Saturday, February 4, 2017

Devaluing Women's Work: I am a Teacher and My Labor is Not Free

I avoided becoming a fully-certified teacher for a long, long time. I taught English overseas for many years in Japan. I loved the lifestyle. Enough money to live comfortably, but the workload was not excessive. I had time and money to travel, to go out whenever I was a pretty cushy job.

And when I came back to The States, everyone told me I should get my education degree and be a teacher. That's clearly what I was supposed to do. But I resisted. Not because I don't like working with kids. Not because I didn't think I'd be good at it. But because of the workload. I knew-I KNEW-that going into teaching meant giving up my life. That in exchange for summers and holidays (sort of), the rest of my life would be consumed by non-stop work, staying up til the early hours of the morn, using all my weekends and evenings to lesson plan, grade, prep....and for not very much money to boot. I knew in my bones that that was what teaching entailed in America.

But I did it. I became a teacher. And the first year I taught in a public school, my life became exactly what I feared. No sleep. Constant stress. Mental health shattered. Social life completely disappeared as I worked my butt off to keep up with the never-ending requirements forced on today's teachers. And this was back in 2009-2010 at the moment Waiting for Superman was telling the world how lazy and terrible teachers are. It was a double slap in the face, the workload coupled with the immense disrespect. And it absolutely crushed me.

But since that time, I've changed. I was pulled into unionism and a growing understanding that my time and my labor were worth something. That I was being EXPLOITED when I stayed up late, spent all my money on my classroom, when I gave up my life "for the kids." That others were profiting off off MY free, guilt-ridden labor. The Chicago Public Schools certainly relied on the fact that even as they cut, sabotaged, and defunded schools further, that I, and my majority women colleagues would pick up the slack. "For the kids." How could we not? So CPS continued to cut, close, crush, complicate.

I don't think that way any more. I now understand that it is not me who harms kids when we are understaffed and is the bosses. Every time they cut our budgets, close our schools, furlough us, disrupt our communities, it is THEIR EVIL AGENDA that causes the pain. In fact, by picking up their slack, we enable them, we EMBOLDEN them to keep on attacking and keep on cutting, to keep on harming kids and communities.

Yesterday, outside Mayor Emanuel's office, I joined with my union sisters and brothers to spend our forced furlough day listening and learning from one anther. I heard my union sisters and our sister from the ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union) speak about how the attacks on women-dominated professions were no accident. Mayor Emanuel, Governor Rauner, Forrest Claypool...they target female professions for cuts and "speed ups" (doing more with less) precisely because they assumed we'd just accept it. "For the kids!" They don't pull this crap with the police or the firemen. With male-dominated professions. Those guys get overtime for every hour they work. No, those cowards in charge in City Hall and the State House come after teachers, our clerks, our social workers and nurses, they come after female bus drivers and train conductors (ATU is 85% female), they come after home-healthcare workers, and DCFS workers, and clinics staffed by women.

As we spent our furlough day in action and solidarity, I came to a renewed conclusion. That standing up against the exploitation of my labor is one of the best ways to help my students. Teachers who are overwhelmed and overworked will never be the best for their kids. We can't run schools on spit and elbow grease. Our kids deserve healthy, functioning, fully-funded systems that do not rely on pain, guilt, or exploitation. And every time we give in, when we bend to the lie that we have no choice but to "do more with less," we allow the bosses to continue to cannibalize our schools for their financial gain.

My labor is worth something. I will join my sisters (and brothers) in the CTU to stop giving away my labor for free. To become militant enough to demand through united action to be paid for my important skills and valuable time. I will not spend my precious time on their ridiculous bureaucratic hurdles. I won't spend all day filling out new paperwork requirements for IEPs or paraprofessional justifications. I will not become a clerk, do the work of social worker, act like a librarian, or do the work of a nurse. I join my union in saying we DEMAND these services be brought back into our schools by qualified professionals. I will not put in grades or upload lesson plans on my own time. You cut our time and our pay, then that means these requirements will take longer to do. We will not do more with less for Rahm & his wealthy backers' profit.

The bosses won't change on their own. Claypool, Rahm, Rauner, Trump, the whole of the ruling class...they care nothing for the "product" we produce: educated young people. In fact, they'd rather the populations we serve-majority low-income, minority, immigrant-they'd rather those children didn't get the education they deserve. Our kids are disposable to them. Worth more to the 1% as a prison inmate than the productive member of society our students have a right to become.

So we must force those in charge to fund our schools adequately. Disrupt their lives to the point that they have no choice but to raise revenue dedicated to our schools and students. To force the rich, the corporations, the financial industry, the banks...force them to pay their fair share.

We are teachers. We are women. And we will not accept their exploitation. We will fight. For the kids.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Rethinking Special Education

For a long time, the way we do special education has...irked me. And I mean in general, not just my pretty messed up district. I imagine it irks a lot of people out there. But, for some reason, I never hear about the pretty ridiculous ways we have set up to make this whole darn thing work. I think we all have a case of the Emperor's New Clothes.

Image pulled from Pinterest: 

 Here are just a few wonderings:

1) Why do we write year-long goals based off of specific standards? Why can't the goals be more broad, like "student will progress in the math curriculum"? Ok, maybe not that broad, but that's pretty much what I want to accomplish. Why do I have to write that a kid is going to practice addition and subtraction skills for a whole year? I don't really want that, I want them to be successful when we do our addition/subtraction unit. And then yes, I want them to carry over that knowledge as it pops up in other needed. But quarterly benchmarks on something we aren't actually studying at the moment? It's annoying and messy. My kids generally need EXTRA time to learn new material. How can I cover the standards I'm supposed to be teaching AND the standards that are in the IEP goals at the same time? Gen Ed kids only have to cover the one topic, but my kids have to do way more work in a less cohesive format. And I want the kids to be successful in all the topics we cover, are you really expecting me to write a goal for all 60+ standards in Common Core for any given grade level?  It's stupid.

2) Want to know what else is stupid? IEP minutes are stupid. They are SO RIDICULOUSLY DUMB. What we actually should be talking about is fluid, flexible, fully-resourced access to multiple different educational opportunities based on the needs of the kid at the moment. There is a lot of stuff that happens in the gen ed room that my kids could absolutely participate in. And there are certain units and activities that they would enjoy with their peers. And splitting minutes rarely works (ie half the Literacy minutes as pull-out). Maybe you've figure out ways to do the split thing, but all I've seen is it confusing kids and staff alike with kids being dumped into a classroom mid-lesson completely lost. Why can't we write in "support as needed" or "change settings as needed." I get this is harder to enforce, but there HAS to be a way to add flexibility into the system.

3) Which brings me to educational contexts. You can write the best IEP in the world, but if the school and district where you are has decided to criminally underfund education or completely warp the educational experience with ideological gibberish, what good is it? Educational CONTEXTS matter and we should be able to describe what the student needs beyond the individual. For example, I would put kids in inclusion IF there were caps on freaking class size. But my state has no caps, so I won't subject my students to so-called inclusion classrooms of 34 or more kids, sometimes in split grade-level classrooms. Or, if we weren't subjected to developmentally inappropriate standards (Common Core, cough...cough....) and insane pacing guides, I'd have my kids in the gen ed setting more. The way it is now is completely inappropriate. I need to be able to write in these whole class, whole school needs that affect my students.

4) IEPs written in legalese, not accessible AT ALL to parents and the students themselves. IEPs are a mess of acronyms, clinical reports, numbers and data points. Why can't these things be more user friendly? 

5) And SHORTER!! How do some districts accomplish the same legal documentation with less than 10 pages while others are requiring 50+ pages of work?? Why??? WHY?!?!?

6) IEPs are NOT transferable from district to district. We get kids who transfer in from other districts all the time. And the IEPs they come with end up having to be completely re-written in order to use them is our district. Why the complete lack of consistency across districts? Are there NO guidelines in IEPs? What the hell?

7) Data collection is OUT OF CONTROL!! I mean, tally marks, graphs, charts, constant progress monitoring. Before there were disgusting "no excuses" charter schools using numbers in lieu of children, there was special education. Quantitative, harsh cold, "objective" data used for everything. IQ tests, reasoning tests, behavioral tests, standardized test scores, behavior plans...all if it. I understand wanting something "objective" but come on. When I worked in mental health, we did daily charting on behavior, needs, interventions in narrative format. I found that WAY more helpful than freaking percentages, trials, charts, etc. Sometimes it's easy to forget we work with children under all the data. Maybe that's on purpose....


I would guess that the answers to a lot of these questions is...lawyers. Special ed is completely plagued with lawsuits and the ensuing obsession with all things data and numbers. Doesn't quite mesh with the job of working with human children. But I understand how the system doesn't work and hiring lawyers is pretty much the sole line of defense. Still, after 40 years of this growing technocratic solution to the "problem" of beautiful, unique children, things are spinning out of control.

I imagine a very different way to do special education. It doesn't involve needing an IEP in order to get services. Rather, that every child in a school gets an individual learning plan that is incorporated into the school's overall workings. That ALL kids have access to social workers, to learning specialists, to small quiet settings, to accommodations/modifications as needed. No label necessary.

But that utopia is very very far away in today's educational landscape of shrinking budgets, cutthroat accountability, and harsh school choice policies that turn diverse learners into liabilities on your books.

But can't we think of some better ways to function within the system that we've got? Like really, can't we? Something flexible, but binding? Something clear to non-educators, but still addresses all the legal requirements? Something short, transferable, and gets the job done? I know we can do better.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The New Best Way to Destroy Special Education

The best lies are always ones based in some truth.

The newest austerity project for districts across the nation, including the Chicago Public Schools, is to claim that special education budgets must be decimated: in the name of racial equality. Now, the refrain to destroy public services in the name of equality should sound familiar if you've been paying attention. Remember how corporate ed reformers claim that we must dismantle and privatize public education because of inequality, because of Civil Rights, because of racism? In fact, this is a favorite tactic of neoliberalism more broadly.

And now it's coming for special education.

Special ed has flown somewhat under the radar of the neoliberal education reform debate. Usually, it's brought up in the context of pushing out kids with special needs from "schools of choice" especially the charters where a significant disability is simply a liability on the books for free market privateers. These kids find themselves bounced around schools until they land back in the neighborhood school which must provide services, only now that school has been so striped resources as public money flows towards privatizers, the child languishes through schooling more unsupported than ever.

So now, districts that have had funding sources dry up-are looking to save money on the backs of their most fragile-but also most expensive-students: students with special needs.

Now, the one thing that stood in the way of this desire to slash costs, was that darned federally-protected document called an Individual Education Plan. There was legal recourse if this plan was not implemented. Charter or neighborhood, parents and kids had some rights. So the privatizers decided to use their favorite tool: a plea of racism and inequality as a reason to DENY services to needy kids.

Now, back to the beginning of this post, the best lies do have some truth in them. We do often see racial disparities in how special education services are doled out.

Yet all the studies I've seen focus solely on the individual. The problem has been completely framed as one of personal biases-usually the classroom teacher-who makes a racist decision to refer a child for special education. Those studies further the "bad teacher" mantra of the edreform crowd. (So naturally, it is those studies which get funded and published. Academia has been bought and paid for long ago. Sigh....)

Now, in an equal society, we should not see racial disparities. That's true. But who believes we live in an equal society?? We live in a deeply racist society, with real and damaging material impact on the quality of life, especially for kids, based on a legacy of racism.

District officials would have us believe that the rates of special education should be exactly the same, no matter the circumstances. And since they are not, teachers must just be over-identifying. Therefore, massive cutbacks in special education are not only warranted, they are a civil rights mandate.

No! Do not fall for the okey-doke, as my union president loves to say. They are using the language of equality to justify further inequalities.

If you live in a community experiencing massive environmental racism such as a lead poisoning epidemic, guess what? There should be higher rates of special education needs. If you live in a community facing tides of trauma and violence stemming from the intentional disinvestment, lack of affordable housing, lack of jobs, underfunded schools....guess what? All those factors can lead to learning challenges!! We know that too many Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can warp a child's ability to learn as well as affect behavior. Since we don't protect kids from trauma in our society, special education is frankly all we've got. Yet, we ignore these obvious factors because those in charge would have us believe "equality" just means all the percentages equal out without touching the true underlying racism beneath?

In fact, students with special needs in affluent, often white areas, are getting far MORE special education services. Low income kids and kids of color are actually already being denied fair and equitable access to special education services and these budget cuts are exacerbating a bigger problem. It's likely that kids with special needs are actually under-identified in systems that are so underfunded and understaffed, that it's not possible to follow up on every suspected case.

Make no mistake. Special education is under attack. We either stand up to save it, or we allow those in charge to continue to discriminate in the name of "equality."

Saturday, October 8, 2016

An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton, From a Chicago Teacher

Dear Madame Secretary,

I am writing to you today from Chicago on behalf of all the children, families, and staff in the middle of a massive manufactured crisis brewing in the Chicago Public Schools. A crisis in major part worsened by your friend, Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Rahm Emanuel and Hillary Clinton-AP
I am a special education teacher at an elementary school on the far South Side of the city in a high-poverty African-American community. Thanks to Rahm Emanuel's increased attacks on neighborhood public schools like ours, we are living under truly abhorrent conditions for teachers and students alike. My school is a survivor of his vicious, racist school closings from 2013 where the school down the street was forced into ours creating chaos and disruption for all involved. We have been beaten down by at least five separate rounds of budget cuts over the past 2 years since, with yet another round of cuts on the way. These cuts have seen lost teaching positions causing large class sizes (41 kindergartners in one classroom!), split classrooms (more than one grade in a class), and the laying off of other vital staff members. We no longer have a Librarian. We lost a much-needed clerk. We lost our Climate and Culture Coordinator and our mentoring program. CPS even has stolen our social worker and psychologist for all but a day or two a week despite the high number of children who have experienced trauma and need therapeutic services.

And we are indeed experiencing trauma. We are a school located in the middle of a neighborhood facing massive spikes in violence, thanks to Rahm's racist policies causing a lack of housing, jobs, and opportunity. Just yesterday, I sat huddled in my classroom, protecting my students during a lockdown as violence swirled around us, leaving a man dead on our streets just down the block and 2 others injured. As I comforted my students, crying and scared in the dark, the obscenity of Rahm's call for teachers to sacrifice MORE tore through my thoughts. Children at my school are in mental health crisis. Yet Rahm and his unelected school board have cut the very healing services we need now more than ever. As teachers, how can we allow these horrid conditions to stand?

Not only has Rahm gone after neighborhood schools, particularly in Black communities, but now he and CPS are coming after our most vulnerable population: students with special needs. CPS has changed funding formulas and procedures to access vital special education services in an attempt to save money for their crisis off the backs of our most fragile learners. We have seen harmful disruption in special ed services, with massive lawsuits brewing. Teachers are being laid off, support personnel are being lost, busing and transportation is being cut, and CPS has created a mountain of bureaucracy designed to prevent access to services. We are at criminal levels of harm to students.

Would you allow your granddaughter to attend a school suffering these types of assaults?

You say, "Black Lives Matter." Well now is the time for you to show that the Black Lives of children, children with disabilities, children living in poverty here in Chicago...that those lives matter to you. That the lives of Black Educators who are being laid off or pushed out of teaching in droves matter to you.

You say to teachers, "I'm with you." I heard you speak at the AFT National Conference this summer where you promised us that you are on our side. Well, in Chicago we are under attack, an attack led by your party's out-of-favor embarrassment, Rahm Emanuel. As the chosen candidate of the Democratic Party, we ask that you intervene directly. If you ask teachers to say, "I'm with her" then you need to show us that you truly are with us in our time of dire need.

Teachers in Chicago are on the eve of the second teachers' strike in four years. Members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike because we see the unacceptable reality of underfunded, sabotaged schools every day. We are willing to stand up and fight for the schools our students deserve. While we deserve fair compensation and should not shoulder the burden of the elite's created fiscal crises, this strike is about so much more than our pay.

Secretary Clinton, I invite you to come walk the picket line at my school should we go out on strike beginning on October 11th. Show us which side you are on. The wealthy bankers that profit off of Rahm Emanuel's privatization schemes or the families and teachers of Chicago?

It's time for you step up and show what kind of president you will be.

Katie Osgood
Special Education Teacher
CTU Delegate at a CPS Elementary School

Teachers and staff during the April 1st One Day Strike

Saturday, July 16, 2016

New CPS School Budgets are Stinky Turd Lumps

CPS has done it again. If you thought "Student Based Budgeting" was a bad idea (it is) then you will not be surprised to learn about CPS' brand new way to harm kids with budget cuts and to blame principals for the fallout.

Let's call it..."lumping." Instead of the previous system that funded special education positions (teachers and support staff) centrally, now CPS is lumping ALL sped and general education monies into one giant half-empty bucket. When student-based budgeting hit the schools three years ago, essentially slashing budgets, special education remained relatively protected. I mean, special education has...well, "special" protections under federal law.

Not that CPS didn't try to cut those darn expensive special education services. Last year, CPS DID slash those budgets. Only to receive a crap load of "appeals" from schools that ended up forcing the district to shell out even MORE money for sped. Turns out, special education has NEVER been funded adequately. (I know, I know...I'll give you a moment to get over your shock.)

So this year...I gotta give it to those wily CPS budget shenanigan-makers...they came up with a pretty ingenious way to cut back on expensive sped. They are going to make principals steal from the general education population! In order to meet those pesky federal requirements for special education, principals will be forced to cut gen ed positions, specials, after-school programs, and who know what else in order to fund the protected sped positions. And the district saves money!!! Win win!!  Yay!!!!!

By placing all the funds in one bucket, principals are left in a horrible predicament. They were told explicitly to staff sped FIRST. Because lawsuits. But what are principals supposed to do when the leftover money is not enough? Time to make those "tough choices," I guess. Like, cut teachers until there are 35-40 kids in a class. Maybe not have so much gym, art, or music. Kids don't need those fancy classes anyway, right? Three Rs people!! And after-school programs? Sports teams? Who needs those? Give the kids some video games and a picture of a tree, they'll be fine.

Oh, and no principal had better even THINK about hiring any teacher with more than 3 years in the system. Under SBB, this was already the sad new normal for general education teachers, and now this reality is hitting special education. But hey, this is great news for CPS! Fewer of those difficult tenured teachers who know that schools could and should be better places for kids and are crazy enough to go on strike to get the schools Chicago's students deserve. Nah, those teachers are nothing but trouble. Newbies, let's go with newbies. Especially for the most vulnerable population of kids in the system. Don't know what IEP stands for? No problem! Never written a Behavior Intervention Plan? Who cares! Line up here for the open positions.

This whole thing has the feel of a great big turd tied with a lovely pink bow. Look! Each school's budget is BIGGER than last year!! Hooray! Last year's budgets did not include sped costs.. Nope, CPS is just trying to hide their crappy numbers. This year's budgets are just cleverly disguised cuts.

I don't know about you, but this is unacceptable. No wonder principals are fleeing the district. No wonder teachers are on the brink of a strike. We need to fill the streets and put an end to all the nonsense.

I will go out on strike to force this district and city to adequately fund our schools. Will you?

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Obscenity of Teaching in These Times

**I am beyond angry. Beware strong language ahead.**

It feels like the world is crumbling around us. Our state remains without a budget-the longest period of time any state has ever gone without one-causing serious defunding of vital social services and added stress to every working person in Illinois. Our city seems to be devolving into chaos: lack of services coupled with spikes in violence. There are threats of our entire school system closing down. Whole neighborhoods seem one spark away from mass popular explosion.

And in the middle of this disgusting manufactured mess, people continue to try to go about their lives. But as a teacher, the cruelty of current education policy seems all the more obscene.

The neighborhood where I teach on the far south side of Chicago, is one of the neighborhoods most impacted by the mayhem. We have had a number of incidents of violence in the direct vicinity of the school including nearby shootings that forced our school to go into lockdown. There have been graffiti incidents on school property. As the longest school year winds down, behavior issues in the school worsen.

And in the middle of all this, we are forced to disrupt our students' lives even further with obscenely inappropriate testing.

Yesterday, the juxtaposition of the trauma both inside and outside the school came to a head. I spent the whole morning administering the mandatory district-wide assessment, an assessment which the Chicago Public Schools does not allow full IEP accommodations making it completely inappropriate especially for my non-reading students with special needs. But there I was, disrupting all my kids' routines and schedules, giving out this pile of garbage test. No less than three of my kids had meltdowns just before testing. The added stress and change in routine was too much for them. They began to cry and scream. It was traumatic to watch. It always hurts to see your kiddos cry.

But somehow we made it through the day. And then the worst happened. Right at dismissal there was a threat of imminent danger to our school. Our school went into another lockdown. A voice on the intercom telling everyone to lockdown while our security team (God bless them) rushed through the hallways moving all the kids packing up their bags at their lockers back into their classrooms in a mad jumble of confusion and fear.

My kids with special needs had already been dismissed to their homerooms when this most recent lockdown happened. A teacher told me afterwards how one of my babies-a girl with significant social/emotional needs-was on her way to the bus when the lockdown happened and security ran through the halls telling everyone to get inside their classrooms. She didn't know where to go so she tried to get back to my room all the way at the end of the hall. She has a physical disability which makes it hard for her to walk quickly so she was crying and emotionally breaking down in the hallway. Thankfully, my amazing colleagues took her in and calmed her. I can't believe this little girl had to go through that trauma after a day of testing. Obscene. Obscene.... 

How do we keep doing this? I can't believe that anyone is still talking about testing as a civil right. Come to my school and administer the damn test yourself if you believe that. YOU be the pawn in this twisted, sick, rigged game if you still spout that baloney. YOU add to the trauma of kids already beyond the limit any human being's ability to cope. 

Kids huddled in the corner of a dark, locked classroom in our schools experiencing constant trauma...but the powers that be would talk about teacher evaluation, test scores, and our unions as the problem. Fuck all of you. Fuck you.
There is violence happening around us. The violence of austerity. The violence of poverty. The violence of mass incarceration. The violence of chaos thanks to an immoral, unethical, truly evil ruling class that cares nothing about the pain and suffering their neoliberal policies breed.

This will not stand. School MUST be made a safe place for kids. We need the flexibility to create places of healing, not high-pressured, chaotic, joyless test prep factories.

Some days, I don't know how to keep going. I am participating in the trauma. One thing I do know, I won't stay silent about these horrors.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Limits of Social Justice Curriculum

For a number of decades now, the topic of social justice curriculum has dominated the progressive wing of education. Teaching culturally-relevant curricula, reading diverse books, focusing on social justice inside our classrooms is immensely important work. There are many great organizations that have centered that work such as Teaching for Change, Rethinking Schools, Teaching Tolerance, or Teachers for Social Justice here in Chicago. There are still a number of teacher prep programs and university-based educators who push for social justice curriculum in schools, although like everything else in neoliberal higher education, those programs are under attack.

However, I want to write today about the limitations of this kind of work in truly pushing for the liberatory change we need.

The Rise of Social Justice Curriculum Under Neoliberalism

First of all, let's be clear that the reason this form of social justice curriculum came into vogue was because of decades of attacks on working people and the repression of the uprisings we saw in the 60s and early 70s. The focus on the individual classroom experience for students outside the fight for systemic change-or even as a proxy for collective action-came about precisely because those movements of the 60s and 70s were being viciously beaten back. The collective had failed so so-called liberatory educators turned their focus to individuals. This shift happened throughout academica as neoliberalism took hold. The idea that became popular was if only students were exposed to histories that were relevant and told the often misrepresented or completely erased histories/herstories of people of color, working people, women, indigenous peoples, LGTBQ, or any other oppressed groups, students would learn more deeply and become advocates for change themselves.

Now I want to stop here to say, clearly and loudly, that I applaud the call for this type of full and culturally-relevant teaching. Learning about our world from outside the ruling class' narrative is extremely important. As is learning that math can be used to stretch empathy or Science to push for equality. My point is not to say that this push is not important-it is!!-but it is not sufficient. And we need to go deeper in our understanding of how these ideas are sometimes being used to dismantle the possibility of actual action that could lead to the transformative change we need.


This type of focus on the curricula can and is too easily co-opted by the other side. If you go to the Teachers For Social Justice Curriculum Fair, you will likely meet administrators in charters schools and other people who support neoliberal education reform. There are history teachers in CPS who will teach Howard Zinn while actively working with Teach Plus, an astro-turf faux teacher voice group that intentionally circumvents union activity. There are so-called "social justice advocates" who spend their time online attacking rank-and-file teachers who are pushing back on racist testing, on Common Core, on charters, on the attacks on our pensions, on Teach For America claiming that the only relevant work is social justice teaching in our classroom. Teach For America does an amazing job of spouting social justice language while doing the work of the 1%. And these misuses of social justice language and curriculum must examined.

The teaching of social justice curriculum has been strangely warped into a tool for the oppressors. Too often, the loudest voices from universities berating average teachers for not doing enough social justice curriculum would never be caught on a picket line or risk their jobs by challenging the neoliberal status quo of their own universities. They focus on a hyper-individualism of teachers alone in their classrooms against all odds teaching social justice, pretending that teachers don't operate in a system that will squash these attempts.

Teaching Social Justice Curriculum, something that is a highly political act, has been co-opted by some into an individualistic moral act. The individual teacher must teach these one-off lessons as proof that they are legit "social justice educators", but their political ideologies, actions, and affiliations outside the classroom remain unchallenged. This is how Teach For America has infiltrated groups like Teaching Tolerance or even Black Lives Matters.

It's not right to berate teachers already under a horribly oppressive system that is attacking teachers in every way. Until we win more battles through our fighting unions, social justice curricula is severely limited. There may may be a few teachers who teach specific subjects (usually Social Studies) in specific grade levels (7th and higher), often only in general education settings and who are privileged enough to teach in a setting where their every move in not monitored and scrutinized by administration. But for many of us, reading that culturally-relevant book or designing lessons around real-world problem is something we must do "in the cracks". We are exhausted and beaten down by the weight of a thousand harmful mandates, but the social justice warriors out there would beat us down further for not teaching the "right way."

Twisting "culturally-relevant" Teaching

But what even is the "right way" to teach social justice? In the elementary school where I teach, teachers are for the most part only teaching culturally-relevant books. Go into any teacher's room and see the majority of read-alouds feature people of color or girls. If anything, the push for "culturally-relevant" curriculum has pushed out a focus on any other people or places than the direct community where we work even in the Middle school grades. Since we are an African-American school, that's all we study. Definitely better than a Eurocentric curriculum, but kids have no exposure to any other global perspective. It's a weird perversion of what I believe the original folks pushing cultural-relevancy in classrooms were seeking, but it's a reality that no one is talking about. My kids know everything about the Civil Rights Movement-at least in the sanitized and a-political way it is taught today. They can spout off famous Black scientists or tell about the life of George Carver Washington. But they don't know where Mexico is. The could not understand a story about Mexican-American families also fighting for desegregation in schools. They had no understanding of global problems and oppressions much less how all our fights are connected.

At the end of the day, this diversity of curriculum does not challenge the ruling class. In fact, neoliberal 1%ers have no problem advocating for this type of work precisely because it does not challenge their power. Heck, go to my high school-one of the most privileged public schools in the U.S.-and you'll find Howard Zinn and other social justice materials being used. Even 20 years ago, I remember having those conversations about race, about oppression, about the realities of our world. And it didn't matter! Most of my peers went on to the ruling class lives they were destined for. Social Justice curricula did not change the realities of our systems.

Instead of this strange worship of superteacher-inspired social justice curricula, I wish that educators would be encouraged to actually organize in their buildings/places of work. Organizing is not the same as teaching and social justice advocates would be wise to remember the difference. Recently, the CTU sponsored an event geared towards helping educators facilitate student activism. While I did not attend the event, my understanding is that the speakers focused on classroom-level social justice curricula and not on practical ways to foster actual action. It was a completely missed opportunity for giving helpful advice to teachers who want to support student activism that is happening independently from the classroom. The advice could have included trainings for students & teachers to have organizing conversations, how to set up an actions, social media tools that have helped in the past, and a clear outline of the legalities involved with this type of work including when and where organizing can happen legally so people can know how radical they are actually being.


When "social justice" is taught in an intentionally apolitical way, it misses the whole point it was intended to accomplish. It's how someone can be a Teach For America apologist and simultaneously push "social justice" in the classroom. It's that same contradiction of apolitical teachers teaching about the Labor Movement in class-about working people and people of color-while refusing to participate in their own union that is actually fighting the powers that be. It's those online bloggers who write about how teachers are failing their students by never teaching social justice while berating those same people for organizing nationally to stop the current attacks. What IS that?

We have to be honest about what is happening out there. It was not the amazing social justice-inspired Social Studies curricula that saved Dyett High School, the last open-enrollment neighborhood high school in that area of the city-from closure. It was the courage and bravery of a small handful of people who went on a hunger strike. Action! Students in Chicago are not hitting the streets in protest thanks to the powerful curricula of their teachers-though I'm hoping that that must have helped. It's the addictive nature of the movement that is arising in this city. Many of the student leaders are children of teachers. That is not a coincidence. Others have parents who were thrust into this movement after experiencing the horrors of having their child's school closed. It's the movement. How can we help to nurture folks into action during these exciting times if we keep misdiagnosing the causes? Organizing matters. Movements matter.

Organizing and being part of a growing movement is what is activating people. You can't control when movements arise. But it's happening now. It hasn't been like this for a long long time. We must change our rhetoric and historical understandings to match our times. Social Justice curriculum is important. People should keep doing it when possible, but don't let that become a cop-out to actual action.

Get off the blogs and twitter. Get out of the universities. Stop moralistically bragging about your lesson plans. Stop attacking rank and file teachers trying to start resistance where there is none. And for god's sake, stop partnering with our enemies who speak the language of social justice while doing the work of the ruling class.

Now is the time of action and organizing.