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Teachin’ ’bout a revolution



Detroit’s public school system has taken a beating over the past decade. This we all know. Test scores continue to plummet, teachers continue to receive pink slips, and students continue to fall further and further behind the social divide. Enrollment is down 9,300 students since last year, and some education activists such as Freedom School stalwart Grace Lee Boggs are beginning to call this mass exodus from the DPS system by its proper name — a boycott rather than a dropout problem.

The real answer, according to University of Illinois education professor Bill Ayers, exists outside of the box, beyond the blame-game mentality.

If the past is tickling your brain, yes, it’s the same Bill Ayers from late 1960s revolutionary outfit the Weather Underground. The former University of Michigan student and sheepishly proud U.S. terrorist (his radicalism included planting a bomb in the Pentagon; charges were dropped, controversy lingers) is now known less for his anti-war tactics and more for his expertise in community education.

Advocating a “books not bombs” philosophy, Ayers has written widely on innovative schooling, offering practical and achievable solutions for both teachers and parents. With the release of his new book, Teaching Towards Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom, published by Beacon Press, Ayers comes to Detroit to lead a freeform conversation on education and the ethical responsibility of teachers to develop students’ “fullest democratic humanity.”

“Schools and classrooms in America are these contested spaces where teachers have to either fight to affirm their students’ humanity or teach with the age-old factory mentality that dehumanizes students,” Ayers says.

Having founded the Small Schools Project in Chicago, Ayers has fought for more than 10 years to see not only class sizes reduced, but entire schools broken into smaller, more manageable community enterprises. And Ayers is quick to contrast the small schools approach with the growing charter school movement.

“All over the country the Small Schools Project is being aggressively attacked by those who want privatization and charter schools for profit. People like the Gates Foundation and the U.S. government are pushing to distort real school reform and the children always suffer because of it,” Ayers says.

This week’s symposium, titled Save Our Schools, might sound like radical education to some, but as the school system continues its radical downsizing (the closure of as many as 40 more Detroit schools has been proposed), there’s no better time for these discussions. They’re being sponsored by the University of Detroit Mercy, the Detroit Freedom Schooling Movement, and the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.

To keep it fresh, poet and local activist-savant Will “the Ill Wizard” Copeland (Longhairz Collective) will read from his new book of poetry, New Haven Green: Rain Makes Grass Grow, published by Detroit’s Leadfoot Press. With didactic and rhythmic rants, prayers and odes, New Haven Green is a collection of revelations from this former DPS student’s one-year sojourn to New Haven, Conn. As the United States currently counts more black men in prison than in college, Copeland explores what it means in today’s society to be young, black and accredited.


From 6-9 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 2, at the University of Detroit Mercy, Architecture Building, 4001 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit; 313-923-0797.

Jonathan Cunningham is a freelance writer. Send comments to

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