Sowing the Seeds for Revolution In Your Local School – Lento Pero Avanzo
For the past six years, I have been teaching in a rural school whose student population is small by urban standards. Demographically, this population of students come from the upper working class, in an either a farming or hydrocarbon industry background, the latter being somewhat transient. A few students in this school have Native/Indigenous heritage, but most come from a European heritage, going back several generations. To say the community is conservative would be modest; I will save my thoughts on why that is (and tends to be throughout rural communities in North America) for another article. In my time with these young people, I have learned much about what one with a Marxist tendency can do to engage and incite young people to think critically and work together in ways that Marx and other Leftist writers espouse. I have found that exposing my students to scenarios and concepts that show class consciousness and the effectiveness of direct action from them instils more critical thought in the young people I teach. I try my best to expose them to personal scenarios as well, having to do with the operation and functioning of school life, so that what they learn can be applied. I find that, once they get a taste of what they can do as a community and as comrades, they take it as a given, as if it was always a thing that they would be entitled to.
About two years ago, I started a bit of brief contact with supporters of the Zapatista Movement in Chiapas Mexico. The communication was intermittent at best, but I was able to gain a better understanding of the Movement through the brief conversations I had, along with reading their written materials (Our Word Is Our Weapon; A Poetics Of Resistance; and The Fire and The Word), and historical and contemporary documentaries. I utilized theory put in place by Bookchin to try and build direct leadership and advocacy among the students. This led to a form of very local Municipalism where the students would make decisions regarding event planning, and activities based on building community between students. Such activities were school dances, volunteering in the school cafeteria, a peer-to-peer reading program between the 7th-to-9th grades and the 2nd grade. They also began preparations for beautifying the school grounds: painting and restoring the bleachers, and raising money for different community charities.
Ground was covered so quickly that it was decided by the administration that the students should be given class-time, during options blocks, for them to work and plan more of these activities. Though more programs along the same veins as stated above occured, after the class time was over, I noticed fewer students seemed interested in the activities and used the class time more as time to socialize. That, and something of a vanguard class of students began to emerge who both coveted their position and resented their status as ‘the ones who would get things done’.
The allotted class time eventually moved to other options for students and the large, roughly forty-seven student class disbanded into other more conventional options classes (art, shop, etc.). There did remain a group of students seemingly empowered by the direct action they either saw or were involved in. Interestingly, none of the students in the aforementioned ‘vanguard’ were a part of this second crowd; a group that would really get things moving…
The school I taught at had a no hats rule. Hats were deemed disrespectful and thus would not be permitted in the dress code. However, it was a struggle to get students to remove their hats when coming into school, causing a few flair-ups between teachers and students. It created a great deal of unnecessary management issues that cost a lot of energy and time. The issue was almost everyone in the school and the community saw wearing a hat as no longer disrespectful and more of a normal piece of clothing.
Eventually, after what was likely a fair bit of discussion among the students, the staff received an email from one student representative that they would be having a walk-in, where for one day they would all wear hats, participate fully in classes and follow all other school rules. This was done, the student representative wrote, “to show that when we wear hats it does not mean disrespect. It is merely a form of personal identity and expression. We mean no disrespect, however we feel disrespected when we walk into the school and are told to take our hat off before we are said hello to.”
The walk-in occurred and was quite peaceful. By midday, it was as if wearing hats was never an issue. I was then approached by the larger group of students who had a list of points as to why they wanted the staff to allow hats in the school and reverse the rule. The next day, the students came without hats and waited for the staff meeting we were to have the following week. I addressed my fellow staff with the points made by the students and hats were allowed.
Now I know that to some, such a victory may have been something of a vanity project for the students, but I do find that the student-teacher relationship improved. However, since then, there have not been any real or meaningful attempts toward important or worthwhile pushes by students for any other change. Once they got their hats, this other group of students disbanded and went about their schooling.
That entitlement can backfire when something has been achieved, and must no longer be advocated for on an immediate level. I have found that what was once flourishing student-led initiatives fall into disrepair after the ‘leaders’ move away, graduate, or lose interest. If some previously hard-fought action begins to wane, some students become quite bemused that it is not what it was, and though they feel they still deserve it, they do not want to go through what they perceive to be the hard work to get it to a level they want to see. This is something to the tune of “I’ve been down that road before, why go down it again?”; maybe it’s an idea that the destination is more important than the journey to them, and/or, they feel a conditioned rationale that what they struggled for is a form of transaction that, if once paid for, it belongs to them and no longer needs to be tended to or maintained. It is here that I find myself at present with the school initiatives I have helped start.
After what was a relatively successful year of me creating a critical mass of students, I felt drained, and frankly so did the students I started to rely on. The following half-year was met with general apathy and something that would liken to a doldrums of sorts for student action and my willingness to be the main driver and energy behind any of the movements. My inspiration, the Zapatista Movement of Chiapas Mexico understandably had and continues to have pitfalls. I felt at this point that my microcosm of a school should be easier to manage and maintain. I mean, it’s not like we had a national army that was using anything it could to undermine our efforts. It was nothing like the matter of survival those brave Compañer@s face every single day. But maybe that was it. Where I and my students come from, we have full refrigerators to come home to, which is merely one material condition the people who shouted ‘¡Ya Basta!’ on New Year’s Day in 1994, do not have. So maybe I needed to find a context that fit the material conditions of my school. This is where I started back at the drawing board. I knew that I had to find out what I could do to help re-foment the conditions needed to bring the students back on track, building their community, autonomy, and class-consciousness.
Murray Bookchin is an amazing resource. Social Ecology and Communalism as concepts and as catalysts for praxis are essential. Municipalism and Anarcho-Syndicalism work on so many levels. However… within the context of a school that was developed within an industrial infrastructure and made much like a Twentieth-Century factory or prison, would require incredible deconstruction to operate authentically. You may disagree. I may disagree, however we in the west – especially the conservative west – have not let go of the basic tenets of what we believe to be necessary inside an educational institution. Anything that deviates from the century-old model is often scoffed at as a novelty and eventually abandoned once money, resources, and energy are spent. Need new energy from students
What then is a theory that could work in a context where people may still have to recognize certain levels of authority, even if nominally, to achieve a better state? Can the Revolutionary Classroom Collective work in stages toward a better system, while still existing within the current system? It is at this point that I am at now.
You may not like it, and seeing as this is my first post, maybe I’m shooting myself in the foot. All I can say is listen to Revolutionary Left Radio. Brett and Dave are learning as they go. So am I, and if I go too drastically, pushing for revolutionary change in the classroom too fast, I lose my job; the experiment ends. So I have decided to move in steps, and so far, it has been successful.
Since I started writing this post, my first choice was to remove myself as the main catalyst of operating the student leadership initiative. I felt that the students were not responding very well to my presence. Perhaps the novelty of me being the teacher-leader of the programs was getting old to them, or my occasional unreliability due to other responsibilities of my job as an educator was getting to them. All I knew was I had to step back. Now a new, very enthusiastic group of younger teachers have taken on several programs at once. Each program (more school beautification, a book club, and an expansion of older-younger student mentorship) came from discussion between students and these newly participating teachers. This has gifted me with so much more time to ensure school funds are redirected to these initiatives, and time is alloted - which is easy as I help manage the budget of the school.
The next thing was to create a more realized and managed ‘Vanguard’ of students, some of whom were previously involved, and tend to be from more senior grades. They can help form the backbone of each program and provide insight into new programs, along with curry support from younger students interested in the program. This creates something of a ‘volunteer class’ within the school.
Here’s the catch, the new energetic teachers are in contact with me and I am encouraging them to go to younger grades and start building interest by engaging with these younger students to share their interests and aspirations for what they might do when they get into more senior grades. They will certainly have new ideas or different ways of doing things. What better time than the present than to get involved and participate in some of the activities. Maybe even provide some critiques or alternative activities within each program. This, I hope has the trappings of a school-based Mass Line, where those in lower classes (literally and figuratively) have a chance to participate, have a say, and critique those with more responsibilities.
I am learning as I go and there are many internal contradictions to account for. Most notably, it is not the older students that the younger students should be critiquing – it’s my colleagues and me. WE are the real Vanguard. The school system as it stands would crush any such deviation from its seemingly iron-clad results-based grading system. That all but three of the student population do not identify on the Left in any meaningful way, and though the teachers I work with skew centre-left, I am not sure they would be fully on board with my endgame. That endgame, of course is students leaving their schools with solid class consciousness and an interest in organizing (hopefully with me) outside of school.
Finally, the revolution as a concept is fun. Organizing it is boring. Kids, not to mention most of society, don’t do boring. I have trouble citing sources and finishing all of the Leftist books in my posession. I am more prone to listen to leftist podcasts and audiobooks while vacuuming or mowing the lawn. I expect pitfalls to continue and to grapple with the mountains of contradictions that even I feel I must uphold to maintain a paycheque. I am doing something though. Every moment of every lesson I teach is done with the purpose of enriching my students with the insights of those who have come before to emancipate the workers from the shackles we wear at times like jewelry – something I fully intend to speak to in the near future. I work every day to deconstruct the myths and paradoxes of Western Society through honest and engaging dialogues with the young people I admire and care for. My job as a teacher is to teach, but it is also to protect, to develop, to council, and to challenge. To some this may sound corny, but I really do believe it. The revolution begins in the classroom for me.
I look forward to sharing this experience with you and hope this can inspire you to try it in your place of work, community, and if you, like me, are a teacher, your classroom.
Gord Milstone is an educator who utilizes Marxist and Critical Theory when planning, carrying out, and reflecting on lessons and teaching. Gord sees interactions between students, fellow staff, and community members in his school as a chance to engage with and put into practice Leftist thought and theory.