SLA Beeber front It was 3:00pm on June 20th, the last day of school. The inaugural staff of SLA@Beeber sat around the huge conference table in the main office going over highlights and areas for growth for next year. We picked apart processes, events, successes, failures and made suggestions for next year. We discussed our capacity as a staff, the way our kids had grown so much since September, the way we stuck together as a staff and made some really hard decisions together. We expressed our gratitude for each other’s professionalism and integrity. We also pointed out where things went really wrong and places where we came up short, acknowledging our errors and making plans for addressing them.

Then, our principal (he would kick me for calling him that), stopped us and reminded us of something we had failed to mention for the last 30-45 minutes. “We started a school, guys,” he said. We smiled. In all of the day’s conversations about pedagogy, technology integration, processes and procedures, organizational capacity and more, it was easy to forget the simplest fact: We started a school this year.

Not only did we start a school, but we finished out a fairly successful school year in some challenging conditions. We had 9 full time staff members, including our secretary, principal and program coordinator for 125 students. We had a part time NTA for the morning, but no one at lunch to monitor students (no school police officer or lunch time support staff). We had a nurse once every 3 weeks, a counselor once a week, a part time Special Education teacher and a school psychologist once a month. Add to that the fact that two or three days before school started, we didn’t have enough chairs for all of our students, we had no furniture in the main office, only a handful of cafeteria tables for 125 students, and pretty much no school supplies whatsoever. After picking apart every little nuance of the school year and reflecting on our successes and our failures, we failed to remember that, in the end, we came together and built a school. This year was, by no means, perfect, and we have a lot of space to grow, but I am thrilled to have been a part of the team that started SLA Beeber, and I am even more thrilled to see it expand next year and watch our 9th graders advance to 10th grade and to welcome our new, incoming freshmen and our new staff members, my new colleagues on this journey.

I have never had a more rewarSuccess babyding, frustrating, demanding, celebratory year of teaching in my 10 years of teaching in Philadelphia. Thanks, Chris, Marina, Luke, Dave, Leroy, Max, Karthik and Matt as well as Jeremy, Katie, Tishna and Pat for making this year shine!

 
Morning grade-wide meeting in the cafeteria this morning.

Morning grade-wide meeting in the cafeteria this morning.

I am so exhausted I can barely keep my eyes awake, but it’s a good kind of tired. After weeks of team building, inquiry into our own pedagogical practices, building units, discussing and working out details on school operations from scheduling the first day to student flow through the building, loading up UHaul trucks with furniture and carrying a conference table up three flights of stairs, today was the ultimate truth. The kids arrived.

I couldn’t have wished for a better first day.

There were smiles, nervous looks, timid questions and laughter. We had hiccups (including me being locked out of my classroom for 45 minutes), but it was humbling to see how all of the hard work that each member of our team has done pulled together today. There’s something unique about creating a plan and seeing it through until the end. I’ve never opened a school year with such ownership over the process.

I know that this year will not be perfect. I know that there will be times when we will not always agree on how things are done. I know that we will make mistakes….and learn from them. I also know that we are dedicated to doing great things for kids and that is the underlying force behind everything we do. I have complete confidence and trust in the team that has worked so hard to get to this day.

I am sure that the best is yet to come….

Thanks to the awesome SLA@Beeber folks:

Chris J, Diana, Dave, Luke, Karthik, Matt, Max, Marina and Leroy!

 

 
Overflow crowd from the August 15, 2013 SRC meeting.

Overflow crowd from the August 15, 2013 SRC meeting.

As I reflected on the events of today, I began to think of my journey as a teacher here in Philadelphia. I began to think of all of the red flags that have gone up over the last ten years before getting to this point. Here is a run-down:

2001

The State takes over the School District of Philadelphia and puts in an appointed board to run the District called the School Reform Commission (SRC), which is made up of appointees chosen mostly by the Governor and some by the Mayor of Philadelphia.

August 2002

I move to Philadelphia immediately after graduating from college. I really want to be a teacher, but am not certified.

2003

I apply to be a “Literacy Intern” with the Philadelphia School District. I am called in November and am placed at an elementary school in Southwest Philadelphia. My role is to support classroom teachers whose classrooms have gone over the legal limit. Basically, rather than hire certified teachers and make class sizes smaller, the District hired teachers with Emergency Certifications to “reduce class size” by pushing in a few hours every day.  I worked in a Kindergarten room with 34 students. The teacher only had my help for about 2 hours a day. My official teaching career in Philadelphia begins.

2004

I complete my student teaching in an unruly 1st grade classroom with a first-year teacher because my principal placed me there and learn quickly the steel and flexibility it takes to be a teacher Philadelphia. I learn that many teachers who were “vocal” in the school had been “written out of the budget” in previous years. That year, at least 4 of my colleague transfer out or quit because of the school administration.

2005

I go to the District office to pick my first official “solo” teaching job and am told that there are no more positions available in the District.  I am offered my choice of school from a list of a schools with a “high teacher turnover rate.” I look quickly at a map and pick a school.

When I arrive at my new school in West Philadelphia, I find out that the school lost 50% of their teachers from the previous year because the school was slated to enter the new (and short-lived) Corrective Action Region. With 3 positions still unfilled 3 days before school starts, I sign up to be the Science Teacher. We start the year with first-year teachers making up about 30% of the staff. During my second year, a first year teacher walks out and never comes back and never officially resigns. Myself and the other specialist teachers take turns covering the class for months.

19??-2009

Our school community inhabits a crumbling building with mold that causes asthma in some staff and a malfunctioning heating system that causes 2nd degree burns on a student who leans back on a hot radiator pipe. We survive a poor school climate with fights breaking out regularly and many unruly classrooms. We are designated an Empowerment School by the District, which means we are held under tighter scrutiny and must implement specific programs.

February 2009

Our school community goes into turmoil when we are told that our building is being demolished and that we are being relocated and have 3 1/2 months to pack up a 100 year old building. Teachers are expected to teach and pack their rooms at the same time.

September 2009 – June 2009

My students are uprooted from their neighborhood and their school to be bused from the area of 58th and Media Streets to 59th Street and Baltimore Ave. They survive being forced into many hours a week of scripted Corrective Reading and Connected Math instruction whether the program works for them or not. Teachers are told that if the students aren’t learning what they are supposed to, it’s because the teacher did not stick to the script.

Students make do as Kindergarteners are forced to use bathrooms built for middle schoolers, as 4 busses running two routes bring 600 students to school and home every day, and as elementary age kids eat lunch in a cafeteria that can seat over 500 students. Students share the building with a “no excuses” charter school and find that their former classmates are not even allowed to say hi to them if they see each other in the hallway.

As the school year progresses, student behavior deteriorates and teachers have little to no support in a huge building with which they are not familiar.

January 23, 2010

The District teachers survive the shady approval of the new PFT contract, which sells the teachers out for Race to the Top money and brings in the era of Renaissance Schools.

January 28, 2010

We are alerted through a District letter in our school mailboxes that our school is on the list of possible Renaissance Schools and could be shut down and reorganized.

March 2010

Our school community barely holds it together when our school’s name appears on the final list of Renaissance Schools. We aren’t even really sure what it means yet. There are a number of models presented to us. We eventually find out that we will be converted to a charter and will all be force transferred and have to re-apply for our positions if we decide to apply to the charter operator.

March-May 2010

Our school’s parents barely survive the convoluted process of forming a School Advisory Committee and the marketing pitches by a variety of charter operators. We do not know who will be running the school, who will be teaching our students or whether the new building would be done in time. We will never get to teach in the new building as it will be turned over to the charter operator for the following school year.

June 2010

My colleagues and I survive a number of meetings with various District staff who have no answers about the future of our jobs or our school community. We begin to pack up the building once again with no idea what the future holds.

Despite interviewing within the District, I make the hard decision to leave the District so I can keep doing what I love– teaching kids with computers. I take a 5 year Charter School Leave of Absence.

September 2010 – June 2013

While I have 3 great years of teaching, I also survive teaching with no contract as an “at-will” employee in a school staffed with a huge percentage of teachers under the age of 30 with very little teaching experience. I watch as my SDP colleagues continue to struggle with the new programs and requirements imposed upon schools and teachers by Superintendent Ackerman. I watch irate parents speak out about school closings. I watch students walk out of their classrooms in protest. I watch as the Renaissance School movement, a child of Washington, D.C.-style reform, turns more and more District schools over to “no excuses” charters. I watch as communities are torn apart by school closings and as some neighborhoods are left without a neighborhood school for their child to attend.  I empathize with their fears and frustrations and I am glued to The Notebook everyday. I watch as Arlene Ackerman is removed by the SRC and walks away with a huge severance package, leaving a huge leadership hole. I watch with hope as William Hite is announced as the new Superintendent. I watch as Ackerman’s plans continue as planned and meetings about school closings are held at schools all over the City.

June 2013

I ecstatically accept a position at the Science Leadership Academy’s new Beeber campus and am actually thrilled to come back to the District.

August 15, 2013

I attend the last minute meeting of the SRC, announced only 24 hours ahead of time, during which the SRC suspends entire sections of the Pennsylvania School Code and gives themselves all the power they need to break the union. I listen to community members and teachers tell the SRC that we can’t give our children the bare minimum, that this is a manufactured crisis and anyone who was paying attention knew we would end up here. They say that it’s unconscionable for students and their families and teachers to bare the brunt of the mistakes of others. I watch the SRC sit, stone-faced, until everyone had spoken and then proceed, without fanfare, to pass all but one of the resolutions to suspend parts of the school code. I knew, as I did in the 2010 contract approval, that the decision had already been made and nothing we said or did would stop it.

So why the trip down memory lane?

The point is, teachers, students, their families and entire communities here in Philadelphia have been on a rollercoaster of education reform for over a decade ever since the State took over in 2001 and put in the School Reform Commission. Teachers and community members have spoken out when they’ve seen problems.  We discuss them in the teacher’s lounge or in our classrooms with colleagues or with our families at home. The problems with funding and managing the District have been in plain sight as long as I have worked in it. We are not at this point solely because of students, teachers, parents or community members. We are here because the people entrusted with the financial and educational well-being of Philadelphia’s children dropped the ball in a big way. Now, teachers have been made out to be the villains for sticking up for not what is in their contracts, but language that is written in the sections of the PA School Code that were just suspended. At the same time, students have been promised the bare minimum for their education and, in turn, their futures.

My question is, can the systems in place here in Philadelphia survive another 10 years of this?

I don’t have a lot of answers. I had to write this all down just to get my head straight after all of these years. One thing is for sure, this governing body that State put in place has not done its job. The people of Philadelphia feel helpless when it comes to the education of their children. We have thousands of young professionals who have made the choice to live in the City, to have children and buy homes here. Without a safe and strong public school to send their child to, we will watch these new neighbors flee in droves. Our city depends on strong public neighborhood schools. Let us elect our own school board and take back our City schools.

I recommend you check out the post, The Crisis in Philadelphia Schools…or Not by Chris Angelini for some great ideas and thoughts on this, too.

 

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Z loves everything about the planets, the stars, black holes, and anything Space-related. He can rattle off facts and is a very bright child. He is also disorganized, can lose focus easily and works fairly slowly. In a nutshell, he doesn’t “play school” well, but in a different learning environment, he’d thrive.

T is bright and loves motorcycles and cars. Today we talked about the possibility of an automotive career. We talked about how and where he could start along that path. I suggested he look at a technical high school with an automotive program. This way he could get the training he needs without having to pay to go to a ‘technical institute.’ I found one high school in the entire city that advertised an automotive program for incoming freshmen. In a nutshell, T has few options to pursue his passion in high school.

E loves singing. She’s only in 6th grade, but has already asked me if I know any schools that have vocal programs. I directed her to the new greatphillyschools.org site to search. She came back the next day and said she couldn’t find any schools. She had been looking for schools near her neighborhood. I explained that there were only a handful of schools in the district that offer specialized music programs, and that out of those, I wasn’t sure which offered voice specifically. In a nutshell, E will have to travel far from her home to attend such a school, provided she gets in at all.

Every day I am faced with the reality that most Philly kids cannot find a place to explore, develop and discover their passions and talents. Many leave 8th grade clueless as to what their interests even are. There are tons of dedicated Philly parents who pay for karate lessons, organized sports, summer camps and the like, but there are many who simply can’t afford it. Even the luckiest kids are still often stuck in an academic program that stresses mastery of content over self-discovery.

It breaks my heart to see both this lack of outlets in schools for student interests and passions as well as a lack of options for students who know what they want to do. With the recent trend to “turn around” failing schools by handing them over to large charter management networks like Mastery and Universal, whose focus is usually compliance and test scores, the passion-driven model of education has little chance of survival. Tack onto that the added complication of the impending closure and reconfiguring of many high schools around the city and the outlook grows even more grim.

So where do my students go?

Do they seek out a charter school with a mission that matches their interest and play the roulette game of hoping it is on par or better than a district-managed school? Do they suck it up and trudge through a year or two of high school and drop out because they are bored or detached? Do they trudge through high school never really knowing what they want to do and then end up as young adults with no vision for their future? Do they leave public school altogether and go to an independent school that will be more freed up to let kids explore their passions instead of worry about “eligible content” and pacing schedules?

Or maybe I’m painting a gloomier picture than is necessary. I know that there are amazing schools and teachers in Philly that are providing students with real-world experiences, connecting them with their communities in meaningful ways, and giving them opportunities to explore their passions and develop skills for life.

I envision a day, however, when these schools represent the norm. A day when we have re-evaluated what school is for in the first place and a day when my students know that they have options, that there is a seat somewhere in a school setting that meets their dreams and learning style.

I can see no other cause more imperative than investing in the dreams of young people, providing them with pathways to bright futures, and helping them develop skills for life, not just a transcript.

photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hufse/18056250/

 

The more I read about school reform here in Philadelphia, the more it feels like an episode of the Food Network show, Restaurant Impossible. For those who have never seen it, picture a professional restauranteur swooping in to turnaround a failing restaurant with his years of experience and no-nonsense attitude.

The changes that the host, Robert Irvine, makes usually include a changing of the guard, renovations of the current dining room, menu curation, tightening up of management, and more often than not, tears. Having experienced a school turnover from the inside, the metaphor really hits the mark. The first thing we found out when our school was declared a “Renaissance School” was that we were all going to be force transferred. In addition, just as Irvine renovates the dining room, the turnaround charters invest a lot of money in capital improvements as can be seen in this video of the Grover Cleveland Elementary turnaround school from the local news. The school I taught in had holes in the wall, broken heat, broken bathrooms and overall deplorable conditions. In fact, so deplorable, it was, in my eyes, a civil rights issue. Through outside funding, charter networks can make improvements that the school district never could.

In addition to capital improvements, these schools also experience a change in curriculum as well as discipline programs (their ‘menu’). The larger networks also bring in new management, most of which are highly-groomed and prepared administrators from within the network. These administrators employ their charter network’s motto, which usually includes some iteration of “No Excuses” and includes some kind of reference to “Success.”

All great changes for a school that has been continuously failing to meet its students’ needs year after year.

The metaphor falls short, however, in a few places. For one, Irvine gives each of the existing staff a chance to prove their worth as a leader or with their cooking skills. This is never the case with a Renaissance School. It is assumed that the school is failing because of the awful teachers that work there, so they all must go (and, I might add, be replaced with young, inexperienced staff). The biggest place that the metaphor falls short is in the fact that Irvine works with the current owners to fully understand their vision for their restaurant and to help them improve their own business practices to save their restaurant. Were Irvine to follow the Renaissance School model, he would strut in, fire everyone and sell the business to Bobby Flay.

Still, I’m pretty sure that Bluford Elementary is a safer, higher performing school than it was when I left it. So what’s my beef, really?

After experiencing Mastery Charter classroom management training I can say that their model is not brain surgery. They have packaged a variety of well-respected methods (imagine a formulaic blend of Responsive Classroom without the morning meetings and Harry Wong) and have provided extensive training for their teachers that includes reviewing video taped lessons with teachers. What Mastery has (and I’m sure many of the other turnaround school charter companies have as well) is the funding to do what the Philadelphia School District can’t: repair buildings, offer extensive coaching and support as well as provide highly-trained and indoctrinated administrative teams.

An unsettling aspect of this large-scale turnaround movement is the fact that, as I wrote about earlier this year, all of these schools essentially look the same. KIPP, Mastery and even Uncommon Schools use the same vocabulary (like ‘grit’), have the same college-ready focus and even use the same management techniques (acronyms like “SLANT” and “STAR” to describe what ‘academic posture’ looks like). The other thing they all have in common? They are all located in urban areas and pride themselves on offering real opportunities to urban kids.

I’m not arguing that they don’t.

But what they don’t offer is true school choice. What happens to our urban school system when every school is a KIPP or a Mastery school? What real choices will our students have? I’ve seen videos of Mastery and Uncommon School classrooms. Rows, silence, little to no group work, teacher-directed, teacher-centered instruction. These are highly-structured and tightly controlled classrooms. Which work for many kids, but not for all. I know that many of  my inner city, North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia students would blossom in a Quaker/Friends style school or a school modeled after Quest2Learn. To make matters worse, Mastery Charter just received a huge grant to take their practices to other schools around the city. The more we allow our neighborhood public schools to be turned over to these large charter networks, the less choice our students really have.

As many changes that Robert Irvine makes when he comes in to rescue restaurants in trouble, he also helps them maintain their own identity as a restaurant and empowers the owners with the tools they need to succeed. Where is that kind of support for our struggling neighborhood schools? How can we ensure that we empower our neighborhood schools to succeed and provide a variety of educational offerings that meet the desires of the community in which they are housed?

 

Photo courtesy of 401K 2012

This week’s City Paper cover story, Money Talks by Daniel Denvir, has gathered a lot of attention. The article explores the financial reach of the William Penn Foundation in the current reform plans being discussed for the school district. While a lot of the facts in the article were nothing new to me, a few things really troubled me. I have always been leery of private foundations dipping their hands into education reform. It’s one thing to support schools, it’s another thing when large, private foundations begin to fund larger scale school reform. What is truly unnerving about the current plan being proposed by the Boston Consulting Group, whose work here in Philly has been partially funded by the William Penn Foundation) is that, according to Denvir’s article, they are calling it the “Blueprint.” I just recently started reading Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System and the first part reads like a history of the Philadelphia school district over the last 10 years. When I joined the District in 2003, I was trained in Balanced Literacy and Everyday Math, which were both part of the “Blueprint” implemented in San Diego by Alan Bersin and Anthony Alvarado from 1998-2003. This Blueprint was, as the current BCG’s plan is, poorly received by many parents, teachers and the San Diego teachers’ union due to it’s top-down, take no prisoners approach. Interestingly enough, according to Ravitch’s book, the Broad Foundation supported a campaign to defeat an anti-Blueprint school board nominee. William Hite, the Philadelphia School District’s newly selected superintendent, is a graduate of the Broad Foundation’s Superintendent’s Academy.

The other disconcerting part of the article is an infographic showing the reach that the William Penn Foundation has here in Philadelphia. Along with helping fund the BCG’s Blueprint, they also provide financial backing for the political watch dog group the Committee of Seventy, which recently called for more transparency in the new superintendent’s contract, as well as the non-profit newspaper The Public School Notebook, which has closely followed and reported on everything from Arlene Ackerman’s exit to the controversy over Hope Moffet’s reassignment to ‘teacher jail.’ Something has to give when one entity has influence in so many different arenas. While Denvir’s article hints that the Foundation may be ending its funding of some of the more politically active, anti-privatization groups, this is even more worrisome.

All said, I certainly hope that these partnerships between the Philadelphia School District and private foundations like the William Penn Foundation and The Gates Foundation turns out better than the San Diego Blueprint fiasco and that any plans to move forward with the BCG plan involve community, parent and teacher voice and input. It sounds like Hite is willing to listen and continue the work that has been started, but he is only one piece in the puzzle.

 

Today I was lucky enough to catch a fascinating conversation with the CEOs of both KIPP and Mastery Charter Schools here in Philadelphia. As someone who was directly impacted by the Philadelphia School District’s Renaissance School Initiative, I have some deep seated mistrust of Mastery Charter. They campaigned to take over my former school in a not-so-honest way and they’re merit/demerit system has always irked me.

However, listening to Marc Mannella (KIPP) and Scott Gordon (Mastery) I found that there was nothing they said that didn’t sound acceptable, well-meaning and respectable. Granted, the whole picture was not really painted during the interview, but the guys honestly care about kids and families.

So, I kept pondering, “what’s my beef?”  Obviously, these schools work for some kids. Some families love them and they have definitely turned kids’ lives around. In fact, Mannella specifically states that KIPP is not a “silver bullet” or that it works in every school in every community.

So, what’s my beef?

Both men kept agreeing and referring to the commonalities between the two school models. In fact, at one point one of the men basically said the other had taken his answer.

This is my beef.

OK, I get it. KIPP works, Mastery works. But are they really offering the choices they claim they offer to students and families in Philadelphia?  If they’re so similar, what’s the choice there?  I have already made reference to this false school choice in a previous post, but I finally had my Eureka moment when I sent out this tweet:

Bam.

That’s it.

We need to offer students and families more than college-prep, reward/punishment models. Granted, there are a number of diverse charter schools here in Philly that offer distinct models, but these two models run 15 schools in Philadelphia alone. Yes, it works for many, but it shouldn’t be all that’s out there.

You can check out the interview here on the Radio Times website.

 
Why???

I moved to Philadelphia in August 2002 with a lot of energy and no idea what I was doing here. Nearly 9 years later I have built a career, bought a house and am proud to call Philadelphia home. I think that there are amazing things happening in this city and it is an exciting place to be. The city is full of creative, inspired and passionate people of all ages. Between The Mural Arts Program, events like Ignite Philly, a movement of food co-ops, farmers markets as well as a number of civic associations that work hard to make their neighborhoods great places to live.

The majority of these groups are community-run and are not funded by the City or the State. Often, the people running them work full time along with the work they do for their neighborhoods and the larger Philadelphia community. There are a lot of hard working individuals trying to make Philadelphia the best city it can be.

So, I ask, why does the state still run our schools?

It is time for these concerned and involved citizens to say “enough is enough.” We’ve seen the enraged parents, the protests and the shady actions by the School District.

Until we have an elected school board that truly represents the parents, families and stakeholders of our city, then we will continue to have change forced on us and we will continue to lose our voices.

I don’t pretend to know where to start, but I wonder who is with me?

 

Today we had district-wide Professional Development.  On Wednesday of last week the “Activity Catalog” in our web-based ‘PD Planner’ updated to show the options for the full-day sessions.  Immediately emails began popping up on the PTRN listserv.  There was NOTHING being offered for TTLs (Technology Teacher Leaders) or lab teachers.  As such, we were all forced to pick a session that may have had little or nothing to do with what we do on an everyday basis.

As a joke, I sent out an email saying “Hey, I’ll hold a workshop!”  Surprisingly, many people responded to me asking if I was doing a workshop, and that if I was that they would sign up.

This spawned the idea of proposing such a crazy idea to someone higher up, which I did.

A few hours and emails later, at the end of my PD session, through a beautiful act of serendipity, I was sitting in the same room as the head of Educational Technology who had received my proposal and was enthusiastic about the idea.

What followed was one of the most exciting and refreshing conversations I’ve had here at SDP in a while.  Especially with someone way up on the ladder! It turns out that we have a subscription to Elluminate and that there is a possibility that I could run an Elluminate session.  WOW!  (I hope I don’t get in trouble for broadcasting that here on this blog.)

On the walk back to the parking lot I ran into a former colleague of mine who is a lab teacher.  He said, “Thank you for putting that idea up there on the listserv. I’m behind you all the way.”

When I got homeand had a moment to breathe, I created a Google Form to collect information on what kinds of PD people would be interested in.  Some topics included:

  • using Google Docs in the classroom
  • creating a class wiki
  • creating a PortaPortal or Del.icio.us page
  • using iMovie, Garageband, Audacity or Windows MovieMaker in the classroom
  • tips for managing the role of TTL (Technology Teacher Leader)
  • running a server-based environment (Workgroup Manager, Apple Remote Desktop)
  • podcasting

Here is a screenshot of the survey:

 

I created a discussion on our Ning (Philly Teacher Techs) and included a link to the Google form.  I then sent out a message to all of the members asking them to fill out the survey to help me know what kinds of PD people want.  I also added questions asking whether people would be willing to help present or present their own workshop, whether people would prefer a webinar or a face to face workshop and whether people would be willing attend knowing that they may not get Act 48 hours for it.

Within 5 minutes of sending out the link I had no less than 7 replies in my spreadsheet!

This is proof enough that there is a high level of interest in professional development geared around what teachers want and that it is not being offered.  I know this is based on the topics I chose. I have seen one or two of them listed perhaps once or twice during the school year as an after school workshop with a limited number of openings that usually close up, but most have never been offered.  However, the topics that I’d never seen offered were the topics that most people chose!

What makes the job of a lab teacher so hard is that we often work in isolation.  While grade teachers have their ‘grade groups’ or ‘grade partners’ with whom to bounce ideas off of, we do not.  There is (usually) only one of us in the building.  We also often wear many hats which are not technically in our job description.  As a result, the job can get pretty darn overwhelming.

My goal for starting these workshops is to build a learning community for us so that we have someone to reach out to in times of need and so we have others to share our own ideas with for feedback.

The most amazing thing?  Out of 8 total responses so far, 100% said they’d be interested in helping present and that they would participate knowing that they wouldn’t be compensated.

Already it is obvious that these workshops will be effective because teachers WANT the information and are willing to SHARE information and it is RELEVANT to what they do in their classrooms.

I see a small ray of light shining at the end of the tunnel and the best part is: I don’t have to make the journey alone!

lab photo courtesy of Extra Ketchup on Flickr

 

As Obama’s inauguration approaches, I have been hearing more and more about how racism in the US has ended, is on its way out, or is no longer an issue. This unprecedented event has me thinking a few different thoughts, but not one of them includes the idea that racism is ‘dead.’

 

The election of a black president to what many consider the most powerful position in the world has inspired many African Americans and I have heard many in the ‘black community’ even stating that ‘we now have no excuses.’ The idea that this election has eradicated racism is a dangerous exaggeration. While racism as we once knew it has disappeared –separate water fountains, black face, denial of rights like voting and education–it has, instead, taken a new form. The racism I see nowadays is systemic. It is not based on individuals mistreating other individuals. It is not spoken out loud.

 

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, racism is:

1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race 2 : racial prejudice or discrimination.

 

The belief described in the first definition often comes from a lack of knowledge. Most often, people form stereotypes and believe these stereotypes to be true when they have little knowledge of the actual person being stereotyped. This is what scares me about racism today. Stereotypes occur across racial lines, and are not always based on race (i.e. I am from New York originally. When I tell people this, they raise an eyebrow and say, “Oh, you’re a New Yorker, huh?”). It is natural for humans to create false conceptions about people they don’t know or have never met. Think of the stereotype Americans have abroad, or the stereotypes that Irish or Italians have in this country.

 

So what does all of this have to do with racism and the inauguration?

 

While Obama’s presidency is proof that we as a country have evolved and moved forward substantially over the last 50 years, it is not the ‘end of racism.’ The racism I see today is in a system that continually overlooks the underprivileged and under-represented people. As a teacher, the system with which I am most familiar is, of course the education system. The photos I put in this blog are part of a larger problem. These kinds of conditions would be considered an outrage in a different socio-economic neighborhood. In that case, race is not an issue, but rather economics. However, it just so happens that my school is 99% African American. In that case, race becomes an issue. I have not yet decided whether it is or is not racism, but it is a sign of the “racial discrimination” described in the definition above.

 

Now here is where segregation comes in. On November 14, 1960 Ruby Bridges walked through the doors of an all-white elementary school and made history. No longer would black students be forced to attend black-only schools. No longer would white students be kept apart from their black peers. Rather, they would have to learn to accept them, whether or not they respected them. I assume that many of these white students did not have any black friends, nor did they associated with black people in general. Neighborhoods were segregated, too. In this way, each ‘side’ created their own image of each other based on appearances, impressions and stereotypes. The only way to break down the hatred was to give each ‘side’ a chance to interact with one another.

 

Desegregation did not end racism. However, it did open up avenues for change.

 

What has happened in the last decade or so has frightened me. I have seen the end of mandatory bussing (a system set up to aid in desegregating schools), the re-segregation of neighborhoods, and the re-segregation of schools. As a result, schools in poor communities tend to be neglected and receive little support because the community in which they live is also neglected and receives little support. With poor performing schools, how can students in poor neighborhoods ‘make it?’ It puts them immediately at a disadvantage. Were schools to be intentionally desegregated, it would increase the range of influence of a school across racial and economic lines and create, perhaps, more equal opportunities. I’m not sure if bussing is the answer, but what is happening in many neighborhoods in Philadelphia reminds me of how neighborhoods were set up during segregation. It’s almost like we’re moving backwards again. This racial segregation and discrimination through poor education is where racism lies today.

 

In addition, as I mentioned above, my students go to a school that is 99% African American because they live in a neighborhood that is 99% African American. For many them, their teachers are the only white or non-black people with whom they interact. For that reason, they have many false stereotypes about white people and white culture based on what they see on television, in movies and on what they hear from others. On the other hand, there are schools elsewhere (many of them also in poor neighborhoods) in which students never come across a person of color, and therefore have their own stereotypes as well. This is how hatred and racism start. Through sheer ignorance. This effect is easy to see when I show my students a picture of children who are from another state (Eeww! They’re ugly!) or another country (Hah hah! Look what they’re wearing!) who do not look like my students. It’s frightening. While our world gets smaller and smaller, it is important that these future adult citizens accept others and be able to respect those who do not resemble them in culture, color or language.

 

I’m not sure what the solution is to these issues, and I don’t pretend to have any. However, I hope that Obama’s presidency will serve as a catalyst for young African Americans to dream big, put down guns and pick up books. This cannot happen, however, without a focus on the problems surrounding our failing schools and a failing education system. Without education, many poor children are left empty-handed and turn to guns, violence and crime. The decrepit and dysfunctional schools that exist in poor communities is a form of systemic racism as well as fuel for the fires of hatred, ignorance and misunderstanding.

 

Click here and here for photos of my school.

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