Finding solutions for a ‘peaceful school’
By Lou Fancher
Some disruption and dismantling may be necessary to restore justice and peace to school environments.
The sixth annual Creating a Peaceful School conference Feb. 4, at Northgate High School is aimed at exploring “Alternatives to Suspension and Expulsion.”
The daylong event offers no easy shortcuts or neatly aligned solutions, but seeks instead to springboard revolutionary change.
At least, that’s the intent and intensity expressed by the conference’s keynote speaker Arash Daneshzadeh. The equity-oriented scholar, educator, University of San Francisco lecturer and associate director of the Urban Strategies Council says, “There’s no path to educational justice without working directly with students. There are no detours.”
The conference is hosted by the Mt. Diablo Peace and Justice Center and offers breakout sessions led by Bay Area educators and experts.
Topics include “The Emotional Brain,” “Mindfulness,” “The Root Causes of Violence,” and sessions addressing school system history, educational legislation, and best and worst practices as they relate to classroom culture and curriculum.
“Schools are a proxy for community,” says Daneshzadeh. But if schools are to represent a complete community, they can no longer exclude students from the narrative and solutions or parse administrators, teachers and students into hierarchical categories.
“To talk about them separately is remiss. That’s the way these issues are framed on a national level,” he said. “I propose an approach centered on the students and their community writ large. I’m talking about (applying) sacred indigenous practices to reach solutions.”
He offers examples: college students who craft the rubrics for course curriculum; signed contracts that level the power dynamic and establish that high school students who speak out on school problems will not face academic repercussions; committees with eighth-grade students and ninth-grade teachers who create syllabus collaboratively; teacher training and college programs that avoid homogenizing students under cultural, racial and economic identifiers, but instead teach an ideology based on individualism and inclusion that is more than enforced participation.
Dovetailing with his proposals, Daneshzadeh insists that the “Western education, factory level approach” that stratifies school systems and emphasizes cultural content based on “upper middle class white males” isn’t new, but must change.
“When 25 percent of the students I was serving in one class are homeless, it would be remiss for them to have to choose between a bed, a hammock, or a sofa as the place a person is most likely to sleep. They’d have to slough off their entire identity to answer.”
Even so, curriculum that assumes economic status and racial isolation are only relevant to disadvantaged communities or student populations overlooks that the issues are equally germane to affluent communities, where depression and drug use among students soar.
“Students being blamed for not connecting due to (categorizing) is not new, but it’s being normalized,” he says.
Offering himself as an example of a student whose background might lead to biased, incorrect presumptions, he says his mother had formal education only through the fifth grade. But her intelligence, writing ability and academic awareness, he says, is the reason he read the work of James Baldwin, understood at an early age that educational systems are bifurcated and, as the first in his family to attend college, holds a doctorate and other credentials.
Which means it is vital that school districts eliminate top-down, adults-in-charge, content over quality-of-delivery thinking and other traditional approaches. Schools must adopt more global and student-led strategies toward education.
Again, examples best illustrate Daneshzadeh’s position.
“On the heels of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., the students in one (Bay Area) class I worked with were concerned about the topsoil that their family members were growing gardens in. They took their chemistry, horticulture, history and urban planning and synthesized it to study toxicity in the urban gardens, including the one at their school.
“We presented the results to the mayor’s office and someone actually donated clean, healthy soil that was delivered to the garden two weeks later. They were healing the community as a whole. That healing will have a cascading effect. It was systemwide, communitywide healing,” he says.
Other strategies are simpler and more immediate.
Chronic absenteeism was addressed in one school by creating a sixth-period class and inviting hip-hop artists to come in and talk about the intersection of music and sound waves the students were studying.
It all feeds back, he says, to getting rid of “draconian discipline” that includes suspension and expulsion. Instead, students’ active participation will trigger engagement and lead to positive outcomes for which credit can be shared.