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"Choose the Right Parents"

In a talk at TC, alumnus Bill Ayers suggests that's the message being sent to poor students

In a talk at TC, alumnus Bill Ayers suggests that’s the message being sent to poor students

When Barack Obama lived in Chicago, his daughters attended the University of Chicago Lab Schools, where class size was capped at 15 students and children were encouraged to think critically.

“If it’s good enough for them, why is that not the debate that we’re having in this country about what all kids need and all kids deserve?” wondered the education theorist Bill Ayers (Ed.D., Early Childhood Education, 1987) during “Trudging Toward Freedom,” his standing-room-only talk talk at TC’s Gottesman Libraries in November.

Ayers, a retired Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago whose own children also attended the Lab Schools, listed qualities “that make life in a democracy vibrant and filled with possibilities and hopefulness,” including “initiative, courage, imagination, creativity” and “the capacity to develop your own viewpoint." Access to such schooling should be the first point in the school reform discussion,” said Ayers, who was a founder of the Weather Underground during the 1960s. “Right there. Are we teaching the values of democracy?”

The answer depends upon who you are, Ayers said. He contrasted the Lab Schools with Chicago's public schools, which cap second grade classes at 35 students. “I think our message overall in terms of children’s policy in this country could be summed up very simply and it’s: choose the right parents. If you choose the right parents, things are going to be fine. You’re going to have good neighborhood school, you’re going to have a nonviolent neighborhood and you’re going to have access to parks and recreation. But if you choose the wrong parents, there’s not much we can do for you.”

Instead of continuing to treat education like a commodity to be bought and sold, Ayers said, “we have to find a way to engage the battle to reframe the discussion.” He quoted the poet Mary Oliver: “Pay attention, be astonished, write about it,” and then offered a restatement: “Pay attention, be astonished, do something about it.”

Ayers particularly wants to address what he sees as a national obsession with standardized testing. He said he once taught in a New York school with a holistic approach to language and literature. When it came time for students to take the standardized tests, the teachers were candid in their portrayal of the preparation work.

“We said, ‘OK now we’re going to teach you how to take the test.’ It was cynical, but we didn’t want the kids thinking that the testing skills were actual learning.”

Responding to one audience member who called for “revolution,” Ayers pointed out that the long-range mission of TC’s preservice teachers is potentially world-changing.

“Tomorrow these folks are going to work teaching in schools,” Ayers said. “We live and eat and sleep and make love in the immediate short-run, but we can fight with a larger vision of where we are going.”

To view Ayers’ entire talk, visit http://bit.ly/gtjKYw

Published Monday, Dec. 20, 2010


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