Thank You, Wealthy Robber Barons, for the Freedom to be a Free Rider!

 

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Wow! I now have a real choice when it comes to my union!

 

At least, that’s what the email I got from the Mackinac Center says!

 

Now that the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the Janus vs. AFSCME case, I don’t have to pay any of my hard earned cash to my union!

 

I can be a free rider! I can get all the advantages of belonging to a union – higher salary, better benefits, better safety precautions – and I can leave it to the rest of the membership to pay for me!

 

That’s amazing!

 

And what’s even more amazing is who is sending this email to me!

 

I mean the Mackinac Center is funded by Betsy DeVos and her family, the Koch Brothers, Eli Broad, the Scaifes, and the Walton family!

 

Who would have ever thought some of the richest people in the world would take an interest in my union membership!?

 

How nice of them!

 

I’m merely a public school teacher! In my more than a decade in the classroom, they’ve spent billions of dollars to weaken my profession!

 

They lobbied for education funding nationwide to be gutted so they could get another tax cut!

 

They invested in charter and voucher schools and then demanded we build more of these privatized institutions with little to no accountability so they could rake in record profits!

 

They’ve weakened education at schools serving the highest populations of students of color and then benefited when those same kids turned to crime and were incarcerated in their private prisons!

 

Instead of holding politicians accountable for inequitable funding and instead of supporting teacher autonomy, they forced high stakes standardized testing and Common Core on me and my students!

 

They demanded my administrators undervalue what I actually do in the classroom but instead evaluate me based on my student test scores – so being given struggling students means I’m somehow a worse teacher than the person across the hall with the honors class!

 

They did all that but suddenly they’re concerned about my freedom to withhold union dues!?

 

Well Golly!

 

Jeepers!

 

Gee Willikers!

 

Goodness gracious and bless my soul!

 

I must have been wrong about these fellers and these ladies all along!

 

They really DO care about little people like me!

 

Did you know that a 2011 study by researchers at Harvard and the University of Washington concluded that higher union membership encourages higher pay across the economy!?

 

It’s true!

 

They said the decline of unions accounts for as much as one-third of the increase in wage inequality since the 1970s!

 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, when union membership goes down, the wealthy make more money! Conversely, the more union membership goes up, the less money goes to the wealthy!

 

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And despite all that, the rich are concerned that I have the right to stop paying union dues!

 

I mean if I stop paying my dues and my fellow working stiffs stop paying their dues, then my union might just have to close up shop!

 

And that would mean my wages would go down!

 

But these same rich people who just sent me an email would see their investments go up!

 

They’d take home sacks of cash! So much money that they’d probably drop some and maybe I might be able to pick up a few pennies they leave on the curb!

 

Isn’t that great!?

 

You know public sector employees including firefighters and police, and teachers like me are the largest sector left of the workforce still represented by unions!

 

According to BLS statistics, 38 percent of public sector employees are represented by unions!

 

It’s true!

 

Back in 1945, union membership nationwide was at its highest rate of 33.4%! That means back then about a third of all American workers belonged to a union!

 

Last year it was down to 10.7 percent!

 

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In the intervening years, manufacturing jobs have declined, blue collar jobs have been outsourced and both political parties have passed laws making it harder to unionize and collectively bargain!

 

But thank goodness I now have the right to get something for nothing from my union!

 

That’s going to perk things right up!

 

Sure, numerous studies have shown that declining union membership is one of the major causes why middle class wages have remained basically flat! But I get to keep a hundred bucks in my pocket so everything’s square!

 

One thing worries me, though!

 

I’m not sure many union workers are going to take advantage of this new freedom!

 

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t agree with everything my union does! No one could say that!

 

I don’t agree with everything my government does, either, but I still pay taxes!

 

And I wouldn’t stop paying taxes even if I could! I like being an American citizen, and I like much of what my government provides by way of our military, infrastructure and social programs!

 

It’s the same with my union!

 

I mean I LIKE earning higher wages! I LIKE getting better benefits! I LIKE knowing I work in a safe environment!

 

And when I have a better working environment, my students have a better learning environment!

 

I doubt many of my co-workers are going to stop paying their dues just because they can!

 

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We’re not stupid! We know that if you want union benefits, you have to pay union dues! The Supreme Court can say whatever it likes! It can’t legislate passed reality!

 

Moreover, who would want to associate with a co-worker who refuses to pull his or her own weight!?

 

If I found out one of my colleagues was leaving it to me to pay for both of us, I’d throw a fit! I wouldn’t associate with that person!

 

If he or she came to my room asking for advice, I’d tell them to get lost! I wouldn’t eat with them at lunch, I wouldn’t chat about their day, I’d give them their walking papers, myself!

 

Frankly, the social cost would be higher than just paying your union dues!

 

So thanks anyway, Mackinac Center! Thanks anyway, Charles and David Koch! Thanks anyway, Betsy DeVos!

 

I’m sticking with my union.

 

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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!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

 

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“He Was Kind” – My Students Describe What I’m Like as a Teacher

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What’s the most important attribute of a good teacher?

 

 

Some might say intelligence.

 

 

You want a teacher who knows the subject matter and can convey it clearly to students.

 

 

Others might say classroom management.

 

 

You want a teacher who keeps things organized and gets kids to behave.

 

 

But for me the most important thing a teacher can be is kind.

 

 

I’m not saying intelligence, classroom management and a host of other qualities are unimportant, but if you approach your students with good will in your heart, the rest seems to fall into place.

 

 

This isn’t a long-held pedagogical belief I could have articulated for you at the beginning of the school year.

 

 

It came to me – as did so much else – from my students.

 

 

At the end of the year as my 7th graders are finishing up their final projects and we’re tidying up the room, I always give them a little survey about their experience in the class.

 

 

“I’ve been grading you all year,” I say. “Now’s your turn to grade me.”

 

The surveys can be anonymous – kids needn’t put down their names, and whatever they write has no impact on their grades.

 

 

Yet the results are always enlightening.

 

 

I wrote in detail two years ago about the survey and the kinds of responses I often get.

 

 

But this year it was one of the simplest comments that really got me thinking.

 

 

“He was kind.”

 

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That’s what one of my students told me that I had done especially well during the year.

 

 

“He was kind.” That’s all.

 

 

It was a response that was echoed by many of my students.

 

 

Another child wrote:

 

 

“He was kind (and awesome). One of the best teachers.”

 

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And another:

 

 

“He can’t [improve]. He is the best he can be and is the teacher I wish I had every year.”

 

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This is all very flattering, but what exactly did all this niceness mean?

 

 

How did being a kind teacher help me do my job? What did I do that helped students learn?

 

 

They had an answer for that, too:

 

 

“He came and sat with me and helped me through everything I needed help with.”

 

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***

 

 

“If we needed help on anything he helped and explained everything well so work was easier.”

 

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***

 

 

“What my teacher did to help me succeed was that he made me feel motivated to do the work in class and not giving us so much work at once.”

 

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***

 

 

“[He] taught me how to write essays, indent on papers and showed me a lot of useful things.”

 

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Another particularly enlightening comment was this one:

 

 

“I don’t know [how he could improve], but in this class you grew with us. So uh yeah.”

 

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And I do try to change and grow with my students. When your mandate is to individualize instruction to fit each particular child, I don’t know how you can do otherwise.

 

 

This means opening yourself up and letting students know who you are and what you stand for.

 

 

I try not to inflict my political, religious or philosophical beliefs on my classes. However, I think some core values come through.

 

 

For instance, my students knew I was going to Connecticut to give a TED Talk on the current state of public schools.

 

 

They knew my thoughts on standardized testing and school privatization – perhaps not in detail but the general shape of them, certainly. They knew my firm conviction against racism, sexism and prejudice of any kind.

 

 

Perhaps that’s why one of them wrote this:

 

 

“You’re not only a good teacher. You’re a good friend, and man.”

 

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***

 

 

“P.S. – Nice jokes and commentary.”

 

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Of course there were dissenting opinions. One child thought I was too nice:

 

 

“He is way too nice for me and you give way too much essays for people to handle. But overall grade 94%. He doesn’t like Tom Brady so yeah. And he likes the Steelers.”

 

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I guess no one’s perfect. But how interesting she thought either she deserved a stronger hand or would have been more motivated by fear and consequences. Yet I have to take her with a few grains of salt because this student identified herself on her response and had a friendly rivalry with me about football. She said I was too nice but then referenced our interpersonal rapport.

 

Another student highlighted how I wasn’t excessively permissive:

 

[He was good at] “Helping me with instructions and keeping me on task.”

 

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Most comments were unbridled approbation:

 

 

What did your teacher do especially well this year to help you succeed? – “Uh, everything.”

 

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***

 

 

In what areas can your teacher improve his/her instruction? – “I’m not sure. That’s how good a teacher he was.”

 

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***

 

“I think you did awesome, Mr. Singer. Thanks for being my reading teacher!”

 

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***

 

 

“I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He’s already a great teacher.”

 

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And so another school year comes to an end.

 

 

I’ll miss this class. It was the first year I taught exclusively 7th grade. I’d taught one or two sections of that grade before, but never only that grade.

 

 

I’m more used to 8th grade. You wouldn’t think there’d be a world of difference between the two. And who knows? Perhaps if I teach the same grade level next year things will be even more unexpected because the kids will be different.

 

 

But when that final bell chimed, I was surprised that so many kids came up to me with hugs and tears.

 

 

They really didn’t want to see me go, and, frankly, I don’t want to see them go, either.

 

 

If I could follow them next year, I would.

 

 

I gave them everything I had to give.

 

 

I gave them my heart. I shared with them my life.

 

 

And I got back so much more.

 

 

That’s what non-teachers don’t understand.

 

 

Education is created through often reciprocal relationships.

 

 

Learner and teacher are tied together in a positive feedback loop. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which and sometimes there is no difference at all.

 

 

Thank you so much, last year’s students.

 

 

Thank you for letting me be your teacher.

 

 

Thank you for bringing out the best in me as I tried to do the same for you.

 


 

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!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

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The Best Charter School Cannot Hold a Candle to the Worst Public School

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There are good charter schools.

 

I admit that.

 

There are bad public schools.

 

I admit that, too.

 

But if one had to choose between the worst public school and the best charter school, you’d still be better off with the public school.

 

Does that sound crazy? Does it sound ideological, partisan, or close-minded.

 

I don’t think so.

 

Imagine if we said the same thing about tyrannies and democracies.

 

There are good tyrannies.

 

There are bad democracies.

 

Still, I’d prefer the worst democracy to the best tyranny.

 

Why?

 

Because even a badly run democracy is based on the principle of self rule. The government gets its right to make and enforce laws from the consent of the will of the governed.

 

Even if our representatives are corrupt and stupid, even if our federal, state and local agencies are mismanaged and disorganized – there is the potential for positive change.

 

In fact, the catalyst to that change is embedded in democracy, itself.  Egalitarian systems founded on the principle of one person, one vote tend toward fairness, equity and liberty much more than others.

 

Bad leaders will be replaced. Bad functionaries will be retrained or superseded. Bad agencies will be renovated, renewed, and made to serve the will of the people.

 

However, in a tyranny, none of this is true.

 

Even if you have a benevolent tyrant who does nothing all day but try to do whatever is best for his or her subjects, that is a worse state of affairs.

 

Eventually the tyrant will change. Absolute power will corrupt him or her absolutely. Or even if this bastion of human goodness is incorruptible, he or she will eventually be deposed, replaced or die.

 

And there is nothing – absolutely nothing – to ensure the next tyrant is likewise benevolent. In fact, the system is set up to increase the likelihood that the next ruler will be as selfish, greedy and malevolent as possible.

 

This is because it is the system of tyranny, itself, that is corrupt – even if those that fill its offices are not.

 

The same goes for good charter schools.

 

These are schools that are publicly funded but privately run.

 

As such, the overwhelming majority have no elected school board, their meetings are held in private, their documents are kept secret, they discriminate in enrollment and they take advantage of a plethora of legal loopholes and bad policy to embezzle funds, overcharge for nonexistent utilities and cut services for students while pocketing the “savings” as profit.

 

If you can find a charter school that does none of these things – congratulations! You have found a diamond in the rough! But it is a diamond that is more likely to turn to coal the second you turn away.

 

Let’s say you find the rare charter school run by an elected school board. THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. Organizers could at any time revert to an appointed board. Community members could be making all the decisions when you send your child to school, but by dismissal time they could have all been replaced with flunkies appointed by the private business people who took out the charter from the state in the first place!

 

 

Let’s say your charter school has open meetings and public documents. They invite the public to their deliberations. They take public comment and share all their internal communications with taxpayers and the media.  THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. They could close the doors any day they wanted. And there’s nothing you could do about it.

 

 

Why? Because that’s what a charter school is. Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, it is not fundamentally a public school. It is a private school at public expense.

 

 

All these things that are optional at a charter school are required at public schools. Not just some public schools – ALL OF THEM!

 

 

Public schools are required to have elected school boards (unless taken over by the state). They are required to have open meetings and public documents. They are essentially democratic, whereas even the best charter schools are only democracies because of someone’s goodwill. When the wind changes, so will their system of government.

 

 

But that’ not all.

 

 

Let’s say you find a charter school that has open enrollment. It accepts every student who applies from its coverage area. Or at least it does so until it runs out of room. If demand exceeds supply, it conducts a lottery to determine which students to let in and which it has to unfortunately turn away.

 

First of all, if the school doesn’t have open meetings and public documentation, you have no way of knowing whether these lotteries are fair and unbiased. Operators are often charged with cherry picking the best and brightest and denying students with disabilities or behavioral problems – they’ve even been known to discriminate based on race and class.

 

Second of all, even if your charter school is one of the magical few that just does the right thing with no oversight, THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. Once they figure out how much money they can save by only accepting the cheapest students to educate, inclusive enrollment policies will be a thing of the past. And you’ll probably never even know the difference.

 

Public schools aren’t allowed to do that. They have to accept every student from their coverage area regardless of academic deficits, emotional needs, race, religion, class or creed. And if there isn’t enough space, they still can’t turn students away. They have to expand!

 

And what about the most salient feature of charter schools?

 

 

Unlike public schools where all the funding has to be spent on student services, most charter schools are run for profit. They are allowed to cut services for students and swipe the savings for their investors.

 

Some charter schools don’t do this. BUT THEY CAN! Any day now they could cut little Timmy’s gym class down to twice a week so a shady group of business people in a smoke filled room could stuff a bunch of bills in their own wallets.

 

Offering French AND Spanish? Adios muchachos. And bonjour to a fistful of dollars going directly into their bank accounts.

 

All of that is perfectly legal even though it’s your money they’re collecting – money you put aside to help your child learn – there’s not a thing you can do about it.

 

Sure, you can take your child out of the charter school. But the money funding the school isn’t just your child’s. You’re paying for every student enrolled there. Even if you don’t have kids, you’re footing the bill. And unlike the public school system where you get a voice in how that money is spent, here you don’t get to say a thing.

 

You just get to pay.

 

Call me crazy, but I think there’s something wrong with that.

 

I think that’s worse than even the most decrepit public school.

 

If a public school has a terrible school board, they can be replaced. In fact, they most certainly will be given time. With each bad policy and unpopular decision, bad school directors motivate taxpayers to vote them out.

 

This is the exact opposite of charter schools. There is more reason for a charter to replace an elected board with an appointed one so as to increase their autonomy and ability to make money.

 

Most of the problems with public schools aren’t located in the schools, themselves.

 

They are the result of strategic disinvestment – archaic funding formulas that allocate less to districts without a large tax base than those in richer neighborhoods. They are the result of segregation schemes that keep the poor and minorities in neighborhoods where they can be ignored and then blamed for their own underprivileged status. They are the result of national and state policies allowed to play the parasite on their budgets – high stakes testing, Common Core and – yes – charter schools.

 

So, no, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be so positive about public schools and so negative about charter schools.

 

The problem with privatized education isn’t just specific to individual schools. It is a feature of the very kind of school we’re talking about in the first place.

 

Charter schools are at heart a less democratic system than public schools.

 

Therefore, public schools are always preferable.

 

I wouldn’t give up my country just because we have an idiot in the oval office. Nor would I give up my public school just because of inadequacies in my local district.

 

Democracy isn’t for wimps. You have to fight for it.

 

Those people who are telling you to switch teams are trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

 

Don’t fall for it.

 

Public school proud.

 

Today.

 

Tomorrow.

 

Always.


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!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

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Pennsylvania’s Broken Testing Promise – We Don’t Assess Students Less If We Demand Constant Diagnostic Tests

Jelani Guzman

Downcast faces, dropping eyes, desperate boredom.

 

That’s not what I’m used to seeing from my students.

 

But today they were all slumped over their iPads in misery taking their Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) test.

 

It’s at times such as these that I’m reminded of the promise made by Pennsylvania’s Governor, Tom Wolf.

 

He pledged that this year we’d reduce the amount of time public school students spend taking standardized assessments.

 

“Students, parents, teachers and others have told us that too much time in the classroom is used for test taking,” he said.

 

“We want to put the focus back on learning in the classroom, not teaching to a test. Standardized testing can provide a useful data point for a student’s performance, but our focus should be on teaching students for future success, not just the test in front of them.”

 

So at his urging we made slight cuts to our Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – the assessment for grade 3-8 students.

 

We removed two sections of the PSSA – one in math, one in reading – and reduced the number of science questions.

 

This can cut testing by as much as 48 minutes in math, 45 minutes in reading, and 22 minutes in science.

 

And that’s good news.

 

But it’s not exactly the kind of sea change the state claims, given the Department of Education’s recommendations for additional tests on top of the PSSA.

 

That’s right. The state wants schools to give the CDT assessment an additional 3 to 5 times a year in reading, math and science.

 

Unlike the PSSA, this is a voluntary assessment. Districts can decide against it, but the department’s flunkies are crisscrossing the Commonwealth advising we all give the CDT as much as possible.

 

So that’s between 50-90 minutes for each assessment. A district that follows the state’s guidelines would be adding as much as 270 minutes of testing every seven weeks. In a given year, that’s 1,350 minutes (or 22.5 hours) of additional testing!

 

Pop quiz, Governor Wolf. Cutting testing by 115 minutes while adding 1,350 minutes results in a net loss or a net gain?

 

The answer is an increase of 1,235 minutes (or more than 20 hours) of standardized testing.

 

In my classroom, that means students coming in excited to learn, but being told to put away their books, pocket their pencils and put their curiosity on standby.

 

The folks who work at the Department of Education instead of in the classroom with living, breathing children, will tell you that these CDT tests are a vital tool to help students learn.

 

They provide detailed information about which skills individual students need remediation on.

 

But who teaches that way?

 

Billy, you are having trouble with this kind of multiple-choice question, so here are 100 of them.

 

We don’t do that. We read. We write. We think. We communicate.

 

And if somewhere along the way, we struggle, we work to improve that while involved in a larger project that has intrinsic value – such as a high interest book or a report on a hero of the civil rights movement.

 

When learning to walk, no one concentrates on just bending your knees. Even if you have stiff joints, you work them out while trying to get from point A to point B.

 

Otherwise, you reduce the exercise to boring tedium.

 

That’s what the state is suggesting we do.

 

Make something essentially interesting into humdrum monotony.

 

Teachers don’t need these diagnostics. We are deeply invested in the act of learning every day.

 

I know if my students can read by observing them in that act. I know if they can write by observing them doing it. I know if they can communicate by listening to them arguing in Socratic seminar. I read their poems, essays and short stories. I watch their iMovies and Keynote projects.

 

I’m a teacher. I am present in the classroom.

 

That tells me more than any standardized diagnostic test ever will.

 

It’s ironic that on a Department of Education “CDT Frequently Asked Questions” sheet, the assessment is described as “minimizing testing time.”

 

That’s just bad math.

 

And my student’s know it.

 

The district just sent out a letter telling parents and students they could take advantage of a school voucher to go to a local parochial school at public expense.

 

When presented with the prospect of another day of CDT testing in my room, one of my brightest students raised his hand and asked if kids in the local Catholic school took the test.

 

I told him I didn’t know – though I doubt it. They COULD take the test. It is available to nonpublic schools, but do you really think they’re going to waste that much instruction time?

 

Heck! They don’t even take the same MANDATORY standardized testing! Why would they bother with the optional kind!?

 

It is the public schools that are hopelessly tangled in the industrial testing complex. That’s how the moneyed interests “prove” the public schools are deficient and need to be replaced by privatized ones.

 

It’s an act of sabotage – and with the CDT it’s an act of self-sabotage.

 

School directors and administrators need to be smarter. The only way to beat a rigged game is not to play.

 

And the only way to reduce testing is to TAKE FEWER TESTS!


 

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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Burning Down the House at TEDxCCSU – Speaking Truth to Power with a BOOM!

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There’s a reason our society rarely hands teachers the microphone.

We’ll tell you the truth.

Oh, we’re too good mannered to be brazen about it. We’d rather encourage you for trying than criticize you for getting something wrong.

But if you ask us for truth, that’s usually what you’ll get.

Just ask any first grader.

“Is my finger painting good, Miss Pebbles?”

“Oh my, it is!”

“Really?”

“Why yes. I love what you did with that smear of yellow and blue in the corner. Where they overlap, it turns green.”

“Do you think it’s good enough to compete against the seniors in the high school?”

“Maybe you’d better practice a bit more, Dear. At least wait until you can spell your name correctly before devoting your life to art.”

That’s why I was so delighted to get an invitation to do a TED talk.

Here was my chance to tell it like it is.

Sure, some people look to TED for encouragement and life affirming inspiration.

But the way I see it, the only real affirmation is honesty.

Otherwise, it’s just a bromide, a deception, an intellectual hard candy to plop into your skull and let your cranium suck on until all the sugar is gone.

We’ve all seen these TED talks on YouTube or the Internet – some well-dressed dude or dudette standing in front of a crowd with a headset microphone and a grin offering anecdotes and words of wisdom to a theater full of eager listeners.

But after hundreds of thousands of talks in scores of countries, the format has almost become a parody of itself. At many of these events, you’re just as likely to find some Silicon Valley tech millionaire waxing philosophic about his casual Friday’s management style as you are to hear something truly novel.

No, the way I see it, the TED extravaganzas are just asking for a bundle of truth wrapped in a plain brown box – quiet, unassuming and ticking!

For me, doing one was a long time coming.

The first I heard about it was at United Opt Out’s Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas, two years ago.

I was rooming with Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner – an education professor at Central Connecticut University and famed social justice activist. He’s been involved with everyone from Moral Monday’s to S.O.S. Save Our Schools. But he’s most well-known for walking from Hartford to Washington, DC, to protest school privatization and standardization  – a feat he did not once, but twice!

Anyway, one night as I was fading into sleep, he whispered to me from across the room, “Steve, you ever thought about doing a TED talk?”

“Huh? Whas tha, Jesse?”

“A TED talk. You ever thought about doing one?”

“Oh I don’t know. That would be pretty cool, I guess.”

“I organize an independent TED event at my school every year. We should get you on the schedule.”

And that was it.

I think. If there was any more to that conversation my conscious mind wasn’t involved in it.

But then the following year I got a call from Jesse asking if I was ready to come to Connecticut.

I wasn’t. I’d just had two mild heart attacks and wasn’t in a condition to go anywhere. I could barely gather the strength to go to school and teach my classes.

What followed was a year of recovery.

I dedicated myself to my students and my blog and made it through the year. In the summer, I put together my favorite on-line articles into a book for Garn Press – “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

After it was published in November, I worked to promote it, going from event-to-event, book store-to-book store lecturing, signing, and listening. I was even invited to Chatham College to address their graduating class of teaching students.

Then another surprise. I was one of three educators in western Pennsylvania nominated for a Champions of Learning Award in Teaching from the Consortium for Public Education. In the final analysis, I didn’t end up winning the award, but it was a huge honor.

And then to top it all off, Jesse called me back and asked me if I was ready to come to Hartford and give the TED talk another try.

I jumped on it.

How could I say no?

This year has been like a second chance, a new lease on life. I’ve been eating healthier, exercising, losing weight and taking nothing for granted.

But that comes with certain responsibilities.

I couldn’t go there and just mouth platitudes and self-help advice. I couldn’t just tell some touchy-feely stories from my classroom and conclude about how great it is to be a teacher.

Even though it is great – the best job in the world.

But our profession is under attack.
Public schools are being targeted for destruction. The powers that be are using segregation, targeted disinvestment and standardized testing to destabilize public schools and replace them with privatized ones.

The school house is on fire! This is no time for heart-warming stories. It’s time for anger, agitation and activism!

So that’s what I decided to speak about.

Frankly, that wasn’t what I originally planned.

At first, I was going to talk about how society expects too much of teachers – how we expect educators to do it all.

But then the opportunity came to “practice” my speech in front of my entire school building.

I thought to myself, is THIS really what I want to talk about?

If I only get one shot at this – and I probably will get only one shot – do I really want to spend it on society’s unfair expectations?

That’s when I scrapped what I had and started over, this time focusing on “The Plot to Destroy Public Education.”

I must have rewritten my presentation at least five times.

Jesse said I’d have no more than 15 minutes so I practiced just about every night to make sure I was within that time.

The word may have gotten out around my school because the invitation to speak to the entire building quickly evaporated. Maybe there really was a scheduling mix up. Maybe not.

But it didn’t matter. My presentation was ready like a bomb – no hand holding, no concessions, just the truth.

The weeks flew by.

Before I knew it, it was time to fly to Connecticut. I couldn’t believe it was really happening.

When I got there, Jesse picked me up from the airport. He was a consummate host. He couldn’t have treated me better if I was royalty. He paid for my hotel, paid for most meals, drove me everywhere, kept me in good company and entertainment and even gave me a “Walking Man” mug as a token of his appreciation.

I was the only person flying in from outside of the Hartford area. Most of the other seven speakers were from there or had roots in the community.

All but two others were PhDs. The list of names, vocations and stories were impressive. Dr. Dorthy Shaw, a famed education and women’s studies professor, talked about surviving cancer. Dr. Noel Casiano, a sociologist, criminal justice expert and marriage counselor, told a heartbreaking personal story about the three people who mentored him from troubled teen to successful adult. Dr. Kurt Love, a CCSU professor focusing on social justice and education, talked about the greed underlying our economic and social problems. Dr. Barry Sponder, another CCSU professor focusing on technology in education, talked about flipped classrooms. Dr. Johnny Eric Williams, a sociology professor, talked about the myth of whiteness and how it corrupts how we speak about race.

Elsa Jones and her son Brian Nance were the only other non-PhDs. Jones is an early education consultant and the daughter of the Rev. Dr. William Augustus Jones, Jr., a famed civil rights leader who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

They were the ones I bonded with the most. All four of us went out for pizza after the talks.

But when I first entered the Welte Auditorium in the Central Connecticut State University campus, it was truly frightening.

The building could hold hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. Yet organizers had limited the audience to only a hundred. All the seats were up on the stage.

There was a little circular rug where we were to stand and the camera people were setting everything up.

Behind us, a ceiling high blue-purple backdrop would showcase the TED logo and any slides we had prepared.

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Which brings up an interesting distinction.

This was not a corporate TED event organized by the TED conference and sanctioned by their foundation. It was a TED “X” event, which means it was independently organized.

TED licenses its name for these grassroots X-events. There are a list of rules that organizers must follow. For example, all tickets to the event must be free. Contrast that with the corporate TED events where tickets go for thousands of dollars.

I was glad I was where I was. This was going to be the real deal – a thoughtful discussion of authentic issues. And somehow I was up there with these incredible thinkers and activists.

The moment came. Drs. Shaw and Casiano had already spoken. I got up from my seat in the front row to get my lapel microphone attached.

Jesse gave me a warm introduction letting everyone in on the secret of my tie – the design was a picture of my daughter repeated to infinity.

So I walked to my mark and started speaking.

It seems there was some sort of technical difficulty with the microphone. My voice didn’t appear to be coming from the speakers – or if it was, it wasn’t projecting very well. So I spoke louder.

Then Jesse came from the wings and gave me a hand mic and a music stand for my notes.

It took a moment to get used to handling the microphone, the clicker for my slides and my iPad (where I had my notes), but I got the hang of it.

And I was off and running.

I said it. I said it all.

The audience certainly didn’t seem bored. All eyes were on me. A few heads were nodding in agreement. Some faces seemed stunned.

When I ended, there was universal applause. A few folks patted me on the back when I got back to my seat and shook my hand.

And that was it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the remaining presentations but it was hard to concentrate in the post-TED elation.

Jones and Nance were probably the closest to what I was talking about and we got along like we’d known each other for years.

When I got back to the hotel, I felt elation and exhaustion in equal measure.

I had done it.

After months, years of planning, it was over.

Jesse tells me the video will be on-line in a matter of weeks. (I’ll revise this post with the video when it goes live.) Though he did mention that one point in my presentation made him a bit nervous – I had called out Bill Gates for his role in the destruction of public schools. However, Gates is a big donor to TEDs. Jesse half-jokingly said that the TED folks might take issue with that and refuse to upload my speech.

But whatever. I told the truth. If that gets me censored, so be it.

This will be something I’ll never forget.

I’m sorry this article has gone on so long, but there was much to tell. It’s not every day that someone like me gets such a stage and such a potential audience.

Hopefully, my video and my speech will be seen by many people who have never heard of this fight before. Hopefully it will open minds and stoke people to act.

And hopefully the mic issues at the opening won’t be distracting.

Thank you for following my blog and being there with me on this incredible journey.

I left nothing important unsaid. I gave it my all.

Now to see where it goes.

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!

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With Education Such a Low Priority in America, It’s No Wonder The Holocaust is Fading From Memory

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The Holocaust has never been more relevant than it is today.

 

Racism and prejudice are on the rise. Hate crimes are becoming more common. Anti-immigrant sentiment is becoming more widespread.

 

And anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 57 percent in the past year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

 

Yet just last week, a comprehensive study of Holocaust awareness was released concluding that Americans are forgetting this vital chapter of our history.

 

After more than 1,350 interviews, Schoen Consulting found that 11 percent of U.S. adults and more than one-fifth of millennials either haven’t heard of the European Holocaust or aren’t sure what it is.

 

From 1933-1945, approximately 12 million people – 6 million of whom were Jews – were systematically put to death by Nazi forces.

 

However, even many of those who admitted to having some knowledge of these events were unsure about the specifics. For instance, one third of respondents – and 41% of millennials – said that only 2 million people were killed.

 

This is unacceptable.

 

But not unexpected.

 

Not in a country that has made education such a low priority for decades.

 

Only a handful of states mandate Holocaust curriculum in schools – Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, California, Michigan, Indiana, New York and Rhode Island – and each one does so to varying degrees of detail.

 

Other states like Pennsylvania have laws strongly encouraging the teaching of the Holocaust but not requiring it outright.

 

Wasn’t this why 42 states adopted Common Core – to make sure all students were learning the same things?

 

Well, first of all those standards were only adopted in English and Math. Social studies standards were far too controversial to make it over the partisan divide.

 

Moreover, Common Core has actually been an impediment to Holocaust studies, not a help.

 

A principal in Delaware refused to let a concentration camp survivor speak to students because he didn’t think it was rigorous enough under Common Core.

 

Another district tried to encourage critical thinking by asking students if the Holocaust was true or if it had been exaggerated – as if proven facts were up for debate.

 

Additionally, the reading standards push for texts to be taught as if they were standardized test items without proper context for a robust understanding. Combine that with an emphasis on texts that are exceedingly complex and it’s no wonder that young people’s understanding of this important part of history is fuzzy.

 

And I write this as an educator who taught the Holocaust in middle school for more than a decade.

 

The first thing I did was throw those corporate-written standards in the trash.

 

My 8th graders and I watched various award-winning documentaries such as “Auschwitz: If You Cried, You Died.” We read the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but supplemented it with various interviews and autobiographical articles from concentration camp survivors and even a presentation from community members who had first-hand experience of these events until their age and health made that impossible.

 

The whole unit culminated in a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

 

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the norm.

 

Though America students make up one third of the 1.7 million visitors to the National Holocaust Museum, 80 percent of Americans say they have never visited any Holocaust museum.

 

I get it. Teaching about this is hard.

 

It’s ugly and scary and repulsive – but it’s meant to be.

 

The DC National Holocaust Memorial  recommends the following guidelines for teaching about the European Holocaust:

 

“Be sensitive to appropriate written and audiovisual content. One of the primary concerns of educators teaching the history of the Holocaust is how to present horrific images in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Graphic material should be used judiciously and only to the extent necessary to achieve the objective of the lesson. You should remind yourself that each student and each class is different and that what seems appropriate for one may not be appropriate for all . . . Some students may be so appalled by the images of brutality and mass murder that they are discouraged from studying the subject further. Others may become fascinated in a more voyeuristic fashion, subordinating further critical analysis of the history to the superficial titillation of looking at images of starvation, disfigurement, and death . . . There is also a tendency among students to glorify power, even when it is used to kill innocent people. Many teachers indicated that their students are intrigued and, in some cases, intellectually seduced by the symbols of power that pervaded Nazi propaganda (e.g., the swastika and/or Nazi flags, regalia, slogans, rituals, and music). Rather than highlight the trappings of Nazi power, you should ask your students to evaluate how such elements are used by governments (including our own) to build, protect, and mobilize a society. Students should also be encouraged to contemplate how such elements can be abused and manipulated by governments to implement and legitimize acts of terror and even genocide.”

 

That’s what I tried to do.

 

This is the first year that I’m not explicitly teaching the Holocaust – and the only reason is because I’m not teaching 8th grade, I’m teaching 7th.

 

It’s not in my curriculum.

 

However, I know my students will get it when they advance to the next grade.

 

I wish that were true everywhere.

 

Unfortunately, a deep knowledge of history does not come from a society obsessed with standardization and privatization.

 

In fact, our policy of high stakes testing is an artifact of the eugenicist movement that inspired the Nazis. Our privatization movement is a holdover from the white flight reactionaries trying to circumvent the integration of Brown vs. Board.

 

We don’t do a comprehensive job teaching the Holocaust because we haven’t, as a society, learned its lessons.

 

We don’t teach the consequences of the European Holocaust because we haven’t come to terms with the consequences of our own American varieties. We haven’t acknowledged the effects of Europeans conquest and genocide of Native Americans, the slave trade, Jim Crow, Japanese internment or the prison industrial complex.

 

To teach the Holocaust we must take a step toward understanding where we, as a nation, have engaged in similar practices.

 

These are lessons vital to our survival and progress.

 

And that is exactly why it hasn’t been made a priority. It is exactly why we don’t have equitable education for all children in America.

 

Doing so would upset the status quo.

 

Doing so would be troublesome to the powers that be who use a racial and economic caste system to keep us all in line.

 

Understanding the Holocaust prevents us from reliving it.

 

And the people in power want to keep that door unequivocally open.


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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