MOVE and the connection to school curriculum

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Today marks the 30th year since the MOVE catastrophe in Philadelphia – 11 deaths and 65 homes destroyed. This incident has, hopefully, been integrated into the public school curriculum (but I have my doubts that it even appears there).

I was not living in Philly when it happened but I was watching and reading about it. When I began teaching at a middle/high school in the city in 1988, I began to insert readings, journal writings, and watching of short video clips into my classes. Those times, as I have blogged about before, came before the insanity rush of PSSA and I was ‘allowed’ to teach what I thought appropriate as long as my classes were calm. Calm meant that I did not require the TA’s to come into my class to enforce discipline and I did not call the principal’s office for help!

I visited the Friends Center on Cherry Street where I was able to find books and pamphlets that I could use as source reading material (after a lot of Xeroxing, of course). I do not remember the name of the video we used and there have been a few more documentaries of high quality made since that time. The books I used are also not in my memory right now, but I think I may still have them in storage boxes. What I do remember is the interest that the students had on this topic. They were energized to read about their own community and what happened in it. For some of them, partly because of their age, MOVE was an unheard of name and the incidents surrounding it were totally unknown. I recall the Friends material allowed me to present the incidents from multiple perspectives – the neighborhood people, MOVE itself, political leaders, and fire and police viewpoints. The material could be presented without stating that there was only one correct interpretation of the events and this appealed to students who would often switch opinions as they read, wrote, and discussed each different perspective.

When I switched to a charter school after 2001, I took along the material and since I was in a high school, I could add more and deeper interpretations of the events. The students here were also caught up in the reading, writing, viewing, and the following discussions. I encountered difficulties – by this point ‘teaching to the test’ was ruling curriculum choices and in each subsequent year those pressures increased. I was often discouraged from teaching this particular unit, although I was firm that I would not abandon it.

The Coalition of Essential Schools, whose many workshops I attended, helped me with some of their core principles – Learning to use one’s mind well (habits of mind), a commitment to democracy and equity, and less is more – choosing depth over coverage. Just so there is no mistake – the less is more has nothing to do with fair and equitable funding. In that regard, more is more.

It was rewarding to see students grapple with the ideas that the MOVE incidents provided. The intent was never to determine right or wrong – rather, I hoped that students would be able to look at an alarming situation, sort out multiple perspectives, and formulate insightful questions about how this incident and other incidents to come might be handled using multiple perspectives.

My sense is that in the present day, teachers are not viewed as a resource to be engaged, but as an enemy that is held ‘accountable’. That accountability is based on standardized tests that require one correct answer and discourages multiple perspectives. That loss is borne by teachers, students, and their own communities.

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