By Carl Grant and Alexandra Allweisss
In our article, “'Going for Broke': Working with Teacher Candidates to Bring about Intersectional Socially Just Teaching,” in the current issue of The Educational Forum (available free in September), we share our reflections on the current moment and what it might look like to engage collectively to teach in ways that build toward the world as “it ought to be,” through a framework of intersectional social justice and following James Baldwin’s (1963) call for educators to “go for broke.”
In summer 2021, the two of us had regular conversations about our experiences as teacher educators in the ongoing wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 uprisings for Black lives and futures. The following poetic prose is reflective of some of our ponderings during that time.
Summertime! Summertime! No school bells ringing, yellow buses, overcrowded copy rooms, or stale coffee and day-old pastries in the teachers’ lounge. No lesson-planning for the principal or instructional coach to review before I teach to “close the gap(s).” Freedom of thought and action away from grading papers, away from calls to “discipline” or “manage” students looking for themselves and their freedom, and far away from the principal’s observations. A break. Students far from my mind. This is sweet summertime to me.
Ah, but I can’t fool myself (nor you). Summertime is really the time when I ponder with anxiousness what is coming, or should come next, because a fantastic teacher is who I definitely plan and hope to be. Four years of teaching science, math, history, and English, and having my students ready: ready for music and art and being complimented about how wonderfully they walk silently in a single-file line through the halls with their hands clasped together. Isn’t that wonderful…?
Do you really think that’s so? Is that the way teaching ought to be?
Summer is freedom, or so they tell me, but I am not free. I can’t stop thinking about yesterday’s teaching. Yesterdays’ teaching, as it was and how I think it should have been—not ice cream or beaches or hot summer sun—has become my Summer Memoir. Memories of my students move through my mind in slow motion. Memories of lessons taught well, and lessons taught not so well. And then memories of the two kids whose families, I learned, lived out of their car, and wondering if they’re finding enough to eat as food prices soar, hold fast in my thoughts. Memories of Marie sharing their pronouns as I watch gender-affirming health care and books that reflect their experiences being banned. Wondering about the torment in several kids’ eyes and the visible nervousness of their bodies when big men in uniforms come inside the school for “our safety.” The mental images of their expressions do not let me be.
I keep wondering what “inalienable rights” and “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mean in our endemically segregated country, where race, money, language, gender, and “respectability” matter too, too much. And as the fireworks boom and sparkle overhead for a crowd of people waving small flags, I think, “What would Fredrick Douglas tell me and my students about this 4th of July bash?”
My Summer Memoir comes in images and thoughts that visit me each sunny bright summer morning as I drink my coffee and eat my breakfast. Thus, more than sunny days, block parties, and dripping ice cream cones, my Summer Memoir during this “very dangerous time” is filled with reflections of the ongoing “determined resistance” that Baldwin warned us about and continues to impact my students, and me: the deep cultural and racial polarities; school shootings and endemic gun violence; the whitewashing of American history that upholds white supremacy and diminishes the histories and experiences of People of Color; and more. What does it mean to be the “good” teacher I hoped to be in this moment?
“Go for broke!”, my college professor told us, quoting James Baldwin, and asked us to imagine what that would look like. But her words held no real meaning to me. I tried to search for it when I arrived at my first school, much like a movie-star archaeologist during a dig, but instead I just discovered overpromised and overhyped reading and math programs that cost a lot of money and ignored students’ linguistic and cultural diversity, and that were conceptualized and designed with guidelines to be taught with yesterday’s foundations of psychology and teaching methods imagined and designed for Dick and Jane.
I must do things differently. Who will be by my side? I will continue to write my Summer Memoir for the many vacation days remaining, as future thinking and writing about teaching is up to me… and you. As I searched for a muse to guide our writing and imagining along the way, I came across the following powerful and passionate words spoken to students much like those we teach: “Write if you will, but write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be...” (Hansberry, 1964).
So, let’s dream together about the world as it “ought to be,” and teach in ways that breathe freedom and life (back) into it.
Dr. Grant is Hoefs-Bascom Professor in the Department of Curriculum at the University Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Grant’s scholarship and research is multicultural and social-justice teaching and teacher education. His upcoming book (Fall 2023) is titled Understanding Black Families and Black Children: Examining Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun as a Counternarrative. In 2021, Professor Grant published James Baldwin and the American Schoolhouse.
Dr. Allweiss is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. Her work is animated by decolonial, abolitionist, and social justice-oriented frameworks and movements. She has published articles in journals such as Race Ethnicity and Education, Comparative Education Review, Educational Studies, and Anthropology and Education Quarterly.
Baldwin, J. (1963). “A Talk to Teacher.” The Saturday Review.
Hansberry, L. (1964). To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. New York.