When the Progressive Education Network (PEN) chose to host its bi-annual national conference in the Twin Cities, we didn’t just passively attend; we helped design, coordinate and run the conference. As the only K-8 affirmatively progressive school in the Twin Cities, we were excited to work with progressive educators from around the country. Four FSMN past/present employees were on the organizing committee (Alissa Abelson and Shane Zack, plus former teachers Melissa Anderson and Joanne Esser). Four faculty (Laura, Marshall, Karen and Sally) led a workshop on how the arts “provide space for deeper thought, creativity and engagement throughout the curriculum.”
We were selected as a site visit school for conference attendees. Thirty-six educators from around the country spent some time Thursday learning and being inspired in our school. On Friday we closed the school so that our entire team could attend workshops and plenary presentations.
To continue our learning, we met to debrief and share what we learned. Alissa posted a huge poster board in the staff lounge to share ideas. Below are some general take-aways and some individual impressions from the conference.
Our Site Visit
Observations and questions by our 36 visitors reaffirmed that we truly are a model of progressive education. They commented on the openness and Joy that resonates throughout our building. They spent time reflecting on the children’s work displayed in the halls, how we integrate the arts throughout our program, how we staff our arts programs and use our building to highlight our children’s work. Visitors also appreciated our conflict resolution program. They even noticed the way we write “Landfill” instead of “Trash” on our trash cans. In a closing meeting for worship, one visitor shared, “I see students being challenged to live the values in your mission.”
Who They Are and How They Learn
- “I loved my session on Universal Design for Learning! It is NOT about finding one way to teach skills despite the title “universal”. It is the opposite. It’s a way of thinking about teaching and learning that helps give all students an equal opportunity to succeed by offering flexibility in the ways students access material, engage with it, and show what they know and by teachers developing lesson plans keeping in mind multiple means of engagement, representation, action and expression. Learning has no limits. Talk about equity!”
- “If you can’t SEE your students, then you can’t teach them. So the question is, how do we get better at seeing our students for who they are?”
A powerful theme of the conference was that equity work should always be at the heart of progressive education, and yet schools with the highest concentration of well-meaning white liberals tend to have the hardest time getting traction addressing issues of educational equity.
“We don’t get to justice through Peace and Harmony. We get to Peace and Harmony through Justice. Focusing on the former is privilege.” – Paul Gorski
“There is an expiration date on good intentions,” plenary speaker Paul Gorski warned. Celebrating diversity without racial justice is privilege. Initiatives like restorative practices, trauma-informed practices and mindfulness without racial justice are privilege. Dialogue without action is privilege. Taking baby steps while prioritizing the comfort of the people least invested in and affected by social injustice is privilege.
From Dr. Bettina Love
- Education can’t save us. We have to save education.
- It’s time for white people to do this work (of social justice).
- Avoid systems justification (The systems must be right, therefore the children are wrong). Antidote = theory. Helps blame the structures and systems, not the kids.
“I went to a really interesting presentation about science. It challenged us to think about what science is and who defines science. By the end of the presentation the presenter had us discussing how math and science are social constructs. It was an important reminder to always, always, always check my lens, be critical of my lens and constantly ask, ‘Who am I centering?'”
From Paul Gorski
- Focus on justice, not strategies, not peace and harmony. Don’t wait for someone to report injustice. Be a constant threat to injustice.
- Do not use “reactive rule flinging” for “misbehaviors.” Identify and eliminate injustices in systems instead.
- What are the knowledge and skills I need to become a threat to the existence of injustice in my spheres of influence?
- How are we/am I using these 4 critical abilities: recognizing inequity, responding to inequity, redressing inequity, and sustaining equity.
- If we value peace without tension, we are not living up to our mission of being committed to justice.
Paul Gorski’s speech. Prior to the conference, I had been thinking about the
concept of peace that we value here at FSMN. Does the peace that we value
oppress? Do we value peace over justice? When Gorski referred to Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, it resonated with what I (and
some of my co-workers) have been thinking about. ‘[The white moderate] who
prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace
which is the presence of justice.’”
Quotes and Notes
- Who is in this room/conversation and who is NOT in this room/conversation?
- If teachers and students are doing work to learn and grow to dismantle racism, what role does the board (school governance) play?
- Schools needs to ask “How is racism operating right now in schools?” Identify it and then eliminate it.
- Actively prioritize the interests of people of color.
- Channel the energy of educators with the intention of joy. Spark the inner light.
- Don’t just teach about oppression – teach about the resistance.