stephanie jones

Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

How do schools wound?

In Uncategorized on June 30, 2011 at 2:44 am

Thanks to E.S. for sending this link along about research related to the long-term wounds schools inflict. It’s not only “guys like him” (last post) that are wounded…so many different people are forever shaped by their painful experiences in schools. Check it out.

“Guys like me…” a story for educators and policy makers

In anti-bias teaching, creativity, democracy, discourse, Education Policy, every day stories, justice, personal narratives, social class, Standing up for Kids, teacher education resources, work and workers on June 28, 2011 at 3:58 am

A tear glistened in the corner of his eye.

I looked away for a moment and he wiped under his glasses, erasing the physical evidence of an emotional history that just won’t go away.

“I might have had a hard time reading, but I could do so much,” he told me.

“They just decided I wouldn’t amount to anything so I was de-celerated. They thought my friend was good in math, so he was ac-celerated. I mean – that’s that. They just decided then and there that he was going to be something and I wasn’t.”

He hasn’t been in elementary school for at least forty years, but here he is giving a detailed recounting of a young boy in school and all going terribly wrong.

“I mean, I am really good at so many things. I build engines. I work really well with people. I am a dedicated worker. One-hundred ten percent. That’s what they say about me – no matter what it is, I give one hundred and ten percent.”

He talks about his yard at home today, the careful manicuring of it, the careful planting of flowers, the pruning of bushes and trees, the miniature fish pond.

“Even my work at home – I give one hundred and ten percent. They had no right to say I was dumb.”

You’re right, I said, I consider that abuse.

“The truth is they should have accelerated me. If teachers think someone is struggling, that child should not be put in a slower class, they should be put in a class that speeds up their learning. Accelerate them.”

I just listened.

Always moved by the insight people have about institutions, specifically schools, and why they go so wrong.

Always wondering how and why they’re able to point to gaping holes and blatant problems when people on the inside can’t often see them.

“Guys like me aren’t bad. We aren’t stupid. We are smart, we’re just smart at different things. Good at different things. And I can read, I read all the time. Give me any book or manual about work or engines and I know exactly what it’s saying.”

I agree, I said. School should be the place where everyone can be good and everyone can be smart. Schools can change to make sure the conditions are right for everyone to be perceived as good and smart – at different things.

“You agree with me then?” he asked.

For the first time I realized that he had been preparing for a debate, preparing to convince me that he was right and that schools (including educators like me) were wrong. He sort of knew me as a family friend, knew I was a college professor in another state, knew I was friendly enough but assumed I was like every other teacher he had come across in his life – in line with the school way of categorizing and labeling and accelerating and decelerating and only caring about how fast someone learns to read and how well they do on tests.

Yes I agree with you.

“Is it changing then? I mean, are schools changing now and not doing those things?” he asked.

Unfortunately not most schools – but a lot of people are trying to make changes, I said.

“Are you teaching the new teachers to be different?” he asked.

I am trying. One thing I do is have my students read chapters and books about motorcycle repair, waitressing, plumbing, and carpentry.

The first hint of a smile spreads across his face, “You do?”

Yeah. Most teachers don’t understand the intelligence and creativity it takes to work on cars, build things, work in service industries. I hope that if they understand more about intelligence and creativity in these ways they might recognize every student’s amazing potential.

We smile silently for awhile and I look away unable to stare at the deep emotional scars this man has carried with him for all these years.

“The other day I was cleaning out my garage and found a sign my mom gave me when I was younger. It says, “God don’t make junk,” and it has a picture of a little boy on it. She gave that to me. She knew the teachers thought I was stupid and she didn’t want me to think I was stupid. That’s tough.”

More silence and a wave of guilt and shame washes over me. Why do I choose to be a part of an institution that inflicts just as much pain and damage as it does joy and optimism?

I often tell my undergraduates, “Just please don’t be the teacher that sends the forty-year-old to therapy.” It’s kind of a joke and kind of not – it’s a reminder that what we do and say to people today impacts their lives in ways that we will never fully understand, and at the very least, we should aim to do no damage.

But guys like him don’t go to therapists.

They’re tough guys. Working guys. Family guys. Hanging out with the buddies and a beer guys. Mowing the lawn on Saturday morning guys.

Guys like him don’t talk about a second grade teacher and a middle school teacher and everyone in between and how those school years damaged them in irreparable ways and about a poster their mother gave them in elementary school to combat the teachers at school and how that poster just happens to still be in the garage when they’re middle-aged guys.

Until they do.

Until he does.

Then a tear glistens and escapes and a strange specimen of a woman asks, “Can I write your story?” and he agrees, if I think it will help someone.

He nods his head, “Just one person, you know. If you can just help one person know that he is smart and can do anything he puts his mind to. Or just help one teacher who can then make a difference to so many people. Then that’s worth it.”

I sat there recalling the stories told by Native Americans who experienced the Indian Boarding Schools and how they cried, sobbed, and revealed so much pain and anxiety because of their experiences in those educational institutions.

I imagined what we might learn from a 2-hour special of guys like him looking straight into the camera and telling educators how they had them wrong all those years – had it all wrong – and how teachers’ perceptions drilled holes through their dignity and confidence and courage and potential.

Perhaps I’ll work on a bigger project sometime soon, but for now, maybe a glimpse of one guy’s story might just get someone’s attention.



a thousand paths to happiness…including one little book

In communities, creativity, democracy, Education Policy, family-school relations, freedom, great books, institutions, justice, teacher education on June 25, 2011 at 11:26 pm

“There are thousands of paths that lead to happiness, but you have accepted only one. You have not considered other paths because you think that yours is the only one that leads to happiness. You have followed this path with all your might, and so the other paths, the thousands of others, have remained closed to you.” Thich Nhat Hanh’s new book, you are here: Discovering the magic of the present moment, is such a delightful treat to read and consider and I am enjoying myself immensely each day when I settle in and drink another paragraph of wisdom.

A thousand paths to happiness has me really thinking though, and I couldn’t resist jumping on the computer and pounding out a few lines (one thing that often makes me happy) about this notion and what it might mean to me – at least in this moment.

If there are, indeed, thousands of paths to happiness, then all of those thousands of paths should be encouraged and valued and celebrated and shared. In other words, diversity wins again, and not only should we encourage and celebrate diversity, but we should do everything possible to prevent any kind of restrictive ideas that limit possibilities and promote standardization of human beings and life in any way.

If there are, indeed, thousands of paths to happiness, then why aren’t we actively teaching children and youth to seek happiness, or better yet to “be free to experience the happiness that just comes to us without our having to seek it” (Thich Nhat Hanh, p. 75). This could move us a long way beyond the false promise of a “good job” so well-advertised throughout every level of education.

If school isn’t about promoting thousands of paths toward happiness, then what is it and why would we want to do something other than teach toward happiness?

Some readers are blowing me off now, huffing and puffing at their screen because they think it’s all fluff to teach happiness – so without going into excessive detail here, I’ll add that working with passion and engaging in intellectual journeys around academic content or in a workplace can be a path to happiness. Don’t worry reader – we’re not going to end up with a society of non- “workers” because everyone is sitting lotus-style in a forest seeking happiness. We might, however, end up with lots of people who refuse to sell their soul and time/life to corporations doing meaningless “work.” Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Has anyone out there ever read a school vision statement that included the words “happy” or “happiness”? I’d love to hear if you have.

And this ‘thousands of paths’ has me thinking of other things regarding “diversity” – we humans are all just different and somehow we keep trying to shove us all into the same-sized box. Just like ecological diversity is imperative to the survival of earth, human diversity is also imperative to the (healthy) survival of the species. While this is not only about the “size” of us humans (it’s also about our lifestyles, family and community structures, livelihoods, homes, interactions, relationships, physical looks, tastes, etc. etc.), diversity in size and shape should also be a consideration. I’m stuck on this a bit because of the recent onslaught of the “Obesity Epidemic” across the country and the fetish we seem to currently have around body measurements, plastic surgery, and the persistent metaphorical and literal chiseling away at natural diversity among bodies.

Just one example –

Body Mass Index (BMI)  and the push for schools to include children’s BMI on report cards even though CDC reports there is no evidence that such actions would change anything about childhood health and/or obesity.

Folks have – and will continue – to debate me that “there is a real obesity epidemic – parents need to know their children’s BMI and what those numbers mean and get control over what their children are eating.” Okay – and what role has school and Corporate America played in this heavy-ing of America’s children? Do we slap some numbers onto a child’s report card and insist that parents do something to change those numbers when kids are at school 7-8 hours a day and have to complete 2 hours of homework between 4pm and the 8pm bedtime? I might be exaggerating a bit in some contexts, and underestimating in others – but this is yet another way to tell parents how they are the individuals to blame for a societal problem that is only exacerbated in schools: over-processed foods are served for breakfast and lunch in cafeterias and recess is non-existent for most children above the age 8 and limited to only 10 minutes for children up to 8 in public schools.

Hmmmmm….schools work harder and harder to get kids to sit still and be quiet for 7 hours at a time preparing for tests and covering standards while only breaking to eat over-processed foods that are high in fat and sodium, then expect the kids to sit at home for 2 more hours at night to do homework and schools are going to “report” children’s BMI to parents so the parents can fix it?

I’m against the use of numbers for nearly everything and BMI is included – I always believe a holistic perspective on a person’s health and lifestyle is much more important than a single number that may be used to determine categories that label and blame and shame people. But let’s pretend for a moment that I accept BMI as some good indicator of a child’s health (even though CDC might argue against that). Perhaps we might allow schools to include the BMI on the report card and demand they also include a specific plan the school will take to ensure the child has access to healthy foods and sufficient exercise and physical play during the day. In other words – the BMI becomes a reflection of the way an institution operates rather than good or poor parenting.

So back to a thousand paths to happiness…

Maybe if we taught children to feel happiness, to see the infinite possibilities for happiness, to see happiness in unexpected places, and to cultivate happiness through mindful practice (including mindful practices of eating), we might find ourselves educating the most diverse, happy, healthy children on earth. What if school’s purpose was to cultivate happiness, peacefulness, contentedness, connectedness? Of course some private schools and home schoolers have been doing this for a long time, but what if public schools put these purposes first and foremost in their work? The possibilities make me smile – and happy.

March with SOS, Diane Ravitch, and Deborah Meier in D.C. on July 30th!

In communities, democracy, Education Policy, Standing up for Kids, teacher education on June 22, 2011 at 1:39 pm

I know a lot of you all are going to D.C. for the July 30th Save Our Schools march – and some of you know that I will be at a dear cousin’s wedding on that day in Ohio (bad timing!!!!). But I’m hoping to get some live video from folks who will be there.

Here is Diane Ravitch’s letter to Deborah Meier (Bridging Differences – Education Week blog) about the upcoming march:

Posted: 21 Jun 2011 06:20 AM PDT
Dear Deborah,
I will be marching with the Save Our Schools coalition of teachers and parents on July 30 in Washington, D.C. I know you will be, too. I hope we are joined by many thousands of concerned citizens who want to save our schools from the bad ideas and bad policies now harming them.
I am marching to protest the status quo of high-stakes testing, attacks on the education profession, and creeping privatization.
I want to protest the federal government’s punitive ideas about school reform, specifically, No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top. Neither of these programs has any validation in research or practice or evidence. The nation’s teachers and parents know that NCLB has been a policy disaster. Race to the Top incorporates the same failed ideas. Why doesn’t Congress know?
I want to protest the wave of school closings caused by these cruel federal policies. Public schools are a public trust, not shoe stores. If they are struggling, they should be improved, not killed.
I want to protest the way that these federal programs have caused states and districts to waste billions of dollars on testing, test preparation, data collection, and an army of high-priced consultants.
I want to protest reliance on high-stakes testing, which has narrowed the curriculum, encouraged gaming the system, and promoted cheating.
I want to express my concern about the effects of 12 years of multiple-choice, standardized testing on children’s cognitive development, and my fear that this reliance on bubble-testing discourages imagination, creativity, and divergent thinking.
I want to express my opposition to an educational system devoted to constant measurement, ranking, and rating of children, which validates the belief that some of our children are winners, while at least half are losers.
I want to speak out against federal policies that promote privatization of public education.
I want to protest federal efforts to encourage entrepreneurs to make money from education, instead of promoting open-source technology, free to all schools.
I want to protest the federal government’s failure to develop long-term plans to improve the recruitment, preparation, and support of the teaching profession.
I want to protest the ill-founded belief that teachers should be evaluated by their students’ test scores, which is a direct result of the Race to the Top.
I want to express my disgust at the constant barrage of attacks on teachers, principals, and public education.
I want to urge Congress and the Obama administration to recognize that federal funding should support equity and benefit the nation’s neediest students.
That was the rationale for passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and it should be the rationale for federal funding today.
I want to urge Congress and the Obama administration to acknowledge that school reform cannot be imposed by legislative fiat, but must be led by those who are most knowledgeable about the needs of children and schools: educators, parents, and local communities.
I want to urge Congress and the Obama administration to recognize the constraints of the Constitution and federalism and to stop using the relatively small financial contribution of the federal government to micromanage the nation’s schools.
I want to urge Congress and the Obama administration to acknowledge that our nation’s public schools have played an essential role in making our nation great. After many historic struggles, their doors are open to all, regardless of race, economic condition, national origin, disability, or language. We must keep their doors open to all and preserve this democratic institution for future generations.
I want to urge Congress and the Obama administration to recognize that our public schools are succeeding, not declining. Since the beginning of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the 1970s, our students have made slow but steady gains in reading and mathematics. Improvement has been especially notable for African-American students. Progress was greatest, ironically, before the implementation of NCLB.
I call on Congress and the Obama administration to cease spreading false claims of educational decline. Since the first international test in 1964, we have never led the world in test scores, and we have often been in the bottom quartile on those tests. Yet, as President Obama said in his State of the Union Address in January, we have the world’s greatest economy, the world’s most productive workers, the most inventors, the most patents, the most successful businesses, and the best universities in the world. And all of these great achievements were created by people who are mainly products of our nation’s public schools.
I urge Congress and the Obama administration to support programs that help children arrive in school ready to learn: assuring that every pregnant woman has appropriate medical care and nutrition; that children have high-quality early-childhood education; and that parents know they have the support they need to help their children grow up healthy and ready to learn.
I am marching because I want every child to attend a school where they can learn not only basic skills, but history, geography, civics, the sciences, and world languages, and have ample opportunity to engage in the arts.
I am marching to support the dignity of the education profession and to express my thanks to the millions of teachers, principals, and other educators who are in the schools every day, doing their best to educate our nation’s children.
I hope the march will revive the morale of our nation’s educators. I hope it will remind the American people that the future of our nation depends on our willingness to protect and improve our public schools, the schools attended by nearly 90 percent of our nation’s children.

Keep my kid off the computer…or, “Will computers replace teachers?”

In creativity, Education Policy, family-school relations, Neoliberalism and Education, Standing up for Kids on June 15, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Are computers replacing teachers already? Read this provocative article and see for yourself.

This is an education issue: the focus on memorization and high-stakes tests aligns nicely with computer-based tasks for kids; but of course most of us hate the focus on low-level “learning” and multiple choice tests that dominate schools today. I don’t want my kid tied to a computer for hours during the day – have you ever watched a kid’s positive energy level and attitude fall to below zero after spending too much time in front of the screen? For all that computer-based technology can offer us in life, it steals much away, including a focus on nature, human contact, creativity in the material world.

Recently a 1st grade teacher told me that her school’s RTI (That’s Response to Intervention) checklist of possibilities for “interventions” for struggling students included a list of 10 possibilities: the first 9 were all computer-based, and what was the 10th possibility? A human-based intervention. ALERT! If your school is naming a teaching/learning interaction as a “human-based intervention” you must know that educational aspirations are not only low, but your job is on the way out the door (and mine’s not far behind).

This is a labor issue: The more number-crunching data-seeking, statistics-acquiring folks get ahold of our education system, the more likely it will be that computers will come to the rescue with standards-based, rigid lessons aligned with tests; multiple-choice tasks to prepare children for test-taking; and repetitive “games” will lure our children into the hypnotic state of screen staring “education.” But guess what? A computer and a few games (and perhaps even the maintenance folks to take care of them…probably housed in India) are cheaper than a knowledgeable, well-educated, creative teacher who can respond individually to each student’s academic, social, and emotional needs. Get a shipment of 1,000 laptops, ipads, or smartphones into a school, set up the children on programs meant to keep them isolated, quiet, and still for hours, and hire a couple folks who don’t know a thing about teaching/learning or the content to walk through rooms filled with hunched over bodies and you’ve got yourself a really cheap way to do school.

But don’t hunch my kid over a high-tech device.

This is a health issue: I know it personally – so those of you who know me have heard this a million times, and you can even an old blog post about it. But here’s the short version – I’m still in physical therapy 2.5 years after experiencing severe pain and depression caused from neck and shoulder injuries caused from hunching over computers writing, reading, sending emails, blogging…well, you get it. For months I couldn’t carry a bag of groceries, wash dishes, or even pick up a skillet. I cried regularly and thought I would even have to find another job. I slept a lot – too much – I couldn’t bear to get out of bed some days. And when I talk to my 20-year-old undergraduates about it, they stare at me with wide eyes and share their stories of stiff fingers, cramped thumbs, numb forearms, aching shoulders, throbbing necks. Our bodies aren’t meant to be hunched over devices such as the one I’m typing on now (doing my best not to hunch, but planning to sign off for the evening very soon). We are ruining our bodies – and I don’t want my kid ruining hers before she is even finished physically growing.

So we need to do the best we can to push the hunching devices and screens (even those over-sized screens hanging in the fronts of many of our classrooms that make kids sit still and stare straight ahead), right back out of the center of education. It’s not only about the centrality of humans interacting in teaching/learning, it’s also about jobs – and thus the economy, and our health.

Listen up Reformers – Parents are looking for something completely different from what you are offering

In communities, creativity, democracy, Education Policy, family-school relations, high-stakes tests, institutions, NCLB, Standing up for Kids on June 15, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Here’s a great article by a parent in Philadelphia – ideas I completely agree with and I really hope Reformers are listening.


And here’s a little story of my own:


I pulled my daughter out of public school last year.

It was one of the most difficult decisions I have made in recent history; one I dreamt about, talked incessantly about, and did everything possible to not make the decision I ultimately made. And even though Hayden isn’t in public school right now, I continue to fight (and scream, and blog, and cry, and work) for public education.

Hayden now attends the “Freedom to Grow UNschool” (sounds lovely, huh?), and with one year under our belt, I am so relieved that I did make that decision. Her third grade year, which would have otherwise been overshadowed by the mandatory state test, was incredible. She studied a local park, researched the medieval times and questioned economic inequities reflected in housing and fashion, she planned and carried out a fashion show as a result – from start to finish, she experienced what it was like to edit the school newspaper published once a month, she studied the Mississippi floods, accelerated her understanding of foundational and analytical math, she learned about the Children’s March during the Civil Rights and connected it to civil rights issues today and what children can do to make a difference, she learned how to compost, how to track animals, identify trees, and use some basic survival skills in the wilderness. She painted and constructed and read and danced and wrote and pretended and analyzed and experimented and inquired and sang and laughed and learned the messiness of maintaining a community where everyone is valued even when everyone doesn’t agree with one another.

All in one school year.

And in a school where there is a “no homework” policy.

Her achievements in 3rd grade were remarkable – truly impressive even if I wasn’t her mother:) And I know things would have been entirely different for her and us had we left her in the school she was attending – a Title I school under the stresses of NCLB where the 3rd grade test is all that matters, teachers were required to be “on the same page”, the gifted class is focused on state standards, field trips are rare, recess almost non-existent, and homework every night. During her 2nd grade year she cried on a regular basis; begged us not to take her to school; had nightmares in her sleep; accidents in her pants (!); regularly lost her 10 minute recess for having to use the restroom at the wrong time of day; and learned that school was a place she had to go, but she never expected it to be a place of joy, curiosity, creativity, exploration, and building a foundation of lifelong learning and engaged citizenship.

What State legislators and other Educational Reformers don’t understand is that parents, like us – even the hard-nosed-public-education-is-the-backbone-of-democracy parents, are sick of the education we have been stuck with since the NCLB hammer started pounding on local schools.

We are sick of the small-thinking.

We are sick of the stress.

We are sick of the standards.

We are sick of the essential questions.

We are sick of the pre-tests, the post-tests, the practice-tests, the “real” tests, the awards for tests, the pep rallies for tests, the “how-to-parent-during-state-testing-week” newsletters, the computerized tests, the reading tests, the math tests, the “if you can write it down on a piece of paper we’re gonna test it” test.

We are sick of AYP.

We are sick of homework that brings on tears and resistance and family misery every night.

We are sick of every child being in “intervention” – constantly – to improve test scores. (Yes, every child in my daughter’s school went to “intervention” every single day…what in the hell kind of education are we creating called intervention??!!)

We want schools to belong to us and to our children and we want inspired and compassionate and intellectual teachers to lead us.

We want our teachers to be creative, and inspiring, and spontaneous, and curious – not stressed out because they’re not on the same page or lesson as the teacher next door, or that they might lose their job because the school isn’t meeting AYP, or that their evaluation and salary might be positively or negatively impacted by students’ test scores, or that their lesson plans aren’t in the right format, or that they didn’t get all their pre- and pre/pre- and post- and post/post- testing done in time. I mean with all that stress, who can respond calmly and compassionately to a child sitting in front of you? Or who can jump up and decide that third or fourth graders studying literary uses of the weather need to run outside when it’s raining to see for themselves all the different ways rain could be used in literature as symbolism? Or who has the energy to schedule guest speakers and local field trips during an intensive study of the local economy and how a community can build sustainable practices and promote more equality amongst its citizens when they have mountains of paperwork to complete and more tests to give and prepare to give? (Oh – and sustainable communities isn’t a part of the Standards, so it’s a side-project to begin with, strategically hidden from other teachers and supervisors).

We want our children to love to learn, to read, to question, to analyze, to contemplate, to sing, to perform, to draw, to play, to have friends, to feel like school is a happy and meaningful place to be.

We want our children to have recess. (Yes, we actually believe that children and adolescents need unstructured play time during the day – we prefer not to think of our pride and joy heading into a sweatshop every day).

We want our children to smile. To feel valued. To be perceived as possibility and promise – not as a potential test score.

In short – my family specifically, and lots of families across this country have suffered because of Educational Reform. And we’re sick of it – every single bit of it. Even the incredibly condescending and superficial “family engagement plans” schools now have to have parents sign and return to school each year.

Give back our teachers.

Give back our rights for a well-rounded, rich, high-quality education.

Give back our children’s childhoods.

Give back our family’s sanity.

Listen up Reformers – you are driving us mad, and driving us away. We are looking for something completely different from the menu of options you are serving.







Teachers and Parents Unite in D.C. July 30th

In Uncategorized on June 5, 2011 at 12:49 pm


Top-Down School Reform has got to go!


Make your plans now to attend the Save Our Schools Rally and March on July 30th in D.C.


And Kudos to SOS for organizing this event!!!



Why talking about social class matters…

In American Dream, classism, institutions, justice, poverty, professional development resources, social class on June 4, 2011 at 3:15 pm


This is why I write about working-class lives and lives lived in economic insecurity.

This is why I reveal so much about my life that others would work hard to hide.

This is why I revel in vulnerability so others can find their footing more confidently.

Listen closely.

You might miss it, because I nearly did and I’m always listening for these things.

There is a slight knock on my office door and a slightly built young woman with sweat beading on her face looks at me as if she is scared and nervous and small. I’m expecting her, a masters student who emailed to ask if she could meet with me about her program of study.

“Do you mind if I sit?” She walks uncomfortably into my office, looking at me with an expression that I can’t place.

“Of course not, please, sit down.”

“I’m here to get some details about my program. I began in the summer and want to finish by next summer.”

“Alright. Well that means you will definitely have to register for comps this semester so you can write in the spring.”

“Can I ask you a stupid question?” she asks, still sweating and not quite looking at me.

“Of course. No questions are stupid.”

“What are comps?”

“Comps is what we call our Comprehensive Exams that all masters students must pass before they graduate.”

I pause and smile.

“I had heard everyone talking about them, but I didn’t know what they were at all. Is it like a test?”

“You will receive five or so questions from which you will choose one to write about, then you will write a ten page paper in response to the question. It’s a good idea to start keeping notes and references now from your readings and courses so you have them nearby as you write, because we do expect that you will cite readings and course discussions to support your argument in the paper. When you turn it in, two faculty members will read it.”

“So it’s not a standardized test or something like that?”

“No, we want to know that you have learned something deeply in your program and can articulate that learning in relation to what it means to teach. It’s a take-home paper.” Smile.

Her face relaxes a bit and I think I know why she’s sweating and nervous. Comps are scary. Not knowing what the scary thing is is even scarier.

“Okay, great. So what have you taken so far?” I ask and pull out a grid to begin penciling in courses that meet requirements in our program as she reports the memorized course numbers and instructor names. When prompted, she describes a bit about the course so I can decide where it “fits” in the program of study. We talk about classes she can take in the spring and she wants to know if I am teaching a course.

“Yes, but it’s a doctoral seminar. “ Strange. I know I’ve never met this young woman, maybe she’s just asking to be nice or she’s heard about me before.

“You know, in my Thursday class we’re reading your book,” is that a redness in her face? “and I read it as an undergraduate and kept it and didn’t sell it back like most of my books and I have so many things underlined. But it’s really amazing that now I feel like I’m getting so many different things out of it and I’m underlining different things. I love your book.”

“Thank you. That’s really nice.”

“I mean, I kind of connected with what you were writing about in your life. I’m the first person to go to college in my family too.”


Of course.

Now the pieces are falling into place.

“And you know, as a junior when we were reading that book and I was surrounded by all these girls in my class who weren’t from families like mine at all, I always felt intimidated by them and I was afraid to speak up. But when we were discussing your book I was like raising my hand! I was telling everyone that I can talk about those things from firsthand experience!”

Smiles – and maybe redness in my face?

“It made me proud.”

“Thank you so much for telling me that – it’s exactly why books like this in school are so important, so people who have never felt quite comfortable in school settings can have a space where they feel privileged and valued. Thank you for sharing that, it makes me really happy that my book could do that for you.”

“It did! And when I found out you worked here I couldn’t believe it! I mean, I thought you were this amazing famous person because you wrote this kind of book.”

Ahhhh. Now the nervousness and sweating is becoming even clearer. She was afraid of meeting me!

“And that’s why I didn’t know what comps were. No one in my family has ever been to college, much less to graduate school, so I have never had a clue. I went to group advising, but I thought I could come here and ask you about comps.”

She talks about her freshman year and earning enough scholarship money to live in a dorm but spending most of her nights at home in a neighborhoing County with her family. By her sophomore year she was living full-time back home and in her junior year she found a roommate who was – very surprising to her! – from a poor family who was proud of their Goodwill shopping, coupon cutting, and figuring out how to eat with little or no money.

“I’ll probably never meet anyone like her again,” she tells me, “but it was perfect that we were roommates. We didn’t have to hide any more.”

Her body and her face transform and she is now a tall-sitting, confident, excited talking young woman who didn’t even resemble the person I had opened my door to.

“Now I’m married and we live in the same apartment that I had with my roommate, in fact, now I’m the resident manager so we only have to pay one-half the rent. We do everything we can to cut down our costs.”

She’s moving to another city next summer and she plans to get there plenty early enough to do community ethnographic work where she’ll be teaching well before school begins, “Just like in your book,” she tells me.

“I did so many of those things even in my student teaching. I did home visits and went to a Quincierita, and really listened and learned about my students’ experiences at home and with money and how I could make connections with them to make sure they felt proud of who they are. I just know that when I have my own classroom I can do even more.”

Our conversation lasted much longer than the 30 minutes I had scheduled it for and I knew my daughter was waiting impatiently for me at the YMCA to pick her up, but these are the moments I continue to revel in.

And marvel at.

When perfect strangers seek me out because of something I said about working-class families or poverty or first generation college students or just because they had been assigned my book.

As we ended our conversation she apologized four times, “I’m sorry I’ve kept you so long.”

“You’re gonna have to work on that you know. Not apologizing. You deserve to be here talking to me just as much as anyone else does. Don’t apologize…I enjoyed the conversation just as much as you did.”

We smile and I want to grab her and hug her and thank her and wish her all the best in her today and future.

But I’ve just met her.

And she was nervous and sweaty about meeting me.

I didn’t want to traumatize her again.

Education Myth Busters

In Uncategorized on June 1, 2011 at 1:11 pm
Five myths about America’s schools
By Paul Farhi, Published: May 20
The end of the school year and the layoffs of tens of thousands of teachers are bringing more attention to reformers’ calls to remake public schools. Today’s school reform movement conflates the motivations and agendas of politicians seeking reelection, religious figures looking to spread the faith and bureaucrats trying to save a dime. Despite an often earnest desire to help our nation’s children, reformers have spread some fundamental misunderstandings about public education.
1. Our schools are failing.
It’s true that schools with large numbers of low-income and English-as-a-second-language students don’t perform as well as those with lots of middle- and upper-middle-class students who speak only English. But the demonization of some schools as “dropout factories” masks an important achievement: The percentage of Americans earning a high school diploma has been rising for 30 years. According to the Department of Education, the percentage of 16-to-24-year-olds who were not enrolled in school and hadn’t earned a diploma or its equivalent fell to 8 percent in 2008.
Average SAT and ACT scores are also up, even with many more — and more diverse — test-takers. On international exams such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, U.S. elementary and middle school students have improved since 1995 and rank near the top among developed countries. Americans do lag behind students in Asian nations such as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan on these tests, but so do Europeans. The gap in math and science scores may be an East-West divide.
2. Unions defend bad teachers.
Unions have proved amenable to removing the bad apples in their ranks — with due process. Montgomery County, for instance, implemented its Peer Assistance and Review program with union cooperation a decade ago. It requires every new teacher and those flagged as “underperforming” by a principal to be observed by a specialist over a school year. All teachers get support, advice and a chance to do better; then they are reevaluated.Those who fall short lose their jobs. Between 2006 and 2010, 245 teachers resigned or were dismissed. Many districts have similar programs, but, as a Harvard study pointed out, they are expensive.
Reformers who attack unions for school problems should mind their logic: Some school systems show better results than others, yet most have teachers’ unions. If unions are universally problematic, why are some students succeeding while others languish?
3. Billionaires know best.
Bill Gates, real estate developer Eli Broad and Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg have made massive financial contributions to public schools to promote pay-for-performance programs, which reward teachers with bonuses when their students do better on standardized tests. They argue that merit pay creates the same incentives for public-sector employees that bonuses do in the private sector.
But the emerging research on merit pay for teachers disputes that.
In a three-year, $10 million study released last fall, Vanderbilt University researchers found no significant difference in performance between students who were taught by middle school teachers eligible for cash bonuses and those who weren’t. That’s no surprise to most teachers; they know that teamwork is key to success. Individual pay-for-performance schemes create the opposite incentive, fostering competition, not collaboration.
Despite this, Gates alone is investing $290 million over seven years in schools in Memphis, Tampa, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. Zuckerberg has endorsed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s merit-pay agenda by pledging $100 millionover the next five years to Newark’s schools, whose budget this year is $940 million.
There’s no doubt that these schools can use every dime that rich guys give. But attaching strings for pet projects is elitist and wasteful.
4. Charter schools are the answer.
President Obama certainly thinks so. He’s said that state limits on the number of charter schools aren’t “good for our children, our economy or our country.” He and Education Secretary Arne Duncan want more charters — taxpayer-supported schools that operate independently of traditional public school systems. About 1.5 million children, or 3 percent of public school students, attended a charter school this past school year. Some have outperformed their non-charter peers, particularly in inner cities.
Credit for that may rest solely with the students, however. Charter school students are among the most motivated, as are their parents, who sought an alternative education for their children and mastered the intricacies of admission.
And siphoning off those better students through choice may create the same disastrous effect as de facto segregation through the geography of poverty — it leaves behind those least able to advocate for themselves and most susceptible to falling through the cracks.
All for results that are not uniformly impressive: A 2010 study of 2,330 middle school students at charter schools in 15 states found that they performed no better in math and science. And a Stanford University study in 2009 concluded: “Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student[s] would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”
5. More effective teachers are the answer.
Former D.C. Schools chief Michelle Rhee and other big-city superintendents called for more effective teachers in a reform “manifesto” published in The Washington Post last fall. Well, sure. Who doesn’t want more effective teachers? While we’re at it, let’s get more effective superintendents, curriculum specialists and principals, too.
Let’s be realistic: Teachers aren’t miracle workers. There’s only so much they can do to address problems that troubled students bring to class every day, including neglect, abuse, and unaddressed medical and mental health issues. The obvious and subtle ways that poverty inhibits a child’s ability to learn — from hearing, visual and dental problems to higher asthma rates to diminished verbal interaction in the home — have been well-documented.
So let’s seek to improve the state of families. Attacking schools and teachers makes everyone feel like a reformer, but the problems begin long before a child steps through the schoolhouse door.
Paul Farhi is a reporter for The Washington Post.
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