My Students’ Thoughts on Baltimore

In the wake of the Baltimore uprising, I started the Baltimore Syllabus. At the same time, I continued teaching high school history to a diverse student population with a plurality of African-Americans.

On April 30, 2015, I gave my classes writing prompts about the events in Baltimore and their relation to recent course content. Approximately 45 students were given the first prompt, and approximately 20 were given the second one. The prompts and a representative sample of the responses are below.

I’m still processing the responses and may look into publishing something more formally (e.g. in Radical Teacher or Rethinking Schools). Any thoughts you have are appreciated.

What are your thoughts on the recent events in Baltimore? How do they relate to our discussion about “civil rights” versus “(black) liberation”?


  • “…partially absurd because it should not have to take rioting for people to be heard. The riots are the aftermath of decades of imbalance and abuse..”
  • “This relates to the conversation we had about the difference between civil rights and liberation…people don’t follow the laws that are supposed to help but are not properly enforced or followed”
  • “I think that what’s going on in Baltimore is a necessary part of any revolution…”
  • “…heartbreaking. It’s a cycle that will never end… only so much that these black communities can take…”
  • “In the law it says that we all have the same rights, but many different cases have proven otherwise… We still need to fight for liberation…Most of what we’re seeing in Baltimore is about liberation, but they should demonstrate/protest peacefully.”
  • “…it is horrible that a man had to be killed in order for many people to see the poverty levels there. This is an uprising against police brutality, not riots. This is long overdue… Baltimore officially declared that civil rights do not apply to black people…but this is a fight for liberation because they have every right white people do, legally, but socially they are oppressed.”
  • “I am sick and tired of all this. It feels like the black community can never get a break… I feel sympathy because we can only take so much. A lot of times, violence is the only way to get a reaction in a world that is founded on violence.”
  • “The media has been more concerned with property damage than the militarization of police and another unjustified death… at a certain point of institutional oppression, the oppressed need to defend themselves and liberate themselves by a forceful means – peaceful protests don’t accomplish equality.”
  • “ is the result of pent up frustration from a population of disenfranchised poor people who feel that they live in a system that works against them.”
  • “The media portrayal of Baltimore is horrendous…I looked online for more information but all of the articles discussed violence, not explaining why they were protesting… technically according to the law they have civil rights and are free, but this isn’t enforced, it’s a paper constitution not coming to fruition in real life.”
  • “…ignorant comments by the woman I babysit for about this all being caused by a lack of education and poverty. From what I’ve seen and heard, I can say that it’s neither of those things. I think it is a last resort, and a necessary one, because the black community is not being heard… If this kind of empowerment doesn’t led to liberation, I don’t know what does! If no change comes of this, I really am going to lose faith in humanity.”
  • “Maybe if the police aren’t so fond of these ‘violent’ protests, they should be making non-violent arrests… It is crazy that years ago we were fighting for the same thing… The system is so unjust. How do you fix a system that was created to leave you out?”
  • “I understand people are very angry, but you can’t preach peace and respond with violence… It’s completely unjustified for the police to act this way if they are innocent and keeping to themselves, but why would you smash car windows and give them a reason? And yet I still saw police attacking young men and women who weren’t participating in the chaos.”
  • “The events in Baltimore are the results of the people fighting to have their rights protected and to be liberated from the oppression they are under.”

How do the events in Baltimore relate to what we’ve been learning about black liberation, black power, and the Black Panthers?

  • “These things relate to Baltimore because of power… Policemen abuse their power and take advantage because blacks have none. Carmichael’s point was that in order to prevent this, blacks have to get economic equality. When economic power is equal, the brutality will decrease.”
  • “These all relate to institutional racism… Protestors believe the American court system was created to serve and favor white Americans. Carmichael, Huey Newton, and the Black Panthers 10-point program all address the desire to change the systems that have been designed to oppress African-Americans.”
  • “The Black Panther 10-point program relates to this because of the part where they want to end police brutality. Now all the protests and riots in the last six months are because of black men being brutalized by police officers.”
  • “They all relate because they are about blacks being fed up with police and whites in authority trying to control them…and are retaliating back… With all this going on this many years, you can see that the word hasn’t changed, the world is the same…”
  • “The concepts in our readings and films relate to Baltimore because in both cases the oppressed group has legitimate goals, and in both cases they are resorting to or willing to resort to violence. From there, the media focus on only the violence and the causes become irrelevant to many politicians and the general public. Therefore all that remains is a legacy of violence.”
  • “They all relate to Baltimore… What’s going on in Baltimore is an issue that has accumulated since the events of the 1960s… it’s the result of many incidents and issues that have been getting worse in America.”
  • “Carmichael spoke of ‘the growing militancy of the young black people in the urban ghetto’ and we are seeing that now — a class of people insidiously stripped of their rights until backlash becomes inevitable… In Baltimore we see the force of a people ignored by the government sworn to protect them. This is the same government who stoked the flames in Oakland and caused the people of LA to riot… If the protests in Baltimore fail, it will be a testament to the apathy and obliviousness to history of the American government and people.”
  • “I believe what is happening in Baltimore is a modern day rebellion that incorporates the ideas that were expressed by the Panthers… There are still innocent lives being lost and there is no progress being made. There is an unfair balance of power… There is no just system in place to find accountability… Justice is not swift enough… It’s a sad cycle… City ‘militias’ seem fair.”

NJEA Drops the Ball…Again…

I’m not going to re-hash how state and national leaders in both NEA and AFT unions have been some mix of asleep, impotent, and complicit amidst the assault from the corporate “reform” movement. I’m going to assume a certain level of prior knowledge and press on about recent matters…

My national union, NEA, actually came out in support of the Common Core recently. One more clueless, shameful act. I’ve been investigating whether or not I can pull my dues from national (and even state) while remaining a full member of my local…My state union has been feeding the fires of my ambivalence for several years, but two recent developments may constitute a last straw…

In the special election for Senate in New Jersey, NJEA was silent in Democratic primaries (vote is 8/13) despite neoliberal, pro-voucher, DFER slimeball Cory Booker leading in polls. Are we scared if we endorse against the favorite, that when he does get the nomination or gets in office we’ll be on the outs? Is being on the “ins” with him all that good anyway? Is this sort of political calculus more important than sticking to principles?

Then another knife in the back from NJEA. They released their endorsements (via NJEA PAC, which cannot used dues money) for the NJ legislature elections this fall (all of NJ’s legislature is up for re-election every two years). Among the problematic endorsements was assembly speaker Sheila Oliver (also running in the Senate primary against Booker), who could have sat on an odious pension/benefits “reform” bill in 2011 but brought to the floor for a vote. It was later revelaed that she made a deal to stay speaker if she advanced the bill, which she denies. We non-endorsed in her race that year. Short memory. Other endorsements raised eyebrows, including Teresa Ruiz (main author of the tenure “reform” law and heavily influenced by Robert Treat charter daddy and Newark North Ward poobah Steve Adubato) and Donald Norcoss (of the Norcross Camden County political machine, which is knee-deep in charterization and privatization). Ruiz may have won back NJEA with her “Gee, woops” buyer’s remorse moment. Aww shucks, thanks, Ms. Ruiz.

There are more — Tom Kean, Jr., Ray Lesniak, Sandra Cunningham, and Steve Sweeney among them — as well as a non-endorsement in a district where Declan O’Scanlon, a co-author of the 2011 pen/ben bill, is running against Allison (Tucker) Friedman, a CWA union steward endorsed by the county AFL-CIO. I know the AFL-CIO has been too moderate, and I’m not exactly clear what Friedman’s positions on education are, but explain the non-endorsement there while endorsing Oliver. Oh, I can — O’Scanoln is an entrenched incumbent who will likely win and we would not want to be on the outs when he gets re-elected. Is “revenge” from an already enemy one of our biggest problems right now?

Fortunately, there is some ire brewing among NJEA rank-and-file online. I’ll round out my commentary here by including a modified version of a Facebook comment I made addressing a member defending NJEA with the usual “you don’t know how it works from the inside” and “don’t whine, get involved” retorts. It does a decent job of saying what I’d say here to finish the post…..

i get it – i used to be very friendly w/some of our state-level Government Relations folks – i know that sometimes we are in a lesser of two evils situation, but at some point we need to draw a line – we’ve been flat-footed and on defense since christie got in – and the answer is always “get involved” and “we are a democratic organization” – i’m not sure what you or others think magically happens when people “get involved” (by the way yes i’ve been very involved for years) – there is a lot of inertia, and a lot of top-down stuff, and a lot of tepid, scared politics…and the higher up people get in NJEA after they leave the classroom, the more compromised they become…and don’t give me the DA/RA nonsense – c’mon – when was the last time those bodies passed any real progressive resolutions to change the type of thing we’re talking about now? (in the AFT version of the national assembly, Randi won re-election by friggin’ 99% and i don’t know one AFT member who likes her)…sure, some locals are better/more politicized than others… but what you’re seeing here from people is the growing disconnect between an increasingly aware (i’d say politicized, even radicalized, as we connect dots about class war, inequality, and the corporate reform movement) rank-and-file and an increasingly out-of-touch state leadership…i know the higher up you get, the more careful you have to be — we need access, we need “a seat at the table” — but at some point, you gotta grow a spine, and if the meal is poison, the seat ain’t so important anymore…at some point, you’re just negotiating the terms of your own exploitation…i get being afraid of being snubbed later if we endorse “wrong,” and i get that things are at their worst ever right now and a pendulum might swing; but at some point the transformation has to begin; we need to re-shape the legislature to one who listens — it will be long, and endorsements aren’t the only way (some real organizing besides “come to this rally and yell with a sign and feel good then go home” would help, too)… i’m not asking for us to endorse socialists who can’t win (though that would make me happy in many ways), but c’mon – at least a non-endorsement in races like Oliver’s and Ruiz’s (and some others) (remember we non-endorsed in Oliver’s race after she stabbed us in the back on pen-ben)….or growing more marie corfield’s in some of these races (they’ve been trying, but how incompetent they are at that is a topic for another day)….when they sh*t on us and we endorse them anyway, we are a joke bordering on irrelevance…and the silence in the senate primary race?? beyond shameful. we could stop booker or come close….i get it, i do – but c’mon, spade’s a spade – state leadership is dropping the ball…again…

It’s time to take our unions back.


This past school year was a rough one. Maybe my hardest/worst ever. (As one example, I started and abandoned a post in May called “How Grades Are Ruining My Job.”) And having too many irons in the fire (teaching, doc classes, union stuff, etc.) meant pretty much zero time for blogging. So here’s just a quickie to get the juices flowing…

About a year ago, I had heard professor Mark Naison using the term “badass teacher” (BAT) to describe teachers fighting back against dominant narratives and corporate/neoliberal “reform.” One friend of mine got a badass teacher t-shirt. It was a cute meme. Over the past several months, the term has been revived and turned into a “movement” of sorts — mainly organized via a national Facebook page (Badass Teachers Association, BTA) with state “chapters” popping up and establishing a similar online presence. However, this development has not been unproblematic…

Let’s leave aside tactics for now (i.e. BAT/BTA is pretty traditional “lobbying” activism — calling Arne Duncan, tweeting Bil Gates, etc.). The fundamental problem with BAT/BTA is that it refuses to distance itself from the right wing/tea party form of opposition to the Common Core and corporate reform. Admins of the Facebook page have talked of “civil debate,” “not demonizing beliefs,” and “building bridges.” It has caused heated debate among “members” of the Facebook group (I myself have participated in this debate and since left), and led to a progressive BTA off-shoot page (which has not been without its own problems).

I have a lot of respect for Mark, and I have perhaps simplified the story, but if BTA cannot clearly and emphatically denounce right-wing support, it is useless. Right wing/tea party opposition to the Common Core has included predictable memes/tropes: Obama the tyrant, states’ rights rhetoric, national curriculum seeking to teach the evils of diversity/tolerance/gay agenda/socialism…the usual crap. (You should see the “Badass Parents” page — it’s even worse than the teacher one in letting this nonsense get posted.) This is the same crowd who blames teachers and their unions for the supposed mess in education and engages in thinly veiled bigotry. I often have to remind myself to consider the  activist adage “no permanent allies, no permanent enemies,” but  if we do organize together and “win” (if the Common Core is dismantled), the knuckle-dragging right wing nuts will go right back to their assault on teachers, unions, and public schools (they call them “government schools”). We must act separately and not embrace their “help,” and to think otherwise is far from “badass” — it’s dumbass.


I had the pleasure, honor, and privilege of being on the national planning team for the 2013 “Free Minds, Free People” conference. For the first time, FMFP included in their activities “people’s assemblies” — long-form sessions aimed at movement building. One such assembly was about organizing a national resistance to Teach For America (TFA). Leading up to the conference, one of the session’s facilitator’s, Katie Osgood, wrote an excellent piece in the form of an open letter to new TFAers. It lays out the anti-TFA argument better than I could here (or maybe ever).  It’s a must-read. [Note: News in the last few days is that some of the over 2000 teachers laid off by Chicago public schols will be replaced by TFAers.] Justin Fong the internal communications director for TFA, posted his open letter to the FMFP community, calling for dialogue and working together. I considered writing a post that was pretty much a point-by-point response to that letter, but I’ll let you read it and do that yourself, I do, however, want to address one of its main points.

From the little I know about him, I believe Fong is among the “better,” more progressive folks in TFA and has good intentions. But Fong begins with the premise, “Teach For America isn’t going away anytime soon, so work with us to make the organization better.” This statement is problematic for several reasons. First, to me, it sounds kind of (perhaps unintentionally) arrogant, hostile, and presumptuous. We’re not going anywhere, so deal with it. Not that TFA is as bad, but would we take that from the KKK? The Tea Party? Bankers? Just accept it? This is connected to the second problem — it already narrows the debate from the start; a false framing. I understand Fong uses the qualifier “soon,” and that he’s right in saying I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and see TFA magically gone, and that he later says he wants there to be day when TFA isn’t “necessary,” but my aim is to see TFA gone — so this presupposition of its entrenchment, while presently accurate, leaves the disbanding of TFA in the relatively near future off the table from the start. Fong essentially says – “Let’s talk, but within these parameters.” [Of course it’s HIS job to make HIS organization better. Asking for help in this way kind of reminds me of the long history of people of color burdened with educating white people.]

The third problem I have with this statement — and really with the overall idea of “dialogue” — is that, like the BAT/BTA call for building bridges to the Tea Party, it assumes that just about any story has two sides and frames those of us who speak, write, and act with certainty, passion, and conviction as intolerant, stubborn, and dogmatic. They say “See – we just want to talk and have a dialogue and have a diversity of opinion. We don’t dismiss people; we’re the objective ones.” Those of you who know me  well know my distaste for the use of a false notion of objectivity. (If you don’t, skim this post). Listen – I know there is a tradition of “know your enemy” empathy in activism. I know Gandhi and MLK are admired for their use of “love as a weapon.” I even appreciate the Zen-like idea of “I am you, you are me, we are everything.” But if I walk on eggshells and dialogue with someone for the sake of seeming tolerant to them and other observers, rather than approach it as, “I’m right. You’re wrong. My goal is to make you understand why,” I will, in most cases, do a disservice to me and my cause.

Yes we need to build alternatives, and yes we need people to change TFA from within while we fight to eradicate it (though that is another matter of debate — much like our comfort with grass-fed cows and cage-free hens perhaps prolongs the slaughter of animals). Those are potentially useful. But dialogue is not always necessary or generative. Some groups and ideologies are not worthy of “dialogue,” and I’m not the asshole for thinking and saying so. The truth hurts. My job is not to make the Tea Party or TFA comfortable; it’s to trouble, problematize, and oppose their philosophy and their very existence. BAT, BTA, TFA – SMH. SMDH. SMMFH.

The Revolution Will Not Be Quantified

February 6, 2013 3 comments

This post was a submission to my local Patch news site as part of the national Garfield solidarity day today. Also I would like to thank Katie Strom for some of the information and wording on high stakes tests.

Revolutions are rarely, if ever, sudden. They are a final breaking point – the product of collective acts of resistance over a period of time. When we teach our own American Revolution, it is important to reinforce to students that Lexington and Concord and the Declaration of Independence were the culmination of thirteen years of colonial resistance – sometimes highly organized, sometimes spontaneous, and inclusive of far more events than what makes it into textbooks. When it comes time to write the history of resistance to the so-called education “reform” movement, we will also tell the story of a gradual collection of acts – some individual and anonymous, some concerted and highly visible – that reversed an assault on public education that is morally bankrupt, ideologically driven, and flat out factually wrong. The “reformers” obsession with standardization and quantification will be seen for what it is: an educational paradigm of school-as-workforce-preparation aligned with the needs of the American capitalist class rather than with our students’ needs as human beings.

 Today is a national day of action in solidarity with the brave teachers in Seattle’s Garfield High School, who are refusing to administer the state standardized test for ninth graders, the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP). The teachers correctly critique the test as a waste of time and money, bad for students, a questionable measure of learning, and yet another attempt to match teacher evaluation to the junk science of “value added modeling” (VAM). The Garfield resistance is the latest chapter in the nascent revolution against the so-called education “reform” movement.

 While there is no neat starting point to this revolution, it has certainly accelerated in the last two years. In early 2011, education workers in Wisconsin were among the most vocal and visible members of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to undermine organized labor in that state (as they were in similar situations in states like Ohio and Michigan). That summer, the national Save Our Schools March and Rally united thousands of education workers, former educators, activists, families, and allies from around the country. The SOS organization still thrives today as one of the few national organs of resistance. When the Occupy movement was most visible, education workers participated in various actions as they spread awareness of the connections between the so-called education “reform” movement and the neoliberal economic assault on the 99%.

 As the 2012-2013 school year began, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike not just because of workers’ issues such as faulty evaluations and unfair layoff procedures, but mostly because the school system, which they have accused of educational apartheid, was not implementing policies that would create the schools Chicago students deserve. While their strike did not solve those problems overnight, it raised critical awareness of issues facing many urban schools, and reinforced the truth that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. A few months ago, the Newark Teachers Union, amidst opposition from many rank-and-filers, had to resort to lies and scare tactics to secure a “yes” vote on the first contract in New Jersey to include merit pay, one of many “reforms” wholly discredited by research. All this, of course, is in addition to the longstanding work of organizations like Rethinking Schools, the Education Law Center, Fair Test, and various groups of educators and community allies in cities like Oakland, Boston, and New York City.

 A popular critique of this resistance used by so-called “reformers” is that it is a defense of the status quo. Nothing could be further from the truth. The money and power are behind the reformers, not the resistance, so the alternatives we dissidents propose do not get the visibility those the “reformers” propose receive. Additionally, the resistance movement disagrees fundamentally on what the problems facing public schools really are (e.g. inequity and systemic racism vs. individualistic notions of students not prepared to compete for jobs). So while it is important to forward an alternative vision, it is first important to critique the opposition, especially since they hold sway with policymakers and much of public opinion.

 The popular paradigm of “college and career readiness” may seem innocuous and apolitical, but it is in fact a framework for education as simply labor force preparation. This model conveniently abandons necessary (but difficult and expensive) comprehensive social policy and attempts to boil teaching and learning down to an easily measurable input-output process. Individualism and competition are reinforced over citizenship and the common good. But worst of all, even if we accept this vision of public school, the “reforms” being used do not even succeed at doing what they purport to do. Thee cult of “data” twists good pieces of research and produces misleading ones. As economic journalist Doug Henwood stated, “For a bunch of business-supported technocrats supposedly in love with metrics, there’s absolutely no empirical support for their ambitions. You might suspect that their real aim is to bust teachers unions and save money educating a population that elites have lost interest in.”

 A legion of research reports, journal articles, and entire books have been written refuting the assertions and policies of the “reform” movement, and the issue is very complex. Perhaps the best element of the “reform” agenda to discuss here, especially in light of the brave resistance of Garfield teachers, is the increase in standardized testing, since that is the engine that drives so much of the rest – student outcomes, school ratings and punishments like closings and charterization, and teacher evaluations – and since it embodies the obsession with measurement, quantification, positivism, and linearality.

 These are the realities of high-stakes testing:

  • Standardized tests are often culturally and linguistically bias and disproportionately punish low-income students, English Language Learners (ELLs), and special education students

  • Standardized tests can be poor, invalid measures of student learning and ability.

  • Standardized tests lead to a narrowing of the curriculum, “teaching to the test,” less focus on critical thinking and problem solving, and the marginalizing of untested subjects.

  • Standardized tests waste instructional time, threaten the arts and even recess, and are often expensive to administer.

  • Standardized tests become sorting and stratifying mechanisms, and some students wind up with more of the same (test prep and rigid regulations), while high-scoring schools in affluent areas maintain a more varied curriculum.

  • Standardized tests and VAM are very poor indicators of teacher effectiveness.

 Let’s briefly examine one local example. The Montclair school district just approved a new teacher and principal observation rubric. In doing so, it cited the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) studies as providing “decisive data.” These studies have been widely criticized and discredited as ideologically driven, reifiying what Bill Gates wants to see, and woefully flawed and misleading, most recently by the Shanker Institute and the National Education Policy Center.

 What is worse is that New Jersey Department of Education intends to take VAM one step further by using an even worse predictor of teacher effectiveness, Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs). While the vast preponderance of research shows VAM is, at best, a statistical measure with huge margins of error and therefore only useful as part of identifying the very worst and very best teachers – the teachers at either far end of the spectrum – SGPs are such a worse indicator of teacher effectiveness, that no credible education researcher will study them.

 Here is some perspective. The American Institutes of Research issued this tepid warning on VAM: “We cannot at this time encourage anyone to use VAM in a high stakes endeavor. If one has to use VAM, then we suggest a two-step process to initially use statistical models to identify outliers (e.g., low-performing teachers) and then to verify these results with additional data. Using independent information that can confirm or disconfirm is helpful in many contexts,” while the very inventor of SGP, Damian Betebenner, as reported on the Jersey Jazzman blog, “has said explicitly that SGPs do not attempt to find teacher effect (or any other cause) for variations in student test scores. In other words, they are the wrong instruments to use when attempting to infer a teacher’s ‘value.’”

 The “reformers” are wrong. They are ideologically wrong. Even if we accept their ideology, they are factually wrong about their own assertions. They are wrong for our schools, our education workers, our communities and taxpayers, and for our students. The teachers of Garfield High School have taken a brave stand against the testing juggernaut. May it be the first of many.

For information on legally opting students out of of high-stakes standardized tests, go to

Challenging Myths: My (Late?) Response to Larry Ferlazzo’s Call for Submissions

January 14, 2013 Leave a comment

A couple of days ago, I saw education writer Larry Ferlazzo was collecting responses to the question: “What history myths, perpetuated by textbooks, do you attempt to break down/challenge in your classroom? How do you do that?” Larry is prolific, so chances are he was done collecting them and on to the next thing by the time I got around to responding. We’ll see – I submitted mine and hope he’ll include it in any updates he makes. Either way, it’s a good opportunity to add a post here since I never have time to. My response follows below…

The first question is perhaps the easiest question to answer, by simply saying, “All of them.” But this is also a difficult series of questions because I’ve basically dedicated my entire teaching career to these sorts of endeavors — so delineating a few favorites isn’t easy.

I would imagine beginning my response with discussing challenging traditional knowledge of and reverence for Columbus. I’ve used the Rethinking Columbus sources such as the mock trial. I use Zinn’s first chapter in People’s History, and I’ve found the Columbus chapter in James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me very useful as well. Still, this type of teaching about Columbus seems less and less necessary as a corrective, and more and more accepted as mainstream. Perhaps it is my Northeast US environment, but students are less deluded about Columbus since I began teaching, and the anti-Columbus pedagogy is hardly risky or controversial anymore.

Our nation’s early history is littered with myths, and my US History 1 class has often been Bubble Bursting 101. But since I mainly teach US History 2 now, I’ll focus on a few more examples from that course/time period.

While it is not a straightforward “myth” to “debunk,” the controversy surrounding the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan is one of my favorite topics to address. Textbooks and traditional narratives do perpetuate a sort of myth about the decision — Truman wrestling with heady moral and ethical issues (if you’re lucky to see even that) and ultimately deciding on a quick way to end the war and save thousands of lives. Virtually no attention is paid to he bomb as a diplomatic tool vis a vis the Soviet Union, evidence of an impending Japanese surrender (with or without the emperor remaining as a figurehead), estimates of American causalities far lower than the oft-quoted 1 million, and other issues mitigating the simplicity or even the outright merit or morality of using the atomic bombs. The Choices program from Brown University does a pretty good job in making the issue more complex and putting students at the center of a simulated atomic bomb decision-making process. The Choices units have adaptations included, and I’ve found them easy to adapt further in the name of time constraints. Zinn’s essay “Learning from Hiroshima” (which you can find in A Power Governments Cannot Suppress) is indispensable for this topic, and the HBO film White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki tells the story from the perspectives of Japanese survivors.

This critical examination of the atomic bomb is itself in the service of a broader historiographical aim in my classes — problematizing the facile notion (the myth) of WWII as “the good war.” Early in our study, I use Paul Fussell’s The Atlantic Monthly article “The Real War: 1939-1945” (from 1989, the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s onset). Later, we look at the treatment of African-Americans, the Double-V campaign, and WWII as a catalyst for increased civil rights agitation, as well as the Zoot Suit Riots and the Bracero Program to address the treatment of Latin@s, mainly Chican@s. I have compiled my own materials over the years, but the fairly recent film 361st tracks an African-American tank unit before, during, and after WWII, and the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit, “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1943-1962” has several online resources such as an online exhibition and downloadable posters. We examine Japanese internment as well, often by juxtaposing visual and textual primary sources with government propaganda films about the camps available on YouTube. Obviously, racist and untruthful propaganda posters are also good resource for WWII, as well as propaganda films from Disney and Looney Tunes. Group work activities related to Zinn’s “WWII: The Good War” (also from A Power…) and some selected quotes from various historical figures close our study of WWII. The unit often ends with a persuasive essay assignment asking students to assess the validity of labeling WW2 “the good war.”

The Great Depression and post-WWII Civil Rights Movement are opportunities to reinforce the “bottom-up” way in which history is made, challenging both the more general historiographical myth of history made by the actions of a few important and powerful people, as well as myths more specific to each period.

I like to complicate the idea of the New Deal as a neat, sufficient top-down program handed down by a beneficent government by highlighting things like the role of Francis Townsend and socialists had on Social Security, the community organizing of Rose Chernin and the Unemployed Councils, Woody Guthrie’s songs, the “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaigns in African-American neighborhoods, or the Flint sit-down strike. I’ve found clips of The People Speak — dramatic readings of excerpts from the Zinn-Arnove collaboration Voices of A People’s History — and the accompanying text excerpts in the book version (and/or Voices) very helpful. One interesting resource, especially if we’re discussing myths perpetuated by textbooks, is the second volume of Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s History, a two-volume “alternative” textbook form the American Social History Project. The exhaustive treatment of the 1930s in this book is phenomenal. Other resources might  include Studs Terkel’s Working and Rick Ayers’ Studs Terkel’s Working: A Teaching Guide, as well as the 1930s material in Prisciilla Murolo and A.B. Chitty’s From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.

In the spirit of “Leaders don’t make movements, movements make leaders,” I like to complicate traditional ideas of the post-WWII Civil RIghts Movement — what I half-jokingly call “the ‘Martin Luther King, Jr. is overrated’ approach to teaching civil rights.” While no one can take away from the importance of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, too much focus on charismatic leaders can give students the impression of a largely top-down movement. Among the pitfalls related to teaching the civil rights movement is a tendency to focus too much on leaders, especially men, and not enough on the movement. The story of the civil rights movement is the story of the thousands of nameless people who took part in organizing and implementing protest actions, served as indispensable coordinators of communication, attended organizer and activist training, marched, boycotted, registered themselves and others to vote, simply went to school — all in the face of potential violence and death, a potential realized all to often. Countless resources have been helpful in shaping my teaching of the movement, but I’ll offer a few. A book called Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching has a wealth of ideas for re-orienting teachers’ and students’ perspectives. Films such as The Children’s March and Freedom On My Mind offer invaluable insight into regular people’s contributions to civil rights turning points, as do excerpts from various episodes of Eyes on the Prize. I’ve also used primary source materials from SNCC, an organization that embodied the younger, grassroots organizing I’m discussing, and whose members were sometimes critical of King and SCLC’s more top-down, moderate approach. (Of course, all this doesn’t even include challenging the myth of King as a safe, race-only leader. Textbooks seem to ignore the sharpening of his rhetoric later in life, including critiques of the Vietnam War and almost socialist economic views.) Ella Baker famously said, “My theory is – strong people don’t need strong leaders.” historicizing the contributions of ordinary people in the civil rights movement teaches students important lessons about not only that era, but also how history is made.

Those are just a few of the myths and misconceptions I’ve enjoyed challenging in my classroom. I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on them, since, as a social justice educator, they are a big part of why I teach.

The Third Way

October 25, 2012 2 comments

“The Third Way” is a phrase sometimes used to describe a new, third alternative after two somewhat opposite alternatives are explored and found wanting or inadequate. For example, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, founded a way of life, an eightfold path, that was a “third way” after he rejected the excesses of indulgence on the one hand, and the stark austerity of asceticism on the other. More recently, “third way” politics describe globalization era center-left leaders (e.g. “moderate” Democrats in the US, the new direction of Labour in the UK) rejecting dogmatic neoliberalism, but also traditional left redistributive policies. Essentially, it’s the Clinton, DLC movement — think balanced budgets, welfare reform, banking deregulation, NAFTA, etc. — that still dominates the party today (Obama’s domestic policies are much closer to Nixon, Reagan, and Dole than they are to FDR or LBJ).

Many state teachers unions, and definitely the leadership of the NEA and AFT, have resembled that latter example of third way-ism.  While resisting the very worst of the neoliberal GERM (global education reform movement), they have also not embraced social movement unionism (having already broken from progressive unionism by the 1980s) nor used the “best defense is a good offense” tactic. Teachers unions have generally accepted the “reform” agenda and simply tried to limit the damage, to salvage what they can out of the process. When my state union, the NJEA, was able to save seniority rights in the hashing out of the tenure “reform” law passed over the summer, they declared it a victory, and called the law “a win-win.” Union president Barbara Keshishian said this goes a long way to achieving the goal of guaranteeing a quality teacher in every classroom. Were we just tossing around unqualified imbeciles up until that point? For all our “playing ball” and “at least having a seat at the table” on that bill, we were rewarded with VAM-laden teacher evaluations and our education commissioner Chris Cerf calling seniority “morally indefensible.”

While these tactics certainly resemble the DLC-style “third way,” they are in fact closer to one of the two dominant ideological strands of education philosophy/policy. So it is quite a different “third way” that needs to be re-asserted and followed if we are to save and transform public education, and help transform society as well.

Three main ideological camps have addressed education and education policy in the past 20-30 years or so, and especially in the last 10, as the conversation around education reform (and the actual policy flowing from it) has intensified and accelerated. The three camps are professionalization, deregulation/neoliberalism, and social justice. The first two have dominated the discourse on education, while the third has been marginalized. It is that third way I’m advocating — and not just on fundamental ideological grounds, as I’m a social justice advocate myself, but also, importantly, on newly emerging practical grounds.

I want to briefly address each of the three camps, then elaborate on why we must choose the social justice path.

The professionalization camp emerged in the wake of “Nation At Risk” era conservative  attacks on public education. In arguing for respect for the profession and proving we are in fact effective, Linda Darling-Hammond and others acquiesced to, even actively sought, more standards and quantitative measures of teacher effectiveness. They also helped move the education discourse toward “teacher quality” and “accountability” (and away from equity). They even developed evaluations for graduating prospective teachers (albeit ones that do include a performance assessment element) that now are also attached to Pearson. The rationale was we were going to prove — even quantify — our worth, show evidence that traditional teacher preparation leads to student achievement, and lend more credibility to education research and expertise.

(I’ve discussed elsewhere how the rhetoric of professionalism can be problematic for class identity and worker solidarity, but we’ll mostly set that aside for now)

This has invited the deregulatory crowd to closely examine and negatively spin the research used by professionalizers. More importantly, those professionalization efforts are now being thrown back in our face by the deregulators, as the cult of accountability brings us VAM, new eval models, and attacks on teacher preparation in favor of content knowledge and shorter alternate route pathways. The deregulators have backed off some of their more ridiculous notions (e.g. eliminate certification completely) in an effort to get whatever influence they could, and, in being part of the GERM, have actually at times added complexity and rules to the areas of education they seek to transform. (That quite clearly demonstrates that it’s all ideologically anti-teacher, anti-public education, etc. at heart)

We know what else the GERM crowd is about — anti-union, pro-charter, pro-privatization, money for the test-makers, etc. We know its connection to the broader neoliberal (and to some extent, neoconservative and fundamentalist) movement. We know the money behind it and the victories it has secured in recent policy battles. We needn’t re-hash the details of the GERM. We’re living through a period when this nefarious bunch is ascendant, and preying upon well-meaning true believers and desperate families, often in urban areas. Their agenda is manifest.

Enter social justice. Again, most anybody reading this is somewhat familiar with this ideological camp. The social justice camp, while never dormant, has increased in size and visibility in the post-globalization era as resistance to neoliberal and “third way” forces (which, of course, were at least somewhat a backlash to the civil rights/social movement era of the 1960s and 1970s). As we kept seeing “another world is possible” and “peace and justice” more and more, educators were seeking to shift the education paradigm from an obsession with teacher quality to a commitment to “equity and democracy.” Social justice educators’ goals are manifold and reflect the recognition of education policy being inextricably linked to other social policy (and non-policy actions), as so many non-school factors contribute to results in school, and so many problems in the wider society need fixing. Re-hashing many of these goals or ideals more specifically is not my purpose here. You’re likely very familiar with them, and a thorough discussion would further lengthen this post.

If you know me (and the few people who actually read my posts usually do), you know I consider myself a social justice educator. I strongly agree on the ideology, and the goals and solutions of the social justice camp. However, I also believe that many education workers who may not have considered themselves so clearly social justice-oriented ideologically, should (and do) see the social justice path as the only logical and practical way forward. Social justice, no longer just a “third way” in the sense that it has always played third fiddle to the other two camps, and never having been a “third way” the way the DLC or national union leadership has become, must now be the “third way” in the sense that since the neoliberal/deregulatory crowd is so awful, and the professionalization crowd has offered a meek apolitical defense (and even given the nut jobs ammunition), we have no other option except to finally change the conversation completely and embrace the social justice path.

We have been painted into a corner by the GERM vampires. If we emphasize the external locus of control — if we point to all the factors outside our power and point out how small a piece of “achievement” we can actually affect — we put ourselves on shaky ground. The neoliberal cabal will say, “Fine. Then why spend all this money on certification programs and competitive salaries? Why respect you as ‘professionals’ if you have so little effect on results? We’ll get an army of temp workers to deliver test-based scripted curricula. Goodbye.” (In fact, they’re already de-professionalizing the job as much as they can — if they could get robots in there for us, they would.) On the other hand, if we continue to emphasize the idea of high quality professionals impacting a college/career/capitalist definition of “achievement,” we open ourselves up to the type of obsessively quantitative assessments we know are shoddy at best. The neoliberal cabal will say, “Fine. Here’s VAM. We’ll quantify you that way. If you’re so great, the data will reflect that, and we’ll reward you with merit bonuses and tenure based on the results.”

We’re stuck. But you’ll say, “Well, we can resist this. We can shape the evaluation systems. We can teach the politicians about VAM. We can develop tests and assessments that will measure us and satisfy them. We can fight back the way we have been doing for the last few years. We need to collaborate, find common ground, compromise. It can work.” You’re wrong. How has that been working so far? Our most readily available, powerful methods of resistance are existing union structures, but our leaders have played the game and haven’t made any headway. When those charged with advocating on our behalf can’t be counted on, where do we stand? By resisting more left-leaning ideology, by playing defense instead of offense, by worrying about “a seat at the table” regardless of the meal being served, by trying to talk “professionalism” and “accountability,” by discussing education in the same college-and-career-readiness paradigm that the GERM does, the professionalizers and the unions have failed us. If nothing is working, it’s time to change course.

We have no other choice than the new “third way” — social justice. Educators across the country are seeing the price we pay for trying to win at THEIR game. Too often a crisis like school closures, a terrible contract, or massive layoffs are the impetus for such an awakening (see Chicago/NYC/Newark). But no matter how they get there, more and more education workers are seeing the light. There is another way. Another work is possible.

We must reclaim the purpose of education as making better people who will make a better world – not simply creating a competent workforce.  Education should stimulate and challenge students. Education should be interdisciplinary, inquiry-based, and constructivist. Education should be based on equity, democracy, justice, and cooperation; not individualism, achievement, and competition. Education should empower students to critically analyze the world around them and shape change within it. Education should bust through the walls of the school and embrace parents and the community (and not the process of affluent parents customizing schools for their kids – I mean a true community-based approach). Education should support the whole student. Education should be filled with people cognizant of the connection between non-school factors and school results, and committed to a holistic approach to all of it. Furthermore, and importantly, preparation of teachers should be similarly driven by equity, democracy, and justice. Aligning with the social justice agenda, teacher preparation programs must diversify the teaching force AND graduate culturally responsive teachers ready to educate diverse students in a pluralistic democracy, and committed to becoming agents of change inside and outside schools.

We have tried to play by their rules. We have tried to speak their language. We have listened to the counsel of our unions and the professionalizers. And we have lost. It is time to shift the paradigm, to change the conversation completely. Education for social justice. Social justice for education. Fundamental change for a better world. A better world for fundamental change.

Back-to-School “Re-boot” Post: The Long Haul (?)

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Last year, in an effort to “revive” my blogging, I wrote a “re-boot” post helping define my beliefs and practices as a teacher in a time when (for reasons I won’t get into here and now)  it was fitting and appropriate to assert it.

This year (even though I didn’t blog as much as I wanted to this past summer) I’ve decided a back-to-school post will be an annual activity, no matter how frequently I’ve blogged in the preceding year.

As is the case in a life in education, the context in which I found myself beginning to write this as summer waned is complex, hopeful, difficult, dynamic, and stimulating. My goal in this post is to discuss the following two ideas: 1. This fight we’re in against the global education “reform” movement (GERM) is going to be a long one, where things may get worse before they get better. Indeed, it has been argued the fight has almost always been there — good people in education have long been fighting the encroachment of nefarious people, ideas, and forces. And some folks say there won’t be an end to the fight — that we will never be able to fully “win” and sigh in relief, and must be ever vigilant; AND 2. I’m not sure I’m going to be in it for that long haul.

I sometimes stop to ask myself how much of the unease and doubt I feel comes from A. the fact that I’m generally analytical, reflective, meta-cognitive, passionate, and slightly perfectionist/workaholic, and B. partially because of that, every six months or so, I ask myself “Do I still want to teach? Do I still want to teach high school?” There is no doubt, however, even from just talking to other educators (so that I know I’m not nuts), there is a great deal of validity to my feelings — the “reformers” are moving fast, have power and money behind them, and are generally winning the messaging battle.

This summer alone, “reformers” in New Jersey (where I live and teach) have moved quickly and taken significant steps. Over vociferous opposition, the legislature fully confirmed then acting education commissioner Chris Cerf. That legislature also passed, and Governor Christie signed, a tenure “reform” law. My state union, NJEA, trapped in flat-footed reactionary pragmatism (to my great consternation) claimed “victory,” largely due to anti-seniority provisions being removed from the bill. While NJEA spun defeat into victory and lauded the collaboration among stakeholders in crafting the legislation, Cerf turned around and called seniority “morally indefensible,” setting up the next target.  Cerf is moving forward with other “reforms” he and Christie have cooked up, largely tied to the state’s NCLB waiver (Gee, thanks Obama-Duncan). He approved more charter schools for urban student guinea pigs, while continuing to refrain from such experimentation in suburban areas where more affluent parents protested. After getting approval from Big Daddy Broad before discussing it with anyone else, Cerf pushed forward with various “turnaround” efforts. The state has identified “focus” and “priority” schools and is implementing classic GERM/corporatist turnaround processes there. Overseeing the improvement in these schools will be seven still-mysterious Regional Achievement Centers (RACs), which are redundant with and/or usurping power from, county education boards and county superintendents. So little was known about the RACs, the legislature withheld funding for them in this year’s state budget, citing a lack of information, but Cerf of course pushed forward with them anyway. Cerf also seems to be floating the idea of an “achievement district” of existing state-controlled local schools plus ones who fail to improve quickly enough (and also fall under state control), with the New Orleans schools debacle serving as a model(!).

Intimately tied to the new tenure process, and to the assessment of improving focus and priority schools, will be new teacher evaluation models, entering their second and final year of piloting, with full statewide implementation set for 2013-2014. Predictably, these evaluations will include a significant portion based on “student performance” including (and perhaps soon solely based on) test scores. In districts where these models are already being used (including SIG schools, now part of the “Priority” schools), we’re hearing about pre-tests, test-drilling, and post-tests, including in the arts(!). Yes, bubble tests on sculpture.

And of course, using the Urban Hope Act (blech) as his latest lubricant, Camden County political boss Gordon Norcross is using charters and school “reform” to expand his empire — and he’s a “Democrat” (as is state Senate leader Steve Sweeney, also no friend to educators).

The national picture is no better. “Reformers” in many states are as bad or worse — as far along or further ahead. Few national politicians and media figures understand education like we do, and many have drunk the “reform” kool-aid. And of course, neither major party presidential candidate is a friend to public education, with Obama’s RTTT and related policies abysmal, and Romney’s education vision even worse.

One very tangible part of GERM and the neoliberal economic forces at work around the world has been budget cuts in the public sector, especially public education. We feel this every day in the trenches. Deteriorating physical plant. Lack of resources and technology. Swelling class sizes due to understaffing. These conditions are sometimes they way activists like myself can get our foot in the door with politicizing colleagues, showing them how these everyday frustrations are “political” because they are the results of political forces and decisions made by non-educators. This year, I teach in five different rooms. Only one has a resident projector. Some periods, there are more class sections than rooms at my school. Aside from a class of 15 students I teach in a new specialized program, the smallest of my four other classes is 27. Real, effective education (and proper attention to my class of 15) is impossible in these conditions.

All of this, from the global to the local, is going to get worse before it gets better. I believe that to be true. I tell it to fellow NJTAGers and other activists. I tell it to colleagues and allies. The “reformers” have the power/leverage of the state, have the money behind them, and are winning the media/messaging battle. No doubt there are various encouraging signs of resistance, mobilization, and implementation of alternative visions for change. But we can’t kid ourselves. More damage will be done before we are victorious. That doesn’t keep me from fighting, and it doesn’t keep me from encouraging others to do so. If you are going to see this through, you have to be in for the long haul.

The problem for me is I don’t know if I am. (And I’m not sure just getting more exercise/yoga, hydration, and sleep will fix things.)

I’ve just started my 11th year in teaching (high school history, in case you don’t know or don’t remember). I work closely with a person who is retiring half-way through the school year, after what will be 39 1/2 years teaching. He has said, and I agree, that there really won’t be any more teachers who make it that long. Clearly, many people who are close to that milestone will make it; but very few — if any — teachers at my experience level (let alone less experienced ones) will. Data on teacher turnover, burnout, and average career span aside (i.e. things are even worse than is shown by such data) several factors, several broad forces, are increasing in intensity, making the difficulty of longevity more manifest.

Students. First off, I love them. I’m among the teachers who most respect and honor student voice, empathize with them, and allow for their input into important decisions about the class. But each year, they come to me with less and less developed reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. Each year, they come to me with shorter attention spans and greater apathy. Trapped in the college admissions racket, they grade grub more than ever, and increasingly focus on results/grades more than process/learning. To be sure, there are exceptions. To be sure, there are educators who remind us that people have been complaining about “kids these days” as  far back as Socrates (and further). But the stressors generated by the change in students is discernible and accelerating. This can shorten a career.

Administrators. I’m not one of those people, despite my reputation among a small number of colleagues, that is contrarian and oppositional just for the sake of it, critiquing every sneeze and fart of the administrators. I also empathize with them about being overworked like we are. Also, too much of their time is taken up by non-educational duties. However, unless you are astoundingly lucky, there will be decisions administrators make and actions they take which will confound you, frustrate you, perplex you, and can have serious ripple effects on your practice. As schools become more corporate, and the standards/testing juggernaut of the “reformers” eats away at public education, the stressors generated by our bosses seem to be increasing, and accelerating. This can shorten a career.

Colleagues. No one is more pro-teacher than I am. No one is more pro-union (in theory, not in the practices by our current tepid unions) and pro-worker than I am. Despite being a union dissident of sorts, I take the time to be a building rep because I want to be there for my people. However, let’s face it — some of our co-workers can disappoint us. As I mentioned earlier, I am abnormally (some might say pathologically) passionate and dedicated. I eat, sleep, and breathe education. One of the (many, many) reasons I’m never having kids is because I always want to be able to put as much time and effort into education that I want to at any given time. But I’m not asking my co-workers to be like me. I’m simply asking for, among those who are not already there, to just stake a few steps closer to that. The aversion to new learning and innovation I see among colleagues of all ages and experience levels is disheartening. While I empathize with the in-school and out-of-school factors that generate this attitude toward always refining our craft, toward formal or informal PD, toward using summers to get better, I can’t agree with it and it needs to change. It’s one of the things I hope to address during my upcoming doctoral studies. Furthermore, and connected in many ways by the alienation and apathy generated by the system, there is not enough of a culture of reflection, discussion, accountability, constructive criticism, and collaboration among teachers. Some of that is structural, some of that is, as I said, derived from negative feelings the system creates, but some of it is personal, and it is curable. Precisely when our profession needs us the most, precisely when we need to counter anti-teacher narratives and demonstrate the feasibility of the real reforms we’ve been advocating for years, we are not meeting the challenge. So the stressors generated by colleagues (whether their “fault” or not) seem to be increasing. This can shorten a career.

And then there’s the political climate I referred to earlier.

With these four broad forces taken together, the cumulative stress a teacher may have felt over 20 years is being reached in 15? 12? 10?

A realistic assessment of the political and social climate suggests, as I said, that absent an unexpected acceleration of certain other forces, victory for real reform will be long in arriving, yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to stay and fight for such a long time.

Now the polyannasphere of pathological positivity among some of the education Twitterati would respond with the old “…things you can’t control” and “Just focus on the kids” or “The kids and their spirit will get you through it.” Let’s be real. I certainly understand my devotion to the students and the lack of control I have over many things, but c’mon — sticking my head in the sand (or somewhere else) and ignoring the real threat of reform politics and the antics of co-workers, bosses, and students can only make things worse.

One heartening truth is that there is more than one way to “stay in the fight.” I don’t necessarily have to be a classroom teacher for the next 30 years to be part of this struggle to save and transform public education and teaching. I know several other good options. It’s just that a few years ago, I could never see myself doing anything else.

That is no longer true.


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