Detroit Future Schools at the Free Minds Free People and Preemptive Education conferences

As we gear up to host the DFS Rida Institute in February 2014, we are reflecting on the incredible work for transformative education happening all across the country. We have been thrilled to see how much Detroit Future Schools has to offer and how much we have to learn from other communities. Detroit Future Schools has presented at several education conferences at which we’ve had the opportunity to learn about democratic, youth-centered, and social justice oriented education work taking place across the country.

We will be drawing insight and inspiration from these conferences as we prepare for the DFS Rida Institute which will welcome a group of transformative educators to Detroit. Apply to participate in the Rida Institute.

Below, Isaac Miller, a Detroit Future Schools artist-in-residence, shares his reflections from two national education conferences he recently attended on behalf of DFS: Free Minds, Free People and the Preemptive Education conference.

Detroit Future Schools at the Free Minds Free People and Preemptive Education conferences

by Isaac Miller

Free Minds Free People

I traveled to the Free Minds Free People (FMFP) conference in Chicago in order to present on DFS with Helen Lee, a teacher whose classrooms participated in DFS for the first two years of the program. I had heard wonderful things about FMFP but this was my first time attending. Everyone I met and heard present at the conference was deeply committed to a vision of democratic, youth-centered public education, one that is rooted in community and dedicated to fostering social justice both inside and beyond the classroom. Particularly in light of the constant attacks on public education and the demonization of teachers and teachers unions, it is inspiring to learn about networks of educators and young people who are fighting back and working to put into practice their vision of democratic, liberatory education. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Students from the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in Tucson Unified School District presented about the incredible, transformative education that they received through the Tucson ethnic studies program and also what they learned from their involvement in struggling to defend ethnic studies against its removal by the Republican-controlled legislature and school board. This struggle, profiled in the documentary film Precious Knowledge, is an inspiring example of when educational work taking place in the classroom is inseparable from the wider community's struggle for liberation.
  • Teachers Activist Groups (TAGs) are grassroots groups of teachers who gather in cities across the country both to support one another in implementing democratic, liberatory pedagogy and also to organize together to defend public education and to advocate for more socially just educational policies within their cities and across the country. Presenters at the TAG workshop discussed their "Revealing Racist Roots" curriculum about the Jena 6, which discussed issues of structural and historic racism. They also shared their efforts to support the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson, including organizing teachers across the country to sign a pledge to teach the ethnic studies curriculum that was banned by the Tucson school board, and to teach their students about the injustices taking place in Arizona. Other solidarity efforts by the TAGs included supporting the 2013 Chicago teachers strike and the action by teachers at Seattle's Garfield High School to refuse to administer standardized tests to their students, which they saw as taking away from the real work of teaching and learning.
  • Among the most compelling speakers on the Keynote plenary of Free Minds, Free People was 9-year old Asean Johnson, who gave a rousing speech at a rally against school closings in Chicago that has nearly 330,000 views on YouTube. The keynote also featured Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which organized the 2013 Chicago teachers strike, one of the most successful US labor actions in decades.

Preemptive Education Conference

This was my third time attending the Preemptive Education conference in New York, but my first time specifically presenting on the work of Detroit Future Schools. Preemptive Education, sponsored jointly by the youth literary arts non-profit Urban Word NYC, New York University, and Teachers College at Columbia University, is a grounding and inspiring event that showcases the work of literary and hip-hop arts educators from New York and across the country. It is a training specifically geared towards classroom teachers and teaching artists seeking to deepen their practice and learn from peers. This conference was especially useful for me since this year the classroom I am working with through DFS is a performance poetry class at Tri-County Educational Center, a public alternative high school in Southfield, MI. The highlights included:

  • A lecture by Maxine Greene, the 95 year old educator and philosopher of education who was a long time professor at Teachers College, as well as the philosopher-in-residence at Lincoln Center. She founded the Maxine Greene Foundation for Social Imagination, the Arts, and Education and inspired the High School of Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, a New York public school. At 95, Greene rarely gives public lectures and so it was a great honor to hear her speak about her philosophies of education and the importance of arts and the "aesthetic moment" in the learning process and in re-shaping our communities and world. Greene spoke in conversation with Meghan McDermott, former Executive Director of the Global Action Project.
  • A performance / panel discussion hybrid in which Urban Word youth read their poems and a panel of academics and activists responded to the themes raised in the poems. These themes ranged from beauty, gender, and race to the multiple violences of poverty, and the ability of social media to both disconnect and activate its users on issues of social justice. In this conversation, Dr. David Stovall, from Chicago made the profound statement that "poverty is not a culture, its a condition." In other words, people don't choose to be poor, they are made poor by a social structure that depends on inequality.
  • A session on building poetry communities on college campuses, and a session on the concept of "hacker literacies", or how young people re-mix and re-appropriate technology for their own purposes.
  • A keynote speech by Kevin Coval, the artistic director of Young Chicago Authors and co-founder of the teen poetry slam festival "Louder Than A Bomb". Coval spoke movingly about the power of poetry as an organizing tool, and a way for young people to connect across neighborhood, race, and class boundaries that are rarely crossed in our schools. This speech was particularly powerful because the students in the class I work with at Tri-County Educational Center recently watched the documentary film Louder Than A Bomb, which profiles the Chicago festival, and had the opportunity to work with guest poet Nate Marshall, one of the film’s stars.
  • A session presented by Danielle Filipiak, a former DFS teacher who I worked with during the first year of DFS, and who is now a doctoral student at Teachers College. Danielle presented with Bryce Anderson-Small, a hip hop artist and educator who is one of the mentors with 5E/Heru. Danielle spoke in person and Bryce presented remotely from Detroit using Google Hangout about their work together, including developing an online resource based on the work of 5E/Heru that has been featured on the National Writing Project's Digital Is website. Danielle also shared a number of resources around the idea of "Connected Learning", which was the theme of this year's Preemptive Education conference.
  • A youth day at the Brooklyn youth center El Puente. Along with my friend and colleague Moira Pirsch (who works for the Hiphop Archive and the Office for the Arts at Harvard, and who was a coordinator for the Poetry and Music as Transformative Media track at the 2011 Allied Media Conference). Moira and I co-facilitated back to back workshops on the topic of using social media to build poetry/arts communities that can stay connected across geographic distance. This was a great deal of fun, and brought us to the end of the day, with a concert by Urban Word poets and emcees.

Free Minds Free People and Preemptive Education represent the kind of educational networks that I hope will continue to flourish and grow in coming years. As Detroit Future Schools continues to grow and evolve I hope we will deepen our connection with these and other such networks in order to share the lessons we've learned and to learn from others doing this challenging, rewarding, and visionary work.

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