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

waitingsuperman3023

 

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?

I’m a Public School teacher. Hands Off My Trans Students!

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I’m a public school teacher.

I have a lot of different girls and boys in my classes.

In fact, some of them are neither girls nor boys.

Does that mean they should be discriminated against? Does it mean we should judge them, tell them they’re somehow less valuable than the other kids? Tell them who they are by telling them where to pee?

Heck, No!

Some kids don’t feel comfortable with a traditional gender identity. And it’s more common than you’d think.

It’s certainly more widespread than I ever would have thought until a little girl taught me a lesson… well, not a little girl, really.

A few months ago, I would have said she’s the cutest little girl in the lunch line.

Bright, vivacious, always a friendly smile and a kind word.

But she’s not a little girl.

And I didn’t know until she told me.

As a teacher given the unenviable role of line monitor, I have to find the bright spots where I can.

Letting only two hungry 5th graders in to get their lunch at a time and making the rest wait does not make you popular.

“Aaaargh! Why you always stopping me!?” They often say.

“Because you were third,” I reply.

“But why?” They often insist.

“It’s not personal. It’s numerical.”

And I let them through to continue the game tomorrow.

It goes on like that for about a half hour with little variation – until she gets to the front of the line.

“Hey, Mr. Singer!” Big smile and a wave.

And we’d be off on a conversation. She’d ask me how my day was, what I was teaching my students, how my daughter was. I’d ask how her day was so far, about pets, homework.

She’s actually not in my class. I only see her at lunch, but she always brightens my day.

For months, it went like clockwork. Until a few weeks ago when she appeared at the front of the line with her long hair chopped off into a bob.

“Nice haircut,” I said encouragingly.

“Thanks,” she replied. “You want to know why I got it?”

“Sure. Why?”

“I’m agender.”

“Oh,” I responded cluelessly. “What’s that?”

And she proceeded to explain that she didn’t feel comfortable identifying as male or female.

I nodded and then it was time to let her get her lunch.

I’ll admit it was unsettling. Here was this cute little thing and I didn’t even know what to call her now.

But the next day things progressed as usual. Ze came through the line with the same big smile. We had the same innocuous conversation and ze went to eat.

It made me think.

I’ve been teaching for more than a decade. Ze was probably not the first transgender student I’ve met. And when I thought back to all the children who’ve come through my classes over the years, faces started to pop up and hit me.

Gender is not black and white. (Come to think of it, neither is race.) No one is 100% male or female. I mean, sure people have a fixed range of sexual parts, but gender identity is more than that.

We each feel comfortable acting and identifying certain ways, and if you think about it, some of those ways don’t always line up with our cultural gender designation.

For instance, I cry my eyes out at certain movies. My daughter – who’s 8 – heard the song “Boys Don’t Cry,” the other day and said, “Well that isn’t true. Daddy cries all the time.”

Moreover, my wife loves football, basketball and hockey. Me? I could take them or leave them. If she wants me to watch the game with her, she’s got to beg or promise or put out the right snacks.

Wouldn’t it just make sense that some people are much further to one side or other of the gender spectrum than others? Wouldn’t it just make sense that sometimes your identity and your physical parts don’t match? Or maybe you’re so in the middle that it makes no sense to take a side?

I say again, I teach in a public school. We don’t push any kids away. We take everyone. And that means taking those kids who aren’t so easy to label.

I teach middle school. Transgenderism doesn’t come up too often.

Last year when bathroom bills were all the rage, some of my 8th graders brought it up during our Socratic Seminar discussion groups. And I let them talk about it.

We talked about why some people might think this is a good idea, why some might oppose it, etc. There were some boys who were hysterically against trans students using the bathroom with them, but most of my kids had zero problem with it. In fact, they knew that it had already happened.

Trans students are everywhere. You just rarely hear about them.

I don’t know which bathroom my lunchline buddy uses. I wouldn’t presume to ask. But it hurts me that there are people out there who want to limit hir.

These children have rights. They are little sweethearts. They’re full of life and joy. We should respect their humanity.

And to those who say letting them use a bathroom that corresponds with their identity will lead to kids being molested, let me ask – has that ever really happened?

The way I see it, the problem is people – any people – molesting others, no matter what room they do it in, no matter if they’re transgender or not.

Frankly, it doesn’t happen a lot at school, nor is it more pronounced with trans kids.

This has nothing to do with children. It has to do with old men and women who refuse to broaden their views about the world. It’s about the ancient making the young do as they say regardless of how doing so may trample on their right to be themselves.

Well, I won’t be a part of it.

You want to attack my trans students? You’ll have to do it through me.

I’m a guardian of kid’s rights. I’m a defender of children from whoever wants to do them harm.

I’m a public school teacher. That’s just what we do.

Confession of a Standardized Test Proctor

A boy receiving a failing test score

Hello. My name is Steven.

HI, STEVEN!



And I’m a standardized test proctor.

(Clapping!)

I’ve been a proctor for over 10 years now. I used to be a teacher. Some days I still get to be one, but most of the time… I’m just a proctor.

(Clapping. Shouts of “YEAH!”)



I give my students standardized tests.

WOO-HOO!



And I make them do test prep.

(Cheers!)

But…

(Breaks down. Someone walks up behind him, claps him on the back and whispers in his ear. Encouraging noises from the crowd of people sitting in folding chairs around the room.)



Let me start with the box.

(Laughter)



The box came to my middle school classroom right before Christmas break. You know the one. Like a cinder block made of cardboard. 

A high school student brought it down from administration. She shook it like a huge maraca and asked, “Mr. Singer, where do you want it?”

For a second I had no idea what it was. Then I remembered – it was almost time again to take the GRADE Test. And I knew what it was – a box full of those black and green test booklets, Scantron sheets wrapped in plastic, a box of No. 2 pencils, a monitor’s booklet, scratch paper, student rosters and ID numbers… Everything I wanted for Christmas.

(Laughter)



So I put it on the shelf, went on teaching and forgot about it until December was over, until after the holiday break.

I didn’t want to even think about it.

But when I came back to school in January all rested and raring to go, I saw it there like some sinister Elf on the Shelf.

So I put it off for another week. No rush. I had until the end of the month to make my students take it.

I just…

I couldn’t have them come into my classroom and first thing take a standardized test. That would have been heartless. They didn’t come back to school to fill in bubbles. They wanted to do something interesting, something that they really cared about.

They wouldn’t admit it, but they wanted to learn Goddammit!

And I wanted to teach!

(Grumbling) TELL US ABOUT IT!



What?

TELL US ABOUT THE WEEK BEFORE YOU TESTED!



Okay. I…

It was great. We read S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Or at least a few chapters of it. 

The kids couldn’t put it down. If there were only a few minutes left in class, they didn’t want to stop reading – they wanted to keep going. 

We wrote journal entries about what we might have done in the characters’ places, examined the use of slang and how it has evolved over time.

We participated in a Socratic Seminar discussion where we made connections between the novel and our own lives, explored gender issues, the role of socioeconomic status and race – it was higher level thinking all around. You know? The stuff they tells us we’re supposed to teach – the stuff all the research tells us helps learners grow.

But it didn’t last. The week ended. And I had to give the GRADE Test.

OOOH! (a few claps)

You know, it’s funny. Working in a poor school district like mine, you hear a lot about accountability. If administrators don’t enact this reform, or teachers don’t do that paperwork or students don’t score this high – they’ll close us down. But no one talks about holding politicians accountable for making sure we have the resources we need.

Case in point: when I came back from break, the fan in my room’s cooling system had broken down. I have no windows and the air wasn’t circulating. It was hot and muggy and miserable. Yes, in January with arctic temperatures outside!

I asked the grounds keeper and administrators to do something about it, but was told repeatedly “the part is on order.” Nothing happened.

The first week wasn’t too bad. We managed. But it wasn’t until the second week – when I gave out the test – that it went from annoying to miserable!

(He pauses, shaking his head.)

I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if it was a different test, but the GRADE…

…. is such a waste of time!

 

(good natured laughter. Mumbling.)


They call it a reading diagnostic test because it’s supposed to diagnose the kids’ deficiencies in reading. But it doesn’t do that for a host of reasons – chief among them the fact that kids take the same exact test over-and-over again for at least three years!

That’s right! No variation! The same questions in the same order three times a year – year-after-year. Heck! This was the second time they were taking this same test just this year alone!

Sure there’s one alternative version we COULD give to mix things up, but administration rarely lets us do that. And even if we did, it wouldn’t help that much.

(Snickers!)


What’s worse, it isn’t even aligned with the high-stakes tests kids have to take in March and April!

Yeah! They stick a gun to our heads and say if your students don’t score well on the all-or-nothing, win-or-lose state tests, we’ll label you a “failure,” cut your funding or close you down.

So you’d think we’d practice – try to do look-alikes and get comfortable with the format and everything.

But the rehearsal we’re forced to do is the GRADE test! That’s like practicing a layup when you’re getting ready for the chess tournament!

The preparation doesn’t reflect what students will be asked to do when it comes to the make-or-break exams!

It wasn’t always like this.

We used to have kids take a diagnostic test called the 4SIGHT. It wasn’t perfect. Kids took it on computers, but there was an essay section they’d write on paper, too, that I was actually allowed to grade, myself!

I thought there were better uses of class time, but at least the 4SIGHT was actually a good dry run for the kind of high-stakes tests they were going to take later in the year. And sections they took on the computer gave you a score immediately. 

It was something you could look at as a rehearsal, as reducing test anxiety, as providing you data you could use to make decisions about the students.

(Laughter)



Yeah! As if you’d need it! Any teacher who knows his students so poorly that he needs standardized tests to tell their strengths and weaknesses is a pretty poor teacher.

The only reason we changed to the GRADE Test in the first place is because the district got a grant from the state. 

First, the governor and legislature slashed our budget, then they offered to give us back a small portion of it if we enacted certain reforms – one of which was to replace our somewhat helpful diagnostic test with a totally useless Pearson product.

(clapping. A few catcalls of “PEARSON! OOOH! OOOH!”)

Come to think of it – 4SIGHT was also made by Pearson.

(Laughter)



And the time it takes to give this thing! There are only four sections – Vocabulary, Sentence Completion, Listening Comprehension and Passage Comprehension. But it takes a minimum of two days – and I have double periods! That’s two 80-minute sections – actually more like three so I can give the make-ups!



(unhappy noise from crowd)



That’s right! If a student is absent, I have to somehow proctor the whole thing over again just for him. Administration says it’s too hard for them to pull students out of class and give the make-ups, themselves. So I’m forced to give busy work to students who completed the assessment so they have something to do while the stragglers catch up.

(grumbles)

So to review: today was day three of testing. Day six if you count the first time I proctored this darn thing. And three more days will be coming in May.

This is day seven of no air flow. Kids sitting at their desks like they’re half dead. Sad, bored looks on their faces, and I completely sympathize but I’m the one who’s forced to do this to them!

Every now and then one of them asks, “Why are we doing this, Mr. Singer? Will this affect my grade?” 

And I find the lies hard to get out. Because, no, it won’t affect your grade. There’s really no good reason you’re taking this, except that some of those books on the shelf you enjoy during sustained silent reading were bought with money we get for making you go through this nonsense.

I used to believe in standardized testing. I did!

When I first started teaching it made a certain kind of sense. We had the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests then. My 8th grade kids took one in Reading and one in Writing.

It was challenging but at least the expectations were clear. I knew exactly what kinds of things they would be tested on and what they were expected to do. 

There were reams of remediation material available, and I could have my pick of the best – the clearest and most engaging – as test prep materials go.

But then Pennsylvania adopted Common Core – or at least it adopted the look-a-like PA Core – and had to develop new tests! 

Today, high school students take a test called the Keystone and middle schoolers still take the PSSA. But they’re both just different versions of the PARCC test with a Pennsylvania-sounding name on it. We just pretend it’s something new and ground breaking.

That might be acceptable if the PARCC was a valid assessment. However, it’s notorious throughout the country for being designed to fail students – not fairly evaluate them. 

Moreover, the state Department of Education is extremely stingy with examples teachers can look at so we know what’s on the test. I doubt even they know what’s on it because they keep changing it from year-to-year.

So all of my remediation material is almost useless. I can’t even buy something new because it takes several years after a test is developed for the preparatory material to appear, and we’re still chasing a moving target!

And on top of all that – the state is forcing all schools to use the scores from these tests to evaluate teachers performance!

We use incomplete test prep and unaligned pretests to prepare for more tests that don’t fairly assess student learning – and then use these invalid scores to blame teachers and bemoan the state of education!

WHAT THE HELL!?

Yeah! So…

(Someone walks up behind him and whispers in his ear. Hands him something.)

I get this… chip?

(Cheers! He looks it over.)

One week. I’m a one week man!

(Clapping. People standing.)

I’ve accepted my lot for one week?

(Volume gets louder on applause.)

I’m a test proctor.

(Catcalls. ONE OF US! ONE OF US!)

I’m a test proctor!

(Insane yelling!)

I’M A PROCTOR! A PROCTOR! A TESTING PROCTOR!

(The crowd rushes to the stage and engulfs the speaker. More and more approach. They just keep coming – more than could possibly fit in this room. The clamor continues to gain in volume until its unclear whether its celebratory cheering or out of control insanity. One word is heard through it all until even it cannot be made out in any distinctness.)

PROCTOR!

(curtain.)


This article also appeared in the LA Progressive, Education Bloggers Network, Public School Shakedown and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Top 10 Education Blog Posts (By Me) You Should Be Reading Right Now!

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Chill the champagne, call the babysitter and get out those funky illuminated 2015 party glasses! It’s New Year’s!

What a year it’s been!

Good ol’ 2014 was a rough one in many ways. National news was bloodier and more violent than usual.

But in response, social activism was on the rise. People were taking to the streets to protest in numbers not seen since the Civil Rights movement. Corporate Education Reform was on the wane. National teachers unions were calling for the resignation of Arne Duncan, our U.S. Secretary of Education. Pennsylvania lost its worst governor in my lifetime – Tom Corbett. And they’re making a new Star Wars movie!

But perhaps most important of all, Gadflyonthewallblog was born!

I never thought I’d be a teacher-blogger. But here I am.

I used to just read the amazing work of people like Jessie Ramey, Peter Green, Jersey Jazzman, Anthony Cody, Diane Ravich and so many more.

They gave me ideas, made me want to speak out. I’d start posting things on Facebook. A status update here, a meme there. Until one day I starting writing something that was so long, I couldn’t fool myself anymore.

I had written a blog post. There was nothing for it, then, but to start a blog.

I promised myself if I took that step I would publish at least once a week as long as people were reading what I wrote.

At first, I’d get 50-100 page views. That quickly turned to 1,000 – 2,000 and then sometimes much more.

Now, more than 40,000 hits later, with 5,785 followers, I’m flattered beyond words that people seem to like what I’ve been writing. I hope I’m helping add to the conversation about education, social justice and anything else I write about.

To celebrate my half year as a blogger – I started all this in July – I’ve compiled a Top 10 List of my posts.

I hate to use data to rank my students, but I found it very helpful here in selecting which articles to include.

Like all data, it has its limitations. For instance, many of these articles were reblogged or published in many different venues – the Washington Post, LA Progressive, Diane Ravich’s blog, Public School Shakedown, the Badass Teachers Association blog, etc. Since I don’t have access to their statistics, I couldn’t include them in my calculations. As a result, a post may be lower on my list but it actually received more views overall if you include everywhere it was published. I suspect this is true in some cases but can’t prove it.

What I ended up with – in ascending order – are the most viewed posts on my blog site.

I hope you’ll find something interesting you haven’t read before or perhaps an old favorite to read again. Or maybe you can just share this list with a friend to let them know how totally super awesome my blog is!

Anyway, here we go – the Top 10 Posts of 2014 from Gadflyonthewallblog:


10) LIFE OR DEATH PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

Published: Aug. 2312184861-standard
Views: 1,022

Description: Before the first day with students, my school had an active shooter drill. This is how it went down.

Fun Fact: This piece was chosen for a Freshly Pressed award by WordPress.com. It has the most likes (145) and the most comments (31) of any article I have published so far.


9) FIGHT CORPORATE EDUCATION REFORM AND MEME IT

Published: Oct. 19 20-beach-sea-photography
Views: 1,053

Description: Just a bunch of education memes I made – most of them before I started the blog.

Fun Fact: This was meant to be a toss off – somewhere for me to keep track of my memes. It was unexpectedly popular and many of these memes keep popping up in unexpected places to this day.


8) TOXIC TESTING MY KINDERGARTEN TOT – OR DADDY DON’T PLAY THAT

Published: Dec. 15  76754238
Views: 1,071

Description: It’s a surreal experience for a teacher to attend a parent-teacher night for the first time as a parent. From a daddy’s eyes, there’s no choice but to question the value of standardized testing in Kindergarten.

Fun Fact: This was so personal it was very hard to write. I didn’t think anyone would care. I was wrong. It’s been published widely beyond my blog.


7) TRACKING, TESTING AND THE MYTH OF MERITOCRACY

Published: Sept. 7  sad student
Views: 1,316

Description: When one of my students earned outstanding grades in my class last year but was denied a place in this year’s advanced class because of low standardized test scores, I took action.

Fun Fact: This piece really angered people on Facebook for the injustice this student faced. I received a plethora of comments and messages from others who had gone through similar situations.


6) A MOMENT OF SILENCE FOR MICHAEL BROWN

Published: Nov. 26  140824-michael-brown-4p_98a645e4e00131864161045b0edd09e7
Views: 2,052

Description: My students were so depressed by the Grand Jury decision not to hold a trial for the police officer who killed Michael Brown, I had to address it in class.

Fun Fact: I received more hate mail for this article than any other. It was widely published – even in the Washington Post. I had to stop reading the comments after a while. Many thanks to those who don’t want my head for doing this.


5) THE REAL AMERICAN EDUCATION CRISIS

Published: Aug. 3  Arne Duncan
Views: 2,131

Description: I got so sick of hearing corporate education reformers go on TV and talk about our failing schools. Yes, they’re failing because of education policies that don’t work that we refuse to replace.

Fun Fact: This was something of a slow burn. At first, it didn’t receive much attention, but I was surprised to see that views continue to trickle in daily.


4) MERRY CHRISTMAS. WE’RE STEALING YOUR SCHOOLS

Published: Dec. 27  feb5a53244c611e48eca12313d21419c
Views: 2,949

Description: My continuing coverage and outrage at the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s overreach to steal York City Schools away from taxpayers and give it to a failed charter school operator.

Fun Fact: My most recent post, widely published. I have been one of very few writers sounding the alarm for months. Finally, the nation seems to be paying attention.


3) THE BEST EVIDENCE AGAINST COMMON CORE

Published: Oct.4  Classroom-Management2
Views: 3,121

Description: Common Core is nonsense. To see that all you have to do is step in a classroom. Unfortunately that’s one thing the authors of CCSS have never done.

Fun Fact: I knew I had a winner from the second I posted this. It took off like a rocket. It has also been widely published and debated – one of the most popular pieces on the Badass Teachers Association blog. This is the only article I know of to inspire another blogger to write a complete piece attempting to debunk it.


2) CHECK YOUR WALLET – YOU TOO CAN BE AN EXPERT ON TEACHER TENURE

Published: Oct. 24  0714_wallet-open-money_485x340
Views: 6,070

Description: When Time Magazine promoted tech millionaires’ plan to improve education by attacking teachers, I exploded in fury. The result is this angry diatribe taking them to task point-by-point.

Fun Fact: Hugely, popular, widely published and almost universally praised by teachers and teachers groups. This lead to my involvement helping craft a response to the Time article published in the magazine along with my fellows at the Badass Teachers Association.


1) THE FINAL STRAW: CANCEL OUR LABOR CONTRACTS, WE CANCEL YOUR TESTS

Published: Oct. 11  the-straw-that-broke-the-ca1-300x273
Views: 10,910

Description: When Pennsylvania cancelled its contract with Philadelphia teachers, I saw the writing on the wall. If they can do that, teachers need to stop giving them the ammunition. They need to refuse to proctor the standardized tests being used to unjustly label our schools failures and justify the elimination of our collective bargaining rights.

Fun Fact: This is easily my most popular article yet. For a few weeks I was something of a folk hero. I saw my words memed by others and this piece appeared almost everywhere. Originally, I had debated publishing it at all thinking, “Who am I to tell teachers what they should do?” But my advice turned out to really hit a nerve. Teachers are dying to opt out of standardized testing. All it will take is one spark. One tiny spark.


The Best Evidence Against Common Core

Classroom-Management2

There were hands in the air. Lots of them.

It wasn’t just the same one or two I was used to seeing, either. It was almost all of them.

My classroom of 8th grade Language Arts students had something to say, and they could barely contain it.

We sat together in a circle, the desks piled in the center and forgotten. We peered across that distance at each other’s faces and waited for someone to be called on.

It wasn’t me who did it.

The student who had just spoken picked a girl across the room from him. A smile cracked her face wide open as she began to speak.

This wasn’t the norm in my room. At least not yet.

We had only been together a few weeks. In that short time, this group of children from impoverished families – many of whom had criminal records, behavior contracts and folders full of write up slips in the office – had really been putting me through my paces.

If you left them in a room alone, there would probably be a fist fight in 5 minutes. If you peeked at their IEPS, you’d see a host of pharmaceuticals needed just to get them through the day. And if you only looked at their standardized test scores, you’d assume they’d need help to tie their own shoes.

But here they were sitting comfortably, discussing societal racism, gender roles, and how we treat the disabled.

If you closed your eyes and just listened, you’d think it was a class of college freshmen.

That’s what a Socratic Seminar does to a class full of troubled teens.

For the uninitiated, Elfie Israel succinctly defines Socratic Seminars as follows:

The Socratic Seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions.  Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.  They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89)1

Socratic Seminars acknowledge the highly social nature of learning and align with the work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Friere.

In short, it’s the kind of thing teachers used to do all the time before No Child Left Behind, Common Core and Race to the Top replaced it with something more rigorous – test prep.

The text we were discussing was “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambera. The story centers around Squeaky, an African American girl tasked with looking after her mentally challenged brother, Raymond. At first this is just a chore assigned by her parents. Her real goal is to defeat all comers in various track and field events. However, by the end of the story, she discovers that helping others is its own reward.

But hush. Destiny is speaking.

“Squeaky is kind of a Tomboy,” she read from the question sheet I provided. “Should girls do girly things like being ‘flowers or fairies or strawberries’ or should they be allowed to do more masculine things like play sports? Why or why not?”

“Girls should be allowed to do whatever they want,” she answered. “If they want to play sports or do things that we usually think of as boy things, no one should stop them.”

“In fact,” she went on, “boys should be able to do girl things if they want, too. It’s just like in the story when Squeaky says girls can’t be real friends with other girls because they’re too busy being something other people expect them to be. If people were allowed to be themselves, there’d be less fights.”

Destiny was a girl who only last week sullenly sat with her head down refusing to answer any of my classroom questions with a suck of the teeth. Now she sounded like Gloria Steinem.

And she wasn’t alone. She chose Pablo to continue answering the question about gender roles. He brought up how people in our school treat gay kids.

Pablo said it made him sad that other boys were afraid to be seen hanging around with some kids because they thought their friends would call them gay. “Two girls can hug and hold hands and no one says anything, but if boys did that – they’re gay.”

This from a child who is often absent from school and still had the remains of a black eye that the guidance councilor would only explain by saying the school was aware of it.

Serina took the floor next and had to actually calm herself down before speaking. She told us about her brother, who is gay, and how it makes her cry when people make fun of him. In fact, there may have been a tear or two she calmly rubbed out of her eye with her palm.

At this point – had he been there – David Coleman would put a halt to our discussion.

The co-author of the Common Core famously said, “People don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think.

So shut up, kids. No one cares what you have to say.

Drawing from his deep zero years of training in the field of education, Coleman said:

Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

This attitude is reflected in the standards Coleman helped write and Bill Gates coerced state and federal governments to force on our public schools.

It’s embodied in an emphasis on close reading – going over a text multiple times to squeeze every drop of intention from the author. It’s a fine way of understanding what the author may have meant. It’s not a fine way of teaching or even understanding the full scope of a literary text.

To be honest, this isn’t exactly cutting edge stuff. It comes from the New Criticism of literary theory of the 1940s. Most schools of education replaced this outdated orthodoxy with Reader-Response theory thirty or forty years ago. Reader-Response sees the author as merely one of many factors making meaning in a text. Of equal importance is the world in which the author lived and the particular point of view of the reader.

Think about it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a very different book written during the Civil Rights Movement than had it been written in the 1990s. It’s important to know that many of the characters are based on real people in the author’s life. It’s important to know about the violence and civil unrest that came to a head at the time of the book’s publication. Moreover, an inner city African American boy has a different experience reading it than a privileged white suburbanite.

Reader-Response criticism opens up the act of reading and allows for classroom activities like the Socratic Seminar. But Coleman wouldn’t know anything about that. He was an English Literature major, and when given the chance to write education standards, he paid no attention to what was most pedagogically significant. He simply favored his pet literary theory over those of more modern thinkers.

But if Coleman and the architects of Common Core could be in my classroom, they might see the error of their ways.

Allowing students ownership of the text – allowing them to take their proper place as part of a complex relationship between the text, author and the world – is so much more engaging an experience than just being an authorial archeologist.

When we insist on strict adherence to the author’s message – and only that – we create a false objectivity. Language Arts is a subject that is at most times open to interpretation. But Coleman makes it a guessing game to get the “right answer.”

Literature is not math. We shouldn’t try to turn it into something it isn’t.

This is why at the beginning of the year, my students take my innocent questions about the meaning of a text as an affront. They see me as just another adult trying to trick them. They assume I’m trying to get them to guess what I’m thinking – about what the author was thinking. There has to be only one true answer, they suppose, and if they haven’t been good at guessing it in the past, why try now?

It takes a while, but through lessons like the Socratic Seminar, I try to broaden their horizons, to show them that they have a vital place in this dynamic. Without a reader, a text is nothing but words on paper. Without a larger societal context, those words lack their full meaning.

Moreover, not all texts are created equal. By this I don’t mean that some aren’t rigorous enough. I mean that literary texts are richer and deeper if they come from a multitude of cultural points of view.

We used to know this. Schools used to encourage students to read works by the full spectrum of Americans – African Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, etc. Now we shove all that under the carpet in favor of “rigorous” works by the same safe vanilla European Caucasian males.

Common Core doesn’t stop schools from using multicultural texts, but it doesn’t value them, either. There is no standard about the importance of reading diverse authors. In fact, the only diversity I see valued is that students should view diverse kinds of media!

Great! Read an essay, watch a video, play a song. But what about being exposed to diverse cultures and points of view?

Oh! I almost forgot. Coleman says no one gives a shit about that stuff.

My students do. When they read a work by an African American woman like Toni Cade Bambera, they can see themselves in her work. I’ve taught an awful lot of Squeakies in my years as a teacher. (I’ve even taught a few David Colemans.)

When you can open a book and see yourself looking back, what a motivation to read! But how unfair that we only value providing this experience for the white kids!

If we had truly high standards, we’d recognize this. We wouldn’t ignore the value of multiculturalism. We wouldn’t dumb down Language Arts to a simplistic and anachronistic formula designed to fail and humiliate.

Coleman and the Common Core designers would know that if they had ever led a classroom of students. But hardly any of them are educators. They’re bureaucrats, politicians and millionaire philanthropists.

They’re missing the true picture.

Because the best evidence against Common Core is denied them.

Because the best evidence against Common Core is in the classroom.


NOTES:

1 – Israel, Elfie.  “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom.  James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.

-For more information about Socratic Seminars, professional development and even ideas about how to extoll their Common Core benefits (lesson plans, people!) please visit Socratic Seminars International.

This article was also published on Diane Ravich’s blog and the Badass Teachers Association blog.