In Philadelphia, Teacher Book Groups Are the Engines of Change
One Mom’s Reflection
Illustrator: Adriana Vawdrey
On a chilly day in the late fall of 2015, in the pews of the Old First Reformed United Church of Christ in the Old City Neighborhood of Philadelphia near the Delaware River, we sat, excited with anticipation, among nearly 200 participants at the second annual Philadelphia Caucus of Working Educators (WE) daylong convention. The nine members of our slate who would challenge existing union leadership in the upcoming election had just been announced and Ismael Jimenez, the nominee for vice president of high schools, took the mic:
We need to start shifting this paradigm. This paradigm that has us disengaged. Powerless. Beholden to interests that aren’t ours. They are treating us like objects. Things just happen to us. No longer can we sit in complacency. The victory that I’m talking about isn’t just a PFT [Philadelphia Federation of Teachers] election. This is a means to an end. And the end is justice.
“Wow,” we thought, thinking back to the first time we met Ismael at a book group nearly a year and a half earlier over a potluck-style spread of chips, salsa, cheese, and crackers, digging into the nuances of Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia by Matthew J. Countryman.
Ismael was brought into the organization through a book group. Yes, a book group. He connected with others around a shared interest in African American history at a series of book group meetings in the summer of 2014, and from there he emerged into a leader of WE, an organization challenging the teacher union and the city to do better for Philadelphia’s students, families, communities, and educators.
Attracting and developing leaders like Ismael was just one of the many outcomes of the Summer Reading Series in Philadelphia — book groups that meet during the summer to bring a wide range of people invested in education together around shared readings. The groups, now four years old, are co-sponsored by Teacher Action Group Philadelphia (TAG-Philly) and WE, and have been powerful vehicles for bringing new members into the educational justice movement, supporting meaningful relationships among teachers, and building individual and collective political consciousness that has informed and inspired our teaching, organizing, and other work throughout the year.
The Evolution of the Book Groups
In the summer of 2014, when WE was just a few months old, the organization hosted the first Summer Reading Series. The idea came by word of mouth from teachers in Chicago who gained momentum for their Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) during its early months by collectively reading a single book and discussing it together. In the first Summer Reading Series in Philadelphia, nine book groups drew in more than 100 participants. Groups read books like How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers by Alexandra Bradbury, Mark Brenner, Jenny Brown, Jane Slaughter, and Samantha Winslow, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement by Jane McAlevey and Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia by Matthew J. Countryman, that helped members connect the struggle for education justice in Philadelphia to similar struggles in other places and times. The book groups’ success could be felt in their popularity, in the connections that were made, and in the energy they generated.
Because of their success, it was almost a given that the groups would happen again in the summer of 2015. It was just winter when a group member posted on WE’s Facebook discussion group, “I know summer seems like a long way away, but . . . what suggestions do people have for books to read as part of our Summer Reading Series?” Over the next three hours, nine members posted 13 book suggestions, and in the subsequent three months, 56 books were suggested on that thread, interspersed with the occasional “I can’t wait until book clubs this summer. It is going to be epic” and “I’m sooo excited for book groups!” A committee of ten members of WE met in May to select the books and facilitators and develop three overarching questions to guide all of the book groups: What are the implications of the work that we are currently doing? What are the lessons that we can take up from this work we are reading about? How do authors and activists take up intersectionality in movements?
That year was also the first year that the Summer Reading Series included an ongoing blog with entries written by group members about the meetings. The blog enabled those unable to make the meetings to follow along, and allowed participants to learn about the topics being explored by other groups. We read 12 books and participation increased to approximately 200 people.
The first two years had proven the power of these groups, and in an effort to build on that momentum in 2016, a formalized book group committee created a democratic process for book selection, bringing new people into leadership positions, and pairing facilitators strategically. Since then, the book group organizing committee has spearheaded a process each spring of eliciting book nominations through an online form, compiling the titles into a survey, and sharing the survey widely for people to vote on their top book choices.
One important part of the groups is the facilitators, and the book group organizing committee was intentional in how they chose them for each group. For example, the book Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants by David Bacon was co-facilitated by two members of WE and an organizer with a Philadelphia-based immigration justice organization. We were also able to draw on the expertise of three local authors, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Amy Brown, and Kira Baker-Doyle, who co-facilitated books they had written (From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, A Good Investment? Philanthropy and the Marketing of Race in an Urban Public School, and Transformative Teachers: Teacher Leadership and Learning in a Connected World, respectively.) The book groups met in community spaces such as the Colored Girls Museum and the Paul Robeson House, as well as at independent bookstores, such as Amalgam Comics (one of the first Black female-owned comic stores on the East Coast) and Giovanni’s Room (the oldest LGBTQ bookstore in the country). In the summer of 2016, we also started including a facilitators’ training meeting, keeping records of participants, getting a wider range of group members (not just the facilitators) to contribute to the Summer Reading Series Blog, and brainstorming organizations that intersected with the issues in the books to try to bring in more community-based participants and organizations.
The next year, 2017, brought even more changes and improvements. We intentionally created a book group in an area of the city that has been difficult for WE to organize, with the goal of bringing new people from that region into WE through a book group. We also created several groups that have more than one book clustered around a common theme (e.g., racial justice, organizing, and examining white privilege in teaching). This was also the first summer in which the Summer Reading Series included fictional texts (Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead). In 2017, attendance at the book groups that covered 20 different books surpassed 300.
Each May when the books are announced, a form is sent out to everyone in both organizations, asking them to sign up for the book groups and share the invitation with anyone else who might like to join. Everyone is welcome. We want a broad base of teachers, parents, community members, faculty members, and those involved in other social justice struggles to join in the discussions. In June we host a Summer Reading Series Kick-Off Happy Hour where people can meet facilitators, preview the books, and enter a raffle to win a copy of the books. Each facilitation team emails their group and invites participants to introduce themselves. The groups meet between one and four times from late June through August, with a culminating happy hour at the end of the summer at which groups share their learning and the insights they will bring forward into their organizing and teaching work.
For the past four summers, the book groups have brought together a wide range of voices and perspectives. Some people simply participate in one group because the topic interests them, while others become deeply involved in the work throughout the year by joining working groups, running for union building representative positions, and organizing their colleagues. The offerings, selected through a democratic process, appeal to a wide range of people in a wide range of positions. There are usually options that appeal to people interested in reflecting on their teaching practice, studying history to understand the present, digging deep into a case study of an important organizing campaign or organizer, exploring racial justice issues that are locally specific, understanding corporate influence on public schools, or learning the nuts and bolts of organizing. In any given group, one can look around and see public school educators, charter school educators, parents, nonprofit workers, social workers, librarians, and university professors united around an interest in reading and discussion. The diversity of books attracts a diversity of people. Over the years, we’ve come to see the book groups as an important low-stakes entry point for people who are interested, yet uncertain, about joining the work of WE and TAG-Philly. The informal feel and structured conversations provide an easy way to become involved.
Building Relationships Through Unexpected Conversations
The following story, told in Shira’s words, illustrates the power, complexity, and importance of building relationships around educational issues:
At the first meeting of the book Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance by Kristen L. Buras, several teachers and community members gathered in a home in South Philadelphia. As a charter school educator at the time, and a person who has deep concerns about the ways that charter schools are impacting education, I thought that the conversation would be focused on better understanding charter schools so that we could collectively organize against them. I quickly realized that there were multiple perspectives on charter schools, as many members had seen individual students benefit from charter schools. I felt tension in the room, as differing viewpoints were shared, and it became clear that we did not all share the same beliefs about charter schools.
A turning point for the group was when one of the teachers in attendance asked, “What kinds of schools did everyone attend when they were young?” The question opened up a conversation that lasted nearly half of the meeting, with all of us sharing our connections with the very idea of school. Many of us had attended public schools in cities and in the suburbs, and others had attended private schools. None of us attended charter schools — pushing us to recognize the ways that charter schools are a new presence in the larger landscape of public education. As we pushed further into the conversation, we began to discuss where friends and children had attended schools and how this impacted where we taught and what we believed. As we realized how much our trajectories varied, the tone in the room shifted. We recognized, from the stories themselves, the nuance of the charter school conversation.
From that point forward, our conversations were moving toward understanding of charter schools, rather than organizing against them. Throughout the next several meetings, we discussed the ways that families have invested in charter schools, and the ways that businesses and private operators have often led them. We discussed the variety of charter school leadership — the difference between charter networks and charter schools that evolved from community input. At the end of the summer, we had several options about where to take the conversation, and I was glad to have begun the process of looking at charter schools more deeply amongst educators and activists, rather than focusing solely on fighting charter school takeovers in our city.
The night after the first group, however, I left feeling a tension had existed in our discussion, as it was clear that we all had different experiences, viewpoints, and ways of thinking about charter schools and the presence of privately run schools in Philadelphia. I wondered whether we were doing the “right” work of movement building if people had so many different viewpoints. I debriefed with a colleague, who said explicitly, “You are doing work that very few other people are doing — a movement for solidarity between district and charter school teachers is one that does not often exist, and so we don’t necessarily know how to enact it.”
When I see members of the book group now, we occasionally will reference the complexities of the conversation, and how we wish to continue it. Our facilitation team’s decision to leave the space open to think about the future of charter schools moves me to think that it is relationships that will make this solidarity possible. In growing in understanding and thinking together, we are able to continue to work on our engagement in the issues themselves.
How the Book Groups Have Politicized Educators
One of the goals of the book groups is to support participants in developing deeper political awareness on a personal level, as well as developing a shared political analysis as an organization. The books are a starting point and a vehicle for these discussions. To keep track of the learning and insights that individuals and groups have during the meetings, the organizing committee created a blog written by group members that provided a public record of some of the insights. For example, the group reading Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond gained a deepened awareness about the housing industry and how low-income families are impacted by housing injustices, and this is an excerpt from a blog post about it:
“In December, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released a study showing that 21.3 million households spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent, a 7.5 million household increase since 2001, while those paying more than half their income numbered well over 11 million.” Most in the book group had operated under the assumption that rent rates in poor neighborhoods were lower and housing was more affordable in these areas. We were shocked to learn from our reading that rent rates in poor neighborhoods are just as high as rent rates in any other area of the city. This is true in most large American cities. Also landlords are involved in the nefarious practice of raising rent rates when they discover a tenant has a housing voucher, in order to make maximum profit. . . . Plus landlords did not bother to do much to make properties livable for tenants and most lived in squalid conditions. In the book it mentioned that the worst properties in a landlord’s portfolio made them the most money! Why is this allowed? Why is the housing industry so unregulated? There needs to be more protections for tenants, they need to know their rights and be empowered to stand up for them. But how?
The Evicted book group enabled members to gain a clearer sense of the housing injustices that impact their students, as well as ways that systemic racism and classism impacts everyone. Blog posts from other groups similarly illustrated how participants deepened their awareness of larger systemic issues as well as issues related to education.
Not only do the book groups support shared analyses of problems, but also a shared sense of paths forward at organizational, school, and individual levels. The book groups have either spawned or supported several working groups and committees under the umbrella of WE and TAG. Some outcomes of the book groups are the formation of a Restorative Practices Working Group that came out of the book groups that read Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline by Crystal T. Laura and Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris; a White Educators Working Group that came out of the group that read For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher Emdin, and a Queer Issues Organizing Group that grew out of the group that read Rethinking Schools’ Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality. The book groups that read Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants by David Bacon and Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal by Aviva Chomsky provided momentum and an action plan for WE’s Immigration Justice Committee that worked in coalition with other immigrant rights and education advocacy groups in the fall of 2017 to successfully demand the district provide citywide training on how to support immigrant students and families.
Book group members have also shared how learning in the book groups has shaped their interactions with colleagues. One member who was part of the group that read Pushout shared that the discussions had prompted her to start difficult conversations with colleagues about inconsistent enforcement of dress code at her school. Another teacher shared how being part of the group that read Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality prompted her to be more bold in confronting colleagues about the importance of honoring students’ gender identity through correct use of pronouns.
The Next Chapter
The Caucus of Working Educators’ platform and organizing strategies focus on building a member-driven, democratic, and transparent union. The book groups embody these values through the democratic selection process, blog posts, open invitations to all members to attend all meetings, solicitation of multiple perspectives, and development of shared political analysis through ongoing dialogue. These dialogues are not always comfortable. For example, during a meeting of the group that read For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Ya’ll Too that occurred after the police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the facilitation team opened the meeting by asking: “Should white folks teach in the hood? Why or why not?” That question and others led to honest, yet difficult, dialogue.
Though it is not always easy work, allowing educators and others to explore critical issues, learn from texts and discussion, and build with each other through action has proved that the book groups are one of the roots of our deep organizing that is moving us to bring new power to our union and to fight for change in public schools in Philadelphia.
This summer’s reading series will once again continue to build our organizing for the coming school year. By reaching into new parts of the city, forging new relationships, and creating a new list of books, we will grow participation and the political analysis of our movement for grassroots unionism. Emerging leaders in WE who take on facilitation roles in the book groups will be able to take that experience into their schools and union work. We will once again focus on books and texts that reflect the urgency of the political moment that include, but are not limited to, issues of immigration, labor, gender, and racial justice, as well as the work of dismantling white supremacy in and beyond our schools, fighting gentrification, building sanctuary cities, and forging relationships with youth-led organizing and organizations. The Caucus of Working Educators is building the grassroots rank and file power of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, while at the same time fighting for true education justice in our city and country. The structures of the book groups allow us to build power in both realms, ultimately working for a union that represents educators, students, and families, and works for the Philadelphia public schools we deserve.
Kathleen Riley is a professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and a supporting member of the Caucus of Working Educators. She formerly taught 4th grade in Washington, D.C., and Fairfax County, Virginia. Shira N. Cohen is a 6th-grade math teacher at the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, a rank and file member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and organizer with the Caucus of Working Educators. She has taught in Philadelphia since 2010.
Illustrator Adriana Vawdrey’s work can be found at adrianavawdrey.com.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. 2013. Americanah. Alfred A. Knopf.
Bacon, David. 2008. Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. Beacon Press.
Baker-Doyle, Kira. 2017. Transformative Teachers: Teacher Leadership and Learning in a Connected World. Harvard Education Press.
Bradbury, Alexandra, et al. 2014. How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers. Labor Notes.
Brown, Amy. 2015. A Good Investment? Philanthropy and the Marketing of Race in an Urban Public School. University of Minnesota Press.
Buras, Kristen L. 2014. Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance. Routledge.
Chomsky, Aviva. 2014. Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal. Beacon Press.
Countryman, Matthew. 2006. Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Desmond, Matthew. 2016. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Crown Publishing.
Emdin, Christopher. 2016. For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education. Beacon Press.
Laura, Crystal T. 2014. Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Teachers College Press.
McAlevey, Jane., and Bob Ostertag. 2012. Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement. Verso Books.
Morris, Monique. 2016. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. The New Press.
Butler-Wall, Annika, et al. 2016. Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality. Rethinking Schools.
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. 2016. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Haymarket Books.
Whitehead, Colson. 2016. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday.