Monday, June 24, 2013

World Lit, Single Stories, and "Drop-outs"

Though Philly education is being cut to the bone, my program was fortunate enough to set aside money to run our 60-student summer school.  The program fits in with our year-round, accelerated model and allows my students to continue their trek to graduation by earning 3 credits in 6 weeks.  I’ve taught summer school for the last three years and I love it. Though three 90-minute blocks back to back to back is a little grueling, I love having more time with my students and the smaller class sizes that this program affords. 

Anyway, all of this is mealy background for a sort of revelation that we had in one of my classes yesterday. I’m teaching two different classes this summer, Memoir (English 3) and World Lit (English 4).  Because it’s the summer and some of the students have already taken (and failed) my English 3 & 4 classes, I like to use this time to try out some new ideas, texts, projects, etc.  This summer, I’m totally reshaping my World Lit class and I wanted to start by setting the stage with the question “Why bother reading stories from around the world?”

It may seem like a simple, even elementary question, but I posed it genuinely and I think it’s an important one to ask, especially since some of my students have very Philly-centric world views (when a student asked where I went to college, I said “in Vermont, up north”.  He nodded his head, “oh north, I don’t really go up that way” [implying North Philadelphia]).

I asked them to individually brainstorm a “quick list” of reasons why reading world lit could be beneficial and then we started to discuss.  First, several students parroted the answers they thought I was fishing for:
  “Understand different cultures.”
  “See what life is like outside of Philly.”
  “Think about different people, religions, and foods.”
  “Expand our world view”
  “In case we travel:
All great answers, but I felt like they Googled my question rather than thinking about it.

After pushing farther, a few students started to get frustrated and offered:
  “Because the District says we have to read it.”
  “cause we need this credit to graduate”
Fair, although I have a ton of autonomy and probably could work around the world lit side of things if I wanted. 

Just when I thought they were tapped out, a quiet guy sitting in the corner mumbled something. 
 “to combat ignorance.”
I had to ask him to repeat it:
 “To combat ignorance.” he said plainly.

I wrote it on the board. Paused and asked him to explain. His peers chimed in and it was settled.  That’s the answer we -as a class- had selected. served as a great segue to the clip from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie‘s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” that I wanted to share with my students.  As they watched I asked them to break down some of the different “Single Stories” that she discusses - reading & writing stories about white British people and snow because she thought that’s what books had to be about; pitying a local boy who worked for her family only to find out his family, though poor, were incredibly talented weavers; and being greeted by a college roommate at Drexel who was surprised that her Nigerian roommate could speak English and didn’t listen to “tribal music”.

I was first exposed to this clip in one of my masters’ classes at Temple and was taken aback by her seemingly simple, yet poignant message.  I’ve wanted to use the clip in class for a while, but this was the first time I went for and, as with the first time using any text, is was a little nervous. 

After discussing some of these and the impact of “single stories”, I asked my students to describe a time when they fell victim to the danger of a single story. 

As they often do, my students blew me away. 

First some students told stories about times they had stereotyped others.  They judged their peers and even total strangers based on “single stories”.  Wanting to forge an even more personal connection with “single stories”, I pushed for times when they’d felt like Adichie when she first arrived at college.

A few students shared stories of being stereotyped because of their skin color or dress.  They talked about being followed around H&M in Center City or being harassed by police in their neighborhoods.  Others mentioned being told by teachers or even family members that they’d never amount to anything.  One young mother described the judgment that she faced the first time she took her daughter to the pediatrician.  She even teared up a bit remembering the harsh words and demeaning tone as the doctor asked her accusatory questions about her child.  However, she beamed with pride as she described how she proved the doctor wrong and talked about what a wonderful mother she is. 

The final “single stories” centered around being out of school and labeled “drop outs”. Working at an alternative school for the last five years, I’ve become keenly aware of the danger of the single “drop-out” story - that of the kid who quits school in favor of life on the corner.  While I have encountered students who openly admit this was part of their story, it is hardly emblematic of my population.  To be sure, my students are not defined by their past, but it is an important part of their identity and when they share it with me I realize that the “single story” of the drop-out is so far from reality.  Many of my students faced trauma, chaos, and crises that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies.  They recount crowded classrooms and dispassionate administrators, harsh judges and unfair incarceration, homelessness and accelerated adulthood.  When I first started teaching, these stories led me to pity my students, but even in that reaction I was falling victim to a “single story”.

As we wrapped up our discussion, I brought it back to the student’s comment about world lit as a way to combat ignorance. I reminded students that as we work through our World Lit stories and texts in general, we’ll continue to break down “single stories” and combat ignorance.

These are the kind of classes that can’t be measured by the Common Core and high stakes testing. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Playing Chicken with Philadelphia School Funding


The last few months have been pretty devastating for the state of public education in Philadelphia.  At the beginning of March, despite impassioned pleas from students, parents, teachers, and community members, the School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to shutter 23 schools.  

At the end of May the SRC again convened, heard testimony from a long list of folks concerned about the fate of the city’s public schools, and proceeded to approve a “doomsday budget”.  This $2.3 billion budget includes the elimination of art and music classes, extracurricular activities, and sports.  It also necessitates the termination of hundreds of teachers, aides, assistant principals, NTAs, and counselors. While each member of the SRC and the Superintendent expressed dismay with this budget, all but one voted to approve it, stressing that the District must “live within its means”.  This phrase struck a raw nerve with many school employees (myself included) as the District recently awarded a massive contract to testing giant Pearson, gave raises to many central office employees, and created a number of new top-level administrative positions.  The use of the phrase “live within our means” prompted one teacher to ask why 440 (the District’s beautiful, gigantic headquarters at 440 N. Broad Street) continued to operate its air conditioning.  She reminded the Superintendent that many schools don’t have air condition and “every penny counts”. I think there’s only a bit of hyperbole in this teacher’s statement.  How can the District administration even begin to talk about austerity and living within our means when they’re sitting in a half-empty monument to excessive spending (i.e. 400 N. Broad). 

The looming final move of devastation took place on Friday when 3,783 of the District’s 19,530 employees received termination notices. These notices went out to everyone from teachers to food service workers, assistant principals to counselors, custodians to support staff.  In all, 676 teachers, 283 counselors, 127 assistant principals, 1202 noon-time aides, 307 secretaries, and a host ofother positions will be laid off as of July 1. The Philly Teacher Action Group has taken up an effort to demonstrate the human side of these terminations through the “Faces of the Layoffs” project. Check it out, it’s pretty powerful. 

All of these moves by the District (particularly the most recent two) are motivated by the projected $304 million budget shortfall facing the SDP.  This shortfall developed for a variety of reasons, including poor long-term financial management, funding cuts at the state and city level, the end of federal stimulus money, and the exposition of school choice options (charters and cyber schools), but regardless of the cause it is no surprise and is nothing new for the School District of Philadelphia which has faced budget crunches around this time of year for the last several years. 

What lies beneath all of this austerity talk of “doomsday budgets” and layoffs is a game of political chicken.  In the past it has played out like this:

Round 1:
 - The District says that it needs more money.
 - The State says no.
 - The Mayor says something non-comittal like we need to support good schools, but doesn’t want to raise taxes.

Round 2:
 - The District says, “we need more money or we’re not going to be able to operate”.
 - The State says no.
 - The Mayor rebukes the Governor and proposes some “innovative” way to raise money for the District (this year it was raising taxes on cigarettes and liquor by the glass, in the past it has been the soda tax and a host of other things).

Round 3:
 - The District moves forward with closures, bare-bones budgets and layoffs in an attempt to show what is happening without more funds. 
 - The next two moves belong to the City and the State. 
In the past, they have come through with additional funding, though certainly not all of what the District asked for.  Certain items are restored to the budget and a percentage of the folks laid off are rehired.  Schools reopen in the fall and some things go back to normal… until the following March when the cycle begins all over again.  

Just because the City and the State have granted additional funding in the past, that by no means that they'll come though this year.  It is a very real possibility that schools will open in September with more students, but fewer supports, teachers, and supplies. Time will tell.  

Though my school has been spared the ax this year (we aren’t District employees and exist in a nebulous provider-area), but we have been a pawn in this political chicken in the past.  However, with the consolidation of high schools next year, our enrollment is expected to jump (not that we have any additional resources to handle such an increase).  My students are acutely aware of what’s going on in the schools because it pours out into their neighborhoods.  They talk about siblings and peers who aren’t going back in the fall because their school is closing, who see it as the end of the line.  Another barrier in a deck already stacked against them. 

While my colleagues and I do everything we can to support our students and their families, it’s exhausting fighting what feels like an uphill battle. Especially knowing that it’s in many ways a “set up” - a game of political chicken to see who can leverage whom to balk first and open their wallet. 

This is not the way to operate a school system and it’s not the way to treat the students, teachers, and families of Philadelphia.  While there may be a need for austerity and living within our means, it certainly can’t be placed solely on the backs of the students and the professionals who work tirelessly with them everyday and it can’t be done without some long-term financial planning for the health of the district as a whole (isn’t that what Thomas Kundson got paid an absurd amount of money for over a year to do?)… that is, unless the plan is to starve the district to death.