Waiting for Scabby (Schools in Crisis III)

I know unions are often vilified as the unjust protector of the lazy, incompetent, shiftless worker. Especially when it comes to public sector unions. And it’s particularly fashionable to blame teachers unions such as the Chicago Teachers Union for poor performance of schools and students, especially thanks to liberal movies like Waiting for “Superman.” There are times when it is true that unions protect bloating, ineffeciency, or bad workers, but those few cases are stymied out of proportion. The enemy isn’t the unions. No, in fact, they protect against growing inequity, and in the case of education unions, against the corporatization and privatization of education. They protect against the current tides that would turn our students into commodities – a tide that we see is unrelenting in the post-secondary world with overwhelming debt to an increasingly costly higher education.

Rather, the enemy is a mindset that says most of our children are not welcome to the education that the wealthy kids in the wealthy regions have. The enemy is a mindset that places high “accountability” on teachers to bring test scores of students with high stress levels, with malnourished stomachs, in overcrowded and underresourced schools up to par with wealthy, well-fed, well-regulated students with private tutors and classes no larger than fifteen a piece. Our children are taught to the test. Wealthy children are taught to succeed. I’m not hating, it’s just that we need that as well.

The enemy is a system that takes what little money goes to working class and black/brown students and sucks it out through the Industrial Testing Machine to “assess” what students are learning through worthless and disenfranchising bubblesheets – bubblesheets that teachers spend the better part of the year teaching their kids how to fill correctly so they’d have a chance to allow the school to not be drastically defunded.

No, the union member who is teaching my daughter how to read and add in English and Spanish is doing a fantastic job. Because she has some protections. And she is being compensated decently for it as well – not as high as should be. But decently. As should be.

I worry about the next few years, as my daughter will have to – in order to meet national “standards” that unions are trying to fight against even as the administrators shout “Do not resist!” – conform more and more to testing apparatuses that stifle intellectual curiosity.

The main problem isn’t the unions or their pensions. The main problem is that teachers are not encouraged to educate in a cooperative and meaningful fashion – but compelled to conform to normalizing and competitive corporate powers.

That’s what propaganda like Waiting for Superman is about. Diane Ravitch:

It bears mentioning that nations with high-performing school systems—whether Korea, Singapore, Finland, or Japan—have succeeded not by privatizing their schools or closing those with low scores, but by strengthening the education profession. They also have less poverty than we do. Fewer than 5 percent of children in Finland live in poverty, as compared to 20 percent in the United States. Those who insist that poverty doesn’t matter, that only teachers matter, prefer to ignore such contrasts. 

If we are serious about improving our schools, we will take steps to improve our teacher force, as Finland and other nations have done. That would mean better screening to select the best candidates, higher salaries, better support and mentoring systems, and better working conditions.

Teachers unions are among the only forces fighting for education of our youth in the US. So-called liberal education reformers, whether their names be Duncan, Pritzker, Guggenheim, or Byrd-Bennett, fight for educational funds, using the the people’s investment money to make a few people rich. This is the price we pay for not wanting to adequately fund our future.
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The Infantization of Chicago (Schools in Crisis II)

As a new parent with some of my upbringing stuck deep inside me, I found the idea of an incredulous toddler maddening. I had to learn to break the habit of spanks and taps – all of which hurt my daughter incredibly more than any other act of hurting. She trusted her parents, I learned, and I was given the gift of her trust. So I learned in the process that I couldn’t just pick her up and do my will. She would have to make up her mind of her own volition. This would take a lot of patience on my part, a patience that I didn’t always want to sacrifice.

But, she was worth it. The trust she endeared in me was worth it. Her dignity and humanity was worth it. And the chance to retain a leadership status into the future is worth it.

Contrast that to this skeezbag of a pastor, who claims to pick his wife up everyday just to show her who’s boss.

The amount of abuse that happens in that household and within his congregation is unfathomable, for sure. But what happens when a mayor and his staff does that to an entire metropolis? Is this not systemic abuse?

Let’s look at Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett are positive that the best things for Chicagoans are what Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett insist are the best things for us. And then they tell us that we will thank them for it in the future, but that their austerity plans are the best for us now. They may even try to convince us that we like their plans right now.

Byrd-Bennett, in fact, never once showed at one of the loud, cantankerous school closing hearings held throughout the city. I was involved in one, and heard from several friends and media reports in the majority of others. Parents were irate. Parents were upset. They did not want their children’s schools shut down and they overwhelmingly asked for more resources, not less.

But then there’s Byrd-Bennet, treating us like confused children

Everybody got it, that we really needed to close schools, that we really needed to consolidate.

Whereas Rahm has previously worked hard to attack teachers and other union workers (including those dreadful, evil librarians and bus drivers) as being shiftless and out of touch – as being enemies of the public rather than members of it, at least Byrd-Bennett had the good sense to stay out of it, at least in public. And now that she’s been so far removed from public that she doesn’t even show up in public, she decides that we’re gonna need a corrective.

So she pictures parents as being pliable, compliant, willing to listen to her suggestion/ultimatum: That we need to close down schools (which we don’t; it will not save money in the long or short run). And, according to her account, that’s what we all learned. Even as it wasn’t.

How does she document this since she wasn’t there? She has binders full of parents.*

She who tried to ban the graphic novel Persepolis from the libraries and classrooms of Chicago Public Schools. High Schools like Lane Tech, one of the consistently top-ranked schools in the city. But then she slightly retracted, saying it was too mature for seventh graders. The same graphic novel on coming of age in Revolutionary Iran that is stocked in the YAL section of my local library – without adult supervision?

As Kenzo Shibato put it:

Persepolis is the story of a young girl growing up during the Islamic revolution in Iran. She is an inquisitive girl who speaks truth to power and refuses to believe the lies of a tyrannical government. She suffers censorship and austerity at the hands of powerful ideological bureaucrats.
Maybe it hits a little too close to home for CPS.

And he has the audacity to pretend that he knows perfectly well about raising children in poverty and the temerity to blame parents – when he’s not blaming teachers – for the failure of kids in the classroom? 

“The real problem is not just the education of our children,” he said. “We have parents that can’t be parents.
“We have too many kids, literally, from a broken home.”
The mayor said the city is making headway in connecting parents to their kids’ academic success, pointing to an initiative sponsored by Walgreens that rewards parents with $25 gift cards for picking up their child’s report card.

Tell me in what ways he doesn’t sound like Mitt Romney here?* Oh yeah, he’s willing to “give free stuff” to parents who pick up report cards (despite the fact that many just can’t get out of work in time to pick up report cards regardless of a gift card). 
Sure Rahm, some parents of school children need to be dressed down for not taking responsibility for their children’s well-being. But by people who know what they’re going through. Not by some silverspoonin’, North Shore, Austerity-promoting, anti-working poor mayor closing schools in our neighborhoods. Not only do you and can you not know what those parents are honestly going through that they can’t or choose not to be at every meeting, you don’t even listen to the ones who do involve themselves to the breaking point, who show up, who put in the time and volunteer, who know very well the cost of shutting down their children’s schools or their neighboring schools. Who vigorously and pointedly protested and yet were dismissed like cantankerous children. What would make the already-beyond-taxed think that you’d be ready to do anything for them anyway, that things will go great for them if those who have been applying by all the rules can’t even catch a break in your system?
This is not the first time Rahm’s been to this rodeo, though. Shortly before, while visiting the West Side to introduce some new plan of reshuffling police officers in high-crime areas, he offered that it wasn’t as much the job of the police to shut down crime as it was the job of community members. Rather than encouraging partnership, though, he is actually shutting down one of the only resources that has effectively connected community members and their beat cops, CAPS. Which means that the resources that we have to fight the effects of poverty and crime (in the form of working community schools or programs that connect police officers with the neighborhoods that they are often estranged from), as little as they are, are actually being taken away from us during the times when we most need them.
And you have the audacity to tell us your plans for us are for our own good? The obnoxiousness to carry us over your shoulders until we stop our temper tantrums? That’s how you treat us?
And we’re supposed to accept that, Chicagoans, as being better for us. But we know better than that. We’re smart and aware. And grown-ass folks to boot.
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*There are several other ways that Rahm and his administration remind me of Romney. Romney said in that meeting in a West Philadelphia school that classroom size doesn’t affect performance, hinting that more students per class should be all right in an overly-crowded system. Guess what other non-educators with children in small classes have been saying such terrible nonsense?

Compromise IS American, And That’s the Problem

Chains
James Wagner, the president of Emory University, wrote an editorial on how compromise is a good thing, is fundamental to how the US operates, is a higher order for a good cause. It’s important, he states, for getting by, for learning how to negotiate, and for political discourse.

He outlines this all in his Letter from the President, “As American as … Compromise.”

He’s wrong about pretty much everything. Citizens and students don’t become better and wiser citizens and students through compromise. We do through listening and experience and higher ordered thinking and going through the wringer of experience and critical thinking and listening again and again. And we learn through history, especially history of the marginalized. And we make connections and we consider again and again how these connections are relevant to not just ourselves but those inside and outside our neighborhoods, those who work for us, those who make our products, those who are in our prisons, those the majority society consider less-thans.

And we repent where we need to repent. We recognize the evil and the grave mistakes that we as a society and a people have done and in many ways continue to do and we take that evil seriously in order to exorcise it from our collective and individual actions.

But James Wagoner demonstrates that White America has yet to repent. Has yet to listen or make connections or consider history or the present through non-privileged perspectives. Has yet to consider amends because it hasn’t made a conscious choice yet to repent of the very horrible sins that made it phenomenally rich.

To much of White America, the three-fifths compromise was a necessity in order “to form a more perfect union.” The ultimate compromise on slavery – which allowed it to operate mercilessly for generations and allowed its primary stakeholders undue influence in US politics – wasn’t appalling, wasn’t a sign that the United States was based more on slavery and destruction of human beings and families than on its alleged “freedom.” No. According to Wagoner (and many textbooks from my own childhood), the need to bring the two opposing sides together for the lofty goal of making a United States was a “higher aspiration.

Higher, apparently, to minds in the 21st Century, than an unequivocal call for the end of any form of slavery, than for an end to the slave trade or the end to considering human beings as chattel.

Compromise may sometimes be a negotiable we have to work through. But consider what there is to negotiate. The so-called “Third Way” isn’t necessarily a better way because it’s more expedient. In the case of the Three-Fifths Compromise, the lives of millions of African and Black slaves were disregarded and then monetized for political “purity” of white folks. That’s not a good thing. Not back then. Not now. In the case of the so-called Fiscal Cliff, the lives of millions of poor people hang in the balance of a highly politicized scandal of American-styled “justice.”

It is a great evil that rich, white men can claim the stakes for everyone else and then dress up their card game as a noble pursuit.

Card game. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, CA. 1932
Insert tired Frenchie joke here.

The underclass is not something to “balance” or compromise on, are not tokens, are not poker chips.

NOTE:
With his response/clarification, Wagner apologizes for his insensitivity, makes some profound statements that gave me pause to think that he would retract his earlier statement, but then doubles down on the “higher aspirations” language and reprints the original.

Why not just admit it was a complete failure? Are the “chattel” not worth it?

Thinking of the Children, Will Not Anyone?

Recently, a cavalcade of aldermen and pastors have come out saying, while they support the aims of the teachers that went on strike in Chicago, or that while they are not siding with the Rahm Emanuel administration, they are with and for the kids (you know, like Helen Lovejoy) and, ergo, against the strike. They argue that striking now is just not the right move. That if the teachers were just a bit more patient and went through the proper channels, they would see the changes they need in due time. That now is not the time for protests, rallies, marches, unrest…

These arguments sound oddly familiar to me.

I find it ridiculous and somewhat telling that many of the same civic and religious leaders in Chicago that ostensibly support the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960’s (or at least say they do), who hold them up as models of participating in civic democracy and empowerment, currently begrudge workers of what little non-violent tools they have for their own empowerment.

As parents, educators, and citizens, we must realize that educational power has been wrestled from the classrooms by millionaires, allowing those millionairesuntrained in and oblivious to the ways of educationto set the agenda, aims, and measurements of the classrooms, teachers and students. Despite the claims of “educational reform”, however, the objectives have been the same since the halcyon days of the anti-Dewey “educational reformers” of the industrial age: Continuing to line the pockets of millionaires and keeping the lineage within their families.

And the rest of us are supposed to believe that we stand a chance to also be millionaires.

Are we supposed to expect to get that educational and economic power back to the educators through, what, a political system that is stacked up against them? Through, what, the good-hearted nature of Chicago’s bosses? Because employers always desire the best for their employees? Because the rich are fair and good people by nature (is it because the influx of money has given them moral character or did they deserve their wealth because they are such good, moral folks)?

Yeah…

Liberals and progressives have decried teachers and social staff for desiring change. My daughter’s entire elementary school has one nurse, who comes in once a week. In a school system filled to the brim with children with allergies, asthma, chronic health problems, trauma, diet-based obesity and related health problems – and they share nurses! What is that, one medically-trained nurse per thousand students? Counselors and therapists help, but the counselors are mostly academic/collegiate (though they, like the teachers themselves, stretch way beyond their designated, official roles and become de facto therapists and care-givers for the students). Teachers have the odds stacked up against them because the students have the odds stacked up against them. In this scenario, students lose – no matter how Superman you think the teachers can ever be, they can never be the extra necessary mother/father figures and grief counselors and therapists to thirty students at a time. Let alone do that plus their academic and basic social jobs they’re expected to do. They sure aren’t paid for that.

I know many Chicago Public School teachers – none of them are fat cats.

Not a singular one.

So why do progressives and civil servants begrudge hard-working professionals from getting a decent living wage? Do teachers really make too much? I thought, being good capitalists, progressives believed in a strong middle class? And this being a period when the middle class is dwindling and the economy and tax base is struggling as a result – I’d much rather that we have ten well-paid, professional teachers than one more executive pocketing another $760,000 (base salary for average teachers plus benefits allotted in monetary value times ten) and bemoaning the lazy poor. Because at least I know the teachers will spend their money and pay their taxes – rather than hiding it like a moocher.

But, secondly, teachers know that things have changed for the worse since the Testing Industrial Complex got a great foothold through the exasperatingly misguided (if not plain evil) No Child Left Behind and, in Chicago, the Renaissance 2010 Project – which is tied to our former school head (and Never Educator) Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top initiative.

They are being forced to teach to the tests, while the tests are geared for a limited scope of the educational imagination. As a result of the high-stakes of these exams, nearly two months of each school year are spent teaching poor and underserved* students how to take tests better and more efficiently. They do not need to worry about such things in wealthier districts. Partly because the students do not have so much trauma and hunger to concern themselves with as high-poverty students do. They can concentrate much more easily on their academic studies.

But not being able to concentrate on studies, not being as focused, being diagnosed with learning disabilities are real, live, frustratingly detrimental problems among students in poverty and particularly students of color.

There were a million reasons to strike. There are a million reasons to shut down our work and demand what belongs to us and our children. Do not tell us that the time is not right for direct action or democracy, cowards.
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*The word “underserved” has a strange connotation. As if somehow, through no fault of anyone, passively some children just happen to land into this strange netherworld where they can receive adequate benefits, but they won’t

This Is My First Book

For roughly four years, I’ve been working on much of These Mornings Are Rough on Many a Night: A Hazy Memoir of an Urban Teacher – my oh-so-hahalarious memoirs as a failed teacher in Chicago. Some parts for even longer. I had been holding out for that elusive book deal for so long that I never actually got it published. But I bit in when I noticed that the technology is ripe for self-publishing. Particularly e-publishing.

It’s $2.99. It helps out a worthy cause (me not starving) and allows me the opportunity to kick-start a second career.

So, please, pick up a copy. It’ll work in your Kindle or Kindle app (mine looks nice on my Asus Transformer Droid tablet. Which I wish I never bought and got a laptop instead. But that’s a different story…). If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can borrow it for free. If you’re not, you can preview the first few pages for free as well.

I’d appreciate any feedback (and, yeah, that cover has to go. I know. Was working on it at 4 am).

I’d like to release a second e-book in the middle of next month, that one more closely associated with this blog.

Teachers Are Bad, M’kay?

There’s a new PR battle going on in town (really, across the nation). It involves spoiled teachers and their thuggish unions and how lazy and selfish they are.

Or at least these are the facts as we’re presented them via administrators who are in charge of education but don’t have to deal with anything actually related to education – classrooms, learning, small wages for incredible amounts of work, students, parents, or first-hand appreciation for the adverse effects of poverty on the charges.

Rather, this group tries to remember what didn’t work when they were in school (or really, what worked well for them, specifically, but left others marginalized and labeled ‘special’ and “stupid”) and then amp that to eleven.

Finding out that they could put the onus of the responsibility of failing poor and minority students on the teachers while neglecting fundamental structural cracks and necessary changes, leaders and admins also found that they could score political points by portraying teachers as layabouts who are afraid of accountability. After all, if there’s nothing to hide, then there’s nothing to fear, amirite?

President Bush gave the best soundbite, of course. “If you’re teaching to the test, at least you’re teaching something, right?”

It’s a shame very few really questioned the intents and inferred meaning of that phrase. While seeming to be helpful and concerned about the state of underserved st’s, the teaching-to-the-test rhetoric proves the priority of the standardized test as both a means of production (something to profit from) and as an end- product itself. It further demonstrates how out of touch admins and pols are with how learning actually works.

Finally, it’s an incendiary accusation against teachers: Teaching poorly is better than not teaching at all.

Which may not be a true assessment even if it were a true accusation. Teaching poorly has a poor reputation of discouraging further learning. Kids demand education. If they were to learn that it only added up to meaningless bubbles about some worthless and irrelevant questions that were drilled into them through most of the school year, then of course they’d find it all ridiculous and worthless.

Wouldn’t you?

And that’s exactly what’s happening. Rather than find and apply meaningful and relevant curriculum, inner city grade schools are under enormous pressure to succeed according to the rubrics of test-makers and their arbitrary questions. Ironically, the more time spent trying to prepare students for these standardized tests, the less time is left to teach the students critical (and critical-thinking) skills.

Image from Off K Street blog

So, while the proposed idea is “no child (especially poor and minority) left behind”, the reality is that the education gap is widening. Instead of equipping young black Americans to succeed in the business world,
we are only preparing them for a life of meaningless and humiliating bubble-filling and questions.

Meanwhile, politicians and their education ‘czars’ (who usually have no actual experience in education or the classroom) are leveraging the widening gap as a means of reigning in teachers and destroying whatever power they’ve been able to amass these last few decades.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Chicago. Mayors Daley and now Emanuel have been gutting the public schools for over a decade now, flying against the face of research and the frontline workers to make some quick bucks for friends while looking good, tough, challenging, and moral in the process.

But, as Ben Joravski notes at the Chicago Reader, it’s largely an image battle. And that is one that the teachers – shockingly – are losing. As long as teachers remain shocked at the shift of public opinion against them, however, they’ll continue to lose this front.

Toward a Better Tomorrow

Businessmen do not know how to educate. Most of them have never taught – or if they have, it’s been of fellow businesspersons with principles that work almost exclusively in business. They don’t know much about multiple intelligences or adolescent behavior or learning disabilities or childhood development. They certainly don’t know about alternative means of evaluation in the classroom besides those concerning a #2 pencil and a bunch of bubbles on a strip of paper.

But yet, they are always put in charge of what is taught in the classrooms. And what those classrooms are allocated. And how long those classes should be. And the objectives of those classrooms. And how students should be evaluated. And how teachers should be evaluated…

Because they know how to make money? Because they know how to lay-off people, or know the profit margins? Does that make them better and more qualified to teach the teachers than other teachers who study and experience teaching? Because that’s the trend these days. No Child Left Behind, Arne Duncan, Chicago 2020, school vouchers, maximized tests, teaching to the tests, Waiting for Superman, most charter schools…

All big money. All hidden under the misguiding nombre of School Reform. All meant to trap us into thinking that spending money *in* the classroom is not the answer, but giving that money to private and connected firms is the answer. It would all do Orwell proud. Goebbels might even shed a tear.
no futurephoto © 2007 Fabian Bromann | more info (via: Wylio)

Take the wording on this phone survey that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pals floated last week. Of course, this sort of pseudo-“reform” in education has been happening for well over a hundred years. And it’s generally been just about anything but reform. Often, the more these “reformers” talk about tests and studies, the less likely that they’ve been paying attention to educational experts who study learning and pedagogy, and the more it has to do with taking and comparing fill-out-the-correct bubble tests.

As Mayoral Tutorial explains:

In Chicago there are three things its highest performing schools have in common: Active Local School Councils (LSC) that are well-trained in how to run their school; principals in those schools being on four-year contracts with clear goals set out by the Local School Council leaders; and a very active cadre of unionized teachers who work closely with the principals and LSC. To get some idea of how far away these mooks are from reform, they’ve eliminated the active cadre of union teachers from the mix and appear to be about to greatly curtail or perhaps even completely liquidate the powers of the LSCs. That’s 2/3 of the three most effective reform measures taken in Chicago. Sweet, let the Great Leap Forward continue.

In Chicago, that’s what that means. From that, we can grapple a few universals. This is what I’ve heard/experienced tend to be universal concepts to improve the state of education:

  • Allow the children to work on goals and curriculum of their own choosing, with guidance from their teachers. Invest them with education that allows them to – now, not just some time way down in the future – put the rubber of the classroom on the road of their world. Education is not relevant just because it could lead to a good job somewhere in the distant future (which is understandably not enough for youth who rarely ever see those good jobs), but for the worlds it opens up and has us fiddle with in the present. It gives power within that world. Power to affect meaning and change.*
  • Don’t just say you’re listening to the community and parents. Actually do it. All signs say that even the smaller schools are being torn from their active communities.
  • Engage and empower the parents and families throughout the calendar year. One benefit of Catholic schools is that they do just that. And though not everybody can afford to pay or live on a Catholic school teacher’s wages (which are missionary-like low), we could benefit from being involved in our children’s schools and volunteering a certain amount of time per year. And the schools could benefit in MANY ways by having game nights, movie nights, adult education classes, government boards for parents and community members (like the Local School Councils that are being disempowered in Chicago, for example), etc.
  • Open the school for parents in multilingual capacities and allow them to see their children’s work and progress on-time.**
  • Incentivize teachers to collaborate and cooperate with each other. Much of the talk from “reformers” is going towards destructive competition. Which, of course, means that teachers will not share resources, skills, or classroom projects. They will not be able to learn from each other and develop each other as only fellow teachers can. Rather, with the ‘incentives’-type of plans in place, each instructor will fight for her share of the increasingly-shrinking pie. This builds distrust and teaches the students the worst possible lesson: to survive is to destroy others. Of course, businesspersons should know better. Sometimes I think they do know better…
  • Realize that funding for education isn’t a liability or an expense, but an investment. A severe investment. If these businessfolk know what’s good for them, they’d ask to invest more of their hard-earned money into the education of their future workers, associates, partners, and clients. Unless they believe that having uninformed clients is better than having a beneficial work and living environment, that is (which I doubt many of them do).

We must ask, “Are we truly willing to spend more money on prisons than on schools?” Because that is what is happening. Who’s advocating for the teachers to be able to teach with all their tools handy? There sure are quite a few people advocating for bigger and badder jail cells.

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*I want to demonstrate this concept of making education present and active and relevant by telling a story of Brian and his students in Cabrini-Green.

Cabrini-Green was one of the most notorious housing projects in Chicago, not to mention one of the most infamous neighborhoods in the US. It was a text-book case of Northern segregation – both racial and socio-economic. And it was multi-generational. The Chicago Housing Authority had a plan to clean it up. Not because they necessarily wanted to backtrack and do everything right this time, or clean up their mess, or help these families make it to the next level. But because the property is next to some rich, rich real estate. The Gold Coast, Magnificent Mile, Old Town, Lincoln Park, and of course the Lake Shore within walking distance. All that wealth wouldn’t mean that they’d be fixing or rehabbing the area, even the parts that were salvageable. It’s almost as if they felt that the buildings should come down on their own, only to be replaced by paying customers.

Or at least I’m sure that’s how it felt to the students at a local grade school just outside the complex. And so they got together with their teacher, Brian, and brainstormed a bunch of ways to fix up their school (their idea) for their social studies project. They interviewed people on the street and in the school, as well as bureaucrats. They petitioned. They argued and hassled each other. They brainstormed and collaborated with each other. They took pictures. They wrote detailed letters to the editors and to state senators and talked to members of the press – going so far as to getting on the local news with their side of the story. Their conclusion was that the school needed to be rebuilt completely.

Our school building, Richard E. Byrd Community Academy, has big problems. There
are too many problems to mention in this letter, but we want to tell you about some of the most important ones. These main problems are what we think are important issues: the restrooms, temperature in our building, the windows and the lack of a lunchroom, a gym and a stage. We need a new school because of these problems. It is really important for our learning so we can be great when we grow up.

The Board paid lip service to them and their suggestions, of course. And then shut-down the school completely. The students were dispersed, and a few stopped going to school. The new school was too far away and the route too violent (considerations that the Board doesn’t like to consider).

But many of them would come back to Brian and each other and reminisce and wonder why school can’t always be so challenging. So rewarding. So frustrating, empowering, so active. So hands-on.
And ever since I heard their story, I wondered the same danged thing…
**Here is a big failure of mine. If I could turn back time like Cher…

The Destruction of Potted Plants (pt. III)

But anyone should be aware that growing, maturing people need fresh air, sunlight, water, nutrients. A little bit of fertilizer, perhaps. Maybe some worms to aerate the soil. Maybe occasionally we can throw some coffee beans and dirt in their direction. Whether or not they receive it at home, they should receive it in the classroom.

Or somewhere.

There are those that argue that teachers have too much responsibility, wear too many hats. That it is the teacher’s job to merely instruct. That it is the parent’s job to parent. That it is the community’s job to safeguard. And I agree, for the most part. But our society is deeply broken: parents often work two to three jobs just to keep from being kicked out of their apartments; gangs often run streets and predators the alleys; houses are run-down; rats are frequent; neighborhoods are red-lined based on economic and racial factors, which means that the poorer, more disenfranchised have less and less access to essential resources; true communities are often a hard-fought rarity when families are shuttled in and out on a regular basis; the poor are often criminalized when they cannot find decent-paying jobs and feel a need to resort to other means of money-making; and when the wealthy do come to the ‘hood, it is often with the sad attachment of displacing current residents. Reality in America is different now then it used to be. For starters, we are more self-serving and self-interested (and improbably shorter-sighted) than we used to be. While we have made tremendous progress in human rights, those of us with a progressive bent realize that we have to constantly remind ourselves and our neighbors that we have yet to arrive, that there is immense disparity and inequality between the haves and the have-nots, that basic human rights like life and shelter and sustenance – let alone qualitative education – are viewed as privileges for the elect few who can afford them. Children of the poor specifically suffer as a result of our collective selfishness.

Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September 1950, teacher at deskphoto © 2009 George Eastman House | more info (via: Wylio)I realize that I cannot be all things to all people. No person can. Most of those mythological teachers, the superheroes who get books and movies glorifying and simplifying their beautiful careers, grow tired soon and do not last long in this treacherous game. And who can blame them? They are overworked and undernourished, pushed on all sides even when given full support from staff, administrators, community leaders and parents*. No real success happens as the result of one person against all other odds. I know it makes for good Hollywood, but teaching isn’t friggin’ Indiana Jones. It’s more like gardening.

A true horticulturist weens, shelters, feeds, develops, supports, prunes, staves off predators and disease, and gives proper and timely amounts of light, heat, and water to an immense amount of plants at any given time. And although he may recognize patterns and adapt better to them, he cannot account for every species of fawn in the same manner.

I advocate for a broader base to support the under-served urban and rural students. I advocate, necessitate that each child and student should be raised with plenty of sunshine and nourishment. The teachers often are left to grow kids on their own. This is a sad state, even for a broken neighborhood. Any organization that has a place in the neighborhood needs to function as a support system for the schools around it. This includes the synagogues, mosques, store-front churches, food and liquor stores, the companies that sell products in those stores, certainly the lottery companies that do so much business in impoverished neighborhoods, local and chain restaurants, office buildings, police officers, fire fighters, postal carriers, aldermen. It behooves us all to act in the best interests of the present as well as the future health of our economy and humanity.

It not only behooves us, it will also beheeve us. We have been behoven.
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*Of course these elements are overlooked in the Hollywood remakes. It is always presented as Super-Teacher Vs The World. And you wouldn’t want some pesky involved parent getting in the way of a good narrative device.

The Destruction of Potted Plants (II)

pt. 1 here, pt. 3 coming

There were some fights in that classroom. One fight occurred in the passing period, between two hot-headed students who each would be involved in several other verbal and physical fights the next two years. It started in a flash (although I suppose the warning signs were there if I had known how to search for them) and effectively ended when I was able to wrangle the struggle to the other side of the room to waiting security. I don’t remember much else about that confrontation. I don’t recall if there was further action directly related to that fight – though I should, by any rights, know. And I don’t remember if other students were trying to get involved with the fight (though I doubt it), were trying to stop it or were merely passively awe-struck by it.

But I do remember the toll that the wildly swinging appendages took on the nearby plants. Because that was all I could bring myself to focus on. I remember looking at the floor and being angry at the destruction of my potted plants. And yet I missed the big, easy picture – the metaphorical writing on the wall, if you may: the destruction of the idea of the classroom as a safe place. The two students (as volatile as they proved to be) exploded primarily not over property rights or religious views. I don’t think they were arguing over who makes the best frozen yogurt.

They were both at the precipice of fear and danger and one nasty or innocuous interaction led to another, escalating to the boiling point. At this point their own sharp-edged, protective words and body language were not enough to make them feel guarded from the dangers that they represented to each other. They would reconcile their apprehension at each other with many moving fists and pointy appendages.

Struggle to Survivephoto © 2009 Adrian Gonzales | more info (via: Wylio)

The students’ social interactions were not cultivated properly. And for this, I sit here, at the center of the blame. I am responsible.

I cannot release myself. I cannot excuse nor recuse. The fact is, as much as it is needed in my environment, I do not know how to greenhouse my students.

I was not taught that in Rhetoric 401 or Pedagogy 315.

pt. 1, pt. 3 coming

The Destruction of Potted Plants (I)

My primary plant is ivy. Partially because ivy reminds me of my old home on the north side of Chicago. It covered the brownstone like an exoskeleton in the winter, an old, leafy friend in the summer. And the ivy also represents, in Chicago at least, Wrigley Field. Wrigley Field itself (not to be confused with the home team that happens to occupy Wrigley) is the last bastion of hope for baseball as it was meant to be played – as the ultimate beer garden; a deliberately rural-esque past-time in the midst of an urban and rushed setting. Which is how I envision my plants to function and exist.

ivyphoto © 2005 stephen jones | more info (via: Wylio)

Not as an image of beer gardens, so much – but as a pastoral icon – a reminder to slow down and enjoy your days while you can. The ivy (at home and in the classroom) reminds me that life and growth happen all around us, even in inept and regrettable situations. Like the Cubs organization and the overgrown frat boys who infest the spot like so much used hygienic products. No disrespect mean to used hygienic products…

My first classroom came pre-fitted with potted plants. To this day, I don’t know what type they were, only that they – like cockroaches – could theoretically outlast a nuclear Armageddon. They were nearly indestructible, which they needed to be at the time because they were under my care. I think they were a variant of purple cacti, with leaves that dry up under the hot summer sun. I soon realized that these thingymabobs are so hard-to-kill that all I needed to do was water them on a regular basis and they were fine. And when I say, “regular basis”, I mean, “once or twice a month if I remembered.” Or course, they never lived up to their full potential. Which reminds me of too many report-card conferences.

Second grade Teacher: Jason is a very smart and capable young man.
Mom: Why, thank you. (Pregnant pause) But, what else can you say about his progress?
Teacher: He doesn’t live up to his potential.
Father: That’s what we figured.
Jason: (Scratching the back of his pants.) This doesn’t sound good.
Father: You’re right. And it won’t sound good on your behind either.
Jason: Oh, drats! (Pulling up underwear from the back.)

This scene repeated twice a year for most of the rest of my formative education.with slightly altered language as I was further removed from my “Leave It to Beaver” years.College was different primarily because I was not in a mood to squander perfectly good money that I either earned or borrowed and would pay back through several years of incremental payments. These loans would, I knew even then, come back to haunt me like Kathy Lee Gifford haunts Regis. Cryptic envelopes, monthly payoffs, promises of eternity, ill-timed phone calls.

The odd purple plants managed to survive through the year. But not intact. And, like any group of war combatants, they lost some brothers (or is it sisters – or rather, brosters, being that plants don’t really have a gender, only gender-parts. “Sothers”?).

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*You know, wearing the knickers, and the little bow-tie. I was a cute little kid. Unfortunately, I was still scratching my nellies to the very end

Just Like Death, But Conscious (III)

One high school I frequented graduated several of the founding members of The Harlem Globetrotters. Their theme song whistled over the loudspeakers during every passing period. For the entire four minutes. Every day. Every forty minutes. I would imagine “Curly” Neal or “Twiggy” Sanders dribble passing to himself down the halls with his note- and text-books towing, rising, nodding, falling, and rising again behind him in the curious time-delayed force known as gravity. As he passes the dean’s office, he smacks the door just below the window. The dean steps out, yet once again furiously shaking his fist and yelling, “You kids!”

With one exception, every class I *ahem* taught at this school took place in the gym. All the guys would dress up for basketball and the gym teacher would have them play ball all day. I desperately wanted to play as well, and often threatened the gym teacher that I was going to come the next day in my Larry Bird-era shorts and Chucky T’s, ready to learn them young whipper-snappers a thing or two about passing the rock and other such fundymentals of the game of the basket ball as teamwork and disciplined lay-ups and twenty-five foot jump shots. But we both knew that threat that was never going to materializing due to insurance reasons.
Anthony Stover Posting Upphoto © 2009 J Rosenfeld | more info (via: Wylio)


The rest of this essay will be available in a ebook and, as such, I can only give snippets in other forms. Don’t worry, the book will be cheap. And as my own agent, I must add, good.

Just Like Death, But Conscious (II)

Substitute teaching is widely known – mostly by me – as glorified babysitting. Except with less glory. Also, technically speaking, it doesn’t have anything to do with babies. Substitute teaching high school is more like watching paint dry with teenagers. And the truth is I would feel worse for the students than myself. Since few teachers who are frequently absent leave lesson plans, activities, or a sense of daily accomplishment for their temporarily abandoned students, my job basically deteriorated to keeping the noise level down, making sure that only students that were supposed to be there were there, and ushering everybody else out.

Grandfather Clock Face Waters building EXPLORE 4-8-08 2828photo © 2008 Steven Depolo | more info (via: Wylio)
And watching the clock pass.

With teenagers.

The payment for subbing was upwards of $100 per day. Considering that I’m paid that rate for only five hours of nominal “work” and, that at the time, I was single, childless and living in a shared bachelor’s apartment,* it was nice “work” when I could find it. But on average I would only “work” one day a week. Which meant that my mornings were often painfully sad and very slowly disturbing. Like watching Snuffalopolus rummage through the trash in your alley.

The eventual and rare call would come from the central office. The sub-center tells its “workers” to expect a call between 5:30-8:00 am. Most of my calls came at the 6-7 window. Being that my alarm would shake, rattle and/or roll at 4:30, I would be extra sleepy-tired by the time my “work” day would start. Sleepy-tired, as any medical professional would tell you, is a state of sub-cognition wherein one dreams of Winnie the Pooh daintily cascading through the backyard. Extra-sleepy-tired is him being eaten alive by Snuffalopolus in the backyard.

And here’s where I make my caveat: I know people hold down two-to-three jobs all the time and usually for a lot less money. On those occasions that I had foolishly risen in the wee hours and foolishly tried to establish an early-morning walking routine, the only other people I had passed on the sidewalk at 4:30 were migrant workers trying to get first-dibs at the Day Laborer’s (which are temps of a different sort). There are mothers of my students that don’t make it home from work until the middle of the night after a two-hour commute. And, then, of course, there is also the Two-Third’s World and the fact that half of the world’s population gets by on less than $2 a day. But, please, this is my story, so let me do my whining.

I spent many a morning during this period reading my Bible or a magazine or watching a foreign film. I like saying this because it makes me sound all sophisticated and stuff. And that I am. But, in general, I was trying what I could to not fall asleep while tugging the neck of the phone like a teddy bear, duly and patiently waiting for that one expectant ring to pull me into action like a call from Commissioner Gordon.

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*Yes, that sounds sexy. Just like a Three’s Company of just guys. But it wasn’t necessarily so… For instance, we had our very own built-up DIY nerdy loft beds to save room on valuable space. And our Under-Roos wearing was not a sight to behold.