stephanie jones

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

Money, struggle, and what those of us close to it already knew…

In class-sensitive teaching, economics and economies, social class on October 22, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Recent studies show that folks earning $10,000 a year actually spend about twice their annual income on living expenses.

How is that possible? You ask…

1. They often receive financial support from their family members (making their “better off” family members more economically vulnerable);

2. They borrow money and find themselves in debt from which they never recover;

3. They do odd jobs to earn money that isn’t reported to the IRS (yard sales, handy word, housework, childcare, flea markets, etc.)

Can someone really live on $10,000 a year?

Very difficult unless they are off the grid, living in a vehicle, campsite, etc. and have means to feed themselves without visiting the grocery store or farmer’s market very often. We’re talking a very, very, very simple way of life. Possible? Yes. Possible for everyone? No. But it does beg the question about the role of education in preparing “survivors” who can fend for themselves as adults with low incomes.

Some interesting examples are posted in the article linked above.


Where is the critique of capitalism in education?

In Uncategorized on October 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm

A terrific essay by Peter McLaren urges us to ask why our focus is on educational access and quality as the answer to poverty rather than on the ground upon which we all stand: capitalism. Capitalism demands and requires poverty – and neoliberal capitalism has planted itself and bloomed into infinite shapes and forms more fluid and insidious than the industrial capitalism of our past.

Peter asks why more graduate students aren’t learning about capitalism.

I ask why more K-12 students and their teachers aren’t learning about capitalism.

It’s the air we breathe, the habits we don’t even realize, the language we speak, the consciousness already embedded in us before we had anything to say about it. That’s why we don’t “learn” about it, it is taken as an assumption. Capitalism is believed to be the only way an economy might be imagined. Capitalism has been fed to us with a spoonful of sugar and we’re left with the bitter aftertaste of massive inequities and devastating poverty.

Critiquing capitalism is not – like some would have us believe – being “unpatriotic.” We are not expected to be loyal to our nation’s economic policies and practices, and there is nothing inherently “American” or “Un-American” about capitalism. It is a thing, it is a system, it is a collection of beliefs and assumptions – and all of that can be torn apart, reconsidered, reimagined, and criticized. To not engage in such inquiry of the system that impacts all our lives would, indeed, be un-American.


The Myth of Poverty…or stop teaching us your class privileged BS that makes me feel shame

In Uncategorized on October 18, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Find power where you are, learn to deconstruct power and privilege based on economic resources that were determined long before you were born, and be savvy and smart about navigating the social and political terrain where you are and where you want to go.

These are some of the lessons one can take from sj Miller’s essay on The Myth of Poverty.


Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Get Schooled Blog Publishes Collective Editorial

In Uncategorized on October 18, 2012 at 1:18 am

This guest editorial, published on the AJC Get Schooled Blog is from the Teaching Georgia Writing Collective.

Vote No on Georgia’s House Bill 797.

Be on the Right Side of History – Vote No on Georgia HB 797

In democracy, discourse, Education Policy, politics on October 16, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Another essay from the Teaching Georgia Writing Collective…

Be On the Right Side of History: Vote No on House Bill 797

An essay by the Teaching Georgia Writing Collective

As Georgia citizens, stakeholders, and voters we sit at a crossroads in deciding the long-term health of our public education system. Opening the floodgates to for-profit charter schools across the state of Georgia will have devastating long-term effects on our state’s public education. Vote No on House Bill 797 this November, but don’t do it because we want you to. Vote No because you know the facts.

Some Facts

Voting No will not change the authority of local school districts and the state to approve charter schools. Charter schools will still exist, and they will still be approved. If passed, the constitutional amendment will shift more authority to the state for approval with strings attached to state funds that will flow to those charter schools when we aren’t even fully funding our existing public schools.

On May 3, 2012, the Governor Deal signed a bill that will restore the state’s power to approve and finance charter schools without local school district approval. The legislation, however, needs voter approval in November because this bill – HB 797 – is a constitutional amendment.

The governor signed the bill at Cherokee Charter Academy, in Canton, Georgia, a school that received in excess of $1,000,000 in state funds as start-up capital. That is a million dollars just to get started, in an era of austerity when public schools are forced to furlough and lay-off teachers, shorten the school year calendar, and cut crucial support for media centers and the arts. If our state can’t afford to fully fund our public schools right now, why would we invite for-profit charters in and promise them dollars we don’t have? This, alone, should cause an eyebrow or two to be raised.

Without the approval of local districts, Georgia will open its educational system to a stampede of charter school corporations and real estate brokers who see this bill as a cash cow. These out-of-state corporations are funneling dollars into Georgia right now to get this amendment passed, and if we pass the amendment, we will funnel those dollars and many more right back into their corporate pockets.

How well do charter schools perform?

Most charter schools simply do not do as well as their public school counterparts, and according to research most students would be better off going to public schools.

Why would politicians be willing to “sell off” our public good – state education – and turn it over to other interests? Michael Klonsky claims that powerful conservative forces are pushing for less regulation over charter schools, and more teacher evaluations tied directly to student test scores. These moves by the Georgia legislature will result in the overall weakening of Georgia Public Schools. Pushing professional educators to the sidelines and moving corporate interests into public education is a huge mistake.

Corporate interests?

Yes, behind this move to make it easier to establish charter schools is the existence of for-profit charter school organizations that are ready to move in and use state and local funds to manage charter schools. In some states, new charter schools receive start up funds at a time when public schools are having to furlough teachers and administrators and cut jobs and services just to meet the budget.

According to a report by Dick Yarbrough, charter schools appear to be about money and politics and influence peddling. He wonders why, with the Georgia Department of Education reporting that charter schools don’t perform as well as traditional public schools and their graduation rates are no better, the Georgia legislature is so bent on changing the State Constitution to allow charters to be created by an appointed state commission. The Supreme Court of Georgia ruled that doing so is unconstitutional – which is why we are now faced with a vote that would change the constitution.

Charter schools in other states do not compete favorably with traditional public schools. Why this big push for more charter schools?

Answer: For-profit charter networks

As Yarbrough reported, the Miami-Herald did a study of charter school operators in Florida, and found that it is nearly a half-billion dollar business, and one of the fastest growing industries in Florida. According to the newspaper report, charter school industry is “backed by real-estate developers and promoted by politicians” and “rife with insider deals and potential conflicts of interest.”

In Florida, management companies run almost two-thirds of charters. The management companies charge fees that sometime exceed $1 million per year per school. On top of such fees, these management companies frequently own the land and/or the buildings where the school is housed, and charge either the state or the local school system rent.

Would the state use taxpayers’ dollars to fund McDonald’s?

Let’s think about this in terms we might better understand given our limited experience with for-profit schooling: Imagine McDonald’s receiving money from the state to build its restaurants and open the doors; after its restaurants are built the state gives McDonald’s money for every customer that walks in the door; then state money has to go to pay the annual fee to McDonald’s to pay for its accounting and human resources management; and since McDonald’s owns the land or the building where the restaurant is housed, it charges the state rent.

What if the result of this kind of business model? McDonald’s (or the privately owned and run charter school) accumulates more and more money from taxpayers, leaving them with a good they can no longer call their own and no longer have control over. Would we ever put up with McDonald’s siphoning off taxpayer dollars to this extent? Would we amend the constitution to allow this to happen at the state level with no local approval?


Vote No on the Charter Bill Legislation in November and tell Georgia Legislators that we don’t want to end up like Florida. Tell them we don’t want the locus of control of public school districts outside of local elected school boards, and placed in the hands of for-profit charter schools run by corporations that don’t understand or care about local needs.

Our political leaders have turned what started out as a good idea—the creation of charter schools to meet particular local needs—into a political battleground where money takes precedent over education. Lurking in the fringes of this battleground are corporations that see public education as a new market in which to make bets and money – on the backs of our Georgia children and youth.

Be on the right side of history in November, and on the right side of our children and their futures. Vote No on House Bill 797.

Tell me more about the hopes and woes of public education

In Uncategorized on October 16, 2012 at 3:15 pm

National Public Radio’s Tell Me More aired a great show last week on education with Arne Duncan.

Among the highlights:

– Education is the best investment we can make as a nation

– Raise status and pay for teachers to attract and retain the best teachers where they are most needed

– Move away from high-stakes testing and toward looking at growth and improvement

– Finding ways to give kids and communities access to ‘wrap-around’ services at schools that are open 7 days a week 10, 12, 14 hours a day

And for a “different point of view” the interview turned to Margaret Spellings.

Among the highlights:

– Teacher union contracts “allow teachers to choose where they teach” – and this is a deterrent to educational improvement – and teachers tend to choose to teach near where they live so they have shorter commutes, etc.  (With all due respect, Margaret, have you lost your mind??!! To attack teacher unions as your favorite pasttime is one thing, but to say they allow their members to apply to – and work at – places that are close to where they live is something entirely different. Do other professions – law, medicine, finance, etc. – tell their individual professionals where they can and cannot work? Lots of teachers choose to teach in inner city schools, and more might do so if they were treated with an ounce of dignity and respect.)

– “We have teachers deciding where they get to place themselves” – and this is why education is failing. Again – really Margaret? Thanks to Michel to asking if this means teachers should be treated like enlistees in the military.

– NCLB waivers, granted by Obama’s administration, aligns with “soft bigotry” of low expectations for kids (says Spellings). Well, we’ll just have to wait and see about that.


How and why do we learn to write?

In creativity, critical literacy, Education Policy on October 3, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Now that the Common Core Standards includes writing, people all over the country are scurrying around to knock down the cobwebs of good writing instruction from years past in an effort to be in compliance with new requirements. Of course we should have been focusing on writing in schools all along during the torturous decade when phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (sponsored by The National Reading Panel and No Child Left Behind) high-jacked literacy in every school across America.

All good educators knew the policies of NCLB and the practices of the NRP were too narrow and potentially disastrous. But it is the rare school (and school leader) where one can find a persistent push through the BS mandates passed by legislators and accompanied by pendulum swings and money-making products. Writing instruction managed to maintain a central role in some schools, hanging on by a thread and endangered by any drop in test scores, but in others it was pushed aside without another thought.

The good news is that writing has been deemed important again by the all powerful legislators. The bad news is that educators, children, and youth all over the country are caught up in another swirling whirlwind of curricular and instructional changes as the Common Core is “rolled out” across states, districts, and individual schools.

What I’m most worried about, however, is that old debates about how and why writing should be taught will re-emerge and distract us from the important work of figuring out what kids already do and know, and build on that foundation to make them the most capable writers possible who can shift between critical essays, engaging fiction, compelling expository texts, persuasive pieces, and writing that is used for many different personal purposes.

I’m worried that writing “to” the standards will result in standardized writing – the boring formulaic, disengaged writing that no one wants to read. Enough to meet the minimum requirements, and not enough to compel anyone to read.

I’m worried that we will forget why people want to write to begin with, and that motivation for grades or rubric scores will trump the real-life motivations for writing that students always have: teaching others what they know, telling others about their perspective, communicating with and about the broader world, and exploring their personal experiences and social analysis through creative modes that make living more fulfilling.

I’m worried that, once again, the “audience” for student writing will be the teacher with the rubric and the (not red) ink pen that gets the final word.

I’m worried that writing will be simplified: conventions over creativity; or creativity over conventions; or formulaic writing over free-writes; or, or, or, or.

Writing is broad and deep and complex and multilayered. Writing is about spelling and grammar and punctuation and creative selection of words and use of metaphor and analogy and symbolism; writing is about taking a stand, writing on the bias, research and inquiry, making things matter; writing is about personal exploration and political analysis and personal communication and crafting public policy; writing is all these things and more – and that cannot fit in a standard, in one approach, in one series of lessons, or in one program.

If we make students, their interests and their voices matter in schools, then we can open up the gates of motivation for writing. And we will have to teach them everything just as we will have to be willing to learn from them as they show us some tricks and techniques of their own.

If we make the desires of “future employers” the focus of our work rather than the students in front of us, we will fail from the beginning.


Creativity is Not the Enemy of Good Writing

In Education Policy, language, literacy on October 2, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Thanks to The Atlantic for publishing this essay I co-authored with Bob Fecho:

Creativity Is Not the Enemy of Good Writing

1 OCT 1 2012, 9:45 AM ET 7

Parasites were the subject of inquiry on a recent broadcast of Radiolab, a National Public Radio science show. Prior to hearing this broadcast, Bob, like most of us, was given to depicting parasites in cold, harsh terms. They were ugly and repellant organisms that lived off the nutrients of others. They conjured up images of the leeches covering Humphrey Bogart’s body in The African Queen and, as the Radiolab broadcast suggested in its opening sequence, the alien that emerged from the chest of the space crew of that eponymous movie.

However by the end of the broadcast, Bob had a revelation: the relationship between humans and parasites is far more complex than he had ever imagined or his high school science teacher ever let on. Among several enlightening aspects, the show dealt with the finding that parasites, particularly hookworms, help control hyper inflammatory response in people with allergies. To this end, scientists are experimenting with parasite therapy with fairly positive results.

What does a story on parasites have to do with the administration, teachers, and students of New Dorp High School and their writing instruction as highlighted in “The Writing Revolution” by Peg Tyre? We suspect that Bob’s initial understanding of parasites was based on a rudimentary inquiry into the subject, a reliance on what is often construed as established fact, and a desire to come to a simple, but satisfactory conclusion.

We, Stephanie and Bob, worry that the writing initiative at New Dorp is being viewed with a similar kind of narrow vision, perpetuating the simple and unhelpful dichotomies often construed as established fact in education rather than a deep inquiry into the complexities inherent in teaching and learning.

When positive change occurs in schools, there is a tendency to want to treat the experience like a controlled experiment in a lab, latch on to the latest innovation at that school, and then market it to schools everywhere. In the case of New Dorp, it’s the twin ideas of focusing on expository writing and the direct teaching of language structure. These two ideas are set in opposition to two others in the story: creative expression in writing and writing skills being “caught” (rather than “taught”) in student-centered classrooms.

These dichotomies don’t exist in real classrooms, nor in the theories and practices grounding powerful literacy teaching.

One example is the “structured speaking” highlighted in the article: Students were asked to respond to specific prompts during class discussions (e.g., “I agree/disagree with ____ because…”). However, similar kinds of exchanges can also be heard in student-centered reading and writing workshops, which have long embraced direct teaching of language, reading, and writing (including expository writing). Evidence of such explicit teaching can be found in volumes of books and dozens of binders produced through New York City’s own Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, arguably an epicenter of workshop teaching where it is always assumed that nothing can replace strong teaching and never assumed that writing will simply be “caught” by students.

Beyond our uneasiness with such dichotomies, we believe the key to the revolution at New Dorp is much more powerful and foundational than a particular approach to teaching writing or even an emphasis on language education. Empowering teachers to engage their professional knowledge and intellect and take charge of their teaching and learning is the revelation we see in Tyre’s article.The principal and faculty, Tyre writes, “began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp’s students were failing.”

In other words, instead of looking outside to standards, new materials, high-tech resources, and external experts for the illusory magic writing solution, New Dorp began a research project conducted by their teachers in their own school. In doing so, teachers were positioned as researchers of students and student work in their classrooms. They began a deep inquiry into what students were and were not doing, which became data they used to shape their instruction and tailor it to the needs of their students.

In doing so, perhaps teachers became less interested in assigning blame, which is too often heaped on working-class and poor students who are perceived as having low intelligence and limited capabilities because of their “non-standard” oral English.

This points to a more subtle and insidious threat to teaching and learning in schools like New Dorp: classism. Linguists concerned with issues of social class demonstrated long ago the fallacy of correlating oral language with intelligence, and yet this myth persists and often shapes assumptions educators and others have about working-class and poor students, making them already “known” to be less capable and more culpable for their own failures to succeed.

Learning about both the strengths and struggles of students can help teachers rethink their instruction. By viewing their students as capable learners, it seems New Dorp teachers innovated methods that — with concerted, consistent, and compassionate support — led the students to conceive of themselves as writers, particularly of academic prose. The fact that this initiative was taken on as a school-wide effort impressed upon the students and the teachers that what they were doing was important for learning.

“We teach students, not programs,” a local administrator recently told Stephanie. If we had to guess, it sounds as if New Dorp High School, as portrayed in Tyre’s article, has decided to teach students. Teachers were positioned to use their professional knowledge and experiences to learn about their students, analyze their writing, and be invested in their success.

Despite David Coleman’s despicable charge that “people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think” in the real world — when teachers teach as if they do give a shit about what students feel or think, revolutions like the one at New Dorp take hold. David Coleman is dead wrong about the real world and his advice for teachers is dangerous. Instead, when teachers invest themselves in deep inquiry into their own practice, they gain the intellectual and emotional commitment necessary to teach in ways that are in the best interest of students.

What worries us about most media portrayals of education is the emphasis on results over process. As new teachers enter New Dorp, for example, they might be told to teach this writing “program” without having engaged in the intellectual work of searching for and responding to the most pertinent needs of their student writers.

And it can’t be assumed that the students of New Dorp five years from now will be more or less the same as current students and in need of the same kind of instruction. Nothing, given our globalized and technological world, could be less true. Unless attempts are made to replicate the inquiry process and reassess student needs and teacher instruction, then, if we had to guess, the program won’t be nearly as successful, and a new crisis will emerge that only committed and empowered teachers will be able to solve.

Desperate educational situations all over the country are emerging out of the ashes of more than a decade of policies that forced schools into narrowing their curriculum and teaching to the test. Should we be surprised that students from under-resourced schools haven’t learned to be the strong analytical writers we wish they were? They have spent their entire school careers in the very places where surveillance was the most stringent, teaching the “standards” most scripted, and controlling the pace and content of instruction the most rigid.

Despite such restrictive policies and in the face of harsh criticism from media and politicians infatuated with tests and scores, many teachers in marginalized schools have struggled to hold onto their professionalism and integrity. As a result, and with few exceptions, underprivileged schools have suffered most deeply the consequences of poor state and national policies promoting test preparation as a guise for education.

But a return to more rigid teaching methods is not a way to solve the writing crisis in underprivileged schools. Actually teaching writing will help, and it seems that may begin to happen again after a decade of No Child Left Behind and the emphasis on skills-based reading instruction as a placeholder for literacy writ-large.

Teaching language will also help, though most of us equate language learning to parts of speech and diagramming sentences, which isn’t the kind of language learning we are necessarily talking about. Instead, we argue that helping students inquire into the way language is used for them, against them, and by them will help them to see the written word as something they control rather than it controlling them.

If anything should be replicated from the experience of teachers, administrators, and students at New Dorp High School, it’s the process they used for inquiring into the needs of their students and the cohesive and comprehensive plan they developed for addressing those needs. It is in that complexity, not the misguided adoption of programs from school-to-school, that new and insightful revelations are born.

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