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TFA’s Response to my Rejection (and of course, my response back!)

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.

Hi Hannah,

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.

Thank you.

Best,

Hannah Nguyen

For the record, I am tired of the “adults need to work together for kids” rhetoric because it negates the very core of grassroots organizing, power struggles, and collective liberation.
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Today, I was offered $1,000. By Teach for America.

ImageAnd 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.

Thank you.

Peace, love, and lots of power,

Hannah Nguyen

What I Would Have Said If I Had Gotten More Time

poster studentsfirst (2)

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. 

Michelle Rhee’s Teacher Town Hall… Through A Student’s Eyes

Michelle and I after the event when she spoke directly to me. Taken by Alexis Estioko.

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:

Before

  • In my apartment before the event, I made this poster:

1305486_10201945743791060_1996270154_n

  • 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:
  • 1242034_10201945743311048_742924142_nWhen 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.

During

  • 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.

979629_10201945741591005_980661050_n

  • 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:
    • Straw
    • Man
    • Arguments
  • 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

  • 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:

reply to michelle rhee

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,

Hannah Nguyen

My Speech at the Los Angeles Teacher Town Hall, AND a VERY Important Message

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!

Why I Do What I Do – A Reflection After Student Power 2013

I believe that there are three key things you need to always do when leading a movement for social justice and change.

  1. Be willing to listen and learn.
  2. Have the courage to speak out and act in the name of justice.
  3. Never forget why you do what you do and who you do it for, and make sure everything you do honors that.

As you may know, I recently got back from the National Student Power Convergence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Words can’t even begin to describe how inspired and moved I feel. 5 days of meeting and connecting with student activists (including the wonderful and amazing Stephanie Rivera, Jacob Chaffin, Asean Johnson, and Israel Munoz), exchanging ideas and strategies on how to organize action around key issues affecting youth, and celebrating the power of student voice and action? It was seriously a dream come true. I wish I had the time to delve into every detail of every experience that I had during these 5 days, but I hope you take my word for it that the NSPC was life-changing and groundbreaking.

With all that I’ve learned and all the new friendships I’ve made, I am so excited to take all that I have learned to begin building my very own chapter of Students United for Public Education (SUPE) in Los Angeles and well as working alongside my great friend and mentor Stephanie Rivera as a national organizer for SUPE.

But I’ll be honest: as excited as I am, I’m actually kind of scared. I’ve spent most of my life doing what I love most: learning. And most importantly, I’ve devoted a lot of time to learning about myself, what I really feel passionate about, and how I could to contribute my gifts and talents. I never wanted to really act until I was sure of myself and until I understood the issues fully and deeply. And to be honest, I’m still learning, but since starting this blog, I’ve been starting to speak out and act. When I created this blog, I wanted to use it not only as a place where I could continue to learn and develop my thoughts, but to also speak up about my beliefs, raise awareness, inspire others to think critically about these key issues.

Of course, I will continue to learn, listen, and grow for the rest of my life. It’s my favorite thing to do. But I feel like I’ve finally found my voice and I’m at a good place where I can begin to translate my passions, my thoughts, and my ideas into meaningful action and activism. Making that transition, stepping out of my comfort zone to put myself out there, is scary. But so far, what I’ve learned and how much I’ve grown has been more than worth it.

Attending this convergence was a big first step towards action for me. One of my favorite experiences in this entire world (maybe even more than singing a solo on stage) is meeting people who care. People who have passion coursing through their veins. Who really care about something so much that they go out and do something about it. Who have the courage to stand up and fight for justice and what they believe in. Whose eyes light up and heartbeats speed up at even the slightest mention of something that makes them angry, hopeful, inspired, determined. Who are driven by love: love of compassion, solidarity, justice, freedom, and equality. These people are not only passionate; they’re revolutionary. They are the game-changers and change-makers. These are people who live and breathe that list at the top of the page. These are the people who have fought the fights and walked the talks. These are the people who have taught me what it means to be a part of the student movement, to stand up, speak out, and take action.

I went to this convergence to do the first two things on that list that opened this post. I am here to learn from and listen to these amazing people and their stories. And from learning from those who have walked the talk and fought the fight, I hope to find the courage within myself to become more action-oriented, to continue to speak out against injustice, to immerse myself in my community, and work with and alongside others already doing great work to make a better tomorrow for youth.

But before I continue working on my action plan for SUPE, I want to give attention to the third and most important point on that list. I’m even going to repeat it here because it’s so important:

Never forget why you do what you do and who you do it for, and make sure everything you do honors that.

What I’ve seen happen often times (especially in… yup, you guessed it: the education reform movement), is that intentions start out good but the sword starts to swing the other way when money, power, and statistics are valued over the lives and humanity of students. “Kids first” and “For the kids” becomes merely rhetoric, as people jump to enact radically dangerous and untested policies that do anything but put kids first. It’s even scarier when these policies are put in place by people with power and money, because then they are blinded by their power and money and fail to see all the intricate parts of the matter.

This scares me, because I believe my intentions are good, and the last thing I want to happen is for what I fight for to put students at a greater disadvantage. But I know that won’t happen, as long as I make sure that everything I do for my students stems from why I do what I do. I need my vision to be clear and for that vision, story, and root of my passion to drive me. I need to stay humble and true to my roots.

So why do I fight for educational justice?

Well for starters, I want to be a teacher. Every time I play that “nine lives” game at conferences where in each life you can choose any career you want, high school civics and social studies teacher is written in #1-9. But why do I want to be a teacher? Is it so I can watch people’s face fill with disappointment and bewilderment when I tell them my life’s ambition? Is it so I can work 2 other jobs to pay for my first job? Is it so I can have my impact measured by my students’ test scores? Is it so I can get weekends and summers off?

The answer is simple: I want to devote my life’s work to inspiring and fostering young, bright, creative, and passionate hearts and minds. The thought of crafting creative and engaging lesson plans, bringing them to life in my classroom, sharing my stories and wisdom with young minds, taking my students to places they’ve never been (both intellectually and literally on field trips and such), and watching them grow into conscientious, open-minded, kind-hearted, passionate people excites me like no other. I’ve gotten a taste of it through working with children of all ages during my high school and early college careers, and I really cannot wait until I am finally fully trained and prepared to teach my own classroom.

But why become active in educational policy and activism?

Well the answer to that connects to what I want to teach and how I was taught. Let’s start with the latter.

I am very lucky to have gotten the education that I got. It completely changed my life. As I’ve mentioned before in my other posts, I didn’t realize what learning was until I was exposed to a full, well-rounded curriculum that included the arts, humanities, and social justice education. Before, I depended on my high test scores to know that I was learning. Today, I know that no test score could ever reveal how much I had truly grown and learned through my education.

For the first time, I was experiencing what I was learning, rather than passively regurgitating information that I barely internalized (something I’m really excellent at doing… I could be a professional test taker and that’s something to be ashamed of). I was finally opening my eyes to the intricacies and complexities of our global society and the field of education, and finally understanding concepts like solidarity, inequality, privilege, human rights, justice, and my role in all of these things. Social studies and civics woke my mind and heart and sparked such an immense passion in me that in my spare time, I found myself delving into the issues I studied more and more, as well as becoming more involved in my local community through organizing work and volunteerism.

During this time in my life was when I found my passion in education, partly because realized the magic of education through my own transformational experience, and partly because I decided to write my sophomore year research paper on standardized testing and it shattered my long-held (arrogant) faith in tests as well as everything I thought I knew about education.

As time went on, I slowly developed my biggest belief: that EVERY student should receive a free, quality, democratic, and well-rounded public education, unhindered by huge class sizes, dilapidated infrastructure, terrible working/learning conditions, inadequate funding, child poverty, high stakes testing, or other broken reform policies. I believe that this is a fundamental human right and true justice.

This is why I am fighting for educational justice now. My education helped me find my voice and understand the importance of standing up for justice and equality for my brothers and sisters. When I look at the current attacks on public education, especially by a group of people I used to trust to improve education, I get this intense emotional reaction that mirrors the kind I would get in high school every time I read about or discussed a social injustice. My insides burn, my heart races, and every inch in my body longs to get up and do something because what is happening to students, teachers, and schools today is not reform; it’s destruction.

I cannot possibly stand by while countless students are literally robbed of true education by neoliberals under the guise of “innovation”, “high expectations”, and “accountability.” I cannot possibly stand by while I hear my students’ stories of feeling unheard and powerless in what should be THEIR fight for THEIR education. I cannot possibly stand by while students continue to be silenced and invisible, their humanity reduced to digits and their futures determined by people who ignorantly implement harmful policies without considering student voice. I cannot possibly stand by while people who don’t want to devote a day of their life to educating a child use their money and power to manipulate and profit from a system they destroyed in the first place (Why is there a billionaire boys club? Oh right, because poverty and economic inequity exist and are silently hurting public education).

I realize that I could not care about any of this, live a very easy life, float through grad school, get my teaching credential, and just be a teacher in a high school somewhere. I’m sure the reformies would love that. But I refuse to do that. And that has as much to do with how I was taught as it does with what I want to teach.

I want to teach the things that made me a more open-minded, empowered, and justice-seeking person. I want to be a high school teacher of social justice and civic engagement.

I believe that true education can and should awaken the mind and heart by fostering critical thinking (mind) and a commitment to social justice (heart). Yes, learning about all the terrible injustice and oppression that has marginalized groups of people throughout history is naturally discouraging, but I feel that there is also such beauty in looking at how the marginalized have historically risen up against their oppressors and fought for the justice and freedom from oppression. When students engage with learning material that relates to them and their cultural histories, they are more empowered to think and learn for themselves and take action. This kind of social justice education brings not only knowledge and enlightenment, but also hope for students. Hope that they too can not only live in a better world someday, but also be the reason for that better, more just and equal world.  

This is what I hope to bring to students. Hope. Light. A true sense of wonder for the world and love for those living in it. Motivation to learn and turn learning into positive action. A sense of empowerment.

But how can I possibly begin to teach social justice in a system with so much injustice?

I fight for educational justice because I believe that I myself have the power to contribute what I can now so that by the time my future students reach my classroom, the education system will be a more just place. I believe that empowered students like myself can and will stand up for what they believe is right and demand educational rights for all. I believe that education is liberation from oppression.

I know I’m going to get a lot of opposition for fighting for what I believe in. Social justice education is equally liberating and threatening to authorities that pray for compliance. But I will not comply under policies and rules that put students at a disadvantage. I will not comply with people who wish divergent perspectives and beliefs be silenced. I will not comply until there is justice.

Instead, I will continue to hope. Hope that I can not only teach in a better education system one day, but also be the reason for that better, more just and equal system. Hope to live my lessons now and one day have my lessons come alive.

Everyone keeps talking about the Status Quo

I get blamed for accepting it all the time. I get told (usually by education reformers) that if I don’t agree with their methods, I’m accepting the status quo. 

I guess what they mean by status quo is the whole “failing schools epidemic.” Or “bad teachers.” Or “terrible unions.”

To me, the status quo just looks like people in power suppressing the voices of those who don’t agree with them. Kind of like the way critical thinking, balanced discussion, creativity, divergent perspectives, and student voice are suppressed in schools in favor of compliance and testing. Such a system keeps the powerful in power. 

To echo a wonderful piece of wisdom from Daniel Kao:

If we can’t even give our students a voice, how can we expect to give them an education?

I refuse to be silenced, and the students I teach refuse it as well.

 

 

My “Conversation” with Michelle Rhee

michelle rhee

So a while back, I talked to Michelle Rhee (CEO of StudentsFirst) on a Tioki Forum after seeing on Facebook (I follow StudentsFirst just to see what kind of shenanigans they’re up to next) that she would be available from 4:00-4:30 PM to talk to the common folk and discuss any questions we may have. For a forum, there wasn’t much discussion going on. It was mostly question and answer, where some questions were not fully addressed or even answered and rebuttals were not responded to. But half an hour isn’t a long time, so I cut her some slack.

I submitted my question early, because I really did want a response. When I posted it, I received a message saying that my question would be submitted for review before being posted. Well then. It looked like Michelle would be spared from answering questions from her most ardent critics, and the discussion would be less authentic dialogue and more filtered propaganda.

But luckily, my question was posted! Probably because I tried to appear not so threatening.

I couldn’t limit myself to one question, so I chose two things that are two of the biggest flaws and faults of the education reform movement:

Here was her reply to my question about poverty:

Q: Hi Michelle, I’m a student and currently starting my research in education and I’d love to hear your thoughts. I know you talk a lot about accountability, teacher unions, and the structure of public schools as being the causes of our failing public school system, but I recently came across a considerable amount of research that highlights out-of-school factors such as poverty and economic inequality as the root cause. Whether public or charter, a school in a wealthy community almost always outperforms a school in a poverty-stricken environment. What are your thoughts on this? What are you doing to address this issue and ensure a quality public education for all students, regardless of socioeconomic background?

A: Well let’s start at the top. I have repeatedly said teachers’ unions are not the problem. But yes, the governance structure of public schools is a big issue. Antiquated bureaucracies stifle innovation and are bad for kids & teachers. But you bring up a good topic – education policy is so polarized that people seem to think there are only two camps of thought. 1. Poverty is to blame for all public education ills and all tests are bad vs. 2. We need to test everything that moves and teachers are to blame. There’s little room for reasonable dialogue. Poverty does matter and does affect kids, but that shouldn’t stop us from guaranteeing that the minute a child sets foot in school, they are getting the best education possible. Poverty is something which must be accounted for, such as through comprehensive social services, but we cannot allow ourselves to believe that because a child requires these services or is poor, that they are not interested in or capable of learning.

And here’s what I think about her reply. Let’s start at the top:

Teachers’ Unions

Chicago Teachers Union fighting alongside parents and students to save over 50 public schools from closings mandated by education deformer and Michelle Rhee worshipper Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

First, I honestly don’t know when you’ve “repeatedly said that teachers’ unions are not the problem” because I watched you tear down teachers’ unions in Waiting for Superman (which ironically paints you as the hero???), and I know that StudentsFirst is funded by Walton Family Foundation (the one in control of the money controls the org!), who are historically known for being anti-union (Wal-Mart. Enough said.)

And here’s a quote that also makes you look like a complete hypocrite:

“People tell me the unions are an inevitable part of this [school reform]. My thing is, what has that gotten us so far? All the collaboration and holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’?” – Michelle Rhee at the 2008 round table at the Fordham Institute.

Furthermore, I listened to my SFER/USC President spew his brainwashing rhetoric about how if I wanted to be a real reformer, I needed to stand against teachers’ unions (SFER is basically a branch of StudentsFirst, and you can read Stephanie Rivera’s excellent critical analysis of it here). “Teachers no longer care about students and they are the problem!”

And boy was I fooled. Every starry-eyed student just entering the realm of “educational policy and reform” will be fed the whole “teachers unions are the problem” crap. It made sense, didn’t it? Teachers, people who dedicate their lives to helping students, would put their career before students. As if their career wasn’t about the students.

It didn’t take long for me to realize what a load of bullshit that was. No teacher goes into the field wanting to destroy a student’s love of learning. No teacher wants to dull their students down to test scores. No teacher wants to teach to the test and lecture material in order to satisfy standards. Teaching is a noble and creative profession, an art that requires a system where that art can flourish.

But what would a Teach for America corps member who taped her students’ mouths shut and calls herself an education expert after very little classroom experience know about teaching? Probably only that experienced teachers protected by unions are hurting students. Because that totally makes sense. Here’s a thought: Why do we trust experience in every other field BUT teaching?

Of course, some teachers teach better than others. You don’t need to look at data to know that; any student can tell you! You want to help students and save them from “bad” teachers? Help the “bad” teachers. Stop taking the easy way out and tying teacher quality to test scores. Stop busting teachers’ unions and firing teachers. Start implementing some meaningful evaluation (student work portfolios, student surveys, third party holistic observations – preferably by people who have experience teaching). Unions protect good teachers too, and eliminating them would be dangerous not only to the teachers but also the students. Teachers fight for their students. That’s their job.

Bottom line: Teachers’ unions are NOT the problem. They’re a part of the solution.

Now onto the part of Michelle’s reply about

Poverty

To reiterate, here’s what she said:

Education policy is so polarized that people seem to think there are only two camps of thought:

1. Poverty is to blame for all public education ills and all tests are bad

2. We need to test everything that moves and teachers are to blame.

There’s little room for reasonable dialogue. Poverty does matter and does affect kids, but that shouldn’t stop us from guaranteeing that the minute a child sets foot in school, they are getting the best education possible. Poverty is something which must be accounted for, such as through comprehensive social services, but we cannot allow ourselves to believe that because a child requires these services or is poor, that they are not interested in or capable of learning.

Again, let’s start at the top. I agree, both these ideas are extreme and entirely flawed. I didn’t say that poverty was the root cause of a failing public education system. But it is a contributing factor. And for education reformers to basicaly embody the second camp of thought and tie test scores to teacher performance and ignore other factors that could contribute to low scores is terrible data analysis and quite frankly, very narrow-minded.

Poverty is a large part of the equation. Study, after study, after study proves this. High-poverty environments can cause severe stress and damage in youth brain function. Academic performance correlates with family income and socioeconomic status. The achievement gap is simply a euphemism for the wealth gap. And the “no excuses” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude of the reform movement is ignoring this glaringly obvious STRUCTURAL issue.

Of course, we should believe that students are capable of achieving no matter what ZIP code they come from. This is an attractive, and admittedly genuine idea that Michelle Rhee preaches. But if we truly have faith in students, we should also show them that we do and invest in the communities they live in. If we want to build better schools, we should start by building healthy environments that kids can come home to after school, and the “following up with health and academic and social policy programs at school.” But of course this isn’t what the education reformers want. Because that would mean the tax dollars that they are taking for their own corporate gain would go toward solutions that actually benefit students and their communities!

Once again, I’m not saying that poverty is the sole reason, or excuse, why students from poorer communities don’t do well in school. Far from that actually. I agree with Michelle in that respect: “We cannot allow ourselves to believe that because a child requires these services or is poor, that they are not interested in or capable of learning.” But I’m saying that poverty, along with in-school factors (which I’ll get into later in this post), exacerbates the problem and we need to be brave enough to confront it.

I’ve often said that once we solve the issue of education, most other societal problems will be solved. That’s probably because if we ever want to give students a better education, we need to also simultaneously tackle other societal problems that put pressure on our students.

Poverty NEEDS to be considered. Yes, I agree with Sir Ken Robinson; teachers are the lifeblood of a classroom, of education. Teachers have magic powers, and they can definitely be sources of inspiration and true learning, but to expect a teacher to undo all the pernicious effects of poverty on a student is a tall order. Collaboration (something Michelle is sorely against) between teachers, students, parents, communities, and government is necessary to ensure that every student gets the education he/she deserves.

To truly invest in kids and do what is best for them, we need to recognize that there are BOTH in-school and out-of-school factors that contribute to the problem. We cannot take an extreme side and focus on one or the other. If any progress is to be made we need to step up and target both ends of the spectrum equally.

Bottom line: Poverty cannot be ignored.

Now, what about those in-school factors that we also need to tackle? Education reformers seem to think that apathetic, low-quality teachers are the source of the problem, but what they fail to look at is the strict system and troubling predicament these teachers are placed in. From Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Obama’s Race to the Top (basically NCLB on steroids) and now, corporate America’s Common Core State Standards, we have turned our public education system into a terribly run business, with meaningless data that only serves to punish students, teachers, and communities, all under the guise of “accountability.”

Let’s see what Michelle had to say in response to my question about

Standardized Testing

Q: Also, I’d like to hear your thoughts on lessening the unnecessarily tight grip of standardized testing on our students and using that time and money to focus on providing all students with a well-rounded education that helps them become better people, not better test takers. I feel that over-emphasis of standards and test scores limits creativity (for teachers and students), critical thinking, enthusiasm for learning, and attention to the many other dimensions of an education that simply cannot be encompassed in a multiple choice exam and 3 digit number.

A: When it comes to testing, as a parent, I don’t want my daughters’ teachers to only be teaching to a test. I want them to have a well-rounded education & curriculum. However, we must have an objective way to measure whether kids are learning so that schools and educators can use assessment feedback to improve how they educate kids. Accountability for schools, educators, students, & parents is essential.

Okay first off, great appeal to parental emotion there, Michelle. But of course no education reformer is going to directly endorse teaching to the test. However, that has been the unfortunate consequence of what they call “data-driven assessment” and “accountability.” First, No Child Left Behind let the giant claw of standardized testing get a grip on our education system. Now, Race to the Top has tightened that grip as it promises large sums of reward money to districts with the highest scores (because competition is how we ensure equal opportunity, right?). Alongside this, Common Core State Standards, which are corporation-created standards for language arts and math, are being implemented all over the country, and enforced through yet another onslaught of standardized tests.

Oh, and did I mention these tests are produced by corporations, sold to schools, and protected from peer review and public scrutiny? Yes, these are people who have never been teachers, never even step foot in front of a classroom, dictating what students should learn and reaping profits from this added pressure on students and their teachers. Do they care if teachers teach to the test? Not really.

But moving on from that… whenever I bring up my views on standardized testing, I almost ALWAYS get the same retort, even from my parents:

“We need an objective way to measure progress! It can’t just be a free for all!”

Alright. I admit it. We need hard data to know how to improve. But let me quote Timo Heikkinen, a principal of a school in Finland where there are no standardized tests:

“If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

Right on, Mr. Heikkinen. Yes, we need data to track progress and project growth. But beyond being objective, it needs to be accurate, and by accurate I mean that it should take into account every part of a student. Is such accurate yet still objective data on human beings possible? Probably not.

But then the question becomes: do we care about our kids enough to put in the extra time and money, value their humanity through meaningful assessment, and shift the focus to providing well-rounded educations?

If we do, then we should aim for accurate data. But in order for data to be meaningful and accurate, it needs to be comprehensive. Michelle said in her reply that data from tests is used to improve how kids are educated, but I fail to see how numbers in a data chart (that don’t even take into account a student’s creativity or critical thinking ability) can give effective and constructive criticism to teachers. These numbers only tell part of the story, and are unfairly used to punish teachers for not raising scores. This adds pressure on them to teach to the test in order to fulfill standards and appear “accountable.”

For data to be comprehensive and useful for teacher and student growth, it needs to cover all the bases. Data should try to tell the whole picture of a student, something that standardized testing doesn’t even come close to achieving. To meaningfully assess students, why don’t teachers ask students to compile portfolios of their original pieces of work for evaluation? Work that is able to demonstrate a mix and myriad of skills and understanding, from civic engagement to scientific method to literary analysis. And then, why don’t we give them feedback that shows them that we value their effort enough to write more than one letter grade on it? From there, portfolios can be submitted as a part of the teacher evaluation process, to a third party review team composed of teachers who will then decide how the work meets curriculum standards also created by students and teachers.

Yes, the national standards created by Common Core have good intentions, but poor implementation. It’s yet another get-rich-quick-scheme by the education reformer crew. It’s created even more standardized tests and pulled focus away from funding for and focus on the arts, music, civic ed, the sciences, humanities, physical education, and enrichment programs (all of which are a part of a well-rounded education). The standards were also created and imposed upon schools across the country without teacher or student input.

What we need is a set of standards constructed through collaboration of students and teachers inn various communities, in every subject and area of learning, that are enforced through comprehensive data collection (portfolios and written evaluations).

This will only be one part of improving education, because we should also be evaluating teachers in comprehensive ways that gives them comprehensive feedback from which they can work forward from. Student portfolios are a piece of that puzzle.

Completing the rest of the puzzle takes more emphasis on student voice, rather than numbers. This may come as a shock to reformers, but students can say a lot more about themselves and their learning experiences than a test score. GO FIGURE!

When evaluating teachers for the purposes of accountability, why don’t we ask students:

  • What do you want to see in a teacher? What do you feel a teacher should do (not just academic-wise)? This provides a backbone checklist of expectations that teachers should meet.
  • What does your teacher do well? How can your teacher improve? What do you wish your teacher did differently/more? This gives a broader look into how teachers are serving their students and provides tangible advice teachers can use to improve.

We can also invite a third-party team of teachers to come observe and evaluate the teacher using an assessment that is, once again, comprehensive and covers all the bases of teaching, as well as provides concrete ways the teacher can improve in the future. The key here is to shift from narrowly test to holistically assess.

We should trust our students and value their voice enough to do all this.

We should also trust our teachers to work together with students, teach them with passion and creativity, and assess them holistically.

We should trust teachers to collaborate with and help one another for the sake of their students.

Once this happens, wonderful things can happen in education. I refuse to believe, Michelle, that objectivity is necessary to improve education. Accuracy and comprehensiveness is what we really need. It shows kids that we care, provides clear steps forward, and leads to providing students with the well-rounded education we always talk about, but never act upon… the same education that is made impossible in the face of the standardized testing monster.

And as for accountability for schools, educators, students, & parents? How about input from and collaboration between schools, educators, students, & parents? There are valuable voices out there in education, and we can no longer afford to silence them.

Bottom line: Standardized testing is not necessary. There are better solutions.

I would have replied on the thread… but by the time I saw her reply to me, I realized it was too late and she would never read my post anyway. And she still might not read it. But at least I can reach more people this way. Hope you enjoyed reading! Please spread the word and awareness! The education reform monster needs to be stopped!

So many dimensions… so much to consider

As I’m currently out of the country, finding time to really type out my thoughts on one topic has been tough. I’ve mostly been reading an eclectic selection of articles. While I do have several drafts saved on a myriad of topics that all have to do with education, it’s hard to know where to begin. They’re all intertwined and you simply can’t talk about one without bringing up the other.

The complexity of education is definitely overwhelming but also very humbling. It reminds me to take a step back, consider every detail, and always, always, always remember the students.

And it reminds me to keep going. The journey will be challenging, but rewarding. There is much to be learned and much to be taught and much to be done on my part. I’m only barely starting.

This is more of a personal post, I guess, to remind myself of the many things I have to continue to keep in mind as I move forward. Feel free to add any things you feel would be helpful to consider. 

  • Poverty and economic inequality (root cause and/or effect?)
  • Common Core 
  • NCLB & RttT
  • Teacher unions
  • Teacher evaluations
  • Teaching as a profession
  • Ed rheeform/rephorm/deform & corporate, privatized agenda
  • Reinventing education
  • Student voice and power (must be considered throughout all discussion…how is the best way to go about this?)
  • Socioeconomic ramifications of certain policies (budget cuts, funding issues)
  • Involvement of community members, parents, etc…
  • Civic education

Imagining Learning – Donate Today!

“If we can’t even give our students a voice, how can we expect to give them an education?” –Daniel Kao

Image

Creative artwork that expresses the collective voice of the students at a Listening Session, hosted by Imagining Learning

Finally. A movement worth giving to. 

Imagining Learning is an unprecedented movement in education with (what I believe is) a game-changing vision. It is built on the principle and power of LISTENING, which is something so familiar to all of us, yet so absent when it comes to complicated and pressing issues like education.

Students have stories, ideas, and sentiments to share about their education. They need to feel like they matter. They need to be heard. Imagine the tremendous change that could come about, if we stopped to listen to them and collaborate with them to come up with productive solutions for our education system. Imagine how much more MOTIVATED students would be if they knew their stories and ideas and passion could make a difference.

Through their Listening Sessions, Imagining Learning is finally building a safe and trustworthy environment for students to voice their wisdom about education and participate in discussion and decision making. Their collective voice will then come to life through artistic expression and later presented to the leaders of our country so that there can be more productive communication around education that will lead to positive change!

This is SUCH a valuable opportunity that needs YOUR HELP today! There’s only TEN days left to donate to this amazing cause. Your money will directly fund listening sessions, which have already been requested in over 40 different locations in the US. Please help make this opportunity available for as many students as possible. This is the change we need! 

If you can’t donate at this time, PLEASE share the link with your friends and family! Thank you!

Further suggested reading

1. “To Give Students An Education, Give Them A Voice.” on Cooperative Catalyst

  • Every single sentence of that post spoke volumes to me, and it is definitely worth a read.
  • Some noteworthy quotes:
  1. “Students can no longer be treated as products of a factory line, because industries are no longer interested in pools of homogeneous workers.”
  2. “It’s nearly impossible to bring inspiring academic education to students when their basic human needs are not met. Every human has a need for relationship, trust, communication, and love.”
  3. “How would your high school experience be different if your teachers told you, “I am here to share the lessons I’ve learned so that you don’t have to make the mistakes that I did. You were born to change the world, so let me help you do that.” at the beginning of the school year?”

2. “How Can We Fix Education? Listen To Young People.” on GOOD

  • More on Listening Sessions, by the founders of Imagining Learning! Amazing article, definitely worth the read.
  • Some noteworthy quotes:
  1. “Listening seems a simple act, but it requires a deep caring, a complete absence of agenda, and a delight in hearing from young people. Creating a space for the purity of youth voices to emerge is a sacred act and we should approach it as such.”
  2. We work with teens, ages 13 to 19-years-old, and ask questions based on the word “HOW?”—How would you create a learning journey for yourself and others that you would love? How do you want to learn? How would you make a school no one wants to drop out of?
  3. Indeed, the first thing we usually hear at the end of a Listening Session is, “Thank you for listening, no one ever asks us what we think.”