Get the Bleep Out of the Fast Lane

On the way to the Genius Institute this morning, I became aware once again that I am a cautious but impatient driver. Usually, the fastest way to campus in the morning is Highway 287 because the speed limit is 65 for a longish stretch. Usually. Unless as was the case this morning, someone has decided to drive 45 in the fast lane. I can only endure that state of affairs for so long before I’m berating that driver out loud, even though I logically realize s/he can’t hear me. I’ll do what I can to change the situation, but only to a certain extent. I’ll drive just close enough to exert some pressure without tailgating. I’ll weave between lanes as long as the window is wide enough to do so without risking a wreck. I’ll drive 4-5 miles over the speed limit, but not 6 in order to reduce the likelihood of a ticket. Sometimes these methods work, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I’ll find an empathetic driver—an ally—who will wave me over in front of them so I can make my way into the faster lane. (And again, even though this driver can’t hear me, I wave and shout, “Thank you! You’re my best friend!)

Essentially, my technique is to analyze my immediate context, reflect on my state of mind in light of how quickly I need to arrive at the place I’m going, and adjust my practice accordingly—to push just enough so that I can move faster than is comfortable without wrecking the car and endangering my life.

While I’m not recommending that someone adopt my driving habits, I do ask you to consider how the metaphor is perhaps relevant to the work we’re doing together in this workshop. As we confront privilege, critique inequitable systems, and work to change them, how fast can we expect to move? How imperative is it that we, our students, our colleagues, our parent population, etc., get the bleep out of the fast lane in order to arrive somewhere more quickly than we might otherwise? How urgent is this work in our world? And who gets the privilege to decide?

Let’s adopt the same exercise I use when I’m driving in an effort to mull over these issues:

  1. Describe your place. Consider the obstacles you’ll encounter and the allies who will support your journey.
  2. Reflect on your practice.
  3. Consider how you can push beyond both to teach from a position of social justice, that is to: acknowledge privilege, recognize oppression, and critique and work to change social and educational systems that inhibit equity and access to opportunity that would allow our students to thrive in their lives and in the world.
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15 thoughts on “Get the Bleep Out of the Fast Lane

  1. Collin says:

    The metaphor of driving in traffic is a good one. We really have very little control over the slow drivers. If they are dead-set on driving slow in the fast lane there is little that we can do. But if they are unaware of how their actions are affecting others, they can be nudged toward more appropriate behavior, which is sometimes the case with social justice awareness. It’s not necessarily spite or lack of empathy that leads to this type of behavior. It can sometimes be that their speedometer is broken, their review mirror cloudy, the window tint on their back window is degrading. They are unable to see completely how their behavior is affecting others and it can be our role as drivers or social justice educators to shine a light on that behavior or attitude.

    For those that are resistant, those that are willfully driving slow in the fast lane (or dragging their feet on social justice awareness), it takes more of a community effort. Me alone driving behind the slow driver, flashing my lights, and honking my horn isn’t going to change that person’s behavior, but a community that recognizes that that behavior is inappropriate could exert some pressure. A community that recognizes the importance of considering how our actions and thoughts affect others could exert some pressure on that slow driver. They may comply at first just so that they are not publicly shamed, but I believe that that is usually the first step toward empathy and tolerance. A person might still be privately bigoted but recognize that being outwardly so has undesirable consequences. It’s possible that that person will never change, but the people around him/her, their kids won’t hear those bigoted thoughts rolling around and are more likely to resist not only the expression of bigoted thoughts but the bigoted thoughts themselves. The more that we can get people to think and speak the language of empathy, awareness and social justice the more pressure there will be against that self-serving and selfish behavior.

    I understand that social justice has and advocacy an action component to it, but I believe that that cannot be taught. The critical component is trying to see the world without blinders and consistently and constantly reflecting on how our actions, our thoughts, and our language affect others around us. That awareness will bring action and advocacy with it. Some of that action will be clumsy and counterproductive, but the intent means just as much as the action. Social Justice awareness and action cannot be forced upon an unwilling participant just as I have very little I can do to change that driver’s behavior, but once there is a critical mass of drivers driving appropriately and community members living and advocating social justice awareness any behavior contrary to those norms will be self-corrected.

    • blogessor says:

      Thanks for reminding me about how important empathy and community are in this work. I struggle to figure out where the balance lies between 2 things: 1) helping people (including myself) maintain a sense of safety–for instance, it doesn’t feel great to challenge others’ views, especially because I’m not confrontational by nature. and 2) recognizing that challenge, discomfort, and dissonance are essential to learning. If we don’t feel that, we don’t move forward.

      I would like to hear what others think: How urgent is this work? When is backing off counter-productive, and when is it necessary? How brave do I/we need to be?

    • Tara says:

      I like your thoughts on the power of the community in facilitating social change. Exposure creates awareness where is did not exist before. It creates a level of comfort with an idea that seemed unapproachable or unimaginable in a different time or place. I hope that the change is authentic, or at least becomes authentic with time, and not just an attempt to join the group because it’s the “thing to do”. I can’t help but wonder how social media has changed the pace of social movements. Will we begin to see change happen more quickly from now on because our “community” is so much larger and so much more accessible than ever before? I could see this working in both positive and negative ways.

    • msstromain says:

      This resonated with me: “The critical component is trying to see the world without blinders and consistently and constantly reflecting on how our actions, our thoughts, and our language affect others around us”–especially the part about language. We spent some time this week talking about “language,” but I’m curious to see how this plays out in our classrooms. Perhaps a conversation about language is a first step in talking about how we talk to each other when wrestling with complicated issues in our classroom. I’m just not sure what this looks like or sounds like.

  2. blogessor says:

    MY PLACE
    Like all of us, I inhabit more than one professional place, but the most relevant for me are CSU where I teach and CSUWP where I experience direct support to grow and learn as a professional and a human being. For the purpose of this entry, though, I want to write about CSU.
    Here, I get almost unlimited support from my colleagues and institution to teach from a social justice perspective to the degree that both can provide it, given all the constant demands and tasks we face in order to keep the institution going. Don’t get me wrong: many of these demands/tasks are important and deserve our time and life energy. It’s important to serve on committees, carefully review my colleague’s tenure files, teach well and (ugh) grade and respond to student work. Other tasks, though, feel like “scrivener work” (as in Bartleby) that I’d prefer not to do–stuff like filling out endless paperwork to adhere to a policy for which no one quite remembers the need, but we feel we have to do anyway so we don’t break the rules. Keeping the institution going often feels constant to the extent that I/we take on too much because there’s truly too much to do. Ironically, humans have created these systems, but we can’t seem to find our way out of them. THIS WORK TAKES TIME AND LIFE ENERGY, and I often can’t quite figure out how to integrate it with the broader values and priorities that animate my practice.
    The place I feel less comfortable, or at least more challenged, in teaching from a social justice perspective as I’ve described it in my original post, is in the classroom. Students are open to this work to varying degrees, but I most often experience considerable pushback from those who are unwilling to admit that privilege exist, especially when they haven’t observed that it does and any suggestion otherwise might indict them in complying with inequitable systems from which they personally benefit. Sometimes this resistance is openly visible in class discussion. I try to foster an environment where respectful dissent is possible, and I realize I can’t do that while quashing views I feel to be objectionable. (This is really hard for me.) But by and large my students are polite, so this resistance is more passive. Pushback is often veiled in student responses to course readings or assignments and sometimes more blatant in course evaluations where students complain, enough already! Just to teach me how to teach!

    MY PRACTICE
    I realize it’s not enough to say that I try really, really hard, but here are some practical methods I use:
    * I enlist students in setting up class norms and returning to them when they break down.
    * I intentionally choose course texts that promote critical pedagogy, especially those that blend theory with practice.
    * I employ interactive processes (e.g., small-group and whole-class discussion) that require students to engage in dialogue about these texts and issues. I try to point out that I’m modeling techniques they can use in their own classrooms.
    * In course assignments, I require students to interrogate and reflect on their cultural positionality and to consider in very concrete ways how it will shape their future teaching practice. As they build curriculum, I invite them to use methods, select texts, craft assignments, etc., with a social justice bent.

    PUSHING BEYOND MY PLACE AND MY PRACTICE
    1. I need to re-think what it evidence of success in achieving critical pedagogy looks like in my classroom. Pushback doesn’t feel good. Negative course evaluations sting. But are these evidence that I’m achieving my goals to some extent? Is making students feel uncomfortable an important step in helping them challenge their thinking? If so, I need to buck up.
    2. I need to learn more about when I’m pushing too far so that students’ views only become more hardened. (I think Collin mentioned this yesterday.)
    3. At the same time, I need to not be complacent. The work is too urgent. If I don’t do it, I’m perpetuating the status quo.
    4. I need to keep finding allies and learning with other smart people about CONCRETE ways to enact the principles I say I believe in.
    5. I need to remind myself that “professing” is not enough. I need to work IN classrooms to ground myself in the realities classroom teachers face every day in working in their places. I need to challenge myself by working with directly students, then finding others to reflect on how to get the bleep out of the fast lane or to speed up without endangering the work.

    • Collin says:

      Blogessor
      after reading your post, thinking about Janelle’s conversation yesterday, and reflecting on my own post I’m thinking about another way that I’d like to approach social justice education. I too fear and have experienced the push-back that you’ve experienced but I’d like to try framing social justice education not as a different way of seeing the world (which there might be some resistance to “seeing” things that way) but instead as a more holistic and complete way of seeing the world.

      To continue the driving metaphor we’ve been driving with most of our windows obscured and social justice education is an attempt to “clean-up” some of those windows so that we have a better idea of how our “driving” is affecting others.
      Isn’t that a goal that we could all look forward to and embrace? Not many of us willfully keep the blinders on (though some do), so how we package or sell social justice education might help with how it is received. I’m not trying to get you to see the world my way. I’m trying to get us all to see as much of the world and the impact we’re having as possible.

    • msstromain says:

      I appreciate your reminder about continuing to access our allies in this work. I’m looking forward to developing professional development opportunities that do address CONCRETE ways to teach from a position of social justice.

  3. Tara says:

    Teaching about social justice from a place that functions with privilege at its foundation offers unique challenges, but exciting opportunities. We have discussed the comparison of teaching in a classroom of students who occupy a marginalized status versus students who start from a place of privilege. Is teaching social justice about empowerment or empathy? Does it change depending on your audience? Yes, there are differences in how each group of students will interact with this type of teaching, but empowerment and empathy can both be achieved with all students in different ways. Perhaps it’s less about targeting empowerment or empathy specifically, but more about offering a level of awareness that can alter the paths of all students regardless of the place where they begin.

    In keeping with the metaphor, I think of the phrase “Go slow to go fast”. Erasing the invisibility of privilege can be scary and uncomfortable. The idea that social position, and not the actions of the individual alone, determines ones opportunities and sets the foundation for personal achievement is a shift in thinking that will inevitably be met with some level of resistance. This is a worldview change. It will not happen quickly, and it is important that I take whatever time is needed, answer whatever questions are posed, in order to guide my students through this change. Resistance will come from the student who occupies all categories of privilege. Resistance will come from the student who occupies few categories of privilege, but for different reasons. My hope is to uncover the root of the resistance and to guide the change slowly and deliberately, so that later they may take action. Later action is likely to happen when I’m no longer in the picture, and it may be swift and sure footed, and it may be rooted in empathy and empowerment, but it will most certainly come from a greater awareness of the world and our society.

    • msstromain says:

      These are great questions! “Is teaching social justice about empowerment or empathy? Does it change depending on your audience?” And as your friend and colleague, I look forward to talking with you about your goal–to “uncover the root of the resistance and to guide the change slowly and deliberately.” I’m also interested in understanding how we guide students–deliberately–through conversations that might create tension and resistance.

    • blogessor says:

      Man oh man, for most of my career, I’ve always taught students at the end of the line–juniors and seniors in high school, and now juniors and seniors in college. Because of that, I often feel, “This is my last chance!” and forget what you’re reminding me here, that “later action is likely to happen when I’m no longer in the picture.”

      I agree that raising awareness is absolutely the key first step in this work. I’m still struggling to figure out, though, what are the second and third steps? If we all (and I’m totally not suggesting that this is where you stand, Tara) just remain in the “raising awareness” stage, when do students (and we) ever move to action? I don’t know for sure about you, but I’m feeling increasingly comfortable with the first step (raising awareness), but I’m less sure about how to move beyond it.

      And I also wonder if *I* held a less privileged place in our culture, would I feel like it was okay to stay on the first step? I really don’t know, and for various reasons, I’m often afraid to ask my colleagues of color how they feel.

      Yikes, all this reading/responding is forcing me to realize how far I need to go.

    • Collin says:

      Tara,
      I like that you bring up the question of where this resistance comes from. As part of that question there is a recognition that what we are asking of our students is sometimes difficult and painful. We are asking them to turn a critical eye on not only their own thoughts and actions but also on the thoughts and actions of those closest to them. That is asking a lot of a teenager. I think it is appropriate and it is necessary and essential work, but you remind me how hard this can be for them.

  4. msstromain says:

    My place is my classroom. Next school year I will teach three 10th grade Pre AP World Literature classes and two AP Literature and Composition courses. In that place we will access texts that when approached with even simple analysis, exude possibilities of teaching and learning from a position of social justice. In both of these courses, I structure my units thematically. In recent years, I’ve adopted Sarah Brown Wessling’s approach to unveiling and using the texts that my students and I study. Each unit includes an anchor text (a novel or play that we all read together), context texts (texts that offer students access to context/theme of unit and to the complexity of further reading), and texture texts (texts that accompany the anchor text–poems, videos, short stories, etc).

    In World Lit, the themes include the following: self-discovery, cultures and values, war and peace, innocence and experience, and morality and justice. We read Oedipus, Antigone, Things Fall Apart, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Kite Runner. We grapple (or attempt to grapple) with questions like these:

    How does your culture shape your sense of of self and your perceptions of the world? How does your perspective shape and influence you? What similarities and differences do we see among cultures? How do the texts we study address complex issues of justice?

    The thematic units in AP Lit and Comp include the following: Home, Family, and Self; Resiliency; Innocence and Experience; Appearance vs. Reality; Loss and Isolation; and Self-Discoveries. Some of the texts we study in AP Literature include The Poisonwood Bible, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, All the Pretty Horses, Beloved, and Catcher in the Rye. In this class we wrestle with questions like:

    What defines family? What happens when conflict is introduced to a family? How does family influence identity? In what ways does the portrayal of family in literature affect self?

    What is resiliency? What are its central components? Why is it important? How is it developed? How can we connect the theme of resiliency to today’s global issues?

    What is innocence? What is experience? What has been the development of “loss” in literature? What defines realistic expectations of life? Is life in literature fair? Should it be? Does literature represent life, or vice versa? When do we let go of our innocence?

    What is truth? Is it absolute or relative? What is the relationship between language and truth? How willing are we to embrace truth? What if a “truth” leads us to violate an essential element of our self-concept? Does literature present truths or undermine them?

    What is of value? How does one find that which is lost? Why does literature embrace the difficult and tragic? How do modern (and postmodern) values reshape the landscape of literary analysis?

    Who and what gives us our identity? What happens when identities collide? If language shapes identity, how does it do so?

    I strive to create a safe but inquisitive atmosphere for us to talk about topics of tension. I think my goal this year will be to be deliberate in tracking HOW this is accomplished–What teaching tools do I use? What norming do we do? How do my students contribute to this process?

    • blogessor says:

      Can I please, please, please be a student in your class? I love these themes and the complex questions you ask students to consider because they matter to all of us as human beings. I can absolutely how students considering these questions, especially in using these texts, can develop a more critical lens. You go, girl!

  5. Elliott says:

    1. Place: I teach in a rural industrial town that has been called “The most diverse place in Colorado.” It has been transformed over the past 30 years by immigration, first by Latinos and most recently, by African refugees. While there have been hate crimes in the politically conservative town, the town has been increasingly studied and written about as a kind of new model for a rural immigrant assimilation by CSU Ethnic Studies (http://source.colostate.edu/csu-students-support-race-relations-work-in-fort-morgan/) and International Media Outlets (http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/10/6/colorado-it-takesavillagetosettleimmigrantsfromafrica.html).

    2. Practice: While it is heartening that some of the outside world has taken notice of Fort Morgan, it seems to have happened without much of the town noticing. My perspective as a 9th Grade English teacher at the High School is that there is a tension and a silence around direct conversation about difference and privilege in town and in the classroom. While I’ve taught about race (To Kill a Mockingbird) and about place (I’ve had some fruitful assignments around “Where I’m From” and Landscape), in my two years as a teacher, I have yet to design a full scale project around identity and/or place that helps students directly explore their lives in this transformational moment of the town. I have felt the desire to push more deeply into specific town issues in my curriculum, but have been primarily reflective and contemplative on this, possibly waiting for more experience as a teacher in this specific context. (Possibly clogging up the fast lane?)

    3. Pushing beyond both: I have been energized by a growing fellowship of those around me who want to work towards a common understanding of humanity in Fort Morgan. First, my English department at the High School had some inspiring conversations last year about a kind of Sharing Our Stories project, where a teacher at each grade level would work to have kids share their narratives and to have a presentation of those narratives at an event. The possible event that has been envisioned has been a kind of international festival.

    Ironically, and this speaks to lines of communication that need to be opened up, there already is an International Music Festival, put on each year by CSU and One Morgan County. This summer I have met and plan to meet with representatives from both.

    This is all to say that I am very excited to hook into work already being done and to push forward with what we have already been talking about in the English Department. I am excited to keep working to get my classes exposed to the larger discussion happening about Fort Morgan. Opening up lines of communication and collaboration looks like it could really get things rolling. We know that academics and media outlets are interested in telling Fort Morgan’s story, but what do my kids have to say?

  6. Collin says:

    I like your final question and your point that many of these conversations have been happening about Fort Morgan and around Fort Morgan without really including the people of Fort Morgan. I’m interested to hear what your students have to say about the changes, about their vision of a future Fort Morgan (giving them some ownership and pride over their town hopefully), and about the greatest challenges they all see.

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