On the beating of a former student of mine by the NYPD…

If you’re in New York, you’ve undoubtedly heard by now about two cases of police brutality in the Bronx in the past couple weeks.  In one incident, an 18 year old was shot while unarmed in his home.  The other, is captured in the video below:

The young man that was savagely beaten by four Bronx cops was a student of mine for three years, and my advisee last year.  The student who was killed also attended my old school, but I did not know him.

I’ve been trying to come up with something thoughtful or intelligent to say about this for a week now, and I just have nothing coherent to offer, probably because I’m of many minds here.  The remaining parts of this writing are somewhat disconnected: Continue reading On the beating of a former student of mine by the NYPD…


What the Common Core Means for History Learning & Teaching

I’m part of a roundtable on teachinghistory.org on the question, “What do the Common Core State Standards mean for history teaching and learning?”  My take:

I am pretty sure I am supposed to be against the Common Core Standards…[but they] offer us an opportunity to broaden the conception of our discipline from one that focuses on helping students acquire an established body of knowledge to one that emphasizes the historical thinking skills that are central to constructing this knowledge. What the standards do in a simple and elegant fashion is clearly articulate the disciplinary skills necessary not only for reaching the relatively low bar of “college and career readiness,” but also for the much greater calling of creating an informed and critical citizenry.

Read the rest of mine here, and the whole series of insightful posts here.

3 Ways to Honor Martin Luther King, Jr.

Have Your Students Participate in the Manning Marable “Along the Color Line” Speech Contest
While there is more to the contest than just writing about King, one of the suggested lessons focuses on King’s legacy, and Dr. Marable’s view of it.  The King lesson is here, and full contest information and suggested lesson plans are here.

Remember King’s Reality
Last Martin Luther King Day, I wrote about four lessons students, and their teachers, can learn about Dr. King that challenge common misconceptions about his life and work:

  • Sometimes, history happens by accident
  • King dreamed of a whole lot more than white and black boys and girls joining hands
  • King fought against terrorists
  • King was a human being, with flaws
Learn about the People Who Made King’s Work Possible, and Lessons we Can Learn From Them
My most recent article on Education Week Teacher tells the story of the Septima Clark and Bernice Robinson, whose work became the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement.

Teaching World-Changers: Lessons From the Civil Rights Movement

Seven years ago I fell in love with two wonderful woman named Bernice Robinson and Septima Clark, who founded the Citizenship Education Program, the little known backbone of the Civil Rights Movement.  Without these two, I am certain we would not be celebrating Martin Luther King Day this Monday.  We in education have much to learn from them:

The primary goal of the Citizenship Education Program was to teach and develop first-class citizens. And every aspect of the program was grounded in this goal—from teacher training sessions to day-to-day practices to the rhetoric of staff correspondence. Dozens of adult literacy programs had targeted African-Americans in the South—but none were as successful as the CEP, because too many narrowly focused on the skill of literacy, rather than its application in citizenship.

In my opinion, we have made a similar mistake with skill-based competency testing under No Child Left Behind. A curriculum and testing regimen that only focuses on skill development outside of meaningful and relevant application cannot prepare students and communities for 21st-century success. I hope that with the implementation of the Common Core standards, we will not make the same mistake again. As teachers, we need to develop a clear sense of our own purpose—and make every effort to ensure that how we teach each day aligns with that purpose.

Read the rest at Education Week Teacher. It’s an honor to share part of their story.

Three Things I Used to Think About School Reform

Two months ago, Nancy Flanagan wrote a great piece about changing her mind when it comes to school reform, which inspired me to do the same at the New York Time’s SchoolBook:

I used to think that if I didn’t know the solution to the problem, I could figure one out. I now think some problems are so complex that there can never be a silver bullet.

I used to think we needed to create model schools that could then be replicated. I now think that it is so hard to sustain a model that each school needs to be invested in its own unique vision.

I used to think our goal should be to create systems of great schools. I now think great schools are so hard to create and maintain that our goal should be to create good and sustainable ones.

Read the rest here.

World History for All of Us

Last year, I found myself teaching a Global History course for the fourth time in my career.  Like many history teachers in the US, most of my historical training had focused on American history, and it was my passion for it that led me to become a Social Studies teacher in the first place.  The first time in my life that I was in a classroom learning about Ancient Greece and Rome was when I was teaching it as a student teacher, in East Greenwich, RI. There, the course was still “Western Civilization”. I later taught “World History 1” in Virginia (Beginning of Time -> Renaissance), and “Global History 3/4” in New York (Renaissance -> Now).  What was evident to me in all courses was that a dominant narrative of the progress of western civilization was the backbone of the course: River Valley -> Ancient Greece & Rome -> Middle/Dark Ages -> Renaissance/Exploration/Scientific Revolution -> Enlightenment/Atlantic Revolutions -> Modernity.  The Rhode Island curriculum basically took that as the story, while Virginia and New York used that to organize chronological periods, then adding in units about other portions of the world, often leading to illogical breaks in the stories of other regions, particularly China.  I realized there was something problematic about this conception of World History, but did not have the vocabulary or knowledge to articulate anything more than “this seems Eurocentric.”

Thanks to a recommendation in the October issue of Social Education, however, I now have that language.  Ross Dunn’s article, “The Two World Histories” is the most important piece I’ve read about teaching World History, and needs to be required reading for anyone who teaches the subject.  It clearly articulates two camps on World History:

  • World History A: This is the home of most current scholarship on World History, where the focus is on major trends, patterns, and changes on a global scale.
  • World History B: This is the home of both conservative Wester Civilization preservationists and those, like my least-thoughtful self, who want to see more attention paid to all cultures, particularly those that are the heritage of the students I teach.  This is history as the history of civilizations, cultures, nations.

Nearly all political argument around history, and therefore the development of all state standards, occurs in domain B.  The New York Global curriculum and its Regents exam are no exception.  Of the 85 terms that are assessed most frequently in the Multiple Choice portion of the exam, 75 represent people, places, periods, achievements, or events that take place within specific regional or national histories.

Dunn argues that what is needed instead is:

to study the history of humankind writ large, recognizing that the Earth is a “place” whose inhabitants have a shared history. To be sure, important developments have taken place within the confines of continents, regions, societies, and nations, but those ver-changing human aggregates remains parts of the globe in all its roundness.

He recommends the AP World History and World History For Us All curriculums as good models of World History A, as well as the National Standards for History.  It’s also clear though, for those like myself without a strong background in World History, that further reading and professional development is needed.  Though I didn’t fully realize until now why I found it so insightful, I would recommend World History Connected as a good place to start reading.

I hope you will take the time to read the article in its entirety and let me know what you think about it in the comments.

Killing Students' Creativity. And Teachers?

This was chilling to read:

One of the most consistent findings in educational studies of creativity has been that teachers dislike personality traits associated with creativity.

This comes from from Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom?, a review paper on the research. As much as I wish I could say this doesn’t apply to me, I know that sometimes it does.  On my best days, my favorite students are those who subvert my assignments, challenge me and others, and do so with sass and attitude.  But on my worst days, I just want those students to shut up so I can move forward with what I have planned.  This realization is something that will stick with me for a long time.

The entirety of the paper is worth reading, as is the post on the Marginal Revolution blog that led me to it.  This line particularly resonated with me:

Torrance (1963) described creative people as not having the time to be courteous, as refusing to take no for an answer, and as being negativistic and critical of others.

I wonder to what extent the findings of this review apply not only to students, but to creative educators as well.  Are you a creative educator who has been accused of any of the above?  I would love to hear from others on this.

Occupying the History Classroom

This is a history-centric follow up to my post asking Who Should Occupy the Classroom?  

The Rethinking Schools blog has an interesting post called “Occupy the Curriculum” up, by Bill Bigelow.  There, they celebrate responses to the Zinn Education Group’s Facebook page question: what are you teaching now:

Chris Conkling is teaching about “Forced removal of Native Americans/Andrew Jackson.”

Ariela Rothstein is teaching about the “Haitian revolution and the effects of colonialism on the Caribbean.”

Samantha Manchac is teaching about “the early women’s movement” from Chapter 6, “The Intimately Oppressed,” in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Bigelow celebrates teachers’

defiant We’ll decide what our students need to learn, not some distant corporation” needs to happen in schools across the country

While I think the re-evaluation of what is taught in history classrooms to include erased and marginalized history is important and necessary, I think those of us who approach things from non-tradiational perspectives miss the point when we ask “what should be taught,” rather than “how should it be taught?”  If we teach our students different information in traditional methods, it’s not radical nor transformative; we’re just stuffing a different ideology down students’ throats, and we’re no better than teachers who consider the textbook the curriculum.

Rather, we need classrooms that develop democratic citizens capable of of original, critical thought.  I don’t care too much if my students read Zinn.  I do care that students in my class could become the next Zinn (or Burke, for that matter).

Radical educators need to ask their selves, “am I a teacher who happens to be radical?”  or, “am I a radical educator?”  It’s the latter group, who equip students to make their own independent and potentially radical decisions, that give me faith for the future of the world. The former group, who think they’re radical because of what they teach, are just reifying existing power structures.

"If I Don't Grade My Students' Regents, Who Will" at the New York Times

I submitted a piece to the New York Times SchoolBook section that was submitted today on Regents Grading:

The New York State Board of Regents recently decided to change grading regulations to ban teachers from scoring their own students’ state exams. They said it was to prevent cheating.

To any outsider, this seems like a simple decision. However, like too many educational decisions, it is actually a reactionary decision to a relatively small problem that will hurt a large number of students.

Read the rest here, and please join in the conversation in the comment.

Who should #occupytheclassroom?

I think we, the teachers, have to bare some blame for setting the conditions that led to the Occupy movement.  Too many of us (and as radical as I try to be in the classroom, I fall far short of where I need to be) are the gatekeepers of knowledge, the sole determiners of success and failure, and hold monopolies on the administration of justice.  In our classrooms, far too many of us are the 1%.

Let me start with a confession: I find most protests dumb.  I’ve been to a few in my time.  I believe I was at the first protest against George W. Bush’s election in 2000 in the country (and ended up getting my first byline for that one).  I marched with millions at the 2004 Republican Convention.  I’ve been to more UFT marches than I could list.  At every one, I’ve felt stupid.  There’s lots of people shouting, but no one listening.  The good protests got a story in the paper the next day, and were then forgotten.

I find most protests stupid in part because there is no risk involved.  Marches in the Civil Rights Movement and against the Vietnam War, which until September 17 have provided the dominant template for most American protests to follow, were acts of civil disobedience where people were beaten, arrested, and killed.  The courage of those marchers changed people’s minds.  When I march with the UFT, along a barriered corridor provided by the NYPD after the protest as been given an official permit, it does no such thing.

What started on September 17 at Liberty Plaza though, provides a new template.  I was slow to notice this.  I made my first visit to the Occupy Wall Street protest on September 30 just to see what was going on.  I expected to make a lot of snarky remarks to my partner, and then leave.  But there was something going on there.  I’ve been back three times since: once to take my in-laws from North Carolina to the #NoComment art show, another to hear Slavoj Zizek speak, and third to be part of a teach-in put on by my friends at the NJ Teacher Action Group.  Last night I Occupied Times Square.  It was the first time I ever felt like my presence at a protest meant something.

I think there are a lot of brilliant things about Occupy Wall Street, but two are more important than any other.  First, this occupation, and the others like it around the world, provide a space with a range of way for people to participate.  Do you want to make signs and chant?  Go for it.  Do you want to take a corner and hold a grade-in?  Great.  You can move in, or just stop by.  It allows people to enter as participants in a variety of ways, or to stop by and converse as interested observers.  But there is no way to participate from the sidelines, which brings me to the second point: the only way to support the movement is to enter into a conversation or physically do something.  You have no choice but to engage, just as the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement forced people on the sidelines to take a moral stance.  And anyone is welcome to engage, through the direct democracy of the movement, and as a member of the human mic.  Even if you can’t make it there, you can engage online or through their live stream.  The folks down at Liberty Plaza are providing a new template that is oddly old fashioned: they have brought a little bit of Athens to the 21st century.

Yes, there is not a clear message or a list of demands.  That is part of the point.  There is no right answer here; only just processes.  The occupiers have not given a 140 character or 10 second sound-byte that can be easily dismissed or disagreed with.  They are demanding to be part of the conversation, and they are demanding that people engage with them in conversations.

I think this thing has legs, and can be applied to a range of situations.  So I was quite excited when my dear comrade, and fellow teach-in participant, Jose Vilson coined the #occupytheclassroom tag.  Last week, Jose wrote:

Before teacher-bashers filled the coffers of national education committees, people stood boldly in the classroom and decided upon pedagogy for all. With the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, some reformers have found a way to inject themselves into the pedagogical side of teaching. They’ve made a lasting impact on policy via No Child Left Behind / Race To The Top and these pieces have cemented a corporatist view upon all educators’ jobs. All the while, by recent research, nine out of 10 teachers across the nation have been rated satisfactory. Akin to the #OccupyWallStreet movement, this movement makes us the 90%, doesn’t it?

Now it’s time to take things back.

I had high hopes at this point, but I have to admit some disappointment at Jose’s list.  Four of his five ideas involved teachers putting themselves out there in various ways.  The fifth was taking care of business in the classroom, though without any vision for what that looks like.

I like Jose’s second stab at defining Occupying the Classroom on GOOD a little more, but it’s still about occupying the system.  Which we need to do.  But to occupy the classroom needs to be something different.

Occupying is about Direct Democracy.  It’s about recognizing power inequalities.

It’s an affront to models where 1% have exponentially more say than 99%.  If it’s anything, it’s an attack on the teacher-centered classroom.  The original call for occupation notes this:

We call for workers to not only strike, but seize their workplaces collectively, and to organize them democratically. We call for students and teachers to act together, to teach democracy, not merely the teachers to the students, but the students to the teachers. To seize the classrooms and free minds together.

Jose is not wrong though; only teachers are not the ones who should be occupying classrooms.  Teachers should be occupying the education system.  We should be occupying Tweed Courthouse and other Boards of Education.  We should be occupying the test producers and textbook publishers.  We should be occupying Arne Duncan’s front yard and office.

But at the same time, perhaps our students should be occupying our classrooms?

I think we, the teachers, have to bare some blame for setting the conditions that led to the Occupy movement.  Too many of us (and as radical as I try to be in the classroom, I fall far short of where I need to be) are the gatekeepers of knowledge, the sole determiners of success and failure, and hold monopolies on the administration of justice.  In our classrooms, far too many of us are the 1%.

Classrooms do need to be occupied, not just to ensure teachers can do their jobs well, but to create the conditions for real democracy.  That will involve giving up some of the power we as teachers have, just as the 99% want an appropriate share of the power that the1% holds in this country.  This involves some real risk on our part, but opens up a world of possibilities.  One of my favorite educational theorists, Henry Giroux, recently said in an interview:

[D]emocracy doesn’t work without the formative culture that makes possible the skills, the knowledge, the ideas, the modes of dialogue, the modes of exchange, that can actually provide the foundation for people to be critical and engaged social and individual agents. If you don’t have that formative culture, democracy becomes empty. What you end up with is actually a culture that is so wedded, in this particular case, to a neoliberal logic, that people can only see themselves as individuals, they can only see themselves as competitive, they hate the social state, they have no understanding of solidarity; and what I have been arguing for at least 35 years is that you have to take seriously that education is a fundamental part of politics, and that we’re not just talking about schools…

It seems to me that until this question of pedagogy – of the articulation of knowledge through experience and how people relate to the world – until education is seen as a fundamental dimension of politics, we’re in real trouble, because if you don’t do that you can’t understand social media as a profoundly important political educational tool. If you don’t do that, you can’t understand how people come to internalise understandings of themselves that are at odds with their own possibilities for freedom. 

So here then, is an invitation to conversation.  What is a democratic classroom?  I have some ideas that I will elaborate on eventually (and are implied in much of what I have written here earlier), but the thing about this occupying movement is that it’s not about individuals on soapboxes.  It’s about creating communities where we have hard and complex conversations with ourselves.  It’s about a revolution that not only won’t be televised, but that also can’t be captured in a 140 character tweet.

I will offer this: we could learn a lot from how the occupation requires one to become an active participant in something that does not have a clear center or leader.  And if we don’t, our students might start demanding it from us.