The Pedagogy of the Pledge

“...with liberty and justice for all.” This. A turn of phrase that all who grew up going to public schools in the United States know. Words. Most recently recited to me by my 5-year-old son just three weeks after he joined the public school ranks. Visceral. My reaction to these words and all those that precede them in the US Pledge of Allegiance, a pledge that I have not taken since middle school after I refused to recite it in my high school years.



Let me take a step back for moment to reflect on the pedagogy of the pledge. What is its recitation by new public schoolers entering kindergarten across the country teaching our littlest students? At a time when our country faces enormous challenges (when haven't we?), how is it that we support kindergarteners to understand that as much as they might daily declare that they live in “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all,” this is most certainly not the case (and let’s leave God out of this one for now). Are they old enough to understand that this is, at best, an aspirational ideal, and, at worst, a bold-faced lie? As a parent, how can I love my son for his obvious pride in memorizing the pledge just three weeks into kindergarten alongside my distrust (disgust?) for this patriotic custom that I find all kinds of disingenuous?


“You know, you don’t have to say the pledge if you don’t want to, right?”

“Why, Daddy?”

“Well, just you don’t have to if you don’t want to. Like how the football players are kneeling during the National Anthem. They’re protesting.” (We had seen news coverage and footage earlier in the day.)

“What’s protesting?”


In protest, I declined to recite the pledge throughout high school. For me this was to recognize that the words fell short of reality and rung hollow when struck against what I observed our government doing. A child of the 80s, I was raised in a household that taught me to question, ponder, and wonder. My father, doing Central American solidarity work in protest of US foreign policy in the region, helped me learn that the country of my birth did horrible things to people in places close and far. Thus, I concluded, why should the flag deserve my pledge? By the time I was in high school, my Sony Discman blared the righteous sounds of Rage Against the Machine in my ears. In words of Zack de la Rocha, the pledge, to me, represented “Compromise! Conformity! Assimilation! Submission! Ignorance! Hypocrisy! Brutality! The elite! All of which are American Dreams!”

More than two decades after Rage Against the Machine helped channel my anger and distrust for the world I saw and sensed around me, I am dedicated to parenting, partnering, teaching, organizing, and living with hope and love. I am still angry because, let's face it, there is more than enough to be angry about. And, while I have no intentions of tempering that anger in an effort dampen it, I also find a need to balance it with hope. As a Rhode Islander, "Hope" is my state’s motto. Is it possible to see and understand the possibility of “liberty and justice for all” as a hopeful pursuit? A pursuit, while difficult, that can be beautiful? A recent short film, In Pursuit of Liberty, raises these questions while offering a timely reminder of who we are -- as educators, as citizens, as humans and as the latest generation of Americans tasked with helping our country inch closer to fulfilling and expanding its promise and potential for everyone. And, while, I must admit that in this historical moment, I am filled with apprehension and doubt, I only need turn to my son for some solace.

When I asked my son what he thought the pledge meant, he answered, “compassion and honor.” Hmmm...I thought, we might be able to work with that. “Honoring what?” I asked. “I don’t know, toys?” he said. I smiled, there's hope yet. At his age, toys bring joy. This is a pledge I can make: one that strives for compassion and honors the joys in our lives. This pledge reminds us to love, to care, to play, to have fun, and to human be together. How can we help shape educational experiences that teach these things? How do we ensure that our communities and schools are places where every person is fully seen, recognized, loved, and celebrated? In these times, there are rays of hope from Providence to Oakland. When we listen to and honor the voices of the youngest among us, then perhaps we can really go about pursuing liberty and justice for all.

The Pedagogy of Walking Out, Explained

Providence student walkout in protest of President Trump's inauguration (Jan 20, 2017)

Providence student walkout in protest of President Trump's inauguration (Jan 20, 2017)

I couldn't have imagined a better way to spend yesterday morning than by working to support youth leaders in Providence to take ownership of their lives, learning, and community by demonstrating their outrage and disgust with the inauguration of President Trump. While too many adults either debated whether students walking out of school was appropriate or were caught up in their "duty" to discourage this inspirational action, the Providence Student Union issued a statement to the community that beautifully lays out the loads of learning that the youth-led walkout facilitated over the past month. Please read their message below. By the end, I think the pedagogy of walking out should be made clear.

Statement regarding the January 20, 2017 Walkout
To the Providence Community:
In early January, young leaders in Providence began a healthy debate on the merits of calling for a student walkout as a display of resistance in the wake of the November election. These young leaders—many associated with Providence Student Union (PSU) and Youth in Action—had contentious and well-considered discussion: they debated the value of a walkout, its feasibility, the importance of student safety, and how young people and the community might respond. Ultimately, they issued the call for students to stand up and leave school at 11:08 AM on January 20, 2017 and to march to the State House for a youth rally.
Following students’ decision, PSU’s 3-person staff made student safety our top priority. We dedicated the majority of our staff preparations to recruiting dozens of adult volunteers; these adult allies will meet students today across from their schools and provide them with information and guidance. In addition, PSU has communicated openly with the Providence Public School Department throughout this process, with a strict focus on student safety. We also coordinated with lawyers to ensure protections for students’ First Amendment rights both before and after the action. And finally, PSU helped student leaders consider every potential outcome of the walkout—good and bad—and plan accordingly. All of this was done in partnership with our good friends at Youth in Action as well.
We also did our best to respond appropriately to a moment that became bigger than any single youth organization. Within days, students’ call to action had sparked thousands of conversations across the city and state. Young people began to debate among themselves what useful action means and looks like. Parents talked with their kids about how—or how not—to stand up to injustice. Administrators statewide brushed up on students’ First Amendment rights. Elected leaders took stances. The press elevated youth voices. Our team at PSU in particular had both warm conversations and tough debates with young people, parents, teachers, and administrators across the city. The student leaders’ walkout effort also sparked strong responses across Rhode Island outside of the education sphere, including statewide conversation about the merits of students’ walkout, the role of youth voice, and the value of protest in general.
Mostly, we watched in awe as youth made consequential decisions through a sincere democratic process.

Providence Student Union’s mission is building student power to ensure young people have a fair say in improving their education. Young people didn’t get to vote on November 8, 2016, but in debating this walkout, students participated in their own democratic process, and built student power on their own terms.
Civic engagement and protest are incredible learning experiences. We are proud of this youth-led effort, and we are excited about what the PSU team has learned and what students have and will learn from engaging in this action.
Providence Student Union

The Pedagogy of Walking Out

I write this just 15 hours before students from schools across the city of Providence (and some neighboring communities) plan to walk out of their classes in protest of the policies being promoted by soon-to-be President Trump. I write this as an adult ally who has responded to youth leaders' call for support and who will be working to support young people tomorrow as they exercise their Constitutional right to free speech. While the superintendent of schools in Providence seems to understand that students have the right to free speech, some overzealous and self-righteous adults can't seem to understand why young people might feel compelled to express their sense of injustice by walking out of school at the moment Donald Trump becomes their country's president. 

Ostensibly, youth attend school in order to learn. Yet, what happens when students feel compelled to teach? Sadly, not enough spaces inside schools recognize the leadership that young people have to offer and the lessons they have to teach us. Too often (and even then, not enough) young people can only find spaces in which they are treated and understood as full human beings--capable of independent thought, innovative ideas, and unconstrained agency--outside of school through organizations such as the Providence Student UnionYouth In Action, and PrYSM. That youth leaders nurtured by these organizations have come together to work with their peers in order to educate the rest of us about free speech, youth rights, and democratic accountability is no surprise.

Tomorrow, a President who high school youth had no electoral power in selecting will take office. This absurd reality is our (adults) fault, not theirs (youth). Grown men and women put Donald Trump at the helm of this country. Ladies and gentlemen (more the gentlemen), it is we who have fucked this up. And don't think because you didn't vote for Trump that you're off the hook because in some way or another we've contributed to the conditions that enabled his election. Instead of pretending that I know what young people should do in response to the inauguration of a President who has spewed and sparked hateful and harmful rhetoric toward them, their families, and their communities, I will be out there tomorrow in order to learn. Young people have been leading in Providence for years and have built a culture of accountability to their interests in ways that many other places see as a model. Our civic and community leaders often celebrate this leadership and it is my hope that they (and we) recognize it tomorrow during the youth-led school walkout. I don't know what the pedagogy of walking out is yet, but tomorrow I will seek to find out more about what it might be. The young people of Providence have something to say. We'd better listen. They have something to teach. We'd better learn.

Here we go...

I won’t go so far as to say that I made a New Year’s resolution for 2017 to start a blog because I’m not exactly sure how long this will last. But, here it is. A blog. About activist pedagogy.

First, this is a space where I get to explore the concepts laid out in my book, The Pedagogy of Teacher Activism, which was really the impetus for this site. I have some neat ideas for unpacking the three core pedagogical concepts (purpose, power, and possibility) through a series of posts throughout 2017. If I learned anything in grad school, it was how to unpack things.



One of those ideas is to think through an “Activist Pedagogy Syllabus” via a monthly blogpost sparked by my reading of core texts that will deepen, complicate, critique, and expose the pedagogical meaning of purpose, power, and possibility. Each month, I’d reflect on a book to put in conversation with the pedagogy of teacher activism. With three core concepts and twelve months, that makes for four books per concept. These might be books I think I know well or brand new ones that are brought to my attention. (Send me suggestions please! The syllabus is in formation.)

Another idea is to think more broadly about what Activist Pedagogy really is. To think about what the pedagogy of various forms of activity can teach us about how to make change in the world. While there is a pedagogy of teacher activism that I have attempted to lay out in my book, there are pedagogies of many other things activist. With the help of others who think more deeply about other things (guest bloggers – contact me if interested!), I hope this space can be a place to explore the public pedagogies all around us, to better understand what these pedagogies would have us think/reflect/act.

Finally, I might just use this space to sound off about whatever might be going down in my activist brain or in the activist world.

Whatever becomes of this blog, thank you for reading this first post…and hopefully more to come!