Why Care About Other People’s Children

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As a vocal critic of charter and voucher schools, one of the most frequent questions I get from readers is this:

“Why should I care about other people’s children?”

One reader put it this way:

“Why should my child’s education and safety have to suffer because of difficult and violent students? …it isn’t my responsibility to pay for a miscreant’s education.”

The question says more than any answer could.

It shows quite clearly that school choice is an essentially selfish position.

That’s why some folks champion privatized education – they only care about their own children. In effect, when a parent sends their children to a charter or voucher school, they are telling the community that they don’t care what happens to any one else’s kids so long as their kids are properly cared for and educated.

It is the root cause of most of our problems in education today and has nothing to do with children. It’s all about adults – adults lacking empathy.

On the one hand, I get it. As a parent, you can’t help but love your child more than anyone else’s. You would beg, cheat and steal to make sure your child has enough to eat, is clothed and sheltered, has everything she needs to succeed in this world.

That’s a position for which few would show any embarrassment. It’s just being human.

But it shouldn’t also mean that you don’t care at all for other children.

I’d like to pose a radical thought – loving my child does not mean I’m indifferent to yours.

Children are innocent. They haven’t done anything to earn the hate or enmity of the world. They see everything with fresh eyes. Many of them haven’t even learned the prejudices and ignorance of their parents. And even where they have, it is so new it can be changed.

When you look at a babe in arms do you feel the same indifference? I don’t.

Perhaps it’s just the way we’re built. I feel an immediate nurturing instinct. I want to protect and provide for children – any children – even if they’re not mine.

If you saw a baby all alone crying on the side of the road, would you stop to help her? I would. I couldn’t help it. I can do no other.

If I saw a toddler in distress, a tween, even an unruly teenager in need, I would try to help. And I think most of us would do the same.

Doing so wouldn’t hurt my child. In fact, it would show her how a decent person acts towards others. It would teach her empathy, kindness, caring. It would demonstrate the values I try to instill in her – that we’re all in this together and we owe certain things to the other beings with which we share this world.

Why would you not want to do that?

We do not live in a world where you have to choose between your child and all others. There is a middle course. We can do for all society’s children without unduly sacrificing our own.

And if we can, why wouldn’t we?

Public school is essentially a community endeavor. It is an attempt to give everyone in your neighborhood the same start, the same opportunity, the same advantages.

It means allowing all children who live in the community the ability to attend the community school. That’s better than selecting the best and brightest and to Hell with the rest.

It means the community pooling its wealth to help all students. That’s better than dividing that pool up and pitting one group against another so that some get what they need and others don’t.

It means having an elected school board who holds public meetings, deliberates in the open and has to offer almost all documents to the light of day. That’s just better than an appointed board of directors who hold private meetings behind closed doors and who aren’t compelled to show any documentation for how they’re spending public tax money.

When you send your child to school – any school – she will have to deal with other students. She will meet children who are mean, unkind, unruly and a bad influence. But this is true at all schools – public and private, voucher or charter, secular or parochial. The biggest difference is racial and economic.

Our educational institutions today have become so segregated by class and race that even our public schools offer white middle class and wealthy students the opportunity to learn in an environment nearly devoid of children of color or children who live in poverty. This divide is drastically widened by charter, private and parochial schools.

So when people complain about the class of children they want to keep separate from their progeny, it is always imbued with a racist and classist subtext.

What they mean is: I don’t want my child to have to put up with all those black students, all those brown children, all those unwashed masses of impoverished humanity.

I proudly send my daughter to public school for the same reasons that many withhold their children from it. I want her to experience a wide variety of humanity. I want her to know people unlike her, and to realize that they aren’t as different as they might first appear. I want her to know the full range of what it means to be human. I want her to be exposed to different cultures, religions, nationalities, world views, thoughts and ideas.

And I want it not just because it’s better for my community – I want it because it’s better for her, too.

I want my daughter and I to both live in a world populated by educated citizens. I want us both to live in a society that treats people fairly, and where people of all types can come together and talk and reason and enjoy each other’s company.

Only under the most extreme circumstances would I ever subject her to charter, private or parochial schooling. And things would have to come to a pretty pass for me to home school her.

Imagine! Thinking I could offer my child all the richness of a public school experience, all the knowledge of a district’s worth of teachers, all the variety of social contact – how vain I would need to be to think I could do all that, myself!

Some people want their children to become little versions of themselves. They want to create a generation of mini-me’s who’ll carry on their way of thinking into the future.

That’s not my goal at all.

I want my daughter to share my core values, I want her to learn from my experiences, but I don’t want her to think like me at all. I want her to be a new person, special and unique.

I want her to be her.

If you stop and think about it, that’s what most of us want for our children.

It’s a common goal that can be achieved with a common mechanism.

So why should we care about other people’s children?

Because it’s better for ours. Because doing so makes us better people. Because all children are ends in themselves. Because they’re beautiful, unique sparks of light in a dark universe.

If those aren’t reasons enough, I can’t help you.

Teacher Appreciation Week is a Pathetic Joke!

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It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, America!

All over the country, millions of educators can look forward to a free burrito. Or maybe an Arby’s sandwich. Or a complimentary donut.

Because we REALLY appreciate teachers here.

What a pathetic joke!

I don’t mean to seem ungrateful.

I’ll redeem my coupon at Chipotle. I’ll take that Roast Beef Classic. I’ll grab that Dunkin’ Cruller.

But let’s be honest. These cheesy buy-one-get-one coupons don’t demonstrate appreciation. They’re guilt.

They’re a manifestation of the feeling that we SHOULD appreciate teachers, but don’t. Not really.

Not for one week, not for one day!

Why else would we begrudge them a middle class income? Why else would we provide them with so few resources and so much responsibility? Why else would we bar them from making any meaningful decisions about how their students should be taught yet hold them accountable for everything their students do?

Appreciate teachers? We don’t LISTEN to them. We don’t RESPECT them. Many of us don’t even LIKE them.

The only time we value teachers is when a maniac enters a school with a gun. Then – when they protect our children with their very lives – then we praise them as heroes!

On that day and that day only. But every other day – not so much.

We won’t do anything to keep guns out of the hands of school shooters. At most we want to arm teachersGreat! Something else to be responsible for on top of education, counseling and children’s all around well-being. But otherwise, we won’t do anything to help teachers do their jobs. And we certainly won’t listen to their professional opinions on anything!

That would be living in a culture of life. But we live in a culture of death.

We do the barest minimum for children – especially poor and minority kids. Instead we invest in parasitic business interests that provide zero value for students and parents.

We’ve got nothing for teachers or proven educational practices but we throw public money at charter, private and parochial schools that only accept the cream of the crop and turn down everyone else – yet still rarely do better than inclusive public schools. We defund public schools until they can no longer operate – and then we close them as failures. We promote lightly trained Teach for America temps to the same status as authentic educators with a 4-5 year degree and decades of experience. And we do everything we can to bust their unions and take away collective bargaining rights.

Yet everywhere I look I see people congratulating themselves for donating to some teacher’s GoFundMe project. This may come as a shock to you, but we shouldn’t be resorting to charity to fund our public schools! That should be a given!

In almost every classroom in America, teachers reach into their own pockets to make up the difference when our federal, state and local governments come up short. When kids don’t have pencils, we provide them. When kids don’t have books, we buy them. When kids come to school hungry, we even feed them.

Yet you’re getting excited that anonymous folks on the Internet put a few virtual coins in the cup!

I’ve been a public school teacher for almost 15 years. Next year I can look forward to another increase in class size. And I’ll probably have to teach an additional grade level or two. No extra resources to help me do it. No extra salary. Just more of a drain on my time to get the job done. And if I somehow stumble and fall, it will be my fault.

It won’t be the federal government’s fault even though they keep providing less financial help and more standardized testing, Common Core, and so-called school choice policies that rob my district of necessary funding.

It won’t be the state’s fault as they refuse to heal years worth of budget cuts in order to lower taxes on the wealthy, a scheme that, by the way, did nothing to boost the economy – in fact, it actually stalled business development. Nor will it be the state’s fault as they continue to blame me for the high cost of pensions they forgot to pay years ago while both my district and I paid on time. Nor will it be the state’s fault as they try to strip me of sick days, preserve loopholes that benefit charter schools at my district’s expense and experiment with a new funding scheme that further drains my district’s coffers.

It won’t be my local school board or administration’s fault, either, as they make cuts to core educational resources so they can preserve the state champion football team and less vital faculty office and administrative staff who are only working there because of nepotism and/or politics.

It’ll be MY fault. Mine and mine alone. That’s how much we appreciate teachers.

And none of it is even close to changing. No one is even considering altering the tiniest fraction of it. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, men, women, black people, white people, gay people, straight people, the young, the old – no one is doing anything about it!

And why should we? We’ve already got a scapegoat. We’ve already got someone to blame.

Well, look in the mirror, America. Because you’re the one to blame – each and every star-spangled banner and amber wave of grain.

We’ve made it like this. All of us.

I don’t mean to be so negative, but all these Pollyanna platitudes about that one special teacher obscure a basic truth. As individuals, we sometimes appreciate teachers – often when we’re years beyond graduation, or sometimes only when we’re parents, ourselves, and see what they do for our children. But that’s personal. That’s individuals.

When we think about the nations teachers, when we think about the profession in general, we don’t appreciate them one bit.
Because if we did, we’d act much differently.

If we really appreciated teachers, we’d hire more of them. We wouldn’t demand they do more with less. When we were deciding school policy at any level – federal, state or local – we’d include them in the process – in fact, they’d be the deciding factor!

If we really appreciated teachers, we wouldn’t wait – as many folks do – until they call us to find out how our children are doing in school. We’d be proactive. And if our kids aren’t doing well, we wouldn’t blame the teacher. We’d hold our own kids responsible and look for solutions.

If we really appreciated teachers, we wouldn’t blame them for their summer breaks. We’d understand that they aren’t paid for this time yet they often take professional development courses on their own dime or work retail just to make ends meet.

If we really appreciated teachers, we’d respect them as professionals, and we’d pay them accordingly. We’d respect their rights to a positive working environment both for themselves and for our own children.

So seriously – you can stuff your ridiculous Teacher Appreciation Week.

A free cookie just isn’t going to do it.

I May Have Just Been Murdered By House Republicans

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I may be dead already.

 

And House Republicans may be the ones who killed me.

 

With the passage of a healthcare bill they, themselves, haven’t read – haven’t studied – haven’t thoughtfully considered in any way – it seems they’ve opened the door for insurance companies to deny people coverage due to pre-existing conditions.

 

I have one.

 

I’ve had two small heart attacks this year.

 

So I sit here stunned at the news on my computer feeling very much at a loss.

 

People have legitimate political differences, but this… it’s just beyond anything I’ve ever experienced personally.

 

There are people who count on me – my daughter, my wife, my students. I’m not so vain as to imagine that they can’t get along without me, but my loss will hurt them. I think at the very least they’ll miss me.

 

I’m 43-years-old. I’ve lived a good life. I just never expected to be abandoned in such a way by a society I’d always thought was more humane.

 

But if this legislation becomes the law of the land, what will I do?

 

I take six or seven pills a day to control my cholesterol, keep the stints in my heart clean, control my blood pressure, slow my heartbeat, etc. Without them, I almost certainly will have another heart attack. Yet I have no idea how I could possibly afford to take them without insurance.

 

And if I get sick, I won’t be able to work. I’ll bring in even less money. I won’t be able to help support my family. I’ll end up being a liability, a burden.

 

House Republicans have to know there are people out there like me. There have to be a lot of people in even worse shape than I am.

 

Are they really going to just let all of us die?

 

I had hoped to see my daughter grow up. She’s only 8-years-old, the most precious person in my life. No one is more full of energy, more vivacious and joyful. She loves to draw and write short stories. She pretends to be a teacher just like her father and gives her stuffed animals assignments.

 

I guess I’ll never get to see the person she becomes. I’ll never find out if she goes to college, if she finds love, if she has children of her own.

 

Can it really all come down to this?

 

My wife and I have been through a lot together. We met back in high school. Before I became a public school teacher, we worked together at various local newspapers. She supports me when I can’t go on. I hope I am able to give her back even a fraction of the strength she lends me.

 

Does this mean we’ll have to say goodbye, and so much sooner than I ever imagined?

 

My middle school students and I just finished reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.” When we closed the book, there were some tears shed. I passed around the tissues, and we discussed how we felt. Many of them expressed anger that some people could hold others’ lives so cheaply as the Nazis did Anne and her family. Are House Republicans guilty of a similar crime? They aren’t rounding anyone up to send to death camps, but they’re apparently content to let many of us just die.

 

The pundits tell me I have nothing to worry about. The bill won’t pass the Senate, they say. And even if it does, the President would be breaking every campaign promise he ever made, if he signs it.

 

So what else is new?

 

This is the world we live in now.

 

It’s not the country I was born into. It’s a cold place. A heartless reality.

 

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll gather the strength to resist, to call my Congressperson again, to protest, to organize.

 

But as for today…

 

I can’t even.

 

So I’ll head home, and give my family a big hug, spend whatever time I can with them.

 

Because if my life now depends on the compassion of Republican lawmakers, I may not have much of it left.

 

 

 

 

 

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!

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?

The Joy of Opting Out of Standardized Testing

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Testing season is a gray period in my classroom.

 

But it’s a joy in my house.

 

As a classroom teacher with a daughter in the public school system, I’m always struck by the difference.

 

In school I have to proctor the federally mandated standardized tests. But I’ve opted my own daughter out. She doesn’t take them.

 

So at home, I get to see all the imaginative projects she’s created in her class while the other kids had to trudge away at the exam.

 

“Daddy, daddy, look!” she squeals.

 

And I’m bombarded by an entire Picasso blue period.

 

Or “Daddy, will you staple these?”

 

And I’m besieged by a series of her creative writing.

 

My daughter is only in second grade and she loves standardized test time.

 

It’s when she gets to engage in whatever self-directed study strikes her fancy.

 

Back in kindergarten I missed the boat.

 

Even as an educator, myself, I had no idea the district would be subjecting her to standardized tests at an age when she should be doing nothing more strenuous than learning how to share and stack blocks.

 

But when I found out she had taken the GRADE Test, a Pearson assessment not mandated by the state but required by my home district in order the receive state grant funding, I hit the roof.

 

I know the GRADE test. I’m forced to give a version of it to my own 8th grade students at a nearby district where I work. It stinks.

 

Ask any classroom teacher and they’ll tell you how useless it is. Giving it is at best a waste of class time. At worst it demoralizes children and teaches them that the right answer is arbitrary – like trying to guess what the teacher is thinking.

 

Then I found out my daughter was also taking the DIBELS, a test where she reads a passage aloud and is given a score based on how quickly she reads without regard to its meaning. In fact, some of the passages test takers are forced to read are pure nonsense. It’s all about how readers pronounce words and whether they persevere through the passage. It’s not so much about reading. It’s about grit.

 

No. My precious little one won’t be doing that.

 

I talked candidly to her kindergarten teacher about it. I trust her judgment, so I wanted to know what she thought. And she agreed that these tests were far from necessary. So I set up a meeting with the principal.

 

The meeting lasted about an hour. Sure, it was a little scary. No one wants to rock the boat. But even he agreed with most of what I had to say. He didn’t feel as strongly about it as I did, but he respected my wishes and that was that.

 

Ever since, my daughter hasn’t taken a single standardized test.

 

For me, it was a political statement as well as a parental one. I wanted to do my part to chip away at the corporate school reform movement. I know how much they rely on these test scores to justify closing poor schools like mine. I don’t want to give them a chance.

 

But little did I know what bliss I would be providing for my little one.

 

Beyond politics, I thought I was just protecting her from a prolonged period of boredom, unfair assessments and cognitively invalid measurements.

 

I wanted to shield her from adult woes. What I didn’t realize was I was opening a door for her creativity.

 

It’s amazing. All the other poor children sit there dutifully filling in bubbles while she pours her heart out onto the page.

 

She loves creating these illustrated books telling the wildest narratives: Colorful superheroes blast bad guys into oblivion. Game show hosts get lost in other dimensions. Even her Mommy and Daddy get in on the action riding Yoshi through Super Mario land.

 

Often she adds text to these adventures. Her spelling could use some work, but I’m impressed that an 8-year-old even attempts some of these words. Sometimes she writes more in her adventure books than my 8th graders do on their assigned homework.

 

I’ve even noticed a marked improvement in her abilities during this time. Her handwriting, sentence construction, word choice and spelling have taken a leap to the next level. While her classmates are wasting time on the assessments, she’s actually learning something!

 

I wish I could provide the same opportunities for my students that I have for my daughter.

 

It’s strange.

 

As a parent, I have the power to make educational decisions on behalf of my child. But as a trained education professional, I’m not allowed the same privilege.

 

Don’t teachers stand in loco parentis? Well this is loco, so let me parent this. Let me at least talk to their parents about it – but if I do that on school time, in my professional capacity, I’m liable to be reprimanded.

 

I have studied standardized testing. It was part of my training to become a teacher. And the evidence is in. The academic world knows all this stuff is bunk, but the huge corporations that profit off of these tests and the associated test-prep material have silenced them.

 

I have a masters in my field. I’m a nationally board certified teacher. I have more than a decade of successful experience in the classroom. But I am not trusted enough to decide whether my students should take these tests.

 

It’s not like we’re even asking the parents. We start from the assumption that children will take the tests, but if the parents complain about it, we’ll give in to their wishes.

 

It’s insanity.

 

We should start from the assumption the kids won’t take the test. If parents want their kids to be cogs in the corporate machine, they should have to opt IN.

 

As a teacher, I can try to inform my students’ parents about all this, but at my own peril. If the administration found me talking about this with parents, I could be subject to a reprimand. Giving my honest educational opinion could result in me losing my job.

 

As you can see, it hasn’t stopped me. But I teach in a high poverty, mostly minority district. My kids’ parents often don’t have the time to come up to the school or even return phone calls. They’re working two or three jobs. They’re struggling just to put food on the table. They don’t have time for standardized tests!

 

So every test season I sadly watch my students trudge away at their federally mandated bubbles. I see their anxiety, their frustration, their sad, sad faces.

 

And it breaks my heart.

 

But then I come home to my daughter’s exuberant creations!

 

You would not believe the joy of opting out!

Always Be Testing – The Sales Pitch for Corporate Education Reform

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(After the “Brass Balls” speech in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” by David Mamet.)

 

(Rated PG-13 for language)

 

(Interior: a public school classroom during an after school staff meeting. Teachers are seated at student desks including Singer, Moss and Aaronow. Williamson, a middle school principal, stands in front of the room flanked by Blake, a motivational speaker brought in by the state. Singer is furiously grading papers. The other teachers are pleasantly chatting about trifles before Blake calls the gathering to attention.)

 

[Blake]
Let me have your attention for a moment! So you’re talking about what? You’re talking about that kid you failed, some son of a bitch who doesn’t want to pass, some snot-nosed brat you’re trying to remediate and so forth. Let’s talk about something important. Are they all here?

 

[Williamson]
All but one.

 

[Blake]
Well, I’m going anyway. Let’s talk about something important! (to Singer) Put that colored marker down!

 

[Singer]

But I’m grading papers…

 

(Blake)

I said Put that marker down! Markers are for testers only.

 

(Singer scoffs)

 

[Blake]

Do you think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. I’m here from downtown. I’m here from the Governor and the Legislature. And I’m here on a mission of mercy. Your name’s Singer?

 

[Singer]
Yeah. Mister Singer, actually.

 

[Blake]
You call yourself a teacher, you son of a bitch?

 

[Moss]

I don’t have to listen to this.

 
[Blake]
You certainly don’t, Madam. Cause the good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is you’ve got, all you got, just one week to regain your jobs, starting today. Starting with today’s meeting.

 

[Moss]

What!? The union contract doesn’t allow you to just fire us all without cause.

 

[Blake]

Union!? There ain’t no more union! This is a Right to Work state now, Bitch. And that means you have the right to work – for less – until I fire your sorry ass.

 

(Assorted grumbling)

 

[Blake]

Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s merit pay. As you all know, the teacher whose students get the highest test scores gets a bonus. First prize is a thousand bucks. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a box of pencils. Third prize is you’re fired. You get the picture? You’re laughing now?

 

[Singer]

That’s ridiculous. Mrs. Moss teaches the advanced kids. All her students get high test scores.

 

[Blake]

What? And your kids are in the general track? They don’t get high test scores? Then step it up, Singer! You want to get a paycheck in this district, you’ve got to earn a paycheck. You got test prep manuals. The school board paid good money for them. Get those workbooks so your kids can pass the test!

 

[Singer]

Workbooks!? That’s not learning?

 

[Blake]

That’s where you’re wrong. Workbooks are the only learning that counts! Kids take the tests that show whether you’re doing your fucking jobs! You want to keep working here? You want to keep sucking at the public tit? You get those kids to pass the motherfucking tests. And those workbooks do that. They teach kids how to pass the motherfucking tests!

 

[Singer]

But my kids are all from poor homes. They’re malnourished. They don’t get the same medical care. There are no books in their homes. Many of them suffer from PTSD from abuse or exposure to violence….

 

[Blake]

And you think they deserve some kind of entitlement? A medal? Fuck them and fuck you! Let me make one thing perfectly clear – If you can’t get your students to pass shit, you ARE shit, hit the bricks, Pal, and beat it cause you are going out!

 

[Singer]

Are you kidding me right now? You want my students to pass these tests. The tests are unfair. They’re economically and culturally biased. The connection between the tests and learning is weak.

 

[Blake]
The fucking tests are weak? You’re weak. I’ve been in this business for fifteen weeks.

 

[Moss]
Fifteen weeks? Try thirty years.

 

[Blake]

Anyone who’s still a teacher after thirty years should be put to sleep. All you need is a year or two. That’s what I’m doing. Teach for America. Five weeks training, two year commitment, then move on to Washington where you can advise lawmakers on what schools need.

 

[Moss]

What’s your name?

 

[Blake]

Fuck you, that’s my name! You know why, Missy? Cause you drove a Hyundai to get to work. I drove an eighty thousand BMW. That’s my name.

 

[Singer]

I took the bus.

 

[Blake]

(To Singer) And your name is “you’re wanting.” You can’t play in a man’s game. You can’t teach them. (at a near whisper) And you go home and tell your wife your troubles.

(to everyone again) Because only one thing counts in this life! Get them to score above basic. Get them to demonstrate the minimum skills necessary!

 

[Singer]

What about what they think and feel?

 

[Blake]

No one gives a shit about what they think and feel. You hear me, you fucking faggots?

 

(Blake flips over a blackboard which has two sets of letters on it: ABT, and AITP.)

 

[Blake]

A-B-T. A- Always, B-be, T-testing. Always be testing! Always be testing!! A-I-T-P. Attention, interest, testing, passing. Attention — do I have your attention? Interest — are you interested? I know you are because it’s fuck or walk. Your kids pass or you hit the bricks! Testing – you will test those students by Christ!! And passing. A-I-T-P; get out there!! You got the students comin’ in; you think they came in to get out of the rain?

 

[Singer]

Actually, many of my students live in public housing down there by the railroad tracks. You know those slums? Roofs leak in half those units…

 

[Moss]

And for a lot of kids school is the only structure they get all day. Their parents are out working two to three jobs. They have to take care of themselves and often younger siblings.

 

[Singer]

And food. Don’t forget food. If it wasn’t for the free breakfast and lunch program, many of my kids wouldn’t eat…

 

[Blake]

Bullshit. A kid doesn’t walk into this school unless he wants to pass. That’s why they’re here! They want to learn! They’re sitting out there waiting to be told what to do. Are you gonna’ tell ‘em? Are you man enough to tell them?

 

[Moss]

I’m a woman. Most of us are women.

 

[Blake]

(to Moss) What’s the problem, Pal?

 

[Moss]

You think you’re such a hero, you’re so rich. Why are you coming down here and wasting your time on a bunch of bums?

 

(Blake sits and takes off his gold watch)

 

[Blake]
You see this watch? You see this watch?

 

[Moss]
Yeah.

 

[Blake]

That watch cost more than your SMART Board. (Takes off his shoe) You see this shoe? Italian. It costs more than your entire salary. (slicks back his hair) You see this haircut?

 

[Moss]

I get it.

 

[Blake]

Do you? Because I do. I made 26 million dollars last year. How much do you make? You see, Pal, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing. Nice person? I don’t give a shit. Good mother? Fuck you – go home and play with your kids!! (to everyone) You wanna work here? Test!! (to Aaronow) You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksucker? You can’t take this — how can you take the abuse you get in a classroom?! You don’t like it — leave. I can go out there tomorrow with the materials you got, make myself a thousand dollars in merit pay! Tomorrow! In one class! Can you? Can you? Go and do likewise! A-I-T-P!! Get mad! You sons of bitches! Get mad!!

 

[Singer]

Oh, I’m mad. I’m mad that a shallow schmuck like you thinks he can come in here and tell us how to do our jobs. School is about so much more than test scores. You can’t reduce it all to a multiple choice assessment. These kids need a broad curriculum, not just reading and math. They need science, art, social studies, foreign language, recess – all the stuff the rich kids get at the $50,000 a year private schools. And all you want to give them are standardized tests!

 

[Blake]

You know what it takes to teach public school?

 

(He pulls something out of his briefcase. He’s holding up a hammer and a plastic model of a one-room schoolhouse. He puts the model down on Aaronow’s desk and then smashes it to pieces with the hammer.)



[Blake]
It takes school choice to teach in a public school. It takes charter and voucher schools, schools run like a business – not this mamby, pamby, commie, socialist shit!

 

[Moss]

Choice? Is that what you call letting private interests suck up public tax dollars without the same transparency and regulations as public schools? You mean schools not run by an elected school board, who meet in private and do almost whatever they please with our tax dollars? You mean schools that can turn away the hardest to teach children – unlike public schools that take everyone?

 

[Blake]
I’m talking about schools with balls!
(He puts the hammer over his crotch,– he puts it away after a pause)



[Blake]
You want a paycheck? Do like the choice schools do — Go and do likewise, folks. The money’s out there, you pick it up, it’s yours. You don’t–I have no sympathy for you. You wanna go into your classes tomorrow and test and get your kids to pass, it’s yours. If not you’re going to be shining my shoes. Bunch of losers sitting around in a bar. (in a mocking weak voice) “Oh yeah, I used to be a teacher, it’s a tough racket.” (he takes out a software package from his briefcase) This is the new Common Core aligned diagnostic system. It’s like the MAP, Study Island, iReady and iStation – only better.

 

[Singer]

Those programs suck.

 

[Blake]

This is better. With it, your students will sit behind a computer screen for several hours every day taking stealth assessments.

 

[Singer]

You mean mini-tests?

 

[Blake]

No. Not mini-tests. They’ll run through the program and get instruction on every Common Core standard and their answers will show how much they’ve learned.

 

[Singer]

They’re tests. Standardized tests. Every day.

 

[Blake]

This is the Pearson leads. And to you, it’s gold. And you don’t get it. Why? Because to give it to you is just throwing it away. (he hands the software to Williamson) It’s for testers. (sneeringly) Not teachers.

 

I’d wish you good luck but you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you got it. (to Moss as he puts on his watch again) And to answer your question, Pal: why am I here? I came here because the Governor and Legislature are paying me to be here. They’re paying me a lot more than you. But I don’t have to take their money. I can make that tying my shoes. They asked me for a favor. I said, the real favor, follow my advice and fire your fucking ass because a loser is a loser.

 

(He stares at Moss for a sec, and then picking up his briefcase, he leaves the room with Williamson)

 

[Singer]

What an asshole.

 

[Moss]

He may be an asshole but he’s got the state on his side.

 

[Aaronow]

This isn’t what I signed up for. This isn’t why I became a teacher.

 

[Moss]

What did you sign up for?

 

[Aaronow]

TO TEACH! Not to be some… some… glorified real estate agent!

 

[Singer]

It’s funny. We know how crazy all this testing, Common Core, and charter school crap is, but no one wants to hear us.

 

[Moss]

And now without collective bargaining, we can’t even speak up without fear of being fired.

 

[Aaronow]

Fear!? If we don’t push all this teaching to the test nonsense, they’re going to fire us. And if we do, they can replace us with computer programs. We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

 

[Singer]

Not if people wake up. (Moss and Aaronow scoff) Not if the public takes a stand, if parents and teachers opt their kids out of the tests…

 

[Aaronow]

Didn’t you hear the man!? They’re putting the kids on computer programs to test them every day!

 

[Singer]

Then we fight every day. We protest every day. We get parents together and other concerned citizens and we go to the capital and we fight. Call your representative. Go to your Senator’s office. Stage a sit in. Hold a mock trial. Write a blog parodying a scene from a famous movie. Get public attention. Make some noise.

 

[Aaronow]

And you think people will care? You think people will know?

 

[Singer]

We’ll teach them. We’ll show them. That’s what we do.

 

[Moss]

We have no other choice.

 

[Aaronow]

Always be testing?

 

[Singer]

Always be teaching.

 

(Curtain)

 

The Original Scene from GlenGarry Glen Ross: