Annual Barbara Biber Convocation Features Dr. Harper B. Keenan

On Tuesday, September 5, Bank Street Graduate School of Education welcomed a new group of graduate students, as well as faculty, staff, and alumni at the annual Barbara Biber Convocation. The event, which is a centerpiece of orientation for incoming students and celebrates the start of the school year, provides an opportunity for the College community to engage with seminal thinkers on leading issues in education.

This year’s convocation featured Dr. Harper Keenan, a 2011 graduate of Bank Street’s Childhood General and Special Education program who currently serves as the inaugural Robert Quartermain Professor of Gender & Sexuality in Education and assistant professor, Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia. He is also a 2022 NAEd/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow.

In his work, Dr. Keenan addresses social issues that many adults find difficult to talk about with children, such as racism, gender, sexuality, and violence by examining how adults and children relate to each other within the structures of schooling and other educational contexts, as well as what their interactions reveal about the possibilities and challenges of civic education.

In his keynote address, “Going Up the Slide: Finding Joy in Teaching Through Times of Crisis,” Dr. Keenan spoke about the challenges of our society, noting, “Public education is under attack in states like Florida, North Carolina, and Texas, where laws have been passed that severely limit teachers’ ability to talk about race, racism, and queer and transgender lives with their students.”

He then positioned progressive education as a joyful form of resistance against oppressive structures in schools and outlined ways teachers can embrace resistance as a pathway toward finding joy in the teaching profession during challenging times. He highlighted many examples of everyday resistance, including the inspirational story about a slide that inspired his address.

During the first full year of in-person classes at public schools after the COVID-19 pandemic and while working on an ethnographic study in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in San Francisco, Dr. Keenan said he observed children going up the playground slide when it was forbidden by school rules. When the students tried to run up the slide, the adult recess monitors blew a whistle and instructed the students to line up to go down. The children generally obeyed in the presence of adults, but once the monitors walked away, the students would return to going up the slide. The whistle kept blowing, and after a few months, the children created a game where the slide became a prison. One or two children were guards who captured children and kept them under the stairs. The captives worked together to distract the guards, so they could run up the stairs and go down the slide.

“In other words, the slide became an escape route. Not only were the kids creatively re-envisioning a very inflexible system, they were finding joy in doing it together,” Dr Keenan said. “Children’s imaginations don’t simply stop when they’re told. In times of rising authoritarianism and social discord, it becomes a particularly urgent civic need to practice a kind of education that’s engaged in a constant critical reflection about how people who hold structural power respond to those who harmlessly challenge or question their authority.”

In his closing remarks, Dr. Keenan stated, “As you begin this school year, I invite you to return to the reasons why you became an educator and to consider the role of education in creating a more just and equitable society. The reality is that we do not yet know what it would look like for everyone in the United States to have their basic needs met and if the structures that govern our lives are not the structures that we need. That necessarily means that we have to find and practice different ways of being together. And what better place to practice that kind of political imagination than in our schools. So, I’ll leave you with this. What will you do when your students go up the slide?”

Amy Stuart Wells, Dean, Bank Street Graduate School of Education, said, “Dr. Keenan is a perfect example of what can be achieved when research is applied in our classrooms. We are honored to see  him continuing Dr. Barbara Biber’s legacy by helping us all to improve our teaching practices.”

The Barbara Biber Convocation recognizes the contributions of Barbara Biber to Bank Street and the wider educational community. Dr. Biber was a central figure shaping the institution that evolved from the Bureau of Educational Experiments to become Bank Street College. A keen observer of children and classrooms who immersed herself in the phenomena of children’s and teachers’ lives, her writings achieved a rare depth of insight and conceptual elegance. As a researcher and scholar, she continuously reexamined and refined her thinking. This lecture memorializes her progressive legacy.