“The Art of Debate,” “The Four Steps of Social Justice,” “Redefining Rehabilitation,” “Gender and the Media” — they sound like titles of college courses many of us have taken (or wish we could have). But at our school, they were the subjects of a student-created social justice mini-conference that we held this spring.
My colleagues and I challenged a number of 11th-graders to devise 30-minute lessons to teach the underclassmen about social justice. In less than 48 hours, students came up with slideshows, posters, and engaging activities to present to the whole school.
Each session took on its own character. For instance, the one I advised was high-energy with lots of debate about oppression throughout history. Another I watched was marked by a contemplative circle discussion on the Trayvon Martin incident and racial profiling. One had students acting out scenarios where they practiced asserting their constitutional rights when approached by a police officer who wanted to search them without cause.
Needless to say, I was extremely proud. It was one of those precious days when I unequivocally knew our school’s social justice agenda was rigorous, meaningful, and successful. A year and a half ago there were few students or staff who were able to articulate social justice, let alone actively teach it. Now our upperclassmen can eloquently speak it, write it, and teach it.
Nearly every morning after I groggily grope for the kitchen light to grab my pre-packed lunch, I notice the drawings made by my fiancée’s former students still hanging on the fridge. Stick figures grin and hearts frame students’ last messages to a teacher that had positively affected them: “Where did you go?” “When are you coming back? I want to learn more about dinosaurs.” “Ms. D I love you. What happened? Where do you live now?”
My fiancée worked at Harlem Success Academy 3, which lost more than a third of its staff over this summer alone. This figure did not count those who were fired or who left of their own volition during the school year. Ms. D is just one of the many dedicated young educators who were incompatible with the school’s structure and model for teachers and students. One popular defense of high turnover rates is that teacher firings are always done for the good of the students. Yet the refrigerator art in our apartment stands as just one compelling example that hasty dismissals can have a profoundly negative effect on students.
At non-union schools, top-tier administrators can now dispose of any teacher at any time, with or without cause. In my fiancée’s case, just a few months into her first year teaching she was given 10 days to get "98 percent compliance" in all her classes, whatever that means, or be terminated. She had no choice in the matter and was ordered not to tell any of her 150 students that she would not be back the next day. This explains the students’ questions (“What happened?” “When are you coming back?”) included in personal notes written after they realized she was gone.
None of this was a surprise to me. I had seen similar scenarios play out three years earlier, when I worked as an after-school tutor at Promise Academy charter school. A teacher would be working on grades and conferencing with students one day, and then all but disappear the next. No staff member spoke his or her name, acting as if that teacher had never been there. But the students could not forget so easily. I remember kids expressing to me that they felt like the entire year was starting over in March. Not a good time to completely turn the page, but that was the students’ problem.
Though Hyde Leadership Charter School, where I work, retains teachers well, we have had faculty members resign for one reason or another (they were moving or going to graduate school). I have seen how the loss of a trusted adult has set some students back emotionally, if not academically.
“We’re going to hear from Rossemary about a special opportunity for a social justice field trip.”
This is how I started my class during the second week of school. One of our 11th-grade students had already organized a social justice event. She informed us about Barnard College’s Activism and the Academy conference. She urged us all to get registered. And so we did.
Elsewhere in the building, my colleague was signing select students up to work with Rocking the Boat, one of our community partners in Hunts Point who fight for environmental justice. That same day after school at least 15 of our students rushed down to The Point, another ally, to sign up to be a part of A.C.T.I.O.N. (Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhood), a group of young people who are paid to advocate for the improvement of the South Bronx.
The year had just started and I thought to myself, “This is what social justice education looks like.”
Over the past few years I have heard a lot of educators talk about social justice. I actually did my student teaching at a now-closed school called Social Justice Academy in Boston. Their mission statement was beautiful, with nods to Paolo Freire, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi. This was high-handed material that a young, very liberal educator like me salivates over — but it wasn't so great for students who were already disenchanted by the generally negative atmosphere of their school.
I found that only a handful of the teachers believed in the mission. Consequently, the ones who were did often struggled to make community partnerships and actually motivate the students to engage in any kind of activism. The biggest symbolic defeat came midway through the year when we asked students in our class what social justice was and none of them had an answer. Though I do not think the school should have been closed, it had certainly not met its lofty visions and did not deserve to wear the banner of social justice.
Not long after that, I saw another kind of half-baked vision of social justice education.
This column is about those of us who abhor AYP, avoid IMPACT, won’t SLANT or SPORT, don’t “Do Now,” and wriggle when you hear “rigor,” “relentless pursuit,” “high-performing,” “low-performing,” “work hard, be nice,” and “mastery.”
My name is Mark Fusco. I love teaching. The buzzwords of “no excuses,” data-driven school reform don’t resonate with someone like me, whose inspiration to enter the classroom came from watching my mother, a lifelong teacher, instruct a class of students with disabilities during the summer before I started kindergarten. I learned by her example that acronyms and test scores were not what stayed with the children, but rather their transformative education came from my mother’s profound love and her commitment to helping students discover their individual talents and intelligences.
I am distressed because it appears that my mother’s brand of education is becoming increasingly devalued in our current educational and political climate. I work at a charter school where I am happy, but I am concerned by what I see in the prevalent trends of charter schools in New York City and nationally. First, I see an almost monomanical focus on high-stakes testing. Second the CEOs of the fastest growing charter management networks, such as Harlem Success Academy, are predominantly white, upper-class men and women who I suspect do not fully understand the communities and kids they serve. Many of these leaders seem to resist any collaboration with the neighborhoods their schools are in and the families who depend on them.
I have been working in education in New York for several years. I volunteered with 826 NYC. I worked for Harlem Children’s Zone’s after school program. I left for a year to get my masters in education at Harvard. I am now embarking on my second year as an 11th-grade English teacher at Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx. I'm thankful that Hyde stands apart from most charters.