Books on Educational Freedom That Keep Me Coming Back

This post was written by NCTE member Nathaniel Madden and is part of Build Your Stack,® an NCTE initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. Build Your Stack® provides a forum for contributors to share books from their classroom experience; inclusion in a blog post does not imply endorsement or promotion of specific books by NCTE.

You’ve seen the lists. You know, the lists of “classroom rules” being set for virtual schooling due to the pandemic—lists that contain brash invasions of personal privacy and autonomy, such as attempts to control what kids can(not) wear, when kids can(not) eat or drink, where kids can(not) engage with lessons in their own homes.
I saw one that went as far as to award students points for “keeping their eyes on screen 98% of the time.” While I hope these kinds of rules leave you feeling indignant, they also make perfect sense when you take into account the current state of in-person schooling in the vast majority of US schools. Control over the minds and bodies of our youth is foundational to the current carceral model of schooling in our country. Not only is this antithetical to learning, but it is causing deep harm. Education must become the pursuit and practice of freedom.
There are many excellent books by incredible educators that address this very topic. Not only have I endeavored to read as many of them as I can, but I have also been intentional about revisiting the books that I have already read in order to glean more of their genius. One can never underestimate the power of rereading!
Inevitably, I discover that there are insights about which I needed a reminder and plenty of wisdom that I missed during my first encounter. Below I’ve listed four books that I return to regularly because they inspire my own freedom-dreaming about what education could look like in my own classroom and in our world, and because they have given me the language with which to do it.

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom
bell hooks
The first book in bell hooks’s irreplaceable “Teaching Trilogy,” Teaching to Transgress, should be a foundational text for any educator. In this book, she passionately writes about critical and liberatory theory and practice, as well as the importance of educators and students breaking away from the dominant oppressive systems of our society. As hooks writes, “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students” is at the heart of it all. Each time I engage with this text, I am called to examine my motivations for every choice I make as a teacher. I ask myself, “Does this choice honor the freedom of my students?” and “Does this choice honor my students’ souls?” Out of all my books on education, I revisit this one the most often.

“I Won’t Learn From You” and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment
Herbert Kohl
This short collection of essays is an ode to each student’s humanity and right to determine their own lives. In these essays, Kohl writes about the importance of assent for anyone learning anything. Different forms of institutional oppression, such as white supremacy, sexism, and heterosexism, are ingrained in our curricula, and our students are being taught to reproduce them. It is right for us and them to resist this and thus be “maladjusted,” as Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote. Kohl writes, “I know of no finer gifts we adults, teachers or not, can give to children than nonnegotiable love, support, and all of the resources we can muster as they learn what they must do and resist doing what is foreign and alien to their internal imperatives.” Rereading any of these essays never fails to give me a timely reminder.

Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School
Carla Shalaby
In Troublemakers,  Carla Shalaby calls our attention back to the most important voices in education: those of the students. Too often, the voices and therefore the lives of our students are ignored. But what happens when we take a radically different approach and genuinely listen to kids, especially the kids who have been measured by the system and found wanting? We discover that the problem has never been the human beings in the system, but the system itself. Shalaby writes, “School is trying to make people, but these young people insist they are already made.” I revisit this book to remind myself that every single person is invaluable in and of themselves, regardless of what the oppressive systems of our society try to make of them, and it is my responsibility as an educator to treat them with love and care.

We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom
Bettina L. Love
Bettina Love is an essential voice today, not just for education but for our lives. We are reminded that an imperialist, colonial, white supremacist, sexist, heterosexist, capitalist system cannot be reformed. Love’s words and work show us that abolition and liberation are the only path forward. In We Want to Do More Than Survive, she writes,“Abolitionist teaching is not a teaching approach: It is a way of life, a way of seeing the world, and a way of taking action against injustice.” Whether it is from the theory, the applications, or the personal stories, I know that I can always go back to this text to learn more.
Every day provides a new opportunity to recommit myself to the work of liberation. These four books continue to spur my growth as an educator and a human being, and I will continue to return to them in the future.

Nate Madden is an educator in Maryland, currently teaching and learning from fourth-grade students in a classroom dedicated to humanity and freedom. He is also currently working toward a master’s degree in educational equity. Most of his time is spent reading, learning from, and talking to people who know a lot more than him. You can find him @natebyr0n on Twitter.

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It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

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Turning Our Attention to the Word Decolonize

From the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship

This post was written by NCTE member Rex Ovalle, a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

To speak of pedagogies of re-existence, then, is to once again call forth the agency, action, and praxis of the otherwise. It is to raise the existential, philosophic, lived concerns and pedagogical imperatives of freedom, anguish, responsibility, embodied agency, sociality, liberation to which Lewis Gordan refers. It is to signal affirmation and hope in spite of—and in the midst of–conditions of negation, violence, and despair, part of the war of capitalism and the reorganization of modernity/coloniality/heteropatriarchy. It is to recognize that decolonial re-existence in the circumstances of the present times requires creative pedagogies-methodologies of struggle. Herein lies the significance, urgency, and insurgency of decolonial pedagogies rising.
—Catherine Walsh

As a member of NCTE’s Standing Committee on Global Citizenship, I am intrigued by, and eager to trouble, the growing use of the word decolonize.
First, to be clear, I affirm and support the work of my fellow committee members Michael Seward and Kylowna Moton, who hold rigorous and meaningful workshops on decolonizing the ELA classroom at the NCTE Annual Convention. I attended their workshop in the past and found it both meaningful and challenging. That said, in this blog post, I would like to turn our attention to what is happening to the word decolonize in our popular discourse and to humbly posit that the work of decolonizing is much more uncomfortable.
I am intrigued because the word is everywhere. You can find advertisements for t-shirts that say, “decolonize everything.” As a Latinx teacher who works in an entirely Latinx school, I even find my teenaged students using the word decolonize. I am not exactly sure when this happened, but as a lover of this conversation, I was initially excited. Now, I would like to remind my fellow teachers and scholars that this work is not simple, and it is necessarily uncomfortable.
As Catherine Walsh articulates in her collaboration with Walter Mignolo (On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis, 2018), this work “is to signal affirmation and hope in spite of—and in the midst of—conditions of negation, violence, and despair, part of the war of capitalism and the reorganization of modernity/coloniality/heteropatriarchy” (p. 96).

My hunch is that the growing use of decolonize resonates with the sentiments of the first half of that sentence yet fails to properly acknowledge the second half. Yes. Let’s signal hope, but let’s remember why the work in this field is needed in the first place; let’s confront the “negation, violence, and despair.” Further, let’s remember which side of that sentence it is that teachers, especially teachers of English, have historically participated in.

Decolonizing is not “feel-good” for the English teacher. Instead, it needs to be a thorough accounting of the ways our profession and our lives have depended on the aforementioned conditions. While I may be Mexican American and the son of immigrants, the salary I collect as an English teacher is completely dependent on my proximity and complicity with whiteness, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism.
I invite you to look toward your students as an initial resource; since this past summer, I have been thinking of the students who participated in the protests. I really want to believe that I have empowered my students to take stances that are anchored in their notions of justice; yet unlike them, I was not out on the streets for most of the summer. Even in the spring, my communication with them during the pandemic was focused on encouraging them to graduate and stay motivated in their schoolwork—as if they were not learning things in the protests, as if making it to their Zoom classes on time had anything to do with what their hearts told them. I’m fairly confident that some of my students were more committed to acting on their convictions than I was.
Decolonizing our profession starts by setting aside any feel-good notions about this effort; the work starts when we acknowledge our reflection on the wrong side of the riot shield.

Rex Ovalle works as high school English teacher and instructional coach at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. He is also a PhD student in the English Education program at the University of Illinois–Chicago.
The Standing Committee on Global Citizenship works to identify and address issues of broad concern to NCTE members interested in promoting global citizenship and connections across global contexts within the Council and within members’ teaching contexts.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

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