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Don’t Scold, Organize!

To motivate students at the bottom of the social order, help them rise up.

By Al Levie

“Bianca, listen up. Brandon, show some respect. Alex, stop interrupting.”

The names may vary, but we all have used those phrases to maintain a learning environment in our classrooms.

As a new White teacher in an urban district, I was continually correcting kids’ behavior. And I took it personally. I knew if I had been Black or Latino, I would not have faced the same barriers. Others, perhaps, but not those based on race and social class.

My students are a mix of Black, White, and brown, the vast majority from low-income families. Most are alienated from school, their parents, and each other. On a gut level, they believe they will do no better in life than their parents. These children generally are not engaged in the life of the school. They see the future as a deck stacked against them, with success simply out of reach. 

Al Levie says social action leads to classroom engagement.

So how do we engage these kids? How do we spark them into buying into education as a way out of poverty? 

First, let’s stop pretending education is the only road to success. Let’s acknowledge that exploitation, racism, and sexism mean there’s limited opportunity for many people. And let’s recognize that groups of people have lifted themselves out of poverty through collective action.

Am I suggesting that we foment a student revolution? Absolutely not. I am saying, let’s engage students on issues that matter, help them organize, and stand with them. In doing so, we will change the dynamics in our schools. We will generate student leaders and engender respect for educators and education.

In the past two years, our Latino and African-American students have been organizing for their rights. A fellow teacher, Ryan Knudson, and I began working with immigrant and Chicano students on immigrant rights. The kids formed a group called Students United for Immigrant Rights. They hold press conferences, write letters and op-ed pieces for the local papers, testify before government bodies, confront political leaders who do not act in their interests, and conduct get-out-the-vote efforts on school funding referenda. They have an impact. 

In the process, they have changed. They no longer see themselves as pawns in someone else’s game, but as players in the game of life. They have broken down divisions between groups of Latinos and built bridges with poor Black and White kids. They have become great writers, speakers, and thinkers.

Before, they were by and large average to below-average students, but now Latino student achievement has risen, and many of the students have become self-assured leaders. They have also begun to challenge other kids to learn. 

Other groups of students and teachers have been sparked by the Latino students’ activism. African-American students formed Students United in the Struggle. Their first act was to organize a memorial to Rosa Parks the day after she passed away. Over 300 students, faculty, and community leaders attended. The ceremony got front page headlines in the local paper and catapulted these activists to the forefront of the civil rights community. Also last year, gay and lesbian students formed a gay-straight alliance. 

As with the Latinos, the kids involved in these new groups are beginning to feel and act as part of the fabric of our school.

By engaging students in real-life issues and encouraging them to act on a political level, we will transform schools into places where authentic learning takes place.
At the same time, we will help our students become engines of positive change in our society.

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