To put it simply, just as healthy children play, so good scholars must too. And play must not be reserved just for weekends or vacation, but integrated into the way we think about our work.
“Prophetic imagination is outrageous—not merely in dreaming the dream, but in already living out the dream before it has come to pass, and in embodying this dream in concrete action.” ~ Mary Grey, The Outrageous Pursuit of Hope
On February 21, 2019, I presented the following talk at the DREAM 2019 Conference in Long Beach, CA.
My mother is a 75-year-old adjunct Developmental English teacher. She’s been teaching in the community college system for more than a decade, serving students who need more than just lessons in grammar and punctuation. Students who need welcoming to college, and students who need someone who understands that teaching is more than planning lessons and responding to discussion posts.
“Teachers are second only to parents in importance to children and college students,” she wrote to me recently.
Yes, one of a teacher's main jobs is to teach whatever the curriculum is in a way that enables students to learn. But, from my own experiences and from the experiences many community college students have shared with me, the critical value of teachers is their ability to care, to be patient, and to be kind. What makes teachers valuable is not the education, lesson plans, and experience they bring to their jobs, but the humanity, the connection, and the ability to remember what it was like to sit on the other side.
I’m incredibly humbled by my mother. She has worked too hard in her life—many different jobs, usually more than one at a time, and mostly to keep food on the table. And it’s only been in the last decade or so that she found herself teaching. She valued education second only to imagination and the arts, but she didn’t find her way to college until later in life. Nevertheless she’s been a teacher for me since the beginning.
We were poor. But that didn’t keep her from imagining how things could be otherwise. And she saw education as the key to making change. My mom once taught me to be the best I could be in front of other people. When my peers wore tees and sweatshirts to class, she dressed me in button down shirts we could barely afford. She taught me to memorize Robert Frost when other kids were memorizing Shel Silverstein. She reminded me to be proud of my height, to stand up straight and tall. And to never clown, but to be courteous and gracious with the attention I received.
She also taught me to think carefully and critically. To never assume something about anyone. To welcome knowledge and insight. To creatively seek after it.
“The wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile,” she read to me from Dickens. “The wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile,” and she asked me what I thought that meant. I was six, and still learning to write lower-case m’s at the time, and I wasn’t certain I knew what a simile was, or what ancestors were, but my mom’s eyes held the question before me and I knew, together, we had to find an answer.
Because there is a human imperative toward critical consciousness, an imperative to always look closer at what we think of reality, what we think of our historical moment, what we think, even, of a single line of text. When we sit with the koan “the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile” a thing hatches in us. A desire to know more, to understand, to sympathize. But also a wisdom. An ability to read text hatches an ability to read the world, to develop a literacy which will allow us to intervene.
From word to action.
Jesse Stommel recently tweeted:
"I’m tired of reading “think-pieces” speculating about situations when actual facts are almost entirely lacking. I’m just as tired of reading “think-pieces” opening debate on established, incontrovertible facts. The present moment is being treated as a hypothetical."
There are incontrovertible facts which should not be considered from inside the shelter of ideas, hypotheses. Poverty, racism, hunger, transphobia. There are incontrovertible facts which require action, not discussion.
- Poverty isn’t an idea when you’re broke.
- Racism isn’t an idea when you’re stopped by TSA every time you go through the airport.
- Hunger isn’t an idea when you don’t know where your next meal will come from.
- Hate isn’t an idea when you’re a trans person on the bus with a group of Proud Boys.
How do we define “student success” against these realities? Will personalized learning help the hungry student stay in school? What do our algorithms and data analysis do to support an anti-racist classroom? What evidence-based approach will keep our trans students from killing themselves before the end of the term?
In "A few reflections around Utopia," Paulo Freire writes that "As beings programmed for learning and who need tomorrow as fish need water, men and women become robbed beings if they are denied their condition of participants in the production of tomorrow.” So, when the present moment is treated as hypothetical, as a problem to be puzzled over at lunch or solved through innovation, people—women and men, and especially those who fall outside the binary, outside of the margin—become robbed of their opportunity to participate in the production of tomorrow.
When poverty, racism, hunger, or hate are treated as topics of conversation, as ideas, as hypotheticals, people who are broke, people who are black and brown, people who are hungry, trans and nonbinary people become robbed people. Robbed of the imperative we all feel to participate in the production of tomorrow.
And we know these are experiences students are having. They are scheduling interviews for WIC assistance in between exams. They are absorbing and sublimating micro-aggressions—and even more destructive aggressions—on their way to the library to study. Many are trying to feed their children while also hoping for an A. Others hope that despair won’t catch them before finals week.
This doesn’t always come across in our classrooms. This can’t be seen through the LMS gradebook. The terrible emphasis on evidence-based teaching—on showing our work, on creating mechanisms for replicable results—has starved the humanity in our teaching. Results misdirect us from the present moment. What we want our students to achieve too often blinds us to who they are.
The dream we must dream, where we must put our outrageous imagination, is upon the present moment of teaching. The title of Jesse’s and my book, “An Urgency of Teachers” describes the necessary shift we must make toward valuing the work—affective, flawed, nuanced, unfolding—that teachers (all of us) do online and in classrooms, and also the important work wrought upon the heart and mind by an education that is concerned with the human and humane. It is urgent we have teachers, it is urgent we employ them, pay them, support them with adequate resources; but it is also urgency which defines the project of teaching. In a political climate increasingly defined by its obstinacy, anti-intellectualism, and deflection of fact and care; in a society still divided across lines of race, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality, income, ability, and privilege, teaching has an important (urgent) role to play.
But we must put our imaginations not just to issues of funding and pay, and not just issues of equity, and not just issues of violence in schools--because sometimes those issues can feel so big, so unthwartable, that we may find ourselves entering state of surrender, a sigh of “what can I do?”. We may resolve to adapt instead of intervene.
And so we must also put our imaginations to the rubric, to the grade, to the learning management system. To quality control in the classroom. To Quality Matters in the classroom. We must dream a dream where teacher-students and student-teachers collaborate toward an education not bounded by electronic surveillance, not controlled by the grasping after retention, the scalding drive for standardization and conformity.
This last especially we must resist. Northrup Frye writes that “In ordinary life even the most splendid things we can think of, like goodness and truth and beauty, all mean essentially what we’re accustomed to.” Let us not become accustomed. We must reach out to one another; reach out to students who need us to remember what it was like to be sitting on the other side. We must help them be part of the production of tomorrow.
An outrageous imagination—engagement with what is, and not what is hypothetical—inspects what we’ve become accustomed to. Resists it in the way that Paulo Freire encourages when he says:
“I would not like to be a man or a woman if the impossibility of changing the world were something as obvious as that Saturdays precede Sundays. I would not like to be a woman or a man if the impossibility of changing the world were objective reality, one purely realized and around which nothing could be discussed.”
The imaginative educator, the being who dreams, is one for whom no objective reality is enough. We must consider what is specifically in order to consider how things might be otherwise.
This much I know. The present moment is not hypothetical. Today, tomorrow, the day after this event ends and we all go home with dreams on our minds, we are the subjects of history, capable of intervening in the systems which move everything from government to education, oppression to social justice.