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.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Teaching and the Election: What about a Teacher's Political Views?

There have been many days this fall when I have been glad that I am currently not teaching. I would find it hard not to share my passionate support of Barack Obama and my intense disdain for the negative and cynical campaign being run by John McCain, Sarah Palin and their Republican supporters. I would have a difficult time staving off the questions that I know my students would ask me about McCain's choice of a woman for a running mate, or her fractured syntax ( I taught English) or the current trend towards hate mongering that is happening at Republican rallies. Yesterday, for instance John McCain admonished one of his supporters who referred to Obama as an Arab, lecturing them about respect. This from a man who is running adds calling Obama a liar and dangerous for the country.

Should teachers engage with their students about their political beliefs? Should we pretend not to have views? Can fair and open dialog occur in a classroom only if the teacher remain "neutral?" There are some who would say, "Absolutely." Still I wonder. If the purpose of the dialog is a true inquiry into the impact of language and rhetoric of politics, can a teacher stay out of the fray? For instance, were I teaching right now, I would have started the year with George Orwell's 1984 -- the book already assigned as summer reading for seniors. In years past when I taught that book, we spent several weeks analyzing all different types and examples of propaganda -- learning the tools of the propagandist and becoming able to recognize them in advertisements and political posters and speeches. There are many books and websites that a teacher can use in developing lessons about propaganda including this one entitled Propaganda in the classroom.

Last year when I taught 1984, I took the students to see Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker at the Free Library where he talked about the history of profanity, its uses and purposes and how it relates to the ways our brains function. We also listened to his talk about thought and language

In a recent interview on NPR, Pinker analyzes the language of the current financial crisis and presidential campaign. This too could/should be the stuff of a contemporary English classroom that has meaning for the students and connects to issues and events that impact their lives.

What is problematic for me as a recently retired teacher and one who has always been open and transparent with my students about my beliefs, how could I in good conscience not point out the ways in which the McCain campaign has gone beyond the pale in using language to incite fear and hatred among his base supporters? I years past, I have been outspoken in my commitment to anti-racism and social justice. I have selected texts by African American and Native American writers and I have been vocal about the rights of women. I have attempted to "walk the walk" in my work as an educator as well as "talk the talk."

One time in the faculty room, during a casual political discussion, a neo-conservative colleague dismissed my ideas as " flakey liberal nonsense." Not quick on my feet when insulted publicly, I did not respond immediately. I found the colleague later and told him that I resented being called flakey and that I came to my political beliefs through lived experience and hard thought inquiry and that I expected to be treated with respect in the faculty room and elsewhere when engaging in political discussions. I told him his characterization was dismissive, disrespectful and diminished me as a woman and thoughtful professional. To his credit, he truly heard me and I wish that I had had the quickness of mind to have responded in this when in front of my peers.

Recently, on a professional email list serve of the Philadelphia Writing Project, I posted a message attacking John McCain and his cynical choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate. I was inspired to write the post after others had posted about the double standard of white privilege being enacted in the campaign against Barak Obama. Here is a link to the essay and a complete copy of the essay is included at the end of this entry.

In response to the conversation about language, race and privilege that ensued after the original posting, I wrote a response on September 17th which I called "and then there's the gender thing." Here it is verbatim below.

And while we're talking about privilege let's look at the twisted way in which the Republican ticket has tried to hijack the gender issue and distort it to suit them. Has anyone wondered why we haven't heard much about John McCain's first wife? I did a google search last night and found minimal hits, most of them linking to the same story from a British newspaper.
When John McCain was imprisoned in Hanoi, his young, beautiful,swimsuit- model wife and mother of three children ( two from a former marriage whom McCain adopted and a daughter Sydney) was in a horrific car accident. She sustained serious injury to her legs and underwent 23 operations. She became disabled and disfigured and gained a lot of weight. When McCain returned to the US, he did not remain faithful to his wife. While he was still married he met and proposed to Cindy McCain, a wealthy, young, slender woman.
One of the sites I visited questioned why there is so little information about Carol Shepp (a former Philadelphian). Given the amount of press, time and government investigations that were dedicated to John Edwards' and Bill Clinton's affairs one has to question how the Republican party continues to characterize themselves as the party of "family values" and John McCain as a man of "character."
There is nothing unusual about powerful, driven and narcissistic men shedding their aging wives and trading them in for newer models. In fact, I wonder, would everyone be so turned on by McCain's choice of running mate if she looked like Hillary Clinton or Eleanor Roosevelt?
It is laughable to assert that a man who abandoned his disabled first wife after she lost her model good looks and hot body, who married a young daughter of a rich beer distributor and who selected a former beauty queen as a running mate for vice president could possibly understand the issues important to women in this country.

Within minutes of posting this message, I was attacked by a colleague on the list-serve calling me "low down" and "uneducated." She called upon the others on the list serve to censure me and keep me or anyone else from posting "personal" attacks on the candidates private lives. In response, I reminded her that the candidates had made their private lives public, introducing themselves and their families to the world through biographical videos shown at their respective political conventions. ( It is important to note that Carol Shepp McCain was not included in McCain's biographical video.) I also wrote that it is imperative for literacy teachers to be able to analyze the powerful ways in which narratives can be used and abused.

The conversation continued on the list-serve for several days with most people making public posts that supported my right to express my opinion in that way on this forum. Some wrote passionate posts railing against the Republicans and George Bush. Others wrote measured responses about the issues. Still others discussed the nature and parameters of free discussion among a community of professionals during a volatile political time.

The woman who wrote the initial response to my post about McCain finally wrote that she was withdrawing from the conversation - that she hadn't meant to incite "World War III" and would no longer share her thoughts with this group.

I wonder if I would have posted such a response if I were still teaching. Interesting the woman who objected to my post teaches at the school where I taught for ten years before retiring. How would this whole thing have played out had we had to see each other every day and teach the same students?

Would I have been able to refrain from making comments about McCain's cynical choice of a female running mate? Would I have been able to refrain from sharing my own story of how my father abandoned my mother with 3 small children and left us to fend for ourselves and that I think those kinds of decisions in a person's life DO matter and DO show what they are made of.

Can one teach with integrity if one must hide her deepest most sacred values of fairness and honesty and her disdain for hypocrisy and rhetorical manipulation?

Today as the election has become even more heated and dirty than it was less than a month ago, I am relieved for the moment that I am not in the classroom and can feel free to express myself.

SNCC: White Privilege and the Election

Essay by Tim Wise

For those who still can't grasp the concept of white privilege, or who are
constantly looking for some easy-to-understand examples of it, perhaps this list
will help.

White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen like Bristol Palin and
everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal
matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because "every
family has challenges," even as black and Latino families with similar
"challenges" are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters
of social decay.

White privilege is when you can call yourself a "fuckin' redneck," like Bristol
Palin's boyfriend does, and talk about how if anyone messes with you, you'll
"kick their fuckin' ass," and talk about how you like to "shoot shit" for fun,
and still be viewed as a responsible, all-American boy (and a great son-in-law
to be) rather than a thug.

White privilege is when you can attend four different colleges in six years like
Sarah Palin did (one of which you basically failed out of, then returned to
after making up some coursework at a community college), and no one questions
your intelligence or commitment to achievement, whereas a person of color who
did this would be viewed as unfit for college, and probably someone who only got
in the first place because of affirmative action.

White privilege is when you can claim that being mayor of a town smaller than
most medium-sized colleges, and then Governor of a state with about the same
number of people as the lower fifth of the island of Manhattan, makes you ready
to potentially be president, and people don't all piss on themselves with
laughter, while being a black U.S. Senator, two-term state Senator, and
constitutional law scholar, means you're "untested."

White privilege is being able to say that you support the words "under God" in
the pledge of allegiance because "if it was good enough for the founding
fathers, it's good enough for me," and not be immediately disqualified from
holding office--since, after all, the pledge was written in the late 1800s and
the "under God" part wasn't added until the 1950s--while believing that reading
accused criminals and terrorists their rights (because, ya know, the
Constitution, which you used to teach at a prestigious law school requires it),
is a dangerous and silly idea only supported by mushy liberals.

White privilege is being able to be a gun enthusiast and not make people
immediately scared of you.

White privilege is being able to have a husband who was a member of an extremist
political party that wants your state to secede from the Union, and whose motto
was "Alaska first," and no one questions your patriotism or that of your family,
while if you're black and your spouse merely fails to come to a 9/11 memorial so
she can be home with her kids on the first day of school, people immediately
think she's being disrespectful.

White privilege is being able to make fun of community organizers and the work
they do--like, among other things, fight for the right of women to vote, or for
civil rights, or the 8-hour workday, or an end to child labor--and people think
you're being pithy and tough, but if you merely question the experience of a
small town mayor and 18-month governor with no foreign policy expertise beyond a
class she took in college--you're somehow being mean, or even sexist.

White privilege is being able to convince white women who don't even agree with
you on any substantive issue to vote for you and your running mate anyway,
because all of a sudden your presence on the ticket has inspired confidence in
these same white women, and made them give your party a "second look."

White privilege is being able to fire people who didn't support your political
campaigns and not be accused of abusing your power or being a typical politician
who engages in favoritism, while being black and merely knowing some folks from
the old-line political machines in Chicago means you must be corrupt.

White privilege is being able to attend churches over the years whose pastors
say that people who voted for John Kerry or merely criticize George W. Bush are
going to hell, and that the U.S. is an explicitly Christian nation and the job
of Christians is to bring Christian theological principles into government, and
who bring in speakers who say the conflict in the Middle East is God's
punishment on Jews for rejecting Jesus, and everyone can still think you're just
a good churchgoing Christian, but if you're black and friends with a black
pastor who has noted (as have Colin Powell and the U.S. Department of Defense)
that terrorist attacks are often the result of U.S. foreign policy and who talks
about the history of racism and its effect on black people, you're an extremist
who probably hates America.

White privilege is not knowing what the Bush Doctrine is when asked by a
reporter, and then people get angry at the reporter for asking you such a "trick
question," while being black and merely refusing to give one-word answers to the
queries of Bill O'Reilly means you're dodging the question, or trying to seem
overly intellectual and nuanced.

White privilege is being able to claim your experience as a POW has anything at
all to do with your fitness for president, while being black and experiencing
racism is, as Sarah Palin has referred to it a "light" burden.

And finally, white privilege is the only thing that could possibly allow someone
to become president when he has voted with George W. Bush 90 percent of the
time, even as unemployment is skyrocketing, people are losing their homes,
inflation is rising, and the U.S. is increasingly isolated from world opinion,
just because white voters aren't sure about that whole "change" thing. Ya know,
it's just too vague and ill-defined, unlike, say, four more years of the same,
which is very concrete and certain.

White privilege is, in short, the problem.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Teaching with Integrity

After meeting with Deidre Farmbry and David Green and learning about their work with the Center for Evidenced Based Education (CEBE) , where I first heard about the work of Roger Martin and the Center for Integrative Thinking, I have been trying to make connections between those ideas which were developed for business management to education. It is somewhat easy to see the connections to school management on the district and school levels. It is a little trickier to see the connections at a classroom level as it relates to teaching and learning itself.

I do think that the processes and skills described as integrative thinking are very similar to those involved in reflective practice and teacher research. Ideas relating to formative assessment, being able to collect data about what is happening in the classroom at any given time and to then analyze and make sense of that data to inform the choices the teacher makes next seems to be connected to this as well.

Here are a couple of initial thoughts. First of all, these skills and practices of integrative thinking will be necessary for students who will coming out of our schools in the coming years and entering the increasingly complex public sphere. They will need to learn how to take an integrative stance as well as develop the skills and practice to enable them to do so effectively.
However, they will not be able to learn in this manner if they are taught by teachers still expected to teach in a skills-based, atomized way. This is why it is incredibly important to reach the teachers at every level -- from pre-service programs to on-going, substantive in-service professional development.

While searching the Internet, trying both to understand the concepts of Integrative Thinking and find connections to education, I came across this short video tape of Lee Shulman speaking about integrity.

Play ilp_lsclips.mov (video/quicktime Object)

In it, he talks about the relationship between the words integrated and integrity. He suggests that the words are more related than we might initially think. He says that thinking across disciplines is more that just making connections; it's about aligning one's knowledge, purpose, design and action.

I have always thought that it is impossible for a teacher to separate her true self, her values, her beliefs, her background, her experiences and her questions from her work as a teacher. I have said that that is teaching with integrity. There have been times in my past where I have been forced to "teach against myself" -- that is to present to young people ideas, texts, positions that I did not believe in. I've been forced to present material to them in ways that I know do not connect nor engage them. I have been forced to give them assessments that measures skills that are not relevant nor necessary for real learning. When I have done these things, I have not been teaching with integrity. My actions were not aligned with my beliefs.

I have struggled over the years to bring the two more in line. Of course, there has been no easy resolution -- only the tension that comes from trying to reconcile disparate ideas, perspectives, approaches. The exploration of these tensions and the attempt at integration fuel the inquiry. The constant investigation into one's own teaching is the thread that can hold the teacher together - to allow her to teach with integrity.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Stories They Tell: A Teacher Remembers Her Students

I remember my students by the stories they tell. For the past 33 years, I have been challenged, moved, and most of all transformed by the young people I have encountered in my inner city classroom.

There was Steve Woods whose angry outburst of “That’s whiteman’s bullshit!” during my introductory lesson on Cry the Beloved Country sent me on a decades-long journey to re-educate myself. Or Carlissa Russell who during a discussion of feminism and African American literature, screamed at me –“Mrs. Pincus – to you this is just political. To me it’s my life!” Or Terrance Jenkins whose nearly twenty revisions of his play Taking Control taught me that it is often their very lives my students are trying to control and revise.

Then there was Duane.

It is April 1998. Duane is not doing the senior project that he needs to complete in order to graduate. Duane has been struggling. He has taken to avoiding me, the mentor he has chosen to marshal him through this complicated research process. And even though I know it won’t be easy, I find the strength to confront him.

At first, he will not look at me. His head is bowed and his chin is dug deep inside his chest. I talk in what I hope are soothing tones, trying to encourage and convince him to do the work. Suddenly he jumps up from his seat. What’s the fucking use anyway? Bull’s out there crazy! They gonna kill you. I have no future. What’s the fucking use? What’s the point in doing this? What’s the point of graduating? I’m gonna fucking die!!!!!

When he finishes, he sits back down, assumes the same tucked position while his words echo in the silence.

Slowly, he begins to tell his story. It is one of violence and anger. He lifts his shirt to show me his scar where the bullet entered his body.

I take a deep breath and try to gather the pieces of myself that have been shattered by his story. What can I, a white woman, a mother whose son is the same exact age as Duane say to him. In telling his story to me, his teacher, in school, Duane has transgressed a boundary and ripped through the silence that separates students from their teachers. He has made the call. I must make the response.

Duane, I say, touching his arm. Are you positive you’re gonna die? Are you so sure that you’re willing to bet your future on it? At least consider the possibility that you could be wrong here. You’re not always right, you know.

There is a long silence because I have run out of things to say. I am overcome by a desire to get up and run away and never see Duane again. Then through the silence, his response. Thrusting his notebook towards me, he says, Show me how to do this. Step by step. I’m confused.

As I reach across to Duane, I suddenly remember another story – one from nearly thirty years ago. It was the first day of school of my senior year in AP English and Mrs. Laskin asked us to write an essay –something like how I spent my summer vacation. My friend Steve had died from a heroin overdose one month to the day after his 18th birthday on August 9, 1969 – one week before Woodstock, one month after men had landed on the moon as I watched the small black and white tv with a group of scagged out boys. I began the essay with the silent ride home from the cemetery, with his best friend Dock ripping the funeral sticker off the windshield. I wrote about my confusion and guilt – how I had spoken to him the night he died and he said he was just going to stay home and watch tv and how he must have changed his mind and how I should have known and been there for him.

Mrs. Laskin gave me a B-minus on that essay – a grade I now know teachers give when they don’t know what to say about a paper. It’s a safe grade. It will raise no eyebrows and cause no complaints.

Looking back, I wonder. What did Mrs. Laskin think of the young woman sitting before her who was in so much pain? How might my life have been different if she or anyone in that school had responded to what I was saying – the story of my life I was trying so desperately to tell her?

Teachers have a responsibility to listen to our students. We must make sure that we never give into despair. We must gain strength from our students’ stories of struggle, courage, hope and possibility. In urban classrooms today, the stories are all we have and they are what will save us.

Teacher as Sisyphus: On the Occasion of my Retirement

On the Occasion of My Retirement of the School District of Philadelphia - June 2008

Buried beneath the test scores, the rosters, the class lists, the attendance statistics, the roll sheets, the interim reports, the report cards, the serious incident testimonies, the counseling referrals, the truant officer’s legal briefs, the probation officer’s assessments, the lesson plans, the behavioral objectives and the specific learning outcomes, Bloom’s taxonomy of critical thinking skills, Directed Reading Activity and the 5-step writing process, the think-pair share technique, the split page note-taking method, the PSSAs, the PSATs, the SAT-9’s the APs and AYP, real people are gasping for breath. Often it feels as if we are living in a place that the rest of the world has forgotten. Except of course, when the bureaucrats, careerists, reporters and statisticians descend upon us like a post mortem team, to dissect the numerical indicators of our adequate yearly progress or to count up the number of school children who have lost their lives to the violence that makes parts of Philadelphia more dangerous than parts of Iraq.

I have been a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia for over thirty years. I have stood in front of almost 5,000 different teenagers, in fifteen different classrooms in five different schools in 8 different grades. I have been known as Miss Rose, Miss

Frozenfrogs, Miss Rose Twig, Mrs. Pincus, Pink-Ass, Yo, Marsh! Marsha Marsha Marsha, Hey teach, Pinky-poo and Teacher of the Year ( twice in 1988 and 2005).

I have been called a racist bitch, a moron, a loser, a pussy. I have been punched, pushed, screamed at and stolen from. My car has been broken into three times. Three different cars in three separate school parking lots. Curse words and threats have been scrawled on my classroom walls, doors and blackboards. I have been locked inside a classroom with 30 14 years olds from 9:30 in the morning until 2:00 in the afternoon, while crime scene investigators from the Philadelphia Police Department marked every drop of blood that had fallen on the floors of the corridors and stairwells, following the trail left by a panicked dying boy with a kitchen knife dangling from his neck placed there by another frightened boy whom he had bullied and shaken down for money one time too many. He died in the nurse’s office.

I have sat in a darkened classroom room with a teen-age girl as she showed me pictures of her still born daughter whom she named Angel. I have hugged another teen-aged girl, comforting her after the death of her grandmother then one month later, listened as she told me of her dream where her grandmother welcomed the child she had aborted into her arms in heaven. I once helped a teen-aged boy select a name for his yet to be born daughter from a book of baby names, a girl, it turns out wasn’t even his.

I have heard the pop pop pop of gunshots outside my classroom window. I have heard the urgent blare of a frantic fire alarm and the words, “This is not a drill. I repeat this is not a drill!” as the halls outside my classroom turned white with smoke. I have huddled with a dozen teen-agers under one umbrella in the pouring rain as the Philadelphia Fire Department extinguished a trash can fire whose flames had jumped the can and engulfed the wooden floor beneath it. I have heard a principal lose her mind over the PA system after that very same system had been hijacked by a student who dismissed school and sent everybody home in the middle of the day.

I have read their stories of abuse, rape, incest and murder. I have seen the marks on their bodies from childhood diseases, acne, bullets, knives, razor blades and scalding water and I have seen the other scars which are much more difficult to discern. I have taught the daughters of policemen and sons of cop-killers. In the same class. I have taught children whose only contact with their fathers has been through the armored glass in a prison visiting room. I have listened to the stories of girls who have sold their young bodies in exchange for a place to live after their crack addled mothers threw them out of the house in a jealous rage and boys who were abused and trying desperately not to give in to the violent urges bubbling up under their skin.

I have been laid off, transferred, written up, reprimanded and left to fend for myself. I have been praised, awarded, documented, televised, and even published. But mostly, I have been ignored by a public that disdains public education.

Through it all, for the past thirty four years, I have been more learner than teacher in my many classrooms - filled with the children that many people outside of their communities have already written off. And like an aging Sisyphus, I continued to find meaning and purpose through surrendering myself daily to the struggle.