red states like Arizona, Kentucky, and West Virginia, their recent protests, walkouts, and strikes in favor of saving schools that have been put on a financial starvation diet (like teachers' salaries) and increasingly lack everything, even in a few cases the time to teach, are beginning to shake up state politics -- and not in ways that either those billionaires or the Republican Party much likes. After all, those teachers teach... well, students (from whom we've heard quite a bit recently)... and those students, unbelievably enough, have... parents, and when you add up those teachers, parents, and students (future voters all), they turn out to be a group with the kind of numerical heft that billionaires, despite the way they've been multiplying year by year in this country, lack.

So stop for a moment and read TomDispatch regular and Oregon high-school teacher Belle Chesler who's been thinking about how (and why) both students and teachers are suddenly shaking up this increasingly upside-down country of ours. Tom

Students as Teachers
Facing the World Adults Are Wrecking
By Belle Chesler

During the first week of May 1963, more than 800 African-American students walked out of their classrooms and into the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, to call for an end to segregation. Despite frequent arrests and having dogs and high-pressure firehoses turned on them, they kept marching. Their determination and ceaseless bravery -- later called the Children's Crusade -- was captured in photographs and newspaper articles across the country. Through acts of peaceful and defiant civil disobedience, these students accomplished what their parents had failed to do: sway public opinion in support of the civil rights movement.

Fast forward to March 24, 2018. Naomi Wadler, a fifth grader, is standing at a podium in front of hundreds of thousands of protesters at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. Young as she was, Wadler, who organized a walkout at her elementary school to honor the 17 victims of the Parkland massacre, delivered a searing and heartfelt speech about the countless gun-related deaths of African-American women in America. Her steely resolve and the power of her message brought me to tears. I wondered: Is this what it will take? Will a new generation of fearless student-leaders be the agents of change that America so desperately needs?

As a teacher, it took me a while to begin to see just what my students truly had in them. During my first two years of high school teaching, I'm not sure I loved or even liked my teenage students. If someone asked me about my job, I knew the right things to say -- working with teenagers was challenging yet inspiring -- but I didn't believe the lip service I was paying the profession. Much of my initial experience in the classroom was emotionally draining, engaged as I was in power struggles with those students, trying to assert my influence and control over them.

It seemed so clear to me then. I was their teacher; they were my students. So I set out to establish a dynamic of one-way respect. I would provide information; they would listen and absorb it. This top-down approach was the model I'd observed and experienced my entire life. Adults talk, kids listen. So it couldn't have been more unsettling to me when certain of those students -- by sheer force of spirit, will, or intelligence -- objected. They caused friction in my classroom and so I saw them as impediments to my work. When they protested by arguing with me or "talking back," I bristled and dug my heels in deeper. I resented them. They posed a continual threat to my ego and my position as the unassailable owner of the classroom stage.

Still, I knew something was wrong. In the quiet hours of the early morning I'd often wake up and feel a discomfort I can't describe. I'd run through exchanges from the previous day that left me wondering if I was doing more harm than good in that classroom. Yes, I continued to assert my right to the ownership of knowledge, but was I actually teaching anyone anything? I was -- I could feel it -- actively disregarding the emotional and intellectual capacities of my students, unwilling to see them as informed, competent, and worthy of being heard. I was, I realized, becoming the very kind of person I hated when I was in high school: the adult who demanded respect but gave none in return.

The best decision I ever made in a classroom was to start listening to my students.

As I slowly shifted the power structure in that room, my thinking about the way we look at youth and how we treat adolescents began to change, too. We ask teenagers to act like adults, but when they do, the response is often surprise followed by derision.

So it came as no real shock to me that, as soon as the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, started to talk back to the "adults in the room" -- the pundits, commentators, politicians, the National Rifle Association, members of other special interest groups, and even the president -- they were met, at least in certain quarters, with remarkable disdain. The collective cry from their opponents went something like this: there is no way a bunch of snot-nosed, lazy, know-nothing teenagers have the right to challenge the status quo. After all, what do they know, even if they did survive a massacre? Why would watching their friends and teachers die in the classrooms and hallways of their school give them any special knowledge or the right to speak out?

This nose-scrunching, finger-waving contempt for all things adolescent is a time-honored tradition. There's even a name for it: ephebiphobia, or fear of youth. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato was quoted as saying: "What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets, inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"

And in some ways, Plato was right: the old should be fearful of the young. You see, the teenagers who marched after Parkland don't necessarily hate the world; they just hate the particular world we've built for them. They've watched as the rules of the status quo have been laid out for them, a status quo that seems to become grimmer, more restrictive, and more ludicrous by the week. Fight for an end to police violence against unarmed black civilians and you're a terrorist. Kneel during the National Anthem and you're un-American. Walk out of your school to force people to confront gun violence and you're not grateful for your education. In short, whatever the problems in our world and theirs, there is no correct way to protest them and no way to be heard. Not surprisingly, then, they've proceeded in the only way they know how: by forging new paths and ignoring what they've been told is immutable and impossible.

A World of Digital Natives

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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