Granito de Arena
Along with maybe 75 other teachers and activists, I was there for a screening of Granito de Arena, a documentary about the long history of political mobilization of Mexican teachers, which continues today. It seems that many teachers in Mexico are trained at normales rurales, free schools of education that prepare them to go back to rural villages to teach. The World Bank has applied pressure for the government to close the normales rurales and replace them with private schools of education and standardized exit exams for all teachers. This would prohibit many people from impoverished regions from becoming teachers, as they would not be able to afford tuition or housing in order to study to become teachers. Teachers and the people of the towns where they work have organized in support of the normales rurales, even occupying one school and enduring beatings, tear gas, and bullets.
The film places this incident within a larger context of teacher activism and organizing. Since the '70s, or earlier, teachers have marched, organized, and occupied buildings, resisting privatization of education and demanding an end to corruption within the teachers' union, higher pay, and adequate resources in their schools. The film includes much footage of police repressing these actions, often violently. Both union officials and government officials have been accused in the murders and disappearances of dozens of teachers over the past 25 years. It discusses President Vicente Fox's Quality Schools Program, in which schools that agree to a specific curriculum and additional standardized testing will receive extra funding. As a teacher interviewed in the film pointed out, the extra resources provided for these schools (such as the repair of buildings) are so basic as to be essential, and ought to be available to all schools. However, in many villages, parents pay what they can towards building maintenance and school supplies, despite Mexico's promise of a free, secular public education for all. Companies like Ford and Coca-Cola advertise their products by showcasing the "model schools" they have built in Mexico; the teachers' analysis is that corporations have an interest in education in order to create a compliant workforce for the maquiladores and a generation of consumers of their products. In contrast, teachers in some states have begun working together to develop curriculum responsive to local culture and the needs of the community. This can include materials produced in multiple indigenous languages, reflecting differences in local culture, or lessons on cultivating organic coffee. The goal is to help communities retain their cultural histories while supporting economic independence.
Some of the most powerful moments in the film were parables told by Ernesto Galeano, a Uruguayan author. He told a story of a chef gathering a duck, turkey, and chicken together. What kind of sauce would you like to be cooked in? They answered, of course, that they didn't want to be cooked, in any kind of sauce. That is not an option, the chef responded. He also described a Marx brothers film of a train speeding towards the station. The train runs out of wood to fuel its engine. They begin chopping up the cars to use as fuel, starting with the last car. Finally, the train reaches the station, but "it was a train without a train." His third story refered to the oft-quoted "Give a man a fish, he can eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he can eat forever." But what if they sell the river? What if they poison the river? What if the landlord doesn't allow them to fish?
Here's a report from Global Exchange that covers much of the same ground as the film.
A discussion followed the film, moderated by Professor Jean Anyon, of CUNY. I found the discussion somewhat disappointing (as they often are). In brief, there were calls for teachers here in the US to have a stronger analysis of how privatization, globalization, "neoliberalism," etc. affect education here. Others said the analysis is out there. Others called for teachers to play a greater role in the communities in which we teach, beyond education. Others gave examples of how their organizations are working on education-related and other issues, and invited audience members to join. NYCoRE works on three issues - military recruiting in schools, standardized testing, and criminalization of youth. If I worked in a high school or were a social studies teacher, I would absolutely get involved in the first campaign, as it is kids like those I teach who fight & die for our country. Other organizations represented were Teachers Against the War, IndyKids (they publish a pretty great newspaper, a la Indymedia, written for kids in grades 4-8), and Teachers for a Just Contract. There was some discussion of how the UFT could help make the existence and activities of these organizations better known to the "rank & file." Towards the end of the discussion, there was a good deal of criticism of the UFT for not taking a stronger stance on many different issues.
What was missing, in my opinion, and what is so often missing from these conversations, was a meaningful vision of an alternative. As liberals, we are taking a defensive stance without necessarily offering a coherent picture of what we are for. What would the NYC school system look like in our ideal world? If we did away with standardized testing, what would we replace it with as a means of ensuring that children throughout the system, from all ethnicities and income levels, were receiving a high quality education? And if education is, currently, under pressure to produce workers/consumers for corporations, what would the alternative look like? In Mexico, one alternative was to teach kids skills that would help communities modernize while remaining economically independent. What's the equivalent of that here in NYC? What does that look like on a day-to-day basis, 180 school days per year, in a science classroom, a social studies classroom, an English classroom, a math classroom?
There are some answers, and beginnings of answers, to these questions, but we are not coming together around a vision that we can present as an alternative. Partly, I think that once you get down to nuts & bolts, liberal conceptions of education are wildly disparate (which is fine, but hard to organize around). Some are for very radical, free-school, social organizing types of schools, others are in favor of schools similar to those we have now but with more critical thinking, study of local history, democratic decision-making, and depth versus breadth, while others would be satisfied with equitable funding, smaller class sizes, more resources, and more freedom for teachers to choose what & how we teach. A second issue is that many parents want their children to succeed within the system as it exists now; many children want that for themselves. That doesn't mean they are for the status quo, but they might not line up in support of a radical overturning of the status quo, either. And in the end, change has to come from the community itself, not just from teachers, but from teachers, parents, and students.
Food for thought, and some frustration.