“Being a teacher, almost by definition, means being an activist”, says David Chura, the teacher who has worked with at-risk teenagers for forty years. While the word “activism” is generally associated with taking initiative, being active, standing your ground, fighting injustice, as well as taking to the streets, activism for teachers, especially those teaching at the public schools, is everyday reality.

Teacher activism is dealing with a child who comes to school hungry and undernourished and therefore cannot concentrate. Teacher activism is dealing with a child who cannot see what’s written on a black board because his parents cannot afford buying reading glasses. Teacher activism is helping immigrant students adapt to a new culture and overcome language barrier.Teacher activism is dealing with bullies and the kids getting bullied.Teacher activism is turning to a school counselor because a fourth grader came to school with a black eye. Every time a teacher takes action to assist his/her students, he or she becomes an activist, an agent of change for kids in the classrooms.

 

How teachers unite to protest

teacher at demonstration holding a sigh

If you’ve been following the situation with the public education in the US, you probably know that the current climate in the American public school system is pretty tense. Among the major public education issues are school segregation, racial disparities, achievement gaps, standardized testing, teachers’ evaluation, teachers’ jobs depending on how well students perform, underfunded schools, and “black and brown students siphoned into under-resourced schools by a persisting color line”, to name just a few. With that said, however, there has been some progress in recent years: high school graduation rates are the highest they have ever been – 81 percent of the class of 2013 received their diploma within four years, according to the Center for American Progress. Yet, it’s clear that much work still remains.

Across the United States, public school teachers have been organizing protests against policies like standardized testing and teachers evaluation that they believe are “failing students” and “cheating them out of the opportunities they deserve.”

New York City

I am more than a test score sign

In May 2014 Rosie Frascella, an NYC public school English teacher participated in the boycott of the New York State English Language Arts Performance Assessment Exam in 2014. “The test, which is part of a new teacher evaluation system, exists solely to rate teacher performance”, states In These Times. On the test day, Frascella among other teachers at the International High School at Prospect Heights (IHSPH) in Brooklyn stood outside the school building and informed the reporters that they would not be administering the Assessment Exam. She told The Nation that she isn’t concerned about her professional ratings, and what worries her is her students and their self-esteem.

Detroit

our fight for detroit kids demonstration

On Monday, May 2nd  2016, more than 1,500 teachers of 97 public schools in Detroit called in sick in protest after they found out that they might not get paid after June. Teachers had organized other major sickouts in 2016, but this was “the first one sanctioned and organized by their union, the 2,600-member Detroit Federation of Teachers, in a sign of how the crisis in Detroit Public Schools is escalating”, reports The New York Times. Detroit has been one of the most troubled districts in the US. 2013-14 bankruptcy of the entire city, mismanagement of the Detroit public school system, and, most importantly, a sharp decline of city’s population. Since the funding comes from the state and is “paid on a per-student basis”, fewer students means smaller budgets.

California

teachers protests against deportation of undocumented immigrants

According to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Plyler v. Doe, in 1982, all undocumented children in the United States have a legal right to obtain a free public K-12 education. However, as Trump’s threatens mass deportations, educators are taking to the streets “to protest a federal crackdown that is terrifying their immigrant students”. In Santa Clara county, California, leaders from the county school district organized a gathering at the county office of education to show support for their immigrant students. Michael Hickey, president of the United Teachers of Santa Clara, said that the gathering was planned with a purpose “to reaffirm our commitment to maintain our schools as a safe space for students”.

How teachers can stand up for undocumented students

teachers holding a sigh 'I am an unafraid educator with and for undocumented students'

United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the United States, advocates “for the dignity and fair treatment of immigrant youth and families, regardless of immigration status.” Passionate activists, they provide tons of information on how to fight deportations, know your rights as an immigrant, and keep immigrants’ families together. Their “3 Ways That Teachers Can Be Public Educator Activists & Advocate With and For Undocumented Students” is a practical guide for educators willing to protect undocumented students in their school districts. Here’s just a few steps suggested by the guide that teachers can take to make undocumented immigrant students feel more comfortable and taken care of:

  • Create and/or lead students into spaces of empowerment, such as conferences, workshops, or groups directed towards changing vulnerability to power
  • Do your own research; know national, state, and local policies that affect the undocumented community. Don’t depend on someone who is undocumented to update you on legislation
  • Analyze your migration history. For some, migration was a choice (colonialism, settlement) while for others it was forced (slavery). Others have been killed and displaced from their land, which we occupy today (Native Americans, Indigenous folks, genocide).
  • Include parents- we often forget about including parents, however they play a vital role for students

Bronx teacher turned urban gardener

Stephen Ritz

 

The purpose of education is to move society and individuals forward, and when children get a sense of that and become empowered by that, that’s what happens. So that was very much the focus of my classroom at a very turbulent time in the South Bronx. Stephen Ritz

Even if you are not familiar with the four boroughs of New York City, there’s one thing you need to know: South Bronx, being one of the poorest congressional districts in the entire United States, is not the easiest nor the safest place to teach kids. As of 2010, more than a quarter-million people in the South Bronx were living in poverty, making it the poorest district in the nation. 38 percent of its residents were living below the poverty line and the figures were worse for children, with 49 percent living in poverty, states New York Daily News.

If you are not familiar with Stephen Ritz either, there’s also one thing you need to know about him: this public school teacher who grew up in South Bronx is so incredibly passionate and driven that no words could ever convey his enthusiasm. You should listen to his speech and you should actually see him deliver it at TED conference.

Green Bronx Machine

 

Here’s a quick intro to the TED talk:

Stephen Ritz believes “that people should not have to leave their community to live, learn, and earn in a better one, and neither skin color nor ZIP code should determine outcomes in life.” With this in mind, he created a school-based gardening program named Green Bronx Machine. Most people would agree that in gardening is good : it is beneficial for the environment and it produces foods that we consume. But imagine urban gardening done by kids from the underserved communities whose families live below poverty line and for whom food and nutrition is a big issue.

green bronx machine

At the beginning Stephen Ritz and his students started growing gardens in the neighborhoods and on a rooftop. Than they moved on to growing edible plants in the classroom in one of the South Bronx public schools. Ritz found kids who prefer the gardening aspect, kids who love the designing process and also kids interested in the budgeting side. Now, Green Bronx Machine has its own Farmers Market. It partners with local businesses, brings food to those in need and even runs culinary classes for kids. Stephen Ritz keeps saying “I am not a farmer.”  While not being a farmer, he created a gardening-based learning model that transforms lives.

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