#IgniteDenver 28

Wow.  What a night.  I was privileged to be given a mic to speak this evening at Ignite Denver 28 about my favorite topic–education.  If you missed it, I’m sure it will be posted later, but here is the full text for those who might like to read it as well.


Problem: Too many kids are disengaged/not enjoying school.  We know we love them, and we want them to be happy, be curious, enjoy learning, so how can we reimagine the current system to reflect these values?

Slide 1 – If there is one thing most people can agree upon, it’s that your first day of school is emotional. We leave home for school excited, curious, sometimes scared, but ready to take on the world.

Slide 2 – Elementary school teachers are some of the bravest souls out there.  They love, nurture, clean up bodily fluids–they are superheroes.

Slide 3 – We learn so many things in these early years–everything from basic rules of social interaction (the playground can be a ruthless place) to how to show (and feel) appreciation.  I am always so in awe of the cards, presents, and consistent displays of affection that my friends who are elementary school teachers receive.

Slide 4 – Because I’m a high school teacher, and somehow, in the years between elementary school and graduation, things gradually shift.  The endless cycle of testing begins in 4th grade.  By 7th grade, dynamics of gender, race, and socioeconomic status come into play–students begin to learn that everyone in this society is not equal.   

Slide 5 – By 9th grade, a social hierarchy forms. Students have already decided whether they can play (and win) the school game and whether they even want to.  It takes some digging to discover this, but in some school systems, as many as 2/3rds of an incoming Freshman class do not make it to graduation.  So what are we doing about this?  How can we show our students that we DO love and value them?  How do we fix this to keep from losing them?

Cause: Information is more available now than ever.  Teachers are not the gatekeepers of knowledge–yet we still behave as though we have (or should have) all the answers.

Slide 6 – In my day (the 80s and 90s), there were basically two ways of getting information – adults, or books. I got information because I was curious, for school, and because I loved to read (as the daughter of a librarian and avid book collector).  I spent hours combing through the World Book Encyclopedia (for fun) and going to the library, because these were the entertainment options–watch one of about 24 channels on TV (with commercials) if you had cable, play outside, listen to music, talk to someone on the phone, or read a book. That’s pretty much it.

Slide 7 – When I was growing up, the “social” part of social media was calling your friends on the party line.  The “media” part was looking at a magazine. There was no internet. There was no Netflix. There was no phone with fancy apps or games on which to spend hours, or eventually days.

Slide 8 – Let that sink in for a little bit.  We don’t spend our free time the way we used to, so it follows that we also do not learn the way we used to.  My students access information at the touch of a button (or swipe).  In less than a second, they can know basic information about pretty much anything they want.

Slide 9 – Kids think that high school is going to be like High School Musical.  In a lot of places, like Berkley, and maybe Boulder, parents, school administrators, and community members work hard to make sure their child has an idyllic high school experience that approximates and is perhaps even better than this one.

Slide 10 – But in other places, school looks nothing like the ideal depicted in movies.  Students fill their time trying to prove themselves by passing endless standardized tests with the bar for achievement always held just slightly out of reach.  In Chicago, The Bronx–Montbello, expectation is at opposition with reality.  Overtesting, disenfranchisement, the rise of charter schools, and institutional racism create situations where too many of our students internalize the message that school is not for them. Or worse yet, that it is something being done to them.  Something over which they have no choice, and no control.

Solution: When teachers become students and students become teachers, everyone gets free. Empowered students know the classroom is a space for exploration–for stoking the fires of curiosity.  The teacher should not be the “sage on the stage”, or even worse, “judge, jury, and executioner”.

Slide 11 – This was my classroom a few years ago.  I spent a lot of time trying to recreate the educational environment that I had because it was all I knew–it felt familiar, comfortable, safe.  When our school got rid of “individuals” (as the desks are called that separate individuals from one another), I’m not proud to admit it, but I actually cried.  If felt like my autonomy, my sense of control, my safety was being tampered with.  I felt adrift without that sense of control that comes from having students sit neatly in rows, following directions, and only asking questions in a controlled fashion.

Slide 12 – However, now my classroom looks a lot more like this.  Changing the physical space in my classroom forced me to give up power dynamics that emphasized me having control.  It allowed for much more creativity and flexibility with lessons and collaborations.  It set me, and all of us, free.

Slide 13 –  Daniel Pink says in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us motivation increases when people feel a sense of autonomy, can see mastery as attainable, and understand the authentic purpose for their learning.  So what does that look like in my classroom?

Slide 14 – These are my actual students.  We did a poetry reading workshop entirely driven by them. They chose their groups, read 16 poems, identified a category which they would compete for, went through rounds of elimination with deep discussion at the end of which one poem was determined the “winning” poem.  They pushed each other’s thinking, provided evidence to back up their assertions, and HAD FUN DOING IT.  What was I doing, meanwhile?  Well, I provided the anthology, picked the poems (from the concurrent enrollment syllabus), listened to, added thought provoking questions, re-directed the conversations (when needed) and LIVE TWEETED the entire event for which the students received instantaneous and real-time feedback on their comments from an audience of actual people.  I also designed a skill-building activity that had them pulling quotes and evaluating the impact of literary devices on the overall message.

Slide 15 – That might seem controversial.  “She was on Twitter during class?” “What?” I can hear it now.  “Where was the direct instruction?” “I’m not sure that’s legal.” “I could get fired for doing that.” To these thoughts you might be having, I will say that my practice of education is the practice of liberation.  My practice of education is to liberate us ALL.  I was not the center of the learning that was going on during this lesson.  I have no desire to be the “sage on the stage” and my students certainly do not want me to be “judge, jury, and executioner.”

Conclusion: Educating to liberate means I don’t have to create situations or an environment where people are dependent on me for knowledge.  Rather, we co-create in an endlessly reciprocal chain of exploration, reimagining and reinventing our world–together.

Education liberates.  

The truly liberated know how to share power.  

Sharing power is an act of love.

Slide 16 – Educating to liberate means my students are in control of their learning.  They are responsible for execution and outcomes.  They know I am there to support them, but I am just one of many resources they can use on their path to gaining skills and knowledge that will actually be useful to them in life.

Slide 17 – My job is to be of service to my students.  They do not exist merely to prove to me, or anyone else, on a test, that they are worthy of money spent on them, or that they have learned to regurgitate information in a way deemed “proficient” by a school board or department of education. My single mission is to use my spark to ignite their fire.

Slide 18 – These are my students, and graduates of my school, DCIS at Montbello. Despite the fact that the system was designed for them to fail, they have gone on to excel in life, and in their post-secondary educations. Our students are not objects. They are people, and they are deserving of every effort we can make to reimagine this system so that it reflects the desire for knowledge, exploration, shared power, and reciprocal liberation.  Teachers too are not machines. We are civil servants, but we are also professionals, people, deserving of the respect, and freedom to reimagine our system in new ways so that we can best serve our students–so that we can all get free.

Slide 19 – Education liberates.  The truly liberated know how to share power.  Sharing power is an act of love.

Slide 20 – Love is a verb.  Education is liberation. I educate for liberation, that is my act of love.

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Author: Julia E. Torres

I am a mother, high school Language Arts teacher, activist, world traveler, and reader. Here you will find the story of a woman making her way in the world and making her mark, one word, and one classroom at a time.

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