Robin: 00:28 I first met Lucy Griswold in 2009 when she joined our second Global Gap Year class. Since that time she's attended the University of Texas at Austin where she earned a BA in Political Science and a Master's in Curriculum & Instruction. She's now working in public education. Welcome Lucy.
Lucy: 00:46 Thank you so much Robin. I'm so happy to be here.
Robin: 00:49 Yeah. So you've been a filmmaker, a political columnist, a cartoonist a grassroots organizer. Why have you chosen teaching to create meaningful impact?
Lucy: 01:01 I like to think of myself as a teacher activist, and I think that often a lot of people who come into my field, they're teaching their classroom itself, kind of becomes really intimately a part of their activism. Right? So in their classrooms they incorporate issues that are important to them, and they think that they're kind of passing on this baton of organizing to this next generation. I remember in grad school hearing that refrain so frequently, literally coming from 22 year olds who were saying "I'm teaching to you know educate the leaders of the next generation" and just remember being so taken aback because I was thinking to myself "How are we not a part of that?" Right? So of course I love my profession. But ultimately, it's really just a component of how I see myself, and a part of this bigger project to build social and economic justice. So of course that comes up in the classroom in a variety of ways not just of course in the content that I teach but in the methods that I teach. And just to I guess veer into this a little bit early, I think that my experience and experiential education with Thinking Beyond Borders really has helped cultivate what my classroom feels like and how it operates. Right? So of course within the context of Thinking Beyond Borders there were less constraints. Working in the public system, I have a very specific curriculum standards, certain classroom operations that are unchangeable. But in terms of why did I kind of end up in the classroom, I really do think it had to do with the humanizing experience of education that I first felt during Thinking Beyond Borders. And I say that very genuinely.
Robin: 03:00 So where are you teaching right now? What age group and geographically, where are you teaching?
Lucy: 03:04 So I am teaching in central Texas, and I don't know if you experience this Robin when you were first teaching, but once you become a license educator you're kind of at the whims of the market. So I am certified to teach social studies, any subject or in any grade level from 6 to 12th grade. So this past year I taught Advanced Placement Macroeconomics and Economics. And about 95 percent of my students were seniors, so 17 and 18 year olds. Next year, however, I am very very excited to teach a new course that the district is offering called Ethnic Studies. So that will be a really incredible experience more in line with what my goals are as an educator, and I have been working with a group of teachers this summer to create the curriculum that we will be using in the fall and spring. So it's a semester long course, and the scope and sequence of the course -- which is kind of a little bit of vernacular, but all that means is it's the skeletal curricular guidelines that you're using -- they're very broad. So we had lots of space to really go in and create this curriculum. And so my big role in this project was actually creating a framework from which to look at history, to look at current social movements from an ethnic studies lens. And so that's a real big challenge because so much of what's written about ethnic studies in terms of where it draws from theoretically is intended for an academic audience. So I was reading Kimberly Crenshaw, Karl Marx, these figures who high school students often never touch, and trying to pull out some means that then we could use to create a document that students could use and apply that lens to the history and the current events that they're investigating. And for me, I think that so often we don't think that students can, especially high school students, can handle the work of theory. Right? But I think for me that's something that's so exciting about the social sciences is kind of really grasping these frameworks, these lenses through which you can analyze the world, and then that opens up all this potential to discover patterns. And I think that those patterns offer us so much insight to our current existence. So I really enjoyed that opportunity to create that theme work in specific in addition to a few lessons and other resource materials.
Robin: 05:45 So the challenging question I have for you is this then: You're a relatively young, White teacher -- young meaning in your career -- and what's the demographic of your students, and are you concerned about the framework you bring to leading this ethnic studies course?
Lucy: 06:06 Yeah I think that's a really important question, and I think educators really should be asked more about their identity and how their identity plays into their pedagogy. So one thing I really strive for as an educator is to build trusting relationships with my students. So I always start the semester really forwarding the issue of identity, and I think it's actually really important to name my racial identity. So I might even say something like "I am a White person. I am also an educator. I'm someone who has power." Right? And so those are two things that for many of us are barriers. And so students have many reasons not to trust me. And so I let them know that it's not something that I expect just because I'm in a position of power. Right? That I really believe in earning that trust. One way I do that in specific is I, of course in a very professional, way show students that these ideas that we discuss these are things that I'm committed to politically. And so when I see students at a Black Lives Matter march, or when they see a clip of me in the newspaper where I am standing up for an issue we've talked about in class, I think that it's really important for them to see models of what it means to be an activist, right, and not to fetishize these things as kind of things that are concretized in history, but things that are very much alive today. So I think that you're right there's so much there in terms of your identity,, and it's just about creating a trusting environment and about practicing what you preach.
Robin: 07:51 I find that interesting because you know the popular discourse around education, or the way our culture seems to think about education, is that it's supposed to be apolitical space, the classroom, where we're supposed to talk about things at arm's length, and the educator in particular should not have a political agenda. Otherwise you're you're at risk of of indoctrinating, of being accused of indoctrinating students. But you're talking about very much stepping forward and setting an example of living your convictions. Do you find that to be problematic? How how do you handle the political reality of of the example you're setting?
Lucy: 08:31 So the first thing that I'll say there is that when we hear this notion that that teaching should be apolitical, I think that we really need to reconceptualize what we think of as neutral knowledge. Right? So in the state of Texas if you look at the curricular guidelines for social studies, of course those are value laden standards. For example, the standard about Poncho Villa presents him as this anti-American terrorist, when you know Poncho is often in many of my Latin-x students' households as someone they revere, as a heroic figure. So I think we first need to acknowledge that there is no such thing as apolitical. When you draw on a cooperative learning model, and a inquiry based learning model, which are kind of just fancy ways to say that students generate their own questions, that students find out answers to their questions as a collective, and you function as more of a facilitator, what you see is that students start finding these things themselves. So rather than me being a gatekeeper of knowledge, I just try to expand their questions. And often that means expanding beyond and outside of common ideologies.
Robin: 09:48 So how is this pedagogy -- the desire to serve as a facilitator in helping students identify their own questions about the world and themselves -- how is that related to your political agenda as an educator?
Lucy: 10:03 I remember when I was in graduate school, when I first came into the classroom you hear these common refrains of "you wouldn't believe what my students can't do. My students thought that Africa was a country. My students don't know what a sentence is." And you hear this type of deficit based thinking about students all the time. So rather than approaching students from this deficit approach, where you focus on what students can't do, I think that -- and not to pander at all -- but having a strong position that students have valid information that they carry and ultimately what created their hesitancy, their kind of unwillingness to trust themselves, has been the system of education. So as much as possible I try to bring hyper-relevant examples to students into the classroom. In our unit and my economics class on gender and economics, we looked closely at the gender wage gap, and I found that discussions about the gender wage gap were not eliciting strong responses from students. And somehow amid some kind of some confusion during our seminar, a male student had called out this female student and said "you should smile more" like she was getting two kind of angry, or perceived as too aggressive during this conversation. And then all of a sudden this conversation that started analyzing Bureau of Labor Statistics data about gender, became another question about gender. It was about how male students and female students talk to each other, and what they ask each other to do. And this debate became about should male students or men in general ever be able to tell female students to smile. And then, what came out was all of these anecdotes about students lives, and we were talking about the same thing, we were talking about the exact same problem, which has to do with power in society. And of course, thinking about how power is associated with money, and the capital that comes with having knowledge over money and finance and economics. So I think that actually in that moment when I lifted the reins, when I rescinded some power, when I put the conversation in the court of the students, that actually was when they moved outside of the frame of what was expected for them, and they were talking about their lived experience with gender and power. And so I think that's a good way to say how my kind of activism comes into my education, and how it enters it in a way that doesn't seem explicitly political, but it's something that's actually very student generated if we gives students the space to come up with those questions.
Robin: 12:52 It also sounds like you're bridging the theoretical with the tangible the real experience of students, too. Right? Which is a whole pedagogical tool in and of itself. Lucy I went back recently and rewatched some of your media projects from your time at Thinking Beyond Borders. I watched "Overheard in Plett" about your time in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa and what you were hearing in your homestay versus what you were hearing in the townships where you were working every day. And then I also watched your Presentation of Learning "American Identity and Global Leadership." And one of the things that really jumped out to me is that you have a whit and you have a sarcasm that's very much a part of how you communicate. Do you find your teaching to be a creative outlet for you?
Lucy: 13:39 Yes. It's funny because my students they started to develop these signals for me. So one of the signals they do is they start kind of chomping their hands like like a dinosaur mouth and that means. And that means that I am being too animated. It's so much to where it's becoming a distraction. So you know, sometimes like I tend to be like I'm very, I'm like a kinesthetic teacher, like I'm kind of jumping around, standing on things, changing my cadence, being quiet and loud. And so students have come up with these mannerisms to let me know that I need to rein it in a little bit. And I think that you know while Freire has been an amazing teacher, while Michael Apple has been an amazing teacher and theoretical reference, people like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, I think those are actually the people who kind of got me into this line of thinking because they made it accessible. I think so often when I encountered political ideas and social theory in school it seemed very scary. So that definitely comes into my classroom, not only in the way I teach and kind of my broader disposition. A big part of building humanizing classrooms is creating a space where people feel comfortable. And often there's a lot of very real reasons why students are uncomfortable with one another in a classroom. Whether you know different political affiliations, genders, races, and so you have to actively try to create a community. And one of the best ways I find to do this is through improv comedy. It's vital to building a collaborative classroom. But I also think you know this, I've been talking about like the fight, the fight for social and economic inequality. But as we do that, as we struggle for something else, we should actively be living what we want to replace it with. So improv games, comedy, humor is such a big part of that. Spending time in classroom laughing together, there's nothing better than that. I had this student who if, you look at his file, all of the boxes are checked in terms of having every sort of disadvantage, and the student was so quiet. And one day to start off class we were playing this improv game, and he just worked out all of these like spot on impressions of like Australians, of different kind of geographic regions around the world. And this student would never have been someone who even his peers thought would be able to do this. So yeah it's really important to have this lightness as you really try to deal with heavy heavy subjects, that those are kind of a Yin and Yang. Part of this part of this project.
Robin: 16:29 The pedagogy of comedy.
Lucy: 16:32 Pedagogy of comedy. That's great.
Robin: 16:35 You know it's funny we talk at TBB when we're hiring Program Leaders, the educators in our programs, we talk a lot about the importance of seeking out educators who don't treat their work as a vocation, they treat it as an art. You know in the way that artists do exactly the things you're talking about. They find a community of artists where they can come together and do constructive critique of one another's work. They can be pushed and challenged, and think about that dynamic message they're trying to share, and whether or not they're actually conveying that.
Lucy: 17:10 Oh completely completely. And it's interesting because I tell people that I am a teacher, and they will literally say things like "oh didn't you get a really good award as an undergrad?" You know? "Didn't you have a really good GPA?" Or they'll say "did you do Teach for America?" which, of course, is the only way that it's acceptable to go into teaching if you are kind of positioned as a high achieving student. I think that it's incredibly creative and stimulating. And of course you have to get rid of this, what is unfortunately a pervasive perception that teaching is easy. It's incredibly challenging. And, one thing that's been so important in this profession is that it takes years to even learn how to be a self-reflective educator. Right? I went to the field knowing that I knew very little despite the fact that I had two years of graduate school experience, that I had lengthy experience tutoring with, you know young people being a summer camp counselor. So I knew I was going in without everything figured out. What I didn't understand, I assumed at that point that I knew how to reflect. And I'm realizing now that I'm still figuring out what the praxis piece means. Right? I think that's what you're talking about which is that you can have an understanding of the theory. You can live every day in the practice. But just being able to move between the two, and having the process in place to do that is such a challenge. And I think as especially activist educators that's where the role of community comes in. That's where addressing these things collectively comes in. And I think that as teachers we have to create those spaces ourselves, because our graduate programs, you know they just kind of wipe their hands of us and say "good luck! Go forward." That's why communities of teachers like those that occur in Thinking Beyond Borders are really important because for many of us the evaluative systems that exist in our schools are purely punitive. They're just like literally the evaluations we get are kind of just to punish us, and like superficially identify our strengths and weaknesses. Like my whole life I mean this is not just a profession right, it's just an extension of this disposition this commitment to changing the world. But it's also how I get my sustenance. So just because that's the case does not justify the treatment that teachers get publicly and how that then is measured monetarily.
Robin: 19:49 So you're you're early in your teaching career, and you've already started talking about the challenges that the public education system presents to the type of pedagogy and teaching that you want to do. Do you imagine yourself staying in public education for your career? Does this really feel like the right place for your work?
Lucy: 20:12 So I think that as this first year got tough, there were moments where I was kind of aggressively Google searching Ph.D. programs in education and trying to figure out: Well, how can I change things structurally? How can this be more of a scale change rather than just impacts the individuals that come through my classroom? And I think that we need to reject that thinking to an extent. I think that so often actually when we move up in these hierarchies that are sitting over these social services, the further you move from where the people are, from where the actual thing the goal of the service is happening, that it can be really hard to stay in touch with what's going on. But beyond that I think that really schools should be controlled by teachers. That education policy should be controlled by teachers. So I'm interested in inserting myself in that fight. I think that at this point in time are there like minded teachers who are committed to staying in the profession and trying to change education structurally from that point? I think that's where I look to people like Jesse Hagopian who is a teacher in Seattle who has done amazing things from inside of his own classroom, really embodied this idea of a teacher activist. But I think that this is another place where I have to always kind of call out my ego. One of my educator role models is someone named Myles Horton who started the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee and led multiple generations of labor organizers, of civil rights organizers like Rosa Parks and MLK. And he talks a lot about that. He identified himself as someone who would be a good charismatic leader. And sometimes I feel that in me, and I think that it's really important, especially coming from so much privilege, to notice that and to really try to pay attention that we've been so socialized to approach social change from an individualistic perspective. And so I really want to actively practice trying to be a part of a collective movement, and I think one step of doing that is staying in the classroom and trying to change it from below. Really from the grassroots.
Robin: 22:39 You clearly are grappling with or at least conscious of your privilege as a factor in your relationships with your students and with your teaching. What have been the biggest challenges in holding that reality in your daily work?
Lucy: 22:59 Yes so I think the framework of privilege is really important because what privilege does is help us identify different structures in the world, be they structures related to social class, structures related to race, gender, sexual identity, and help us identify ways that the system benefits us in certain ways. I think though too often that framework is used to assert that people who hold privilege in a concrete psychological way actually benefit from it. Right? So if you actually use the logic of privilege, for example, someone who comes from a middle class or upper middle class background the privileged framework would lead us to believe that if everyone was only middle class then the problem of social class will disappear. I think that it's really important though to understand that divisions of race, divisions of class, divisions of gender. Yes they benefit individuals in real material ways. But ultimately this really comes down to this divide and conquer logic. So I think it's so important to be conscious of your racial identity when you go into a classroom where there is a mismatch between your racial identity and those of your students. It should not be seen as this insurmountable obstacle. I think that there is really real solidarity that occurs between students and teachers. In my economics class and specific, we had a whole unit about race and economics. Of course, we start with thinking about how slavery is the economic system that builds the United States, and we talk about how essentially class racial formations have preserved over time. And we look at what is kind of a document that's used to begin initial conversations about privilege. It's document by Peggy Macintosh that's called "Unpacking the White Knapsack of Privilege" something along those lines, and it's written by a White woman, and she lists about 50 ways that she experiences White privilege in her life. And this elicits very strong reactions from students. Sometimes it would be students of color talking about how they've been marginalized by White people receiving these privileges. Sometimes it's kind of these confessionals where White people are seeing and naming these privileges for the first time. And often there is some debate about how real these things are that emerges in the classroom. And usually it continues outside of my classroom walls. And so I'll have other teachers come talk to me. Often students in other classes will come and say "oh I heard about that big debate third period. That sounds like it was intense." And so I say to students "do you think that part of why we're allowed to have these quite incendiary and controversial conversations has to do with me being a White teacher? Would a teacher of color be able to get away with the depth of these conversations, or would they be perceived as having some sort of intrinsic interest in getting students to commit to an anti-racist position?" So I think that you have to make open spaces for talking about those things.
Robin: 26:19 I find that to be an interesting perspective because I would also assume that there are others who might look at your work, folks who are committed to social justice, looking at your work and saying as a White teacher you're not the person to be leading the conversation. Do you ever do you ever have those doubts about whether or not you're the right person to be to be facilitating those conversations?
Lucy: 26:41 I certainly do. But I think that it's really important when we have these conversations that we don't a essentialize race. We know that race is biologically false, but it is socially real. So one thing I do is I build relationships with other teachers of color on my campus, and we will share stories about what it means to not only have discussions about race in our classrooms but how different methods of working with students are in fact racialized. And so I think that this is where the collaboration piece comes in handy. You know I wish I could describe myself as an anti-racist educator. I am committed to anti-racism, but I think that it's a little naive to identify oneself as an anti-racist because I have been so socialized my entire existence to take on this oppressive identity, and so undoing that requires a level of of self-reflection and patience and practice that's hard to achieve.
Robin: 27:44 It sounds like part of what you're saying is that the anti-racism that you're working on for yourself is about this process of engaging with young people in their own anti-racist work. Is that true?
Lucy: 28:00 Hmm. I'm going to respond to this with a story. A class where we were talking about gentrification, and this issue of gentrification is one that's very relevant to students on our campus because our school is actually in a gentrifying neighborhood. And we were talking about how one neighborhood in particular is changing quite quickly. And we were looking at the tools that economists give us to analyze supply and demand. And there you go. It's a law of economics. Right? So many students found that in itself unsatisfactory students investigated the history of the East Side. And one thing that we uncovered was this infamous transcript, and the transcript contained the police response to a fire that occurred at a nightclub in this neighborhood, which of course at that time was called Black Land, the black part of town. Not only were the police officers very slow to respond as you can see from the transcript, but they were saying very dehumanizing things. And so once we located this transcript I was the one who read it to the entire class, and a Black male student said "Can we stop?" He said "Can we stop?" It was just too traumatic for him. And so we we did stop, and the students continued to have small group conversations, and I walked in the hallway with the student, and we kind of debriefed. And he said that he's just really tired of talking about negative things in his classrooms, especially negative things that relate to race. And so I was trying to just validate that and talk through that with him. And he said "I feel like, you know, what I learn in school, especially in classes like yours, is that there's so many barriers, and so many obstacles that seem quite impermeable, and that he would rather just have this blind hope. Right? And he kind of used that language. "I would rather believe in something that's illusory because it's too hard to grapple with this." And so I had conversations with that student the duration of the semester about how you can actually hold both of those things together. And of course, it wasn't my intervention that facilitated that self-reflection in the student. He had students in his classroom, many of who are first generation, students who are also Black males who understand that actually when you see the world as it is, when you see the barriers and obstacles as they are, then you can navigate it more effectively. Then when you stumble you don't blame yourself, you can externalize the problems you encounter. I think that actually many students of color, many first generation students, still believe wholeheartedly in the American dream. And I'm not taking that away from them. No one's trying to take that away from them. We're just trying to build a more robust understanding of what that can look like.
Robin: 30:58 Have you ever found yourself either in that situation or others questioning or adapting your mission and what it is that you set out to do as an educator?
Lucy: 31:09 Something that's been validating for me is being asked by students to be a part of their groups, and to seek me out as the trusting adult. And one way that that came up this year was towards the end of the school year, students had asked the administration if they could wear traditional Mexican-Americans serape stoles over their graduation gowns. And the administration came out against them saying no. And so at that point, students came to me, and one thing that I really had to resist is my assumption that I actually know how to respond to these things because having been a seasoned organizer I'm like, well you contact the press. Well you hold a rally. And it's completely the wrong impulse just to start feeding students ideas. So one thing I'm really reflecting on and working on as an educator is how do you facilitate these types of conversations with students. It's different from being in a classroom because all these students have already committed themselves to changing the world, have committed themselves to social and economic justice.
Robin: 32:14 What's been the most challenging day of teaching for you?
Lucy: 32:18 The most challenging day of teaching quite honestly was the day after the Trump victory. It was difficult for many reasons, one of which was that I didn't know what what to say. I guess really hoped that I would come up with some sort of useful lesson, some like convenient piece of hope to give to students, and I wasn't able to do that necessarily or at least intuitively. It was also difficult because for many students this meant changes in their material life in very real ways. You know, I teach many undocumented students. I teach many students who live in communities with a militarized police presence. And so I struggled to know how to be, to just be in that day. I think what helped was that I could kind of fall back onto some of my foundational beliefs about my practice, which is that you know students should have control over the space. A,nd so that was a day where I wrote four questions on the board and I'll try to think of them I think they were. How did this happen? Right? And they could think about that like analytically think about history or or not. How do you feel? What are you going to do next? And, how can we support one another? That was a difficult day because I didn't have that perfect response, and I could feel that students were looking for it. We are kind of position as people with answers, and on days like this where the stakes are so high, we have the same questions as everybody else does.
Robin: 34:09 I mean it makes me think of what we were talking about earlier. We want to be the hero for people in moments when they're hurting, or in moments when they're confused, and we want to be able to offer the answer. But that, not just pedagogically speaking do we not want to be somebody giving straight answers to complex dynamic questions, but we also recognize that we're not always the right person to have an answer regardless, even if we want to have it. And other people want us to have it.
Lucy: 34:37 Right. And another challenging thing about the day following Trump's election was that I woke up to an e-mail from our administration that suggested that we should not be talking about the election. It was a reminder that teaching with apolitical, and that we needed to essentially do our jobs, go on and do our jobs. That though was in such juxtaposition to the place that students were in that day. Many of them were in a state of trauma and shock. Something that's important to remember is that this is actually not an unusual state for many students. That the day after Trump's election was not an aberration. I think that teaches us a lot about what it means to teach when so many of our students are living in a state of trauma. What I wanted to do in addition to have right answers was also to have humanizing interactions with children, with these people who were really just feeling they needed emotional support. So that's another challenge that I face as an educator is I want to have really candid interactions with my students, many of whom are 17 and 18 years old, but there's this important professional separation that exists. How do you navigate that? How do you figure out what constitutes appropriate emotional support, and what might be considered by the school as something that goes beyond that line? So you know of course I want to hug students, I want them to cry in my classroom. I even actually that day had students pray in my classroom, and that was one of the only things I've gotten -- I mean not one of the only things -- that I was called into an administrator's office for "facilitating a prayer." Right? I wasn't a part of the prayer. I don't know how to lead a prayer. But students wanted to do that in my classroom. So for me, working inside of a formal public school, having to exist within all these constraints, that's where a lot of my self reflection has occurred, is thinking about how to be and how to communicate and build relationships with students within that circumscribed environment.
Robin: 36:50 Do you ever find yourself struggling to carry the weight of your students' experience and how they're sharing it with you?
Lucy: 36:58 So I take those students' experiences, and I sit with them. I mourn with them. But ultimately, and this is where that privilege piece comes in, right? For me just to mourn their experience -- I mean there's some kind of sadism and just doing that, right? And just being upset. I think the important part is that it motivates action, that it motivates a change in political disposition, that you can actually move towards a world view where you can begin to figure out where you need to push to fight against these things.I think that those student experiences those stories are real. They are what helps me stay committed to this fight.
Robin: 37:41 So at the end of each episode we ask you and all of the other folks who've interviewed the same question. What's the most important question you are asking right now?
Lucy: 37:53 The most important question I'm asking right now is how to both build solidarity and simultaneously recognize and reckon with histories of oppression and violence that make building solidarity very difficult. Especially looking at the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. right now and all the beautiful conversations it's starting and changes politically it's beginning to make. I think often that in social movements we form alliances because we think that the opposition is so strong we have to work together. And I think that that's a problem. Rather than it just being this utility that we work together, this kind of necessity, I think we need to sit down and think about how the problems of many groups in society are interconnected in a real and measurable way. And so how do we bring people together while at the same time reconciling with the issues that have kept them apart? How do you bring White people into a movement for Black lives without re-inscribing the same types of violence that have existed between Black and White Americans since the 17th century? How do you begin to reconcile these issues as you form alliances? There's two people in mind right now who I think are addressing this question really well. One is Naomi Klein, who just wrote a book called "No Is Not Enough" about the Trump era and how groups might orient themselves. Another is recent law school graduate named R.L. Stevens who writes for Jacobin. And both of them talk about this question of how do we pay attention to the specificity and the uniqueness of problems of issue groups but also think about the universality of the origins of where these problems come from and how they yes impact different groups differently. But ultimately the culprit is one in the same. How do we build those alliances, but also look seriously at the past? That's my biggest question right now.
Robin: 40:02 Lucy, thanks so much for joining us for this conversation today.
Lucy: 40:05 Thank you so much Robin I really enjoyed it.