Sunday, August 2, 2015

Where Do We Go From Here: Two Proposals to Promote Community Based Education

Proposal Number One

Imagine if an organization recruited our most talented students from high poverty communities, gave them three years of teacher training that included mentoring and work as teaching assistants, and then sent them into high needs school districts with a promise to teach in those districts for at least five years while giving them living allowances if they lived in the same communities they taught in.
That would be a REAL Teach for America as opposed to the Privatize for America organization that operates under that name.

Proposal Number Two

Would we benefit from the creation of an an Education Think Tank, composed of largely of people who live, teach and study in high poverty communities, to develop strategies for what kind of educational programs would best serve residents of those communities without dividing them, forcing them out, or providing opportunities to those who seek to profit or build careers at their expense?.

Friday, July 31, 2015

PS 91 Memories

PS 91 in Crown Heights, at the corner of Albany and East New York Avenues. It was the tallest building in the neighborhood ( this was the 1950's), more than five stories high, built of red and white brick, with huge windows on all floors. It was like a castle in our working class neighborhood, which was filled with Jews and Italians,with a handful of Irish and African American families, and it had a powerful effect on our collective imagination. It was where children like us would find their access to the American dream, through the classes held there, through the rough ball games played in the gym and schoolyard, through the plays that were put on at the school. We walked into the school with a kind of awe, lined up in size order, sitting in rows, frightened of our teachers, strong women who carried themselves with conspicuous dignity, at least until we knew them better. We were drilled in class, but also encouraged to dream, taught about history and geography, exposed to science through hands on experiments, taken to museums and zoos where we might see things our families might not be able or wiling to expose us to. We were also given responsibilities, became class monitors, crossing guards, showed films to our students. Was there bullying? Yes. Were there fights?. Yes. Were there gender separations that defied common sense?. Sure, But compared to what we encountered in our immigrant families, where English was not always the first language, where ancient fears and deeply rooted wounds often haunted us, PS 91 symbolized hope and possibility, space and freedom, a chance to release energy and find new talents.
I find it sad indeed, to discover how many Americans see schools like this as a symbol of American failures rather than an embodiment of American possibilities

Why The Very Rich Promote Charter School Fetishism

The very rich people who are donating to charter schools and seeking to privatize public education are hoping that through some miraculous infusion of inspiration and intimidation as practiced in those schools, they can improve the performance of children in poverty. and possibly help them escape poverty, without any REAL sacrifice on their part -- without threatening their investments, their jobs, their incomes and their lifestyles. The massive replacement of public schools by charter schools has now been going for nearly 10 years, with its pace rapidly accelerating, and the lifestyles of the super rich have certainly not been disturbed. On the other hand, there has been no visible progress in education equity by either statistical measures or more subjective ones, and our society seems more polarized by race and class almost by the day. So will the charter fetishism be challenged? Not among the very rich, I suspect. It serves their interest too well.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Summer School Nightmare- Turning Up the Head on "Student Achievement"

NOTE: This was written by a teacher in a high poverty district somewhere in the Midwest. Child and Teacher Abuse in full effect

 A time to maintain achievement, right? To prevent the "summer slide" and keep students engaged and excited about learning. After all, it's building relationships with our students that can extend far beyond the confines of classroom walls.

 But what happens when the school offering summer school has no air conditioning? Does that sound beneficial? Healthy? Safe? Temperatures inside the classroom reading 98 degrees on the thermostat. How about that for the student with Epilepsy who's seizures are triggered by heat exhaustion and dehydration. Sound safe? Healthy? Beneficial?

 If that doesn't have your attention, let's turn up the heat a little more. Requiring teachers to supervise lunch for the students but not allowing them to eat. Not allowing them to sit down. Oh no, teachers must waste instructional time. While students eat inside the fiery furnace called the cafeteria, their teachers are commanded to stand and do flash cards or another educational task. Teachers are expected to not only suffer these conditions themselves, but to sit by and watch their students suffer, too. Every minute counts, right? Don't waste precious time walking kids to the drinking fountain, either. The water is not only warm, it's "against district policy" to use instructional time in too many transitions.

 Yes, the fire has been lit, folks. Our kids, who deserve better, are being burned. They deserve the best and brightest education. Your highly qualified, certified teachers and their students are suffering in silence while those at the top are sitting inside their air conditioned offices on the phone with the next best corporation who's in the running for the silver bullet. The next "new program" they will demand the teachers use in the classroom to bring up those test scores. Here's an idea for administration and school boards.

 If you want to bring up the scores and raise the achievement gap, turn down the heat on your teachers. Take some of the pressure off your teachers. If you can't do it for them, do it for our students. Provide them with safe and healthy learning conditions. Foster an environment built on the foundation that our teachers and students deserve nothing short of the best. Stop burning the candle on both ends with the corporate world. They don't know our students. You don't know our students.

We, the teachers know our students. You want to know why your good, hardworking teachers are leaving the profession? They're sick, physically and emotionally. They're tired. They can't stand being on the front line every single day sacrificing blood, sweat and tears, all to no avail. They, along with their students, are dying inside while fires set by you rage beneath them, threatening to extinguish all they've ever known and loved. Each other. Hang up the phone, step away from the computer in your chilled office and save our teachers and students from the blazing inferno you've put them in.

Signed,One Fired Up Teacher

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Education Of Kevin Powell- A Unique Window into a World of Pain, Trauma and Redemption

There have been many great coming of age stories written by Black male authors, but none quite like Kevin Powell's new book, "The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy's Journey into Manhood."

The violence Powell experienced as a young person, and the violence he inflicted, as an adult, are hardly new themes in Black coming of age stories- but the sensibility Powell brings to the narrative comes off as startling.  Powell admits every bit of vulnerability and weakness in a way a way that brings to life what it means to be a child in environments in which childhood was a luxury denied both by a racist society and impoverished deeply wounded residents. A brilliant sensitive child in places where neither of these were welcomed; where weakness invited aggression, Powell somehow survived without developing the armor that most male children had to envelop themselves in. The result is a narrative of male powerlessness written with a feminized sensibility that I have almost never seen in literature of this kind.  There are no masks. There is no bravado.  Just the honest recollection of someone whose very survival was a miracle and who still lives with the damage inflicted on him every day.

 Now remember who we are talking about here. A nationally known journalist, author, political activist, who has had an opportunity to meet and write about some of the most important figures in hip hop and African-American politics.   Handsome, famous, accomplished yet still traumatized  by everything he endured as a child, in his home, in the streets, in school.

You want to understand the impact of racism and poverty on a vulnerable child, read this book. You want to see how pain is transmitted from generation to generation, look no further. In a country where Black children are often denied the right to be treated as being sensitive, thoughtful, limitless in their potential, Powell puts you in the mind of a Black child who possess all of those traits, and you can not help but cry tears of pain and empathy. The writing is evocative, raw, and mercilessly self-reflective.  You end up seeing the consequences of all this pain when Powell becomes an adult and engages in all kinds of self destructive behavior even as he finds a voice which inspires millions.

  But it is the childhood portions of this book that make it unique. Think Richard Wright's "Black Boy." Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes."  Junot Diaz's "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Think of the best music of Tupac Shakur and Wu Tang Clan.  There are no masks. No illusions. We see a  racist, gendered society putting crushing burdens on young Black boys born into poverty. Powell speaks for them, not just the strong ones, all of them, with unmatched eloquence  Because Powell leaves nothing out. No twinge of fear. No  moment of weakness. No bout of rage and self-doubt.

 I hope millions of people read this book. But not just alone, as I have. In classes, in study groups, in reading groups where people can make their own connections to what Powell puts before us.

 Because all of us have been hurt. All of us carry childhood wounds. All of us have been afraid. All of us hurt the ones we love. Because Powell admits these things about himself, he pushes all of us to be equally honest and introspective.

 What makes the book all the more remarkable is that as Powell admits, his adult life has not always been exemplary. Amidst all his achievements, he grappled with depression, paranoia and rage, leading him to physically assault co-workers, friends and romantic partners. Only therapy and a self-conscious effort to transform himself in line with principles of gender equality prevented him from being a person who accomplishments were dwarfed by a trail of destruction.

 But Powell struggled, persevered, grew, and learned to share his traumas in a way that inspires other to do the same, turning his survival into an act of generosity more than selfishness.

 At at time when some are trying to teach America that "Black Life Matters"-- Kevin Powell has written a book which shows that even Black lives which have the least promising beginnings can, to quote W.E.B Dubois, end creating products of intellect and art which will provide inspiration to people around the world.  Was Dr DuBois thinking of a future Kevin Powell when he wrote the following:

"Herein the longing of black men must have respect: the rich and bitter depth of their experience, the unknown treasures of their inner life, the strange rendings of nature they have seen, may give the world new points of view and make their loving, living, and doing precious to all human hearts."

 "The Education of Kevin Powell" is a book that you will want to keep close to you as a reminder of the depth of human pain and inhumanity, and the possibility of transcendence and redemption.

  But don't hold back the tears. Don't even try.

The Price of Making New York "Safe"

It is great the neighborhoods in New York that were once violent and fear ridden have become safer, that people can once again take their children to and from school, go to and from work, and go to the corner store without worrying that they or their family members will be hit by a stray bullet. As someone who spent time in those neighborhoods trying to create jobs and school opportunities for young people trapped in the cycle of violence, I appreciate that change But what haunts me, more and more is two things.
First, that the people who lived in those communities at the height of the violence (1985-1995) have been priced out and pushed out, that as soon as their communities became safe, wealthier people started moving in, developers took notice, and the rents started skyrocketing to the point where longtime residents had to move out and the stores that served them had to close. These residents thus faced a double sacrifice; first living in communities where the level of violence was one which middle class New Yorkers would never tolerate; and secondly, being pushed out when the violence was finally checked, in part through their heroic efforts.
Second, that the prime strategy for reducing the violence was not creating jobs, offering more recreational programs, and making sure schools were open around the clock, as some of us pushed for, but expanding and militarizing the New York City police force so that young people in the most dangerous communities were put under constant surveillance, in their schools as well as in the streets, and were constantly being arrested for minor crimes so they could be searched for drugs and guns. These coercive tactics, supported by desperate residents as well as public officials, turned young people in those communities, especially those living in public housing, into prisoners in their streets and schools while sending huge numbers of them to jail and prison.
To quote Dead Prez ("Behind Enemy Lines") " You don't have to be in jail to be in prison, look how we livin'"
I like many others, love the fact that I can walk down New Lots or Prospect Avenues without worrying about being hit by a stray bullet. But I am haunted by the collateral damage of an approach to public safety than emphasized militarized policing and resulted in massive displacement of poor and working class residents from communities where the violence was once greatest.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Ring A Bell of Mourning Those in "Failing" Schools

As I look to the not so distant future, my heart goes out to the students and teachers in every school that is about to be taken over by the New York State Education Department because it is judged "failing." There are hundreds of such schools around the state, virtually ALL of them in high poverty districts. Their staffs are going to be made scapegoats, while students and families are going to be subjects of experiments in privatization supported by the wealthiest people in the state and the nation. Will no politicians speak out for them? Will not one challenge the false rhetoric of "accountability" that is being used to undermine the principle of community responsibility for education and to snuff out student, teacher and parent voices? THIS is a tragedy marked by shattered careers, trips to therapists, and a powerful lesson being taught to our most vulnerable citizens that their interests only count when powerful people speak for them and use those interests for personal gain.

I ring a bell of mourning for all those in these schools and communities

PS. If this also applies to schools in YOUR state, ring a bell for them too!