Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Attention Teachers! It is Time to Take Our Schools Back!

It is almost time for another school year to begin around the United States; in fact, some school districts have already started classes and it is only the end of July. Yet, there is an evil that grows ever more severe as it grows like a shadow over our public education system. Teachers, up to this point, have cowered at the onslaught of this shadow that seeks to place our educational system into eternal darkness. It is time for the cowering to end and for teachers to take a stand for their jobs, but most of all, for the education of the future of our nation. The shadow of darkness comes in the form of the privatization of our schools disguised as education reform legislation and wealthy corporate donors who buy this legislation through our elected politicians. The so-called reform comes from places such as Teach for America, the Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family (Walmart). These entities cite studies that agree with their ideals or even some that they paid for which advocate the corporatization of our educational system through more charter schools and replacing experienced teachers with people indoctrinated into their mindset. These entities and their political cronies advocate high stakes testing rather than the basics our students need to be competitive in the global marketplace. These entities use the media to portray teacher unions as evil organizations bent on keeping inept teachers in their positions. It is time for teachers, and their unions, to stand up and voice their opinions and professionalism to the public. No longer can teachers and teachers unions cower and kowtow to the latest fad to come through the educational pipeline. Teachers must stand up and be heard. Teachers must be advocates for the public educational system that seeks to educate all students who come through the doors of the thousands of schools in our country. Teachers must be advocates for their students as well as themselves.

Teach for America (TFA), the Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family, among others, are pushing an agenda that replaces education with testing and a one-size-fits-all educational approach that they say will help our students to succeed in the global marketplace. The catalysts for their approaches stems from the problems that face our educational system: high dropout rates/low graduation rates, students who graduate yet cannot perform the basic skills needed to be successful, and students with low motivation to succeed. Rather than address underlying reasons for these, which I will discuss further, they take the easy route and blame teachers, teachers unions, and the educational system for these social ills. These three items are not necessarily the fault of our schools, but of our society as a whole. What they are calling education reform does not address these problems; it just blames the teachers for them. It is like blaming the fire department for there being fires. After all, if there were no fire departments, then there would not be any fires, right?

The problem of high dropout rates/low graduation rates is not the fault of the educational system as a whole, but the fault of our society as it does not value education as highly as other countries in the world. The media constantly bombards us with news of how US students are behind students in Japan, China, Russia, or Finland. What they do not show is the culture of those countries values education as a highly important part of a civilized society. In China and Japan, for example, parents pressure children to do well in school and it is shameful if students slack off when it comes to schoolwork. The homework assigned is much more than in the US, but it is meaningful, it counts, and it comes with the expectation that it will be done on time and correctly. Students are expected to ask for assistance if they need it. As a teacher, I faced numerous times when students would not do their homework or ask for extensions. When I attempted to enforce a no late work policy, they complained to their parents who many times went to administration who then forced me (and other teachers) to give in and allow the student to turn their work in late. When I attended school in the ‘70s and ‘80s, this did not happen unless there were extreme circumstances. Furthermore, students who committed discipline violations that caused them the consequence of an out of school suspension were allowed to make up their work. Also, a rare allowance for my generation.

Another cause for the high dropout rates/low graduation rates is that educational programs, especially at the middle and high school levels, only address the academic areas of success. By this, I mean that many do not offer vocational programs for students who are not academically inclined. Instead, students are told that they all have to go to college in order to succeed. While that is a noble idea, the facts are that some students simply do not want to go to college, but would rather enter a trade. If there are no vocational courses, these students fall through the cracks and many become disruptions in the classroom. They see no need to study the academic areas in depth if they plan to become an auto mechanic or a cosmetologist. Yet, where is the funding cut many times, vocational programs and the arts. The arts are another area that usually faces cuts in funding, as they are not seen as necessary. Many students, including myself when I was in public schools, needed the arts to give me a reason to go to school. The arts connect with every academic area and many students who are gifted with a talent, when allowed to learn and use that talent, will also succeed academically. If you do not believe these to be true, listen the next time when a school board threatens to cut funding. The public remains relatively silent when vocational or arts programs are threatened with cuts, but when cuts to athletics are mentioned, the outrage is tremendous.

The next area consists of those students who manage to graduate without mastering the basic skills needed to succeed in the workforce. Again, those in power want to blame the educational system for this. However, take a closer look at why they are not mastering the basics and you will find another story. Part of it ties in to what I already mentioned prior to this, but another part points to the darling of the so-called reformers—high stakes, standardized testing. Students are taught the test in some places from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Yes, the mantra is that teachers teach to the standards not to the test. Bullshit. When a teacher’s career and salary are tied to how their students do on the tests, then the teacher teaches to the test. That is the reality of it. In addition, the tests themselves, which are products of big businesses such as Pearson, do nothing to measure usable skills. They measure how well students take tests. Most of them are multiple-choice where the student must simply figure out which answer the test makers want them to bubble in. They do not allow for a student to choose an answer and defend why they chose it. That would be placing learning above test taking skills as it calls for critical thinking and reasoning skills rather than bubble completion. Would those tests take longer to grade? Yes. Would they measure student knowledge better? You bet they would. The global workplace demands the ability to think critically and reason, not to fill in a bubble. I taught a great number of students who could bubble in tests with great success, but if assigned an essay where they needed to think critically, they faltered and many failed. The love affair with standardized testing has to end. Good teachers know this. Good teachers know that students must grapple with problems that cause them to think, to research, to reason, and to defend why they come up with the answers they do. That is what made America great over the years. Standardized testing only serves to enable students to work at places like Walmart or fast food because they do not really have to think, but just do what others expect them to do.

The American public laments as to why “Johnny cannot read”, but they also fail to see how Johnny’s parents do not read to him or make him read. Past generations had a parent or someone who read to and with their children. A major form of entertainment for students was to read. It increased vocabulary, enabled the ability to imagine and think about the story lines and the various plots, and it caused the child to have to picture the action in their head. Today, many students are babysat by the television or the video game system. They can text, be entertained, and not have to think because the media barrage of images does it all for them including when to tell them to laugh even if the jokes are not funny. Reading is a skill and needs to be cultivated. Math is another area where we are falling behind. How often do the children of our nation practice it? Obviously, not often enough. It is also a skill that needs nurturing and practice. Science is an area where we are getting our rears kicked. One reason for this is practice, or the lack thereof, but also it goes back to a skill gained though reading—imagination. Think of some of the great scientific discoveries from America’s past and they have their genesis in imagination. Imagine if man could travel to the moon. People did and made it happen. Students do not have to imagine anything if the media just gives it to them. That is a travesty in our society, not in our schools. If more parents would just stop and read to their children, or find ways to incorporate math or science into their child’s life, then the educational gaps would start to disappear. Any good teacher could tell you that, if people would listen to them instead of the corporate donors and their puppet politicians.

Finally, the lack of motivation in our students is lamentable as compared with the rest of the world. Yes, they are motivated by not passing a class—sometimes, if their parents get on their cases. One cause for motivation stems from the lack of support educators and education in general receive from the public, including parents. If students do not see education as valued, then they are not motivated to do the work. Lack of motivation also stems from students not being able to see why all of what they are learning is relevant to them and their goals. I can attest to this as an English teacher. It is hard to convince a student that Shakespeare matters. Yet it does as his plays teach us human nature and psychology. It is up to the teacher to show it. Good teachers find the hooks needed to reel in the student. Do they succeed with every student and every time? No. However, teachers try repeatedly until something clicks. The vast majority of teachers never give up on their students even if the students give up on them. It emotionally hurts teachers when students fail. Teachers take it personally when their students do not grasp a concept when they have tried everything they could to help them to do so.

What the so-called reformers are calling educational reform is the application of business principles to education. This results in a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Many of the ‘reforms’ they call for have teachers reading scripted lessons to students some of which even have maps that prompt them to say certain things as responses to student questions. It is like having a robot teaching classes. Good teachers know that all students are different and they learn in different ways. This is why the vast majority of teachers practice differentiated learning with their students. One form of this is through the use of multiple intelligence theories with students. Multiple intelligence theory basically states there are different ways students learn and if the teacher locates the areas where a student is strongest and gears learning toward using those areas, then the student will learn better. For example, one assignment I would give my students was to read a novel each month. They were then to present the novel to the class in whatever form best suited their abilities. This resulted in the traditional book reports from some; however, it also resulted in student created comic books, artistic works, musical compositions, plays adapted from the novels, videos, collages, and a number of other projects that proved to me that the student read and understood the text. The point is that the student read the novel, but presented their understanding of the concepts, themes, and overall idea the author had in mind through a manner best suited to their way of learning. It took me a longer time to grade them, but the students accomplished my goal, which was to learn. Any parent who has more than one child can tell you their children are different and do things differently, even the same task. The problem is that these so-called reformers do not see this and would rather throw a test where students bubble in an answer as being the solution to the problem.

I do wish to address one thing that always seems to be touted by these so-called reformers before I end this piece. That is the myth that teacher unions protect those in education who cannot teach. While this happens, it is usually not the fault of the union, but the school administration. School administrators are human. Many times, they are become friends with teachers or the teachers do not rock the boat for them, and yet the teachers cannot teach. The administrators protect these teachers to keep things easy for them and reward them with high ratings. I knew Social Studies teachers who relied on showing videos the entire year rather than teach their subject area. These teachers kept getting good ratings regardless of the evaluation system being used. The teachers who took a risk did not always fare very well, especially under evaluation systems that looked for a standard set of skills rather than if the students actually learned anything. I had this happen to me as I presented a lesson where the students were engaged and learned for a formal evaluation one time. I received a low to middle rating in part because the lesson carried over to the next day when the evaluation would not be held. However, a few months later, when the students were taking their final exam, I was again evaluated and received a high rating because the students were demonstrating their skills because they were being tested on a paper test. The first one was active engagement, but it did not fit into the specified period allowed by the evaluation instrument. The second was just students sitting there taking a test. Not something one could really call active engagement with material.

Teachers unions do not want teachers who cannot teach. It is that simple. Many teaching contracts are written with plans in place for teachers who are not performing well to be placed on developmental plans to improve their teaching skills. However, it is up to the administrators to place the teachers on them. If a teacher is placed on an improvement plan, they are expected to improve whatever skills they are lacking within a set amount of time or face further disciplinary measures including being reassigned to an area where they could meet with more success and learn the skills they lack or termination. No professional organization wants people who are not professionals within it as that only make the organization look bad. Unfortunately, the unions do not do a good job of bringing this to light in the media.

A new school year is quickly approaching. Rather than cower in the shadows, teachers need to stand up and speak up for public education. Teachers need to unite and be vocal when politicians and special interests groups try to lament the problems with public education, especially when those problems are societal rather than within the educational system. The problems within the educational system are societal more than with teachers or teacher unions. Are teachers getting more vocal? Yes. There are organizations beyond the unions, such as Badass Teachers Association, who are fighting back with words and protests to those who wish to change the system who have never really been in the system to begin with. Teachers are professionals, let them lead the reforms needed and have the support from the public and politicians and they will reform our educational system and save the future of our country.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

It’s OK to Like Common Core and Hate it Too

By Teresa Wiley

Not long ago I had a conversation with one of my fellow grad students (who just happened to be young enough to be my grandchild) about my dislike for Common Core.  He made the observation that resistance to the CCSS was mostly an age thing.  In his eyes if you were a more experienced teacher (read: old) you were against the standards and if you were a bright, young little to no experience teacher you absolutely loved them.  This guy could not understand how I could be so stupid, stubborn, and pig-headed (his exact words) as to not see how these standards were going to change teaching, education and probably the entire world!

Fortunately, we had a very wise and experienced professor leading the class discussion and she challenged my colleague to explain why the Common Core standards were so great.  We all listened politely to a long explanation and defense that included all of the best of the education-speak of the day; rigor, critical thinking, scope and sequence, and no more status quo!  It occurred to me at the end of his speech that he had not taught in a classroom yet so I am not sure he really knew what the “status quo” was, but he was surely against it.

Next came my turn to defend my views. I explained that I didn’t object to the Common Core standards, and in fact the standards really did not affect my classroom because I teach Art and there have been wonderful state and national standards around since the late 80s.  I really could not defend my dislike for any particular standard or even the whole group.  But what I truly dislike, no I would say hate, is the way the Common Core standards are used.  To make my point I had to discuss a little bit of my experience with teaching in Indiana off and on over the past 30 years.  As an Art teacher I have been riffed often.  I teach an unnecessary subject in the eyes of an administrator that has to make budget cuts, so I can say that I have taught in five different school systems in my 25+ years of teaching.  The first time I was riffed in the late 70s everything was all about the “Back to Basics” movement.  We could only spend time on Math and Language Arts, everything else was unnecessary.  In the early 80s there was the push for vocational programs.  If you could not prove that your subject would result in your students walking out the door of the school and immediately landing a job then your subject was unnecessary.    The next thing was any subject that wasn’t going to be a part of the high-stakes graduation exit exam was a complete waste of time and of course unnecessary.  It has always been the same thing; Math, Language Arts anything else is not needed.  Forget about educating the whole child, we had to get back to basics; there were skills to learn and tests to take.  No time for those unnecessary subjects.

Now here we are again with another assault on the curriculum.  Narrowing it down to only the most noble of subjects and ridding ourselves of the waste, the unnecessary subjects like science, art, music.  I continued the defense of my position on Common Core by explaining that it may be OK to think the standards are fine, great, useable, and the best thing ever created.  I am sure that there are young or inexperienced teachers that find them great, but I don’t think those young and inexperienced teachers have had the opportunity to see how these standards will be used as a weapon against public education.  Just like the “Back to Basics” or vocational movements of earlier years, the Common Core is a tool make public education so awful with high-stakes testing that the public will scream for the privatizers to rescue their children from grips of educational hell.  Standards are not going to save or destroy education, but the way they are used will surely put an end to our cherished public school system.  

Teachers, the unions, and even administrators have fought back against the forces that have constantly tried to narrow the curriculum and dismantle our public education system, but this one seems to be a little fiercer.  There is big money behind this movement and their weapon of choice this time is the Common Core standards.  So to the defenders of CCSS I can understand if you like them, but please look at why many of us don’t like how they are used against teachers and students.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Which Comes First - The Art or the Informed Interest in it?

me grey
Author: Shella Zelenz
A little while back, I posted videos of The Firebird ballet on my Facebook page. My kids and I watched it together. It was magnificently performed and staged by an amazing Russian ballet troupe. What was even more awesome was when we went to the library later that week and my daughter picked out a children’s book about the different ballets. Both kids automatically recognized the ballet when they turned the pages in the book, and both pointed to the page and said “Look Mom! The Firebird ballet we saw!"


I think they write children’s books thinking that this is how to introduce the art to kids. I think that some teachers feel that their own artistic limitations or the presumed negative responses from the children they teach prevent them from fully exposing children to such art for fear of behavior issues (classroom management problems). Budget cuts prevent many from taking the children to see live performances (as I was privileged to do growing up in a rural school in Montana). Utilizing video recordings of musicals, opera, theater, etc. can facilitate exposure with minimal expense, but is often seen by others as lazy teaching. So for some reason, people think that reading about the art (which obviously helps with literacy) is sufficient exposure to the artform itself. I prefer experiencing the art first (so did my kids – and they LOVE books!). In fact, having exposed them to the ballet, and seeing the artwork that reflected what they had seen, made them want to read the book even more.


As a music teacher, I was warned in the 1990′s about the new focus of cutting the arts from schools. Perhaps it had been around longer, but I had grown up in Montana where schools were not accredited if they did not offer music EVERY DAY in all grades. The same was true for physical education (which ties into the dance aspect of art). There has been serious research done for decades that explain all of the intellectual benefits for keeping music in the schools. Yet despite the scientific evidence, it is always one of the first things on the budgetary chopping block.

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Photos of some of my choirs

I always had mix-mode art in my music classrooms. Dance, film, poetry, language, instruments, and singing were all part of it (including composing). I had my band in Rosebud, MT watch Rabbit Proof Fence when they played In Quest of Uluru so they would understand the culture who worshipped the massive rock structure. When they competed with the song – they received the highest mark they had EVER experienced in the school’s history. It’s not about me being anything special – it’s about the students identifying with the song and its deeper meaning. I did the same with the plethora of culturally diverse songs that my students sang or played. I saw consistent success with their performances because not only were they able to perform it technically well (the result of teaching), but they were able to express it with true depth (something that cannot be taught).

Private Voice Student of mine: Juliann Namson 14 years old
This video is followed by other private or former choir students of mine

The experience I’ve had with administrators who did not understand (and admittedly stated their lack of interest or understanding of art), is that they look at it as a fluff course. What is more concerning to me are the tactics I’ve seen them use to obliterate art from their schools (especially if it was a highly successful and publicly supported course). Many will attempt to hire what they perceive to be potentially inept teachers so that interest in the subject will be lost and the students will not sign up. I was actually involved in such a scenario in Poway, CA. Having only taught one year in a very rural town in Montana, the principal who hired me assumed that I would completely cave in and single-handedly destroy the monster program that I inherited (325 kids per day). Unfortunately for her, that did not happen. We took home every trophy as expected and demanded by the students and parents from their established reputation. We added new groups that didn’t exist before (aiding the limitations of band students who couldn’t fit choir into their daily schedule) and expanded our fundraising to phenomenal levels (over $100,000 in 4 months).

One of my choirs in Poway, CA

Since I was clearly not doing what the principal had expected me to do, she proceeded to use very underhanded behaviors to try and find some other reason to let me go at the end of the year. She hid under my classroom risers. She would put pressure on me about my masters program hoping that I would be too stressed out to complete it and thus jeopardize my ability to be credentialed and keep my job. She did not support my creative approach to classroom management and absolutely abhorred and wrote me up for allowing the kids to have autonomy in their experience. She tried everything she could to create a case to not renew my contract at the end of the year.

6th grade choir 6

How did she finally do it? She told me that the class enrollment had decreased for the following year and that it was my fault because the kids didn’t want to be in choir. What did I find out from her secretary upon leaving this upsetting meeting? The secretary told me that the principal had capped the class enrollment so that less students could even be in the classes. The principal lied to my face so that she could proceed with the destruction of the enormously successful choir program that she couldn’t single handedly destroy without massive public outcry. Parents and students created petitions and flooded the school board and district offices with pleas to keep me. It was all to no avail. I was not tenured and the principal’s unsupportive write ups kept her position.

show choir class 2

The following year, the new choir director effectively destroyed the program as the principal had hoped. I had received phone calls while at my new teaching position in the SF Bay area from parents asking me to call the new teacher and help her out. My brand new choir in Newark, kids who came from much less privileged backgrounds and who had never experienced choir in their lives, successfully took home the trophy (in their very first performance ever )when we competed with my former Poway choir at a major competition. I was so heartbroken for my Poway kids. This was not their fault, but they were the pawns in an adult’s personal agenda. This is so much more important than destroying competitiveness. This destroyed spirits.

BVHS competition 1

All kids love music – ask your teen what they do to escape reality and find something they can identify with. MUSIC is us. ART is us. DANCE is us. Any school that thinks cutting the arts will improve their scores – is run by an administrator who has lost connection with him/herself. When the educator’s nightly ritual of release consists of sitcoms focused on popular culture consumer-based shallowness, alcohol, anti-depressants, etc. so that they can cope with their daily job, they have lost their humanness and have absolutely no ability to know what is best for the children they are in charge of educating. If teachers lose touch with their deeper humanity – they can’t possibly reach the children. If adults can allow themselves to be completely consumed in the depth and beauty of the arts – they can more deeply connect with their partners and their families. We need art much more than we need literacy. We need both. However, art is the human spirit, literacy is just a means to an end. What are we really destroying?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Know Your Badasses: Part 4

Whose Children Are They?

me grey
Author: Shella Zelenz
I’ve been bridging the parent/teacher border for 20 years now and as long as I adhered to the virtues handed down from above regarding the way I was to view my own child and my students, then all was well and good. I was to take my admonishments and adhere to their guidance even if it didn’t feel right. They knew better than I did. Who was I to argue? I was a young mother and teacher in my 20′s. I trusted those before me who had experience and I trusted the training programs I paid thousands of dollars to help me become the professional I aimed to be. I remember distinctly being *briefly* introduced to ideas that suddenly lit my eyes. As soon as it appeared, it was taken away and I was redirected to the “way things are.”
In my parenting practice and teaching practice, I tried various tricks of the trade, I did as I was told, and I experimented with things I found on my own. The things I found on my own were often much more aligned with what felt right to me than what I was told to do. Upon entrance to my doctoral program, my dissertation chair approached me at the new student orientation and said point blank, “So what’s your dissertation about?” I stared at him like a deer in the headlights. I had just met the professors for the first time. I had just been introduced to the graduate school I signed up for. I was eager to learn. I had no idea what I wanted my ultimate focal point to be. He whittled it out of me. What came was that “I feel the spirit of the child is completely ignored in education.” Oh wow did his eyes light up! I had hit the jackpot! I had no idea what rabbit hole I had just opened.
The results of that one statement have led me down a path of great depth of learning and SERIOUS challenging of all previously held beliefs I had as a woman, as a teacher, as a caucasian, and as a parent. My entire reality has been ripped to shreds and I have been exposed to ideas and concepts that I felt had been hidden in the bottom of the rainbow that people never seem to be able to truly identify. I guess I found the pot o’gold. Wow, funny how discovering such a thing can create all kinds of drama from the rest of the world that REALLY wanted you to just do as you’re told and stay in that box feeling like you really don’t have all of the answers, just parroting what you were told to say/do. The more I knew, the less I was trusted. The more I spoke, the more I was chastised. The most important discovery for me was how the type of education I truly wanted for my own children and for my students, was something that is desperately out of reach for the majority of American children.
Why is that? Well, what I have discovered is that the type of education that offers students the highest form of self-reflection, self-direction, and in-depth, meaningful learning experience with serious comprehension of what respect means and what it feels like, is locked away in these obscure schools that often resemble homes, have loving staff who are not often very adequately compensated due to the limitations on funding, and the only students who are able to attend have to come from homes that can afford the tuition. There are students who receive substantial scholarships, but the schools cannot truly afford to be able to take on very many of these students or they would have to close their doors for good due to lack of functioning financial support. They are often in cities where the cost of living is higher because in these places, it is more likely to find sufficient families who are able to afford to pay for the tuition. So, what this really meant to me as a single mother looking for a solution for my own children, was that I either had to move to an expensive city and pray I found a job that would adequately support my family and the tuition for my children to attend, or I had to make my own school. I opted for the latter first, which gave me even more insight into the beliefs of our society.
This brings me full circle to my return in the public schools after this whirlwind education. After the research, interviews, observations and attempt at starting my own school, I walked back into the walls of public schools and attempted to share my thoughts with my fellow teachers. THAT proved to be quite interesting. The responses were typically curious to begin with, but upon delving into the concepts of trusting children and giving them a voice, teachers were often quick to defend their entrenched beliefs and look for ways to attack my experience. I hit a nerve – a really raw nerve. The nerve that proves how teachers feel that their entire career revolves around the control of the educational experience and of the children. Why do they feel that way? Did the parents expect this from them? Perhaps, but from my own experience as a teacher, I know my pressure came primarily from the administrator that had my job in their hands. All of the little voices in my classroom and the parents who brought those little voices were not the voices I was allowed to follow. My voice had to mirror the voice of the one voice over my head ,whose voice had to mirror the one(s) over his/her head and physically absent from the school we all resided in.
I now ask, as a parent, whose children are they, really? I would like to believe that those who brought these beautiful souls into the world should have a higher voice than one lone administrator who will only see them for a few years or the little bobble head voices who only make appearances for award ceremonies, never to be seen on campus again. I also think that the children should have a say over their own experience. I know I certainly want a say in my own experience. Who knew that letting children speak would be so radical. I know, your next retort is how chaotic and impossible it would be to listen to all of these voices. Well, that is what a democracy constitutes. When everyone has a voice and their voices are collectively weighed, consensus occurs and incredibly effective change happens. Most importantly, eager adherence to the agreed upon choices expedites any efforts made that direct the learning process toward the collective goal(s). Now doesn’t that just feel better?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Authority and Domination is the Mask of Lazy

me grey
Author: Shella Zelenz

I have been giving great thought to the power structures in our society. Our parenting tactics, our employment hierarchies, and our relationship power struggles. One common theme has emerged for me that I feel needs to be looked at much deeper. That theme is power. We all know that power is used and abused. We are not oblivious to it. However, I feel that most of us just accept it and roll along without truly questioning what it really represents.
Of course, my primary focus is typically pertaining to adult/child relationships. I want to address that isolating the power and domination factor between adults and children in education is only a tiny scratch on the surface of the overall picture. Our entire society is based upon hierarchical structures. We have all been raised in this hierarchy and many of us conditioned to maintain it. The question I would like to pose is: Is maintaining this hierarchy really essential to success of the species or to the health of our world?

Let’s take it down to more personal levels that we can all relate to. I will start out with the traditional boy meets girl scenario. Regardless of culture, there is a power hierarchy involved. Some are more legally supported, some are just so intricately embedded that even the most liberated women can’t see their own submission to the power that is deeply entrenched in the most advanced societies. It can also be reversed. There are certainly instances where the woman dominates the man, and the reasons for this can be quite complex, and not the point of this post. The point is how power replaces effort.

The minute a relationship steps down the corridor of one person having to answer to another person, the power trip has begun. Sure, people can behave in less than honorable ways. That, however, is no reflection on the person who feels the need to ask questions. The scenario often goes like this: The person who feels slighted will ask questions of the accused. The accused will defend his/her position. This alone puts one person in power and the other in a position of weakness. How this can change is whether the accused answers the question or if he/she reverses the role and starts accusing the accuser of something and putting the accuser’s own behavior in question. It is easy to see how this is clearly a no-win situation for either party. What it has become is a power struggle. The irony in this concept is that those who feel they need to maintain power, do so because they think it is the most effective and efficient. Yet what they fail to realize is that they end up wasting much more time with power struggles than they do had they taken the time to communicate in a meaningful way in the first place.

This is where I feel that authority/power is a true representation of lazy. We pass more and more laws restricting movement of others and judges' hands are tied by those laws, so they are not even given the opportunity to use their own communicative judgement to decide if the punishment even fits the crime in each particular instance. We are handicapping our own society with our fervent attachment to control others.

Relationships, of any kind, require genuine effort if they are to succeed. This is true in intimate relationships, families, employment, and general societal functionality. The trend to become more powerful, has essentially encouraged laziness in our entire societal fabric. It is very easy to lord over someone, to dominate them, to make yourself believe that if you maintain the power and control, that the most effective and efficient process will unfold. On the surface, this may seem true. However, the undercurrents speak a different story.

We all know, on some level, what it feels like to be oppressed. When someone decides for you (we’ll address the invalidity of that statement later) that you are worthless, that you need to shut up and do what you’re told, that you need to conform, that you are causing trouble, that you are ineffective, and the list can go on and on, we do not feel happy to comply. We feel inner rage and resentment. In other words, the lazy effort of the one in power, just planted a seed that WILL germinate and grow. The more this is controlled by the one in power, the more they feed the growth of that seed. One only has to look at what is going on in our world around us to see the validity of that statement.

What the oppressed fail to realize, is that the power placed over them is a facade that covers true inner weakness. If that person of power was truly powerful, they would be able to communicate with you and meet you on a level that represents the full power of the collective good. That requires TIME and EFFORT. The oppressed are truly the ones in power because they DO understand the needs of the collective and they DO take the time and effort to uncover those needs. Where they fail to succeed is when they give in to the power. This is the same in parenting. Parents threaten to take things away if the child doesn’t comply. That is how employers, teachers, etc. treat those they are assigned to hold “power” over another in order to maintain the process essential to keep you complacent and oppressed.

What I am not suggesting is some kind of revolution of dramatic proportions. What I am suggesting is that we truly and deeply consider what this means to us as individuals. Are we allowing an intimate partner to question our every move, to make us answer to them (thus weakening us and making them have the full power in the relationship) or are we owning our own individual power and fully acknowledging, in the face of the oppressor, our full value? We are in a powerful position to teach the oppressive powers what it means to NOT be lazy. Those who yield power as a sword, do not have true and meaningful power. They are weak. They are full of fear and insecurity. They are emotional children. We need to raise them up and teach them to be fully mature. We have the power to completely revolutionize the way that meaningful communication occurs in our intimate relationships, our parenting, our education systems, and in our employment scenarios.

We also must fully understand what their fear represents. They do not know any differently. They do not know how to function in any other way. For in order to have a democracy, they must actually experience one. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Speaking of Sheep and Badass Wolves

Originally posted on TusconCitizen.com.
Reposted with original author's permission

After cuts to education hit Pennsylvania, a group of educators came up with a unique answer on how to make do. In some schools they released sheep to substitute for cutting the grass. It was cost effective because the sheep belonged to a middle school principal and he was willing to offer them free of charge for the grazing rights. 1)

But the vision this conjures up in my mind is that of sheep grazing, being sheared, being herded and even slaughtered. And that makes me think of teachers.

It is not a great leap of imagination as you may think at first glance. I think of sheep because teachers are well known for not rocking the boat. They are told that there is no money for the supplies they need, so they go out and buy them. They are directed to do things that they know are at odds with their training and research and yet they do them. They are given more and more work to do in their scheduled day as if they have blocks of unused time and they find a way to incorporate the mandates at the expense of the depth of instruction and time for reflection. They are told to assess children in skills they are not prepared to learn, so they teach those skills despite the schisms it creates in student’s learning.

As teachers we have been sheep.

Wait a minute. Did you hear that? Maybe, just maybe, some teachers have shed their sheep’s clothing for a new, more aggressive raiment.

There are some wolves howling in the woods and their howls grow nearer.

I was pleased to begin following a new group this week that is labeling itself: Bad Ass Teachers. 2) Go to their Facebook page and read their declaration of intent. It is a manifesto unlike most I have seen from sites purporting to be dedicated to education. And they are supported by no less than the iconic Diane Ravitch (my personal guru) and Dr. Steven Krashen: true heavyweights of educational theory and practice! I am in awe of the response they have elicited in a very brief period and yet I am guardedly cautious in my optimism that perhaps the revolution has finally begun.

I have been here before.

The educational landscape is littered with the forlorn debris of ‘ideas that will change public education as we know it forever’. Promises made and promises kept are two radically different things. One is an idea; the other is practice. Many seem to be willing to jump on the bandwagon but will they stay after the band goes home? It is easy to add your voice to others who are already shouting but to continue to shout when you are alone takes grit. Teachers need to cultivate this grit now and fight for the profession they have chosen, the profession they profess to love.

As educators we have been under attack for some time: “It’s teachers fault.” “Teachers make too much money.” “Why do teachers need a union they have all they want.” “They only work part-time as it is.” Choose your stereotype. Like all stereotypes there is a germ of truth in each one but when viewed as a unerring rule they falter rapidly. It’s a matter of distance. Seen from far away the generality can be believed and even touted. But when you get up close, in the bright light of day you realize that by and large those stereotypes will shrivel and die.

“But isn’t this organization trying to promote a stereotype?” you say. “Aren’t these ‘bad-asses’ just posturing for attention?”

Maybe, maybe they are simply sheep in wolves clothing . . . or maybe they are real wolves. A pack of snarling wolves, their hackles raised in indignation at the continued slaughter that threatens their extinction.

I’ll tell you what — let’s move closer and see if they bite. You go first.

1) http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/pennsylvania-school-district-using-sheep-cut-costs-152720890.html

2) https://www.facebook.com/groups/BadAssTeachers/

3) http://inschoolmatters.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/voice-not-choice-will-make-schools-better/

Written by:
Marc Severson

Friday, July 5, 2013

Let's Talk About Tone

Guest blog entry by The Jersey Jazzman

Let's talk for a minute about "tone," shall we?

For several years now, we teachers have been taking it on the chin. Oh, sure, folks like Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates love to tell us how important we are, how much they respect us, how they just want to give us the "tools" to be better at our jobs. That never translates into policies that increase our pay or protect our pensions or secure our benefits or allow us due process or improve our working conditions...

What they seem to think we crave, instead, is more feedback on how poorly we are performing. Gates, for example, recently told an audience at the TED conference: "Until recently, over 98% of teachers just got one word of feedback: 'Satisfactory.'" That is, of course, a completely false and massively ignorant statement; one which says far more about Gates’ cluelessness than anything about teacher evaluation systems.

Still, he and his reformy acolytes believe we urgently need to implement test-based teacher evaluations, joined with student surveys and many more administrator observations. The premise for all this is that the American teacher just isn't doing all that good of a job; if we can find new and varied ways to let teachers know just how rotten they are, they'll have all sorts of incentives to improve.

For now, let's leave aside the dubious research methods and ignorance of the importance of out-of-school factors found in Gates-funded research such as the Measures of Effective Teaching report. Let's also set aside the issue of how Gates and his staff refuse to offer any serious ideas as to how to pay for all of this, and whether the time spent on a new evaluation scheme is worth it. And we'll also put aside the willing blindness of Gates to labor market forces (firing more teachers doesn't make the job any more attractive, Bill), and the damage an expanded test-based regime will most likely do to both curriculum and instructional practices, which will ultimately harm children.

Let's instead note how, once again, Gates has made the debate about inequity in educational outcomes all about teacher quality. In the wacky world of Gates, Rhee and Jeb! [sic] Bush and Wendy Kopp and Joel Klein all the rest, teachers are the primary reason - if not the sole reason - kids fail or succeed. Somehow, these people have convinced themselves - and want to convince the rest of America - that the teachers in Beverly Hills and Gross Point and Scarsdale are hugely superior to the teachers in South Central and Detroit and the South Bronx.

Poverty? Well, I guess that matters... but all children can learn! And if you say otherwise, you're a racist! So there!

Of course, one of the major flaws in their logic is that if those unionized teachers in the 'burbs are doing so well, it must mean all the prescriptions the reformy-types want - eliminating union contracts, eliminating step guides, merit pay, charter schools, eliminating seniority, eliminating pay bumps for advanced degrees, VAM-based evaluations - aren't going to address the real cause of the variation in outcomes. Because the 'burbs haven't implemented any of these people's policies, and they're still getting far superior test scores than the urban hotbeds of "innovation" the reformy-ists have taken over by disenfranchising local citizens.

So the latest reformy tactic is to bad-mouth the entirety of the American education system. We are supposed to believe that even the very best American public schools are still somehow failing our children, and that it would be worth it to introduce "choice" and "accountability" into the entire system, because it's only mediocre at best.

It's a measure of how desperate the reformy-ists have become that they are stooping to this level. Which gets us back to "tone"...

It often seems that the central complaint against snarky edu-blogging bastards like me is that we shouldn't ever second guess the motivations of those on the other side of the debate. Because it's "simply beneath" the dignity of our refined American discourse to engage in such loutish behavior. The pearl-clutchers fret and stammer that I and my fellow travelers are hurling us into the worst depths barbarianism when we dare to suggest that the reformy-ists may have ulterior motives.

When I make the case that the focus on teacher quality is a distraction to keep us from addressing the real issues - inequity, regressive taxation, a corrupt political system, corporatized media, an entrenched plutocracy, the destruction of civil institutions - they rush for their smelling salts and fall on their fainting couches. How could I dare to say such uncouth things! Have I no shame?!

The answer is to be found in the utter shamelessness of their own arguments. Because no one would ever put forward the poorly thought out, ignorant, innumerate garbage that these reformy types regularly spew - garbage that regularly questions the motivations of teachers and their unions - if they weren't driven either by ideology or blatant self-interest.

We've hit a point in the debate where edu-bloggers and actual journalists have amassed a huge pile of evidence to substantiate this charge. The antics of Pearson, Amplify, TFA, KIPP, Academica, K12 Inc., Uncommon, DFER, StudentsFirst, Stand For Children, the Broad Foundation, Chiefs For Change, and so many others have become the stuff of legends in the "real" reform movement. And the anti-union, plutocratic stance of the Waltons, the Broads, the hedge-fundies and all the other titans of American capitalism is beyond dispute.

How, in the face of this evidence, can anyone ask a teacher to meekly accept the drubbing we've taken from these people? How can anyone ask us to sit silently by while these people make the case repeatedly that our interests are not aligned with the interests of our students - a case that is based almost entirely on fraud? How can anyone agonize about our "tone" when we are being crushed by an agenda whose justifications are built on transparently bad-faith arguments?

We educators have been taking it and taking it and taking it. We've played the stereotypical role of the teacher, mildly bowing our heads in our chalk-stained, irregular-rack cardigans while our betters wag their fingers at us and blame us for problems we've done nothing to create. We've strained to continue to teach our students how to think critically while the most ignorant, illogical, ad hominem nonsense has been lobbed at our heads. We've deferred to the mandarins of American life while our very profession has been trashed in an orgy of palpably idiotic teacher-bashing.

Screw all your worry about "tone."
It's time to be a badass.

Do Not Try To Control Anyone Else

me grey
Author: Shella Zelenz
As educators and parents, we are often told that it is our job to control the children in our care. We are told that we are irresponsible if we do not. We fear the consequences of allowing students to solve their challenges without intervention. We are told that it is our duty to decide for them what they need to know and how they need to learn it. We may even believe that all of this is fact.

Simultaneously, we are controlled just the same by administrators and government figures who decide for us what we can and cannot do in our classrooms. It angers us. It frustrates us. It makes us feel smothered. It disrespects our knowledge and makes us feel that we are given no respect or dignity. It makes us even angrier to add corporations to the list of heavies lording over our every move in our classrooms. Imagine how the students must feel.

What? Did she just say what I think she said? How do the students feel? Interesting how that isn't a question we ever ask or even give ourselves permission to ask. Perhaps you have, but you feel your hands are tied. Maybe you were like me, relating to the students and feeling the entire situation was unfair for all of you. What other choice do you have? The parents push you to meet their needs, which can go for or against student interest. That is the quandary of our society. When are students considered persons who deserve a voice in their own education? Is there a set age?  Is it a maturity? Is it a level of intelligence or establishment of basic skills? What would happen if the students started their educational journey in charge from the start?

Oh I know she didn't just say that! Yes, actually, I did. Students are the voiceless in education. They feel just as you do when you are controlled in your experience. They feel frustrated and angry. Some are so eager to be in school that they will thrive at anything handed to them. However, there are many who feel oppressed. Their behaviors are a result of the way that they are respected. Yes, I said respected. This is a tricky term that is often seriously misused in our society.

What does it mean to be respected? Respect means that your voice is valued. Respect means that your personhood is acknowledged. Respect means you have the right to protect your physical being from unwanted invasion. Now, consider what behaviors adults often do to children and how they don't align well with these definitions of respect. How do teachers feel when their physical beings are infringed upon? How do teachers feel when their voice isn't valued? How do teachers feel when their personhood isn't acknowledged? That's the point.

What can be done to change this? Well, for starters, classroom management has to be student generated. What does that mean? That means that the students have to select what rules they feel are important to them. They should have the opportunity to vote on them as a collective body. They should be entitled to nominating consequences for infractions and to vote collectively on the nominated consequences. They should have democracy. For how else will they ever understand what it means to live in one, if they never experience one?
Imagine the impact that would have on our future society, if all graduates were fully aware and skilled at utilizing and implementing democracy? How would that impact what we see in our country now if we had all been educated in schools that treated us that way?

Find Your Sass (A Few More Words on the Name Badass Teachers Association)

There has been a fount of discussion about the name, “Badass Teachers Association.”  The multitude of those who have come to this group embrace the name.  Many have defended it saying that teachers have been polite for too long; teachers have tried to play by the traditional rules of etiquette and civility.  The teachers who know they belong, who have yearned for a group that understands the grief, frustration, and anger they feel, realize that there is little that is more heinous and vulgar than the draconian corporate takeover of public education (ever wonder why the wealthy business people and politicians send their children to private schools that do not administer high stakes test that the rest of our children endure?).  On September 11, 2001 Reuters released a citizen’s video of a plane hitting the second of the World Trade Center towers.  On that day, before the video was edited, you could hear the camera operator or someone nearby uttering a curse word.  That word was later removed.  A friend of mine waxed, “Really?  They censored the word? Is there anything more vulgar than what we are witnessing in the video?”

We’re now at a point in public education that what we are witnessing is far more vulgar than any words that teachers could possibly use to define themselves.  Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Koch Brothers, Arne Duncan, Barrack Obama, Michelle Rhee…these people are doing blasphemous things to our schools and our children.  They are robbing teachers of their love of and commitment to creativity and relationship building.  They are stealing meaningful childhood experiences in art, music, and physical education away from our children, in an effort to ensure that our students are “college and career ready.”  But we all know that to be ready for life, for its beauty, pain, depth, and challenges, that rote memorization, galvanic skin response, and learning to take tests are not the answer.  Not even close.  In fact, these things are so far from resembling what we should consider education, that we should all be up in arms.  We should all be cursing at the powers that are enforcing this sort of deformation on our children and teachers.

I want to quote at length some passages from Bill Pinar’s 2004 book What is Curriculum Theory?  In these words, Pinar explains the origins of the word “sass,” and how the language and attitude of sass empowered enslaved black women, for whom the only source power was the use of language thrown back at those who sought to control and dehumanize them.  It’s important, because it’s what we teachers are learning to do now.  We can’t win by their rules, because their rules are made so that we end up losers.  I leave the original references in so that readers can find the sources if they need to.

What possible defenses could black female slaves employ to defend themselves and their children from white abuse? ‘Sass’ and invective functioned as verbal weapons (Braxton 1989).  Derived from West Africa, sass is associated with the female elements of the trickster, a concept found in Gates’ (1988) discussion of African mythology and Lemelle’s (1995) discussion of contemporary African-American men…Webster’s Dictionary defines sass as talking impudently or disrespectfully to an elder or a superior, as in ‘talking back.’…In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl…whenever Harriet Jacobs (Linda Brent is her pseudonym) is sexually threatened, she uses sass to defend herself (Braxton 1989).  Through sass she ‘returns’ a portion of the poison the master has injected into her…In this way sass protects something of her self-esteem, partly by increasing the psychological distance between herself and her white master (Pinar, 43-44).  Recall that, in speaking of Linda Brent (Harriet Jacobs), Joanne Braxton (1989, 16) observed that ‘language is her first line of defense.’ (Pinar, 250)

We teachers have found ourselves in a position in which we are being forced to act against what we know is best for our students and communities.  We have been harassed for too long.  We all know now that the greatest factors influencing students’ academic achievement are outside of schools.  Level of income is now the number one predictor of student achievement.  We know that teachers are amazing, worthy, and valuable; but they are not to be the whipping posts for those who know nothing about education.  They are not to be treated as pawns in billion dollar deals.

When the rules are stacked against you; when the very system ensures that you will fail (100% pass rate for all students by 2014, anybody?); when your value as a human is given no heed; when you are forced to take medical leave for the stress and anxiety you experience in your school, they only way to start is to find our teacher voices and use language to return some of the poison that the masters have injected into us.  I’m very hesitant to make analogies to slavery, so I want to be clear that I’m not saying that teaching now is the same as slavery.  But it’s a dehumanizing and disrespected field.  If you think the word “badass” is vulgar and off-putting, please take a moment to look around and see the vulgar state of education “reform” around us.  No word can be as vulgar as the money interests that heap abuse on both teachers and students. Badass Teachers (BATs) aren’t badass because they came to play nice.  Badass Teachers are badass because they are starting with the language, the words, that will transgress the rules that have been thrust upon them, without so much as an invitation to table where education is being discussed.  It’s time to find your sass.  It’s time to be BADASS.