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The Brooklyn NY Sheepshead Bay marine biology classes took place during an activity of school closures and teacher strikes.  But these picket lines were peopled by unionized, public school professionals who had most recently gone south and volunteered in the 40+ Freedom Schools that had erupted in Mississippi and elsewhere, beginning in 1964.  These teachers knew better, had witnessed and survived mob violence first hand, and as a result, were not afraid of the NYC power elite.

The idea for those CRM ’64 schools began with other classroom teachers in Boston MA and Prince Edward County VA, who responded to right wing, racist resistance to the Brown vs. Board 1954 decision by refusing to cooperate with locked door policies.  Instead, they opened their own schools in off-site locations which became the epitome of liberated learning spaces, places where discriminatory facilities, textbooks, parents/teachers/administrators/elected officials, and curriculum held no sway.

In every case, social change was the order of the day.  Freedom schools were immediate and relevant, framing activism and investigation around local conditions that cried out for confrontation and change.  Youth attended but so did parents and intergenerational citizens.  Of course math, science, literacy, history, economics, civics and geography were embedded in all of it.  How could they not be?  But these were not empty, fragmented, reductionist, test-driven, corporate routines, passing for academics.  These subjects came to life as the entry points into activism on pressure-point issues.  All teachers were crystal clear that ignorance, illiteracy and incompetence formed the institutionalized foundation of separation, exclusion and oppression.

Today, it would be the same bitter wine but in newly branded bottles where the labels might read Race To The Top, TFA, Pearson, Common Core, ALEC, NCTQ, FERPA, Broad Foundation, or Vouchers and Charters.  But the 2015 reincarnations aren’t nearly as important as the essence that continues to promote and insure social isolation and injustice.  That multi-headed hydra is more than worthy of our eternal vigilance and our instinctive resistance.

In the case of Morris’ Sheepshead Bay marine biology classes, for some teens this was simply something to do while schools went silent and faculty on-strike.  Certainly there would have been typical teen grumbling that he or she had no interest in getting wet feet down by the bay.  The sentiment was that since we’d never explored there before, why bother now?  What does marine life or the pollution of the bay, its history or its economics have anything to do with my life, or my liberation, anyway?  Peer pressure and major NUDGing may have been brought to bear.

But the trade-off was the sight of sunrise over the water, and a story about the demise of oysters which meant the loss of the sheepshead porgy, and how we once ate what we caught right amidst the seaweed and salt marshes, fresher healthier and environmentally safer for adjacent communities.  There was the investigation into what REALLY happened to the Canarsie/Canarsee native people, a bloody legacy.  Following, was the discovery that slaves, and later emancipated slaves, were original founders of bayside villages since slavery was once quite legal in New York, among many other northern states.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the city teachers were exercising their professional responsibilities in determining curriculum and social behavior and they were free to be creative, without restriction, from a bureaucratic administration.  In fact, parents and teachers OCCUPIED some schools around the clock for the duration of a 1968 strike.

Principal Sid Morrison described that episode as a beehive in which parents covered administrative duties, helped out in classrooms and “slept-in” so the doors remained open.

Never before weekly meetings were held between parents and teachers to mingle, mix and discuss problems and goals. Classes became more relaxed and informal, and lesson covered a broader scope. When the strike ended, the group that had been active continued its investigation into changing the system in order to offer an enriched and more personal educational experience for every child.

From there it was a natural step into Open Corridors type classrooms where families contributed comfortable sofas, chairs, rugs, lamps and bookcases. Parents made games and materials for classroom use.

They built and painted storage units, painted classrooms, and provided pots, pans, measuring utensils, tools for workbenches, typewriters – all those items never before found in classrooms. Wardrobe trunks were fitted with casters and filled with colorful costumes. Incubators, sandboxes and indoor ponds were built. Animal cages and feed were donated.

Parents with media background worked with classes in doing films and filmstrips. Musicians shared their talents. Actors and dancers taught in their fields. The skills of sewing, cooking, carpentry work and teaching were utilized. A mini-market was set up in the school where children did comparison shopping, went to the wholesale market bought food, and learned to run their own co-op.

That was then but this is now, where we remain one long continuum of struggle, related as a family of inexhaustible, global energy precisely because we can link arms with each other at every stage of the push-back.

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