Thursday, September 27, 2012

Frontline’s “Dropout Nation”: Putting faces to a national “crisis”

On Tuesday night, PBS’s Frontline aired a two-hour episode called “Dropout Nation”  focusing on one Houston high school’s efforts to curb the “dropout crisis”.  I first heard about this program a few weeks ago and it immediately piqued my interest for a couple of reasons.  First and foremost, it speaks directly to my population, my school, and what has become a sort of research focus of mine - out of school youth.  I was also interested because of the title. Since I began working with an alternative population, I’ve had a concern with the term “dropout” and the “dropout crisis” facing American schools.  I don’t feel like the term speaks to the magnitude of what many young people are dealing with. In fact, I feel as though it belittles this already fragile population, making it even less likely that they'll ever return to school.  Also, a “crisis” is typically an isolated event (like a natural disaster or the stock market crash), students have been leaving school for decades.  It is not a “crisis” but a consistent failure on a variety of fronts. 

First, some quick thoughts on the program.  All and all, I think it is certainly worth a watch.  It offers a very real look into the lives of impoverished, troubled and “at-risk” high school students. The staff featured in the show were very candid and knowledgeable and did not seem hung up on any one reform agenda or rhetoric (as they so often are in education “documentaries”). The Frontline crew also went out of their way to include a variety of students, teachers, support staff, administrators, and external advocates in the commentary.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the program was real. By which I mean, they didn’t try to manufacture a“Hollywood ending” and they didn’t pretend that the school had magically solved the problem. The end is hopeful, but accepts reality. 

What is a “dropout”?
Though it was only in a short segment, I was pleased that the program raised this question. I find this term to be problematic, as mentioned earlier, because it is a profound oversimplification.  To label every out of school adolescent or every person without a high school diploma a “dropout” is akin to labeling every out of work person a “quitter”.  Yes they are not currently employed [or in school] but the circumstances for their lack of employment [or education] are varied.  When we label students “dropouts”, there is a strong message of blame and failure. YOU dropped out. YOU quit. YOU failed.  After working with so-called “dropouts” for the last four years, I have come to find that this is not the reality in many cases. Much like the term "achievement gap", "dropout" represents a blame-placing deficit mindset. 

There is a powerful scene in “Dropout Nation” where a teacher sits down with the chronically absent Sparkle to discuss her academic situation.  We learn that Sparkle, along with her baby, moved to Houston from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  Shortly after arriving in Houston, her Sparkle's mother died.  Sparkle had no stable housing, so she was relying on friends for a place to sleep. A few weeks earlier, DHS took her child and she is now attempting to appeal to regain custody. In light of all of this, Sparkle has been coming to school once or twice a week.  

The teacher begins the conference, “Sparkle, is school a priority?”
Sparkle responds, “No.”
Somewhat shocked by her honesty, the teacher says, “Well, you need to make it your top priority if you want to be successful.”
Sparkle says, “It’s not.  I care about school and I know it’s important, but right now I need to think about my child, finding a job, finding a place to sleep each night, making sure I have something to eat AND not giving up on all of my future dreams”. 
Left with little else to say, the teacher finally says, "Well Sparkle, school needs to be your top priority."
I feel like this conversation encapsulates so many of the issues that make urban public education so difficult, but also so essential.  There is no doubt that Sparkle should not be in this situation and there is plenty of blame to go around for why she finds herself in it, however, placing blame (especially on her) does little to address the central issue: this is an adolescent who needs support.  

In many ways, this is my concern with the “No Excuses” model of education that is taking hold in a variety of district and charter schools.  It seems naïve, unrealistic, and even cruel to tell a student like Sparkle that school should be priority #1. (To be clear, I am by no means calling this individual teacher naive, unrealistic, and cruel, there's no doubt that she was trying to act in her student's best interest... she just didn't necessarily have a grip on the whole situation).   Of course she needs to come to school, but how can a student focus on anything else when they don’t know where they’re going to sleep? Taking these realities into account does not amount to “making excuses” (though it seems like Sparkle has a pretty good case for not making academics her #1 priority right now), but rather serving the “whole child”. 

[Interestingly, the school highlighted in the program refers to itself as a “no excuses” program, but much of what I saw ran counter to my understanding of the model.  I found them to be exceedingly flexible, compassionate, understanding, and willing to meet students on their own terms. They are profoundly aware of their students’ circumstances and seem to take that into account]  

Like it or not, schools serve a much larger purpose in society than merely distributing diplomas.  When we label students “dropouts”, we push them out of this essential place of growth and stability.  Some students are going to leave school before they graduating, it's happened for decades and it will continue to.  Some will do it because they’re bored or lazy. Others will be enticed by the streets or get caught up in the justice system.  Still others will just bounce around due to unstable home lives or personal situations.  Regardless of the circumstances of their departure, they should never feel as though the door slammed behind them. 

More thoughts on Frontline’s “Dropout Nation” and on supporting out-of-school youth to come. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Teachers make great money for a part-time job… and other things I just loving hearing from my friends in corporate America

The current climate in the world of public education is nearing a boiling point, to say the least.  In Philadelphia, there is a long-term plan to close or privatize nearly half of the district’s public schools.  In Pennsylvania, we have a Governor who seems intent on forcing through unpopular voucher legislation designed to offer students an “alternative” to the public schools that he has systematically under funded and under-resourced. At a national level there is Arne Duncan’s (and President Obama’s) Race for the Top program, which pushes districts to adopt favorable privatization policies, test based accountability, and does little to improve the fundamental inequities in public education.  

In the shadows of all of this (and often in broad daylight) are billionaires looking to push their own interests and agendas in the education realm.  These so-called philanthropists are particularly troubling as they prey on deeply under-resourced districts, tempting them with massive and desperately needed grants only to threaten to pull funding if districts don’t adhere to strict (and often unresearched and unproven) reform guidelines.

With so much policy work going on, you’d think that few would give lowly teachers a second thought… BUT of course, you’d be wrong. 

The recent strike in Chicago has certainly brought teachers to the forefront, but for some time, any discussion of the American education system, particularly the public schools, ultimately found its way to “those teachers”. 

At this point, any time I hear someone (be it a friend, family member, news show or random person at the grocery store) talking about schools, I know it’s only a matter of time before they bring up “those   [blank]   teachers”.  What goes in the blank usually depends on the context of the conversation, but rest assured it’s never something positive.  Sometimes it’s something pitying and condescending like “those poor teachers”. Other times, the blank is filled with much more anger, “those lazy and ineffective teachers” or “those bad teachers”. (thanks Cameron Diaz, you’re a real help). As in, why won’t the Union let principals fire all “those bad teachers”.  More recently, however, the blank has been filled with a new, more troubling adjective - greedy.  As in, “those greedy teachers” all they want is more money from us taxpayers. 

As I mentioned before, the anger or animosity toward teachers and education in general is nothing new.  Schools have been “under attack” for decades now.  Look to the work of education historians like Jean Anyon and Diane Ravich and you will find detailed accounts of the public outcries against various facets of the school system over the last hundred years. 

However, this new adjective - greedy - strikes me as particularly unsettling.  To me it signifies two things, neither of which is terribly heartening: 1) the subtle devaluing of education and 2) a growing ire and jealousy within the middle class, being fueled by the extremely wealthy.  

Never has the subtle devaluing of education been so apparent to me than after an interaction with one of my college football coaches.  With graduation looming, I ran into him at a baseball game.  He asked the usual, “So what’s your plan? Job lined up?”.  I replied, “Yea, I’m headed to Philadelphia to teach high school English”.  He looked at me with confusion that bordered on anger, “What?!? Why did you come here [highly-selective, private, liberal arts college] just to be a teacher? You should work in finance or something.  Come on…”.  He shook his head and walked away. 

At the time, I laughed this interaction off thinking he just didn’t get it, but over time, I’ve come to realize that his reaction is in many ways the norm rather than the exception, particularly when people find out that I did not use a program like TFA to enter the classroom and that I entered college fully intending to become a teacher. 

To me, all of this represents a subtle devaluing of education. While many are quick to suggest that “an education” is essential, they will also suggest that teaching is not, or is somehow less valuable. 

The second piece to this focus on the “greedy teachers” argument involves an overarching mentality of jealousy and ire that appears to be creeping into political discourse.  These emotions lead people to make arguments about teachers being unwilling to pay their share or looking for “full-time salary for a part-time job” [one of the most bull-headed arguments, but I’m not going to go down that road].  To be clear, the jealousy that I’m suggesting is not the specific type, meaning that people are not envious of teachers’ jobs or their responsibilities, but rather the more basic type of jealousy that stems from the suggestion that something is unfair or that someone is getting more than you. 

I believe that this mentality is in large part behind the support of test-based accountability, the attack on collective bargaining, the rise of privatization, and a host of other school “reforms”.  Further, it is the basis for much of the “teacher-bashing” that goes on in the public arena today.  Want proof? Look at the comments section on any nationally published piece about teachers or education. [Granted, my New Year’s resolution was to stop reading newspaper comments sections, but sometimes I slip up.] You will find the angriest, most hate-filled comments directed not at politicians or administrators, but at teachers. 

Of course, this anger and jealousy is not directed singularly at the education realm. It influences a wide variety of public policy debates.  Most recently, I noticed it infiltrating the welfare drug tests proposed in a Florida.  Again, I’m not suggesting that people are envious of those on welfare, but rather they are allowing feelings of basic jealousy and anger to dictate the discussion.  I saw a post on Facebook that said, “If I have to pass a drug test to earn my paycheck, you should have to pass one to take from it”. This post stripped what little bit of my faith in humanity remained. In a perfect world, of course people should be clean to get all types of government assistance, but if they aren’t does that mean they should starve? Does it mean that their children should starve?  What problem does that solve? 

So, what’s the solution?
How do we make people value education and stop being so angry and jealous? 

Who knows?  But it certainly starts with directing frustration at the places.  That incredibly wealthy business-types are able to fuel and frame the dialogue about social issues in order to further their own agendas is absurd.  All of this anger and ire ought to be focused on the inequities and injustices that exist throughout the country. 

Rather than focusing on how much teachers make (figures which are almost never accurate) and how many days or hours they work, why not focus on the grossly inequitable funding structure that exists in American education?  Instead of forcing drug tests on welfare recipients, why not explore sustainable treatment, housing, and job skills development programs?  

It’s clearly time to reframe the dialogue because in the current climate, we’re all going to get burned. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

On The Breaking of Ice …(OR What I did in class on the first day of school)


Strike that. I love icebreakers when they’re well thought out and carefully executed, but that almost never happens in classrooms on the first day of school.  What typically happens is some token "get to know you" game or ice breaker that no one, the teacher included, is particularly invested in.  Students get bored, the teacher gets annoyed with the students’ boredom, and the year gets off to a lame start. 

I refuse to start my classes that way.  

In its infinite wisdom, the School District of Philadelphia decided that the 2012-2013 school year would begin on a Friday and moreover, it would be a half-day.  I actually really like the idea of having a the first day be a half day as it allows for time to run through the entire schedule and work out any kinks (of which there were some)… but why we started on a Friday is beyond me.

Nonetheless, I agonized over what I would do with five thirty-minute classes (I teach one of each English 1, 2, & 4 and 2 sections of English 3).  Also, I do have some students who are enrolled in two of my classes, so I didn’t want to do the same thing in each class. I knew I didn’t want to go over the syllabus or do any contrived icebreakers.  I wanted to hit the ground running.  We are an accelerated school and I was determined to come out swinging.  

I decided to organize each class around the BIG IDEAS that all I suggested we integrate across all of our academic courses: Comprehension, Critical Analysis, and Argument.  I set about finding four unique texts to use with these big ideas on day one. I went with one of my old standbys (and absolute favorites), spoken word poetry. 

Much like the use of hip hop in urban classrooms, I feel like spoken world or slam poetry is an exceptionally effective tool, but it requires a lot of preparation and is easy to do poorly.  Again, like hip hop, teachers sometimes have a tendency to use slam poetry as a hook or as a sort of gimmick to teach some skill in isolation. [More to come later about the use of hip hop in the language arts classroom, but in the meantime, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill's text Beats, Rhymes and Classroom Life is an amazing resource]  I feel that the poems have a lot to offer on their own and deserve to be examined just as we would a traditional text  (of course, the novelty certainly was welcome on the first day of school).  

I selected two poems that I’ve worked with in the past and two that I discovered over the summer.

English 1: Lamont Carey’s “I Can’t Read” (def Poetry Jam)

English 2: The Steinmanuts’ “Counting Graves” (Louder than A Bomb)

English 3: Daniel Beaty’s “Knock Knock” (def Poetry Jam)

English 4: Tha Truth (Lamar Jorden)’s “The Shooter” (Louder than a Bomb)

(I cannot recommend these four poems highly enough.  If you haven’t seen Louder than a Bomb yet, get it.  It provides a great look at what poetry can offer high school students.  Def Poetry is also a great tool for spurring discussion and analysis of poetry). 

For each, I created a worksheet with the lyrics and a space for student response and reaction to the poem.  I decided that we’d watch each poem twice, pausing between the viewings to discuss basic comprehension.  After the second viewing, we would discuss the poem, focusing on the text and the thematic elements. 

While every poem went over very well, “Counting Graves” and “Knock Knock” absolutely killed it.  Both poems left many students speechless and empowered for discussion at the same time.  This certainly set the tone for the critical analysis that I’ll be pushing my students to this year and I’m very glad that I chose to defer my introductory syllabus/ housekeeping stuff until Monday. 

On day one, I made my students a promise that, just as I didn’t want them to waste mine, I would not waste their time.  I feel that using our first class period in this fashion, rather than for a token icebreaker or a lecture on procedures & policies, demonstrated my commitment to their academic and personal development. 

And I’ll admit that the groans of “TeacherMan you’re the only one making us do work on the first day…” made me smile. [Though I know I wasn’t the only one of my talented colleagues requiring critical thinking on day one…]

Thursday, September 6, 2012

'Twas the Day Before Students (a post in verse)

The School District of Philadelphia starts school tomorrow! (I know, who starts the school year on a Friday... but that's a separate issue).  After weeks of prepping and 3 student orientations, I'll greet 150 former "dropouts" tomorrow morning as they begin their journey toward graduation. I always love the first day of school...
In honor of this occasion, I thought I'd flex my poetic muscles. 

'Twas the Day Before Students
‘Twas the day before students, and all through the halls
All the teachers were prepping, even the boss.
The “do now's” were written on the boards there,
In hopes that students soon would care.

The new teachers all bustled around their rooms
Naively ignoring the challenges that loom.
They hung parking lots and word walls, data trackers and more
Plenty of other nonsense that will surely end up on the floor.

What matters are plans, not fancy décor,
Students want to engage, not basic skills they abhor.
This means critical thinking about relevant issues
Sprinkled with lessons about dangerous ideas they could misuse.

Nerves creep up on even the most seasoned vet.
Will this group be different? Is there a challenge I’ve not met?
What happens if they don’t get it? Will they fail the test?
They’ll put me out on my can, just like the rest.

But I won’t be bullied by any politics.
Only someone who’s never been in urban schools can think there’s a quick fix.
Hard work and passion will win the day.
Of course, respect and funding wouldn’t get in the way.

But back to the schoolhouse before things get real,
Students will be here, so get ready to deal.
Teachers roll with the punches and make do with what’s there,
Because they in life things aren't always fair. 

On the night before students, real teachers toss and turn,
But wake up excited to teach and learn
From students of all backgrounds, races and creeds.
Rarely knowing the direction the new year will lead.

I look forward to seeing many familiar faces
and will begin putting my classes through the paces
At 8:30 am, energetically proclaiming for all to hear,
WELCOME BACK and GOOD MORNING, let’s have an amazing year.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"Basic Skills" and other soul-crushing elements of urban schools


One of the things that appeals to me about the Common Core State Standards is what appears to be a focus on critical thinking and analysis.  These are the hallmarks of my curriculum and I believe they must be a constant in all classrooms from elementary school on up, regardless of subject. It is my hope that this focus will bring change to many urban schools in particular which serve students a steady diet of “basic skills” curricula, often in the name of remediation and raising test scores. 

Lisa Delpit addresses this focus on basic skills in her recent book Multiplication is for White People: Raising expectations for other people’s children:

We cannot successfully teach the necessary vocabulary, strategies, and conventions by depending on the presentation of isolated bits of information and expect children to learn the subtle shading necessary for communicative competence in this society. Focusing solely on the minutiae of learning will not create educated people. But this is exactly what is happening too often, in too many of our schools.” (Delpit 59).

 Here Delpit is talking specifically about elementary schools teaching basic skills in isolation rather than in connection with students’ lived experiences.  She offers a story about her daughter, a voracious reader, struggling with a 1st grade assignment to write four sentences.  When the author asked her if she knew what a sentence was, her daughter said, “Yes, something you write but would never say”.  This same disconnection occurs across all subject areas when teachers fail to link students’ classroom experience with their lived experience.

While there are plenty of concerns and flaws with the CCSS, it does provide educators an opportunity [even an edict] to abandon isolated basic skills instruction in favor of critical and analytical writing and reading opportunities. 

This does, of course, present a challenge for urban educators.  It is very difficult to require complex analytical reading and writing when students struggle with the basics of sentences and simple comprehension. 

In my opinion, this is where the true art of teaching comes into the equation and it is what makes evaluating and measuring the “value” of teachers so difficult.  In my classroom, I strive to embed the basic skills of comprehension, literacy, vocabulary, grammar, and conventions within our reading of complex texts.  Sometimes this means modeling or “mind mapping”, other times it means guided reading or annotation.  Whatever the pedagogical technique, I ensure that above all else it fosters the critical analytical skills that my students will need to find success after graduation, while also addressing the fundamental skills that they may have missed along the way. 

My students may not write with perfect grammar or syntax all the time (or even some of the time), but what they write demonstrates complex critical thinking and analysis. 

I remember when I was completing my district mandated induction program in the spring of my first year teaching, the instructor was leafing through some of my students’ essays and asked, “This is a pretty good argument, what grade do you teach?”

“Sixteen to twenty-one year olds”, I told her.

Her eyebrows rose in shock and then she put my binder down and moved on. In her mind I could see her judging both my instruction and my students.  What was originally a sound analytical essay with some glaring mechanical errors, was now a sort of abomination. I on the other hand, was quite proud of my students’ essays.  Personally I find it much more challenging to craft complex analytical reasoning than grammar and mechanics. 

Teachers, especially those who work with students who are significantly below grade level must not lose sight of the core concepts that students are in school to learn.  If a student moves from class to class receiving nothing but basic skills instruction from worksheets, is it any wonder that he is disengaged or skips school or acts out?  Students what to be challenged and as educators, it is our job to find ways in which to support them through those challenges.  After all, that’s why we get paid the big bucks…