Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I teach in a prison for kids. I try to see it differently, but I can’t. It’s a corporately monitored public prison for less than wealthy kids. Here’s to the top down managerial model of authoritarian education.

Bleak, I know, but this moment shall pass.

Friday, April 27, 2012

0157: Guns, Violence, and Zero Tolerance…Oh, and exile for kids

#education #prison #SOSchat

The past few days have been a bit turbulent. There have been quite a few fights, some threats made by students, and a gun. All violent things. All falling under zero tolerance policies, of which I am not a fan. I must state, up front, that I understand the concept of punishing/treating the “crimes” that are the most dangerous or the ones that have the most danger of being repeated in such a way that would discourage them from being repeated (visit Foucault for on this). Guns are not a good idea at school, clearly. Fighting is not the best outlet for conflict resolution. Threats should not be made. But, should students be exiled from education completely for the acts? Put another way, does simply removing the “perpetrator” from the academic environment help more than it hurts?

First, I’ll address guns. My first week as a teacher ended with a student bringing in a sawed-off shotgun. To my knowledge he had no intention of using in class, even though he and I had a heated exchange. He claimed that he was being beaten up on the way home from school. The gun was an extreme measure, but he deemed it necessary. He was expelled without any services from the district. So no school, and no help. He was exiled. I’ve not heard from him, but nothing was done to help his situation or help him deal with it. Potentially he became a violent offender, followed through with the his original intention, etc. He certainly did not return to school. Expulsion may be the best option. Certainly, we should do what we can to prevent students from bringing guns to school, but we should equally do what we could/can to treat the symptom. Shouldn’t we try to help students deal with problems before they get to the point of bringing a gun? If they bring one should we try to help them so the problem won’t worsen? I don’t think completely severing all ties is the best course of action for the student or for society. The student who brought the gun last week was also expelled, but with no psychological services and will be returning next year. Perhaps time will help?

Students who fight are arrested, carried away in a police car, and suspended for ten days— no questions asked. They return after ten days, or not, and receive no services, no conflict resolution, no anger management, nothing. Additionally, they’re behind in coursework, and possibly were behind to begin with. Many students get in more trouble while there are home for suspension. The alternative to suspension of course would be an alternative setting or some sort of psychological/conflict resolution service which of course would have a cost. And then, there’s the reinforcement, for some, of being hauled away in a police car. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? Is it necessary to send children away in a police car simply because they got into a fight? Should there not be some sort of teaching that extends beyond the tested curriculum? Teachers try, but often aren’t equipped or allotted the time. Further, fights are born out various stresses and conflicts some stem from the neighborhood others from school. The test certainly adds to stress, and when it’s over it seems supervision becomes lax.
Some fights that would usually have been prevented happen. Yet, another factor. So if some responsibility lies with the school should the school just ship students away? Certainly not.

The same goes with threats, violent language, etc. We punish the language without offering a reasonable or better alternative. We punish and do not replace as as a system. There should be some teaching dialogue that accompanies infractions; that is, if we don’t want them repeated.

The system is broken. Sometimes it seems schools are prison-preparation programs. What can be done?

0156: Chairman Mao, the Lunchroom, and #Teacher Talk?

#education #p2 #SOSchat #prison

Note: This is a bit disorganized, but I’m going to publish it. Find what is helpful. Disregard what’s not. Offer construction where you see fit.

A fellow teacher called me Mao Zedong at lunch the other day, and rather harshly too. She expressed a desire to have police crackdown harder on “these criminals” and said we should do the same with our students. She said our students are already criminals with records and all. And, to her credit, many have records and parole officers. To her comment I responded, “Maybe we should crackdown on the people who contribute to the economic conditions that create a framework for such crime.” She wanted to know to whom I was referring, but before I could say she jumped in, “You mean corporations and republicans don’t you! The people who are creating jobs.” There was a pause and then she continued, “This is the land of opportunity. Anyone can succeed if they try hard enough.” Our custodian interrupted, “That’s not true. Maybe for some, but most people are born into a class and stay there.” She bit back, “Education can make it better. It gives opportunities. People just need vouchers to go to good schools.” And the conversation went on for a bit to no avail. I left. She called me a Maoist Socialist who should probably not be teaching because I believe that wealth is unevenly distributed. I equally have some concerns. First, I think we should recognize that there are class divisions in the United States that are very difficult to overcome. There are obvious inequalities that come with these class divisions. Rights and consistent access to those rights are in reality divided in many cases along racial lines. This happens in many institutional settings, including schools and prisons. Prisons are filled with non-white individuals who often commit crimes that would not be necessary if poverty was not such an issue. Many prisoners are in prisons for crimes that do not even compare to the crimes of those with great power and money. A bag of weed vs. making healthcare inaccessible to many people, and then those people die or live with terrible ailments, that sort of thing. So much for the land of opportunity. By recognizing inequality we have an obligation to do something about it. As teachers our power is in our ability to allow, encourage, and facilitate learning that contribute to a toolbox that will make possible any social action deemed necessary by our learners. This toolbox might include any number of critical skills such as, dialogue, social media, discussions that lead to a deeper understanding of their own situations, multi-literacy skills, anything that contributes to them being able to manipulate their environments (e.g.,videoing police brutality). This toolbox can be built from the moment students enter kindergarten simply by allowing learners to know that their world knowledge is just as important as academic knowledge and finding time for rich conversations, good books, safety, and quality play— even if the test is on your back. Finally, I am concerned with racism and classism among my colleagues (I’m sure they have concerns about me, expressed through the Maoist comment). I’m not sure how one could genuinely and authentically teach a student who they believe to be a criminal who needs to be punished. Would that belief not be carried out through teaching methods, discipline, and so forth— it certainly plays out in the number of Office Discipline Referrals. Does the belief that everyone really gets an equal shot affect teaching? Does the refusal to see one’s students as human-beings before seeing them as criminals affect the way teacher and student interact? Certainly.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

0113: What Happened to the Learning?

#SOSchat #testingisnotteaching @arneduncan

I heard a veteran teacher, principal, and school board member (all the same person) speak yesterday. She entered public schools before segregation. She spoke passionately about her love of public schools. She, like many, expressed how she learned to read, write, think, speak, problem solve, cooperate, and collaborate in public schools. Her children did too. I did. I know many others who did too. What has happened? Why were we different? None of us were from the wealthy elite. I finished school just before testing became the end all be all. The school was large, mostly free lunch, and had problems, but people learned, left, became employed, went to college. This was in Mississippi by the way. The veteran educator who spoke was from an inner city district in Tennessee. Learning has happened for years. It seems to have suddenly ceased.

Did the learning stop because testing, that is the great high stakes standardized test? I couldn’t say, but then again maybe I could. Perhaps the test itself didn’t destroy the minds of a generation, but it required that it happen. Testing, as many know, has taken and continues to take every resource— mental, physical, and monetary— and put it toward some type of test preparation. Basic skills are neglected for the sake of a pacing guide. Kids aren’t able to fully learn to read or fully figure out multiplication because there is no time. Testing keeps the ball moving. Rarely can we go back and reteach. In fact, reteaching has been replaced with reviewing (the quick and shallow sibling of reteaching). The damage done from shallow, incomplete teaching is cumulative. Please be aware teachers don’t set out to teach shallowly. They/we are essentially tied to the pacing guide, or else. If a kid doesn’t fully develop as a reader in K-4, which isn’t the only focus of K-4, then other skills won’t develop. The foundation will not be there. K-4 has all sorts of testing rigors as well. Kids and teachers are stressed, learning is not allowed to be complete, and kids have to move forward without ever having built a proper foundation for learning. This lack of foundation snowballs into myriad other problems from academic deficiency, to behavior problems leading to in school arrests, and the school-to-prison pipeline continues.

The effects of testing are broad and can be summed up through the stories of those teachers, students, communities, and a nation affected by the attention deflected from actual education in the name of a test.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

0045: Fights, Recidivism, and Criminalizing Miseducation

#school #education #prison

A fight between junior high children should not result in a trip in a cop car and a criminal record.

I happened upon a rather brutal fight involving a group of boys yesterday. Strangely, there were no teachers to be seen, but that is another story. When I walked up the crowd scattered. Remaining was a pile of angry entangled boys who knew they would soon be whisked away in handcuffs. The boys were clearly angry and in no place to be reasonable. Some staff and the principal showed up to help with the ruckus, and take them to the office to wait for our friends in blue.

This has been the case in every school I’ve taught. Kids fight. Cops are called. Kids are arrested. I’ve seen police in the elementary schools before. True, fighting is not appropriate in a school setting. It’s not ideal anywhere. But, it’s not the problem. Fighting is a symptom of a problem that is usually never uncovered because our fighters disappear with the police or into suspension or alternative schools and the problems that are beneath the violence are never uncovered. These kids never learn to process their emotions effectively and become an early candidate for adult imprisonment. These kids act out and are punished over and over. They return angry and start the cycle again. For these kids the pipeline from school to prison is a reality.

What could be done differently? I don’t have an answer to this. I’d like one. I know it starts with building relationships with students and communities. It requires some early intervention. It requires not turning children into criminals. Kids need a chance to become adults. They need room to grow, and support while they’re growing. Calling a 7th grader a hardened and lost criminal is not the way. Schools have their hands full, but with the wrong things. We are about the wrong business with standardization and the like. Humans and humanity are our real business. I gather that’s ultimately a policy issue, but that’s no excuse. We have to care for what is before us. Send me some answers if you have any. educatedtodeath@gmail.com

Thursday, November 10, 2011

0031: If you can’t reach ‘em, drug ‘em. I guess.

#teaching #adhd

I just finished carefully filling out a form that had the insignias of the America Academy of Pediatrics (dedicated to the health of all children), the National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality, and McNeil Consumer and Specialty Pharmaceuticals— two health organizations and one corporation, good benevolent companies with children’s interest at heart. The goal, I’m assuming is to issue drugs to tame this rambunctious young black child. He is a handful, but drugging a child just doesn’t seem helpful. Perhaps, a behavioral intervention or some adjustment to the way he is being taught. I’ve made a few adjustments and seen improvements. He’s a genius of a kid, just not really interested in complying. And whose to say he should comply? He disrupts during whole group activity. He has energy. When he writes it’s clever and amazing. His writing is a little off color, a little blue. He has an adult sense of humor. But the syntax is amazing. He struggles in all of his classes, but should we drug him? Or, are we just too cheap and lazy to do anything else? I am not without blame. I haven’t learned to manage his behavior. I have neither forced him into compliance or broken his spirit. He is one of the few and proud who is refusing to be schooled. I admire his wit and commitment to doing what he sees fit. He questions absolutely everything. And yes he becomes inappropriate. But, he deserves a proper education. He is not “driven by a motor”. He is driven by his mind and his choices. They do not align with the state curriculum, but they are his.

He struggles in most of his classes. Maybe he struggles against them. I’ve encountered kids like this over the course of my career. Sometimes they make it; sometimes they’re made into victims. I hope my non-referral keeps him corporate-drug-free. I hope the system that serves him adjusts to him. Unfortunately, systems wants perfect sprockets that fit on their machines. If you can’t reach ‘em drug ‘em. I guess.

Monday, November 7, 2011

0028: Bullshit. Why don’t my kids get what the white kids get?

I’ve taught in predominately black schools. I attended a predominately black high school. As a teacher, I’ve had the privilege to take my black students to events that are reserved mainly for white schools, thus white kids. My students have always been good competitors and even thrive in this foreign environment whether the events were academic or artistic. I’m always shocked back into a brutal reality of on-going segregation and inequality when I am transported from my usual school environment that functions more closely to a prison than a place of learning. Being that the schools where I’ve taught have been in the south, in black communities, they have been poor. Every interviewer with whom I’ve interviewed has been more concerned with my classroom management skills, and shows great concern about my ability to “handle these kids”. I’ve taught in places where order was never expected because the kids were “those kids” or “criminals”. It’s easy to adapt to that setting, or to become numb to it. But, when I stand in a room full of thriving white children and watch my few black children thrive in the framework of the upper middle class white child I have to stop. The difference is not in behavior. It’s in perception. The schools where I have taught and teach are punitive by nature. The children, mostly black, are treated as if they have great potential— to be harsh criminals. They’re expected to misbehave. The schools and classes are concerned with the children staying in line and sitting quietly. They are not trusted. The white kids on the other hand are treated like future leaders. They engage in problem solving activities and hands-on learning. They are trusted with technology, and are allowed to thrive. The teachers I’ve worked with have been eager to help our students thrive, but the system won’t allow for it. We, at the poorer schools, are constantly falling behind where testing is concerned. And, it starts early. Kindergarten quickly becomes a place to prepare for the first grade test. Recess is eliminated. Experiential learning activities are eliminated. This continues all the way through school for my students. They start out in a deficit situation that follows them all the way to graduation, or when they drop out from absolute boredom. They drill and kill where the kids across the tracks discuss and collaborate. My kids sit in schools that look like prisons, run down prisons at that. The across the track kids sit in schools with nice grounds, and colorful classrooms and hallways. They’re being groomed for success. My students are being groomed for prison and welfare. It’s wrong.

My students looked confused this morning when they were shocked back into their prison reality. The field trip was nice, but it was only a field trip. It was only a dream, and that is bullshit.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

0026: Cheers to the pissed of teachers trying to work miracles in impossible situations

I’ve hit a wall, I think. I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel the way I do about my teaching practice and I came across a lovely blogpost entitled “Sh!t Arne Says” (http://teacher-anon.blogspot.com/2011/09/sht-arne-says.html?m=1). The following quote was cited:

"We also want you to enjoy so many other enriching experiences that are so important to a complete education. We know you have great music, art, and physical education teachers at your school, and we believe that these subjects are essential for a well-rounded curriculum. And so is recess. We want you to have fun!"
Arne Duncan
An Open Letter from Secretary Arne Duncan
and Karen Duncan to Their Children

The blogger went on to describe her daily schedule with her kindergartners which looked nothing like the utopia Duncan described. Her daily schedule reflected no time for any activity besides language, literacy, and math. All important, but nothing experiential. I urge you to read her post (link attached above). Her students receive nothing but the basics. And, that’s not fair. The blog post made me comfortable. It reawakened me to my everyday teaching situation over the past five years which has been very similar. I have taught only in extremely high poverty areas where test scores are becoming the most important thing to district and school leaders because they are so low. The kids I have taught have had few experiences outside what Teacher-Anon. refers to as “sit-down-shut-up-listen-and-remember” education. That’s what is enforced by administrators. I’ve been lucky to spend my last two years teaching as a specialized arts teacher. The other years I taught algebra. Teaching in the arts has given me the opportunity to have a class that’s something of a haven, but it’s also given me the opportunity to see what’s really going on in other academic classes (I’m utilized as a literacy coach quite often as that was my graduate focus). And what do I find but “sit-down-shut-up-listen-and-remember” education, which actually has a negative impact on arts classes as they have either been just playgrounds where students run wild, or the kids have never been engaged in focused work so they are completely afraid to participate. I am lucky to get to teach children to engage in their own learning. However, arts should not be the only classes where this type of engagement is permitted. It should be across the board.

My problem is that I know there are kids who receive quality, engaging, and enriching education daily. They just aren’t the kids I’ve taught. They’re generally more affluent children. At least, that’s what I’ve observed. I’m at a breaking point, and I’m torn. I don’t want to abandon ship, but this ship is sailing nowhere. The kids I teach deserve the energy and privilege the kids across the proverbial tracks get. They deserve to be engaged. The people who make the decisions need to visit the classrooms that are bending and collapsing under the pressure of NCLB and other measures. There needs to be a reckoning of the great disparity between the education quality given to the rich and poor. I don’t know how to fix it, but I’d like to help.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

0009: Why should students be motivated by high test scores?

Strangely scores are used as a carrot to keep kids working hard and competitively. I’ve seen charts in classrooms and on bulletin boards charting progress. There are even special clubs and events for students who get the highest marks on standardized tests. Students are easily sorted according to their test scores. Students know is they’re advanced, proficient, basic, minimal, or any other label states prescribe. The proverbial score carrot that is held in front of our students only reinforces that they are nothing more than a number. And while they may not be able to fully articulate why the propaganda of testing is dehumanizing (though many of them can), they certainly have a good idea of what’s happening to them. They are placed in boxes daily. For that matter, so are there teachers. The language of the education building has been overtaken by a lexicon that solely promotes the linking of individuals with their value as a score. This lexicon is pushed down through the bureaucratic ranks with no thought to the harm it is causing. And certainly, there is no time to think, “you just have to do it, because that’s how it is”. This newly formed testocracy has forced educators into the mode of disciplining and punishing students only to keep them “focused” on what is important: their scores. “Without discipline, learning cannot take place,” I’ve heard countless times. This is true to an extent, but where is the locus of discipline? Within the child? Being forced upon the child? Even worse, systematically training the child to walk mindlessly in lines. The question “how can we motivate these kids?” is constantly raised. Well, perhaps challenging children to think and create might be a start.

The goal is good test scores. The result is the mindless dehumanization of an entire generation.