As I finished the first year of my teacher certification program this past spring, the graduate school I attend announced that in addition to the two year program of which I am a part, they would begin offering a fast track one year certification. They did so rather apologetically, admitting they opposed new teachers rushing into the profession without as balanced an amount of training and experience as possible. Essentially, they were following a tide: As TFA, urban teacher residencies and other forms of alternative certification make graduate school appear both more costly and more lengthy, many schools have begun instituting accelerated and online programs. As students, we understood the pressures, worried about what this might mean for the integrity of our program, but did little more than discuss the issue with the faculty we most trust.
What we had not fully grasped until returning to class this last week is that by adding the one year program, the entire graduate school is essentially doubling the size of each of its new graduating classes. As courses in the two tracks overlap, the number of students in each skyrockets. When we arrived at our Teaching Science in Elementary Education class on Wednesday, one intended for a cohort of around twenty-five, we found the classroom over capacity with more than sixty students in attendance. All in different stages of the program, some of us are taking an entire year’s course load this one semester. Some of us have never taught a class or been shown how to construct a lesson plan, but will still be expected to student teach in the spring semester. All of us will be expected to gain adequate training, reflect and problem shoot sufficiently on observations we are making in our current public classroom placements, and become better lesson planers, in a classroom twice the size it was designed to be, with many of us doing twice the observations and outside studying as the program initially intended.
What makes this shift alarming is not simply that it was never discussed with any of the members of the program, nor that it means many of us who sought out this school for its perspectives on social justice are not receiving the educational space we signed up for. (As students, we are deeply supported by the faculty who run our program, and can recognize the difference between their devotion and the university’s budget plans.) It is most distressing to note that as CPS students return to school this week, thousands of them in classrooms way over capacity due to the most recent bouts of school closings and budget cuts, the conditions they are facing are mirrored more and more in those faced by their teachers. The proliferation of fast track roads into education is indicative of not merely of a lack of investment in teacher training, but in students and workers across the board. A transparent article in the New York Times this last week even laid the argument for the desirability of quick teacher turn over created by the charter school model. The trend is training teachers not to be resourced, experienced and knowledgable facilitators, but to be familiar already with the lack of support, high stress, insatiable demands and denial of workers rights that are quickly coming to characterize the schools of oppressed students.
Another common notion–proffered by institutions providing fast tracks–that the offering of condensed programs is about educational justice, creating faster and more affordable paths to professional status, is criminal. If universities, the U.S. government and large corporations cared about affordable teacher training, they would lower tuition, restructure educational funding, and subsidize the study of needed professions, not cram ludicrous amounts of credits into single semesters. All these projects–from school closings and privatization, to one year and joint masters-teaching certificates–are about saving money in the short term, disinvesting in oppressed communities, and continuing to deny educational justice to those who have been denied it the most consistently, from elementary to graduate school.
Many reputable members of the educational community are referring to these cuts and slights as a defamation of the teaching profession. From school staff to professors and union leaders, in the face of these reforms countless have called for more rigorous teacher training, more elite standards for program selection, and even a Bar-like exam to achieve professional status. Yet a year ago here in Chicago, when the CTU Teacher’s Strike led to some major professional improvements–including job security, more school autonomy over distributing resources, and more recent measures to significantly cut down the number of standardized tests administered yearly–these gains were made because teachers united as workers, not as professionals. By gathering under their grievances as a working class, and building longterm solidarity with other workers in the city, they created necessary leverage in thwarting the efforts of the mayor’s office, the city government, CPS and the media that backed them. Moreover, and more importantly, it was their advocacy for students and families that garnered them their most support. The foundation of their platform and the guiding principle of their collective action–that good learning conditions are good teaching conditions–is what enabled them to win the battles they did.
If we are in solidarity with all students, as well as teachers and faculty who resist these reforms, then we must recognize these newest developments in “higher ed.” not as sources of personal frustration, or as undermining our potential status as professionals. They are the devaluing of the process through which communities become autonomous and empowered, a decided attack on the needs and rights of both current and future workers. Though the connection is not surprising, it should be underlined that as public school students’ classrooms become evermore crowded an under-resourced, so do the classrooms in which public school teachers are trained. We need movements and actions that demonstrate student and worker unity, that fight militantly for lower tuition, small class sizes, needed resources, and community-based autonomy, not the elevation and specialization of teachers as middle-class professionals. This week’s reflection on classroom overcrowding is just the most visible way in which the struggles of students and teachers are already tied, and must be fought as such.
This piece was featured as a guest post at The Socialist Worker.
At the close of the last school year, despite protest, community organizing, the advocacy of families, the occupation of schools and the outspokenness of staff, Chicago Public Schools continued forward with its plan to close 49 of its public schools–the single largest sweep of school closings in U.S. history. Only weeks after the heartbreaking decision, CPS announced massive budget cuts for the coming year, ones that target community schools over the expanding charter network.
While I was home visiting family this past week, CPS in conjunction with city police demolished La Casita, a grassroots community center attached to Whittier Elementary School in the Pilsen neighborhood. The space was one in which parents and community members had for years been organizing against gentrification and school closings in the area, advocating community-based solutions for combating violence and instituting self-determined educational justice. The last time the building was threatened was in 2010, when protesters kept the land from being turned into a soccer field for a private school. Though after this demonstration local officials had promised to meet with Pilsen residents to discuss the future of the space, and even negotiate city-funded renovations, the center was destroyed in 2013 without notice or consent, and no word has been given about what may replace it.
CPS and city officials’ clear agenda is to push the bill for a financial crisis over onto poor, Black and Brown neighborhoods, and to justify gentrification and privatization by starving and intimidating our communities until these seem like logical solutions.
This Wednesday the 28th of August, students, families, teachers, staff and community members will be walking out of schools from across the city to protest the unceasingly racist, anti-worker, anti-poor and community-jeapordizing aggressions of CPS, Rahm Emmanuel, the Obama administration and the city of Chicago. The demands of the demonstration are (from Teachers for Social Justice):
- An elected representative School Board
- A moratorium on school closings, turn-arounds, phase-outs and charter expansion
- TIF funds back into CPS and a financial transaction tax for education
- The proposal for sustainable school transformation to replace corporate, top-down interventions for struggling schools
Come if you are able, and encourage others to walkout and join the protest!
Rally at CPS Headquarters
125 S. Clark St.
Wednesday, August 28th
This is a brief lesson plan for a workshop focusing on voguing, femme power and feminism through movement. In keeping with other vogue studies lesson plans that have appeared here, this lesson plan is geared towards the ballroom scene and larger queer communities of color, and comes at a later part of the curriculum, after other sessions or workshops have already taken place:
1. Think Out: At the start of the lesson, gather the group into a circle and ask that each member introduce themselves, and describe what the first thing is that comes to mind when they hear the word “feminine.” Give participants a moment to think, then go around and let everyone in the circle share a phrase, memory or idea they connect with the word feminine. (10 mins)
2. Intro and Gallery Walk: “The theme of the workshop today is femininity, femme power, and the way these concepts relate to the art form of vogue. To get us started, we will do an exercise called a gallery walk.” Place five to six posters on the floor in the center of the circle. Each poster will have written on it one key word relating to the theme of the workshop–Feminine, Feminism, Sexism, Transphobia, Strength, Weakness, etc.–each one placed within a box. Ask participants to take a moment and look at each of the words. If there are any questions about the words, try to encourage other participants to explain them, and to address those questions without interpreting their definitions through a personal lens. Pass out markers, and ask participants to write down what ever words, phrases or ideas they associate with each of these words with them on their posters. Ask them to put any ideas they believe go along with the word inside the box, and any ideas that contradict the word outside the box. How they determine these may be totally up to them. (5 mins)
3. Reflection: Once the gallery walk is complete and everyone has had a chance to add their own words, thoughts and ideas to each of the posters, ask everyone to step back and examine what has been written. “What do we notice? What stands out? Are there any trends we can find? Is there anything that surprises you?” Give participants a few minutes to discuss any thoughts or observations that viewing the posters brings up before transitioning into the next part of the lesson. (5 mins)
4. Quick Break: Break from the introductory exercise, and give participants a few minutes to stretch on their own and prepare for movement in any ways they need.
5. Movement: Quickly review as a collective some of the basic elements and steps taught in previous workshops (lines, poses, points, runway, etc.). Get participants to explain and demonstrate each of the perviously covered elements, and get all participants to review them briefly together in a large group. Return next to the original words on the posters from the gallery walk. Ask each participant to pick out three of the original words, then work on creating a pose, short phrase or movement to interpret each of their three words. After a few minutes of work, ask any willing participants to share out some of the movements or phrases they came up with, and the words they represent. Circulate around the room to answer questions and offer suggestions to anyone who may be feeling stuck or unsure. (10-15 mins)
6. In Partners: Ask participants to get in pairs and share with their partners the three movements they generated. Have the pairs work together and, with any of the movements they’ve brought to each other, create a short sequence using the other vogue elements–like lines and runway–to unite those movements together. Give partners ample time to talk, experiment with their phrases, and improvise off of their collected ideas. Continue circulating to make sure parters are working well together, and to continue offering suggestions and ideas. (15-20 mins)
7. Share Out: Regather participants into a circle, and with music, give each member an opportunity to share out what they worked on with their partner. Make the sharing informal, supportive and low pressure, and try to encourage every member to participate. It may help to have each participant who finishes their phrase “pass” the movement on to the next person in the circle they would like to dance after them, until each person has had a chance to share. (10 mins)
8. Closing: Return one final time to examine the original five or six posters from the gallery walk. Ask participants: “How do these words look different to us after spending some time trying them onto our bodies? How do we feel differently about any of them? How do these terms relate to vogue?” Take a few minutes after each question to discuss them thoroughly, encouraging each person in the collective to offer one closing thought. Wrap up the workshop, leaving space and time for participants to keep practicing in an open session once the formal workshop has finished. (10 mins)
There are two amazing conferences coming up in Chicago in the next few weeks. The Center for Economic Research and Social Change, Haymarket Books and the International Socialist Organization have brought Socialism 2013 to Chicago from June 27-30. They will be hosting a weekend of incredible talks and workshops on radical economics and the shifting political landscape of the country and planet. And in honor of the Teachers’ Strike and the battle against school closings the Free Minds Free People conference will take place in Chicago in this year from July 11-14. It will also be covering a huge range of crucial topics, with a special focus on social justice education and the push back against privatization. Scholarships are available for both conferences, and they should both be incredibly affirming and empowering. Check out their schedules and come through!
Crown Plaza Hotel
5440 N. River Rd
June 27 – 30
Uplift Community High School
900 W. Wilson
July 11 – 14
This past Wednesday CPS finalized its decision to close 49 of the the city’s public schools, forcing some 40,000 students to abruptly change school environments, or “welcome” huge new populations of students into their already undersupported schools. This has come on the tail end of a long year of activity–the Chicago Teachers Union strike in the fall, CPS’ announcement of the largest set of school closings in the city’s history, and the subsequent school hearings that CPS held to listen to the grievances of effected communities. As the reality of school closings becomes all the more real, as does the trauma and violence they will likely cause for oppressed communities, there are some important moments from the last year worth revisiting–ones that remind us that generations of political memory on the part of oppressed people in Chicago are what have made certain battles over the past year successful, and need to be further relied on as these battles continue.
At an event held by the CTU in conversation with activist Lois Weiner back in early February, Eric Gustein, an educator and member of the Grassroots Education Movement, reminded the crowd why the initial strike in the fall had been effective in changing the narrative around education in the city. Whereas many teachers unions around the country have traditionally and continue to function as litigious buffers between educators and the communities with which they work, the Chicago Teachers Union fought actively over the course of years to build a base of support amongst the neighborhoods, students, parents and families of their schools. Leadership consciously connected their struggles as workers in the public sector to the larger issues being faced by the communities in which they work–from gentrification and housing to violence and police brutality. When the time came to push back against CPS for a fair contract, the CTU organized to fight for the conditions that would make learning possible for their entire school communities, not simply their own needs as employees. The strike was successful, Gustein argued, not simply because the CTU had a base of support in the community that other strikes had not, but actually because the CTU had learned its strategy from the community. The union’s active involvement in oppressed communities had taught it the need for a full-scale movement that addressed a network of issues rather than “agitating” around one isolated problem, and that valued resistance rather than litigation.
The reality that Black, Brown, poor, working and immigrant communities have been the leaders of this current struggle in both seen and unseen ways, has manifested itself in more than just the tactics of the union. After its original announcement that over 100 public schools could be closing in the 2013 school year, CPS held hearings with each of the major districts, ostensibly to connect with communities and listen to their needs. In reality, these hearings were staged productions (funded in part by the Walton Foundation) in which CPS officials refused to speak or answer any questions, but instead expected the effected school communities to plead the case for keeping their schools open. At many of these hearings, especially the ones in districts with more white and middle class school community members, this setup worked. At hearings I attended, schools boasted their high state test scores, trotted out their volunteers and corporate sponsors, and had parents and students beg CPS to keep their schools open. Some even went as far as making recommendations about which schools should close in their place, or offering themselves up as willing and able to “welcome” the student populations from closing schools. It was at hearings with high numbers of oppressed families and oppressed educators that turned these tactics on their heads. All over the South and West Sides, school hearings were shut down by students, educators and parents who had endured these shams for generations. Many Black and Brown communities rejected CPS’ proposals and instead turned the hearings into their own rallies for community autonomy, protest and support. Understanding that CPS had already made up its mind about how it was going to proceed, recognizing the hearings as a joke, and transforming them instead into an opportunity for further community organizing, was a political decision made by oppressed communities before it was made by the larger struggle.
While the participation of families, students and parents has been overwhelming in certain areas of the fight, other schools and districts have had a hard time involving the community in organizing around school closings. Yet what continues to be read as lethargy and indifference, I believe, needs to be understood as another form of learned political awareness held by oppressed communities. I am currently observing at one of the closing schools, and the battle to get parents involved has been a long one. The parents I have spoken to in my brief time there have never expressed indifference or apathy. On the contrary, it is their deep distrust for the public sector, the local government and the judicial system that makes taking a bus to lobby the state capitol or spending an afternoon rallying at the mayor’s office seem like a waste of time. Many oppressed communities have dealt with decades (if not centuries) of being totally unrepresented, unrecognized and ignored by their government by organizing themselves, placing their energy in places outside schools, elections, and other systems that have caused more damage than positive shifts for their communities. While I certainly hope for the collective efforts across communities to oppose economic marginalization of all our communities, I also believe that many oppressed people already see organization outside of the structures in place as the most feasible way to achieve such a goal. This should be understood as a form of political advancement learned through generations of mixed outcomes from those structures, and a knowledge of the true function of these systems that other communities may learn volumes from.
As these struggles continue, not as one but as a host of connected battles, from which points will our support, our stamina and our vision forward derive itself? When an event like the school closings has proven irrefutably that the state has its own agenda and holds no interest in acknowledging the needs of oppressed communities, how must our tactics necessarily change?
Educator Tara Stamps speaks at the Fullerton Network school hearing:
Families and community members shut down a community hearing for the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods:
This lesson is part of a larger vogue studies curriculum, a unit aimed at teaching ballroom scene history to the ballroom scene, other queer people of color, and our allies. The unit works on both discussing history and teaching vogue dance, combining the two to show a comprehensive history of the scene, and promote voguing as a tool of political action and resistance. In the stage in which it currently exists, the curriculum begins with outlining a basic timeline of ballroom scene history, then breaking down each point on that timeline for deeper inquiry. This lesson comes at the earlier part of the unit, just after the basic outline has been presented, and uses vogue’s initial foundation in Riker’s Island Prison as a starting point to understand and challenge the prison industrial complex:
1. Think Back: At the start of the lesson once participants have gathered, remind the group to think back onto the origins of vogue that they have just begun to learn about: “Where did voguing start? With whom, and how?” Ask participants to write down or share out all the details they can remember from earlier lessons and discussions, and make sure the group is on the same page by listing the details they share in a column to the board.
2. Intro and Explanation: Ask participants if they have ever heard of the term ‘the prison industrial complex’ before, and if possible work together to provide a definition for the group: “The P.I.C. is a term for a group of systems that work together to create violence in our communities, and rely on incarceration as the only answer to that violence. Today we will be talking together about how to better understand the P.I.C., how it relates to our own communities, and how we can challenge it. Ballroom scene history is key in giving us some examples which can help us answer these questions, as we will see soon. Angela Davis, a Black feminist and member of the movement to abolish prisons, has said that examining the experiences of the most marginalized members of the prison system can shed the greatest amount of light on the larger structure. Today we will be using vogue to look at our own experiences as queer people of color to expose the P.I.C. and think about how the creativity of our communities can be used to resist it.”
3. Visual Organizer: Pass out copies of the graphic organizer Transgender Youth and the Prison Industrial Complex–shown in the image to the right of the first paragraph (provided by the Prison Moratorium Project and FIERCE NYC.) Ask participants to take a view minutes to read the organizer to themselves, taking note of what they see, observations they can make, and any questions they have. When folks have had sufficient time, ask them to share out their observations, comments and questions, and add these to a new column on the board.
4. Making Connections: Briefly go over the entire organizer piece by piece, incorporating new observations and attempting to answer questions as a group. (Keep in mind at this stage in particular that sex work, homelessness and other points that appear on the organizer may be sensitive or controversial subjects, and that some present members are likely to have been or be navigating many of them. Approach their discussion honestly, attempting to make them visible and empowering, but also without forcing participants to talk about uncomfortable subjects or share beyond what they are willing to.) Once solid sense of the organizer has been made, ask participants: “How do the points on this organizer relate to our own community? How do they relate to the ballroom scene as we know it?” Give ample discussion time to this as a group, and make as many connections as possible from the ballroom scene to the points on the graphic organizer. Add these to the board, and ask participants to add them to their own organizers.
5. Transition: ” Discussing these connections is important because it shows us that even if the term P.I.C. is a new one for us, it is something that we and our communities have been struggling with and fighting against for a long time. As we move to the dancing portion of our workshop, we will leave the notes from our discussion up on the board. Keep them in mind, and as we are moving, think about how some of these themes show up in vogue movement, where you notice them and can find them, and how vogue works to challenge some of the problems we talked about today.” From here, transition into the movement activities planned for the day. Participants in the workshop will be learning the basics of the vogue styles of new way and vogue femme, so will most likely be practicing specific moves or working on improvisation. As participants are working together or receiving individual attention, try to work in discussion of the day’s themes as they relate to specific moves, styles, and ways of dancing. Try and keep the connection from the earlier discussions in the back of folks’ minds as they are dancing.
6. Closing: “Did folks think of any connections between the movement we worked on today and the discussions we began the workshop with?” Let folks share out any reflections or ideas that are on their minds. “Let’s return to the graphic organizers we were working with at the beginning of the day. Take a look back at them. The subtitle says, ‘disrupt the flow.’ How does voguing and the ballroom scene as a whole break up the flow between the pieces of this complex? How can we as a community use voguing in the future to keep challenging and disrupting this system?” As participants make suggestions, add them to a final column of concrete strategies for challenging the P.I.C. These could include anything from ‘sharing our knowledge’ and ‘teaching this history to our friends,’ to ‘using dance at a demonstration or protest’ and ‘supporting sex workers’ rights.’ While this is a challenging closing activity, push participants to come up with as many concrete strategies for resisting the P.I.C. as possible, and have a few examples ready in case the group gets stuck. Wrap up the workshop from there, and if you can, allow folks extra time to talk and practice further in the space if they need to stay longer.
“How do people who are starving go on a hunger strike? How do people who have no money boycott goods?” – Arundhati Roy, Field Notes on Democracy
Violence is a question which comes up almost inevitably when working with young people. As a teacher, mentor and tutor I’ve had to break up plenty of fights, many of them physical. Raised as I was, a middle-class person of color, I would often attempt to address these interactions through discussion and reflective mediation. In the conversations following altercations I would ask students what they thought the best way was to handle a conflict in our community–be it a classroom, school or other setting. This I hoped would help get students thinking about empathy, the kinds of relationships they wanted our community to be built with, and their role in nurturing them.
These conversations were sometimes a positive step towards fostering such thinking between students, addressing conflicts at their roots and encouraging students to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their own communities. Yet they were just as often ineffective, adding to students’ agitation and furthering the conflict. It were these failed attempts at resolution that often forced me to confront violence in our community in ways I had never been made to before.
Often in asking students to deal with conflict peaceably, responses would be, “My mother told me if someone hits me to hit them back,” or, “I’ll get in more trouble if I don’t hit them than if I do.” It became obvious that my approaches and assumptions about physical violence were not the same as many of my students, their families, and our larger community. After talking, I started to think more about what impact my upbringing had on my understanding of and ability to sidestep violence in my own life. I started to think about why I had been discouraged from fighting to resolve problems, both at home and at school, and why this had largely worked for me. I thought about family members of mine from different economic backgrounds who, while I had always abided by the rules of school, were suspended regularly for getting into physical fights. I thought about the complex range of reasons why someone might be encouraged to fight–from violent masculinity, to parenting, to the need for survival of their own surroundings–and how schooling does a very poor job of recognizing or engaging any of these. Just like the larger criminal justice system to which it is so inexorably tied, the immediate and obvious tactics employed by oppressed people to navigate the structures which oppress them is precisely what school targets for punishment, labeling them as the most offensive kinds of infraction.
In a recent talk on Indian economic history and the current struggles raging in the Kashmir region, Arundhati Roy spoke about the middle-classing and institutionalizing of feminism, and the complex nature of armed resistance. Non-violence, a political approach so associated with and romanticized in India’s past, is a tactic which requires a middle class, Roy argued. Non-violence on the part of the oppressed, she said, is only effective when there is a middle class to witness it, be made aware of injustice through its performance, and lean on their own power to sway economic and social tides. When a middle class isn’t watching, is distracted, doesn’t exist, or is otherwise uninvested in the struggles of the poor, non-violence is useless, and may even be deadly:
The debate about armed resistance versus non-violence, that one is moral and one is immoral, is really absurd, because…it’s immoral for [middle class] people who are in Delhi to tell a person whose village is being surrounded by a thousand security guards and burned and the women are being raped to be non-violent. It’s an immoral suggestion unless you are willing to go there and act in their defense…And while academics and historians and writers and journalists like to lay their morality on people, people, I have seen, can be Moaists in the forests and Gandhian in the street.
I have been thinking lately in conjunction with all of these points about the difference between violence and militancy–the difference between action which is destructive, and action which works consciously to destroy debasing and unjust systems. What will it take for us to imagine and create the ways of organizing that will be meaningful, effective and true to the vision of our communities, and how do we build them collectively, with every single member invested and involved? What role in this do parents and teachers have? What Roy’s talk suggests is not that non-violence is impotent or wrong, but that it is a tactic more than a philosophy. Sometimes it is useful, and sometimes other kinds of action are needed. Every day, oppressed people make their own decisions about what type of action will work for them, their families, their communities. It is this wisdom and understanding which our movements must learn to rely on.
This discussion is relevant for myself as an educator, because I need to think more deeply about the kind of action and political engagement I am making possible for the communities I teach with. I want to build healthy, communicative, supportive relationships in my classroom, my neighborhood, and wherever else I am doing work. But I also want to respect the wishes and perspectives of every member of my community, and teach the next generation militance, encourage young people to envision their own means of living, resisting and surviving in ways that have never occurred to me. How do we diverge from a status quo of sexist, racist and classist violence while encouraging militancy and resistance? How do we challenge systems of domination in ways which are sustainable, and authentic to ourselves?
Special thanks to Caitlin Sheehan.
I recently (finally) quit a job I had as an academic tutor at a magnet school in Chicago. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, magnet schools are public schools with ‘higher standards’ and ‘better reputations.’ They often receive different or more funding than traditional public schools, and one usually has to apply to get in. They were invented several decades ago in the wake of white flight, as a means of keeping cities’ wealthy inhabitants from completely fleeing to the suburbs and thus decimating urban economies. The school at which I worked had been converted into a magnet in the last five years, resulting in a sharp race, class and geographical contrast between the older students with whom I worked, and the younger ones, who tended to be whiter and wealthier.
Like most magnet schools, this one had a good reputation, and parents often worked hard to get their kids in, traveling at great expense from all over the city to get their kids to class. What I came to learn as a tutor is that the school’s good standing is based almost entirely on its higher-than-average Illinois Standard Achievement Test scores, the public school state test. The school’s environment and philosophy were pervaded not only by the desire for high scores, but the value of state-determined skills, and the ability of each individual student to meet them. Mandatory after school tutoring for “low” students, in-class skill drilling and other depressing measures were an integral part of the school culture, and while these attempts to raise scores can be witnessed at any public school in the months before a big test, the gusto with which this school pursued them, the pride it took and the genuine belief that it was positive for students was shocking to me. Its efforts were largely supported by parents–especially those of more privilege–and its regularly high scores secure its place as a “good school” within the failing system.
Though my stint at the school was difficult, it demonstrated the destructiveness of standardized testing in ways I had never imagined, and solidified for me the true dangers of acquiescing to the demands of the state. Upon leaving, I have been reflecting on what lessons I learned, and some of the new understandings I’ve gained about how standardized testing specifically exacerbates the struggles of our communities rather than addressing them:
Racism and Classism – It’s been long documented by critics of standardized testing that the thing their scores indicate with the most reliability are the race and class of the test takers. Whereas schooling itself makes certain assumptions about the resources, values, identities and experiences that belong to its students, standardized testing works to further entrench these assumptions rather than resist them. By deciding which students, schools and communities are failures, standardized testing reinforces the racial and economic segregation of school systems and individual school communities. “Low” and “high” become the inevitable descriptors, the two categories into which all students are sorted, the euphemisms for their entire identities as learners. Whom each category is comprised of tends not to be surprising, and how their scores allow them to be treated by teachers, staff and community members is not hard to guess. More and more evidence suggests that schools that are under the most pressure and state surveillance increasingly suspend and expel low performing students at higher rates, sometimes for the sole reason of raising the school’s scoring average. The stigma, lack of opportunities and resentment these students are made to bear only add to the pressure and prejudice they must face in their larger worlds.
Behavior – Any experienced educator can tell you that when students of any age are excited about what they are learning, engaged in determining what their own learning looks like, respected and esteemed by the learning community, and responsible for maintaining it as equal partners, the need for “discipline” all but goes away. Behavioral issues, and the tactics which teachers spend hours a week implementing to combat them, are mostly if not entirely the result of forcing students to learn in prescribed ways what is uninteresting and disempowering. The disjointed, shallow, and repetitive nature of standardized tests and their preparation eliminate student voices even further from the learning process, and gives educators even less opportunity to listen to and respond to the needs of their classrooms. The relevant, empowered and collaborative curricula our communities are starving for is made all but impossible to realize, and students naturally resist the force with which the state demands they conform to its own economic desires. The result is more disruptions, more frustration and alienation, more violence, more punishment, and more students suspended, demoralized, and fed into the prison system–an alternative which works just as well for the state.
Student Autonomy and Ability to Learn – It should go without saying that students are the most adversely affected by standardized testing. It denies them their creativity, ability to ask questions, to explore their own interests and pursue the knowledge which they deem relevant–all the things that should be at the foundation of any type of learning. That state testing removes these most fundamental characteristics makes it all the more difficult to see the bigger struggle: That public education itself, even when it is properly funded and supported, relies on the meek obedience of young people. It expects that adults will control their learning and make most of the decisions about what student participation should look like. The fight that is still in the midst of being fought, even when it’s being obscured, is the fight for an education envisioned, designed and controlled by its own students. Standardized testing also draws attention to this, for nothing educators, families and professionals are saying publicly now is any different from what young people in schools have been saying for years. If student voices counted for something, and if young people had a real say in the structuring of their own learning, standardized testing would have been nixed decades ago.
Bullying – Blogger Amanda Levitt wrote poignantly on her site this last year that the superficial attention we tend to give bullying–telling bullies to play nice, and reminding the bullied it gets better–fails to understand bullying as a symptom of a violent and prejudiced social order, one for which we all need to be held accountable. Bullying is not individual kids being mean, but the aggression, sexism, harassment, queerphobia, racism, classism, ableism and fat phobia young people have learned in other places coming into practice. This astute observation needs to be tied to the reality of standardized testing. Not only does state testing reestablish the hierarchy and judgement of the larger order–the state dominating teachers, teachers dominating students, high and low students dominating one another–but it discourages the critical conversations necessary to realize and challenge those orders. Standardized testing not only teaches bullying, but constricts our ability to do what we ought to do to address it at its roots. And try facilitating timely, supportive, ongoing reflections on big social issues and our ability to combat them, when the future of your job–and your school–depends on a test there’s no way to prepare for.
Community Health – Given all the other dynamics and values which testing evokes, it should be logical that is in no way healthy for the members of learning communities. On all levels, it eliminates people’s ability to advocate for themselves, express their needs, and to reshape those things which are not meeting them. It demands, in fact, that communities place the wants of the state before their own most basic desires, and ruthlessly punishes those who do not comply. It expects exhaustion, rewards silence, and fosters undeniable resentment, racism, classicism and hatred. It teaches young people to hate school, hate their teachers, hate “learning” as defined by what the state forces them to digest. It teaches teachers to hate their students for resisting what they are required to teach them, and to hate one another either for complying themselves, or else pushing back and making life difficult for the school. It breeds suspicion, anxiety and stress across the community, pitting parents against educators, neighborhoods against schools. It banishes, it cuts off resources, it sends people to jail. It undermines and destroys learning communities, plain and simple, and has no place in an education aiming for relationships of support and compassion.
The dynamics I have described here were each a part of daily life in the school at which I recently stopped working. They represent a model which is being ramped up by the state and private sectors, despite protest, overwhelming public opposition, and the obvious consequences for our communities. The struggle for public education is approaching a tipping point. Further resistance, action and solidarity are needed to demand an education controlled by the people, not by business and not by the state.
Hip hop activist Rosa Clemente recently posted a video response to a Rick Ross lyric on emcee Rocko’s new mixtape The Gift of Gab 2. The line goes, “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it/I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” Clemente calls for more than petitioning, facebooking, or an attack on the finances of mainstream artists and their record labels, but for new action and a change in our relationships. She calls for women and men in the community to denounce rape culture, and for the leaders and elders of hip hop to speak out against its hold on lyricism. She asks that we actively teach young people to combat rape culture, and create a climate of respect for women and for consent that starts early.
I was moved by Clemente’s video, but also by her ability to react immediately to unacceptable forms of violence, and her push to address and hold responsible the perpetrators of rape in our communities while also understanding rape culture as larger than just male, just heterosexual, just hip hop, and just the hood. I wanted to share her video and share her tenacity. How can we learn to organize ourselves so that we are ready to respond to any threat to our communities, be it violent, economic, cultural or spiritual? Where do we find the strength to be alert to all forms of injustice as they are perpetrated against us? I believe if we could react this fiercely, cohesively and compassionately whenever we or our people are under attack, it would be much harder for the powers that be to mess with us.
A group of good friends of mine and I had a long talk the other night about segregation in Chicago, and the different communities with which we associate. The conversation got complicated when we each started describing which neighborhoods in the city we frequent normally, where we feel most comfortable and where we don’t. Eventually we got to the question: Is it racist or classist to avoid an entire region, like the South Side for example, because you don’t feel safe there? Many in the group maintained that no, it is not; The South Side is dangerous, has higher instances of gang violence, queer bashing and crime than other regions of Chicago. The fact that it is largely Black and has overwhelmingly less resources than other parts of the city has nothing to do with the choice to avoid it. Others pointed out that the feelings they had about certain parts of the South Side were the same ones they had about certain blocks and areas in their own neighborhoods in other parts of the city. Some streets are ghetto, some hoods are ratchet, be they Black, Brown, immigrant or poor, and it is real instances of danger which dissuade folks from spending time there, not the specific identities of residents.
In Chicago, CPS and the mayor-appointed school board continue to push forward a plan to close 50 public schools in the next year, largely in poor Black and Brown neighborhoods, despite community protest, resistance and activism. The city is also, as it is often reported, the current murder capital of the U.S., not merely in terms of the sheer number of violent deaths, but also for murders of those younger than 18. The coinciding of these facts is not coincidental. It has been pointed out again and again by families, experts and community members that the best way to predict rises in violence in a community is by noting how many social services have been cut from it. When jobs leave, welfare is rescinded, access to housing is disbanded, clinics are shut down, and programs lose their funding, real outlets which support, empower and unite communities are shut off, leaving members to look for other ways to sustain themselves, instate their power, and relieve the stresses of daily life–stresses which increase as resources diminish. The question of school closings, then, is not simply about access to education and employment for oppressed communities, but is an issue of life and death. And just as Arne Duncan loves to talk about closing failing schools to give children the education they deserve, but never explains how a system of public education allows any of its schools to fail, the bald distinction of good and bad, failing and successful, blames oppressed people and communities for the conditions they’ve actively been made to endure.
How we understand and talk about these issues as they relate to our own communities has everything to do with how we react, respond and resist their occurrence. Our inevitable discussions of good and bad blocks, good and bad schools, good and bad regions, allows us to paint each of our communities in certain lights without ever asking how and why they got to be that way. It naturalizes poverty, crime, hunger and unemployment, as though certain populations were just more prone to them. It makes it seem as though violence is a mere cultural or regional difference, as opposed to how individuals respond to the social and economic rug being wrenched out from under them. It obscures the fact that law enforcement and policing protect certain populations by containing and instigating violence in others. (Why do we imagine that the best way to stop gun violence is by sending in more people with guns?) It allows us to believe that class and race have little to do with how resources are distributed, instead of being deeply embedded in the economies, real-estates, and geographies of our cities.
‘Ghetto,’ ‘safe,’ ‘cheap,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘nice,’ ‘upscale,’ ‘gang-related,’ ‘abandoned,’ and ‘good’ are all code words for the inequities which exist between different communities–inequities which we know run along predictable lines of class, ethnicity, ability and educational access. They are codes which mask not only the conversations about injustice we are attempting to have, but also the forces and factors which are the root causes of those injustices. When we say a neighborhood is getting ‘better,’ we don’t mean it’s getting better for its original residents. We mean that certain populations and the social ills they’ve had foisted on them are being forced somewhere else. More and more, they are being forced from the city altogether. They are pushed by corporations who pay no taxes, and by the business interests of politicians. They are pushed by the real-estate market, and the belief that one actually gets rid of poverty by getting rid of poor people. Every conversation we have which ignores the fact that violence and a lacking of resources are forced onto our communities, not native to them, supports this belief system.
Yet perhaps the greatest barrier to justice the good/bad dichotomy poses is that it teaches us to see other oppressed people as foreign. It builds boarders between ourselves and communities of other races and classes, but also between those in our own communities who need our compassion and support, whose suffering under the same regimes of austerity looks different than our own. As long as we turn our fear, stress and anxiety on one another, we will never be able to turn our rage, creativity and strength on those who starve our communities. As long as we see each other as alien, we will never be able to build our collective force for radical structural change. We cannot fight back if we are constantly fighting each other. Instead of thinking of violence as normal for someone else, let’s see it as demoralizing and destructive for everyone, an issue we need to understand as belonging to our whole communities if we are to dismantle the systems which make it appear natural.