Education Is a Political Act by Donalyn Miller
Nerd Camp Michigan (#nerdcampmi) kicks off with seven-minute Nerd Talks from a rotating group of speakers. This year’s speakers included Stacey Riedmiller, Chad Everett, Shannon Hale, Teri Lesesne, Tracey Baptiste, and me. This post includes the text of my speech. All Nerd Talk recordings will be featured on the Nerdy Book Cast this fall.
The weekend before the 2016 Presidential election, I wrote a Nerdy Book Club post titled, “November 9th”. In the post, I expressed my concerns about our divisive social and political climate, the widespread belief in falsehoods instead of facts, and the role that literacy might play in building an “educated, engaged, informed, and participatory citizenry.”
After the election, that ambitious list of actionable steps I suggested seemed pointless. Did I really think that hiring librarians, reading diverse voices, and teaching kids how to analyze rhetorical arguments were going to fix anything? What good was literacy going to do when we now have a President who brags he doesn’t read?
We might as well try to put out a forest fire with a little green bucket.
(Ask Stacey Riedmiller to explain the little green bucket to you, but stand back and plant your feet before she answers.)
I volunteer from time-to-time at an elementary school near me. They gave me a group of second graders to work with as a reading mentor. During a visit this spring, I told my group that Mo Willems had a new book coming out—The Biggie Piggie, a collection of Elephant and Piggie stories. I promised to bring it the next time I came because it was going to be our last visit for the year.
As I was packing up to go, I patted one of my little guys, Carlos, on the shoulder and said, “I’ll see you soon, buddy.” He stopped cold, looked at me gravely and said, “If I’m still here, Miss. If I’m still here.” Carlos feared being deported before I came back.
He is seven.
This is the world we have made for him.
Thinking about Carlos, I sat in my car and cried. Mo Willems has a new book coming out? So what? Carlos may not be here to read it. He might never read it.
I am worried about the children we serve, their families, and our communities and how a power structure that doesn’t seem to care about basic human dignity and safety will affect their lives.
I have spent most of my career talking and writing about how to engage children with reading and respecting children enough to give them ownership of what they read, but in the months after the election, I have seriously questioned the value or importance of this work. Does it really matter? Is this the best use of my efforts? Are the reading lives of children that important when the world is burning down?
It’s an interesting place to be in—considering that you may have dedicated a significant portion of your life learning how to do something that may not actually be that useful. I know that seems dramatic and self-flagellating, but we all have to go through these stages before we come to a place where we can pull ourselves up.
The more I listen and ask questions, the more I read and write, I recommit to my belief that literacy is one of the most important tools we have to make a difference in the lives of children or ensure our democracy will endure. I recognize that I see literacy as a solution because I am a teacher, a reader, a writer. I earn a living from my words. I understand the power of literacy to transform us and through us transform the world. Teaching and encouraging children to read, empowers them. In an ALAN conference speech years ago, Laurie Halse Anderson said, “English class is not about the study of literature. English class is where we learn the tools we need to survive.”
Our ability to participate as full citizens in our democracy has always been tied to literacy. Lest we forget, it was illegal to teach enslaved people to read and write for centuries in the United States because education was considered a dangerous step toward freedom. Not long ago, in my mother’s lifetime, literacy tests were embedded in voter’s registration processes throughout the Jim Crow South as a direct effort to deny African-Americans their right to vote. Bilingual ballots were not commonly available until the 1975 Amendment to the Voting Rights Act when legislators finally recognized that English-only ballots were a de facto literacy test for Spanish-speaking citizens.
We are not finished fighting these injustices. We still haven’t won the equality we were promised in the Constitution. Too many of us seem willing to jettison our freedoms for the sake of our own safety or affluence. Living in a democracy means we have agreed to throw our lots together and work for our common success. It’s risky, but it beats the alternative. As Ben Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
**Footnote: Franklin’s remark was made in regards to a tax dispute between the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the Penn family. In other words, context is everything.
Two weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from a teacher, who wrote, “I appreciate everything you are trying to do in the world, but I just can’t be Facebook friends with you anymore because your posts are too political. You should probably tone it down or it will hurt you professionally”
To that I say, so what?
There are a lot of people who say that educators shouldn’t be political, but I think they misunderstand what education is. Education has always been political. Offering a free, public education to all of our children is a political act, and it’s not something that is done in many other countries of the world. I think about Malala Youshafzai, who just graduated from secondary school and is headed to university. Her education was a political act. She and her family risked their lives in order to secure her, and other girls, an education. If you don’t think that education is political, you’ve forgotten our history. You’ve forgotten Ruby Bridges. You’ve forgotten the Little Rock Nine. You’ve forgotten how many people in our country continue to fight for the basic education we agreed to provide.
You don’t remember all the teachers who have stood up and risked their jobs, imprisonment, and even death to protect others or fight injustice. Teachers like Septima Clark and Booker T. Washington who were Civil Rights activists, Emma Willard who fought for women’s right to a college education; Belgian teacher, Andree’ Guelen-Herscovici, who saved 300 children from the Nazis.
I am worried and frightened about our kindred in marginalized communities. The most vulnerable people in marginalized communities are the children. If your community doesn’t extend beyond your homogenous neighborhood, school, or town, you may not see this suffering first hand, but it doesn’t absolve you from your responsibility to care or help. As James Baldwin said, “For these are all our children. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.”
These are all our children. Yours and mine. This demands unwavering commitment for each one of us. We must be upstanders, not bystanders.
The wolves are at the gate, and they are coming for us, and they are coming for our children and their families, and we may be called to the front lines in ways never imagined. The pen really is mightier than the sword, so we have to use our words to rise up, and teach kids how to use their words, too.
Let’s face it, the world would be in better shape right now if we were led by a well-provisioned battalion of librarians. Carla Hayden can be our general.
Overwhelmed by so much need, we often despair—wondering what one person can do. We feel powerless when we see things happening that are so far beyond our ability to control or change. One of my favorite quotes comes from Margaret Mead, the cultural anthropologist, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Writing a book, publishing it, buying it, and putting that book into a child’s hand may be one of the most important acts of resistance we have. Because books give children light. Books give them hope. Books give them power.
This is why what we do is so vital.
It’s not enough to be woke.
Let’s get to work.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer(Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.
I have been a teacher and a politician. It is the need to both instruct and improve that binds the two activities together. Now, as a novelist, I am still trying to change how people think about education, society, disability, redundancy. However, it is only as a teacher I could be sure someone was listening. It is easy to ignore a politician when you don’t agree with them and no-one is forced to read a book.
Huzzah! Donalyn. Run for office.
Yep, so what? We have lived in fear of being “too political” too long. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of thought are founding principles. It IS radical to accept everyone as equal….even in the world of education. We also should model/teach/learn about civil discourse. Civil discourse has taken a terrible beating in today’s world. I wish more of it. Thanks for great post and carry on!
Powerful words! You have impacted, motivated and empowered me with your words and as our elementary school’s instructional coach I will share with our staff in an effort to motivate and empower them leading to empowered learners. The teacher really is the most influential factor in student learning. Thank you for sharing your words and passion with the world! #kidsdeserveit #empowerbook
Donalyn, you are a hero to so many of us. You are out there flying the flag, talking the talk, walking the walk. I support every word you wrote here. We cannot lose our passion for education. We cannot let the greedy goats take away what matters. Thanks!
DITTO! Perfect response! Thank you Donalyn for leading the way! Together we shall overcome certainly has new meaning these days!
Thank you for this post!
Thank you for your thoughtful (as always) writing, Donalyn! Your post reminds me of a line from Pose Wobble Flow, which I just read last week: “There’s no such thing as an apolitical position in teaching. Choosing not to disrupt the status quo is itself a political choice. In fact, we see it as capitulation” (30). Thanks for reminding us to keep fighting the good fight!
Bravo, Donalyn! We teach to make a difference. I was not at Nerd Camp this year, but I will be next year. So appreciate the text of your speech. We can all light tone candle and stand up for our children. Thank you.
I am speechless, because you have so eloquently put everything into words that I’ve been feeling over the last 18 months. Thank you for reaffirming why I teach, why I read, and why the two are symbiotic.
Thank you for your powerful and bold words. I agree with you 100%. I am responding to you through tears. As a bilingual teacher and specialist I have spent many hours calming and reassuring students of their safety and my promise to be their voice. When we embrace the responsibility for the social- emotional, physical, cognitive and spiritual development of another we are taking a moral and political stance. Teachers, If you aren’t willing to do that, do us all a favor and get out of the way! We can not standby and let fear , hate and ignorance triumph!
Hear, hear! Thank you for this post and for standing up for what is right. It’s time to take a stand and I am firmly by your side. I fight for diversity in children’s books but also for justice for kids like Carlos who shouldn’t have to worry about being deported.
This speech was one of my absolute favorite moments of NerdCampMI – I cried while listening. THANK YOU!
I cannot LOVE this enough. What good does it do to teach skills without contemplating the life of the child. Wish I had heard this in person, but I will share it now. Let’s get to work!!
Wow, Donalyn! Powerful words! I’m already motivated for this year, and this post inspires me even more. I’m moving from being a SPED inclusion teacher, after 13 years, to teaching 8th grade ELA GenEd. I can’t wait to have my own classroom and do what I know is right for kids. Thank you for all you do!
Thanks for this. Needed to hear this today.
Thank you for sharing this! I’ve been patiently waiting for the written version. I cried when you gave this Nerd Talk and I cried as I read it. Thank you for your eloquent call to action.
Yes, let’s get to work. Thank you for this rallying speech and post. Be the change! Better together! What world do we want for ALL our children?
Hey Donalyn, this is one of the truest and most honest posts I have ever read. I applaud your truth. I knew early on that reading was political–growing up in a violent, dysfunctional home I saw reading as my ticket out. In the 1960s the police could not arrest my dad for beating my mom but my teacher and the public librarian could supply me with weapons to fight my way out of that hell and not repeat the cycle. They were called books. Later as the Vietnam war came through the TV bringing more violence into my life I pretended to read Little Women but actually spent every waking hour reading book after book about the players in the drama unfolding on the national and international stage. I read about the SDS and the Black Panthers. I was on fire to know what was wrong so that I could help fix it. I think every child sees herself as a solution for the world–until the world tells her that her efforts are futile. We must teach children to believe they are the bringers and makers of that better world we all dream of…as if that is not political!?
Your work is important. You have spent years convincing teachers that all kids are capable of engaging with complex and nuanced texts, if given the tools and freedoms they richly deserve.
And this speech has many of those hallmarks – passion, good intention, and the desire to make things better.
Please think about the ways you erased marginalized people by using overtly inclusive language, such as, “This is the world we have made for him.”
Because this world we are living in was not made by women of color. Nor by Black men who are incarcerated at such a high rate that they are no longer a viable voting block. As you point out, this world was not made by non-english speaking voters. This is the world Whites have made – both politically and culturally. Until White people, like you, stand up and claim both the privilege and the responsibility — outloud — of being part of the status quo as a White person, change is not possible.
Marginalized teachers know teaching is political. We know coming out could cost us our jobs. We know teaching White kids about Malcolm X or Cesar Chavez or ACT UP is a political act. We know calling out unrecognized bias will be seen as uncivil or loud or aggressive.
Whites, as a group, tend to the only ones who believe teaching is neutral- because “neutral” is really code for White, straight, able, middle class discourse.
I know calling out our own racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism and all the other ISH engrained in us is hard, uncomfortable, unpleasant and necessary. We marinate in it from birth. We must work hard to recognize and actively fight against it.
Maybe now would be a good time for you to start helping teachers who love and respect you to reflect on their own biased beliefs and actions. Because racism, cultural appropriation and erasure in books like Ghosts (Telemeiger), Medical Mayhem ( Bearce and Bolli) and The Bad Mood and The Stick (Snicket) are still being published, read and awarded.
Laura Jimenez, PhD
Latinx (presents White), lesbian, cis gender, overly educated
Thank you, Laura for reminding us of how deeply important and complicated the work around diversity and equity really is.
For those of you who may be reading this and are struggling to understand still, one place to start is by immersing yourself in understanding your own identity and how it impacts the lens through which you operate in the world. That is a long, arduous task. I still struggle daily to raise my own consciousness of the white privilege that is a part of who I am. I work daily to become more aware and just a little better at being a white ally. But even after years and years of doing this work , I still stumble. I appreciate voices like Laura’s who remind me of the importance of this work and of the tremendous responsibility I have to hold myself accountable first and foremost.
If you are not sure where to even begin to understand better what it means for us to be white allies, a small place to start would be here: http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/number-53-summer-2016/feature/anatomy-ally
Beautifully written. I lived in Texas for one year; it happened to be during the election. I too had middle schoolers wondering where they were going to live and with whom if their parents were deported. Agreeably, this is not something a child should have to worry about. I also enjoyed listening to your session at ILA in Orlando. You are an inspiration!
I am speechless, but because I’m a teacher, I can deal with it. Your words are powerful & speak deeply to me. With 37 years in the field of education, I’ve often lamented that education should not be political, but now I know that it must be.
As always, thank you for your words. You inspire me daily to keep doing what I’m doing even if others around me do not see the benefit.
Now THIS is speaking my language. Yes!!!! 💯 1 million percent yes!!!!
Fabulous post, as teachers we need to take a stand.
I agree with so much expressed here. Action is definitely needed but I think we must all discover for ourselves what that action needs to be. This political climate…the election, policy changes, the consistent and disturbing killing of black boys without consequence…has changed my focus. I went from a very politically charged progressive educator working in a relatively diverse, thriving private school where I practiced and taught democracy and social justice daily to working in a 99% black and poor public school. Why? I had to grapple with where my place is in this struggle as a black educator. I love the philosophy and practice of progressive education but what does any of this matter if the children who look like me, who are growing up like me have almost zero access to it? Action was happening. I think teaching is powerful no matter where you do it but all this made me look within and ask where I was most needed and most affective. We shall see where this leads but I can’t sit back and be comfortable anymore. It’s time to be uncomfortable for the betterment of this country.
Thank you for your brave leadership May his be a rally cry for many.
Thank you! Well said.
My efforts ro be political as a teacher always got sidetracked by
the latest crisis in the classroom. Now that I am not so busy in retirement, I see a more direct need to get involved at the grassroots level.
Kudos to Laura Jimenez for pushing back on the use of “we” in Donalyn’s post. If you didn’t read her comment yet, scroll up and find it. It is the one with “Booktoss” as the name.
To what Laura said, I’ll add this:
A big hole in Donalyn’s essay is with respect to Native people. Our history, with respect to Education, is one in which the goal was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Another goal of schools was to Christianize and Civilize–implying that we were not civilized.
Far too many people recognize problems in children’s and YA lit but choose to be quiet, because speaking up is uncomfortable or because they live by that fraught rule that says something like “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” Who do such rules serve? What do they affirm?
None of this is new to people like me, or Laura, or anyone in a community that has been pushing back for–literally–hundreds of years.
Larger societal groups periodically go through cycles of awareness and then it starts up all over again, years later, and it feels ‘new’ to teachers, librarians, parents.
Silence, being polite, etc. guarantee that these cycles will happen, again and again–and in them–we all lose.
This is just beautiful! Education is not “political”. It’s reality and for some, the difference between life an death. Thank your for writing this beautiful article. Shared with my readers as well.
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