“How long will you be around?” Turnover, school closings, and community stability

 A sign a student held up in one of the recent school closings meetings read, “My family has lived in this community for over 60 years.  I am the third generation to attend Talcott School.  How long will you be around, Duncan Huberman Mazany Brizard Byrd-Bennett?”  The sign underscores how school closings not only harm specific communities but also disrespect community values.  School closings disregard the continuity, history, and commitment that make communities strong.  The string of Chicago Public Schools CEOs referred to in the student’s sign begs the question: if CPS can’t maintain stability and continuity in its own leadership, how can it presume to impose drastic decisions on communities that have integrity and staying power?

When students, parents, and teachers plead with the CPS Board to keep their neighborhood schools open, they talk about school as a family, as an extension of home.  They emphasize the importance of constancy, stability, trust, and respect – all the qualities that help human beings grow in community.  They talk about the ways their schools fight to remain a healthy community in dangerous times and places, and to connect the community with wider cultural opportunities, thorough creative and dynamic partnerships. 

In a family, each person is valued for who they are, and encouraged to contribute to the family as a whole.  In a family, a child is not a test score.  CPS should be proud that so many families view their schools as such vital supports in their lives and communities; it should be seeking ways to build on these supportive structures rather than tearing them down.  In its frenetic campaign to transform schools, CPS is missing the fundamental fact that children need relationships and stability to learn.

CPS brass may not want to see its schools as families – but it would have a lot more to work with if it would learn from the families who speak, love, and fight for one another. 

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Teaching Stepping Up

Implicit in the recent testing boycott of Seattle teachers is the understanding that the work of educators goes beyond delivering content in the classroom.  Teachers owe it to their students to take a stand when opportunities for learning are obstructed.  Seattle teachers emphasize that taking a stand is in itself educational:

When someone asked the teachers if they were worried about what lessons students might take away from their collective defiance of the district, Mario Shauvette, chairman of the math department, stepped forward. “I’m teaching by example,” he said. “If I don’t step up now, who will? I’m taking charge of what I do here.”

One of the many problems with standardized testing is that people who are strangers to the lives, concerns, and knowledge of students are making the decisions about what constitutes important information for students.  Thus, students of the 21st Century are hostage to an anachronistic notion that there is a set body of information and skills that must be assimilated — even it is based in the values and concerns of previous generations that may or may not still apply today.

As more and more teachers – and students, and parents – step up in defense of a meaningful education, they will provide the terms that policy makers need to learn if they want to be taken seriously.

When teachers step up, usually it is by the side of their students.  In a recent teacher education class, one of my students observed a school board meeting.  Her reflections are illuminating:

I witnessed firsthand how much being a good teacher should extend outside the classroom. More than just planning and teaching lessons, it’s about being an advocate for your students, acknowledging their achievements, trying to improve the structure of the school and curricula, and encouraging them to use their voice in their education. Many of the students in the audience were there for the first item of the agenda: awards. The school board recognized the winners and finalists of National Merit Scholarships, National Achievement Honors, and National Hispanic Scholars by having their own teachers give personalized speeches. However, those same teachers who presented awards at the beginning of the meeting, along with others, spoke out in favor of the proposed change in the structure of the freshman year. As one teacher read aloud their letter to the administration, a group of at least ten teachers stood behind her in silent support. Other teachers attended as sponsors for the school’s new MSAN (Minority Student Achievement Network) club, who spoke for themselves about how they wanted to help combat the achievement gap in their district.

In the same space and at the same event, at one moment the teachers are representing the school, at the next moment they are challenging its policies.  What remains consistent is their focus on the conditions for student learning.  This scene is one of thousands happening every day, where teachers draw attention to the frame of their work.  They model for students a metacognitive stance as they consider and organize around the conditions of learning.

Finally, the scene that had the greatest effect on me occurred [when a] board member demanded that the Principal “control [his] staff!”  Every teacher (the majority of the audience) walked out of the meeting in protest against the implication that they had less of a right to speak than or should be kept under control by authority.

Through their words and their silence and their bodies, the teachers at this school board meeting expressed a small slice of the vast range of response teachers use in their work to stand up for their students and to sustain one another.  How will this work be measured?  Perhaps by the changes in education policies that will swell and spread as teachers continue to step up.