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Opinion: How I helped organize my Oklahoma school district’s walkout (and why)

As a social studies teacher, I am used to talking about grassroot movements, political activism and technology. The Arab Spring, especially Tahrir Square in Egypt, comes to mind. But I’m not sure if I had ever envisioned my own role in grassroots organizing.

After Day 4 of the Oklahoma teacher walkout — one that’s gotten bigger and more robust — I’m getting a good taste for what it feels like.

Before I explain how I helped organize my school district, it’s important to lay out a brief background on education in Oklahoma.

teacherslounge

The state has cut 28 percent of the education budget since 2008. The increases teachers are currently demanding would just get us back up to the level we were at a decade ago.

For various reasons, teachers began to organize their own district-wide groups in support of a walkout. (Oklahoma is a Right to Work state where striking is prohibited, and there were frustrations with the union’s progress getting the Legislature to support public school education in our state.) Other teachers began Facebook groups that amassed tens of thousands of followers.

Both non-union and union teachers stood together behind the state’s main teacher’s union in a call for salary increases and more funding for our schools. Last week, the Legislature passed a bill that provided about half the amount teachers said they needed, and that’s when we went to work.

During the 72 hours from Thursday night to Easter Sunday, I created a group chat room, a website and a Facebook group for my school called “Bulldogs for Students.”

Oklahoma teacher Greg Oppel (right) with colleagues at the tech station they created at the state Capitol. The teachers from Oppel’s district of Edmond set up computers to vote in daily survey, asking if teachers planned to return to work the next day or not. So far, each day of the walkout, teachers in Edmond have voted 90 percent to not return to school. Photo courtesy of Greg Oppel

After I created the Facebook group, a recent alumnus of our high school — now a college student and teaching assistant in a special education class in my school — volunteered to help co-manage the group. Within hours we had hundreds of requests to join our group from current school employees and retirees. Half a dozen people were then assigned to the project of organizing members of the group, so we could gauge how many folks might actually participate in the walkout. We reached more than 1,000 members by Sunday night, including support staff, teachers and retirees from the entire district.

While all of that went on, I was constructing a web page that would be a one-stop shop for information by mining the Oklahoma Education Association websites, social media and the “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout – The Time Is Now!” Facebook group started by Alberto Morejon.

READ MORE: What you need to know about the Oklahoma teacher walkout

Most people by nature don’t want to stir up trouble, so if they have to dig around a lot they lose interest; it’s simply human nature. I knew from my experience teaching grassroots movements that if something was going to start, it had to be easy to find and convenient.

In Oklahoma, teachers have come to accept “living without” as the standard, and activism among teachers is weak. We have been beaten down so long with financial cuts and decreased funding we accept our fate as if it’s a law of the universe. Oklahoma is the state where former Republican Gov. Frank Keating in 1996 called teachers slugs, after all.

It’s also the state where Republican Gov. Mary Fallin just this week suggested that teachers head to the Capitol to thank state lawmakers for passing the salary increase last week. On Tuesday after seeing that’s not what teachers were in town to do, she compared their demand for more school funding to “a teenage kid that wants a better car.”

By the time I was finished with the website early Monday morning at 4 a.m., I had a homepage telling our participants what our plans were, where to go, where the bathrooms were, what essentials to bring and points for advocacy. The “About Us” read: “We are alumni, parents, students, support staff, and teachers from Edmond Public Schools coming together to ensure continued funding for our students’ education.”

As our online group exponentially grew like a prairie wildfire, my friends and colleagues organized a “Capitol Classroom” on the southeast corner of the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds. They recruited students who had asked how they could help. One of my colleagues, Regan, organized a U-Haul, paid for by a donor, and a sound system. After Easter dinner, his recruits loaded up chairs and tables from our school. Regan’s wife, Elanna, would spend the bulk of the next day documenting our movement with photos and videos of our friends and students, when she wasn’t advocating herself.

The “Capitol Classroom” was created on the southeast corner of the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds on the first day of the teacher walkout. Photo by Elanna Killackey, English and yearbook teacher and STUCO [Student Council] sponsor at Edmond Memorial High School in Edmond, Oklahoma

For three days our social media platforms exploded until the wee hours of Monday morning. I spent those wee hours updating the online system with assignments for the upcoming week for my students. No graded work, but opportunities for my students to keep on track for their AP classes. At 5:30 a.m. Monday, I picked up my sister and we drove to the Oklahoma State Capitol in the dark.

In 30-something degree weather, we unloaded our carefully packed bags full of three computers, two tablets, lots of chargers, coolers full of bottled water, posters, markers, duct tape and rolling suitcases.

The U-Haul and more colleagues began to arrive. We could see each other’s breath in the cold. One of our students, Gabby Davis, helped us unload folding chairs and tables and setting them up into what was already an almost fully decked out classroom with rope barriers. The setup caught the media’s attention early in the day — just as we had hoped.

I am finishing this now at 1:01 a.m. on Wednesday. For the last five days we’ve been at the Capitol, friends and strangers from my school district and other districts have thanked me in person and online for my role in “leading” our district walkout group. In return, I did the same.

All I did was employ the skills I learned from my scoutmaster, of attacking problems by employing every available human resource to their most useful purpose. We managed to create an authentic professional learning community right at the Capitol. A community based on trust with the common goal of permanently improving education in Oklahoma. And on Monday, we will do it again on Day 6 of #OKTeacherWalkout.

Want to know more about the “Capitol Classroom?” You can catch up with that story below with my former AP U.S. Government and Politics student, Gabrielle Davis. Thousands of students have been participating in the walkout from Day 1. They seem to understand the importance of a good solid public education system to democracy.


I am angry that I have to ask my state to invest in its future

By Gabrielle Davis

Oklahoma high school senior Gabrielle Davis speaking at the state Capitol in support of her teachers and more funding for education. Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Davis

My name is Gabrielle Davis, and I’m a senior at Edmond Memorial High School in Edmond, Oklahoma. I became involved in the teacher walkout by hearing about the Class at the Capitol demonstration and wanting to participate.

I asked how I could help, and before I knew it, like Mr. Oppel mentioned, I was loading tables and chairs into a U-Haul and unloading them on the lawn of the Capitol early Monday morning. We held two classes there, AP Language and Composition and AP Literature. At the end of the second class, I delivered a speech addressing the education funding issues from the point-of-view of a student.

It was very empowering to be able to speak to a crowd of my peers and teachers from across the state about my experience with the degeneration of education in Oklahoma. I also found it incredibly inspiring to be able to talk to various educators about their plights in choosing the profession they did.

The selfless nature of the educators that I am surrounded with will never cease to amaze me. After I gave my speech and offhandedly complained about how cold it was, a teacher who I didn’t know came up to me and offered her extra pair of gloves. “I don’t have anything else to give to you,” she said, “but I have these gloves. Thank you so much for speaking up for us.”

I nearly cried at how much it seemed to mean to her that I was there. This exchange is what I will think about as I drive to the Capitol every single day until comprehensive legislation is passed guaranteeing funding for education.

Oklahoma high school senior Gabrielle Davis holding sign at the state Capitol in support of her teachers and more funding for education. Friday, April 6, 2018, is day 5 of the teacher walkout and Davis’ fifth day protesting at the Capitol. Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Davis

Standing alongside my teachers and calling on our legislature together resulted in a bond
unparallelled by anything else, which I am grateful for. But the fact that we have to be out
protesting for something as elementary as education funding is very disappointing.

I am angry that I have to be asking my state to invest in its future, but I am dedicated to turning this anger into passion. I am holding tightly to the words of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, taught to me by my AP U.S. History teacher, Christine Custred:

“I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a
single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

I will not stop until we are heard.

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