Book featured on this page: Baby Beluga, written by Raffi and illustrated by Ashley Wolff.
The Third Way and the Politics of Time
I would like to begin this part of the Just Like Me Project with a reference to the late great Ken Macrorie (d. 2009). His radical and thoughtful book, Uptaught (1970) has as much to do with seeking and defending the intellectual freedom of students and teachers as it does acknowledging the sacred practices of actually teaching English using what Macrorie called "The Third Way" or the "Freedom to follow the direction of one's own movement and the Discipline of considering the response of others to it" (p. 167). The Third Way insists on students and professors/teachers sharing "their expert knowledge and their experience" to teach and to learn. The Third Way elicits writing that wastes few if any words. The Third Way, even now 40 years later, is also a dangerous teaching orientation. It is defiant and direct, and humorous and fully engaging. It is also critical of types of teaching which ignore the interests and choices of students. For instance, Macrorie plainly said, "As they [faculty] lecture to hundreds of students in an auditorium or administer a massive multiple-choice test to thousands in the fieldhouse, many professors do not realize that they are treating college students as children are treated in the most punitive elementary schools. At a higher level, with more sophistication, they carry out little acts every day which reveal them as no less tyrants" than the memos sent home to parents about how to be good chaperones (p. 169). (Isn't every day of parenting, in all its difficult rewards and strenuous struggles, a lesson in being a good chaperone?)
To illustrate what results when one teaches and learns within The Third Way context, Macrorie chose a student essay by Tom Greenwald and, from the first time I read it, it was seared into my mind and my soul. The essay was written the Friday after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. That same day, Macrorie described a scene from campus: "about 200 black students at my university sneaked in the huge Student Union and chained shut all the doors. They held the building for eight hours, eating in its cafeteria in orderly fashion, paying for their meals, cleaning the building before they finally left. Outside, hundreds of white students gathered, some complaining they were being denied the use of their building, separated from morning coffee in the Snack Bar." (p. 170). Beyond the paragraphs excerpted below, the student writer Greenwald goes on to look critically at his own whiteness. He also speaks to the overwhelming "impenetrable insensitivity" he saw in the responses of white people to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; yet, he hoped some would eventually see their blindness as Lear eventually saw his (p. 172).
A Non-Paper on Lear and Tragedy
It would seem that understanding between people can only be accomplished through some act of tragedy, if accomplished at all. We are now living with an act of tragedy that defies understanding, and yet at the same time cries out for understanding. Tragedies are, sadly, nothing new to my generation. We seem to live in an age of violence and hate, where men of good will and good conscience are shot down in our cities' streets as though they were animals. Yet we as a people don't ever seem to learn the lesson. We never seem to do anything about it.
King Lear is an excellent tragedy. Every student of literature should be acquainted with it. I, as an English major, can appreciate it. I can point to the generation gap and say, "See, that was a problem in Shakespeare's time, too." I can point to the disintegration of the family unit within the play and say, "That hasn't changed much either." I can feel the despair that Lear must have felt, old before his time, for he was not yet wise. I can feel the despair because I have grandparents who died without yet being wise, and I never took the time to try to understand them.
Ummm Hello. Hit me with a Non-Paper on Lear any day of the week. Let's get the Grow Wise Before You Grow Old Campaign moving. I want to live in a world where college students comprehend the magnitude of tragedy (and triumph) like this young man has and can put it to words.
For me, this essay also means that language is living and sometimes, the only means we have to move ourselves or others from one day to the next, from one moment to the next, from one generation to the next, and from one struggle to the next. And people who use living language to struggle and to survive and to celebrate this epic moment we are all in together are people who don't live in the past and are people who don't scheme up futures. They are present right now and they use language as an action, as a tool, as a weapon when necessary, to get from one life event to another. And there is a great deal to be learned from these people -- about them and about ourselves.
The rough formula for the creation of texts like the Non-Paper on Lear, in addition to a beautiful, creative, patient mind, seems to be: (a) a critical awareness of social history before the Event (tragedy, celebration, freedom, etc.); (b) access to literatures which explore, challenge, define, or broaden what tragedy, celebration, freedom are; (c) peers who have access to, though likely different ideas about, the same literatures as well as literatures they have read on their own as well as access to the current social climate; (d) the ability to connect reality and now with literature at the moment of tragedy so (e) we can discover the outcome, whatever it is in the literature, and (i) choose a similar path if it led to a resolution or (ii) know which path not to choose if it led to further destruction. We then (iii) imagine new paths to resolution or critique the paths chosen in literature, critique the paths chosen in our social project and put forward new ideas about how, with our own energies and resources, we can rewrite/reright the wrong or gather strength and wisdom from the positive accomplishments of others. Significantly, the magnitude of a single event does not have to match that of the MLK, Jr. assassination. There are social events and histories that are going on around us that need the fresh look and bright eyes of young people to help older adults grow wise before they grow too old. Greenwald's sentence, that one sentence, born out of the dual context of reading Lear and then confronting this immeasurable tragedy, felt around the world, changed for me the entire way I look at and position myself when I return to Lear and when I return to MLK's life, legacy, and death.
In that regard, I have a very serious affinity for addressing the epidemic of growing old before we grow wise in this country. The Politics of Time, which can be contextualized in that resounding line, "old before his time because he was not yet wise", are worth our consideration because truly, we don't have the time to squander on issues that don't connect, that don't make contact, and that don't provoke action. The 2008 election saw the largest number of youth voters since the 1972 presidential election. Much of the youth population's participation in the 2008 election has been attributed to the Obama's campaign's strategies to use unmatched online activism and to use social networking sites to galvanize the youth base. And it worked, with overwhelming results. The campaign made significant gains by publically legitimizing the stories of all Americans, including Americans who were unemployed, part of the working class, middle class, and upper class; Americans from all racial, ethnic, and religious groups; Americans who were veterans and the families of veterans; Americans who were college students; Americans who were fighting courageously for the rights of LGBT relationships and families and for fair immigration reform; and Americans who were in retirement and yet still hoped to change America. Obama went for the heartland, for the DNA of the country, and he ignored no one and no story. This was a turning point for youth involvement in civic engagement and discourse. The impact stories had on the pivotal moment in American history cannot be ignored.
Despite the large number of youth voters who had grown wise before they grew old by participating in and shaping civic discourses online and in person during the 2008 election cycle, many of those youth were not youth of color, drawing our attention back to the access gap which we must address and close (though the mention of the Bell Curve was absolutely unnecessary as it has been HUGELY discredited, and the authors say as much, this is still a good concise piece out of EdWeek). There are plenty of obstacles which have impeded youth voters of color from getting their votes counted, and the obstacles put in place by GOP politicians continue to rise at an alarming rate.
"Youth voters" are identified as those who are 18-24 years old. We have a 7 year timetable, 1.75 elections, to reach out to young people and affirm that they have a stake in our social enterprise and that they have something worthy and significant to contribute...right now. Some 18 year olds are still in high school and other 18 year olds are establishing jobs for themselves in evolving tech industries while still other 18 year olds are lost/in these streets loose. So when you think about the willpower it takes to vote and to be involved in the formal aspects of a democracy, and then juxtapose that with the realities children of color face coming up or growing up in school settings (see David Kirkland's interrogation of ELA Standards and the impact school has on black male youth), we may see the urgency in reaching out now -- in schools and in schools of education -- to youth of color if we want to see that access gap closed, if we want to see more diverse populations making up the youth voter stats in the next election.
There is perhaps a hesitancy for scholars and people of the academy to do too much of this before reading every possible thing ever written about youth of color, histories of diverse populations, and systems of inequality which have long-replicated and maintained thriving social and economic stratification in this country. The problem is, we can spend the good part of our academic careers reading and writing and those endeavors are worthy, too. But they are private actions, and if they are not paired with public expressions of outrage and solidarity, then we leave those behind whom many of us came to the academy to liberate, including ourselves. So we must read and write for quality not for quantity and we must bring our thoughts into conversations with others who are also willing to act so we can together bring about real change.
Politics, Law, and Black and Brown Youth Populations
Interestingly, these topics have a long intertwined reactionary history which has played out, for decades, in our nation's public schools.
We urgently need to focus our energies and our scholarship on the intersections of law and education, particularly as they have to do with young people of color. We would live in a different world if we were preparing our young people to reach for the ballad as opposed to bubbling in the best answer. Significantly, research has shown that Social justice oriented and humanizing education can lead to an informed achieving citizenry in ways that the standardization movement have all but eliminated from our schools. As schools choose not to respond to growing research indicating that the non-white population will soon be larger than the white population in the US, young people will continue to struggle against systems which don't recognize the worth and value each kid brings to school. Juvenile offenders include children who are 10-14 years old. Ten years old. My mind is not able to contemplate the magnitude of injury perpetrated on kids forced into detention at this young age. The juvenile justice system is the most secretive, hidden, covered-up tragedy of the 20th and 21st centuries and we owe it to society to let our research take us there, to shine a bright impenetrable light on all that is concealed there however unimaginable, to uncover what is happening to targeted youth populations, and to put all our efforts behind destroying the school-to-prison pipeline.
There is a tremendous need for scholarship to expand the bodies of literature exemplifying collaborative work between lawyers and teachers; civil rights experts and teachers; politicians and teachers; and all activists and teachers, including teacher activists. This means imagining new methodologies and new theories, it means scrutinizing the past and bringing it into contact with what's happening right now, and it means forming partnerships with unlikely allies.
Call for Collaborative Book
I'm interested in hearing from authors/scholars, teachers, artists, and all others who would like to participate in a collaborative book reflective of the themes across The Just Like Me Project, though not targeting teacher populations as the audience. I think teachers have enough reading material telling them what to do and how to do it. I see this book as a collaborative project which elevates the voices of people of color and white people working across industries and schools, problematizing some experiences while drawing our attention to critical encounters and social change in others. Ultimately, I envision storied accounts of how young professionals and seasoned professionals are rising to meet the newness of the 21st century - meaning how it looks (race, non-traditional families, etc.); how it sounds (meaning what languages and what tools are we using to communicate and/or to communicate effectively); and how it feels (meaning what are you plugged into that is good and real in the world) and how whatever knowledge they are using to do that was created.
Hope for a Great Sea-Change
Excerpt from Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.
Research and the 21st Century School
We need to pay attention to two things happening in schools. The first is to recognize teachers and families are allies and they are mobilizing and they are taking action. This is ground up mobilization and it involves everything from teachers choosing children's books that accurately represent people of color to teachers choosing to resist standardization to teachers publicly calling into question the latest absurd attacks on the profession, masquerading as "reform". Teachers rising is a ground swell, a sea change that we can get behind and that we can carry forward into the academy, into society, into the halls of government, into the polling booths, and into the future. The schools that suffer the most from these reform movements are schools in the most poverty stricken, urban and rural, areas of the country which primarily serve students of color and students of poverty. These schools don't have the resources to educate kids for the 21st century, despite the pressure exerted on them to meet higher standards or to be shut down. There's a lot of big talk about adopting national standards, but how about we adopt a national teacher pay scale on par with New York and Massachusetts so all teachers can make a living wage. Let's look at the data from the NEA National Report:
Classroom Teacher Salaries: The U.S. average public school teacher salary for 2011–12 was $55,418. State average public school teacher salaries ranged from those in New York ($73,398), Massachusetts ($71,721), and Connecticut ($69,465) at the high end to South Dakota ($38,804), Mississippi ($41,646), and Oklahoma ($44,391) at the low end (C-11).
Over the decade from 2001–02 to 2011–12, in constant dollars, average salaries for public school teachers decreased by 2.8 percent. Wyoming (18.4%), the District of Columbia (14.4%), Massachusetts (14.1%), North Dakota (11.9%), and Montana (10.6%) had the largest real increases in salaries during that 10-year period.
Adjusting for inflation, thirty-two states saw real declines in average teacher salaries over those years. Those with average salaries declining 5 percent or more were: North Carolina (-15.7%), Indiana (-10.1%), Illinois (-8.7%), Virginia (-8.7%), Michigan (-8.1%), Florida (-7.3%), South Carolina (-6.9%), Georgia (-5.9%), Washington (-5.9%), and Colorado (-5.5%) (C-14).
While we're at it, let's also use New York's or Massachusetts per pupil spending as a starting point. Just so you know what I'm talking about, let's look again at data from the NEA National Report:
Expenditures per Student: The U.S. average per student expenditure for public elementary and secondary schools in 2011–12 fall enrollment was $10,834. States with the highest per student expenditures were: New York ($18,616), Vermont ($18,571), New Jersey ($18,485), Alaska ($17,032), and Rhode Island ($16,683). Arizona ($6,683), Utah ($6,849), Nevada ($8,247), Oklahoma ($8,285), and Idaho ($8,323) had the lowest per student expenditures (H-11).
Why the stark difference? The biggest financial difference of course is the very real issue of property value and property taxes. Low income communities can only operate low income schools. High income communities can operate high income schools. Middle and high income families generally want their tax dollars going to the schools their children go to and do not want their money spread equally throughout the state. Remember, these are averages per state. Consequently, there are schools in New York which are receiving much more than $18,800 per student and schools receiving less than that. So when we start exploring the states with the lowest per student expenditures, many of those are even lower than $5000 per student. Some states in fact have participated in redrawing district lines to further isolate low income families and children to low income schools. Not only do low income schools have extremely limited resources available to the individual students, but they can hardly pay their teachers and staff a living wage. These are often families of color. Additionally, schools that don't perform well on standardized tests don't get accredited, which means even less state, local, and federal funds are available to the schools. Conservative politicians and those who ascribe to conservative political ideologies believe low income families can pull themselves out of poverty and if they don't, then they are lazy non-workers. In reality, especially in the South, the history of property ownership and land loss by African Americans living in rural areas is significant especially since the African American population historically and currently is most concentrated in the Southeast. Also, history tells the true story that by law, African Americans have been prevented from buying homes and have endured countless acts of discrimination, even by federal policies put in place to protect the rights of African Americans to receive the same federal loans for home ownership as white people receive. In Adam Gordon's article in the Yale Law Review, "How New Deal Changes in Banking Regulation Simultaneously Made Home Ownership Accessible to Whites and Out of Reach for Blacks" (2005), Gordon argues: "The FHA's [Federal Housing Authority] discretionary guidelines effectively became binding laws, giving whites a head start on accumulating wealth through homeownership, a fact reflected in concrete data from the census and land records". But it's more significant than that. The New Deal was a time of transition for America's financial institutions, but it was also before the Civil Rights Movement. Gordon went on to argue:
"I argue that the integration of section 203(b) forty years ago through an Executive Order by President Kennedy did not sufficiently remedy the pervasive system of FHA discrimination against African-Americans. Simply making FHA-insured loans available to blacks did not compensate for the dramatic advantage that whites had enjoyed for decades in the home-buying market, an advantage that may explain why the median white household has ten times as much wealth as the median black household today. In addition, the end of discrimination in the FHA program failed to eliminate the view of neighborhood racial transition and composition that the FHA's insurance guidelines cemented in the American mind: that whites could prosper only by living separately from blacks, and that blacks moving into a neighborhood signified imminent price decline. The past acceptance of these empirically faulty characterizations as official federal policy may help account for why American metropolitan areas remain highly segregated by race."
This can be seen in Lorraine Hansberry's powerful play, A Raisin in the Sun (currently re-released on Broadway and starring Denzel Washington), about a black family moving out of poverty and a desperate housing situation and into a white neighborhood where the family becomes the target of racial discrimination. In real life, the storyline of the play had profound personal roots for Ms. Hansberry, whose family was also targeted by racist white neighbors trying to enforce restrictive covenants preventing African Americans from home ownership (set in Chicago, 1959). Hansberry's family's case made it to the supreme court, where restrictive covenants were ruled illegal. Hansberry, an artist, writer, and civil rights activist, was the first African American woman playwright to have a play premiere on Broadway.
A Word on Unions
Even as I cite the NEA, I must also caution that teachers unions are another slippery slope and often choose battlegrounds in big cities like New York City, Chicago, and DC beyond the reach of rural and not-as-urban teachers and communities really struggling under the cut-throat reform. The work of the unions is bureaucratic in nature, however, and small groups of teachers organizing themselves with the support of families and communities to enact change seems more effective than large-scale strikes. Further, many southern states do not have teachers unions and community organizing is strongly discouraged, and again, because teachers fear losing their jobs, they stay silent on matters that have significant impact on their schools and their students.
Proposing an Alternative Policy
The other thing we need to attend to is proposing an alternative policy that acknowledges the significant knowledge, skills, and abilities teachers contribute daily to our social enterprise -- knowledge, skills, and abilities which are increasingly silenced as the school as business model grips the country and has become the platform focus of every politician. Teachers and parents are deeply aware of the rapidly changing landscapes of the market place. Teachers and parents are also deeply aware that schools are in a position to meet the awesome challenge of preparing American students to engage, to shape, and to impact that market. And parents, students, and teachers will still be learning after the election and long after representatives have served their terms. There needs to be a drastic and public revaluing of teachers and of public education if we are to see any real and lasting social change and educational renewal.
A Teacher's Fierce Obligation to Teachers
Many of us become teachers and stay teachers because we have a fierce obligation to service and community change. As a teacher myself, I don't want to promote scholarship that indicates teachers are in every way deficient and that PhDs and MDs and lawyers and politicians have all the answers. Teachers are the most courageous among us because day after day, they contribute to the incredibly worthy social project of building our democracy. So each time we say to teachers, you've been doing it all wrong, but if you do it this other way, everything will be right, we diminish the probability of that teacher, of that bright light staying in our nation's schools.
Teachers are organizing and The Just Like Me Project is organizing FOR teachers, not against them. Teachers have rich histories, in the classroom and out of it, and we have so much to gain by patiently and carefully listening to all they have to offer. The teacher who struggles in the classroom is not alone and is not the cause of what the media and politicians call "educational failure". No individual teacher can be identified as the sole bearer of that burden. Teachers who struggle in the classroom struggle under the reality of limited resources, limited support, and increasing fear that their jobs will be snatched away from them when the test results come back. That is the failure with which we contend.