A version of this story first appeared in the October 2010 issue of Friends Journal
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A Detroit Schoolteachers Notebook
author’s note: This was written over a year ago. I did not get invited back to that school. Was it forgetting to go to the Wal-Mart class? More teacher stories to come! Detroit’s kids are great!
- I’m talking to Friends after Meeting, seeking a word for my experiences teaching in Detroit this year, my 17th year in the system. Roger helps me. Here’s the phrase. “Survival mode.”
- “The students must be so difficult! Detroit must be in such rough shape! No wonder you’re exhausted!” A sympathetic Friend says. No, no, no. It’s not the students, not the city.
- This year, I worked at a consolidated school. That means students are coming from other closed schools in Detroit; Robert Bobb has been appointed by the State of Michigan as our Chief Financial Officer to ‘fix’ the schools. He’s been taken to court this summer, in part, for self-appointing himself as our Chief Academic Officer as well. Does it matter that, according to the Detroit Free Press on July 30, 2010 a Detroit court ruled that it’s not a conflict of interest for 145,000 of his $425,000 salary is being paid by pro-charter foundations?
- This is what I remember of the school year. On the first day, I greeted my first 150 students. For the next six weeks until ‘class leveling’ was complete, their numbers ebbed and flowed until my rolls settled at the legal limit of 175 pupils per teacher. A teacher around the corner had 47 students in one of her classes, many sitting on the floor; waiting. For what? There were no permanent schedules until the school proved to the central administration that these students, spending the first six weeks of their high school careers sitting on floors, needed teachers. Across the hall in the US History class, there were three different teachers during this time. The challenge? How to keep the students from dropping out in the first six weeks of school. We flexed and strained, teaching and trying to keep them convinced, that yes, this is a school, and they are not just cards being shuffled around in a poker game. But aren’t they?
- This is what I remember about high stakes testing. The day before the Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions supplanted my 11th grade American Literature class we were reading The Crucible, by Arthur Miller. A transfer student from New Orleans- the quietest girl in the class was standing on the stage, wearing a long red dress. “I am but God’s finger, John. If he would condemn Elizabeth, she will be condemned.” The class opened up that day, questioning: “Who has the right to judge?” That day I still had 33 out of 37 students attending. But after Kaplan testing took over attendance plummeted. Twenty-five out of the remaining thirty-three finished their eleventh grade year. And no, their test scores did not improve.
- One day there was a lot of noise coming from the auditorium. It’s Wal-Mart having a kick-off rally for their program to give credits towards high school graduation for completing their job-training course. Now we’ll have two well-funded job programs in the school: the United States Army and Wal-Mart. I grew up in Detroit, and I have never forgotten how life looks when you are on foot and uncertain about your future, living in a dystopian cement jungle. The cafeteria milk is slightly sour, altars for the victims of drive-bys decorate the sidewalk, and shuttered and boarded up houses seem to stare at you as you hurry by.
- What happens in the school grows epic in importance. It is the center of the neighborhood. How a person is defined there alters his or her life. Is this how we now define the youth of Detroit? Can we shine a better light on the students’ futures? Does it have to be Wal-Mart and the US Army? The importance of these programs is disproportionate because there are so few other highly visible options. I didn’t take the 11th grade class to the rally. I shut the classroom door and opened up the 11th grade literature book. “You can stay if you want to. This is still a required course for graduation and college admittance.” Two students went to look and see what’s going on. They came back and sat in the back row, opened up their books, and started reading.
- Romeo and Juliet was a big hit. One student made a detailed floor plan of the globe theater. Another gave a mini-lecture about the timeline of Romeo and Juliet, complete with diagrams. A third watched the 1996 Baz Luhrmann version of the film over and over because “he was falling in love with the language, and finally understood the play.” A fourth student wrote ‘a love song, of course!’ A fifth listened to Act Five being read aloud at librivox.org so she could hear it again, again. Then she and her friends made a 30 minute video presentation; complete with costumes. The ninth graders definitely passed their final on Romeo and Juliet, but they didn’t fare as well on their standardized tests. The task of making Shakespeare relevant to ninth-graders whose class average reading level ranged from about 2.5 in the bilingual class to seventh grade in the honors class dictated a choice to me, this year. Do I focus on ‘test skills?’ or content?
- Both. Neither. Reread Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Reread Urban School Awakening’s mission statement…again. “We at Urban School Awakening believe that education can and should be the great equalizer; that regardless of people’s race, gender, or class, they should be provided a quality education that offers them equitable entry into the nation’s power structure. Schools need to be prepared to provide the necessary skills for this to be a reality for all children.”
- The question to be asked then is what is necessary to make this happen? Pray. Read. Rest. Think. Get ready for September. Thanks for holding us in the light.