Teach for America Left Me

Before I graduated from college I became committed to the idea that I would never write a blog post about an organization after I left it. If it was my choice, I didn’t need to make it worse by writing about it. If it wasn’t my choice, I wouldn’t want to throw the organization under the bus. But at the time I oriented myself this way, I believed this value was at the very bottom of the list of values I might have to exercise in my lifetime.

Then I was in a car crash.

A couple of months ago, I thought my life would go back to normal after I was healed. I knew, for medical reasons, I needed to stay in Ohio so I put in a request for a transfer to Teach for America’s southwest Ohio region.

The Detroit region put my transfer through, but I still haven’t heard from the southwest Ohio region.

I have been passionate about Teach for America since my junior year of college. I have defended it and supported it a countless number of times. What this experience has taught me is that I think I was at first passionate about TFA because I have always and will always be passionate about education. So since TFA has put a roadblock in my way, I have to go around it.

I am going to the University of Dayton to get my license and masters in secondary integrated language arts.

I wasn’t going to publish this blog post. I thought it was going to sit on my computer until the end of time, but yesterday TFA reached out to me about helping them with recruiting. The person who sent the email told me she just emailed everyone on TFA’s corps member list. I haven’t heard from TFA in three months and have no idea what I am “officially” to TFA.

All of that being said, I want it to be known that I am not leaving TFA; TFA is leaving me.

Advertisements

“You’re Irritating:” Reflections on Anger and Patience

I remember an instance freshman year of high school where a peer was asking me a question. I don’t remember the question or why it caught me in the way it did. But I distinctly remember turning around and snapping at him, my face turning red. I can remember the heat on my face and the way the anger kind of bubbled up from my stomach and seemed to wrap itself around my heart like a tiny, evil, hate-filled dragon.

High school for me was characterized by sporadic instances of these outbursts. To do this day, I’m not entirely sure where they came from. But it was almost always a result of impatience.

I can count on one hand, though, my run-ins with anger in college. I thought this was because I am mostly an easy-going person–I am someone who is easy to get along with, I thought. I am someone that can see other view points with ease, I thought. I am someone who understands others’ problems, I thought.

And then I began to teach.

What I thought was the result of a good character was actually the result of a lack of conflict. For four years, I worked hard at a place where very little was demanded of me, where (even when I was in leadership roles) I managed very few people. I lived and studied in an environment where often my biggest conflict on any given day was if I was going to ask a girl on a date that weekend. And so when people talked to me about patience and humility and optimism, I thought well yeah, I have those.

What I’m learning now is that I was wrong about basically everything I once thought about myself. I am not naturally patient. I am not naturally optimistic. I am not naturally humble.

A student complained to me today about how I’m always angry. And I have been angry a lot lately. That tiny dragon is taking up permanent roots in my chest. I can feel him breathing fire into all the other parts of my life.

And the more I reflect on that, the more I recognize it as a problem. I don’t think I would listen to someone who was always angry. In fact, I don’t. Even if a person has interests and opinions similar to mine, it’s hard for me to take something valuable from him or her if s/he is angry. For my students, I’m some strange angry man whom they barely know who is teaching a subject matter with which they are frustrated. Of course they don’t want to listen. Of course they start tuning me out. Of course.

I’ve been waiting for my students. “I would be less angry,” I tell myself, “if my students were better behaved.”

But, my students argue, they would be better behaved if I was less angry.

My students sometimes hit each other (playfully) in the halls. It’s something I don’t get. I don’t remember so much physical contact in high school. The other day, I was talking with my class with which I have the best relationship, and a girl was complaining about how someone had playfully hit her and how she should seek retribution, and I drew a diagram on the board showing how this process was necessarily infinitely cyclical. My students thought about it carefully, and considered how always wanting revenge leads to more and more of the playful hitting, which none of them seem to really appreciate (unless they are doing the hitting).

I’m glad I could share this moment with my students, but I don’t follow this in my own daily life.  I am angry far too often. And my anger leads my students to want to be frustrated with me. And their frustration leads me to want to be frustrated and so on. If their frustration and discontent was always met with love and peacefulness and patience and humility, I think they might start thinking twice of their disruptions. Why be so mean to a person who is so nice?

Some days I think I need to teach my students how to be kind. But really, they are the ones teaching me. Their hearts are big; their memories small. I can kick a student out of class and by the end of the day, that student is able to have a productive, loving conversation with me. That’s a testament to the student, not to me. My heart is too small; my memories too big. MY memories, MY experiences, MY ego: I spend so much time thinking about these things. I never really understood how Jesus says you need to die to yourself to follow Him. I am starting to understand.

What Assistant Coaching Has Taught Me About Teaching

I’ve become the Assistant Coach for my school’s Debate Team, which basically means I let the team practice in my room after school and drive them to their meets on the weekends. Every once in a while, I supplement one of their arguments with some piece of the ol’ college learning. It’s a good arrangement. I enjoy being around a group of intellectual students who enjoy discussing black feminism and highly theoretical concepts like “the view from nowhere.” And they teach me things.

Students and teachers are at their best when students have something specific that they know they want to learn.

I don’t interrupt my team’s practices or post-meet discussions often, but when I do, all six members of my team will stop whatever they are doing and listen. I don’t have to call for attention. I don’t have to lecture them about being quiet. They know that if I’m opening my mouth it’s for something important and they respect me enough to know that I actually know what I’m talking about when it comes to theory. There have been several instances where I’ve been shocked by this power. It’s so contrary to what I experience in the classroom.

As I’ve contemplated on my debaters willingness to listen, I’ve thought about what makes this relationship different than the one that I have with most of my students. I think there are three differences. First, my debaters are great kids. They are all great students, many of whom are staring down scholarship offers to go debate at the college level. Some of their ability to learn from other people is probably a natural or learned talent that has nothing to do with me.

Second, my debaters know that I have knowledge that they want. Whether that knowledge is about theory or about college applications, my input is seen as important. In my classroom, when I’m standing in front of twenty ninth graders to whom I’m trying to teach algebraic equations, that desire for my knowledge is basically nonexistent. This is a place I need to improve for sure. It’s not about making algebra fun (although fun can be important sometimes), nor about making sure every single one of my concepts has a problem with money in it (although money is a great way to make concepts relevant). It’s about getting students hooked on algebra in a way that they get hooked on sports or music or technology.  It’s about getting them to a place where they demand my knowledge about how to solve equations with variables on both sides from me, where they are anticipating my next-day’s lessons with their questions.

I’m beginning to attempt strategies for creating this effect. I’ve noticed that students are much more curious when studying material that is just above their current ability level. I’m going to start designating a day every week where students can work on whatever that one thing right above their ability level is. This is going to require an elaborate system and tight organization but as I’ve started planning it I’m positive I can pull it off.

The last half this problem is orienting the math around something more than “here are a bunch of numbers.” I’m not sure yet how I’m going to do that. I’d like to orient each week, or unit, around a specific real-world problem that that unit can solve. But this is still something that requires more research and planning. Not something that I can implement immediately.

Third, my debaters get to see me as something more than just a teacher. They get to see me as a flawed human being who often has questions of his own, but who knows more than just math. One-hour-and-a-half van rides is plenty of time to sing along to popular songs on the radio, to contribute to conversations surrounding social lives, and to discover that we have interests that overlap. To add to these experiences, they are part of rather than in contrast to my goal with them. These conversations about interests happen naturally as we discuss debate topics.

For my algebra students, they sometimes see me outside of the classroom (in the hallway, at a school-wide carnival, at football games), but they don’t necessarily connect my behaviors at those places to my persona in the classroom. My algebra students, then, see two Mr. Smith’s. The one that is trying to teach them math and the one that has fun. They are not the same. And this affects their willingness to learn from me.

Why Edu-Blogging Is Hard As a First-Year Teacher

Last year Gary Rubinstein wrote a post about how TFA bloggers seem to disappear after the summer or after the first few months of school. At the time, I said I would be that blogger–the one who told the story of what it’s like to be a TFA corps member. But now I understand why I can’t.

Teaching is not like studying abroad. It’s not some cute little thing that I’m doing that I need to share with all of my friends and family with cute little stories. My students are not supporting characters in my story. I am one in theirs.

Teaching is not like having a summer internship where you blog about what having a job is like so that all of your college friends know. No, teaching is an actual profession–one I have an immense amount of respect for, and it seems detrimental to blog about things that I will certainly get wrong, certainly misrepresent.

I am a critical person who loves to work in nuance. But I’ve found that people often think that being supportive and being critical are opposite actions. They are not. Sometimes I support people by being critical. I know very few people who are publicly critical of the people they work for. None of us work for perfect employers. But, part of being a professional, I think, is being critical privately when you can. (There are notable exceptions to this, of course. I’m not advocating against public demonstrations like striking and rallies, but I think you must attempt solving things with meetings before strikes and rallies.) I’ve made my bed with TFA. And now I must lay in it. And help to remake it if it’s not what I think it could be.

I think there is a magnificent pressure from the ed reform critic community placed on TFA corps members, many of whom are liberal, union-loving, critical-theory-reading young people, to blog critically about TFA so as to keep their liberal, union-loving, critical-theory-reading titles. I know I’ve felt this pressure. But as far as I know, there are no pressures on investment bankers to blog about their moral considerations in their jobs; there are no pressures for lawyers to blog about how their work has a much broader impact on society; there are no pressures for doctors to blog about how, if given adequate funding, they could save more lives (or, save one specific life).

I am learning how to be a professional now. I’m no longer some kid with a blog. There’s a steep learning curve here that I’m trying to understand. All of the stuff I’ve spent the past two years reading and learning about is now real. It’s like a corn maze. From up above, it all makes sense. From down below, it’s hard to know where you are going. And that’s not even a cry for help. I’ve already found some amazing mentors both in TFA and at my school. But it’s just to say that the professional world is not a term paper. There aren’t easy heroes and villains, or easy successes and failures, in my actual life.

One day, when I know more, when I have actual things to say again, I will take up my platform again, becoming a professional with a blog (like Gary Rubinstein himself is!). But until then, I’ll stick to teacher resource sharing sites and writing about things unrelated to my time in the classroom. Because what I need now is not ed reform critics to critique all of my lesson plans but classroom teachers who I know and trust who can help me develop my style as a professional educator.

What the Education Reform Movement Can Learn from the Student Power Movement

Last week, some Twitter and real life friends of mine converged on Madison, Wisconsin for Student Power 2013. Because I’ve been really encouraged by the healthy debates and conversations I’ve had with these amazing men and women, I asked one of them, Hannah Nguyen, to write about what the reform movement stands to learn from the Student Power Movement. Hannah is a student at USC, and a building member of the Los Angeles chapter of Students United for Public Education. She writes her own blog over at inspirEDucation. I’m so thankful for her insight and her words and her ability to look past differences in order to agitate for better educations for our students. I hope you learn as much from her as I did.

What the Education Reform Movement can learn from the Student Power Movement

I’ll be honest. When I was asked by Spencer to write about what the education reform movement could learn from those at the National Student Power Convergence, I was taken aback. The education reform movement is willing to learn from students? After not even listening to teachers? I know I sound skeptical. But I am weary of reform and disappointed in the harm I have seen it done to many communities across this country. I truly feel as my friend Jacob Chaffin so aptly puts it, that the education reform movement is “a reactionary ploy of neoliberals everywhere to use the public to dismantle public goods.”

After my own experiences in education, after all I’ve learned about education reform and the other side, and my recent experiences at the National Student Power Convergence, I think I have every right to be skeptical. But instead, I will choose to be hopeful. I hope that education reformers will take a step back and listen to what I and my fellow organizers of the Student Power Movement have to say.

On August 1, 2013, over 400 students and youth organizers fighting for all kinds of causes came together for the National Student Power Convergence in the Madison, Wisconsin. I was personally invited by my good friend and mentor, Stephanie Rivera, to attend and represent Students United for Public Education (SUPE)’s Los Angeles chapter, which I will begin to build this year. SUPE is a national coalition of high school and college students dedicated to fighting for educational justice and defending the ideal of a democratic, accessible, and high quality public education. As a former member of SFER (Students For Education Reform), I joined SUPE because their core values align with mine, and I can no longer support education reform, or even stand by as I witness the destruction I feel it is not only causing to schools but also communities.

On the first day of the convergence, at the end of Stephanie’s keynote speech, I felt the Student Power Movement for the first time as the entire room stood up and chanted, “WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE! ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE!” After the convergence, I realized that the most important word of that chant is “we.” Here’s why:

Intersectionality.

Before, it was simply a vocab word from my Sociology book, but at the convergence, I learned that this is the glue that holds the Student Power Movement together. This is what creates the “we” in Stephanie’s chant. I came to the NSPC bringing my own stories and passion for social justice, as did everyone else. At the convergence, we all took the time to listen and learn from other people’s stories. I saw people slam poems about oppression that ended in tears or screams for help. I heard the stories of high school students in Wisconsin, who came together to draft a Student Bill of Rights to resist corporate education reform, privatization, and high stakes testing. I heard about how their voices were swept to the side or silenced, and I saw a fire in their eyes as they vowed not to give up. I heard the same anger in the voices and the same fire in the eyes of everyone else, as they shared their story of how they have been fighting to overcome systems of oppression.

After listening and learning from one another, we realized that all our individual movements and passions intersected. Whether we are college students dealing with debt, undocumented students hiding in the shadows, queer students being attacked for who we love, students going to bed at night hungry, or students of color being unjustly profiled, we are all oppressed by the same forces: corporate powers who make money off the backs of others, politicians and officials who make decisions without consulting those affected, and neoliberals who manipulate the public to dismantle unions and stay in power. No matter what fight we are fighting, no matter what part of the country we come from, no matter if we completely agree with each other or not, we are all united in solidarity by the oppression we feel and justice we seek. We are all united by the collective power we have in taking down our oppressors. Together, we are the Student Power Movement.

What I think the education reform movement can learn from Student Power is simple, although I have yet to see it done. I ask that education reformers realize the intersections between their movement and ours. And I ask that you do this by doing what the Student Power Movement has done.

Listen and learn.

These two things were at the core of the National Student Power Convergence, and I believe they are two things that are absolutely essential for any movement to truly fight for justice and an end to oppression and dehumanization. You can honor the humanity of those you aim to serve by listening and learning from them.

Listen to students and celebrate their student power by giving students a voice. Learn from those who experience the education system each and every day. Learn to open your eyes to the complexity of education, maybe even step into schools and experience them for yourself.

Listen to the first-hand experiences of those who are affected by your reforms. Look closely at the consequences of market-based reform, especially at the failures that are often hard to accept. Look closely at the systems of oppression and inequality that exist beyond the walls of a school. Look at the severe effects of those systems on students and look at who is working to keep those systems in place.

Listen, with open ears and open hearts, to the beliefs of those that disagree with you. Try your best to understand where their beliefs stem from. There is a reason they fight for what they believe in. Respect that and listen. Understand that silencing their voices is oppression because that’s how intersectionality works. When you oppress those who fight for educational justice, you are also oppressing their brothers and sisters in the Student Power Movement and in any other movement for social justice.

I have heard one too many stories of oppressed people being ignored by those who make decisions for their community. If you ever want your reforms to work, you need to listen to the people whose communities and schools you are reforming. You need to try to understand their needs and experiences. Be willing to collaborate. Try to look at these issues as less of a “corporations vs. teachers’ unions” battle and more of an educational justice issue. We are not here to take sides. We are here, we are angry, and we just want justice for all students. Hear us now!

Once you do so, I hope you will begin to abandon top-down tactics and neoliberal agendas that reinforce the systems of oppression that have historically and systematically marginalized those you want to help. I hope you will realize that this is the first of many steps education reform must take to truly bring educational justice and equity to communities across America. Once you refuse to fuel the oppression, I hope you will begin to work with us as we fight together for educational justice and equity.

“WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE! ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE!”

“The soft bigotry of low expectations” Race, Class, and Education in Daily Roundup Monday 8/5/2013

Today’s roundup features some material featuring really great intersections of race, class, and education.

First up, Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame pens an amazing article about generational differences that have affected class and our approach to education:

The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.” Everyone in my parents’ generation thought of J as one of “our kids,” but surprisingly few adults in Port Clinton today are even aware of R’s existence, and even fewer would likely think of her as “our kid.” Until we treat the millions of R’s across America as our own kids, we will pay a major economic price, and talk of the American dream will increasingly seem cynical historical fiction.

Janelle Scott, writing over at The Answer Sheet, takes on a more specific topic and considers how the education reform movement has misunderstood the Civil Rights Movement:

Other adherents—philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits— have echoed Duncan’s association of Rosa Parks and the broader Civil Rights Movement with market-based school choice. In so doing, they have reduced the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to a single act by one brave woman.  In fact, that pivotal event was the work of thousands of African Americans and their supporters who struggled for nearly thirteen months to desegregate public transportation in Alabama’s capital after Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white customer.  In addition, Parks and many of her fellow activists engaged in intensive preparation at the Highlander Center to be ready to risk their lives in acts of civil disobedience. Moreover, the concerns of these civil rights activists extended far beyond transportation; they were fighting to end America’s version of apartheid and achieve the full rights of citizenship.  As the movement grew, it also advocated the end of poverty and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

For a more poignant and on-the-ground look at how race and class affect education, the New York Times ran two stories by college freshmen at Yale and Harvard who are both from Jackson, Mississippi. Justin Porter, at Harvard, writes:

Earlier this year, I read an article about the failure of elite colleges to attract poor students: a Stanford study had found that only 34 percent of top students in the lowest income level had attended one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges.

I do not believe that increasing financial aid packages and creating glossy brochures alone will reverse this trend. The true forces that are keeping us away from elite colleges are cultural: the fear of entering an alien environment, the guilt of leaving loved ones alone to deal with increasing economic pressure, the impulse to work to support oneself and one’s family. I found myself distracted even while doing problem sets, questioning my role at this weird place. I began to think, “Who am I, anyway, to think I belong at Harvard, the alma mater of the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Romneys? Maybe I should have stayed in Mississippi where I belonged.”

His friend, Travis Reginal, at Yale adds:

For low-income African-American youth, the issue is rooted in low expectations. There appear to be two extremes: just getting by or being the rare gifted student. Most don’t know what success looks like. Being at Yale has raised my awareness of the soft bigotry of elementary and high school teachers and administrators who expect no progress in their students. At Yale, the quality of your work must increase over the course of the term or your grade will decrease. It propelled me to work harder.

And to top the day off, I encourage you to watch this amazing video from Ta-Nehisi Coates. In it, he discusses the historical realities that have made things like the George Zimmerman verdict possible. It’s worth 40 minutes.

Daily Roundup Sunday 8/4/2013

In a recent speech about the economy, Obama talked quite a bit about higher education, citing the controversial Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as a legitimate way to bring down the costs of college and reduce the number of years it takes to get a meaningful degree. This has prompted some to start talking about the political viability of federal policies supporting MOOCs.

Jonathan Rees, a professor at Colorado State University, is already rallying the troops against MOOCs. Jonathan Chait, over at New York Magazine, though, says opposition to MOOCs upholds and strengthens class divisions:

College professors are good people, and nobody wants to hurt them. At the same time, designing a higher education system around maintaining living standards for college professors is an insane idea. The goal of the system ought to be making higher education effective and affordable for students. Rees waxes poetic about the joys of in-person liberal education, and I greatly enjoyed my classic college experience, with the gorgeous campus green and intramural basketball and watching campus protestors say interestingly crazy stuff at rallies. But insisting that’s the only way a student ought to be able to get a degree, in an economy where a college degree is necessary for a middle-class life, is to doom the children of non-affluent families to crushing college debt, or to lock them out of upward mobility altogether.

Speaking of politics, there’s been a lot of talk this week about the political future of the ed reform movement, speculating fallout from Tony Bennett’s resignation and possible investigations. Anthony Cody thinks it means the end of the reform movement. Although, that’s probably making mountains out of molehills. To his credit, though, even conservative voices are starting to criticize the reform movement.

And if the political is too ideological for you, here are some practical resources:

This Google Doc with all of the #edchat times listed for Twitter.

And this interactive online map that shows demolition sites in Detroit.