New York

No Tolerance for Zero-Tolerance: Developing Restorative Alternatives

Usually a multi-piece series of articles should be published close together, but I have definitely made people wait — in anticipation, I’m sure — for the next part of my series about what I stand for as an educator. I apologize for the five-week delay, and though I know excuses are overrated, I have at least been working on some pretty interesting things. A small collective of organizers kicked off the New Teacher Underground series that I wrote about a few months back when the idea was still a newborn. Also, as Hilary Lustick wrote last week on GothamSchools, the Grassroots Education Movement held an initial meeting to plan the creation of a campaign against high-stakes testing, which we are hoping to launch in the fall. We were also preparing for the Save Our Schools March on Washington and national conference, which I attended last weekend. And I have been attending a weekly reading group sponsored by Teachers Unite about restorative justice, a theory of community-building that encourages all communities to take a restorative, rather than punitive, approach to how we respond to harm. Within a school setting, restorative justice frameworks start by helping students and teachers develop a stronger sense of community so that discipline concerns become less common to begin with, but it also provide transformative alternatives to traditional punishments like suspension and detention that do little to help students think through how their actions affect the larger community. The restorative justice work is something I am particularly excited about, in part because I know it is something I can bring directly into my school. In fact, the Bushwick Campus where I teach has begun a building-wide, teacher-initiated push to integrate more restorative discipline practices into each of the four school environments in the building. The hope is that we can build stronger school cultures, take a more preventive approach to discipline, and reduce the use of suspensions, which cause students to feel isolated from school and have been demonstrated to exacerbate behavioral issues, not improve them. It will be a lot of work to start building these practices, and certainly suspensions cost less in money and effort. But I have come to believe that developing restorative approaches to community-building and disciplinary policies in our schools is one of the only ways we can create school environments that are nurturing places in which to grow and learn. In fact, the use of restorative justice practices in schools is a prime example of the third “real reform” that I initially outlined: Department of Education policies that promote a socially just approach to schooling, education, and discipline.
New York

What Schools Could Be

In my column last week I wrote about how frustrating it is that so much of my education advocacy work focuses on trying to fight off many of the disastrous changes being imposed upon schools in New York City. While I believe passionately that reforms like accountability in the form of high-stakes tests and the conversion of public school space into privately managed charters (www.waitingforsupermantruth.org) will do great harm to our public school system, in no way do I feel that schools in New York should be left as is. Like most educators I know that our schools could be incredible places of learning, but I also know that it would take a genuine commitment to real reforms to make that happen. Last week I gave a list of my top four reforms that I feel could truly transform our public schools. Each one connects deeply to my own experiences as an educator in a system where one’s desire to have a positive effect is sometimes frustrated by factors outside of one’s own control. Below is an explanation of the first two, which may seem obvious but are in no way a current reality for most New York City schools. I'll follow up with the second two next week. School environments that are deeply engaging and invigorating places in which to spend time. This probably seems like an obvious one, but if you are a teacher or student in the New York City public schools, odds are pretty good you understand why this is a critical goal that most schools are not close to meeting. There are quite a few ways this could come into place. Right now the only afterschool programs offered in my school are sports (which very few students take advantage of), and Regents exam tutoring. Students have complained about the fact that there is nothing going on in the afternoon, but there is little funding for after school programs and no incentive for the administration to pay for it. I can only imagine the type of activities that could be happening every day if there were funding that was specifically tied to extracurricular programs. There should also be more interesting programs going on during the school day, or planned throughout the year.
New York

What I’m Advocating For

A few days ago during eighth period in a 90-degree classroom a student cheerily said to me, “You like your job, don’t you?” I asked her what made her think that and she said that it was because I never seem grumpy, and because I always seem happy to be in class with my students talking about math. It’s true that the students are my favorite part of the job. I have strong negative feelings about the system in which I work, particularly the fast and furious experiments that are being done within it, but after three years I am not even close to sick of the kids. On my most recent and far-too-distant post about the premiere of “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman,” the documentary film by the Grassroots Education Movement, one commenter said he knows what I’m fighting against, but asked what I am advocating for. The problem is that there is so much rapid change going on in education right now that if one doesn’t see privatization and union busting as the answer to our education woes, one has no choice but to join the fight. All of the energy that activist groups put into this defensive stance could without question be going instead into some amazing transformations, but at the moment that is not the case. The answer to the commenter’s question, of course, is that I am advocating for my students. They are the only reason I teach or became involved in activism and my commitment to them informs the decisions that I make about the advocacy work I choose to do. When I write of standing against the excessive use of standardized tests, it is because I have seen its effect on what my students are being taught, on their engagement, and on their concept of learning and knowledge. When I write that the union is not doing enough, it is because I know they could be an incredible force for social justice in our schools and our communities. But if my time were not being spent trying to divert the freight train of corporate reform, what kind of real reforms would I be pushing for? Here are my top four:
New York

In The Face Of Adversity, An Evening Of Celebration

What can a small group of committed individuals do to affect change in a very large and complicated system like the public schools? This is a question that activists ask ourselves regularly as we come together to try to address various issues in education, and the ideas that come out of these meetings have varying levels of impact. Unfortunately, most of these groups have little to no funding and are limited in numbers, which means that the plethora of good ideas far exceed what we are capable of pulling together. This is especially frustrating when we are also trying to do the educating, organizing, and mobilizing that our well-funded union, the United Federation of Teachers, should be doing. Of course, each idea is different and is intended to address different goals. Fight Back Fridays, for example, are intended to mobilize school communities to fight the attacks on public education and take back the dialogue surrounding “reform.” Members of a NYCORE action group are hoping that a summer speaker series will help to interrupt the inculcation that comes with alternative certification teacher training and expose our newest teachers to some important historical knowledge they may be lacking. The members of the Grassroots Education Movement have been working to support schools fighting charter co-location, which has included organizing for and turning out to myriad public meetings. But on a larger scale, how can we possibly compare to the well-financed corporate reformers whose preferred policies have dominated the national agenda in recent years? The documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,'" for example, which pushes privately managed charter schools as the silver-bullet answer to education’s problems and teachers unions as the enemy, was underwritten by individuals and foundations whose net worth is in the billions of dollars. The movie received an astounding amount of hype. As educators and parents organizing a grassroots campaign to fight these privatization tactics, it sometimes feels like we have little to no chance to counter the message these corporate reformers are pushing. But it’s amazing what a group of committed educators and parents can do with almost no resources, a good idea, and a video camera. The Grassroots Education Movement has created a response to "Waiting for 'Superman,'" that challenges some of the most blatant lies and over-simplications the movie presents. In "The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman," parents share horror stories of “winning a lottery” but being told that the charter school that their child won access to would not be able to accommodate their special education needs. The movie is full of facts and statistics that are paired with parent and teacher anecdotes, and together the two create a powerful framework for better understanding the realities of privatization here in New York City and nationally.
New York

On May 12, Something Different?

As someone who is relatively new to the education activist community, I find myself in the position of “optimistic young one” rather often. I was optimistic about my first few Panel for Educational Policy meetings, and though I now see them as the sham that they are I still joined the Grassroots Education Movement at the most recent PEP meeting with over a hundred printed signs to share. I still expect President Obama (and perhaps even Bill Gates) to have a change of heart about charter schools, merit pay, and standardized testing, once they more fully understand how these policies are negatively affecting schools. And I still get excited about connecting and talking with people at rallies such as the May Day action this past Sunday, where a group of a few thousand in support of immigrant and worker rights felt like a huge turnout that could not possibly be ignored. So I recognized the raised eyebrows I received from fellow teacher-activist Sam Coleman recently when I said, “There could be 50,000 people at this thing.” We were attending an organizing meeting for the Strong Economy for All action that has been initiated by unions across the city and will occur May 12. The flier for the event reads, “TELL BLOOMBERG NO CUTS: MAKE BIG BANKS AND MILLIONAIRES PAY THEIR FAIR SHARE.” To my credit, the reason I was so optimistic is because the action sounds truly exciting and unique. If the organizers can pull it off it will be unlike any rally I have ever attended. On May 12, citizens of New York will assemble at seven different locations in lower Manhattan, each with its own theme: housing, jobs, peace, immigration, transportation/energy, human services and, of course, education. From our rally points we will all march together and coalesce on Wall Street just as business people are getting out of work. So far it sounds just like many other rallies, except here is where things get interesting. Throughout the Wall Street area several hundred people will be holding teach-ins on various topics related to creating a strong and fair economy for all.
New York

Retaining Our Collective Memory

What knowledge and skills do we want brand-new teachers in New York City to have before they enter a classroom? Besides the obvious — how to plan engaging lessons, how to support students with learning, and how to manage a classroom — what else is critical for the first-time teacher to know? What kind of conversations should an individual have engaged in before New York State grants that person the right to be the lone adult in a classroom full of impressionable minds? These are some of the questions that a small group of individuals and I have been grappling with during member meetings of the New York Collective of Radical Educators. On the first Friday of every month we sit together to strengthen our analysis of these issues devise strategies to address them. One of the very first actions that came out of this working group was the creation of an open letter from newer teachers in support of seniority rights. We feel that so-called “great new teachers” are being used as an argument to end the seniority rule for layoffs, even though we as newer teachers recognize the rule’s critical importance to keeping the most experienced teachers in our schools and protecting them from discriminatory dismissal as their compensation increases. I have had many conversations with newer teachers who initially expressed support for Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to end seniority-based layoffs, but then changed their tune as they heard more about the history of the struggle to win and maintain seniority-based layoffs and why its change would negatively affect our students and the cultures of our schools. Our arguments as newer teachers against “merit-based” layoffs are more fully outlined in our letter. Over the last 10 years under mayoral control, New York City’s teaching force has become significantly less experienced. This change can be attributed, at least in part, to the DOE’s heavy reliance on programs like New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America to do teacher recruitment, which require only a two-year commitment from teachers they hire. Recruits to these programs are required to undergo almost no training or coursework in education before beginning teaching. Not only are they less prepared in basic teaching practices, they also have even less knowledge of education history than traditionally certified teacher who take courses in which they study historical movements within education. There are many important critiques of these alternative-certification programs that are worth developing further, but as I have a tendency to write rather long posts I am going to try to save my thoughts on these critiques for a future piece. Instead I want to reflect on something I have been thinking about a lot lately: As the teaching force becomes less experienced, we are losing our collective memory.
New York

Same New Boss

I was teaching my precalculus class when the news broke that Cathie Black was no longer our chancellor. Precalculus is one of the very few classes I have taught in my three years that is not tied to a Regents exam, and for this reason it is one of my absolute favorites. I use an inquiry-based curriculum taught in a Socratic method style, with students initiating ideas for solutions and communicating their ideas with one another. The idea is to teach critical thinking, and to change students’ conception of math from one of a large collection of “steps” or “right ways to solve problems” into the complex yet accessible system of logic that it is. I am there as a guide and as a facilitator, to provide access to the vocabulary and language of the math, and on rare occasions to provide students access to particular solution strategies used in mathematics that may not be obvious based on anything they have learned previously. In classes that are Regents-based I am only able to do this type of teaching to a very small extent. Inquiry-based learning requires time, and it does not lend itself well to broad, shallow curriculums. Teaching with the test in mind starts in the early grades, and it is especially prevalent in schools where students struggle to pass the exams, which are also often schools dominated by low-income students and students of color. Most of the ninth-graders I am preparing for the Integrated Algebra Regents exam in June came in struggling with many basic pre-algebra topics, which means that to prepare them in one year to receive a passing grade on the exam I have to review a lot of middle-school skills and focus on particular, Regents-approved “methods” for solving particular types of problems. Almost all of my students can solve a multi-step algebraic equation by this time in the year, but few of them truly understand why the method that I imposed on them actually works. They will remember the method in June when they have to take the test, but I personally do not believe that their critical thinking skills or their understanding of the meaning or purpose of solving an equation will have improved greatly in their time with me this year. How my students perform in June does matter a great deal for their futures and for our school’s future. But what they understand 20 years from now, and how the seeds planted now have developed by that point, matters much more. Students in my precalculus class were incredibly resistant to the inquiry-based methodology at the beginning of the year. Several of them would complain consistently that I wasn’t “telling them how to solve the problems” or “teaching them the steps.” I was feeling so much resistance that I turned to my assistant principal for advice. I am lucky to work with an educational leader who holds a social justice view of education, and she gave me a riveting speech about how I needed to be completely honest with my students about why they have that view of mathematics, that they are wrong about what mathematics is, and that it isn’t their fault. “Students who look like me and who look like them are given a different type of education than students who look like you,” my assistant principal, an African-American woman, told me. “You need to tell them that their minds have been enslaved; that they have been educated to believe that they are good students if they don’t think and just perform as they are told. That is not educating. You have a responsibility to un-teach that view of learning and support them in learning to think for themselves.” I want to be able to teach all of my classes like that. I know that in algebra there is a place for learning skills and strategies, but I wish every day that there was a great deal more of a place for deep critical thinking, for reflection, for developing conceptual understandings that will last longer than June. As long as high-stakes testing remains as high-stakes as it is, however, it is simply a reality that the curriculum will narrow and many teachers will focus on the specific skills students need to be successful on the exams. And the stakes associated with scores on these exams, including having one’s school shut down and its space converted into a charter, will remain incredibly high as long as the reforms being pushed in New York City and nationally do not shift course. And so, when I went on lunch and heard the news that Cathie Black was no longer our chancellor, there was a piece of me that felt so much hope about a possible shift in that course.
New York

Why I Love Unions, But Not Always Their Leadership

There is no shortage of fights to be fought on the education front here in New York and nationally. The Panel for Educational Policy continues to vote to close public schools and to colocate them with privately run education entities known as charter schools, whose backers often come from the business world. There is an intense national push for more teacher accountability, which translates for me and many of my fellow teachers into an increased focus on test scores, data, and merit pay. And there’s the attack on public worker unions, which provide one of the few venues in which workers can still have a collective say in governmental policies and in their working conditions, working hours, and job security. While we teachers often find ourselves fighting against misguided reforms, there’s also a lot to fight for. As the largest local teachers union in the country, the United Federation Teachers here in New York has the ability to have an incredible impact on education and the direction of education reform. We could be building grassroots support for reforms that would transform education, including culturally responsive curriculum, smaller class sizes, parent and teacher empowerment, the alleviation of poverty-related factors that affect learning, and creating classroom environments that put critical thinking instead of test prep at the forefront. Research and analysis have repeatedly demonstrated that the reforms listed in the first paragraph do not benefit students. It should seem obvious then, to most informed individuals, that teachers unions would be doing serious work on the ground to mobilize teachers in the fight against them. And of course they would be clearly presenting a positive alternative that could actually transform teaching and learning. This is why I love unions: They provide an opportunity for working people to have a significant voice in these matters, and they can organize their members in support of good policies and against bad ones. And yet for some reason the Unity Caucus that leads the UFT, which has had practically unchallenged control over the union for decades, is not fighting in a way that so many people wish they would.
New York

Anticipating Fight Back Friday

One of the major reasons I became involved in educational advocacy work was because I saw the ways in which relentless focus on standardized testing was creating schooling environments that were less and less conducive to real learning. My first year I worked with a set of 30 or so 11th-graders who had struggled to pass the Regents math exam they needed to graduate; that test became my entire life as I struggled to find ways to prepare students whose math proficiency level was far below a ninth-grade level. I was successful with 28 of them, but not because I taught math in a way that made me proud. I thought constantly about ways in which I could make my classroom a more engaging learning environment where students could grapple with complex ideas, and while I was lucky to have a supportive administration I felt that so much of the broader direction in education reform was actually pushing education further from this ideal. But as I have become more involved I now see that the problem is not just standardized tests. In fact, it seems that so much of the education reform agenda is not about creating engaging, enriching school environments but is instead about privatized management of schools that employ a non-unionized workforce and about attacking the very teacher protections that allow schools to be dynamic places where all staff can contribute opinions without fear of retribution. Tenure, for example, came into being so that teachers could not be fired by principals without due process. Tenure protects teachers who defend their departments from harassment, inform parents or DOE officials about negligence in their school, or who have personal or political disagreements with principals. Protections and contractual agreements make schools better places to work, which means lower teacher turnover, happier teachers and thus happier students in turn. A sign outside the capital in Madison, Wisc., last week made the case for teacher protections clear: “My Working Conditions Are My Students’ Learning Conditions.” In response to the relentless attacks, Sam Coleman, a member of both the Grassroots Education Movement and NYCORE came up with the idea of supporting schools in organizing school-based actions for educators, parents and students across the city who wanted to push back. He named his intitiative Fight Back Friday. The idea also developed because there was an urgency for more actions at the local level, yet the UFT leadership seemed unwilling or unable to take on organizing of that kind. On Friday, Jan. 21, members of my school community participated in our first Fight Back Friday. We joined parents, school staff and community members across the city to raise awareness about, and stand in solidarity with, schools facing closure and co-location votes at upcoming Panel for Educational Policy meetings. The theme for the day was "Wear Black and Take Our Schools Back." Nearly all of my colleagues wore black on that day. It was an incredibly unifying experience that was better for staff morale than anything I could have anticipated. Over 30 schools have participated in Fight Back Fridays since the movement began last year. Each individual school’s action takes on a different tone depending on the particular concerns that are most pressing for that school, but they all heighten dialogue and raise awareness about critical issues facing education right now. The next Fight Back Friday is planned for March 25, and it will focus on some of the most pressing issues facing public education.
New York

Democracy And Reform: A View From A PEP Newbie

I remember the feeling of anticipation that accompanied the subway ride to my first Panel for Educational Policy meeting Jan. 19. The panel meetings are places for public comment on the Department of Education's proposals for significant change in school utilization, and they conclude with a vote on the proposals. I was in the heat of my first very active “school closing season” (as a member of the Grassroots Education Movement calls it) and I was feeling invigorated. GEM had been planning for the meetings, and we had a theme for the evening, fliers for the rally to stop school closings we were planning, and a plan of action for when we got to the microphone. I knew what people said about the panel, that it is just a rubber stamp for the mayor’s policies and that its members wouldn’t vote against a proposal to close a school or colocate a charter school no matter the arguments or evidence presented. Nonetheless, I felt hopeful and optimistic that panel members would truly listen and might be convinced to seriously reconsider the options placed before them. The major reason for this optimism was that I had attended a hearing a few days before at John Jay High School campus about the proposed co-location of Millennium II High School, which the PEP would be voting on that night. The hearing had been incredible; it was a Regents exam day so most students did not have to attend school, yet they came out in great numbers to protest the colocation, arguing that it would create separate and unequal conditions for students in their building, which already housed four schools. Park Slope parents had been asking politicians for “more options” for their neighborhood, and Millennium II is what the DOE offered. But the original Millennium High School, in Lower Manhattan, has a much whiter student body than the current John Jay student body and Millennium II would receive more per-pupil funding for various reasons, the students argued. At the hearing, principals and students spoke passionately about the impact of housing a “have school” with four “have not” schools. They told of repeated, longstanding requests for support from the DOE to make the schools more attractive to all parents and students by making capital improvements to the school building, providing funding for advanced courses, allowing the building to change its name, and removing the metal detectors —  requests that they said the DOE repeatedly ignored. Students, teachers, and administrators whom I had seen speak at John Jay were already at the mic when I arrived at the PEP meeting.
New York

Joining The Conversation

Any teacher can tell you of the kind of hard work being a city educator requires, and my experience is no different. I teach in Brooklyn’s Bushwick High School campus in a small high school with an environmental leadership theme. I teach math to students in all four grades, and I have a slight obsession with creating mathematical learning experiences that bring the subject alive for my students, especially because math is so often perceived as a monotonous subject that many students see themselves as simply “bad at.” I’ve also been working with a few other teachers in my school to make the environmentalism theme real for our students. One of my favorite projects from last year was coordinating a speaker from WE ACT for Environmental Justice who spoke to our students about food justice and sustainable development. We are working on creating a garden for the spring, which at the moment means converting a space on campus and writing grants. Because my bottom line is the well-being of my students, I have also continued to attend events in my own time that I believe will support my own growth as an educator. Some of the most useful have included important history lessons — unfortunately many new teachers, myself included, lack historical knowledge of movements in education that can help inform their own place in the classroom at this point in time. Years ago I attended an open forum discussion about the history of the education of English Language Learners. Many people spoke about the frustrations they have felt with the systemic barriers to providing the best education for these students, and we offered up not just our own techniques for doing so, but even ways of getting around some of the most imposing barriers. One teacher, Megan Behrent, expressed her view that if we only focus on how to make our own classrooms or schools better despite all the systemic issues, true progress in education will never take place. If we are committed to creating better educational opportunities for our own students, she argued, then we must be committed to having a positive impact on larger educational structures. Her argument was persuasive, and since that time I have become increasingly involved with organizations that I feel are striving for systemic improvements in New York City’s schools. Working with the New York Collective of Radical Educators and the Grassroots Education Movement has exposed me to many incredible educators with more experience than myself, and to knowledgeable parents and students who have passionate feelings about education.