Teaching Through Lockdown

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“Excuse the interruption. We are under a lockdown.”

 

That was it.

 

Not an explanation of what caused it.

 

Not any idea of how much danger we were in.

 

Not any idea of how long it would last.

 

Just a vague warning that teachers knew meant to keep all their students in class until further notice.

 

As an educator, you’re expected to teach.

 

It doesn’t matter what’s happening around you. There can be yelling or screaming. There can be a scuffle in the next room. The lights may flicker off and on.

 

None of that matters.

 

If you have students and aren’t in immediate danger, you’re expected to teach them.

 

And that’s what I did. Even then.

 

I teach mostly poor and minority students in a western Pennsylvania school near Pittsburgh.

 

 

My 8th grade language arts class was in the middle of taking a final exam on The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton.

 

Most of my students were finished, but it was still quiet as two or three students struggled through their last responses.

 

Then the announcement came over the PA.

 

“…lockdown.”

 

 

The voice was the high school secretary. Since the middle and high school are connected, she rarely makes announcements in my building – only when something is important happening for both buildings.

 

The kids looked up at me with worried faces.

 

“What’s going on, Mr. Singer?” one of them asked.

 

I told them the truth – I really had no idea. There were no drills planned for today. In fact, it would have been a really poor time for one. We had just had ALICE training the day before where the resource officer and the principal had met with students to go over what to do in case of an active shooter. The program is named for the courses of actions it recommends – Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.

 

So we were apparently in the L.

 

During the assembly, the resource officer had said quite bluntly that there would be no coded messages. If a school shooter entered the building, officials would tell us in plain language what was happening so we could make an informed decision what to do.

 

But there was no additional message over the PA. That was it.

 

I went over to my computer to see if there was an email. Nope. Nothing.

 

I pressed refresh a few times. Nothing.

 

I asked the students to hush and just listened.

 

It was extremely quiet. Even the hallway was silent and it’s never that silent except during standardized testing.

 

My room has no windows to the outside. It’s a brick box with one wooden door containing a sliver of window.

 

The door was already closed and locked. We’re told to keep it that way just in case. But there’s an additional deadbolt you can click to make it even harder to gain access to the room.

 

“It’s probably nothing,” I said as I walked over to the door and surreptitiously clicked the deadbolt.

 

I asked student to finish their tests.

 

It seemed the best course of action. We could either worry about an unknown that was extremely unlikely or else just take care of our business.

 

It was hard getting the students to calm down. They were scared, and, frankly, so was I.

 

But this seemed the best thing we could do – Seek normalcy but stay vigilant in case things changed.

 

“Mr. Singer, may I use the bathroom?” asked one child.

 

“I’m sorry, but no.” I said. “Not until the lockdown is over.”

 

Somehow I quieted them down and the remaining students finished their tests.

 

It seemed to take them forever.

 

I stood by those who were finalizing answers in the hope that my physical presence would get them to concentrate.

 

For the millionth time I pondered the wisdom of grouping kids into classes based on test scores. All you end up doing is sorting them by poverty, race, trauma and behavior problems.

 

But they were soon done.

 

So they handed in the tests and we went over the answers.

 

“May I use the bathroom?”

 

“No. Not yet. Sorry.”

 

For about five minutes things went as they would on any other day.

 

But as soon as there was a lull in the activity, the fear and worry returned.

 

Students wanted to take out their cell phones and call or text home.

 

I told them not to.

 

“Why?” asked a boy in the front.

 

I knew the answer. We had nothing we could tell parents other than that there was a lockdown. We didn’t know what caused it or what was happening. If there was something bad going on, having parents come to the school would only make things worse.

 

But I just told him to put it away. I didn’t want to debate the situation. I didn’t want them (or me) to think about what might be happening.

 

We hadn’t finished watching the movie version of “The Outsiders” so I quickly put that on.

 

We only had about 15 minutes to go. And watching Dally get shot down by police probably wasn’t the best choice under the circumstances.

 

Still, the kids were focused on the film and not the lockdown.

 

We discussed how the movie and the book differed for a few moments.

 

But inevitably there was a lull.

 

We all got quiet and just listened. Nothing.

 

No. Down the hall we could hear something. Maybe a scuffle. Voices. It was hard to tell.

 

I started thinking of options, what to do if someone tried to enter the room. But it got quiet again.

 

Still no email. No message. Nothing.

 

I could call the office on my school phone, but that just might make things worse.

 

“Mr. Singer, I’ve GOT to use the bathroom!”

 

I looked around. I wasn’t sure what to do. I couldn’t let him out there. It would literally be better if he peed his pants.

 

He must have seen my confusion. “Can I just pee in a bottle or something?”

 

“Do you have a bottle?”

 

“No.”

 

I was about to tell him to take the garbage can into the corner and pee into it but there was no empty corner in the room.

 

Before I could remark any further, he said, “It’s okay. I’ll just hold it.”

 

That’s when I noticed the time. We had already spent more than the 40 minutes in the allotted period. The bell should have rung to get students to move to another room. That meant the bells were off.

 

The students noticed, too.

 

I kept telling them that everything was probably fine and that I wouldn’t let anything happen to them.

 

Then we noticed something weird out of the window in the door.

 

One of the school custodians was standing right outside the room.

 

He didn’t seem alarmed. He appeared to be looking for something.

 

Then another custodian walked up to him and they conferred in the hall.

 

We heard talking. Perhaps the principal in the distance.

 

Whatever was happening they seemed to have it under control and didn’t appear worried.

 

I had nothing planned for my students to do. We were well off book here. I couldn’t just start a new unit. I had no idea how long we’d be here.

 

So I asked them to take out their self-selected books and read.

 

They groaned.

 

“How are we going to concentrate on that?” someone asked.

 

I didn’t really have an answer but it was better to try than to worry needlessly.

 

So after some cajoling, they dutifully took their books out. Most just stared around the room listening to every nonexistent sound. But some at least appeared to be reading.

 

“Mr. Singer…”

 

NO YOU CAN’T USE THE BATHROOM!

 

Then not long after, the announcement came that the lockdown was over and students could move to their next class.

 

There was no explanation. Kids just breathed a collective sigh and went to their classes.

 

I let anyone use the restroom who asked. And I tried to teach through another class.

 

I truly expected a printed letter from the superintendent to be hand delivered to the room so the kids could take it home. But no. Perhaps there hadn’t been enough time to write, print and disperse one.

 

After the students were dismissed, I expected administrators to announce a staff meeting to let the teachers know, at least, what had happened. But there was nothing.

 

I went into another teacher’s room and saw a group talking. THAT was when I found out about what had happened.

 

A group of students in the high school had been fighting.

 

Apparently it was pretty bad – almost a riot. One child had been knocked cold and taken out of the building on a stretcher. The others had been removed by police.

 

When teachers had broken it up, some of the kids had run and were hiding in the building. That’s why the lockdown.

 

There was more on the 11 O’clock News. Some of the kids had filmed the fight with their phones and put it up on Snapchat.

 

We eventually got a letter from the superintendent and an email from another administrator saying that it had just been a minor fight.

 

Parents were on the news saying that administration hadn’t handled it properly, but no one showed up at the next school board meeting to complain.

 

And so life goes on.

 

The threat of violence always hangs over our heads.

 

It probably won’t ever come down to the worst case scenario. Yet the fact that it might and that no one really seems to be doing much of anything to stop it from getting to that point – that changes what it means to be in school.

 

We live with this reality everyday now.

 

It’s not fair to students. It’s not fair to teachers or parents.

 

But when you live in a society so broken that it can’t even begin to address its own problems, this is what you get.

 


Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Charter School Lobby Silent as Charter Teachers Continue Strike

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Charter school teachers in Chicago are in their fourth day of a strike.

 

Yet I wonder why the leaders of the charter movement are quiet.

 

Where is Peter Cunningham of the Education Post?

 

Where is Shaver Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform?

 

Not a word from Campbell Brown or Michelle Rhee?

 

Nothing from Bill Gates, Cory Booker, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton?

 

Not a peep from Betsy DeVos or Donald Trump?

 

This is a historic moment. Teachers at various charter schools have unionized before, but it has never come to an outright strikenot once since the federal charter school law was established in 1994.

 

You’d think the charter cheerleaders – the folks who lobby for this type of school above every other type – would have something to say.

 

But no.

 

They are conspicuously silent.

 

I wonder why.

 

Could it be that this is not what they imagined when they pushed for schools to be privately run but publicly financed?

 

Could it be that they never intended workers at these schools to have any rights?

 

Could it be that small class size – one of the main demands of teachers at the 15 Acero schools – was never something these policymakers intended?

 

It certainly seems so.

 

For decades we’ve been told that these types of schools were all about innovation. They were laboratories where teachers and administrators could be freed from the stifling regulations at traditional public schools.

 

Yet whenever wealthy operators stole money or cut services to maximize profits or engaged in shady real estate deals or collected money for ghost children or cherry picked the best students or fomented “no excuses” discipline policies or increased segregation or denied services to special education kids or a thousand other shady business practices – whenever any of that happened, we were told they were just unfortunate side effects. Malfeasance and fraud weren’t what charters were all about. They were about the children.

 

And now when charter teachers speak out and demand a better environment for themselves and their students, these ideologues have nothing to say.

 

Funny.

 

It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on here.

 

The latest audit of Acero shows they have $10 million a year in additional revenue that they aren’t spending on the students. Yet they’re cutting the budget by 6 percent annually. Meanwhile, Acero’s CEO Richard Rodriguez is taking home more than $260,000 for overseeing 15 schools while Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson makes slightly less money for managing more than 500 schools.

 

If the school privatization lobby cared about kids, it shouldn’t be hard to come out against Acero and in favor of these teachers and students.

 

But nothing.

 

Silence.

 

It seems to prove what charter critics have been saying all along – and how full of crap the privatization lobby has always been.

 

In short, the charter movement is all about the rich getting richer. It has never been about helping students and families.

 

Well, maybe it was once upon a time when union leader Albert Shanker backed the plan. But even he turned against it when he saw how it enriched the moneymen and corporations while doing very little for children.

 

 

The fact of the matter is that the only people at charters on the side of teachers, parents and students are the people generally associated with opposing them.

 

I, myself, am a huge foe of school privatization in all its forms – and that includes school vouchers and charter schools.

 

However, I have nothing against charter students, parents or teachers.

 

I know many educators who’ve worked at charters. In most cases they are dedicated, caring professionals who’d rather work at a traditional public school but had to settle for employment where they could find it even if that meant less pay, longer hours, and fewer rights.

 

I know many parents who sent their kids to charter schools because of funding inequalities or rampant high stakes testing at traditional public schools. In every case, they are doing the best they can for their children – navigating a system they hate looking for the best opportunities.

 

I’ve taught many students who’ve gone to charter schools and then returned to my traditional public school classroom disillusioned from their subpar experience in privatized education. Without exception they are great kids who try their hardest to succeed despite huge deficits from the years lost at charters.

 

These people are not our enemy. We are their allies.

 

We are pushing for a better education system for all of us. And this strike is part of that.

 

If the operators of Acero charter schools in Chicago (formerly UNO’s charter schools) agree to a living wage for teachers and lower class sizes, it sets a standard for the industry. It helps push other charters to do the same. It pushes charter schools to become more like traditional public schools. And that’s a good thing.

 

The amenities at traditional public schools should not be rarities.

 

Every school should have an elected school board. Every school should have public meetings, transparency and be accountable for how it spends tax dollars. Every school should have to accept the kids living in its borders and provide them the proper services and respect their rights. Every school should treat its employees like professionals and pay them a fair wage for a fair day’s work.

 

Ultimately, I think this means the end of the charter school concept. But that doesn’t have to mean the end of all these charter schools. Many of them that can operate effectively and efficiently should become traditional public schools. That may mean incorporation into existing districts or creations of new ones. It may mean additional funding from the state and federal government.

 

In the case of fly-by-night charters that do nothing but enrich their investors while cheating kids out of an education, they should be closed immediately and the persons responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law (whatever that is, if at all possible).

 

I don’t have all the answers, and what’s right in one neighborhood may be wrong in another. However, I am confident that there is a solution.

 

No matter how this strike is resolved, the fact that it exists – and is probably a precursor to more such strikes – points the way to a brighter future for everyone.

 

It’s a victory for workers over wealth.

 

And that is a victory for students, too.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Holiday Season Brings Fear and Resentment for Many Students

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“I hate Christmas.”

 

Teachers hear that with surprising regularity around this time of year.

 

I hate Christmas. I hate Thanksgiving. I hate every holiday.

 

America’s public school students are living under tremendous pressure.

 

The social safety net is full of holes. And our children are left to fall through the ripped and torn fabric.

 

The sad fact is that one in four students in America’s classrooms have experienced a traumatic event.

 

So if your classroom is typical, 25% of your students have witnessed violence or been subject to a deeply distressing experience.

 

That could be drug or alcohol abuse, food insecurity, severe beatings, absent caregivers or neglect.

 

These figures, provided by Neena McConnico, Director of Boston Medical Center’s Child Witness to Violence Project, are indicative of a truth about this country that we don’t want to see.

 

Our Darwinian public policies leave many children to suffer the effects of poverty – and our society doesn’t want to deal with it.

 

In impoverished communities, these percentages are even higher and the results more devastating.

 

The Center for Disease Control’s comprehensive Adverse Childhood Experiences study links the toxic stress of unaddressed trauma to heart disease, liver disease, and mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.

 

Young children exposed to more than five adverse experiences in the first three years of life face a 75 percent likelihood of having delays in language, emotional, or brain development, according to McConnico.

 

This translates directly to negative behaviors in the classroom.

 

Children who witness violence often have trouble in school because they suffer from post-traumatic stress, which can manifest as inattention, distractibility, hyperactivity, insomnia, aggression, and emotional outbursts.

 

Or, alternately, these children can sometimes withdraw and appear to be unfazed by their experiences. In some ways, that’s even more dangerous because while they avoid negative attention, they often get no attention at all.

 

It’s bad enough in the everyday. But it gets worse around the holidays.

 

Some of it is due to the structure and safety of school being removed. During holiday breaks, children are left to the mercy of sometimes chaotic and uncertain home lives.

 

Some of it is due to unrealistic expectations inevitably conjured up by the holiday season, itself. Even grown adults have trouble with depression around this time of year. But when you’re a troubled child, the unrealistic expectations and disappointments can be doubly impactful.

 

Loved ones are missing due to incarceration, divorce, abandonment, health issues, or death. Talk of family gatherings or a special meal can trigger hurt feelings for children who know their caregivers can’t or won’t provide them.

 

And it’s not always neglect. Sometimes there just isn’t the money for these things. We live in a gig economy where many people work multiple jobs just to survive. All it takes is missing one paycheck or one illness to disrupt holiday celebrations.

 

Even when parents have enough money, some just don’t bother to buy their kids anything. Sometimes families get to a better financial point but children have had to live through a period of food insecurity and are haunted by it. So even though the household is stable now, kids eat all their treats on the way to school because they always are fearful that the food will run out.

 

When kids have these sorts of fears, the ubiquitous holiday movies, TV shows, Christmas songs and commercials can set them off further.

 

It’s the most wonderful time of year for some, but not for all. For many students, the holidays are a time of dread and resentment.

 

That’s why it’s so important for teachers to be aware of what’s happening to their students.

 

For the quarter of American children who experience trauma at home, school may be their only safe harbor in a world of storms. Teachers may be the only people they see all day who offer a safe place, a stable environment and a friendly word.

 

For some kids, teachers are the only adults in their lives who make them feel valuable and supported.

 

We offer our students so much more than reading, writing and math. We’re allies, mentors, protectors and role models.

 

I wish we could save them from all the terrors of this world, but we can’t.

 

Let me be clear – I am in no way a super teacher.

 

But here are a few things I do in my classroom to help alleviate some of the stresses of the season – and often year round.

 

1)  Prioritize Relationships

 

Let your kids know you care. The student-teacher relationship is sacred. Nourish it. Be reliable, honest, and dependable.

 

As Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

 

2)  Listen to Them

 
Sometimes the best thing a teacher can do is just listen to students’ problems. You don’t always have to offer a solution. Our kids are dealing with so many adult pressures. Offering them the ability to get it all out in the presence of a caring adult can be a treasured gift.

 

“It’s really that simple,” McConnico says. “Listen, reflect back to them that they have been heard, validate the child’s feelings without judgment, and thank the child for sharing with you.”

 

3)  Create Opportunities to be Successful

Some people see teaching as essentially an act of evaluation and assessment. We observe students and then tell them what they did wrong.

This is extremely narrow-minded. When you get to know your students, you can offer them tasks in which you expect they’ll succeed. It’s the kind of thing we do all the time – differentiating instruction and offering choice so that students can achieve the goal in the manner best suited to them.

Sometimes you really have to work at it. If a child has extreme behavior issues, you can observe closely to find the one thing he or she does right and then praise them for it. This doesn’t always work, but when it does, it pays off tremendously!

Positive experiences lead to more positive experiences. It’s like putting training wheels on a bike. It scaffolds learning by supporting kids emotional needs before their academic ones.

4)  Routines

I am a huge fan of routine. Kids know exactly what we’re going to do in my class everyday – or at least they have a clear conception of the normal outline of what happens there.

I try to have very clear expectations, timelines and consequences. For kids who live in chaotic homes, this is especially comforting. It’s just another way of creating a safe place where all can learn.

 

5)  There’s Nothing Wrong With Downtime

I know. Teachers are under enormous pressure from administrators to fill every second of the day. But sometimes the best use of class time is giving students a break.

 

Let students finish assignments in class, read for pleasure, draw, even just daydream and relax. You can overdo it, but everyone can benefit from a little R & R.

 

This is especially true for traumatized children. Give them time to regroup from the mental and emotional stress. I find that it actually helps motivate kids to work harder when assignments are given.

 

The holidays can be a stressful time in school.

 

Kids get overexcited, they can’t concentrate, they’re torn left and right by the various emotions of the season.

 

As teachers, it’s our job to understand the full scope of what’s going on with our kids and make our classes as nourishing and safe as possible.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Teachers, It’s Okay to Smile

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I’m standing in front of my first period class after a long Thanksgiving break.

 

Papers are rustling.

 

Pencils are being sharpened.

 

Voices are lowering to a whisper.

 

And it occurs to me how glad I am to be here.

 

So I tell my students.

 

“We have a lot to go over today,” I begin and most of my middle school faces turn serious.

 

“But I just want to tell you all how happy I am to be here.”

 

Curiosity moves across those adolescent brows like a wave from one side of the room to the other.

 

Some even looked worried like they are afraid I am going to tell them I’m sick or dying.

 

“It’s true,” I continue. “I’m glad to be here this morning with all of you.

 

“I think teachers sometimes don’t say that enough.

 

“This is a great class. You’re all really good students, and I’ve watched you work hard and grow.

 

“For many of you this is the second year you’ve had me as your language arts teacher. For others, this is your first time with me. It doesn’t matter. I’m glad I can be with you and help get you ready for the challenges that you’ll face next year in high school.

 

“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – I am not just some guy who stands up here and gives you assignments. I’m your resource. If there’s anything I can do to make your year a better one, please ask.

 

“If you’re having trouble with the work or you’re confused about something, I’m here. If you need help with something – even if it’s not school related – I’m here. If you just want to talk or someone to listen – I’m here.”

 

I pause to see if there are any questions.

 

There aren’t, but neither is their any apparent doubt, bewilderment, perplexity.

 

The class looks back at me in silence with serene eyes and smiling lips.

 

And then we go on with our day.

 

Is it a big deal?

 

No.

 

But I think it’s worth noting.

 

Not that I’m some super teacher. I’m not.

 

I mess up all the time. But I feel like what I said this morning was right somehow.

 

It’s simple and easy and more of us should do it.

 

Kids can get the impression that teachers aren’t human. They’re these mysterious creatures who pass judgment on them — and where do they even go when class ends? Who knows?

 

I remember when I was a young educator one of my mentors told me the old chestnut “Don’t smile until Christmas.”

 

I saw where she was coming from. It’s easier to command firm discipline if students don’t think of you as anything but an educating machine. But I could never go through with it.

 

I smile on the first day – probably the first minute students walk into the room.

 

I greet them with a grin – every day.

 

And I think that’s right.

 

Discipline is a means to an end. You have to have some sort of order in your class so you can facilitate learning. But that doesn’t mean you should preside over prisoners locked in a penitentiary of their own education.

 

Learning should be about choice, fun and curiosity. It should be about expressing yourself as much as it is about finding details and forming grammatical sentences.

 

Everything we do should be in service to the student.

 

Reading comprehension is to help the student understand what is being said and then form an opinion about it.

 

Writing is to help the student express the maelstrom of their own thoughts in a way that can be understood by others.

 

I think we lose sight of that.

 

It’s okay to enjoy the work – for both students and teachers.

 

It’s okay to enjoy each other’s company.

 

In fact, you SHOULD do so if you can.

 

It does not somehow degrade the experience of learning. It enhances it.

 

When my classes are over, I always have several students gathering around my desk wanting to prolong our interaction even if it means they’ll be late to lunch or late going home.

 

Kids ask about my break and I ask about theirs. We talk about favorite TV shows, songs we like or even local news stories.

 

They share with me their middle school crushes and ask advice.

 

You have to draw a line between teacher and friend – and between teacher and parent. Because the kids are looking for you to be both.

 

But you can’t.

 

We walk a strange middle ground, but I think that’s necessary.

 

If I’m going to help students know things, I have to let them know me to a point, and I have to get to know them.

 

I can’t share everything with them, but they have to know I care.

 

As Theodore Roosevelt said:

 

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

 

So go ahead and smile, teachers.

 

Let your students know you care about them.

 

It will improve both your lives – and maybe even your teaching.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Grit is Sh!t – It’s Just an Excuse to do Nothing for Struggling Students

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Let’s say you’re out in public and you see a crying child alone in the street.

 

What would you do?

 

Would you run up to her and help? Or would you just shrug, mutter some derisive comment about the brat and walk on?

 

Our public school policymakers want us to do the later. In fact, they have a whole pedagogical justification for ignoring the needs of children.

 

It’s called “academic tenacity,” a “growth mindset” or “grit.”

 

And it goes something like this:

 

That child isn’t learning? If she just worked harder, she would.

 

It’s the political equivalent of “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” applied to the classroom.

 

And it’s super helpful for politicians reluctant to allocate tax dollars to actually help kids succeed.

 

The idea and the euphemisms used to describe it were coined by Carol Dweck as early as 1999. It was subsequently popularized by seventh-grade math teacher and psychologist Angela Duckworth.

 

In the early 2000s, Duckworth realized that IQ wasn’t the only thing separating successful students from those who struggled. There was also the tendency to overcome adversity or not.

 

Hey, Angela. Darwin called. He wants his Theory of Natural Selection back.

 

You know Survival of the Fittest was never meant to be prescriptive. As human beings, we’re supposed to be better than mere animals that typically leave the pack’s sick and injured behind to get eaten by predators.

 

But whatever.

 

The term “grit,” is defined as a “passion and perseverance for long-term goals,” according to Frontiers in Psychology. And it’s become one of the buzziest of buzzwords in academia.

 

So much so, that as you’re reading this, standardized test manufacturers are working to develop an assessment to find it in students.

 

The agencies that administer the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are close to including character assessments as a measure of student performance.

 

Oh goody!

 

They foresee a brave new world where multiple-choice tests will determine not just the entire scope of human knowledge but character as well!

 

But what no one wants to admit is that grit is… well… shit.

 

It’s just an excuse for a society that refuses to help those most in need.

 

In our world, there are haves and have-nots. But if we stop there, we ignore how and why this situation came to be.

 

Who places kids into segregated schools? WE DO.

 

Who allocates funding based largely on parental income? US.

 

We set kids up to succeed or fail before they even enter the school system with an economy that rewards the already rich and punishes generational poverty.

 

Yet when anyone suggests offering help to even the playing field – to make things more fair – a plethora of policy wonks wag their fingers and say, “No way! They did it to themselves.”

 

It’s typical “blame the victim” pathology to say that some kids get all the love, time and resources they need while others can do without — they just need more “grit” and a “growth mindset.”

 

Life’s tough. Get over it.

 

That’s easy for YOU to say! Because it’s the have’s who make the rules, it’s the people at the top who are telling the people at the bottom they’re to blame for their own suffering.

 

So you forget all the ways society has helped you and yours. YOU deserve all the credit for your successes.

 

But for those people over there, let’s forget all the ways society has refused to help and instead blame THEM for not overcoming the obstacles (we put) in their path.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying effort counts for nothing. But it’s part of a complicated matrix of nature and nurture.

 

Our environments shape us, but we have some control over what we do with what we’re given.

 

Yet as a society, we can’t simply ignore our responsibilities toward others and throw it all on the individual.

 

Good teachers know how to get the best out of their students. We know that most kids – if given a safe, encouraging environment – can succeed.

 

The key often is to scaffold that success. Give them something to do that they can actually master. Then give them something slightly more challenging.

 

You teach them that they have the ability to succeed and success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – and not the opposite.

 

However, the teacher – and even the school, itself – can only do so much.

 

As a society, we need to change the environment in which these kids grow up.

 

We need to fully fund our public schools to meet the needs of all students. That means more funding, services and opportunities for the underserved than for those who already have the best of everything and don’t need to rely as heavily on the school system for support.

 

We need wraparound services, counseling, tutoring, after school programs, community schools, jobs programs, continuing education for adults and other services to help heal the trauma of growing up poor in America.

 

But leaving it all to this magical thing called “grit” is just ignoring our responsibilities to our fellow human beings.

 

When you see someone suffering, you need to help them – not comfort yourself with excuses for ignoring them.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The World Mourns for Jews After Pittsburgh’s Synagogue Shooting. What About Other Targets of Hate?

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When a white supremacist killed 11 people and wounded 6 others at a Pittsburgh synagogue last weekend, the world took notice.

 

Lights dimmed at the Eiffel Tower and Empire State building.

 

Candlelight vigils were held nationwide – including in Boston, Houston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles.

 

A host of international leaders from the Pope to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed outrage, sadness and solidarity.

 

I’ll admit that as a native Pittsburgher and person of Jewish descent, it touched me deeply.

 

For a moment, it seemed like the whole world had stopped spinning and from every corner of the globe people were with us in our tragedy.

 

But at the same time, it was troubling.

 

After all, there were at least two other major hate crimes in the U.S. perpetrated within 72 hours of the shooting.

 

In Kentucky, a white man shot and killed two African-Americans at a Kroger grocery store following a failed attempt to break into a black church.

 

Only two days later, a deranged man who had railed against Democrats and minorities with hate-filled messages online was arrested for allegedly sending mail bombs to people who’d been criticized by President Donald Trump.

 

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Where were the candlelight vigils for those atrocities?

 

Where were the international landmarks going dark?

 

Where was the worldwide condemnation?

 

In the wake of Pittsburgh’s tragedy, these other violent acts have been almost forgotten.

 

Yet they’re all symptoms of the same disease – hate and bigotry.

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

What happened in Pittsburgh was terrible.

 

The Anti-Defamation League estimates that the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue may be the most deadly attack on Jews on American Soil in our history.

 

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But me and mine do not have a monopoly on sorrow.

 

We suffer, but we are not the only ones hurting.

 

This all happened not far from my home.

 

I’ll admit that I am having a really hard time dealing with it.

 

I am not sleeping well.

 

I find myself zoning out in the middle of everyday activities.

 

And I feel this constant anxiety like part of me is expecting to hear a gunshot ringing down the hall at any time.

 

When the alleged shooter entered the sanctuary armed to the teeth and shouted “All Jews must die!” before carrying out his plan, he included me in his declaration.

 

All Jews.

 

That’s me.

 

That’s my daughter. My parents. My family.

 

It means something to me that so many people have come together to repudiate this crime.

 

The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and other U.S. based Muslim groups donated more than $200,000 for funeral expenses. An Iranian refugee (who hadn’t even been to the three rivers) started a GoFundMe that brought in $1 million for the victims and their families.

 

You can’t go anywhere in Pittsburgh without a memorial, a moment of silence, a shared statement of solidarity and love.

 

At the symphony, musicians read two statements from the stage against hate before playing a Hebrew melody with string quartet.

 

At my school – I’m a teacher – the union decided to collect money for the victims.

 

 

I saw a barge floating down one of the rivers that had the message “Stronger Than Hate” on the side next to the modified Steelers logo where the top star had been replaced by a Star of David.

 

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I even saw a similar message on a Wendy’s sign: “PittsburghStrong/ Stronger/ Than Hate”.

 

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The community has come together in a way I’ve never seen before.

 

 

But I can’t help wondering why.

 

 

Even after Richard Baumhammers went on a racially motivated killing spree in 2000 murdering five people including two Jews, the response wasn’t this overwhelming.

 

 

Perhaps it’s just that this latest shooting is the final straw.

 

Perhaps it is the moment when our nation finally pulls together and says that enough is enough – We won’t tolerate this kind of hate and violence.

 

I hope that’s it.

 

However, in the shadows of my mind I wonder if it might not be a reflection of the same beast that struck us last weekend.

 

Could it be that we’re willing to put up with violence against brown people, but only draw the line when those targeted have lighter skin?

 

I guess my point – if I have one – is this: Thank you, But.

 

On behalf of Pittsburgh’s Jews, thank you for having our back.

 

If we’re going to survive this, we’re going to need your continued support and solidarity.

 

But it’s not just us.

 

Hate crimes have jumped from about 70 incidents a year in the 1990s to more than 300 a year since 2001. And after Trump was elected, 900 bias-related incidents were reported against minorities within the first 10 days.

 

Our country was built on the genocide of over 110 million indigenous Americans and the enslavement of 30 million Africans.

 

The idea of concentration camps didn’t originate with the Nazis. Hitler got the idea from U.S. treatment of Native Americans.

 

Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It just changed shape and is hidden in the way we practice health care, education, and policing all the way to mass incarceration.

 

 

The shock and solidarity in the wake of the synagogue shooting is appreciated, but it’s not enough to mourn only when 11 Jews are murdered in cold blood.

 

It’s not enough to take a stand against anti-Semitism.

 

We need to join together to fight all of it.

 

We need to be unified against school segregation, police brutality, xenophobia and prejudice in all of its forms.

 

The white supremacist who killed my friends and neighbors targeted us because he thought we were helping brown-skinned immigrants into the country.

 

We can’t just stand for the helpers. We need to stand for those in need of that help.

 

It just won’t work any other way.

 

We can’t just be against violence to light skinned minorities. We have to empathize and protect our brown skinned brothers and sisters, too. We have to love and cherish our LGBTQ neighbors, as well.

 

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We have to realize that our freedom, our safety, our very lives depend not just on what rights we have – but on what rights we give to all.

 

That is the only way any of us will ever feel safe again.

 

Through love and solidarity for every. Single. Human. Being.

 

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Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Pittsburgh Community is Stronger Than the Synagogue Shooter’s Hate

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There’s a popular yard sign in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

 

In bands of green and blue and yellow, it projects the same message in Spanish, English and Arabic:

 

“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

 

If the community had a motto, I think that might be it.

 

Though known for its high concentration of Jewish residents, the Pennsylvania locale is a multicultural crossroads.

 

That may have made it a target today when a shooter entered the Tree of Life Synagogue.

 

Though the alleged culprit has been captured, details are still being uncovered. The death toll has yet to be tallied.

 

Unconfirmed reports state that he shouted “All Jews must die,” before opening fire.

 

But I don’t believe that the Jewish community was his only target.

 

Or more precisely – it wasn’t just the Jewish part – it was the community that had grown up around it.

 

I know Squirrel Hill well.

 

I live close by. I grew up on those streets. I’ve been to services at that synagogue. I have family who are members.

 

Thankfully it seems that no one related to me was there this morning. But when victims names are released, I probably will know who they are.

 

I know this community.

 

I am an extended part of it.

 

And that’s something of which I am proud.

 

Just walk along Murray Avenue and you’ll see Indian, Italian, Jewish, African, Chinese – every nationality imaginable – offering the fruits of their culture for friendly commerce.

 

You’ll see Hasidic Jews in dark hats and flowing tzitzit walking next to women in colorful saris next to trans and lesbians, kids with every color skin playing together in harmony.

 

Whenever I want a good corned beef sandwich or a quality lox and bagel, I go there. Whenever I want a spicy curry or the freshest sushi or an authentic macaroon, that’s the place. If I want to hear a string quartet or a lecture from a visiting dignitary or even if I want to swim in a public pool, membership to the Jewish Community Center is open to all.

 

It’s like a few blocks of cosmopolitan life tucked away in a city more known for segregation. We have many ethnic neighborhoods but few where one culture flows so easily into another.

 

Heck. Even the Tree of Life Synagogue, itself, doesn’t serve one congregation. It serves three who all had services going on at different parts of the building this morning.

 

There’s just something very special about this place.

 

It’s where you can go to be yourself – in fact, you’re encouraged to be who you are and not conform to any particular norm. Yet in doing so, you’re somehow demonstrating unity.

 

Paradoxically, being you makes you one of us.

 

It’s weird.

 

I think it may have been that sense of community that made Squirrel Hill, in general, and the Tree of Life Synagogue, in particular, a target.

 

The hate-filled person who attacked us today was terrified of that unity.

 

He was so frightened of disillusion, of losing his sense of self, that he had to end the lives of those who could do what he couldn’t.

 

It’s pathetic, really.

 

If your sense of self is only a negative, only opposition to someone else’s otherness, you really don’t have much self to lose.

 

If you define yourself by your hate, what are you?

 

Do you even really exist?

 

Most of us are very different.

 

We are complex assortments of personality – a family identity, a cultural heritage, a work persona, a spirituality, a sense of justice.

 

Communities like Squirrel Hill nurture this multifarious nature.

 

They welcome and celebrate difference.

 

I wish America was more like Squirrel Hill and not the other way around.

 

If this community’s normal was our national ideal, think of the country we would be living in!

 

Being different wouldn’t be an obstacle, it would be cherished.

 

When meeting someone with an unfamiliar name, a heritage of which you were ignorant, a sexuality or gender identity of which you had little knowledge – your response wouldn’t be fear or discomfort. It would be a thrill of excitement that you are lucky enough to broaden your understanding of the many ways there are to be human.

 

It would be a country where no one grew up so stunted and afraid that the only solution they could imagine would be the death of others.

 

That’s the America I want to live in.

 

Squirrel Hill is stronger than this synagogue shooters hate.

 

I hope our country is, too.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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