Topa students unionize
by Jesse Phelps
As part of a unit on nonviolent resistance, Topa Topa teacher
Jeff Madrigal and his fellow sixth-grade teachers encouraged
their sixth-grade students to discover the power of collective
action for themselves by forming a student reader's union.
The sixth-graders watched part of "Gandhi" and studied
the activities of Martin Luther King and United Farm Workers
founder Cesar Chavez.
Then the kids selected union representatives, who opened negotiations
with their teachers for extensive homework privileges. Next,
they convinced their classmates that through the power of collective
action, they could achieve unheard-of rewards.
The collective action was to come in the form of a recess read-in.
A zone was selected where the participants could be seen by their
fellow students choosing to use their recess time inside a book.
But the first hurdle, student representatives quickly found out,
was getting people to unionize.
They encountered some initial resistance. "At first I doubted
that we could accomplish it," said Shepard O'Brien. But,
before long, they had achieved their goal, packing the demonstration
area with 70-plus bodies, all silently reading.
How did they do it? Was the union using persuasive measures?
Student activist Joanna Esquivel says representatives simply
explained the benefits of joining. When the potential reader
began to protest, she says, "We said, 'But you can go for
two to three weeks without homework.' So everybody said, 'I'll
do it! I'll do it!'"
Fellow representative Tino Sandoval agrees that the reward is
nice but said the best part of the experience for him was learning
"When we were reading about Cesar Chavez, it really helped
me because he was a Latino that helped people, for a cause,"
Sandoval explained. "It empowered me because I'm a Latino
and I like to help people a lot. And he helped me see clearly
how to help people. And how he did it, with no violence or anything."
Representative Nicholas Stuart proposed that the experience really
brought his class together. "Now everyone's united,"
he said. "We're all a team now, we're more together. It's
much better for our class because we can have more people, different
colors, different skin tones, different voices" being heard.
Union members and leaders agree that the benefits of their actions
are undeniable. All were happy with the time they spent reading
and the time they spent together, not to mention the promised
At press time, the students were still embroiled in discussion
with Madrigal. The nature of the homework relief was still unclear.
Debate in the classroom indicated the teachers were willing to
suspend the nightly ritual two weeks, while student representatives
remember hearing a three-week offer earlier on in talks. More
meetings and further negotiations are scheduled between the two
sides in the days following the Thanksgiving holiday.
There is a potential for more sit-ins and word is the students
may not stop at the sixth-grade level. "We went around telling
all the classes what we were going to do," says Esquivel.
"We told all the fifth-graders that next year they're gong
to be the big guys in the school. We were hoping that maybe they
could do the same thing, inspiring some other kids."
"We need more people. It would be better for us," said
Stuart. And whether or not the younger kids take up the cause,
he says the benefits will be ongoing for this year's participants.
"If we can pull this off, we can probably pull anything
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
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STEWART joined the reader's union protest.