Decolonize the Classroom: Education for Liberation, Preservation and Survival

 

Lakbay Lumad USA

I am the daughter of immigrants who journeyed here in the 1960s and 70s with a vision of attaining the “American Dream.” A key to manifesting that “American Dream” was through the path of education. And alike all things that lead to that perceived success and attainment of freedom that has been painted by our colonizers- Education, in this country, has always been controlled by those in power, those with the money, the influence and the visibility to say what and how we should be taught in the formative years of our upbringing.  

My parents’ emphasis and urgency around education was an echo of the emphasis and urgency from colonized constructions that continued this false representation of the “American Dream”- that emphasized attaining primarily capitalistic wellness and power. The K-12 public schooling that I received here in the United States was one that supported the continued dismemberment of my connection to my Motherland, the erasure of conflict between my people and colonizers’ rule, the forgetting and misunderstandings of oppressions that brought my family here to being with and the both blatant and insidious injustices that kept us here.  What I would begin to understand- as I was led to teachers who would begin paving the path that I continue to build today, which amplifies the truths of “Knowledge is Power” and “Education for Liberation”- is that the Schooling system of the United States has been formulated to maintain the oppressive structures in place, that keep our communities of color and other marginalized and degraded communities from rising in a way that is not dictated by this country that was built upon the destruction, dehumanization and in many cases the genocides of our peoples. Children are being raised to uphold the systems that are holding them hostage to their own oppressions, becoming agents and service workers that maintain the legacy of this country built on Colonization.

I have invested my entire walk as an Educator to working with our younger generations (primarily students of color) to have their eyes open to these truths and understanding that their Liberation is all of ours.

I have worked in the line of youth development and education for the past 10 years, primarily working with organizations that are rooted in communal liberation work and in youth service driven organizations and institutions including working with Domestically Sex Trafficked youth and with incarcerated youth within the Juvenile Detention/ Rehabilitation system in NYC.  I have also done work with indigenous communities including on my own motherland in the Philippines, working beside, in support of, and learning from indigenous teachers rooted in the upbringing of their community’s future generations. And among all these experiences of bringing Education for Liberation pedagogy through theatre to communal circles, my current role as a Theatre Teacher at a Public Charter School is one of the most important front lines that I have ever rooted myself in, in the work toward Liberation.

I walk into my classroom with intention to show up as my whole self- as an Artist, an Activist, a Healer. The communities I worked with before this past school year were ones who were on the ground, already doing the heavy lifting of communal liberation work and empowering through holistic development of our children from a foundational “Education for Liberation” pedagogical lens echoing revolutionary communities like the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Brown Berets and Rainbow Coalition and all the organizations that have been serving their communities throughout the history of their peoples’ colonial relationship to the United States.

 

Re-membering Indigenous Teachings

In my Decolonization work, I have pushed myself to see the walk toward Liberation in the educating of our children being connected to the re-membering of our pre-colonial ancestors and their indigenous ways of teaching. This intentional focus has brought me to also integrate the re-adoption and implementation of indigenous influenced practices of bringing up our children and in bringing up our children creating influence and upholding of societal structures.

For instance, the Colonial constructions of learning and relaying information, of valuing information models of Patriarchal and White Supremacist culture- discounts knowledge beyond what has been “proven,” been given evidence to, and what has been archived and written.  And that also sees us from an anthropological and societal subject of study, devaluing the individual experiences and valuing solely the information that looks at us as groupings and categorizations,that allow for measurements and definitions to be placed on us- before being understood and valued as individuals with unique and valuable experiences that can teach us about the complexities of the human experience in both our traumas and our triumphs in the walk of life.

As much as written knowledge is valuable, to count it as the most valued, and credible in conversations of Decolonization is further perpetuating these Colonial, Patriarchal constructions of learning, of passing down knowledge, that makes the knowledge keepers those who are “literate” (primarily with the colonized languages), or have access to literacy which feeds into an inferiority of knowledge shared in the traditional indigenous ways of knowledge sharing by our ancestors and those still living on our Motherland of oral traditions and also through the storytelling and account recording in symbols through crafting and artisan workings.

“I think about how much suffering, destruction, silencing and re-programming our colonizer had to do in order to stop our ancestors from continuing those traditions and adopt the practices, stories and beliefs of the colonizer that diminished our egalitarian ways of living. The core belief I have about the shaping of our existence as people is that “If you control a people’s belief, you control those people.”

Colonization forced us to believe that those religions with written words of God were most valid, and those religions with those written teachings being the most patriarchal placing men at the center of belief forming and relaying. Man’s word through these learnings would be THE Word in which our worlds would be shaped.

All knowledge sharing is important, but in my experience some of the deepest pre-colonial knowledge will not be found in a book, or it will not have the names of the indigenous peoples who first spoke these truths in to the world. These knowings will only be found within the minds and spirits of our indigenous peoples, and by those who have been fortunate enough to sustain their traditions through the passing down of practices, stories,  beliefs/values within families through oral teaching and lived practice. In conversations of Decolonization when there is this need to uphold only the written accounts, the quantifiable evidence that is published and credited, feed right into capitalistic and patriarchal mentality.

What I have learned from my elders, and the indigenous teachers I have come to cross paths with, is that universal knowing, knowing of Spirit connected to the land, the waters, the sky and all creation can sometimes not be put into words- knowing is intuitively within us, and those deep truths can only survive through those who are willing to listen beyond the tellings of a constructed colonized existence. When individuals enter a conversation with me of Decolonization, valuing the written accounts, the proof, the studies over the people in their individual lived experiences and their processes of becoming and understanding all else through the knowing of self, first- I invite them to see the problematic nature and the way our intake of knowledge has been influenced by colonized construction. 

Lumad and Moro students call for DEPED action

Decolonized Teaching Pedagogies- Education for Liberation 

Every individual’s life is valuable, holds deep lessons for us to bare witness to and to learn from- this is what our indigenous traditions of knowledge bearing  teach us, that truth comes from living it does not come from just a book or an essay and we must relearn to value one another’s Lives first and foremost for what is individually brought to the relations and exchanges, each time we place value on another for what they have and continue to live and we allow ourselves to listen for the lessons of those lived experiences, we uphold a way of relating through learning that has been diminished by Colonization that says, all life lived matters and has something valuable to teach us.  In Education for Liberation work this has been re-adopted as the “Each one, Teach one” practice. And it is the invitation of these types of methods of learning that we allow for our classrooms to be decolonized.

Everyday I invite into my classroom, the teachings of Freedom Fighters who have worked to dismantle oppressions and heal traumas post-colonization, who sought liberation on the lands we have been forced to occupy and liberation from us having to contribute to and uphold systematic oppressive structures of our Colonizers. I also invite into my classroom the teachings of our Indigenous Cultural Bearers pre and post-colonization, who maintained a sense of humility to the wonders of the world and valued the knowledge of not just human beings, but of the land, the waters, the sky and the divine. To teach in this way is not an easy thing to do. To teach in this way can is dangerous. To teach in this way is necessary.

It is a struggle, when the majority of the teaching in Public Schools in the US emphasizes the importance of “academic” learning as framed by Colonized teachings.  Where students’ success is measured by their ability to retain and regurgitate knowledge, that is standardized and that measures their excellence in a way that does not value their unique needs of learning, does not support their holistic-mental, physical and spiritual development and does not celebrate their unique brilliance, and the contributions they have of their perspective and critical thinking and understanding of the world.

Education systems help establish the way we work to understand, hold value, and build and implement practices in the creation and sustaining of our society. When we reflect on the education system of the United States, I ask who do our current methods of education support and what do the learnings within those systems present and uphold of societal construction? From the viewpoint of a 2nd Generation daughter of immigrants, who has worked her entire adult life in service to her communities and ancestral culture, it is clear the way the systems of schooling seek to uphold Colonization, to maintain and uphold power rooted in capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy. Think deeply about the way we teach our students through what Paolo Freire named a “banking systems of education,” where students do not practice critical thinking or have ownership or personal stakes in what knowledge they are receiving.  Think on how our students are held to their learning through punitive disciplinary systems, that restrict and restrain our students- creating a system of control over them, relieving them of being invested in their own accountability to self, and leaving it up to the administrators and teachers “in power” to hold them to what we believe is their highest self. See how these examples reflect how we function in this society. School becomes a training ground and a center for conditioning future generations to maintain the Colonized systems that are already in power.

 

It is important for educators and school administrators  to recognize how we are setting up our youth to function in society, and how to relate to the world past the classroom. It is also important for us to question why we use certain systems, why certain systems are being thrust upon us by the government and those who have say and stakes in how our youth are being educated. Paolo Freire speaks on Education for Liberation in this way, he says “It is not education which forms society in a certain way, but society which, having structured itself in certain directions, establishes an educational system to fit the values which guide the society… a society which structures its education system to meet the interest of those who hold power, finds a means to preserve power in the process of education.”   

 

There must be a critique of our education systems at play, about the way it is greatly held through a political framework that maintains the ability for the powers that have created it to serve the preservation of their power. And in these critiques we must begin establishing the ways in which we see the educating of our youth serving the revolution and people’s movements.

Decolonize Mindset- Understanding the Realities and Finding the Balance

Working for a Charter Network, has had moments where I have been confronted with practices and ideas counter to the pedagogies that I have developed and grown throughout my own development as an educator and a human being. This entire first year has been so much navigating and negotiation of my way of teaching with the systems that have been created within the Charter Network, because of the investment that there is from what feels like the whole of the staff to these constructs, that have caused me to relook at my educational frameworks and pedagogies and confront the realness of how the systems of public education of the United States are being formed. This work has thrust me into a reflection of societal structures  mirrored within my place of work and made me look at the political and societal systems that are being supported and enforced through the educational systems that are being invested in, across the US. At first I was at odds with myself, because I truly felt that I would not survive the learning of these practices and the necessity to implement them as a part of communally upholding culture in the school.  But I have recognized what it means to find a balance of holding true to the root of pedagogy, while maintaining my place in a system that I am existing in. It is to say, there are systems that are in place that create order, and that are invested in by the communities you contribute to, and you can live within that while still having a mindset and a pedagogy that allows you to create room for the flow of being understanding, compassionate and see the humanity in yourself and others. And that even in systems that feel confining, you can, at the heart of every movement live for liberation.

 

What has been the most difficult part of it all, is the recognition that the students, many of whom have been a part of the Character Network since they were in the 1st Grade, also had a level of investment in the practices, that have them finding attachments and dependency to a system of accountability that they often hold more valuable than their own personal accountability to their learning and rising to their greatest selves. In beginning my journey in this system of education, I observed and took note of the way the students felt the power dynamics embedded in the style of discipline formulated and implemented by the school, that hold them to being in adherence to standards of “good behavior.” I was taken aback by how students asked me to be more strict and required a level of hand holding through creative content and learning that I have never experienced before. The assignment of a Freewrite, brought up a multitude of questions that begged me to offer format and more quantifiable expectations. And it was such a trial for me to think of how to continuously work/re-work my curricula and teachings adhering to the instructional and disciplinary practices and also to serve a level of humanizing of myself as a teacher and them as young scholars along the way.  This navigation work reflects everyday survival in United States society for a person who has been raised by community to think from a Revolutionary and Decolonization lens.

 

I invest in the school as I see how the systems have rationale to back the practices. I see how the systems mean well. But rational can be broken down and also sometimes meaning well falls short. We can have great intention, but are we aware of our full impact and the complexities of how we affect others? I believe there is truth in the needs of consistency and a sense of organization for young people to be held in a good way in their upbringing. In our indigenous communities way of teaching and in revolutionary community driven and organized learning spaces- consistency and organization are crucial as well. I have worked in spaces of Education for Liberation pedagogy that lacked the organization and consistency and saw how this hindered the learning of students. Being at this school has taught me my own gaps in this. Freedom is necessary, but without some sense of order, some laying down the path with consistency and clarity in guidance our young people will be lost. Guidance is necessary, but when the guidance become detrimental to their ability to use their own judgement and critical thinking they become dependent of the system to hold them.

 

In all my planning I question how I can create the balance- clarity, consistency, organization, in guidance, while also holding compassion and a constant invitation to be in communication for understanding and humanization to create awareness, agency and accountability for liberation. Students in their learning need to feel those holding their education see them, are seeking to know them as whole beings, are holding them in their learning with love and care and do it with competency and direction. Everyday I juggle the structures with the flow and freedom of raising children in collaboration with the other teachers and administrators, their parents, their community and also in co-collaboration with the students themselves.

Decolonize Discipline- Teach Them to Own Their Education

A student came to me this past week as I spoke to them about the escalation and presence of major disruptions and displays of disrespect by many of their peers in the last weeks of school that we have had. Their response to me was that, it is to be expected as a teacher that kids are going to be that way because that is as they shared with me- “just how they are, we’re kids,” and that I just need to be more strict. I broke down for them how problematic that mentality is- the idea that teachers should have the expectation of disruption and disrespect as a part of the nature of our students and their relationship to us as teachers. I told them that if I were to have that mentality every time they entered my classroom it would be a setup, that would cause me to treat them as if they could not have accountability or care for their words and actions and how they affect their place of learning. And that treatment would insist, just what they stated, a need to primarily invest in punitive structures that would hold them accountable, because of an adoption of the belief that they cannot. Many educational structures are set up with the belief that students need to be held in this way, that support an idea that young people cannot take accountability for themselves- that strip them of their responsibility to self and their communities. That make them believe that their age, their identity as a youth is a disempowered time in their lives where they have to be trained, controlled by punitive systems that will check them. And then the punishments become their markers of “good/bad” behavior- and the systems inherently become what controls them.

When students are held by these types of systems and they begin to feel that those systems are oppressing them, that is when the disruptions, and the disrespect surface in great intensity.  

The conversations I’ve been having with my students about the ways we can build safe, respectful and loving space of communal productivity in the upcoming weeks have lead to conversations around the need to be punished in order to “behave.” I’ve been working to break down with them deeper conversations around the importance of teaching them at the core of all content practices and value of awareness, agency, accountability.

AWARENESS + AGENCY + ACCOUNTABILITY = LIBERATION

How does the practice and strengthening of awareness root us in our path toward freedom? Young people often are left to believe that they cannot “control” themselves, that their inability to be focused comes from their nature to be free. The misconception here is that freedom is the same as chaos. But chaos has no regard to relations, to the impacts made on others from our inability to be aware. To me Freedom is always coupled with Love- and without Love there is no true Liberation. I’m trying to teach my students this everyday. To have them be centered, grounded, and motivated by this. To re-member this in a world that has led them to believe that being young means you must be told what to do, and how to act, because of an incapacity of being aware- when what really needs to be done is mirrors have to be held in front of them, to help them be aware and be in understanding of the complexities of who they are. When you teach a young person to be in awareness of Self, to care, respect and love self- they show up in all spaces of relation caring, respecting and loving others. And they make room for and model for others to do the same. Empowering them to rise to their greatest selves.

 

I see the efforts of all the teachers and administration to bring their passion for the growing of young people to their space of teaching and exchanging with  the young people. And I see how much they hold love and care for our students. The longer I have worked beside them in community the more I see how we all are in this work to balance. As much as we all have invested in the school and understand the ways in which we would not be able to change many of the methods that have been developed by the network for all the schools, we are all working also to build something different, to build a place where holistic learning and humanization of ourselves and our students can be upheld within these contrived, colonization structures of teaching.  Like I mentioned before, it is not an easy feat, though I see the efforts consistently being made, and the perseverance of my cohort to adhere to the structures while also seeking ways to be in a conversation with liberation.

 

In my classroom, we examine all structures of power, and societal constructs that ask all of us to examine how we practice and exercise our agency and accountability. I chose material that reflects my students, and that reflects the world around them and asks us all to be in conversation with the parts of ourselves in relation to society (and colonization) that are most challenging. My belief is that When creativity and justice meet in the classroom- revolution is being practiced. The sign that is posted in the middle of my classroom is “Theatre is Rehearsal for Revolution,” echoing Agusto Boal and his teachings from Theatre of the Oppressed, that emphasize the encouragement and urgency for a community to be in collective examination and conversation about the issues in their communities that breed Oppressive structures.  I root myself in the ideals of community organizers and revolutionary leaders, who understood the impact of the Arts to educational and revolutionary spaces enhancing the ability to empower and amplify movements through the expression of the people.

Decolonize Teacher/Student Relations and Dynamics 

I ask my students to constantly look at their relationship with me as a teacher, with all their teachers and with the school that they spend a majority of their living in, and to be in constant work of humanizing the faculty that is essentially the village that is in partnership with their family in raising them. Public School teachers in the United States are very much on the frontlines of a war where our classrooms are being colonized by ideas of education that do not serve our students’ ability to fully grow into their greater selves, ready and equipped with knowledge to support them in a world that is ready to challenge them. Our schools serving the most underserved populations in the country, are battlegrounds, constantly emulating how the world already is challenging our students, and if our classrooms do not reflect pedagogies that support their ability to understand and dismantle the structures that oppress them, and in many cases, if we allow structures within our classrooms and schools to mirror and support those oppressive structures without even attempting to couple them with Education for Liberation work we become agents of neo-colonization.

 

As an educator, I understand the impact that I make on a young person’s life. Our students have 8+ hour days, and for those that stay after school, can spend 10 hours per day at school. To be in an awareness and understanding that we are maybe their core influencers, outside of their friend circles, that I have the ability to impact their decision making, and their way of understanding and relating to the world. Being a teacher is beyond just teaching subject matter, it is being in partnership with parents- where they are trusting that their children are being seen, held and raised up by their teachers. Where we are building up both their sense of self, their character and humanity as much as we are building up their knowledge of the world. If we are not careful in the way we are teaching our youth we create broken beings, and I carry the words of Frederick Douglass in speaking on this as he said, “It is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.”

 

There is so much disparity in the ways in which children are being educated in the United States, and much of this has to do with money, and who has stakes on our young people’s educations. I spent one day answering my student’s questions around the differences between private, public and charter education, rooting it primarily around who is making money or spending money making the decisions about the “best” ways to teach and measure the success of teachings of young people. Our student’s education is being contingent on who has the most power of influence in a capitalist based society.  There are many schools across the country, including in NYC, that are now following a model of Community Schools initiatives, where the stakes are put in the hands of the community that surrounds the neighborhood of the school and the communities and families of students attending the school. Initiatives that schools like the El Puente and their High School the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice pioneered in the early 90s. I was fortunate enough to work for this organization for over 7 years.

 

My mentor and founding Principal of the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, has a deep passion for the education of young people and roots herself deeply in the pedagogies of Paulo Freire, Martin Luther King Jr., Huey Newton and so many others who really invested in creating revolutionaries of our children, where they could be taught their sense of Agency and responsibility to Self and Community Accountability that would equip them with the perspectives and motivations to work for their liberation. When you enter the Academy as you go up the first flight of stairs a quote by Frances is muraled vibrantly on the walls saying “We do not come here to just learn about history, we come here to make history.” Empowering the youth that enter those corridors to understand that they are in a space that emphasizes the learnings of “Each One, Teach One,” “Knowledge of Self,” and “Education for Liberation.”

 

I see how the school in which I currently work at seeks to do the same, I see how they are really trying as a brand new school in this network.  There is a sense of trying to forge an identity that is empowered within a structural system that has been implemented throughout schools in the network. I know this is a risky conversation, as I worked with organizations that were seeking for years to stop the progress of Charter School takeovers because of the way they are monetizing education and how many of these schools have colonizer practices of taking over school buildings and displacing students from the communities that they live in because they were not selected to go to the Charter.  But I see how the school I work in currently is building foundations within this network to activate our students. Teachers are developing classes that include “Comparative Slavery,” “Hip-Hop and Social Justice,” and our Foundations of Leadership course that has our students reading bell hooks, James Baldwin, Ntozake Shange, Ta Nehisi Coates and other POC contemporary liberation thinkers and influencers. I also see how there is celebration of identity being upheld by many of the teachers and administrators on staff. And I am given hope that this community raising these young people at the school that I am working at every day, are more than well meaning- they are invested in Revolution and Liberation on the daily and are figuring out every day, how best to teach that and spark something in our students.

 

Are there practices of the network that I disagree with, yes. And do I feel that there are moments of compromise that are being made in order for me to maintain my place in the school, yes, but I connect this to the greater scheme of this existence. Life in the work of decolonization, is constant negotiation of relation, to people, space, time and situations- in conversation with the largest agents of colonization Patriarchy, Racism/White Supremacy and Capitalism. These are foundational systems of oppression that build up law and order and the ways we have been conditioned to relate to one another and every day as we choose to live in this existence, in this society, we are navigating. And those of us that are in awareness of this, and are motivated by a deep Love of our communities of the past, present and future and a want for Liberation and Justice for us all- are constantly speaking out, in not just our words, but in our actions, and our practices of relating in the world.

 

When I began working at the school I have rooted myself in this past year, I was in constant navigation, and challenged more than ever in my life by not only the pedagogies of the school, but also the young people and staff who have invested in them. Adopting their methods, also requires continuous conversation with my students and with my co-workers about how to, outside of just adhering to the systems implemented in the school to create the conditions of Law and Order and create a conducive environment of learning, how we are holding our students in deeper conversations, humanizing their experiences and our own, and bringing them to a place where they can be rooted in the formula of:  Awareness + Agency + Accountability = Liberation.

 

In our communitie’s pre-colonization, all learning that young people received, meant to serve the uplifting of our villages, our tribes, the continuation of our peoples. I am continually seeking to activate my students and bring them to a place where they can see their education connected to this and how they can challenge in a productive way, exemplifying their value of learning and also their love of their growing selves, when what they are being taught does not serve the greater purpose of empowering and uplifting them toward liberation and love of self and community. As Charter Schools continue to expand their reach and become embedded in POC communities, I urge our communities to demand that the learning in these institutions of learning be held by teachers and administrators who truly see their liberation bound with our own. And that the holistic growing of our students is served by pedagogies that humanize them and allow them to humanize themselves and those that teach them on the daily. Our classrooms need to be places where our students are learning how to think critically about the oppressions that they live in relation to on the daily. Where they are being taught to be kind and loving to each other, and demanding the same of others. Where they are supported to imagine and to vision possibility and then root that in action.  Where they are exposed to truths of power and find the power within themselves to act, speak and live in a way that serves the betterment of us all. Where they are able to find joy and strength in all that they are learning that will support their upliftment and success beyond the classroom.

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Every day is a new day, with new challenges in the raising of our students, and I continue to make my early morning commute everyday, knowing that we will be learning more about one another and the world throughout the school day. I enter my classroom in prayer and invite all the learnings from my Activism, Artistry and Ancestral re-membering to enter the space and join my students in their Sacred Space of Learning and Creating for our people’s liberation, preservation and survival.

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