Re-post: An Open Letter to PennCan and PSP

Teacher and friend Brian Cohen (current drinking martinis and hobnobbing with bigshots in New York City) was kind enough to publish this on his blog.  You should really read his stuff and, if you must, you can read this too.  The following was published during the summer of 2013, as Corbett was denying the schools needed funds and the city was scrambling to come up with $50 million.


I read your letter to the people of Philadelphia.  I agree that we should be happy schools will open, and I like how you opposed pay cuts.  I didn’t like how you neglected your own role in this crisis – how you ran internal polls for Corbett suggesting that he could win votes by attacking teachers’ job security and working conditions.  But it was your call for more teacher voice that really caught my eye.

For the last few years, hard working educators all types of schools have been part of a grand conversation on building a better school.  This conversation has been boundless – online, over beers, in conferences and on the street.  Groups like Teachers Lead Philly and Teacher’s Action Group have been holding seminars for the sole purpose of creating teachers who can and will speak on improving schools.  These are teachers, and they are speaking.

I don’t believe you were listening.  Because you would have read Brian Cohen, a teacher, who has been diligently writing about his students dealing with the tumult in Philadelphia (to which your groups contributed).  Tim Boyle, another teacher, has spent the entire summer explaining that the majority of schools in Philadelphia pick their own teachers – and therefore questioning your motives in making that your cornerstone policy.  I hope you read Dan Ueda’s letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer on how the current crisis, a crisis that you furthered, creates an environment that is hostile to the incredible work he is doing at Central.

So why the call for more teacher voice?  Philadelphia is overflowing with teacher who speak out.  The problem is that you don’t like what they are saying.

Philadelphia teachers do not oppose any and every change to our contract.  There are a lot of ways we can make schools better through changes in how we teach, what we teach, and how we structure our schools.  I see no reason why the adopted hometown of Ben Franklin shouldn’t lead the country in re-modeling education.

Except that you, specifically the Philadelphia School Partnership and PennCAN, collaborated hand in glove with a Governor who has shown nothing but the bitterest contempt for the children and teachers of our city. You made robo-calls (the lowest form of activism) supporting his plan to starve the schools.  When City Council flailed in an attempt to find money and regular people took to a hunger strike and teachers marched in the streets of Harrisburg demanding the government cease using our children as hostages, you sat on your hands.

Your message was crystal clear:  Your students will get what they need after our groups get what we want.  Instead of the great compromiser Ben Franklin, you chose another Philadelphia luminary,  Beenie Sigel. “You can either get down, or you can lay down”.

And now you cheer as the SRC guts the best vehicle for teacher’s voice – our Union.

On August 16th, with virtually no comment, the unelected School Reform Commission gutted teachers’ job security, a move you supported.  In March, the same commission voted, against the will of thousands of teachers, to close 22 schools, again with your blessing.  Teachers spoke adamantly and passionately against these moves – you chose to ignore it.

Curb-stomping teachers’ rights while asking for more input is like pushing someone off a cliff but letting them pick the color of the body-cast.  Here’s your prison cell, feel free to decorate.

Teachers are willing to talk about how we are paid, how schools are run, and how we educate children in the 21st century.  We are not willing to do it with our kids held hostage.   Did you check out  Broad Street on August 22.  Teachers spoke loud and clear that this process, a process you have used or circumvented when it suits your needs, is unacceptable.  And I’m willing to bet they don’t see your groups as a solution.

It’s not The System.  It’s not apathy or lack of grit.  It’s not a biased media.  It’s because we’ve learned that bringing our honest voice to the power centers of education reform ends the same way – at gunpoint.

I know some teachers are going to work with you – you have some good ideas, you employ  some talented people, and most notably you are the only game in town.  But if you want real “teacher voice” then we must have voice on every question, not merely the ones you deem acceptable.  And if you don’t let us in, we’ll find people who will.

It’s not us, it’s you.

One Extra Hour

Teachers are told that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the School District administration are working hard to negotiate a new contract.  But teachers are not allowed to participate.  So “negotiations” is a series where I bargain with the only person who would listen – myself.

[Hite]:  “Most of our teachers already work eight-hour days,” he said. “Most work weekends, holidays and into the evening. … I applaud the teachers for putting in whatever time it takes to make sure students are successful.”

But, he added, “The [teacher] workday is defined as not just standing in front of children, but a time for teachers to develop themselves, collaborate, analyze data, and learn best practices.” The Notebook

Sweet, sweet words.

I like developing my craft.  I originally joined Twitter follow #engchat and #edchat1.  I’m for the intelligent use of data, sharing best practices, and cross-curricular collaboration.  Yes, this is this is a backdoor pay cut which comes on the heels of an actual pay cut, but I’m not horrified.  And in 2013, “not horrified” is pretty good.

 But this is not my first rodeo.  There are some pretty serious household cleaners I would rather imbibe than sitting through 60 minutes of District mandated development.  So, you want an extra hour?  Here are my demands:

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  1. and all the characters from “The West Wing” 

Things I Like – More Authentic Grading

There’s a lot of talk in Education about strategies and ideas “That Work”.  Sadly, these conversations have generally implied two things:  That all other things before have not worked, and that this idea is the one and only answer.  “Things I Like” is simply about thing I use in my room – and I’m always looking to improve

Mr. Kramp was a mentor teacher to me for many reasons, the primary one being we are both hilariously short.  He  taught social studies when I arrived at Robeson.  He had an incredible way of dealing with students – tough but fair, friendly but commanding.  He could rock a Phillies shirt and shorts 5 days a week and still be the most respected guy in the building.

Sadly, Mr. Kramp has left us for an administrative gig1, but I still remember one of his great ideas.  Mr. Kramp started American History with a quiz on the 50 states.  It was a simple as possible – here’s a map, label it.  The catch was a student would earn above an 80% or receive a mandatory make-up (and an F).  That’s it, that’s all.

It’s beautiful in its simplicity.  How can you talk about slavery, he would pontificate, if you don’t understand which states are in the South?  Either you do a great job or you didn’t do well enough – there’s no middle ground.  I loved this because it made so much sense.  “Do great or try again” is the “realest” grading system I’ve seen.  I relate it to students as a driver’s test, a college placement test, or the army physical exam. You can or you can’t – that’s life.

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  1. his responsibilities include ignoring my happy hour invitations 

Not a Joke

I used to tell this story as a joke:

It’s June of 2010, a Thursday, and I see one of my students crying in the office.  I took little notice – when the weather rises above 85 degrees, my school literally beings to bake.  Robeson is straight bricks with a black roof.  There are two points of exit that exist on other sides of the building and every window is “slanted” to open only about ⅓ of the way, even on the second floor.1

If you think of a brick structure with two points of exit ,a whole lot of heat, and assume it’s an oven, you win.

So it’s not surprising that I found a student, Kaila for our purposes, sitting in our deep blue chair, head in her hands.  When it’s hot, kids get upset.  When they get upset, they get into trouble.  When they get into trouble, they end up in the office – one of 3 air-conditioned rooms in the building.

Quietly, with the assumption that any time I had for grading or spending time with my wife would be forfeit, I gave her the customary “Y’arite?”

“I can’t breathe,” she whispered

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  1. I never quite understood what they were trying to prevent. If your school has a problem with people jumping out the window, who decides the best thing to do is fix the window? 

Waller was Right – to #PhillyEducation reporters

On March 13 the School Reform Commission met, heard testimony, and closed 24 schools.  It was supposed to close my school, but then it didn’t.  I was there, I testified, I tried to keep my nerves together.

The meeting was an incredible spectacle, but even more incredible is that the results have sort of drifted away from the public consciousness.  Even in the education sphere, the talk is of the immediate crises.  This is a mistake.

I don’t mean to write for the SRC or the people who supported the Facilities Master Plan (FMP).  This isn’t a call to conscience.  If the people who shuttered two dozen schools were reflective, thoughtful people they wouldn’t have shuttered two dozen schools.

I teach children about language, and I’d like to talk about narrative.

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Small Victories

(If you are an English teacher, or aspiring English Teacher, please stop here.  Go read “Book Love” by Penny Kittle. Follow Meenoo Rami and #Engchat.  You’ll be a better teacher, reader, and dancer.  Do it.)

I’d like to savor a moment of happiness.

Each summer, I go through the process of recklessly re-working my curriculum.  I work myself into a frenzy trying to incorporate all of the pedagogies into my little room:  PBL, PrBL, MakerEd, UbD, Inquiry, etc. 1

And, as usual, I’ve been doing wrong.

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  1. No, Charlotte Danielson, you’re not invited