Thursday, March 15, 2018

Respecting Student Free Speech Was Hard for Adults During Today’s School Walkout by Steven Singer

The kids are all right. It’s the adults you have to watch.

The walkout planned nationwide to protest gun violence today on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting came to my western Pennsylvania school – and we weren’t ready for it.

In fact, up until today no one had mentioned a thing about it.

I had asked teachers if they wanted to do something and was told it was up to the students to lead.

I had asked the high school student council if they were interested in participating, but there wasn’t much of a response.

Then this morning in the middle school where I teach, there was an impromptu two minute meeting where we were told some kids might walk out and that we should just let them go.

Their right to free speech would be respected and there wouldn’t be any penalty for participating.

However, as a teacher, I was instructed not to bring up the subject, not to allow discussion and only to attend if all of my students decided to go.

That’s a hard position to be in.

It’s like being put in a metaphorical straight jacket.

But I tried.

When my 7th grade kids came in, they were all a buzz about something and I couldn’t really ask why.

The suspense was broken with a sledge hammer during second period when one of my most rambunctious students asked if he could use the restroom at 10 am. That was over an hour away.

I told him he couldn’t reserve an appointment for a bathroom break but he could go now if he wanted.

Then he explained himself. At 10 am he was walking out.

The room exploded.

They had heard about the nationwide walkout at 10 – the time of the Parkland shooting. They knew kids all across the land were leaving class for 17 minutes – 60 seconds for each life lost in the shooting.

But that was pretty much it.

They didn’t know what it was that kids were protesting. They didn’t know why they were protesting. They just knew it was something being done and they wanted to do it.

It was at this point I took off my metaphorical straight jacket.

I couldn’t simply suppress the talk and try to move on with the lesson – on propaganda, wouldn’t you believe!

We talked about the limits of gun laws – how some people wanted background checks for people wishing to purchase guns. We talked about regulating guns for people with severe mental illnesses, criminal backgrounds or suspected terrorists. We talked about how there used to be a ban on assault weapons sales and how that was the gun of choice for school shooters.

We even talked about what students might do once they walked out of the building.

They couldn’t just mill around for all that time.

Since we were in the middle of a unit on poetry, someone suggested reading poems about guns and gun violence.

Students quickly went on-line and found a site stocked with student-written poetry on the issue – many by students who had survived school shootings.

I admit I should have checked the site better – but we had literally minutes before the walkout was scheduled to take place.

Some of the poems contained inappropriate language and swear words. But they were generally well written and honest. And the kids liked them.

I let them print a few that they wanted to read aloud at the demonstration.

They were actually huddled around their desks reading poetry and practicing.

They were really excited about the prospect of standing up and being counted – of letting the world know how they felt.

One student even wrote her own poem.

She said I could publish it anonymously, so here it is:

“Pop! Pop! Pop!

Everyone crying, calling their parents, saying their last goodbyes.

Screams echo throughout the building.
Blood painting the white tiles.
Bodies laying limp on the ground
Screams of pain
Bullets piercing our skin.

Yelling and sobbing increase.
We are escorted out.

‘Is this what you wanted?’”

I barely had time to read it before the time came.

Students stood up and were confused by the lack of an announcement.

But this was not a sanctioned school event. If they took part, they were on their own.

It was my smallest class and several kids were already absent.

They all left and were immediately met by the principal and security. To their credit, the adults didn’t stop them, but they told them not to put their coats on until they were outside and to otherwise quiet down.

I made sure to emphasize that anyone who wanted was welcome to stay in class. But no one did.

After the last child left, I grabbed my coat and followed.

When I got to the front of the building I was surprised by the lack of high school students. There were only a handful. But there were maybe 50 middle school kids.

When the principal saw all my students had decided to participate, he asked me to stay in the lobby. He said it wasn’t necessary for me to attend.

That was hard.

I wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to be insubordinate, either.

My students were expecting me to be there. They were expecting me to help guide them.

So I stood in the doorway and watched.

Students did as I feared; they pretty much milled around.

A few of my students held their poems in hand and read them quietly together but there were no leaders, no organization.

After about 5 minutes, the adults pounced.

The resource officer criticized them since their safety was more at risk outside the building than in class. Administrators chastised the collective group for having no plan, for only wishing to get out of class, for not knowing why they were there and for not doing anything together to recognize the tragedy or the issue. They said that if the students had really wanted to show respect to those killed in Florida they would have a moment of silence.

The kids immediately got quiet, but you can’t have a 17-minute moment of silence. Not in middle school.

I saw some of my kids wanting to read their poems aloud but too afraid to call the group’s attention to themselves.

And then it was over.

The whole thing had taken about 10 minutes.

Administration herded the kids back into the building early and back through the metal detectors.

I can’t help feeling this was a missed opportunity.

I get it, being an administrator is tough. A situation like today is hard to stomach. Kids taking matters into their own hands and holding a demonstration!?

We, adults, don’t like that. We like our children to be seen and not heard.

We want them to do only things that will show us in a better light. We don’t like them taking action to fix problems that we couldn’t be bothered to fix, ourselves.

But what right do we have to curate their demonstration?

If they wanted to mill around for 17 minutes, we should have let them.

Better yet, we could have helped them organize themselves and express what many of them truly were thinking and feeling.

If I had been allowed out of the building, I could have called the assembly to order and had my kids read their poems.

But doing so would have been exceedingly dangerous for me, personally.

I can’t actively defy my boss in that way. It just didn’t seem worth it.

If we had had warning that this might happen and planned better how to handle it, that also might have been an improvement.

Imagine if the school had sanctioned it. We could have held an assembly or sent a letter home.

The teachers could have been encouraged to plan something with their students.

Obviously if the students wanted to go in another direction, they should have been allowed to do so.

But these are middle school kids. They don’t know how to organize. They barely know how to effectively express themselves.

Regardless of how we, adults, feel about the issue, isn’t it our responsibility to help our student self actualize?

Isn’t it our responsibility to help them achieve their goals?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a crazy hippie.

Maybe I’m some radical anarchist.

But I’m proud of my students for taking a stand.

It was unorganized and a mess.

Yet they stood up and did something we, the adults, really weren’t that keen on them doing.

Their message was a muddle.

But they had something to say.

They just haven’t figure out how to say it yet.

Witness by Jamy Brice Hyde M.Ed.

Today I observed and experienced something as an educator that was simply extraordinary.

On the Anniversary of the murders of 17 people at MSD High School my high school did something I never thought possible. A group of students were determined to stand with the Students in Parkland they wanted to to create a fitting tribute to those who tragically lost their lives. This group of young people met with our Principal with the intent of organizing a Walkout. Our principal being quite the extraordinary educator herself, wanted to provide our students with a platform to be heard and safe place to learn and grow as people who are civically engaged. SHe provided the students a conference room where they met often trying to figure out the best way to bring attention to those who left us too soon on February 14th 2018. After a month of planning the students created their plan. They would read biographies and create a slideshow of pictures honoring those lost at MSDHS after each biography they would hold a moment of silence. They would do this for each of the 17 victims.

These students expected their classmates to walk out or go to their homerooms as that was the alternative location for students who chose not to participate.

What happened was extraordinary.

Almost the ENTIRE student body, yes over 1000 high school students showed up to the auditorium, they sat down and listened to their classmates. There they were ... 1000 teenagers for almost 30 minutes…. They sat there.. they were so quiet you could hear the seats squeak and some sniffles here or there. Never ever in my 18 years have I witnessed students so engaged so attentive so so so so silent. That was the most extraordinarily loud silence I have ever experienced. It was so loud, that silence was; that it changed kids today, “ thank you” “have a good day” “can i help you with that” “ hey we all care about each other” “ Ya know what was different today Mrs. Brice-Hyde? The kids finally felt like the adults were actually listening to us.”

Then the end of the day announcements came, our principal said “I am so proud of all of you, and I want you to know that we love you, all of you we love each and every one of you”
That last sentence there... the last thing the principal said to our students today….. that is what public education is all about.

But, What Have They Really Done? by Kelly Ann Braun

As an education activist, I have teacher friends and connections from all states across our country. As I was home today shooing the flu away, I had a chance to really soak in an entire day’s worth of seeing student activists growing or most noticeably, newly being formed. The National swirl of Walkout activities which dually recognized the one-month mark of the Parkland shooting and served as an expression of solidarity with the student-led demands for gun law reform, were powerful, to put it mildly. I would love to elaborate on my emotions related to the students encircled around the 14 empty desks and 3 podiums with the 17 doves released, or the gong which sounded 17 soul-echoing times as students did a die-in across all 100 yards of a football field while their bodies spelled out a giant #Enough. I am so grateful for the young woman, and the young man, along with the second grader (and his mom) who walked out of each of their schools as lone voices and I am so glad that their stories are already going viral. What bold bravery.
But instead, I feel compelled to answer the 3 or 4 audacious folks I saw in a variety of media spaces asininely asking “But, what have they really done or accomplished? What have they changed?” I hardly know where to start, but I will just dive in, in no particular order, and assuredly in a raw and incomplete manner. I will say, the fact that they influenced you towards even asking such a question in the first place, lets me and others know, that they have done well to send out ripples of resistance even to the most resistant, critical, or apathetic of viewers. Sometimes the questions tell us more than the answers ever will.
As an activist, I have written ahead to a slew of news sources, made posters, and then stood or marched with hundreds of others regarding a huge crucial issue related to legislation that would affect hundreds of thousands; all done in vain to only MAYBE have one or two newspapers write up a little blurb which they sunk somewhere in the middle of the paper. These kids today, set helicopters in every major city into motion. I have yet to find a news outlet NOT COVERING IT. They are on every channel local to national and back again. Reporters and journalists are scrambling to get THE INTERVIEW or COVERAGE that they might claim an exclusive.  More and more detailed stories are surfacing as the evening dawns.
These youth have AT LEAST five or six hashtags simultaneously trending on Twitter (and have been retaining top trending topics for a solid month now). We, my adult activist friends and I, have in deliberate action, held coordinated, planned tweet campaigns, and let me tell you it is harder than the old Asteroids game to keep a hashtag trending for any certain length of time. Prominent folks, with 100s of 1000s followers are commenting to the student activists by name and by their hashtags. They are seeking these youth leaders out. It is nothing for them to see 1000s of retweets on any given message in a matter of hours truly. All day today, and I am sure well into this evening as folks are arriving home, pictures of the Walkouts are dominating Twitter (and I am sure Snapchat and Instagram also). To amplify their cause in this way almost seems effortless for them. They are highly effective at drowning out so much status quo static that is out on Twitter. Their truths are evident, loud and clear.
They directly attracted and engaged local, state, and national politicians to a level that I do not think any recent movement has been able to do at such elevated numbers, in such a vast amount of places, in the same given hour or day. Senators and Representatives came out to them in DC. I have marched or protested in DC numerous times. I have lobbied on ‘the hill’. And the most we gleaned attention from were some of the legislative aides or a very few curious staff members on their lunch breaks. Can you imagine the honorable Congressman John Lewis speaking at your event??? Well, he did so at their event!!! That fact alone should be humbling to those who question what they have accomplished.
I typed “Walkouts” in Google searchbar just now and came up with 6,490,000 results in .66 seconds. CNN, NYTimes, LATimes, MSNBC and many more are right on top with articles that are an hour or even 14 minutes old. 1000s upon 1000s upon 1000s of passionate kids’ faces are plastered all over the internet. And right along with them are scores of headlining quotes of THEIR POSTERS, THEIR WORDS, THEIR CHANTS, THEIR THOUGHTS, THEIR IDEAS, THEIR UNIQUENESS, and THEIR UNITY!
It seems districts and schools all over each had their own reactions to the appeals of the students to be able to participate. Students had to choose if they were going to comply or seat the consequences that came with some of the schools’ warnings against the students walking out. I read one post that said 100 students will have detention for their participation. Others mentioned suspensions of more than a week. One school (probably more) went on lockdown so the students could not walkout BUT those students peacefully ‘took a knee’ in the hallways. Students everywhere had to weigh out their individual stances on the matter and prioritize it despite penalties that were handed down. By the way, the ACLU is seriously examining situations in which students were severely silenced.
I am sure that many, many, many a student found themselves at odds with members in their own classrooms, schools, communities or even their own families. Those ones would have had to mentally practice their wording of why they were walking out and what it meant to them. I am an extroverted, outspoken adult and I still at times have found it difficult, dare I say downright fearful, to explain my stances on certain issues with a room full of people I absolutely love who do not agree with my point of view. It is an acquired art to be able to put controversial beliefs into words strong enough and accurately enough, without being defensive or offensive in any antagonistic crowd, but when you eat, and live with those who may not see eye to eye or flat-out oppose your views, it is extremely difficult. I can almost hear the back and forth dialog of some parents and some children as they hash out their personal differences about guns, school shootings, and now a rash of protests. Those students will not likely make the headlines, and yet they have initiated necessary conversations. They have planted seeds of thought. They are the ones I see as the overcomers. The tradition breakers. The peace takers.
Speaking of peace, these students had to seriously rein in a ton of emotions. They were tapping into huge, long-building, collective anger, fear, sadness, and now determination, and had to do it all with tremendous self-control. The media would have had a hey-day if violence broke out. It would have been a major mar in the overall message. Thus far, I have only heard of successful PEACEFUL protests the whole day long. This is a great testament to the teens and others who let them lead. The students, in this manner, garnered trust. As a mom of five (grown children), I put a high value on being able to trust my children, especially in particularly trying situations. This is where the roots and wings balance comes to fruition in parenting and yes, in teaching. These kids that walked out today, in my eyes, all passed a tremendous test. They are to be trusted with future public outcries against social ills.
To pull such events together in such a short time frame was an amazing feat. Some student protests scheduled speakers. Many did the math, prep work, and coordination to make birdseye images of enormous numbers, words, or images, and set into motion the plans for those to be photographed from the air via drone cameras, high vantage points, or hopes that helicopters would see. The students took it upon themselves to plan and relay the plans to stand in silence, to sit-in a field or bleachers, to march to a destination, to chalk around the outlines of their bodies, to wear armbands, to wear certain colors, to sing specific meaningful songs, to paint murals, to tape their mouths, or create banners, and on the lists go. Tons of students wrote to legislators, and actually made literal plans to meet today in state houses all across the United States, and managed to get to those numerous meetings in huge numbers. Again, as outgoing as I am, I still experience intimidation and nervousness in the “formal” settings of meeting with members of congress at any level, and I abhor the back and forth phone tag or emails that it takes to be able to try and schedule appointments. Some students, had to put a plan B quickly in place, as a snow day closed their school. Still they had a tremendous showing which I imagined involved quite the amount of text messages and carpooling plans. These mature youth rose above and beyond the challenges and complications that can arise when trying to pull-off something this connected on a calendar or clock, or which have such underlying serious and somber origins. It is not fun and games. It requires intelligent energy.
They will always remember March 14th, 2018. Even if they never do anything similar to this type of activism again, they will remember this day for all of their lives. It will stand out in a very impressionable corner of their minds. They now own a story to tell their children and grandchildren.
In addition to the Walkouts, and the memorial ceremonies, many took today as an opportunity to register new voters. I daresay, these participants when they realize how many more did what they did on this momentous day, are going to be empowered by numbers. My children and their peers (all 20 somethings) are horrid at making it to the polls. They insist that money buys the elections and their votes won’t change anything. I bet the graduating class of 2018 does NOT believe that after seeing how many other like-minded groups exist. They are now extremely motivated voters. There will be a historical swell of 18-year old voters this year. Those in the pockets of NRA, don’t stand a chance with them. I believe it.
We out here… especially those who dared to question what was accomplished … we all just watched history in the making. The ones who walked out … please walk on further, get even more involved; be the change that you already are.
by: Kelly Ann Braun
in leadership in the Badass Teachers Association
#MarchForOurLives March 24th
National Day Against Gun Violence April 20th

Monday, March 12, 2018

Rampant Ignorance of What a School Should Be by Steven Singer

From politicians confusing a living wage with a handout—

To a white supremacist teacher podcast.

From a tone deaf government flunky using tragedy to do anything to stop gun violence except regulate firearms—

To a Bronx principal barring a black history lesson during Black History Month.

All-in-all, it’s been a crazy news cycle.

If one thing was made clear during the last seven plus days, it’s this:

Many people have no idea what a school should be.

Take West Virginia, the site of a recently resolved statewide teacher strike.

After years of watching the cost of living rise while wages remained stagnant, educators took to the streets to demand enough money that they wouldn’t have to quit their teaching jobs and look for work elsewhere.

It’s a reasonable request.

Imagine if we didn’t pay doctors enough to afford to practice medicine. Imagine if we didn’t pay lawyers enough to afford to practice law.

Teachers just wanted enough money so they could focus on educating the next generation and still get perks like food and shelter.

However, West Virginia is a self-confessed conservative state where self-identifying conservatives unashamedly explain that a full-throated expression of their conservative values includes the idea that you shouldn’t have to pay people a living wage for a hard day’s work.

“The teachers have to understand that West Virginia is a red state, and the free handouts are over.”

What, Sen. Arvone? Are you high?

A salary is not a “free handout.”

That’s redundant – there is no such thing as a free handout. Handouts are by definition free. That’s something you would have known had you paid more attention to your third grade language arts teacher. But, whatever.

Moreover, a salary is neither free nor a handout.

It is a fixed regular payment – often weekly or biweekly – made by an employer to an employee in exchange for doing a job.

West Virginia teachers are doing their job. State representatives like Arvone aren’t doing theirs.

They aren’t making teaching an attractive career and thus encouraging the best and brightest to become teachers. When you’ve already got a shortage of people willing to become educators, you have to invest. That’s economics 101! Basic supply and demand.


It’s like lawmakers are saying: Oh. So you want your raise? Here you go. But the next generation of teachers hired in the state will be more ignorant, less experienced, more unskilled and less professional. In short, they won’t expect to be paid a living wage because we’ve made teaching right up there with being a WalMart greeter!

So there!

But so will the cost. And that seems to be the only thing lawmakers like Arvone and her “conservative” colleagues seem to care about.

You know, I don’t think they know what conservative means, either.

It’s certainly not what a public school should be.

Want another example?

Take Dayanna Volitich, a 25-year-old Florida teacher who allegedly ran a white supremacist podcast until non-Aryans heard it, put two-and-two together and removed her from class.

On a recent episode she bragged about spreading racist and prejudiced ideas to her students.

Volitich also agreed with her guest’s assertion that more white supremacists need to infiltrate public schools and become teachers. “They don’t have to be vocal about their views, but get in there!” her guest said. “Be more covert and just start taking over those places.”

“Right,” Volitich said. “I’m absolutely one of them.”

Great. Just what we need. An army of undercover white supremacists being encouraged to enter the teaching profession – taking those newly minted minimum wage jobs vacated by more expensive but less biased educators.

As a more than 15-year veteran of the public school classroom, I have some advice for white supremacists thinking about becoming teachers: Don’t.

No one has the time for your warmed over master race lullabies.

We need an America made up of people of all colors and creeds who believe in a meritocracy. You get what you work for, what you earn.

And we need lawmakers to actually create a system that supports this ideal.

We need political parties and grassroots movements to push for such an America.

Nazi propaganda belongs in one place only – the history books. It is not part of our future.

And on a personal note, let me just say that becoming a teacher often makes you more progressive than you were when you started.

I know it did me.

Especially if you work at a high poverty, high minority district like I do.

Your job is to serve students’ needs. You push them to think, you don’t tell them what to think.

If that’s not what you’re up for, you’re not up for being an educator.

Indoctrination is not what school should be.

And that brings me to Betsy DeVos, our billionaire Education Secretary who bought her government position with campaign contributions and political connections.

Or at least that’s what it probably said on the press release.

It was really just a publicity stunt to push for arming teachers instead of sensible gun control.

Parkland students have been rocking it holding demonstrations and speaking truth to power demanding that we keep them safe from future violence by banning assault rifles, mandatory background checks on all gun sales and other common sense measures favored by almost 70% of the nation.

DeVos took about five questions before walking out of her own press conference.

She didn’t meet with students – didn’t even try.

She was just there for a photo op.

Well, time’s up, Betsy.

The next generation isn’t putting up with your tone deaf water carrying. With your own family ties to mercenary soldiers for hire, it’s no surprise you’d be against gun control and in favor of firearms to chase away all the Grizzlies attacking our public schools.

It won’t stop the bloodshed but an increase in gun sales will boost your portfolio.

Arming teachers is one of the dumbest things on an agenda full of real whoppers from this absurd Presidential administration.

Teachers touting guns, shooting it out with armed terrorists – no. That’s not what a school should be, either.

So finally we get to the Bronx, where some dimwit who somehow became a principal told an English teacher not to teach a unit on the Harlem Renaissance.

You know, the Harlem Renaissance – Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Louis Armstrong, Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington… Nobodies like them.

And if that’s not bad enough, she did it in February during Black History Month.

This is what happens when you try to put education in a box with things like Common Core. Don’t teach background information, just look at every text divorced from everything else around it – the author’s personal history, what was happening in the world at the time or even how the reader responds to it.

Administrators like this need to take a seat and get out of teachers ways.

This kind of subtly racist micromanaging isn’t a part of what schools should be either.

Schools should be places where dedicated professionals are prized and valued. They’re given the autonomy to teach what they know is important and they make these decisions informed by the empiricism of what their students need.

Schools should be places without prejudice or racism. They should be cultural melting pots free from segregation and preconceived notions. They should be about academic freedom and the joy of learning.

I wish more people understood it.

Maybe then we could work to make our schools and our country more like the ideals of the overwhelming majority of the people living here.

Instead of continually letting the rich and privileged set the agenda.