What is America?

In this Spring/Summer of the year 2020, we can ask ourselves as educators and community members many questions. One comes to my mind most recently, What is America? 

In the last few weeks I have been working with students and teachers online and doing math/art activities and lessons with colleagues. The way we work is very open to student voice and experience and as such, children have shared many things including their artwork, stories, or just thinking about a variety of subjects. Recently, a student asked to share a piece of artwork she did after attending a “peaceful” protest as she called it. It was a picture of herself with her hair covering half of her face (a self portrait) and the words “No Justice.” She spoke eloquently and briefly and slowly about the beautiful artwork she had created and then we moved on easily to the next part of the activity which was providing students a chance to share and talk about their geometric art work.

After we signed off, I said to myself, That is America.

The class was made up of a diversity of children from a variety of ethnic origins and mixtures, That is America.

The class and the relationships among students, teachers, and parents engaging in free American public school were clearly an important part of the lives of the children and a part, face to face, that they missed greatly but were dealing with well, That is America.

Recently, I wrote about 1968 when I was a 7 year old visiting Washington D.C. with my father and seeing the impact of Riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., That is America.

Today, in 2020, when many things have changed for the better in many ways, but many things in our society persist or re-awaken, That too is America?

Public schools used to be separate for peoples of color because of De Jure segregation.. Written into the law, That is America.

Public schools are now more segregated in many areas due to De Facto segregation (via real estate), That is America.

Public schools matter, That is America.

Who teaches matters and how they teach matters. That is America.

America is an idea about freedom and the pursuit of happiness. It is an idea about democracy. It’s a country that has been developing for 244 years and hopefully many, many more. America is made up of people from every part of the earth. America was founded on manifest destiny and the elimination or subjugation of the peoples that were native to the lands before Europeans arrived. America was founded on kidnapping and enslaving workers from Africa to create an economy and culture. America is an idea and a country. 

America probably means as many different things as there are people to have thoughts about America. This is where the challenge exists. The others, others, people other than our own individual selves, the others, how will we live with them, even in our own families, how will we treat them as we want to be treated or even more importantly as American core principles suggest we should treat them. 

Freedom is what America is all about to me. Many suggest that Freedom in Europe is focused on Freedom from while Freedom in America is focused on Freedom to. Many Americans want their freedom to be and do because they feel safe from. In these times in 2020, we are being forced to realize and remember what many Americans feel every day and wish and can’t help but remember, that they want an America that is Free from…. Where they are free from.. Not the alien hordes coming to vanquish, but rather their own fellow Americans and the American government. 

This is hard to swallow for those who feel free to…..

First, we must acknowledge the simple idea that there are as many Americas as there are people to think of America. When we move on from that, we have to ponder our own individual and collective roles and responsibilities in helping to create an America for others other than ourselves and in doing so, insure that That America will be good for us to be both Free from and Free to….

Free to go to school.

Free to play.

Free to walk outside or be inside safely.

Free to do anything and be anything in the way everyone else in America does.

Free to live and keep living.

American public schools have always played a role in both constructing and being constructed by America. We can thank John Dewey for this frame. Dewey is a great one to examine in these times if you are given to reading to help America be better by helping yourself be better. I can think of many other authors from many different walks of life and perspective, certainly James Baldwin and Langston Hughes come to mind from my past reading but the list is too long to remember because there are so many books and articles I have read and continue to read to help me understand the question, What is America? 

Ergo, the importance of reading. In these pandemic and civil unrest times, among the things I will do, is work to make sure every child learns to be interested, fluent, and meaning making readers. This is one thing we can do as educators and while it is easy to write or say, as of 2020, it has as yet not been accomplished for every child in America. 

What is America?  For me, America is a country of immigrants and indigenous peoples. It is the country that my parents’ parents came to from Italy. They had nothing of value in belongings. They had the stuff in heart and mind that lives through and in me today as well as in my children and now grandchild. For me, a child of the turbulent 60s, America is a country that is struggling and has always struggled with the deep hypocrisy of its greatest core principles many written and conceived or synthesized by slave holders. For me, America is a tussle between Adams and Jefferson. Both who went to their grave around July 4th and knowing that so goes America, so goes the human species or at least that’s how they felt. 

To end, I can only reiterate what I shared in a recent post, I have faith in the children and families of 2020 and in teachers and the Deweyan notion of public schools. In these times, me thinks, that American public schools need to do a lot more constructing of society than being constructed by it.

 

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