“What’s Goin’ On?”

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The headlines regarding Minneapolis Public Schools have not been good, at least from the perspective of an administration that adopted Teach For America, Focused Learning and a new IT overhaul. None of these seem to be working and those paying the price are the children. Ignoring common sense that says teachers with longevity better serve young people, especially in needy schools, brand new college graduates with minimal training or education background were put in the poorest schools. At the same time research was reinforcing what many of us who have taught for years in city classrooms know: an experienced, supported teacher is more effective than new teachers no matter how academically “bright” and well meaning these young people are. A seven year teacher from one of the schools on the Northside said that her school was in chaos because of the turnover among TFA teachers, some leaving in mid year. She loved teaching kids from these neighborhoods and yet she said in her building fifth graders were actually on lock down one recent warm May afternoon. She did not specify why.

Focused Learning, which involves trying to get everyone on the same page on the same day, has a noble aim: to keep students moving along at the same rate in all our schools so that no child gets “left behind”. However, and this is a big however, this has been taken to an absurd length, where in some classrooms students have not understood the content from Tuesday, but their teachers are told by those monitoring this regimented system, to go along to the “next lesson” on Wednesday so that everyone is on the same page across the district. I don’t think anyone truly believes that we have to take this “same page” literally. Yet teachers are pressured to go along to do so no matter how much extra time some classes might need to grasp the new material. What do you build on then?

Then there is the mess in the IT department where people have been fired in large numbers, and a model which emphasized work in the buildings with teachers to make sure each had an understanding of what is involved with the latest programs, apps, processes, is changed to one that is centered downtown, away from the actual sites of children, teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers…by these I mean the schools.

Oh I forgot. There are the directives going out to teachers to clear or coordinate whatever they say to reporters or other interested parties– like parents– with the administration. I truly wonder if knowledge of the first amendment is part of the requirements for those who are running the show at Davis. We are blessed to have Sarah Lahm, a reporter for the Daily Planet, doing the dogged work of finding out truths the district does not want us to know.

And oh…again, my mind is so boggled, I forgot the recent doubling of upper level administrators at high salary grades, while eliminating curriculum specialists who go to schools, who are aware of the actuality of a school day, a student population, on the ground level.

Funny, how some things slip my mind. But we don’t really hear much about curriculum anyway, do we? Nope. We hear about rules, or abstractions, or another new organization of the deck chairs. We don’t hear much about what it is our students are studying, what is capturing their imagination (if they are given time to imagine) or their hearts (if they are given time to play, create) or simply their interest. It is almost as if the experts believe, if our teachers would just say the words  “high expectations” enough, along with constant monitoring of tasks that may seem meaningless to our kids, these children, these young people, will engage. For those who have created whole lessons and units and year long thematic plans of study (see Lisa Delpit’s discussion of a year long unit on “Hair” in middle school), and seen how to capture student’s excitement and motivation, we can’t help but be despairing as we see little emphasis on subject, materials, books, activities, visitors as ways to draw our students into our buildings. Instead many of our young people, our children, are marginalized by the system itself. It is enough to make one caught up in cynicism .

Except, there are the stories, each day and night, about places, schools, collaborations, where art is central to every moment of education in a high school in inner city Chicago. Or there is a news report of a car manufacturer who has combined with a school system to provide free further education and training with the ultimate possibility of a well paying full time job in his company. There are individual elementary schools that are doing miraculous things when their teachers have support and encouragement to create vibrant music programs, remarkable story telling units. In all these instances, what strikes me is the fact that teachers are empowered instead of demonized, or demoralized. In these instances many parts of the systems work together to build a family of educators .

Next year my grandson Harry will begin his first public school experience as a kindergartner in New York City. He will be in a school in a very mixed neighborhood in the East Village, culturally and economically, called the Earth School. (I know, remnants of his hippy days of the 70’s.) This school has come together to opt out of standardized testing for the entire building, including parental support to demonstrate that it is possible to challenge the whole system. Yet it takes local work, a day to day, on the ground effort. It takes understanding thae community from which our children come. It takes being in it for the long haul. It takes, also, a desire for play, for joy, for risk: all of which seem to be lacking in the punitive stories of our city school system here in Minneapolis. I know there are fine stories about Edison and its graduation, or Lucy Laney working with two teachers in a classroom to make math accessible for all students (although that program is unsure about its continuation at the moment—need the money for those new administrators?), or even just individual stories about teachers pulling 18 hour days and nights working for their students.

These are, to use a Yiddish word I love, the stories of menschen…people, of integrity and honor… who make the days go each and every week, no matter what new directive, what new oppressive requirement is being manufactured downtown. They make welfare offices humane, they make the front offices of our schools friendly and welcoming, they make the physician’s office less intimidating when we wait for an appointment. Without these people one could fall into grieving. They are local: situated in their communities. They are historical: can track the passage of time where they live, have lived for years. They are compassionate, understanding that even in a “no excuses school” homeless children may fall asleep after not being able to find a place to go to bed the night before and thus may need special arrangements. They are not hooked on orthodoxies but are grounded in real situations, day in and day out. They are not pushovers, either. They will defend students’ right to have a rich, varied curriculum, a building nurse, social worker, or an art program.

Instead of hiring those who come from outside our city, we need someone to look for menschen among us, to nurture their education, and to call them back home to educate our children whom they know so well. They are out there.

Perhaps we need to ignore the headlines for a while. Perhaps we need to be informed while at the same time focused on decency in treating our kids, our teachers, our principals. As we learn about eating locally and then discover excellent fruits and vegetables in our pocket gardens, our farmers’ markets, let’s teach locally. Let’s find what is there, silenced by the negative words of the news or  the latest directive from those who are further and further from the classrooms where kids reside. Let’s create whole new ways of engaging children that taps into their desire to be validated as separate human beings with interests, with greatness, with the odd quirks that make them human. Let’s celebrate this, now that it is June, and let’s start over next year with a new plan to use what is at hand, what is local, to find those who understand from where our children come.

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