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.