Thursday, June 19, 2008

The rhetoric of the "broken home"

Last night I went to dinner with friends and almost lost my cool. In all honesty, I did lose my cool but a kinder, saner friend quietly calmed me down so I didn't say something that I couldn't take back. Here's the basic gist of the story.

As we were sitting around the dinner table, somehow we got onto the conversation of charter schools, public education, urban schools, and the conflicts that exist regarding how to reform schools. One of the women at the table started talking about "all the problems that kids from broken homes" have. She noted that it's sad that schools have to deal with all of their emotional issues and that they can't really focus on teaching. She continued on about how that was the biggest problem, and if "we could just fix the kids from the broken homes" everything would be fine.

The subtext here about broken homes is that they are single parent homes probably as a result of divorce or single motherhood. The home is broken, and therefore the kid is broken. There are a couple things that upset me about this. First and foremost is the assumption that homes aren't broken if the parents are married and living together. In some cases, those families are in as much crisis as the ones that the woman I mention above chooses to blame for the problems in education. There can be substance abuse, spousal abuse, child abuse, really unhappy spouses... As a child of one of those broken homes, I can honestly say (and my mother agrees with me) that my father moving out was one of the best things for all of us. It was hard, but believe me, given the home environment was as rough as it was before he left, his departure lifted a very dark cloud.

Secondly, broken homes are homes where mothers are doing it on their own. They act as mother, father, caregiver, and breadwinner. The fact that a woman can keep it all together should be lauded, not labeled to imply it is her fault that her kids have problems. Even more annoying to me about this rhetoric is that people how use the term broken home never use the phrase in conjunction with families in which a parent is absent due to illness, combat service, or death. It's just the single moms who can't keep their men. In fact, one of my best friends is a single parent. HE had been raising his son on his own since the young man was 3. The mom basically abandoned the son, and has had little contact in 15 years. People laud my friend. He is held up as a paragon of parenting. Not to make light of my friend's accomplishments, but can you see the double standard here?

What is really at issue here is a moral judgment that is all-too-often placed on single mothers and their kids. And these moral judgments are made by people who have no idea what a broken home really is, or if they live in one, they are blind to the realities of their own situation. My one friend reminded me of that when he said to me, "Just because there are two parents doesn't mean it's not broken." And he was speaking from his own experience.

I guess what it comes down to is that old idea of walking a mile in another person's shoes. While I think all children should live in homes where there are a number of adults who sharing the in the enormous task of raising them, I know that is rare in today's society. It wasn't much more than 50 years ago, but the evolution of the nuclear family after World War II really changed things. We need to remember that looks can be deceiving.

We need to remind ourselves of that every day.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Summer (almost) in the city

There was this song when I was a kid called Summer in the City that has been running through my head all day long. It's a more or less happy tune, talking about how hot it is during the day, but that if one waits till nighttime there's a lot of fun to be had. The song to which I am referring is by Loving Spoonful. You can still hear it on the oldies station once in a while.

Today was HOT. Even for a woman like me who loves the heat, it was almost too hot for me. But when I think about the implications of the heat wave in which we are in the middle of, there are some real concerns and issues that we need to address when it comes to urban communities. Even before the latest increase in gas and electricity costs, families in urban and impoverished communities suffer in weather extremes a lot more than those who don't. First, we have to remember that dwellings in cities are older. In some cases, they are a lot older. That means that central air is virtually non-existent. Add to that the fact that many of these buildings are not up to code on their wiring, and you have a recipe for disaster in a heat wave. The power goes out, and any one who has air conditioning (and that's not as many as you would think) gets to boil right along side those who don't. With the power out, the elevators don't work. Cooling centers, local supermarkets, libraries, movie theaters... all the places that people go to escape the heat are not viable options.

Other than 75,000 souls who suffered for a few hours today, we did pretty well in the area in terms of power outage. Even so, there is more to consider about the impact of the heat. For people who have serious health issues, the heat we experienced today can be a killer. 97 degree heat (or more) that we had today aggravates asthma, emphysema, heart issues, and a whole host of other health related issues. Couple that with no insurance (which means no primary care doctor who knows your history), and emergency rooms, many of which have been closed in urban centers, cannot handle the overflow. The heat also contributes to capturing smog and ozone, which makes it even harder to breathe. And let's not forget how asphalt and concrete absorbs heat.

Schools, too, suffer with this heat. Newark Public Schools, like many other districts, made the decision to close schools because of the excessive heat. You can read the Newark letter to parents and schools here. I applaud all the districts in the state who made this decision. At the same time, it also gives me pause because I have to wonder about the conditions under which students will be OUTSIDE of school. Will they able to find cool places?

My point in raising this issue is that the heat is one more thing that teachers need to think about as they prepare for teaching and learning. The classroom environment, whether too cold or too hot, will have an impact on student learning. And the last time I checked, humanity can't control the weather. They can really screw with it, but they don't control it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

When good schools fail...

I admit it. It's been a long, but very good three days. I have a lot to think about given all that we've seen in the last few days. First and foremost, I really need to grapple with the idea that good schools can and do fail. I've written about it on Edubabbler. Please take a look. I'm too tired to do all the reposting/crossposting stuff that I should do.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Educating the Whole Child… Not a new idea, but an idea we ought to remember every day

I’m going back to school, to school. I’m going back to school.

For those of you who can identify the LL Cool J song, kudos! I’m sitting here at our first school site, and am struck by a number of things. First of all, it’s the same classroom I took my classes in when I was in elementary school. OK, so it’s not that same school, but it’s got that feel. The 12 inch asbestos tiles on the floor, the chalkboard with the lines on it, the student art work, and the old built-in closets with the paper on the front… it reminds my of my own elementary school. The difference is that my elementary school has been renovated. And there were a lot more books.

The drive into School A (I am calling it that to respect their privacy) was pretty standard for rush hour traffic. I rode in with a colleague and we had the chance to talk about what we saw. We passed a number of other schools, including a few where some of my former students teach. And when we got to the school itself, I was reminded about how strong many of our assumptions can be about urban schools. The school is in a residential neighborhood, on tree-lined streets with some beautiful old houses and gardens. No burnt-out buildings, no stray dogs, no rats, just people going about their day. One older man was out gardening and watering his lawn. He was talking to his neighbor, just like they do in my neighborhood.

What is striking about this visit is not just the pride the teachers have. It’s the pride of the students. We were greeted at the door by a number of young people, all of whom were dressed in blazers. Sitting here now, it’s also very interesting to see what the school focuses on. Their focus is on “educating the whole child.” This in and of itself, is not anything new for me. Most of my own teacher training has referred to the idea that you need to see the whol child in order to teach the whole child. There’s a great Educational Leadership special volume from May 2007 that devotes the entire issue to the ideas of educating the whole child. For those of you with the special MSU access, you can go here. For the rest of you, you get to see the sales pitch from EL here.

One of my favorite bloggers, Teacherken, talks about the importance of teaching to the whole child and references the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), which is the publisher of Educational Leadership. However, he also talks about another publication of ASCD, entitled The Learning Compact Redefined: A Call to Action. It’s a short read, about 36 pages, and I think worth our while. You can read it here (it’s a PDF), and also look at Teacherken’s blog here. As a matter of fact, all of the Education Policy Blog is pretty interesting.

Back to topic at hand. What does it mean to educate the whole child? Who defines what makes up the whole child? What becomes the most important part? It was clear to me during both school visits that the teachers in both schools not only saw the whole child (or adolescent) in every one of their students, they also valued the young person for who she or he was, what she or he brought to the table, and never gave up hope that that child could and would be successful. That’s incredibly powerful in my mind.

What made it particularly interesting to me is how those teachers balanced difference. Many of the teachers were from the community or had a number of years of experience within the community. But that didn’t mean that they shared the experiences of their students. In truth, there are certain things about which they cannot relate. Let’s face it. If you’ve never been homeless, you can’t say that you know what it’s like. But that doesn’t mean that you can be understanding, kind, and fair.

You can also see the community as an ally and a resource, not as an obstacle. One of my good friends and colleagues, Terrie Epstein, does research on how black and white students internalize and come to understand dominant historical narratives. She found, for the most part, that black students tended to rely upon the historical narratives they learned in their home communities rather than those they learned in school. In contrast, white students frequently mirrored the narratives supported by the school. What is going on here? Well, too often, the historical narrative, particularly that in of US History marginalizes the black community because it not only ignores the lived experiences of blacks; it too frequently portrays them as helpless victims or deviants who need to be saved from themselves. So, young black men and women often turn to the more activist narratives of their home communities that counter the hegemonic discourses that exist in many urban classrooms. To toot my own horn, I’ve written about it here. And, in some cases, the communities themselves have a richer narrative in terms of corroborating evidence than the local school texts provide. You can read more of Epstein’s work here and here.

The point is that we need to see our students for who we are and not make them into something they are not yet ready to be. And when we have little in common with our students, we cannot expect them walk in the classroom and intuitively know what they rules of our game are going to be. Instead, as teachers, particularly urban teachers, need to adjust to who our students are. This is not to say that we lower our expectations, or do not demand their best. Rather, we start with where they are, who they are, and go from there.