Thursday, September 20, 2012

Dear Everything

Dear Stress, thanks for stopping by but I've got to get back to work. Work that pays, that is, which is always seemingly in short supply. Dear Work, I enjoy your company, really. I just feel you're getting more out of the relationship than I am. You make me tired. Dear Tire and Malaise, I'd love to stay and chat but I need a nap so I can awake fresh and ready for the day's challenges. Or not. I simply can't decide. Dear Challenge, I'd appreciate it if you'd visit someone else for a bit. I feel you've overstayed your welcome. Dear Ambition, you're wearing me out. If you can't present an action plan for achieving your lofty goals please pipe the hell down. Your constant peckering is a distraction. Dear Teenage Drama. When you and I were dating, were you this inane? I can't believe we stayed together so long but as I see what you've done to others I'm glad I survived. Dear Survival, it's not that I'm not grateful, but my friend Ambition makes you seem a bit dreary. Maybe you should try dressing up a bit. Look at Success. He's looking pretty sharp. Dear Success, I'm glad that you've given me my happy marriage and healthy children and beautiful home and friends and family. However, I was hoping you could bring a tray of fulfillment over on your next visit and maybe a pitcher of security. I'm nearly out. Dear Fat, go away. I'm certain I've made myself clear. That goes for you, too, Grey Hair and Wrinkles. You two should be ashamed of yourselves, preening in my mirror as if you belong there! Dear Future, I'd love it if you would be more discerning in your tastes when visiting my home. For instance, this gal Worry is nothing but trouble. She's no good for either of us and I'd like you to end that relationshp. Why don't you bring Safety by? She's lovely and good with kids. Dear Self, stop whining. You have no injury, no ill, no burden you must carry that cannot be overcome by a little less pity and a little more effort. Dear Thanks, I have cleared the room so you may remain close to me, as we are such old friends. I am always, truly and completely grateful. It wouldn't kill you to make room on the couch for Humor, though. Without him, I think I'd lose my mind.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I'm Tired of Elephants

I'm tired of elephants. Everyone's always talking about 'the elephant in the room'. In the current debate over who's right and who's Darth Vader in the Chicago public education system everyone thinks they've got the elephant pegged. 'The elephant is poverty!' declare some. 'The elephant in the room is greed,' intone others. 'It's not about money. It's about the children!' Some are wont to suffer alongside more than one elephant.

All of that is horseradish.

The elephant, if we must, is that we don't care. We may care for a few minutes on Facebook this week. We care if someone challenges whether or not we care. But, really, we don't care and it shows. How do I know? Because the problem - the afterthought prioritization of public education - has persisted. It is a solvable problem that remains generation after generation.

We don't care about poor children or black children or special needs children. We don't care if their little faces get red and their necks get sweaty in a 90+ degree classroom. We don't care if they get restless with no time to stretch or run in a six-hour day. We don't care if they sit in a hallway on the floor. We don't care if the bathroom smells like urine and sewage and we don't care if there are gangs waiting outside the school gates. If we cared, that room would be air-conditioned, that recess would be scheduled, that classroom would be staffed and stocked, that bathroom would be repaired and cleaned and that perimeter around the school would be safe to walk. This is not complicated stuff - richest nation on earth and all that jazz.

But let's call it what it is, please. The face we put on public education in Chicago is an entitled, grammatically challenged teacher with a disheveled, Cheetoh-fingertipped student, and parents who neither speak nor care to speak proper English. That is the truth.

Except it's not the truth. That isn't the teacher and those aren't the children and I'm not that mom.

Those teachers speak eloquently, train passionately and work relentlessly. Those children aspire, even at the youngest ages; they carry heavy backpacks so they can do their homework; they get butterflies before tests and their parents - I - have dreams for them, just like you have for yours. Those babies don't want to go into a stinky bathroom, they're afraid of those gangbangers and they want to read good books. So what are we going to do about that?

When the strike has ended and in order for this debate over public education to have meaning we really don't need parades of red downtown or posters or press conferences. We need to care and we need to care after today. We need to attend Local School Council meetings and Board of Education meetings and we need to stay, even when the meetings are boring. We need to pay attention to how budgets are written and ask ourselves if public education is getting the priority and forcing the accountability we want. We need to vote for policymakers who will make that happen and who will really address poverty and crime in the city. We need to not be afraid to ask questions. The folks in charge, clearly, are not smarter than us. They don't know more than we do and they don't matter more than we do in the conversation. If our goal is truly to create a system for public education that will serve as an example for others to follow - taking those poor, minority, troubled (and many perfectly average) children and opening the world to them, possible, reachable, real - we can do it!

But first, and most desperately, we need to shoo the elephant out of the room. We need to care.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Wear Red

Curious what the CTU strike is all about? It seems there are so many questions and the messaging has been messy. Here's my take: It is about

A Quality Day in the Classroom (not creating a babysitting service so kids can be 'kept busy')
Reasonable Classroom Size (not the up to 55-students-per-class that has been threatened)
Necessary Social Services  (not the 'just sit here and breathe' response when a nurse is not present)
Investment in Schools (not 'step over the puddle in the bathroom, honey' facilities)
Fair Contracts for teachers (not 'suck it up' re-negotations that fail the sniff test)

How do these issues play out in real life? In my child's school, which practices an 'inclusion' model of instruction, the class size is more likely to be over 30 - even in primary grades.  Because everyone is included in an inclusion model class, that room will have several English-speaking students who are, at least, average learners. It'll also include several children with varying degrees of special needs - hearing impairment, speech impediment, learning delay or more severe concerns. That classroom will also include a few children who don't speak a lick of English and a few others who are still learning the language. And, not often understood but true, the classroom will include special needs children who are at another point on the spectrum - they need accelerated instruction and greater challenge. Over 80% of the children in that classroom - or at least 24 of 30 - meet the criteria for a free or reduced lunch. (In an ironic twist, when those same children apply for high school the system forces them to the bottom of the priority list because, according to census numbers, we live in a high income area.)

That's why we need a quality day - especially if it's a longer one - and we need a reasonable pupil-to-teacher ratio. 

In my child's school, the classroom can be extremely hot (over 90 degrees) or extremely cold (closer to 60 degrees) and the presence of either extreme is not necessarily tied to the current climate outside. The fancy new heating and cooling system they put in place as part of a rehab still doesn't work so today while it was 80+ degrees outside I was wearing pants and a full coat in the office and I was still cold. We've had tons of work done to our school and I'm grateful for it, but if we're still the mess we are, what's going on in poorer neighborhoods?

That's why we need investment in school facilities. Basic stuff.  Stuff we have in our cars, for crissakes.

In order to meet the needs of all children, teaching often occurs in smaller groups, with several children working independently while the teacher works with one group, and a resource teacher works others, if there's one assigned. Almost on a daily basis, you can walk through the halls of that school and see groups of children sitting on the floor in the hallway trying to read or work on group projects because there's no adequate space for them to do so in the classroom and no adult available to supervise or guide the learning. What did you do when you were left in the hallway with a group of your buddies at age 9? Learn?

That's another reason we need reasonable classroom sizes and pupil-to-teacher ratios and investment in school facilities.

A nurse is present only a few days a week and with the increase in allergies and other health concerns in the general student population we've had to make absurd adjustments to day-to-day 'normal' activities to accommodate the lack of a health professional on staff. 850+ children in the building on a given day. Think about that. Today, with less than 100 people in the building the nurse was called upon three times and one of those injuries required an ER visit. A child entitled to X number of minutes per day for his/her learning support needs gets exactly those minutes. So if they need a few more but the schedule doesn't allow, the teacher is forced to move on rather than stay with the child and get them to the next level. It's cruel and awful and the teachers are sickened to have to do it.

That's why we need appropriate levels of social services in the building at all times.

In addition to traditional curriculum requirements, teachers are required to meet testing requirements with their instruction. These tests currently serve to measure not only students but schools. The children who don't speak English? They take those tests. The children who are delayed in learning for one reason or another? They take those tests. The teacher whose student rarely shows up for class, or spends half his time in detention? He takes that test too. Children in our school whose parents take them to their home countries for weeks on end and must actually re-register when they come back because they've been gone so long? Yup. Test. Why do you think those scores look like that?

Again, if you want children to succeed - if that's really your goal - you need to have reasonable pupil-to-teacher ratios and invest in support services that work and can be measured by the teacher not a chart.

Send your child to a school building with mud instead of grass on its playing field, jammed doorways that didn't always work, an intercom system that frequently beeped without warning, inadequate heating and cooling so that your child might be sweating or shivering depending on his/her location in the building throughout the day, leaking plumbing in bathrooms, classwork being conducted on the floor in hallways, gym in the classroom because the gym is being used as storage, no textbooks because central office didn't get them to us on time, and a teacher who had to tend to 32 other children in the classroom during the day. OK? Still feel like you are in the third largest school district in the country? Still feel like you live in the richest nation on Earth?
That's why we need honest, meaningful and intentional investment in school facilities which reflects our high prioritization of education.

Now how about if I asked you to work in that environment and then promised you a raise and then renegged on the raise and then asked you to work more hours and offered to evaluate your performance based on how well those kids did in your classroom - would you be cool with that?

And that's why teachers deserve a fair contract. They deserve it. They earn it and are entitled to it and we owe it to them. Fair. That's all.

A friend of mine is considering leaving the city because he's afraid the end result here is that there will be a huge tax increase to pay for the resources the city needs to effect these changes. My answer? No. It's time to pay attention to how the budget is written so that our real priorities are reflected and dollars are spent where we want them spent. It's time to stay and fight our asses off to make things better for ourselves and our children and everyone else's. It's time to insist policymakers stop playing politics with our children's futures - and our own - as more and more ill-prepared children become ill-prepared adults and take our futures into their hands. The future of the country is at stake. It is really that important. And it's just that simple. Our teachers deserve our full and undivided attention, our loyalty and our support.

Because, really? Forget all that stuff I just said. You just need to ask yourself one question in order to sort this whole thing out: who among us has become anything without a teacher? Not one.

Wear red.