Yesterday I went to the 9th annual Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference. The conference takes place in October every year, each year alternating between Portland, OR and Seattle, WA. Kevin Kumashiro was the keynote speaker, and his speech provided an excellent framework for how to process what I learned at the workshops. 

The timing of the conference is perfect. Teachers have had time to get the school year started but still have seven more months with this school year’s students. There’s plenty of time in this school year to take what was learned at the conference and apply it to this school year.

Kevin Kumashiro started his speech with a call for transformative leaders. One thing that makes the 2016 election different from the 2008 one is that we’ve gone from hope to fear. Barack Obama inspired people with a sense of hope. This year’s candidates want us to believe that the world is a dangerous place. What makes it so dangerous? Is it really that dangerous?

Kumashiro then warned of the danger of common sense and a single story. Common sense is not evidence-based, it’s often the source of the problem, and it can be used to maintain the status quo. Kumashiro illustrated these points with a handful of examples. In one example he explained that 100 years ago it was common sense that girls and women should only receive a certain level of education as too much of it might render them infertile.

The second half of the speech offered three ways to tackle to the problems a lack of transformative leaders and the danger of the single story. Rather than focus on a single story, examine complex pictures. Rather than focus on a broken system, aim to fix the systems. Rather than be duped by ideologies, demystify ideologies.

Here are some of my takeaways from the second half of his speech. There are many reasons teachers, students and schools are successful (or not). Look at all of them, and don’t let a single story be the only evidence of success or failure. Teachers are often blamed for lack of success. Either they’re ineffective or there’s a shortage of them. Focusing on the individual takes the focus away from the system, which is where positive changes will be made. Another point Kumashiro made was that oppression works by masking contradiction. We get trapped into debates over what’s good and bad. Common Core Standards are good! No, they’re bad! Well, they’re neither good nor bad, and by forcing people to join one camp or another, we lose sight of our ultimate goal – to ensure growth for every learner.

Not sure where to tie this in – but it’s in my notes and I think it’s an interesting point. Many politicians want us to believe that competition will solve our problems and that competition will improve student performance.

The whole day I had two thoughts in mind: hear all the stories and unmask contradictions. I went to a workshop on the use of role play and character exploration to learn about social movements using a technique called Storyline (check out Storyline Scotland and Scottish Storyline). Then I went to a workshop on how to get students ready to hear and feel a social justice curriculum, especially students in affluent and predominantly white districts. We played the Power Trading Game and looked at activities from Facing the Future. The third workshop was on Juan Felipe Herrera and Artemio Rodriguez’s reimagined Lotería. I was really tired and felt even more exhausted by the thought of analyzing poetry and images and then writing and illustrating my own poetry, but it ended up being a great activity to process and the end the day with.