Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: Teacher as Activist

The summer of 1992: Oregon Governor's School
I approach teaching as activism. The year before I started at the University of Oregon, I worked at OGS, Oregon Governor’s School. I had political aspirations and thought working with young leaders to help them find themselves through service fit with my future plans. On the last night of that program, the director, Tony Gerlicz, an educational leader, told me I should consider teaching. I heard him, but had other ideas about where I was headed.

In college, I was a political science major and activist. In organizing work I found that much of my time was spent trying to gather people in a room who may or may not be perceptive to whatever message the organizers were promoting. I enjoyed working for causes I cared about, but didn't feel particularly effective. 

Then, I took a year off from school to work with AmeriCorps, a national service organization kind of like a domestic peace corps. I was placed with the I Have A Dream Foundation in Portland where I worked everyday in high schools. Unlike political work, where you are organizing to get people somewhere, at schools, students magically show up each day.

It was that year of service learning, when the seed planted by Tony Gerlicz at OGS, combined with my growing understanding of what political organizing looked like, and a blossoming love for school communities, that a decision grew: I would finish my degree and give teaching a try.

My teaching is activism, but it’s not a form of political indoctrination. When my students show up, I am the teacher in the room and I am unapologetically myself.  My classroom challenges my students’ thinking but doesn’t tell them what to think. We explore diverse historical perspectives, whether it’s re-examining Columbus or our our past presidents’ relationship to slavery. It’s reading an article about poverty, or a poem about racial profiling, and the thoughts and responses my students bring lead our discussions to exciting and interesting places. It’s about building trust and community and empowering students to feel ownership over their words, their thoughts, their stories, and their lives. It’s hopefully cleaning up some of the muck that has built up over the years with so many preconceived notions of what school is and what English class should be. Hopefully, the muck will be replaced with a glistening opportunity: this class is a chance to learn, think, and grow. That’s thing about my teaching: it's activism. 

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