Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Monday, September 3, 2012
It was their approach to school reform. But it wasn't focused on the real things our students, my colleagues, and the school really needed.
- Being jerked around endlessly by the District for the past 7 years
- Seeing the limits of innovation/vision that the current administration has for our district's direction
- Remembering my frustration with the climate/culture of my school last year
- Feeling genuinely excited about a student-centered, project-based environment
- Being ready to keep growing as an educator
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Monday, June 13, 2011
So I ask us all again: what are we going to do?
Monday, June 6, 2011
Today I was laid off from the School District of Philadelphia.
Upon hearing the news, I made a quick, distracting joke: “And they didn’t even have the consideration to print the pink slip out on pink paper.”
8:52am and I needed to map out a gameplan for my life, make some decisions for my next career steps, start strategizing for the media campaign our organization needs to roll out in response to the dissolution of public education, and schedule an appointment at the optometrist before my health insurance runs out next month.
However, I still had copies to make for my classes, and the second hand of the clock was continuing its persistent swoop.
In the copy room, my colleagues gave me hugs, told me they “love my spirit,” and lamented the short amount of time we had together.
I carried my books and copies and computer up the three flights of stairs; as I ascended, the heat rose by 20 degrees and my morale drooped to an unaccustomed low.
This is the reality of working for a highly-centralized bureaucratic institution. Someone who has never met me, never sat in on one of my classes, never asked Daysha Gregory her opinion about mainstream media’s portrayal of teenagers, never asked Delilah Vazquez to read them her poetry about the complexities of life, just hacked away at a list and circled my name as one of the goners.
And it feels bad. It just feels bad. The countless hours and dollars I’ve spent in this District trying to do my best to teach hundreds and hundreds of students to be creative and critical thinkers, able to solve the problems of the world they’re inheriting.
They don’t really care.
The School District of Philadelphia doesn’t really care.
But that isn’t even the worst part.
Today, I lost my job in the School District of Philadelphia, and the worst part had nothing to do with my paycheck, my 403(b), my health insurance, or the imminent scramble to figure out what to do next.
The worst part was the tears streaming down my students’ faces when they said: “But we fought! We organized! We went to Harrisburg and DC and the District. We marched and protested and doorknocked. And we lost. The state is still not giving us the money, and we’re still losing our teachers. I can’t believe we fought so hard, but lost anyway.”
And just before the dreaded “what’s the point?” could even fall from their mouths, I interrupted: “We’re going against a huge machine. It’s got money, and politicians, and slick PR. But we’ve got people power. And, for real, we’re going to win. We just have to organize more broadly and effectively.”
“But we lost.”
“And you’ll probably lose again. You’re going to win and lose countless times.”
“We were going to build a better school – one where the city could see that a neighborhood school CAN be great. But we’re losing all of our teachers, they’re severing our relationships, the class size is going up, and all they’re giving us is more security cameras. We’ll never build a great school now.”
“Listen: Life is long and the universe is expansive. If you wake up in the morning and believe that the world can be a better place, then you’re an organizer. And you’re going to figure out an improved strategy to win. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to lay down and watch everything crumble. Is that what you want?”
“OK. Then be sad today. That’s fine. But tomorrow, you better wake up believing that the world can be transformed. I will be here to help you think through how.”
And with that, they cried some more; I gave them all hugs and told them that we’d make a video on Tuesday that we could send out about the impact of teacher layoffs on students.
Hopefully they haven’t already lost all hope in movement-building.
Today I may have lost my job in the School District of Philadelphia, but I did my job as an educator.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
I’m a 5th year public high school teacher in Philadelphia. And I’m the face of the downfall of the public education system.
This is all according to the slick stylings of Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, Waiting for Superman, the crown jewel in the multi-million dollar marketing plan being orchestrated by a range of policy makers, urban school district administrators, charter school management groups, philanthro-preneurs like Bill Gates and the Walton Family, and a host of others.
Even with its contrived drama and obvious agenda to blame teachers unions for the state of schools, the hype of Waiting for Superman has swept public education into the spotlight. Sadly, the “debate” that the movie has elicited hasn’t centered on the real issues that my students, their families, and my colleagues are dealing with everyday.
I’ve gone to the movie. I’ve read the blogs. Now I’m ready for a real debate about the future of public education – one that focuses on the meaning of public and the purpose of education.
In Districts across the country, publicly elected School Boards are being dissolved and replaced by Mayor- and Governor-appointed Commissions. Here in Philadelphia, we see backroom deals and state-level politics play out in our local schools -- through hires, contracts, and land handovers. Isn’t school supposed to be the site of preparing young people for civic engagement? Then let’s act like it. We must create structures for meaningful, informed and inclusive participation in the decisions made about our schools. Ensuring local parent, educator and student leadership at all levels will strengthen the direction of education, as those who are most affected must be those helping to steer the ship.
This is especially true in this moment in President Obama’s reform agenda. Instead of bringing in outside managers to “turn around” schools that don’t perform well on standardized tests, we should look to local communities, students, and educators to shed our wisdom and knowledge on what our schools need to be transformed into institutions that truly meet our needs. Again, this process must be bottom-up, participatory and highly democratic. Let’s put the public back in public education.
And, while we’re at it, let’s bring meaning back into schooling. While my colleagues and I are not Supermen, we are trying our best to facilitate the process of human development – learning and growing, unlocking curiosity and following lines of inquiry into new understandings. Unfortunately, that train gets derailed far too often by today’s standardized testing regime. Instead of scripted test preparation, my students deserve opportunities to develop their critical thinking, with curriculum anchored in their lived experiences and cultural histories. And they deserve high quality, comprehensive assessments to demonstrate both their growth and the places where they still need to be pushed. Bubbled-in answer sheets are not going to help this generation be equipped to solve the problems of the world they are inheriting.
The truth that Superman fails to portray is that there are thousands of other teachers like me working in districts around the country to build partnerships with student, parent and community groups in our quest to improve a meaningful, public education system.
To anyone who truly wants to see a change in schools in this country, I encourage you to stop Waiting and start Acting. Join an organization fighting for equitable funding, relevant curriculum, an end of the criminalization of youth. There is never going to be a hero that sweeps us away into the clouds. There will just be the collective power of millions of us moving toward the transformation we want to see.
I’m ready. How about you?
Philadelphia High School Teacher
Member, Teacher Action Group Philadelphia
Member, Teacher Activist Groups National Network
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
7th period rolled around and through my door trudged a reluctant bunch of angry faces. They were yelling at each other, telling each other to shut up, get outta my way, don’t make me come over there and hit you, I hate you, I hate being in this stupid class with that stupid kid. After a few minutes of unproductive shushing and attempted redirecting, I looked at the board, with my perfectly labeled ‘objective’ and ‘do now’ and thought: this class doesn’t need to explore imagery in a piece of fiction. We need a community circle.
I asked them to get into a circle, which they did, moaning and groaning and slapping the tops of their desks. I picked up my squeezy apple stressball and said, “We’re going to pass this around. When it comes to you, just say one word or phrase that describes your feelings.”
I started with mine: Thrown off.
Then theirs: Agitated. Frustrated. Angry. Annoyed. Bored. Bored. Bored. Bored.
“Ok,” I said. “How would you prefer to feel?”
Productive. Happy. Excited. At home. At home. At home.
“Ok. You all said that right now you’re in a crappy mood. And that you’d prefer to feel better. Given that we’re at school for 7 ½ hours a day and we can’t just go home, what do you think you could do to feel the way you’d like to feel?”
And then I just let them take control.
“I don’t want to be with the same people the whole day.”
“I want these teachers to not be so boring. They’re not teaching us anything.”
“I want to learn something interesting.”
They then wanted to know why the Support Aid was with them. Were they the ‘slow class?’
I told them to ask her. She was a person. Just ask her.
And someone did.
And she told them that it was her job to give teachers more support, and this was just her assignment. She wanted to help them.
They suddenly realized that she was an actual human doing her job, and not just some random policing force, or, worse in their eyes, a symbol that they were ‘slow.’
The conversation turned to why another school got to have brand new facilities and we had such an old, falling apart building.
And then why we didn’t have any performing arts opportunities, because, as one of my students said, “I’m sure we all want to perform.”
I told her that she should ask everyone what their talents are.
So she did. She passed around the apple, and everyone said that they were artists, dancers, and athletes.
And that’s where everything changed.
One student asked for the apple, and said “Why doesn’t our school get dancers together and perform for the Puerto Rican Day Parade?”
At that point, the class erupted in enthusiasm.
“Yeah! We should represent our school!”
“And wear our shirts.”
“And do bachata.”
I asked them what they thought they needed to do to make that happen.
One girl decided to be the facilitator. They listed all the steps it would take to reach their goal. Two others made flyers to get students interested. They made a plan for a rehearsal schedule and asked me to be their sponsor. Who could say no to student initiative?
During all of this, the students who had been feuding were working together. The class spoke directly to the guy who was constantly being disruptive, asking him to be quiet. But this time, they weren’t mean. They were just not interested in being distracted from their goal. And he listened.
It turned out that we were too late to register for the parade, but they didn’t care. They decided to self-organize a dance club, to do bachata, salsa, hip hop, and break dance. And they convinced another teacher to organize a talent show for October, so they could show off their soon-to-be-amazing moves.
As the class period ended, I asked them to sit in the circle again. “Give one word to describe how you feel.”
Excited. Happy. Motivated. Excited. Excited. Excited.
It felt like a sitcom. Unruly high school students sit in a circle and talk about their feelings. They transform instantly.
But that’s what happened.
That’s the power of allowing students to voice their concerns, ideas, emotions, and humanity. They normally know exactly how to solve their problems, and, if given the space and the structure, will come up with something that is more motivating than what anyone else could force onto them.
And I wondered, if an administrator from the District had been in my classroom, would they have approved? Or would they have rated me unsatisfactory for not meeting the scheduled standards and the scripted outcomes? Would they have told me that I wasn’t helping raise test scores or meet AYP?
But they weren’t. So I did what needed to be done.
I’m glad I was able to have the autonomy to use my classtime in a way that could build a sense of community in my classroom and personal power in my students. What if I’d just been following a script, like hundreds of my public school colleagues are forced to do everyday?
To the reformers in their office chairs and their clipboard monitoring walk-throughs, I was diverting from the ‘schedule.’ To my students, I was helping them unlock their passion, energy, and motivation for being in school. You tell me, Mr. Reformer, isn’t that the point of education?