This interview appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
If public education was done right, wouldn’t all teachers simply be punk rockers?
It might seem odd to feature the punk rock drummer from the bands Public Image Ltd, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Pigface, and Killing Joke in the pages of an edition of The Progressive dedicated to public education. But rocker-turned- teacher Martin Atkins has a lot to say about getting down to the roots of teaching, music, and life.
Q: I heard you are selling a shirt, “Education Is the New Punk Rock.” What the hell does that mean?
Martin Atkins: It’s “the next punk rock,” actually, although “new punk rock” works as well. I teach a class on punk. We look at music genres. And I show students my appalling report card from when I was a kid a few years before punk rock started in England.
Throughout that lecture, which has evolved over the last several years, we’re talking about, “What are punk values?” I think it’s “Jump in at the deep end,” “Here’s a chord, here’s another, now start a band,” which I think might have actually come from Woody Guthrie originally.
But the other punk idea was to question everything, not to accept what is told to you as being factual, investigate things for yourself, and make things happen.
And that’s all I’ve tried to do since I’ve gotten into education, to take a kind of a punk rock view of what’s happening.
I kind of treat the classroom like it’s a gig, and I look at my lectures like a set list, because if you don’t view the classroom as theater you lose attention.
Q: Have you had experiences with the American public education system that pushed you in this direction? What’s the punk rock response to what we call “education reform” here—the takeover of public schools by charters, by choice, by competition?
Atkins: Just last week, I was in Lincoln Park High School, lecturing to sixteen-year-olds in a program, and I think my Facebook activity about that precipitated a school in Akron to call me, to say their music program had just been cut, and to ask me if I would go and speak to their students. Of course they don’t have a budget. But I don’t care. When I’m on the road, I’m happy to stop off and talk to anybody about anything.
So I think that’s how I see working it—just going straight to the kids and doing it.
When I was a punk rock kid, I used to be on the street drinking a lot, taking prescription speed. I was on the street throwing rocks at the building of the musical establishment, metaphorically and probably literally, too.
But as I grew up a little, I realized the real game, the real place to change, was inside the major label offices. So I started to finagle my way in. Some punk rockers would say, “Oh, you’re in the major label offices, you sold out.” I’m like, “No, I’m in the offices sending out faxes and booking my next tour, using their telephones to call America from England.” I was doing it punk rock style.
Q: I love the connections you are making here. I’ve always thought about punk rock as an incredibly hopeful thing, even though it grows out of despair. It’s a kind of we can-do-anything attitude.
Atkins: It’s strange when I do my talk and one of the kids is sitting in the audience with a Ramones T-shirt, not understanding what it means. I say, “I’m pleased you wore that shirt today to support me.” And they’re like, “What?”
Punk led me to do a lot. I’m finishing up my third book. I started my own record label. It wasn’t because I knew I could do a better job. It was because I knew I couldn’t do any worse than had been done to me by supposedly successful labels, independent and major.
Q: When we talk about progressive education values—the idea of getting in there and letting the kids explore and make a mess and get into learning—it feels like punk rock.
Atkins: I’m doing it. First of all, we redesigned the classroom. My class has got couches, trees, Christmas tree lights, and artwork on the walls. And it’s like, hold on a minute, these couches are really comfortable. Anyone teaching in this room had better really be on their game. Otherwise you might as well hand out blankets and pillows.
I find that professionals in the field think that everybody has to have the basics before you can jump in the deep end.
So when students are at their most open and willing to be impressed, that’s when you sit them down and say, here we go, here’s fifty terms that you have to know before you can do anything. There’s a green screen over there that can make it look like you’re riding on the back of a frog—but before we do that, let’s learn all these terms. You immediately lose people.
I have this T-shirt slogan: “Fireworks: Week One. Formula for Gunpowder: Week Five.”
Q: So why is that not happening in American K-12 schools right now? The opposite is going forward: Here’s what you have to learn, we are going to measure it, and if you don’t know it, we’re coming after your teachers or your principals.
Atkins: In Norway, they don’t care about anything, they just let the kids loose in the forest with these shapes. The shapes happen to be letters, but the kids are encouraged to just play with these shapes.
And whilst in the first three or four years, they test behind American students, after those first years, they steam way ahead of American students.
So I think we are just starting to exchange information about what works and what doesn’t, what is education and what isn’t.
What I would like to have in a student is someone with their curiosity inspired and their head on fire.
And all of these students, they’re all completely different. You talk about choice, but there are so many options out there to help you set students’ heads on fire.
Q: And it sounds like your head is on fire.
Atkins: I get it. That is the blessing of punk—I remember people saying, well, there will always be record stores. No, there won’t. We’ve been through chaos. So change, I’m OK with it.
I started to teach social media. That class changed almost as you taught it—as soon as you finished the last line of the lecture you had to revise it from the top.
I have always been in a changing environment.
So as long as you are always looking, you start to see there are different ways of doing things. The classroom needs to be a place of entertainment.
Tim Slekar is the dean of the school of education at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. Jed Hopkins is associate professor of teacher education at Edgewood College. Together they co-host BustED Pencils Radio. BustED Pencils Radio is a new one-hour talk show devoted to exposing the underbelly of corporate education reform and highlighting the heroes struggling to save American public education.