This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
“To me, education shouldn’t be separated from real life. The things we do in school should be important outside of school. And not just for the students or for me, but also the parents and the community.”
That is the approach to education taken by Freda/Frankie Anderson, who identifies as genderfluid and uses both male and female pronouns. Anderson teaches a community activism class to high school sophomores and juniors at the U School and is one of the 60 people this year to receive the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. She believes teachers have the responsibility to engage with the community and question institutionalized systems in all aspects of their work.
Anderson grew up in Kensington and just finished her fourth year of teaching. She attended private preschool, Moffett and Greenfield Elementary Schools, and high school at Science Leadership Academy.
Anderson became a teacher because of the way that one of her own teachers provided her with the space to be herself. After she was molested by her preschool teacher, school became an unsafe and angry place for her, despite her interest in learning. Many teachers would not give her the benefit of the doubt and would thus sideline her.
That changed with Matthew Kay, an English teacher at SLA, who gave Anderson space to be angry without treating her as a problem student. After that, school became a place where Anderson could be more herself.
“If this one teacher could make that much of a difference without doing too much, maybe I could do that,” Anderson said.
She thought that English would be a good medium to teach social justice, using books, writing, and storytelling. However, when Anderson came to U School, which opened in 2014 as one of the District’s innovative high schools, she heard about the principal’s vision for a community activism program called OrganizedLab. Principal Neil Geyette asked Anderson whether she would be willing to take that job instead of teaching English.
“I was reluctant at first, since I had no training and I would be teaching without experience,” Anderson said. “But then I thought, ‘When else will I have this opportunity of teaching activism as a course?’”
Anderson split the course into two sections: Organize 1 and Organize 2. Organize 1 is for the sophomores. Their first unit (which was borrowed from Sophie Date, the former teacher) involves identifying a problem, learning how to discover its root, brainstorming solutions, and picking a solution to organize around.
Organize 2, which is for juniors, centers on six terms: privilege, leveraging privilege, microaggression, macroaggression, oppression, and oppressing targets. In the class, the juniors create workshops designed to educate incoming freshmen about these terms and concepts. The idea came from hearing problematic language in the hallways and trying to find a way to deal with it besides teacher-driven punitive responses.
The goal is to create a community where everyone holds each other accountable as opposed to one where teachers enforce in an authoritarian manner.
“The idea is to teach incoming freshmen the effect of language, using community-based language instead of a top-down way,” Anderson said. “Part of your job [as an educator] IS to speak up when you hear problematic stuff, and if you’re not [speaking up], you’re just saying it’s OK. But you want to be at a place where students are holding each other accountable and not educators.”
The hard part about conducting these sessions is the risk of making mistakes. With classes dealing in real-world situations, there are real-world consequences.
“Everyone wants to do community-based work, but when you say it matters, then if you mess up, the ways you mess up could negatively affect the community instead of positively affect them. So that’s a scary risk,” Anderson said.
She comes up with ideas for her class by researching topics she is passionate about, borrowing some from Date, the previous teacher, and receiving input from other people. This includes not only her students, but also organizations such as Youth United for Change and Teaching Tolerance, more experienced teachers, people in Anderson’s family, and loved ones. Through this process, creating projects becomes a form of research and trial and error.
One such idea was a town hall on lead poisoning after the extensive media coverage of lead paint in city schools, including the tale of a young boy who ate paint chips and suffered brain damage. The District also had to deal with lead in drinking water as a result of old lead pipes. After talking to her students about it, Anderson discovered that lead poisoning was an issue that the students were passionate about. However, because they could not actually change the pipes themselves, they thought the best way to handle the situation would be to hold a town hall to educate people.
Another idea was the Ferguson reunion and museum. U School was located in the building that had housed Ferguson Elementary, one of two dozen schools that the District shut down the year before U School opened.
Few people in the community felt a sense of closure in relation to the school that they had a long history with, so Anderson and her class decided to conduct interviews to learn their stories. After speaking with the community members, though, they knew that more had to be done than listening.
“After hearing how open they were to tell these stories, we had to do something to celebrate their stories,” Anderson said.
That year, they planned a reunion, which more than 300 people attended. Next year, they plan to allocate a space in the U School to build a permanent museum in honor of Ferguson Elementary.
“It is not just about the history of the school; it symbolizes what happens when you cut funding from public education,” Anderson said.
Anderson, who graduated from Temple University and is enrolled in a master’s program at West Chester University starting in the fall, noted some of the struggles she faced as a new teacher. Anderson initially had a few hiccups along the way in terms of having projects flow smoothly.
“Part of it, in the beginning, is stumbling through and asking for help, but ultimately you just push through and go with it anyway,” she said.
Some of the challenges Anderson faces, however, are not just logistical. She is aware of the need to confront her own biases as a teacher. Anderson notes some similarities between herself and her students, such as the fact that they both grew up in Philadelphia in a lower socio-economic class. But there are differences as well, such as race – most of her students are African American – and her current socio-economic class status compared to theirs.
“I have to think, am I deciding something is important because I did a lot of research or because of my own biases and I am not doing a good enough job listening to students?” Anderson said. “The line is difficult.”
To handle the risk of bias, Anderson works hard to balance not just her interests and her students’, but also those of the community and the parents.
“We cannot build transformative work if we do not interact with the community and our people,” Anderson said. “Otherwise, we’re just doing really ‘woke’ stuff, but for who, and why?”
Anderson also notes the importance of checking herself as an educator. She has come to the conclusion that the public school system was created in oppression, with continued ingrained racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism.
Anderson works to hold both herself and her other teachers accountable. She is always thinking about how she could be perpetuating oppression and talks with other staff members about how to fight the system. Some of the ways they have resisted were by working with the Teacher Action Group (TAG) and the Caucus of Working Educators, which are made up of educators who believe their role is to promote social activism and justice through their teaching.
Anderson notes that the key is not to blame teachers for the shortcomings of the education system, but to ask questions instead.
“Most teachers inherently want things to be more equal and better. It’s why they go into the system,” Anderson said. “It’s important to ask questions like … ‘Would the treatment of the lead paint be the same in a rich white neighborhood?’”
Anderson spoke about the approach of explaining oppression to both her students and faculty.
“One of the things we talk about is institutionalized vs. personal oppression,” Anderson said. “A lot of ‘-isms’ are associated with one person, when in reality it is ingrained in the person for a reason and a lot of the structures are built and maintained by those systems.”
Anderson notes the importance of empathy when it comes to overcoming oppression.
“I had to have so many people in my life help me realize how I’m supporting an oppressive system,” Anderson said. “That’s how I learned. I’ve definitely grown to be less bigoted and less likely to uphold systems of oppression by people meeting me where I was and talking to me about it.”
Stories about the influence of outstanding teachers are made possible by a grant from the Lindback Foundation.