How to Dismantle the System from Within? – Ask John #4

Hi John.

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末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末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末because one has to basically “be in the system but not of the system”末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.

Anna B.

JOHN’S RESPONSE:

Dear Anna,

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, solet me share my method末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末teachers and school institutions, too末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末in selecting productive products around which to build curriculum末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.

Two examples:

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 pilesof useless, now dead vegetation, and how was the disturbed soil to be restored?

Our school district had a large Orientalpopulation 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末even in our own neighborhood末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 inRiverside 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 ina 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 competitionthrough their political representatives, raising the further questions of whatother 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末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末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末one still open末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末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末aim to ADD VALUE to ALL: citizens, fellow teachers, bureaucrats, students and yourselves by re-orienting your own perspective profoundly末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.