Sunday, October 18, 2015

We Can't Talk About Discipline Without Discussing Mental Health

I try to follow closely the discussions around school discipline including zero tolerance or "no excuses" discipline policies, restorative justice, and the school-to-prison-pipeline. I applaud many of the groups of youth, youth workers, educators, and parents working to dismantle the StPP and implement more restorative practices in our schools, especially in schools serving low income Black and Latino students. There is no question that Black and Latino youth are being mistreated by racist and misguided discipline policies.

However, I feel there is a huge piece of the conversation that is missing: mental health. As we discuss student behaviors and appropriate contexts and reactions to those behaviors, I feel like we are glossing over the very real and very serious implications of trauma, depression, or other mental health effects that are exacerbated by poverty and racial oppression. Too many of our students and their families and communities are daily being bombarded by such incredible injustice and obstacles that the mental health toll comes out in their behaviors. Children and youth are responding in very normal and predictable ways to absolutely untenable circumstances. Poverty is often racialized in our city and poverty matters.

Back last fall, I finagled my way-by  practically begging my administration-to a CPS training on Restorative Justice. It was a good training. I appreciated practice in alternative ways to handle disputes, student conflicts, and especially the focus on "repairing the harm". Instead of "punishment", students are encouraged to come up with ways to fix whatever damage their behavior caused. I could see it working for many smaller problems that arise daily in schools, teaching children and young people responsibility while giving them a voice in the matter.

But in the back of my mind, I kept thinking back to my time teaching at a psychiatric hospital. And I thought about the kinds of absolute horrors some children have been exposed to. Hearing their stories of abuse that make you want to come home and weep. Kids being exposed to all kinds of violence. Children being thrown-unwanted-around foster care and group homes. Poverty and racism were so often at the heart of these stories. Parents who sought refuge in alcohol and drugs when there are no jobs, only housing insecurity and pain available. Families ripped apart by the prison-industrial complex. Babies who watched their siblings burn to death when they were left alone in a subpar housing complex during winter. Kindergartners being shot while sitting in their living rooms.

These stories sound extreme and certainly not every child or family living in poverty experiences these types of tragedies. But far too many people do. Far too many.

Being back in a neighborhood school located in a neighborhood experiencing deep poverty, I am reminded daily how ineffective even the best-intentioned discipline strategies are.

I appreciate the fact that restorative justice advocates are trying to reduce suspensions. But who is working on addressing the underlying reasons behind tough behaviors? People, especially children, will not be cured from major PTSD or depression by good intentions. No, we should not make things even worse through punitive discipline, but let's also not pretend that switching to restorative practices is nearly enough.

I want the conversation to go deeper and get more real. Teachers are in classrooms every day having to decide how to address truly dangerous and debilitating behaviors. A peace circle is great, but it's not enough. We are experiencing concentrated negative behaviors with no where near enough resources. And school policy is creating more concentrations of poverty and further segregating our school by race, class, and ability. It's one thing to be an advocate on the outside calling for restorative practices, it's quite another to be the teacher or school staff personnel confronted daily with the behavioral realities of working with kids in deep poverty. Kids who are in a constant state of fight or flight-ready to fight at the smallest provocation. Kids who cannot sit still, cannot focus, and even with modifications and accommodations, end up monopolizing a teacher's time.

There is racism in our school discipline systems. I don't want to take anything away from that fight. I have no doubt that there are white teachers who are making racist discipline decisions which accounts for some of the disparities. But isn't a greater racism that children of color are far more likely in our city to be exposed to trauma, to toxic stress, to have a greater number of adverse childhood experiences which lead to very normal but very disruptive behaviors in schools?

Can we talk about that please?

The Ugly Truths of Choice and That Which Divides Us

I spent the summer working on the Southwest side of Chicago-knocking on doors, organizing, and helping plan education justice events. I met amazing people who care deeply about equity, about justice, about improving the educational opportunity for their children.  I saw thousands come out in support of their neighborhood schools. I heard powerful testimonies of the great work happening inside the schools from students, teachers, staff, and parents.

I had not spent a lot of time on the Southwest side before. There is so much good, so much community involvement, so much kindness. It was beautiful.

But I also saw a less attractive side of the area. The SW side has a growing Latino population which is expanding into once formerly white working class or working class sometimes poor Black communities. I saw the tensions as demographics change and the racism or prejudice that arises when people from different backgrounds mix. I met older working white people talk about "those people" (referencing the Latino population) moving in which is why the schools struggle today, how there are only a few of "us" left on the block. I heard from Latino families that would NEVER send their children to "that school" even though it is just a block away with the unspoken understanding that "that school" is where Black students go to school. I met Asians who would never send their children to the closer neighborhood high school because it had too many "bad kids", but instead send their kids farther afield to a school with more middle class and stable families. And at the heart of the battle over charter schools in the area, giving parents "the choice" to run away from the parts of the their community they don't want to associate with. The kids with behavior problems, the kids with disabilities, the kids from deeper poverty or who live in public housing.

In other words, the Southwest side is like every other corner of my hyper-segregated city: race and class throw up seemingly insurmountable divides. Selective enrollment schools certainly fill this role. They are a "life raft" for families that want nothing to do with the "others" in the city, and ostensibly serve as an anchor for the middle class. And the charter movement, at least at face value (ignoring the obvious privatization, union-busting, and profit-motives involved with charters), offer that opportunity to "escape" to more families. Because that's what's equality looks like apparently: giving all people an equal opportunity to discriminate. To divide communities. To force families into cutthroat competition for the scraps of funding allowed to trickle down to the working class.

Now the "who" parents are fleeing is subjective. Sometimes it is the racism of white families fleeing Black kids or Latino kids. Usually it is more subtle. It's about class. It's about degrees of poverty. It's about real fears for safety. A common refrain was anger over the gangs in the area. It's an understanding that a school with shrinking resources, but high special education needs, will not adequately serve all students. It's also about real and demonstrable disparities in funding in certain schools and certain areas. Schools serving more white and middle class students get more funding in this city. So do the charter schools with our ideological Mayor and Unelected School Board in charge. Parents aren't making that up.

Which is why I think it's important to say that parents aren't actually crazy to choose discrimination. It is in fact, in many ways, the only "choice" given, as neighborhood schools are defunded and sabotaged. It's a pragmatic choice.

I don't have the answers on how to overcome these barriers. But I look to the fight for Dyett High School as a beacon of hope for our divided city. The fight for the last open enrollment high school in this city's historic Bronzeville neighborhood is being fought by a coalition of people from around the city. The Hunger Strikers were predominately African-American people from the community, but they were joined by a Mexican-American man from Pilsen, by a white man from Uptown, by grad students and teachers from around the city.

The struggle is what brought this unlikely group of people together, fighting united, for a common cause. I believe it is only being a part of the struggle that will change people's hearts and minds. I've seen parent groups from the north side take up the fight for great schools for ALL children after being exposed to the savage inequalities through the struggle. I've seen African-American, Latino, White, Asian, and people of all backgrounds march united through this city for the schools Chicago's students deserve. When people across the city unite, we become a force that might actually change the realities that try to reinforce our divides.

The advocates of "choice" want us separate. They want us to fight each other. It is that competition which drives profit and the expansion of choice.  We must choose a different way.

AUSL: A Pale Immitation of Good Teaching

The other day, I was at a professional development at an elementary school near mine on the south side of Chicago. I'm a Social-Emotional Lead at my school, so once a month, we go to a different school in the Network and learn from our peers about what works in their schools. We always start the meeting with a walk-through of the school, looking for inspirational new ideas.

As we walked around this school, we entered a classroom and one colleague noted, "Oh! I love the curtains!" Another answered, "Oh, that's an AUSL thing, I bet this teacher was AUSL."

[For those readers outside Chicago, AUSL stands for the Academy of Urban School Leadership. It's a private turnaround company which our unelected school board now gives every single turnaround contract to. I'm sure that monopoly has nothing to do with the direct links of our former school board president and Chief Administrative Officer who both worked for AUSL before coming to high positions inside CPS. But hey, we're used to serious and unabashedly open corruption in our city, right Chicago?]

This remark really got me thinking. How are curtains an AUSL thing? Apparently, this private turnaround company mandates curtains in every classroom. Mandates them. They also mandate things like having plants, couches, and rugs.

I have nothing against curtains and plants in a classroom. In fact, teachers have been adding touches like that probably since forever. But what started to bother me was that AUSL was copying something they thought was good and forcing it in every classroom, which completely negates the purpose of those darn curtains: to create a homey positive environment for kids. AUSL, like so many reformy groups, completely misses the point about what makes a positive atmosphere. It's not the curtains, it's the teacher who uses little touches like curtains to foster positive relationships with students.

And AUSL is not known for it's positive teaching environments. In fact, what they are most known for is oppressive environments where students are carefully policed and pushed out and teachers are given huge workloads with little autonomy or joy.

Does AUSL somehow believe that putting up curtains is going to negate the effect of draconian relationship-destroying discipline policies? Will teachers be more likely to create deep, positive relationships with kids under strict surveillance and long lists of "non-negotiable" mandates? And how does AUSL's policy of firing at least half of the staff when they take over a building affect kids' trust in the adults in the school? You cannot build strong relationships on a foundation of intentional chaos.

Of course AUSL is not about relationships. But neoliberal edreform is all about image. If you walk into an AUSL classroom, you might think it's a beautiful place. Just don't stick around long enough observe a child being berated and ultimately pushed out of the school. Don't watch the primarily new, young teachers be beaten down daily with mandates and heavy work loads. Ignore the hyper-focus on tests scores or the inhumane "data walls" put up next to those curtains.

AUSL fakes relationships. They go through the motions of creating positive environments while stifling the actual autonomy, creativity, and joy that is necessary to build those relationships.

Like so much else in edreform, AUSL is a phony.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Shame on Noble Street

Despite negative community impact, Noble Street Charter Network seeks to expand on the southwest of Chicago in the midst of a devastating budget crisis.
The Chicago Public Schools is experiencing a manufactured budget crisis of immense proportion leading to truly debilitating cuts to vast numbers of schools around the city. Schools are reporting the loss of teachers and support staff, as well as reductions in after-school programs, elementary sports teams, librarians, and special education services. In addition to over $200 million dollars in cuts announced at the beginning of the summer, another round of layoffs-including nearly 500 educators being pink-slipped-took place just this past Monday. The schools hardest hit by these cuts are schools serving high numbers of students with special needs and schools designed specifically for students with significant disabilities.
And it was on that date, the day thousands of CPS workers were told they would not be returning to their school communities, that the Noble St Charter organization came out to cheerlead for a new Noble campus on the southwest side at a Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) meeting.
Noble St has an ambitious expansion plan that has nothing to do with community need. In a leaked Teach For America document obtained by the education blogger EduShyster, you can see Noble St and other charter operators' plans for massive growth:

Charter operators actually have a financial need to expand at any cost, or risk defaulting on public bonds they have taken out. UNO Charter Network notoriously came under federal investigation for misuse of those government bonds. 
And so Noble St has been scouring the city, desperately searching for a site to build, despite the obvious lack of need and potential negative impact to communities. Noble St first tried to open on the northside of the city, but was met with strong community and elected official opposition forcing them to yank that proposal. They also tried to move an existing school to a different location on the northside and again that proposal was yanked after meeting strong neighborhood resistance. Noble then turned its sights on the southwest side, beginning with at least two proposals, then dropping that number down to one after yet more resistance.

Now Noble St is focusing all its attention on a southwest side location at 47th and California. There is absolutely no need for a school just five blocks away from Kelly High School and down the street from a new UNO High School. A number of other new high schools have already been built recently in the area including Solorio and Back of the Yards High Schools. All neighborhood schools in the area will be severely impacted if this Noble expansion is allowed to proceed and students and resources are allowed to be siphoned away. Despite repeated Noble St representative claims, most high schools have space for more students and many are seeing dramatic declines in enrollment. As we saw during the school closings debacle of 2013, CPS utilization numbers are way off as leadership and staff of schools report vastly different realities. Kennedy High School has a whole wing that is currently being rented out to an elementary school and could be re-opened. Kelly High School has lost over a thousand students in the past ten years. And Gage Park High School is dwindling down to a few hundred students, to name a few.

Thanks to CPS' ridiculous and unfeasible student-based budgeting system, even minor drops in enrollment will have major implications for local schools. Schools are already reporting losses in after-school activities, arts, library, and special education services. These schools have shown impressive improvement over the past 10 years despite cuts, yet they are being starved out of existence. And the building of a new school will be the nail in the coffin for some community schools.

July 23rd Meeting at Kelly High School
organized by Brighton Park Neighborhood Council
1,000 community members saying "No new charters!"

How can Noble St  continue to push its plan to expand? Even the charter-friendly Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan has come out against this charter expansion. Do these people truly not give a damn about the impact to this community? Do they really have the gall to pull proposals from the northside after largely white resistance, but ignore the THOUSAND mostly Latino southwest side parents, students, teachers, principals, staff, elected officials, and community members who came out to support community schools and say "NO TO NOBLE" on July 23rd?

The CTU alongside community and parent groups across this city have launched a campaign to fight for revenue for ALL students in Chicago. We have been pushing the Board of Education to seek money from a financial transaction tax, releasing TIF funds, progressive tax sources, and to pressure the banks to end toxic financial deals. Noble St has never joined us in the streets or at Board meetings. Instead, they turn their people out in order to steal money from schools that can least afford it. From the schools which serve the most students with mild, moderate, and profound special needs or Limited English proficiency (Noble does NOT serve these kids-see graph below.) From the schools that take in the students Noble callously casts aside every year thanks to oppressive discipline and academic requirements. From the schools lacking the social capital, political power, and access to wealthy donors to fill their coffers despite hard times.

From Jersey Jazzman (Graphic should read 2010):
Shame, shame on Noble St for siding with the very people destroying communities across this city and state. Noble St ridiculously has a campus named after Governor Rauner who is currently at the front of the attack on working people and public services. The new President of the Chicago Board of Education-the wealthy Frank Clark-also has a campus named after him. Their donors represent a who's who of the top 1%, the very forces looking to dismantle public education.

If Noble were noble, they'd pull this proposal for a new charter school on the southwest side immediately.

Noble St, this is your chance to show you have an ounce of moral fiber. I cannot believe the students, parents, and teachers at your schools truly want to participate in such a nefarious plan. Show some solidarity and work with your community instead of splitting the community. Pull the proposal!!!


Hope to see everyone out at a second NAC meeting graciously scheduled by NAC members after CPS purposefully picked a meeting venue far too small to accommodate all who wished to attend. 

6pm (Best to get there early!)
August 18th, 2015
Kelly High School

4136 S California Ave

Until then, get the word out about the need to end charter expansion and to invest in our existing community schools!

Use the hashtags: #NoToNoble #IfNobleWereNoble #BrokeOnPurpose #OurCommunity and follow Brighton Park Neighborhood Council on twitter: @BpncChicago

**UPDATE as of August 18th**

The August 18th meeting is STILL HAPPENING, but as a "Community Meeting" not a NAC.

CPS has canceled the second NAC meeting they promised. Noble St has unsurprisingly also pulled out claiming they won't attend as it's not an "official" CPS event. Of course, Noble has no intention of allowing community members to actually voice concerns in an open forum. CPS' event last week carefully controlled the crowd by telling the Noble folks a different time, purposely choosing a venue that was far too small, and then stacking the room in Noble's favor. They then only allowed people to write questions on cards, which they carefully vetted and only allowed maybe 10 of the 200+ people present to even speak and only to read their cards. Noble's representatives were given unlimited time to respond to questions in order to frame their PR spin. Noble cannot stand real democratic input.

If Noble were Noble, they'd listen to all members of the community, even if it's hard to hear. They'd show up to events that directly affect the community where they want to expand. They'd care more about meeting needs than the PR spin they're selling. They'd look the students, parents, teachers, and community members they are hurting in the eyes instead of hiding behind CPS smoke & mirrors.

But Noble not is not noble. Shame. Shame on this organization.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

It's Time to Bring Charters Back Into the Public Fold

Across the country, it is becoming ever clearer that the charter experiment has failed. Every glowing media story highlighting a charter "miracle" has been debunked. The so-called "success stories" are easily exposed to be examples of selectivity, school pushout, discrimination against students with significant special needs, behavioral challenges, or English Language Learners, obsessive test-prep focus, and oppressive "no excuses" discipline.

Charter school teachers in my city are organizing unions. Just this week, the teachers of the Urban Prep Charter Network voted for a union. I am so happy for my brothers and sisters who were being exploited, laboring in unacceptable working conditions, standing up for their students' right to a quality education. I applaud their courage in the face of massive pushback from slimy charter leaders. What they did was right for kids.

Charters, instead of providing quality alternatives by operating outside existing education laws and worker protections, have proven why many of those education laws and protection were passed in the first place.

The charter cheerleaders told us it was unions that were holding back innovation. Turns out, unions were all that were keeping even worse conditions from befalling our schools in the name of austerity-loving, greedy, and racist politicians and leaders. Without unions, charter teachers see how damaging having no protections can be. They work for lower pay, they have even less job security, they have no way to advocate for their students and the resources and time they need to teach well.

We were told charters would cut back on administrative costs. Instead, they duplicated and expanded useless, yet well-paid, administrators in our funding-starved system. Suddenly, instead of just one CEO in Chicago Public Schools, we have dozens, all making exorbitant salaries to oversee a small handful of schools. We also have seen the ballooning of middle-management, as each charter chain has its own HR department, marketing positions, legal teams, etc

We were told charters would bring transparency and honesty to a broken system. Instead, they have exploded corruption and unethical behaviors. We have seen scandal after scandal as charters have been called out on all kinds of greed and misuse of public funds. Here in Chicago, we've seen one our city's most politically-connected charter CEO Juan Rangel step down after a series of federal investigations revealed defrauding investors.

Charters did not even bring the spaces for experimentation as the system has gelled into one that favors pre-established corporate chains over the original inspiration of the "mom and pop", teacher-led school. In true Walmart fashion, cookie-cutter, "no excuses" factories are the norm in today's charter school "marketplace." Charters are not innovative.

At some point, even the politicians and leaders pushing charters and choice need to admit it is a failed experiment. One that has actually weakened the system as a whole.

It is time for public education advocates to talk not only about ending charter expansion, but to make the case to bring charters back fully into the public fold. I suggest we do it slowly-as opposed to closing these schools outright- to quell the disruption that is so damaging to our children. Allow all charter teachers to belong to their city's teacher union. In Chicago, instead of forcing these teachers into a separate local, I want to see all teachers in the Chicago Teachers Union.  And phase out the private management, city-wide attendance boundaries, and separate punitive discipline and retention policies which discriminate and pushout students who struggle in school. Let these schools become neighborhood schools even as we fight for the types of resources that all children deserve.

Let's make charter schools nothing more than a sad chapter in the history of public education.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Say "Sayonara" to the Japanese Language Program at Langston Hughes Elementary

Banner at the entrance to our school reads: "Welcome to Langston Hughes Elementary"
For the first time in fifteen years, the students at Langston Hughes Elementary School in Chicago did not participate in a Japanese World Language program. Hughes is a high-poverty school in the heart of the African-American Southside neighborhood of Roseland. This school has had a special relationship with the Japanese Consulate which provided a unique opportunity to study the language and culture of Japan, allowed students to participate in local Japan-related activities, and most strikingly, brought a group of students and staff from Langston Hughes to visit Japan each year free of charge to the participants.

Fourth graders created some Haiku as a "secret assignment"
 we completed on a day when no substitute was available
This year, I was hired to fill the Japanese Language Teaching position. I was to replace a sweet, older Japanese women who decided to retire after experiencing the chaos of trying to teach in a receiving school after Mayor Rahm Emanuel viciously closed 50 schools in 2013. When I hear stories of the fights, the anarchy in the hallways and lunchroom, and the tumult for the staff trying to survive resulting in a mass exodus the next year, I am not surprised to hear she chose to leave.

Due to the destabilization of the school closing and consolidation process, Langston Hughes saw a decline in their test scores and attendance rates which led to receiving the lowest possible rating, a Level 3. Our administration and Network reacted with an obsessive focus on improving test scores. They asked me to begin the year filling a special education position until they could hire a replacement. Our staff spent countless hours pouring over test score data, creating lesson plans aligned to a meticulous test-prep focused pacing guide, and shifted most after-school programs to either a remedial or test-prep focus instead of enrichment activities such as art or dance. If you were to walk into our classrooms, you would see kids doing often content-free, skills-based, tedious work. There are no projects, science experiments, or even the study of history. The fights continue and there is little joy in our building for students or staff alike.

And so, in the name of higher test scores, the Japanese Program has been discontinued. I never taught a day. At first, the hope was that it was only a temporary break, but it is looking more and more like the program is gone forever.

I had such high hopes...

A small portion of the Japanese curricular materials
and Read-Alouds
I had planned to build a culture-focused curriculum with language infused throughout that began with the students' lived experiences. I had hoped to infuse art, music, dance, math, science, history, and literature into the lessons. I had purchased a whole curriculum series from Australia, bought dozens of Japan-related Read-Alouds, and invested in numerous games, toys, and cultural objects. A friend connected me with a former Japanese elementary teacher who gave me hundreds of flash cards and lesson plan ideas. I bought numerous CDs of Japanese music and collected age-appropriate songs to facilitate
Flashcards, projects, and lesson plans have been
sitting unused all year
teaching the language. I ordered DVDs such as The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Happy Family Plan to have movie events. I had planned a Japanese website where we could share projects and videos. I reached out to current teachers of English in Japan to setup real time language exchanges. I started researching ideal spots for field trips such as the Mitsuwa Marketplace and Japanese Gardens. I planned to organize cultural events like "Multicultural Day", "Japan Day", or a "Japanese Sports Festival." I had begun to reach out to Japanese guests to share Taiko, Awa Odori Dance, Calligraphy, and Martial Arts.
A small fraction of games/materials 

I had ideas around examining critical issues in both countries such as race/racism/xenophobia, testing mania, and bullying. I was planning a cumulative video project with each class contributing a small section entitled "Our Community, Our City, Our Country" that we could bring on our annual trip abroad to share a more complete view of Chicago and The United States.  Students could take pride in their community as they shared who they are with our partners in Japan.

I was genuinely excited to teach this subject, to continue this truly special program, to bring kids-some of whom have never left their neighborhood-across the sea.

But, no. Thanks to the school closings, thanks to high-stakes testing, thanks to Common Core, all of that is shattered.  This program is lost forever to these children, only to be replaced by joyless, motivation-killing test prep.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Teachers: How We Treat Each Other Matters

Teachers are under attack. We know how our profession is being dismantled, our job protections are being systematically removed, and our working conditions are becoming ever more deplorable.

Many teachers are suffering serious depression, anxiety, and health problems as a result of these attacks.  We are suffering.

And yet, I continue to hear some teacher activists make disparaging comments and display underlying hatred towards our fellow teacher colleagues.

The other day, in a CORE meeting, there was a panel on Opting Out of testing.  During the panel, a student shared how her activist teacher convinced many of the Middle School students to Opt Out.  However, she also explained how they had to do this action “behind their teachers’ backs.”   I do not know the details of this action, but it raised a red flag to me.

What do we think about teacher activists who despise their colleagues?  Who do not bother to listen to colleagues and organize them? 

We hear it all the time.  “The teachers in my building won’t DO anything.”  “These teachers just don’t get it!” Complaints about biases and misconceptions, even racism or sexism.  And I have to wonder, what have YOU done to organize in your building?  Have you bothered to listen to your brothers and sisters fairly and respectfully, to attempt to understand where their ideas might be coming from?  Frankly, our union has been absolutely consumed by electoral politics for nearly the whole school year while the rank and file has been suffering under ever worsening conditions.  Who is listening the teachers’ pain?  And why should teachers risk their careers for whatever activist concern is in vogue? Who is teaching the teachers?  

Teachers are a diverse bunch who bring with them all the same biases and prejudices as any other segment of society.  Not everyone among our ranks has a deep analysis about race or critical pedagogy or issues like testing or education justice issues.  But the best way to challenge people on their ideas is to bring them into the movement.  It is through the struggle that we learn. 

How we treat one another matters.  We will never all agree, but we can approach one another with respect and caring.  Karen Lewis often challenges members to ask the question, “Does this unite us, does it build our strength, and does it give us power?”

And when I see some of the nasty comments about fellow rank and file teachers both in our activist spaces and online, I think the clear answer is “No, this does not unite us, it does not build our strength, and it does not give us power.”  There is nothing more divisive than the haughty self-righteousness of activists who “know-it-all”.  That smug, arrogant tweet or teacher-bashing comment in passing is simply not OK.  Someone took the time to educate you on the issues that matter.  Give others that chance. 

I keep thinking, what does it mean for people in the Caucus of Rank and File Educators to show outward contempt for actual rank and file educators? 

So activist teachers, please remember to be patient and kind when working with fellow teachers and staff.  Yes, challenge others.  But save time and energy to get to know our workers on the ground, to build relationships, to have those challenging conversations in a context of trust.

And remember, to attack our colleagues instead of organizing them is anti-union.

Let’s focus on who the real enemies are: The 1% who seek to destroy our profession, the neoliberal ideologues pushing austerity, school closings, and privatization, the union busters and those employed by the corporate reform movement. Let's keep building solidarity in the many inter-related fights for justice happening around our city and around the globe.

A contract fight is coming.  It’s time for unity and strength.  CTU! CTU! CTU!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

How &*%$ed Up is PARCC!?!

The Chicago Public Schools testing window for the first round of PARCC testing is set to begin in just over one week, from March 9th-April 2nd.  No one yet knows whether we will be forced to administer this exam.  Everyone at my school is on edge, wondering what will happen.  For now, all we know is that we need to prepare for this test as if it is happening, despite no official word from CPS.

Yesterday, we were all forced to sign a "Test Security Agreement and Schedule" and were informed that our whole staff will be required to take a mandatory, paid, after-school PD on PARCC.  Our administrators have also told us that all classes grades 3-8 will need to take the practice tests next week.  Some classes started administering these practice tests this past week, but gave up after an hour or so when students had only progressed through less than seven questions.

The scheduling alone is proving to be a logistical nightmare. The first "round" of PARCC consists of:
  • PBA Language Arts (3 Units): 105 minutes, 120 minutes, and 90 minutes
  • PBA Mathematics (2 units): 120 minutes and 105 minutes
(I thank the people who spoke at the ISBE PARCC hearings, because despite the fact that I'm expected to administer this ridiculous test in a few days, I had no idea how the test was divided up.)   And then there is another round of testing done at the end of the year:
  • EOY Language Arts (2 units): 90 minutes and 90 minutes
  • EOY Mathematics (2 units): 110 minutes and 105 minutes
Now, we just completed our Middle of the Year NWEA testing (the window was 1/5/15-1/29/15) and that in itself was highly disruptive and fraught with technical and logistical problems despite being a less time-consuming and less technologically demanding test compared to PARCC.  For NWEA, classes one by one took the test in the Library making that space unavailable for students or staff for nearly a month.  Our students with special needs were supposed to be tested in a separate locations, but as only our school counselor had access to the administration of the test, we ended up having to walk back and forth multiple times just to get the kids successfully into the program.  A bunch of our computers malfunctioned as well, sometimes kicking students off the test mid-way through causing mad scrambles to search out help during testing sessions.

And scheduling was a mess for students and staff for much of that testing window.  For example, at our school the 7th and 8th grade teachers are departmentalized (one teacher teaches Reading, one Math, one Social Studies to all the 7th and 8th grade students.)  So when one of the four classes was testing the other students could not switch classes as that teacher was with her homeroom class.  That meant, for an entire week, the seventh and eighth grade classes stayed in their homeroom class and did not receive instruction in any other subject but the subject taught by that teacher.  That homeroom teacher also was given the extra burden of figuring out activities for the students which they normally only saw one hour a day.

For special education, the scheduling problems were doubled.  All of our special education teachers teach more than one grade level.  So, when I was forced to administer tests to my students with special needs in one grade, the students in the other grades did not receive their IEP minutes.  For the teachers who teach self-contained classes, it was even worse, as their students who weren't testing had to spend the whole day in their general education classes, classes already burdened with being stuck in their homerooms all day, doing little work of value as a result.

Now that was just the NWEA which requires each class to take two testing sessions (one Reading, one Math).  The PARCC requires FIVE testing sessions this round alone.  And for each of those sessions at every grade level, students with special needs will need accommodations including testing in a separate location-space our school which was recently combined with a closed school after the school closings simply does not have,   These tests will throw off regular scheduling for nearly the entire window-that's almost four weeks of instruction.  Nevermind the large number of students who will need the make-up testing (our school, like many high-poverty schools, has low attendance and high mobility) and will miss instruction even after the regular testing ends.

And the end of the year testing schedule is even worse where PARCC and NWEA will overlap. The EOY schedule for PARCC is 4/27/15-5/22/15 and the NWEA is 5/11/15-6/12/15. Can someone explain to me how it is OK to put our school in utter disarray from April 27th until June 12th??  For the entire year so far, this means we would have the disrupted schedules for 4 weeks in January, 4 weeks in March, and 7 weeks in April, May, and June. That's fifteen weeks of testing!!!!  How many missed IEP minutes? How much lost instruction?  Our kids won't have access to our beautiful Library for months! 

And I haven't even touched upon the many ways these tests completely warp the learning in our school when we aren't actively testing.  PARCC and testing obsessions are destroying the joy of learning.  Nor have I talked about the massive amounts of money on these tests, the online test prep programs, and the technology upgrades being implemented solely to take these monstrous tests.  And the inappropriate and arbitrary raising of the difficulty of these tests guaranteed to fail most students, will cause all kinds of mental health and political repercussions.

There is no excuse for implementing this test  None. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

How the Sorting Game Hurts

Chicago has a long, racist history of sorting kids by race and class, thanks largely to highly-segregated housing patterns.  But the neoliberal push for "school choice" has created a chaotic marketplace of schools in my city which has exacerbated this massive sorting process further by adding new layers of sorting by attributes like test score taking ability and behavior/special needs.

WBEZ's Linda Lutton beautifully documented this new phenomenon in the report The Big Sort:

From WBEZ: 
And I've been thinking a lot of about what this massive sorting mechanism that is the public schools looks like down at the grassroots level, such as the small elementary school where I teach on Chicago's southside.  Seems to me that it ultimately hurts the kids who are "sorted" to the bottom the most.

Kids as "Liabilities"

The idea of shopping around for a school has become second nature for many Chicago parents. Schools spend more and more energy on "recruiting" parents through marketing campaigns and school fairs, but importantly, schools are looking for the "right kind of student".  Charters, Magnets, and Selective Enrollments are screening on the front end (recruiting process) and the back end (pushout, expulsion) for students who will get good test scores, have fewer behavior problems, and raise the prestige of their schools.

However, this mad scramble for the kids schools consider to be assets, begs the question of what to do about the other kids, the kids everyone now considers "liabilities" to their rankings and image.  Even at the micro-neighborhood level, there is a push to stack the deck in your school's favor.  As the number of students enrolling in schools outside their attendance boundary increases, schools may take or refuse kids depending on the principal's discretion. This leads to an even further sorting of students based on ability, test scores, and special education status.  And this sorting has dire implications when your school rating determines the fate of your school to operate autonomously or whether it stays open at all.

According to members of my staff, my elementary school has become the local "catch-all" in the neighborhood.  Teachers with colleagues in nearby schools have overheard parents being told, "Go to Langston Hughes, they'll take you."  Apparently, everyone knows which schools are the--and I hate to use this phrase, but it was what was reported to me--"dumping schools".  Now, I have no idea how accurate these rumors are, but I think the way people discuss schools locally is important.  There is a perception that some schools are "better" than others, and this perception is largely based on how well the school manages to "sort" out the tougher to educate students.

And I have noticed how a disproportionate number of students transferring in to our school have high numbers of IEP minutes leaving us with significantly more students with special needs than surrounding schools.  Our school currently has a special education population of about 24% while the nearby neighborhood schools have between 8%-14%, with the charters and magnet schools serving the least numbers of students with disabilities.  Part of that difference is explained by our pre-school blended program, but that program is not nearly big enough to account for all the difference.  If schools were truly taking students randomly, there should be pretty similar levels of special education students in every school, especially within a specific geographical region.

Choosing Between Good And Bad ClientsA large part of the differences between schools and their school ratings seems to be explained by how well administrators "screen" kids.  In fact, there are teachers at my school who complain that our principal "just lets anybody in."  And given the fact that our school is one of just 26 other elementary schools in the district to be given a "Level 3" status, the lowest school rating possible, this difference matters.  For better or worse, teachers know that the fate of the school is on the line.

And it seems clear to me how the school was already at a disadvantage after being a receiving school and having another local elementary school folded in with our existing one last year after fifty schools were closed causing massive chaos and disruption. According to the residents in the neighborhood,  the kids from the closing school came from the "tougher" part of the community, even though they were just a few blocks away.  The families were just a little worse off, housing was just a little more unstable, and violence was just a little more prevalent.  Again, these micro-level differences matter in a cutthroat competitive environment.

A School Dream Deferred

And then there's the "consequences" of being one the lowest tiered schools which demonstrably worsens the experience of schooling for students and staff alike.  Everything is dictated to us from above, with no autonomy to tailor lessons to our unique students' needs.  There is a testing obsession-absolute obsession-as we desperately try to raise test scores.  Every meeting, award ceremony, assembly, or discussion centers on test scores and test scores alone.  Since we are a "Level 3" school, our Network is constantly in our building mandating bad practice over which we have no control.  We are forced to use multiple computer programs guaranteed to "get those scores up!"  We must teach in the most formulaic way possible.  We must do the exact opposite of what we know our students actually need and deserve.

So our students are subjected to dry, disjointed, test-centric curriculum.  They are told over and over how they are nothing more than a test score and even our student conferences center around these scores.  Our kids with special needs are repeatedly being given inappropriate material and pacing guides all in the name of raising test scores.  "The diverse learners are bringing us down" our special education department is told over and over again.  Projects, field trips, and foreign language programs are being abandoned as they take away from the test prep.  As the curriculum becomes more and more tedious and inappropriately "rigorous," behavior problems worsen causing the school to react with stricter discipline and punishments.  We are forced to do everything wrong in the name of raising test scores.

Being at the bottom of the heap means every bad ed reform out there is fed to us on steroids.  From Common Core, to edtech, to Teach For America, to data-driven obsessions, to oppressive discipline...we have it all.  It's a vicious cycle where our low rating causes the school to be forced to do bad practices which leads to more bad ratings.

So when people complain about my school being the "bad" school, there is truth in that statement.  But that "bad" designation is one manufactured by competitive "choice" policies and solidified by top-down reform.

I try to imagine a world where kids are allowed to be kids.  Where schools that serve needier kids, kids who have experienced more trauma and upheaval than most adults, would be wrapped in love instead of bounced around schools like an unwanted pet.  I imagine a place where a child's negative behavior is seen with understanding instead of the fear of bringing down the entire school.  I imagine a world where kids are welcome no matter where they go and aren't viewed as a "liability" ever.  I imagine a world where we acknowledge the differences among kids and celebrate those different strengths and weaknesses, instead of using them to juke the stats.  I imagine a world where the students who need the most are given the best education we have, instead of the very worst of test-prep, lock-down torture.

But I don't live in that world.  I live in Rahm's Chicago.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

I Don't Know How to Teach Under EdReform

It's formal observation time at my elementary school.  In the Chicago Public Schools, we have a new evaluation system that mandates a lengthy, complicated, and ridiculous process of administrators going into classrooms for formal observations at least three times a year for nontenured teachers like myself.  During those observations, administrators are expected to record every little detail they observe over a forty-five minute period of time and then use these "snapshots" as a large part of our total evaluation.

In order to prepare for this observation, I was forced to create a very specific type of lesson, one carefully aligned to the Common Core State Standards and that follows our mandatory pacing guide dictated by our Network.  I was expected to demonstrate that I used student data to guide my instruction.  I needed to follow a very regimented lesson plan format that left virtually no room for creativity on my part.

I told myself I could make the lesson at least somewhat engaging for my students.  I purposefully picked a high-interest reading passage that was culturally relevant to my students to use as my model and practice guide. I chose a fun, game-like way to introduce the skill as if that could mask the stink of what I was asking my students to actually do.

But it was after delivering this lesson, with a slight gleam of sweat on my brow from the anxiety of such an intense and punitive process, that I realized, I have no idea how to teach this way.

I don't know how to teach without context.  I don't know how to teach reading without centering literature at the heart of it. I don't know how to teach the discreet "skills" of reading according to standards which tell me I must teach how to infer, how to compare/contrast, how to analyze author's technique completely divorced from the content.  I don't know how to teach without inspiration or creativity.  I don't know how to teach to data points.  I have no idea how to go through a whole lesson without acknowledging my students for what they bring to the table instead of simply assessing if they left that table with the meaningless new "skill" lodged momentarily in their brains.

I did not learn to read by filling out a graphic organizer on plot structure.  No one forced the ten-year-old me to repeat back literary terms or dissect a reading comprehension passage as if this was what reading is all about.

I read because I love it.  My earliest memories of reading were of wonder, and curiosity, of staying up too late in bed with a book I couldn't put down.

It's true.  I must be a "bad teacher".  Because I don't know how to teach under edreform.