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!