Elena Aguilar's Learning Story


My maternal grandmother was my most effective teacher. Her life and the decisions she made as a young adult served as a powerful example and inspiration. She came of age during the Great Depression and along with many of the other Jews in her community, she became an activist: she unionized textile workers on the East Coast, organized farmers in California’s Central Valley, and led thousands of hungry children in a protest. She was jailed at the age of 14, beaten by police several times, and harassed by the FBI for decades. Her commitment and perseverance, along with that of millions of others, gave us unemployment insurance, many workers’ rights, and social security. My grandmother never went to college (although she had always wanted to) and she never made much money, but she was proud of her accomplishments and her commitment to social justice. My grandmother was a member of the American Communist Party for thirty years and she and my grandfather rose to the highest levels of leadership. During the 1930s, the Communist Party led many of the protests and according to my grandmother, did a lot of good work. But by the late ’30s the Party became more closely tied to the Soviet Union. ‘We were apologists for Stalin,’ my grandmother said many times with great shame. ‘We defended his every action.’ My grandparents, overwhelmed by guilt, resigned from the Party in the mid-1950s after Khrushchev informed the world that Stalin had been a bloody tyrant. This was the basis for the critical teaching that my grandmother repeated over and over and over as I grew up: ‘Question everything,’ she would say, ‘everything.’ As a classroom teacher, I encouraged my middle school students to question everything ‘ even my own authority. (Another obvious lesson to attribute to grandma: challenge authority.) I liked it when my students did this; it led to authentic learning and the development of intrinsic motivation. As a result of putting my grandmother’s mandate into practice, the power dynamics in my 7th grade classroom were very unusual, very nontraditional’but they worked. There were clear boundaries and very high expectations for behavior and performance, but they were co-constructed, questioned, and internalized. My students had to access their own motivation for practicing seemingly tedious skills, or doing homework and projects, or sitting down and being quiet when they needed to. I did learn, however, that the permission I gave them to question my authority wasn’t equally reciprocated by other staff on our campus, and so I also had to teach my students how to appropriately and skillfully question the authority of other adults. After teaching in the Oakland Public Schools for 13 years, I became a ‘school improvement coach.’ I work with principals and teacher leaders who are desperately trying to turn around our struggling schools. I find my grandmother’s words echoing through my mind often as we try to make decisions. ‘Question everything’ translates into a reminder to think outside the box and explore all possibilities. Often, when we question all the restrictions and mandates, and we probe and dig, we discover places of freedom and opportunity; we find that there’s always another way to do something, one that might result in a more equitable education system. My grandmother shared the fulfillment that comes from being on the side of justice and of advocating for those who have less power; I never struggled with what to do with my life, my path was always clear and so far, it’s been incredibly satisfying. But my grandmother also taught me that in order to make sure you’re on the right side, in order to create a better world we need to question everything. Finally, my grandmother taught me the power of storytelling, particularly the stories that an older, wiser person can impart, for it was her stories’repeated in great detail for three decades of my life’that delivered these lessons.