Interviewee:Brian Charest

Brian Charest is assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of Redlands and former public high school English teacher in both Chicago and Seattle. He is the author of the new book, Civic Literacy in Schools and Communities: Teaching and Organizing for a Revitalized Democracy, which will be out this month from Teachers College Press.




Interviewer: Nicol Howard

 Nicol R. Howard, PhD is an Assistant Professor and program coordinator in the School of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Redlands. Dr. Howard is also the Co-Director of the Race in Education Analytics Learning Lab (REAL Lab) in the Center for Educational Justice. Her research foci are digital equity, STEM and computer science equity and identity, and parent involvement. In addition to her journal publications, Dr. Howard has published works in practitioner-focused outlets and has co-authored three books: Closing the Gap: Digital Equity Strategies for Teacher Prep Programs, Closing the Gap: Digital Equity Strategies for the K-12 Classroom, and Coding+Math: Strengthen K-5 Math Skills with Computer Science. She is also co-editor for the Journal of Computer Science Integration.

Nicol Howard: What is this book about and how did you come to write it?

Brian Charest: This book was really written in response to and about what I learned from my students when I was a high school teacher on the South Side of Chicago. My students and the community in Chicago taught me to reconsider what, at the time, I thought teaching was all about. I sensed a profound disconnect between the state-mandated curriculum and the realities of life on the South Side. One of the many things that I learned in my teacher preparation program was the importance of culturally relevant pedagogies and the need to develop authentic relationships with students and parents. What was missing, however, was how to do these things across what are often profound social boundaries of race and class. I didn’t grow up in the neighborhood where I was teaching. Nothing in my teacher ed program really prepared me for the realities of working in an area of concentrated poverty that had suffered from decades of intentional disinvestment, as well as redlining and the long term effects of systemic racism. The more I thought about my work as a teacher in this context, the more I realized I wasn’t really prepared for the challenges I was confronting. I started to understand that what I needed to learn wasn’t going to be found in the official curriculum or in textbooks about teaching. I needed to get out of the classroom and start listening to students and the community. This realization got me thinking about telling my story–telling a story about what I learned when I spent time with students and families on the South Side–so that other teachers who were starting out in the field and maybe teaching in a neighborhood that was different from where they grew up might find some useful ideas about how to build authentic relationships and learn from students and communities.

NH: Why is this book important and why now?

BC: I think we are living in a moment where we need to be reimagining schools in terms of their social impact and engagement with democratic practices. What I mean by that is there are lots of well-written methods books out there that are great for helping new teachers figure out the types of things that they can do tomorrow in their classrooms, say, if they’re teaching Shakespeare or math or history. In other words, there are a lot of books that teach us how to teach very specific things, but new teachers encounter far fewer books that push them to ask why we set schools up the way we do. Not just why, but why are we doing this work and why are we doing it this way that it’s been done for a century? Can we do our work in schools more democratically? Can we connect our schools to social issues like systemic racism or to questions of economic opportunity in our communities? There just aren’t enough books in teacher ed programs about how to work in solidarity with students and their families to build a better democracy and reform schools and society. That’s what this book is really all about. It’s about showing teachers how to connect the work inside of schools with what’s happening on the outside. The book explores how to do community-based work in ways that allow people to have some say over the decisions that affect their lives. The book invites teachers to reconsider the role of teachers in schools and communities and to see school and community revitalization as reciprocal, not separate, projects.

NH: How would you define civic literacy and why is it important in a democracy?

BC: Civic literacy often gets defined as the things you need to know in order to be a good citizen, like how legislation happens or how electoral politics work. Now, those things are important to understand for many reasons. But, I think it’s equally important to broaden our notion of what of civic literacy is and how to teach it. For example, how can bring demoractic practices into schools so that students have first-hand experiences with making decisions that affect their lives? I see civic literacy as also being about doing things in the world, about learning how power works in a community and how to identify problems or issues and then do something about them. You know, as a young teacher, I started working with community organizers and most organizers have a keen sense of how power works as well as how to harness the intelligence and resourcefulness of everyday people to make positive changes. To me, that’s civic literacy. Being civically literate is about recognizing that all of us have the ability to make decisions about our communities, our schools, and our economic systems. Another big part of being civically literate is recognizing that my success is tied to yours. It’s about understanding that a healthy democracy means working together to shore up the public good so that all people have good schools, safe communities, clean water, and the opportunity to make decisions about their lives. Democracies start to fall apart when we no longer see the need to support the public good. When the public good is no longer our concern, people lose faith in democratic institutions, because people can see that these institutions no longer serve the interests of the majority. People start to see government as a tool that only serves the rich and well connected. A healthy democracy provides opportunities for all people by investing in the public good.

NH: What are some of the important takeaways in this book for teachers and teacher educators?

BC: In the book I share some key strategies that I learned from community organizers that I think teachers ought to know about. Things like the one-to-one relational meeting, the power analysis, and community asset mapping. These are some of the main takeaways for teacher educators, education leaders, and classroom teachers: the book includes a guide to working in communities and taking on the issues that matter to people. In addition to these practical strategies there is this idea in the book that schools and teaching can look different from the way we’ve been taught to see these things. How do we organize our schools and why? Can we do this work differently and more humanely? My hope is that the book will push educators to see the democratic possibility that exists in schools and communities. What if, for example, teachers and students and parents actually had time to get to know each? What I mean here is being able to imagine schools as sites for relational work where people don’t just recognize each other’s faces, but actually know something about each other and what the other person cares about. This is the first step toward coming together to work on an issue and find a solution. For teacher educators, I think the key takeaway is about teaching the next generation how and why we need to connect our work in our classrooms to the concerns in our communities. Why, for example, is this school in this community facing these issues of scarcity where living-wage jobs are so hard to come by, while other communities seem to have every imaginable resource? Really, this means thinking about connecting with community-based networks to revitalize our communities. It’s about seeing our work as teacher educators in terms of how we can have a positive social impact while integrating democratic practices. Can we reorganize our teacher education programs to include indigenous, community-centered leaders as co-teachers, guest speakers, or equal partners in our work? Do we have room in the curriculum to show how historical struggles for freedom and justice are connected to the work we do as educators?  

NH: What’s the biggest obstacle you see to implementing your vision for more democratic schools–schools that are able to more directly address social, political, and economic problems?

BC: I think there is a sense right now that schools are supposed to be spaces that are freed from difficult questions that some might consider too political or too controversial for students. We tend to imagine schools as these abstract sites where something called “learning” or “education” takes place. The problem with this thinking, however, is that it ignores the political work that schools already do in upholding the status quo, especially when we teach a whitewashed curriculum that ignores the long history of settler colonialism and struggles for freedom and racial equity in this country. So, to answer your question, I think there’s been a very successful movement to get students and teachers to think that education is only about individual accomplishments and achievement on supposedly neutral things like standardized tests. That’s really just schooling, not education. Assessment, for example, is only a small part of what education can be. I think we need to think more creatively about what we want to assess and why. We also need to fundamentally rethink the structures of schooling. Why, for example, do students in our schools still sit in neat rows and why do we still divide learning up into subject areas? Do we really need tests and grades to assess student work?

NH: How can we move toward more democratic schools? 

BC: Schools in a democratic society should reflect democratic values of inclusion, justice, equity, diversity, and participation. This is something that Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins understood when they created the Citizenship Schools in 1961 and it’s also what the leaders of the SNCC understood when they developed the Freedom Schools in 1963. First, we need to teach the next generation of teachers this history, so they understand that alternatives to our current system can and did exist. Next, we need to teach these young teachers how this was done and how we can work to make changes to our current system. We also need to be asking different questions when we think about reforming schools and we need to be using our creativity and imagination when we consider the answers. What is worth knowing and doing? Why? What does it mean to be fully human? How can we create educational spaces that nurture and support the growth and development of all students? Do we currently provide the resources and supports for all students to reach their full potential? Do our schools have the resources and supports that they need to help all students thrive, regardless of who they are or where they come from? Do all people deserve the right to a living-wage job? Health care? Clean water? Why don’t we allow students to work across grade levels to collaborate on projects and participate in the life of their community in authentic ways? Why aren’t our young people part of the decision making process in our schools? What can we do to support our teachers? We need to provide spaces in schools for teachers and students to ask these questions and explore different ways forward. Teachers and students need to have a say in what schools do and how we organize these spaces. Real education is about freedom and liberation for all people. If we started with that premise, I think we’d have very different schools.