The April 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR) is the first part of a two-part interview with Miriam Klein Stahl, co-founder and lead teacher of Berkeley High's Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA), where she’s taught since 1995. She is also an artist who specializes in printmaking, sculpture, paper-cut and public art and is internationally known among activist and punk circles for her powerful, iconic portraits of political activists, misfits, radicals and radical movements; some of her more well-known portraits include Phoolan Devi, Emma Goldman, James Baldwin, and Harry Hay. In 2011 she collaborated with her former student, Gabby Miller, to create original interactive artwork for the Occupy Oakland movement. As an educator, Miriam has dedicated her teaching practice to address equity through the lens of the arts.
Miriam Klein Stahl has illustrated a new (April 2015) children's book with Kate Schatz, Rad American Women A-Z, which uses a traditional format to introduce kids and adults to profiles of 26 inspirational and deeply radical women in public life, including the likes of Angela Davis, Ella Baker, Billie Jean King, Nelly Bly, and many more – you can check out a preview of the book at radamericanwomen.com and read more about it from Miriam herself in the second installment of this column next month. Miriam lives in Berkeley, California with her wife, artist Lena Wolff, daughter Hazel, and their dog Lenny. She was interviewed over two separate lunch periods in her classroom at Berkeley High, where students were buzzing around the whole time working on art projects and occasionally interjecting with comments of their own]
MRR: When did you start to be interested becoming an educator, and why? How did your experience as an artist and activist, and overall personal identity, impact this journey?
Miriam: I moved to the bay area from Los Angeles in 1988, and went to SF state and got my degree in printmaking and sculpture. In Los Angeles, I grew up next to an oil refinery, so I developed really bad asthma that that didn't really flare up until I moved up here...I was in my late teens/early twenties, living in San Francisco, I was going to the emergency room all the time with asthma – because it was new to me and I didn't know what the deal was, and I was figuring it out and I was getting huge medical bills. So, I finished SF State with a bachelor 's degree in art, and had to figure out how to make money pretty quick because there's only so many times you can give a fake name at a hospital. I was making stuff and screenprinting, and you know, getting by.
At the time my rent was two hundred dollars a month for a room in a 4-bedroom place in the Mission in San Francisco. I was scraping by, but I was having these bills and I was like - I need insurance, I need a decent medical plan, I need to figure out a job I can have that's real, decent. I'm a creature of habit. So, teaching made sense to me in a lot of ways, having a schedule like that. I wanted to do something arts related and I wanted to do something that would make the world a better place in some way, somehow. Something social justice related. Art teaching just seemed like an obvious fit for me, just from experience I have had in the world, and I really hated high school - it was very painful for me. I went into it thinking I could make it a better place for the outliers and outcasts and the queer kids and the kids who didn't totally fit in, and that's kind of the lens I went into it with.
I really changed to an equity focus pretty quickly after I started working in a school like this that's so diverse. You know, where I did fill that role of providing a haven for the outcast, but I really saw the bigger picture of how the high school is kind of a micro version of our macro world, and all the inequities and injustices that exist in our outside world exist in a really intense way within the school, but there's also hope, because [high school] is a small place where you can affect change. You have the prison industrial complex that we see as a whole in the macro world, it is daunting and overwhelming to me – so those are some of the reasons why I started. You know, it sounds shallow to say “the health plan” but the health plan was real to me at the time...
MRR: It is real, yeah.
Miriam: I really needed health insurance.
MRR: It is one of the few middle class amenities left in any job.
Miriam: ...and it has been twenty years since then.
MRR: You are familiar with the Pedro Noguera book City Schools and the American Dream...
Miriam: I have an essay in that book [laughs]
MRR: Right, so obviously you're familiar with it [laughs], it seems like what you are talking about with equity and with regard to what he saw as the differential issues...
Miriam: Yeah, I should really talk about that...I was really lucky as a young teacher, I was twenty two when I started here – really young. That year was the second year of a thing called the diversity project where Pedro was the P.I., the primary on that. It was a project as teachers, students, parents and grad students – PhD students - at UC. The whole purpose was to hold a mirror up to the high school and say this is what you look like, because there was lots of anecdotal stuff.
So I was this young teacher and I felt really lucky that I got to work with this group of people that were totally like-minded, because it was like an instant community for me. Because otherwise this place can feel really huge and daunting, and at the time it was just one big school, there weren't any small schools. So it gave me a community of teachers who were also trying to make this place better and had an eye on equity. So we'd present the research to the larger staff, and it was was very eye-opening for me...because we would present how the school is serving one group of students, that have a lot of privilege and resources, really well and kids who didn't have a lot of privilege and resources were just being duped, were not being served well, and were totally failing, and having a lot of trauma.
MRR: It almost feels like kids were being dumped into a university where they are being asked to select their whole program, and in some sense that's really difficult because of how large the school is.
Miriam: Yeah, so it was really disturbing but eye-opening for me, as a really young teacher, that there would be veteran staff here who were like “We know this exists. We know that we are failing with these kids, you're not telling us anything new”. And as a young person as I was like, wow...I'm working with all these people that know that there is this huge problem, and that there is this is this huge gap between white and Asian students and black and Latino students in achievement, yet some of the teachers would say the most horrendous things in those workshops we would do as the diversity project.
So, out of that project grew a couple of things that have become part of our school now. One was the Parent Resource Center, which still exists. A lot of parents that we interviewed for the project felt like they would only come to the school in a pissed-off mode. They were coming to school because their kid was suspended, or their kid was accused of something...they were never coming to celebrate their kids' achievements. So there is like this, just pissed off factor of parents, largely parents of color, who were like “Don't make me come to that school!”.
MRR: They're only invited when there is a problem.
Miriam: So that was a great thing that happened out of the project, a welcoming place for parents to be treated well and invited.
MRR: Do you feel there has been an effective effort towards getting outreach with that, actually bringing parents who might not come otherwise?
Miriam: Yeah. Another thing that was started was PCAD – Parents of Children of African Descent - and that group was very powerful and effective in making change happen at school. And another thing that we got out of [the diversity project] was the small school movement...our high schools were set up to train people who work in factories, and it feels very much like that. When you hear the bell ring, you get up and you move to another class, you sit down and do your work, you get up and move to another class – it is very much a factory model. There was research about creating schools around themes where you can try to do school in a different way, block time differently, get out of bells and cells, get out into the world. So, that sounded great to me.
MRR: How do you feel in the present with the present, a couple of decades into the small school experiment? How do you feel that in terms of Berkeley High and the context here that has panned out as far as equity and social justice?
Miriam: Well, sadly...You know, obviously I am one of the founders of AHA, our small school, and I adore our kids, and I think that we have made huge jumps and in achievement. You know, we've had kids come in, freshmen class at 19% proficient in English and math, and end up graduating with 85% of them CSU eligible.
MRR: That's major.
Miriam: It's huge. So I feel really good about our student population and what we are able to do with them, and I also like to try to create systems of being in school in a different way. Of doing interdisciplinary projects, where teachers collaborate. As you know, we just got back from bringing our senior class to overnight retreat, we bring our juniors on an overnight retreat. A lot of students' experience in schools is that they are not seen, and teenagers want to be seen and heard, and we are taking them out of the school and giving them a chance to say whatever they need to say in a safe environment is the thing they need to remember and the thing a lot of them need. You know, the kind of social and emotional support that you can't really do in the classroom.
MRR: What are some of the ways that teachers at AHA coordinate to create spaces like that, an opportunity for students to have spaces like that, and also to pull together curriculum and just try to really core things in a more integrated way so that people [teachers and students] are really working together? What are some of the methods?
Miriam: There's some big institutional support that's really helpful in the common preps, during which teachers have time to really plan their day so it's not just free labor after school – that's really key. Being in each others' classrooms... a lot of teachers close the door and have their private realm.
MRR: That's the traditional mode, right?
Miriam: Yeah, and all of our teachers were in and out of each others' classrooms all the time and we do month-long projects where we all study the same thing. So our 9th grade students do a project on immigration, 10th graders do a project on respiratory health linked to geography or location - basically environmental racism – and our juniors do radiation, and then our seniors do an investigative journalism project on a topic of their choice.
MRR: Tying radical [classroom] themes to broader social justice themes...Not just within the school community, but in terms of their overall communities.
Miriam: Yeah, and they are in there working on that in science, history, English and art, and it culminates in a big exhibition that's on display in downtown Berkeley right now.
[End of Part I, Part II will be continued in the next issue when we talk with Miriam Klein Stahl about her new book with Kate Schatz, Rad American Women A-Z, as well as getting deeper into issues around teaching, identity, and issues particular to different areas/schools. In the meantime, head to radamericanwomen.com to get a peek at the book and what it is about, and how to get a copy or check out a reading]