“Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.” James Baldwin – Freedom
Can we decide to be free?
Freedom is an often used yet really complex concept. Many consider freedom something that is granted to them, something they don’t have to work for. Others see freedom as something denied, and something that must be fought for. These different conceptions of freedom spring from different life experiences which are in turn shaped by a person’s gender, race, and ethnicity.
Steve and Dan Fouts are joined by educator John Corcoran to discuss how freedom means different things to different people and how achieving it isn’t as easy for some as it is for others.
Dan Fouts 00:00
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here. We’re veteran educators from Illinois, who have created the Teach Different podcast to model how to have unforgettable conversations using a super simple 3-step method, and quotes from some of the world’s great thinkers. This method works with students of all ages, in all types of classrooms, and can be used in online or face-to-face environments. So, if you’re a teacher, administrator, social emotional learning specialist, or anybody who loves the art of conversation, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome.
Hello, everybody. Welcome to the Teach Different podcast this week. We are very excited to have a quote from James Baldwin, who is a novelist, playwright, essayist, and poet. We’re going to get to his quote about freedom, soon. I’m Dan Fouts, and my brother, Steve Fouts, is here. We also have one guest tonight, John Corcoran, who will be introducing himself once he weighs in on the quote. Our 3-step method starts with a quote, followed by a claim, what is the meaning of the quote, and using some of our personal experiences we’re going to push against it with a counterclaim. The counterclaim gets you thinking about another plausible way to look at what James Baldwin is saying in this quote. Then we’ll end with an essential question. Even though we’re adults having this conversation, the whole idea with this podcast is to get our listeners to think about how they can use this quote with their students – if I were to give my students this quote, what would they say? How could I use this conversation with my curriculum? Those are the things that are hopefully going through everyone’s mind. Here’s James Baldwin’s quote on freedom, “Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.” “Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.” John, what do you think?
John Corcoran 02:25 – Claim
I’m an EL teacher. I’ve been teaching EL for the past nine years over in Lombard, at Westlake Middle School. Next year, I’ll be moving on to teach EL over at Fenton High School in Bentonville. To address the quote, “freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be,” with my students, my demographics in particular, I would guide them to recognize this idea of self-advocacy, which tends to be a challenge for disadvantaged demographics. Before getting into the quote, I would want to talk about a theme, maybe self-reliance, self-confidence, advancement, or self-advocacy, and teach that to see how they understand those terms. With the hope that they would be better able to understand this quote. Freedom is what you choose to make of it. Freedom is something that you have to take control of, and wield it with responsibility. That would be how I would rephrase the quote, so they understand that they have a responsibility to use the freedom that is out there. It’s not going to be handed to them.
Steve Fouts 04:11
I like that a lot. I like the self-advocacy piece, and I’m thinking of how students would react to a word like freedom. I’m thinking I would want to circle the word when sharing the quote and have them talk about what freedom means. I’d like both of your opinions. What do students think freedom means when you say that word? What comes to mind for them? Is it something like, you’re either in jail or you’re free? What are they thinking? It’s hard to say and likely depends on the age. Many kids will probably say it means to do whatever you want to do. That’s freedom without constraints. It’s something that you take, right? Freedom is something people take. They bring it to themselves, because they want to do whatever they want. They don’t want to necessarily follow other people’s rules. That’s what I think a lot of kids would would say. John, what do you think?
John Corcoran 05:33
Yeah, that’s exactly the reason why I was thinking of framing it within the idea of self-advocacy and responsibility. Freedom is a complex term. It doesn’t seem like it is, but it is a complex term. You want kids to understand that freedom isn’t always what you can do, but what you should do. It’s what will benefit you and other people. What are the limits of your freedom? Does freedom have limits? That takes you to another discussion point. With an EL disadvantaged demographic, it needs to bear down to the point that they may not feel like they have freedom. They may feel like all these other people are born on third base where they’re not even born, or they’re at home plate swinging. They still have all these barriers they have to get over, yet, their still free? Well, what are those things that get them to the next base, to the next step? That unpacks all kinds of other vocabulary, aside from them understanding themselves, understanding what they should be doing, or what kind of responsibility they have. It takes us down a path of learning more complex academic terminology.
Dan Fouts 07:01
So, you’re suggesting then, John, that this quote would motivate an English language learner to say, these are the things that I would want to be free. Motivate them to talk about that, to talk about personally what it means for them to have certain things, to be reliant on themselves. That’s a seed of motivation to get them to speak about those things. That’s great.
John Corcoran 07:26
A lot of times, the general education teacher fails to recognize that responsibility, advocacy, and reliance, are very complex terms. It takes an understanding of a variety of lower level terms in order to be able to articulate what reliance and advocacy mean. There’s so much embedded in the words. When the kids share their ideas about these words in a discussion it helps you recognize what they understand or don’t understand. This is the language they’re lacking in order to articulate an understanding. Academically and conversationally, it bridges the classroom with their reality.
Steve Fouts 08:28
I really like self-advocacy, reading that into this quote. I didn’t think of that until you mentioned it. The first phrase, freedom is something people take, is self-advocacy. You could read that as saying, freedom is something that is given to you. Maybe we’re getting into the counterclaim here, but that’s the implied insight. You don’t wait for someone to tell you what you can and can’t do, you advocate for yourself. That is a big lift for certain students and many people.
John Corcoran 09:18
I think when they recognize that, then they can see what their barriers may be, whether it’s poverty, health, or lack of access to health language. Like you said, then they can identify those things that they are responsible for improving and that might guide them to asking more questions of how do I improve on these things? What are the steps that I need to take in order to take the freedom that is out there? Freedom isn’t something you can just take and use. It’s not that simple. It’s constantly unpacking complex ideas that they have to face if they want to advance.
Dan Fouts 10:10
It’s also provocative. I’m looking at the second half of the quote. The more I look at this quote, the more interesting it gets. People are as free as they want to be. In other words, what Baldwin is saying here is if you’re not free, it means you don’t want to be free. It’s almost like putting it in your face, like a gut check. You’re not doing what you need to do to be free. That’s very empowering.
John Corcoran 10:43
Totally. It makes me think of another quote, “everybody wants to win, but not everybody wants to prepare to win.” We could throw that quote in later on as another avenue for comprehension of this idea. Like you just said, maybe they don’t want to be free, or they don’t know what they want. It’s an awareness of what is it that you actually want to do? If you know that, then you’ll find out what it takes to get it.
Steve Fouts 11:31
I think we’ve done well, with the claim. One thing I noticed is that none of us have brought up this idea of freedom in the context of slavery in African American history. James Baldwin was an African American. I don’t know what was going through his mind when he wrote this quote. We’re trying to read the text and not read too much into where it came from, but I feel like when we get to the counterclaim it might bring us into some different definitions of what freedom means. If I can push us there right now, what is the counterclaim? How would you state the counterclaim to this quote?
Dan Fouts 12:28
Read the quote again, Steve, just to refresh the listeners memory.
Steve Fouts 12:31
“Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.”
John Corcoran 12:42 – Counterclaim
I had a counterclaim idea coming into this conversation, but now… Well, I’ll start with that one. I would say not everyone has the same freedoms, so not everyone has the same options on what they may take. That could be one angle. There are multiple angles, but that’s one.
Steve Fouts 13:08
We have different sets of possibilities. We’re as free as we want to be. Is that really true? What if you’re born in a very poor area in India, where you have to struggle for food every day, or you’re born in the suburbs of Chicago? There’s a bit of a disconnect here when you think of this situationally, to build on your point. I can see myself start to believe that this quote may not be taking into consideration reality in the right way. Some people are limited, not through their fault. Maybe they are self advocates, and they want to be, but external circumstances are just too much. If that’s true, if externals are so powerful that you really don’t have freedom, in some sense, I think the only way you could agree with this quote is to redefine freedom as something more mental and less physical. I’m thinking of Malcolm X in jail. One thing he said was, I never felt so free as I did when I was in prison. When he started educating himself by reading and thinking, he said, I’ve never felt more free. Maybe this is playing on the definition of freedom as well. I’ll stop there, but I’m just trying to work through the counterclaim.
John Corcoran 15:11
I agree. What I was thinking before you said that is for a disadvantaged group, a group in poverty, they don’t have the same avenue for achieving freedom. They have to take a different path. It adds an action piece to your instruction. If you have these barriers, then the skills you need to move towards improving are organizing and communication. Sharing your reality with other people in order to make change so that you can take that freedom. It changes the means, and it also presents the means some people have to go through that other students are completely oblivious to. Like you said, we could take the path that freedom lies in the ability to consume information and expand your mind. It all depends on where the class will take you.
Dan Fouts 16:29
We’re really playing with the definition of freedom a lot. That’s what happens in these conversations; words that you thought you understood, after these conversations, you don’t understand them as well. That’s where the intellectual growth occurs. Now you’re more careful using them.
I’m looking at this and the first thing that passed through my mind is that this seems to say, as you said John, that it’s something people take. You advocate for yourself, and you go out and get it. Well, the counterclaim could be that freedom is given to you. You could almost say the Declaration of Independence is the counterclaim to this, at least on paper, right? We’re entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Now, that didn’t apply to everybody, as we know. It was a misguided and incomplete vision. But, the whole idea of natural rights is that you have these things, and you don’t have to go get them. That speaks to the fact that James Baldwin is an African American and has the perspective that he doesn’t feel like he is provided the things that are entitled to him. That’s another way to look at the counterclaim.
John Corcoran 17:51
That’s great. I’m getting essential questions popping in my head like crazy. I don’t know if we want to go there yet, if there’s more on the counterclaim we want to discuss.
Dan Fouts 18:06
Go for it. Just roll right into it.
Steve Fouts 18:08
Go for it.
John Corcoran 18:09 – Essential Question
Just from what you said, Dan, I think the essential question is, why don’t we all share the same freedoms? Or, why is freedom easier for one group of people, but not for a another group? I very poor articulation, but I hope you understand the idea that I’m going for. We start to think, how free is everyone? You have to slow down the amount of discussion that can happen in a classroom, because it could just take over. There are so many different angles that middle schoolers, and definitely high schoolers, would take. They have so many opinions and feelings about this, because it applies to what they see and what they think they understand.
Steve Fouts 19:11
I think understanding who James Baldwin was is an important piece to understand what this quote means. But, you have to be careful with that. I think that the fact that he was an African American really does make this quote more accessible in some way. What would Baldwin think freedom means? What would African Americans think freedom means? What would the founding fathers think freedom means? If I’m going with your thought, John, and thinking of how it’s perceived differently.
Dan Fouts 20:10
What’s nice about the conversation is you can see it through James Baldwin’s eyes, or try to. But, the kids are going to have their own thoughts about freedom. Now, you have them comparing their own ideas of freedom with a historical figure, and trying to sort out the definitions of freedom. Why is my definition different? Why is it that I see freedom differently than James Baldwin? This is where you tap into the kids personal experiences, so they have a hitching post.
John Corcoran 20:54
Right? It creates opportunities for presenting other terms and ideas like access and endurance. What do those mean? Endurance doesn’t just mean being able to run the mile, it means personal endurance. You have to go on this path in order to achieve these goals that can be limited for some people. Freedom is access, or freedom is dependent on access. There are so many other ways that the conversation can be driven. Being an English language learning geek, it presents so many ways for kids to start articulating what they feel that they maybe couldn’t have before this conversation.
Dan Fouts 21:49
Definitely. What a good conversation. I think we did a nice job talking about this as adult learners, but then also thinking about how this would play out with students. I don’t want to speak for the group, but I’m leaving with a lot of possibilities for using this in an English class, in a social studies class, or an English language learning class. The idea of freedom is cross curricular, and could be applied anywhere. John, I really appreciate you coming on the show as a guest. You have some experience using this 3-step conversation method. We appreciate your expertise and your your perspective.
John Corcoran 22:38
It was my pleasure. This 3-step method has opened the door for me in delivering all the concepts I want the kids to be able to consider and think about. I didn’t know exactly how to do it, and this 3-step method just injects it all in there very passively, and without an agenda. It really can go wherever the kids want to take it. It’s been my pleasure to be a part of this whole idea for shaping instruction, and getting students to think deeper. So really, my pleasure. Thank you, guys.
Steve Fouts 23:34
Thanks, John. It’s always a pleasure.
Dan Fouts 23:37
All right. Well, take care. Thank you so much. Thanks, everybody. We hope you’re walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and are confident that conversations like this are possible. It’s just a little bit of planning and a 3-step method. Make sure you visit our Conversation Library to find more conversations like this, plus resources to make having conversations like this possible. Don’t forget to teach different with conversations and make a difference every day.