Friday, August 31, 2012

Hey Chris Christie, this is why I teach (not that you bothered to ask)

On Diane Ravich’s blog (which I cannot recommend highly enough) there have been several posts on the subject of why people become career-teachers.  The first of these posts were spurred by New Jersey Governor (and perpetual bully) Chris Christie’s comment at the RNC, “Teachers don’t teachers to become rich and famous. They teach because they love children”. 

   I realized that I wanted to become a teacher when I was a senior in high school.  At that point, I had worked with kids at a summer camp for a couple of years and worked as a ski instructor in the winters.  I loved reading and writing.  I loved the whole academic experience and most importantly I loved sharing and passing on knowledge. 

 I was fortunate to make this realization so early in my academic career because as an undergrad I was able to seek out opportunities to mentor, observe, and interact in a variety of classrooms.  I didn’t have the gall to say that I wanted to become a teacher to “change the world”, but I certainly had a bit of chip on my shoulder.

As a junior in college, I spent a month as an intern in a Boston public school, working with an amazing English teacher.  We were talking after school one day and she asked me why I wanted to teach in a high-needs city school. I regurgitated some stock answer about helping kids who really needed it.

She looked at me very seriously and said, “Don’t come here to save the kids. The students don’t need saving and they certainly don’t need a teacher who believes they need to be saved.  What they need is a teacher who believes in them and who is not afraid to challenge them”. 

Beyond that, it’s been my experience that coming into any situation with the goal or expectation of saving the world is a recipe for burn out and disappointment.  Of course, this is not to say that teachers shouldn’t try to affect change. Educators are uniquely positioned to have a profound impact on children’s lives, but it is unfair, unrealistic and even disrespectful to approach teaching with a savior-mentality. 

I had another experience with this “save the children” attitude in my first year teaching.  

 I was talking with one of my parents’ neighbors and I explained where and who I was teaching.  She looked at me like you might look at a newborn puppy and said, “Aw, that’s so wonderful.  Thank you so much for doing that”. 

Surprised by her patronizing tone, I said, “Well, they do pay me. I mean, it’s not volunteering”. 

She said, “Oh I’m sure they do, but it’s so nice what you’re doing for those type of kids”.

As a teacher, I want to be respected for my work, not pandered to or pitied. 

I don’t blame this woman for her reaction. It’s the same type of “you poor dear” attitude that many upper middle-class, suburban folks take toward inner city students.  They care, I really believe that, but they often fail to understand the realities of poverty and inequity. 

So what does all this have to do with why I became (and remain) a teacher?
I don’t have any illusions that I’m saving my students. I don’t pretend that the hour they spend with me each day will erase the effects of poverty or ease the pain of violence.  I teach because I have a passion for sharing knowledge.  I love learning, challenging, and being challenged. 

In my classroom, I push my students to think, read, and write critically.  We look at everything from classic texts to modern films to lived experience and attempt to draw conclusions.  We make arguments and support them with evidence.  We learn together.

That is why I teach and I doubt Chris Christie or any corporate reformer will understand it.  It does not fit  with a results-driven, free market definition of success. I don’t teach to feel better about myself or to build a resume of experience “in the trenches” (a term that I hate). I don't do it to make millions or have summers off or retire early with a fat pension (neither of which I do). 

I do it because sharing knowledge is what I love to do.  I love the challenges, the headaches, and, of course, the successes. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Change the things you can...

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference

I feel like this should be renamed “An Urban Teacher’s Mantra” (I’m going to avoid the word prayer).  It embodies so much of what my colleagues and I remind ourselves at the beginning of each year (and day for that matter). 

In urban schools (and schools in general), there is so much that is out of our control.  From district and school-wide mandates to students’ personal lives, some things just are and try as we might, there’s little we can do. 

In light of this, I was talking with some of my colleagues about the biggest challenges at our school and what we can do to address them.  Above almost anything else, we agreed, attendance is our biggest struggle.  However, we felt there was not a whole lot we, as teachers of students who are primarily over 18, can do to deal directly with our attendance issues. 

[True: there are a number of approaches that have found some success in some schools, from incentives to home visits to modified schedules, and we’ve tried several, but alas we still average around 70 - 80% daily attendance]
I then turned my attention to the issue of students who come to school, but leave around or after lunch, cutting their last few classes. 

To this one of my colleagues responded, “Yeah, security and the case managers need to do a better job guarding the door.”

“But what do you think we as teachers at a small school can do to curb this trend?”, I asked.

He replied, “Well, I’m not going to force them to be here. If they really don’t want to stay, they are welcome to leave. That’s their choice”. 

To an extent, I agree with him. Our school is voluntary and we consistently run a 100+ waiting list, but I’m not satisfied that there’s noting we can do keep them in the building.

I suggested that we re-commit ourselves to engaging, relevant, and active lessons in our classrooms, especially in the afternoon. On one level or another, our students made a choice to re-enroll in school and whether they’re willing to admit it or not, they want to learn something.  Just like I hate irrelevant PDs or pointless meetings, they don’t want to be bored  or feel like they’re wasting their time. While I know there are still students who will cut my afternoon classes, I refuse to let it be because they don’t feel like they’ll be challenged, entertained, engaged, or accomplish something in that hour. 

This is what I mean by controlling the things you can.  I can’t always change the girl who can’t come to school because she doesn’t have childcare, nor can I change the guy who has to work to afford dinner or who misses a week because he’s locked up and no one can bail him out.  Though these situations affect me deeply, they are not as easily in my control. 

Ensuring that when students come to my class they will be met with challenging material that is relevant to their lives and will make them stronger citizens of the world, however, is absolutely in my control.  It's important for me to note that this isn't some kind of "hero teacher" mentality. Instead, it's just a reminder of the effect that an engaging classroom can have on students' attitudes.  It's not about "we believe every student can learn", every student does learn.  As a teacher, it's up to you to decide what lessons they're going to learn in your classroom. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Toni Morrison: Will you teach at my imaginary school?

 I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.
                        - Toni Morrison          

Yesterday I stumbled upon this quote from Toni Morrison and I was blown away by the simplicity of her insight.  I mean, as if I needed any more reason to love this woman, as if she hadn’t already earned her spot on the Wall of Writers in my classroom (right between Gwendolyn Brooks and Anne Frank) several times over.  She is clearly one writer/ teacher who walks the walk.    

Her message, so beautiful and simple as only she could state it, “If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else”, is a message too often forgotten.  There is a “I’m just trying to get mine” mentality that is pervasive with students today and this mentality comes from the folks who teach them, both directly and indirectly.  I believe it is this selfishness that has led to much of the inequity and disparity that exists within our educational system.  Politicians and “reformers” are quick to decide what is “best” for disenfranchised populations without considering what effects these changes might have on the population.  Few of these reforms truly consider how to EMPOWER students, parents, and communities. 

Also endemic to this reform mindset is an undertone of blame. The rhetoric around The Achievement Gap, Failing Schools, AYP, Takeovers, Turnarounds, Persistently Dangerous, and No Excuses all suggest a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) blaming of the students and their communities.  Earlier this year there was a piece in Forbes that gained some attention called “If I were a poor black kid”.  I’ll be optimistic and assume that writer Gene Marks’ goal was not to further dis-empower children growing up in poverty, but to demonstrate the potential that technology holds for the expansion of knowledge.  His conclusion, however, makes that a difficult argument to accept, as he speaks directly to this blame mentality.

Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped. Yes, there is much inequality. But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it”. 

In truth, there is plenty of responsibility to go around, but dwelling on it does little to EMPOWER students and communities. 

During summer school I worked with a text that I feel embodies the mission of empowerment that Toni Morrison is suggesting.  In The Other Wes Moore, author (Hopkins’ alum, Rhodes Scholar & US Army Captain) Wes Moore parallels his experience with that of the “other Wes Moore”, a man who grew up in the same neighborhood, at the same time, under similar circumstances, with the same name who is currently incarcerated for his role in an armed robbery and murder. 
The text really spoke to my students primarily for what it is NOT.  It is not a prescription for how they should live.  It is not a preachy text espousing that education is a magic potion that will lead you out of the ghetto (though Wes does stress the importance of education).  It does not ignore the realities of growing up in concentrated, generational poverty. In other words, it doesn’t say “NO EXCUSES”.  From my interactions with Wes, I’m certain that he is not “Pro-Excuses”, in fact he’s probably the last person who would make excuses for anything as he stresses personal accountability, but he does recognize realities.  He acknowledges his own struggles and advantages and attempts to EMPOWER others though sharing his experience. 

Our first of two new-student orientations is this afternoon and I’m excited to see 60 new faces who will join our program in a few weeks.  What makes me even more excited, however, are the folks who accompany them, the parents (especially the fathers), grandparents, advocates, siblings, children, and friends who support our students in their academic endeavor.

 I have the utmost respect for the students who walk through our doors.  I can only imagine what it’s like to walk into a school at 19, 20 or 21 years old with less than 5 credits (of the 23.5 necessary to graduate).  These are the students I am committed to serving and I will keep Wes’s story and Toni Morrison’s words in mind as I address and welcome our new students this afternoon. I will keep these words with me all year, especially when things get though (as they always do). 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ask For What You Need!!
The front of my classroom, starring my "Ask For What You Need" banner

There is a banner at the front of my classroom that says "Ask For What You Need!!" It has been there since the day I started teaching in Philadelphia and has survived two classroom moves and one school redesign. I feel that it is an important lesson for my students, but more and more I realize that it is equally important for me (and teachers in general). 

I first thought of introducing this mantra in my classroom after watching a student stare blankly at an assignment sheet that I had distributed while I was student teaching. Our interaction went as follows:
            Me: Are you ok? I mean, does the assignment make sense?
            Student: Yeah. I get it.
            Me: Ok. Well, do you need some help getting started?
            Student: No. I’m all set.
                (A few minutes pass, as I’m checking in on other students.  I return to the original student who still has not started).
            Me: What’s going on? Why haven’t you gotten started?
            Student: Oh, I don’t have a pen. It’s cool, I just won’t do it.

NO IT IS NOT COOL! I was taken aback that this student wouldn’t just say something.  In a perfect world, of course he’d be prepared, but how could he just do nothing because he didn’t have a pen. After getting over my initial shock, I decided that one of the focuses of in my classroom would be personal advocacy (even if it was over something as trivial as a writing implement). 

Students: Ask For What You Need!!
My resolve with this mission of personal advocacy was only strengthened when I started teaching in my alternative school in Philadelphia.  I noticed students who would put their head down or their hood up and disengage just because they didn’t have a piece of paper or a pen or know what page we were on. 

As I became more comfortable in my role as a teacher, I’ve expanded my focus with the “ask for what you need” message.  I’ve encouraged students to ask for help with their personal situations, particular when they effect their academic life (as they often do in urban schools).  I remind them that I don’t need to pry into their business in order to offer help or resources. 

Much of this focus was even further confirmed as I read about the concept of learned helplessness as I was working through my graduate program.  While I don’t support all of the direct applications of learned helplessness to education, particularly as they have been applied to many urban students, I certainly feel that failure, retention, and other negative experiences have effected some of my students’ behaviors in the classroom.  As a result, I will continue to push them to advocate for themselves and speak up

 (Occasionally, this results in students asking me to sharpen their pencil or get supplies for them.  I typically point to where the supplies are and tell them to help themselves.  I want to be clear that “ask for what you need” is not the same as “be lazy and expect to be waited on”). 

Teachers: Ask For What You Need!
I mentioned the importance of  “ask for what you need” for teachers as well.  Teaching often feels like an isolating experience. You are in YOUR classroom, with YOUR students, teaching YOUR classes.  In order to keep your sanity, it’s important to recognize what you need (both tangibly and intangibly). 

For me, this has meant a number of things: reaching out to my fellow teachers and principal for help with particular students, sharing BOTH my successes and utter failures, connecting with a mentor teacher (even if she is in Vermont), and (more recently) becoming a “connected educator” (joining Twitter, starting this blog, and getting involved with a teacher PLN). 

Of course, there are always tangible needs within the classroom. I laugh every time my principal asks for our “supply lists” because I know that no matter what I put on it, I’m going to get a package of paper, a box of pens, a few whiteboard markers, and a roll of tape (not that I’m complaining, I make those supplies last).  Obviously, it’s important for me to find other sources for supplies.  There are great websites like DonorsChoose that match educators with wonderfully generous folks, but I have found better luck with simple CraigsList posts. 
             - Just by asking for it, I’ve gotten beautiful (gently used) bookshelves for my newly created classroom library, boxes and boxes of books, and a ton of supplies for my room from folks on Craigslist… all for FREE.
I’ve also tried writing to publishers and companies asking for materials. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it never hurts to ask. 

Obviously, it is absurd that teachers have to result to begging and scouring the internet for much needed supplies and in a perfect world schools would have everything they need, but until that perfect world exists, I will continue to ask for what I need… and encourage my students to do so, too.

Even if it means starting every class of every day with the phrase: “Does anyone need something to write with or something to write on.”

Friday, August 24, 2012

An Urban Teacher's Notes on Common Core...

I am excited about the Common Core State Standards.

… there I’ve said it. I know there are 1001 concerns about them, but based on what I’ve read and read, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that they will encourage a focus on critical thinking and deep reading (not filling in bubbles), hopeful that they will revitalize reading and writing across the curriculum and hopeful that they will push critical thinking (not regurgitation of facts) as a way to recognize and measure success in schools.

My introduction to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) came in June when my principal announced at a staff meeting that the SDP (School District of Philadelphia) is placing a new emphasis on CCSS and our observations would be based on them.
 [I should preface this story with the fact that my principal is very supportive and I respect and admire her very much. I do not hold this initial response against her, as the SDP has rolled out many “initiatives” and she had not reason to see CCSS as anything different]
She continued with, “I know many of you use personal connection and students’ lives heavily in your instruction, but CCSS says you can’t do that anymore. You need to focus on the text and specifically you need to have them reading nonfiction texts. 

Before I could even voice my concerns about this shift, my principal addressed them. She recognized our specific population and the fact that we needed to engage our students in any way possible, but this information was what she had been told at the “Principals’ PD on CCSS”… I remained skeptical, not of her, but of this explanation of CCSS. Turns out I was right.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve shifted my attention to the myriad resources about the CCSS that exist for teachers, specifically Pathways to the Common Core (if you’re thinking about CCSS, GET THIS BOOK) Common Core360, and the ACSD Common Core webinars (which are awesome, by the way).

Those who have explored CCSS with an open mind have found that many assumptions have proven false.  There is no mandate to study nonfiction texts. No one is rejecting personal response (though they need to be based in close reading) and students have plenty of opportunities to write narratives.  One of the realities that I found, however, is that CCSS has almost completely ignored POETRY. Though it isn’t my “comfort zone”, I am confident that I can integrate plenty of great poems in my CCSS aligned lessons. 

What follows are my notes and reflections on integrating CCSS across an ELA, Social Studies, and Science curriculum at my school. 

**Remember that I teach at a small alternative school serving older students (16-21) who are returning after “dropping out”. These notes are not in any way a prescription; rather what I handed out to my colleagues to support the standards and help to integrate them into our quarter plans.  

- I welcome and encourage discussion & debate about my notes.  Let me know if you feel that I got things right, wrong, or otherwise.  

To Be Fair:  
If you aren't a practicing teacher or administrator, what follows (my personal reflection on a document that has little to do with you) might be totally out of context and I recommend that you jump to other posts that will be of much greater interest and relevance... 


Common Core Implementation & Alignment Plan: 
ELA, Science & Social Studies

CCSS doesn’t touch PEDAGOGY (how to teach) or SPECIFIC CONTENT (within subjects).             
            - Instead, they are a system of higher-level comprehension & writing skills that should be at the heart of instruction across the curriculum.

*Renewed focus on reading & writing in all subject areas (not just ELA)
            - Across ALL classes, students should read 30% literary texts & 70% informational texts
            - Push students to read INDEPENDENTLY to develop skills & confidence

1.     Citing textual evidence as they explain what the text teaches
            - “READ within the four corners of the text”. Meaning, focus on what the text says.  All responses, reactions, & reflections should come from the words on the page. 
            - “As students investigate language, delve into themes and analyze possible morals and meanings of stories, they’ll develop insight into the text and insight into themselves” (Calkins 52).  BUT it must emerge from a close reading of the text, not a summary or the gist of the text… the actual words on the page.

2.     Reading as a 3 step process (understand key ideas & details -> recognize craft & structure => integrate knowledge & ideas)
            - Step 1 is all about literal comprehension, but stay “on the page”. If a student says, “this reminds me of…” or “This makes me think…” redirect back to the literal details in the text.  Try the phrase, “what in the story makes you think that” to keep students in the text.
            - Step 2 moves from what the text says to HOW it says it.  Look at words & phrases, tone, structure, point of view, etc.  Try starting with: “Which words really catch your attention?  What do you notice as you reread the sentence/ paragraph?”
            - Step 3 connects outside texts, ideas, and information.  Push students to understand theme, moral, & argument within the text then connect it to other readings or texts.  Compare the validity of argument & the approaches that different authors take. 

** It is essential that we as teachers demonstrate these 3 steps, provide coaching as students work independently, then provide timely feedback!
* Give students choices on what to read and work to select texts that will be of interest and relevance, as well as align with curricular concepts. 

3.     Reading Nonfiction texts - Follow the same process as reading literary texts.
            - Focus on reading primary source documents, not strictly textbooks that often summarize and are on an inappropriate level. 
            - Remember: the focus is on textual analysis, NOT personal response. Don’t be afraid to refocus students on what the text says explicitly. 
            - “Move students away from reading to accumulate information, to reading to discern ideas and concept sand analyze texts critically for their reasoning and perspective” (Calkins 99)
            - Pay attention to how texts are written, which means paying attention to craft and structure.
            - “Introduce that nonfiction is not necessarily the truth, but rather someone’s perspective or side of the truth” (100). 
** In reading nonfiction, students’ work diligently to understand precisely what an author or speaker is saying, but also question the author’s or speaker’s assumptions and premises and asses the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning” (CCSS 7). 

4.  CC Approach to WRITING>>> 3 types: Arguments, Informative/ explanatory, and Narratives
 - Develop and strengthen writing skills through planning, revising, & editing routinely… not once in a while.
 - FOCUS on lucid, clear writing that shows development & organization that are appropriate to the task, purpose, & audience. 
  - Strike a balance between on-demand writing & planned, published writing.  BUT always give clear expectations & feedback. 
** STUDENTS should have an opportunity to return to their writing… revise, edit, reflect… Give them feedback!!

5. Writing ARGUMENT texts.
 - “Argument writing is a BIG DEAL in the CCSS” (Calkins 127)
             - University is largely an “argument culture” (Graff 2003, 24)
- CCSS has STEEP expectations for argument writing… use as a guide based on students’ entry levels.
            - Just like in reading, PUSH and ELEVATE their skills
- Implicit in argument WRITING skills are also evaluation & crucial judgment skills
            - Students need to show logical thinking & REFUTE COUNTERARGUMENTS
            - “ If we assume that this is true, then doesn’t it suggest that… And if we agree on that, then can’t we also say that…” (131)
            - Push students to anticipate counterarguments…. this does not always need to be FORMAL (try informal debate to teach the skills)
- Students need to integrate, evaluate, and ANALYZE sources to support arguments. 
            - Use nonfiction-reading texts to DEMO these skills.  Tie reading & writing together… as we become stronger writers through reading!!

*Remember: Argument matters! It is what gives us voice in a democratic society and can be applied to any subject or topic. 
            - Focus on skills before content.  Allow students to practice argument skills with topics (books, movies, issues) that they are comfortable with before pushing them to apply it to complex and new content. 
** Students know how to argue… draw those skills into the academic realm. 

6.  Informational writing: Conveying facts
- Includes: summaries of texts, descriptions of movies, field trips, books, interviews, experiments, lab reports, math records, applications, instructions, and resumes.
* MAIN IDEA of Informational writing in CCSS: Students should bring the same standard of craftsmanship to informational writing as they would to memoirs, essays, short stories, etc.  Emphasis on using specific information, details, examples, and citations and synthesizing and analyzing that information across key ideas and themes. 
 - Students need to know how to sort, categorize & elaborate on information. 
            - Emphasize “logical structure” & organization in informational writing.  -- Ideas should build within a writing.
            - Think about guided notes, modeling using outlines, then writing reports that require students to organize that information into a logical flow. 
            - DO NOT let students just “plop facts on the page”.  They need to ORGANIZE & ANALYZE those facts. 
**Students won’t just do this naturally… YOU need to DEMONSTRATE, Guide practice, give instruction & feedback… just like with reading.

7. Speaking & Listening and Language (a CCSS afterthought)
 - Speaking & Listening standards focus on COMPREHENSION & COLLABORATION and PRESENTATION
            - speaking includes nonverbal communication, listening includes interacting with media
            *Oral presentations (formal & informal) are crucial to development. All types of writing & reading included
            - Focus on a facilitator not leader role in discussions.  Push students to engage each other. 
- Language should not be taught in isolation (and not only in ELA)
            3 main topics: Conventions of standard English (grammar), Knowledge of language (craft & structure), Vocabulary
            - Focuses on USE IN CONTEXT, rather than memorizing rules. 
            - Consider language as a tool to deeper understanding and stronger arguments
            - Consistency and repetition of skills is crucial! (need to use and be expected to use skills across all classes)

Again, remember that these notes are made in reference to an “alternative population” of older (16-21) students.  Please share your thoughts, arguments, disagreements, and concerns about CCSS. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My problem with “FAILING” schools

There is so much talk in the education world about “failing” schools. Reformers and politicians alike want to turn-around or take over failing schools, they want to punish or close failing schools, in Pennsylvania our own governor wants to offer students vouchers to get out of failing schools; however, much like the oft-scapegoated “bad” teachers, there are many problems with this obsession with FAILING schools. 

According to No Child Left Behind (2001), any school that does not meet its Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for a given year can be designated as FAILING. Further, a school can be labeled as FAILING if any of its subpopulations (low-SES, Special ed, ELL, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, White, etc) don’t meet AYP in a given year.   There are a host of problems with this provision of the legislature (and to get deeper into them I highly recommend Diane Ravich’s The Life and Death of the Great American School System), but what it boils down to is that at any given time, a school or district that does not have 100% of students reaching proficiency is in danger of being labeled FAILING. 

(Interestingly, if all public schools in the United States don’t reach proficiency by next school year, by its own criteria, NCLB itself ought to be labeled FAILING… though we don’t have to wait that long to know that it is an utter failure when it comes to supporting the education of our nation’s neediest students.) 

Politicians and reformers alike are obsessed with this idea of FAILING schools and it makes me cringe every time I hear the term. 

Educational scholars Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell (the current vice-president of NCTE) explain in their work The Art of Critical Pedagogy:

Given the overwhelming body of evidence that reveals decades of funding and structural inequalities between schools in high- and low-income communities it is illogical to compare schools across these communities and then decry urban schools as failures. When one set of schools is given the resources necessary to succeed and another group of schools is not, we have predetermined winners and loser. In this scenario, failure is not actually the result of failing.  This is the paradox facing urban school reformers.  On the one hand, urban schools are producing academic failure at alarming rates; at the same time, they are doing this inside a systemic structural design that essentially predetermines their failure. (p. 2) 

How is it fair to label a school as FAILING when it is perpetually under-resourced, has a teaching staff that consists of under-trained TFA members,  and serves a population that is highly mobile and struggling with poverty and even homelessness.

Later, they cut directly to the point:

Urban schools are not broken; they are doing exactly what they are designed to do.   (p. 2)

Many politicians and school reformers are playing with a stacked deck.  When you under-resource schools so severely (as has been done all over the country, but especially in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), what other outcome can you expect but failure. 
**It is important to note that Duncan-Andrade and Morrell do not use this argument as an excuse, but rather as a counterpoint to the constant “failure” of urban schools.  They don’t suggest that we should accept schools as they are, but rather offer the resources that urban schools need to improve, rather than punish or close schools.

So there are major structural problems with labeling schools FAILING, but what about the effect that this label has on the school, the community, the teachers, and… lest we forget… the students. 

An article published recently in Mother Jones outlines (among other things) what students, teachers, and administrators feel when they find out they’ve been labeled FAILING.  The author, Kristina Rizga, describes the principal at Mission School in San Francisco as he deals with the aftermath of making the state’s low-performing school list.  The school’s graduation and college acceptance rates have been improving, as have their test scores, but it doesn’t matter if they didn’t reach AYP.  Now principal finds out that because of their low-performing status, they are eligible for additional funding (which is a GREAT thing for a school on a bare bones budget), but they must undergo “major restructuring” to remain open. 

Thus is the fundamental problem with the labeling of FAILING schools.  The system does not account for individuality within the school system. If you don’t meet certain standards, make way for the corporate reformers.  This is not to mention what effect that labeling a neighborhood school as “FAILING” has on the surrounding community or students who attended the school.  
Imagine you see someone fall off a boat.  Do you wait for them to drown before throwing them a life preserver?  Of course not…

NCLB and the current educational climate have created a system in which schools must “drown” before they receive any supports (funding, resources… anything).  In this climate, of course students are flocking to charter schools (both reputable and otherwise).  Students and their families are being bombarded with information about how their schools are FAILURES.  Would you want to stick around to help revive a FAILING school?  Neither would many members of urban communities...  and that’s exactly what corporate reformers are counting on. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

3 Simple Steps to Restoring Sanity to Schools


MacArthur "genius" award recipient and educational scholar Lisa Delpit is perhaps most famous for her book Other People’s Children, which focused on the cultural struggle that goes on in many urban classrooms when white, middle-class teachers fail to acknowledge the unique experiences of their students and instead try to force their own beliefs and cultural norms. I have found her writing to be  eye-opening and it has certainly impacted my work in the classroom (as a white, middle-class man teaching in a high-poverty, black school).   

As I was reading her recent work, Multiplication is for White People: Raising expectations for other people’s children, her “Three Steps toward Sanity” struck me as a simple and straightforward (at least to educators) roadmap for improving educational opportunities for urban students.  These steps have nothing to do with funding, school structure, politics, administration, charters, vouchers, or any other foolishness.  They are the backbone of successful education systems for which she’s suggests a renewed focus.

1. Believe in the Children
“I believe the first step [to educating children that school systems have typically failed] is to become convinced of these children’s inherent intellectual capability, humanity, physical ability, and spiritual character. Unfortunately, our nation’s educational enterprise continues to be obsessed with the notion of intellectual capacity” (Delpit 30).

It is nearly impossible to argue with this first step to building strong schools and it seems so simple. Almost every school and organization that claims to serve an educational purpose has some variation of “we believe all children can learn” in its mission statement.  However, saying “I believe all children can learn” is not the same as “believing in children”, at least not in my opinion.

When schools say “We believe all children can learn”, there is an implication that comes at the end of the statement.  What typically goes unsaid is something like “in spite of their skin color or parents or neighborhood”.  This implication leads to the same type of deficit mindset as the “achievement gap” language (as Gloria Ladson-Billings argues). Whether implicitly or explicitly, it sets a certain group of children apart from others and serves to reinforce stereotypes. 

Students don’t need that teacher who comes in on their high horse saying, “I’m going to tell you that you have potential because no one has ever told you that before”. In making such a statement (as is often espoused by organizations such as TFA and StudentsFirst), teachers have already passed judgement on their students and their communities. Students need a teacher who truly believes in the innate abilities that all children possess, not against the odds or in spite of who they are, but simply by virtue of being human.      

2.  “Fight Foolishness”
Citing a phrase from Professor Emeh, Delpit suggests that to educate children who we (as a society) have previously failed, we as teachers, schools, and society must “fight foolishness”. 

“We have to cease attempting to build ‘teacher-proof’ schools with scripted low-level instruction and instead seek to develop (and retain) perceptive, thinking teachers who challenge their students with high-quality, interactive, and thoughtful instruction” (Delpit 34). 

I cannot agree more with Delpit’s second directive.  In schools, particularly urban schools, there are mountains of “foolishness” that influence what the teachers teach and, coincidentally, what the students experience. This foolishness takes the form of everything from scripted curricula and prescriptive programs to zero tolerance policies and complex school-wide reward/ punishment systems.  While some of these initiatives find success in some schools, they cannot be seen as a panacea in all impoverished populations.

Delpit stresses, “Successful instruction is constant, rigorous, integrated across disciplines, connected to students’ lived cultures, connected to their intellectual legacies, engaging, and designed for critical thinking and problem solving that is useful beyond the classroom” (37). If ever there was a concise definition of what great teaching should be, that’s it. As I retool and revisit my syllabi for the coming school year, I will keep this sentence in mind, ensuring that my goals, particularly in working with my specific population (over-aged, under-credited), are in line with supporting my students’ all-around growth and development.   

3.  Learn who our children are and discover the legacies they bring
“If we are truly to educate poor African American children, we must learn who the children are and not focus on what we assume them to be - at risk, learning disabled, unmotivated, defiant, behavior disoriented, etc. This means developing relationships with our students and understanding their political, cultural, and intellectual legacy” (38).

Delpit’s final directive speaks directly to the human side of teaching and education. It builds off of the discussion of fighting foolishness, as the foolishness in schools often does little to acknowledge who students are.  Throughout my undergraduate, student teaching, graduate, and independent work, I have read a variety of articles and texts suggesting how best to teach specific kinds of students. However, each one of these texts reduces students to labels or tropes.   
Books often offer tips like: 
- “When you have a disruptive student, give them a job in the classroom” 
- “In teaching at-risk students, use hip hop to make the lessons more interesting”.   

While these tips are successful in SOME classes with SOME students, it is unfair and unrealistic to suggest that all at-risk (a term that I find troubling to begin with) students, for example, will succeed with the simple inclusion of hip hop. Instead, just as Delpit suggests, it is essential for teachers to build relationships and understand where their students are coming from. 

I had a very telling experience with this in my first year of teaching when a student said something about how crazy the white people in the KKK were, then turned to me and said, “No offense”.  Before I could reply (and explain that I don't identify with the KKK and therefore don't take offense to suggests that their actions are crazy), another student jumped in and said, “Don’t worry, Teacher Man isn’t white, he’s Italian”.   

The rest of the class agreed and was ready to move on.  I wasn’t.  The interaction was confusion to me and I asked why they thought I wasn’t white. They explained that I didn’t do the things that white people did.  They explained that I listened to them, understood their references and experiences, joked with them, and respected them.  My students (who are almost all black) had a specific definition of “White Male” and I didn’t fit, therefore I must not be white. Looking back, it was pretty sound reasoning. 

I offer this story to say that it is crucial that teachers in all settings, but especially in urban classrooms where their experiences may be very different from their students, work to understand the issues, experiences, and challenges students face.  Though there are many cultural differences between the population that I serve and myself, that doesn’t stop me from trying to understand their individual experiences and tailoring my instruction to fit those legacies.  . 

I know that I will keep these three steps in mind as I head back in to school tomorrow.  We have two weeks of teacher prep and I’ll be sure to share these with my colleagues as we prepare for the coming year. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Rhee-Appeal OR "Hey, at least she’s doing something”

One of the curses of being a teacher is that since everyone went to school, they all feel that they have some brilliant insight about education that they are dying to share with you.  Though these experiences are nothing new to me, I had one a few months ago that really opened my eyes to what I’m now calling the “Rhee-appeal” (referring to former D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee). 

I was at a party at my girl friend’s father’s house. Most of the attendees were upper-class, white suburbanites who, upon hearing that I was a teacher in the city, decided that I should hear their solution to “the urban school problem”:

- One woman promptly asked me, “Well, what do you think of Michelle Rhee?” and before I could answer, followed with, “because we just saw her speak and think she’s wonderful.” 

- Taking a moment to gather my thoughts, I offered, “Yes, well she is certainly a controversial figure in education”. 

- Continuing her own line of thought the woman continued, “It’s just terrible what those teachers’ unions did to her in D.C., but she’s not going to let them stop her.  They should bring here in to Philly and she’d get these schools into shape.  I mean, at least she’s doing something!”

- Getting very frustrated and not really knowing how to contain myself, I just smiled and excused myself to go make a strong drink at the bar. 

As I reflected on this interaction, I realized that this woman was exactly the type of person that Michelle Rhee and her ilk are hoping to appeal to.  These corporate reformers don’t take time to engage parents or teachers in dialogue.  They rarely invite community members to the table when deciding how best to steer their schools.  Instead, they populate their boards with people whose perception of urban schools is based on the media and Hollywood films.  (don’t even get me started on the number of people who have told me that I should just try to be like that nice girl [Erin Gruwell] in Freedom Writers…)

Further, corporate reformers drum up the support of wealthy suburbanites through marketing campaigns disguised as documentaries (Waiting for Superman), “true” stories (Won’t Back Down), miracle stories (The Bee Eater) and even charity benefits (like the nauseating teacher benefit that aired on Friday).  Since being ousted from D.C., Rhee has been working the speaker series hard, spewing her insane reform agenda (and ignoring the massive cheating scandal that she left in her wake) and it is clearly working (see the interaction earlier in this post).   

Though it pains me to admit it, I was once taken in by this “Rhee-appeal”.  I was still and undergrad when my brother began teaching in D.C. through a Teaching Fellows program.  I started reading about this woman who had recently been named Chancellor and who was completely shaking up the system.  She was putting students first, the articles said.  She didn’t care about teachers’ excuses or interests, just wanted what was best for the children.  I found myself sitting back and saying, “well, it may not be the right choice, but at least she’s doing something”. 

I look back on this experience every time I read about a new reform agenda or miracle agenda.  Though I don’t advocate cynicism, I do think that realism is essential in education and perhaps if I had a few more years under my belt, I would have felt more confident  engaging with the woman at that party a few months ago.  Those of us who work in urban schools and communities everyday see how truly damaging this “Rhee appeal” truly is.  City kids are too often treated like guinea pigs in some corporate reform experiment. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

TFA and assumptions about poverty

I read a well written piece on Reuters today that I feel outlines many of my fundamental concerns with TFA.

*Before I begin on what might come off as “TFA Bashing” (but in my opinion is not), I should say that I take issue with what the organization has become and the agenda that I feel they are pushing, not with individual corps members who are  following their training and supervisors.  I have a number of friends who have done TFA (with mixed reviews) and I’ve worked with a handful of corps members and alums.  

That said, in the interest of full disclosure, here is my personal background with TFA:
I went to a small, “highly selective” liberal arts school where TFA recruited heavily. They employed students, typically NOT education minors (in the teacher ed program you majored in your subject and minored in ed.) to speak to classes and recruit students to apply to the program.  Knowing I had been involved with a number of mentoring and teaching programs, I got calls from the recruiters, but after I told them I was committed to student teaching and the “traditional route” they left me alone. 

From my graduating class of about 700 students (I know, small), 6 students joined TFA.  Of those six, 1 quit during institute, 2 left after their first year, and 3 completed their 2 year commitment.  Also, according to the most recent college alumni magazine one of those 3 is now “one of the youngest principals in the country” (which is a whole separate concern for me). 

While these six students were completing their summer institutes in urban districts around the country, I was applying to and interviewing at schools all over Philly.  At almost every school, they asked disappointed, “So you aren’t TFA?” As though doing my student teaching and being fully certified was some sort of black mark on my application. In spite of my frustration, I ultimately found a job working at an alternative school, so no harm done.  I offer this personal account to show that even for traditionally trained novice teachers there is an “us vs. them” dichotomy set up with TFA. 

Though I have a host of other concerns with the present iteration of TFA, one particular quote from Stephanie Simon’s piece on Reuters jumped out at me.  A 22-year-old recruit who will be teaching in LA said, “I’m here to tell these kids that they have potential. They’ve never been told that before”.  The second sentence really rubbed me the wrong way.  Though I don’t think this well meaning recruit intended to insult the population of students that they’ll be teaching in the fall, it certainly struck me that way.

 If I’ve learned anything from teaching so-called “dropouts” for the last three years, it’s that you can’t make any assumptions about the students, their families, or their experiences.  Saying that students have never been told that they have potential is an assumption that people make about kids in poverty (and their families) and these assumptions are dangerous.  See the criticism of Ruby Payne’s “A Framework for Understanding Poverty”.  Teachers and districts love people like Payne who offer a step by step outline for how to teach poor kids.  The reality, however, is that there are no step-by-step directions.  In her book, which served as a great counter example in my urban ed classes, Payne makes generalizations and assumptions about children in poverty that I found shocking and absurd.  Further, even if her assumptions held true, I didn’t find them to be particularly helpful to my teaching. 

I feel that in its rush to “prepare” recruits for the classroom, TFA has drawn on the work of people like Payne who offer quick fixes to working with children in poverty.  This approach leads recruits to make assumptions that could ultimately make their work in the classroom even more difficult and be potentially damaging to their students.