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From the fall of 1997 to May of 2017, I worked with New Orleans high school students as a staff member and eventually the co-director of Students at the Center, an independent writing program. In the essay below I offer the theory and give examples of our classroom praxis. For us, education was not solely an intellectual activity. We did not rely on what Paulo Freire calls the banking concept, in which teachers instruct and students are required to regurgitate what they have been told is “the truth”.

 

SAC pedagogy included teachers, students AND community members working together — indeed, our students were also teachers, and our teachers learned from our students. Literally. Students taught their younger peers, as well as shared their life experiences in story circles within which teachers became students. We all learned from each other. We learned not simply in the intellectual sense of facts and figures, but also in the lived sense of valuing and honoring each other’s life experiences.

(This essay is included in the collection Be About Beauty / University of New Orleans Press 2018)

Kalamu ya Salaam (photo by Alex Lear)

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WE STAND BY OUR STUDENTS:

Students at the Center (SAC)

 

 

start with what you know

to learn what you don’t know

start with where you’re at

to get to where you want to go

   

 

Our Students at the Center (SAC) class stood around in small clumps outside the school building. The temperature an uncomfortable lower-50s, an annoying light rain falling, the weather was not welcoming. Tiesha stood unsmiling under a blue umbrella, I told her to hold that pose with her face booted-up; scurried over to my black leather briefcase to get the digital camera, I wanted to take her picture. “You really going to take my picture?”

 

After taking four or five shots, I moved under the sparse cover of a tree, but it offered scant protection. The rain still fell on us. Tiesha smiled as she inspected the small screen on the back of SAC’s digital camera.

 

Jim pulled out the heavy African-American literature book from his backpack and proceeded to continue the last discussion we had before the fire alarm went off. What did Alice Walker mean about fruit awakening taste buds in the poem about her sister Molly?

 

Greta, the coordinator of the Smaller Learning Communities educational program, called on my cell and wanted to know where we were? She was on the St. Claude and Alvar street corner by the front of the school, we were on the Pauline and N. Rampart street corner at the rear of the school. Shortly she joined us and jokingly admired Jim’s tenacity as chilly raindrops wet the book’s pages. “Yall, really going to try and hold class amidst all this?”

 

“Yeah, why not?” Jim casually replied, pushing back his long, dark hair that helps earn him the semi-sarcastic nickname of “Jesus.” Three out of the eight or so students in class that day gamely struggled to answer the questions.

 

We were outside because someone had set fire to the second floor bathroom. And eventually we were all called into the gym and dismissed for the day. This was, Ms. Holiday, the new principal’s second day in charge; a not-unusual, even if atypical, day at Frederick Douglass high school.

 

Everyday working in the public school system I battle the demons of despair; most times I eat that bear, but sometimes brother bear takes a deep bite out of my rear, and on such days, nursing my wounds, I retreat home to repair, often in the process questioning myself: why in the hell do I return to this day after day?

 

I love the youth, especially the students at Douglass and I know that I as an older Black male make a major difference, especially as I do not represent authority types, but rather, in many, many ways, am but an older version of them, or at least a version of who they can become once they achieve critical self-consciousness and commit themselves to life long learning.

 

Any of us who work in a major American metro-area, inner-city public school intimately knows Mr./Ms. Despair Bear, knows the challenge of maintaining in the face of a system whose normal state is either chaos unreined or else the even more sinister, terrifying silence of lock down. But here is where we go every day, somehow nourishing the dream of teaching youth.

 

Some people have developed theories about teaching inner-city youth, and most of those theories are predicated on preparing these youth to participate in the mainstream, while never questioning the sanity of joining in a system that has systematically oppressed and exploited the very youth we are teaching. If preparing them to be productive citizens is the bottom line of what we do, then we might as well be teaching courses in suicide.

 

I do not apologize for my stance: I advocate education for liberation, not education for mainstream socialization.

 

I am interested in coaching youth to engage reality in two ways: 1. Know themselves and 2. Decide for themselves what they wish to become. Those two simple objectives are the foundation for my praxis—the pedagogical theories I develop and/or adopt/adapt, and the day-to-day practice I use to engage the reality of public education.

 

Like many professional artists, I became involved because I was asked to participate in a specific program and not because I was seeking a way to work in the public school system, or even seeking a way to work with youth in the teacher/student dynamic. For most artists, teaching is simply a way to make the money we need to survive and enable us to do what we consider our real work, which is developing our art. In my case, although I have a long history of working with youth, it took over two years before I would consciously commit to teaching as a professional priority of my life work.

 

Contrary to what many non-teachers think, teaching in public schools is not easy money. Reaching our youth is hard, emotionally taxing, and intellectually challenging work, especially if the goal is education for liberation.

 

I teach at McDonogh #35 (a citywide school) and at Frederick Douglass (a district school). Citywide schools require students to meet specific academic requirements. District schools are based on residence in a specific geographic location. In New Orleans we have a three-layered school system: parochial (primarily catholic), private, and public. The public sector is where the overwhelming majority of Black students are herded, although a significant number are in the parochial system. The New Orleans public school system is the largest in the state with a $500-million budget that exceeds the budgets of every town and city in Louisiana.

 

Education is ground zero in the systemic exploitation of Black people in New Orleans—ground zero because public schools are the direct feeder for the necessary, albeit unskilled, labor needed for the tourist-oriented economy. For those not fortunate enough to work in a hotel, the public schools prepare them for the penitentiary. I will not recite the alarming statistics, it is enough to note that in New Orleans they are building more hotels everyday—where will the bellhops and maids come from? If you are reading this journal, I assume you are already aware of the statistical fact that more Black males are in prison than college.

 

Teachers who would educate Black youth but either shy away from making or else are incapable of making a political-economic critique of the school system, such teachers are themselves impediments, if not down-right opponents of education for liberation. If we are not prepared to at least intellectually confront the implicit racism of using test scores to fail students whom school systems have systematically miseducated, if we are unwilling to recognize the utter under-preparedness of system administrators and the lameness of their solutions, if we are afraid to address the difficulties of middle-aged Whites trying to educate Black working class youth, in other words, if we are unwilling to face what is really happening in public education, all of our “innovative” programs will fail because they are not addressing the real problems.

 

We are at war for the future of our students. In New Orleans, tourism is the number one (two and three) industry. Our schools are the way they are because the economy continues to need drawers of water and hewers of wood, continues to require a labor force to clean, cook and serve. And though they can not articulate it in political language, our students know. The ones at the citywide schools, encased in a near zombie-like state of obedience, work to escape the neo-slavery of tourism via college and a “good job” somewhere else in America, those at the district schools rebel or else go through the day in an alienated state of non-engagement with the curricula, which they generally (and too often not incorrectly) perceive as a waste of time. This is the context within which Students at the Center works as a creative writing elective.

 

Everyone who visits our classes, or looks at “Our Voice” (a student run newspaper we publish), or reads the chapbooks and poetry collections we publish, or views one of our numerous videos, everyone marvels at the work and wants to know how we do it. I smile. Although we employ specific techniques, there is no secret ingredient. It’s the fruit of protracted struggle, the fruit of the hard work of encouraging the students to take their lives and their future seriously.

 

Three of our basic principles: 1. No class larger than 15 students. 2. Sit in a circle. 3. Require each student to participate in discussions. We also encourage students to engage in peer teaching with their fellow students who are not in a SAC class or with middle or elementary level students, including those in after school programs. We strongly urge students to get involved with social change organizations and agencies, a number of whom are active partners with SAC.

 

In addition to reading our work aloud and taking turns reading a wide variety of materials, we teach active listening skills by talking about how to ask questions and by our example of asking questions. Silence is death; no student is allowed to not participate. While we do not accept rote responses, at the same time we do not reject any honest response as “wrong” or “inappropriate.” we are not working on what Paulo Freire calls the “banking” concept wherein we as teachers have fed our students the right answer and are prodding them to give us back that specific “right” answer. Instead the SAC methodology is to begin at the beginning. We begin with the experiences and real thoughts and reactions of our students. We begin by affirming the importance of their existence, their personalities, howsoever and whatsoever they may be.

 

One particular tool in this affirmation process is the story circle—a technique developed by John O’Neal and others in the Free Southern Theatre. We sit in a circle and take turns telling a story about a selected topic.

 

To be successful, we must actively listen to our students. This process is one of building community. It is not reductively a one-way process of simplistically asking our students to spill their guts to us while we silently sit in judgment. Indeed, in SAC we all participate as equals; we teachers tell our stories when our turn comes. We all tell stories and we all listen to each other.

 

Whether a person intends to or not, if they honestly participate, they end up doing two things. One, we all learn more about each other, and we thereby become closer to each other. Two, we learn to articulate ideas and emotions that previously had never been publicly expressed. For many students this is their first experience in an educational setting of being embraced for who they actually are rather than for how close they are able to come to some external standard that is set before them as a kind of holy grail.

 

We then encourage our students to write. Again, we do not require any one-to-one write-the-story-you-told process. Rather we ask them to write about a variety of topics, and even encourage them to write on a topic of their own choosing if it is a topic they strongly want to express. When we combine the story circle technique with the prompts and inspiration that comes from the reading assignments, invariably students produce a richer body of literature than if they were simply asked to respond to abstract writing assignments. Here is an example from Maria Hernandez, a sophomore at Frederick Douglass who presents a brilliant social-critique of the effects of violence that is also an unsparing and startling self-critique.

 

Just Like Him

They say when you’re around someone for a long time, you start looking and acting like that person. The problem is that I didn’t want to be like him in any way, but what can I say?  I have his eyes, his hair, and recently I’ve acquired his personality.  Lately I go crazy and snap.  I bitch slap my little brother and on more than one occasion I’ve drawn blood from my little sister’s lips.  I didn’t want to be like him, but I did it anyway.  And something inside me is telling me that I let him win.

 

When you review student writing at this level, the work forces you to confront yourself. You cannot stand before this student and just go through a rote exercise. What do you do?

 

We publish the work and encourage her to do more. Maria’s piece is included in a collection of Douglass writings called From the Heart. Just as our students learn from us, we as teachers, learn from our students. The experience of liberatory education is necessarily a reciprocal relationship. We learn to know our students as fellow human beings with whom we share our lives and experiences, rather than solely see students as blank slates upon whom we teachers are trying to inscribe particular lessons.

 

When we say start with where we are at, we are saying a mouth full. Our students have many, many problems. An upcoming publication is called “men we love / men we hate”—recently during a discussion of an excerpt on Black manhood from bell hooks’ new book, a quick, informal poll demonstrated that only one person of the 12 or so students lived in a two-parent family with a male as the head of the family.  We were discussing patriarchy, which is a bit tricky when there are no patriarchs present in their day-to-day lives; and that was at the city-wide school whose reputation is petite-bourgeois (we pronounce it boo-gie), many of them are literally the  children of first-generation professionals and lower-level managers.

 

Although functional enough to do their class work and to pass standardized tests, even these students, the so-called best and brightest, suffer social stress and trauma at sometimes unimaginable levels. Sexual molestation, dysfunctional families, suicide, drug (especially alcohol and tobacco) abuse, STD’s, and warped senses of self-esteem are endemic, indeed near pandemic across economic strata. Without falling into the trap of either pitying or being repulsed by their problems, our task is to encourage the students to articulate the realities of their day-to-day existence. Unless and until they can honest recognize and confront their own realities they will never be able to truly transform themselves and their communities.

 

In this McDonogh #35 class three seniors were working on projects. Angie Solomon was working on a two-character drama about a young woman trying to talk to her best friend about new feelings she is having that might be homo-erotic but which may not be, she just needs to… to talk about it and her friend is not wanting to listen. The brief piece illustrates the importance of being able to talk about life with a supportive friend. Asia Brumfield’s piece is about her uncle, a high school student, one year younger than Asia, who was murdered at a nearby school in a brazen hit in the school gym during the middle of the day. Rather than a simple cry of sorrow, Asia is intent on exploring the nexus of relationships in her family which include her father, who was imprisoned at the time and a grandfather who had survived a barroom shooting. Marnika Farria is exploring the subject of rape spurred by her own attempts to deal with her mother being raped when Marnika was 11 years old. As Marnika does her research and family investigation she finds out that her grandmother is also a rape survivor although Marnika previously had no knowledge of that history of rape in her own family.

 

These are not woe-is-me, feel-sorry-for-us-poor-downtrodden-negroes investigations, rather these are honest explorations of complex social situations. For Angie, Asia and Marnika, these investigations are a brave and ultimately inspirational example of self-transformation through confronting  social issues at the personal level. Neither Jim nor I try to weigh these projects with overt political views. Our tack is to ask questions, we encourage them to dig deep within themselves and be as truthful as possible.

 

Because we are not a core curriculum class and because we are a “creative writing” class we have more latitude with subject matter and lesson planning than do most of the regular classes. Although one might suppose this means that we are less rigorous in an academic sense, all of the students will tell you that, except for a handful of their other teachers, our SAC class requires them to work much harder than do their regular classes.

 

Even though they have to read more, write more, think more, they come back, some students taking our class two or three times during their high school matriculation. Last semester at Douglass we encountered the phenomenon of male students cutting their assigned classes to sit in on our writing class. One of them eventually persuaded his counselor to switch his class, another student, Bruce Lightell, got a note from his mother saying that it was ok to skip one class so he could be part of our SAC class.

 

Later in the semester when Bruce was selected as one of two students to represent Douglass at a statewide conference on “agenda for children” where our SAC duo recited poetry, one of the counselors wanted to know how in the world could that happen since Bruce was failing every other class. Bruce has severe problems with text. His spelling is on an elementary level and his grammar is almost non-existent, but he has a sharp mind and easily grasps concepts such as metaphorical consistency, which he calls “m-c”. When it is time to publish Bruce’s work, we patiently sit with him and correct each misspelled word. We question him about grammar. We do what editors have traditionally done for many, many highly rated writers whose manuscripts would be unpublishable without significant editorial help. One of my favorite images of Bruce is his head buried deep in a dictionary trying to find out the correct spelling of a word he wants to use. His academic shortcomings notwithstanding, Bruce has the fire and determination to improve himself and his family supports SAC partially because they know the value of our work—one of Bruce’s older cousins had previously been an editor of Our Voice newspaper.

 

We are not a one-shot project or a new approach trying to prove itself. We have made a long-term commitment to public education, long enough that we now have former SAC students who are college graduates returning to work with SAC. Also, a significant component of SAC work is now in the hands of SAC alumni who are currently college students, two of the more active of grads turned SAC staff are graduates of Frederick Douglass—our staff is not just drawn from the academically better prepared students at McDonogh #35.

 

Indeed, at Frederick Douglass the situation is paradoxically both easier and more hopeless—easier because the students are more forthcoming, more hopeless because these students generally have only a modicum of reading, writing and mathematical skills.

 

Steve Grant, a handsome, football player belies the stereotype of the jock who gets all the girls. In a moment of disarming honesty, Steve penned a short response to an Ishmael Reed poem. When he finished reciting his poem there was a moment of stunned silence—we never thought of Steve that way.

 

If I had a nickel …

 If I had a nickel for every time I had been rejected I would be poor because I’ve

Never really had the heart to approach a girl.

 

In one of his writings, Steve gave us the title “From The Heart.” in a similar vein I remember Darrow Reaux coming to class one day after being absent for two days. I asked him where he had been, why had he missed class. He dropped his arrest papers on the desk where I was sitting. I scanned the papers, gave them back to him, and simply said welcome back. Turns out he was arrested because he was standing on the block outside his home when the police came through doing a sweep because of a fight that had happened nearby. I don’t remember for sure, but it was probably after curfew. The next day, Darrow wrote a short piece which highlighted his arrest but from a totally unexpected perspective.

 

 

I Told My Mother I Love Her

This girl in my writing class name is Anastasia and it seems like we’re the same but we really don’t know whose the blame. We both stay with aunt and uncle thinking that they were our real parents. My real mother name is Irita and my real father name is Darrow, but I don’t called neither one of them mom and dad. I continue on calling my auntie Rose, mamma, and my uncle Junnie, papi.

The funny thing was I got arrested the other day and I haven’t seen Irita for about three months and I ran into her in jail. I really didn’t know how to feel when I saw her I didn’t even bother asking what she was doing here but she asked me, and I told her what I was in for. The police brought me in the back for booking she came to the window and told me bye. In jail it is really crazy. Some old man was getting beat while the guards was feeding us cold luncheon meat. I went to court and the judge release me on ROR.

I went home to my mother Rose and told her I was in jail. They let me go without paying bail. My mother said she didn’t know where I was because I left my cell phone. I left the radio on. The lights on and my writing everywhere. She told me don’t go outside at night so I wouldn’t have to fight with the police anymore. I told my mother I love her and good night.

 

 

The students at Douglass have no problem sharing their problems, whereas the better educated students at McDonogh #35 are also the more reticent and the least in touch with their true feelings. Often they have repressed their thoughts and feelings for so long that their ability to express what is happening inside has atrophied. They have the words, in the intellectual sense, but lack the psychological ability to express themselves.

 

The Douglass students are the inverse. They are not hampered by self-censorship, but rather limited in their language skills. By the measure of the leap tests (our state-mandated standardize tests), Douglass is the second worse high school in the state. On a scale that ranges up to approximately 150, I believe we scored 11 and were surpassed in a negative direction only by our uptown sibling, Booker T. Washington, who scored in the single digits, “9” out of the possible 150. Their educational limitations notwithstanding, our Douglass students produce creative writing that helps them cope with and begin to overcome the crippling effects of miseducation.

 

There is a misconception that under-educated students are not ready to grasp philosophy, political-economy, subtleties of high art, etc., however, just because the school system has failed to educate them, does not mean that our students are stupid and/or uneducable. That they score poorly does not mean they cannot think and do not have analytical skills. Indeed, their environment forces them to develop very sharp discrimination skills.

 

They are able to easily spot insincerity and incompetence. They know with the accuracy of a finely tuned Geiger counter, which teachers are simply collecting a paycheck or impersonally teaching from a textbook without being concerned about the student as a human being. Students learn early how to dodge the bullies and con artists who daily confront and try to hustle them both in and outside the classroom. They develop all sorts of evasive techniques to avoid physical harm and/or incarceration by police, guards and other authority figures whose sole responsibility is to maintain law and order, a law and order that demands mindless obedience and compliance with arbitrary rules and regulations. In many, many ways our students are far more realistic about their educational situation than are we who would teach them but who do not take the time to understand them or their world except as either an abstraction or with a pejorative view of their environment.

 

A sure sign that many of us do not understand our students is our refusal to understand that even if students can’t spell, they can reason, even if students can’t pronounce multi-syllabic words, they can express themselves. How well a person does on a standardized test is no indication of that person’s character or desire to learn. A test may measure what one knows, but cannot accurately predict whether a person wants to or is capable of learning.

 

Thus, we read and discuss Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” or excerpts from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, along side of Toni Morrison and excerpts from the writing of Frederick Douglass; we read Sandra Cisneros and Birago Diop as well as Alice Walker and Langston Hughes. We not only read these authors, we discuss the relationship of the text to their lives and follow-up with assignments that, for example, ask them to write about their own “cave” experiences. Here is high school sophomore Rodneka Shelbia’s cave essay written when she was 14 years old:

 

When I was 13 years old, I stumbled into a place with very little air and very little space.  I was uncomfortable.  I stumbled in this place not knowing what I was getting into, not knowing a way out. This place was a dark, confusing, messed up place.  Being in this place was terrifying and painful, full of decisions.  This place was a cave, a cave of many emotions.

This cave was a relationship between me, a boy named Tim, and a boy named Rodney.  Tim was my boyfriend.  Tim and I had a good relationship.  We were known as the star couple.  We had known each other for about three years, but we were together for about five months.  Tim had what I look for in a boyfriend.  He attracted me because he was himself.  He did not try to be anyone else, and he accepted me for me.  He was my 9-10, but we broke up.  We broke up over a few words that were passed around and the pressure of Rodney.

Rodney was someone I would call a best friend.  Tim, on the other hand, thought Rodney was not just a best friend.  He saw Rodney as someone trying to get with someone else’s girlfriend.  After Tim and I stopped talking, Rodney and I started talking.  Rodney was the type of nigga that would do anything to get what he wanted.  He was good at his game, cause he got me.  We were together for about two weeks, but after those two weeks he lost me.  I had to leave him alone.  I felt like I was cheating on him, cause I still had love for Tim, which meant Rodney wouldn’t get all I had to offer, maybe not even half.

Now I was hurting, stuck in the middle of a four-wall cave, just confused. On each of the walls there was an engraving that somewhat frightened me.  The first wall was engraved, “Rodney,” next “love,” then “Tim,” and last “Decisions.”  On the ceiling and base of the cave there were little riddles and clues telling me where the answer lay.  There was one in bold print that stood out like none other.  It stated, “The answer lies where you stand.”  I sat thinking, “What does this mean?”  What could I do to help myself, to strengthen myself, to free myself?  I soon noticed two rocks next to me.  Those rocks were nothing more than my feelings.

The first rock was soft and chalk-like.  With this rock in my hands I looked around and repeated three of the clues to myself. 1) The answer lies where you stand.  2) Freedom is the key.  3) “X” out that that won’t help. 1) The answer lies where you stand.  2) Freedom is the key.  3) “X” out.

I thought, “Freedom, freedom is the key.  It can open the cave.  The rock lies where I stand.  The rock can “x” out the words on the cave.  I can write freedom on the cave.  It just might open.”  I was hoping and praying as I got up to try my plan.  I got up to the wall, but the rock was so soft it crumbled up as I wrote. I found that the rock didn’t engrave nor write, because the rock was soft and contained no strength, no power, only mixed emotions.  It didn’t help me at all.

I sat hopelessly thinking.  “What am I going to do now?”  I looked at the second rock and thought to myself, “Ain’t no way in hell I’mma get that rock.”  So I just sat making excuses.  “It’s too far; I can’t walk.  It’s too heavy; I’m too weak.  It’s in a pile of man-eating creatures; they’ll eat me alive.  That junk is gonna hurt.  It’ll probably make me look ugly.”  Then I thought to myself, “It’s the only way out.”  So I walked over there to get the rock, but in the process I suffered.  I bled and lost a lot, but I got the rock.

This rock gave me confidence.  Every step I took with this rock felt like the hardest step in the world. When I got to the wall, I started to write freedom on it.  That was very hard, because my hands were bloody, and the rock was heavy.   I had to push the stone in the wall to make the engravings, but the good part about it was that as I engraved I grew stronger. I became more powerful, and my emotions came in line.

When I finished, the cave vanished.  I became free.  Rodney was gone.  Tim was gone. Love was gone.  And I was free, oh so free.

 

Although teaching writing is both a more complex and a far broader question than can be addressed in this short essay, one quick example, will illustrate the difficulty, if not impossibility, of finding a working solution that addresses all the needs. Three of the students in our small class at McDonogh #35 are transfers from Douglass. This is an example of the typical third world brain drain that is a common feature of under- and un-developed countries. While we struggle to meet the needs of all our students, including those who are intellectually gifted, a larger fact is undeniable: when the best students are relocated from the neighborhood schools to a citywide school, invariably the level of instruction goes down in the neighborhood school. The absence of “gifted” students in the classroom ensures that those who are left behind stay left behind.

 

We discuss these concepts with all of our students. Rodneka was considering leaving Douglass, and though there is no doubt that she would benefit from a better educational environment, there is also no doubt that were she to leave, Douglass would face a big loss. Our task as SAC teachers who recognize this dilemma is to provide ongoing educational stimulus and opportunities for all the Rodnekas we encounter even as we recognize that schools such as Douglass do not provide a quality learning environment or instruction.

 

That is one small example of the complexities we face. I want to make sure no one romanticizes SAC and the struggle we wage. Students such as Rodneka deserves far more than we are able to give them, even though we, they, and their families recognize that SAC has given them far more than they would have normally received in their matriculation through the jungles of public education.

 

I am an experienced writer, sort of a writer-in-residence, but only “sort of.” although i have published books, have had my writings used as part of the SAT tests, and am an award-winning journalist in both print and broadcast, most of the students do not know me as a published writer. They simply know me as their teacher, the one who helps them write and shows them how to make movies. Additionally, I have years and years of work as a community organizer at local, national and international levels. I do not have to rely on teaching in this program to make a living, nor am I using this program as a stepping stone to get to another level in my writing career. Ultimately, education for liberation demands a commitment far beyond career development.

 

Moreover, I am not an “artiste.” I am against an emphasis on the arts where the focus is on teaching technique and individualism. Our students need to focus first on their own realities rather than be seduced by the intellectual brilliance or the career bling-bling of some artist. In other words, it is not about me as the artist—the focus must remain on the students. Moreover, we have to model social commitment not by sloganizing or by using clever rhymes to fight oppression, but rather we must do the hard work of helping others without requiring students to look up to us on our teacherly pedestals of wisdom, truth, and beauty. We must be serious about keeping students at the center of our work.

 

In our SAC classes we encourage our students to critique the SAC education process, including how we teach them. We ask them for opinions about what we should study, which programs we should do and which we should pass up. Sometimes it is as simple as requesting they select a topic to write about for the week or select the theme for a story circle, other times we lay out particular situations we are dealing with and ask for their input in the decision-making process that ultimately Jim and I make. The students quickly realize that they can help shape their education. They can help determine what they will learn. This engenders a sense of ownership and identification with the learning process that will never happen if one simply uses predetermined lesson plans and state mandated educational objectives.

 

We realize that not every class can operate the way SAC does, however we are certain that public education can be significantly improved by specifically focusing on the needs of the students, which, for us, means including the views of students. We believe another world is possible. We believe students are a resource and not just an object of education. We encourage the students to become agents of their own education, and we struggle with other teachers and administrators to make these changes. Unavoidably this is sometimes a contentious and even bitter struggle. There are teachers and administrators who actively fight against what we are doing, but, as the British are wont to say, “at the end of the day” the work our students generate stands out and speaks for itself.

 

Still the attacks come. Some people say: SAC is successful because we work with only a handful of students. SAC is elitist because we pick only the best students.

 

At Douglass, there are racial antagonisms aimed at Jim Randels, a white teacher in a school that has only one or two white students and none in any of the SAC classes. In the second semester of the 2003/2004 school year an antagonistic counselor assigned us two special education students, plus one student who was a serious discipline problem, plus three students who needed upper level English to graduate and who also had to pass the leap test but whom had failed the English portions previously, all of this in addition to those who were assigned to us “just because,” even though we are supposed to be an elective course, and even though the counselor did not include some students who requested our class. Meanwhile we have a handful of students who want to learn how to write—two of whom are intent on becoming writers.

 

So we circle the chairs and soldier on. And though we have our problems, despite stumbles and setbacks, despite backbiting and resentments (the inevitable result of struggles to create change), despite having to deal with a wide range of student attitudes and capabilities, despite all of that, our students produce and their work is both our defense and our offense. Their work is answer to the question of can public education be improved. We proudly stand by the work that our students do.

 

Marcus Garvey said, what man has done, man can do. Terence said, there is nothing human that is foreign to me. SAC says: start with what we know, in order to learn what we don’t know. Start with where we’re at, to get to where we want to go.

 

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Five SAC publications are free to view or download (sacnola.com). They are

 

  1. WHO AM I? – Reflections on Culture & Identity

A book of insights and reflections.

 

  1. The Long Ride

A collection of student writings based on the events that are part of the long struggle for civil rights and social justice in New Orleans.

 

  1. NEXT steps

Writings from Students at the Center Class of 2010

 

  1. MEN WE LOVE—MEN WE HATE

An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men.

 

  1. WAYS OF LAUGHING

An anthology of young, Black, female voices.

 

 

 

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