My phone buzzes one more time. I look over at the glowing screen to see that I have been tagged once more in the Ron Clark dance video from his school in Atlanta. I nod, give a half smile at the screen, and continue on my school visits. Today, I’m in the Bronx, and am working with a group of students who are researching cell division so they can add a layer of complexity to their rap song on mitosis and meiosis. The three young men I am sitting with are concerned because the simple rhyme scheme they have developed thus far isn’t going to cut it. This realization hits after they overhear a pair of young ladies perform their rap on the reproductive system that cites recent research in biology and comes replete with choreographed dance moves to match the verse. My phone buzzes again. I am tagged in the Ron Clark video again. My response this time is two fold. My first is: Damn, this white boy got some rhythm. The second is: I feel sorry for anyone who thinks they’re just gon’ “Hit the Quan” to academic success. The fact is, if you ain’t got Clarks rhythm, and the structures are not in place to support and validate such a transgressive approach to teaching, you will fail miserably. In fact, you may end up doing much more of a disservice to the students than a traditional school would. Ron Clark works at a school that is named after him with a certain funding structure, certain rules of conduct, and very particular philosophies. If you do not have any of these structures in place, or any strategies for circumventing the ones you are bound by, I feel bad for you son...You’ve got ninety-nine problems and Hittin’ the Quan in school is one.
MU students protest inside Jesse Hall after report of racism, October 6, 2015. Photo credit: Flickr user KOMUnews
“There are – there are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to, to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less – a slower-track school where they do well.
“One of – one of the briefs pointed out that – that most of the – most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re – that they’re being pushed ahead in – in classes that are too, too fast for them.”
Justice Antonin Scalia’s words during the Supreme Court’s revising of the Fisher v. University of Texas case of affirmative action have been rattling around the insides of many who work and study on college campuses. His words caused outrage, but in fact, they are representative of the widespread and erroneous belief that campuses are apolitical locations of merit and ability. His words are racist because they absolve and therefore further the bedrock of institutionalized racism on college campuses. And these words are echoed in the limited ways that higher education currently has responded to students’ accounts of racism.
There he goes again. Last week Justice Antonin Scalia spoke plainly on his misgivings about affirmative action. Afterwards, his commentary was a constant subject at holiday cocktail parties in Washington, DC where I live. Abigail Fisher’s case challenging the University of Texas’ use of affirmative action was back before the Supreme Court for the second time in three years. At the oral argument, to audible gasps, Scalia clumsily engaged in “mismatch theory,” speculating that African-American collegians would be better off attending “less-advanced,” “slower-track” schools where they might achieve more because classes are not “too fast for them.”
Since then several commentators have cited extensive social science research discrediting this theory. The evidence points to the exact opposite of Scalia’s intuitions. For students of all backgrounds, graduation rates and long-term success improve with the selectivity of the college they attend. More importantly, as I argued in Place, Not Race, affirmative action candidates, with their lower standardized tests scores, have been found to come closest to meeting universities’ professed mission statements about cultivating leaders who use their educations to give back to society.
Massachusetts, considered a leader in education reform, has set itself apart by rejecting the Common Core test to develop its own to measure student progress. The catalyst for creating a new one came from many sides, including parents who didn’t see the point of their children taking a national test. Alfie Kohn argues, however, that standardized testing itself is the problem, not just with any particular test. As he explains here, scores do not reflect students’ actual intelligence or reasoning skills. This blog post appeared originally on his website.
It can’t be repeated often enough: Standardized tests are very poor measures of the intellectual capabilities that matter most, and that’s true because of how they’re designed, not just because of how they’re used. Like other writers, I’ve relied on arguments and research to make this point. But sometimes a telling example can be more effective. So here’s an item that appeared on the state high school math exam in Massachusetts:
Tirmizi Family with Linda K. Wertheimer. From left to right: Hadia, mother; Wertheimer; Rahim, youngest son; Zain, eldest son; Ali, father. Photo source: Linda K. Wertheimer
#Notinmyname. Hadia Tirmizi, the mother of a student profiled in my bookFaith Ed., posted that Twitter hashtag on her Facebook page last week in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris. She is Muslim, lives in Wellesley, a Boston suburb, and knows the backlash that can follow when terrorists are identified as Muslims.
The same week she posted her statement against the terrorists, she also posted photos of her family celebrating her youngest son’s tenth birthday and photos of her and her husband, both physicians, on a vacation to Paris in a past year.
Some Tennessee lawmakers and parents are in a tizzy because they believe seventh-graders are spending too much time learning about Islam as part of social studies.
A Tennessee lawmaker leading the charge has spewed an all-too common refrain, saying the state's schools were leaning toward indoctrination because they emphasized learning about Islam more than about Christianity. The lawmaker last week upped the ante and proposed a bill prohibiting Tennessee public school courses from including "religious doctrine" until students are at least in 10th grade. What the lawmaker means by religious doctrine is fuzzy. But she's a part of a statewide movement of parents and groups taking aim at lessons on Islam. A Christian organization joined the fray by submitting a public records request to every school district in the state asking for curriculum that included Islam.
Linda K. Wertheimer's book launch at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA, August 18, 2015. Photo credit: Christian Coleman
Linda K. Wertheimer had a fabulous book launch at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts last month. In her presentation, she talked with us about the classrooms she visited throughout the US to write Faith Ed. The ones in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Modesto, California stood out. Teachers in Wellesley spend half the school year teaching the world’s religions to sixth graders. High school students in Modesto take a world religions class in order to graduate. You can watch her full presentation here to hear more about her travels and the current state of fostering religious literacy in today’s youth. Here are some highlight questions from the Q&A session that followed.
When I edited the first edition of One Teacher in Ten in 1994, I did so because I recalled how lonely it felt for me to come out as a teacher in 1988. I never wanted others to feel that way again.
1994 was a very different time. Same-sex sexual relations were illegal in one-third of American states (a condition that would persist until, a decade later, the Supreme Court struck down so-called “sodomy laws” in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case). Same-sex marriage was not legal in a single state: it would once again be a decade before a landmark court decision (Goodridge v. Massachusetts DPH) made Massachusetts the first state to grant marriage equality. President Clinton had just signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law as an official policy of the federal government.
LGBT teachers didn’t need President Clinton to tell them about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” as it had long been the (unwritten) policy of our nation’s schools: you could be LGBT as long as you never, ever talked about it. So the first edition of One Teacher in Ten was a radical act, as we were defying the de facto law of the land.
The collection reflected the climate of fear and hostility LGBT teachers faced in 1994. Some contributors were out but many chose to use pseudonyms for fear of the repercussions of telling the truth on their careers.
Nevertheless, the collection achieved its goal of breaking the silence around LGBT teachers and contributed to a climate that was different by the time I edited an all-new second edition of One Teacher in Ten in 2004. By then sodomy laws had been struck down and the march to marriage equality had begun in Massachusetts. Many more contributors were out than in 1994 and I left feeling very hopeful about the future.
As we approach the new school year, parents and teachers of young children have an opportunity, if not a responsibility, to prevent those little ones who are out of step in their ability to pay attention; listen; follow directions; stay seated, still, and productive; and, keep from talking out of turn, from receiving a false ADHD diagnosis. The latest numbers out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that eleven percent of American children have ADHD, the average age of children with the diagnosis being seven years old. As recent as 2003, 7.8 percent of American children were thought to have ADHD. The alarming rise of this condition among young children requires that we step back and look for more common-sense social and developmental explanations for the sort of problematic behavior that gets kids assigned an ADHD diagnosis. As a child psychologist and writer on children’s mental health issues, I’ve studied these concerns for over thirty years and have zeroed in on three core questions parents and educators can ask themselves when a child’s behavior rises to a level where an ADHD diagnosis is entertained:
Last year my students—Chicago teachers and teachers-to-be, educators from a range of backgrounds and experiences and orientations—all read The Beautiful Struggle. I’d put Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir on the list of required readings because I thought it was a fitting and important educational book, a useful text for city teachers to explore and interrogate. Some students agreed; several did not. “What’s this got to do with teaching?”
I chose it because it moved me, frankly, and I thought it might move some of them as well. I chose it because in the details of this one life—the challenges and the obstacles, but especially the elements he assembled to build an architecture of survival—I saw human themes of love and beauty and the universal struggle to grow more fully into the light. I chose it because it took readers inside the life of one Black kid, this singular unruly spark of meaning-making energy negotiating and then mapping the territory between his home and the streets and the schools—necessary reading for city teachers I thought.
To a new teacher, or a teacher with years of experience, the twenty-first-century classroom can seem overwhelming. Along with the traditional challenges that teachers face—disobedient kids, unfriendly administrators, demanding parents, shortages of supplies, or feeling isolated in the classroom—there are so many new aspects to consider, so many new issues to resolve, so many new demands to respond to, coming at us seemingly from all sides:
national Common Core curriculum standards to decipher,
state mandates to respond to,
standardized tests to prepare for by picking and choosing what to teach,
district priorities to pay attention to,
school-wide goals to implement,
grade-level or departmental objectives to work into your lesson plans,
seemingly endless paperwork requirements, and
a flood of new technology, with its potential benefits and drawbacks,
plus the need to respond to diverse children, their special needs, their parents’ expectations. All in all, enough to make your job as a teacher seem well-nigh impossible. The climate created by all of these mandates and pressures may well represent a new height of challenges for teachers, enough to make them feel besieged, overwhelmed, inadequate.
Our 2015 reissue of Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s classic, Thousand Pieces of Gold, is on sale! First published in 1981, McCunn's novel was adapted to film a decade later with actors Chris Cooper and Rosalind Chao. It's been a star of the Beacon backlist for all these years, being adopted by book groups and used in classrooms (middle school, high school, and college). For this new edition, we've reissued it with new historical material. McCunn has written a new essay, taking readers through the challenges she encountered while researching Polly Bemis’s life. Readers will note how her discoveries and the documents she found outline the hardships Polly endured as a legendary pioneer fighting for independence and dignity in Gold-Rush America.
Lalu Nathoy/Polly Bemis left no written records. Neither did the person closest to her: Charlie Bemis. So I looked for the two in pioneers’ recollections, newspapers, photographs, and documents. Sifting through my findings, examining, reexamining each fragment for value, I always feel like a miner panning for gold.
From the start, Polly’s Certificate of Residence and marriage certificate shone bright. These papers, having survived a devastating fire, must have been important to Polly and Charlie. Why?
The 1892 Geary Act required each Chinese laborer living in the United States to register and apply for a Certificate of Residence within the year. Those who did not would be presumed to be in the country unlawfully and, therefore, subject to arrest and deportation—unless a white witness swore that the failure to register had been due to illness or accident. Protests and legal challenges by Chinese failed to overturn this law but did extend the period for registration.
Video used by permission of The School District of Philadelphia. All rights reserved.
It’s the time of year when our newsfeeds are filled with posts highlighting the best commencement speeches of the season. This got us thinking about what Martin Luther King, Jr. might say to young people today who are heading into the next chapter of their lives; his speech “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” immediately sprang to mind. In it, Dr. King, speaking at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, encourages students to be the best people they can be, regardless of their status in life.
Now, you can watch this rarely seen film of that speech. Recorded on October 26, 1967, just six months before his assassination, Dr. King’s words will still resonate with young people today and encourage them to keep moving in the struggle for justice and make our nation a better place in which to live.
“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would enlist an army of young people to help each other and America in the education process. He would trust them to bring their energy and sense of justice to end gang violence and to reverse the feeling of helplessness that hurts so many of our young people. He would keep marching against unjust laws, racism, war, and poverty. Dr. King made America a better place for all people to live during the turbulent years of the civil rights struggle. Using his insights, his courage in tackling difficult problems, and his loyalty to nonviolence both in action and in the language we use with each other, perhaps we can continue building the America he once thought possible. What do you think?”
Citizen Schools founder Eric Schwarz with students (photo by Paul Mobley)
Eric Schwarz made a lot of mistakes as a teenager. His great-great-grandfather had founded the iconic FAO Schwarz toy store in 1862, and successive generations of the family found success in New York, but Schwarz himself floundered amid a sea of opportunity—a fact he readily admits. He bounced through three high schools in three different states, faced multiple suspensions, racked up poor grades and regular “Eric is struggling” teacher conferences, and started drinking as a teen. “But every time I stumbled,” he writes, “I had a helping hand and a new chance.”
With autumn just around the corner, it’s about time to think about heading back into the classroom. Whether you’re an educator, activist, administrator, parent, or socially-engaged citizen, here are five progressive education titles to put on your personal syllabus this fall:
In retrospect, the discussion was about me, though I didn’t realize it while sitting there. My colleagues’ conversation this day swirled around teachers not following State Mandates—how enforced curriculum mapping would ensure every teacher is on the same page, teaching the same topic, at the same time. Later, I realized I was the cause of my cohorts’ discontent, but not until a parent e-mailed, alerting me my job was in jeopardy from teaching “peace instead of literature,” not until students said they were “sorry about next year,” and not until a colleague cautioned that I was “not teaching the State Standards and Benchmarks.”
Languishing under the sweltering sun of New Mexico, where unemployment rates climb nearly as high as the temperatures, in part because of job outsourcing to nearby Juarez, Mexico, two thirds of my students subsist below the poverty level. For many, they would be the first in their families to finish high school, assuming the daily drudgery of educational irrelevance doesn’t dull their enthusiasm for learning, wouldn’t rob them of a lifetime of opportunity. For example, because of the frenzy to meet our high-stakes testing goals, most language arts teachers conformed their curriculum to the District’s thirteen “scientifically research-based” literacy strategies, none of which included reading books. These were disseminated and reinforced through countless vertical alignment meetings, horizontal alignment meetings, and daily team meetings with other content area teachers. These District-mandated literacy strategies promoted robotic writing and acronyms such as ACE (Answer question, Cite evidence, Explain further) and KIM (Key Idea, Information, Memory Clue) as they prepared for their MAP (Measurement of Academic Progress) before taking their CRT (Criterion Referenced Test) under the auspices of NCLB. But after teaching ACE and KIM ad nauseam, while watching my students’ eyes glaze over, I simply couldn’t take the monotony anymore.
Most teachers are curious about what school is like for a student. Meet a kindergarten tyke encountering the classroom for the first time; a middle schooler trying to balance body chemistry, a developing mind, and new ways of learning; a high school teenager looking beyond the classroom into the world and most teachers want to hear how he or she is experiencing one of the most important parts of their lives.
So when I saw my 11 year old niece recently, I asked her how school was going. I was prepared for the standard kid response—“fine.” What I wasn’t prepared for was the sudden sound of defeat in her answer.
Few educators embody that mission more than this year's lecturer, Dr. Chris Emdin, recently honored by the White House as an African American STEM Champion of Change. Dr. Emdin's research focuses on issues of race, class, and diversity in urban science classrooms, and the use of new theoretical frameworks to transform education and urban school reform. A self-proclaimed member of the hip-hop generation, Emdin seeks to popularize the notion that the genius of hip-hop is compatible with science genius. In partnership with GZA (Gary Grice), a member of the Wu-Tang Clan whose love of science is well known, he developed the Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S. In a pilot project, students wrote rap songs that captured the complexity of the science and lyricism of hip-hop, and, in a final competition at Columbia University, students’ performances of these rap songs were judged by a panel of scientists and hip hop artists.
With a new school year just around the corner, students are stocking up on supplies and teachers are polishing their curriculum plans. To help the latter, Beacon offers guides to help in teaching many of our most popular titles. Find these and other teachers guides at our Scribd page and at Beacon.org.
Psst: if you're not a teacher, these guides can still be great tools for reading and comprehending some great books!
Teacher Patricia Rigley shares ideas for lesson plans, discussion questions, and sample assignments.
Long before the avalanche of praise for his work—from Oprah Winfrey, from President Bill Clinton, from President Barack Obama—long before he became known for his talk show appearances, Members Project spots, and documentaries like Waiting for "Superman", Geoffrey Canada was a small boy growing up scared on the mean streets of the South Bronx. His childhood world was one where "sidewalk boys" learned the codes of the block and were ranked through the rituals of fist, stick, and knife. Then the streets changed, and the stakes got even higher. In his candid and riveting memoir, Canada relives a childhood in which violence stalked every street corner.