Thursday, August 26, 2010

Privilege to Survive

On Monday I had a nasty run in with some sort of stinging bug - and because I live in a community with medical facilities, I have health insurance, and I had people around, it was a small thing, a minor incident. But had I not had any of those things the outcome could have been different, there would not have been the nurses or the doctors, the epinephrine, the IV, the ambulance to take me to the emergency room, the benadryl - I may have survived without those things but there were moments when I wasn't sure - but even without the bug sting and my reaction to it, I survived - I could live in Pakistan right now, or Afghanistan, or Niger, the Philippines or the United States (source) or be one of the thousands of children who die every day either from starvation or preventable disease - and in that case, bug or no bug, I might not have survived - survival is privileged.

yes, we have a medical system that can be god like - make miracles, save lives - and if it hadn't existed, I definitely would have died about two years ago from an appendix leaking toxins into my system - However, the nature of that medical system, the high costs, the privatization makes living, life, something that only the privileged can have and afford. And while I am thankful for the times my life has been saved, I know that my life is no more worthy than the thousands of lives that are not saved every day -so yes, I survived Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday - I survive and am able to live every day because others are not.

Monday was a rough day, and I have spent much of my week rehashing it with others, going over it in my mind, marveling at the wonderful support that others gave me - but I can't forget that Monday, though merely the tip of the iceberg of my privilege was more about that same privilege than anything else... what that means for tomorrow, I am not sure, I'm just sayin.....

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Good Times

For those who have been reading this lately - you may have noticed that I have been a little down on teaching and education. So I decided to write about the good times. This past week I had a day that was every teachers nightmare, the students were mocking my attempts to tell them what to do and then of course doing whatever they wanted which included breaking a few things in the classroom, hitting each other, etc. By the end of the day I was so frustrated my co-workers were encouraging me to use one of the many personal days I have left the following day so I could have a break. I thought about it, and then I worried that maybe Thursday would be one of the good days, or better days. Maybe I would miss one of the "good times" that make teaching worth it. So I came in, and was so glad I did. Not that the day was easy or anything, but there was a moment.

We were walking back from PE at the end of the day and to distract a students who was starting to pick on someone else, I started to talk about the leaves and flowers along the walk. At one point where there was a delightful sweet smell I stopped and asked my students "What is that wonderful smell? Do you smell it?" They immediately located its source in a honeysuckle bush and started plucking the blossoms off and putting the stem ends in their mouth. Having grown up in the North, I had never tasted a honeysuckle blossom. I asked the students in amazement if they were eating the honeysuckle and they all sort of clamored to explain it to me and show me how to do it. It was one of the "good times."

And to be totally honest, there are moments of every day even the worse days that qualify as part of the good times. I have decided that during these last four weeks, with a class that has challenged me in more ways than I thought possible, that I will go to work everyday and focus on the good times, try not to worry about the broken pencil sharpener, the bits of crayon flying about the room, the graffiti scratched into the refrigerator, the screen that has fallen out our window, or the things my students holler out he window in an attempt to get the girls walking by. Yes, I will keep addressing those issues, but I hope not to get bogged down in them. I want to remember the honeysuckle moments at the end of the day.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Prison School

Yesterday I decided to watch some Democracy Now! while baking some cookies. I listened to this report on racism, brutality and humiliation in California prisons. I had to stop what I was doing and listen more closely and gasp over and over as the words in the report matched those we use every day at school. I hope this will become more clear in the post. As I said to a friend last night at dinner, not a day goes by when I am not aware of the oppressive nature of the school I work at and when I am not at least a little bit torn apart by it. Still, when I hear certain reports or read certain editorials I am still shocked at the reality of it all.

This blog is going to be a bit of an experiment in that I am going to re-listen to the report on Democracy Now and simply type my thoughts and reactions as I go along. It may be helpful to watch the report yourself.

They introduce the piece saying there is a controversy rising in California over allegations of racist treatment in prisons. How do we raise the awareness, the issue of education, particularly special education as it exists in my context to the place of a controversy? There are so many assumptions or beliefs that revolve around it. Some that come to mind are "we are doing what has to be done" "these kids won't be successful any other way" "What else are you going to do?" "They are 'special kids' they need/deserve this"

Cruelty brutality and corruption.....

extreme isolation, idleness and deprivation....

A troubling pattern of behavior -

The abuse has been discovered in what were originally called "behavior modification units" that have now been renamed "behavior management units" due to the bad connotation with behavior modification. Interesting that in education we use the EXACT SAME LANGUAGE to describe our schools, programs, and plans. We do not shy away from the behavior modification name, indeed we embrace it frequently bragging about the results. It runs the gamut from the use of detention halls and tardy marks to the school in Massachusetts that is still using electric shock "treatment" as a crucial component in its behavior modification. My school falls somewhere in between as we use restraints and "quiet rooms" as well as a token economy system.

"This was a pretty alarming set of facts to learn..." (every time I share info on where I work, I get a similar reaction)
Now, these behavior management units, how do they differ from what’s normally referred to, I guess, as isolation cells in these prisons? And what are they supposed to do that’s different from those isolation cells?
"How do special education and behavior management schools differ from "regular schools?" ek

My initial thoughts on both of these (the second is mine) is how can prison and when you think about it, school, be considered normal, even in the most usual circumstances? They both involve people who are trapped behind closed doors living in some sort of artificial reality that has an entirely different set of rules and values from those that exist outside the doors. They both seem to exist more for the protection of the people outside than for the betterment of the people inside.

They (behavior management plans) had carrots and sticks associated with them. The sticks were a reduction in privileges. Prisoners lost contact with family members, in many cases. They lost time in the exercise yard. They lost the ability to draw from the prison canteen. They lost access to electronic media, such as television, very restricted access to reading materials. Kind of an isolation tank, you might say. And the carrot was that for good behavior, in other words, reduced rule breaking in the prisons, they could gradually earn back a few of those privileges and eventually graduate into the mainline prison environment, where they could be a more—have a more normal prison experience.
In our school we have a point sheet system that determines what level a student is on (red, yellow, green, blue, and silver) With these levels come different privileges such as internet access, extra food from the school store, listening to music, Friday recreational activities and more freedom of movement (being able to walk the halls without an escort). Students drop their level by breaking the rules. Extreme rule violation can result in time (5-20 minutes) spent in the "quiet room" (a small bare room with a door that can be held shut from the outside). Students earn back privileges slowly by not breaking rules. However, the opportunity to go back to "normal school" is extremely rare for our students.

The path was something called “life skill” classes. These were things like anger management and Alcoholics Anonymous, things that prisoners could use to essentially heal themselves, at least by design. What I found was that these classes were largely dropped by the prison system. In other words, budget cuts and lockdowns, where prisoners are locked in their cells, often, all but all week, every week, except for perhaps two or three visits outside the cell for a quick shower, in many cases—these kinds of conditions made the classroom part of the program increasingly meaningless. And so, what you were left with was fear and deprivation. Now, fear and deprivation can be a powerful motivator. As a result, the prisons reported that these were successful programs. They reported that rule violations were down as a result of the behavior modification program.
Again with the language. We do "lockdowns" in our school, sometimes on a class by class basis, sometimes on a school wide basis. Lockdown in school means that students are not allowed to leave their seat without permission. There are maybe 3 or 4 opportunities to use the bathroom in a day. Students only leave their seats for the required computer programing meaning they no longer go to a teacher or TA desk for tutorial. Education comes to a halt as students are expected to complete worksheets on their own, in their cubicle all day long. So yes, "these kids of conditions [make] the classroom part of the program increasingly meaningless."

On another note - is behavior modified through fear and deprivation really modified behavior? Or is it simply a fear of deprivation? I frequently wonder the same about my students. I have learned that it is impossible to force a person to be respectful, or to care about others and the world through punishment, and yet that is what we try to do every day.
This guy is a guy who has a criminal past. And I think viewers may logically say, “Why believe a guy like that?” Prisoners do lie. They aren’t the most credible sources, because they’re constantly trying to game the system.
If I only had a nickle for every time I heard someone make a similar statement about our students, or about "inner-city kids." And I think these statements do reveal underlying beliefs some people have about who can be trusted and who can't, and more often than not, our beliefs are racist, because they are so strongly associated with skin color.
I should add that I want listeners to understand that most correctional officers do their jobs professionally and well, even in the difficult conditions of overcrowding in the California prisons, and they deserve a lot of credit and thanks for their public service in an often dangerous and difficult job.
Yes...what is frightening is what it can mean to do your job "professionally and well" I have found in my position that it asks me to act against my own senses of freedom, justice, and fairness. That my definition of doing my job well is in direct conflict with the administration's definition of doing my job well. To meet the standards of the administration I would have a quiet, well controlled, and thoroughly tested class that never questioned adult or system authority and always obeyed. My desire for a lively class, in which students feel they have a right to question has never lived up to those standards.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Which Side Are You On?

The other night I had the honor and privilege of being at a benefit where Bernice Johnson Reagan, founder of Sweet Honey and the Rock, Civil Rights Leader, and Cultural Activist spoke. She told stories about her connection to the Highlander Center interspersed with songs.

One story she told was of a woman whose husband was leading a strike - there were some local people angry about the strike who were threatening to kill her husband. He managed to leave the house but the people came and ransacked it while she was there, destroying everything. And she knew almost every single one of them. In her anger, she wrote a song "Which Side Are You On?" demanding some sort of response from the neighbors who had destroyed so much of what they worked for.

As we sang the chorus over and over I thought about my classroom. Do my students ask the same question? They must get confused because while I encourage them in developing an activist voice at some moments, I also support the oppressive systems in the school. They may not even wonder - they may say flat out that I am not on their side - or maybe they understand the struggle. I sometimes try to tell them.

But most importantly I have to ask myself this question. Which side are you on? Am I on the side of point sheets, and suspensions, and silence in the classroom? Am I on the side of a better world existing for my students? Yes and Yes. And it is a HUGE contradiction - more later.....

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

They Tried To Warn Me

While getting my M Ed, people told me that dealing with the requirements, standardization, etc. of teaching were going to be hard. They told me it would be harder than I could imagine, that it would make me want to stop teaching...and part of me tried to believe them, but the arrogant part thought that I could rise above any administrative bureaucratic stuff. That I would simply shut the door and create a haven of freedom in my classroom. But it turns out, they were right.

I am approaching the end of my third year of teaching, and have decided to start a PhD this fall in Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education. To be totally honest, I am not sure what I will be able to do there - I just knew that teaching was starting to suck the life force out of me, it was leaving me angry all the time, I kept approaching despair. The past few weeks are a good example of why.

Two weeks ago at our weekly Tuesday teacher meeting the reading specialist informed us of the new testing plans for next year. Not only will we continue our monthly testing of reading, math and comprehension levels that take the teacher out of the classroom for a full morning, but next year teachers will spend the first 4 weeks of school administering math tests individually to students. The rest of the class will be in the classroom with the teaching assistant. The school year is now just short of 10 months. That means from this test alone teachers will spend more than 10% of the year not teaching but testing. Evidently with our monthly testing we have done this year we have become an exemplary school. Many other schools in our region will have to do the same because of what we have done. Our requirements will become more strict in terms of timeliness of data entry etc. This is all happening in the context of a school where teachers do not get planning periods, where we are discouraged from taking our students outside except for PE classes that happen twice a week, where student behavior is individually monitored and documented every twenty minutes on a point sheet that determines a complicated set of priveleges and punishments. In short, where education has already slipped into the background.

And then there was this past week of standardized testing. The school I teach at is for students with learning disabilities. Most of my students do not read beyond a second or third grade level. There math skills are on a similar level. Yet they were all expected to take an 8th grade test this year. Most of the math concepts they had never seen. The decoding of the reading for many of my students was nearly impossible. In addition, the district has taken away the read-aloud accomodation meaning we can no longer read the test aloud to students who have dislexia of some sort. The tests leaves the students so demoralized and frustrated that we will spend the rest of the school year helping them feel competent again. Even though we spent the afternoons playing kickball and football and other fun activities we had around double the number of fighting incidents this week as we do in other weeks. The students were clearly frustrated and anxiety ridden even though we had explained to them over and over that their score on the test didn't matter, that it was not their fault that they didn't know things on the test because for a variety of reasons they had never been taught the material.

At somepoint in the middle of all of this a Henry Giroux article showed up on Truthout. Though I am not technically a public school teacher, it all rang so true for me it took me a few days to read it cause I had to swallow so much anger. In addition, the school I teach in is a part of the privitization movement that I am against in so many ways. As a result we are not unionized and we pay dearly for it. Many of the fundamental aspects of our school are passed down through the company that is based in New Jersey, the antithesis of a school that is meeting community based needs. Yes, the teachers and other staff in our school are well intentioned wonderful people, but I feel that the structure that the school is set in, both national, district, and privatized expectations, are making it increasingly difficult to do any good. As a teacher who is asked to teach several subjects, on several different levels without a planning period or lunch (I spend from 8:30 am to 3:15 pm with kids) I feel undervalued and exploited making it difficult maintain any sort of moral or positive attitude towards my work. Yes I love the kids, and yes, there are parts of teaching that I love. However, it is difficult to keep students engaged with lessons that are loosely developed becayse I have simply not had the time to work on them, it is difficult to maintain a learning environment when students are not adequately engaged, and in the end there are just huge amounts of frustration. My following blogs will go into more detail as I prepare to leave the school and need to both analyze and publicize my experience there. At this point, I ask you to read the Henry Giroux article and keep your eyes and ears on education in this country - look at the race to the top guidelines which will be the topic of another post soon - it is all frightening and needs to be acted on. More later.....

Friday, March 12, 2010

Or does it explode?

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

- Langston Hughes

* A friend recommended to me that I make this post more of a conversation, so consider it unfinished, but also consider yourself a part of the finishing process - ask questions, give answers...

I have gotten into answering rhetorical questions lately, sometimes obnoxiously, and in response to Mr. Hughes, rhetorical or not, I say yes. That dream explodes in my classroom everyday, it sags, it dries up, it festers. It stinks and it crusts over. I have been overwhelmed this year by the frustration and anger that is present in my classroom on a daily basis, a frustration I frequently contribute to as my students engage each other and at times myself in power struggles over minute details, fine lines, and different truths. Many days I have found myself biking home with an angry look on my face, cursing under my breath at every car that thinks of getting in the way, at the stoplights that slow me down. For months I have been trying to trace some concrete historical path to what happens in my classroom every day. Today if felt like finally realizing the obvious when the above poem slipped into my head on my bike ride home.

My students, all African American, all eligible for free and reduced lunch, are the living result of a dream deferred for generations. And yes, it explodes in fights, yelling, seemingly unreasonable reactions. It dries up in students who have already given up on themselves, who are too afraid to put themselves out there, to try. It stinks like rotting meat in students who are so unsure of their own place in this world that they establish themselves through their cruelty to others. It festers in students who come in angry every single morning and cannot seem to let their hands relax from fists to pencil grips. And it sags when students sleep through the day, or simply say it is too hard. Finally, it crusts over with a false sweetness all the times my students say what they know I want to hear, instead of what they think or believe.

My students are living results of thousands and generations of dreams deferred. Washington DC was at one time a safe haven for slaves. Freedmen's villages were set up to receive escaped slaves (and also keep them segregated from the white population) Now those villages, sometimes keeping the same names are huge housing projects. Under served and under educated the illiteracy rate in DC is one of the highest in the nation (after all we are just a few generations away from a time when it was illegal for Blacks to learn how to read). Incarceration is another way in which the dreams of Blacks in Washington DC are being deferred. Disenfranchisement whereby the residents of our nation's capital (majority Black) are not represented in the congress that makes the final decisions on the cities budget and laws. City spending has left some neighborhoods untouched while others are pristine. Finally the AIDS rate in the District of Columbia is the worst in any city in the United States. Most of these issues are not exclusive to DC, and I would argue that my classroom is not the only one that explodes.

The amazing thing is that middle schoolers have this resilience that makes it so that even as they sit amongst mountains and mountains of dreams deferred, they still have moments of kindness, of trying for something different or better, of working together. They don't have as many moments like this as I would like, but I also sometimes miss these moments in the midst of the sagging explosions and stinking festers and the drying crusted over sweetness.

So what is my role in all of this as a white woman? I don't know exactly. Maybe it is to remember and to voice that there are historical roots to behaviors, not from bad families, or bad genes, but from dreams that have been deferred over and over again by the forces or oppression, indifference, racism, ignorance. I must resist the urge (that is both classist and racist in nature) to simply label my kids as "bad" as though they carry some inherent evil. Maybe I need to work with students in sifting through the dreams and understanding the forces that keep them dreams and not reality. Maybe it is my role to help my students see through the words others place on them. I am utterly inadequate in all of these things and frequently fear my failure does more harm than what little good I am able to do. And yet every morning, I find myself on my bike, cursing at the cars under my breath...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Love Rant

Who hasn't written one of these, about a love lost or found, a betrayal or a connection? This one is about definitions of love, of me, of we. Of a love that goes beyond Valentines hearts and wedding rings. No, i am not hating on your partnership, just offering up another vision, another way of having a life overflowing with love that flows between more than two people, flows through more than blood and water.

So let me stop this hallmark card and get real.

I am single and I am happy, and I am complete, and I am not waiting, I am not "in between" something, or preparing myself for someone - I am not unloved or unlovable - I have a long list of people to lean on at the end of a hard day, I have deep loves with many hearts, and if you ask me why I am "alone" I will tell you that I am not and that I don't have to, nor do I want to justify my single state against partnered expectations.

I experience a love that allows me to develop community, to make more choices, to express myself more widely, to be in awe of more of the amazing people I share this space with.

So now I am going to stop the poetic and get a little political. The hyper-focus of our culture on romantic, heterosexual, family making love is detrimental to our ability to join together, form community, experience solidarity. The energy that we, in the United States, spend on finding that special someone and then keeping that special someone is huge. Again, I don't want to put down those who have found these amazing and wonderful relationships. The love between two people can create worlds, not to mention more humans (or the space to care for humans. However, when we are taught to focus so much on that one relationship, that narrow definition of family, it discourages the collective action that is necessary to keep the power in the hands of the people. So find your love, but also appreciate all the love you already have with family and friends. The hours we spend in bars, at parties, on or okcupid, could be spent organizing, meeting and working with people to make change, thinking and reading about how to turn this world upside down.

So expand your heart to love more, to love those who suffer due to your comfort, those who work for no pay so that we can have our cheap Walmart products, those who are targeted with our fear. Make that love so big it will cause you to want to act in a way that will undermine your own privilege so that others will not have to lack in order for you to have. Keep the romantic love, and make it grow into something more - make yours a revolutionary partnership, or community of friends, or family.