Let’s Hear It For Black Girls!

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“Sisters are more than the sum of their relative disadvantages: they are active agents who craft meaning out of their circumstances and do so in complicated and diverse ways.”

-Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen (2011)

 

 

Let’s hear it for black girls!

 

They are beautiful, bold, irrepressible and – above all – so incredibly strong.

 

Black girls will outlast any struggle, face down any adversary, and – more often than not – triumph in the face of adversity.

 

I know. I’m a public school teacher, and many of my best students are black and female.

 

That doesn’t necessarily mean they get the best grades. Some earn A’s and some don’t. But when it comes to pure willpower and the courage to stand up for themselves, no one beats a black girl.

 

Those are rare qualities nowadays. Sometimes it doesn’t make these girls easy to have in class. But think about how important they are.

 

As a teacher, it sure makes your life easier when students do whatever they’re told. But in life, we don’t want citizens who simply follow orders. We want people who think for themselves, people who question directives and do only what they think is right.

 

In short, we need people who act more like black girls.

 

As a white male, it’s taken me some time to come to an appreciation of black womanhood. But after about 15 years teaching in public schools serving mostly poor, minority students, appreciate them I do.

 

Think of the challenges they face and often overcome. Not only are they subject to the same racism as black males, they also have to function under the burden of male patriarchy and the quiet sexism that pervades American society.

 

According to a study entitled Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls by the NAACP and the National Women’s Law Center, African-American girls suffer from higher rates of sexual violence and intimate partner violence than white women, high rates of sexual harassment in school, and they are more vulnerable to sex trafficking than any other group.

 

In addition, more than one-third of black female students did not graduate on time in 2010, compared to 19 percent of white female students. However, there has been progress. Despite a lingering graduation gap, black girls have actually increased their graduation rate by 63% in the past 50 years, according to the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Unfortunately, this hasn’t meant they’ve built up more wealth. In 2010, single black women’s median wealth was just $100 compared to single white women’s wealth, which was $41, 500.

 

And it only gets worse the closer we look at it. Black women are the only group whose unemployment rate remained stagnant at 10.6%, while the overall rate for workers in the United States dropped from 7.2% to 6.1% between August 2013 and August 2014, according to a National Women’s Law Center report on jobs data. More than a quarter of black women live in poverty, according to the Center for American Progress, despite making up a larger portion of the workforce than white and Latina women.

 

Despite such problems, black women start businesses at six times the national average, according to the Center for American Progress. And this is even more startling when you realize they are also more likely to be denied small business loans and federal contracts.

 

It’s one of the reasons black girls are so special. Those who somehow survive the incredible pressures society puts them under often become super achievers. They can do almost anything.

 

Perhaps it’s an internalization of the advice black women often get from their mothers. They’re frequently told they have to work harder and do more just to be noticed, and they often do. In my classes, I’ve had more black girls achieve grades over the 100% mark than any other group. And that’s not easy to do. But it’s typical black girl power – they try to be more than perfect.

 

However, it takes a toll.

 

They are more likely to die of breast cancer than any other racial group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reasons are complex, but include the fact that black women experience delays in diagnosis and treatment. Like many oppressed people, they often internalize that oppression – they don’t take care of themselves and the stress can be a killer.

 

And for those who can’t overcome the unfair pressures we place them under, the results are even worse. In school, I’ve seen precious and valuable girls thrown into a sometimes cruel and uncaring disciplinary system – a system from which it can be hard to extract yourself.

 

Some teachers and schools when faced with the independence and forthrightness of black girls don’t know how to handle them. In such cases, these girls are often disciplined out of all proportion to their population size in school districts. For example, in New York City, black girls made up only 28% of the student body during the 2011-2012 school year, but were 90% of all girls expelled that year from the city’s schools, according to the “Black Girls Matter” report by the African American Policy Forum. Similarly, black girls made up only 35% of the Boston public school population that same year, but accounted for 63% of all girls expelled.

 

In short, we’ve got a lot of work to do to dismantle a national system of racism and white privilege. But even beyond that, as a society we need to recognize and appreciate black girls. A little bit would go a long way.

 

We need to acknowledge the unique talents and skills of these amazing young women. And so much of it starts with a matter of conceptualization in the white adult mind.

 

Instead of seeing them as defiant, we need to recognize their independence. Instead of seeing them as challenging your authority, you need to see them as asserting themselves and standing up for their beliefs.

 

Those are all such positive qualities. How many times do adults complain that kids today don’t care enough about things – their apathy, their entitlement, their indifference. As a group, black girls are nothing like that! They are exactly the opposite! But instead of praising them for it, instead of valuing them, white adults often feel threatened and respond by trying to crush what they perceive as a rebellious and disruptive element in their classrooms or in society.

 

That’s why I love the Black Girl Magic movement.

 

It was created by CaShawn Thompson to celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of black women. It started as a simple social media hashtag – #BlackGirlMagic.

 

It embodies a theme I’ve already touched on – the irrepressible spirit of black women, how they are faced with an overwhelming mountain of challenges but somehow manage to overcome them and become tremendous overachievers! It’s a celebration of everything good and positive about the black female experience.

 

I think it’s just wonderful.

 

How can you not look at someone like Misty Copeland and not appreciate her success? She’s the first ever black principal at the American Ballet Theatre. She has shot to the top of one of the whitest, wealthiest and most elitist arts you can pursue.

 

Or how about Gabby Douglas? You can’t watch videos of the amazing Olympic gymnast, who at only 17, absolutely wowed the world with gold medals despite internet trolls hating on her hair.

 

And if we’re talking undue hate and criticism, no woman in recent memory has suffered as much as Michelle Obama. Whatever you think of her husband’s Presidency, you have to admit Michelle was a model of grace under pressure. How many times did haters pick apart her appearance while she just got on with the business of making school lunches healthier and being a tremendous role model for children of color and women of all races and creeds.

 

Or Ava DuVernay, the amazing director snubbed at the Oscars for her film “Selma.” What did she do? She made another amazing film “13th” about how the 13th Amendment ended slavery but opened the door to the prison industrial complex.

 

That’s Black Girl Magic. And it’s actually pretty common.

 

So come on, fellow white people. Let’s celebrate black girls.

 

Stop trying to touch their hair or compare them with Eurocentric standards of beauty. Stop, pause and actually see them. See them for who and what they are.

 

Black girls are amazing and make the world a better place.

 

Here’s to all the incredible and irreplaceable black girls in my classes and in my life!

 

You go, girls!

Arne Duncan Designed Rahm Emanuel’s Latest Attack on Poor Students of Color

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Sometimes an idea is just too stupid to keep it all to yourself.

Ask Arne Duncan.

Sitting at his lonely desk as managing partner of the Emerson Collective, a limited liability corporation pushing school and immigration policy, he must have missed his days as President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary.

After all, he was the architect of Race to the Top, a federal policy that at best wasted billions of tax dollars without helping students learn – at worst it enriched private charter school operators, standardized test and publishing corporations and private prison operators without helping kids learn.

At the dawn of 2017 with Donald Trump just beginning to flush public education down the toilet in favor of school vouchers, Duncan took to the Internet wondering how he, too, could bring harm to inner city students.

On Jan. 11, he sent an email to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel with a suggestion that was pure Duncan – let’s help poor children of color by making it harder to graduate!

Chicago Public School students have suffered from decades of budget cuts, teacher layoffs and even the closure of 49 schools almost exclusively in poor, black or Latino neighborhoods. A former district CEO even plead guilty to a $23 million kickback scheme.

As a result, the more than 400,000 students, 37.7% of which are black and more than 80% of which are poor, have struggled academically.

How would Arne help them? Make them submit more paperwork in order to get a diploma. They must prove that after 12th grade they’re going to college, trade school, an internship, the military or would otherwise be gainfully employed. OR ELSE they can’t graduate!

“Think about making completing a FAFSA [financial aid application] and applying to two or three colleges or the military a new CPS graduation requirement,” Duncan wrote to Emanuel in emails released to the Chicago Sun-Times through a Freedom of Information Act request. “Graduation rates continue to rise. This would signal the importance of ongoing education/training. A HS diploma is great, but not enough. No other school system I know of has taken this next step.”

Duncan followed up in February, and Emanuel replied, “Thanks. You know we are doing a version of your graduation requirement.”

Duncan responded, “Didn’t know. Good?”

No. Not good, Arne.

Because of your neoliberal meddling, when this year’s 9th graders finish their senior year, they’ll have to jump through yet another hoop to get their diplomas.

The Brookings Institute concluded in 2016 that cities like Chicago with pronounced income inequality are more likely to see higher rates of secondary school drop-outs, and lower graduation rates. An unrelated 2014 study found that Chicago ranked eighth among American cities in an index of income inequality.

None of that is helped by a new graduation requirement.

But Duncan disagrees.

He wrote an op-ed published in the Chicago Tribune praising the plan – his plan.

“Some people worry that raising graduation standards will cause more young people to drop out, but they’re wrong,” he wrote. “Young people don’t drop out because school is too hard. They drop out because it is too easy and they are not engaged. They don’t understand how it’s relevant to their lives.”

Wrong, Arne. It’s not a matter of school being too easy. It’s a matter of life being too hard. Imagine being an impoverished inner city student. You’re malnourished, there are few books in your home, you’re struggling to survive in a world populated by drugs and gangs, you’re suffering from post traumatic stress and your neighborhood school is closed, your teacher is laid off, there’s no tutoring, no arts or humanities classes. And they keep making you take endless high stakes standardized tests. THAT’S what makes students loose interest in school. Not because it’s too easy!

But Emanuel, a former investment banker and Obama’s White House Chief of Staff, only understands business solutions to human challenges.

When proposing this new graduation requirement, he said he got the idea from charter schools.

But of course! Private corporations running schools at public expense always know what is best!

Or is that NEVER know what is best? I guess it depends on whose interest you’re looking out for – businesspeople or students.

Emanuel doesn’t think this new policy is a major change.

“We already have around 62 percent of our kids are already either accepted into college or accepted into community college, and our goal is to make sure nobody spikes the ball at 12th grade,” Emanuel said. “We want to make 14th grade universal. That’s the new goal line.”

Is it, Rahm? It’s interesting that you’re doing this for inner city kids but no one is suggesting it for wealthy kids in the suburbs.

This statement about expectations explains why:

“Just like you do with your children, college, post-high school, that is what’s expected,” Emanuel said. “If you change expectations, it’s not hard for kids to adapt.”

So poor black and Latino kids need YOUR expectations. Is that it? It’s up to YOUR patriarchy to step in and tell them what to do with their lives after high school or else – what? They’ll just sit home on food stamps doing nothing?

This is Chicago – where police brutality is an everyday thing. Gun violence is out of control. And you think these kids and their parents live in crippling, generational poverty because they aren’t trying hard enough to get jobs or better themselves?

Those seem to be the underlying assumptions here. It’s not about giving these 18-year-olds a helping hand. It’s about pushing them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

It only takes a second of thought to realize why this is a bad idea.

The district has been cutting staff positions left and right – especially at schools serving poor students of color. Has any additional funding been budgeted to ensure district guidance counselors are in place to help students meet this goal? NOPE.

Students can graduate if they prove they’ve got a job after high school. Those aren’t exactly growing on trees – especially jobs that pay more than minimum wage. What if students can’t find employment? That’s reason to withhold their diplomas? Your academic fate should be held up because there aren’t enough positions as a fry chef!?

Sure, seniors can apply to a local community college, which according to a spokesperson for City Colleges of Chicago, lets everyone in. But what if this isn’t the path for them? Not everyone is made for college. Why is the city stepping in to demand a post graduate plan from students? Isn’t this really just a recruitment plan for these community colleges and/or the military?

Is this even legal? These kids have passed all their classes. They’ve earned a diploma. You can’t simply withhold it because their post-secondary plans don’t meet with your approval.

When the district withholds its first diploma, look for a legal challenge where taxpayers will be in the uncomfortable position of paying for legal counsel to stop a child from graduating.

This Duncan/Emanuel policy is something you might expect from a certified moron like current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (She wants teachers armed against grizzly bear attacks.)

But it should be noted that both Duncan and Emanuel are Democrats. They’re just not progressives.

You wonder why a fool like Trump won the Presidency? It’s because of neoliberal attitudes like these. Both of these men were part of the Obama administration. And Hillary Clinton was following in the same footsteps – or certainly she didn’t speak out against it.

Emanuel’s political career is backed by the same big money conservatives that back Chris Christie, Mitt Romney and Bruce Rauner. He’s a puppet of charter schools, hedge fund managers and the Koch Brothers.

In fact, his corruption was so bad that during the 2016 primary, he became an issue for Democratic Presidential contenders. Bernie Sanders actually called him out in a tweet saying: “I want to thank Rahm Emanuel for not endorsing me. I don’t want the endorsement of a mayor shutting down schools and firing teachers.”

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Rahm had endorsed Clinton putting her in a bad position. Ann O’Leary, Clinton’s education advisor, said in private emails that Emanuel was “bad for Chicago schools.”
Like Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, O’Leary was a longtime supporter of corporate education reform policies – and so was Clinton. Hillary supported George W. Bush’s terrible No Child Left Behind – the law that changed federal education policy from focusing on equity to holding schools hostage for their standardized test scores.

O’Leary was worried about how Emanuel might hurt Clinton – especially in light of Bernie’s tweet.

In a private email to senior Clinton staff, she wrote:

“Bernie is beating us up over Rahm’s record on schools in Chicago. The Chicago school system is overloaded with debt and likely to run out of cash before the end of the school year. As a result, they are withholding their pension contributions, and laying off teachers and support staff.

I reached out to Randi W[eingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers] and she suggested that she tweet something tomorrow making it clear that Rahm and Rauner have been bad for Chicago schools and then HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] retweets.

That sounds like a toxic idea to me given Rahm’s endorsement, but I don’t think this issue is going away.

We could: (a) have HRC say something more forceful about the state working to help Chicago pay off debt so the schools can focus on teaching and learning; (b) have Randi say something more mild and we could retweet. But I do worry that short of going after Rahm, these options are not going to be satisfactory. So the (c) option is to stay silent for now.

Thoughts?”

O’Leary’s final decision was to do nothing.

And we all know how that turned out.

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The worst part is that the Democrats don’t appear to have learned anything.

Here’s what Duncan had to say just this month about how Democrats should be fighting the Trump administration’s education policies:

“The federal government is disinvesting in public education and withdrawing from accountability, so states and districts have to step up and lead.”

But Arne, your administration disinvested in public schools, too. Emanuel is famous for it!

And we all know what “accountability” means to neoliberals like you. It means endless standardized testing and closing schools catering to poor students of color. It means giving charter schools, book publishers and testing corporations a blank check.

No one is going to vote for that anymore.

That is just not a viable alternative to Republican policies that take all of this to its logical conclusion.

Destroying public schools slowly is not a viable alternative to destroying them quickly. Democrats need to either discover their real progressive roots or else move aside for grassroots groups to take over.

That’s a suggestion worth sending to your buddies Rahm, Hillary and Barack via email.

Dept of Ed Hires Anti-Civil Rights Crusader to Protect Student’s Nonexistent Civil Rights

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Candice Jackson is a victim of oppression.

When she was attending Stanford University in the mid-1990s, a minority calculus tutoring group refused to help her because she was white.

Sure she could probably afford to pay for private tutoring, but it was the point of the  thing.

She came from a family where both parents ran medical practices. Her dad, Dr. Rick Jackson, even unsuccessfully ran for Congress. You know – just like black families redlined into the ghetto and struggling to find work because of their African-sounding names.

Why shouldn’t the limited amount of tutoring spaces serve her as well as people from traditionally less privileged backgrounds? White lives matter, ya’ll.

“I am especially disappointed that the University encourages these and other discriminatory programs,” she wrote in the Stanford Review. “We need to allow each person to define his or her own achievements instead of assuming competence or incompetence based on race.”

With that kind of empathy and innate understanding of social justice, I – for one – am overjoyed that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has hired Jackson to run the department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Well, she’s acting assistant secretary for the office. Technically she was hired as deputy assistant secretary, because that doesn’t require a confirmation hearing. A permanent assistant secretary will have to be approved by Congress – if DeVos ever gets around to nominating one.

I’m sure she’ll do that soon. There’s no way she’d sneak in someone who doesn’t believe in civil rights whose main job is to protect civil rights! That would be like hiring a Secretary of Education who doesn’t believe in the mission of public education tasked with protecting public schools!

That’s unpossible!

And Jackson is all about civil rights. The 39-year-old attorney is anti-women’s rights, anti-distributive justice and possibly even anti-compulsory education and anti-Civil Rights Act of 1964!

Just perfect!

I mean what does the Department of Education have to do with civil rights anyway?

According to the department’s own statistics, black students are at least six times more likely than white students to attend poor schools. These schools have smaller budgets, fewer resources, a crumbling infrastructure, larger classes and higher student needs based on the trauma of living in poverty – worse nutrition, lack of books in the home, exposure to violence and abuse, etc. Meanwhile, white students are three times more likely than blacks to attend rich schools overflowing with resources, pristine infrastructures, small class sizes, and fewer needs.

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Is that fair? Should the government do anything about ensuring all students receive the same opportunities?

Heck no!

That’s up to… I don’t know… somebody else. And what about all those poor white kids trapped in poor schools with a majority of students of color!? Who’s going to help the six percent of white kids in mostly black schools escape?

Betsy DeVos – that’s who! Donald Trump – who is really indistinguishable from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and her are proposing a school voucher program so that these white kids can go to a charter, private or religious school.

The black kids? Maybe the choice schools will accept some of them, I mean if the appointed boards and CEOs who run them want to take these kids, it’s really all up to them. We aren’t going to force them to do anything. We’re all libertarians here in Washington now. You wouldn’t want us to trample on the civil rights of charter and private school operators, would you?

Of course not!

And we’re certainly not going to do anything to help these impoverished public schools succeed. No additional funding. No preferential treatment! The free market will sort things out – it always does.

And people wonder why DeVos needs to be protected by U.S. Marshals at a cost of $1 million a month.

Her department is doing away with services the public has come to rely on: protecting special needs students, protecting college students from predatory loans, and now prosecuting civil rights violations.

The liberal snowflakes! Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps! Why are you demanding the government provide you with actual services in return for your tax dollars? You should be demanding tax cuts. That way you can just buy everything you need, yourselves, like the billionaire DeVos family and even the well to do Jacksons.

It’s a wonder why DeVos doesn’t pay for her own security detail – or why President Trump demands we pay for the extra security for all his trips to Mar-a-Lago.

But in any case, the extra security is clearly necessary for DeVos. Every other Education Secretary in history has been able to make due with protection from the Secret Service – from agents already on the payroll and in fact still on the payroll now. But when you’re striping the public of services and enacting programs like school vouchers that Americans angrily don’t want, you need the extra protections.

It’s like Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Un. They didn’t and don’t have Royal Guards just because they love/loved pageantry. They need/needed protection from the people. That’s how you know you’re best serving the people. You need protected from them.

This is the conservative dream – federal employees appointed by bureaucrats instead of voted on by representatives, public servants who don’t believe in public service, and a military machine protecting them from the taxpayers.

This is the kind of administration that will finally ensure that never again will any white person ever be inconvenienced by people of color and all their needs! Never will the poor or minorities ever receive any federal help that could be perceived by white people as extra help – if we forget about all that we have helping us.

Finally we’ll all be equal. And some of us will be even more equal than others!

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Decolonizing Through Dialogue: Authentic Teaching in the Age of Testing and Common Core

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If you’re not careful, being a public school teacher can become an act of colonization.

 

This is especially true if you’re a white teacher like me with classes of mostly black students. But it’s not the only case. As an educator, no matter who you are or whom you teach, you’re a symbol of authority and you get that power from the dominant structures in our society.

 

Believe it or not, our schools are social institutions, so one of their chief functions is to help recreate the social order. Students enter as malleable lumps of clay and exit mainly in the shapes we decide upon. Therefore, as an educator, it’s hard not to fall into the habit of molding young minds into the shapes society has decided are appropriate.

 

In some ways this is inevitable. In others, it’s even desirable. But it also runs against the best potential of education.

 

In short, this isn’t what a teacher should be. My job in front of the classroom isn’t to make my students into anything. It’s to give them the opportunity, to generate the spark that turns them into their best selves. And the people who ultimately should be the most empowered in this process are the students, themselves.

 

But it’s easier said than done.

 

The danger is best expressed in that essential book for any teacher, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” where Paulo Freire writes:

 

“Worse yet, it turns them (the students) into ‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be filed by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.”

 

In most cases this means Eurocentrism – a kind of worship of all things white and denigration of all things black, brown and all pigments between.

 

We take the status quo and find every blind justification for it. In fact, this can become the curriculum, itself. Every counter-narrative, every criticism of the power structure then naturally becomes a danger. Revisionist history becomes history. European philosophy becomes the only accepted definition of rationality. Ideologies of empire become obvious and inescapable. White becomes the norm and racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia all become hidden and internalized.

 

You’ve heard the criticism of curriculums focusing exclusively on dead white males. This is why.

 

And not only does it silence minority voices, it reinforces a false view of the world. Folk singer Tom Paxton made that clear in this classic song:

What Did You Learn In School Today?”

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that Washington never told a lie,
I learned that soldiers seldom die,
I learned that everybody’s free,
And that’s what the teacher said to me,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned the policemen are my friends,
I learned that justice never ends,
I learned that murderers pay for their crimes,
Even if we make a mistake sometimes,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that war is not so bad,
I learned about the great ones we’ve had.
We fought in Germany and in France
And some day I might get my chance.
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned our government must be strong;
It’s always right and never wrong!
Our leaders are the finest men
And we elect them again and again,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

 

We can see why this kind of teaching is valued. It reinforces the status quo. But at its core education is essentially subversive. It supports new ways of thinking. It is by definition revolutionary. When you encourage students to think for themselves, some may come to conclusions that differ from the norm. This is entirely healthy and the only way societies can grow and change. But it’s inimical to the people in power who often are in charge of the educational system. They don’t want new ideas if those ideas will challenge their hold on the reigns of power. Socrates wasn’t forced to drink hemlock, after all, because his lessons supported the Athenian elite.

 

So we’re left with a real quandary. How do teachers remain free to inspire while being a part of a system that doesn’t value inspiration?

 

The natural forces of society work against authentic teaching like gravity pulling at a rocket. Unless you’re actively pushing against the ground, the most natural thing in the world is to just go with the flow. The textbook says this is the way. Teacher training programs often agree. Cooperating teachers who have been in the classroom for decades back it up. This is the best method. Just keep it up.

 

But it’s not. And you shouldn’t. There is another way even though it’s hard to see. And THAT’S often what you need to be doing for your students.

 

Let me pause at this point to make one thing clear: I don’t have all the answers.

 

I am no expert in how to do this. I have fallen victim to it, myself, more often than I’d like to admit. It may be next to impossible to avoid the accepted route much of the time. But if we want to be good teachers, we need to try.

 

If we really want to provide the best service to our students, their parents and the community, we have to break out of the mold. We have to allow our students the chance of seeing the world and not just our version of it.

 

The best ways I’ve found to do this are through selection of texts, use of Socratic Seminars and allowing as much choice as possible in assignments.

 

When selecting texts, you want to be as inclusive as possible. Provide students with the widest possible range of authors and opinions. In Language Arts, this means purposeful multiculturalism. It means authors of color being prized equally with the European cannon. It means women and transgender authors. It means authors subscribing to a wide range of beliefs and skepticisms. And it means accepting genres and forms that are often devalued like song lyrics, rap, Manga, graphic novels and anything that can be considered deep, substantial texts.

 

Finding such sources can be exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating. Unfortunately, not all schools permit teachers to do this to the same degree. Some districts mandate teachers only use certain texts already approved by the school board. Others provide a list of approved texts from which teachers can pick.

 

Each educator will have to find ways to navigate the system. It’s best if you can find support from administrators and in the community for what you want to do and go from there. But this can be a challenging road especially in our era of high stakes testing and Common Core which values authentic teaching not at all.

 

Another essential tool is class discussion. You may or may not be able to broaden the texts being discussed, but you can usually provide space for students to discuss those texts in class.

 

My 8th graders and I use the Socratic Seminar method of discussion extensively.

 

With almost every piece of literature, I write guided open-ended questions for the students to consider. The questions come out of the text, but I try to focus on queries that will get students thinking about how the text relates to their lives, gender and economic issues, questions of theme, race and opportunities to make connections of every type. Eventually, I even allow students to begin writing these questions, themselves.

 

The way I see it, my role is essentially an opportunity maker. It isn’t about finding an answer that will please me, the teacher. It’s about exploring the subject. It’s not about what I think. It’s about what students think. And that makes all the difference.

 

Finally, I’ve found it beneficial to allow students choice in their assignments.

 

There are many ways for students to demonstrate knowledge. They can write essays, take a test, create a collage, design a power point presentation, make an iMovie, act out a scene, etc. I try to expose students to multiple formats the first half of the year and then give them increased choice in how they’d like to express themselves in the second half.

 

Not only does this free students to think, it encourages the deepest kind of learning. It makes the lesson vital, important and intrinsic.

 

All of these approaches share a common feature: dialogue. They put the student, teacher and the author in a vital relationship. They take steps to equalize that relationship so that one isn’t more important than the others. It’s not just what the author, teacher or student thinks – it’s the interrelationship of the three.

 

Ultimately, it’s up to the student to decide the relative value of the results. Sure, they get grades. Sure, the system will judge students based on those grades. But the value of those grades isn’t as important as the resultant learning and the value students place on the experience.

 

To me, that’s the best kind of learning. And it’s the result of authentic teaching and dialogue.

 

It is the most inimical thing to colonization. Students are not enslaved to a system. They aren’t in servitude to a prepackaged group of ideas and norms.

 

They are valued and empowered.

 

Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing for them?

Civil Rights Aren’t Just for Minorities – They’re For Everyone

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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

It’s still shocking to me that so many white people seem to think civil rights are just a black issue.

 

As if they’re something that only concerns people of color.

 

White people can’t be the victims of discrimination? We can’t be mistreated on the basis of gender, religion, sexuality, or age?

 

Of course we can! And many of us are. But we are rarely discriminated against on the basis of our race. And somehow accepting that fact seems to turn us against the very idea of civil rights.

 

We act as if talking about civil rights is code for black issues. Many of us refuse to even admit that black people have legitimate grievances in this area, that they’re just needlessly complaining and looking for sympathy, that they’re trying to get something for free or get one over on us.

 

It’s pure bullshit. Black people are authentically aggrieved. They are the victims of a systemic racism that rarely even becomes visible to white eyes. And that same system either ignores whiteness or even privileges it.

 

The criminal justice system, alone, is rife with examples including racial profiling, stop-and-frisk policies, police brutality and the failed War on Drugs. Add to that voter ID laws, redlining, and credit scores. Add to that the use of bigoted and prejudiced textbooks, punishing non-white students more harshly than white students, underfunding public schools, and closing them down if they’re attended mostly by students of color.

 

Yet that doesn’t mean white people are impervious to civil rights violations. It just means that people of color are targeted much more often and are in much greater need of help than we are.

 

Yet many of us refuse to admit it. We refuse even though doing so actually puts ourselves at greater risk.

 

Think about it. If we ignore the civil rights concerns of those most victimized, who will be there for us when we’re targeted?

 

Take police brutality.

According to the Guardian’s The Counted, 1,092 Americans were killed by police in 2016. If we look at it proportionately, a much higher percentage of minorities were killed than white people. Specifically, Native Americans were killed at 10.13 per million, black people at 6.66 per million, while Hispanics and Latinos were killed at 3.23 per million. By comparison, white people were only killed at 2.9 per million.

 

So minorities were killed at much higher rates than whites given their smaller percentages of the population. However, if we look at the raw numbers, more white people were killed than any other group. Specifically, the police killed 574 whites, 266 blacks, 183 Hispanics/Latinos and 24 Native Americans.

 

So, yes, the African American community is right to be angry that they’re being disproportionately targeted by police. However, more than 500 white people were killed by law enforcement, too. That’s a troubling figure all by itself. Why are American police killing so many of us? Why is law enforcement so trigger happy in the USA?

 

It’s a problem for everyone. Police should not be killing such high numbers of civilians. In fact, in other countries, they don’t. Police kill more people in the U.S. in days than they do in other countries in years. Yet very few police officers actually serve jail time. Several officers went to trial in 2016, but only a handful were convicted.

 

This is a real problem, yet many white people dismiss it as a black issue – and an illegitimate one at that. As a country, we have a real concern with the way police are trained, protocol for when deadly force is allowed and how officers are held accountable. But we’re letting this issue fall through the cracks because it’s being delegitimized as a “mere” civil rights complaint.

 

Things have really changed in this country.

 

In 1963, when the all black 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan, the entire society took notice. Even whites who had been unsympathetic to the civil rights struggles of African Americans up to this point were disturbed at the murder of four children and the injury of 22 others. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called it “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” and it marked a turning point in our history. The fight for civil rights became a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, American struggle to secure equality for our brother and sister African Americans.

 

However, just two years ago when Dylann Roof was inspired by white supremacist Websites to kill nine people at all black Charleston Church in South Carolina, the response was… meh. Though it has been categorized as a hate crime, it has done nothing to wake up the society at large to the realities of modern day American racism. At most, it’s dismissed as an isolated event.

 

However, it’s not. White supremacists have long targeted African American churches as objects of their hatred. In 1991 it took a series of 154 suspicious church burnings for Congress five year later to pass the Church Arson Prevention Act, making it a federal crime to damage religious property because of its “racial or ethnic character.” More recently, a black church in Massachusetts was burned down the day after President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009.

 

For some reason, these continuing hate crimes fail to rouse the public at large. Perhaps the Internet culture and the perpetuation of so-called news sources that only support partisan confirmation bias has something to do with it. But it’s harmful to all of us.

 

When white people ignore the legitimate claims of black people, they make it easier for everyone to be mistreated. Often white people have acted as if prejudice could never be perpetrated against them, and when it’s cropped up, we’ve defined it narrowly to fit only the immediate group targeted. That’s an LGBT issue. That’s a Jewish issue. That’s an issue for people with disabilities. We rarely see them as they are – human issues.

 

In the age of Trump, violations of individual rights are popping up every day: journalists receiving felony charges for covering unrest at the inauguration, a Louisiana bill that makes resisting arrest a hate crime punishable by 10 years in prison, proposed laws in 10 states to criminalize peaceful protects – and on and on.

 

Nor is it partisan. Here are a list of human rights violations under Obama: drone strikes outside active war zones, ongoing use of massive civilian surveillance programs, failure to close Guantanamo Bay, harsh penalties for whistle blowers and no accountability for those they expose.

 

We live in an age where our rights are being eroded by ignorance, indifference, and the uncritical acceptance of prepacked political narratives. The powers that be use racism and prejudice to keep us divided so we’ll never mount an effective opposition.

 

Today as ever we need each other. We need to be there for our brothers and sisters in humanity. That starts with white people waking up to the harsh realities of black life in America.

Kids Deserve a Quality Education – not the PURSUIT of a Quality Education

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On Tuesday, Dannah Wilson, a 17-year-old student in Detroit came to Washington, D.C., with a message for Betsy DeVos, the current nominee for Education Secretary.

She said:

“My four siblings and I have attended 22 schools in search of satisfaction. … A satisfaction that our eyes haven’t seen. A satisfaction that our hearts can only hope for. A satisfaction that has been stolen from me for way too long because of the naive and narrow policies pushed by Betsy DeVos. That Detroit students are denied daily due to the privately institutional lies by Betsy DeVos and her duplicates.”

After three hours of confirmation hearings, DeVos was nowhere to be seen.

Running on only 3 hours of sleep and after waiting for 7 hours to speak with DeVos, Wilson spoke, instead, to people who would listen – a gathering of members of the AFL-CIO.

Her powerful statement was recorded by the members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and posted to their Facebook page where it has gone viral.

As with anything involving unions, skeptics will dismiss the whole thing as a publicity stunt. That the AFT decided to add an annoying musical score to the video will only heighten that skepticism.

However, there is one thing that can’t be denied – Wilson’s sincerity. Her eyes tear up and her voice chokes as she tries to get the words out. You may discount her as a talented actress, but she rings true to me.

Moreover, speaking out in this way is decidedly against her own self interest. She attends Cornerstone Leadership and Business High School, a Detroit private school with a $5,000 annual tuition. Expanding voucher programs likely would reduce the cost of attending her school.

But no. Wilson is firmly against DeVos, who has spent $200 million or more pushing lawmakers in Michigan and throughout the nation to enact vouchers and reduce charter school regulations.

What struck me most was her story of searching for a quality school and being unable to find one.

Corporate school reformers aren’t pushing for quality schools. They’re pushing for choice.

It’s the difference between a right and a freedom.

The Declaration of Independence famously defines “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as “inalienable rights.” As such, it guarantees “Life” and “Liberty” outright, but as to “Happiness” we are only guaranteed “the pursuit” of it.

(Today we recognize certain limitation on both Life and Liberty, but even at its inception, the framers limited our right to Happiness as merely the freedom with which to pursue it.)

There is a similar limitation being made with regard to school choice.

Supporters want students to be able to pick between public and private schools. But that doesn’t mean they have to do anything about ensuring any of these schools actually do a good job at helping kids learn.

It’s a subtle point but one that’s often overlooked.

Parents and children want a quality education. They don’t want choice unless it will lead to that quality education.

If we only guarantee choice, we aren’t giving parents and children what they want and need. In fact, we’re ignoring them in favor of those who would benefit from mere choice – charter and private school operators.

Parents don’t want to have to search through dozens of schools to find one that will actually teach their children. Nor would transferring from school-to-school in a desperate attempt to find one of quality be beneficial to students. No, parents want whichever school their children attend to be excellent.

And once we see that, we see Wilson’s point.

There is no federal right to an education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that students with disabilities are provided a “Free Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE), but that’s as far as the federal government goes. As it stands, it only applies to certain children who qualify, and even then it is under constant legal challenge and review.

Traditionally the responsibility has fallen to the states through interpretation of the 10th and 14th amendments. Likewise, most states explicitly guarantee an education as part of their individual state constitutions. However, issues of fairness, quality and equity are constantly in doubt.

It’s hard to underestimate how backwards the US is in this regard. According to the Constitute Project, 174 countries include a right to education in their Constitutions – nearly every one included in the available global record. A child’s right to an education is included in international laws like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The latter agreement, the most widely accepted human rights treaty in history, has been ratified by every member of the United Nations except Somalia and the United States.

Policymakers love to demean the US education system in relation to international test scores. It should be noted that almost all of the countries our students are being compared to guarantee their children’s right to be educated.

Instead, we’re trying to avoid any national responsibility. States are trying to limit their responsibility. And school choice legislation is attempting to throw it all on parents without giving them any tools except guaranteed options.

The real issue at the heart of this debate is the value of private vs public systems. Choice advocates say only privatized schools will provide the best schools, but this is demonstrably false.

Many of our public schools are excellent. You’ll find them especially in richer neighborhoods where they spend more per pupil than poorer districts with less local tax revenue to draw upon. Imagine if we committed to fairly funding them all. Imagine if we committed to bringing all of them up to that same standard.

School choice is a shell game meant to district you from this point. If the goal is providing all children with an equal, free, and adequate education, the policies of someone like Betsy DeVos take us in the wrong direction.

They will only lead us to more tears from brave children like Wilson who have to travel far from their homes to confront uncaring would-be Education Secretaries.

The Racists Roots and Racist Indoctrination of School Choice

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“Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, subsidizes, or results in racial discrimination.”
-President John F. Kennedy

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Billionaires and far right policymakers are pushing for school choice.

I say they’re pushing for it because voters always turn it down.

Every single referendum held on school choice in the United States has been defeated despite billions of dollars in spending to convince people to vote for it.

But advocates aren’t discouraged that the public isn’t on their side. They have money, and in America that translates to speech.

The Donald Trump administration is dedicated to making our public schools accept this policy whether people want it or not.

But don’t think that’s some huge change in policy. The previous administration championed a lighter version of these market-driven plans. The main difference goes like this: Democrats are for charter schools and tax credits for private and parochial schools. Republicans are for anything that calls itself a school getting your tax dollars – charter schools, private schools, religious schools – if some charlatan opens a stand on the side of the road with the word “school”in the title, they get tax dollars.

In all this rush to give away federal and state money, no political party really champions traditional public schools. Ninety percent of children attend them. In opinion polls, a majority of Americans like their local community schools. But like most things Americans want, politics goes the other way. Universal healthcare? Have Romneycare. Universal background checks on all gun sales? Nah. That sort of thing.

However, what often gets lost in the rush of politicians cashing in on this policy is its racist roots.

You read that right. School choice was invented as a mechanism of white flight. Before the federal government forced schools to desegregate, no one was all that interested in having an alternative to traditional public schools. But once whites got wind that the Supreme Court might make their kids go to school with black kids, lots of white parents started clamoring for “choice.”

It was intended as a way to get around Brown vs. Board. In 1953, a year before that landmark decision, many white southerners felt it was vitally important to continue a segregated education. They deeply desired to continue having “separate but equal” schools for the races, yet the US Supreme Court seemed ready to strike that down.

Enter Georgia’s Gov. Herman Talmadge who created what became known as the “private-school plan.” Talmadge proposed an amendment to the Georgia Constitution to empower the general assembly to privatize the state’s public education system. “We can maintain separate schools regardless of the US Supreme Court by reverting to a private system, subsidizing the child rather than the political subdivision,” Talmadge said.

The plan goes like this. If the Supreme Court mandates desegregation (as it did), the state would close the schools and issue vouchers allowing students to enroll in segregated private schools.

Fortunately, Talmadge’s plan was never implemented in Georgia. But it became the model for segregationists everywhere.

In Prince Edward County, Virginia, the plan actually came to fruition – sort of.

Two years before the 1959 federal desegregation deadline, local newspaper publisher J. Barrye Wall explained what county leaders were planning:

“We are working [on] a scheme in which we will abandon public schools, sell the buildings to our corporation, reopen as privately operated schools with tuition grants from [Virginia] and P.E. county as the basic financial program,” he wrote. “Those wishing to go to integrated schools can take their tuition grants and operate their own schools. To hell with ’em.”

Ultimately the county refused to sell the public school buildings. However, public education in Prince Edward County was nevertheless abandoned for five years, from 1959 to 1964. During that time, taxpayer dollars were funneled to the segregated white academies, which were housed in privately owned facilities such as churches and the local Moose Lodge.

The federal government struck down the program as a misuse of taxpayer funds after only a year, but even so whites benefited and blacks lost. Since there were no local taxes collected to operate public schools during those years, whites could invest in private schools for their children, while blacks in the county were left to fend for themselves. Since they were unable and unwilling to finance their own private, segregated schools, many black children were simply shut out of school for multiple years.

In other states, segregationists enacted “freedom of choice” plans that allowed white students to transfer out of desegregated schools. Any black students that tried to do the same had to clear numerous administrative hurdles. Moreover, entering formerly all-white schools would subject them to harassment from teachers and students. Anything to keep the races apart in the classroom – and usually the entire building.

Eventually, segregationists began to realize that separate black and white schools would no longer be tolerated by the courts, so they had to devise other means to eliminate these “undesirables.”

Attorney David Mays, who advised high-ranking Virginia politicians on school strategy, reasoned:

“Negroes could be let in [to white schools] and then chased out by setting high academic standards they could not maintain, by hazing if necessary, by economic pressures in some cases, etc. This should leave few Negroes in the white schools. The federal courts can easily force Negroes into our white schools, but they can’t possibly administer them and listen to the merits of thousands of bellyaches.”

Mays turned out to be somewhat prescient. Though desegregation efforts largely succeeded at first, in the last 20-30 years whites accomplished through housing and neighborhood segregation what they couldn’t legally enforce through outright school segregation. District lines were drawn to minimize the number of blacks at predominantly white schools and vice versa. Moreover, since funding was often tied to local property taxes, whites could legally ensure black schools got less resources than white schools. And with standardized tests constantly showing students at these schools as failing, policymakers could just blame the school instead of what they’d done to set the school up for failure.

Today racist policies undermine much of the structure of our public schools. We should acknowledge this and work to peel it back. We need to ensure all schools are equitably funded, that class sizes are under control, that all students get a broad curriculum and the services they need. But in the absence of a new, robust desegregation policy, our schools will always be in danger of racist programs that can easily select which students to benefit and which to ignore.

Instead of doing this hard work, we’re engaged in resurrecting the school choice policies of the deep South and universalizing them across the country. School vouchers are extremely similar to Talmadge’s private school plan. The main difference is that vouchers don’t close public schools outright, they simply allow them to be defunded and ignored. With universal school vouchers, public schools often become the de facto holding area for whichever group of children the private schools refuse to accept or who can’t afford private school tuition even with the vouchers.

Charter schools are built on the Prince Edward County model. They’re administered as private institutions yet claim to be somehow public. As a result, they’re allowed to bypass many of the rules that protect students at public schools from discrimination and fraud. In effect, they’re largely unregulated. In the modern age, that means they can be incredibly substandard for long periods of time and no one knows or intervenes. The kinds of scandals perpetrated at some charter schools are simply not possible at traditional public schools. Some charters close without notice, have facilities used as nightclubs, involve taxpayer funds used for non-school purposes such as apartments for mistresses, the purchase of yachts, etc.

In both cases, charters and voucher schools often cater to mostly one race rather than another. That increases segregation at both these facilities and traditional public schools. But voucher schools can go a step further. They can even put racism on the curriculum.

Supporting the racial order is often what’s actually being taught at private and religious schools. They are infamous for revisionist history and denying climate science. What’s less well-known is how they often try to normalize racist attitudes.

The American Christian Education (ACE) group provides fundamentalist school curriculum to thousands of religious schools throughout the country. Included in this curriculum is the A Beka Book and Bob Jones University Press textbooks.  A Beka publishers, in particular, reported that about 9,000 schools nationwide purchase their textbooks.

These books include the following gobsmackers:

“[The Ku Klux] Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. Klan targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians.”
—United States History for Christian Schools, 3rd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 2001

“God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ.”
—America: Land That I Love, Teacher ed., A Beka Book, 1994

“A few slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well.”
—United States History for Christian Schools, 2nd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 1991

“To help them endure the difficulties of slavery, God gave Christian slaves the ability to combine the African heritage of song with the dignity of Christian praise.  Through the Negro spiritual, the slaves developed the patience to wait on the Lord and discovered that the truest freedom is from the bondage of sin. By first giving them their spiritual freedom, God prepared the slaves for their coming physical freedom. ”
-Michael R. Lowman, George Thompson, and Kurt Grussendorf, United States History:  Heritage of Freedom, 2nd ed. (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book, 1996), p. 219.

“Africa is a continent with many needs. It is still in need of the gospel…Only about ten percent of Africans can read and write. In some areas the mission schools have been shut down by Communists who have taken over the government.”
—Old World History and Geography in Christian Perspective, 3rd ed., A Beka Book, 2004

Gay people “have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists.”
—Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, 1998-1999, Bob Jones University Press, 1998

Brown v. Board of Education is described as social activism by the Supreme Court: “While the end was a noble one – ending discrimination in schools – the means were troublesome… liberals were not willing to wait for a political solution.”
-Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, 1998 – 1999 (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1998), p. 34

These are claims that are uncritically being taught to children at many voucher schools. If this were happening only at private schools, it would be troubling that racists were indoctrinating their children in the same hatred and bigotry of their parents. However, that we’re actually using public money – and planning to expand the amount of public money – to increase the racism and prejudice of the next generation is beyond troubling! It’s infuriating!

School choice does not enhance civil rights. It is inimical to them. It is part of a blatant policy to make America racist again. We cannot allow the Trump administration and any neoliberal Democrats who quietly support his ends to undo all the progress we’ve made in the last 60 years.

The bottom line is this – voters don’t want school choice. It does nothing to better childrens’ educations. It is a product of segregation and racism and even in its modern guise it continues to foster segregation and racism.

If we care about civil rights, social equality and democratic rule, school choice is something that should be relegated to the dust heap of history. It’s time to move forward, not look back fondly on the Confederacy, Jim Crow and segregationism.