Emanuel AME Church Massacre Requires a Response – White Educators and Allies’ Responsibilities

In this photo taken June 19, 2015, photos of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., are held during a vigil at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington.
In this photo taken June 19, 2015, photos of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., are held during a vigil at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington. Source: http://www.wjla.com/articles/2015/06/black-churches-targeted-because-of-importance-to-community-114888.html#ixzz3dtialzML

In the face of the tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, another in a too-long line of such racially based attacks, what can we do? Tragedies like these have me question the value of my work at Warner, and force me to evaluate where I am and what I am doing. As an education researcher and a member of the faculty, I know I have responsibility to respond to events like the terrorist attack in Charleston, SC. We know a lot about racism (and other isms), violence, and White supremacy at Warner – more than a few of us study these and related issues and teach about them; some of us experience them on a daily basis. Recent abuses by police officers that are being made visible with digital and social media are the most obvious, but there are many, many more avenues through which brutality is used on Black and Brown people and communities. We know that there are multiple levels at which racism operates (individual, institutional, societal). We know that violence is seen in many forms as well, in terms of inadequate education, health care, housing, and access to jobs; media images that cast Black and Brown people as one-dimensional, dangerous, and pitiable; and the too-tight coupling of schooling and prisons through criminalization of Black and Brown children and young people. Here, I’m hoping to add to conversations that don’t shy away from the realities of White supremacy and White privilege, that don’t try to shield White people from considering our parts in this awful moment in history, and that call what is happening what it is – racially based violence that shows how much hatred, shame, fear, and guilt exists in our country and society.

As a social and cultural foundations teacher (teaching “diversity” courses), a White researcher, and a White woman, emotional, visceral responses by many White people to such events are familiar. There is the denial that one is racist or complicit in the systemic racism that structures our schools and other institutions. There is guilt that paralyzes us into thinking that we can’t do anything of substance. There is despair at the enormity of the problem, leading to another form of paralysis. As an instructor, I know I have the responsibility to help students move past these feelings to a place where spaces of possibility are visible. For many of us at Warner, the delicate dance of avoiding raising students’ defenses while engaging in difficult dialogue that forces awareness is a constant act in teaching. Today, though, the reaction on my mind is something that prevents dialogue in culturally mixed classrooms (and other forums like community action groups, dinner tables, bars) from happening at all – the feeling that we don’t have authority to speak, as we are (privileged) White people. This kind of reaction paralyzes not only our learning, but our work as allies, as partners in dialogue and action.

I looked back at a 2012 Warner Blog post by my colleague, Professor Ed Brockenbrough, in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin. His suggestions for what teacher educators can/should do to work against White supremacy are sound, practical, and still timely. I’d like to offer, humbly, some additional thoughts for schools of education in general, and myself, White colleagues, and White allies committed to racial and social justice:

  • Push beyond the boundaries to understanding that stem from growing up White and living in a society that is racist. Things like re-segregation of schools and neighborhoods militate against person-to-person interaction across races/ethnicities (see Frankenburg & Orfield’s 2014 seminal work). The invisibility of White privilege and institutional racism also shields people from recognizing White supremacy and endemic racism in our society (see Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995, on critical race theory in education). The US history we are taught in schools leaves out much of the history of Black and Brown people in this country and virtually all of the history of White oppression, genocide, and racism. The existence of an assumed ‘normal,’ ‘average’ (White) person, family, and community isn’t questioned. The lack of understanding in the larger White world as to what leads to these abominations is astonishing to me. The depth of the ignorance takes my breath away. Just imagine how Black and Brown people may find this flabbergasting (but not surprising). I’m not slamming White people, though many may feel that way. Still, I am NOT giving us a pass. The claims that, “I’m not racist,” and “Not all White people are racists” are largely true, but they mask the larger, historical, structural nature of institutions like schools, policing, universities, and jails/prisons. We are responsible for educating ourselves.
  • Recognize White supremacy and White privilege as the foundations of education. When I first started teaching social and cultural foundations courses, I assigned readings on social class, race, ability, and gender early in the semester, saving the more “difficult” readings on White privilege for later. I hoped that White students would be better prepared to address issues so close to home, that their defenses wouldn’t be triggered so easily. I hoped that students of color would feel affirmed in that these foundations of education were made visible and the subject of critical analysis. Over the years I have switched that order, starting the semester with White privilege and institutional racism. Rather than leaving these foundations of education invisible, I find that acknowledging them with my students and then moving on to their effects changes their understanding of how schools work. Sometimes inequities seem less daunting when their sources are made visible. Work by Allan Johnson on power and privilege; Margaret LeCompte and Kathleen deMarrais on the structures of schooling; Peggy McIntosch on White privilege; and Bryan Brayboy, Tara Yosso, and Dolores Delgado Bernal on forms of critical race theory have all been well received in my classes due to their combination of theory and practice. White students seem more receptive and students of color seem less apprehensive when these foundations of education are the starting point.
  • Assume and recognize the asset- and resource-rich nature of Black and Brown communities. We are bombarded with negative images of Black and Brown people. Media of all types – newspapers, online news sources, television, movies – beat the drum of deficit, danger, dysfunction, and despair as the only images of people and communities of color. Deficit assumptions also ground way too much social science research, too. For example, classic deficit-based studies by Moynihan (“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” 1965; “The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York City,” 1963)[1] have a long and still-present legacy in social science research. A recent headline in the University of Rochester’s daily online news feed announced that, “Stress in low-income families can affect children’s learning.” This is an example of the language that is insidious in the way it positions families living in poverty (aka Black and Brown families) as dysfunctional. Sure, stress leads to higher levels of cortisol and of course that is bad. But what about middle and high-income families that are stressful (distant caregivers, instability, etc., factors the authors list for the families they studied)? The silence about middle and high income (aka White families) is deafening and paints poverty as inevitably leading to dysfunction. As a White ally and researcher, I am more interested in understanding how families living under stress – poverty as the main example, along with racism – thrive, succeed, and achieve good health and wellbeing. The silence about those aspects of families is also deafening, but in a different way. That way is dangerous, a form of symbolic violence, and unnecessary. More recent work by Tyrone Howard (“HowDoes It Feel to be a Problem? Black Male Students, Schools, and Learning in Enhancing the Knowledge Base to Disrupt Deficit Frameworks, 2004), and Michael Rodriguez and Diana Morrobel (“A Review of Latino Youth Development Research and a Call for an Asset Orientation,” 2001) paint a different picture that positions Black and Brown as more fully human and as amazingly resilient in the face of oppression. These are the kinds of readings I find more useful in my classes and my research, and the kinds of assumptions that foster understanding, solidarity, action, and hope.
  • Engage in discussions of race that are wide-ranging and fraught, trusting those involved to help moderate a civil discussion. The scariest response I see when issues of White privilege and White supremacy are brought up is silence. Paulo Freire, a giant in liberatory pedagogy, saw dialogue as a humanizing act, essential in pedagogical settings that seek to uncover systems of privilege and to move together to action. My students have taught me that they are willing and imminently able to help navigate tense discussions. The most recent course evaluations in one course, Diversity and Equity in Education in a Global Context, had several students challenging me to be less careful in leading discussions, to allow the class to tackle the really touchy, uncomfortable, and “third rail” topics. My instinct has been to protect people’s feelings, to retreat to more academic discourse, or to squelch angry exchanges. I really thought I was taking risks and being somewhat courageous, but my students are saying no, let us go deeper, let us feel more, hurt more, struggle more so we can learn more. As a White educator, I know I am often afforded more leeway than educators of color in leading these discussions; my responsibility is to leverage that positioning into more and more difficult and honest exchanges. Dissent and grappling with ideas are critical to learning and teaching about thorny issues. While my example here is from classrooms, I have found similar dynamics in work with communities of color here in Rochester. This is not new information – dialogue and dissent as foundational for learning have been known for centuries. Still, we are seeing a resurgence of overt racism and a legislative context in which attacking central constitutional and human rights (voting; rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) is a daily occurrence.
  • Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is the oldest AME church in the south. It is referred to as "Mother Emanuel".  Emanuel has one of the largest and oldest black congregations south of Baltimore, Maryland. Source: Charleston City Paper http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/TheBattery/archives/2015/06/19/heres-how-you-can-donate-directly-to-help-emanuel-ame-church.
    Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is the oldest AME church in the south. It is referred to as “Mother Emanuel”. Emanuel has one of the largest and oldest black congregations south of Baltimore, Maryland. Source: Charleston City Paper http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/TheBattery/archives/2015/06/19/heres-how-you-can-donate-directly-to-help-emanuel-ame-church.

    Counteract the re-segregation of our society and develop cross-cultural competencies. Reading widely and from outlets that publish work by scholars of color, watching videos, and having guest speakers in class are all powerful parts of teaching about diversity and equity. Nothing can replace face-to-face interaction, though. Numerous Warner instructors engage students in fieldwork as parts of our courses, not to mention student teaching, and counseling and administrator internships. A note of caution from my own experience: I remember supporting a doctoral student at another university in assigning master’s students, almost all White, to “urban” field placements. This student was deeply committed to racial and social justice, considered her self a knowledgeable ally, and recognized the power of human relationships. She asked about sending students to welfare offices, hospitals, homeless shelters, and the like. The shock on her face when I suggested community centers, churches, and recreation centers was stunning. To be frank, I had only recently encountered work by Gonzalez and Moll (2001) on funds of knowledge (practices, networks, assets, resources developed in communities as they negotiate stress and oppression) that made me recognize the dangers in placements where people of color are positioned as needing help, as broken, and in need of “redemption.” Seeing my students and graduate assistants’ (as well as my own) successes in learning and relationship building based on asset-based, resource-rich knowledge of Black and Brown people and communities affirms the need for humility and for entering communities as learners rather than redeemers.

As educators and researchers, we have opportunities to foster critical changes our schools and society. Further, being White, to my mind, brings particular responsibilities if we want to be active allies and participants in combatting racism, White supremacy, and continuing inequity and violence. Some of those responsibilities include being humble, knowing that we don’t/can’t know some very important things, recognizing the nature of racism in the US institutions, accepting that White supremacy and White privilege affect us and not just people of color, and entering communities as learners. I am very interested to hear other people’s thoughts.

[1] See http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2011/11/moynihan_report_a_critique_by_herbert_gans.html and http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ101853 for critiques of Moynihan’s reports.

Warner School Student Emerald Amory-Williams Offers an Open Response to Dr. Ares

Preserving Public Education: The Foundation of Our Democracy

This is my speech given at Preserving Public Education: The Foundation of Our Democracy, an event organized by teachers from several area school districts. Approximately 650 people were in attendance.
Spencerport, New York
March 19, 2015

We face a crisis in public education. But, not because the schools are failing. In fact, given the high childhood poverty rate in our cities and the extreme segregation in our schools, one might conclude that the schools are doing well. Rather, we face a crisis because education policy in New York is increasingly made not by school boards or educators but by the rich and powerful, most of whom are unelected and unaccountable.hursh1

We face a crisis because our education system is being taken over by wealthy philanthropists, such as Bill Gates, who uses his foundation to fund organizations to develop and implement the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core would not exist if Gates did not provide the initial $200 million to create it. Or the $2.3 billion he gave to 1,800 organizations to support the Common Core. Or the $3 million he secretly gave to help fund the Regents Fellows to work with former Commissioner King on implementing the Common Core. Or the profits Microsoft will earn as their tablets are used to deliver the Common Core curriculum and assessments.

We face a crisis because Pearson, the world’s largest education company, has received $32.1 million to create, administer, and grade the Common Core Exams in English Language Arts and Math. Pearson seems to create most of the world’s exams, including, in the United States, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Stanford Achievement Test, the Miller Analogy Test, and the Graduate Equivalency Test (GED). Pearson received $63 million to develop the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC exam. Pearson designs, administers, and grades the state’s teacher certification exams including the video and portfolio assessment of student teachers, for which students pay $300 per test. Pearson has the contract to design the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment or PISA exams. Pearson publishes most of the K-12 textbooks used in the United States under different imprints, including: Scott Foresman, Penguin, Longman, Wharton, Harcourt, Puffin, Prentice Hall, Allyn & Bacon, and Random House.

hursh2We face a crisis because politicians like Governor Cuomo has taken almost $5 million from hedge fund managers to push through legislation increasing the number of and funding for charter schools. Just last week in New York City, hedge fund managers held a private all day meeting called “Bonds and Blackboards” sponsored by the Walton and Gates Foundations to promote investing in charter schools, where, indeed, if you are wealthy, there is money to be made. Cuomo has proposed giving more money per student to charter schools plus additional funds for space. Further, the Governor wants to give a 75% tax credit for donations of up to $100,000 to charter, private, and parochial schools.

I have only touched the tip of the iceberg. In response, we need to demand transparency in how education policy is made. We need to spend money not on standardized tests but on developing assessments that provide meaningful information to the students, parents, teachers, and community. We need to demand that public funds go to public schools and not to line the pockets of charter school investors. We need to demand that educators are supported and not undermined in their professional responsibilities. We need to demand excellent schools for our children.

 

 

No Trophies in the Knowledge Economy

For far too long education reform has been tinkering in the margins and offering band-aid solutions that keep the patient alive, but little else.  Lawmakers have chased fads and bad policies that haven’t helped children thrive.  One can only do so much to keep the patient comfortable before calling the Priest. Our education system is on life support and it’s time for the last rites.

Educators, school leaders and most parents already know that schools are outdated, though few think of a system that is fundamentally flawed and irreparable.  But it is.  The current education system isn’t just and equitable.  Our pedagogical approaches – placing knowledge into empty heads and assuming learning has occurred – isn’t working.  Furthermore, what children are being taught isn’t helping them to lead a successful life.

Schools do not approach education from an equitable and just position.  Instead we approach education like a little league baseball team whose coach is hell-bent on winning.  We should not exclude students with disabilities from general education settings, but we do.  We should not be quick to banish minorities to special education classes, but we do.  Approaching school with the mindset that everyone can learn and deserves the opportunity to learn is fundamentally different than our system now – a high-risk system that favors fielding the best team.  The very foundation of our education system should not be chasing test scores and “winning.”  That’s a dangerous lesson for students and a disastrous byproduct for our country. 

A part of the ‘winning’ attitude comes with reliance on test scores.  If a teacher is measured based on the success or failure of test scores, teachers are going to ensure that students pass tests.  The problem is that those high-stakes tests don’t help students wrestle with tomorrow’s big questions.  Instead, we should replace these tests with ongoing authentic assessments that measure learning and development.

Education’s mission of yesterday was to teach people the skills required to fill a workforce.  In short, we were training widget makers for our consumer economy.  But an education that trains students to consume a product doesn’t meet the challenges required in contemporary society.  We need to engage a dynamic generation of sophisticated children in knowledge production.  New technologies and their resultant new practices have radically changed the way humans learn, interact and produce knowledge in contemporary times.  We need an education system and workforce that understands how schools can better harness those tools to encourage creative solutions. 

How do we do that?  First and foremost education policy needs to stop chasing trophies and test scores and instead go in a more holistic direction.  Some of the most successful countries in the world – with the test scores to prove it – shy away from what Pasi Sahlberg calls the “GERM” Global Educational Reform Movement.  High-stakes testing kills creativity in the classroom and shifts priorities away from learning how to solve real-world problems.  The curriculum should offer opportunities to build new ways of seeing the world rather than a simple transmission of predefined content and skills that are still rooted in assembly line curriculum ideology. 

A school’s curriculum should not be prescribed.  It must be arrived at collaboratively through curriculum instruction teams that include teachers, administrators, parents, students and community members.  Having a more equitable and just process for curriculum development means more individuals can help shape schools with projects that are relevant and meaningful to their communities. 

Much of this is to push teachers and students to become ‘produsers’ of knowledge, meaning that students and teachers care less about the consumption of knowledge and more about the creation of knowledge.  Doing this not only transforms communities, but it gets young minds focusing on problem solving and problem posing – not regurgitation of facts.  It’s the shift from children and youth as consumers to children and youth, teachers, administrators, parents and community leaders as ‘produsers’ of knowledge.  Learners would ‘produse’ knowledge from an early age and apply that knowledge in new ways to everyday tasks with real-world audiences. For example, one urban element

In the knowledge economy, information is free and moving rapidly.  The analytical is becoming antiquated – because Google had the answer 10 seconds ago.  What computers cannot do well is ask the questions.  And to get any conversation started requires a question.  We have sat on the sidelines for far too long and now we have to ask ourselves this question: will we work with or against the knowledge economy?  Batter up.  ary classroom in Rochester, N.Y. advocated for healthier food options at their school through a student-produced documentary film, called “Lunch is Gross,” for district administrators. The student-teacher collaborative project, which integrated math, science, social studies, and literacy learning into all aspects of the project, resulted in a change in the district’s food vendor.

Teachers are Political Actors. What Does This Mean for Teacher Education?

On August 7, 2013, the New York State Department of Education released the first set of test results tied to the Common Core Learning Standards. The scores were low, and the rhetoric that followed in social media, blogs, and other news sources was swift and stern. Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the editorial board at the New York Times proclaimed the test results just desserts for educators who have, for so long, held themselves unaccountable for the failures of schooling. Meanwhile, many of those educators decried the assessments’ confounding language and developmentally questionable content and rebuffed the prospect of leveraging school improvement through high-stakes testing. Carol Burris, the principal of South Side High School in New York City, wrote:

What is… disconcerting is that these reforms are being pursued with little or no evidentiary grounding. There is, for instance, zero sound research that demonstrates that if you raise a student’s score into the new proficiency range, the chances of the student successfully completing college increases… The bottom line is that there are tremendous financial interests driving the agenda about our schools – from test makers, to publishers, to data management corporations – all making tremendous profits from the chaotic change. When the scores drop, they prosper. When the tests change, they prosper. When schools scramble to buy materials to raise scores, they prosper…

Voorheesville Superintendent Teresa Snyder added:

I would bet my house on the fact that over the next few years, scores will “improve” – not necessarily student learning, but scores. They must, because the State accepted millions and millions of dollars to increase student scores and increase graduation rates. If scores do not improve from this baseline, then those “powers that be” will have a lot of explaining to do to justify having accepted those millions.

Embroiled in this political echo chamber of school accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing are teachers and learners. Yet when I ask beginning teachers the question, “What kinds of political actors do you think teachers ought to be, and why?” many look perplexed and shift uncomfortably in their seats. Some respond, “I want to be an advocate for improving kids’ experiences in school, but I’m not sure how, beyond doing the best job I can in my classroom.” Others note, “I entered teaching to help kids find value in the subject matter, not to be an activist.” The latter perspective is not uncommon. Many teachers are loath to think that engaging in political behavior is an upshot of their chosen profession. (In fact, some administrators feel similarly, as education scholar Larry Cuban suggests here.) But of course, teachers act politically all the time, collaterally and overtly, on large and small scales.

Broadly speaking, teaching is a controversial profession. Bandied about in the public sphere are the mythical contentions that teacher quality is the fundamental factor of academic success, and because schools in the United States are producing fewer and fewer so-called college- and career-ready graduates, then teachers must be failing as well. To some, their unions protect planning and professional development time and defend against resource deprivation, massive class sizes, and unfair evaluation practices. To others, they excuse mediocrity by shielding bad teachers from termination and limiting policy makers’ and administrators’ efforts to innovate. On a large scale, the politics of teaching is demonstrated in Indiana and Michigan, where recent legislation bans unions from collecting mandatory fees for negotiating teachers’ contracts; in North Carolina, where Governor Pat McCrory and the General Assembly aspire to reduce teacher education and certification standards; in Tennessee, where the State Board of Education voted to begin revoking teachers’ licenses based on standardized test score data; and in New York, where the federally funded Race To The Top program flooded the state’s education system with no fewer than a half-dozen reform initiatives, all at once – specifically, new learning standards, high-stakes tests, teacher licensure and evaluation programs, data management systems, turn-around plans for underperforming schools, and charter school expansion. By simply joining the profession, teachers and their work are implicated in this kind of politics.

Teachers also engage in intentional political activity in their communities and schools. Sometimes that activity is public, partisan, and progressive, perhaps taking the form of blogs or advocacy initiatives that challenge the accretion of high-stakes testing. Yet research by Diana Hess suggests that many educators try to keep politics out of their teaching to avoid accusations of bias or even litigation, and to provide students with space to explore different political positions and make up their own minds about them. Those efforts often prove paradoxical. One reason is that education is a public good; and thus, it makes sense that educators would support efforts to strengthen that good – by lobbying to fund programs that bolster students’ chances of academic success, for example, or publicizing the negative consequences of using high-stakes test scores to evaluate teachers. Of course, those efforts typically involve taking partisan stances on public policies and doing so openly, in full view of school community members. Another reason is that teachers are in prime position to introduce, model, scaffold, and discuss political action with their students. Extensive research suggests that political efficacy – that is, the extent to which people understand and believe they can affect the political process – is contingent upon learning to access groups with common interests, analyze and discuss controversial issues, and participate in policy decision-making with observable impacts. Such learning must be embedded within actual political discourse and advocacy, not simply conveyed in the abstract. By refusing to talk about politics in the classroom or hiding their own positions and practices, teachers forego opportunities to help students understand the nature and consequences of political activity, regardless of the stance that centers it.

A more subtle kind of professional politics consists of what researcher Stephen Thornton calls gatekeeping. Every day, teachers make decisions about what educational ends have value and ought to be pursued, what resources to allocate toward those ends, and why – in other words, what should be allowed into the classroom, and what should not. For example, a secondary social studies teacher might contend with the following influences concurrently: (1) a survey-style U.S. history curriculum that careens through the subject matter without exploring persistent historical dilemmas in depth; (2) a high-stakes state test that condenses U.S. history into 50 multiple-choice questions and two essays; (3) research suggesting that teaching adolescents how to ask open-ended historical questions, reason with multiple sources of evidence, and write convincing arguments – a time-consuming process – generates more powerful learning outcomes than transmitting fixed historical narratives; (4) heated conversations among colleagues about how much instructional time is worth allocating to test-preparatory strategies; (5) district-wide pacing tests designed to ensure that she follows the curriculum in a timely fashion; and (6) pointed questions from parents about how she handles sensitive issues like race, religion, and terrorism. How the teacher tends to these competing interests in what researcher Linda Valli calls the “whitewater” environment of schooling involves political activity, like rationalizing her curricular and instructional decisions with administrators and parents to build trust in those decisions and networking with others to access new resources to support them.

My point thus far is that, inevitably, teachers are political actors, even those who try not to be. When educators decide to keep their heads down, quietly acquiesce to the demands of their school institutions, and “simply teach kids the subject matter,” they are choosing to be a certain kind of political actor – one, I suspect, that policy makers greatly appreciate as they hastily launch untested and unwarranted “innovations” into the educational milieu. I am not so naïve, however, to suggest that political action is easy, instantly gratifying, and risk-free, particularly in schools facing intense scrutiny and sanction for persistently low test scores and graduation rates. Consequently, it behooves teacher educators to consider what kinds of political actors their candidates could be, and how they might assist beginning teachers toward those ends. Some suggestions for doing this include:

(1) Helping beginning teachers connect educational purposes to political activity.

Researchers Keith Barton and Linda Levstik suggest that without a coherent rationale for teaching the subject matter, educators often default to getting through material efficiently, with as little resistance from students as possible. Likewise, I would argue that clear and powerful educational purposes are essential catalysts for curricular and instructional gatekeeping and bolder political action. Returning to the aforementioned social studies teacher, imagine that her central pedagogical aims involve: (1) investigating the history of racial, ethnic, and gender segregation and exclusion in the United States; (2) helping adolescents learn to utilize the kinds of analytical tools that historians use to craft persuasive arguments and debunk baseless ones; and (3) grounding her classroom assessment in writing tasks that demonstrate changes in students’ reasoning and writing quality over time. These aims undoubtedly will play into how she interprets and adapts a history curriculum centered on American exceptionalism, how she communicates to her students why her writing tasks look so different from the multiple-choice questions on state tests, and how she responds to the proliferation of standardized testing across public education.

Teacher educators can support candidates’ gatekeeping practices by asking them to persistently connect their instructional decisions to the purposes that ground them. Further, they can show candidates how education activists similarly draw from particular aims when deciding what political issues and strategies to pursue. Consider the Seattle teachers’ working group recommendations on assessment, which I posted above. In the wake of Garfield High School teachers’ refusal to administer district-wide standardized tests in the fall of 2012, Seattle Superintendent Jose Banda formed a task force charged with reviewing the tests, clarifying their purposes, benefits, and costs, and proposing alternatives. However, many educators believed that Superintendent Banda’s decision to invite only five teachers to serve on a task force of 30 people limited their potential impact on the assessment conversation. Consequently, several teachers across the district formed the working group, crafting and publicizing recommendations that are framed by specific purposes of assessment, research on the impacts of high-stakes testing, and their classroom experiences.

(2) Helping beginning teachers understand the importance of political networking.

Teachers constantly network by exchanging instructional resources and techniques. By political networking, I mean two things: (1) building local alliances that help beginning teachers unpack the political subtexts of their schools; and (2) joining larger groups of people who share educational goals, face common barriers to achieving those goals, and contribute resources to address those barriers. On the first point, one novice teacher who participated in a study that I conducted sought to infuse his Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics (USG) course with simulations and seminar-style discussions about current policy problems, but noticed that none of his APUSG-teaching colleagues did the same. Leaning on a trusted mentor to help him ascertain the covert expectations of APUSG teachers, he found that while their team planning meetings appeared democratic, the junior-most three felt beholden to use their senior colleague’s materials and lesson plans as a de facto curriculum, given his veteran status and well-publicized record of success with AP exams. The novice teacher drew upon that knowledge to strategize his participation in team meetings and his methods of introducing new activities in the APUSG classroom. Critically observing one’s school-institutional circumstances and asking good questions of the right people – practices that teacher educators can help candidates strengthen – are important elements of political networking.

Further, teacher educators can connect beginning teachers to professional development opportunities and advocacy groups through which they might forge relationships with like-minded others. For example, from 2010 through 2013, I worked with a cohort of Rochester teachers in a professional development program designed to support their historical content knowledge and teaching skills. As the participants got to know each other and collaboratively explored the effects of new instructional strategies in their classrooms, their network evolved into a community of practitioners striving to make room for historical investigation in the midst of a sea change associated with new state standards, teacher evaluation demands, and student data management requirements. These teachers were fortunate to regularly interact with colleagues in their district who experienced similar policy pressures. Those who are more isolated might find encouragement in professional organizations – there are national and state councils related to teaching the subject areas, students with disabilities, and English language learners – or in groups targeting specific educational policies and problems. Though I used the term “like-minded others” to describe membership in such groups, they may be quite heterogeneous, ideologically. For example, several advocacy organizations have formed across New York State around the idea of refusing to take (or “opting out” of) the now-mandatory Common Core assessments; and the size and online presence of those groups continue to grow. Yet while some members rally around the demoralizing and curriculum-narrowing effects of high-stakes tests and their perpetuation of resource inequities across school districts, others see the assessments and the Common Core standards on which they’re based as flagrant government intrusion into the affairs of communities that ought to be able to teach their children whatever they please. This calls up an earlier point: when it comes to the political activities in which teachers participate, purposes matter.

(3) Helping beginning teachers consider the conceivable consequences of different kinds of political action.

As a colleague in Texas reminded me recently, strategic gatekeeping in one context might be viewed as gross insubordination in another. Thus, teachers must choose among different approaches to political action, depending on the possible implications of those approaches in their particular settings. In one circumstance, teachers and administrators might reach consensus around a particular goal – say, a certain percentage of students performing at the mastery level on a New York State Regents exam – with teachers successfully lobbying for the freedom to choose different means of achieving that goal. In a harsher climate, teachers might exercise what researcher Catherine Cornbleth calls strategic compliance – that is, publicly playing along with restrictive school norms while quietly cultivating alternative courses of action with allies.

By considering the conceivable consequences of political action, I mean the consequences for teachers, of course, but also for students and the school community. Several years ago, in a Virginia middle school, I had the occasion to witness a pep rally that was designed to get kids excited about performing well on the upcoming state Standards of Learning (SOL) Assessments. Following an hour-long event that included SOL chants, teacher dares (e.g., “If all of Mr. Bosworth’s students pass, he’ll shave his head!”), a music video, and a motivational speech by the school principal, I asked two students, “What do you think people believe is most important in terms of what you accomplish here at school?” They replied, almost in unison, “Passing the SOLs!” Mine was a leading question, of course, given the circumstances. But my point is that how educators communicate their priorities and tend their gates bears consequences for how students think about who they are, what they ought to learn, how that learning happens, and why. This is particularly important for beginning teachers to consider as the language of the Common Core seeps into curricula and instruction.

When Principal Carol Burris writes that “we who are inside schools have been sounding the alarm” about the deleterious effects of trying to drive change through high-stakes testing, “although perhaps not as loudly as we should,” and Superintendent Teresa Snyder notes that the Common Core Standards “have been incompletely rolled out in New York,” with collateral damage in the form of “children who worked so hard this year, who endured so many distressing hours of testing, who failed to reach proficiency,” they send strong messages about the political roles of the teachers they lead. As the academic year begins and recent graduates of our teacher education programs start their careers in schools, I would urge them to take several steps on the pathway to productive political activity. First, begin the process of finding mentors who can help them understand and work within their institutions’ political currents and undercurrents. Second, listen intently and extensively, and ask powerful, pragmatic questions about the effects of policy on their teaching – i.e., “Given the Common Core test results, will the state and districts allocate new professional development resources to strengthen instruction, and if so, where will those resources come from, who will get them, and under what conditions?” and “What happens when administrators who are required to evaluate my teaching have no expertise in my subject area or speak a different language than what’s primarily used in my classroom?” Third, participate in education policy and practice conversations on national, state, and local levels and pay attention to the common threads among them. Fourth, find ways to publicize and discuss their teaching experiences – perhaps at open houses, school board meetings, PTA meetings, and other community outlets – so the public better understands the implications of policy on learning and teaching. And finally, be purposeful, strategic classroom gatekeepers, so that students are protected from the political stressors that teachers and administrators contend with and can focus on learning to read, write, talk to each other, and appreciate the intellectual power of their subject matter, in the classroom and beyond it.

For additional conversation about teachers’ roles as political actors, please consider the following scholarship:

Cornbleth, C. (2008) Climates of opinion and curriculum practices. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(2), 143–168.

Ginsburg, M. B. & Kamat, S. G. (2009). The political orientations of teachers. In L. J. Saha & A.G. Dworkin (Eds.), International handbook of research on teachers and teaching (vol. 21) (pp. 231-241). New York: Springer.

Hess, D. (2009). Controversy in the classroom: The democratic power of discussion. New York: Routledge.

Myers, J. P. (2007). Citizenship education practices of politically active teachers in Porto Alegre, Brazil and Toronto, Canada. Comparative Education Review, 51(1), 1-24.

Stillman, J. (2011). Teacher learning in an era of high-stakes accountability: Productive tension and critical professional practice. Teachers College Record, 113(1), 133-180.

Power, Context, Modeling, and Bullying

Karen Klein is an older woman who works as a school bus monitor in a local suburban school district. A ten minute video of middle school students taunting and bullying her has gone viral, once again putting the subject of bullying in the news. Understandably, this has unleashed an outpouring of anger against the youths who engaged in this horrific behavior, and while this anger is justified, the threatened violence against these youths is not.

At its core, bullying is always about the abuse of power, and often that power is embedded in context. These young teens were performing for a camera in a setting where their social power and savvy was greater than the monitor’s power to effectively deflect or influence their behavior. She was at a disadvantage because they had more power than she did and they misused that power in terribly abusive and despicable ways. The dynamics of interactions in groups are different from one-on-one situations. If we recall the Stanford Prison Experiment or the events of Abu Ghraib, we can see that good people sometimes do bad things. Context has a great influence on human behavior, and when power is heavily skewed towards one group there is the potential for abuse. While this misuse of power is inexcusable, it is predictable.

These young teens surely need to be held accountable, but punishment is not the sole answer. If rules and punishment were truly effective shapers of human behavior, our jails would be empty. We cannot legislate and punish our way out of the problem of bullying. This is a societal problem that extends beyond the school yard, and the threats of violence against those who bullied Karen Klein support this conclusion.

One of the messages that accompanies harsh, punitive consequences is that having power is useful because one can use it to get what one wants. In other words, if adults who determine and deliver consequences use excessively harsh measures, then kids’ positive attitudes towards the use of power is actually reinforced. In cases like this the message that the bully gets is not that one should treat fellow human beings with respect, but that one must become better at not getting caught.

Situations like this are opportunities for learning. The actions of these middle schoolers have done serious damage to their families, their peers, their school, their community, and to Karen Klein and her family. Relationships have been fractured, and because bullying is a relationship problem, there are opportunities for reparation and restitution. The goals should be to help these youth see that what they did was unconscionable, to support them in making amends, and to help them develop empathy and compassion. If, however, the punishment is more about vengeance than learning, we may miss an opportunity for transformative growth. At age 13, children are works-in-progress.

One of the questions that arises in bullying situations is the role of bystanders and why they don’t intervene. Some people seem to think that bystanders who don’t intervene in support of the target should also be punished. While research has shown that bullying generally stops when bystanders intervene, it is important to remember that many bystanders are terrified of becoming the next victim. Also, bullies often have high status and possess more social savvy than the average student. Being faced with the prospect of confronting a group of powerful peers is a daunting prospect for many students. Rather than putting the onus on acts of courage by single individuals who may not have adequate skills or sufficient social standing, our efforts should be directed towards building the skills of groups of students who can collectively assert themselves when their peers bully.

Besides restructuring contexts, helping youth learn compassion, and building the skills of bystanders, we need to change the norms that support the misuse of power against those who cannot defend themselves. Schools need our help developing norms where acts of aggression against someone who is different or perceived to be ‘less than’ are considered acts of aggression to all. Many schools, and certainly most school buses, lack a sense of community where members see themselves connected to and responsible for each other. Changing these norms is not something that schools can do alone. It requires support from parents, families, neighborhoods, and the local community, because schools are a microcosm of society.

Lastly, those of us who sit behind computers or cell phones and use these tools to threaten these students and their families are contributing to a culture that supports the misuse of power. We decry the way youth misuse texting or Facebook and the way ‘anonymity’ facilitates the destructive use of these tools, yet many adults are using these same tools to enact violence against Karen Klein’s tormentors. The imbalance of power afforded by these tools and the hateful way that people are using them is turning the bullies into victims, and the message is that having power and using it to hurt others is acceptable.

Bullying is not just a problem in schools; it’s a problem in society. When youth bully, blame is most often levied on the individuals or their parents, but the problem is much bigger. The outpouring of support for Karen Klein is laudable, but the threats of violence towards the boys who bullied her are not. When adults engage in the very behaviors for which we punish students, there is a terrible disconnect and a great deal of hypocrisy. If we are going to combat the kind of bullying that takes place in schools and on school buses, we need to start by looking at our own behavior. Young people learn what we live.

Additional commentary and stories that include comments from Katy Allen, PhD:

Democrat and Chronicle – Karen Klein saga: Kids behave badly because they disregard consequences
WROC-TV – Battling Bullies Special: Part 1
YNN Buffalo – Bus Monitor Incident Sparks Bullying Conversations

Teaching Trayvon Martin: Three Strategies for Teacher Educators

Every year as a faculty member in an urban-focused, university-based teacher education program, I pose the following questions to the teacher certification candidates and certified teachers in my classes: What is your vision of social transformation, and how far are you willing to go in your capacity as classroom teachers to achieve it? Sadly, the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida is the latest of a never-ending series of tragedies that underscores the urgency of these questions. As teacher educators, it is crucial that we seize this moment to encourage and support classroom teachers’ efforts to end white supremacist violence in the lives of youth of color.

Those who deny the permanence of white supremacy in America will surely concoct a litany of excuses and justifications for George Zimmerman, the man who has admitted to killing Trayvon Martin. As demonstrated time and time again, white supremacy is amazingly adept at defending itself by denying its very existence. Regardless of whatever preposterous defense may prevail on Zimmerman’s behalf, the details of Trayvon Martin’s final moments paint a clear picture of a young man who became yet another casualty of American society’s enduring, well-rehearsed, and unforgiving assault on black bodies. That advocates for redress on Trayvon’s behalf are forced to make the case for the obvious—America’s suspicion of and contempt for young black males—detracts time and energy better spent on strategizing our collective responses for justice. Consequently, I will not devote more time to asserting the obvious. Readers who want to debate the “merits” of the case against Zimmerman are encouraged to do so in other spaces.

What I hope to do in this blog entry is to engage fellow teacher educators in discussions of the roles that we can play in the aftermath of Trayvon’s death. The public outcry over Zimmerman’s audacity and the Sanford Police Department’s complicity has turned the murder of Trayvon Martin into a potentially powerful teachable moment. The following are strategies that teacher educators can use to help teacher certification candidates and certified teachers transform this tragedy into a springboard for critical thought and collective action.

1) Engage teachers in rigorous examinations of white supremacy. The gravity of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the subsequent silence that surrounded it cannot be fully grasped without a critical understanding of white supremacy as a systemic arrangement of power that has privileged the lives and interests of white Americans from this nation’s inception, and that continues to do so despite social and political struggles for racial equality. Framing the historical and systemic nature of white supremacist power in America is crucial for helping white educators—specifically those who bristle at critical analyses of white supremacy—to understand those analyses as critiques of oppressive systems of power, not as indictments of individual white people. A critical examination of white supremacy can also help teachers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to understand that while white supremacy privileges white people over racialized others, it can be reproduced by a multicultural cast of characters that aligns itself with white supremacist power structures (e.g., someone like George Zimmerman). In my experiences as a teacher educator, work in critical race theory by scholars like Gloria-Ladson Billings, William Tate, and Adrienne Dixson, analyses of privilege and power by Allan Johnson, and racialized examinations of white teachers by scholars like Christine Sleeter and Gary Howard, have been great resources for teachers who are learning to grapple with the realities and repercussions of white supremacy. A rigorous understanding of white supremacy is a prerequisite for teachers who want to stand against the white supremacist domination of youth of color.

2) Help teachers to connect youth of color to resources and strategies for negotiating white supremacist oppression, both individually and collectively. Learning to resist is not just a political undertaking—it is also a pedagogical act. As Paulo Freire’s groundbreaking work has taught all of us, just as the oppressed have to learn the terms of their oppression, they can also learn to create the conditions for their liberation. Teacher educators who are committed to social justice must find ways to support classroom teachers’ efforts to facilitate analyses of and resistance against white supremacy with youth of color. Continue reading “Teaching Trayvon Martin: Three Strategies for Teacher Educators”

Teaching environmental health in a primary school in Uganda

In this blog, I update readers on the first ten days of my three-week trip to Uganda. In a subsequent blog I will write about our visit to the Millennium Villages Project, a development project organized by the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the United Nations Development Program. The two medical students and I spent the first half of the trip teaching about environmental health to second through sixth graders at the Circle of Peace Primary School in Makindye, on the outskirts of Kampala.

When I visited the school last summer, I was following up on work funded by AHEAD Energy, which had paid for the installation of rocket stoves in the kitchen (stoves that when used properly emit almost no gases or particulates into the cooking area) and two solar photovoltaic electrical systems. Besides teaching, AHEAD Energy asked me if I would oversee the design and construction of a rainwater harvesting system that would supply water for toilets and showers for the 200 students, 30 of whom live at the school because they are orphans. (I posted blogs about this last summer HERE and HERE.)

Last summer’s lessons focused on different forms of energy, the energy cycle (it all goes back to the sun) and, so they wouldn’t drain their electrical system’s batteries, information on watts and watt-hours.

However, developing reliable forms of energy and clean sources of water are only part of improving health. Each year, two million people in the Global South die from diseases related to smoke inhalation, largely from cooking over wood and charcoal fires. Further, thousands die daily, primarily from diarrheal diseases, caused by contaminated water. Therefore, I had planned on returning to Uganda to teach students about the dangers from air and water pollution and how to reduce their risks.

(Teaching environmental health has been a decade long but largely secret interest of mine. This interest will become more public when my book, co-authored with Dr. Camille Martina, Teaching Environmental Health to Children: An Interdisciplinary Approach, is published by Springer Publications in August.)

Subsequently, when two University of Rochester second-year medical students, Scott Walter and Nick Zinn, asked if they could return with me this summer, given their medical expertise, I readily agreed.

The challenge for our trip was to see if we could teach students about complicated notions of air and water pollution and health risks when the prevalent approach to teaching focuses on teachers transmitting information to students and learning consists almost entirely of recall. Students are rarely asked to synthesize or apply their knowledge. Moreover, we only had, in the end, five school days to accomplish our goals. As I will describe below, I think we were partially successful.

Our goal was to teach students about air and water pollution so that they might reduce their risks. However, since we were teaching about human health, we began by teaching or re-teaching, in the case of some of the older students, about the circulatory and respiratory systems, two systems they would need to know if they are to understand the dangers from pollution.

We began by talking about the lungs, what they did and how their bodies needed oxygen, which they inhaled, and how they exhaled carbon dioxide. We noticed our breathing in and out. We then diagramed how the oxygen was transferred from the lungs to their blood.

Next we taught about the heart, including its four chambers and values. We wanted students to become more aware of their heart and what it does, so we had them take their pulse while resting and after doing 25 jumping jacks. Typically, their heart rate increased by 50 to 100 percent.

We also brought stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs with us so that students could listen to each other’s lungs and hearts and take their blood pressure. Since the primary approach to teaching is students copying assignments off the board and then completing them, students enjoyed these more authentic activities.

We then turned to describing how air pollution could damage the lungs, showed them photos of a healthy lung and the one of a long-time smoker. We asked students to brainstorm examples of air and water pollution and then write and draw about them. Specific examples relevant to their own experience included:
•    Since there is no garbage pickup for most of Kampala, almost everyone, including the school, burns their trash.
•    Smoke from open wood and charcoal fires used to cook meals.
•    Pollution from vehicular exhaust, including the taxi vans and motorcycles (boda bodas).
•    People and animals urinating and defecating outside and near waterways.
•    Trash, including food, in the rainwater trenches on the side of the road.

In order to assess how much air pollution these activities created, we placed four petri dishes, in which we had swabbed about a tablespoon of petroleum jelly, around the school grounds: one above the cook stove, one by the burning trash, one by the road, and oven covered and left in the classroom as a control to compare to compare the others with.

Three days later we examined the dishes. The jelly in the petri dishes exposed to the elements was covered with small particles that turned the jelly grey and large particulates that you would not want to breathe in. The findings were alarming to the students who became concerned over what this might be doing to their lungs.

This naturally led to talking about some of the ways they might reduce their risks and how they might inform others. We then proceeded to have the students video and photograph incidences of pollution. One group of students made up a song in which they “gave advice” on what people should do and not do. In the next few weeks we will combine the photos and videos into presentations that we will post on this website.

The extent to which we achieved our goals is unclear. The students did take photos and videos and wrote and sang about air and water pollution and what we should do to reduce our risks. Certainly, more time would help, as students could gain more experience with using cameras and a deeper understanding. It would have been useful to research other sources of pollution near the school grounds so that students would have a better understanding of what all the ubiquitous of the dangers.

On the other hand, the children will long remember using stethoscopes to listen to their lungs and hearts and their growing awareness of the dangers of air and water pollution.

However, our experience brought up two larger issues: First, how can we improve people’s access to clean water and less polluting forms of energy in developing countries like Uganda? Second, how might we introduce our more hands-on, Deweyan teaching methods to other schools beyond the one where we worked? In the next blog I will describe our visit to the Millennium Village Project in southwest rural Uganda.