There is a space for liberatory education called Kite’s Nest. It was launched in 2013 in Hudson, a gentrifying town two hours north of New York City. There are men who contribute to the organisation as guest artists, educators and board members, but Kite’s Nest is in many ways framed by three young white women. One of the women was unschooled in Cape Cod. She is passionate about young people’s rights, especially the rights of those on the margins. That is Kaya. Every ounce of Kaya’s small frame pushes back against the walls to move those at the margins to the centre. She is our executive director. Another of the women was what you might call power-schooled. That is Sara. She focused on Latin American studies at Pomona College, but ended up taking her learning directly to the streets and to radio. Sara is committed to returning cities back to the black and brown hands from which they were stolen. The third woman? That is Nicole. Nicole was schooled in the Bronx. I mean da real Bronx, not no Riverdale type shit. She can shake a tail feather like Jenny from the Block, and cook a meal to heal the spirit. On top of all that, this woman taught herself to design classes for kids that are interdisciplinary wonders of intellectual curiosity, practical academic action and social purpose. So, what is my connection to all of this? Right now, I’m lucky enough to be president of the Kite’s Nest board. And I know from direct experience that the methods and practices being used at Kite’s Nest are all up in love, the deep kind.
Others in the community know about and value Kite’s Nest. A young donor who still believes education can be critical and joyous gifts us a beautiful old brick mill. Built in the nineteenth century, the warehouse is over 21,000 square feet – a massive structure. It sits near the public housing projects, at the edge of the railroad tracks, overlooking the Hudson River. It neighbours the Furgary shacks, also known as the Furgary Boat Club, the remnants of a nineteenth-century fishing village. Rumour has it that ‘membership’ for the club – because, supposedly, there was no real ownership of the land – was restricted to those whose families had lived in Hudson for generations. According to club president Joe Gallo, the Furgary residents ‘worked the river for shad and other fish’ and ‘managed the habitats and public hunting grounds of the foreshore.’ They ‘safeguarded this area for the many children and pets who are drawn to it.’ And, according to Furgary folk, they did all of this for free. Yet, in 2012, the city evicted the Furgary community. Today, all that remains are muddied ‘No Trespassing!’ signs dangling from boarded-up shacks.
When we are given the warehouse, we know it needs renovating. Then we will be able to live and work with other community-based organisations dedicated to changing today’s normal. It is September. Not yet winter, but cool enough. Kids are still running around shirtless, dressed only in cut-off sweatpants. You would think the public pools are still open, but in fact school has already started in Hudson, a town in which over 25 per cent of people live below the poverty line and 34 per cent of them are under eighteen. At this point, our future home is pretty much empty, except for some tools for our nearby community garden. As a part of her weekly routine, Kaya stops by the building to check up on it. This day, she notices some people have made it through our makeshift security measures.
Kaya immediately calls my mobile: ‘The place looks like some creative geniuses have been at work.’ She tells me there has been construction inside and that materials – both old and new – have been organised and assembled, ready for use. Who did this?
I’m from West Harlem in New York City, so for me Hudson is like a Tiny Tim small town. If we were back on 157th and Riverside in NYC, the area where I grew up, we would never find who did this, even if they were from the block. But in Hudson, a town of fewer than 7,000 people, word travels fast. So one neighbourhood lady tells another neighbourhood lady who tells another one who tells Kaya: ‘Probably them same boyz always going around here. They only about ten.’
The boyz had set up shop inside a space we had claimed inside their city. They had built a table to hold their drawings and future plans. They found empty mason jars into which they disaggregated their tools to make them more accessible. And what did they end up constructing? Important stuff. To them. Useful stuff for the important jobs to run the important systems of operation that the boyz had structured and regulated inside what was now their space.
Kaya and I try hard to ignore how freaked out we are by the very real possibility of liability. And that is what good educators do for and with each other: we help suspend the constraints that seemingly order society; we open up space for collective imagination, for possibilities. For a moment, we let ourselves recognise and regard ten young years of ingenuity, days of assertion and the boyz’s presumption of ownership. For a moment, we compel ourselves to take a breath and honour it all. Then we ask: how can we ensure the kids’ safety, while not disrupting their energy, motivations and already-demonstrated intellectual curiosity?
Kaya gets an open-bed pick-up truck and drives around the streets of Hudson at a creep. She is a swallow-tailed kite circling low over the city. She is determined to find the boyz who had – according to one city lady who told another city lady who told another who told Kaya – ‘done it.’ Then, hip-hopping down some alley, ready for anything fun, mindful and challenging, there are our boyz. Kaya rounds up the prodigious engineers, hauls them back to the warehouse and says, ‘Okay, so it looks like we are sharing this space. Rule number one: when you are here, I gotta be here, too. Rule number two: help keep this space and the garden around it clean. Help me keep it and you safe.’ Then it is time to work. Together, Kaya and the boyz sweep and prepare the space for the boyz and for an upcoming formal celebration at which we will share gratitude for the gift of this space. Kaya, Sara and Nicole call the event Sustenance, because the event is a gift back to those who have helped sustain just the kind of thing Kaya is doing right now: offering respect, freedom, guidance and space for young people to create work and learn on their own terms.
October comes, and the boyz are present at Sustenance. Now it’s very much autumn: autumn wind, autumn temperatures, autumn change. Still summer-shirtless, sweating from sawing wood for some new project, the boyz ignore the donors outside swishing fresh ginger, shies, gin and honey cocktails. I yell over to one boy running with a piece of wood: ‘Baby, where is your coat?’ He turns and shrugs his shoulders, all the while running towards the warehouse. Donors gnosh on raven and boar charcuterie and mousse de foie, whatever the fuck that is. Light music trails in the background. Later, Hamilton plays as white members of the host committee pick up mouth-slobbered napkins and lipstick-stained cups. The boyz carried on their work diligently for hours, but went home at sunset, and it’s way past that now. Although undoubtedly tired after a full day’s work, the boyz manage to leave behind a clean, well-organised, ready-for-the-world-of-enterprise warehouse.
Is your heart all swollen up? Feeling all good inside, like this story might be a nice share on Facebook, or that now is a good time to donate some loot? Go ahead. Share. Contribute. Give. But for real, let me explain how all this represents some of the paragons of a love pedagogy.
Love pedagogy interrupts, interrogates and then disrupts the contemporary education economy. This economy is a neoliberal, hegemonic apparatus. It provides a malignant notion, one that reinforces the work-hard, win-big myth that the US refuses to dispel, and wreaks havoc on a young, developing psyche. Love pedagogy, by contrast, is a political act of teaching and learning – in any classroom, private or public. It requires a kind of parallel learning, one that is the antithesis of the austerity technologies and neoliberal microtechnologies designed to manage and discipline students. Unlike traditional educational approaches, a love pedagogy seeks to produce students who possess what Paulo Freire calls conscientização (most often translated in English as critical consciousness). To practise a love pedagogy is to remain profoundly aware of all the mechanisms in the contemporary education economy that seek to divert our attention away from what every teacher I’ve ever coached tells me produces learning that is authentic and consequential: relationships. If we grade, we hide from students the process of our internal thinking. If we test, or if the state tests, we create another generation of Narcissuses mesmerised by their own reflections. If we focus solely on what we think a kid should know – in other words, if we never ask, listen and be informed by what they want or need to know – we rob young people of the process of critical inquiry, of learning how to interrogate and respond to the conditions in which they find themselves, to think beyond the empirical ‘logic’ of an imposed positivist reality. If we use education as a hammer, beating facts and figures into students’ minds, we neglect our responsibility to provide young people with opportunities to think and question, and to cultivate what Roderick Ferguson terms as ‘new kinds of political and intellectual subjects’.
To abide by a love pedagogy is to create opportunities for young people to surface and deconstruct the dangers they know await them on the streets that stretch from school to home. It is to forego the lesson plan and instead explore the hopes and dreams students keep secret because they think such hopes and dreams aren’t for them. If we are to re-politicise education so that teaching and learning are to be in any way meaningful, in any way everlasting, in any way a disruption to the contemporary education economy, then we must – as teachers – become deeply connected to our students. Within the context of the struggle against racism, gendered notions, heteronormativity, poverty and other forms of injustice, a pedagogy of love is not some sentimental absurdity; love is not some ‘emotional bosh’, as Martin Luther King once argued.
To practise a love pedagogy is to be in relationship with your own fragile state on Earth, your own pain and suffering, while simultaneously being in relationship with a student’s pain and dissatisfaction, and their innate desire to know and understand; it is to acknowledge openly not your stupidity, but your ongoing willingness to interrogate the human condition; it is to design content that interests you, but that also provides ways for students to connect to themselves and move beyond false divisions of public and private; it is to recognise teaching as a transdisciplinary art of social and intellectual engagement in which students grapple with the predicament of social dislocation, social isolation, and both conscious and unconscious social detachment. The contemporary education economy requires difference to function; it resists anti-racist, feminist and queer work in schools. Through its obsession with measurement, assessment and categorisation, the contemporary education economy builds barriers so that students can’t comprehend the social, economic and political conditions that are differentiated by race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, access and religion. A love pedagogy is exactly what the contemporary education economy attempts to foreclose and delegitimise. But there are determined educational spaces – sometimes just classrooms, occasionally whole schools – working to derail the harmful efforts of the contemporary education economy. Kite’s Nest is just one of them.
Back at our donated brick mill, the boyz – individuals often devalued and unrecognised as innovators – assess the possibilities of their environment. That is called imagining – that is, using imagination to create new alternatives, new choices, new ideas. These boyz are resourcing. They first make a mess and then, out of the chaos, survey their environment, considering what can be done in the space and calculating what is needed to make concrete the abstractions in their minds. The boyz raise a pivotal architectural query, in the same way that professional architects do, like Joan Krevlin, who designed the Tribute WTC 9/11 Visitor Center, always asks, ‘What does the site tell us?’ – in other words, she undertakes the same process as the boyz. In The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching and Learning, a collaborative book project by Cannon Design, VS Furniture and Bruce Mau Design, the authors confirm the significance of making educational spaces by and for the people; they are adamant that space is, indeed, the ‘third teacher’. Like educational engineers, our boyz organise their resources so that they are more useful and in doing so they improve the efficiency of their chosen labour. Later, they design an action plan and start implementing their ideas, eventually making a product based on an original concept – a table. During each of these processes, the boyz are self-inspired and self-sufficient. They create their own essential work and make important choices. They remain deliberately independent of any elder’s authority or directions, yet willingly connect with an adult who doesn’t judge, reprimand or discipline. Instead, Kaya initiates a process of reciprocity, an exchange of respect; she provides some knowledge and know-how, which the boys accept because it is something they determine they need and it is offered without austerity or assessment.
The tasks the boyz set for themselves require applied mathematics (geometry, algebra, the abstractions of calculus), as well as debate, negotiation and compromise; they use economics to proffer a cost/benefit analysis between getting caught and pursuing their dream. In their engagement in productivity, they boyz discuss specialisation, as well as comparative and absolute advantage.
To realise their dreams, the boyz have to work effectively with each other. They must make collaborative decisions (perhaps by way of consensus?) about opportunity costs, benefits to the team, indicators of risk and project management. Skills of inquiry, analysis and informational diversity are employed. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business claims this actually creates ‘better performance when it comes to out-of-the-ordinary creative tasks such as product development or cracking new markets.’ I’m not making a pitch for the contemporary education economy, which has the privatisation of every aspect of teaching and learning as its primary objective, but rather arguing that many of the skills the boyz are performing meet the eligibility and performance criteria of leading private liberal arts colleges – and probably most successful businesses, too. What the boyz are demonstrating are the same skills that led to the light bulb, the Apple computer, the smartphone, the electric car, Google, Etsy, Occupy Wall Street and $100 million of funding for Black Lives Matter. These same collaborative processes also gave us the Combahee River Collective Statement in 1974 and the Students for a Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement in 1962. The boyz display connection, spontaneity, responsibility and dedication to an idea; they transform their dreaming into reality; they show creativity, ingenuity, ownership and autonomy.
But let’s use the nomenclature and assessment rubric found in those magnums opuses of American education: the No Child Left Behind Act and the Common Core State Standards Initiative1. Our boyz are deftly demonstrating mathematics, science and English language proficiency – although their proficiency isn’t being performed in a high-stakes, three-hour, multiple-choice Scantron exam.
In discussions about public education, we hear about the formative and summative assessments that teachers can perform. But we must flip the script and talk about the formative and summative assessments that kids can design and perform by themselves for their own novel activities. For example, the boyz are constructing learning objectives; they are posing and answering performance-based questions – questions with genuine purpose and intrinsic significance. There are authentic assessments directly tied to their objectives and own goal-achievement. By planning, resourcing, constructing and then self-assessing, the boyz are using a lot more intellect and academic skill than it takes to deduce the correct answers in a multiple-choice test. If we think about the process of building the table, we can take a guess at some of the questions the boyz must grapple with. First, they might ask, ‘For what will we use this table?’ Then, based on the answer, ‘How much wood will we need? How long, wide and thick must the table be to hold the weight of our ideas?’ I assume they confront questions of scarcity, such as ‘Where will we obtain wood with no funds?’ They might make complex adjustments to the number of nails required and mutually agree upon division of labour. Dang, people! I can’t even think up all the other kinds of intricate questions the boyz must be dealing with. But what I do know is that current state assessment frameworks would be insufficient for measuring such processes; it would be really difficult to design one of those general education assessment tables that could adequately quantify and comprehend what the boyz have accomplished.
The boyz give us cause to see state assessments, whether at a primary, secondary or tertiary level, as nothing but anti-love pedagogies. They do little more than keep Scantron in business and necessitate more government jobs. They certainly don’t come close to recognising and measuring the kind of acumen it takes to produce transdisciplinary inventiveness. And if we are to measure and assess, and assess the measure of the assessments, shouldn’t we try to get at the real learning? Shouldn’t we wonder how each individual young person understands, analyses and applies what they think? Even better, shouldn’t we just shut down these offices? Let’s teach the PhD-MBA graduates who lead the onslaught of academic assessments of state K–12 and university programs how to identify, for example, a classroom culture of reciprocity, one is which the roles of teacher and learner are interchangeable, in which those who are teaching are also learning, and vice versa. The problem is that our contemporary education economy, based as it is on corporate accountability measures and austerity methods, won’t allow for such observations because they aren’t quantifiable. Again, learning is slippery. As it should be. As soon as you try to pin it down and count the number of beans in the process you diminish the kids’ passion – and your own interest as an educator for the people. Learning, just like teaching, is, and should always be, shifting. It’s a moving target. It’s multiple targets in constant motion. Yet the assessors try to make learning into a moving donkey onto which they want us to pin only one tail.
These policies – with their annual state-implemented multiple-choice tests and continuous appraisals, measurement tools and learning objectives – make teachers feel like they are climbing Chomolungma in nothing more than crampons. Let me be plain: education policies like these don’t come out of good intentions. Such policies are never good, whether they emerge from the private or the public sector, or from the seemingly endless committees assembled in the name of ‘giving every child a fair shot’. In fact, when you click on the link for the White House Report: Giving Every Child a Fair Shot on the ‘White House President Donald J Trump’ page defining the Every Student Succeeds Act, you are taken to a page with the following statement: ‘Thank you for your interest in this subject. STAY TUNED AS WE CONTINUE TO UPDATE WHITEHOUSE.GOV.’2 Public education has always been a site to produce those who are meant to serve and those who are meant to own production. Sounds Marxist because it is his analysis. And he was right, and Freire was right, too. It’s up to us to turn it all on its head.
It’s the dead of winter and I am jolted awake by a 6 am phone call. It’s Kaya. The warehouse is engulfed in flames. It’s all over the local news. The local station broadcasts drone footage of the flames. The roof is the last part to go up.
When I get to the property, I’m confronted by Hudson’s code enforcement officer – a white man. He can’t imagine that my brown self has any reason to be asking questions and treats me like I’m a piece of snot stuck to his shoe. After convincing him that I’m president of the board, he tells me the fire is like a huge pizza oven burning between the mill’s timber beams, its nineteenth-century brickwork and its new tin roof. The amount of water used by the firefighters, who have been called in from several nearby towns, delays the start of school, and slows the flow of water down to a trickle for most of the city’s residents. The mayor comes, throws her arms around Kaya and says, ‘I’m so, so sorry’ – and she really is. We stand there, ankle-deep in the mud, a sorry, shivering mess. Embraced by the smoke, we watch the flames fan that particular performance of machismo that goes along with fighting a fire. By the end of the day, all that the boyz worked to create is just a bunch of smoke and rubble.
I’m aware, as a long-time educator, that I have a certain kind of knowledge. This long-lens perspective enables me to identify and describe the disciplinary categories and specific skill sets into which the boyz’s work fits. But is the knowledge to define and label necessary? Will it ever be? What makes knowledge valuable? What makes it worthy for the public? Who determines its worth? The boyz from a hood not so unlike mine at their age teach me that knowledge is valuable when it’s useful, when it makes me want to understand the who, what, where, when and how. Knowledge is important when it’s important to the user. Knowledge and skills in alliance with understanding and action, such as that seen in the boyz’s work, are worthy when they are good enough for and suitable to the people and the activities chosen. This is the philosophy of a love pedagogy: love respects, love imagines, love always believes in possibility.
There was no dearth of intellectual skill or capacity in the boyz’s projects. Certainly, there was no lack of engagement, motivation and imagination. The Common Core State Standards Initiative claims to prepare students for ‘entry-level careers, freshman-level college courses, and workforce training programs.’ Read: it prepares poor and working-class students – particularly those who are black and brown – for low-level service jobs. Don’t believe me? Well, what is a standard? It’s a measurement of quality. And what is the Common Core’s measurement of calibre? It’s whether a young person is prepared to be a trainee, whether they are willing to assist, to coordinate, to serve. That is what entry-level jobs are. Google ‘entry-level jobs’ and you will see. Then you will ask: why do the Common Core’s goals stop at the first year of college and focus on entry-level jobs? Why don’t they want public-school kids to be the creators of new knowledge and ways of understanding, just like those in private and independent schools? Maybe then you will remember the social and economic purpose of the contemporary education economy. Maybe you will remember that few public K–12 schools and universities are designed to provide a ‘life-changing experience’, as the tagline for the independent, elite secondary school Phillips Exeter Academy proclaims. But this doesn’t mean public education institutions and the teachers within them don’t want to provide a life-changing experience for their young, poor and working-poor students. It’s just that the public sector doesn’t have the same level of endowment or alumni support. Let’s take Exeter as an example: the school is located in an idyllic 652 acres in New England, charges an annual tuition fee of $52,000 and has a $1.2 billion endowment.
There are probably some of you scratching your heads wondering how in the heck this story is at all relevant to real school and to what some call the ‘re-politicisation’ of education. But education has always been political; that is why the contemporary education economy has chosen it as a site for manipulation. How does hanging out in an old 21,000-square-foot mill ensure the boyz from Hudson will be academically proficient? How can they ever pass the annual state-regulated, high-stakes tests in reading, mathematics, science and English proficiency? How will they master the standards? The short answer: they might not. Want the long reason why? You are barking up the wrong tree. You are asking the wrong questions. Maybe you feel a bit strange, like your gut is trying to tell you that something ain’t right in the realm of public education, that we need to worry about something more than the mass shootings we see on the news. Perhaps you trust these schools for other people’s children, just not your own. If you, like me, have the privilege of finding ways for your child to learn outside of the contemporary education economy, then the tree you need to bark up, the question you need to ask – no matter if your kid is at a private, independent, or government school – is for whose benefit are state standards? Why state standards at all? And state standards by what means? In Teaching with Conscience in an Imperfect World, Bill Ayers writes that we need to build schools that ‘kids won’t need to recover from’. In the meantime, a love pedagogy attempts to help young people recover.
Large and long-winged birds, kites can take flight on an updraft of air. Kite’s ascend, they soar when there’s an upward current. They’re raptors. They seize. They take by force. They are, after all, birds of prey, and they are beautiful and buoyant. If conditions are right, they ‘spend most of their days aloft … rarely flapping their wings’, and at times they soar so high in the sky, ‘almost at the limits of vision’. They are free. A love pedagogy is a liberation; it lets young people fly.3
1 The No Child Left Behind Act came into being in the United States in 2001 under Republican president George W Bush. The Act reauthorised the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and began the neoliberal wave of standards-based education ‘reform’ in the US. Today, forty-one of the fifty states (as well as the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense Education Activity) employ the Common Core State Standards Initiative, what is, I argue, an extension of the same austerity measures engaged by NCLB.
2 The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law by president Barack Obama in 2015. Like the No Child Left Behind Act 2001, it was another reauthorisation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act 1965 and continued the focus on high-stakes testing measurements.
3 Read more about kites at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
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