Friday, June 7, 2013

Pearls Before Swine

June 6, 2013

Dear Tribune Review,

Thank you for covering our story! We highly appreciate you shedding light on our positive activity. With your help, we've hopefully encouraged others. We thank you for taking time from your day to interview us. Our story being included in your successful newspaper will surely touch people's hearts. Most importantly, without your help, Marcus White Jr.'s mother would not have seen people of all ages, colors and neighborhoods in Pittsburgh who have her family in their hearts.

Thank you,

-Langley Justice League

This morning, an eighth grader wrote this thank you note at Langley in appreciation of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. The Tribune Review sent a reporter and a photographer out to our school to cover our Langley Justice League's Marcus White Jr. project. (See Pittsburgh Langley K-8 Justice League in this blog for more details.) She worked quietly, independently, and produced this jewel of a letter.

The letter exhibits the true good that public schools can do. Yes, we teach kids literacy and maths, social studies and science. But a public school funded by taxpayers has a higher, richer obligation than just these skills: we teach kids basics of citizenship in America. To take part in the democracy our founders envisioned, kids need to be able to tolerate difference. They need to be have empathy for others. They need to find themselves in an environment that acknowledges and treasures their individual generosity, kindness, compassion and multiple strengths. Some kids are great at standardized tests. Some kids are great at seeing injustice and responding to it. Which is valued more by our Governor, our Secretary of Education, our President? It ain't the answer it should be.

The beauty kids have inside. This is the sticky part, the part that can't easily be quantified, data-fied, measured, marked, evaluated and yes-- tested. This is the part that matters the most. And this is what teachers from Detroit to Philadelphia to Chicago to Seattle to Sacramento have been fighting for. The right to nurture the gifts their students have as people. With fully funded music, sports, art, library classes-- and flexibility in the core subject areas so "teachable moments" from the wider world are welcomed, not feared or avoided.

It took an outlaw to create the Langley Justice League. Here's a circuitous route to what I mean: I was let go from Community Day School a year ago. Since then, I've been subbing in Pittsburgh Public Schools. I've applied for many jobs in this District and outside of it, getting none of them. So I continue to sub. I gross $100 a day for this work, and it is hard. I have financial obligations I'm not meeting. I spend a lot of time doing manual labor in 90-degree heat and other things below my area of skill and expertise. I'm outside the system, looking in. That sucks. What doesn't suck is the freedom I have.

I don't have to teach a curriculum somebody from afar designed. I don't have to worry about pacing-- getting the whole curriculum done, which can disallow forays into topical subjects. I can swerve into current events-- the local murder of a toddler, for example-- without fearing my VAM score will drop, or my RISE evaluation will be poor. Being the lowest man on the totem pole has it's advantages. As long as I'm doing right by kids, I've been allowed to do what I want to do. But there is a price.

I know if I were to get one of the jobs I'd love to have-- the security of it, the ability to truly grow professionally, the deep relationship building with staff, families and kids, the chance to work at my level of expertise and skill, the chance to earn a salary that a good teacher with a Master's Degree can earn---I'd have to sacrifice. I'd have to sacrifice a lot.

Due to Governor Corbett's billion dollar cuts to our education budget, there are no jobs for school librarians in Pittsburgh. Due to people's apathy to the damage done by programs like EITC credits and other back-door vouchers and the $1 million a day over payments to on-line charters, our public schools are-- in Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation's words-- bleeding out.. I'd have to go back to school, get an additional certification, pass more expensive PRAXIS tests, gain certification in another area-- one that is less aligned with my interests, skills and gifts-- I'd have to sacrifice my Master's in Library Science. I'd have to become a different kind of teacher to get a job in this District. And that's supposing that even though we are on track to be BANKRUPT in 2 years, I'd get any job-- in any certification area. It seems like a bad bet.

And if I got a job, I'd be responsible for upholding the dictates of No Child Left Behind and the implementation of the Common Core. My wings would be clipped to some extent by these damaging educational policies.

So I'm subbing. And I'm being allowed to teach the way I want to. I show up with my own curricula (based on what the required curricula are) and my own supplies and technology, because no school I've been in had adequate amounts of either to meet my needs. I pay for the freedom I enjoy in classrooms throughout Pittsburgh with the fact that I don't have a permanent job. Most teachers can't do that-- they have a job, they have their curricula, they have their RISE and VAM to think about-- they have to keep their kids' health insurance, their wages coming in. Many don't have a husband (like I do) or a wife who makes a salary that keeps food on the table and health insurance that fills their kids' cavities, puts glasses on their kids' eyes, and pays for their kids' antibiotics and hospital stays if they quit. To teach how they want to. To sub, like I can. If they have a Principal who is focused on test scores to the exclusion of other things, they are trapped. It's not fair. It's terrible for kids and it's terrible for teachers. It's terrible for our city, our state, our country.

Teachers are ACHING to be the teachers they dreamed of being. They want to do special projects, take the time to teach about things in the news as they come up, sew quilts, plant gardens, trash a curriculum if it doesn't apply to the kids in front of them and experiment, be creative, spontaneous, trusted. Sometimes they can do that. Sometimes their Principals, their colleagues, their engaged and active parent base, their school board supports them in this. Other times, they can't. So-- either they take the outlaw route like me, subbing and hoping for a chance to get some good teaching in there--or they hope for an incoming Principal who will allow them to break rules. Principals would like to break more rules, too. They want good teaching to happen. So do folks at the Board of Education in Pittsburgh. They sincerely want Pittsburgh Public Schools to be all they can be, and often are, in spite of a despotic Governor, anorexic funding and vampiric educational policy.

But there are state dictates that must be fulfilled. They are tied to funding. And that's the part that sucks the most. The Catch-22. It would be nice to be a district wealthy enough to turn down the dictates that come with the funding associated with Common Core, Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

As I walked in to school this morning, a teacher I've seen but don't know well congratulated me on our Justice League making the TV news and the newspaper last night and today. Then she said, "...that tall boy...the one in the picture in the newspaper? I've gotten to know him a little. Do you think we can find a way to get him some private music lessons? He's so gifted. He has so much good inside him. I don't want him to go the wrong way. He's so special. Who can we call to get him some music instruction? He deserves it so much..." This is a white, middle aged woman, a teacher for many years. As teachers do, she is advocating for an African American boy not her own. Will this affect her VAM or her RISE score?

How about the Principal at a different school, the one who is buying a homeless child a suit for graduation because his parents are deceased? Will this affect his evaluation?

Of course it won't. The thought of trying to quantify these humane instincts is repugnant. These are the people and stories that make public education what it truly is. A place where democracy is lived. A place where teachers and administrators are first responders to poverty. THE place, for some, where children are noticed, and known, fed, clothed, loved. Can't quantify that, Mrs. Rhee, Mr. Duncan, Mr. Obama. Can't-- and shouldn't-- turn that into data, Mr. Gates.

You shouldn't have to be an outlaw to be a good teacher. You should be allowed to adapt curricula to the kids you have in front of you, not worry about what will happen if you don't implement outdated, boring or inappropriate stuff. You should have everything you need to teach well-- enough time, technology, money, supplies, air conditioning, clean schools. Kids should have music, art, library, sports, and flexible curricula offered by rested, trusted, treasured teachers not stressed and under the gun. Teachers shouldn't be wracking their brains for ways to get kids the enrichment opportunities they need and deserve.

 Principals should be trusted to allow teachers to invent their own flexible curricula. Boards of Education shouldn't have to choose between cutting off an arm or a leg to provide adequate education for their kids. And most importantly, the jewels of our country, our national treasure-- our children-- shouldn't be pearls before the swine of failed educational policies dictating so much of their lives.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Pittsburgh Langley K-8 Justice League

When kids decide to change the world, amazing things happen. Subbing at Pittsburgh Langley K-8, I began work with a novel study intervention group. These 8th graders had been working with Mrs. Ebony Lunsford-Evans, who, a week or two into my new assignment, sat at her desk, crying. She had just heard the terrible story about the murder of an 18-month old in East Hills. Marcus Lamont White, Jr. was at an afternoon cook-out with his two Aunties. Somebody started shooting at the group. One Aunt tried to shield the baby with her body. She was shot twice. The other Aunt was shot in her leg. Little Marcus was shot and horrifically, died.

Mrs. Evans was just destroyed. I had heard the news too. We decided to scrap our lesson plans for the day and just talk to the kids about what had happened.

That's when our kids decided they had a choice about how to respond. They decided to do a fund raiser to benefit the family. Working with the most amazing human being on the planet, Mrs. Nancy Burns of CitiParks, they met Tosha Brown, the graphic artist in the video, above. They decided to call themselves F3-- Fighting for Our Future-- or the Langley Justice League. They worked out an equation describing what they are trying to do and who they are trying to be.

Then Nancy brought Chef Odette, Chef Tiny and Chef D to Langley's culinary arts suite. The three experts taught the kids some basic culinary arts skills and helped them to bake many dozen cupcakes, brownies, etc. The sweets were for a bake sale-- manned by the kids. Today was the first day of the bake sale-- and we sold out. We had originally set our goal at $100. We made $285.

Here's the delightful part: lisping Kindergarteners, looking solemnly at the beautiful tall boys selling cupcakes, handing over their dollar bills, awed. Janitors who refused free cookies, demanding to pay for the cause. The teachers who bought their whole classes treats to support Marcus's family. The KDKA reporter who called, wanting to try to cover the story. The reporter from Urban Media Today who showed up, talked to the kids,  stayed for the whole sale, and promised to cover the story.

Media attention to these positive stories is so important. It honors the generous impulse of the child in a way that makes them feel powerful. It models and displays positivity and what Dr. King called Soul Force for all Pittsburghers and the world. And it puts public schools and the good they can do front and center.

Tomorrow our miracle worker, Nancy, is going to try to bring donated fancy cakes from bakeries around the 'burgh to raffle. Demands for t-shirts printed with our equation are loud. And our 8th graders are preparing to graduate-- and take their new model of their own power and potential out into the world. With love and compassion-- for Marcus, and for us, in service to our city.