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William Ayers: Awakening Social Justice

At the last TC BookTalk, guest speaker William Ayers responded to questions about what it means to teach for social justice.

People with their chartreuse and plum invitations in hand strolled expectantly into the American Museum of Natural History near New York's Central Park to attend the monthly Teachers College BookTalk.

In their midst, a man sporting sunglasses, an earring in each earlobe, khaki pants, a sweater and tweed jacket strode purposefully past the entry and down the hallway toward the auditorium.

He stopped briefly to greet his former professor Maxine Greene, the William F. Russell Professor Emeritus in the Foundations of Education, who had arrived just before he did. His intensity and passion were tangible in the way he walked through the crowd. He was the speaker for the evening, William Ayers.

A March 1994 Education Week article described Ayers' intensity as "something that has propelled him to the front lines of battles that have been waged all across America." A former leader of the radical Weathermen organization in the 1960s, Ayers not only believes in the obligation to assist people on the bottom, he acts on it.

Today his fight is against passivity in teaching and his weapon of choice is love-a sense of caring and commitment to students. "If you don't care about kids' lives," he said in the article, "I don't care how glorified your curriculum is."

Ayers revealed a true warmth in his speech and manner. Before the event, when he saw someone he recognized, he went out of his way to shake their hand or give a friendly hug. On stage with Richard Heffner, moderator of The Open Mind on PBS, Ayers responded to questions about what he means by teaching for social justice. When he spoke, his words were words of encouragement and understanding, urging others to act on behalf of children.

As a committed educator himself, he suggested following kids into their lives to see that whatever label is attached to them falls apart. "He (the student) is more than one thing," Ayers said. "He is a lot of things. Don't let the world define you by the worse thing you ever did. No one wants that."

Ayers said teachers have to be false to their own beliefs, in a sense, in order to allow kids to "name the world for themselves." He said, "We should be open to the kids we find before us, knowing that ‘I wish everyone believed like me,' but knowing that is wrong."

His idea of teaching social justice also covered the idea of community service being done by students. With all the energy, enthusiasm and potential of adolescents being spent in school, he said, you have a huge amount of resources. "I think we need to give them a sense of being involved in the community," he said.

"The kinds of standards we develop in a school should be developed by the school community." The word "compulsory," he said, would not need to be in front of "community service."

When asked what he would do if faced with irate parents who insist on what and how their children should be taught when his values don't reflect theirs, Ayers said he has a strong commitment to the notion that public schools should be the business of the public, largely the parents.

"My fiercest allies have been the parents," Ayers said. "In all my experience, parents always want the best for their kid. If you build a relationship with them and believe they are worthy of your attention, you find they will be your allies on all kinds of things."

He also said that treating their children like worthwhile human beings and sharing their hope for their child's future will encourage parents to work with the teacher toward that future. "The people with the problems," Ayers said, "are often the people with the solutions."

After Ayers spoke, he met with members of the audience and held a book signing with Greene.

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