Just Numbers

 Their hope bursts out of a system designed to thwart it.

                                                        –Program Notes, Just Numbers

Darius pokes his head around the corner to make sure the coast is clear.  He holds his breath, all senses on alert.  Is there graffiti warning him of new territorial shifts? Not this morning.  He sprints to the bus, gets on it safely, and can breathe while the bus takes him across the city and drops him off a few blocks away from his school.  He gets off and skirts dangerous territory, passes under an overpass where new tags are going up.  The taggers look at him but don’t follow him.  Darius survives another morning commute.

And gets to school 5 minutes late.  He is sent to the principal, and to detention.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of brains to understand that a child whose commute is anything like this is not in a state to learn.  And that rather than sitting that child in detention, or in a test, or test prep, we adults need to offer healing now and community safety long term.  Once our children are safe, we can turn our attention to education.

Darius’ story is one of six that, along with impressive ensemble poetry, make up Just Numbers, the new Chicago Slam Works play.  Why do adults need to watch other adults performing a play from kids’ perspectives?  Because we aren’t listening to the kids’ voices.  Students are hidden from public view in their schools, in segregated neighborhoods.  But over and over the students in the play remind us: they aren’t blind; they see exactly what’s going on.  They see they are pawns in a game of powerful players whose rhetoric of student achievement masks self-serving economic and political machinations.  Students’ actual lives, interactions, and thoughts are presented against a background of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s speeches on education policy, which sound distant, irrelevant, and offensively glib.

Chicago Public School students are very clear about what they need: safety, health, parents who can be present for them, who are not forced to work multiple jobs, who are not in prison, killed, or deported, and teachers who will not be replaced next year or next week.  And in the classroom: an education that respects students’ intelligence and humanity.

In case white parents in Chicago – half of whose children don’t go to CPS — don’t understand why teachers voted to go on strike next week, this play offers a point-by-point lesson: from the questionable funding, operating, and staffing of charter schools, to the high-stakes testing forced on Black and Brown children.


This is not public education.  Public education means that all children are valued, that people hold accountable the system, its architects and decision-makers, not individual teachers and students.  Many Americans have bought into the education reform emphasis on test scores, but the world’s most successful education system rejects testing — and calls out the testing profiteers.  Finnish education minister Pasi Sahlsberg insists: a successful public education system is based on equity of quality education.  It values informal learning and emphasizes reciprocal trust between students, teachers, parents, and administrators.  “Measuring of what matters in school is difficult, if not impossible. It is character and mind that matter… not being among winners in knowledge tests.”

Public education requires that the voices of people in schools – students, teachers, and parents – are at the center of decision-making about schools, both in the classroom and in the district.  Not bankers, realtors, and politicians.  Let’s act like a public: let’s listen to public school students and teachers, take seriously their stories, their questions, and their ideas, and demand that our leaders stop treating them like “just numbers.”



“All my life I’ve been tracked.  I’ve been told you need to leave your community to be successful.  Now I know that’s BS. My message is not that I’m intelligent but that we are intelligent. Because our collective knowledge and abilities are more powerful than that of any individual. And that’s powerful, so measure that!”  The Curriculum Director walks back down the aisle to the cheers of the students.  Administrators and teachers are sharing their stories of academic struggles and achievements, especially surrounding the stress of the ACT test, which some of the students will be taking next week.  Each story ends with words that claim intelligence and power.  Another teacher speaks into the mic, “I’m intelligent because I’m honest, thoughtful: a reflective person who believes everybody in my community deserves quality education. That’s powerful, so measure that!”

In this special assembly, the Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy faculty are educating students as “Counter-Narrators,” and, like all the curriculum at this alternative public school, this lesson is liberatory.   This is a school that educates students who didn’t fit or weren’t accepted in the traditional school system, and who also mostly come from low-income, immigrant families.  The faculty has collaboratively developed a Praxis model of curriculum design, based in Paulo Freire’s work on liberatory education, to deeply engage the strengths and challenges of the community.

So, no lessons fit within the boundaries of one single discipline; rather, all learning directly relates to students’ lives and connects their experiences to a larger social analysis.  And it addresses one of the several competencies that all curriculum is driven by.  The competency this assembly addresses is Voice vs. Intimidation* – and the contrast with the kinds of knowledge and skills that standardized tests measure is crystal-clear.  “By claiming your intelligence,” the Principal tells the students, “you are manifesting what will happen for you.” 

Students then come to the mic and share their test-taking stories, and related challenges.  One student shares, “I am intelligent because I am never ashamed to see errors in my reasoning.  That’s powerful, so measure that!” Another says, “I am intelligent because I have the ability to adapt and adjust to my environment. I practice the virtue of humility; I accept feedback and learn from it, even if it’s negative. And that’s powerful, so measure that!”  Each voice I hear makes me wonder again, “well, how would you measure that?” And shouldn’t students’ education be based on supporting them in the strengths they identify and care about, rather than information dictated by people from outside their community, that is irrelevant to their lives?

I learned about the school’s “Counter Narrators” campaign at an event a few months ago, a forum on the problem of over-testing in Chicago.  At that time, Alejandra Frausto, the Curriculum Director of RLLA, held up the t-shirt the students designed.  On the front, it said, “Counter Narrator,” on the back was an Einstein quote: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything is counted that counts.”  Alejandra spoke about the multiple meanings of “counter narrators” – through this campaign, the students are telling a different story about themselves and their community.  The students are transforming the story that casts them as dropouts and gangbangers and claiming their creative agency, deeply rooted in community values and support. But their “Counter Narrators” campaign is also drawing attention to the opposing senses of “counting” as a numerical operation and “counting” as what matters. 

The community counts, critical consciousness counts, solidarity counts. So, when confronted by the mandate that they assign the ACT test, the school community takes this emblem of individual competition and success that contradicts their values, and they transform it.  They surround the test-takers with the love and wisdom of the community.  They put the test in the context of the narratives and counter-narratives they study and act on.  As Alejandra explains, “the students take the exam, but they are very critical about what’s happening.” 

The students at Rudy Lozano know what counts, and they know how to counter intimidation – the kind they experience on the street, and the kind they confront within themselves.  And that’s powerful, so measure that


* RLLA Voice vs. Intimidation Competency:

         Manifest a “voice” that articulates one’s place and that of others simultaneously for justice in the world

         Communicate effectively with the world

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.