The week of March 14th was momentous for me – packed with an array of divergent learning. At my school, Paulo Freire Freedom School, it was our Intersession Week during which students spend 4 full days doing experiential learning, more often outside the school then in a classroom, on a topic about which they and their teachers are passionate. I was away on Monday and Tuesday of that week, working with my National Faculty colleagues at the Buck Institute for Education’s Spring Summit. Always a powerful collegial experience, this time we were thrown into our own project – exploring Angel Island and the American immigrant story. Then came the weekend and my attendance at a Donald Trump rally. All told, a lot to think about.
Why Not Intersession for Adults?
Before I try to pull together a synthesis of my take-aways from it all, I want to describe my Friday afternoon. For me during Intersession Week, the end of the day Friday yields a giant sigh of relief. I’ve spent the week holding at bay all the scary potential ‘what-ifs’ in my head. My teachers are usually exhilarated and exhausted. They love the week because they get to explore deeply a topic alongside their group of 8-12 students. The connections forged over the 4 days are deep. During this particular Intersession Week, our teachers had created immersive adventures on twelve different topics/themes. On Friday, once the school community had dispersed for the weekend, some of us enjoyed a celebratory, end of the week beer together. Four of those present were reveling in the joy of providing the following fun and engaging experiences for our students…
… and one of them lamented that it was a shame we don’t go on our own Intersessions. We were so enthusiastic about the idea of “Adult Intersessions” that we decided next year to take turns facilitating a sort of Second Saturday once a month experience for each other. We’ll see if that great idea comes to fruition, but the point is that the pleasure students feel when they explore new places and participate in new experiences is not unique to the K-12 person – it’s a human being thing – and it’s basically what I was lucky enough to experience myself that week.
My Angel Island Experience
At the beginning of the week when I toured Angel Island, I was moved by the images and stories – presented and imagined. I was filled with questions, as were all the BIE National Faculty. That experience framed our subsequent work around equity, grounding our commitment in our shared experience and authentic questions. The power of project-based learning.
I was struck by the fact that my Angel Island experience was mediated by two different but defining factors. First, I was aware that I was imagining the immigrant experience from a mother’s point of view. I was deeply affected, for example, by the fact that Chinese boys were housed with their mothers until they turned 14 at which point they were segregated to the men’s barracks.
I was also struck by the blatantly apparent parallels between the turn of the century Chinese experience and what is experienced today by the border crossers in the Southwest; parallels not immediately apparent to some of my colleagues (or at least not what they were focusing on). It made me realize that when you live an hour from the border as I do, those stories are inevitably a part of your day-to-day experience, and that is not necessarily true in the rest of the country.
In Tucson our lawns are sprinkled with “We Stand With Rosa” signs (a mother who is facing deportation away from her children) and our religious congregations debate whether Jesus would support Sanctuary. I personally have struggled with whether providing water stations in the desert would save more lives or have the unintended consequence of making the crossing seem more doable and ultimately causing more deaths. We are well aware that the crossers making the trip across the desert borders are also our neighbors, our students, and our friends. When a BIE National Faculty member wondered about what other Americans were doing while the injustices of Angel Island existed, I asked the same question for today, given the daily trials of immigrants in our courts as part of Operation Streamline.
To Trump or Not
When I learned later in the week that Donald Trump was coming to speak in Tucson, I decided that I needed to attend the rally to try to give myself a broader insight not so much into Trump the Presidential candidate, but into the larger cultural phenomena that has made him the GOP front runner. Despite its unpleasantness, I felt I needed to engage with my neighbors on these issues, not quietly disapprove in private.
Attending a Trump rally was hard – not to get in (there was no screening and tickets, which could be obtained on-line, were never collected) – but in Tucson, to enter the event space, you had to pass a line of screaming protesters. I was embarrassed to be part of the line and averted my head so no one I knew would recognize me. I suspect that for the Trump supporters these chants only had the effect of pumping them up further.
Once inside, I was unable to catch any real discussion of why people liked Donald Trump (not sure why I thought I might be able to hear reasoned dialogue happening at a political rally). Instead what was palpable was high-octane energy focused on identifying and outing protesters – and there were many. The crowd was instructed, over the loud speaker, not to injure protesters, but to raise their Trump signs and point at the offender(s) so they could be quickly dealt with by the authorities. We have learned from news reports that pent-up anger and near-to-the surface violence is ubiquitous at Trump rallies and indeed that is how it played out in Tucson (see YouTube video).
Prior to Donald Trump speaking we heard from the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio, most known for his crackdown on immigrants. I found his talk, and the crowd’s support, more painful than Trump’s speech which I had seen before on TV and consisted mostly of vague, sweeping statements always leading back to Trump’s greatness. But the Sheriff spoke derisively of the 8000+ people who were being kept in his prison. After my Angel Island experience, I was painfully aware that each of those “criminals” has a painful story that includes family members and lost dreams and personal economic disasters.
I left the rally early and joined the protesters in yelling admonishments to the Trump supporters as they filed out. I’m glad that my community has people who will resist expressions of hate and discrimination, but although we were taking a stand, it didn’t feel like our angry chants were being effective. Frankly, it felt like we might have been adding to the commitment of the other side – pouring gas on their existing fire. I left feeling saddened and powerless.
As I started walking back to my car, however, I saw two mothers standing side by side silently holding up anti-Trump signs. They weren’t being loud or belligerent, but seemed so brave and resolute. They made me think of animal mothers who can be so dangerous when their children are being threatened. Their power comes from protective love – and I think that’s where we need to look for inspiration when we work to combat harmful thinking. That a more peaceful, kinder way of saying no, will likely be the stronger, more effective path of resistance.
So after this week I have a better understanding of how and why most Americans did nothing to avert the suffering that occurred for decades on Angel Island, how our American immigration story contains thread lines from the past that continue to today, and most importantly, how to more effectively resist offensive, racist messages. I am left contemplating how I can join other mothers to do this work.
How Deeper Learning Happens
All of this is a very personal (and circuitous) way of trying to make my point that if we who are in the business of schools really want to promote “deep learning” – learning that is impactful, authentic and most importantly a personal synthesis of understanding and action – we need to consider putting our students in situations that actually warrant deep thinking and action. The world is messy and chaotic and beautiful and inspiring and angering and confusing and scary. We need to embrace it all. Since it’s where our students will be habitating, perhaps a little scaffolded guidance is warranted. Not to mention, it can be kind of fun – at least it’s not boring.
It is so easy to stay in the safety and comfort of our classrooms. Now that the Internet is widely available, with its unending door to information, we can become complacent in thinking that book and online learning is enough. But I posit that it is not. At times, not always, but as much as we can, we must get our kids out into the world, so that they can engage with the world. That is where deep thinking is waiting for us. I know I for one, am in.