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