worth the fight.

via YWLP

Last year during mentoring, one of my seventh graders confided that she spent every evening—from the time she got home from school until she went to bed—taking care of her four younger siblings. She explained how this meant that she often didn’t have time to even look at her homework, and she was usually too tired during the day to stay awake during class. Her mom worked two jobs and didn’t get home until after midnight, so it was up to my seventh grader to babysit, make dinner, do the chores, bathe her siblings, and get everyone into bed.

When I asked her about school, she shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m too tired… But I don’t really care—it’s not like I even like any of my teachers anyways.”

———–
The statistics clearly show that my seventh grader is just one of many students not properly served by our current system. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 4.1% of all high school students dropped out of school between October 2008 and October 2009 (NCES, p. 8). While this number has lowered significantly since the 1970’s and 1980’s, 4.1% per year could easily turn into 16.4% total by the time an incoming freshman class is supposed to graduate.

Furthermore, the distinction between high school completion rates across race and socioeconomic status are staggering. Over 9.3% of black young adults (aged 16-24) have dropped out, and that number skyrockets to 17.6% for Latinos (NCES, p. 9). Additionally, students from low income homes were five times more likely to drop out than students from middle or high income families (NCES, p. 6).

———–

My 7th grader is easily on track to become yet another addition to that statistic. In the particular school I mentored for, Buford Middle School, 56% of the students were eligible for free or reduced lunch (over 48% eligible for free lunch alone). Already—in a school that serves only 7th and 8th graders—the dropout rate was 4.1%.

———–

Having spent the past couple years working with Buford Middle’s at-risk seventh grade girls, I can understand that it’s easy for an educator to begin feeling helpless—especially as one continues to witness greater levels of student potential intermingled with greater levels of adversity. However, it is this potential, above all else, that demonstrates why it is so critical for us to keep fighting.

Whether weighing different types of responses to bullying, seeking out additional homework help, or explaining the subtle intricacies between “going with” and “talking to” someone, my girls have already navigated difficult circumstances, adverse social cues, and responsibility beyond what any 12-year-old should have on her shoulders.

The part of mentoring that impacted me the most was not the bonding and connections formed, nor the joy of facilitating young girls’ development into young women (although both of those were equally powerful experiences). Instead, it was that—each day—I witnessed these students weigh their options between giving up or moving forward. For each day that they chose to move forward, I felt that much more committed to my own promise to be there with them every step of the way. For the more difficult days where they wanted to call it quits, their struggle provided me strength to keep pushing and served as a reminder of why that promise is—and will remain—so important.

————

There are so many different ways to make a positive impact, and—if you can find a few hours per month to spare—I would highly encourage you to get involved. While we may not be able to overcome all of the difficulties our students are facing, the value of having someone to motivate them to stay in school, work through their challenges, and find value in themselves and in others really can make the difference in determining a child’s outcome.

That alone is worth the fight.

via YWLP

the education justice fight.

[via HuffPost]

Although Chicago’s Public Schools have reached a tentative deal to end the Chicago Teachers’ Strike, the cost to parents, taxpayers, and—above all else—students has already been significant. While there will undoubtedly be further debate on what sort of national implications this ordeal will have, the primary question that must be addressed is simple: “How can we avoid this from happening again?”

The Chicago Teachers’ Union president, Karen Lewis, called upon parents during her Sunday evening speech to “join…in [their] education justice fight.” According to CTU, at stake in this battle are teachers’ evaluations, job security, working conditions, and the broader issues surrounding student violence, homelessness, and poverty. According to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the only contested issues left pertain to principals’ ability to choose their staff and how to balance teachers’ evaluation demands with mandated legislation.

What is most curious about Lewis’ rally to protect students from “exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger, and other social issues beyond [teachers’] control” is that this particular method of protest places those students in the very dangers she claims to be fighting against.

While teachers picket, the Chicago community has been forced to pick up the slack. Faith-based organizations have offered “safe havens,” 144 of the public schools have offered morning activities and free meals for impoverished students, and all administrative police personnel have been deployed to Chicago’s streets in order to offer additional student protection. CTU has acknowledged that these “children are exposed to unprecedented levels of neighborhood violence,” yet they cannot—or, rather, will not—find alternative methods of protest in order to promote the safety of their students.

It is the Union’s position that teachers’ “job security is stability for [their] students.” Considering that stability requires students knowing they have a safe place and meals provided for them, CTU’s actions over the past week have demonstrated clearly that this fight for teachers’ security has come at the cost of students’ safety and well-being. Lewis calls for the Chicago community to “evaluate us on what we do, not on the lives of our children that we do not control.” If what they are doing is choosing politics and personal gain above student welfare, how can we offer anything but a failing evaluation for how the Unions are handling an educational policy crisis?

Certainly, the end of the strike is just the beginning of many continuing conversations about education reform and teachers’ collective bargaining rights. However, it is wholly disheartening to realize that the students have become the true victims of the CTU’s “education justice fight.”

don’t forget ed.

via ssk

“If our schools fail, then so will everything else—from our economy to national security. Yet every four years, the issue of education is shockingly underplayed on the campaign trail.” – Gaston Caperton, College Board President.

While the past few weeks at UVA have been wholly centered upon the clandestine coup staged to force President Teresa Sullivan’s resignation, I am heartened by our community’s response and the swift action taken in order to stand up to the grave injustice inflicted upon our alma mater at the hands of a small percentage of wealthy alumni and a vindictive rector.

Indeed, in reading the news recently, I am further heartened at the wide array of grassroots campaigns, petitions, and installations cropping up throughout our country. One that is especially worth noting is the College Board’s “Don’t Forget Ed” campaign at the Washington Monument in D.C. urging our legislators and policy makers to regain focus on the education system during this election cycle.

According to the campaign, 857 students drop out of school every hour of every school day, meaning that roughly 1.2 million students will not graduate on time—if they ever graduate at all. This November 2011 report from the Alliance for Excellent Education highlights not only the social dangers of an increasingly under-educated subgroup of American youth through increased crime rates and substance abuse, but also the significant economic drain by way of increased reliance on government welfare and subsistence, higher unemployment rates, and lower earned incomes (thereby leading to lower tax revenue).

In an election year overwrought with frenetic debate over the current state of our economy, it is frightening to realize how little attention is being paid to what is arguably our biggest determinant of long-term fiscal success: our students.

The College Board’s “Don’t Forget Ed” campaign could not have come at a better time as both sides of the party line engage in highly partisan “debate” that is little more than grown-up name calling. Our nation is clearly gearing up for a major political battle and the attack ads are already playing in most of our homes. While the economy is clearly the major player in this election cycle, we must not forget that the current state of our economy is a symptom of larger, more insidious problems within our policy. Thus, through grassroots support and advocacy, we can demonstrate that–in order to address economic issues–we must address educational issues. Otherwise our “solutions” are temporary at best.

I urge you to check out the College Board’s campaign and seek out ways to engage your own community. Here are a few more pictures from the “Don’t Forget Ed” Facebook page. It really is a visually striking installation and a fantastic way to illustrate a fairly abstract problem in a very concrete way.

imagine.

nick nelson via society6

In his plea for peace entitled “Imagine,” John Lennon once sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Each listener was called on to imagine a peaceful world united by fraternity and social kinship in the hopes that maybe—just maybe—we could end violence through community initiative.

Indeed, most children are raised with the understanding that violent behavior is not a tolerable type of social interaction. In line at the grocery store, mothers scold their children for hitting, while the maternal adage of “Keep your hands to yourself!” is one that stays with many of us long after we leave the nest. Even schoolteachers are given the task of teaching students about proper social interaction: hitting is uncivilized, brutish, and absolutely will not—or, at least, should not—be tolerated in the classroom.

Yet, as we develop over the years, this simple philosophy often manages to get muddied. Whether you blame video games and the internet, music videos and lyrics, or  movies and TV, there appears to be an endless supply of mixed messages. Suddenly, Mom’s warning doesn’t seem to stick as much as it once did, as children are left with the arduous task of unraveling the infinite number of signals being sent to them—all in the hopes of developing a coherent system of socially accepted behaviors.

This same situation unfolds in our educational climate.

*****

In my time spent working at a preschool, I discovered that the promise of “free art time” was like Kindergarten catnip. Overexcited four-year-olds would frantically put away their toys and rush to the art station, anxiously awaiting their supplies. As each child meticulously created his or her own small masterpiece, the only sound that would fill the room was a quiet chatter outlining each illustration in painstaking detail.

As an Assistant Teacher, I often enjoyed the perks.

Yet, by middle school, there is no “free art time.” Students are either encouraged to read, finish homework, or (if you’re lucky enough to get a “cool” teacher) quietly talk to a friend. There is no creative outlet. Sure, reading may have the ability to excite one’s imagination, but—as with any chore—it loses its appeal when it becomes an obligation. When the entire day is structured around implementing obligations, is it any wonder so many students complain about disliking school?

Additionally, this practice can even turn the Arts themselves into a slippery slope of begrudging commitment. If one is expected to play the violin for 3 hours each, this too becomes a chore. As a result, the benefits usually incurred through creative expression can be dampened just as easily as they’re fostered. This tells us that it’s not necessarily the practice of “art” itself that produces such strong educational advantages, but something else…

Something bigger, and perhaps a little less tangible.

*****

John Lennon invites us to consider a world different from our own—one lacking possessions, countries, and religion—all for the sake of mental exercise through an imagined future. In listening to my four-year-old students chatter about their art projects, each one had a story unfolding from it:

“…Here’s the sun, and here’s you and me…First, we’re playing outside. Then we pick flowers for my mommy and I find a really big yellow one…” **

There is no obligation in developing this story; it could just as easily be a picture comprised of colors and scribbles without any associated meaning. But the act of choosing to develop a spontaneous, original story is where the element of creative liberty shines through:

It is here that “art” takes place. It is here that Maxine Greene’s mission of “releasing the imagination” is met.

As this practice all too rarely occurs in secondary education, it is also here that we still have a lot of work to do. In advocating for an arts education, it is not simply about securing band instruments and school plays—indeed, seeking to develop a codified structure of “the Arts in schools” defeats the very purpose. Instead what we must do is foster that development of expression: tell me a story; make something up, anything; use your imagination. 

Only by adapting our current learning practices and incorporating this philosophy into our current education structure will we fully access the benefits derived from arts-based education.

** [N.B. That was the actual story provided by my student, Addison, on the first picture featured in the photograph above.]