Saturday, April 30, 2011

Submissions Sought: Call for Cover Art

This is the mock up of the cover for the first issue of (Re):Mix:  A Transnational Journal of Artful Teaching and Learning. I am looking to replace the cover image with an image you submit.

Call for Submissions: Issue 1: Exploring Uncertainty within Artful Practice

For this issue, contributors are asked to consider how uncertainty is elemental to the artful practice of teaching, leading, and learning. Contributors are invited to submit written and visual works that explore, question, (re)present and challenge the idea of uncertainty being a necessary element inherent in artful practices.

Some questions to consider might include:

  • What does uncertainty look and/or sound like in your work?
  • How does uncertainty influence the work you do?  
  • How does meaning emerge in your work?
  • What conditions give rise to uncertainty? What conditions inhibit uncertainty?
  • What does it mean to be uncertain as a teacher? As a leader? As a learner?
  • How do you privilege uncertainty in your work, in colleagues' work, and/or in students' work? 
  • Is there a cost to being uncertain?
Submission of Artwork:

1. Email jpg images to
EMAIL and Twitter contact (if you have one)
3. Include title of work(s) submitted
4. Indicate if your submission is only for cover consideration o can be used in the journal.
5. Submit work no later than June 15, 2011.

About the Journal
(Re):Mix - A Transnational Journal of Artful Teaching & Learning (Re):Mix
seeks to explore, question, (re)present and challenge depictions of teaching and learning in order to uncover the emerging complexity of artful practice. At a time when teaching, leading, and learning are often situated as simple input-output models, this journal seeks to challenge that understanding by showcasing and juxtaposing works that illustrate artful practices by learners.

(Re):Mix is an on-line, open access journal. Print copies will be available at a cost. Art and written work remain owned by the artist/writer.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

For Trillium Gallery

Bridge in Fog (NYC, George Washington Bridge)
Bearings Taken (NYC, Brooklyn Bridge)

Be for Me, Like Rain (NYC, Wall Street)
Etta and Butch Go for a Ride (NYC, Greenwich Village)
A Woman Gathering Silence (NYC, Grand Central)
Watching (Milton, NY)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Student Performance on NJ State Tests: A Poor Measure of Teacher Effectiveness

Graphic from this Site
I. The State Test

In 2010, 86,000 11th graders in New Jersey wrote responses to a "persuasive" prompt as part of the high stakes state assessment. Student who do not pass the assessment cannot graduate. This was the prompt:

Writing Situation
Several teenagers in the neighborhood are suing a local fast food restaurant, claiming that their poor health resulted from consuming the restaurant's food. The lawsuit has forced the owners to close the restaurant. This has caused a controversy in the community.
You decide to write an article for your school newspaper expressing your opinion on the teens' lawsuit against the restaurant.
Directions for Writing
Write an article either supporting or opposing the teens' lawsuit. Use reasons, facts, examples, and other evidence to support your position.

These 86,000 students were not actually allowed to conduct any research or gather facts, examples or other evidence to support their fictitious positions, as no resources nor external research may be used, nor did their response actually have to ascribe to the genre specified (newspaper article).  Rather students had to invent reasons, facts, examples, and other evidence that supported being for or against the teens' lawsuit and then put these "ideas" into paragraphs (hopefully 5) and do so in 60 minutes.

As I read the prompt and thought of so many students composing responses, I wondered what students had learned about writing and persuasion?
  • Did they learn that making up reasons, facts, examples, and other evidence is acceptable practice when writing to persuade?
  • Did they learn that the five-paragraph response penned in an hour is the same thing as composing a newspaper article?
  • Did they learn that all persuasive positions result in either being for or against something?
  • Did they learn that one takes a definitive position after being presented with only a situation, sans details or other texts?
  • Did they learn that research does not require any searching?
  • Did they learn that persuasion does not require actual facts, truthful statistics, reasoned examples?
  • Did they learn that writing is a task you do without careful and honest thought?
  • Did they learn that audience doesn't actually matter to a writer?
Although I don't write a lot of persuasive texts, I cannot recall an instance when I resorted to making up facts, reasons, examples, or other types of evidence to prove being for or against something.  Anywhere I have worked, such an approach would be classified as academic dishonesty, not a strategy for writing. Is this an apt measure that would allow you to feel confident that your child had developed the requisite skills, dispositions, and habits of mind to be able to and want to continue learning after high school? I would be disappointed if any of my child's teachers taught my son to write based on this limited sense of composing.

Now to be sure, this one task is not the whole of the two-day assessment.  Students also read two different texts, answer multiple choice and open ended response questions, and write another response, this time in 30 minutes to different prompt.  None of the work students do during this test would one characterize as examples of authentic work, the type one would expect do outside of a testing situation.  For example, when was the last time you tried to identify the "best" central meaning of a text you were reading? Or spent time identifying a specific literary term with a sentence from the text you were reading? Is being able to select the statement from a field of four that includes personification really an important indicator of "language arts literacy" prowess?

II. Inside English Teachers' Classes
A few months after students took the HSPA, I was visiting a high school English teacher's class.  This is the narrative I recorded after visiting:

Students in Jillian Honoria's English class are performing monologues based on their reading of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment on the day I visit. Once seated I quickly noticed the life-size doll propped on a rolling desk chair.  Dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and scruffy boots, this class-made version of Raskolnikov, the protagonist from Crime and Punishment, sported wild black hair topped with a hat.  During the class period, the students would address him as they performed monologues written from the perspective of other characters from the text.  Dr. Honoria began class by having students compose a 10-minute journal entry.Within seconds, the room was silent, save the noise of everyone in the class writing. After some discussion about the texts students had written, the student performances began. The students’ performances demonstrated their significant understanding of the text.  Dr. Honoria directed students to choose a character other than the protagonist, compose a written monologue that would extend the narrative in some manner, and then perform the monologue in class.  One student stepped into the character of Sonya, Raskolnikov’s love, and set the scene for her monologue in Siberia, years after the novel’s close.  Seated on the tile floor of the classroom at Raskolnikov’s feet, with a basket of knitting, wearing fingerless gloves, she delivered a powerful six-minute monologue that highlighted her remembered relationship with Raskolnikov, her faith in God, and how each informed her understanding of love. It is this newly made knowledge she conveyed that I found so compelling.  Her performance was preceded by a young man who assumed the character of Alyona, the pawnborker who visits Raskolnikov from her place in hell, who is more insulted by his disrespect of the money he stole, than being murdered by him...
Or considered this synopsis of class work: 

In another humanities' course team taught by Ms. Carmen and Ms. Joseph, I watch as eleventh grade students present ten-minute presentations intended to persuade their peers to vote for their global citizenship project.  The students had determined five potential global projects and students working in teams created film-based multimedia projects. Students researched global problems that they believed they could adequately spend the year helping to solve, determined a project, created a film that would not only explain the project, but also potentially persuade an audience to adopt their project, and then embedded that film into a ten-minute presentation and presented in front of their peers, teachers, principal, assistant principals, and myself (Director of Curriculum).
III. Teacher Evaluation

In New Jersey, Governor Christie and Acting Department of Education Commissioner Chris Cerf want to base at least 50% of teacher evaluation with how well students do on tests, such as the HSPA. NJDOE reported:
Governor Christie today proposed and sent to the legislature a package of bills that gets at the root of the problems in New Jersey’s public education system by reforming the tenure system to demand results for New Jersey’s children in the classroom and reward the best and brightest teachers
The Governor believes that basing at least 50% of a teacher's evaluation on his/her students' standardized test performance, such as the HSPA is an apt indicator of successful teaching.  Keep in mind that currently NJ does not have any state-issued assessments that can be used to evaluate any teachers who teach K-2, teachers who do not teach mathematics or language arts in grades 3 - 8, or science in grades 4 and 8. At the high school level the state only has assessments that could be used to evaluate biology, algebra, and 11th grade mathematics and English teachers.

No one else.

Already there are gross examples of abusive and frankly idiotic tests being used to measure teacher effectiveness. One example comes from Colorado where 6-year-olds were subjected to an art test. 

On exam day in Sabina Trombetta's Colorado Springs first-grade art class, the 6-year-olds were shown a slide of Picasso's "Weeping Woman," a 1937 cubist portrait of the artist's lover, Dora Maar, with tears streaming down her face. It is painted in vibrant -- almost neon -- greens, bluish purples, and yellows. Explaining the painting, Picasso once said, "Women are suffering machines."
The test asked the first-graders to look at "Weeping Woman" and "write three colors Picasso used to show feeling or emotion." (Acceptable answers: blue, green, purple, and yellow.) Another question asked, "In each box below, draw three different shapes that Picasso used to show feeling or emotion." (Acceptable drawings: triangles, ovals, and rectangles.) A separate section of the exam asked students to write a full paragraph about a Matisse painting.
In a 29-year-career as an educator and as a working artist, I cannot think of anyone I have met who would subject children to such a test as a means to measure students' understanding of a state's fine arts standards.

IV. Effectiveness

To be sure, understanding teacher and administrator effectiveness is complex and needs to be determined locally.  It is a mistake to think student performance on a single measure is a reliable indicator of a teacher's capacity to teach. Further, we have additional concerns when the test content is so disconnected from the century we live in. Using the results from that same out of date state test to measure teachers like Dr. Honoria, Ms. Carmen and Ms. Joseph  who are engaging students in aesthetic and complex learning is foolish at best.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Be a Better Administrator By Teaching

I Think (collage by M.A. Reilly)
Pam @akamomteach  tweeted:

Great administrators should have been great teachers and should stay involved in teaching in some manner. #edchat

I re-tweeted it quickly as I believe that to be true.  It also got me thinking about the necessity for administrators (school based and central-office based) to return to teaching and disrupt their administrative career in order to reclaim teaching capacity, to actively fail and succeed at daily teaching, to develop empathy for teachers and learners, and to use these experiences to reshape vision.  

About 6 years ago I left an assistant superintendency and accepted a full time teaching position at a college where I worked as an associate professor for four years before returning to NJ and administrative work. My work as a teacher during those four years, along with some co-teaching I was able to do when I returned to K-12 public schooling at a high school deeply informs the work I do administratively, especially as I think about evaluation, teaching load, and curriculum.

I'm curious as to what others think about disrupting administrative work by returning to teaching for a year or two. 

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Double Bind of Optimism and Pessimism: Predestined Schooling

I opened an email this morning from Margaret Wheatley that said:
Can we refrain from categorizing ourselves as either optimists or pessimists, but instead live with the great paradoxes of this time? Can we learn that uncertainty is a very healthy place to dwell, rich in potential rather than opinions? 
I do believe this and have written often about uncertainty being a powerful organizing force in our lives.  Most times I have situated this discussion in narratives of classroom space I have observed/participated in.  This morning I am thinking about learning and how it is decidedly different from schooling, especially as schools are constrained by national standards and reform measures.  I appreciate Wheatley's understanding of the world as being more complex and promising than the half-full/half-empty folks would have us believe.  It is uncertainty, rich in potential rather than opinion, that gives me hope when I think about living deliberately and learning. Being responsible for the decisions I make is humbling as those decisions often reveal what I simply did not and do not understand.  It is this stance of not knowing and unknowing that I want to lean on a bit for it has never been a matter of being optimistic or being pessimistic as both offer a similar distance from living.

Being optimistic or pessimistic allows us to nullifying life's uncertainties and oddly live in a predestined manner.  One might well think now of John Calvin's religious doctrine of double predestination as it too has been an exacting "anecdote" to living, and if the article from The Economist is correct, the numbers of neo-Calvinists are increasing here in the United States.  In the text John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life, Herman Selderhuis tells us that Calvin who "sought refuge in providence and predestination" wrote that "there is no more terrifying agony than to tremble from fear and uncertainty" (pp. 36 - 37). Calvin, not often thought of as an optimist, seems in many ways to embrace optimism through his view of God.

In explaining Calvin's belief in a double, not single, predestination, Selderhuis writes:
This brought him (Calvin) to the conviction that the Bible teaches double predestination, that is, that God has chosen one group of people to live eternally with him, and that the other group would remain in darkness. The issue was not whether there were two types of people, some who would go to heaven and others who would go to hell. The issue was instead whether anyone could make a saving decision for himself or herself, or whether everything depended on God's choice. For Calvin, there was no question. The Bible showed most clearly in both cases that everything depended on God, and that it was by his decision and choice that eternal destiny of all people was decided. Calvin had no use for a solution like single predestination, which held that there was only an election to salvation. If God had decided to preserve one group, his decision was automatically a choice not to save the other. There was simply a double predestination.  Calvin had no desire whatsoever to leave even a small part of their salvation to people that would lead to uncertainty, and at the time there was already so much uncertainty in the world (p.190).
Calvin's belief that only God, not humans, rendered the decision about eternal life, led to an equally strong Calvinistic belief that one was to learn from the hand of God by being humbled when "bad" things happened and responding by asking forgiveness for sinning.  To me this is the center of the optimistic call: better to look upon x situation as the glass half full  and if you don't you are cast to the half-empty group. This type of thinking removes decision-making and agency from one's life and replaces it with a map already made.

In contrast, Wheatley writes that  certainty "is a very effective way of defending ourselves from the irresolvable nature of life."  She tell us that "the challenge is to refuse to categorize ourselves."  I am neither optimistic, nor pessimistic as both situate life as predestined.  By now (if you have read this far:) you may be wondering what does all this talk about Calvin and optimism, etc. have to do with schooling and learning?

Learning is all about uncertainty. In fact, I doubt we can learn anything apart from a stance of uncertainty.  Uncertainty is curiosity.  It's "let's give it a try and see what happens." It's Frost's road that wanted wear.  Schools need to be more uncertain, rather than informed and limited by national or common "core" standards (call them what you will) and reform method after reform method. 

Here's a partial list of actions, all routed in certainty, that reduce the possibility of learning:
  • using the written curriculum enacted as written or being in "trouble" for not doing so
  • allowing the "teacher" to determine what will be learned exclusive of the students
  • believing that there is a single teacher or that a principal is the only leader
  • understanding the classroom as a physical space where learning must occur as prescribed
  • separating learning into discrete "subjects"
  • understanding learning as that which must be taught
  • tracking  children into different "learning" groups based on the ubiquitous belief in "student ability"
  • assigning teachers to different "learning" groups based on the ubiquitous belief in "teacher ability"
  • assigning principals to different schools based on the ubiquitous belief in "principal ability"
  • tying all aspects of lessons to standards and objectives 
  • recording lesson objectives & standards on a blackboard for all to see and thinking this is related to learning
  • using only books already approved by a BOE and nothing else
  • using only materials the teacher selects
  • writing the midterm and final exam in September and giving these as written in January and June
  • confusing testing with learning
  • limiting resources by blocking Internet sites
  • using any basal program with learners
  • using any and all worksheets as a method for teaching
  • thinking the answers in the basal program are correct
  • believing in correctness as an aim of education
  • using or making others use a scripted program that tells the teacher what to say every day and what to expect students to say
  • rewarding correctness 
  • equating correctness with learning
  • determining that the "workshop" must have a mini lesson and closure
  • using already determined mini lessons
  • teaching the writing process as that which has five stages
  • using any and all pre-made rubrics
  • believing that talk in a classroom must be responsible 
  • categorizing student or teacher utterances as responsible (or not)
  • categorizing a teaching practice as "best practice" 
  • believing there are "core" subjects 
I think Wheatley is correct: the challenge is not to see ourselves as inherently optimistic or pessimistic, but rather to refuse to categorize ourselves.

Let's Get Graphic (Novels) for High Schools

From Daytripper
Abadzis, Nick.  2007. Laika. NY: First Second.
Abel, Jessica, Gabriel Soria and Warren Pleece. 2008. Life Sucks. NY: First Second.
Alanguilan, Gerry. 2010. Elmer: A Comic Book. Slave Labor.

Anderson, Ho Che. 2005. A Comics Biography of  Martin Luther King. Jr. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics.
Aristophane. 2010. The Zabime Sisters. NY: FirstSecond.
Ashihara, Hinako. 2008. Sand Chronicles, v. 1. VIZ.
---------------------. 2008. Sand Chronicles, v. 2. VIZ.
---------------------. 2008
. Sand Chronicles, v. 3. VIZ.
B., David. 2006. Epileptic. NY: Pantheon.
Ba, Gabriel & Fabio Moon. 2011. Daytripper. Vertigo.
Black, Holly. 2008. Kin (The Good Neighbors, Book 1). Illustrated by Ted Naifeh. NY: Graphix.
Brosgol, Vera. 2011. Anya's Ghost. NY: First Second.
Brown, Chester. 2002. I Never Liked You. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn and Quarterly.
Burns, Charles. 2008. Black Hole. NY: Pantheon.
Campbell, Eddie and Dan Best. 2008. The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard. NY: First Second.
Clevinger, Brian and Steve Wegener. 2008. Atomic Robo: Atomic Robo and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne. Red Five Comics.
Clowes, Daniel. 2011. Mister Wonderful: A Love Story. NY: Pantheon.
Cruse, Howard. 2010. Stuck Rubber Baby. DC.
Dayton, Brandon. 2009. Green Monk. Whistling Cloud.
Delisle, Guy. 2008. Burma Chronicles. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn and Quarterly.
--------------. 2007. Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn and Quarterly.
Dembicki, Matt. 2010. Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.
Donner, Rebecca. 2008. Burnout. Illustrated by Inaki Miranda. Minx.
Eisner, Will. 2007. New York: The Big City. NY: W.W. Norton.
Flowers, Arthur, Manu Chitrakar & Guglielmo Rossi. 2010. I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King. Jr. Tara Press.
Gaiman, Neil. 2008. Coraline: the Graphic Novel. Illustrated by P. Craig Russell. NY: HarperCollins.
Giffen, Keith. 2006. Blue Beetle: Shell-Shocked. DC Comics.
From: Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth.
---------------.  2007. Blue Beetle: Road Trip. DC Comics.
Glidden, Sarah. 2011. How To Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. Vertigo: DC.
Guibert, Emmanuel. 2008. Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope. NY: First Second.
Helfer, Andrew. 2006. Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography. Illustrated by Randy DuBurke. NY: Hill & Wang.
Hernandez, Gilbert, Jared K. Fletcher.  2006. Sloth. DC Comics.
Hinds, Garreth. 2010. The Odyssey. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.
Hosler, Jay. 2011. Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth. Illustrated by Kevon Cannon & Zander Cannon. NY: Hii & Wang.
Iwaoka, Hisae. 2010. Saturn Apartments, I. VIZ Media.
Jacobson, Sid & Ernie Colon. 2010. Anne Frank: The Ann Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography. NY: Hill & Wang.
-----------------------------------. 2006. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation. NY: Hill & Wang.
Kim, Susan, Laurence Klavan, & Faith Erin Hicks. 2010. Brain Camp. NY: First Second.
Lagos, Alexander & Joseph Lagos. 2011. The Sons of Liberty, Vol. 2. Illustrated by Steve Walker. NY: Crown.
------------------------------------------. 2010. The Sons of Liberty, Vol. 1. Illustrated by Steve Walker. NY: Crown.
Medley, Linda. 2006. Castle Waiting. Seattle WA: Fantagraphics Books.
Moore, Alan. 1995. Watchmen. Illustrated by Dave Gibbons. DC Comics.
Myrick, Leland. 2006. Missouri Boy. NY: First Second.
Neri, G. 2010. Yummy: The Last Days of Southside Shorty. Illustrated by Randy Duburke. NY: Lee & Low.
From: A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge
From: A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge
From Persepolis.
Neufeld, Josh. 2009. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. NY: Pantheon.
O’Connor, George. 2010. Zeus: King of Gods. NY First Second.
Sacco, Joe. 2002. Palestine. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.
Satrapi, Marjane. 2007. The Complete Persepolis. NY: Pantheon.
Small, David. 2009. Stitches. NY: W.W. Norton.
 Spiegleman, Art. 1996. The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. NY: Pantheon.
Tamaki, Mariko and Steve Rolston. 2008. Emiko Superstar.  Minx.

Tamaki, Mariko and Jilliam Tamaki. 2010. Skim. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
TenNaple, Doug. 2010. Ghostopolis. NY: Graphix/Scholastic.
Thompson, Craig. 2004. Blankets. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf.
Tran, G.B. 2011. Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey. NY: Villard/Random.
Urasawa, Naoki and Takashi Nagasaki. 2009. Pluto. VIZ Media.
Urrea, Luis Alberto. 2010. Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush. Illustrated by Christopher Cardinale.  El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.
Ware, Chris. 2010. Acme Novelty Library #20. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn and Quarterly.
--------------. 2004. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Jonathan Cape.
Weing, Drew. 2010. Set to Sea. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.
Weinstein, Lauren R. 2006. Girl Stories. NY: Henry Holt.
Wilson, G. Willow and M. K. Perker. 2008.Cairo. Vertigo.
Yang, Gene Luen. 2011. Level Up. Illustrated by Thien Pham. NY: First Second.
2006. American Born Chinese. NY: First Second
Yolen, Jane. 2010. Foiled. Illustrated by Mike Cavallaro. NY: First Second.
From Pitch Black

Youme & Anthony Horton. 2008. Pitch Black. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.
Zinn, Howard. 2008. A People’s History of an American Empire. Illustrated by Mike Konopacki and Paul Buhle. NY: Metropolitan Books.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Recommended Books for Grade 8 Reading Workshop

Mirror & Window Books
Barton, Chris. 2011. Can I See Your I.D.? True Stories of False Identities. Illustrated by Paul Hoppe. NY: Dial.
Bruchac, Joseph,. 2007. The Way. Minneapolis, MN: Darby Creek Publishing.
Budhos, Maria. 2011. Tell Us We're Home. NY: Atheneum.
Collington, Peter. 1994. The Coming of the Surfman. NY: Knopf.
Gallo, Donald, R. (Ed.). 2007. First Crossing: Stories about Teen Immigrants. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
Hidier, Yanuja Desai. 2003. Born Confused. NY: Scholastic.
Jones, Traci. L. 2006. Standing Against the Wind. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Lee, Marie G. 2001. Finding My Voice. NY: Harper Trophy.
Myers, Walter Dean & Ross Workman. 2011. Kick. NY: HarperTeen (Note: Workman is a high school student).
Na, An. 2003. A Step from Heaven. NY: Speak.
Son, John. 2004. Finding My Hat. NY: Scholastic.
Thurlo, David & Aimee Thurlo. 2004. The Spirit Line. NY: Viking.
Veciana-Suarez, Ana. 2002. Flight to Freedom. NY: Scholastic.
Woodson, Jacquline. 2008. After Tupac and D Foster. NY: Putnam. 

Text to Text 
1. Exploring the Essay
Bryson, Bill. 2000. I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away. NY: Broadway.
Einstein, Albert, 1950s. An Ideal Service to Our Fellow Man. This I Believe on NPR.
Grady, Wayne. 2010. Technology: A Groundwood Guide. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
Heinlan, Robert. 2010. Our Nobel, Essential Decency. This I Believe Essays as heard on the Bob Edwards show, 3.12.10 on NPR.
Hubbard, Jim. 1994. Shooting Back from the Reservation: A Photographic View of Life by Native Americans. NY: New Press.
Kidder, Tracey. 2004. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. New York: Random House.
Sullivan, George. 2009. Berenice Abbott, Photographer: An Independent Vision. NY: Clarion.
Walker, David & Peter Hinks (ed). 1829/2000. David Walker's Appeal: To the Coloured Citizens of the World. Pennsylvania State University. (Link is for an online source)

2. Exploring the 1960s & Early 1970s

Alvarez, Julia. 2004. Before We Were Free. NY: Laurel Leaf. (Dominican Republic, 1960-61).
----------------. 2004. Antes de ser libres. NY: Laurel Leaf. (Dominican Republic, 1960-61).
Brimner, Larry Dane. 2011. Birmingham Sunday. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.
Caputo, Philip. 2005. 10,000 Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War. NY:
Case, Diana. 1995. 92 Queens Road. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (South Africa, 1960s).
Compestine, Ying Chang.  2009. Revolution is Not a Dinner Party. NY: Holt. (China, 1972).
Gallo, Gary. 2010. Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow: the Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix. Illustrated by Javaka Steptoe. NY: Clarion.
Glass, Linzi. 2006. The Year the Gypsies Came. NY: Henry Holt. (South Africa during the 1960s).
Gonzalez, Christina. 2010. The Red Umbrella. NY: Knopf Books.
Hill, Laban Carrick. 2007.  America Dreaming: How Youth Changed America in the 60s. NY: Little Brown.
Kaufman, Michael. 2009. 1968. New Milford, CT: Roaring Brook Press.
Magoon, Kekla. 2010. The Rock and the River. NY: Collins.
McWhorter, Diane. 2004. A Dream of Freedom: the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. NY: Scholastic.
Mills, Kay, 1994. This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. NY: Plume.
Myers, Walter Dean. 1994. Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary. NY: Scholastic.
Stokes, John, Herman Viola and Lois Wolfe. 2007. Students on Strike: Jim Crow, Civil Rights, Brown, and Me. Illustrated with Photographs. Washington DC: National Geographic Children’s Books.
Wiles, Deborah. 2010. Countdown. NY: Scholastic Press.
Williams-Garcia. Rita. 2010. One Crazy Summer. NY: Amistad.

Text to World
Bagdasarian, Adam. 2000. Forgotten Fire. NY: Dorling Kindersley.
Badoe, Adwoa. 2010. Between Sisters. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
Budhos, Marina. 2007. Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers. New York: Henry Holt/Resource Publications.
Carmi, Daniella. 2000. Samir and Yonatan. Translated by Yael Lotan.  NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.
Combres, Elisabeth. 2011. Broken Memory: A Novel of Rwanda. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
Engle, Margarita. 2011. Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck. NY: Henry Holt.
Guibert, Emmanuel. 2009. The Photographer: Into War-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders. Photographs by Lefevre. NY: FirstSecond.
Kass, Pnina Moed. 2006. Real Time. NY: Graphia.
Kuklin, Susan. 1996. Irrepressible Spirit: Conversations with Human Rights Activists. New York: Putnam.
Marston, Elsa. 2005. Figs and Fate: About Growing Up in the Arab World Today. NY: George Braziller.
Oodgeroo. 1994. Dreamtime: Aboriginal Stories. Illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft. NY: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard.

Exploring Other: Science Fiction & Fantasy
Abbott, Ellen Jensen. 2009. Watersmeet. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish.
Allende, Isabel. 2006. Kingdom of the Golden Dragon. NY: Rayo.
------------------. 2004. El Reino del Dragon de Oro. NY: Rayo.
Allende, Isabel. 2004. Forest of the Pygmies. NY: Rayo.
------------------. 2005. El Bosque de los Pigmeos. NY: Rayo.
Allende, Isabel. 2009. City of Beasts. NY: Harper Perennial.
-------------------. 2003. La Ciudad de las Bestias. NY: Rayo.

Bruchac, Joseph. 2011. Wolf Mark. NY: Tu Books/Lee & Low. (Will be published in Fall, 2011).
-------------------. 2007. Wabi: A Hero's Tale. NY: Speak.
Fishbone, Greg, 2011. Galaxy Games: The Challengers. NY: Tu Books/Lee & Low. (Will be published in Fall, 2011).
Gill, David Macinnis. 2009. Soul Enchilada. NY: Harper Collins.
Pon, Cindy. 2009. Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia. NY: Greenwillow Books.
Sandler, Karen. 2011. Tankborn. NY: Tu Books/Lee & Low. (Will be published in Fall, 2011).
Smith, Cynthia Leitich. 2011. Blessed. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
----------------------------. 2010. Eternal. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
---------------------------. 2007. Tantalize. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
Tolkien, J.R.R. 1986. The Hobbit. NY: Ballantine.

So Much to See: Image and Text
Carlson, Lori Marie. (Ed.). 2005. Red Hot Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Being Young and Latino in the United States. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Feelings, Tom. 1995. The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo. New York: Dial.
Grandits, John. 2007. Blue Lipstick: Concrete Poems. NY: Clarion.
Igus, Toyomi.1998. i see the rhythm. Illustrated by Michele Wood. San Francisco: Children's Book Press.
Nye, Naomi Shihab. 2002. 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East.  Greenwillow Books/ HarperCollins.
Soto, Gary. 2006. A Fire in My Hands: Revised and Expanded Edition. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.
Volakova, Hana. 1994. I Never Saw Another Butterfly. NY: Schocken.

Alvarez, Julia. 2006. Finding Miracles. New York: Laurel Leaf.
Anderson, M.T. 2006. The Astonishing Life of Octavia Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
Cart, Michael. 2006. Necessary Noise: Stories About Our Families as They Really Are. Illustrated by Charlotte Noruzi. NY: HarperTeen.
Chassman, Gary. 2002. In the Spirit of Martin: The Living Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  NY: Tinwood Books.

Haddix, Margaret Petersen. 2007. Uprising. NY: Simon & Schuster.
Laird, Elizabeth & Nimr, Sonia. 2006. A Little Piece of Ground. Illustrated by Bill Neal. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Lawrence, Jerome and Lee Robert E. 2007. Inherit the Wind. NY: Ballantine Books.
Myers, Walter Dean. 2010. Lockdown. NY: Amistad.
Saenz, Benjamin Alire. 2011. Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.

Determining Importance
Atkin, S. Beth. 2000. Voices from the Field: Children of Migrant Farmworkers Tell Their Stories. New York: Little Brown Young Readers.
Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. 2010. They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group. NY: Houghton Mifflin.
Bial, Raymond. 2002. Tenement Life on the Lower East Side. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Grainfield, Linda. 2001. 97 Orchard Street, New York: Stories of Immigrant Life. Illustrated by Arlene Alda. Toronto, Ontario: Tundra Books.
Higgins, Dalton. 2010. Hip Hop World: Groundwood Series. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
Herrera, Nicholas. 2011. High Riders, Saints and Death Cars: A Life Saved by Art. Illustrated by John T. Deene. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
Myers, Walter Dean. 2009. Riot. NY: Egmont USA.
Ziegelman, Jane. 2010. 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. NY: HarperCollins.

Aronson, Marc & Marina Budhos. 2010. Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science. NY: Clarion.
Bryant, Jennifer. 2007. Pieces of Georgia: A Novel. NY: Yearling.
Danticat, Edwidge. 2003. Behind the Mountains. New York: Scholastic.
Gaskins, Paul Fuyo (Ed.). 1999. What Are You? Voices of Mixed-Race Young People. New York: Henry Holt.
Haworth-Attard, Barabra. 2005. Theories of Relativity. NY: Holt.
Rushdie, Salman. 1990. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. New York: Penguin.
Sheth, Kashmira. 2009. Keeping Corner. NY: Hyperion.
Staples, Suzanne Fisher. 2005. Under the Persimmon Tree. Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Steinbeck, John. 2002. Of Mice and Men (Centennial Edition). New York: Penguin.
Williams-Garcia, Rita. 2010. Jumped. NY: Amistad.
Zusak, Markus. 2007. The Book Thief. NY: Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Friday, April 22, 2011

'How is the Teacher to Cope with This?' Miss C Responds

Last week, I posted a teacher's narrative about teaching in a corporate-operated charter school in the South Bronx. The response from readers was significant.  I invited Miss C to respond.
Guest Blog:  Miss C

I was utterly amazed to discover the overwhelming number of people who read my guest post, and to learn how my story resonated with so many, from both inside and outside the world of education. When offered a chance to write a follow-up to address some responses, once again, I jumped at the chance. 

In the interest of providing some degree of relief and prevent angry mobs of educators from storming the Bronx with pitchforks and torches, let it be known that the administrators at the school I wrote of are no longer there; they have since been replaced by administrators who are respected by staff members and more knowledgeable about education. The staff attrition rate has slowed considerably, and a highly dedicated and energetic group of teachers remain. While I assure you that nothing in my story was fabricated, or even embellished, I can tell you that things seem better, which is a start. I would like to add that no matter how startling my story may have been to some, I have come across many teachers from other schools with tales that made mine pale in comparison; stories of unimaginable disorganization, micromanagement, more rigidly enforced scripted curriculum, and truly abysmal learning conditions that made me feel as if I did, in fact, work in a country club after all. Stories like this can be found almost anywhere, and are not exclusive to any one particular kind of school. On the other hand, neither are the good stories of success and innovation, which brings me to my next point.

After reading your comments, I realized that I may have inadvertently made a generalization about charter schools that was not my objective. My intent was not to imply that all charter schools are by definition black holes of dysfunction and misery, but rather to use my experience to counter the idea that all charter schools are by definition wonderful "remedies" to the problems in education.  When I worked in the Bronx and would tell stories to friends and outside teachers, many of them would react in surprise and confusion. “But it’s a charter school,” I heard frequently. “Aren’t they supposed to be better than public schools?” 

The misconception that having the word "charter" in a school's title somehow automatically deemed it 'better' than the neighboring public schools was--and still is--deeply frustrating, especially when it is believed by people who are not even sure what a charter school is. Unless the school offers innovative methods of instruction geared toward specific students (and I know there are those that do) all you get is a continuation of “failing” practices under the fa├žade of “reform”. At the end of the day, every school--regardless of title-- is unique, and what happens inside is a direct result of who is making decisions, who is developing instruction, what instruction looks like, and what sort of community exists. 

Principles—not to mention principals--matter. Teachers matter. Curriculum matters. Many of the issues I encountered, such as scripted instruction, relentless test prep, and an emphasis on uniformity, are not exclusive to charter schools, but have also permeated the realm of public education as well. I know this from my own experiences, as well as from your responses. Personally, I am wary of any educational institution that promotes one-size-fits-all instruction that belittles teachers and students and compartmentalizes all areas of learning.  I am also wary of "reform" measures that allow for those without any background or experience in education to make executive decisions for large groups of teachers and students, or worse yet profit from them. I find the idea of creating a corporate-style environment for any school baffling, unnecessary, and just plain wrong.  With that said, at the heart of my own story is not so much a charter school vs. public school debate, but a fury and sadness over what education has been reduced to, particularly in areas of high poverty.   

Charter schools, public schools, private schools, magnet schools, charm schools and any other kind of school should be focused on providing a meaningful and culturally relevant education to all students. That's certainly not the kind of task that can be accomplished with sets of rubrics etched in stone or teaching manuals designed for generic groups of faceless children. It's not something that can be accomplished by needlessly punishing teachers for the most mundane things, or glorifying statistics above all else. It cannot be accomplished by turning schools into corporations, factories, boot camps, or anything else that eschews context, individual thought and culturally embedded meaning while simultaneously determining the means and the ends of every particle of learning. And until this is universally understood, I'm afraid that stories like mine will multiply, while teachers and students are subjected to more and more fads, programs, and questionable "reform" practices. Maxine Greene writes, 

"How is the teacher to cope with this? How is she or he to avoid feeling like a chess piece or a cog or even an accomplice of some kind? The challenge may be to learn how to move back and forth to comprehend the domains of policy and long-term planning, while also attending to particular children, situation specific undertakings, the unmeasurable, and the unique. Surely, at least part of the challenge is to refuse artificial separations of the school from the surrounding environment, to refuse the decontextualizations that falsify so much."

Your responses let it be known that there are multitudes of deeply committed teachers from all over making every to effort rise to that challenge.  I hope you continue to stand up, let your voices be heard, and help pave the way for a future where ridiculous trends such as scripts, incessant test prep, business-model schools,  and bulletin "boreds" are nothing more than distant memories.

The Need For Story

“Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name."
Tell me a story of deep delight.

- From “Tell Me a Story” by Robert Penn Warren

Sad is the Man (M.A. Reilly, April, 2011)

Tell Me a Story (M.A. Reilly, April, 2011)

The Problem with Words (M.A. Reilly, April, 2011)

Where No One Speaks English (M.A. Reilly, April, 2011)

Dreaming of Kurt Schwitters (M.A. Reilly, April, 2011)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What Does it Mean to Be Disobedient?

In Reuben's Fall: A Rhizomatic Analysis of Disobedience in Kindergarten Sheri Leafgren describes a scene that takes place in a school hallway.  Reuben, a kindergarten child, has fallen, hard enough that Sheri hears it as she is teaching in a nearby kindergarten. As she steps out into the hallway she sees this:
In the aftermath of Reuben's fall, Julian--one of those spirited, full-of-verve, curious, "bad" children whom I had coveted for my own classroom--had left his place in the back of the line to reach Reuben where he had fallen near the front of the boys' line and, as I arrived at the door, was helping him off the floor, asking "Reuben, are you okay?"
As the other children steadfastly maintained their places in their straight, boy and girl lines, Mrs. Buttercup shook her head, held up two fingers, and said to Julian: "That's two, Julian. You are out of line and you are talking. You're on the wall at recess" (p.15).
Leafgren explains that being "on the wall at recess" means that the child would spend part or all of recess standing against a wall in the playground unable to play, but able to see his/her peers at play.  Imagine what that must be like for a five-year-old full of impulse and verve. Julian like Reuben is a kindergarten child. I quote this scenario as I am wondering about what it means to be disobedient in the context of school, specifically primary grades and what essential cultural truths we hope children will learn by what we privilege.

I have mostly found discipline rules in schools that are determined outside of context to be inherently mean-spirited and dangerously simple.  What I mean by this is how can it be predetermined that if student A does X then the punishment will be Y.  To issue punishments without context is idiotic.  And yet, I would be lying if I also did not say that in many schools where I have worked, there's always a contingent of teachers like Mrs. Buttercup who clamor at the bit to dole out the punishment or to make sure that some administrator or dean doles out the punishment regardless of the context. Ask the Mrs Buttercups and they will tell you that children must learn right from wrong and seem to believe that their personal truths are universal.

Some years ago my son was disciplined for yelling out in class right after an announcement had been made indicating that third graders would be trying out for the school store.  He said to a friend across the room, "Yes!" His teacher determined that yelling out was wrong and the punishment was that he would remain in the classroom by himself while all the other children and the teacher went to the school store to try out for what would be a year long privilege of selling things in the morning to other children. In this suburban classroom, my son was the only boy of color. He was 8. A few days later we learned about the incident when my son in tears told us that he was "bad" and was punished and how embarrassed he was to be left behind. He explained that he had wanted to sell things at the store--a topic he and his friends had been talking about since 2nd grade. "I didn't mean to yell out. I just was excited."

We assured our son that he was not bad and that saying "Yes" because you're excited happens.  The next week, my husband and I talked with the principal and the teacher and whereas the matter was resolved, the injury was not. At this meeting, all of the adults were white (including my husband and me) and the principal assured us that no one at the school saw color and everyone treated all children the same. The principal did not believe in white privilege.

Then, like now, I question what children are learning, not through the official curriculum, but rather through the understory that is taught alongside the official content that helps children, like Reuben and my son, learn how and unfortunately if they are valued by meaningful and powerful adults in their lives. "Being good" is a culturally derived stance, not a universally given truth. Teachers have enormous power in a young child's life and ought to keep that clearly in mind when they attend to what children do and say through punishment.

Work cited:
Leafgren, Sherri L. 2009. Reuben's Fall: A Rhizomatic Analysis of Disobedience in Kindergarten. Walnut Creek, CA: Leaf Coast Press, Inc.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thinking about Last In, First Out (LIFO)

Appreciating experience when instant everything is so valued is a challenge.  Just think how often quickness is foolishly equated with success or progress.   I have been thinking a lot about experience lately as I never imagined public schools sans experienced teachers and frankly that possibility has me worried, and I hope it worries you too.  As a district administrator, consultant, and teacher for the last 25+ years I have learned with and from experienced teachers and administrators.  They are often the center to any progressive practice as they are not faddist but rather the leaders who ask the tough questions about an initiative, who challenge the status quo by teaching and leading well, who quietly tutor students and mentor colleagues, and who consistently deepen their own knowledge.

So what worries me about ending Last In, First Out (LIFO) is that I think permission to get rid of "difficult" teachers will happen. In every school system where I have worked, I have witnessed deeply talented teachers with experience be misunderstood or unappreciated by building or central office administrators because the administrators were ill suited for the power they held and viewed these teachers as threatening.  Quieting these important voices who question will likely inform dismissal decisions. Remove the talent and experience from schools and children will be harmed.

A second concern I have with ending LIFO is that experience cannot be had on the cheap.  Experience costs money and in this time of severe budget caps of 1-and-2%,  I think it is probable that even the most well intentioned superintendent and board of education may look to settle accounts by letting more expensive educators go and replacing them with new hires.  Already we are seeing signs of this happening in Kansas City, MO and Tulsa, OK where more experienced teachers are being let go and replaced by Teach for America (TFA) who are expected to commit for only 2 years.

Replacing experience with inexperience or no experience will lessen quality. I have met and worked with hundreds of beginning teachers who after a year or two gain control over the management issues and a sense of confidence develops. Alongside that confidence, these teachers often mistake their tacit knowledge for theoretical truths. Whereas they have learned much in those first years they are usually focused on teaching, and less so on how their students are learning. It is through their work with more knowledgeable others, that a shift from thinking mostly about their teaching to wondering and theorizing about their learners starts to take place. This shift is critical and cannot easily be seen by people with little teaching or no teaching experience. Without experienced teachers the critical learning for young teachers will be stilted.

Professional learning happens among teachers and administrators in the informal conversations they have before, during, and after school.  Wendell Berry talks about this process. In The Unsettling of America (1977), he describes the technical farmer and the good farmer. The technical farmer, Berry says can be made by training, while the good farmer "is a cultural product; he is made by a sort of training, certainly in what his time imposes or demands, but also he is made by generations of experience" (p. 45). The essential experiences of the good farmer, Berry explains are "tested, preserved, handed down in settled households, friendships, and communities that are deliberately and carefully native to their own ground" (p.45).

I imagine that it is easy to think of teaching as a technical act, especially by those with limited or no actual experience working alongside other teachers. As an outsider, it is easy to not know about schools as settled households.  From this vantage point one teacher looks about the same as the next. We cannot improve public education by exercising such poor judgment.  Ending LIFO will lessen quality of teaching and learning and does nothing to resolve the issue as to why very ineffective teachers are allowed to remain in their jobs. Consider this: The same administrators who keep ineffective teachers in place often because they fail to recognize ineffectiveness (like liking like) will be charged with recommending dismissals. Just who do you think they'll recommend?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Update about the New Journal, (Re):Mix

I had a couple of emails from different people interested in the new journal, (Re):Mix.  As this is a work in progress, I wanted to update everyone.

1. Some selections for the journal will be blind peer reviewed (traditional academic text). Authors should indicate a preference for blind peer review in their submission. The article when published will indicate, blind peer review. Academic text will be reviewed by two people.
2. Some selections will not be peer reviewed, such as visual art submissions, poetry, vignettes, and articles where the author requests that it not be peer reviewed.  Also as the magazine emerges, I am thinking that there may be some columns that become standard and these would not be peer reviewed.
3. Recommended length for academic text: 2500 to 10,000 words, APA.
4. The magazine does not have a website as of yet, simply because I hadn't thought that far and I don't know how to do it. If anyone would like to volunteer....
5. The journal will be printed in English.
6. Several wonderful reviewers and editors have been selected. I will be announcing who in about a week.

Call for Submissions for Issue 1.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Think I'll Make Myself A Cup of Tea: Procrastination

If you are like me, I imagine you know something about procrastination. Instead of jotting this blog, I have other things I ought to be doing, like sleeping, finishing that book I meant to finish a week ago, or writing that chapter to the new book I'm working on, or getting my camera and heading out for the morning, or....

Instead it's 5:13 a.m. and I am drinking tea, now cooled and thinking about making another cup of tea.

How about you? Want to put off that which you need to be doing?  Here's a 4+ minute video that cleverly (and artfully) looks at procrastination by John Kelly. I think you will absolutely love it. 

Before watching though, go ahead a make yourself a cup of tea...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Charter Schools: They're Not Your Father's Country Club

It has taken a while, but I recently viewed Waiting for Superman. I viewed it after posting a guest blog by Miss C, a first grade teacher who discusses her experience at a corporate run charter school in the South Bronx. I invite you to read what she had to say here
The opening to Waiting for Superman is extremely important.  You might remember the scene where Davis Guggenheim describes the guilt he feels as he takes his own children pass public schools en route to their private (not charter) school.
Cue melancholy music.
Voice over: Every morning it's the same. Juice. Shoes. Backpack. The morning ritual and with it comes the uneasy feeling no matter who we are, or what neighborhood we live in. Each morning wanting to believe in our schools, we take a leap of faith. In 1999 I made a documentary about public school teachers. And I spent an entire school year watching them dedicate their lives to children. These teachers embodied a hope and carried with them a promise that the idea of public schools could work. Ten years later it was time to chose a school for my own children and then reality set in. My feelings about public education didn't mater as much as my fear of sending them to a failing school. And so every morning betraying the ideals I thought I lived by I drive by three public schools as I take my kids to a private school. But I'm lucky, I have a choice.
Is it really reality that set in or is it nothing more than another person of great wealth making a choice and not wanting to be morally responsible for that choice? 

I understand that Mr. Guggenheim may want to situate his decision to send his three children to private school as a societal dilemma, but it is clearly not that.  Society did not make Mr. Guggenheim chose private school.  He and perhaps his wife, actress Elisabeth Shue, made that decision--not you or me. If deciding to send his children to private school resulted in shame at choosing to betray ideals he thought he lived by, then that's something he needs to resolve.

What is unacceptable, however, is telegraphing his shame as ours and providing through his art a means for other wealthy people who hold a disproportionate amount of power in this country to eliminate public education and feel justified in doing so.  Mr. Guggenheim gives them this out in his docudrama by suggesting that "the worst possible example of public schooling in the United States" (Jay Mathews) is a suitable placeholder for ALL public schools. 

Further, he situates the complexity of learning with the simplicity of an input-output model and says that the issue of failure is caused by public schools being part of a bureaucracy. Guggenheim says:
It really should be simple. A teacher in a school house filling her students with knowledge and sending them on their way.
This gross misconception of learning, along with the image of the heroic superintendent (purple heart winner) who cannot reform D.C. public schools lay the foundation for the logic that allows the wealthy to say: We need something else, something new! Mr. Guggenheim serves up charter schools as that answer and in doing so allows for those with power and means to equate charter schools with their private school experiences.

Now perhaps Mr. Guggenheim thinks charter schools resemble Sidwell Friends School in D.C. where he went to school. Please note that to send your child there it would cost you between $33,000 and $38,000 per year, per child.  Sidwell is a long distance away from the schools highlighted in the film, as well as Miss C's charter school in the South Bronx. However, for the economically privileged like Mr. Guggenheim, private schooling may be the only recalled-child-memory available.

Zip Code
Like me, I imagined that you too shuddered when the mom in the film described her hopelessness and her desire to do better for her kids. She tells Guggenheim that "we're stuck."  He, a man with great means, replies, "That doesn't seem fair."  She answers, "It's not fair, but this is where we live."

You betcha.

Zip code in the United States means a lot and in places with significant wealth or poverty, zip code means everything as it influences EVERY aspect of living, not only schooling.  The differences between private schools that serve the elite and everything else is significant.  Consider what Miss C tells us about the charter she worked at in the South Bronx.  A school where she was reprimanded during a evaluation because a student breathed too loudly.  A school where new faculty are given a map that tells them how they will feel during a school year: struggling, keeping their heads above water and disillusionment. Does Sidwell offer such prophetic insight to their new staff? A school where children are overtly managed and controlled and given a steady and malnourished curriculum built upon behavior modification and test preparation.  A school where teachers are not permitted to talk with children, but only read from a script, less they face reduction in pay and dismissal.

No doubt, education in the United States needs attention and support that is steady, reliable, inspiring, and insightful.  We have too many examples of people with no or limited relevant experience being given control of large city school systems and failing miserably and publicly. Their failures (as well as the failures of those who appoint them) get spun into another example of why public schools need to be dismantled. The issues related to school redesign are complex and are always socially situated. We would do well to stop waiting for the heroic to arrive and engage local communities in the design of their public schools. Progress can be made, if we have a will to do so.

For profit schooling carries with it market values. We are fools to believe that for profit schools will privilege democratic ideals of caring and educating all above market rate returns.  The children who do not have advocates, the children who are poor, the children who are of color, the children who require special assistance, the children who don't appear to be catching on quickly, the children who misbehave, the children who speak out against the corporate entity that owns the school, and so on...These children will be left behind or used as fodder.

A democracy is only as strong as its public schools.

Starry, a painting by Samantha Caponera.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Guest Blog: Miss C Recounts Teaching at a South Bronx Charter School

Guest Blog: This blog post was written by Miss C a former graduate student of mine who spent a year working as a first grade teacher at a charter school in the South Bronx (NYC). Miss C completed a Masters of Professional Studies in Literacy, a graduate program that ironically privileged the arts and situated the study of "literacies" within a sociocultural framework. The charter world that Miss C describes represents a fundamentally different understanding of teaching, learning, children, and developmentally appropriate practices than what she knew and learned at college.  

I warn you, I cried reading this narrative--not for Miss C, a talented artist and teacher now working in a public school, but for her 22 first graders still at the charter school.

                                                Welcome to Boot Camp
“Miss C, when you were gone, I was so scared, I thought I was in boot camp!” -one of my first graders, after I returned from a meeting.
            This piece serves as a glimpse inside a South Bronx charter school, told from the perspective of a classroom teacher. With the overblown acclaim of charter schools as a means of education “reform” in recent months, I jumped at the chance to tell my story.  I realize that mine is just one story and there are infinite stories and viewpoints held for any given situation;  someone else in my shoes might offer a completely different account. My hope is that my story will spark a conversation, offer new perspectives, and raise a few questions. Teacher's voices can be powerful when they are allowed to be heard.
            Charter schools are public schools, and can be started by and run by anyone. It is not uncommon for them to be operated by people who have no background in education.  They are funded by a mixture of government money, private donations, and grants, and are often situated in areas of high poverty, where applicants are chosen by lottery. Charter schools offer longer school days, smaller class sizes, and "rigorous, standards-based instruction". They also offer a militaristic and strangely corporate environment that emphasizes the importance of order, obedience, and product above all else. Everything has a set protocol and predetermined vision of result, usually dreamt up by administration.  I spent ten months feeling like a chess piece, robot, crusader, warden, inmate, and performer, sometimes all at once. It was a very long year.

Lights, Camera, Action: Battling the Script
“It defies both logic and experience to believe that the learning of all will be enhanced by a curriculum that meets the individual needs of few, if any." --P. David Pearson
            Curriculum, for me, was the single most difficult thing to contend with during my experience. Having worked in a school where instruction was more or less designed by the teachers, I had naively assumed I would be doing the same at my new school.  Instead, I was horrified to discover that my entire day was scripted. Reading, writing, math, science, and social studies all had their own stacks of teaching manuals and supplies, dictating every utterance and activity for teachers and students. I distinctly remember a line from a four page script in one of the math lessons wherein the teacher was supposed to rap multiples of 10 to the students. “After each verse, say 'unh' two or three times in rhythm,” it directed.  Three large plastic tubs held hundreds of worksheets and assessments to be distributed to the masses. The worst was the reading program, which aside from scripted manuals was also accompanied by sets of basal readers and phonics workbooks, forcing students to engage in choral readings of monosyllabic stories about Fat Cat and Zig Pig. The level of boredom and disinterest during instructional time was palpable.  Teachers had to email weekly lesson plans to supervisors no later than 8pm on Sunday nights, filled out in complex electronic templates that detailed everything from what questions we planned to ask during a read aloud, to what page number of the manual we were on. I asked my supervisor why everything was scripted, and she informed me that this was a way to ensure teaching consistency across each grade level. In the past, she explained, some students had been getting quality instruction, while others were getting less quality instruction; scripts were a way to eradicate that inequality and make sure that everyone received the same thing. Mediocrity, evidently, was acceptable, as long as it was uniform. 
            The idea of uniform teaching baffled and infuriated me for a number of reasons. It reduced teaching to regurgitating lines off a page, and learning to nothing more than acquiring information and regurgitating it right back. Use of scripts insinuated that we were incapable of designing instruction on our own and that manuals created by faceless executives were appropriate for all of our students. I bitterly resisted, sneaking in differentiated instruction, supplementing whenever possible. It was an exhausting challenge. Teachers were required to have the same objectives, lessons, and activities as their grade level colleagues at all times, regardless of what our students might need, and discrepancies were always questioned by administrators.  Furthermore, we were informed that we should not design any assignments or response sheets ourselves, since it was all provided and prepackaged for us in the curriculum. Anything we did design was supposed to be approved by our supervisor prior to using it.
            In addition to consistency, scripts offered a degree of control and micromanagement for administrators which consumed every facet of life in the school. Teachers (and students) were exempt from making virtually any decision themselves.  This included (but was not limited to) what to teach, when to teach it, how to teach it, how to line our students up, how to have them walk in hallway, when to take our classes to the bathroom, how much homework to give, what homework to give, how to handle classroom management, what to put on our bulletin boards, how to arrange our furniture, when to read a book to our students, how to distribute crayons and pencils, and a myriad of other things.  I found it ironic, not to mention insulting, that the same administrators who preached about the virtues of teaching and our high level of "professionalism" seemed to regard us as bumbling idiots incapable of doing anything short of walking upright without a set of detailed instructions.

Kiss My ASSessments: Tales of Testing
“When we define what matters in education only by what we can measure, we are in serious trouble.”-Diane Ravitch
             When a charter school is "born" so to speak, it is aligned to an actual charter stating that the school will meet certain goals (i.e., test scores) within a specific time period (usually five years). If the goals are not met within the five years, the charter could potentially be revoked and the school could be shut down. With such heavy pressure to obtain high test scores, "rigorous" curriculum takes on whole new meaning.  In addition to hours of scripted instruction, most of which was test-based, the students were also subjected to relentless test prep delivered from thick, scripted manuals. Upper school (grades 3-5) designated Fridays as test prep days, since the kids left at 2pm rather than 4pm. On Fridays, they literally spent the entire day doing nothing but test prep. The younger grades were spared, at least until May, when my first graders were forced to endure test prep for the Terra Nova exam, a torturous experience for all of us. Even the kindergarteners took the Terra Nova, a test which required children to sit for an hour and a half session on two separate days and bubble in answers on a recording sheet.  I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of it, although I did chuckle when one kindergarten teacher told me how her students blurted every answer out loud after she read them the questions. Test scores determined merit pay, and "testing season" was regarded as the most important time of the year.
            Along with endless test prep for NYS exams, assessment and the quest for data were drilled into our curriculum and practices. Never in my life had I such a dizzying array of assessments, especially in the primary grades. Our math curriculum came with weekly tests that I had to grade using actual percentages scrawled on top, which felt bizarre and cruel to hand back to a six year old (not to mention a stark contrast to my usual star or smiley face). We were instructed to keep data on everything, and make sure anything we put in a portfolio, or hung up on a bulletin board was aligned to a rubric and graded. Our heavily scrutinized bulletin boards--which I secretly referred to as bulletin boreds--were depressing exhibitions of uniform student work that was graded and accompanied by lists of NYS standards and rubrics so observers could see what the “purpose” of the assignment was and how/why students received whatever grade they got. Giving grades was bad enough: putting them on display in the hallway was even worse. Low grades were not permitted to be displayed, so some students never had work shown. Bulletin boards were no place for whimsical artwork adorned with painted handprints, glitter, or anything fun. Nothing “counted” unless it had a grade and was approved by administration.
            Data and grades played a more sinister role when it came to determining who was "PiD" (Promotion in Doubt).  Children who were in danger of being retained had to be identified by early November--a mere two months into the school year—when PiD forms were handed into administration, then sent home to parents. Each year, out of roughly 66 children per grade level, between five and seven were held back, totaling about 36 kids on average K-5. In my own class, I had four students who were repeating first grade. Criteria for retention was based on failure to meet certain benchmarks, and often seen as a necessary step. Before an end of the year awards ceremony, my supervisor cautioned us to make sure we told our students that "just because they get an award of participation does NOT mean they are being promoted to the next grade."

                             Phases of the School Year: Another One Bites the Dust
“I used to work for a large telecommunications business. I wanted to teach because I was looking for something easier to do.” --a brand new fourth grade teacher at my school. He lasted nine days of work before submitting his resignation.
             During our August orientation, staff members were given a “Phases of the School Year” graph that mapped out our predicted feelings and attitudes over the course of the upcoming school year. According to this graph, we would start off in “Anticipation” mode, but would quickly slip into “Survival” mode, struggling to "keep our heads above water". Survival was followed by the lowest point on the graph, “Disillusionment”, that was projected to hit us around the October/November mark. After this, it was a steady uphill climb toward “Rejuvenation” (Feb/March), “Reflection” (May) and then back to “Anticipation” once again (June, July).  I remember thinking how odd it was to be told how miserable and desperate we were going to be feeling in a matter of months. Looking back, I am not entirely convinced over the accuracy of the graph’s information. Personally, I never felt Rejuvenated, and I witnessed more than one teacher who seemed permanently stuck in “Disillusionment”, on the brink of “Severe Mental Breakdown”. Staff morale was perpetually low.
            When I worked in the suburbs, teaching jobs were scarce and highly coveted. Teachers got jobs in schools or districts and built life-long careers there. Unlike most public schools, charter schools do not offer contracts, tenure, or a union. Teachers sign “letters of intent”, stating that they intend to work in a position for the school year, that they can be fired at any time with or without cause, and that they are free to leave at any time. Staff changes are frequent. At my school, since teachers were more or less viewed as factory drones, replacing them was swift and emotionless--when people quit, it was often not even mentioned at the weekly faculty meeting. A face was absent, a new face was in place, and life continued. During that one year, seven teachers quit between September and May, one was fired, and five more (myself included) resigned in June.  Quitting was often the result of utter exhaustion and depression; the demands and the micromanagement were often more than teachers could bear. I considered leaving every day up until June 25th, wavering back and forth on a near hourly basis and hanging on only by desperate determination to see the year through and a begrudging sense of obligation toward my students. Those who left earlier forfeited two months worth of salary they would have been paid if they’d given 30 days notice (we were paid over 12 months). Out of those seven teachers, only two had new jobs lined up. The other five opted for unemployment.
            The record for fastest resignation went to a fifth grade teacher, who quit during orientation, a week before the kids were due to arrive.  According to our graph, she never even made it to Survival mode.  She was soon followed by a fourth grade teacher two weeks later; his class eventually would lose another teacher in February.  On the other end of the spectrum was a third grade teacher who quit in May (Reflection month!), with six weeks of school left. At that point, her position was not replaced, but rather covered by a rotating shift of various learning specialists and office aides who performed like a succession of understudies, picking up where she'd left off in the script. 

                                  Kiss My Summative Assessment: Evaluation Tales
“A child sighs loudly on the rug. 2 minutes later it happens again. You do nothing to address this.” --excerpt from one of my 12 documented observations
            Over the course of the year, all lessons plans, activities and practices were aligned to the school’s evaluation tool; a six page rubric that broke teaching into 23 areas. Each area had four distinct ratings; Unsatisfactory, Basic, Proficient, and Distinguished.  Starting in April, teachers were required to hand in “Summative Assessments”; documents totaling anywhere from 20 to 40 pages that described our teaching performance in alignment to the rubric.  Supervisors reviewed them and gave us our "grades". Throughout the previous months, we’d been forced to perform skits and act out examples of these ratings and components at faculty meetings, so it was abundantly clear how one might achieve the exalted title of “Distinguished” and avoid "Unsatisfactory". We were also given a total of 12 recorded observations by supervisors (in addition to about 40 unrecorded observations), where we received feedback such as letting us know that our students were breathing excessively.  I was given an unsatisfactory in one category because my classroom cubbies were a mess. As a result, I lost a chunk of my bonus, as performance, along with test scores, were aligned to merit pay. I half expected to be forced to wear a scarlet letter U plastered to my shirt; thankfully it didn't quite come to that.
"Ugly stuff, /ugly, ugly stuff./I hate/ school./School is/ boring. I hate/school. boo!" --a poem written by one of my first graders
It is nearly impossible to concisely express what an exhausting, frustrating, and mind-boggling year it was. Much of what I saw and was encouraged (or forced) to do directly contradicted every principle or philosophy I believe in as a teacher. To be fair, there were positive things mixed in with the crazy. The school itself was clean, safe, and decently equipped, with large, sunlit classrooms and brightly painted walls. The children received regular art, music, and gym, as well as daily breakfast and lunch. Most of the teachers I met were genuinely warm, caring, funny individuals who were very invested in their students.  Their level of dedication and energy was amazing. In addition to extreme demands at school, most of the staff battled commutes of an hour or more, long subway rides or miserable gridlocked traffic, but were nonetheless at school by 7:30am every day, ready to give it everything they had.
            My story here hardly touches upon the 22 students I spent eight hours a day with. I think of them often, wondering if they are happy or miserable, if they are making progress, if they are behaving (hmm, that would be something new), how they are reading, what they are writing, if they miss first grade, if they miss ME. It would be an understatement to say we had a rocky year, but I am convinced it would have been less rocky if they had been allowed to be children rather than stuffed into little invisible straight-jackets all day long, from which outbursts and tantrums were frequent. My first graders in the public school I’m at now have play center time and lots of choice; our curriculum isn’t scripted, the children are allowed to talk, sing, breathe, and be themselves. It’s truly a different world, one that my former students will most likely never know.
            I wonder about the high test scores my previous school boasts, and if they are an indication of real learning, or the result of endless hours of relentless test-prep that has taught students how to choose the correct answer at the expense of actually learning anything valuable. I wonder what a “Phases of the School Year” graph might look like for students at this school, and similar schools. Are they Disillusioned? Rejuvenated? Or stuck in Survival Mode, going through the motions and barely scraping through each day, while buried under mounds of tedious scripted assignments and looming PiD forms?
            I wonder about the brand-new teachers who find themselves in schools like this, or the student teachers, without any previous experience to give them an alternate view of what education can look like. There were several student teachers at the charter school, and I shudder to think of the warped ideas they left with regarding teaching and learning.
            It is thoroughly frightening and depressing to see what is occurring in education these days.  The gaping chasm between the have and the have-nots seems to widen with each year, while the "remedies"--scripted instruction, charter schools, value-added assessment, and increased standardized testing, to name a few--manage to pointedly avoid dealing with the root of the issue while imposing the most miserable conditions upon innocent children and hard-working teachers. I hope that the pendulum will eventually swing and that the opportunity for individual thought, authentic instruction, creativity, play, and shared teaching and learning will eventually be available to everyone. I've seen schools like this; they do exist. As Kozol writes, “The schools where children and their teachers are still...given the opportunities to poke around in the satisfactions of uncertainly need to be defended...These are the schools I call the 'treasured places'. The remind us always of the possible."

Work Cited
Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Crown Publishing Group

Pearson, P.D. (2007). An Endangered Species Act for Literacy Education. Journal of Literacy Research, 39, 145-162.

Ravitch, D. (2010) The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.