Ellie, Middle School English Language Arts Teacher, UT

Ellie is a Middle School English Language Arts teacher at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education.  She brings a fierce passion for social justice and equity to her work. RE-ENVISIONED visited SLCSE as part of our School Spotlight #schoolstour, which aims to understand school communities in more depth. We loved every moment at SLCSE.  You can find more posts from SLCSE by searching #slcse on the "A New Conversation" page.

The Salt Lake City Center for Science Education (SLCSE) is a unique lab school serving a diverse 6-12th grade student population in Salt Lake City.  From their website: "At SLCSE, we develop the character and skills necessary to "Change Reality." We are courageous and persistent problem-solvers. We take healthy risks. We make mistakes and learn from our mistakes. We care about the quality of our work. We use professional language and kindness to develop learning communities. We take care of our abundant resources and use them to serve our school community and beyond. We use our curiosity, imagination and adaptability to direct ourselves in our quest; as learners, critical thinkers and ethical world citizens."  You can find out more at http://slcse.weebly.com/ .

 

We like to ground this first in one kid – so we ask people to think of a kid you’re not teaching, someone you know in your personal life and to describe who that child is.

That’s a really hard way to start.

I know.  Would you prefer to start a different way?

I think about my role in education as so much broader than the local. When I’m asked to pick one child, twenty come to mind - for various reasons—based on need and appreciation. I think if we’re talking about the needs of education, then having one child in mind maybe localizes it in some ways but, more broadly speaking, our mission is just so vast that I have a fabric of students that come to mind.

Do you want to say more about what you see that mission as?

Oh sure, yeah: Subverting the public education system in the US that exists today.  And trying to create something meaningful and real that empowers young people to become critical thinkers and to change society.

 

How do you see that in tension with what the public schooling system is doing more broadly?

I don’t see that as public schooling’s intention.  I see public schooling's intention as creating complacent citizens that will carry out what needs to be done to promote the survival of the capitalist system. I don’t think it’s a healthy organism.  But I think the fact that we have free public education is a conquest.  A lot of teachers find themselves where they want to create great change but they realize the institution they’re working in makes that hard… so I see my role as being subversive in this system and using the system itself to help give children access to the big ideas that will really transform society.

 

You’re speaking to my heart.  How do you think about that in your practice?

I started out in ESL. Just giving kids literacy is access.  Giving students access to literacy first and foremost is a very important part of our mission. Once we’ve achieved that, constantly building on that - not being fettered by the idea that literacy means you write or read in this way.  More broadly exposing children to the breadth of ideas and the breadth of problems, not being afraid to expose them to the issues that are current.  And assuming that they can handle it. They’re growing up in this world - we’re handing it to them. So becoming partners in figuring out solutions to the crisis that the world is facing today.  The crisis is multi-faceted and so we need to bring children into the conversation early.

I was talking to one of my colleagues last week that perhaps most of our students, the crisis of capitalism and the continued economic injustice and racism.  For those of us who grew up in a slightly different moment in capitalism it may feel different, but this is the reality for these students so we can’t be afraid to embrace that reality in our teaching. As a Language Arts teacher I have a lot of freedom to take it wherever we want.  We read Spare Parts about the undocumented immigrant students who won the robotics competition against MIT.  I do weekly news and current events so we talk about things like rebelling against the pledge of allegiance and what that means and about Black Lives Matter.  TaNahesi Coates is coming to the University in November and I’m trying to organize to get the kids there.  We ordered classroom sets of Between the World and Me.  I’m helping the Social Studies teacher teach American Indians.  So I’m covering the book 1491 and we just did Amazonia and the kids are just blown away by what existed before. So, basically, giving kids, having the respect enough to give kids the opportunity to mine ideas and to face what’s going on in the world.

 

How do you see this kind of schooling fit into what you want for them when they grow up?  What’s a good life when they grow up?

Who knows—the world is changing so fast. Becoming critical thinkers and being flexible – what else can we offer kids?  So, Freirian education, problem-posing education, access to ideas, decision-making, and being fluid in the ideas of what your life is going to be because it’s going to really change. Giving them a foundation of some kind of flexibility, and problem solving, and not being afraid to embrace the breadth of ideas that are out there and solutions.

 

This doesn’t have to be in school – but, as you think over your life, what has been an empowering learning experience for you?

I’ve only been a teacher for 15 years.  I was a journeyman boilermaker, which is all structural skills and welding.  I worked all over the country doing that work. I was one of the few women in the field. Trailblazing non-traditional jobs for women was empowering.  And within that framework I learned how gender roles were waiting to be changed because male co-workers were very open to change.

In addition to that, I spent a number of months in Nicaragua in the 1980s in the humanitarian aid brigades during the Contra War.  There were people all over the world who would go to Nicaragua so that the Nicaraguans themselves could defend themselves against the Contra War. We picked cotton and coffee and built housing and things like that.  I spent a number of months in Nicaragua on the brigades. 

That was a really transformative experience about what the world is, and who’s in power, and who doesn’t have power, and who is written out of the history books, and the lies our government tells us about war because, of course, our U.S. government sided with the Contras. So those have been pretty important.

I grew up in New York at the dawn on the women’s liberation movement and also at the tail end of the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, I was a part of that.  Growing up in the midst of those great social movements definitely defined who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do with the rest of my life – a participant in the movements for change.

I see education that way—if we’re not about change and if we’re not about exposing what we can of the world, bringing the world into our classrooms in a real way, in an authentic way, then we miss the mark or we miss the opportunity for creating conscious humans that can move forward.

 

I’m curious.  I think I know from listening to you, but what is your definition of empowering?

Knowledge.  Being aware. And then being so aware and so capable of study that you feel confident in your ability to approach problems, to understand problems, to negotiate with others around issues and problems, and to move forward.

One of the big things I teach in my classroom – we do literature circles in my classroom, so I’m able to reach a diverse group of learners with different types of books.  And one of the things I teach through literature circles is negotiating consensus because we have to come to agreement about what we’ll read and how much we’ll read.  It’s a microcosm of bigger issues but it’s the same thing: It’s learning how to negotiate with other humans for a positive outcome.

The thing that we’re missing currently is real powerful social movements that have leadership. I was born during the 50s, and you look at the civil rights movement and everything we owe to the Civil Rights Movement due to the leadership during that time. We had social movement after social movement that had leadership. Today we’re lacking real cohesive leadership. Independent leadership.  The Occupy Movement was a positive movement, but it wasn’t organized. And we see that in other movements, like Black Lives Matter today.  It gives you a sense that in terms of history leadership is important, how do we build leadership?  That doesn’t mean we look to one person it means there’s really a cohesive group of people that have a stake in these movements and developments.

Why we don’t have that kind of leadership at this moment and we need it so desperately— in environmental issues, racism, gender issues, Syria and refugees - we need leadership. I don’t know why, but I think we suffered some serious defeats. We meaning people who are visionary and progressive and willing to fight for social justice.  A lot of those defeats were ushered in during the Reagan area in politics in the United States. 

Yeah, I think what my generation doesn’t realize is that our current conception of capitalism and the criminal justice system – it’s all just really since the early 1980s.  It really shifted the questions we were asking.  Capitalism “won” and we had this push toward this is the only way and it changed the framing.  And I’m wondering how we change the frame so we’re asking the right questions and solving the right problems?

You look at what Reagan did to the air traffic controllers and that was the beginning of the union crushing era. Leaderships of unions, misleaders, made compromises that devastated the union movement. To the point where manufacturing is down to 20% where it was 70% of jobs maybe twenty years ago.  Production jobs – actually making things that have value, not just moving money around.  We call it a tech economy, but it’s also a real estate economy - it’s an economy that doesn’t really add value.  How does that change human consciousness?  It’s big questions that are confronting us.

I’m not looking to go back, but to build something new with the young people today who are facing a new layer of challenges.

Now you can actually teach about the time before Columbus.  You can actually teach this.  You can talk about Georgetown doing atonement for slavery, or TaNahesi Coates talking about reparations in the Atlantic.  You can actually have these discussions in 7th and 8th grade classrooms today. How cool is that?! How hopeful is that? It’s incredible.  So we may not have mass movement mobilizations and the same kinds of leadership we had in the older social movements, but we have a breadth of consciousness that’s waiting to ignite.

You know seventh graders morally outraged about inequality.  They find out about Frederick Douglas and abolition and they’re just mad - and it’s just fantastic. It’s a very hopeful period because we have a lot of leeway. Then we have the travesty that is the U.S. elections.  I started this year with Langston Hughs’ poem “Democracy” and the preamble and started by talking about democracy.  I don’t think people in education know how much freedom they have—teachers feel watched and put upon and Common Core’d to death…but what kids are seeing on the news, what they see – they are begging for a place to talk about it, and what better place than our classrooms?

The teacher is the bastion of refuge for students: it’s not just for discipline but also for the world outside. That’s empowerment. Getting kids to feel safe to talk about the world and to be members of it, so that they can feel outrage and do something about it.  Maybe we don’t have the exact plan, right now today, but we’re making it.
Erin, Ellie, & Nicole after the interview. "The teacher is the bastion of refuge for students: it’s not just for discipline but also for the world outside. That’s empowerment. Getting kids to feel safe to talk about the world and to be members of it, so that they can feel outrage and do something about it.  Maybe we don’t have the exact plan, right now today, but we’re making it."

Erin, Ellie, & Nicole after the interview.

"The teacher is the bastion of refuge for students: it’s not just for discipline but also for the world outside. That’s empowerment. Getting kids to feel safe to talk about the world and to be members of it, so that they can feel outrage and do something about it.  Maybe we don’t have the exact plan, right now today, but we’re making it."