Flipping the Script: Pedagogy, Theater and Radical Organizing in Schools of Poverty

Originally published on Truthout

Jay Gillen, Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty (AK Press, 2014)

"It is hard to imagine, for example, that watching "The Wire" is actually a very good form of preparation for teachers who are about to begin teaching in Baltimore's segregated schools. They would be better off reading King Lear or As You Like It . . . "

It's not hard to imagine a book where a line like this could come off as smug, entitled, insufferable. It's more difficult to imagine a book - and this is really our problem, and not the author's - where such a claim can be seen for what it is: a radical truth.

The "radical" here is important - there are, at this point, numerous books testifying to the dismal state of American public education in the communities, primarily of color, that have been marginalized and abandoned by our increasingly austere system. And beyond the exposés of the moral scandal of de facto educational apartheid in the contemporary United States, there are many detailed critiques of the particular neoliberal history of the test-obsessed epistemological apparatus that undergirds this system. But what Jay Gillen offers in Educating for Insurgency is something vital and missing - a rigorous analysis of the terms of student struggle in what he calls "schools of poverty."

Others can see the tragedy of squandered educational opportunities and the unfortunate pathological consequences of poverty that render poor children of color "unable" to learn - but Gillen has more rigorous eyes. He sees, even in the most aggressive acts of refusal on the part of the "worst" students, not the unfortunate and pathological reactions of ultimately passive victims, but the strategies active in historical subjects coming into historical self-consciousness, collectively doing the work of the "old mole," whose burrows undermine the foundations of the current system and presage the irruption of revolt that will inaugurate something new. Deftly, Gillen weaves together this kind of subterranean articulation of autonomous power with:

  • its historical precedents - like that underground railroad whose tunnels and hidden networks enabled the cataclysmic, slavery-ending revolt;
  • its literary figurations: notably, the very well-lit burrow;
  • and its pedagogical enactments, like the "crawl spaces" the Baltimore Algebra Project constructs to open the space for young people in schools of poverty to work through their own development as autonomous intellectuals and political subjects.

Let's back up - after all, you may not be in Baltimore. You may not have had the privilege of witnessing a generation of black youth take, of all things, after-school math tutoring and turn it into a powerful weapon in the assertion of a collective consciousness around a renewed struggle for civil rights, cast in the mold of Ella Baker.

You may not have had the chance, as I have, to witness Jay Gillen's singular, powerful and unassuming dedication to the autonomy of the students he teaches and mentors, as a public city school teacher and as a mentor of the Baltimore Algebra Project. (One memory in particular stands out for me - the scene was the of the plaza in front of City Hall, tents in a public square protesting austerity a good couple of years before Occupy made it cool.

The issue was whether or not the multiday occupation, repressively tolerated by the office of then-mayor Sheila Dixon, should escalate into a hunger strike - I remember seeing a group of high school students standing in a circle coming to consensus about the way forward for the action - passionately, but with grace and the deepest respect for each other's perspectives - while Jay, the adult "in charge," watched from the sidelines, carefully making space for the students to make decisions and mistakes on their own terms.)

From the steps of the state capital in Annapolis to the site of the proposed - and defeated - $73 million youth jail, the Baltimore Algebra Project has been at the forefront of youth activism here, building a sustained political voice on top of an impressive youth-run business tutoring their peers. You can get a sense of this as a reader of Gillen's book in the photos reproduced on the inside covers of the book; in the way these students stand, caught in the act of speaking, shouting, marching, you see the confidence and maturity of young adults standing up against a world that was not made for them, acting with the dignity of the self-organized, not the awkwardness of the illustrative token.

Why, then, is Lear better preparation for a new teacher in Baltimore City Schools than "The Wire"? It's about the pretense to realism if we choose the latter - the idea that what the teacher confronts is facts, some unfortunate - like a school system for black children crumbling, alternately unheated and sweltering, lacking basic necessities like toilet paper - and some to be imparted to the students within the limits imposed by this system, forming their "education."

Gillen indicts both the realism that hampers our ability to actually understand the problem in terms that acknowledge the transformative potentials hidden beneath the supposedly objective facts, and the realism underlying the culture of testing, which assumes that similarly neutral, objective facts can be poured into a student's head, with the level taken periodically to see how many have been retained.

Why is education never just about "facts?" Gillen's account uses the powerful example of trying to teach the standard curricular-mandated lesson about the Brown v. Board of Education decision in a de facto segregated school of poverty in 21st century America. His hypothetical teacher is well-meaning, and wants to teach the students about an important moment in history: In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in education is illegal; the long and steady march to full equality took another steady and confident step toward . . . what? An America where black lives still don't seem to matter all that much?

What does the student learn? They learn that over a half a century ago the very situation they find themselves in was declared unjust, and yet it persists. They learn that the law - and the history that tells its story - was not made for them, and they see in the manifest contradictions of the official curriculum and the emptiness of the educational process they are subjected to: bodies to be managed, and in the best case made able to recite back enough facts to justify this management on one standardized test or another.

What would it mean to do otherwise? The challenge Gillen poses to his fellow teachers isn't to make learning more engaging, more hands-on, or more relevant, but to stop treating students as objects. Hence - theatricality. Lear, with its staging of the way social roles are staged (and thrown into disarray), serves as a better guide than any gritty realism because what a teacher needs to do is understand that they are not saving young people, but sharing the stage with them and playing a supporting role. To treat a student like the subjects of their own lives requires a different pedagogy and a different politics, especially in schools of poverty.

For Gillen, the pedagogy required here involves an attentiveness to the way that students make their own plans, but not under conditions of their own choosing, paying attention to the way students rely on indirect vernacular formalisms to express their autonomy, what a less attentive teacher might too often dismiss as "acting out."

As for the necessary politics, Gillen is refreshingly blunt: The role of the teacher in schools of poverty is to help students prepare the insurgency that will overturn the system of educational apartheid. If change comes to American schools, it won't come from starry-eyed reformers or a bumper crop of "good" teachers - it will come, like the end of slavery did, as a result of the thousand and one acts of resistance and rebellion on the part of those the system is designed to contain and manage. The role Gillen calls on teachers to play is not a rhetorical one, bringing propaganda into the classroom, but a profoundly human one.

Being as human as Gillen insists we need to be takes courage, and nowhere in the book are the stakes of this demand clearer than in his reconstruction of a scene with his student G.P., who repeatedly tells him "Get the fuck out of my face!" in the course of a geometry lesson.

The remarkable thing is not that Gillen refuses to accede to the logic of discipline and punishment (i.e. by not "picking up the phone" and invoking the security/police apparatus and all it leads to). It's that he goes beyond simply refusing to be complicit with educational injustice, reading his student's cries of refusal in terms of love and struggle, and acting his part accordingly.

If "the corrupted atmosphere of American schools of poverty makes complex, intimate communication between teachers and students nearly impossible," Gillen's incredible book is a key guide to reestablishing this possibility, with an eye toward revolution.

John Duda is a founding member of Red Emma's, a worker cooperative radical bookstore and cafe in Baltimore, and the communications coordinator at the Democracy Collaborative.