Thursday, October 19, 2017

There Are Very Few Bad Students, Bad Parents and Bad Teachers by Steven Singer

Originally posted at: https://gadflyonthewallblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/19/there-are-very-few-bad-students-bad-parents-and-bad-teachers/

Maybe the problem with public schools is that people just aren’t trying hard enough.

There are too many bad students, bad parents, and bad teachers out there.

At least, that’s what the rich folks say.

They sit behind their mahogany desks, light a Cuban cigar with a thousand dollar bill and lament the kind of gumption that got them where they are today just isn’t present in the unwashed masses.

Never mind that they probably inherited their wealth. Never mind that the people they’re passing judgment on are most often poor and black. And never mind that struggling schools are almost always underfunded compared to those in wealthier neighborhoods and thus receive fewer resources and have larger class sizes.

Tax cuts feed the rich and starve the poor, but somehow the wealthy deserve all the breaks while OUR cries are always the fault of our own grumbling stomachs.

As a 15-year veteran teacher in the public school classroom, I can tell you I’ve seen very few people who aren’t trying.

I’ve seen plenty of struggling students but hardly any I’d simply write off as, “bad.” That’s a term I usually reserve for wilted fruit – not human beings.

I’ve seen plenty of parents or guardians striving to do the best with what they have, but few I’d honestly give up on. And I’ve seen lots of teachers endeavoring to do better every day, but hardly any that deserve that negative label.

In fact, if anything, I often see people trying their absolute hardest yet convinced that no matter what they do it won’t be enough.

“It’s not very good.”

That’s what I hear everyday.


“I didn’t do a very good job.”

“This sucks.”

“It’s butt.”

“I can’t do this.”

“It’s grimy.”

“It’s trifling.”

Something to let you know that you should lower your expectations.

This piece of writing here is not worth your time as teacher, they imply. Why don’t you just ignore it? Ignore me.

But after all this time, I’ve learned a thing or two about student psychology.

I know that they’re really just afraid of being judged.

School probably always contained some level of labeling and sorting, distinguishing the excellent from the excreble. But that used to be a temporary state. You might not have done well today, but it was a step on the journey toward getting better.

However, these days when we allow students to be defined by their standardized test scores, the labels of Advanced, Proficient, Basic or Below are semi-permanent.

Students don’t often progress much one way or another. They’re stuck in place with a scarlet letter pinned to their chests, and we’re not even allowed to question what it really means or why we’re forced to assess them this way.

So I hear the cries of learned helplessness more often with each passing year.

And it’s my job to dispel it.

More than teaching new skills, I unteach the million lashes of an uncaring societyfirst.

Then, sometimes, we get to grammar, reading comprehension, spelling and all that academic boogaloo.

“Mr. Singer, I don’t want you to read it. It’s not my best work.”

“Let me ask you something?” I say.

“What?”

“Did you write it?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I’m sure it’s excellent.”

And sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes not.

It’s all about trust, having an honest and respectful relationship. If you can’t do that, you can’t teach.

That’s why all this computer-based learning software crap will never adequately replace real live teachers. An avatar – a simulated person in a learning game package – can pretend to be enthusiastic or caring or a multitude of human emotions. But kids are very good at spotting lies, and that’s exactly what this is.



Which would you rather learn from?

When a student reads a piece of their own writing aloud, I always make sure to find something to praise.

Sometimes this is rather challenging. But often it’s not.

Most of my kids come to me because they’ve failed the government-mandated test, their grades didn’t set the world on fire, and/or they have special needs.

But I’ve been privileged to see and hear some of the most marvelous writing to come out of a middle school. Colorful adventures riding insects through a rainbow world, house parties with personal play-lists and famous friends, political discourses on the relative worth of the Roman Empire vs. African culture, and more real life crime dramas than every episode of every variation of Law and Order.

It’s just a matter of showing kids what makes them so special. And giving them the space to discover the exceptional in themselves and each other.

There’s a danger in my profession, though, of becoming bitter.

We’re under so much pressure to fix everything society has done to our children, and document every course of action, all while being shackled to a test-and-punish education policy handed down from lawmakers who don’t know a thing about education. We’re constantly threatened with being fired if test scores don’t improve – even for courses of study we don’t teach, even for kids we don’t have in our classes!

It can make the whole student-teacher relationship adversarial.

You didn’t turn in your homework!? Again! Why are you doing this to me!?

But it’s the wrong attitude. It’s understandable, but it’s wrong.

Every year I have a handful of students who don’t do their work. Or they do very little of it.

Sometimes it’s because they only attend school every third or fourth day. Sometimes it’s because when they are here, they’re high. Sometimes they’re too exhausted to stay awake, they can’t focus on anything for more than 30 seconds, they’re traumatized by violence, sickness or malnutrition. And sometimes they just don’t care.

But I don’t believe any of them are bad students.

Let me define that. They are bad at being students. But they aren’t bad students.

They aren’t doing what I’ve set up for them to demonstrate they’re learning.

They might do so if they altered behavior A, B or C. However, this isn’t happening.

Why?

It’s tempting to just blame the student.

They aren’t working hard enough. They lack rigor. They don’t care. They’re an active threat to this year’s teaching evaluation. They’re going to make me look bad.

But I rarely blame the student. Not in my heart.

Let me be clear. I firmly deny the pernicious postulation that teachers are ultimately responsible for their students’ learning.


However, that isn’t to say the student is solely responsible. Their actions are necessary for success, but they aren’t always sufficient.

They’re just children, and most of them are dealing with things that would crush weaker people.

When I was young, I had a fairly stable household. I lived in a good neighborhood. I never suffered from food insecurity. I never experienced gun violence or drug abuse. And my parents were actively involved.

Not to mention the fact that I’m white and didn’t have to deal with all the societal bull crap that gets heaped on students of color. Security never followed my friends and I through the shopping mall. Police never hassled us because of the color of our skin. Moreover, I’m a csis male. Young boys love calling each other gay, but it never really bothered me because I wasn’t. And, as a man, I didn’t really have to worry about someone of an opposite gender twice my size trying to pressure me into sex, double standard gender roles or misogyny – you know, every day life for teenage girls.

So, no. I don’t believe in bad students. I believe in students who are struggling to fulfill their role as students. And I think it’s my job to try to help them out.

I pride myself in frequent success, but you never really know the result of your efforts because you only have these kids in your charge for about a year or two. And even then I will admit to some obvious failures.

If I know I’ve given it my best shot, that’s all I can do.

Which brings me to parents.

You often hear people criticizing parents for the difficulties their children experience.

That kid would do better if her parents cared more about her. She’d have better grades if her parents made sure she did her homework. She’d have less social anxiety if her folks just did A, B or C.

It’s one of those difficult things that’s both absolutely true and complete and total bullshit.

Yes, when you see a struggling student, it’s usually accompanied by some major disruption at home. In my experience, this is true 90% of the time.

However, there are cases where you have stable, committed parents and children who are an absolute mess. But it’s rare.

Children are a reflection of their home lives. When things aren’t going well there, it shows.

Does that mean parents are completely responsible for their children?

Yes and no.

They should do everything they can to help their young ones. And I think most do.

But who am I to sit in judgment over other human beings whose lives I really know nothing about?

Everyone is going through a struggle that no one else is privy to. Often I find my students parents aren’t able to be home as much as they’d like. They’re working two or more minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet. Or they work the night shift. Or they’re grandparents struggling to pick up the slack left by absentee moms and dads. Or they’re foster parents giving all they can to raise a bunch of abused and struggling children. Or they’re dealing with a plethora of their own problems – incarcerations, drugs, crime.

They’re trying. I know they are.

If you believe that most parents truly love their children – and I do believe that – it means they’re trying their best.

That may not be good enough. But it’s not my place to criticize them for that. Nor is it society’s.


It may feel good to call parents names, but it does no good for the children.

So I don’t believe in bad parents, either. I just believe in parents who are struggling to do their jobs as parents.

And what about people like me – the teachers?

Are we any different?

To a degree – yes.

Students can’t help but be students. They have no choice in the matter. We require them to go to school and (hopefully) learn.

Parents have more choice. No one forced adults to procreate – but given our condemnation of birth control and abortion, we’ve kind of got our fingers on the scale. It’s hard to deny the siren song of sex and – without precautions or alternatives – that often means children.

But becoming a teacher? That’s no accident. It’s purposeful.

You have to go out and choose it.

And I think that’s significant, because no one freely chooses to do something they don’t want to do.

After the first five years, teachers know whether they’re any good at it or not. That’s why so many young teachers leave the profession in that time.

What you’re left with is an overwhelming majority of teachers who really want to teach. And if they’ve stayed that long, they’re probably at least halfway decent at it.

So, no, I don’t really believe in bad teachers either.

Certainly some are better than others. And when it comes to those just entering the profession, all bets are off. But in my experience, anyone who’s lasted is usually pretty okay.

All teachers can use improvement. We can benefit from more training, resources, encouragement, and help. Cutting class size would be particularly useful letting us fully engage all of or students on a more one-on-one basis. Wrap around services would be marvelous, too. More school psychologists, special education teachers, counselors, tutors, mentors, aides, after school programs, etc.

But bad teachers? No.

Most of the time, it’s a fiction, a fantasy.

The myths of the bad student, the bad parent and the bad teacher are connected.

They’re the stories we tell to level the blame. They’re the propaganda spread by the wealthy to stop us from demanding they pay their fair share.

We know something’s wrong with our public school system just as we know something’s wrong with our society.

But instead of criticizing our policies and our leaders, we criticize ourselves.

We’ve been told for so long to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, that when we can’t do it, we blame the boots, the straps and the hands that grab them.

We should be blaming the idiots who think you can raise someone up without offering any help.

We should be blaming the plutocrats waging class warfare and presenting us with the bill.

There may be few bad students, parents and teachers out there, but you don’t have to go far to find plenty of the privileged elite who are miserable failures at sharing the burdens of civil society.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

My Classroom Is A Dance Floor: A Lesson On Student Leadership, Dedication, And Taking Chances. by Laura D. Brown

Originally posted at: https://mamabrownweb.blog/2017/10/13/my-classroom-is-a-dance-floor-a-lesson-on-student-leadership-dedication-and-taking-chances/

Before the first meeting of the UMOJA-Step Team began, the team captain arrived at my classroom early and immediately pushed back all of my desks and chairs. I grew nervous. What the heck did I agree to do?
Last spring a student asked me to consider advising the UMOJA-Step Team at the high school where I teach. I had reservations. The team had a negative reputation and I am a busy mom. A few people told me that the team was drama filled, loud, and difficult to control. However, at every pep rally, the students in the bleachers look forward to the step team’s performance. The cheers for this crew are always thunderous and authentic.
That student’s request gnawed at me all summer. When the first faculty meeting of the school year revealed that the group still lacked an advisor, I decided, for many reasons, to give it a try.
Now it is September 14, 2017, and all of my desks and chairs are piled up in the back of my classroom. Twenty-five kids have entered my room, eager to be members of a group that puts the pep in the pep rallies. While listening to the team captains explain expectations, the other students devour the candy that I left out like a trusting house at Halloween.
The leaders, two young women of color, emphasize qualities that adults respect: promptness, dedication, and maintaining high grades. After laying down the law, the captain smiles and says: “We are a family.” Many kids nod their heads in agreement.
After the power point presentation, the students begin to dance. I now understand why the desks and chairs were moved — my classroom is a dance floor! I thought this was just an informational meeting, but these kids came to move — they are dancing with enthusiasm and delight. It reminds me of watching the television show F.A.M.E. When I was a kid I loved how the students on that show would spontaneously burst into song and dance. F.A.M.E. was happening in my high school! I was on F.A.M.E.!
Reality, however, entered in the form of the sweet school secretary who informed me that F.A.M.E. was disturbing a parent-conference going in the office next door. I apologized profusely.
At the end of that first, boisterous meeting, the team leaders made a circle where each student demonstrated their “moves” in the middle of my classroom. As I watched these young people, I began to realize that I was going to be a part of a rare and special group.
We moved the subsequent meetings to the cafeteria where, unfortunately, the kids needed to move the tables and chairs. The teardown and setting back up of the room ate into about ten minutes of precious rehearsal time. Not to mention the occasional squished grape that the students danced around.
Mostly, however, what I noticed about these rehearsals was an intensity of engagement with student-led participation. The pressure of performing for the entire student body in just a few weeks motivated them to practice, learn, adjust, practice, and repeat.
At the end of every rehearsal, I filled out twenty-five bus passes — these high school students do not have rides or cars like many of their high school peers — they must take the late bus home. The team includes mostly female students, most of whom are African-American. Three are white. There are a few young men sprinkled in the group, and they can move.
I teach in a suburban high school that houses over 1,800 students a day. The demographics are mostly working and middle-class households, over seventy-five percent Caucasian. The UMOJA-Step Team members flip that demographic. The word umoja means unity in Swahili and the team is both a cultural and performance group. February brings the celebration of Black History Month and a dinner for the school and community. Although African-American and Afro-Caribbean culture is highlighted, the group is inclusive of non-Afro students. If you have dedication, spirit, and talent, you can belong.
A former student, one of the student leaders, says: “You should dance with us, Momma Brown.”
I laugh and say: “Yeah, that is what you need, an old white woman to mess up your beautiful group.”
She laughs. I am serious. This is a student group.
As the first pep rally approaches, I begin to look forward to staying at school later. It is crazy, but in many ways, these dedicated dancers are renewing my teaching spirit. I adore them, especially the leaders.
Two weeks before the pep rally, the captain invites me to go bowling with the group. I felt so honored. I gave her my cell number in case plans changed. (I have never given a student my phone number.) I didn’t go bowling with the group, but I really wanted to. That pull between my own family and my school “kids” was difficult.
A week before the pep rally, I noticed a familiar frustration in the captain — she wants the team to get the dances perfect. She wants the UMOJA-STEP SQUAD to get the school crowd roaring. She feels the pressure. I tell her that I know her crazy — her statements and body language are reminiscent of mine the weeks before the New York State Global Regents Exam. Every June, I look at my classes, drill them constantly on their “moves,” encourage, scold, and prepare them to get the “best” grade they can earn. She is doing the same thing: she is showing them that perseverance breeds excellence. Her frequent refrain is, “Do it again.” She would make an outstanding educator. She has got “it.” You can’t teach that sort of with-it-ness. It shines off of this strong, young woman.
After the cafeteria is unavailable one day, the squad moves practice from the cafeteria to the auditorium commons, a large space that does not require the time of tearing down and setting back up of cafeteria tables. The open space in the commons allows other students to stop and watch the team practice. I enjoy these voyeur students’ expressions: they smile, they clap, they take video.
However, I wish the team could have a space of their own. I teach in a large building that is always busy, with the two gymnasiums and the auditorium reserved far in advance. What this team needs is a room with mirrors!
The captains want this year to be drama-free. They want a faculty advisor to stick around. They tell the members to bring problems to me. I act as their human boundary, happy to let the captains lead the dance. I am strong enough to handle the management of people. My role is one of organizer and advocate. This group, I repeat, is student-run.
By Thursday, October 5, 2017, the pep rally is only eight days away, and a long Columbus Day weekend interrupts the flow. Everyone is feeling tired, run-down. The student dancers have a poor first rehearsal on the field. The pressure mounts with only three more possible after-school practices. They are allowed only thirty minutes on the turf until the football players are suited up and ready to practice. Time is the enemy. The captains are worried, but I have faith in this group. I can see that they only need to tighten up a few moves.
On the eve of the pep rally, the team is a well-oiled machine. Their timing is on fleek! (My twelve-year-old gave me permission to use that term.) As they practice, I notice that they are truly enjoying themselves. I drive home smiling.
On the day of the pep rally, I wake with nervous excitement. I normally have very little enthusiasm for pep rally days — they make my teaching time shrink and the kids get off kilter. Typically, when I wear my school t-shirt, my husband (who thinks he is hilarious) will ask me:
“Did you bring it?”
I will respond with, “Bring what?”
He will say: “Team spirit.”
This day, however, I am actually bringing it. I am both excited and a little bit nervous for the Step Team. They are an amazing group of students, but there is also enormous pressure on them to perform at a high level.
At 12:45pm the athletes are dismissed, the lead captain, who the kids affectionally call “Grandma” instructs the dancers to meet her in the auditorium commons for one last run through before we take the field.
When I arrive, they are decked out in red shirts, black leggings, and red shoes. Those are not the school colors of orange and blue. The excitement is electric. The quickly rehearse their routine one, more time.
Walking to the stadium, I ask the kids why the color red. No one can tell me why red is important. We will need to discuss colors and their significance later.Today is not the day to discuss the future, it is a day for them to show off their hard work.
The students wait on the field for their turn in the pep rally, a group in red, in a sea of orange and blue. I tell them that they will perform near the end, joking that the best is saved for last.
When they perform, I feel like a proud parent. I didn’t choreograph the moves, or pick out the music, or act as a dance “coach.” All I did was make some meetings calendars and help organize the group. That is all that they needed.
We still have more to learn and prepare for: another pep rally in December and February’s Black History celebrations. There are still many questions to answer: Are they a dance team, a step team, or an African-American cultural team? What are the team’s colors? We need to discuss the group’s name and identity.
Right now, however, we are a happy group. Next week, we will celebrate with pizza in room 811 where my classroom might become a dance floor yet again.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Will the REAL Grassroots Activists Please Stand Up – Teachers or School Privatization Lobbyists? by Steven Singer


Everyone claims to be grassroots.

We’re the ordinary people – they say – the Hoi Polloi, the everyday Joes and Janes who make the world go round.

Which is to say we’re NOT the wealthy elite who get what they want simply by buying lawmakers and the political process.

You’d think the plutocrats wouldn’t even bother hiding. After all, it should be pretty obvious who is who.

One group has barrels full of cash. The other has numbers. However, our laws are written to obscure exactly how much money any one side has. And if you have money, you can use it to buy bodies to line up on your side and “prove” you have numbers.

So when it comes to the American education system, which side truly represents the grassroots – those supporting privatized schools like charter and voucher institutions or those supporting public schools?

It’s kind of a ridiculous question to ask, when you come to think of it.


One side pushes for schools to be striped of local control and instead to be managed by private equity firms and corporate officers. The other supports democratically elected school boards.

One side demands taxpayer dollars be available as profit that they can pocket and spend on mansions, yachts and jewelry. The other fights for transparency and for all taxpayer funds to be used in the service of educating children.

Which side do you THINK represents the little guy and which represents Goliath? Which side do you THINK represents the Rebel Alliance and which the Galactic Empire?

Come on now!

It’s the public school advocates who represent the common people. They are literally an extension of the masses struggle to reassert control over their lives and our society. Not those looking to raid our public services for fun and profit!

People get kind of upset when you try to do that. So when the villagers show up with torches and pitchforks, it does little good to argue that money equals speech. Better for the aristocrats to disguise themselves in peasant garb.

Enter Jeanne Allen.

She wants to convince you she’s the real underdog grassroots champion.

As Chief Executive Officer and Founder of the Center for Education Reform, she’s spent most of her career lobbying for public schools to be gobbled up by private enterprise.

So when the folks behind a new documentary about school privatization, “Backpack Full of Cash,” had the gall to cast her and her organization as the bad guy, she did what any grassroots activist would – she called the Hollywood Reporter.

Why would anyone be against charter and voucher schools, she whined. They just suck away necessary funds from the already underfunded neighborhood school so that businesspeople can play with your tax money. They just cut services for children and parents while miraculously transforming the savings into yummy profit.

I can’t imagine why anyone is calling her out. Can you?

But perhaps the most pernicious aspect of her argument is monetary.

Allen, the Center for Education Reform and the entire corporate education reform movement are the real grassroots, she says, because they are outspent by the opposition.


But oh well.

“The people praised in the film” (i.e. public school teachers) “get paid from taxpayer dollars,” Allen told the Hollywood Reporter, as if the people the film criticizes (charter and voucher operators) don’t also get paid from the same pot.

“The teachers unions spend $300 million a year on political races. We don’t have that kind of money.”

Is that true?

Are those pushing for corporate control of our schools really unable to match the monetary might of the big bad teachers unions?

Well, first let’s examine the number Allen bandies about as if it were fact.

$300 million. Do teachers unions actually spend that much annually on political races?

It’s doubtful. The entire operating budget for the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers union in the country, is only $367 million. And the union does an awful lot besides lobby lawmakers for pro-education public policy. It raises funds for scholarships, conducts professional development workshops, bargains contracts for school employees, files legal action on behalf of teachers to protect their rights, and partners with other education organizations to promote sound educational practices. Political lobbying is an important part of what unions do, but if they spent what they’re accused of spending on it – even if you include other unions like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – they couldn’t do the rest of what they do.

It turns out the figure Allen uses is a stale conservative talking point that Poltifact, a non-partisan fact checking Website, rated as false.

It’s based on a funding target the unions had for the 2008 election of which the unions fell short by almost a third. But now right-wingers and anti-labor trolls everywhere are married to that number and quote it as if it were fact.

In the real world, where Fox News talking points aren’t accepted without question, it’s increasingly difficult to determine exactly how much organizations spend on politics. But it’s incredibly doubtful teachers unions have the monetary might attributed to them by corporate school reformers.

And speaking of those who fight on behalf of poor beleaguered corporate America, how much do THEY have to spend fighting public schools?

Well, let’s just take two of their most famous backers – Charles and David Koch.

This duo runs one of the largest privately held companies in the United States: Koch Industries. It is involved in petroleum, chemicals, natural gas, plastics, paper and ranching. In 2013, Forbes said it had an annual revenue of $115 billion.

That’s an incredible amount of resources they can draw on every year when compared to teachers unions. The NEA would have to bring in more than three times its annual revenue to even come close to matching 1% of the Koch’s annual pay.

And do the Kochs spend on politics? You BET they do!

In 2012, alone, they spent at least $407 million on Mitt Romeny’s Presidential campaign! Yes, just that one campaign! They spent more on others! But even if we limit it there, that’s more than even the most absurd estimates of teacher’s unions political spending.

And they’re only two people!

We’re comparing about 3 million members of the NEA, and 1.5 million members of the AFT with two individual human beings.

Even if teachers unions spent $300 million, that only comes to less than $67 per member.

A quick look at Allen’s backers at the Center for Education Reform includes some of the richest people on Earth including: Bill and Melinda Gates, the Walton Family and Eli Broad.

And this woman has the nerve to cry poor in comparison to the big bad teachers!

Herself, she draws a six-figure salary as the organization’s President Emeritus – well more than the overwhelming majority of teachers.

But you’ll still find corporate reformers who contest this analysis with creative accounting. They’ll give you a spreadsheet with hundreds of millions of union dollars laid bare compared with a handful of poor billionaires who just can’t scrape together enough change in the couch cushions. And to do so, they’ll hide the super richs’ donations to super PACs or exclude dark money contributions, etc.

Look, I’m not saying our campaign finance system is perfect. In fact, it’s pretty messed up.


But you must realize, the super wealthy don’t want that. More than anything else it would exponentially increase the power of the unions and the middle class from which they come. Not to mention their allies – the parents, students, child advocates, etc.

You really don’t need a detailed analysis of each group’s relative financial worth. You just have to look at who is in each group.


Which group do you think truly represents the grassroots?

Which group is an authentic demonstration of the will of the people?

And which is emblematic of the arrogant, hypocritical wealth class demanding we all bow down to the power of their pocketbooks?

You decide.