Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Stop Waiting. Start Acting. Just like Thousands of Teacher Activists are doing.

If you’ve been keeping up on the debate around the direction of public education, you know by now that the “failing of America’s public schools” is because of me.

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?

Anissa Weinraub
Philadelphia High School Teacher
Member, Teacher Action Group Philadelphia
Member, Teacher Activist Groups National Network

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Going against the schedule: How sitting in a circle transformed my students

Let me take this moment to say a huge THANK YOU to the folks at the International Institute of Restorative Practices. They helped me harness the energy of my amazing, although highly misunderstood, students today, by having taught me the power of the circle. In 47 minutes, I was able to turn a class of angry and frustrated 9th graders into excited, self-motivated learners/doers. If it hadn’t actually happened to me, I would think this were just another storybook case study.

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?