Many Faces in Education Presents: Jaime R. Wood

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Jaime R. Wood is founder of Dream School Commons, a nonprofit organization with the mission of starting innovative low-cost or no-cost schools that serve populations in need. She is also the author of Living Voices: Multicultural Poetry in the Middle School Classroom (NCTE 2006). She started her teaching career working with middle school students in an alternative charter school in Fort Collins, Colorado. She has since taught college English at Colorado State University, University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Eastern Washington University. Currently, Jaime teaches writing at Clackamas and Mt. Hood Community Colleges in Portland, Oregon. You can learn more about Dream School Commons here:www.dreamschoolcommons.org.

DaretheSchool: What inspired you to create Dream School Commons?:

Jaime:  Five years ago when I was living in St. Louis Missouri and I was watching the documentary about TED, Technology Entertainment Design. The TED conference is a forum where these big thinkers come up with lofty ideas to make the world better. People basically go up on stage and say: “Here’s my idea of how we can make a dent in the problems of the world.” I was inspired by what I saw and came up with an idea of my own. My idea was to collect essays from the most brilliant minds of education and put them together. The question that would frame these ideas would be “Hey expert, if you could build a dream school what would that look like?”

However, I realized the whole “expert” idea was problematic, as was the idea of it being in an anthology/book form. I felt this was archaic. I decided that I wanted this to be a democratic endeavor that anyone could contribute to. In my 10 years of teaching, I have learned the people who never get a voice are often the most innovative.  The people we label as being ignorant often have the best answers. I decided to start by collecting stories and seeing what happens from there.  Many times we are listening to the wrong people.

DaretheSchool: Why is there a need for a “Dream School?”

 Jaime: It frustrates me to live in a city that has all of these amazing and innovative schools, yet the overwhelming majority of them are private and cost tens of thousands of dollars each year. If they are not private, then they are magnet and charter schools, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you have to fight your way into the school which pushes away many families in need. An important part of the mission of Dream School Commons is these schools need to be “low-cost or no cost” and they should “serve populations in need.”

Daretheschool: What a great point! Thinking of your mission to have these schools serve populations in need, what are your ideas in terms of funding?

Jaime:That’s a good question and it’s something I am still researching . I must admit that with every possibility I research, there seem to be pros and cons. For example, there is a great school called the Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, Colorado,  and it’s funded by the Honda corporation and they have an amazing facility. In an ideal world, I would like to see these sorts of schools publically funded; however, then there are certain rules you must abide by that many times hinder a creative curriculum. I’m finding lots of road blocks and I’m trying to figure out what the escape route is. Many of the issues that we’re seeing now in terms of funding is that we are operating with a “top-down” bureaucracy with the people with the most power making all of the decisions. 

DaretheSchool: What is your dream school?

Jaime: I have some strong ideas about what I think will work. Schools should revolve around what students want to learn. I think this can start at any age range. I believe in students building their own curriculum and setting their own goals. I worked at a charter school that used an Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound philosophy. In this model, students learn in expeditions. We had themes and guiding questions. We did not use textbooks or grades. At least twice a year we would have student/teacher/parent conferences and the meeting was led by the student. We ended each meeting with goal setting: educational, social, and lifelong learning goals. I think this is a good way to promote learner autonomy. Project-based learning would be key; however projects for the sake of projects would not be enough. In my dream school I would want for students to be solving real-life problems. Right now we are closing schools off and turning them into environments that are not real or relevant to the lives of children. I want to connect the real world to the school. I would like to see the Dream School connected to schools around the world and at least one university. I think there are lots of community resources that schools should be connected to. The structure we have made around schools is completely arbitrary. I think we need to re-think the grade level idea.

My idea is very similar to what we are seeing with the Occupy movement. The movement should be leaderless, democratic and participatory. I believe students should be on the Board of Directors and administrators should be in the classroom.

DaretheSchool: Who has influenced your ideas in education?

Jaime:  I’ve been reading a lot of Howard Gardner lately. His book: The Unschooled Mind is very thought provoking. My mother was my English teacher in high school and was a big influence for me as well. She put a living room in her class complete with a couch and an aquarium. Her students would rarely sit in rows. She made her classroom welcoming and inviting to her students. This goes with my belief that a school should be a community and the community should be invited into the school.

For more information, please visit: dreamschoolcommons.org 

Occupy Wall Street: The Education Edition (Part1)

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I am very happy to say that I spent my weekend occupying Wall Street. During this time, I had the amazing opportunity to speak with people who are not only angry, but hopeful. They are individuals who protest our country’s economic policies not out of hatred, but out of love for our country. They see the word democracy as more than just rhetoric. They view democracy as a dream that must be fulfilled in our lifetime. During the past two days, I spoke with students, teachers, and professors about their views on education and how it connects to their activism at Occupy Wall Street. I was interviewed by one woman (obviously against the protest) who asked: Why education? If you are concerned with the public education system, shouldn’t you be protesting the Department of Education? What does this have to do with Wall Street anyway?

I proceeded to educate this woman on the direct correlation of economic status and academic achievement. After that, I schooled her on the current corporate and federal push to privatize our public schools. If we are to see a major transformation within our public education system, we must start by re-structuring our current economic system. We are currently seeing a push towards a “market based” education system. In other words: education for profit. We are seeing more policies that are put in place to drive education reform that is dependent on competition and profit. This movement has been coined: Neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism= movement away from state control towards corporate control. It depends on un-regulated trade and markets and argues that free markets, free trade, and the unrestricted flow of capital will produce the “greatest social good.”

Wall Street Occupiers are protesting the current neoliberal takeover of our government and society. De-regulation of the markets was a huge cause of our recession in 2007 and also speaks to the corporate bailout our federal government authorized. Moreover, neo-liberal ideology also supports the transformation of institutions of higher education into for-profit structures that are currently leaving millions of students in tens of thousands of dollars of debt. In addition, neo-liberal ideology supports the out-sourcing jobs in order to find the cheapest labor; leaving these same indebted college graduates with  false promises of a bright future. But enough of my ramblings, let’s hear from some other Occupiers.


Lauren: A 6th grade Language Arts teacher in East Harlem

Andre:  A Masters Student and Political Activist from Long Island

Barbara: Teacher Educator at University of Massachusetts-Amherst

“It is a right to transform the city, to make it the city we wish to live in, and in the process transform ourselves and how we live together.”

-Pauline Lipman

I am energized and inspired by this movement and it comforts me to know this is only the beginning.

Looking At Finland: Lessons from the #1 Education System in the World

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So Finland has been ranked #1 in the world for literacy, math, and science. However, this was not always the case. In the 1970s, Finland was an agrarian society that scored low in global education rankings. However, the country was not ready to settle for this as a reality. Finland realized that a changing economy equated to a changing education system. They decided to switch to a knowledge-based society. Radically restructuring their education system meant implementing an integrative approach that included the following:

  • Creating a National Standard
  • Getting rid of standardized tests
  • Integrating students of all ability types into one classroom (gifted learning with remedial)
  • Putting 3 teachers in the classroom. The third teacher working exclusively with struggling students
  • Requiring all teachers to have masters degrees
  • Treating the teacher as the professional.

I think the last point is especially key so I will restate it in all caps:

TEACHERS ARE TREATED AS PROFESSIONALS 

Finland has a distinct culture of trusting teachers to do their jobs, and to do them well.  Essentially, the country created these national standards and told teachers: “These are the concepts your students should learn but it’s up to you how they learn it.” No 700 page teaching manuals to abide by. Also, compared to the U.S.,  Finnish teachers spend only 50 percent of their time teaching. Some may ask: “Well if they’re not teaching what the hell are they doing?”

They are lesson planning, reflecting on successes and failures, action planning, meeting with parents, and collaborating with other teachers. And get this: they have offices! In Finland, teaching is seen as a highly esteemed profession, similar to that of a doctor or lawyer. For all people who apply to teaching program, only 15 percent will actually enter the classroom. The teaching profession is treated like the big deal that it is.

I know some people would argue, “OK that’s Finland, but who cares? We’re not some small, homogenous Scandinavian country, we’re America.” True, Finland’s political, economic, and cultural landscape is quite different. However, I wonder what would happen if we implemented some of these practices in the U.S. Could you honestly say we would see no progress?

What if U.S. schools had:

  • 3 respected teachers with masters degrees who had significant prep time along with use of their creativity.
  • No standardized tests to freak out about.
  • One National Standard to refer to (P.S. we currently have 50 state standards.)
  • Teachers splitting their time between instruction, planning ,and reflection. (another fun fact, Finnish students receive less instructional classroom time than any other developed country in the world.)

Yes I realize Finland is a social welfare state, something our country cringes to be associated with.

Welfare=lazy, stupid, moochers…(well except for FHA loans during the New Deal. That was different.)

But I digress. Yes, we might need to have a political and economic system that genuinely supports the success of All of our nation’s children BUT….

Can’t we start somewhere? Can’t we start by treating our teachers as dignified professionals rather than incompetent technocrats? Why not put 3 strong and qualified teachers in the classroom (p.s. Finland spends less dollars per child in their school system so money is not an excuse.) And do we really need all of these damn tests?

Just things I’m mulling over on this Friday morning.

Many Faces in Education Presents: Kirsten Olson

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Kirsten Olson is a leading writer in the U.S. describing education from a student’s point of view.  Her recent book Wounded By School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up To Old School Culture(2009) was one of the ten bestselling books at Teachers College Press this past year, and was nominated for Book of the Year by Foreword.  Reviewers have called the book “brilliant, insightful, unsparing, hopeful.”   Cooperative Catalyst, an online group where Kirsten blogs on the necessity of educational transformation, is one of the most rapidly growing educational blogs at WordPress. Kirsten recently became a founding board member of IDEA, an emerging national non-profit that seeks to reinvent public education so that all kids can be creative, curious and collaborative learners.  A popular speaker at education conferences, Kirsten is a member of the Socratic Seminar on Educational Innovation at Columbia University and on the advisory board of the Institute for Humane Education.  Kirsten is also the author of Schools As Colonizers (Verlag 2008), which examined the ideas of the radical school critics of the 1960s, and dozens of articles about education.  Her educational leadership consulting practice is based in Brookline, MA, which works with schools and educational groups all over the country. 

DaretheSchool: I am so excited to interview you. You have such an amazing scope of experiences. Considering your views on education and learning, I must say I was surprised to see you graduated from Harvard. How were your experiences at this institution?

Kirsten: Well that’s a long conversation! I had fantastic mentors there. I worked with Sara Lawrence Lightfoot and Pedro Noguera   and they are very important people to me. Harvard is an institution that is about power and privilege. During the time I was there, many people at the school were supporting No Child Left Behind, and helping to create our current accountability environment that has proven to be disastrous for kids and schools. I feel grateful that I was able to go to Harvard, but also very aware of some of the problems that students who go there emerge with in terms of power and privilege. So it is a real dilemma. At the end of the day, I knew I could be a more powerful warrior for the things that I believe in spite of being in an institution that reinforces power and privilege. That was the calculation that I made. Having that particular degree ultimately does allow you to be in a variety of different worlds. However, you also have to be really careful because institutions have institutionalizing effects in terms of thinking.

DaretheSchool: Why do you educate?

Kirsten: Education is at the heart of human transformation. Some of the most powerful emotional and spiritual experiences of my life have been around learning. I believe education is at the center of what it means to be a human being in terms of people connecting and finding ways to collaborate to make the world better. Making the education system better feels like a place I can make the most impact. It feels like really meaningful work because the system is profoundly broken, dysfunctional and toxic. It is important to discover how we learn and help others learn, along with the implications of this for our community and the world at large.

DaretheSchool: How was your k-12 experience?

Kirsten: I was aware from very early on that this was a system that was incredibly unfair. I saw people given labels as pieces of self- identity. In first grade I remember my peers being sorted out in high, middle and lower reading groups and thinking of themselves as smart or dumb. I remember being aware that this seemed unfair and wrong. As a white, upper-middle class person (although I didn’t have this kind of consciousness then), it became increasingly apparent to me that the system was rigged to privilege people who were already privileged and to get them to believe that they deserved their privilege. When I was in high school there was not a single student of color in any of my honors and AP courses. There was this unfounded belief that this was a meritocratic environment, and if you were not successful it was your fault individually. That seemed like a lie to me. I also noticed that the system was designed to make you stupid and even students who were privileged in the education system were made stupid in particular ways. All of my most powerful learning experiences were happening outside of school and I felt like I had to protect myself. For instance, I would read interesting books but behind my textbook, or if I thought interesting thoughts, I kept them hidden from the school. It was an environment intent on making you passive, conformist, and less interesting.

DaretheSchool: I want to talk more about your work at the Institute for Democratic Education in America. What is your role?

Kirsten: IDEA is a national activist organization that focuses on ways to transform the education system. It focuses on groups of people all around the country who have been doing great work who feel disconnected with the current trends in the school system. IDEA is focusing on getting to a place where we are a coherent and weighty player when discussing what the future of education should look like. It was started by a group of people who came out of the democratic education movement in Israel and around the U.S.   I came to IDEA because a group of founders knew about the work I was doing as an activist and a writer and wanted me be a part of this founding group. I’ve been with IDEA for about a year and it has a talented and wonderful staff and we’ve expanded in incredible ways after just a year. We know there is an incredible need for our work and we’re making sure we have the funding and support our move forward.

DaretheSchool: Considering the current political environment of high standards, how do you survive in terms of securing funding and support?

Kirsten: That era began in 2001 with NCLB. We now have 11 years of evidence that this accountability environment, and the supposed enforcing “high standards” through testing, has tremendously eroded the quality of instruction, demoralized the American teaching force and threatens to break up the remaining trust in the public education system.  (Although I would say this was probably what it was designed to do.) I believe that era is collapsing under its own weight. There is now so much research and evidence about the negative effects of these policies, that it will cease to have authority, which means something else will emerge. The question becomes: does the system become privatized in the charter model or is it possible to rebuild public trust around a variety of new educational models? The idea of “one best system” is an old school idea. There is no one system. Real learning doesn’t look like that however, we have this large hierarchical system that employs 3 million adults and we don’t know what to do about that. But to answer your question, I believe the old system is collapsing around us, but the new question is what are we going to do instead or in addition to? That is what we are wrestling with.

DaretheSchool: You speak of public versus charter and this is an issue that I wrestle with myself. What are your thoughts about this subject?

Kirsten:  I would like to see many different education models emerge and be supported by public funds. I don’t just want to see wonderful schools only serve the kids who already have choices. I worry about all of these wonderful alternative learning environments being created and only people who have the means are able to access them. Meanwhile, the people who are left in the public school system are folks who have no choice, no resources, and no social capital. That’s a scary prospect and would be terrible for our country.

DaretheSchool: I completely agree. I think the charter model started out as a really progressive idea but got twisted along the way.

Kirsten: It’s so true. I’ve worked with many, many charter schools and some of them have been the least adventuresome intellectual environments that I have ever been in…Particularly the KIPP schools.

This is a colonialist model of education. Largely middle and upper middle class people deciding how poor kids should be educated. It’s very problematic and it’s just not being talked about enough. Also, there is this idea of trying to “cure” kids of their community. They call it the new paternalism, but it looks a lot like 19th century colonialism to me! Moreover, it is a command and control instructional environment. A child who goes through this sort of schooling until the 8th grade will not be able to go to a highly-selective private school and all of a sudden be authorized to think their own thoughts, when all they’ve ever been taught it how to please the teacher and the adults best. The model advocates for control and custody of students along with a culturally imperialist model. Teach for America, KIPP, Uncommon schools, and Achievement First, are crafted as social movements and young folks right out of college get so filled with a sense of belief about mission of erasing inequality, which is intentional, that these questions don’t come up. There’s a kind of fervor to this, and an intensity of belief. This makes it really hard because most people are not very questioning about the underlying assumptions behind this form of education.

DarethSchool: Do you have any plans for future projects in the field of education?

Kirsten: In my lifetime, I am hoping for a collective effort to begin a set of hybridized, multi-choice education communities that all parents would CHOOSE to send their children to. I envision these learning communities as being rich, welcoming, warm, challenging, and hospitable environments. These environments would place the brilliance and potential of children at the forefront. I believe that a public commitment to educating children is a way for us to express our commitment to each other. We need to find ways to express our connectedness in our education system and we are currently so far away from that.

DaretheSchool: Is there any writer or reformer who has really influenced your work?

Kirsten: John Holt’s How Children Fail. I found this book in the discard pile in the library during graduate school, just to articulate how out of style his thinking was. I think Holt is better than Dewey in describing how learning is a deeply spiritual enterprise. It’s about having self-confidence, being bold and believing in yourself and he writes beautifully about how school thwarts that. It’s lovely writing grounded in the classroom. I also love Ivan Illich, a great critical theorist of institutions. He wrote about the way institutions work so hard at preserving themselves no matter how dysfunctional they get and that’s a lot of what we’re seeing now. We are seeing how difficult it is to move away from a system that doesn’t work. The last one would be bell hooks.  She writes about what it means for kids to be colonized by a system that is unfair and how that impacted her work as a teacher. She talks about what that means for her in her work and her biography as an activist.

 

DaretheSchool: Favorite quote?

    Kirsten: 

To learn more about Kirsten, please visit: www.kirstenolson.org

 

 

Places for Healing: Schools As Community Centers

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“ Nothing in this universe exists alone. Every drop of water, every human being, all creatures in the web of life and all ideas in the web of knowledge are part of an immense, evolving, dynamic whole as old, and as young , as the universe itself.”

-Symbiosis 1982

Schools are institutions of so much possibility, a place for developing young minds for better or for worse. During my interview with Marquett ,he spoke a great deal about the way many charter schools in low-income communities of color have taken the stance of isolation. Many of them attempt to create an island of their own, acting as a fortress in the community. Taking such a stance speaks a hidden language to students and community members that articulates the following:

1.    Your community isn’t good enough. Yes we are preparing you to be scholars and we want you to be college bound however, you must leave your community behind. If you do not separate yourself from your community, you will be failures just like the rest of them.

2.    Your community is a deficit. Why would our school be a part of it? It has no assets to give. Our institution has the knowledge and the power. Nothing of value can be discovered outside of it.

3.    Your community does not understand: Most of its members are uneducated and impoverished anyway. They will resent academic advancement along with the institution that provides it.

In my upcoming interview with Kirsten Olson (stay tuned!), she discussed how this is a colonialist mentality and I could not agree more. Sending these non-verbal messages to our children does nothing to boost their self-esteem and sets them light years behind in terms of achieving self-actualization. You cannot ignore or be ashamed of where you come from. If a school promotes this mentality, it speaks the language of domination. If the neighboring community is not incorporated into a child’s learning environment, the education is inauthentic and an all-around farce. For one second, let’s re-imagine when a community school can be. Mary Driscoll states it best:

 

“We want to imagine the possibilities of schools that do not see themselves succeeding in spite of the community, but rather that envision themselves as key institutional players of the development of the community.” (2001) 

School should be viewed as an asset to the entire community rather than a service provided strictly to the children who attend. When we think in terms of property value, it is easy to see how valuable schools can be. Home buying decisions can be dictated by the quality of the neighborhood school. However, once we think in terms of low-income communities, this notion seems to go out the window. Many times, we view school as a “safe zone,” a place of solace to escape the chaos and danger of the surrounding community. This mentality is backward and self-defeating. The children are reflections of the community they live in, as are the parents. Children bring their home realities into the classroom on a daily basis and it is not something that should be ignored. You cannot erase their histories and home lives by simply placing them in a classroom and uniform. The school should be treated as a community center, a key collaborator and helpful resource to the entire community.

Once a school is known for offering services to the entire community, it will be respected and revered. Let’s quit trying to ignore day-to-day realities. Instead, why don’t we collaborate and create places for healing? This might sound super lovey dovey and pie in the sky, but practices show that this method truly does work. Its formal name is asset mapping and it encompasses a very powerful yet simple element: focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. According to Paul Green and Anna Haines, “The asset-based approach builds on the experiences and interests of individuals and communities and matches with the needs and opportunities of the region.”

Many organizations and forward thinking schools are turning to asset-mapping to create the most impact. Asset mapping enables an institution to truly examine all elements of the community and to draw on strengths to fulfill its mission. It also helps communities respond to needs by discovering their natural assets in people, places, and things. In a nutshell, no person, or space is worthless. Everything has something to contribute. Asset mapping enables institutions to examine possibilities never seen before. Some community assets that are useful to map out include: education  institutions, service organizations, businesses, citizens groups and associations,  citizens with special talents or capacities, stakeholders in the community, etc.

Hmmm, I wonder how many schools use the asset mapping approach? I’m sure some do, but I also know that many do not. This makes all the difference in the level of engagement you will see not only in the students, but the parents as well. Asset mapping provides an opportunity for local citizens to have a place “at the table” and experience what it is like to play a meaningful role in community development. If you want the community to value your institution, you first need to demonstrate that you value them.

 

Motto for the day?: “Collaboration instead of Colonization.”

Many Faces in Education: Marquett Burton

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Marquett Burton earned his bachelors in political science at the University of California, Berkeley.  During his time at Cal he was a Ronald E. McNair and a George A Miller research scholar.  Upon graduating he joined Teach For America’s 2009 Baltimore Corp. He began his teaching career at Booker T. Washington Middle School where he taught 6th grade Social Studies.  Seeking to support students outside of the classroom, he played a critical role establishing a mentoring partnership with Union Baptist Church. This partnership still provides students with technological training and resources, college    readiness field-trips, mentoring and tutoring.

 In 2010, finding that literacy was critical to his student’s success, he transitioned into the role of 6th grade Humanities teacher at The Crossroads School.  In 2011 he founded 5 Fingers Ltd. to empower students to teach themselves, their families and their communities about good health, positive interaction, and critical thinking.  With the support of his 6th grade team, Marquett recently created a Healthy Minds & Bodies program that provided students with a daily cardio workout. This spring he earned his Masters in the Arts of Teaching from the Johns Hopkins School of Education. Mr. Burton is currently working to expand 5 Fingers and his Healthy Minds & Bodies program to other public schools in Baltimore.

DaretheSchool: Why do you educate?
Marquett: Because education is a transformative process. My father was incarcerated for selling crack and my mother was a crack user. Pretty much my entire extended family was in shambles. What led me to different outcomes was education. Although the majority of my educational experiences were negative, the few positive ones that I had I wanted to hold on to. I realized I was smart in the 4th grade. My teacher encouraged me to test for GATE and I was put in a classroom with other gifted  students. Since I was always a competitive child, the pride I felt inspired me to work harder. I remember a similar feeling in 9th grade when my English teacher encouraged me to enter a poetry contest. I only entered the contest or finished the poem for that matter, because my teacher invested in me personally. When I won the contest, receiving the recognition left me with a good feeling.

DaretheSchool: Did you ever receive positive reinforcement outside of school?

Marquett:  I received a lot of reinforcement….but it wasn’t positive. There was certainly no reinforcement of academics.

DaretheSchool: Since we’re on this topic….a lot of people criticize charter schools because they advocate for longer school days in urban communities in order to keep children away from their home environments for this same reason. What do you think about this?                                                                                                

Marquett:  First let’s be clear. Many people are under the assumption that charter schools and traditional public schools are serving the same populations. They are not because charter school parents are self-selective. They are engaged in their child’s education enough to actively seek another educational option for them. Charter school parents have a positive and proactive mentality that reinforces itself and breeds success. With that being said, I feel that the longer school day is overkill. I don’t advocate for increasing schooling and isolating children from their home environments. People think that if you put a kid in school for a million hours , you increase their likelihood to succeed but it’s overkill. Instead, let’s turn school into the center of the community rather than keeping the kids in school and pushing the community out.  The kids are apart of it and you cannot erase their culture.
DaretheSchool: What about the parents that simply “don’t care?”
Marquett: My mother was scared to go to my school. She was intimidated to be in a predominantly white population that was more educated than her. She viewed teachers and administrators at my school as foreign and different. This is the mentality that I think many other parents have. I worked at a highly segregated school where literally 99 percent of the population was black. If you match that with a teacher population comprised with 85 percent white females, it creates a very interesting dynamic. You have a teacher force that is a foreign element in the community. This means something. We need to think about how this affects parental involvement. People want their political representatives to reflect the body of the community and the same is true at a school.
What we as educators have to understand is that parents are key and we cannot stop the power of parents on the child.  Thus, we must find new ways via policy or sheer persistence to reach the parents. We must bring parents in by making things relevant to them. In order to do this, you must engage the student. Once you engage the student, you engage the parent.

DaretheSchool: What inspired you to create 5F?                                         Marquett: Well I never thought I would end up in education but in retrospect, I see it was a clear path. When I was 13 years old I worked at the Boys and Girls Club on a summer youth grant. A few years later I was an afterschool worker at Pasadena’s Parks and Rec. program. It was something that made me happy. While attending Berkeley I obtained an internship at the Oakland Courthouse. . Most of the clients I saw were black,  guilty, and younger than me…around the age of 18 or 19. It was really weird to see my peers behind bars. Initially I thought I wanted to be a lawyer but I realized that by then it was too late. They were already in the system. I saw myself reflected in these young men and I wanted to make sure they never got behind bars. This is why I joined Teach for America in Baltimore. I worked in a very poor and run down school. I saw similarities with the work I did in both Los Angeles and Oakland. Males in particular were doing very poorly. They were so hard to reach…something was missing for them.

I realized early on on that mentoring programs would not work. Most mentoring programs paired a young man up with an older adult whose role was to say, “Do this, do that” or “Hey let’s hang out one-on-one.” But you cannot replace their father and shouldn’t try to. More than anything, the boys influence each other. 5F provides young males with a positive structure for them to help support one another. The older role model sets the parameters for boys to influence each other but does not dictate this interaction.

DaretheSchool: What about people who would say that 5th and 6th grade boys are not old or mature enough to mentor each other?                                         

Marquett:  Some of the most dimwitted people I met were at UC Berkeley…some of the smartest people I met were the 11 year olds I taught in class. School can be a process of robbing kids of their natural creativity and intelligence. We think of school as a factory and at the end they should be this particular product. However, if you give a good, enjoyable, and interesting education that is relevant to kids, they will succeed.  We assume kids should automatically respect our authority because we are adults, but you have to prove something to them to earn their respect.

DaretheSchool: What do you think of standardized testing and how did it affect your teaching experience?                                                                                  

Marquett: I had kids who could not spell. I wanted to teach them how to spell because this is a basic necessity. Even if you go into McDonalds to fill out an application, you need to know how to spell. But the 6th grade standardized test does not test for spelling. The exam already assumes you can spell.  Instead they test you on making predictions and cause and effect. We get away with all of these lies and claim that students are able to jump grade levels if we simply teach to the test. As educators and administrators we need to be honest with ourselves and our students.

We need to stop grouping kids based on their ages, that’s like grouping kids based on their height. It’s just nonsense. Some people argue that ability grouping ruins a child’s self esteem but this is something I did with my students all of the time. I grouped them based on where they ranked in the class. But I let them know: “This is not your fate, this is your current state.” If you lift weights and exercise, you run faster. If you read and study, you get smarter. However, we cannot move you forward until we know where you are. If we’re lying, our children will never have a clue where they are and will remain lost, never finding their way. That is the problem.

To learn more about Marquett Burton and his work with 5F, please visit http://www.mrburton.org

Free Schools Revisited: Revolution vs. Transformation

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The public school exists to turn out manageable workers, obedient consumers, manipulable voters, and if need be willing killers” -Jonathan Kozol author of Free Schools

The most notable and recent movement for alternative education occurred in 1960’s to the early 1970’s, and was known as the “free school” movement. The free school movement was an effort to build small alternative schools where students participated equally in governance as well as enjoyed complete control over curriculum. Free school theorist Ron Miller estimates between 400 to 800 such schools opened between 1967 and the late 1970s.The free school movement arose in the midst of an entire cultural, social, and political climate of revolution and change. During this time period, there was what many activists called a “revolution of consciousness.” A spirit of rapid social change with movements such as civil rights, anti-war, women’s liberation, and free speech were in full swing. Most activists who participated in these movements were battling what they called a “technocratic” society.

Technocracy is “a social order that maintains stability and control by fitting human ‘resources’ into appropriate, predefined institutional niches.” Technocracy was considered to be a major contributor to the “social machine.” In many ways, the free school movement was meant to be a black-lash against technocracy. Radical theorists, considered a technocratic society to be a heartless society; a world in which citizens were merely mechanical parts to the overall social machine. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, America was recovering from, and lashing out against  materialism and conformity. Moreover, America was recovering from the age of McCarthyism; a time in which political institutions widely persecuted people and ideas that expressed originality or dissent in any way. All of this led to a massive backlash against consumer culture. The culture of conformity and materialism had also seeped into the education system. The free school movement was a response to an overtly unyielding “factory-like” system of educating American children.

Free school ideology aimed to completely break from the public education system. Participants in the movement were in no way concerned with working within the educational structure to improve it; rather they were looking to tear down the system completely and start anew. Free school intellectuals asserted that there was no saving the current system. Free schools were solely concerned about the education of the heart rather than the mind. There were no textbooks, individual subjects, or concrete lesson plans.” Additionally, teachers were not regarded as authority figures, but as friends and mentors. Free school ideology encouraged a strong focus on feelings. It sought to counter a society that intensely encouraged rationalism as the highest good. There was immense attention given to interpersonal relationships and communal experiences. Hierarchy was discouraged in the school structure. Although the free school movement arose from a huge amount of educational dissent, the movement declined very quickly. Most schools were only open for one or two years.

Free schools ultimately failed for a two reasons. First, there was a major lack of funding. There was no public funding to continuously support free schools. Most free schools lacked adequate supplies and resources to maintain their services. Many free schools quickly closed due to financial strife. Another major difficulty in the movement existed in conflicting ideologies amongst educational leaders and theorists. Due to the ambiguity of the free school philosophy along with the resistance to any order or leadership in the movement, there were many organizational problems. There were many disagreements amongst the parents, teachers and administrators and no effective means of solving them. Researcher Terrence E.Deal expressed that, “The counterculture ideology abhors organization, routinization, and bureaucracy, and as a result decision making in the alternative schools was participatory, consensual, cumbersome, burdensome, and ineffective.” As a result, free schools arose from a surge of idealism, yet lacked a realistic approach to support these ideas.

There are many lessons to be learned from the free school movement. First and foremost, although it simply takes an idea to spark a revolution; careful planning, meticulous organizing, and strong compassionate leadership is required to create systemic change. The free school movement marked a definitive moment in educational policy. For the first time in American history, policymakers and administrators were left to seriously consider issues of school choice and to re-consider the “one size fits all” public school system. Shortly after the decline of the free school movement, alternative schools and home schooling were endorsed. However, free school educators failed to create a new education system. There was too much of a focus on feelings and emotions and not enough of a focus on systemic change. Although the idea was great, there was no concrete plan to sustain the movement.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s “revolution” was the key word. The definition of revolution is, “a radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure, especially one made suddenly.” (dictionary.com) In the 21st century, revolution is an incomplete process. “Revolution” will only take an idea so far. Revolution is a very temporary state, a place in which sensationalism may arise, but practical steps will be severely lacking. There must be a call for transformation in the American education system.  The definition of transformation is, “changing in condition, nature or character; convert; to change into another substance or transmute.” (dictionary.com) Transformation will take more than just a group of passionate, well-intentioned people. It will require an extensive evaluation of facts and data, but much more importantly, human potential. Transformation will require a connection of the head and the heart.

Since the rise and fall of the free school movement, the U.S. has become much more open minded to forms of alternative education. The charter school movement is on the rise, which leaves an open door to more creative forms of learning.(Sometimes…) Public funding can be provided to a school with the principles described above and it will only take the success of one school. The success of one school that utilizes the principles of a new education paradigm will light the fire for the creation of other schools. At such an important time in history, we must dare to experiment. It is the least we can do.

Transcendental Meditation: De-Stressing Public Schools?

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“Learning under high stress and fear is literally ‘wrong-headed,’ as it is incompatible with what we know about how the brain works. Not only does stress interfere with functions such as attention, memory, organization, and integration, but prolonged stress actually kills brain cells and shrinks the brain’s main memory structures.”- Dr. William Stixrud (clinical neurologist)

Although the US school system has not changed much, the times that we face certainly have. Students face many outside stressors which they ultimately bring with them into the classroom. Currently 10 million American students take antidepressant medication and 4 million suffer from ADHD and other learning disorders. The question is: How do we address these outside stessors in schools?
There is currently a movement working to lower stress levels in schools by means of transcendental meditation. Transcendental Meditation (or TM) is a technique for gaining deep rest that brings balance to the body and mind. This is practiced 20 minutes a day sitting comfortably and repeating a mantra with eyes closed.  This practice is being integrated into many public schools and is showing positive results. The ultimate goal is to reduce stress, increase focus, and boost achievement. Many schools refer to this practice as “quiet time.”

“And if a child comes in and they’re stressed out, how do we expect them to learn?”  -George Rutherford Principal of Ideal Academy

Inner city schools are advocating for TM in particular to support children that come from backgrounds of high stress. Visitaticion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, California experienced excellent results with this program.  Visitacion Valley is the most economically isolated and violent area of the city. When the TM program was taught to 6th and 7th graders at this school, the suspension rate dropped 45 percent for those grades during the first year. Moreover, the overall GPA increased after the first year transcendental meditation was introduced.

“They come from broken homes, foster care and group home settings. This is a practice that helps them go back and face what they need to face. It’s a skill they take with them for the rest of their lives.”
- Brian Borsos, Special Education teacher at Visitacion Valley Middle School.

Another school that is practicing this meditation technique is Ideal Academy, a charter school located in Washington DC. Students from 5th through 12 grade along with all faculty and staff participate in TM at this school. During the 2005-2006 pilot project Ideal Academy noticed reductions in anxiety, emotional distress, suspension rates, and increased academic achievement.

Who is behind the funding of these initiatives? The David Lynch Foundation and the US Committee of Stress-Free Schools.
For More information on this organization, check out this video:

Now of course there are many people who object to this movement stating that it goes against the separation of church and state. Some people claim this type of meditation is a Hindu practice. However, TM enthusiasts state it is unrelated to religion and is a practice that offers physical and mental benefits the same as yoga or cardio. Moreover, they assert this form of meditation predates Hinduism by thousands of years.

All in all, is transcendental meditation a cure all, for public schools? Of course not! However, if it helps our students feel better about themselves and promotes healthy habits and ways of being then why not implement it? Let’s consider it another tool for effective instruction. According to the research I’ve come across, 20 minutes a day seems like a good investment to make in this practice. It helps students de-stress, refocus, and builds a sense of community within the school.
For more information on this topic visit the following links:

http://www.tmeducation.org/

http://www.mindfulschools.org/

August Book Review: How to Grow A School

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“When someone is inspired to create a needed alternative for children, the surrounding community will rally behind it” (How to Grow a School pg 60)

I’ve wanted to start a school since I was 16 years old. (Nerdy goal I know) The thing is, I never wanted it to be “just another school.” I went to one of those and I didn’t like it very much. As much of a bookworm that I was, I hated homework and really did the bare minimum to get by. The school I wanted (and still want) to create is a place that acknowledges and cultivates individual interests/talents that everyone is born with. No more boring textbooks and unimaginative classrooms. I envision children conducting fieldwork and internships at a very young age so they can have an educational experience truly relevant to the “real world”.

Anywho, the question has always been: How? How do you get funding for a school that is going against the political tide? A great deal of insight was given to me when I read Chris Mercogliano’s How to Grow a School: Starting and Sustaining Schools that Work. I love this book because it’s not an impersonal “step-by step” manual. Conversely, the book interviews school founders from 14 different alternative schools; some public, some private, and some charters. What all of these schools have in common is they have created alternative learning environments for students and parents who felt stifled by the educational options surrounding them. All of these schools came up against government attack, and some of them did not survive in the long run.

However, reading about their success and failures is incredibly helpful to anyone interested in starting their own educational movement. Mecogliano interviews these school founders and they share their stories about funding, politics, school governance, and parent collaboration. The biggest lesson this book teaches is that “There Are No Rules.” Mecogliano asserts:

“Growing a good school requires inspiration, patience, creativity, determination, commitment, a profound understanding of children, and at least a little daring. It does not require advanced degrees in educational philosophy , or school administration…Anyone with sufficient possession of the aforementioned qualities can launch an experiment in education and contribute to the proliferation of alternatives in American education.”

For more information about this book visit:

http://www.educationrevolution.org/grow.html

Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps…is it enough?

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The legacy ingrained in the collective history of our country is one of individual agency. In order to succeed in the U.S. you must “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” and succeed despite any odds set against you. We tend to view education as an equalizer, a means of succeeding in spite of circumstance. We’ve all heard about the importance of being in school. “Keep your head in those books and leave the boys alone!” or “Make sure you graduate from high school or else you’ll work at McDonalds!” Oh and then there’s all of the slogans and cliché’s : “Education is the Key” or “Only the Educated are Free” yada yada blah blah.  Education is viewed as society’s cure-all as if a diploma is our key to the Promised Land. Meanwhile, there must be something wrong with “those people” who drop out of school and wind up (or remain) poor. They should just work harder and make something of themselves. So what if you live in the projects? So what if you live in a single parent household? You have the same opportunity as the average American…use it!

Sigh….and yet we quickly forget  that growing up in the hood vs. suburban Pleasantville dramatically affects the quality of education we have. We tend to have social amnesia and forget about the whole poverty thing. Yeah I said it P.O.V.E.R…well you get the point. Please don’t misunderstand me, education reform can make a world of difference in our society. However we can’t simply advocate for longer school days, uniforms, and high stakes test scores and call it progress. Our education system is designed for people with money to succeed. The nicer neighborhoods have the better buildings, more books, and higher quality teachers. Meanwhile, poor neighborhoods get the middle finger with outdated textbooks and broken radiators in the dead of winter. Educational researcher David Berliner refers to poverty as this:

That’s right, it’s the 600 pound gorilla in the room. When developing education policy, our politicians like to act as though poverty doesn’t exist.  Hmm…I wonder why? Berliner argues the reason why school reform is often turned to as the solution to societal woes is because, “school reform, as opposed to other things we might do to improve achievement really involves relatively little money and perhaps more importantly, asks practically nothing of the non-poor who often control society’s resources.” The school system cannot single-handedly tackle the achievement gap. There are deep-seated structural forces that must be examined and transformed before school reform stands a fighting chance. Lets look at this graph:

This graph shows the amount of children living in poverty in rich countries. Notice anything strange? Yup that’s right the United States is at the bottom of the list! Beaten only by Mexico! What a damn shame. Despite our title as “the land of opportunity”, almost one fourth of our children are living in poverty. Studies show that the poorer you are, the less likely you are to succeed. Interestingly enough, poverty is directly correlated with race. If you are African-American and Hispanic you are more likely to be poor. Although we are known as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we have the lowest distribution of wealth, and this unequal distribution is racialized. Some people might say “Ok, well you might grow up in poverty but at least you have the opportunity to get out of it right?” True….but very difficult to do. Out of the world’s richest countries, the United States has the worst track record of exiting people out of poverty. Simply put, if you become poor in this country you’re much more likely to remain poor. So much for those bootstraps!


“My fellow Americans, this is an amazing moment for me. To think that a once scrawny boy from Austria could grow up to become Governor of California and stand in Madison Square Garden to speak on behalf of the President of the United States that is an immigrant’s dream. It is the American dream.”
-    Arnold Schwarzenegger

Secretly, don’t we all wish for this dream to be real? It’s such a romantic story, a  country that rewards hard work and drive with material success despite insurmountable odds. We desperately want to buy into this vision. It is a story that has shaped our collective history for so long. “The idea that schools cannot cure poverty by themselves sounds like a vote of no confidence in our great American capacity for self transformation, a major element of the stories we tell as a nation.”  But we must wake up and get our head out of the clouds! Millions of people work multiple jobs to feed their families and pay the bills and yet, they are barely surviving. Despite the myth we espouse, hard work does not equal success. We must ask ourselves why our system has been designed this way. In order to create fulfill the dream we talk about, we must work on transforming our country’s current reality of structural dis-empowerment; that is if we truly care about the future of the our children. The current American dream  ignores deep-rooted structures that inhibit equality, and leaves many students in the school system feeling isolated and hopeless. Let’s just face it: Poverty is not an individual problem, but a structural one.

Well what’s wrong with being optimistic? Weren’t we told that we can do anything we set our minds to? True…in some cases and much more difficult in others. Dreaming big is what makes our country so great! We are the land of big ideas. However, why not work collectively to break down structural barriers that cause so many people to fail? This would give more people the actual opportunity to obtain this American dream.

***Barbara Ehrenreich speaks more about the difference between hopeless optimism and constructive realism in this animated video****

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