Saturday, November 26, 2011

Occupy the Classroom

If Occupy in its infancy has some of the characteristics of a child, it makes me wonder what should be preserved and what refined and matured. I ask myself where innocence should be maintained and where boundaries become practical and necessary.

I think of the movement's struggle to forge a community out of diverse classes of people who have made their way to various sites of encampment or protest. As a teacher and union representative, I am aware that some in our association balk at the prospect of teachers standing shoulder to shoulder with the homeless, addicted and mentally ill in a joint day of protest for Occupy Santa Rosa and the Santa Rosa Teachers Association. SRTA has officially endorsed the Occupy Movement, but we have yet to make our presence felt at the site of resistance.

Several people in our community have reached out to me about organizing this day of solidarity, but the concern that we will weaken our credibility by consorting with society's outcasts continues to stall any demonstration of common ground. As a parent and teacher, this saddens me deeply. There is no question that some troubled and alienated people have gravitated to City Hall alongside the more lucid political activists. The only question is how the Occupy community is prepared to greet them.

My son is now three years old and lately I have been reading him a book that I had as a child called Jack the Bum and the Halloween Handout. The story is about a guileless New York City homeless man on Halloween who goes trick or treating after some kids good-naturedly explain to him how it's done. Predictably, Jack meets with horror and revulsion as he knocks on the doors of various apartments. My son seems to really like this book but I don't think he understands its dramatic irony. How could he? He is too young to realize how savagely class divides us.

When I was his age growing up in NYC, my mom likes to remind me of the way I ran gleefully into the arms of a "bum," a guy who looked and smelled like Jack, someone who would repulse any properly socialized adult. There is pride in her tone when she tells this story, but it is mingled with a residual alarm that most cautious parents would feel at the incongruous sight of their young, tenderhearted lambs leaping into the arms of something wild, someone whose official stamp of humanity has faded. There is caution and then there is calcified callousness.

I would like to see Occupy preserve some of the unrestrained humanity of children as it evolves from its infancy, but I recognize the challenges this presents, no more so than when I am faced with annoying, obnoxious, or even outright disturbed students in my classroom. Almost from their earliest experience of school, kids are socialized in stratification. They are placed in different tracks and not so subtly ushered into very unequal destinies.

When I teach a "low-performing" class I frequently encounter kids with mild to severe behavior problems, which is another way of saying they are having a hard time. As teachers, we are institutionally encouraged to control the behavior of these kids regardless of its cause. We learn strategies to shut down the symptoms of distress, pain, poverty, abuse and neglect. But if as teachers we want to guide our students into a shared and inclusive community, we must be as concerned with the way our students feel as the way they behave, with the cause as much as the symptom.

There are occasions when a student harasses, bothers or distracts others to the degree that the only appropriate response is to remove this student from the room. However, more common are the many times when such an extreme action is taken gratuitously as part of a systemic marginalization of "problem people." I believe it is part of a teacher's job to model how to treat each member of a shared community, how to empathize, be flexible, and show kindness even to those who annoy or aggravate us.

The other day, one of my more obnoxious students in a class full of struggling learners was acting out and trying to derail a lesson. Precisely speaking, his aim I'm sure was not to derail this particular lesson, but rather to express some dimly understood feeling that cried out for attention. Another student immediately said "you should send him to the office." I saw the exasperated kid's point, of course, leaving aside the irony that he is a rascal most days himself. In that moment I weighed the importance of removing an obstacle to other kids' learning with the dehumanizing logic that reduces a child to an obstacle.

I asked my students how many of them had been sent to the office at least once since elementary school. The majority raised their hands. I asked how many had visited the office numerous times. The hands stayed up. "How many of you have ever been suspended?" A few hands went down but at least half stayed up.

"Did all those years of detentions and punishments make you better learners, or more respectful or more caring?" Unanimously, they said no.

"Did they even make you behave better?" Sometimes, they said, on a particular day or with a particular teacher they feared. But the good behavior didn't stick, they acknowledged. It had even gotten worse over the years. We then talked about the fact that California spends more money on prisons than on schools. An unplanned lesson began to sink in. These kids get that many in their midst are headed to the margins of society. They have been conditioned to expect it, just as they have been conditioned to reinforce its logic in their dealings with each other.

"Send him out! Send him out!" I wonder where they will all go? In a shared human community, there is nowhere but here. I hope Occupy continues to contend with the social misfits, though as the movement ages certain lines must be and will be drawn. For instance, I don't think Occupy needs to provide a platform for an anti-immigrant sentiment that I regretfully noted in a few signs during one very large protest gathering here in Santa Rosa; of course, a dialogue is always preferable to an expulsion. But we should not be afraid to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people whom society has thrown away. The Occupy community can model for the larger society what humanity looks like.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Occupy Nowhere

On the weekend before our high school's screening of "Race to Nowhere" I ask myself what inspired me to take part in the grassroots movement surrounding this film. For the past year, I have been dreaming of the potential that could be unleashed by a community dialogue sparked by the many issues it raises; it is the planned discussion to follow the film more than the passive viewing experience that I eagerly anticipate.

The film itself is vulnerable to dismissal as an incomplete and halting analysis of what ails education. People will complain that it is anecdotal and lacks statistical credibility. The dominant culture refuses to take anything seriously in education that does not present itself in "measurable" or easily digestible terms. The lived experience of teachers, students and parents in all its human complexity will have trouble fending off the reductionist juggernaut of measurable data. Although the personal stories animate sound research, the film does not focus on proof as much as stirring testimony. As a heartfelt attempt by one mother to form a coherent narrative about the policies that are endangering childhood and leading to an increasingly mechanistic society out of touch with humanity, I found it deeply affecting. Admittedly not the aesthetic achievement of "Waiting for Superman," its logic is more scrupulous but less unified than the other film's simplistic propaganda.

Upon viewing the film a second time in preparation for Wednesday night, I am struck by the cumulative impression of so many kids under the gun, scared for their futures, humiliated by their failures and in constant dread of plummeting from the artificial heights of their achievements. In my 10 years of teaching, I have come to believe that test scores and grades constitute the artificial heart of learning that threatens to replace permanently the natural rhythms of curiosity and creativity. If learning could look in the mirror, would it see a grade or number reflected back? Or would the portrait be something far more complex, fluid, dynamic and intangible? Again and again I witness my students obsess over a grade-check like addicts in need of a fix. When I was in high school we got our grades once a semester. Nowadays, in the age of computerized grade programs, students can check their grades once a day if they are so inclined, and inclined they are. With welcome exceptions, the most common question I get when students approach me is "how can I raise my grade?" "How can I find out more about what you were teaching us?" is rarely uttered.

We have created absurd conditions for student learning: rotting infrastructure, bloated class sizes, demoralized teachers, and a chronic sense of emergency permeating our schools and classrooms. Our academic culture is one of high stakes and high alert, survival of the fittest when the future itself seems poised to foreclose on our kids' survival, never mind their dreams. The high stakes tests have come to represent their ultimate value in a society of unforgiving bottom lines where poverty and futility is as likely to claim their efforts as is their college or career of choice. Who wouldn't be terrified under such circumstances? Who would have the time or ease to reflect on the big existential questions when one's very right to exist is being tested?

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein writes about the triumph of the "free market" through the manipulation of people who are stunned by disaster. Education bears out this doctrine in direct ways as private interests swoop in to "save" us from the manufactured emergency of failing test scores while we are understandably disoriented from the shocks and blows of budget cuts. Ideologues push policy down the barrel of a union-busting demonization of teachers. Charter schools and the profitable industry of virtual learning are the private sector's panacea for education the same way the so-called free market is the panacea for economic crises. In a more metaphorical sense, I think we are seeing something in education akin to the "Test Doctrine" where students, teachers and parents have acquired a low-performing disaster mentality brought on by damning test scores, and the spaciousness of authentic learning has collapsed into the desperate drills of do or die. Knowledge has been conflated with one's self-worth to the degree that many young people feel their very humanity is on the line when they learn. Being objectified as a number in school takes a real human toll and discourages critical thinking. It's hard to think critically when you are wired to criticize yourself incessantly, when your attentions are less captivated by the wonders and puzzles of the world than by a crippling fixation on your own ego. This siege mentality makes our young people today ripe for authoritarian and economic exploitation. Fear and insecurity are the emotional building blocks of a politically subservient population that is easily dominated by unquestioned systems of power.

Ironically, while we foster an ever-present fear of individual failure in our students, we enshroud the true high stakes of learning in the jargon of test achievement and accountability. Students are adrenaline junkies riveted by the perceived horror show of their grades and test scores while the real existential threat of Climate Change and its Corporate agents demand their full engagement. After reading Naomi Klein's latest article, I am struck again by the urgent intervention between truth and power that public education can make in our society. As a teacher who wants to protect her students' common future, I know which side I am on. That is why at our union's last Rep Council Meeting, I moved for SRTA to support the growing Occupy Movement on behalf of the 99%. The vote passed 27 to 6.

There are people of all ages camped out in cities across the country and the world, but more and more I take note of the young revolutionaries of our times, the kids who are here to teach all of us what it means to be creative, critical and visionary, to stretch the shrinking parameters of a deadly status quo and to make the mind and the heart accountable to each other. I wish for all young people to awaken to their full potential to change the world. Nowhere leaves a lot of space for humanity to occupy. But first we have to leave the race.