Hyperrhiz 15: Reviews and reports

Jay Gillen, Educating for Insurgency

Delana Gregg

University of Maryland Baltimore County

Educating for Insurgency: The roles of young people in schools of poverty. Jay Gillen (author); foreword by Robert P. Moses. AK Press, 2014. 170 pp. (9781849351997).

Scene: U.S. urban school of poverty, current day.

Actors: Teacher and student descendants of slaves. Education administrators who mandate the day’s lesson.

Act: Teaching about the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that legally ended racial segregation in American public schools, the historic victory over inequality and racial discrimination.

Context: the scene plays out in a school more racially and economically segregated now than in 1954.

Educating for Insurgency illuminates the conflict between educational authorities controlling the learning and actions of poor students of color and the students’ own purposes in trying to deal with the current deficiencies in their schools of poverty. Gillen situates the Baltimore Algebra Project case study as a radical way of reconsidering the roles of teachers and students in addressing the problems facing schools of poverty. Educating for Insurgency is written as program notes for the scenes of students’ and teachers’ lives, helping the readers of the script understand the motivations and background of the players. As in this Brown v. Board scene, Gillen utilizes Kenneth Burke’s theory of dramatism to understand the symbolic communication going on in schools of poverty as moving the action of the play along. His reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man focuses on the use of complex rhetorical symbols in (school) hierarchies and interactions to understand how to use the contexts of division in our society to build healthier situations. Gillen’s Insurgency connects with the desires of those who feel trapped by our segregated and unjust education system, offering a better way to understand and help address the needs of students in schools of poverty. 

Jay Gillen presents ideas for the radical organizing of young people in the spirit of the insurgencies of the Civil Rights Movement to bring about the creation of a new and more just system of education. A Baltimore City Public School math and English teacher for twenty-five years, Gillen is the adult facilitator of the Baltimore Algebra Project (BAP). BAP follows the approach of Dr. Robert (Bob) Moses’ national Algebra Project: peer to peer math tutoring, to help students access jobs in the knowledge-based economy, and as an organizing platform for student protests for quality education. In his foreword to Educating for Insurgency, Bob Moses situates Jay Gillen’s insurgency with the Baltimore Algebra Project students in the same historical narrative as Moses’ own work as a leader of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC) organizing for civil rights: to stop treating black and poor students as objects and to understand their complex desires and lives to be able to address the root causes of the problems facing students in schools of poverty. Gillen details how SNCC’s young leaders used the tactics of Civil Rights Activist Ella Baker to build consensus to organize themselves and their work around voter registration. Education, like voting rights, is the contemporary issue of how oppressed communities are raised and controlled by the powerful, with lower class students left without (quantitative) skills crucial to success in our current economy. The Baltimore Algebra Project employs the SNCC model; students run a successful non-profit tutoring business through collective decision making, using that business to subsidize organizing and political student work around conditions in their communities and the nation. Authorities do not like insurgents, but they support math learning, and the Algebra Project couches their insurgency in teaching peers math.

Gillen compares the acts of powerless 18th and 19th century slaves and the acts of current slave-descendant students and their peers in poverty today as the continuation of the struggle for freedom. Both act in their capacity as self-interested and motivated human beings, not solely as objects that are only motivated by punishment: “As runaway slaves undermined the institutions of slavery, young people are able to derail educational reforms by simply acting in what they believe are their interests” (p. 65). Young people in poverty become aware in adolescence of the complex role of society’s fear and neglect of them. Schools of poverty inspire little confidence, standardizing these students and controlling their bodies and actions. Students do not want to be ignorant and uneducated, but resist conforming to “authorities’ conflation of obedience with learning” (p. 65). Gillen argues that it is better to distinguish learning and socialization in an unjust society, and to help students work and learn based on their own interests, advancing their plans autonomously. Students must choose to engage with curriculum, but “students may be operating from a different script” (p. 69) and may not act according to the institution’s pre-determined standardized list of educational objectives. Influenced by Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives, Gillen seeks to illustrate the strategic moments of motivation of a student as agent acting in a scene with purpose, keeping with his identity. Young people have different and complex motivations and interests, and are pursuing them, developing techniques of resistance to the school’s corrupt and non-serving authority.

Gillen presents a Burkeian “representative anecdote,” a scene from an Idealized Algebra Project Classroom where students are rehearsing their roles, trying on identities of power. A main criticism the book lays out against dominant ideology as perpetuated in schools of poverty is literalness in judging students actions. In this scene a student curses at a teacher, the obscenity a violation of school taboo. From the Algebra Project model, a more complex view of the student’s motives includes his entire lived experience, what is happening outside of the classroom and the relationship built with the teacher. In this complexity of motivations, considering students as humans who are free to make choices can give a (fellow human) teacher the opportunity to understand the complex motives and build cooperation. Gillen calls upon Burke’s ideas in A Rhetoric of Motives about courtship rituals between socially-estranged people in hierarchies of power, allowing space for the awkwardness and standoffishness expected when bridging the different positions in the hierarchy of the teacher and student, the juxtaposition of contesting principles and their development toward common purpose. The teacher need not be the only power in the room, and anyone can earn authority. The Algebra Project Classroom grants “crawl space” where students can make demands on themselves and their peers to learn, to practice democracy before they are ready to “walk” in the public sphere to social change. 

For teachers in schools of poverty, this book is particularly helpful as a way to re-frame how dominant ideology characterizes “failing schools” and students instead as active citizens in democracy. Effective and empathetic educators already consider students’ lives and motivations in designing their educational interventions, creating lessons that are of interest to students and relevant to their experiences. In the spirit of student-centered learning, Gillen proposes re-thinking not only the focus of the curriculum but the relationships in the classroom as collaboratively attempting to reach shared purpose. Jay Gillen uses Shakespearean passages illustrating the metaphor of the Algebra Project classroom as a pastoral play where sophisticated teachers can humbly give space to students to share their wisdom and power. Teachers as organizers would need to move past standardized curricular objectives into a space where students can try on different roles and authority, allowing the students to create the learning space they need to grow as citizens who can impact society. This requires teachers to relinquish their hold of power in the room, which goes against ideas of controlling a classroom and disciplining students to accomplish a set of pre-determined high stakes objectives.

The Algebra Project seemingly succeeds at this in their outside of the classroom space. As an after-school tutoring program with off-campus offices where students organize, BAP is supported by the school system for helping students achieve in math. For people working in conjunction with schools, like the myriad of non-profits and tutoring programs who support students in poverty, Gillen’s model can give language and tools for connecting with students and building a safe harbor where students can define and collaborate on their learning goals. This type of work would likely be more difficult to put in place in a 50-minute math class sandwiched in between other classes in a school where students are disciplined to follow a curriculum designed to keep them powerless. A teacher employing BAP’s principles may be able to create shared purpose with students, building alliances with students and giving them power to understand information in a way that is meaningful and useful to them. This teacher would likely be evaluated highly for an active learning, flipped classroom, as long as the students were able to demonstrate the Common Core Learning Objective required by the governmental authorities.

This book enters a field of practitioner-literature on how to best teach students in schools of poverty and theories of how to center learning in students’ needs and motivations. Gillen echoes Lisa Delpit (Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom) and Gloria Ladson-Billings’ (Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children) in their desires to address the racism and power differentials in schools of poverty by having teachers value the rich cultural legacies and knowledge that students bring to school. Afro-centric education and culturally responsive teaching are heralded as important ways to address persistent achievement gaps in schools of poverty, but rarely does the pedagogical literature evolve the role of the teacher into community organizer.

Gillen and BAP’s model are centered in students’ culture and interests, but they go beyond simply teaching math skills in a culturally responsive manner. In the spirit of Paulo Freire, Gillen is illustrating libertarian education, reconciling the teacher and student power differential as a partnership, to help oppressed learners realize full humanity, a process of transformation and engagement in a struggle for liberation. Gillen is offering here not a “how to guide” but a case study with dramatic program notes, from which the reader can infer ways to deal with students in schools of poverty not as objects but as equal partners motivated to learn and student leaders motivated to change the education system. The powerful adult who adopts these lessons can improve relationships with students for better educational outcomes, but the ultimate goal of this insurgency is the empowerment of youth to interrupt this system and create a better, more equal education ideology.


Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California, 1969/1945. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California, 1969/1950. Print.

Delpit, Lisa. Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: New Press, 2006. Print.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995/1952. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970. Print.

Gillen, Jay, and Robert P. Moses (Foreword). Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty. Baltimore: AK Press, 2014. Print.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. 1994. Print.


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