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?

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Puerto Rico Teachers Plan One-Day Strike to Protest Corporate Education Reform

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Welcome to sunny Puerto Rico.

The ocean is a gorgeous cerulean blue. Palm trees wave gently in the salty breeze. And in the distance you can hear percussion, horns and singing.

The protest has begun.

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Residents of this United States territory have been fighting freshman Governor Alejandro García Padilla’s efforts to close public schools, privatize those left and shackle teachers to the same corporate education reform schemes that are crippling schools on the mainland.

This Tuesday island educators are asking parents not to send their children to school. Teachers plan to conduct a one-day strike to protest legislation that could be passed the same day to further cripple the Commonwealth’s public education system.

“On November 17th we’ll be giving our lesson’s outside our classrooms,” says Mercedes Martinez, president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the teachers union.

“We’ll be in front of our schools early in the morning and at 10:00 a.m. will march from Congress to the Governor’s Mansion in San Juan. This is one of many activities that we’ll perform in defense of public education. We will not accept these precarious impositions and will fight back.”

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The protest is in response to Project 1456 which would close more than 380 public schools. The government has already closed 150 schools in the past 5 years.

This would force many students into even more overcrowded classrooms. Thousands of children would have to be relocated to schools far from their homes.

But that’s not all.

The proposed legislation would also privatize 15% of those schools left standing. Unlike the mainland, Puerto Rico has no charter schools. Teachers went on a 10-day strike in 2008 which only ended after the island Secretary of Education Rafael Aragunde signed an agreement promising not to open any charters.

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If privatized schools opened on the island, parents might have to pay an additional fee for services they now enjoy for free. Amenities like lunches and even tuition may have to be subsidized by parents out of pocket.

Moreover, it would collapse the teachers retirement system, Martinez says. Charter schools would not deduct employees payments to the pension system so it might not be able to remain solvent.

Project 1456 would harm teachers in another way, too. It would enact a punitive evaluation system where 20% of educators value would be based on students standardized test scores. Any teacher with a 79% or less would have two years to improve or be fired.

“Teachers will have no rights,” Martinez says.

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The proposed legislation has already been approved by the Commonwealth Senate. It’s main author Sen. Eduardo Bhatia is pushing for the House to fast track it for approval.

Discussions began in the House last week.

Protesters were there on Wednesday. They stood up in the government chamber and walked out en mass when it was brought up for discussion. Eighteen of them wore white T-shirts spelling out the message “Our Schools Are Not For Sale.”

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Inside the House, presidents of private universities testified in favor of the measure.

“Obviously they want to become administrators of charter schools on our island,” Martinez says.

Outside the building, protesters held their own emblematic hearing on the matter. Community members, teachers and parents testified in the open air about how this legislation would hurt children. They ended with a symbolic vote against it.

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Puerto Ricans are not alone in this fight.

Jitu Brown, a community organizer from Chicago and Director of Journey for Justice Alliance traveled there to stand in solidarity with those fighting for their schools. Brown participated in a 34-day hunger strike in his hometown a month ago to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to close the last open enrollment school in his neighborhood.

“This beautiful, breathtaking place is marred by ugly U.S colonialism and privatization of public services on steroids!” says Brown of Puerto Rico.

“I was blessed to spend time with powerful people fighting for a better world. Big ups to your warrior spirit, discipline and hospitality! Where we struggle, we can win! If we don’t struggle, we are guaranteed to lose.”

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The plight of Puerto Rican communities also inspired support from the Badass Teachers Association, a group of more than 56,000 educators, parents, students and activists.

“The Badass Teachers Association stands in strong solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico who are fighting for the very foundation of their democracy – the survival of their public school system which is under assault by the 1% who seek to close it up and deny Puerto Rican children a right to an education,” says Executive Director Marla Kilfoyle.

Protesters are getting the word out. They’ve already handed out thousands of fliers. Today they plan to drive in a large caravan across the island.

“We’ve got a bunch of cars with sound equipment,” Martinez says.

“We will go to all the communities near our schools in different regions asking parents to support the strike on the 17th.”

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Much of the the island’s financial woes are imported from the mainland. Puerto Rico is besieged by vulture capitalists encouraging damaging rewrites to the tax code while buying and selling the territory’s debt.

Hundreds of American private equity moguls and entrepreneurs are using the Commonwealth as a tax haven.

As a result, tax revenues to fund public goods like education are drying up while the super rich rake in profits.

Officials warn the government may be out of money to pay its bills by as early as 2016. Over the next five years, it may have to close nearly 600 more schools – almost half of the remaining facilities!

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“That’s why the Teacher’s Federation and other teacher unions allied together to fight back against the attack on our education system,” Martinez says.

“As you can see, we’ve been busy.”

If Project 1456 is passed by the House, the union is considering a general strike.

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Of the 135 schools closed in just the last two years, Commonwealth Secretary of Education Rafael Román had originally proposed shuttering 200. The remaining 65 were only kept alive because communities occupied the buildings and refused to let the government step in.

Protesters stormed the Senate in October when Bhatia first introduced Project 1456.

“Senators decided to approve it without discussion because they did not want to listen to teachers chants and indignation,” says Martinez.

“Senator Bhatia has become the symbol for privatization under this administration. He has never been in a public School. He has no bond with it. He’s a demagogue.”


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

In Puerto Rico, Students Go On Strike to Stop Teacher Relocations

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Students streamed out of their classrooms chanting in unison in the mountainous Utuado region of Puerto Rico earlier this month.

They took over the halls and doorways of Luis Muñoz Rivera High School on Thursday, Sept. 10, locking their arms together to create a human chain.

They paralyzed their school, shut it down, and allowed no one in or out.

The reason? Not too much homework. Not lack of choice in the cafeteria. Not an unfair dress code.

These roughly 100 teenagers were protesting the loss of their teachers. And they vowed to occupy their own school until the government gave them back.

Six educators had been ordered to other schools, which would have ballooned classes at the Rivera School to 35-40 students per classroom.

Government officials claimed the high school had too few students to justify the cost. However, with more than 500 young people enrolled, the school has more than double the island average.

“These teachers provide education to almost 140 students,” said Sharymel Montalvo Vélez, a senior at the school. “Do you think this is not enough (to justify the) tuition?”

“Those teachers are excellent. I was their student. I learned with them. I’m grateful for it. Their teaching quality is amazing. I can prove that.”

The students including Vélez, 17, called an assembly to discuss the situation where they voted unanimously to take action. They blocked two gates and wrote a document demanding the Puerto Rican Department of Education revoke the decision to remove their teachers.

Later that day, Sonia González, a representative of the Secretary of Education, met with students and signed the document promising to keep the teachers at the Rivera School. Three parents and one student also signed.

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The affected teachers are Alex Natal, a 10th grade physical education instructor; Naixa Maldonado, an 11th grade Math educator; José Cruz, a 10th and 11th grade History teacher; María Medina, a 12th grade Physics instructor; Damaris Figueroa, an 11th grade Spanish educator; and an 11th grade English teacher.

Vélez said she’s surprised the government agreed to students’ demands. “ I was willing to keep the strike all the time necessary to solve our problem and get our teachers back,” she said.

“I experienced a large class size some years back, and it was hard on both teacher and students. It’s not that easy to make 30 students understand something and go explaining it chair by chair. Every student likes to show his/her ideas and in a large class there is not enough time for everyone.”

What happened in the Rivera School is not an isolated incident. All across the island, communities are fighting government mandates to relocate teachers, increase class size and shutter more schools.

This Tuesday at Pablo Casals School, an arts institution in Bayamon along the north coast, students protested the government decision to relocate their theater teacher, Heyda Salaman.

About 100 students hung the Puerto Rican flag upside down and taped their mouths shut to represent the state of the government and the silence officials expect from the community.

Young people at the specialized arts school which offers visual arts, theater, music and dance as well as academic classes, protested with music and chants of “injustice!”

Just like in the case of the Rivera School, the government eventually relented and agreed to keep the teacher with her students.

The teachers union – the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) – has supported student protesters throughout the island.

“The Teachers Federation from Puerto Rico is proud of the actions these students performed,” said union president Mercedes Martinez about student actions at both facilities.

“Schools belong to our communities according to the law, so the communities have every right to fight for the school they deserve. No more cutting funds to create over-sized classrooms.”

Vélez echoes that statement.

“We have a good education and excellent teachers but the administration is failing their workers,” she said.

“The government is cutting rights and benefits to the teachers and employees and soon there will be no teachers. Maybe our schools get privatized and then only people with money will send their children to (public) school.”

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The Commonwealth government has closed 150 schools in the past 5 years in the U.S. Territory.

Officials warn the government may be out of money to pay its bills by as early as 2016. Over the next five years, it may have to close nearly 600 more schools – almost half of the remaining facilities!

The island is besieged by vulture capitalists encouraging damaging rewrites to the tax code while buying and selling Puerto Rican debt.

Hundreds of American private equity moguls and entrepreneurs are using the Commonwealth as a tax haven.

As a result, tax revenues to fund public goods like education are drying up while the super rich rake in profits.

The indigenous population has suffered at the hands of western conquerors since Columbus, but the newest fruit of Colonialism may be these corporate education reform policies.

Young people like Vélez aren’t revolutionaries. They look just like any ordinary teenage boys and girls wearing t-shirts and blue jeans, baseball caps turned backwards, backpacks slung across their shoulders.

But they have had enough. They aren’t going to accept the low expectations of the corporate world about what constitutes a fair education.

Viva Puerto Rico!


NOTE: This article also was quoted extensively on Diane Ravitch’s blog and published in full on the Badass Teachers Association blog.