So recently, TFA offered me $1000, and I declined the money. My friend from TFA who relayed the offer yesterday responded to my blog post. Below is his reply, and mine, in the full spirit of transparency.
I hope all is well! I’m reaching out because I was deeply disappointed to read your blog post today. Regardless of the tenor of the online conversation, you and I have always maintained excellent working relations, predicated on our shared desire to operate in the best interest of kids at all times. I have great respect for your passion and dedication. It was your passion and dedication to elevate student voices that sparked the idea, during our an initial conversation in the fall, to bring students themselves on USC campus to share their own voices. I remain as dedicated to that idea and excited about its potential to empower students as leaders in education.
I believe that true change will come from student leadership and that’s why I hoped to support you and the EdEmpowered Conference this Spring. After reading your blog, I am sadden that, what could have been a moment of true collaboration for and with students, feels like another moment of division among adults. My hope was to help the conference in any way to elevate student’s voices as the central focus. The only request that I made to accompany that support was that we keep the distraction of online attacks out of the equation. The contribution was offered in the spirit of two organizations with shared goals maximizing our collective energies and resources for a common purpose. The education conversation has become increasingly polarized by a host of issues. It is time that adults, such as you and I, move our personal agendas aside and truly empower students to advocate for students.
As key advocates of USC’s Ed Month, having in the past co-sponsored numerous events, including one hosted by our Founder and former CEO Wendy Kopp, TFA remains available to help the conference move forward- especially if local student’s voices are central.
All the best,
[omitted for privacy]
(P.S. Thank you for respecting my anonymity online; but I do ask that in the spirit of full transparency that you place this correspondence on your blog- THNAKS!)
Hi [omitted for privacy],
I hope all is well with you as well!
I want to be clear. I did genuinely appreciate your support for this event. After you called me the first time, I decided to share with you the materials I shared with everyone else that I had reached out to for support, because I have faith that you really do care about students’ voices, and I deeply respect your passion for this event’s mission. That has not changed one bit, and I appreciate you saying what you did because it really rings true for me.
The reason I am upset, however, is because originally I had asked for your support, as an individual. I made clear from the beginning that my request was for individual donations from personal supporters of the event. Yesterday when you called me with the offer, I was confused because I was under the impression that donations would be coming from people in your networks who you shared it with, as this has been been the method by which I have been asking friends of mine to help spread awareness and raise funds for the event. It wasn’t until you talked about taking off the #resistTFA content on the EmpowerED website and you mentioned the organization a couple times that I realized the money would be coming, with strings attached, from TFA itself, despite my previous requests. At this point, I felt powerless, censored, and manipulated by an organization that wanted to put their name on my event, once again despite my previous requests. I was very taken aback and confused by the whole thing. And while technical reasons do make it difficult to take money from TFA, I will reiterate my reasons for refusing funds from TFA.
I did it essentially to honor student voice.
A lot of TFA staff people talk about working together for the sake of students and setting aside personal agenda. All my life, I have been the kind of person who believes in that idea. But this isn’t about interference with an agenda; it’s about my values. I cannot morally accept funds from an organization that I resist because I value the experiences and voices of my fellow student organizers. I cannot work with an organization that is hurting public education in the same communities that students on the EmpowerED core team call home. I cannot work with an org that is simultaneously in the way of what I am trying to achieve, which is to honor student voice, and of what EmpowerED students are trying to achieve, which is educational justice for their communities.
In fact, the high school student representing the Newark Students Union just spoke up last week about the NSU’s stance against having TFA in their schools because they see the org as a threat to educational justice in their community. The student representatives from Chicago have also had a history of resisting Teach for America as a force that was undermining their community schools. So in the spirit of solidarity with those students and other students in the student power movement, I refuse to affiliate with an organization that so many students are actively fighting against. I choose instead to value their stories.
TFA may have sponsored past EdMonth events, but this EdMonth event will not be one of them. Because the conversation is shifting and EmpowerED will be unprecedented in its ability to unite students who say enough to top-down corporate education reforms that were made without their voice.
So while I understand and appreciate that you as an individual believe so much in the power of student voice, I cannot say the same for Teach for America. These are my reasons for declining this partnership.
And I’m turning it down. Here’s why:
As you all may know, I’ve been very busy recently putting together a student-led education conference for youth in LA called EmpowerED: Los Angeles Student Power 2014. I’m incredibly excited for this event, but have been struggling to raise money to fly in student organizers from all over the country. So I’ve been running a crowd-funding campaign to get the funds to make this personal dream of mine come true. Right now, I am a little less than $1000 short of my goal.
Let’s backtrack to a few months ago, when the ideas were still brewing in my mind. I knew that I wanted to provide a space for students to elevate their student voices and organize together for educational justice, but I wasn’t quite sure how at the time. Also during this time, my organization, Students United for Public Education, an entirely student-led, grassroots organization that defends public ed and believes in elevating student/community voice in the struggle for #edujustice (not #edreform), had just launched its first campaign: Students Resisting Teach for America.
After I started participating in the #resistTFA campaign a few months back, TFA folks started to reach out to me to speak with me about the campaign. They were all very respectful, very amicable, and very open to my ideas. We formed friendships, despite our differences in opinions about TFA, based on our mutual passion for education.
Like I always say, I don’t automatically hate everyone in TFA. I know there are genuinely passionate and caring individuals in the organization; I’m even friends with a few of them. With them, I shared my story, my reasons for doing the work that I do, and what I fight for in education, which included my vision for elevating student voice through the EmpowerED conference, a vision that is now coming true by the end of March!
And just a few weeks ago, one of the people I spoke to from TFA a few months back reached out to me, told me they (for privacy reasons) heard about my conference, and were very excited that my vision I had shared with them months ago was actually coming true! They offered their support in any way possible, and I was grateful…
…but careful. I trusted them, but I couldn’t trust the organization they was a part of. I told them that right now, my biggest problem was funding, but I could not (for paperwork reasons) and would not accept funds from any organization (in my mind: especially not TFA). Support had to come individually, from people who were personally standing by the cause. I shared with them information that I had shared with all of my friends/colleagues who I had reached out to in the past to help me spread the word and raise funds through my crowd-funding campaign. To be honest, I didn’t think much would come of it. Crowd-funding has been very exhausting, and I’ve reached out to so many people, with very little outcomes. Needless to say, I was in a desperate position as an organizer.
Now today, I get a call that I will be getting $1000, enough to meet my goal for the EmpowerED conference. I was ecstatic.
But then I was told that I had to take off the embedded SUPE facebook page on the EmpowerED website, because there were posts about #resistTFA there. And that’s when I realized that this money had strings attached, as it would be, despite my previous requests for individual donations, coming from the organization itself, an organization that I resist for very deeply personal, complex, and unique reasons.
I am ashamed to say that I was tempted. Of course, I was tempted. This money, as dirty as it was, would save me so much time and energy trying to raise the remaining $1000 on my own, or trying to make my event work with $1000 less than I intended. I was in a desperate position, but I ultimately decided, a few minutes after talking to them and thinking it through, that I could not accept the money.
I refuse to accept money from a corporation that is funded by those who contribute to the destabilization of so many communities. These communities are home to the students who will be featured at EmpowerED, students who have made history by coming together with their peers and fighting back against injustices like school closings, high stakes testing, budget cuts, and charter expansion, all of which TFA has had either a direct or indirect role in causing/perpetuating.
How could I take their money? This money was Walton, Gates, and Broad money. This money was made off of the backs of workers and poor communities. This money was behind the oppression of my people.
So, no. I will not be accepting $1000 from Teach for America.
Because I cannot be bought.
If you are an individual who supports student voice in education, please make a donation to EmpowerED 2014. We have to take care of our own. This money will be going directly to a truly grassroots, student-led event that will revolutionize education through the student power movement. Not the corporate, top-down education reform movement.
Peace, love, and lots of power,
Alright so I’ll admit it. Since school has started up, I’ve barely had enough time to blog. Don’t get me wrong… I’ve stayed by my word and have been doing things a lot more than writing, which is good. But I do miss sitting in front of my laptop for a whole day and just spilling thoughts onto a page. Hopefully, as things die down, I can get back to doing that.
These past few weeks have been especially tough, with the #resistTFA campaign and the news that I became a top 12 finalist for this singing competition at my university.
I’ve always loved to sing, and I never got the guts to do so until late in high school, and I’ve never taken classes or had professional training… so I really didn’t see this coming, and I really didn’t expect the competition to happen to quickly. But I know I had to do this competition anyway. Because if for some strange reason I don’t end up living out my first dream of becoming a high school social studies teacher, I would want to sing for the rest of my life (preferably on Broadway). I’m still going to keep singing though, even when I do become a teacher, because it’s how I cope with everything in my life. I sing whenever I can, and during classes or work or any stressful situation, I’ll leave the room for a few minutes to find an empty space to belt out a few notes from Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man” or Barbra Streisand’s “Don’t Rain on my Parade.” Because I want to… because I have to. How else does anyone get through the day?
The world is my stage, and I sure do love to perform. I know I won’t be great at it at first, but I’ll always love it. I just like to feel what I’m doing and to share that passion with others. I probably have way too much optimism about how my future students are going to react to my lessons. I myself was always an enthusiastic learner, but I know not everyone is like that. But even in math class (and if you know me, you know how dull I think math is), I was excited by how excited my teacher was about teaching math, sharing that passion with us. And that’s why I want to spend every day on stage, in front of a classroom. Sharing happiness and enthusiasm, what can get any better than that?
But for now, as I’m preparing for the main stage of my career, I’ll keep singing on regular stages, because I am lucky enough to have found another art, another passion that gives me the same rush of exhilaration and enthusiasm as teaching. When I sing, when I feel the song I’m singing, and when I’m just dying to share that feeling with the audience, I feel the most alive. That’s about as close as I can get to teaching.
So yes, I’m going to end this post with my music video that you probably have heard way too much about. I know we might not know each other, but I’d really appreciate it if you could watch it, and if you enjoy it, like and share it on Facebook. I’m so honored to be in the top 12 and now I’ve never wanted to win something so bad (even if it’s just a school competition). I also worked really hard on this video, and while I don’t think it’s my best singing (for some of my best singing, check out the second video of this post), I did put my heart into the song, and your support would mean so much to me :) Thank you!
Honeymoon Avenue (music video/cover) – Ariana Grande
LIKE/SHARE original post (for your vote to count!): https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10202201939515793
Girl on Fire (acapella cover) – Hannah Nguyen
When I first told my dad about how I was fighting for an educational revolution, he got really scared. He did not give me permission to continue. He was incredibly stern about it and wanted to change the subject. I left the conversation feeling hurt and confused.
I knew exactly why he got scared. He grew up during the Vietnam War, and his father (my grandpa) was a revolutionary, a secret agent working for the South Vietnamese government to resist and overthrow the North. One day he didn’t come home. My dad received news that his father was tortured and killed.
Later, my dad confirmed my guesses and told me that challenging those in power could get me killed. I laughed naively and said that there’s no way they would dare do that to their reputation. He said that I underestimated their power. And I really really do.
The side I fight against is powerful, to say the least. They are well-equipped with tons of money, political leverage, human resources, and a bunch of fancy PR. I am discovering that more and more each and every day. I follow a lot of “reformers” on twitter. Their ability to tweet a great-sounding lie, and then get the world to blindly believe it and spread it, is astounding and utterly frustrating.
Another thing I am realizing is how draining this struggle is. Sometimes I feel really alone. Sometimes I feel really defeated. Sometimes I feel really overwhelmed. Sometimes I feel so small. Sometimes I feel like I don’t exist.
Then I stop and realize that this is what my dad meant by death. That there is something even more dreadful than actually ceasing to exist, and that is still being alive but being completely oppressed and insignificant. I realize that the worst thing they can do to me is kill my voice, my passion, my will to fight.
So I won’t let them do that. As frustrating and incredibly frightening as this is, I won’t let them win. I lose if I let them take away my resilience to stand up for what I believe is right. They cannot and will not get away with it.
I am reminding myself of all this as I build the website for the Students Resisting Teach for America campaign, which is highly controversial. I just realized that Teach for America literally has the money and power to pay an intern a few extra hundreds to make sure that my voice is completely delegitimized and irrelevant. They can stamp out all my work and effort with little to not effort at all. So why should I even keep going?
Because it matters. Because the fight against neoliberal corporate reform matters. Because the students whose voices aren’t being heard matter. Because the students losing out on a great education matter. Because the students who were cheated and lied to by TFA matter. Because the truth matters. Because I fucking matter.
I’m probably gonna be up all night creating the campaign website, but you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to not finish it. You could offer to buy me a plane ticket home so I can see my family and puppy, and I still wouldn’t stop making it. My beliefs are informed by my experiences and by the stories of those I listen to and you cannot take that away from me. I don’t care if you have the power to completely oppress me.
I’d like to see you fucking try.
yes I swear but “cussing doesn’t come from a lack of vocabulary – I know all the other words. None of them speak the same language that my fucking heart does.” –Anis Mojgani
As you may have already heard, my organization, Students United for Public Education, is preparing to launch our first national, student-led campaign:
On October 1st, we will be announcing our official launch, but before then, we’ve decided to hold a fundraiser to support our campaign, since we are a completely grassroots, student-led org with little to no funds. In about 3 days, we’ve successfully raised over $1200 thanks to the generosity of so many justice-minded educators, parents, and students.
We are so grateful to everyone who is helping make this campaign happen, but we’re not done yet! We still need your help to reach our goal of $1650! So please, if you can and if you haven’t done so already, please donate to this campaign. I promise that we at SUPE are working tirelessly to make sure that your donations have a very large impact.
If you are a college student interested in starting this campaign at your school, or if you’re anyone who wants to stay up-to-date with the campaign, please fill out this form to receive regular updates and/or a comprehensive campaign tool-kit!
If you are a student or TFA alumni who wants to share your story on why YOU resist/oppose Teach for America’s actions and corporate interests, please fill out this form!
Here’s a breakdown of the campaign, straight from the donation website:
For years, college campuses across the country have been the core recruiting ground for Teach for America (TFA). For many soon-to-be graduates, concerned as they should be with the rampant inequality embedded in American public schools, TFA appears to be an opportunity to make a difference.
Using the rhetoric of civil rights and egalitarian politics, TFA promises ambitious college students that their hard work and good intentions are a crucial component of what it will take to fix the crisis within our education system. Yet, as numerous TFA alums and professionals have made it increasingly clear, rather than fighting inequality, TFA actually promotes it.
The high-need schools in which most TFA corps members teach demand the most experienced teachers, not the least. TFA’s five-week-long summer institute, insufficient to prepare any new teacher, is therefore not only inadequate preparation for corps member teachers, but also unjust for the public school students who deserve nothing less than a fully-qualified and experienced instructor.
In today’s political climate, however, where many urban school districts are conducting mass layoffs and cutting teacher benefit packages, such experienced teachers are becoming increasingly rare. Here too, TFA is partially to blame, as in many of the same school districts where experienced teachers have been laid off, TFA recruits have come in to replace them.
Since most TFA teachers do not stay in their schools beyond their two-year commitment, they are far less likely to demand the higher pay and benefits, and thus stand as an attractive alternative, from the districts’ perspective, to career teachers and their unions.
Increasingly across the country, college students are becoming aware of TFA’s role in perpetuating inequality in our schools.
Our task now is to challenge the legitimized recruiting position that TFA enjoys on many of our college campuses, both by raising awareness and taking direct action.
And we know we can’t do this alone.
That is why we–Students United for Public Education (SUPE)–will be launching the first national student-led campaign against Teach for America.
Our campaign is planned to include:
*Example of flyering already being done by SUPE member*
- Distribution of campaign tool-kits (via PDF) to students at different campuses interested in participating.These tool-kits will include flyers, different tactics to approach/bring awareness about TFA on their campus, etc.
- Creating a website about our campaign along with different resources and articles in which students can learn more about the resistance against TFA from not only students, but TFA alum, teachers, and other professionals.
- Providing prospective TFA corps members with testimonies (from students who oppose TFA/chose not to do TFA and TFA alumni who now oppose the organization) so they can make an informed decision.
- Teach-Ins where students can learn more about TFA resistance
- Panelists of TFA Alums, professionals, and students
- Other ideas are still welcomed!
What Do We Need Funding For?
In order to effectively run this 25-day long campaign (October 25th is their next application’s due date), we do need funds of some sort (after all, we are just college students!).
Below is listed where your funds will be used. We will be transparent on how each dollar is spent throughout the campaign, and the funds that aren’t used by the end of this campaign will be deposited into our SUPE General Funds.
We thank you all in advance for your support, and we look forward to our official launch date on October 1st.
Funds Will Be Used For:
- Color Flyers: 2,000 flyers (Staples) = $300
- Stickers: 2,000 stickers (StickerRobot.com) –> $200
- Website: Domain (WordPress.com) = $25
- Travel Expenses for Panelists: $1000
- GoFundMe Fee: (5% for each donation received) = ~$77.5
- An Open Letter to New Teach for America Recruits
- University of Minnesota Students Protest Teach for America
- Teach for America Apostates: a Primer of Alumni Resistance
- Why Teach for America Can’t Recruit in my Classroom
- Student On Why She Doesn’t Support TFA
- Teach For America Is Finally Getting the Scrutiny It Deserves
- Teach For America’s Civil War
- Reconsidering TFA
[We also want to emphasize that we are targeting Teach for America as an organization and not the individuals who are corps members or alumni (after all, many of our supporters are TFA alumni who now disagree with the organization's role in education.)]
Thanks for reading! If you made it this far, enjoy this flyer that I just made :)
A commentor by the name of “Jack” was kind enough to post details of Terri’s wonderful video, that captures Michelle Rhee’s Teacher Town Hall in Birmingham last Thursday in all its shameful glory. Here is the video once again and Jack’s comment:
Regarding this video from Birmingham,
here are some highlights:
Rhee mocks Hannah Nguyen at about
02:13 – 02:40 — quoting out of context
and distorting what Hannah wrote to her
in her email.
At 05:05, Terri Michal (MIKE-uhl) attempts to
voice her opinion—and others followed suit,
saying, “I did, too,” and watch how she’s
At 06:08, they rip the mic away from
her (though you can see it because
she had to hide the camera, because
cameras were not allowed… resulting
in a bad camera angle).
As the caption indicates, forum participant
Perry then does not answer the Terri’s
question, but instead gives the stock
answer, or rather, non-answer, which the
crowd, stacked with corporate reformers,
The security guards threatens to remove her.
By this point, the visual portion of the video
is black, with just audio.
Rhee brags about firing D.C.’s “ineffective”
teachers, but the truth is that these teachers
were the high-paid veterans that were fired
because of their high pay, and in spite of
their quality. She had fabricated a budget
deficit to do so. Shortly afterwards, she
claimed that the money was there after all.
A city councilman then said that if that’s
the case, hire back the teachers.
Rhee then challenged the city councilman
and those who agreed with him to enroll
their own kids in the public schools where
the fired teachers taught… while Rhee
herself doesn’t send her own kids to public
At 13:15, Terri’s caption talks about Rhee
trying to stare her down… again, because
of the hidden camera, again, caused
by Rhee barring cameras from the event,
you can’t see Rhee doing so… though
you can her screaming.
Rhee then assumes, that because Terri is
white, she must some elitist who “sends her
kids to tony private schools”… without any
proof of this, as it’s not true. Terri tries to set
her straight, but is silenced by the security
Terri then continues refuting this with her
caption and a picture showing her actual
family… the picture speaks for itself.
Then at 14:38, sell-out George Parker talks
about how he and Rhee support improving
public schools side-by-side with charter
and private schools, but Terri’s caption
correctly points out that the Alabama
Accountability Act—that Rhee pumped
millions of Students First dollars into
lobbying and political races in order to get
it passed—drains the public schools of
funding and puts them into private and
Then at 17:14, Steve “unionized-teacher-
are-roaches” Perry talks about all you
need to attend his school are “a pulse
and an address”… and again, Terri’s
caption puts a lie to this in that the make-up
of his students are “more affluent than than
the surrounding public schools, have less
distance to travel, and are more likely to
have a bed to sleep in at night.”
(Bruce Baker, Jon Pelto, and Jersey
Jazzman have posted all the data backing
Terri’s captions then back all of this up
with data from Jon Pelto’s website.
(NOTE how earlier, the moderator
rushed Terri, refusing to let her preface
her question with comments, with the
reasoning that they were already “in
overtime” and had to rush… yet shortly
afterwards, Parker and Perry were allowed
to run their mouths for minutes on end.)
Near the end, Terri’s caption reads:
“Thank you, Ms. Rhee for this ‘teacher
“You have now proven that your words
mean nothing, and you have no interest
“I guarantee that you have won over
no protestors in Birmingham.
“Good luck in Philadelphia!
BAT’s will be flying!”
Terri has also reported that the local news has covered the protest that occurred outside before the event. They did a pretty poor job of it, but that just means they’re afraid of the truth.
In other news, the Philly Teacher Town Hall happened today… From what I could gather one twitter… it got pretty heated. No sign of a large action/protest yet. If you have any info about what happened, I’d love to know! Thanks!
Last Thursday, Michelle Rhee and her cronies, Steve Perry and George Parker, made their next stop on their three-city Teacher Town Hall tour in Birmingham, Alabama. I had a sliver (a minuscule sliver) of hope that this Teacher Town Hall would be less disastrous than the first that I experienced last week in LA. I was proved terribly wrong.
The video above was taped in secret by Terri Michal (@Free_2_B), a wonderful Alabama BAT who is committed to defending public education in her state and who bravely confronted Rhee & Co. last Thursday. She voices her concerns in the video at 3:34 but be sure to watch the whole video; as nauseating as it is to hear the panelists talk mindlessly about issues they know so little about, Terri adds amazingly helpful commentary that exposes the truth behind their propaganda.
I had been in contact with Terri over the past week since she saw the video of my speech, and I had been helping her prepare for the Teacher Town Hall in Alabama, so that she could make sure that her voice was heard. I am very excited to read her full report on the protest both outside and inside the event. She was one of the few outside protestors who attended the event, and I am very glad that she did and that she fought to have her voice heard. I am, however, equally horrified at the panelists’ and moderator’s (who I believe is Rhee’s husband? correct me if I’m wrong) responses.
The bullying and intimidation tactics in this video on the part of the panelists is absolutely revolting. The tactics they used to silence the opposition is ridiculous (though not surprising). Their avoiding to answer the questions is utterly embarrassing. Almost everything the panelists said in this video were the same exact talking points that they used at the last event. Rhee even mentions me at 2:13, and completely twists her encounter with me, not-so-ironically while I am not there to defend myself (Terri’s commentary tells the TRUTH that I reported to Terri over twitter). Typical reformy tactics. They can dish but they can’t take.
This event was just as controlled, manipulative, and oppressive as the last. I can’t say I’m surprised at the reformers, but that doesn’t make me any less disgusted. Thank goodness for the brave people in this video who fought to have the true voices of those in the Birmingham educational community heard!
Tomorrow, Rhee’s next stop will be in Philadelphia. I am way too excited to see what will happen there. I’ve been in contact with the Philly Student Union and they have confirmed their attendance. Diane Ravitch might also attend since the event coincides with her book tour. With the recent state of public education in Philly amid drastic budget cuts… the event should be nothing less than interesting… Stay tuned!
Students, if you will be attending the event, I just want you to remember that NO ONE can tell you what’s best for you. You have the power to think for yourself and have a voice in your education, and you shouldn’t let ANYONE (no matter how much great-sounding propaganda they throw at you) take that away from you.
Everyone else, please spread this Terri’s video like fire! This is SUCH an important piece of the truth, especially with Terri’s amazing added commentary on the video. We cannot let Rhee and her cronies get away with the dangerous propaganda they spread!
This is far overdue but in case you’re wondering, here’s what I would have said if I didn’t get cut off… and if I wasn’t so flustered and upset:
…but my main point is: listen to the students. LISTEN TO THE STUDENTS.
Education belongs to the STUDENTS. It is students who are getting the education and it is the students who should have a say in what that education looks like. My biggest problem with reform is that people like you three, who have all this corporate power and money, get to sit up on these physical and political stages and either implement or support policies that affect classrooms and communities that you’ve never stepped into or even bothered to listen to. You haven’t even bothered to listen to these dedicated teachers in these past two hours! I had to fight for my chance to speak because this so-called “conversation” was just two hours of you all defending your views through a series of straw man arguments.
How dare you speak for people you don’t wish to truly listen to?
How dare you talk about the “students’ interests” when you have not listened to what students all over this country are saying?
How dare you talk about “high expectations” when you obviously don’t expect that students are capable of thinking for and fighting for themselves?
How dare you talk about “choice” when you don’t give students any choices in what and how they learn?
How dare you talk about “every student” when you refuse to acknowledge and honor the complex humanity of our each and every student?
How dare you talk about “accountability” when you can’t even hold yourselves accountable for the disastrous effects your reforms have had on communities everywhere?
Students are not data points on a graph you can talk about but never listen to. They are humans with hearts, minds, and stories of their own. They are resilient and beautiful and insightful. They deserve better than high stakes tests that don’t capture their humanity, better than charters that exclude and criminalize certain youth, better than the poverty that creates an opportunity gap well before they begin school, better than limited curriculum that doesn’t allow them to explore other options, better than policies that instill fear and oppress critical thought, better than budgets that leave their schools and classrooms dilapidated and unbearable, better than decisions that are made without their input. We can do better than current reform. We can do much better because our youth deserve much better.
Educational justice will not be achieved by top-down approaches that deliberately silence the voices of those at the bottom. It will not be achieved by policies that exclude, divide, and oppress. It WILL be achieved by PEOPLE working with and fighting with the students who live this everyday reality. The best way to put “Students First” is by listening to them. So walk your talk and start listening.
Last Thursday, I met Michelle Rhee for the first time. After months of writing about her, researching her, and reading her book (which I couldn’t finish out of boredom), I finally got to see in person the woman I once adored and now completely mistrust. Not only that, but I got to speak directly to her. Needless to say, it was quite an interesting encounter.
Thanks to my network of support on and off line you’ve probably already heard about the speech that I gave to Michelle Rhee, Steve Perry, and George Parker during the Los Angeles Teacher Town Hall. But a lot went on before and after that I would like to bring light to now, especially for the folks who plan to attend the Teacher Town Halls in Birmingham, Alabama on 9/12 or Philadelphia on 9/16.
Please use my experience to help you plan some sort of resistance. We need our voices to be heard.
In summary, the event was a complete disappointment. I came in expecting a vibrant and balanced discussion with equal opportunity for both sides to speak. After all, the word “conversation” was on the screen behind the panelists the entire night. By the end of the night, I seriously wondered if they even understood the concept of a conversation at all.
Here’s a bullet-point breakdown of what happened:
- In my apartment before the event, I made this poster:
- I also bought masking tape that I planned to put over my mouth during the event. I meant to allude to the incident where Michelle Rhee taped the mouths of her 1st grade students.
- When I arrived, I was greeted by members of United Teachers Los Angeles (LA’s teachers’ union) who were passing out flyers and holding up signs outside the library where the event was held. One of them was my friend Noah, who I met a few weeks back and am currently working with on a campaign called Schools LA Students Deserve. I also met the one and only activist teacher Alex Caputo-Pearl, who was recently fired from Crenshaw High for leading an educational program that taught students to *gasp* think for themselves and learn through a social justice/civic engagement lens. His story and the stories of the students who fought to save their school are phenomenal.
- Once inside, I registered at the table and stood in line waiting to enter the auditorium. Everyone was given a question card that looked like this:
- When I asked if the questions would be filtered, the lady told me that the questions would be grouped by topic and they would try to get through as many as they could.
- As I was in line writing my question, my poster was on the ground next to me. A security guard came by and told me I could not bring it into the event. So I folded it up and stuck it in my backpack.
- There were about 200+ people in the room.
- I sat in the second row with tape over my mouth. The tape said, “Listen to STUDENTS!”
- From what I could estimate from the applause after certain talking points, at least 80% of the room was pro-corporate reform.
- Security guards lined the perimeter. I felt highly policed.
- The panelists were welcomed onto the stage. I have my opinions about each… but you can go research them for yourselves.
- The moderator then laid out the ground rules for the event.
- She would say the name of the person whose question card she was holding.
- That person would be given exactly 2 minutes to speak to the panel and ask their question.
- There was absolutely NO touching the microphone. (again… tons of paranoid policing that sent a clear message of, “Your voice is under our control.”)
- The panelists then would be given unlimited time to answer.
- The moderator also gave a very condescending speech about how we needed to “turn down the music of our own radios” and listen to “other people’s music.”
- Later on, I realized that this only applied to people who disagreed with corporate reform because the music of the reform-opponents was barely even allowed to be played.
- Only 16 question cards were in the moderator’s hand to be answered.
- Only 8 questions were answered. My question was not chosen to be answered as I expected.
- TWO of those 8 questions were considered “controversial” (by their standards).
- The rest were in the “policy-related” category but for some reason all went back to the matter of teachers unions.
- Panelists (who were all in general agreement on the issues) spoke for 95% of the time.
- Those who asked questions were not allowed time for rebuttal.
- The first “controversial” question asked what the panelists would say to the UTLA members protesting the event outside. Michelle said she wishes they would have come inside to speak, and then proceeded to speak for them by assuming they did not want to engage in a discussion that’s “good for students.”
- The other controversial question was asked by a Los Angeles teacher who asked about the use of standardized tests in teacher evaluations if poverty is one factor of student performance. The panelists did not answer the question at all and proceeded instead to throw around cute but meaningless slogans about how “poverty is not destiny” or “all kids can learn.”
- Steve Perry even had the nerve to say that battling child poverty “isn’t even necessary!” and brush off a point about English language learners. I guess the only students that matter are those who can take tests.
- The rest of the questions basically gave the panelists the opportunity to elaborate on their points of view.
- Topics covered were: Waiting for Superman (lol), unions, tenure, testing, charters, and vouchers.
- It was mostly a union-bashing party with little productive or balanced discussion of how we move forward or how we can work together.
- Every panelist played victim and responded defensively to a question that was actually asked by someone who agreed with them. How did they do that? Three words:
- The ONLY good point brought up by the panelists was that “bad” charters should be held accountable.
- Absolutely no thorough discussion of concrete topics like Common Core, NCLB waivers, curriculum, teacher prep/training, student-centered learning, critical pedagogy, or alternatives to testing.
- Steve Perry even had the nerve to ask “why don’t people who oppose testing ever provide alternatives?” without giving the audience a chance to speak (I have a great answer for that question) OR proposing any alternatives of his own. What a Grade A “educator”.
- Actually… there was no thorough discussion with substantial data support whatsoever. Everything was vague and shallow (“success”, “all students”, “high expectations”, “accountability”), full of false dichotomies, sweeping generalizations, and logical fallacies. I gave up counting after about an hour of 37 total fallacies.
Now here’s the good part:
- Near the end of the event, Steve Perry was making his last comment in response to an LAUSD teacher who screamed out earlier during the event in rage as the panelists did not answer the second “controversial” question.
- When Perry said that “the students’ interests did not line up with the union’s interests”, I drew the line.
- I pulled the poster out of my backpack and held up high right in the middle of Perry’s speech. It caught all the panelists’ eyes but Perry continued to speak.
- A security guard came over and told me to give him the sign while simultaneously pulling it away from me.
- I tugged back and caused a bit of noise that attracted some attention.
- After Perry finished speaking, the moderator was about to close the event when George Parker interrupted her and insisted that I be given a chance to speak.
- The moderator insisted that no one else would be given a chance to speak.
- The woman next to me (who was shouting curses against unions the whole night and was the cause for my gigantic headache) ironically yelled that I should be given the chance to speak.
- The whole room began to cheer and egg me on, and so the man with the microphone gave me the chance to speak.
- Completely enraged, totally flustered, and quite honestly a little nervous, I gave my two-minute speech and was cut off before I could get to the good part. (Stay tuned for a post about what I WOULD HAVE said if I got more time.)
- After I spoke, the moderator brought the event to a close, with no public response to my speech from the panelists.
- Right after the event ended, as I was ready to cure my headache with a nice grilled cheese sandwich from my favorite food truck, Michelle Rhee approached me and wanted to speak to me personally.
- She gave her response to my speech, only focusing on my point about charters.
- She mainly talked about funding for charters and claimed that students in public schools are funded more than students in charters.
- When I brought up the point about charters being funded by private billionaire donors and corporations, she questioned why public schools don’t ask for grants so they can be funded like charters.
- My response:
- I was then asked by StudentsFirst to do an interview.
- In the interview I basically just expanded on the importance of listening to students.
- The next day, I got an email from Michelle Rhee. Here’s her email and my reply:
That’s basically it! If you’re planning on the future Teacher Town Halls, I hope I’ve given you enough information so things won’t take you too much by surprise. I now am going to echo what I said in my previous post:
If you are going to the Teacher Town Hall in Birmingham on 9/12 or Philadelphia on 9/16, PLEASE invite students to come and tell their stories. Chants work well. Posters work well. Collective actions and gestures are most powerful. This is not the end; we still have a long way to go before education is put back into the hands of educators and students. This event does not have to be as one-sided and manipulated as it was for me. You can demand your right to have your voice heard. You can turn the discussion around. This is an opportunity for a meaningful action that will shine a national light on the opposition to the corporate education deform movement and could spur a discussion on alternatives to this movement that promote true educational justice and equity. Do not let them speak for your students and children. Do not let them play victim and use straw man arguments to promote their views. LET YOUR VOICE BE HEARD! GO AND SPEAK OUT!
Thank you for reading!
Love and solidarity,
- Student Calls Out Michelle Rhee at Teacher Town Hall [VIDEO!] (teacherunderconstruction.com)
- My Speech at the Los Angeles Teacher Town Hall, AND a VERY Important Message (inspireducation.wordpress.com)
- Student Takes on Michelle Rhee (washingtonpost.com)
- Michelle Rhee’s Teacher Town Hall: A Students Stands Up and Disagrees (dianeravitch.net)
- Michelle Rhee’s Teacher Town Hall: A Students Stands Up and Disagrees (bloggerstech.wordpress.com)
- Michelle Rhee Comes to Los Angeles; The City Shrugs (k12newsnetwork.com)
I’m just posting the video here so that people can connect the video to my blog and vice versa. I will be posting a lot of important things on here soon, so please stay tuned.
Here’s the main gist of my very important message (copied from my comments under the youtube video):
Unfortunately, our fight for public education does not end here. The fact that I got a chance to speak was a stroke of luck; there are millions of student voices across the country that are being silenced under corporate reform, most of which will never have the chance to be heard unless we ACT NOW. We cannot continue to let Rhee & Co. exploit and speak FOR students. LET STUDENTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES!
If you will be in Birmingham on 9/12 or Philadelphia on 9/16, I STRONGLY URGE you to come to the Teacher Town Hall and let your voices be heard. They will make sure you are silenced but you MUST do whatever it takes to speak truth to power. Also, invite students to come and speak. Youth engagement is VITAL if we are ever going to win this fight. Educators, continue to EMPOWER and ENCOURAGE your students to take charge of their education and rights. We are strongest if we fight WITH the students!
A few, well deserved thank you’s:
Thank you to Vincent Precht for taking this video (apologies once again for making you move every time I went in and out of our row) despite the tight security in the room.
Thank you to my sweetheart Alexis Estioko for coming to this event with me, sitting by my side supporting me, and always giving me the strength to do the right thing. I love you more than words can explain.
Thank you to my little brother, who I miss every day and who gives me the strength to fight for him even when it’s hard.
Thank you to Stephanie Rivera for her beautiful friendship and inspiring mentorship. Thank you for teaching me what it means to be a true organizer for educational justice and for giving me the opportunity to pursue my passions through SUPE (Students United for Public Education).
Thank you to EVERYONE who shared my video and sent me words of encouragement and support. Thank you for all that you do to celebrate your students and their humanity, and thank you for your steadfast dedication to justice and educational equity. I want to name you all, but that list would be endless. Expect to be featured on a page on my blog soon. I love you all.
And finally, thank you to my fellow students, whose stories and experiences have made my blood boil with passion to fight, organize, agitate, mobilize and WIN!
I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!