Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
October 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 2

Radical Dreaming for Education Now

author avatar
If we focus only on what has been lost, we will miss an incredible opportunity to find new paths and passions in schools.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

School CultureInstructional StrategiesCurriculumLeadershipEquity
October 2022 Dugan cover image
Credit: LANASTACE / SHUTTERSTOCK
The pandemic has changed our lives as educators forever. In addition to attending to our personal lives, educators have been working double time to meet the needs of a student population whose schooling experience has been like no other. Some of our early learners are in 2nd grade but may have barely gone to a physical school building. Some of our older learners flipped from spending most of their time as students to spending most of their time as caregivers or employees. Many students who were not doing well in school before COVID-19 have found it even harder to be present as schools have reopened. The pandemic has caused an immense amount of pain and trauma for many in our communities, and we are seeing the mental health of our young people suffer as challenging behaviors rise.
For many students, especially those who have been pushed to the margins, the extended absence of strong, school-based instruction was hugely detrimental. We have dire problems of inequity that already needed to be fixed pre-pandemic, but now they run deeper. This led to greater pressure on schools and educators. We hear all the time that if students do not recover in reading and math, they will fall further behind and not be well positioned to go to college and be a part of the workforce. Our ready-made solutions have so far been to target the biggest learning losses, try to attend to trauma in the process, and get students back on track as fast as possible. Urgency, fear, and the pull of the previous dominant paradigm of schooling are leading us to attempt a feverish return to the status quo—reducing schooling experiences to addressing perceived student deficits and learning loss.
We're missing the forest for the trees.
If we continue on this path, we will miss a big opportunity. The transformative chance to dream.

An Invitation to Dream

What if our first step to changing the trajectory of schooling took shape from a radical dream? As Neal and Dunn paraphrase, in the book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2003), Robin Kelley:
argues that dreams are central to the fight for justice and freedom and that, without new visions, we risk singular focus on deconstruction, rather than reconstruction. … [Dreams] offer a liberatory space to imagine a world once injustices are eradicated and our full humanity is realized. (Neal & Dunn, 2020, p. 60)
We have a unique opportunity to do this in education. To deconstruct is to find flaws and problems, but to reconstruct is to understand the longstanding inequity baked into our system, acknowledge the impact of the pandemic, and develop solutions aimed at an equitable future. If education is key to liberation, then we must visualize and operationalize what that could be. What does a schooling experience look like where students are seen as fully capable to chase their dreams?
Imagine what could happen if we picked up the torch from abolitionists, Black feminists, and innovators before us and thought about the next iteration of schooling through Kelley's lenses? What if we moved from how we will deal with the perceived loss of learning to questions about how to envision the future of learning? What if we didn't leave exploring those questions to a few folks in the ed tech or assessment industries, but brought those questions right to our students, especially those who have been pushed to the margins? What if we rejected the notion that we need to teach students how to go to school again and embraced questions like, What does it mean to go to school now? and What is its purpose?

What if we moved from how we will deal with the perceived loss of learning to questions about how to envision the future of learning?

Author Image

Many teachers have already left the profession because of burnout, the chaotic pace of schools reopening, and a lack of agency (Dill, 2022). Teachers have dreams for their students and need the fuel to help them get there. Teachers in the trenches during the pandemic have built a tremendous number of new skills and have learned more about themselves and what they need. Can we dream about what it could look like to meaningfully explore this new knowledge with them and help them thrive as they put their all into helping students do the same?
We must push ourselves to think beyond what can't happen and to think instead of our duty as the holders of dreams. We must move through this moment by radically dreaming and hearing the dreams of others.
Here are some dreams I've heard lately:
My dream is for every student to love themselves as much as I do.
—Hanaa Elmi, 2nd grade teacher

My dream is for students to love themselves and see their power. I want them to own their potential as learners. I want them to see themselves as powerful people in the world.
—Alyssa Munson-Hernandez, restorative practices coach

My dream would be that whatever students want to achieve that they can without racial barriers and that [even with] dreams that seem far-fetched, they can imagine themselves being able to achieve them through their own will and self-efficacy.
—Shamile Childs, parent
These dreams, and so many more, aren't about going back to normal and redoing what has already been done. These dreams are radical, connected to purpose and people, and require classroom experiences that lay the foundation for a life of self-love and agency. This is where we need to be.

Radical Dreaming

When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.
—Audre Lorde
The idea of dreaming—and in many Black scholars' views, radical dreaming—isn't a fluffy notion. Being rooted in our dreams has served the most innovative leaders of yesterday and today. If we look at some of the people who have inspired generations and catapulted us forward, they have often been dreamers—people who had a vision for a world that did not yet exist.
From Steve Jobs' dream of what could be possible with a personal computer to Biggie Smalls' dream of what life could be like if he had a profile about him published in Word Up magazine—the ability to dream is a foundation for transformation. Activist ancestors like Harriet Tubman, Dolores Huerta, and Fred Hampton have shown us that dreaming can lead to profound action. No one could imagine a Black woman leading the charge to freedom, a Latina laborer shaping legislation, or a Rainbow Coalition of races fighting for freedom together. And scholar-educator Gloria Ladson Billings, in her seminal text The DreamKeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children (Jossey-Bass, 2009), has documented the success of teachers who use cultural competence, socio-political context, and a sharp focus on student learning to help children actualize their dreams.
Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, new opportunities to dream have to be unleashed. Students may not have sat in formal learning spaces in the same way they did before pandemic lockdowns, but they did engage in learning—all the time. They can connect with people all over the world through their devices and create all kinds of projects and artifacts—games, videos, apps, designs, and more—with immediacy. If they have a question, they know how to get it answered. If they have an interest, they know how to explore it further. And with guidance and support, they no longer need to wait to be impactful. They can be social activists, they can learn something online and try it at home, or they can send messages or sing songs to others as forms of inspiration. In other words, they can live out their dreams today.
When the teenage social entrepreneur Marly Dias was frustrated with the representation of Black girls and women in literature, she started the #1000BlackGirlBooks movement. Her radical dream was that she and Black girls everywhere could be seen in their fullness. She was 11 at the time. My own 11-year-old son is obsessed with the idea that school should acknowledge the impact of virtual reality and video games and shift as a result. He dreams of a world where students could create games as assessments for fellow students, based on their interests. If a student is interested in space, for example, it could be their job to learn all they can about it and create a series of virtual challenges for other students to learn what they've learned. My son believes that this could increase social interaction, build content knowledge, and bring joy. It isn't fluffy. This dream requires vision, focus, and hard work.
The dreams of students are alive and well, but if we focus solely on what we believe they've lost, we may miss another opportunity for transformation. Leading with fear and hyper-focusing on students' perceived deficits and loss will not lead us to a better future.
I recently had a chat with one of my former kindergarten students, Mahkel McKinley, now an incoming freshman at a HBCU. I am grateful to have watched him meet milestones and be successful, especially as our first encounters were not always easy. When I first met him, he hated coming to my class. For the first six weeks of school, I went through the daily fight of getting him to sit down and at least make it to lunch time. It was tough.
After some hard conversations with various mentors, I was pushed to focus on our relationship, and I started by speaking with his mother. She told me that Mahkel had a new baby brother and was struggling with the new balance of sharing attention with a sibling. Not surprisingly, he was feeling alone. We developed a plan for walk and talks between him and his parents and a plan for me to begin spending short periods of one-on-one time with him.
During one session in the library center, I asked him to choose any book he wanted and told him I'd read it aloud. He chose a book about insects. As I read it to him, a light beamed from his eyes. He was enthralled. The questions started coming. He was buoyant, and a new pathway to learning emerged. Soon we weren't just learning about insects, we were creating wild stories about them. We created art and even poetry. What sparked joy and possibility in Mahkel sparked joy and possibility in me. I started to see Mahkel feel agency, build critical skills, and feel free to dream.
I realized then that focusing on the notion of fixing him and the rest of my students was a setup for failure. My job wasn't to get them to achieve by the measures given to me. It was to spark their intellect, make learning magical, and to help them dream.

The dreams of students are alive and well, but if we focus solely on what we believe they've lost, we may miss another opportunity for transformation.

Author Image

Active Dreaming

So, if dreaming for potential, not reacting to loss, is the answer, how do educators begin? Here are a few ideas:
Listen and expand. In our book Street Data: A Next Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation (Corwin, 2021), Shane Safir and I build on a long-standing argument that students at the margins are the ones we need to listen to most closely. Many students have experienced hardship, but that isn't their whole story. Resist deciding that trauma and loss define what matters to students, families, and educators.
Before setting goals with students, start by dreaming big with them. Discuss what has been challenging, but open the conversation around what opportunity this moment offers us. Sit in a circle and use prompts like, If you could create anything you wanted, what would it be? What did the last two years show you was possible that you couldn't have imagined before? What are your wildest dreams now (the kind you believe could never happen)? How could this space be a place that helps your dreams come true? Listen, take notes, talk about it, and plan from there.
Slow down. We cannot accelerate our way to recovery. Reconstruction requires understanding needs and careful planning. This requires relationships, connection, and flow. If students have an interest, read about it. Talk about it. Write about it. We don't always have to have an elaborate outcome. Sometimes the goal should be for students to be able to talk and bond with one another. Storytelling and talking are a part of literacy. If your year is already in full swing, pick a part of the day that you will slow down and engage with students and your fellow teachers for the sake of enjoyment and dreaming. It will allow you to be more present and spark joy in instructional planning.
Learn from the dreamers. Bring into your curriculum those who did things differently and created new realities in their field of work, like Madame C.J. Walker (entrepreneur and self-made millionaire), Lonnie Johnson (inventor), and Yuri Kochiyama (civil rights activist). In his book, Fugitive Pedagogy, Dr. Jarvis Givens (2021) argues that curricular imagination has been critical to Black liberation movements. Exploring the stories of folk heroes is necessary to develop new scripts of knowledge. The stories of Harriet Tubman, Ellen Craft, Toussaint Louverture, and so many more teach students that there is precedence for radical dreaming.
We can also learn from dreamers of today such as Faith Florez (an app developer and activist), Quannah Chasinghorse (a pioneering model), and Marsai Martin (the youngest film producer ever). Hip hop culture is another space full of dreamers. Scholar and hip-hop enthusiast Chris Emdin once said that education without activating the imagination is preparation for a life without meaning. There is no learning that sticks that doesn't make you think and dream. The stories of hip hop artists like Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, and Rapsody can help illustrate this idea.
Dream with students. Students have access to ideas we have not yet thought of. They engage with the media in a way that we have never seen. Once they've shared their dreams, create learning opportunities aligned to them. If a student wants to develop an app, how can an assessment incorporate this desire?
Dreaming isn't for the sake of dreaming. It spurs inspiration and new ideas as we help students build the skills necessary to turn hopes into realities. Bring this orientation to lesson planning, professional learning, and other areas, and see what happens.
Dream with your fellow educators. In my work with schools, I often asked school leaders if they know the hopes and dreams of their teachers. The overwhelming majority say no. We don't have a sense of what teachers care about, why they do what they do, and what drives them. Imagine you need to establish a professional development plan for the year. One approach is to focus on loss and urgency. Another approach is to focus on joy and restoring our humanity. Neither lets go of the ultimate goal of mastery or student success, but I'd argue one points us to more distress.

Oriented Toward Possibilities

At the end of my call with my former student Mahkel, I asked him his radical dream for the future. Just as I saw the light in him when we read in the library center all those years ago, I could hear it through the phone:
My dream is to not have a boring life. I want to be a creative. I come up with a lot of ideas related to music, production, design, etc. At the end of the day, creativity is everywhere. You can see it in carpentry, engineering, everywhere. I want to be creative to the point where I can look back and say, "Wow I did that." I want it to be fun. Not something I am doing just 'cause. Then what is the point? I have ideas of putting my hobbies into dreams and into a career. I have dreams, and now my goal is to show my work and learn how to make them a reality.
Mahkel's dream is about the future and oriented toward the possibilities of who he can be. Not loss.
The pandemic has been tough for all educators, but we are not without resources to guide our way forward. Let us learn from those who have come before us and look to the rising sun. The future is bright if we let ourselves radically dream.
References

Dill, K. (2022, June 20). School's out for summer and many teachers are calling it quits. The Wall Street Journal.

Givens, J. R. (2021). Fugitive pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the art of Black teaching. Harvard University Press.

Kelley, R. D. (2003). Freedom dreams: The black radical imagination. Beacon Press.

Neal, A. M., & Dunn, D. C. (2020). Our ancestors' wildest dreams: (Re)membering the freedom dreams of Black women abolitionist teachers. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing35(4).

Jamila Dugan is a leadership coach, former teacher and school leader, and the coauthor of Street Data: A Next Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation (Corwin, 2021). She began her career as a teacher in Washington D.C., successfully supporting her school to implement an International Baccalaureate program. After being nominated for Teacher of the Year, she later served as a coach for new teachers in Oakland, California. As a school administrator, Jamila championed equity-centered student services, parent empowerment, and co-led the development of the first public Mandarin immersion middle school in the Bay Area. Jamila and Shane began their work together 7 years ago during the development of The Listening Leader for which Jamila acted as the primary researcher. Jamila serves as an equity-centered leadership development coach across all sectors including non-profits, public school districts, charter networks, parochial, and private schools. She is an avid supporter of dual language learning, serving on the boards of Independence Charter Spanish Immersion School in Philadelphia and Parents of African American Students Studying Chinese (PAASSC) in the Bay Area.



Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
School Culture
If We Want Sustainable Schools, We’ve Got to Build Teacher Agency
Paul Emerich France
2 months ago

undefined
A Survey on Educator Bandwidth
Educational Leadership Staff
2 months ago

undefined
Surveys Say: Teachers Need Stronger Systemic Support
Naomi Thiers
2 months ago

undefined
Prioritizing Connection
Michelle Hope
2 months ago

undefined
Is It Burnout—or a Question of Ethics?
Tara Laskowski
2 months ago
Related Articles
If We Want Sustainable Schools, We’ve Got to Build Teacher Agency
Paul Emerich France
2 months ago

A Survey on Educator Bandwidth
Educational Leadership Staff
2 months ago

Surveys Say: Teachers Need Stronger Systemic Support
Naomi Thiers
2 months ago

Prioritizing Connection
Michelle Hope
2 months ago

Is It Burnout—or a Question of Ethics?
Tara Laskowski
2 months ago
From our issue
October 2022 Cover image
The Education Profession: Changing the Narrative
Go To Publication