Educator, blogger and author Larry Ferlazzo teaches high school English and social studies, along with English language development, to a mostly English Language Learner population at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He also writes columns for Education Week and The New York Times Learning Network. Ferlazzo said the book that has made the biggest impact on his life is Rules for Radicals, by sociologist and community organizer Saul Alinsky. Written in the early ‘70s as a successor to Reverie for Radicals, Alinsky's Rules for Radicals presents what Ferlazzo calls “a very pragmatic perspective on how to make change.” Ferlazzo said that reading the book changed the course of his life, and the book stepped in to articulate what he had been feeling about how to make change in communities.
Ferlazzo recently told MindShift how the book has impacted his life as both a community organizer and educator. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Ferlazzo: Rules for Radicals is a non-fiction book written by a man named Saul Alinsky, and it was written in the early 70s. He is sort of considered the father of modern-day community organizing. I was a community organizer for 19 years before becoming a teacher.
But prior to becoming an organizer, I spent seven years as part of the Catholic Worker Movement. The social justice perspective of the Worker is prophetic witness, that you’ve witnessed the world through civil disobedience and nonviolent protests. I think certainly there’s value in that, but I was feeling increasingly discontented with the idea of prophetic witness, it didn’t feel it was producing change in the world. And I heard about Alinsky and read his book and learned more about it, the perspective of: do you want to be right? Or do you want to be effective?
That’s the subject of the book: a very pragmatic perspective on how to make change. How I apply that to schools, and how I applied that to when I was organizing, was, you start where people are, not where you are. You build relationships, get to know what their self-interests are, and go from there.
For example, in the classroom, I’m teaching one day, we were doing a natural disasters unit in 9th grade, and students were supposed to write what they felt was the worst natural disaster to experience, and there was a student who refused to do it. He’d never done much writing. And I had really gone through developing relationships -- part of what Alinsky pushed was that you get to know people and get to know their self-interests, so I knew that he was really interested in sports. I said, “Well, why don’t you write an essay about who you think the best football team is?” He said, “I could do that?” I said, “Yeah!” You know, keeping my eye on the prize, the focus was helping students develop the ability to write a persuasive essay, not to really write about what the worst natural disaster is. He got very enthusiastic about that, and after he completed that he said, “Hey, Mr. Ferlazzo, can I write one about my favorite basketball team?” So I said, sure. A week or two later, there was an all-teacher meeting with this child’s parent, and she had tears in her eyes holding one of his essays, and she said it was the first essay that he had ever written in any school.
And that’s the idea of starting where people are, and living in the world, recognizing that we live in the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. Now, there’s tension between the two, and we always want to move towards the way we want it to be, but too often, idealogues, and teachers -- and I’m not saying all teachers are idealogues! -- and even parents, say people should do things, we want people to do things because it’s the right thing to do, right? You know, a kid should clean their room because it’s the right thing to do. But it’s not because we want to be right all the time, it’s because we want to be effective.
Alinsky is particularly famous for something called the Iron Rule: never do anything for others that they can do for themselves. So I’m always looking for those kinds of opportunities. I’m a big advocate for what’s called ‘assisted discovery’ learning in the classroom. It’s not just throwing stuff in front of students, and then they have to do it all themselves, but they do a lot of inductive learning, or what’s called concept attainment: for example, when you’re teaching grammar, there are a bunch of “yes” examples and a bunch of “no” examples, you figure out the rule of why these are “yes” and these are “no.” It’s assisted discovery, but that’s an example of the Iron Rule.
Some of the stuff in the book is applicable to the world today, and some isn’t. But I think that the essence of what Alinsky wrote then is accurate, it’s been 60 years, our world has changed and the political dynamics have changed, and we’ve got to change a little bit with the times. But the universals are there, including one thing Alinsky recognized: that too many of us make too many things into principles. Once you make something into a principle, you can’t compromise. Teachers do that all the time in classrooms! Another key thing Alinsky pushed, which is applicable politically and in the classroom: everything we do, we want to do as a step towards getting to an agreement, to getting toward a compromise, getting to the table.
Even though I’ve never taught the whole book, I have used quotes of it in IB [International Baccalaureate] Theory of Knowledge class. One thing Alinsky really pushes is to always have an element of doubt in your beliefs. Be wary of anyone who doesn’t. In Theory of Knowledge, that’s a really important part, is always to recognize the difference between knowledge and beliefs.
The basic requirement for the understanding of the politics of change is to recognize the world as it is. We must work with it on its terms if we are to change it to the kind of world we would like it to be. We must first see the world as it is and not as we would like it to be. We must see the world as all political realists have, in terms of “what men do and not what they ought to do,” as Machiavelli and others have put it.