How to Dismantle the System from Within? – Ask John #4
I am a teacher working in a country where homeschooling is illegal. Moreover, it is a country where parents have a lot of faith in the education system, so much so that they often prefer not (or do not dare) getting involved.
I therefore work to introduce unschooling principles in my teaching––and I have seen tremendous changes both with my students and myself. I would like to share what I have found with other teachers, because I have realized that changing how one teacher teaches can make a tremendous impact on many children, exactly as you have shown yourself.
Changing the education system––and ultimately deconstructing it requires both systemic and political initiatives which require a big group of people who have seen the detriment of the current education system. I am not interested in disengaging with the system, but am instead committed to changing it from within. It is however a fine line––because one has to basically “be in the system but not of the system”––to be able to participate with it, while dismantling it at the same time.
Do you have any perspectives on this and how to go about it, specifically when it comes to supporting fellow teachers, who might instinctively know that there is something wrong, but who are dumbed and numbed by the very same system they represent?
Sincerely, with much gratitude and a commitment to keep walking and sharing your words, as they become mine and may grow beyond me as they grew beyond you.
You speak wisdom: to change the system from within, you need to be in the system (not threatening the jobs or peace of mind of your co-workers who accept the system) but not of the system. It’s a fine line to walk, but I did just that for over 20 years, so let me share my method––there may be other ways, but this is what worked for me.
I began by analyzing what the school big shots, and my fellow teachers, FEARED about using the “unschooling principles” (as you call them), when as you and I know, they produce better results and happier, more interested, involved students, so everyone––teachers and school institutions, too––benefits by using them. Opposition doesn’t appear to make sense, and once I tried to look at it from my opponent’s point-of-view the answer was immediately clear.
What they feared was being made to look so bad they would be fired, disgraced, or humiliated in front of the kids. So I circumvented those fears by determining––in selecting productive products around which to build curriculum––how to avoid taking credit for my successes, to avoid doing the “star” turn of self-congratulation and to 1) give credit for notable accomplishments to others, usually, for political reasons, to school administrators, and 2) to invite other teachers, wholly or in part, to participate in our project learning.
For a period in the 1970s, New York parks were being overrun with an invasive plant species from overseas called Japanese knotweed, which the Parks Department could not control because it couldn’t afford to uproot it, and when uprooted what was to be done to the piles of useless, now dead vegetation, and how was the disturbed soil to be restored?
Our school district had a large Oriental population and a little research showed me that in Japan many recipes exist for using knotweed as a useful vegetable or base for sweet jelly, so our “problem ” was a by-product of our own ignorance; populations existed––even in our own neighborhood––for whom knotweed wasn’t a problem, but a food!
Our job was an engineering challenge: to establish willing recipients of the weed, then to uproot it and transport it to the eaters, which we did in Riverside Park along the Hudson River between 72nd Street and 79th Street in Manhattan, harvesting 300 30-gallon bags of the stuff over a one week period at a location a mere 10 minute walk from the school, doing a valuable service for the City and neighborhood while learning in a range of areas.
We recruited “wild man” Steve Brill, a wild foods expert, to teach us that in the same area a dozen more free, tasty, nutritious edibles grew in abundance (my favorite was wild scallions and gingko nuts, raising the socio-political question why knowledge of this free bounty wasn’t taught to everyone today, as it had been prior to WWI?
Answer: Commercial food merchants protested the unwanted competition through their political representatives, raising the further questions of what other areas had such unseen influence at work and how exactly did such pressure get organized and applied?
Then, our knotweed exercise inspired rhetorical work in public speaking––as student teams traveled to other schools in our district, to daycare centers, and senior facilities lecturing on the edible weeds among us.
Plus, they were writing manuals about preparing wild food with a few illustrated line drawings for distribution, learning to write press releases to cause commercial media to resonate their work in published form, creating references for applications, such as college scholarship applications––from one of these, even the New York Times mentioned our knotweed work, and printed one of our recipes.
Our biggest such project was to launch a weekend flea market in our schoolyard 30 years ago––one still open––that earns the school over 100,000 dollars a year from table fees, and provides the neighborhood with an inexpensive source of fresh vegetables from nearby farms, inexpensive basic clothing (socks, jeans, underwear, etc.), part-time work for students and chances to launch small businesses for school parents and their children.
If curious, it’s called “The I.S.44 Weekend Market” and it’s located between West 76th and West 77th streets on Columbus Avenue and was designed and established by my students as an academic project with the priceless political help of my wife, Janet MacAdam Gatto, who at the time was Treasurer of School District Three (Manhattan) Community school board, who worked tirelessly to turn back political opposition to this spectacular project which benefited the entire community and provided exciting raw text for English, math, science and social studies lessons.
On a once-barren concrete playground, it was transformed by hard work and astute imagination into a school bonanza––in which monies were made available to all teachers for private classroom projects, and for which we turned over all credit to school administrators and to the entire Parents Association.
I hope this helps answer your question on how to marry systemic and political initiatives while transforming institutional schooling with unschooling principles––aim to ADD VALUE to ALL: citizens, fellow teachers, bureaucrats, students and yourselves by re-orienting your own perspective profoundly––do that and you will discover that the many you help WILL NOT ALLOW mischief-makers to shut you down… OK?
Love and hugs,
John Taylor Gatto
P.S. Doing this transformed my own life. Check out Animus High School in Durango, Colorado, where the entire school in a Rocky Mountain setting is attended by brilliant project learners and internships for hundreds more ideas how to function this way. It is within anyone’s reach, takes no money, only courage, and results, as Anna B. implies, are substantial.