Friday, October 25, 2013

This is what leveling feels like.

Today is my last day as a teacher at my current school.  Strange, because my first day was less than 2 months ago...

In the latest moment of instability and money-saving by the School District of Philadelphia, schools went through the leveling process.  On paper, I guess it makes some sort of numbers-sense.  You have a teacher in a school where there are fewer students than the maximum class size specified under the contract.  You have another school where there are not enough teachers to make class size fall under the maximum level.  So, why not just swap them? 

There are a lot of reasons why this isn't just an easy fix type of procedure.  In my life, I can name 80 of them: my students. 

The truth is: Schools don't just work because of a computer program, or another mandated reading program, or a changeover in how teachers write objectives.  Schools work because of the strength of the relationships built up among staff, between staff and students and their parents. And when you destabilize and throw schools into the "churn" (as the Broad Foundation sketches out), is it really any wonder why students are not reaching their potential in the classroom? 

When a principal has to make tough choices to break up classes, consolidate groups of students, and move teachers out of the building, it is incredibly disruptive. But when she has to do it because a Governor is playing politics to break a union and not meet his constitutional duty to provide for a properly funded school system, it is the fallout from something criminal.

This week, I witnessed the fallout (again) of the Budget Crisis as it spread across my students' consciousness.    

They were bewildered: "Why would they take away a teacher who helps me?"
They were confused: "How am I going to get ready for high school without my reading teacher?"
They were angry: "Why do we have to sit in a class with double the students?  It'll be so distracting, and I won't be able to learn."
They were critical: "Isn't there anything we can do to keep you?  We'll write a petition.  We'll write to the governor.  We'll fundraise to keep you."
They were heartbroken: "Please don't leave us. Please!!!!!!"

And they got to work, writing the petition, making signs all over the school, trying to make their case to the principal -- not knowing that it really isn't her fault.  Parents called me and sent notes up to school.  My 7th grade students threw me a surprise going-away party, including buying pizza out of their own 12-year old finances.  I've been pummeled with more hugs than I know what to do with.  (I am literally hiding out right now during my prep period so that I don't run into any more sad children.  I don't know what to do with all of their emotional outpouring.)

My colleagues are amazing, and they'll figure out how to attempt to meet students' needs in a now-even-more-difficult scenario: fewer teachers, larger classsize, still no counselor, not enough special education teachers to fully support students. But it's not going to be easy -- and, trust me, it wasn't easy before, when I was still teaching here. 

But what stands out to me is that yet again, the students in Philadelphia are not getting what they need.  Class size matters, and we should be trying to figure out how to make class size as low as possible, not trying to shave off dollars by cramming as many students together as is contractually allowable. 

Further, the emotional fallout is real.  On my students, who lose teachers every year, and, in truth, are beginning to lose schools every year too.  On parents, who can't build deep relationships to help them feel anchored to a school community.  And to me, and all other teachers being bounced around year-to-year, who have to face sad children who are endlessly getting public goods that they deserve taken away from them at every turn. 

In the end, my students will be fine, just like every other batch of students I've had to leave in all the other schools I've been transferred out of.  And I'll be fine, as I've learned how to always land on my feet.  It is just another moment, on top of all the other moments this school system offer us, of grief for all of us to withstand, survive, and learn from about resilience. 

It's a shame that I have to be the one teaching that lesson. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Who says 13 year olds can't think critically?

If we’ve spoken in the last month, then you know that I have suddenly been jettisoned into the belly of every high school teacher’s supreme nightmare: Middle School. 

Yes, that’s right, after 7 years teaching in a variety of High Schools across the city, I was brought back off the layoffs list with approximately 6 hours of lead time to teach 7th and 8th grade English. 

Are the horror stories true?  Are 7th grade girls really the most vicious creatures on Earth? Or is it just some sort of mythology to cover for the shortcomings of our science around what some call their adolescent Hormonal Toxic Shock Syndrome?

While I have countless stories of little girls and boys trying to show their affection through pulling hair and slapping each other.  And while I could tell you hilarious nonsequitur interruptions that seem to come out of the left field of their little developing brains.  Or about the oversized babies towering nearly 6 feet tall, but still falling into tantrums and tears when I so much as insinuate that they’re distracting the class… I actually want to share an amazing moment of spontaneous popular education that occurred today.

It was my post-lunch 8th grade English class.  We were supposed to be reading Toni Cade Bambara, but before I could tell them a page number, one girl, with pure earnestness, raised her hand and said, “Ms. Wawa, Could you explain to us about the economy?”

I looked around.  “You want to know about the shutdown?”

The whole class lit up, “Yes!”  “We don’t get it.”  “Could you break it down?”

So, in my happiest moment of pure teaching this year, I started to explain to them the process of developing a budget, how the US has been spending beyond our means – on things like the war and military and, locally, prisons.  We talked about the standoff between the Senate and the House Republicans.  We got into issues of racism and greed, of wrong priorities and what we want to see our tax dollars go to.  We discussed our own families’ health care needs, our foodstamps, our Headstart.  We shared stories of how much people already pay in taxes.  We zeroed in on an essential question:  How could the Republicans, with their fancy suits and six figures, be throwing a childish tantrum that affects all of us poor people in Philly?

Then, in a brilliant way to bring up the subject of wealth inequality, one boy asks, “But if all those rich people own Bugattis (a type of expensive car), and they pay, like a million dollars of taxes on it, then why doesn’t the US have enough money?”  Classic 8th grade misconception, but he was trying to get at something very deep.

I asked if they’d ever heard of the 1% and the 99%.  They hadn’t. 
I took a breath, wondering if we were ready to go there.  Their faces and you-could-hear-a-pin-drop attention showed me that we were.

I told 10 of them to grab their chairs and sit in the front of the classroom.  I told them that they all represented equal wealth distribution.  One person, one chair.

Then, I grabbed 2 of them, and made them squeeze down to sit on laps, and I gave their chairs to the person at the end, so that person could spread out. 

They looked at me, thinking, “Wait.  What is going on?”  The person at the end said that she, “felt very comfortable,” and put her feet up.

Then, I grabbed 2 more of them, and made them go find a place to squeeze in.  I gave their chairs to the original person.  Now that person had half the chairs, and the rest of the 9 people had to find a place on the other half.  I asked what was going on.

They said, “Hey. That’s not fair.  The wealthy person doesn’t deserve all that.”

I asked what they were going to do about it.  Some kids jumped up and tried to steal back the chair that they used to sit on.  I hired another student to be the police, and had those kids locked up.

And then I took 2 more chairs.  Now the wealthy person had 70% of the wealth.  The bottom 9 people were squeezing onto 3 chairs, or 30% of the wealth.  Well, minus the 2 people who were now incarcerated.

We concluded the exercise, and I had them all sit down.   I asked them what thoughts or feelings came up. 

Some said that they were angry, and wanted to act out.  I asked them, when there isn’t much wealth or many jobs to go around to you, what do you do?  A lot of them said that’s when they would start robbing or trapping (selling drugs.)  I said, “Yeah.  Have you noticed that a lot more people have been put in prison in the last 20 years than before?  There’s a connection between not having jobs and money and doing things that get you locked up.”

Some were baffled, “What did the rich person do to get so rich?”  “They had way more than they needed, and we didn’t have enough.  Who would live like that?”  “Is this why those Republicans are trying to shut down the government?  To keep more of the money than they actually need?”

We discussed investing, corporate greed, and political kickbacks.  They all speculated that Mayor Nutter gets free Comcast cable at his house, so that’s why there’s a tax abatement on their building downtown.  This made me laugh.  And then they wondered why the Mayor would prioritize building a new skating rink downtown when we don’t even have a counselor at our school.  This made me tell them that they should set the priorities.

And then, the million dollar question: “Ms. Weinraub.  How do we undo this?  How can we spread the chairs back out so that we all get our share, not just the wealthy?”

I looked at him, and then at the whole class and said the only truth I could offer:  “That’s what your generation is going to have to answer.  That’s the world you’re going to have to make right.” 

So even if tomorrow I have to untangle gum from a girl’s hair or put away the hand sanitizer so boys won’t pour it in each others’ eyes, today I was reminded of the possibilities of helping build critical thought in people just starting to put the pieces together. 

And that’s why we as teachers can’t let the Testing Regime standardize our young people into bubbles to fill in.  This is an unjust, broken, polluted world, and we absolutely need these young people to be developing the skills and strategies they’re going to need to solve the problems of the world they’re inheriting. 

For more info on the chair activity, check out:

Monday, September 2, 2013

Solidarity isn't just a word; it's hard work.

My speech from tonight's meeting.  (If I had been allowed to give it in full.) 

There is a historic battle in front of us.  

It is a battle against a well funded machine. A machine that is taking aim at public education, workers' rights, black and brown people, poor people, our students.

We are facing an urgent and immediate crisis, yes. I believe that our bargaining team will continue to work to get a contract we deserve – but that is not the end.  That is just the beginning

We are at a tipping point. 

More than ever we can see the damage done to our public education system through our politicians’ utter abandonment,  the rampant expansion of charters and privatization, a coordinated attack on working people and our rights and wages, and a complete disinvestment in our students. 

When we push through what we’re facing today, there will still be countless more battles to fight in this war to save and transform public education.  And we, as teachers, as counselors, as educators, as school staff, as rank and file members of the PFT– we must see ourselves as real leaders in this fight.  

We MUST learn to grow our power and wield our power.

So I say to you, WE ARE THE PFT.  WE need to take responsibility for what that means.  It starts by going in tomorrow, talking to every colleague we see, making a coordinated plan at our school level about how we are going to breathe life back into our chapters, empower ourselves as educators, and be engaged in ways we haven’t had to over the last decade.

We are going to have to take on the work of building up our relationships within our schools, between our schools, across the city, with our fellow PFT members and with the parents and students at our schools.  

No one is going to do it for us.

Solidarity is not just a word to throw around.  Solidarity is a lot of hard work in order to bring back the spirit, the unity, and the courage we’re going to need to make our schools stronger for the next week, the next month, the next year.  

So I ask you, rank and file members of the PFT, I ask you President Jordan and the executive committee, I ask you – What are we willing to do? 

We must make a plan to strategically leverage the power of our numbers so that we disrupt business as usual and force the hand of decision-makers.  In order to get there, we need to trust that we have leaders at the school-based level and build towards the kind of democracy that invests in developing that type of leadership from below. 

We must GROW and WIELD OUR POWER to:
-       - Force back the egregious anti-student, anti-teacher concessions the SRC is trying to push on us.
-       - Force the Mayor to act like a leader and go to Harrisburg to get the funding our kids deserve.
-      -  Force Corbett out of office, and find a real leader to stop playing politics with our kids’ lives and put together a full and fair funding formula.
-       - To get in front of the next round of school closures that are coming for us, to stop the rampant expansion of charters and privatization, and to ultimately get rid of the SRC.

That is the war in front of us. 

It starts tonight.  It starts with us building that plan toward broad, unified, and militant action that involves every one of our 15,000 members.

What are we willing to do to take the steps to build that plan? 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Aligning our ACTIONS with our WORDS.

Here is my testimony from today's City Council Hearing on School Closings in Philadelphia.  Teacher Action Group organized a panel of 4 classroom teachers from across the city to speak on the impact of the proposed closings and our suggestions for solutions to the current education disaster the we find ourselves in.  

My name is Anissa Weinraub, and I am in my 7th year teaching in the School District of Philadelphia.  I am a proud member of the Teacher Action Group and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and am also an active part of the PCAPS coalition to save our public schools. 

Please, allow me to first say THANK YOU for hearing the true feelings of so many of your constituents across the city, and voting on a Resolution for a Moratorium on School Closings.  It is absolutely a crucial first step, and reveals to all of us the council’s commitment to our neighborhood schools as important hubs for community health and security.   

My question to us all today –  you as elected representatives, and all of us an as engaged civil society – is: what will be our next step?  I am hoping that it is a collective effort to go after the resources we need.

Allow me to offer a reflection I have gained from my years of teaching: As a teacher, my students learn infinitely more from my ACTIONS than my WORDS.

Young people can see when those words and actions don’t line up, and they will not be shy about telling you.  For example, if I say that reading is important, but then my school has no books in the library or I only teach short excerpts from test-prep curricula, then my words end up falling short because I’m not actually SHOWING them with my actions that reading is something of value.  So I work hard to make sure my words and actions are aligned.

The same thing, I think, can be applied to our words and actions as school leaders and elected officials.  We can tell our young people to “stay in school” and “stop the violence” and that “education is the key to their futures,” but we also must take concrete action to SHOW that we value their education, our city’s safety and their futures, and so should they.

Right now, the actions of many adults in decision-making seats are not teaching our young people that we care about them.  In fact, we’re showing them quite the opposite.

Over the past 2 years, we have had our public school budgets slashed by $1Billion from the state level.  Those who have been elected to “lead” are vigorously disinvesting in our communities by underfunding our schools, and forcing our local District to shut down our schools or hand them over to the highest bidder, taking away the vital relationships that have been built between adults and young people, expecting us to teach and learn in overcrowded classrooms, to do more with less, and forcing us into shallow, scripted curriculum in order to chase test scores, instead of encouraging real student-centered, engaging and participatory learning.

But this doesn’t have to be the lesson we teach the young people of Philadelphia about what they’re worth.  We can make different choices that show them they are our priority and we won’t settle for less than what they deserve.

In Philly, it feels hard to stomach the chorus that “there is no money” when the glow of Comcast’s glorious LED screen lights up 17th street or the University of Penn continues to acquire property in my neighborhood, when the Department of Corrections’ budget increases and Natural Gas keeps being drawn out of the earth. 

So, I have come here today to ask you, members of the City Council, to take the next step.  Show us your continued moral leadership, and help us to get the resources our city’s schools so desperately need, so that we don’t have to throw our communities into chaos through massive school closures, and so that we can actually redesign our schools to meet our students’ true needs.

Help us raise hundreds of millions here in Philadelphia:
1.  by taxing major center city commercial real estate holders and corporations that don’t pay their fair share. 
2.  by taxing the Mega non-profits on their real estate holdings.

And then join with us, your constituents, and let’s go after the money in Harrisburg together.  Let’s use your political muscle and our strength in numbers of teachers, parents, students, and community members, and let’s go get the money that our young people deserve.  If you lead, I promise you that thousands of Philadelphia residents will follow.

And then we will truly be aligning our actions with our words, as we put down our collective foot and fight for fully and equitably funded public schools, so that our young people can be prepared to build a future which prioritizes human dignity over corporate greed, a future where the suggestion of selling out our communities to balance a budget will never again be on the table. 

That will be the most profound lesson we could ever teach.