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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Children of the Gun: How Lax Firearm Legislation Affects My Students

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Tanisha was just 6-years-old the first time she was in a shooting.

 

She was home in the kitchen looking for a cookie when she heard a “pop pop pop” sound.

 

Her mother rushed into the room and told her to get down.

 

Tanisha didn’t know what was happening.

 

“Hush, Baby,” her mom said wrapping the child in her arms and pulling her to the floor. “Someone’s out there shooting up the neighborhood.”

 

That was a story one of my 8th grade students told me today.

 

And it was far from the only one.

 

For the first time, my urban school district in Western Pennsylvania had an ALICE training for the students.

 

The program helps prepare schools, businesses and churches in case of an active shooter. Its name is an acronym for its suggested courses of action – Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate.

 

In a district like mine where three separate gunmen went on sprees within 5 miles of each other during the last few years, this sort of training is becoming more frequent.

 

We’ve had numerous seminars for the teachers – even active shooter drills. With the students, we’ve had lockdown drills were the kids were basically instructed to duck and cover under their desks or in corners or closets.

 

But this was the first time the danger was made explicit in an assembly by grade level.

 

Our school resource officer and middle school principal stood side-by-side before the 8th grade going over in detail how someone might come into the building with the express purpose to kill as many of them as possible.

 

And then they told these 12 and 13-year-olds that it was up to them to do something about it.

 

That hiding wasn’t good enough. They needed to try to escape or incapacitate the attacker.

 

It still shocks me that we’ve gotten to this point.

 

We no longer expect society to keep us safe – to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

 

It’s up to the children to watch out for themselves.

 

I can tell you as a teacher with more than 15 years experience in the classroom, I have never seen kids so quiet as they were in that auditorium.

 

It makes me sick.

 

When I was their age I was playing with Luke Skywalker action figures and building space ships out of Legos. I wasn’t discussing with police how to avoid a bullet to the brain. I wasn’t advised to wear my backpack on my chest to help protect against being gut shot.

 

I wasn’t then going back to class and talking over with my teacher how we can best barricade the room against any would-be bad guys.

 

But that’s what we did today.

 

I tried to reassure my kids that they were safe, that we could secure the door and if worst came to worst I wouldn’t let anything happen to them.

 

But these children aren’t like I was at their age.

 

They were shocked by the directness of the assembly. But they were no strangers to violence.

 

Later in the day, so many of them came back to me to talk about their relationship to guns and how firearms impacted their lives.

 

“I know you can’t get an automatic rifle unless…”

 

“I have a friend whose brother…”

 

“You don’t know what it’s like to lose your best friend to a gun.”

 

One of them had been friends with Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh friends with Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh. They knew all the details about how he ran from police and was shot down.

 

Someone coming into the school with a gun? Heck! They experience that everyday with the police.

 

For many of my kids, law enforcement isn’t automatically a comforting thought. They don’t trust the uniform. Often with good reason.

 

And now they were being told that safety was just another one of their responsibilities – like doing their homework and picking up after themselves in the cafeteria.

 

I can’t shake the feeling that these kids are being cheated – that the world we’ve built isn’t worthy of them.

 

What point is a society that can’t keep its own children safe?

 

What point police and firefighters and lawmakers and courts and laws and even a system of justice if we can’t use them to protect our own kids?

 

Isn’t that our job?

 

Isn’t that what adults are supposed to do?

 

Keep the danger out there so that the little ones can grow up and inherit a better world?

 

But we don’t even try to do that anymore.

 

We’ve given up trying.

 

No more pushing for better laws and safer regulations.

 

Just look the kids straight in the eye and tell them that death may be coming and there’s nothing we can do about it.

 

It’s up to them.

 

If that’s the best we can do, then shame on us.


 

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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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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Public School is Not For Profit. It is For Children.

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Betsy DeVos doesn’t get it.

 

But neither did Arne Duncan.

 

Whether right or left or somewhere in between, the person sitting at cabinet level tasked with advising the President on education matters invariably knows nothing about the purpose of public schools.

 

Duncan thought it had something to do with canned academic standards and standardized tests.

 

DeVos thinks it involves vouchers to religious or private schools.

 

But they’re both as wrong as two left shoes.

 

Public schools exist for one reason and one reason only – to meet the needs of children.

 

They aren’t there to enrich the private sector or even provide the job market with future employees.

 

They exist to teach, to counsel, to inspire, to heal.

 

And all these other schemes favored by Dunce Duncan and Batty Betsy that purport to meet kids needs while somehow enjoying the totally unintended side effect of enriching wealthy investors completely misses the point.

 

Public schools serve one purpose – to help the kids enrolled in them.

 

That’s all.

 

If someone is getting rich off that, there’s a huge problem somewhere.

 

Unfortunately, the Secretaries of Education of Donald Trump and Barack Obama aren’t the only ones to get it wrong. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have lost sight of this fact.

 

So have pundits and media personalities on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. So have CEOs and tech entrepreneurs and economists and anyone – really – whom our society seems to take seriously.

 

Don’t believe me?

 

Take the latest pronouncement from DeVos, our Secretary of Education.

 

She announced recently that she was looking into using federal funds to buy guns for teachers to better protect their students from school shooters.

 

It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is not in the best interests of children.

 

Teachers with guns mean a MORE dangerous environment for children, not less.

 

It means escalating the chance of friendly fire much more than boosting the possibility of a kindergarten teacher turning into an action hero.

 

It means heightening the chance of children getting their hands on these firearms and doing themselves or others harm.

 

And given the disproportionate murders of people of color even at the hands of trained professionals in the police force, it means children of color being legitimately terrified of their mostly white educators – or worse.

 

The reason given by DeVos may be to make children safer. But the measure she’s proposing really has nothing to do with them at all.

 

It’s a boondoggle for private industry – one private industry in particular – gun manufacturers.

 

Instead of sensible regulations on a product that’s at least as dangerous as items that are much more heavily controlled – such as cold medicine and automobiles – DeVos is doing the only thing she can to protect what she really cares about – corporate profits.

 

She is using money earmarked “safety” to increase danger.

 

Or as she sees it – she’s using a government apparatus that could harm the gun industry to instead pad its pockets.

 

You’ll hear some progressives and moderates decry this move with passion and fervor – and for good reason – but what many fail to realize is that it’s not new.

 

It’s really just a continuation of a sickness that has crept into our society about how we conceptualize the very idea of school.

 

We have moved away from the proposition that everything must be done in the student’s best interest and have replaced it with an imperative to benefit business and industry.

 

After all, what is the push for academic accountability through standardized tests and Common Core but corporate welfare for the testing and publishing industry?

 

What is the push for charter and voucher schools but government subsidies for school privatization?

 

High stakes standardized testing isn’t about helping students learn. Neither is Common Core, value-added measures or a host of top-down corporate policies championed by lions of the left and supply-side patriots.

 

They are about creating a problem where one doesn’t exist: accountability.

 

“How do we make sure students receive a quality education?” As if this has ever been hard to determine.

 

In general, the schools with greater needs than funding are where students struggle. The schools where everyone has more than they need is where they excel.

 

But they try to sweep the issue of inequitable funding and resources under the rug by framing the question entirely about teachers and schools.

 

In short, instead of asking about an obvious inequality, they hide a preconceived answer in the question: “How do we make sure teachers and schools are actually educating kids?”

 

Wrong question. But here’s the answer, anyway: Administrators observe teachers and determine if they’re doing their jobs. And school boards evaluate administrators.

 

In general, the staff isn’t the problem. It’s the lack of resources we give them to work with – everything from crumbling buildings, large classes, narrowed curriculum to a lack of wraparound social services.

 

It doesn’t take much to see we’re shortchanging our neediest students.

 

You don’t need standardized tests to tell you that. You don’t need new academic standards. You don’t need to evaluate educators on things beyond their control.

 

But doing so creates a new market, a need that can be filled by corporate interests unrestrained by the conviction that public schools are not supposed to be a profit-making venture.

 

People providing services for schools are supposed to make a living – not a killing – off the public’s dime.

 

The same can be said for school privatization.

 

Public schools are in no way inferior to institutions that are privately managed. Tax dollars administered by duly-elected representatives in the light of day are in no way less effective or more corrupt than the alternative – letting bureaucrats behind closed doors dole out the money however they choose even into their own pockets.

 

In fact, just the opposite!

 

Nor have charter or voucher schools ever been shown to increase student learning without also selecting only the best academic students and shunning those most difficult to teach, providing fewer resources for students and/or operating with greater funding.

 

But pretending that privatization is a better alternative to democratic rule creates a market, it opens the door so the system can be gamed for profit at the expense of student learning and wellbeing.

 

That’s why we look in awe at LeBron James, an athlete who uses his fortune to open a school providing all the things society refuses for students of color. A basketball player who refuses to usurp the public’s leadership role in administering that fully public school.

 

He’s a shinning example of actual philanthropy in an age of bogus philanthrocapitalism. But he’s also proof that his solution is not reproducible large scale.

 

The rich – even if they are well intentioned – cannot save us. Only the public can support all public schools.

 

And to do that, we must understand the purpose behind these institutions.

 

Otherwise, we’ll continue to be trapped on a runaway train where the conductor seems to possess no sense of urgency about slowing down.

 

We would never have been in this situation – and in fact could right the course even now – if we just took the time to clarify what we were doing and why we were doing it.

 

We could save generations of children if we stopped cashing in on public schools and realized the reason for their existence.

 

We could ensure both our present and our posterity.

 

If only we remembered that one thing.

 

Public schools are not for profit.

 

They are for children.


 

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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Kiss My Assessment – A High Stakes Testing Poem

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Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.

 

 

Little Laquan, Empty belly

Reading passages by Maichiavelli

Does he know what the author thinks

Last night did he get forty winks

Drive-by shooting in his neighborhood

Answer questions that he should

Interrogated by the cops

Took away and locked his pops

Now he sits slumped in school

Testing, testing, it’s a rule

Will he – this time – make the grade

A debt to society he has paid

 

 

For being poor and his black skin

Success and riches, let me in!

But not unless you answer right

Like wealthy kids whose hue is white

Not two plus two or three and four

Context implied when you ask for

European culture and white society

If you know it, you’re in propriety

If not, take a longer road

Hurdles to jump and words to decode

 

 

But do not label the test unfair

Rich folks will blast you with hot air

Testing makes them bundles of billions

Leaching off of us civilians

Test prep, grading and remediation

Never mind that it keeps you in your station

Need new books, here’s Common Core

So big corporations can make some more

Money off your starving schools

The funding is drying up in pools

 

 

As politicians vote to gut

So they can give bankers another tax cut

Hotels and yachts and Maltese vacations

Touring havens in other nations

To hide their money and avoid paying

Anything to keep preying

On little kids and their moms

So long as they aren’t forced to pay alms

 

 

No nurses, no librarians, no psychologists

Nothing to feed a tummy or an esophagus

No fancy buildings, no small class sizes

Nothing to match the suburban enterprises

Fewer resources, fewer tutors,

Crumbling classrooms, archaic computers

Just give them tests as charity

And pretend it means populace parity

When he fails, we’ll blame Laquan

Fire his teacher and make her move on

 

 

Close his school and open a charter

And then his services we can barter

To turn his funding into profit

Democracy melts like warm chocolate

Private boards get public voice

Deciding who to enroll and calling it choice

Spending tax money behind closed doors

Filling classrooms with Americorps

Instructors who never earned a degree

But cheap trumps any pedigree

For teachers to teach the darkest of humans

As long as they don’t form any pesky unions

Reformers they’re called, really just hypocrites

Wolves with sheep skin in their identity kits

 

 

They might refuse to come out of the closet

But don’t burn this humble prophet

Who tells you the truth about high stakes tests

About the school system and the unholy mess

We’ve made for kids so hedge funders

Can bark and rave and push for blunders

To make money off of kids misery

And a better world – not for you, not for me.

Am I obsessed and distressed by oppressive divestment?

Oh who cares? Kiss my assessment!

 

 

Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.


NOTE: I wrote this poem during and after proctoring this year’s PSSA test for my 7th grade students. Can’t imagine where the inspiration came from! I’ll just say that the opposite of standardized testing has always seemed to be poetry. I hope you enjoyed my verses.  It was either that or spit curses!


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!

book-2

Don’t Let School Lockdown Drills Become the New Normal

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I got an interesting phone call the other day from my daughter’s elementary school.

 

The counselor warned me that my little one’s class would conduct a lockdown drill – the first the kids had ever experienced.

 

With everything in the news about school shootings and the gun debate, the superintendent and principals thought they should prepare for the worst, even though they doubted anything like that would actually happen here.

 

The counselor just wanted me to be aware what was happening and to prepare my daughter for it so she wouldn’t be scared.

 

I thanked her for the call, and went in the other room to speak to my 9-year-old sweetie.

 

She was hunkered on the floor drawing pictures of her toys.

 

Mario and Luigi were chasing a purple Yoshi. Captain America was playing soccer with Wonder Woman. That kind of thing.

 

I opened my mouth — and my throat closed up.

 

I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it.

 

What would I say? —-Hey, Honeybunches. You’re going to have a lockdown drill at school tomorrow. Your class is going to prepare in case a gunman breaks in and tries to murder you.

 

She was staring at me now, Mario’s hat half colored in.

 

So I put on my teacher’s cap and explained everything that would happen, but not why.

 

She was completely unfazed.

 

“That’s all? Can I go back to coloring now?” she asked.

 

I nodded.

 

I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, but I wondered how she’d react. This was a girl who in kindergarten had cried at the violence of a fire alarm.

 

So the next day came and went – no mention from her about what had happened at school.

 

She wasn’t traumatized. She was her usual self – frustrated at her homework, bargaining for a snack, writing an autobiography of her soccer career that would start next fall when she signs up.

 

I waited a week and then asked her about what had happened.

 

In the most matter of fact voice, she told me how her third grade class had stood away from the door, clustered in one corner of the room holding books.

 

“Why books?” I asked, thinking that maybe the drill had gone on too long so they had something to read.

 

She said they were to throw at a bad guy if he sneaked into the room.

 

I imagined a gunman in my daughter’s classroom trying to spray the children with bullets only to be met by a hail of tossed books – Dr. Seuss vs. Smith & Wesson.

 

Then I envisioned her teacher pulling out a revolver and returning fire through the swarm of terrified elementary school bodies darting back and forth.

 

The shock must have shown on my face.

 

“Don’t worry, Daddy,” she said. “No one broke in.”

 

As usual, children do better with this stuff than adults.

 

But the reason why is exceedingly troubling.

 

They are still forming their concept of normality.

 

When I went to school, we never had lockdown drills. We had monthly fire drills and the occasional severe weather drill. But we never prepared for crazed murderers and terrorists. That just wasn’t in our routine or even our conception of what a school should do.

 

Yet it is now routine for my daughter. It is typical for most children these days.

 

As a teacher in a neighboring district, I had to preside over my own first lockdown drill with my 7th graders a few weeks earlier.

 

We clustered in a corner on the floor – the door locked, the lights off.

 

My class of rambunctious teens who rarely seem able to do anything without a constant stream of words was nearly silent.

 

The worst part was how I felt trying to downplay what we were doing.

 

Nothing to see here, kids. Just an ordinary day pretending to hide in a corner so a killer would pass us by.

 

And now after the drill, I keep my classroom door locked at all times.

 

It’s a huge inconvenience having to stop what you’re doing and physically open the door anytime someone wants to come in. But it’s what we have to do to bolster our sense of security.

 

It’s our new normal.

 

And I don’t like it.

 

It just seems to me like another way my generation has failed our children.

 

We’ve always known our gun laws are insane. We knew there should be SOME sensible regulations on who can buy a gun and where and why. We knew there was no good reason to allow civilians to own automatic weapons.

 

But we did nothing.

 

Okay, a few of us spoke up now and again. It did no good. Our lawmakers just waited out our outrage and kept pocketing the money from the NRA and the gun lobby.

 

And now we’ve accepted that school shootings are just another part of getting an education.

 

It’s just something else to prepare for – like a grease fire in the cafeteria or a flooded gymnasium.

 

I’m sorry, but this is not normal.

 

I refuse to let this be just another possible disaster we feel compelled to add to our list of Might Happens.

 

Thankfully, protestors are still out there demanding action from our politicians. Thankfully, demonstrations and town halls are still in the works like the April 20th National School Walkout.

 

But our leaders still think they can wait us out. And these lockdown drills feel too much like an admission that they’re right.

 

What sense of urgency do we have if we’ve already incorporated shootings into the calendar?

 

I’ll accept that these drills are necessary. But I won’t accept them as permanent.

 

These are temporary measures at best.

 

However, that’s something that must be made explicit. Lockdown drills cannot become a tradition, common, conventional.

 

It shouldn’t be – “Time for the occasional lockdown drill.”

 

It should be – “Look what our cowardly politicians are forcing us to do because they haven’t enough spine to stand up to the NRA!”

 

We mustn’t lose our sense of outrage over this cultural shift. Because if we do, the necessary political change will not come.

 

We need sensible gun regulations – not another B.S. duck and cover exercise to engender a false sense of security and pop our civic resolve.

 

hero-gun-control_tcm7-223281


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!

book-4

Respecting Student Free Speech Was Hard for Adults During Today’s School Walkout

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The kids are all right. It’s the adults you have to watch.

 

The walkout planned nationwide to protest gun violence today on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting came to my western Pennsylvania school – and we weren’t ready for it.

 

In fact, up until today no one had mentioned a thing about it.

 

I had asked teachers if they wanted to do something and was told it was up to the students to lead.

 

I had asked the high school student council if they were interested in participating, but there wasn’t much of a response.

 

Then this morning in the middle school where I teach, there was an impromptu two minute meeting where we were told some kids might walk out and that we should just let them go.

 

Their right to free speech would be respected and there wouldn’t be any penalty for participating.

 

However, as a teacher, I was instructed not to bring up the subject, not to allow discussion and only to attend if all of my students decided to go.

 

That’s a hard position to be in.

 

It’s like being put in a metaphorical straight jacket.

 

But I tried.

 

When my 7th grade kids came in, they were all a buzz about something and I couldn’t really ask why.

 

The suspense was broken with a sledge hammer during second period when one of my most rambunctious students asked if he could use the restroom at 10 am. That was over an hour away.

 

I told him he couldn’t reserve an appointment for a bathroom break but he could go now if he wanted.

 

Then he explained himself. At 10 am he was walking out.

 

The room exploded.

 

They had heard about the nationwide walkout at 10 – the time of the Parkland shooting. They knew kids all across the land were leaving class for 17 minutes – 60 seconds for each life lost in the shooting.

 

But that was pretty much it.

 

They didn’t know what it was that kids were protesting. They didn’t know why they were protesting. They just knew it was something being done and they wanted to do it.

 

It was at this point I took off my metaphorical straight jacket.

 

I couldn’t simply suppress the talk and try to move on with the lesson – on propaganda, wouldn’t you believe!

 

We talked about the limits of gun laws – how some people wanted background checks for people wishing to purchase guns. We talked about regulating guns for people with severe mental illnesses, criminal backgrounds or suspected terrorists. We talked about how there used to be a ban on assault weapons sales and how that was the gun of choice for school shooters.

 

We even talked about what students might do once they walked out of the building.

 

They couldn’t just mill around for all that time.

 

Since we were in the middle of a unit on poetry, someone suggested reading poems about guns and gun violence.

 

Students quickly went on-line and found a site stocked with student-written poetry on the issue – many by students who had survived school shootings.

 

I admit I should have checked the site better – but we had literally minutes before the walkout was scheduled to take place.

 

Some of the poems contained inappropriate language and swear words. But they were generally well written and honest. And the kids liked them.

 

I let them print a few that they wanted to read aloud at the demonstration.

 

They were actually huddled around their desks reading poetry and practicing.

 

They were really excited about the prospect of standing up and being counted – of letting the world know how they felt.

 

One student even wrote her own poem.

 

She said I could publish it anonymously, so here it is:

 

“Pop! Pop! Pop!

 

Everyone crying, calling their parents, saying their last goodbyes.

 

Screams echo throughout the building.

Blood painting the white tiles.

Bodies laying limp on the ground

Screams of pain

Bullets piercing our skin.

 

Yelling and sobbing increase.

We are escorted out.

 

‘Is this what you wanted?’”

 

 

I barely had time to read it before the time came.

 

Students stood up and were confused by the lack of an announcement.

 

But this was not a sanctioned school event. If they took part, they were on their own.

 

It was my smallest class and several kids were already absent.

 

They all left and were immediately met by the principal and security. To their credit, the adults didn’t stop them, but they told them not to put their coats on until they were outside and to otherwise quiet down.

 

I made sure to emphasize that anyone who wanted was welcome to stay in class. But no one did.

 

After the last child left, I grabbed my coat and followed.

 

When I got to the front of the building I was surprised by the lack of high school students. There were only a handful. But there were maybe 50 middle school kids.

 

When the principal saw all my students had decided to participate, he asked me to stay in the lobby. He said it wasn’t necessary for me to attend.

 

That was hard.

 

I wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to be insubordinate, either.

 

My students were expecting me to be there. They were expecting me to help guide them.

 

So I stood in the doorway and watched.

 

Students did as I feared; they pretty much milled around.

 

A few of my students held their poems in hand and read them quietly together but there were no leaders, no organization.

 

After about 5 minutes, the adults pounced.

 

The resource officer criticized them since their safety was more at risk outside the building than in class. Administrators chastised the collective group for having no plan, for only wishing to get out of class, for not knowing why they were there and for not doing anything together to recognize the tragedy or the issue. They said that if the students had really wanted to show respect to those killed in Florida they would have a moment of silence.

 

The kids immediately got quiet, but you can’t have a 17-minute moment of silence. Not in middle school.

 

I saw some of my kids wanting to read their poems aloud but too afraid to call the group’s attention to themselves.

 

And then it was over.

 

The whole thing had taken about 10 minutes.

 

Administration herded the kids back into the building early and back through the metal detectors.

 

I can’t help feeling this was a missed opportunity.

 

I get it, being an administrator is tough. A situation like today is hard to stomach. Kids taking matters into their own hands and holding a demonstration!?

 

We, adults, don’t like that. We like our children to be seen and not heard.

 

We want them to do only things that will show us in a better light. We don’t like them taking action to fix problems that we couldn’t be bothered to fix, ourselves.

 

But what right do we have to curate their demonstration?

 

If they wanted to mill around for 17 minutes, we should have let them.

 

Better yet, we could have helped them organize themselves and express what many of them truly were thinking and feeling.

 

If I had been allowed out of the building, I could have called the assembly to order and had my kids read their poems.

 

But doing so would have been exceedingly dangerous for me, personally.

 

I can’t actively defy my boss in that way. It just didn’t seem worth it.

 

If we had had warning that this might happen and planned better how to handle it, that also might have been an improvement.

 

Imagine if the school had sanctioned it. We could have held an assembly or sent a letter home.

 

The teachers could have been encouraged to plan something with their students.

 

Obviously if the students wanted to go in another direction, they should have been allowed to do so.

 

But these are middle school kids. They don’t know how to organize. They barely know how to effectively express themselves.

 

Regardless of how we, adults, feel about the issue, isn’t it our responsibility to help our student self actualize?

 

Isn’t it our responsibility to help them achieve their goals?

 

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a crazy hippie.

 

Maybe I’m some radical anarchist.

 

But I’m proud of my students for taking a stand.

 

It was unorganized and a mess.

 

Yet they stood up and did something we, the adults, really weren’t that keen on them doing.

 

Their message was a muddle.

 

But they had something to say.

 

They just haven’t figure out how to say it yet.