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article was originally published in the Summer,
edition of "Social Policy" magazine)
Teaching Is Organizing (Or Should Be)
Larry Ferlazzo and Craig McGarvey
Larry Ferlazzo is the former Lead Organizer for Sacramento Valley Organizing Community (SVOC), an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF); he is currently teaching newcomer and other English Language Learner students in the Sacramento Unified School District. Craig McGarvey worked with Ferlazzo when McGarvey was Program Director in Civic Culture at The James Irvine Foundation in California; he is a former high school teacher and administrator of 20 years. With other organizers and educators, Ferlazzo and McGarvey have participated recently in a series of “cooperative inquiry” sessions, sponsored by The Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World initiative, pursuing the question, “How can organizers help community leaders become more creative, conceptual, and strategic in their thinking?” This dialogue, which is intended as an inquiry, not an answer, has grown from the work.
CM: What makes a creative and successful community organizer switch careers and enter the public school classroom as a teacher?
LF: I’m not sure it is that much of a career switch, or at least it shouldn’t be. I spent 20 years helping to build broad-based organizations composed of community groups, religious congregations, and labor unions so that low- and moderate-income people could more effectively advocate on their own behalf. They used this power to get affordable housing built, jobs that paid living wages, immigration reform, etc. Organizing makes positive change in communities.
But the best thing for me was seeing how dramatically people were able to change themselves based on what they were learning through organizing. How to give and receive constructive critique, develop leadership skills, take initiative. How working with diverse people could bring so many benefits. They were learning these things as adults, sometimes in their sixties and seventies.
It was great to see, but I also wondered to myself how much better the quality of their lives would have been if they learned some of these things at a younger age. I wanted to help people learn to think and act for themselves as they were growing up, rather than waiting until they were adults.
CM: So community organizing should help people learn to think and act for themselves?
LF: Yes! Organizing helps them create powerful, democratic institutions that can make positive things happen in their communities and in society. But they can’t build institutions unless they are thinking and acting for themselves. That’s the ideal, of course. There are tensions in every moment of organizing. You are helping people to learn, think and act, you’re trying to win the campaign, you’re trying to get institutions built.
In my own organizing I often felt so task oriented that we had less time to help people learn. Sometimes we got to be “action junkies,” we had to get the action to come out well, and we shortchanged the reflection. Or we didn’t take time to create a “lesson plan” that would help people take ownership of the idea for themselves. Or we already knew exactly how to do this next step, our organization or network had spent a lot of years refining this kind of next step, so we “trained” people to do it (whether the “it” was an individual meeting, a house meeting, an action, etc.), rather than have them discover it.
CM: Now you are in a school. Some would say that schools, too, should be democratic institutions that help students learn to think and act for themselves. Do these tensions play out in your school, too?
LF: In a big way. You’ve always got the tension between transmitting knowledge and encouraging kids to learn.
CM: Can you give an example?
LF: In my first year of teaching, we were doing a unit on density and buoyancy, and I was having students explore with various items, some of which floated in water, some of which didn’t float, to help them discover for themselves these physical principles. I was having the students build boats out of tin foil and compare which designs floated best. An experienced teacher took me aside in the teacher’s lounge and said, “Larry, you’re wasting time. Just tell them that the density of water is one.”
CM: That’s a classic. It reminds me of a quote from a book I’ve been reading, “I’ve Got the Light of Freedom,” by Charles Payne. The book is about the grassroots organizing tradition in the Mississippi civil rights movement in the 60s, and it’s all about this tension, as it played out in designing the Citizenship Schools for helping people learn to read and get registered to vote, building the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, doing all of the rural organizing. The quote is from Joseph Hart, who I think was at Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School in Appalachia, which was where Septima Clark and Horton hatched the Citizenship Schools. “We have plenty of men and women who can teach what they know; we have very few who can teach their own capacity to learn.”
LF: Yes, that’s it exactly. Highlander is where they use popular education techniques, is that right? I never knew much about popular education when I was organizing.
CM: Well, it sounds like you are using popular education now. Horton and Paulo Freire, the famous Brazilian popular educator, would I’ll bet have loved your density of water exercise. In my understanding, they emphasized “experiential education,” starting wherever people were and encouraging them to learn through experience.
LF: Experiential education, yeah, at SVOC we used to joke that what we did was go out into the community and make mistakes, then come together and reflect about it, and then go back out and make bigger mistakes.
CM: Are there lessons in the water density exercise that organizing could learn from?
LF: It’s working inductively, from the specific to the general, rather than deductively, from the general to the specific. You are guiding the experience. You can give the students a “data set” to work with; for example, I picked the items they were experimenting with in the water. But then, within that data set, you get the students to explore and come to their own understandings of the ideas, rather than lecturing them about the general case that somebody else figured out. It’s about “enactment” rather than “reenactment.”
Another example was when we were studying ancient cultures and their technologies. The Ancient Greeks kept time with water and two cups. I didn’t tell my students how the Greeks did it, or even that they did it. I gave them two plastic cups and water and said, think you could tell time with these?
CM: So, from your recent experiences with learning inside the classroom, are there things you would do differently as an organizer?
LF: Lots. I like the story Mary Ochs tells about some of her organizing work with the Center for Community Change, when they were doing voter-registration and get-out-the-vote trainings. Mary had the adult leaders tell a story of when they could remember having had a profound personal experience with voting. At another time she had them write an imaginary headline that would appear in the paper on the day after the election, if they had been successful at what at what they wanted to do.
Another colleague, Vicky Kovari, of MOSES, a Gamaliel Foundation affiliate in Detroit, asked leaders to keep a journal about the times they felt they had been the most creative, and then to keep a record of their experiences in organizing.
Specifically, I’d try to make much more time for that kind of thing. Generally, there is one major thing I would change about my organizing.
CM: What’s that?
LF: In my work with leaders, helping us all to identify other leaders, I would be more intentional in asking, “Of the people you spend time with, who gives you energy? Who challenges you and from whom do you learn? I’d ask them if they wanted to be part of a larger group of people who get energized from one another and who want to learn from one another. Many of my propositions to invite people to enter organizing were much more issue- and task-focused. I think the best people want to be in a community of learners.
CM: Community of learners. That’s a great concept.
LF: In this type of community you have the responsibility to respect other people’s curiosity. In my classes I’m very intentional about talking to students near the beginning of school about the fact that we’re creating a “community of learners” and asking them what that means to them. Then I try to reinforce it positively. For example, if someone makes an obvious mistake and other students don’t laugh at that student, I point out that this kind of conduct is how people behave when they’re in a community of learners.
CM: So there are definitely ways in which your teaching would affect your organizing. What about the other way around? How has your organizing affected your teaching?
LF: I mentioned Mary Ochs’s great exercise in getting leaders to tell stories about voting. In organizing, in general, we often try to identify personal stories, bring people together to share their stories with one another, so they can develop a different, more collective interpretation, and eventually lead to collective action.
I do this in my classroom, too. My students have written essays about “What Is My Name?” “What Is Family?” “What Is Home?” in addition to writing about their immigration experiences. This got them talking with parents and grandparents. Then we shared them in class and reflected on common themes and actions that could come out of those new interpretations.
CM: That sounds like the way organizers use reflection with leaders in the community. I realize you’ve said that you often felt you short-changed reflection in favor of action at SVOC. But I also watched you use reflection back then. Are you putting it to use now?
LF: Yes. Each week, for example, I try to get kids to actively reflect on their lives. I might ask them to write down the three things they learned during the week, what they liked best and least and why. I might ask them to write and share verbally one thing they did well in the past week, and what they’d like to do better in the next week. I might ask them to just share with me how their life is going at home or school in general. Or have them share the highest or lowest point of the week for them. Or have them share what the most important learning experience they had that week – either in or out of school.
I think it’s important to not be formulaic in this type of evaluation, which I think was the rut I tended to fall into while I was organizing. Of course, you never know what you might get as a response to these sorts of questions. One time I asked students to share what they felt they learned during the past week. One student wrote in response, “I didn’t learn anything, but that was okay because Mr. Ferlazzo tried his best.”
CM: And that sounds like you have an authentic relationship with that student. I know the idea of “relationship building” is central to community organizing. How do you use it in your teaching?
LF: I try to make it a point to get to know my students, and to help them get to know me and one another. I do home visits for as many students as possible, and this year I called most of their parents during the first month to say something positive about them. For every “negative” call I make home, I try to make another three that are positive. I play basketball with students, etc. In class, I try to have a short personal conversation–of even just thirty seconds—with several students each class period.
CM: The relationship work of community organizing has always seemed closely related to two other concepts. Maybe it is something like, organizers use relationship building to help people move from their “self-interest” to become “leaders.” Do “self-interest” and “leadership development” figure in your teaching?
LF: When students are screwing up, I generally initiate a conversation with them about what their goals are for the year, for their lives, and ask them what they think they need to do to achieve them. Last year I had students write their primary goal, and discuss what kind of relationship with me would help them to achieve this goal, and what is one thing they could do today to make that relationship happen.
In my class of very challenging kids, I had a sign on the wall saying, “Is what I am doing or saying, or what I’m thinking of doing or saying, going to help me achieve my goal?” When a student is getting into a pattern of not handling him/herself well in class, instead of calling the parent immediately, I’ll often tell the student I will be calling their parents in a week; that I’d like to be able to speak positively about how they are doing; and that they have that week to give me reasons to do so.
CM: I get that you are trying to get them to identify self-interest in a longer view, and then to act within that longer view. And does this relate to leadership development, too?
LF: Yes, in all of my classes there are students who have more understanding of some things than others do, such as English speaking or reading ability, understanding of reading strategies, etc. Each week I create small group opportunities for these folks to teach other students.
For example, I have started teaching a class of the newly arriving Hmong students from Thailand. We’re putting my students into cross-teaching and cross-learning situations with other Hmong and non-Hmong kids who have been here longer, who have better-developed English skills, and better-developed study skills in general. For example, the other class taught a geography lesson to the newcomers, while my class taught them some Hmong folktales.
And beyond these classroom tactics, there are important community-organizing leadership development strategies within the larger context of the school community.
CM: For instance?
LF: Recently my principal asked me to think along with him about the trash problem at our school. I said that as long as students don’t see it in their self-interest to keep the school clean, it won’t be clean. From an organizer’s perspective, the first step to deal with an institutional challenge like this would be to begin to help people develop a greater sense of “ownership” of the institution.
This would be done by first identifying the genuine leaders in the institution. Most institutions think these are the "volunteers" who help out or who can be depended on, or the people who hold "official" leadership positions. However, in fact, genuine leaders are those who have a following, who are typically different.
In my organizing, for example, I often identified leaders in churches by seeing who was at the center of clumps of people after services. I would then have individual meetings with these leaders and build a relationship with them to identify their long-term visions for themselves. Once I identified those, I was able to help them develop a different interpretation of their situation, their institution, their role in their institution, and how they could use their institution as an instrument toward reaching their goals including identifying needed allies.
I said to my principal that one thing I would consider is to identify teachers who you believe have good political judgment; have them identify students who they think are genuine leaders who other students look up to; have teachers or others who have a good relationship with those students meet with them, tell them they believe they are leaders and carefully proposition them to be part of an elective course and then work with these students to develop a vision for our school and our community and implement it with them. This would include examining how they want to be perceived out in the world and how they want the school to be perceived, and what were some of the elements of that, which would obviously include cleanliness.
CM: What was your principal’s response?
LF: It was positive. He followed up by asking me to help him think of a strategy to get Latino students more involved in the culture of the school. I proposed that, again, we identify Latino students who were genuine leaders (in other words, had a following), whether they were doing well academically or not, and see if we could create a leadership class.
A group of teachers and students worked together and we now have a class called “Latino Studies and Leadership.” We'll try to help this group of students become more involved in taking leadership, both about school and community issues, and help deal with the native/immigrant tension in the Latino community. And also hopefully use it as a model for other activities and classes. The idea of the class will be to combine literature and history with an organizing curriculum. One of the prime goals will be to help students see historically how important it has been to develop diverse allies to be successful.
CM: So, you are describing a school reform strategy, aren’t you? Teaching as organizing is getting the kids to take ownership of their schools, to take on their schools to make them better. It’s getting them teaching themselves, consequently making their schools better learning communities.
LF: I guess you could say that.
CM: It reminds me of one of the first stories I heard about youth organizing, which has been sprouting up all around the country. This was a panel presentation at a foundation conference. The students did surveys to identify the most important issues to them collectively. One thing was the drop out rate, which was appallingly high in this high school, which was I think in Philadelphia. So then the student organizing leaders surveyed the kids to find out why they were dropping out. The answer came back clear. Because they were bored by their classroom experiences, which they felt to be completely irrelevant to their lives.
The student leaders then interviewed the teachers about why their classes were so boring. The teachers said it was in part because their teaching schedules were so demanding, and the in-service education they were offered was so bad. So, the story went, in this inner-city high school, the students developed an in-service teacher education course about how to make classes more relevant and interesting to students, and they petitioned the school and were granted permission to teach their teachers.
LF: That’s definitely self-education, young people owning their education.
CM: So, authentic learning is self-education, which is built around acting on your curiosity about the things that matter to you, respecting others as they do so, and creating an ethic of honest self-reflection and evaluation. Authentic teaching is organizing, which uses good judgment to engage students’ curiosity and get them playing leadership roles in their schools and, basically, their own lives.
LF: And teaching as organizing revitalizes our schools, making them real communities of learning.
CM: I assume it doesn’t always come off without a hitch.
LF: Of course not. Not everything I try to do in the classroom goes exactly according to plan. I, and my students, sometimes get frustrated, show impatience, have bad days in general.
In organizing we talked a lot about the “the world as it is” and “the world as we would like it to be.” It’s not a question of “Which side are you on all the time?” The real question is “Which side to you tend to operate on, which side do you strive to operate on?”
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