Mastering Rhetoric with Troy LaRaviere

I first became interested in the work and activism of Troy LaRaviere from hearing and reading news reports (mostly on WBEZ and the Reader) about his refusal to implement educational policies mandated by the mayor and his surrogates in Chicago Public Schools. I found myself swayed by many of the arguments he put forth through those media and on his own personal blog, and I witnessed some of the results: good, as when his efforts helped uncover a corrupt contract for which CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was imprisoned; bad, as when he was removed from his post as principal of Blaine Elementary in Lakeview.

When I arrived at GCE, I was assigned the Rhetoric course in the junior Humanities sequence, one unit of which asked students to study individuals they saw as “rhetorical challengers”: people who were using rhetoric to challenge the status quo. As a teacher at GCE, I was likewise tasked with the important job of connecting this course of study to individuals in our community who are doing that real work of challenging the complacency of their peers and their communities. I immediately thought of Troy as an individual who fit that mold.

I contacted Troy out of the blue with an email about our school and the curriculum into which I saw his actions fitting. He graciously accepted my invitation, and in October of 2016 the juniors of GCE had their first roundtable with Troy, during which we learned about his research into problematic practices at Chicago-area charter schools. The next year, Troy returned and devoted much of the time of his roundtable to youth engagement in politics as well as the rhetoric of the early colonial period in what would become the US (inadvertently covering much of the history content of our curriculum, but in a way that connected the history to his work in the present). This year Troy visited GCE again, but this time in the guise of a candidate for Mayor of Chicago; our students this year prepared some difficult questions for him about policing, affordable housing, and how he would engage councilmembers who might be hostile to his vision for the city. The common refrain from Troy was about “people power”: In our democracy, the people have the power, if we have the courage and the confidence to bring ourselves together and organize. We’re hoping that the projects and curriculum in Rhetoric give us the tools to do just that.