Emergent Strategies for the first(all) days of school.

This summer I read the gorgeous and transformative book “Emergent Strategy” by Adrienne Maree Brown. If you can do one good thing for yourself after drinking water, eating greens and getting enough sleep, that thing IMHO is buying this book and reading it. You can do so here. From the author: “Inspired by Octavia Butler’s explorations of our human relationship to change, Emergent Strategy is radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help designed to shape the futures we want to live.”

In this wee post, I’d like to share the intersections and connections that have crystalized for me, in regards to my practice as a radical (music) educator who is more concerned these days with facilitating liberated, emergent and healing spaces where students, teachers, and administrators can blossom and self realize, instead of merely survive (at best)

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” — Bruce Lee

As facilitators, as holders of space, as designers of environments, and whether we like it or not; as “the state”, rule makers and gate keepers, we teachers are in the powerful position of defining “the bottle” and thus having a deciding impact on “the water.” This is an honor and responsibility is one that I don’t take for granted and that I strive to serve in kind, loving, just and honest ways. Here are some principles from Emergent Strategies that I will be rooting my practice on, and I hope they serve you as well!

1- Small is good, small is all. (The Large is a reflection of the small)

This capitalistic, neoliberal society i live in, tells me everyday that I need bigger, louder, stronger, more expensive things. I recognize that I am socialized to put more emphasis on bigger things rather than smaller. Reminding myself that “Small is good, small is all. (The Large is a reflection of the small)” has become an act of resistance and I am looking forward to applying that lens into my life as an educator, activist, partner and friend. In this, making sure that small activities are intentional and loving, and small interactions, like passing students in the hallway (whether they are walking to class, or cutting class) I plan to honor the smallness and powerfullness of it all. If I can make a small ice breaker or a hello+go to class please feel like liberation, then I can make anything feel like liberation. I hope. I dream. I think. I wish. I aim. I can.

2- Change Is Constant — “Be Like Water.”

We are conditioned and socialized to live “by the book”, to regurgitate curriculum given to us (but also, ugh, ain’t never enough time to lesson plan, triple ugh, so no shade for doing this!). We are expected to be rigid in the ways in which we uphold classroom rules, in ways that either worked for us in previous years, in ways that we read on books, but mostly in ways that folks who have never taught in the classroom have said we should. If we are to facilitate liberation though educaton, we must embrace change; a change that is rooted in honoring (not just responsive to) every aspect of every one who is in the room. This kind of embrace of change, makes it so that curriculum honors the experiences and voices of the humans who we are sharing curriculum with, and changing it based on who these humans are (students and teachers), where we are at in this given time we are together (emotionally), and where we are in physical space (spatially.) This kind of embrace of change, makes it so that we transition from “classroom rules” to “procedures”and/or “frameworks” for how are we going to achieve together our “hopes & dreams.” These changes, need to be rooted in the principle that change is constant and that being open to as opposed to reactionary to change is paramount. Co-creating these frameworks and upholding each other to them, practicing them, making room for people to err, embodying them and changing them when they need to evolve.

3- There is always enough time for the right work.

IMHO one way in which the “system” keeps us teachers drained, fearful and thus oppressed is in having overworked, underpaid and overwhelmed. “The system” gives us way too many things to teach (that are not even that important really) and never enough time to teach them, let alone even planning them. We must keep in timelines with unit plans, scopes and sequences and assessments and data collection or we get bad observation “grades”, a talking to, or a pink slip. I’d like to take this time to remind myself, and you if this is your jam, to jam with me in this point. “There is always enough time for the right work. There is always enough time for the right work. There is always enough time for the right work.” What is the right work? TO BE HAPPY. TO BE IN COMMUNITY. TO BE FREE. How do we do this work? Well, that is a journey for each of us to decide. We don’t have to know where the path ends, we can be in that journey, searching together. For me, this journey looks like this:

a) Center Community Over Skill: As a music maker, and music educator, I remind myself that any judgements of how “good” or “bad” my drum circles or rockbands sound, is just a judgment based on the way my own mind has been colonized by an Eurocentric system of musicing and music educationing. So, I remind myself that what is most important, is that the community be in community, together in sound, in breath, in rhythm, in connection, in unity first, and the skills will come with time and effort.

b) The “Right” work for me, and the community I serve, is to facilitate conversations, and of course plan curricula:) about identity, intersectionality, community, multi/inter culturalism, oppression, liberation, privilege, queerness, race, religion, youth power/powerless, love, heartbreak, ability dis/ability, food, sex, sex education, healthy and unhealthy relationships, connection, voice, activism, black lives matter, whiteness, immigration, hip hop, improvisation, popular music, technology, among others. For me, every single minute that I am spending engaging the youth I serve in any of these topics (or others that they bring up) is time well spent on doing the right work. “There is always enough time for the right work.” Part of the developing of my craft as a radical educator, is to backwards design how I fit in this work in the oppressive framework of public schooling. Getting real good about writing lesson plans, contexts for learning, objectives, unit plans, and assessments that are rooted in this work within the constraints of my title as a “music educator” is part of doing “the right work.” Learning everything I can about critical theory, critical pedagogy, wellness, indigenous forms of healing and education, and western neuroscience is what “doing the right work” looks like for me. What does it look like for you? How do you know what you are doing is what you WANT to be doing? I invite you to explore that, and once you know, find ways to room your practice in it.

4- There is a conversation in the room that only this people at this moment can have. Find it. — Taj James

Being open to listening and hearing the babies. To truly listen from the heart is to allow everyone to have space to explore what freedom is. Owning that I have a hard time with this myself, I am saying that I am committing to being better at this today that I was yesterday, and that as a work in progress, I make space for growing, and for reflecting critically. Now, I am not saying this principle calls for “letting students chit chat away during class.” But, I am saying that (may) be part of it. Speaking literally througgh this conversations, if we are listening from the heart, and if we develop strong and healthy relationships with the youth we teach, we might be lucky enough to be “invited in” into their spaces, and thus “finding what the conversation is about. It has been my personal experience that most of what “the right work” is, has come from such conversations.

If we unpack this principle in a non literal way, we must find what “the conversation” is that we wanna be having, need to be having and/or should be having. All three of these are incredibly important. We must be intentional on how/when/where/why we have them, carefully designing how we will be holding space, facilitating the journey and linking it to the work we are doing together (in my case, music education.)

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” — June Jordan

5- “Never a failure, always a lesson” — Rihanna

Another way of showing resistance (and self care!) for me, is to reframe failures as lessons, first for myself, and then to model that lens for my students. I recently transitioned from a 9 year partnership from a human I still very much love, care for and am bound to. How we are transitioning (not breaking up) how we are separating, is designing the world I want to live in. Acknowledging the pain of things, the complexity of things, the fuckedupness of things, the unfairness of things, while not destroying the things we build (individually and together) not disposing of one another, not abandoning one another because we no longer smash bits together, is teaching me about challenging what winning and what failing is. I don’t yet know what that is, but I am enegaged in this lesson.

On a lighter note, yet still as important, last year I spent a long time and effort designing and teaching a course I named “Percussion + Activism”.The class was for 9th and 10th graders, and it met for 45 minutes everyday after lunch. If you ever taught school, you know the period after lunch is akin to time spent at the DMV or at the dentist, BUT WORST.

It was/IS a dope course. There is a ton of greatness in it, both from the study of amazing drumming cultures of the African and Latinx diaspora, and from the study and practice of musicians doing activism through music. AND THE STUDENTS UNANIMOUSLY said they did not like the course. This lead to many conversations about why. Most students felt that they didn’t like feeling “cornered” into having to do activism all the time. Some said that they didn’t care about it that much. Others said that they loved it as a unit, or for some of the time, but that it because too much for all the time. Most students said that they just wanted to play some fucking drums, and feel good and relax, and chill, and have fun. So, I began to reshape what activism means to me, and how I teach activism and social justice to youth. So, we began doing more things that make space for wellness, inter-connectedness, fun, meditation, and just jamming. What we do together is not therapy but it for sure is therapeutic. The shift in the class was dope and transformative. Out of that lesson, I am now rewriting the course to be about wellness and self care. And while doing that, it is still a Percussion + Activism course.

6- Trust the people. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy.) — Inversion of a quote by Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, by Stephen Mitchell.

How can we do anything (of depth)together if we don’t trust each other? What can we do to make people “trust us”?

There is no liberation without community” — Audrey Lorde

“But love is really more of an interactive process.It’s about what we do, not just about what we feel.It’s a verb, not just a noun. — bell hooks

I think trust is the most important thing we can develop, both inside the schoolhouse and outside. Trust needs love, compassion, kindness, openess, and time. Trust needs consistency and freedom.

7- Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass. Build the resilience by building the relationships. — Mervyn Marcano’s remix of Stephen Covey’s “speed of trust” concept.

So much of my life as an educator is rushing. So much is about upholding expectations that just because I did a community building drum circle or a theater game once, or even for the whole year, that the kids should just “hurry up and be in community already”. Move at the speed of trust is brilliant. It allows for ALL the other previous principles. It allows for people to be where they are at at the time they are at in the space they are at. It holds space for growing together, to pushing each other to take scary steps and know that if someone falls, we’ll catch them. Move at the speed of trust assures folks what truly “no child will be left behind”. We are where we are, and we are there together.

8- Less prep, more presence.

“Can I hear it louder for the people in the back”? I can’t tell you how many years I spent prepping multi page lesson plans and staying up until 3am doing so, to then be in the classroom, totally dialing it in, not present with myself, much less with my students. Sound familiar? :) Again, I am not advocating, nor I thing Adrienne Marie Brown is saying “wing it” for what we do, but I think this means to make space for the unknown, for folks in the room to be together in “not knowing” and challenged to find out. After all, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire teaches us that students are not empty vessels, and that the banking model of education is oppressive. Being present with students, and making space for presence, “baking” it into our practice, our lessons and our demeanor, is liberatory. Can we transform our practice into grounds that are fertile and present? Can presence be in our rubrics, in our planning time, in our agendas? Can we behave like it? Can we embody (and thus model) being present the way we embody preparedness? Making space to be together, is a strategy of emergence.

9- What you pay attention to grows.

This. This. This. This. This a million times. If there is one principle that flexed my brain around and made me little wee more “woke” after reading the book, is that whatever we pay attention to grows. What we focus on, what we water, what we care for, what we tend, is what grows. What do we want to grow in our garden? What do want to contribute to the land?

To paraphrase Dr. Christopher Emdin, a hiphop educator I love, “Critiquing is love in action.” Critiquing and being critical (not nagging, complaining and or destroying) of things help us those things be all they can be and as good as they can be. We critique them because we love them and we expect better.

In Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Marie Brown writes “We like to throw glitter, not shade”

What we pay attention to grows. Building requires imagining things differently, and then doing the work toward making that view of the world a reality. Finding and plugging in to a group of people doing the work — together, tending the garden together, coming in unity to make community around the things we want to pay attention to and thus grow them is where I believe it is at.

I have lots more to say about this, but for the time being, I’d like to close with this metaphor that came to me at a cultural organizers retreat I went to last week, hosted in a farm, among some marshes and nature.

“Fertile ground is often muddy. Fertile ground has shit in it. “ Fertile ground is messy.” These times are fertile times. Schoolhouses are fertile grounds. “What we pay attention to grows”