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A different vision of education – TAG Fair

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

On Saturday over 200 people filled the third and fourth floors of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures School for the First Annual Education for Liberation Curriculum Fair. Sponsored by the Teacher Action Group, the fair attracted elementary, middle, and high school teachers mostly from public schools along with afterschool educators, teaching artists, members of community organizations, youth, pre-service teachers, university educators, and even an administrator.

TAG member and teacher Shanee Garner in the opening assembly sounded the theme for the day:

“At a time when students are viewed more like criminals than scholars, when the removal of teachers is the foundation of the nation’s reform agenda, when schools and districts are being privatized away from any true community control, and education is distilled down to a script and a test prep book, we know we must act together to change the status quo of education in this city.”

Speakers in the all-group assemblies and presenters and participants in the afternoon workshops offered a different vision of what public education should look like. Helen Gym from Asian Americans United described “an upside-down world” of a rich country with poor schools and called on participants to “right-side our world.”

Philadelphia Student Union members Dan Jones and Justin Carter called for education that respects and empowers students. Carter described his transformation from a student “who slept through class” in a traditional setting to an active learner in the “hands-on” setting of West’s Automotive Academy. Germantown High junior Alana Gooden contributed a poem capturing her frustrations with school.

Dr. Ayesha Imani from Temple University and the Sankofa Freedom Academy described the group as “educational maroons.” Maroons, she explained, were slaves who freed themselves and formed communities of resistance in the midst of the plantation economy.

She called on participants to “disrupt the dominant discourse in education today.” “We refuse to have our children reduced to a test score,” Imani said, calling for schools that reject White supremacy, environmental destruction, and world domination in favor of a curriculum that promotes community, critical thinking, and social justice.

Imani drew laughter and applause when she said, “When you walk by somebody lying on the street who needs help, what will determine what you do. Will it matter if your PSSA scores were proficient or above? We must have an academic agenda, but we need something much larger.”

Workshops aimed at providing insurgent educators with some tools to change the curriculum. Local artists held sessions that focused on using graphic arts and theater to enhance instruction. Environmental justice, restorative practices, and service learning were all workshop topics.

Several workshops focused on how to justify social justice content and more interactive teaching using the existing standards. In a math workshop, Caroline Ebby and Nina Hoe from the University of Pennsylvania and Kelley Collings, math teacher at Hunter Eementary, described how to take a lesson from “Math in Context,” the mandated middle school curriculum, and introduce more relevant, real-world content.

In one of the largest workshops, teachers Shanee Garner and Jennifer Saint-Preux went into detail, showing how to rationalize content using the standards, and providing examples from across the curriculum. Garner noted teachers need “to be transparent and prepared to justify what they do” in terms of the standards.

Besides the workshops, there were many tables and displays from organizations, publishers, and advocacy groups. Participants were also asked to post on a wall what they would do differently. Typical comments were “I will dedicate time on a weekly basis to expanding my knowledge…concerning social issues in my community” and “I will select literary materials for my class with messages of justice and equality.”

Tom Snell, a staff member from Congreso de Latino Unidos, said this was a “great event that should be institutionalized," a view shared by many participants, judging from the conference evaluations collected at the day’s end.

In summing up the fair, one of the organizers, Anissa Weinraub, said: “We felt that the curriculum fair provided a dynamic and positive space for engagement around our shared values and continued work as justice-seeking educators.” For the Teachers Action Group, an organization that is barely a year old and operates without paid staff and has no funding beyond volunteer contributions, the fair was a significant success.

While the group was diverse in many ways, the preponderance of younger teachers when compared to the District’s teaching ranks as a whole was striking. Dina Portnoy, a veteran teacher who now works helping to train Teach For America interns, was happy about it. “The presence of young activist teachers gives me hope for the future” she said.

Shanee Garner, in summing things up at the closing ceremony, recognized that the teachers at the fair were “the exception and not the rule,” but went on to say that the assembly made clear “that we are not alone.” This new-found solidarity and the emergence of a public, alternative vision of education is bound to reverberate in the District in the years to come.

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