Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Opportunity for Women Teachers Who Write

For my entire career as a teacher of English, I have supported the writing of others. I have provided them with tools they needed to shape their vision and I have learned how to form supportive and nurturing writing communities.

Two summers ago, I gave myself a wonderful gift. I applied to attend the 2007 Writers Retreat for Committed Women Writers. sponsored by A Room of Her Own Foundation
To my surprise and delight I was accepted and traveled to Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

At this retreat, I found a talented and supportive group of women, writers all, who came together in this beautiful, inspiring setting to write, share what we'd written with each other and provide thoughtful feedback in a positive, generous and generative community.

I met many women at the retreat and listened to their stories. I learned of the roles that writing plays in their lives. I met women whose work had been published to acclaim and women whose words had yet to reach an audience. Each woman spoke of the importance of this time and space to think, to feel, to write, to connect, to listen, to dive into our selves, to discover ourselves anew.

For me it was especially important that this was a writing retreat for women only. It was a "room of our own" - a space where we could be together not only as writers, but as women -- whose struggles to find our voices or to steal the time to write from our other responsibilities as mothers or partners or daughters -- were not considered trivial or beside the point, but very much at the center of our identities.

I also met other teachers. Many of them were from from independent schools whose administrations had paid their tuition and expenses for the retreat. As part of a policy of professional development, these schools invest in the personal and professional growth of their teachers with an unwavering belief that if they nurture their teachers, their students will benefit as well. No such opportunities that I know of, exist for teachers in under-funded urban and rural public schools.

On the final night of the retreat, all of the women gathered together. There was a reading by some of the women and then we were all invited to share our thoughts about the experience. At that time, overwhelmed by the energy in the room and grateful that I had been able to be part of such an amazing experience, I vowed to raise money for a scholarship for a public school teacher to attend the next retreat in 2009.

The biannual retreat is being held August 10-16 2009. I am happy to say that through the donations of friends and family, I have raised enough money to make this scholarship a reality.

I invite you to look at the website for A Room of Her Own Foundation, and the 2009 Writers Retreat

Here is the information about the scholarship as it appears on the AROHO web-site:

The Pincus Scholarship for Public School Teachers was created by Marsha Pincus, who recently retired from teaching after thirty four years. A retreatant at the 2007 Writers’ Retreat, Marsha was inspired “to create a scholarship for a public school teacher from an under-funded district to come and have this experience.” She says, “I gave myself a gift coming here. I would like to give that gift to other teachers.” The scholarship will provide workshop tuition, room and board, as well as an additional stipend to offset transportation costs.

If you are someone who has been spending so much of your creative energy nurturing the writing of others and you have always wanted to have others nurture and support you, and you teach in a district that does not support your professional growth through study and travel grants, I encourage you to review the materials on the AROHO website and apply for the retreat and the scholarship. You should follow the guidelines for the application to the retreat and complete the additional text field for the scholarship, explaining why you think you qualify, outlining your writing history, writing goals, the potential benefit of the scholarship to you and a statement of financial need. Applications are due by March 5 and the final decision will be made by the AROHO committee by the end of the month.

If you have any questions feel free to email me at

Please circulate this information to any listserve, teacher network or individual you think might be interested.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Beyond Wiggle Room

I am establishing this space on my blog to post materials related to the upcoming publication of my chapter in Alison Cook-Sather's handbook on student voice entitled Student Learning from the Student’s Perspective: A Methods Sourcebook for Effective Teaching. Paradigm Publishers, forthcoming.
There are additional materials related to the chapter that I will publish here at a later time.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Teachers Dreaming - Only Connect

Anyone who has ever taught school for more than a year has had this dream. It usually arrives mid August, though in some especially stressful years, it can come as early as July, virtually ruining the rest of the summer. There is always a teacher in the dream and the teacher is always the person dreaming. Sometimes, when I have this dream, the teacher in the dream looks like me. Sometimes, she is physically unfamiliar – I don’t know exactly who she is but I do know that I am the person feeling the physical effects of the emotions she is experiencing in the dream – embarrassment, fear, frustration, despair.

The common element in all of these dreams is that no one (and there are usually dozens of people in the dream’s hallways, lunchrooms, school yards gymnasiums) seems to see or hear the teacher. Maybe there are no words coming out of the teacher’s mouth though in the dream the dreamer feels herself strain to speak. Her throat tightens and the sweat begins to form on her forehead, her hands turn cold and wet and in her sleep she reaches towards her face and clamps both of her cheeks with her fingers as her nails dig into the clammy skin.

In the morning she will see the scratches on her face and vaguely remember…

Sometimes she is in the wrong room. There is someone else's handwriting on the board, someone else’s books on the shelves, a periodic chart or a large map of India on the wall instead of her portraits of Shakespeare and the Globe Theater.

Once she was in a gymnasium, the only teacher in a room filled with five hundred students all milling about, forming and reforming tight circles while screaming their greetings to each other across the hot room. There are no windows in this gym though the ceiling is high. She is the one who is supposed to bring this group to order, get them under control. She is shorter than most of them and she feels herself shrinking, becoming smaller and smaller the hotter it gets. The voices in the gym swell to a thunderous roar that engulfs her and lifts her high above the shiny wooden floor and carries her through the ceiling which has just opened up to reveal the grey skies. As the noise subsides, she freezes high above the school, hangs suspended in mid air until she feels herself hurtling through space.

She awakens before she can hit the ground…

What we are suffering from here is a failure to communicate.

Disinterested students who ignore you.

Smart students who excoriate you publicly, flaying you with their questions and serving your organs up raw to the bloodthirsty class.

Teaching as a blood sport.

On a good day, though, I see this work as a sacred trust.

There are souls in the classroom.

And I don’t say this lightly or without deep careful thought. The whole concept of Soul is one of a mystical connectedness that comes from a kabbalistic belief in tikkun olam - the understanding that we are all pieces of the ONE that split apart after creation, and that we must each work to repair the world to reconnect all of the pieces of the Soul. So each time a teacher walks into a classroom, the possibility exists for disconnection and alienation or for tikkun olam.

This kind of connection is thwarted by Ego -- the overwhelming urge of the individual psyche to assert itself over others. A teacher’s ego may make her chase after power, both petty and grand; a student may be craving attention, wanting to aggrandize himself at the expense of others.

Here then is a theory of practice that comes from the Soul where the driving force behind every word or deed in the classroom comes from the need to connect with others in a meaningful way.

These teacher dreams, night terrors that begin as early as July and don’t let up until September really expose our fear of being alone – alienated – isolated – invisible – frantically trying to make the connection… to encounter and be encountered by the Soul..

To teach with integrity is to teach with all parts of you….and to be humble in the face of other people’s lives… their journeys… their struggles to connect.

People who cannot see beyond their own needs and thoughts are struggling with a handicap. Weighted down by their own ego, constrained by their own selfish desires, they are missing out on the awesome apprehension of the majestic complexity of the universe. When we see that – when we get it -- when we can hear the music and know our song and how it reverberates with others’ … or wake up to sound of our voice singing in concert with the voices of others… step into our body moving and swelling – joyful in the knowledge that what makes us unique – those very things that we have cherished as ours and ours alone – are felt by others too.

So when I write or share my experiences and send them out into the universe, they reverberate for someone else. Yes, you might say. This is what it feels like to… This is what it looks like to.. Your words have shown me… Your words have touched me… Your words have moved me out of myself into a new and initially frightening place…Your words have taken me somewhere I needed to go then led me right back to myself.

As teachers we need to embrace the night terrors that come to us in the summer and welcome them into our lives, grateful for the reminder that there is still so much work that needs to be done to keep the Ego in check – to banish it to our sleep where our dreams remind us of the primordial rule of teaching – of all human interaction – only connect.

Teachers and Autoworkers -- Connecting the Dots

I was heartened to read Bob Herbert's column ( link included below) in today's New York Times in which he compares the plight of American teachers and the public perception of the American Federation of Teachers to the plight of the auto workers and the perception of the UAW. I have often thought about these two groups of working Americans who have been vilified by the so called liberal press and demonized by the American public. By juxtaposing the situations of American public school teachers and American autoworkers, Herbert exposes the dangers of blaming these workers for the economic downturn and the consequences for all of us if we insist that they alone bear all of the weight through unreasonable concessions.

American teachers have been called lazy, unqualified and caring only about our bottom lines ( as if that's a crime!!!) by the likes of Michelle Rhee and corporate cronies who want to take over public schools and run them like businesses ( another great idea -- see Wall Street -- Why is it okay for then to think about their bottom lines?)

I have been trying to express my consternation at the ways in which the auto workers are being hauled over the coals for being greedy enough to demand job security and health care when executives and investors in the industry expect and and take ridiculously high dividends, salaries, bonuses?

Herbert compares the plight of the workers themselves -- teachers who spend their own money on materials the system doesn't supply, who take students on field trips on the week-ends, who stay up past mid-night every night preparing lessons for and grading papers of over 165 students ( 5 classes of 33 students each) -- and auto workers who labor in factories their entire adult lives only to be told to get off their "high horses" when they demand health care and job security. Why, Herbert asks, are ordinary working Americans like teachers and auto workers expected to make the largest sacrifices during an economic downturn which is hurting them more directly than it's hurting the executives and investment bankers in their respective abilities to take care of their families and secure their futures.

In the column Herbert goes on to discuss the concessions that unions must make, particularly in these difficult times and I find myself agreeing with this also.
Years ago, my colleagues and I were stymied in our efforts to institute real school reform in Philadelphia because the union leadership refused to budge on seniority rights in staffing. The union has since moved away from this pig-headed position of the mid-nineties to one of supporting site selection of staff -- but not until many of the successful small schools within a school that were established in the 1990's collapsed because they were forced to accept the appointment of teachers who did not wish to work as part of a team. Through it all, I never lost faith in the union - just its antiquated and short sighted leadership.

In the piece Herbert focuses on AFT's president Randi Weingarten's defense of teachers as hard working, dedicated people who make personal sacrifices for their students. But he also notes her willingness to make concessions about tenure, teacher assignment and merit pay. He goes on to make the comparison to AUW's president Ron Gettelfinger and the concessions that his union has already made and the ones that still need to happen. But, and this is the point of his column as I see it -- those concessions should only happen within a context in which all parties -- executives, investors, suppliers, dealers etc --- adjust their expectations for compensation and profit as well.

Do we really want to blast American workers out of the middle class?

Why is it for instance that the media finds it untenable that people who labored on assembly lines for 35 years of their lives have health care when they retire? Would it be more American if as Herbert writes, "after 30 or 35 years on the assembly line, those retirees had been considerate enough to die prematurely in poverty, unable to pay for the medical services that could have saved them?" While I applaud Herbert's shining a light on this incongruity, I don't think he goes far enough in pointing out the hypocrisy --- no -- the absurdity of expecting the auto workers to pay the greatest price for the failure of the auto industry, while the executives have earned obscenely high pay and bonuses.

There will be no fair concessions in any union contract without a public appreciation not only for the work that teachers and auto workers do, but the contributions we make to the stability of our communities.

Thank you Bob Herbert for connecting the dots in this increasingly complex picture.

A Race to the Bottom by Bob Herbert
New York Times Op-Ed Page
December 23, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Teachers and Students Sharing Stories

A couple of years ago, students in the Peer-Counseling group put on a play for the student body about some of the problems facing students in high school. There is nothing unique about this -- it happens in schools all over the country every year. What was special about this play was that the students asked the teachers to provide the material for the script based on our experiences as students navigating our way through high school. It was a wonderful project. Not only did it help the students see their teachers as real people, but, by being asked to revisit our high school selves, the teachers were able to better empathize with our students. Below is my submission to the play.

When I was a teen-ager, school was my salvation. It provided a structure and predictability that the rest of my life lacked. While some people hated the monotony of the routine, I reveled in the sameness of it all…. The same locker, the same classes, the same teachers, the same friends. Plus, I was good in school. It was something I could do – Get A’s that is… I couldn’t do much else – couldn’t keep my parents from divorcing, couldn’t stop the war in Viet Nam, couldn’t make my boyfriend stop doing drugs – but I could write a damned good paper on the stoicism of the Hemingway hero. And that felt good.

Anyway, I went to this huge high school where there were almost 1000 people in my graduating class. And what they did to control us was to divide us into tracks based on how smart they thought we were… there was the academic track, the commercial track and the vocational track. And if that weren’t enough, there were levels within the tracks…Academic A, B, and C, Commercial A, B, and C and so on.. you get the picture.

Well, I was in Academic A, but all of my friends including Randy and June were in Academic B. That meant I had AP classes along with all of the other “smart” kids. My friends were still college prep – they took algebra and foreign language (unlike the kids in commercial who took typing or bookkeeping or the ones in vocational who took shop) only they weren’t considered “smart” by some of the teachers. Never mind that Randy and June were two of the funniest and most clever people I had ever met and they were always exciting to be around.

My 11th grade French teacher, Madamoiselle Gitlin taught in all of the tracks. She of course preferred to teach in the A track and was always complaining to us about how much she hated teaching the kids in the B and C track.. One day she asked me to come to see her after school. I remember going to her office and feeling really strange… wondering what she could possibly want to talk to me about. She asked me to sit down and looked at me with this really earnest look on her face… like she really cared about me or something… Then she got all serious and moved in close to me and told me that I should stop hanging around with Randy and June. That they were bad influences on me and that I was being brought down by them and I should separate myself from them before it was too late.

At the time, I just stared at her dumbfounded. I was shocked and angry, but I didn’t say a word. I sat there in stony silence until she told me I could go.

Years later, when I became I teacher, I vowed that I would never talk to any student about any other student – and I would never question someone’s choice of a friend.
See what really bothers me about this story today is – why wasn’t she concerned about Randy and June? If she thought they were headed in the wrong direction, why didn’t she try to help them? Just because they weren’t good in French, they weren’t worth the trouble?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Through Students' Eyes - Establishing Community in the Classroom

Sometimes, if we're lucky, we get to see our classrooms through our students' eyes. The statement below, by my former student Ogadi, describes her recollection of English class in 11th grade and the impact of a particular community building activity we did early in the year. Too often, educators forget that we are teaching human beings who need to feel valued and affirmed before they can open up to take the risks that learning new things demands. We start the year by handing out our syllabi and reviewing our rules. We want to assert our authority in the classroom, and make sure our students respect us. One day, many years ago, at the end of the first day of school, I asked one of my students how his day had gone. He told me that he started the day with high expectations for a good year, but by the end of the day, he was convinced that this year was going to be as boring as the years before. He had sat through SEVEN classes and in EACH one, the teachers had done the same thing. From that moment on, I vowed to start my classes differently -- to create welcoming activities that would let the students know that my classroom was a place where they were valued, where we would build on each others' strengths and where we would all become part of a social and intellectual community. At the end of Ogadi's statement, I will share a description of the activity she refers to in her narrative. As with any good teaching idea, adapt it to make it your own.

Ogadinma Anyanwu
English Class Statement
The first day of school, I got my roster and compared it with my friends’ in advisory to see who would be in my class. I did not have any classes with the people within my comfort group except for gym class. When I arrived to my first period English class, I could see why. AP US History changed the entire roster. I was in a room surrounded with people who were considered “smart math students”, people with whom I have never connected during my years at Masterman. I did not like it; I was entirely withdrawn from my classmates. To top it off, my English teacher was a loud, fearless, powerful, intimidating woman. From the start, you let us know the year was structured with classroom dialog: conversations, discussions, debates, and arguments. I was not pleased because I felt so out of place. Immediately I found Rodeeia and Caasi to bond with to maintain comfort.
Early on, you did the most memorable class project. The project was to give and receive positive comments about qualities of our peers that we recognized. In order for this project to properly function, interaction, movement and communication were necessary. The theory of it all excited me, but I was hesitant and afraid of the generic comments I would receive: really good runner, nice voice, fast, good vocals… Initially I stood in one spot, waiting for people to come to me. But I did not feel as if I was benefiting from any of it, rarely anyone approached me! So, I took some deep breaths, a couple of steps and tried to make some moves. The reward was priceless. The cycle of giving then receiving, receiving then giving was, for lack of better words, intense.
Time was provided to read, smile, laugh and absorb the comments. The one that blew me away was Meryl’s comment. She told me I am inspirational. Me, inspirational? I am smiling as I write now because I remember feeling so appreciated and valued. That one comment made my day. It made me feel like I had a chance this year after all. Through small class projects, I slowly strengthened as an individual. You always encouraged me to get involved in and out of the classroom environment.
Mrs. Pincus, in class, you gave me room to grow as an individual. I admire the passion you put behind all of your work. I cannot tell you how appreciative I am towards your dedication. When I compare my writing style now to that of the beginning of junior year, I see better structure, organization, sentence fluidity and balance. I remember repeatedly saying, “Writing essays has always been my weak point,” and you replied, “No it’s not. You have many things to say and need to work on focusing it on paper”. The guidance and lessons you provided enabled me to utilize my weaknesses as potential strengths. In the Beloved unit, we probed deeply into difficult passages and worked at uncovering the message Toni Morrison wanted to express. You allowed me to explore a complicated novel both creatively and logically.
Not only have my abilities as a writer, reader, and critical thinker advanced, I have learned something that I keep with me in my senior year and that I plan to bring to college and beyond. In your class, I learned to use my voice. I learned to reaffirm ways to use writing as self-expression. I know this may sound a little over the top, but you showed the path to womanhood and my identity. I am truly humbled by all of your teachings and stories. Thank you.

Community Building Activity - First Week of School or Later
This activity worked early in the year at my school because all of the students had been together for the past six years. If you are teaching students who do not know each other very well, save this activity for later in the year.

I think I said something like this.

"Everyone needs to stand up and have your notebook and pencil with you. You are going to walk around the room and seek people out to tell them something you admire about them, value about them or have learned from them. As people tell you these attributes about yourself, write them down. When someone says something to you, say thank you and you may choose to say something about them in return. Keep seeking people out and tell them their positive attributes. If you feel awkward or shy, or you're afraid of being left out, the way to deal with that is to find people to say something nice to. We'll do this for the next twenty minutes or so, then we'll return to our seats and debrief."

The activity usually lasts more than 20 minutes and sometimes they beg me not to stop them. When I see that someone is standing alone, I go up to them and say something positive to them about themselves. Sometimes the class asks me to grab my notebook so they can say positive things to me. Invariably, at least one student says, "I value the fact that you created this activity for us to do."

Are Things Really Harder for Today's Teachers Than They Were for Us?

I am having a hard time answering that question. I know that I hear the stories of young teachers, especially the ones who have decided that they can't stay in the Philadelphia public schools. I hear them talk about lack of resources -- not enough books to send home with students -- not enough class sets of anything worth teaching. I hear them talk about the buildings -- how they are dirty, unheated, with broken windows and mice and roaches. I hear then talk about the discipline problems, how students run the halls in the neighborhood high schools. I hear them talk about the truancy, their students' lack of motivation, the inability to read on grade level, their refusal to do homework. I hear them talk about inept and insensitive administrators who hide behind their own lack of knowledge by intimidating rather than supporting their young staff. I hear them talk about two different extremes -- either they are so minutely watched and supervised and their principals demand their slavish implementation of the school districts pacing schedule and curriculum ( regardless of their students' knowledge, interests, aptitudes or abilities) or they are left totally on their own , given so much free reign that they are lost and without a clue as to what they should be teaching.

I hear all of these stories and I ask myself -- is it really all that different from when I was a beginning teacher? Didn't I and all of my colleagues who were hired in the 1970's ( and stay in the system well into the 21st century) face the same kinds of problems too? Every last one of the complaints listed above have come out of my mouth and the mouths of my colleagues sometime during our career.

This is complicated. It is not a good thing that things haven't changed all that much in our city's schools. One would hope that things would have improved with all of the attention and hair pulling that has been devoted to public education by politicians and the media. It's fair to say that they have not lived up to their public trust. And it's fair to say that people of means only want to see those means support the education of their children -- leaving the children of working class and poor people to languish in sub-standard buildings with little or no resources. And it's also fair to say that NCLB has disproportionally impacted poor urban and rural schools -- holding them to higher standards with no additional funding, while implementing punitive measures. This in turn creates a culture of fear among district administrators who put pressure on building principals who come down hard on teachers. Meanwhile, no one ever questions the efficacy of the tests themselves or the skill and drill curriculum designed to raise the scores on these questionable tests.

So yes, the times are difficult for teachers, particularly new teachers in urban schools, but I still believe that it was difficult for us as well. The difference is that we didn't leave. We didn't quit. We stayed.

Maybe we stayed because we needed a pay check. Maybe we stayed because we were not going to move back in with our parents. I have a distinct memory of my first year teaching where a young man said to me, "We'll get rid of you by the end of the month" as he ran around the classroom overturning chairs and laughing wildly. What he didn't count on was that my very first paycheck came at the end of the month and I wasn't going to let an unruly 13 year old stand between me and my ability to support myself.

Later I learned how to reach him. I learned his life story and his challenges in school. I learned how to create opportunities to include him in class activities, to provide ways for him to use his energy in positive ways, and then I learned how to help him be a better reader and writer. It took time.

It also took time for me to learn how to be a teacher. I don't think I felt really felt like I knew what I was doing until my fifth year. Young people today want it all so fast -- Becoming a good teacher, particularly in difficult and challenging circumstances takes time. I continued taking courses during those years, trying to learn more about child psychology, curriculum design, as well as wring and literature courses to make me a better teacher of English. I took courses in African American culture, art and history so I could teach these texts to my African American students responsibly and knowledgeably. Eventually, I collaborated with other teachers who were also engaged in learning how to be better teachers and with them created programs for our students and made changes within our schools.

I want to be able to support these young teachers. They are the same age as my children and I would hope that in their respective professions, my children can find supportive mentors. But there is a part of me that thinks they give up too easily.
Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that many young teachers I know come through the Teach for America program and they entered the classroom with the intention of leaving after two years. Maybe you're more willing to fight the good fight when you know that you are in it for the long haul and that you are surrounded by others who are in it for the long haul too.

If there is anyone out there actually reading this blog, I would love to hear what you have to say about this? Is it really that much harder for Philadelphia ( or any urban area ) teachers today than it was for teachers a generation ago?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Remembering an Extrordinary Educator

My friend and colleague Carolyn Cohen sent me this newspaper article this morning. It was sent to her by a friend, also a teacher and colleague of Bernie Glaze, an extraordinary teacher who died of lung cancer in November. The article, which I share in full below paints the picture of the kind of teacher I fear is becoming extinct in our cities' public schools, driven out by ill-informed administrators and misguided public policies. Three things in particular touched me in this story. The first was Bernie's belief that all students could learn at very high levels and that they should be given the chance to take challenging courses regardless of their past performance. The other was the way she made her classroom feel like a home and her students part of a family. She knew what so many have forgotten -- teaching is more about human relationships than test scores -- human beings teaching and learning together with other human beings and our very basic need to be loved and feel as if we belong. I hope that Bernie Glaze knew how much she was valued before she died. It seems perhaps that she knew, given the story about her principal. In the final paragraph the author of this tribute piece says that in the midst of the rating and ranking mania, one needs to add to the list of criteria that make an excellent school, "teachers and administrators like Bernie Glaze." I wonder who will have the insight and courage to support young Bernie Glazes in the making and keep them in classrooms where not only can they help students grow and develop to their full potential, but have the chance to become great themselves.

Dynamo Brought IB and Rigor to All Students

Dynamo Brought IB and Rigor To All Students

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Into the "Great Beyond" -- Opportunities for Living, Learning and Making a Difference After the Classroom

Last year, near the end of the school year, when my days as a teacher were numbered, one of my colleagues said to me, "Well ten more days until you go into the great beyond." At the time it struck me as an odd statement and I thought about it all summer. Every day that I'd lay out in the sun, reading a book, I'd think, so this is the beyond. In September, it really hit me... being in the beyond. That's when I realized that the life I had known for all of my adult life had come to an end.

It has been both frightening and liberating to be outside of the classroom. The first part of September was relatively easy. My son, my first born, got married to the love of his life on a beautiful Indian Summer day overlooking the Hudson River. In a scene borrowed from Washington Irving, 120 friends and family gathered in the warm sunlight as Mike and Danielle gazed lovingly into each other's eyes and promised to love, honor and cherish each other for ever. It's safe to say that I didn't miss teaching at that moment.

Nor did I miss teaching a couple of weeks later when my husband and I traveled to Europe for the very first time. We chose Italy because we had heard that it was a very special almost magical place. We had never been able to travel in the past-- my schedule as a teacher only made it possible for us to travel during high volume times. Besides, we had made a decision that our children's education was the top priority, so there really wasn't a whole lot of money left over for us to travel much further than the Jersey shore or Disney World. So the trip to Italy was both relaxing and eye-opening -- and again, I really didn't miss teaching very much at all.

That is until I returned home, slept off my jet lag, unpacked and realized that I didn't really have anywhere I needed to be for the foreseeable future. I didn't have a group of people I would see every single day -- start my day with in home room, end my day with in Drama class and inquire together into literature and writing throughout the day. I was particularly bereft during the final days of the presidential campaign and the election of Barack Obama when I couldn't be in the company of young people hearing the ways in which they were making sense of this historic event.

So how have I been spending my time in the "great beyond" and what I have I learned so far about life after teaching?

First thing I've learned is that it's great not to have to get up at 6 AM every day. And it's wonderful to be able to have a leisurely cup of coffee while reading the newspaper in the morning.

The other thing I've learned is that it's much easier to take care of your health when you can actually make doctor's appointments at any time of day.

I have also learned that the Internet can be a great big vacuum that sucks all of your time and energy if you let it. It takes a great deal of disicpline to turn off the Internet connection and just use the computer to write.

I have been spending much of my time reconnecting with former students -- some from almost thirty years ago, others from last year.,, Google and Facebook have made it easy for people to reconnect and many of my former students have been finding me through these web-sites.

I have been giving a lot of thought to the ways in which I can create a forum as well as opportunities for my former students -- many of them educators -- to do professional development work and give talks and presentations about the impact of a progressive, student-centered, inquiry-based and writing-centered curriculum on their lives. I started this blog as another way to reconnect to former students and to engage them in the conversation about the meaning they made of their high school education and the impact that education has had on their lives. I think this is especially important at this particular time when NCLB has caused administrators to put pressure on teachers to teach to the test and not to the children in front of them. If my former students can tell the story of the long range impact of their high school education then that can begin to counter the arguments for test-driven pedagogies and describe an alternative pedagogy of possibilities.

So that's one project in the great beyond.

Another is working with After School Practitioners in a Seminar that teaches them how to engage in practitioner research and develop as professionals. Building on what I have learned and done as a teacher researcher, I am now working with the National Writing Project and the National Institute for Out of School Time Studies to adapt that work for people working with children in out of school or after school settings. Today, for instance, I am spending my afternoon visiting two programs at Philadelphia playgrounds with one of the seminar fellows and I will be helping her focus her research question.

Yesterday I attended a meeting between the Center for Evidence-Based Education and the principals and other administrators of Camden City Public Schools for the purpose of launching a professional development initiative in Camden that intends to bring about systemic reform. I was brought in by CEBE as a member of their team as a expert in teacher development and leadership and my role in this project will be to coach teams of teacher leaders in 3 Camden middle schools ( and possibly two high schools in the future) to be better teachers and to become teacher leaders in their buildings based on their knowledge and abilities as teachers. At the meeting yesterday, I expressed my hope that this program would enable and encourage good teachers to find career satisfaction within the classroom. I also expressed my hope that it would counter the popular view that teaching is an "entry level" position and in order to move up one needs to move out.

The other project that I have initiated since returning from vacation is a continuity group for Teacher for America teachers who went through Penn's Urban Education Master's program and who have chosen to stay beyond their 2 year TFA commitment. These teachers are in dire need of support -- they no longer have the TFA community nor the Penn community to mentor them and in some cases depending on the ages and experiences of the teachers at their schools, they are being looked to as veteran teachers and teacher leaders. They need a place where they can critically examine their own practice and continue to grow and learn as a professional. I first met these teachers when Dina Portnoy asked me to design a course in Inquiry into Practice for 2nd year Master's students ( who by the way are teaching full time throughout their certification program!) and despite what I think of Teach for America itself ( not much.. a topic for another post) I have come to admire and respect many of the young people who are teaching in some of the most difficult schools in the country. One of my reasons for creating this continuity group is not only to support them in their teaching but to thank them for staying when so many others (ncluding myself) have left.

These are the projects that I am working on in the "great beyond." And there's so much more I want to do. More and more I am realizing that I have to write.... about my teaching, about my life.... I am just about finished a chapter for a book about student choice and voice which documents my struggles during my final year of teaching with one particular class and all that I did as the teacher to "make it matter" to the students. I have a computer full of other papers, chapters, half-finished essays that could possibly be shaped into a book.

When I retired, I promised myself that I wouldn't work for six months and allow myself time to figure it out. I couldn't keep that promise of course -- I became way too bored. So I've taken on these projects -- all of which feel very connected to my life's project -- being a teacher and a person who makes a positive difference in the lives of others.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Inner Lives of Teachers as "People" - Staying Wide Awake to Our Fears and Dreams

Once, many years ago, a former student of mine who had recently graduated came back to our high school to visit. He was someone whom I had taught for several years and with whom I maintained a relationship beyond high school, helping him make the transition to college. He stopped in, said hello, then spent the afternoon wandering through the building. Later when he returned to my room and we were getting ready to leave to have dinner together, I asked him who he saw on his tour of the school. He turned to me and said, "Who do you mean? Teachers or people?"

I laughed and pointed out the underlying meaning of that statement --- that somehow teachers are not people. Ironic, I thought, because I, his former teacher, had indeed been a person to him -- a mentor, a friend, a surrogate parent. And I know he believed that. He wasn't referring to me in that statement but the other teachers with whom he had not connected in such a way.

But there is more in his statement than his personal experiences with teachers -- many of whom did not treat him as a person either. I think that it is very difficult for many students to see their teachers as "people." Elementary school children are often shocked when they see their teachers in a supermarket or doctor's office or when they meet their teachers' parents or children. I think that high school students are better able to see their teachers as people, but that often depends on whether it seems to the students as if the teacher sees them as people. There is definitely something about the institution of school and the structure of roles and relationships in the classroom that often make difficult for teachers and students to relate to one another as human beings with hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, passions and a desire to be needed, appreciated, cared for, and loved.

What does it mean to teach as a person? What is the relationship between a teacher's work and his/her inner life? I don't think there is nearly enough written about this -- the ways in which teaching touches a teacher's heart, the ways in which teaching abhors a vacuum and will silently spread to fill all of the empty spaces in a teacher's life, the ways it seeps into her dreams at night, the ways in which it connects to the unfulfilled promises of his own youth, the ways in which his emotions become so entangled with his students that he sometimes can't tell the difference between what he is feeling and what he has absorbed from them.

There have been times in my life when I have had the most vivid and terrifying dreams about being in the classroom that I awake in the middle of the night gasping for breath. These dreams often occur in August -- in the weeks before school opens for the new year ---and there is a common theme: the inability to communicate and connect with the students. This dream has taken on many guises --- sometimes it is pretty straight forward. I am in front of a class and I am talking but nothing is coming out of my mouth, or words are coming out of my mouth but they are going unheard by the students in the class as if I am speaking a language they do not understand. In another I have been ordered to the gym to "cover" a class and there are over 300 hundred students there and all kinds of apparatus and they are running and jumping and climbing and I am terrified that someone will get hurt and not only do they not hear me, but I slowly shrink and become smaller and smaller until I awake in terror right before I'm about to disappear completely.

In another dream, I am sitting on the back porch of the split level house I grew up in over 40 years ago. Right across from the semi suburban yard is an urban street with a line of red brick row houses and sitting on the front steps of several houses are dozens of my students. Physically, we are so close I can almost touch them. They are laughing and talking to each other oblivious to me until one looks across and notices me, sneers a little and makes a gesture with his hands as if he were cutting pages from a notebook. The words "paper snooze" are heard, the way words are sometimes "heard" in dreams -- I don't know who said them nor what they mean. I only know that they are a condemnation and dismissal of what I have to offer them.

Fears of disconnection, irrelevance, alienation and lack of control have permeated my dreams even after I had been teaching for over 30 years. Experience in teaching can only take you so far. Because each new class is full of new people and these new people have had unique experiences and of course no one can predict what will happen to/with the students in each class -- who will get sick or injured, who will lose a parent, who will be thrown out of her house, who will get pregnant, who will fall in love, who will become depressed, who will try to hurt himself. And no one can know what will happen in the world and how those events will impact our lives --- when students in a high school in Colorado will place bombs in hallways and enter the building with guns blaring -- when a lone gunman will kill students and professors in a reign of terror on a bucolic college campus -- when a black man's beating at the hands of the LAPD will be caught on tape and the trial of those same policemen will end in a not guilty verdict by an all white jury, setting loose a fury of racial anger in the face of injustice that hadn't been seen in a generation --- when one of your students will become paralyzed by a stray bullet as he is sitting in front of his house with his sister because the city of Philadelphia is a violent and dangerous place -- when airplanes will plow into skyscrapers and the Pentagon on a gorgeous fall day and you will sit in awed silence with your students and watch on tv as bodies fall and buildings crumple-- when a space shuttle will blow up before your eyes while watching with your students what you all thought was going to a triumphant space mission with a teacher on board.

There is always the fear of failure lurking in every classroom and buried deep inside even the most outwardly confident teacher's psyche. By failure I don't mean the kind of failure that is often talked about in the media about school failure.. low test scores, poor attendance, high drop out rates... Not to minimize that kind of devastating and crippling failure, but it is important for policy makers and others who are not teachers to understand that the primary failure is the failure of teachers and students to connect as human beings in the classroom.

Sometimes teachers ( like all human beings) want to be liked and accepted so badly that we act in ways that are not necessarily in the best interest of ourselves nor our students -- (for instance, not imposing rigorous standards, not assigning challenging work, not setting appropriate limits) for fear of being disliked. Sometimes teachers develop a cult of personality, making our classes so entertaining, so about ourselves and our own hungry egos that the students are seduced into thinking they are learning something important when in actuality they are being held captive by narcissists or ideologues.

Other times teachers find ourselves identifying so completely with a particular student's situation that it is often hard to distinguish our own desires from theirs -- a student whose parents are getting divorced at the same exact time in his life that your parents split up; a young woman who gets pregnant at the same time in her life that your girlfriend had an abortion you didn't want her to have; a boy who has an talent for music ( like you) but who you think should travel with his band after college instead of going to college like his parents want him to do (like you did); the girl whose mother had a nervous breakdown ( like yours) during her senior year and starts to fear for her own sanity ( just like you); the boy whose mother threw him out of the house when she learned he was gay. At these times, we can find ourselves trying to help a particular student but really redressing unresolved issues from our own past. With such deep personal identification, it is hard for a teacher to know if he is truly acting in the students' best interests.

While I am saddened and angered when I read news stories about teachers who have had romantic and sexual relationships with their students I am never shocked. Nor am I shocked (though equally saddened) by the countless teachers who have distanced themselves from their students and cannot or will not see their students the same way they view themselves or their own children. In the first case, the teachers lose (or never had) the ability to draw and respect boundaries. They become overwhelmed by their own emotions and ignore their moral and legal responsibility to respect the sanctity of their young charges' souls. On the other extreme, teachers become so far removed from their students' humanity that they objectify them - call them things like "these kids" or use animal ( "This school is a zoo") or war ("I'm in the trenches") metaphors to rationalize their failure to connect.

Being attuned to our inner lives and paying attention to our emotional needs and our dreams can help teachers grow as human beings and enable us to create rich, complex and challengingly real learning experiences for the students who are in our care.

When I started this entry, I wasn't sure where it was going or how I was going to end it. I only knew that it was important not only to acknowledge but to name some of geographic formations on the topography of teachers' inner lives. As I was writing, my thoughts turned to Maxine Greene ( as they often do whenever I think about what it means to be human). I remembered that yesterday, while cleaning out my office, I found an envelope filled with papers from a former student. This student was in my Drama class in 2005, a year in which we studied and performed Twilight Los Angeles by Anna Deavere Smith.  He subsequently went to NYU and had the opportunity to study with Anna Deavere Smith in a freshman seminar about performance and identity. That year, knowing how much Smith's work had influenced my teaching, he sent me all of the notes he took while in her class. At the time, I read through them, but not as carefully as I could have.

Yesterday I took the time to read the entire packet and inside I found a beautiful gift. It was a monologue that Smith had written and performed based on an interview with Maxine Greene. Those of you who have read my other blog entries, know what she means to me. The fact that these words came to me in the way that they did ( through a former student ) makes me believe in something bigger than myself and reminds me to remain ever vigilant to the power of generative connections and relationships between students and teachers -- as people.

Maxine Greene on Wide Awakeness

You always have something determining you
That's why I am so crazy about wide-awakeness
Sounds crazy maybe
The dialetically usually as understood
Like in Hegel and Marx
There's this conflict and then it's resolved and
But I don't believe it is resolved
I think the tension is always there.
Like I, I think
Like it took me a long time to get over
Offereing to get coffee
For my colleagues
For my male colleagues
Or I feel like curtseying
When I see the president of the college.
( laughs)
Sometimes it sounds almost trivial
But I think about people in my generation who internalized a cetain view of women?
I'm still fighting it!
I'm still fighting it!
You never get over
Some of the bad parts about childhood
As well as the wonderful parts.
Wide awakeness means
Not being passive
The kind of thing art
Makes possible
I agree with Dewey who said
Mind should be thought of as a process
As action
And not a container of ideas
I think that mind as a mode of being in the world
Lately I have been reading a lot about mind and memory?
And mind and imagination
And they all come together
As a mode of action
Mind is not a/
As one philos said
It is not a ghost in a machine
It is a way of acting in the world
And and then I think the way we release people to see more and feel more
Is wide awakeness
You have to
You have to enable our students
To name the world
To name what is happening
And I tell people
Just that idea of paying attention
And not losing touch with your perceptive self
or your imaginative self.
- From an interview of Maxine Greene by Anna Deavere Smith, July 2003 New York City

Maxine Greene

Monday, November 10, 2008

Thoughts about Helping Excellent Young Teachers Stay in the Classroom

This Thursday, I am meeting with 20+ 3rd and 4th year teachers in the School District of Philadelphia. What is unique about this group is that they are all veterans of Teach for America and graduates of the Masters or Certification program at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. These are the teachers who have decided to remain in Philadelphia classrooms beyond their two year commitment to TFA.

I first met these teachers in 2003 when I became an instructor in the graduate program. I had a troubled relationship with these young teachers at first. I found some of them to be arrogant and dismissive, if not downright disdainful of veteran teachers. As a highly experienced high school teacher at that time, I became angry and one night in class exploded, "Don't you ever go to the experienced teachers in your building for assistance? Don't you think that they might have something to offer? " They looked at me incredulously until one brave person said, "There are no experienced teachers in my building."

That was my dose of reality and my wake up call. Certainly, I, who was teaching at a center city magnet school had abandoned the inner city high school where I taught for 20 years after becoming frustrated by a series of increasingly inept principals and the dismantling of programs my colleagues and I had developed in the early and mid 1990's. Most of my experienced colleagues had followed suit, transferring to magnet schools, moving into administrative positions, lighting out for the suburbs or taking early retirement. So this young woman's comment opened my eyes to the bigger picture.

I could not resent nor criticize the presence of TFA in the School District of Philadelphia without taking some of the responsibility myself. That new insight enabled me to see the TFA program and the TFA teachers in a new light and as part of a bigger picture in which teachers of all ages, backgrounds and experience levels are being alienated from their own knowledge and values, discouraged and pushed from the classroom by policies that force them to teach in ways that they know will not be effective with their students.

on teacher retention and development. In it, I call for better professional development that engages teachers intellectually and builds on their knowledge and experience. Without this, two things will happen -- neither of which will be good for America's students: smart, dedicated teachers will leave education for other fields and/or the people who remain will have a limited view of what is educationally possible for themselves and for their students.

Click here to listen to the talk below

Good Afternoon and thank you for inviting me to be on this panel today responding to The Met Life Survey of the American Teacher. And you’ll have to forgive me if I talk quickly or take more than my allotted time, because it’s been a number of years since I have been asked to speak publicly about teaching in Philadelphia in Philadelphia– despite the fact that I have been teaching in this district since 1974 -- and all of my years have been spent in a classroom with a full roster. That means that for nearly thirty four years I have taught English and Drama at five different schools, in seven different grade levels and over 3,000 students from all parts of this city. Over the years, I have earned a Masters degree in Education and completed all of the course work for a PhD in Reading Writing and Literacy. In the course of these 34 years, I have learned quite a bit about my students, about teaching, and most importantly the most effective ways of teaching my students. And I am not the only one. I have met thousands of teachers nationwide in teacher networks like the Philadelphia Writing Project – a highly effective professional development organization that fosters school-university collaboration.

But increasingly over the past five years, we the teachers have not been asked what we think. In fact, in many cases, we have been told that what we think doesn’t matter and we should just shut up and do what we are told – even when what we are told to do is not working – is not reaching our students – is not inspiring nor engaging our students -- is not tapping into their enormous human potential – I am not alone in observing that the upsurge in school violence and student anger occurred during the build up to the PSSAs where students were being endlessly drilled with test preparation worksheets while being bombarded by PA announcements urging them on the proficiency, not so subtly reminding them of their inadequacies and failures. The emphasis on these test scores as if they are the only indicator of student achievement has had a deadening effect on teaching and learning and I believe that if this trend continues the exodus from the classroom, particularly in urban school will continue – at both ends… from the new teachers who have become discouraged to the veteran teachers whose knowledge and expertise is negated and devalued.

But then again – who asked me? In fact who asked any of the teachers how this is all working in our classrooms? Often, on the few occasions like today when I am asked to speak, I am met with dismissive comments like – “you’re the exception” These other teachers need someone to tell them what to do, what to teach and how to teach it.” I am here to tell you that I am not an exception at all – I have been the beneficiary of extraordinary professional development and programs that have fostered my intellectual growth and provided me with a supportive community of equally passionate professionals To dismiss me as the exception is to disrespect the potential of the people in our profession and to abdicate responsibility for supporting the kinds of professional development programs that not only “develop the teacher” but enable the teacher to generate knowledge and participate in developing the profession.

We – and by we I mean all of the stakeholders here today – have to stop thinking of teaching as “an entry level position” --- a place where someone begins their career on the road to a position of leadership outside of the classroom --- ---Currently, the system rewards people for moving out of the classroom – it rewards them with money, prestige and influence. This system of rewards has contributed to the teacher shortage –

It has taken the most experienced teachers out of the classroom, and it has fostered a culture of disrespect for the teachers who remain – because, by the logic of these values, if teachers were any good or knew anything at all we would have moved out of the classroom already – We need to change our thinking about teaching and teachers – and we need to restructure our human resources to make the best use of the experienced teachers. To this end, I would like to say that I think the district is on the right track by moving the teacher coaches out of their cars ( where they would travel from school to schools) and into a school building. I would go even one step further by suggesting that one way in which we could address the teacher shortage, especially in the “hard to staff” schools is by having the teacher coaches or school growth leader or whatever title we are giving these experienced teachers actually teach in these schools. Give them two or three periods a day in which they put their expertise into practice to serve the students at their school while simultaneously providing living examples of effective teaching that new teachers have a hard time imagining. Additionally, create authentic professional development in which new and experienced teachers examine lesson plans, look at student work and observe each other teaching in a supportive, intellectually stimulating environment that is responsive to the needs of their particular students. As human beings, teachers young and old need a sense of purpose – they need to feel that their work is making a difference and that they are valued and supported by the community at large in that work.

Yes – there are many many new teachers in the toughest schools – and many of these new teachers are underprepared. In fact, I have worked as a teacher educator in Penn’s Masters Degree program for the Teach for America Teachers – and I have been inspired by the commitment that these young people are bringing to the classrooms… These teachers come into the classroom with a two year commitment, but I have been encouraged this year by the number of teachers who are choosing to stay on. Jason Watson a second year Teach for America teacher from Nebraska who is remaining as a teacher in Philadelphia beyond his two year commitment has said, “Teach for America gave me the skills I needed to survive in the classroom for the short term – Penn and the Writing Project helped me to develop the knowledge and practices I need to remain in teaching as a life time career.”

We are at an interesting Crossroads right now in the teaching profession – there is a generation gap between the new and experienced teachers. For many of us, these new teachers are our children and they are looking to us for answers to their frustration and despair. If we do not take some positive action immediately to re-involve teachers in the professional work at school, we will continue to lose teachers at both ends of the experience continuum. Substantive, rigorous, engaging professional development that is rooted in our actual classrooms and that values teachers knowledge, experience and expertise is the only way we are going to be able to keep teachers in our schools. Teachers, like our students need to have agency in our lives and be encouraged to grow.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Ready Willing and Able

On Wednesday morning when I went to my computer, I noticed that my son's away message on his google chat said, "ready, willing and able." When he came on line, I asked him what he meant. He replied, "to serve Obama."

My son is a young attorney working for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. When I told my husband ( a Reagan Republican who cast his ballot for Obama as well) about our son's away message, he said, "Mike works for the Federal government. He already "serves" Goerge Bush."

While this may indeed be true, there is something qualitatively different about our son's eager willingness to serve Obama - - to view and experience working for the federal government ( in his case on issues pertaining to laws relating to energy) as something more than a job with a decent salary, but as work in the world that enables him to contribute to something bigger than himself.

My son was an early and passionate supporter of Barack Obama and in many ways it was he who inspired me to cast my ballot for Obama in the Pennsylvania primary over Hillary Clinton. While there were many things I liked about Hillary -- her intelligence, her work ethic, the wonderful job she had done as a mother, I felt that near the end in Pennsylvania, she had given in to the negative forces in her campaign and allowed her attacks on Obama to become unnecessarily ugly. ( I think the fact that Obama never went negative had a lot to do with his appeal in the general election.)

But it was my son's passion and hopefulness that moved me to rethink my vote.

I have heard from many of my peers ( white middle class baby boomer professional women --) that their children's ardent commitment to Obama and their belief in his message of change was high on their list of reasons for their voting for him. For years we had lamented our children's generation's lack of unity or commitment to a cause and with Obama's candidacy, it seemed as if they found it --- as if they could finally understand what we were talking about ad nauseum for their entire childhood about the passion of the Sixties. A essay in today's speaks to this issue. In an open letter to Baby Boomers, the Gen X writer publicly apologizes to the boomers for all of the years of making fun of our undying passion and annoying nostalgia for that time in our youth when we believed in the power of collective action to end a war, fight poverty and insure equal rights and opportunity for all men and women regardless of race or economic background.

In the ensuing decades, we grew up, had children, made lots of mistakes, became cynical and more concerned with our own welling being and that of our family's than the common good. We passed this sense of malaise on to our children. In the discourse of the day, "public" became a dirty word synonymous with "bloated," "bureaucratic" and "ineffective." Public schools, facilities or public works of any kind were sold off to the private sector who it was assumed would do a far better job than government. Public service became something to deride and in the American imagination, government agencies became a haven for incompetents who weren't good enough to work for corporations.

The scandals of Enron and World Com, along with the current economic meltdown and the images of corporate executives pocketing millions while middle class stock holders have seen our life savings and investments vanish has given lie to the canard that private interests can better run public institutions. Sarah Palin's attempt to belittle Barack Obama's experience as a "community organizer as a way of minimizing his qualifications for the presidency totally missed the point. Barack Obama's work as a community organizer would prove to be the perfect experience for the kind of leader he has become. It has always been disingenuous to dismiss Obama as lacking leadership experience; for almost two years, he was the leader of the most impressive presidential campaign in modern history -- one that tapped into the hopes and ideals of young Americans who were willing to work very very hard to see him elected.

It would be naive to believe that the election of one man, even an extraordinary one, can fix our troubled economy, extricate us from two unpopular wars, protect us from hostile enemies or bring about social and economic justice. But what he can do is provide smart, ethical and inspired leadership -- the kind of leadership that has prompted my son and hopefully millions like him who supported Barack Obama to be "ready, willing and able" to dedicate their professional and personal lives to public service.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Thoughts on the Morning of Election Day.

A couple of days ago, I was having coffee with an African American friend and we were discussing the upcoming election. I told her that I was worried that if there was a close election and Obama lost in a fashion similar to Al Gore's infamous defeat in 2000 that there would be civil unrest. She replied that she feared there would be civil unrest either way - given the inflamed rhetoric of the McCain-Palin campaign and the anger and resentment they were flaming among working class white Americans towards the terrorist/socialist/tax-happy/alien black man who wants to ruin America. She also talked about how she feared for the psychological and emotional well being of African American elders who view today's election in almost Biblical proportions. Many of them, she felt, old, infirm, sick, were holding on for dear life to cast their ballot and see a new world dawn for their grandchildren and all future generations.

Which is why the passing of Barack Obama's grandmother is so sad today. She died in her sleep yesterday in Hawaii, one day before the election that could make her beloved grandson President of the United States of America. That story has Biblical overtones as well -- Moses not getting to the promised land, Martin Luther King's dream deferred. One can only imagine Obama's personal emotional struggles during this campaign.... His deeply rooted sadness and anger when discussing his 53 year old mother's death to cancer and her worry about how she would pay her hospital bills when her insurance company refused to pay for pre-existing condition. Or the profound nature of the timing of his grandmother's death---and his sharing his disappointment in himself for not visiting his mother sooner -- hence his journey home in the midst of his campaign to make sure he did not make the same mistake with his grandmother.

So these are some of my thoughts as I sit here this morning at my desk and get ready to cast my vote for him. But I also think about his Kenyan father and his Indonesian step father. I think about his memoir, Dreams of My Father, which I was reading in the final weeks of his campaign and noting all of the seeds of his current journey. I think that Barack Obama's experiences in Kenya and in Indonesia along with his American upbringing and top-notch education make him uniquely qualified to be the leader of a 21st Century America -- an America that is still the leader of the free world, but one that is knowledgeable about the history, cultures and people of other places and one who does not believe that American must force its values on other countries or that America is the center of the universe -- a leader who can understand complexity and paradox -- a leader who can inspire people to believe in the future, even when it is painfully obvious that the future will contain disappointments and struggles -- maybe even sacrifices.

Yesterday I was talking to my mother about her mother who was born in 1904 and died in 1972. To my grandmother, Chicago was as far away to her as China is to us today. After crossing the ocean from Russia with her parents, she settled in Philadelphia and never left -- that is until two weeks before she died when she threw caution to the wind and accepted an invitation from a man-friend to drive with him to Florida. She suffered a massive stroke just as his car was entering Miami. I don't know if she ever realized she had arrived at her destination.

Life is full of these kinds of stories... dreams put on hold, destinations never reached... Sadness and disappointment. Yesterday in the New York Times, conservative pundit William Kristol wrote an editorial in which he talked about losing the election. He said that in the somewhat likely event that McCain loses the election, the conservatives will be disappointed but they will accept it and move on. It's the liberals he says that he is concerned about... noting the deep seated emotional stake that so many of us have in the election of Barack Obama. Of course he goes on to make a wry satirical argument that liberals can bask in a McCain victory as an opportunity to celebrate an underdog's victory --- something that he claims liberals love to do. Despite the sarcasm there is a ring of truth to his words - particularly when he addressed the emotional commitment and personal stake that Obama supporters like my friend's elders have for their candidate and for this election.

Do I think Obama will be a perfect leader? Do I believe that his election will solve the multitude of problems we face both at home and abroad? Of course not. But there is something to be said for hope. I'll take that over fear and cynicism any day-- in my personal life and in the life of this great nation.

Today at 7:49 in the morning on Election Day in America, I am allowing myself to be cautiously hopeful. It feels good.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Reflections on Italy -- student protests, social justice and equity

I have recently returned from a very enlightening and magical trip to Italy. It is the first trip of my retirement and the first vacation my husband and I have taken out of the country. I had only been to Europe once, prior to this trip -- with the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors Fellowship for Educators about Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust. That trip was life changing and deserves its own post -- something I will write at a later time. I bring it up here to say that even though I had been to Europe once before, my time in Poland was spent visiting concentration camps and learning about the death of a 1000 year old civilization.

Not a happy time.

This time, our trip to Italy was supposed to be purely recreational --- sight seeing, eating amazing food and drinking lots and lots of wine.

We did that and more the past few weeks, traveling through all the beautiful towns and cities of Northern Italy.

I first noticed the students in Florence. They were sitting in the square outside the Duomo and they seemed to be having class. I asked our local tour guide what was going on and she replied that the students were protesting education reforms proposed by the government. She indicated that the students across the country were staging nation-wide sit-ins and that she felt it was just an excise for them to cut school.

I was intrigued. And despite what this woman had said, it didn't look like the students were cutting school to me. It looked as if they were seriously engaged in teaching each other something. Their teachers were with them, but for the most part, they remained quietly supportive. Later, I asked our tour director, Mauro Tinelli if he would explain to me what was going on. He explained that right-wing government, in an effort to cut the budget and save money was proposing changes to the educational system that included raising class size in the secondary schools ( to 26) and eliminating separate teachers for different subjects in the primary schools, the implementation of behavior grades and the wearing of uniforms to curb bullying. The proposal also included severe cuts in Euros to the University system which would amount in fewer number of courses and degree programs offered to Italian students. My first reaction to this was --- hmmmmm... sounds an awful lot like American public schools --- more than 26 in a class and one teacher in the primary grades... Another aspect of this proposal includes the establishment of separate classes to foreign immigrants --- so called bridge classes to introduce immigrant children to Italian language, values, history and customs...

I spent the rest of the trip trying to learn as much as I could about the student protests and the proposed changes to the educational system in Italy. In every city and small town we visited from Sienna to Venice ( where there was a huge rally in St. Mark's Square) we saw students seemingly self organized, gathering together to state demonstrations and teach-ins. I was frustrated by my inability to understand the language and really engage with the people in the squares. I bought an Italian newspaper La Spalletta in Volterra and asked Mauro to translate the articles about the school for me. ( Mauro, ever the joker told me that the headline "Studenti in Rivolta" meant "The students are revolting!" )

While his actual translation pretty much confirmed what he had told me earlier, I still had questions. What was the political bent of the publication I was reading? What role did social class and race play in this issue? Was it universally supported by the students? What did the public think. Another local tour guide -- this one from Sienna --- told me that everyone agreed that the schools in Italy were "a mess" and that something needed to be done. They just didn't all agree on what needed to be done. I couldn't get an understanding from anyone about what was "a mess" about the schools.

I was also learning a little bit about the history of Italy and the economic differences between the northern and southern provinces. An incident that occurred in Venice near the end of our trip speaks to that.

One the final day of our trip, we visited the Jewish Ghetto in Venice. It was the first ghetto -- in fact the very term ghetto originated here. We were taking tour of the remnants of five synagogues that once functioned in Venice. As we approached the steps of one of the synagogues, a group of about 10 high school aged boys were sitting outside smoking cigarettes and joking around with each other. It was obvious to me at least that they weren't Jewish ( I knrw this even before learning that there were only 20 Jews currently living in the ghetto and only 500 Jews living in all of Venice -- at its height, this community boasted 5000 people.) I felt mildly threatened by these young men and felt the tension in the air when our local tour guide, a Jewish man with a very cynical and resigned attitude, engaged them in conversation. They spoke Italian of course and I had a hard time understanding what they were saying.

Later the guide told us that the boys were part of a high school class who was touring the ghetto as a class outing. The ghetto gets tens of thousands of visitors a year. These particular young men refused to enter the synagogue, they said, because it was against their religion to cover their heads in a house of worship. Our tour director taunted them by saying how the pope covers his head. When we entered the synagogue, we saw the classmates of these boys -- mostly female - being lead through the building my a tour guide and their teacher.

After the tour, a member of our group asked the tour guide if the students were members of the Northern League, a right wing neo Nazi political party that favors the the establishment of an independent nation, Pandania, the richer half of the Italian peninsula. While the tour guide could not tell us with certainty, the political affiliation of these young men, it was clear to me that they seemed to have a disdain for Jews. It also made me wonder how they felt about the young men from Africa who lined the streets of places like Pisa and Florence, selling tourists fake designer products and other cheap souvenirs.

I have not been able to learn enough about the politics, economy or education system in Italy to have any opinions. But, my experience in taking an inquiry stance and questioning the assumptions on which people form opinions about American politics and education, I am in the process of at least trying to raise the appropriate questions.

Why do so many people say Italian schools are a "mess?" Why are they in such need of reform?
Is it solely about money or are there other factors? Are there some people who benefit more by the current system than others and is that why they are protesting so much? How does this education battle play out in the northern and southern ( less rich) parts of Italy? Are the schools currently better in the north? What role does racism and xenophobia play in the current debate? Are the southern Italians more likely to be dark complected -- isn't "swarthy" the word I have heard used to describe Sicilians?

I returned to the US on Tuesday, October 26. Later I learned that the proposal the students were protesting was passed by the Italian parliament on Wednesday. Since then,
I have continued trying to understand what is happening in the schools but I have concluded for now that I don't have enough background information to make any commentary.

This situation has also reminded me how complex educational issues are and how they are always tied to larger social, economic and political happenings. One report talked about how this reform will be a boon to private schools in Italy. Below I share several links to coverage I have found and ask others who read this who may know more about the situation to post their responses and send links.,italy-adopts-education-reform-amid-ongoing-student-protests.html

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Listen to Maxine Greene

Before I leave for my two week vacation in Italy, I wanted to post this lecture by Maxine Greene. I had the privilege of meeting Maxine in the early 1990's. I presented with my students at two of her conferences and she spoke in Philadelphia at an event sponsored by the Bartol Foundation the year that the documentary about my work at Gratz was premiered. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. Maxine Greene is the person in this world whose work I admire the most. Every time I have felt lost or hopeless, I have turned to her books, talks, and projects and I have been re-inspired. In this talk, Maxine makes clear the power of the human imagination and she links the act of imagining to the creation of new and more ethical social and political realities. She talks about all of these things in the context of teaching-- teachers as human beings teaching other human beings... all of us unfinished, still becoming... human.


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Watch 'Towards Pedagogy of Thought & Imagination' from The Cowin Center on 3/5/2008

My Bill Ayers Moment

I must be a terrorist -- or at least have terrorist leanings. See, I have four books written or edited by Bill Ayers on my book shelf and I actually met the man at an education conference at Teachers College in Columbia University in 1994. If the FBI were ever to search my computer for past emails from suspect characters with terrorist leanings they would even find several email communications between Mr. Ayers and myself.

In truth, I didn't like him that much personally when I met him. He was a bit smug and full of himself and he seemed to condescend to me ( a mere classroom teacher in the company of stellar scholars and professors. ) But I did like his work and I admired the other people with whom he was associated at the time: Michelle Fine and Maxine Greene - two of the people in education who have had a profound influence on my life. And I also felt that we were engaged in the same worthy struggle - urban school reform that would address and rectify the social, economic and political inequities that curtailed the opportunities and life chances of the children in our cities' poorest and most neglected and maligned public schools.

It was lunch break on a Saturday and I had just presented at a conference sponsored by Maxine Greene and her Center for Social Imagination. It was the most amazing, inspiring and eclectic conference I had ever attended. There were artists, musicians, classroom teachers, professors, writers and students of all ages and backgrounds together in this space. The day included a wide variety of presentation formats --- performances, panel discussions, lectures, interactive workshops. My invitation to present there came through Michelle Fine who was familiar with my work with student playwrights and the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival.

My students and I presented during a plenary session before lunch in a beautiful, old auditorium. The presentation began with my current students ( Tika Clemonts, Ardelia Norwood, and Burnell Knox) performing scenes from Allison Birch's play Believing and Terrance Jenkin's play Taking Control. Both Allison ( in 1990) and Terrance ( in 1992) had won the National Young Playwrights Contest sponsored by Young Playwrights Inc. and had had their plays performed professionally off-Broadway. After the scenes, each spoke about the impact of the playwriting program on their lives. I spoke about the impact on the teacher and then the audience viewed the video "I Used to Teach English" on a huge screen. After the video ended, there was rousing applause in the audience. It was very moving and overwhelming. It was one of those defining moments in your life when it all comes together -- your work, your values, meaning, action, relationships... All of us - Terrance, Allison, Burnell, Tika, Ardelia and I felt like we were part of something bigger than ourselves.

It was immediately following that presentation that I was approached by Bill Ayers. He told me that he was planning a book about Maxine Greene - that the book would include essays by people who had known her and had been influenced by her work. He asked if I would consider submitting mine, Terrance's and Allison's speeches for the book. We communicated by email in the following months - I sent the speeches to Ayers -- and he finally wrote back to me telling me that he just didn't think that our speeches fit with the format of the book and he was sorry but he wouldn't be able to publish them.

I hadn't thought much about Bill Ayers in the past 14 years. I bought his book about Maxine Greene A Light in Dark Times when it was published, and somewhere along the line, I have purchased and read three of his other books as well.

The current ridiculous attack on Barack Obama, linking him to domestic terrorism because he once served on a board of a foundation with Bill Ayers prompted me to revisit Ayers' books. Looking at Ayers' books right now have allowed me to reconnect to the time in my life and career where I was actively engaged on the local and even national scene in positive urban school reform. Reviewing the essays and chapters in these books rekindled my passion and commitment to opening up possibilities for new ways of "doing school" in urban classrooms.

Barack Obama's association with Bill Ayers and Obama's participation in school reform in Chicago point to what could be the possibility of a person in the White House who understands the complex issues involved in school reform - a person who will not look to standardized tests as a true measure of a school's growth -- a person who will see the light in dark times and the potential of urban youth that can be mined by smart, dedicated, inspired and inspiring educators working with communities to both create for themselves and demand the resources they deserve from the government -- a person influenced by the life work of Bill Ayers.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Coming Full Circle -- Former Students as Teachers Redux

Below is the text of an email I received a couple of days ago from a former student from Masterman. She was in my Freshman English class in 1998-99 -- the first year that I taught at Masterman when I was still trying to figure out how to teach for social justice in a site of relative privilege. During those early years, I often found myself not "liking" my Masterman students -- getting upset with their sense of entitlement and regretting my decision to leave Simon Gratz.

One night, I had a dream. In the dream, I was on the ground trying with all my might to get up. Suddenly I heard a voice. "You're a bird stupid! Fly!" I raised my arms and up I went, no longer paralyzed or stuck to the ground. As I was driving to work the next morning, I remembered the dream. I was also thinking about my struggles with my new students. This time the voice said, "You're a teacher, Marsha. Teach ." From that moment on, while it didn't become easier, at least I accepted the challenge of meeting my students where they were, accessing their prior knowledge, learning about their past experiences and realizing that they too were negatively impacted by the inequities within the school district that privileged them. What I perceived as their arrogance was in part a function of the way in which they had had their identities constructed for them by the school.

That first year, after my freshmen students read To Kill a Mockingbird, I assigned an I-search paper. They were to pose a question about a topic related to the novel. The young woman whose email I share below chose to research John Dewey and progressive education. In the beginning of the novel, Scout talks about her new young teacher who says that she has been influenced by Dewey and Scout mistakenly thinks the teacher is referring to the Dewey Decimal system. It's a funny moment, with a sly critique - one that could be overlooked by young readers.

This student researched John Dewey and read about progressive education. She wrote an excellent paper and I still remember that she ended the paper by acknowledging that she was in the midst of receiving a progressive education herself. Reading that paper was a turning point in my sojourn at Masterman. I realized that inquiry based teaching and learning could be enacted there and it could have a positive impact on the students and perhaps even the school community at large. It gave me hope for the future.

Ten years later, this student emailed me. She's currently teaching at a private school in the area. She agreed to allow me to share her email without naming herself or her school. It's early in her career. She's still assessing her context and hoping to find ways to effect positive change without alienating anyone.

She writes:
It's been a long journey since I left Masterman. I initially left after 10th grade because my family was part of the big exodus out of the city. My parents had finally achieved the great American Dream and bought themselves a house in a working middle-class neighborhood. The dream even came with its own white PVC picket fence. I finished high school in Bensalem, followed in my older sister's footsteps and enrolled at Swarthmore.

My narrative begins during my freshman year of college. I thought I was going to major in Economics, learn to make tons of money and create a great foundation in my name. In high school, I used to carry in my wallet a Chinese fortune cookie slip that said, "You will become a great philanthropist in your later years." One of my goals coming out of high school was to donate money back to schools like Masterman. Naïve, I know.

It wasn't until my Spring semester that I realized I couldn't see the world through graphs and economic models. My world was revealed to me through Intro to Educ. I spent every semester looking into the inequalities of education from many angles. I did a special major in Political Science and Educational Studies, focusing on ed policy, teacher retention in public schools, and media literacy.

During my sophomore year, I took an honors seminar on the sociology of education and learned the power of ethnography and personal narratives. I wanted to learn everything about the role of school in society. I thought then that I could do educational research to inform policy. I have always taken an inquiry stance when it comes to policy work. In order to create effective policies I needed to understand schooling from multiple contexts. Having attended urban and suburban schools, I felt like I was missing a rural perspective. During my junior year, I traveled to Perth, Western Australia to examine rural education and teacher retention.

By senior year, there were so many paths that I wanted to take -- school administration, ed policy analyst, researcher, etc. I was struggling with trying to find the best position to affect social change. I ended up getting a certification in teaching and decided to spend my first few years understanding the work of teachers. My study of teacher retention taught me the importance of working in a supportive environment as a novice teacher. Unfortunately, I knew that environment wouldn't be a Philly public school. I joined Abington Friends thinking that I'd teach there for a couple of years, grow as a teacher, and teach in Philadelphia. Going into my third year of teaching, I can see that’s no longer the case.

As I am learning this year, the work of social justice needs to be done everywhere regardless of class and socioeconomic status. The students whom I teach grow up in privileged settings that are rarely examined. Getting them to examine their and their parents' white privilege is the reason I get up every morning at 5am. It’s nice to know that I am not alone in this work. Tim Wise came to speak at our school last year and the school has been critically looking at white privilege and diversity.

Just last year, I enrolled as a part-time Master's student at Penn. I wanted to challenge myself a little bit so I joined the reading/writing/literacy program. I'm taking a course with Susan Lytle this semester on Adolescent Literacy. We read some articles by Bob Fecho and I began to connect some dots. I struck gold when I saw your name in his acknowledgment section. In writing about my own adolescence, I spent a lot of time reflecting upon my experiences in your English class. I feel like I have come full circle. (Lytle gives out writers' memos when we hand in our papers.) At 14, I was doing an inquiry on teen culture. Now at 24, I am doing an inquiry into adolescent literacy.

I first wrote to you because I wanted to thank you for your work. I finally came to this great revelation about that Dewey paper that I wrote for your class. I re-read it last week and saw my research question – "Does progressive education still exist in schools today?" In my concluding paragraph, I said that it does and that this paper is an example of progressive education! That was such a meta-conclusion! Little did I know that I was the lucky few to receive a progressive education.