Text from "Bear no false witness": On critical literacy, fear, and social change

This is the speech that I read today at the California Teachers Summit #smcedcamp2016 @profesoraleon @rainaleon 

Good morning.  I come to you as a poet and an educator.  I wanted to give you a hopeful message.  When I was first preparing this speech, I thought about cultivating a global gaze with students, how to bring the world into our classrooms.  When I imagined the pictures and stories that I would share, they were filled with crystal clear waters, vibrant flowers, Sahara dunes, Moroccan valleys, a misty view from the Starlight Express, camels by a Kenyan road.
a poem
poet reads the bloodlust news
we cannot sleep
we cannot listen to music
we cannot technicolor dream
we cannot go to space
we cannot learn
we cannot teach
we cannot marry
we cannot have children
our children cannot play
our mothers cannot seek help
our fathers cannot be tall
our grandmothers cannot open doors
our grandfathers cannot remember
we cannot vote
we cannot eat
we cannot be
be bullet
But then another Black man was killed by the police and another and this followed all the beautiful people of Pulse in Orlando but was before the horrors of Nice.  My heart bled too much.  How could I paint over these terrible times and the loss?  What a betrayal that would be!  A global gaze should also be critical!
It was after watching the video of Philando Castile, his last breaths, that my husband said, “Come home.  I need you to come home.”  I was at a poetry reading in Oakland, a few steps away from a protest, and my husband was filled with fear for me, for our future, for the someday children we might have.   When I returned home, we talked about last straws, starting with sequestering ourselves for safety.  We were supposed to go camping …  we paused, considered whether it was right.  We decided to go to place with no cell signal, slept beneath tall redwood trees, listened to the breeze, learned lessons in quietude.  We didn’t check Facebook for a while.
On the radio there, we listened to an NPR interview with Elie Wiesel, who had recently died.  He spoke about surviving the Holocaust and waiting ten years to tell his story.  In the interview, Terry Gross says, “You said something about bearing false witness before – that you wanted to bear witness because there were others who would bear false witness. And I wonder if you see a lot of examples of false witness around you now.”  To which Wiesel responded that “Well, there is too much vulgarization and commercialization and trivialization of the subject. It’s much too much…. So I believe that faced with the embellishment of the tragedy on one hand and the denial with the tragedy on the other, we who are still here must speak up as forcefully and gently as possible and say, look, this is not the way it was.”
What is the way it is and the way it isn’t?  What is the “it” of the story?  Rather than talk to you teachers about how beautiful the world is, though it can be beautiful, I want to talk to you about the importance of developing a humanizing practice that fosters critical consciousness and transformative action.  I call on us to bear witness to the present, push beyond grief and fear to change.
Those are a lot of terms I’ve just thrown at you.  When I say, humanizing practice, I am speaking against violence.  I am speaking for recognition and engagement with the entire human experience.  Our work as teachers is not just to present content, to compose a lesson with the do-now, the i-do/we-do/they-do, the assessments.   Teachers are not robots set to present and collect data on how that learning occurs.  We are community workers.  We are called upon to learn about our communities – school communities & the surrounding communities – and the people within them.  And we have to ask those questions, those check-in questions that come from a deep place of care, how are our communities engaging with the world? 
Our children are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and a number of other tools.  They are encountering stories like that of the young Black child in Boston who was ordered off a train by a police officer for being suspected of being a part of a rowdy group of teens, how one white woman had to intervene, how this Black child was emotionally troubled afterwards realizing that no matter what he said, he would not be believed, would be targeted because of his Blackness.  They are encountering the story of his mother who expressed her fear and anger that, another person had to intervene, yell and scream for him to go on his way.  Our children, our students are impacted by secondary trauma and the stresses that come from that.  They know Aiyana, and Tamir, and Trayvon.  Unfortunately, the violence extends to our classroom when we are silent about those traumas.  We read the news, too, but in class, we talk about the French Revolution or pi like those are the only things that matter.  A humanizing education recognizes that the child in the room is hurting, recognizes that it is important to learn about the causes of that hurt through an informing and critical lens, and then to work with the child to develop strategies of change and action. 
Empowerment comes from knowing what is occurring, what has occurred, and how to move forward.  Present, past, and future.  Empowerment is critical!
When I spoke of critical consciousness, I meant the development of an educational tool that fosters the questioning of the current historical and social realities.  Our classes must be places where students engage in critical literacy practices:  “reading the word, reading the world”, and reading the self.
Christine Pescatore (2007) provides an excellent definition of critical literacy.  In one article, Pescatore writes about her experience using current events to trigger the responses and investment of students within the reading and writing practices. She writes that
“Critical literacy involves ways of thinking about the written and spoken word that go beyond the surface meaning in order to discern the deeper meaning, ideology, and bias expressed therein. It means taking a critical stance toward “official knowledge,” and it is an understanding of how word choice and language creates meaning and influences our thoughts… It offers a way to speak out against injustice and unfairness. [It] builds awareness of how power is used to marginalize and silence certain groups in a society, and engenders a willingness to reveal that situation in order to bring about change. [It} is an active engagement with the world as well as with text and requires the ability to think critically. (Pescatore, 2007, p. 330)
Transformative Action extends from thinking critically. We know all about thinking critically.
Another poem: 
            With chorus adapted from “Sally Ride” as sung by Janelle Monáe
Trump the death card.  The Joker.  The Torture Wheel.
walls rise tall
with bricks inlaid with suspended orbits
I’m packing my spacesuit and I’m taking my shit and moving to the moon
where there are no rules[i]
Monáe I hear your painted star exhale to mechanized
stop my heart
unbearable peaking
beat hop through rib
packing my spacesuit and moving to dark
planet              an ice theory for this nemesis
implacable justice my scheme
if blessing comes in brown bodies surrounded in chalk
what from the necessary curse
packing my spacesuit
revolution is carving whiteness from my own flesh
Tyche’s anticolonial antimanifest antioppression but destiny
loosie [ii]suspicions
lynching after Styx
take me to the ice
not the water
cameras watch
but no one sees a thing
don’t look for brown skin flecks to mine
and stitch for a fancy new sunburn suit
melanin envy
but shoot the bearer
rocket ember               shot liberation
moving moving
where the rooms rise to capture
and light dances in blink wink still alive
what happened to
empty seats on a rocket
countdown …32 … 7[iii]… 18 [iv]… 16[v]… 28[vi]  17[vii]… 25[viii]… 12[ix]… 43[x]
Art and writing can be a transformative action as they develop from deep understanding and seek to connect to the minds and spirits of others.  A common phrase is “Kings fear philosophers and poets” because philosophers offer the theory of revolution and poets foster revolutionary imagination. 
Perhaps I am giving you a hopeful message after all. To quote educator Patrick Camangian, you can do the work of “(a) agitating students politically, (b) arousing their critical curiosity, and (c) inspiring self and social transformation.”  You can engage your students in reading the word and the world through news articles, analysis of social media, interviews of local citizens and politicians; you can engage your students through questioning of political stances, foreign policy, statistics and how they are manipulated.  You can challenge your students to think, write, discuss their own opinions and backgrounds and interrogate their beliefs and biases.  You can engage them in project-based learning, collaboration around change-making actions in their communities. They can learn about resources to support undocumented students.  They can plant a garden to address food deserts in their communities.  They can learn more about citizen commissions that review police actions and supply sanctions on misconduct.  They can engage in online hashtag dialogue like #blackpoetsspeakout, #endthesilence, or #blacklivesmatter.  You and they and we can do so much … together
We must bear no false witness in our classrooms!  End the violence that is silence!  Perhaps then we may have a new day, beyond fear. 
Works Cited
“Poet:  On Imagining Planet X as the Only Safe Space” references “Sally Ride” as sung by Janelle Monaé on The Electric Lady(2013) released by Wonderland Arts Society and Bad Boy Records.
Camangian, P. R. (2015). Teach Like Lives Depend on It Agitate, Arouse, and Inspire. Urban Education50(4), 424-453.
“Fresh Air Remembers Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor And Nobel Peace Laureate.” Fresh Air. National Public Radio. July 8, 2016 .Radio.http://www.npr.org/2016/07/08/485237688/fresh-air-remembers-elie-wiesel-holocaust-survivor-and-nobel-peace-laureate
Pescatore, C. (2007). Current events as empowering literacy: For English and social studies teachers. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy51(4), 326-339.
Toussaint, K. (July 22, 2016).  After a ‘disturbing incident’ on the Q, questions about riding while black.  Boston.com.  https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2016/07/22/mbta-rider-details-experience-in-facebook-post-racism-is-alive-and-thriving-in-this-country  Accessed July 27, 2016. 

[i] Reference to “Sally Ride” as sung by Janelle Monáe
[ii] Loosie is a reference to loose cigarettes
[iii] Age of Aiyana Stanley-Jones when she was killed while sleeping
[iv] Age of Michael Brown when he was killed
[v] Age of Gynnya McMillen when she was killed
[vi] Age of Sandra Bland when she was killed
[vii] Age of Laquan McDonald when he was killed
[viii] Age of Freddie Gray when he was killed
[ix] Age of Tamir Rice when he was killed
[x] Age of Eric Garner when he was killed

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