Category Archives: Essays

Essays on a variety of topics related to teaching and learning.

Countee Cullen (1903-1946)

 “American poet, novelist, critic, and dramatist. Cullen was one of the leading poets of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s. Following the traditional verse forms based in part on the works of John Keats, Cullen is best remembered for his poems treating contemporary racial issues. His first volume of seventy-three poems, Color (1925), won the Harmon Award for high achievement in literature. Among his most notable poems in the volume are ‘The Shroud of Color,’ ‘Heritage,’ ‘Yet Do I Marvel,’ and ‘Incident.’ His other published collections include The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), Copper Sun (1927), The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929) and The Medea and Some Poems (1935). He also edited Carolina Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets (1929). His only novel, One Way to Heaven (1932), was praised for its accurate portrayal of Harlem life. The Lost Zoo (1940) and My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942) are children’s books. Two important works published after his death were On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen (1947), and My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance (1991). 

Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce, ed. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

No

I’m a teacher in a public high school. I will not carry a gun in my classroom.

Black History Month Begins Today

Today is the first day of Black History Month. In my classroom, every month is Black History Month, simply because Black History is American History. Mark’s Text Terminal always observes Black History Month, mainly because the history of the African Diaspora in general, and its salubrious effect on the United States in particular, has always been of keen interest to me.

This year’s Black History Month arrives amidst a social and cultural atmosphere that has become especially ugly. Thanks to nativist loudmouths like Stephen Miller (who, incredibly, holds the position of “senior policy advisor” in the White House) and Steve Bannon, as well as the egotistical, foul-mouthed, and self-pitying “president” of the United States, our nation’s ugly bigotry is right out in the open once more. I suppose that’s a good thing–at least we know our adversaries. But it is unpleasant at best to live with.

Words are words, but the fact is that some police forces around our country appear to have declared open season on citizens of African descent. Personally, I remain bereft of the loss to our country of Trayvon Martin, a victim of the brazenly murderous instincts of a disastrous human being named George Zimmerman, who continues to have scrapes with the law.

For almost 15 years, I have lived in diverse neighborhoods in New York City. For the first seven years I was here, I lived on two different blocks in Harlem–once known as the capital of Black America. Across those seven years, I was treated only with respect by my neighbors. I ask you, rhetorically, this: if a Black man moved into a homogeneously white neighborhood, could he expect similar treatment? I rather doubt it, and that says nothing good about our country.

I continue to live in a diverse neighborhood, and I worry that the Eurocentric rhetoric emanating from the highest reaches of government, as well as the murders committed by police officers around the country, have the potential to poison relations between my neighbors, fellow subway riders, and other people with whom I passively associate here in my adopted city.

So, for Black History Month 2018, every post on Mark’s Text Terminal will be related to the history of citizens of the United States of African descent (which I say understanding that everyone on this planet, in the final analysis, is of African descent; Black History Month refers to more recent arrivals from the continent, mostly, if we are to be honest with ourselves about this, the descendants of people abducted in Africa subjugated into chattel slavery in the Americas). Let’s begin with this Cultural Literacy worksheet on the Black Power Movement. I’m old enough to remember it well, and feel encouraged that we may now be seeing its return, a development I welcome.

For the record, I do understand that my efforts here are mostly inconsequential. The White House has a 24-hour cable news propaganda machine (i.e. Fox News) with global reach, while I have my blog with fifteen views a day.

If you find typos in the Word document on Black Power above, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Inside Our Schools

It’s Friday morning, and I want to go into the weekend touting a worthy website that is the brainchild of a New York City teacher named Brett Gardiner Murphy. She has recently published a book called Inside Our Schools and her work is worth a look.

Elsewhere on this blog I have extolled the virtues of The American Educator, a periodical published by the The American Federation of Teachers. This is the union that represents almost 1.6 million teachers, including those of us here in New York City, under the aegis of the United Federation of Teachers. Unlike the Teamsters Newsletter I received when I was a truck driver and warehouseman (worthy enough, but mostly featuring stories like “Elmer Fudd Celebrates One Million Miles of Safe Driving at Yellow Freight Lines”), The American Educator actually exists to present professional educational research that is genuinely useful to teachers.

Ms. Murphy published an article titled “The Profession Speaks: Educator Perspectives on School Reform” in the Winter 2017-2018 issue of The American Educator. She does a very nice job of explaining the absolute necessity of teachers’ involvement in the discourse surrounding school “reform.” I commend and thank her for her efforts, because she has insight into policy issues, an area of discussion that mostly annoys me because of the overall and overweening ignorance (cf. the basic idiocy of Betsy DeVos) of school reformers; I simply haven’t the patience to try to hold discussions with the aggressively ignorant. Ms. Murphy makes the basic point that when it comes to discussions of school reform, educators have no voice.

She aims to change that, as she spells out in her article, with the website Inside Our Schools. Rather than try to characterize the site, I’ll quote Brett Gardiner Murphy from her article in The American Educator:

“Say what you will about how the Internet has shortened students’ attention spans, it has democratized whose point of view can be heard, including our own. I started a website connected to the book, InsideOurSchools.com, where anyone involved in public schools–teachers, parents, and students–can upload their stories through videos, audio recordings, or written reflections. It’s just one of the many ways we can use our voices in the years ahead.”

Enough said. I urge you to take a look at Ms. Gardiner’s site, and consider buying her book to support her efforts. I bid her Godspeed and best wishes for the future. New York City’s schools are lucky to have her.

 

Mercedes Schneider Channels Betsy DeVos’s Deepest Thoughts

(Mercedes Schneider is one of the most perceptive analysts of educational policy out there, and here she really shows off her many talents while showing us what Betsy DeVos–and arguably the entire administration of Donald Trump–really intends for public schooing in the United States–and why.)

Diane Ravitch's blog

This post is a real tour de force. That means that Mercedes Schneider has managed to say something truly original, which I hope you will read in full.

Betsy DeVos is constantly saying how much she wants the best for every child, how urgent it is to let parents have charter schools, voucher schools, for-profit schools, cybercharters, almost anything but public schools. Despite her protestations, she is contemptuous of public schools and has spent many millions through her American Federation for Children to advance privatization.

So zmercedes uses her post to tell you what Betsy would say if she spoke her mind, without covering up any of her thoughts.

She begins like this.

“First of all, I’d like to thank all of you for coming because I appreciate yet another opportunity to campaign in a manner that ultimately promotes my favorite minority, the one to which I belong: America’s elite…

View original post 287 more words

On “Special Education”

(This is basically a rant I composed at the end of the 2015-2016 school year. I’ve been going through my overflowing drafts folder in an attempt to clean it out and find things I need. I’d planned, when I located this, to trash it. However, on rereading it, I believe it’s worth publishing.)

On Facebook I follow both the National Association of Special Education Teachers and Disability Scoop because they are both excellent sources of professional news, almost all of it research useful for pedagogical practice, for those of us who work with struggling and diverse learners. Disability Scoop posted a story on June 4 of this year on the outrage that ensued over  a brewery in Galt, California, near Sacramento, that its owners named “Special Ed’s.”

Personally and professionally, I avoid playing the outrage market. It is, by definition, volatile. It also, to risk extending this metaphor ad nauseam, tends to return high dividends of annoyance, self-righteousness, and stress, and at best modest dividends of intellectual snobbery. Outrage is the junk bond of public discourse.

So outrage, most of the time, gets us nowhere in discussions of important issues. I don’t mean to say that I have no problems with or objections to Special Ed’s. With marketing slogans like “tard-tested” and “take the short bus to special beer,” the owners of Special Ed’s arguable deserved every syllable of opprobrium and shame to which the public subjected them. Ridiculing the less fortunate, whatever their affliction, isn’t cute, and it is clearly bad business.

But the comeuppance that Special Ed’s earned notwithstanding, this whole story left me even more perplexed about a term I’ve always found troubling, even when I was a public school student myself: “special education.” In all the years I’ve worked with troubled kids and struggling learners, I’ve been ill-at-ease with the term. I’m not sure exactly why this is, but I suspect it is that special education–and I endeavor to be charitable here to the bureaucrats who contrived it–is functionally useless as a term of art. What it says, in my neither humble nor disinterested opinion, is that all students who struggle with learning are the same, i.e. “special.”

And here I divulge my prejudice against the word “special.” To me it is one of class of adjectives that the legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, while still a journeyman writer with several New York City newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s, trenchantly called a “tinsel word.” My own instincts about English usage instruct me that “special” has a relatively narrow definition and range of use.

Yet it doesn’t. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003), the lexicon of choice for Mark’s Text Terminal, gives three definitions of the noun, and five for the adjective. At the top of the adjectives’ meanings in “distinguished by some unusual quality, esp. being in some way superior <our special blend>.”

If you work, or have worked, with “special education” students, and you have sought to divine their potential, chances are you’ve found something–a skill, a method of inquiry, an enthusiasm or obsession, or a way of thinking–that in these students, particularly when compared with their “general” (another revealingly problematic modifier, to be sure) education peers, appears superior. The special education population in schools is, then, by some measures, superior to the general education population.

So it may well be that I take issue with the inherently hierarchical view of our students we commit to when we embrace the opposition between “inferior” and “superior.” Perhaps this reflects my postmodern education and the Foucaultian problematic of binary oppositions. Over the years as I’ve watched troubled and struggling learners, I learned to appreciate that learning takes place along a continuum and is governed by a complex mixture of interest, ability, psychological states on a day-to-day basis, the previous night’s sleep, a child’s relationship with the adults in his or her life, as well as his or her siblings and peers, and willingness to take risks in an environment–the classroom–where struggle, failure and, consequently, alienation occur.

Considering all this, and to risk charge as one of the political correctniks who are destroying America, I believe that the term “special education” carries with it a negative connotation. Certainly the students I serve resent it, and associate it with being “retarded,” (a word that I, along with my fellow purveyors of political correctness would just as soon not hear used as a pejorative), and avoid the term like the plague. The fact is, and I expect that most teachers who work with struggling learners (i.e. “special education students”) have heard objections from their students to this term. Not because they don’t need support in school–but because they would prefer not to bear the stigma of requiring “special education” services.

Diagnostic terms in general tend to reduce human experience and are epistemologically troublesome. At the same time, diagnostic terms supply practitioners with convenient and mostly useful terms for understanding and dealing with complex mental phenomena. I don’t for a moment dispute the utility of diagnostic terms, whatever their epistemological frailties may be.

“Special education” taken as a diagnostic term is not particularly useful to practitioners because it reports so little about a students’ needs. (Aside: from time to time, I entertain the idea of pursuing national board certification in special education, and I have found it interesting that the second benchmark to on the road to this distinction is “Principles of IEP Development.” Infer what you like from that, but to my ears, this is a call to develop precise terms to deal with the learning issues with which our charges arrive at our classroom doors.) There are plenty of reasons to oppose this term, if none other than mitigate the sting of it to our students. However, any teacher who has worked with struggling learners knows all too well that a student who arrives in our classroom with emotional disturbance has different needs than a student who suffers a learning disability. “Special education” fails to do justice to complexities of our jobs, and in any case these kinds of things occur, like autism, along a spectrum–or a continuum if you like. It is preposterous to think that when a school psychologist identifies a student in need of “special education” services that he or she will need the same professional services as the previously or subsequently so-identified student. In other words, the term “special education” with its corrosive connotations in out students’ minds, is epistemologically useless; it beggars precision.

So it’s time to send “special education,” whether or not it is used as a modifier before “student” to the rubbish bin of history. There it can repose with similar misbegotten terms that front for bad ideas about classifying the human condition–for instance phrenology.

So I humbly submit for your consideration some alternative, albeit general, terms to replace “special education.” Once again, I do understand that I risk destroying the American polity with political correctness, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take. For starters, in terms of naming departments, I think “learning support” or “supported learning” as a compound modifier for “department” should replace “special education” posthaste. Some other general terms we might consider for use in our professional discipline might be “delayed processor,” “diverse processor,” “diverse learner,” “struggling learner,” “alienated learner,” “apathetic learner,” and “supported learner.” These are, as I say, general, and of course they are provisional. There would have to be some sort of consensus on adoption of new words to replace “special education.” These terms, I like to think, confer agency on out students in a way “special education” does not. Moreover, bullies, self-conscious struggling students, and brewery owners lose a term of ridicule,

Eventually, teachers working with struggling learners really ought to have something like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which psychiatrists use for diagnostics–but perhaps more concise.

Back at Special Ed’s Brewery, this story concludes on a happy note. After meeting with with several struggling learners and their parents, the owners and proprietors of Special Ed’s, Edward and Cheryl Mason, came to understand why people found the name of their establishment offensive. Subsequently, they changed the name of Special Ed’s to River Rock Brewery. (Incidentally, these aren’t folks without a sense of humor: they arrived at that name because of the number of rocks thrown through the windows of their building in the wake of all this). If I find myself in Galt, California, in Sacramento County, I’ll be sure to stop by the River Rock Brewery for a pint, and I’ll tip my server handsomely.

 

The Education Bloggers Network

Mark’s Text Terminal is now part of  The Education Bloggers Network, about which I am particularly excited. What is the Education Bloggers Network? The Network was founded by Jonathan Pelto, who sent me this conspectus of its mission:

The Education Bloggers Network:

The Education Bloggers Network is an informal confederation of more than 230 bloggers who are dedicated to supporting public education, pushing back the corporate education reform industry and their agenda, while ensuring that the voices of parents, teachers and other educators are part of the national, state and local debate about education policy.

While many members of the Network have their own blogs sites, some write commentary pieces for national, regional and local newspapers while others use their Facebook or other social media platforms to write about education issues.

Like the Committees of Correspondence leading up to America’s War for Independence, education bloggers work alone, in groups and as a collective to educate, persuade and mobilize parents, teachers, education advocates and citizens to stand up and speak out against those who seek to undermine public education, privatize public schools and turn classrooms into little more than Common Core testing factories.

The Education Bloggers Network was developed in conjunction with the publication and roll-out of Diane Ravitch’s best-selling book, “Reign of Error.”    It was founded and is managed by Jonathan Pelto, an education advocate, former member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, communications strategist and education blogger. 

The Education Bloggers Network has become a vibrant community of advocacy journalists, investigative bloggers and public education activists working to make sure that citizens have accurate and timely information about public education issues at the local, state and federal level.

I thank Jonathan Pelto for extending an invitation to join this distinguished group of scholars, educators, journalists, writers and activists.