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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!