The National Education Association, the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. The blog provides news and features from the National Education Association.
West Virginia educators stood united this week in a statewide two-day strike that closed schools in all 55 school districts, and brought an estimated 6,000 teachers and education support professionals to the state Capitol to rally outside lawmakers’ offices.
“The anger is out there,” said West Virginia Education Association Dale Lee. “When thousands of people show up and say, ‘this is not enough and these are the things that need to be fixed,’ we hope they’ll listen… I can’t talk enough about how our teachers and our education support professionals are stepping up to make their voices heard.”
After decades of neglect by state officials and endless empty promises to take care of educators, West Virginia’s teachers and education support professionals have reached the breaking point. For as long as anybody can remember, too many qualified, experienced teachers have been forced to leave West Virginia’s schools and students to find adequate pay and health benefits across the state lines. Meanwhile, state lawmakers continue to opt to cut taxes for businesses, rather than invest in educators and education.
“The mass exodus from teaching is not because of the long hours. It is not because of lack of passion. It is not even because of challenging environments. The exodus is because our state has decided its priorities lie elsewhere. Teachers are forced out because we can’t afford to teach. It is time to step up for West Virginia teachers and support employees!” said Webster County high school science teacher Casey Compton.
The two-day strike and rallies on Thursday and Friday, which were attended by NEA Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss, followed an energetic pre-strike rally in Charleston last Saturday that involved thousands of students, parents, and educators, including NEA Vice President Becky Pringle.
“By walking out, walking in, rallying, and filling the state capitol, educators are making it abundantly clear that they expect to be treated with respect and dignity,” wrote NEA President Lily Eskelsen García to Lee. “I am proud that our members are refusing to sit silently by while lawmakers attempt to inflict further damage on the future of public education in West Virginia.”
In 1990, the last time that West Virginia teachers went on a large-scale strike, their pay ranked 49th in the nation. Nearly 30 years later, it ranks 48th, according to NEA Rankings & Estimates. Even as West Virginia lawmakers pay lip service to the importance of public education, teachers can earn $20,000 more a year, just by driving across the state border.
“Young people are leaving West Virginia like a gushing wound,” said Allyson Perry, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Barrackville Elementary School.
Over the years, state officials have promised to pay attention to these problems. But they have not—and anger has steadily risen as educators are forced to work two or three extra jobs to pay their bills, or commute long distances to communities in Maryland and Ohio to earn a living wage. In February, WVEA members in four counties walked out. Last week, union members in four additional counties followed.
“I love teaching. I love meshing my passion for science and my passion for helping others. I love our kids. I will gladly take the workload home. Take the kids home. Take their problems home. And I pray over all of the, for safety, for health, for life. That is why I am here,” said Compton. “I am here because my desire is to continue living in West Virginia and serving the children who live here, and to continue in the profession I love.”
On late Wednesday, as this week’s strike loomed, Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed legislation to provide 2 percent salary increases to teachers this year, followed by 1 percent in 2019 and 1 percent in 2020. He also agreed to freeze PEIA premiums this year. None of this provides a long-term solution, or signals a new priority on public education, educators point out.
Even as Justice and other lawmakers seek to appease educators with a short-term band-aid, this year’s legislative agenda reveals what they really think about public education and educators. Much of their energy has been dedicated to pursuing an additional $140 million business tax break. That’s lot of money that could be invested in public schools, WVEA leaders point out.
Other bills under consideration this spring aim to weaken WVEA and educators’ voice in their working conditions. One would make it more difficult for the unions to collect their members’ dues dollars. Another would reduce pension benefits for educators who serve as full-time release union presidents.
There’s a new face on the age-old gun debate: our students, and they won’t be silenced. They are demanding that the adults in power keep them safe and they will not stand by and allow elected officials to fail them any longer.
As of Feb. 14, just a month and a half into the new year, a total of 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in shootings at American elementary, middle, and high schools. Only weeks earlier at Marshall County High School in Kentucky two students were killed by a 15-year old shooter who left fourteen others wounded and all traumatized perhaps for the rest of their lives.
A gunman killed ten at Umpqua Community College in Washington state. Twenty-eight young children and their teachers had their lives cut short down at Sandy Hook. Thirty-three died when one shooter opened fire at Virginia Tech.
Students are saying, no more. This time, they might be right.
“We are going to be the last mass shooting,” Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez shouted at a packed rally in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday. “We are going to change the laws.”
‘Stand Up For What You Believe In’
The rally participants called for a ban on assault weapons like the one used at the high school, and to vote out any lawmaker who opposes a ban on assault weapons or who takes money from the National Rifle Association.
Wiping away tears, she said school violence is not just a mental health issue. “He wouldn’t have harmed that many students with a knife,” she cried to shouts and cheers.
“When our message doesn’t reach the ears of the nation, we call B.S.! They say tougher gun laws don’t decrease gun violence, we call B.S.! They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun, we call B.S.!”
With her powerful voice shaking with emotion and the crowd shouting with approval, Gonzalez said, “Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This is about guns and this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.”
David Hogg, 17, huddled in a closet with his classmates to hide from the gunman. A student journalist, he decided to record his terrified classmates on his phone.
“It was sheer terror,” Hogg told CNN, but he believed it needed to be recorded so that lawmakers could hear the horrified students and understand the need to prevent another mass shooting.
“It’s a midterm year and it’s time to take action,” Hogg said. “I don’t care if you’re a Democrat. I don’t care if you’re a Republican. Stand up for what you believe in. Let’s make some compromises and save some children’s lives.”
Florida student to NRA and Trump: 'We call BS' - YouTube
The Mass Shooting Generation
School shootings are rare for most of our students, but since the 1999 Columbine shooting, they have become accustomed to lockdowns and code red drills. School violence occurs often enough that the New York Times is calling today’s young people the “Mass Shooting Generation.”
They’re also a social media generation and harnessed that power to bring about change. In the hours following the massacre, the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting created #NeverAgain, a movement that immediately gained traction in social and traditional media, sparking tv interviews, viral videos, a march, and support from celebrities.
Brendan Duff, a college student who went to school at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, returned home to help manage the digital campaign. He told NPR that the response has been overwhelming, with hundreds of messages per minute pouring in.
“People all over the country want to help. Social media is honestly the best way to reach not only everyone in this country I think, but definitely this generation,” Duff told NPR.
Organizing for School and Student Safety
Nationwide, students and activists have joined their rallying cry and have organized two upcoming events — the National School Walkout on March 14 and the March for Our Lives on March 24. NEA will also participate in another event, a National Day of Action on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting.
March 14th – the Women’s March has announced a National School Walkout in which school communities will walk out of their schools for 17 minutes to honor the lives lost in Parkland. NEA will join with AFT in encouraging educators throughout the country to wear orange on this day.
March 24th – Several students who survived the tragedy at Parkland have called for a student-led march and protest. They will travel to Washington, DC, and meet with politicians on the need to address gun violence and are encouraging others to join. This is a fully student-planned march. More information can be found at marchforourlives.com
April 20 – NEA and its members are joining with the National Public Education Network, American Federation of Teachers, Moms Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, and other national organizations, to take action against gun violence on April 20 together in a way that sends a strong message to policy makers that #enoughisenough.
“We demand a plan that will keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Only the United States has such a long, long, long list of mass public murders by a lone gunman. The reason is simple. Our laws allow dangerous people to easily purchase military-style, rapid-fire assault weapons. That’s the only difference. That’s what we need to fix. Thoughts and prayers will not prevent the next tragedy. People rising up will.”
Educators across the country have been advocating for smaller class sizes for more than a decade because, as research has continually shown, class size is a key determinant of student outcomes. So when a state legislature actually passes a bill mandating smaller class sizes in every K-3 classroom in every district, that might be welcome news.
But if that requirement doesn’t attach the necessary funding and imposes an inflexible timeline, the result – as educators in North Carolina can tell you – is nothing but chaos.
In spring 2016, the GOP-led General Assembly slipped a provision into a state budget bill that lowered maximum K-3 class sizes from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students, depending on the grade level. So far so good. But the new policy was slated to go into effect in the 2017-18 school year, giving districts precious little time to implement the mandate.
And the necessary funding to hire new staff and build new classrooms? That was nowhere to be found.
According to an analysis by the North Carolina Justice Center, fully-funding the necessary increase in staff (4,375 new teachers) would cost $304 million statewide – not to mention the additional tens of millions of dollars for new classroom construction.
Why would they do this? It makes sense when you couple this move with the push to privatize public education in the state. This is about creating chaos and disruption in our public schools, to make them look less desirable to parents” – Todd Warren, Guilford County Association of Educators
It was an unfunded mandate, said Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), and compliance would force districts to make deep cuts to programs and staff. “That’s what we call a false choice,” said Jewell.
Lobbying from NCAE was instrumental in persuading the General Assembly to delay the mandate until 2018-19, but once again no additional funding was allocated. With the deadline looming, districts spent the better part of the school year scrambling to come up with plans to defray the costs and comply with the mandate.
To help pay for new teachers, districts were faced with placing so-called “enhancement” positions – arts, music, physical education, and technology teachers – on the chopping block. Without the money or time for new classroom construction, schools would have to resort to trailers or other temporary classrooms, including locker rooms or cafeterias to house students. Another option was packing more students into grade 4-8 classrooms to free up more teachers for K-3.
“The plan really threw us into budgetary and logistical chaos at the local level,” says Todd Warren, a Spanish teacher in Guilford County, the third-largest district in North Carolina.
Just a case of lawmakers oblivious to the consequences of unleashing an unfunded mandate on a school system already wreaked by budget cuts? Not likely, says Warren, who is also president of the Guilford County Association of Educators.
“Why would they do this? It makes sense when you couple this move with the push to privatize public education in the state,” explains Warren. “This is about creating chaos and disruption in our public schools, to make them look less desirable to parents who may be looking at that charter school down the street as an alternative.”
Setting Public Schools On Fire
The past seven years in North Carolina, says Kris Nordstrom of the North Carolina Justice Center, have seen the steady deterioration of the state’s reputation for academic excellence.
“It’s been dominated by a series of not just bad policies, but bad policies that are incredibly poorly crafted,” explains Nordstrom. “Nearly all initiatives were moved through the legislature in a way to avoid debate and outside input from education stakeholders. The result has been stagnant student performance and increased achievement gaps.”
According to the 2018 Quality Counts Report Card released in January by Education Week, the state has dropped to 40th in the nation. As recently as 2011, North Carolina ranked 19th, the same year Republicans took control of the state legislature and proceeded to slash education spending (per-pupil funding has plummeted to 43rd, $3,000 below the national average), promoted unaccountable charter schools and school voucher programs, and eliminated due-process rights for teachers.
In 2017, the General Assembly passed another around of tax cuts, reducing the corporate income tax rate from 3 percent to 2.5 percent – $100 million in revenue that could have been allocated to help schools adjust to smaller class sizes.
Against this backdrop, it’s difficult to believe lawmakers were merely blindsided by the “unintended circumstances” of an unfunded mandate.
“They’re just being more stealth in the way they create dissatisfaction with our public schools,” says Michelle Burton, a library media specialist in Durham County. “Who doesn’t want smaller class sizes, right? But they’re just using a common sense position to cloud what was an unfunded mandate that was going to cause disruption and result in a lot of teachers losing their jobs.”
Burton is particularly outraged at the term “enhancement positions” to describe arts, music, and physical education teachers.
Since the passage of the unfunded class size mandate in 2016, educators and parents in North Carolina have kept up the pressure on lawmakers to reverse course.
“Calling those key positions ‘enhancements’ makes them easier to cut. They’re trying to make them somehow dispensable. But we know how important they are to a well-rounded education,” Burton says.
On a brutally cold Saturday afternoon in January, Burton joined roughly 300 educators and parents at a rally in Raleigh, organized by NCAE and parent advocacy groups, to pressure the General Assembly to act. Public school advocates across the state joined the mobilization against the mandate, signing petitions, talking to lawmakers, and taking to social media to #StopClassSizeChaos.
Educators had an ally in Gov. Roy Cooper, who called the mandate “artificial class size change—one that shrinks classes on paper but in reality hurts students and teachers.”
“The pushback from NCAE and parent groups has been effective,” says Warren. ” I think some of the legislators began getting nervous about their prospects in the 2018 election if they didn’t address the concerns.”
Amid the mounting outrage, lawmakers, who had hoped to delay action until May, called a special session in early February to try to undo the mess they created.
“This body set fire to our public schools and now we are the firefighters,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, who opposed the mandate.
Breathing Room – For Now
On February 8, lawmakers announced a proposal to phase-in smaller class sizes over the next four years instead of lowering them at once in 2018-19. During that time, $61 million a year will be included to help school districts pay for art, music, and physical education teachers.
NCAE President Mark Jewell called the revision a step in the right direction that would, at least for the time being, allow schools to breathe a little easier.
“The phased-in plan has always been the more reasonable approach for local school districts, but whether the resources are adequate is still a question mark,” Jewell cautioned. “This doesn’t address the other class size challenges in higher grades, and it doesn’t provide funding for much-needed school construction, which many local districts will find a significant challenge.”
Jewell says any plan to reduce class size needs to be strategic, fully-funded, and involve educators at every step of the process. The issue is too important to be done haphazardly. “Class size affects all levels of the public education spectrum,” he said.
Although North Carolina’s public schools are still facing a largely unfunded mandate, Todd Warren believes the mobilization by educators and parents was critical in staving off the chaos that was on the verge of engulfing the entire system.
“Parents, teachers, NCAE, PTAs, and advocacy groups forced the General Assembly to take action that they otherwise would not have. Our organizing relationships and infrastructure are responding and growing more effective,” says Warren. “We’ll keep working and redoubling our efforts.”
It is no accident that more and more Americans are struggling to get ahead and provide economic stability for their families. For too long, corporate special interests and politicians who do their bidding have rigged the economy against working people – educators, nurses, firefighters, sanitation workers and other public service employees – to favor the wealthy and powerful.
Now those same special interests have brought a court case to divide and limit unions members’ collective bargaining power. Janus v. AFSCME, now before the U.S. Supreme Court, threatens working people’s rights and freedom to join together in strong unions. It is part of a multi-year, multi-million effort to rig the economy in their benefit—at the expense of the middle class and our communities.
When unions are strong, our communities are strong. They provide a path to the middle class and economic security, especially for women and people of color. Unions have helped build great public schools for students. Collective bargaining ensures educators can advocate for small class sizes, guaranteed recess, modern textbooks, and the technology that students need to succeed.
What is this case really about?
Janus v. AFSCME aims to take away the freedom of – and opportunity for – working people to join together in strong unions to speak up for themselves, their families and their communities. When educators, nurses, police officers, firefighters and other public service workers are free to come together in strong unions, they win benefits like collective bargaining, better working conditions, better wages, health care, clean and safe environments and retirement security. But the CEOs and corporate special interests behind this case simply do not believe that working people should have the same freedoms and opportunities as they do: to negotiate a fair return on our work so that we can provide for ourselves and our families. They are funding this case through the so-called National Right to Work Foundation because they view strong unions as a threat to their power and greed.
What is the real impact of this case?
When working people have the freedom and opportunity to speak up together through unions, we make progress together that benefits everyone. If the billionaires and corporate CEOs behind this case get their way, however, they will take away the freedom of working people to come together and build power to fight for the things our communities need: everything from affordable health care and retirement security to quicker medical emergency response times and smaller class sizes in our schools. The CEOs and billionaires want to use the highest court in the land to take away our freedom to create the power in numbers to win better lives for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our country.
What have people in unions won for all of us?
People in unions continue to win rights, benefits and protections not only for union members, but for all working people and their communities in and outside of the workplace. When nurses, firefighters, 911 dispatchers, and EMS workers belong to strong unions, they fight for staffing levels, equipment and training that save lives. When educators come together in strong unions, they can ensure small class sizes, guaranteed recess, modern textbooks and the technology that students need to succeed.
When union membership is high, entire communities enjoy wages that represent a fair return on their work and greater social and economic mobility. Without the freedom to come together, working people would not have the power in numbers they need to make our communities safer, stronger and more prosperous.
Who is behind this case?
The National Right to Work Foundation is part of a network funded by corporate billionaires to use the courts to rig the rules against everyday working people. For decades, the corporate CEOs and billionaires funding this case have used their massive fortunes to pay politicians and corporate lobbyists to chip away at the freedoms people in unions have won for every single one of us. Now they want the highest court in the land to take away our freedom to come together to protect things our families need: a living wage, retirement security, health benefits, the ability to care for loved ones and more.
Where did this case come from?
This case originated from a political scheme by billionaire Bruce Rauner, Governor of Illinois, to take away freedom and opportunity from working people to join together in strong unions so that he could advance an agenda benefiting corporations and the wealthy. Rauner launched a political attack on public service workers immediately after taking office, filing a lawsuit on his own behalf to bar the collection of fair share fees by public service unions. A federal judge ruled that Rauner could not bring this action because he was not himself an employee paying fair share fees. But the legal arms of the National Right to Work Committee and the Liberty Justice Center were able to carry the case forward by planting plaintiffs as stand-ins for Rauner in the federal lawsuit. The district court dismissed the case, based on long-standing precedent. The plaintiffs asked the lower court to fast-track their appeal and rule against them in order to more quickly get the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
How is this case different from Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association?
Both cases deal with the same issues. Because Friedrichs was decided by a 4-4 decision after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the lower court’s decision went into effect and fair share fees were upheld. Having failed, the National Right to Work Coalition then backed the Janus case to try and limit working Americans’ freedom to join a strong union.
What are fair share fees and why are they important?
Unions work because we all pay our fair share and we all benefit from what we negotiate together. That’s how we have the power in numbers to make progress that benefits everyone. Corporate CEOs don’t want working people to have that power; that’s what this case is all about.
Is anyone ever forced to join a union or pay for politics?
No. The simple truth is that no one is forced to join a union and no one is forced to pay any fees that go to politics or political candidates. That is already the law of the land. Nothing in this case will change that. This case is about taking away the freedom of working people to come together, speak up for each other and build a better life for themselves and their families.
What is the Working People’s Day of Action?
Thousands of union members and supporters will gather on Saturday, February 24 in cities across the country to demand an end to the rigged system and those who seek to divide and silence us. We will stand shoulder to shoulder uniting for freedom — for men and women, for immigrants and native-born Americans, for people of every race, religion and sexual orientation.
PARKLAND, FL – FEBRUARY 14: People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
In the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook, 17 people were killed and another 16 injured after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire with an AR-15 rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
The shooter pulled a fire alarm but another alarm had gone off earlier in the day for a drill.
The school had recently held an active shooter training.
“We could not have been more prepared for this situation,” Melissa Falkowski, a teacher at the school who hid with 19 students in a closet during the rampage, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “We did everything that we were supposed to do. Broward County Schools has prepared us for this situation and still to have so many casualties, at least for me, it’s very emotional. Because I feel today like our government, our country has failed us and failed our kids and didn’t keep us safe.”
Those who died included students and adults, including two NEA educators. Parkland, with a population of 31,000 in 2016, was named Florida’s safest city last year, according to one analysis. The south Florida city had seven reported violent crimes and 186 property crimes the previous year, the analysis said.
“Our hearts are broken yet again by the senseless and tragic shooting in our nation’s public schools, this time in Parkland, Florida. We are monitoring closely the still developing and tense situation, but we have confidence in the ability of the first responders and the school staff and administrators to help students and families at this time,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, who will be visiting with school staff and Florida Education Association members today. “While our thoughts and prayers are with Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, educators and their families, we know that we, as country, need to do more to end these senseless shootings.
“As educators, our foremost priority is to ensure the safety and well-being of all of our students. Our focus now is on supporting the educators, students and their families in the Broward County community today and in the future. We all have a responsibility to create safe schools and communities. As a state and a country, we can and must do more to ensure that everyone who walks through our school doors — educator, student, parent or community member — is safe and free from violence.”
Entering middle school as the new kid is hard, but for Auggie Pullman, the main character in the best-selling middle grade novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio, it’s downright terrifying. Auggie has Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare craniofacial disorder that causes major malformations of the face.
Vermont educator and NEA member Sam Drazin was born with the same disorder and had to have seven surgeries on his face while he was in school.
He was struck by the similarities between his and Auggie’s experiences. “It was like I was reading about my own childhood,” he says. But it was the book’s message of acceptance and kindness that prompted Drazin to create a presentation for his school to raise awareness about disabilities and creating a culture of acceptance.
The presentation, “Bringing Wonder to Life,” was so popular he was soon asked to speak at more than 30 schools throughout New England. In 2014, he founded the nonprofit Changing Perspectives to provide disability awareness programming to schools nationwide.
NEA Today sat down with Drazin to talk about his curriculum and messages of inclusion and acceptance.
How did you decide to broaden your presentation into an entire curriculum?
Sam Drazin: I realized that “one and done” wasn’t enough. My school had developed a disability awareness day where we had simulation stations so students could experience what it’s like to have different disabilities. We had a lot of community involvement and a variety of guest speakers and our students were really engaged around the concept of disability – what it is and what it means. Between my resenting about the book Wonder and the one day awareness event, there was a huge amount of positive feedback and a real desire from teachers to have more resources about the issue.
Can you describe the Changing Perspectives curriculum? Can it be accessed online?
SD:There are three levels of disability awareness programing. The early learning and Pre-K curriculum focuses on empathy and using kind language. After that, the K-8 curriculm becomes disability focused and is align to the eight disability categories outlined in IDEA and represent both visible and invisible disabilities. The categories include Autism Spectrum Disorders, Cognitive Differences, Hearing Loss/Deafness, Learning Disabilities, Physical Disabilities, Social/Emotional Impairments, Speech/Language Disabilities, and Visual Impairments. The high school curriculum looks at disability from a societal and historical lens and promotes ways for students to take action to make their schools more inclusive. There a lot of resources that educators can pick and choose from to customize the program to make it most relevant.
When we encounter others with disabilities, we tell kids not to stare. Is there a better message to convey?
SD: One of the reasons this work is so important is that we are trying to be a seed for social change and have a ripple effect. Our society has a “shush, shush, don’t talk about it” approach, but intolerance is the result of ignorance. We need to shift out thinking and mentality. We need to acknowledge that kids are curious and to move beyond our own discomfort and vulnerability.
If you’re in the grocery store and your child is looking, it’s OK to not say anything in that moment, but when you get in the car you could say, “Hey did you notice that man in the wheelchair” or whatever the difference was. If the child says it was weird or scary, don’t try to change their language, just affirm that what you saw was different and unexpected. Start the conversation.
However, one thing I talk to kids about is that it’s natural to stare – we are naturally curious – but people notice when you are staring at them even if you think they don’t. It’s much better to acknowledge people with a smile and a nod or a wave.
Can you explain how being ignored is as hurtful as being bullied?
SD: There is a lot of work right now around the issue of social isolation. Kids who feel invisible, who fly under the radar, are often suffering silently. Sometimes the quietest kids are those who are crying out for help the most. Isolation can pull you down into yourself so far that it’s very hard to pull out. You can withdraw from everyone and everything and it can become a pattern for life.
When I was in high school and feeling isolated, I fortunately started babysitting. I’d go all day with nobody talking to me but when I walked into the door of those kids’ houses, they’d run and tackle me they were so excited to see me. They didn’t care what I looked like. I realized than that young kids are naturally accepting. All kids see differences, but it’s not until maybe fourth to seventh grade that they start to react. It’s a pivotal time. We need to start raising awareness about acceptance of differences when kids are younger.
Why are kids with disabilities ignored? How can we change that?
SD: When we think about our educational model too often special education students come into classrooms for a shot while and then they are whisked out of class. They automatically feel ashamed for their differences and students don’t have a space to talk about them. We need to become more comfortable with differences. We need to feel safe asking questions and move aware from a “look away” culture. Once teachers open doorways to conversations about disabilities, kids want to ask questions and they want to share. Students with disabilities gain confidence and self-advocacy skills when they are in a classroom where the teacher says let’s talk about it. It becomes cool to be different. Everyone begins to share what makes them different and lifts the pressure to just fit in. The conversations are so rich. You see how hungry students are for information. They want to learn. Intolerance is result of ignorance, so we need to open up and have those conversations.
What are invisible differences kids have that they are afraid won’t be accepted?
SD: Social and emotional disabilities or effects of trauma are differences you can’t see and are harder for peers to empathize with. It’s easier to be naturally empathetic for a classmate who has to use a wheelchair than for the classmate who has explosive behavior as the result of trauma or might behave differently because they are on the autism spectrum. Again, talking about raises awareness and increases tolerance and understanding.
Why has the book Wonder and a curriculum about disability and differences awareness resonated with so many educators?
SD: In our current situation in our country and around the world people are becoming more attuned to the value of empathy and kindness. In the 21st century where information is instantly available, what skills do you need? You need to communicate with others, collaborate with others, network. Not just with the person who lives next door to you or in your town, but with someone who could be across the country or from across the world. Now more than ever before we see the value of choosing kindness and how easily our systems fall out of place when we don’t.
If you loved Wonder by R.J. Palacio, here are more middle grade titles featuring children facing personal challenges or struggling with their identity:
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2015)
Sixth grader Ally is good at math and a creative artist, but thinks poorly of herself because she has trouble with reading. Ally’s new teacher helps her understand that everybody is smart in different ways.
Restart by Gordon Korman (Scholastic, 2017)
Chase Ambrose doesn’t know who he is. The eighth-grade football captain fell off a roof and the resulting head injury erased his memory. Back at school, he comes to realize that he was a bully who’d done a lot of harm. Chase has a chance to start again, but others must also accept that he has changed.
The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Puffin Books, 2016)
Thanks to her club foot and abusive mother, Ada’s entire world is her one-room London apartment. When her younger brother is evacuated to the countryside during World War II, Ada sneaks away with him and learns how to move her life forward.
Books recommended by reading and literacy specialist Rachael Walker.
The 2018 Salute to Excellence in Education Gala, held on February 9th in Washington, D.C., was a celebration of the power of innovation, artistry, and teacher leadership.
The event, often called the Academy Awards for Educators, was hosted by Debbie Allen, acclaimed actress, dancer, director, choreographer, and executive producer and was held at the city’s National Building Museum.
“The National Building Museum is a spectacular place that matches the greatness of our educators and teachers,” said Harriet Sanford, NEA Foundation President & CEO. “We think they’re exceptional and are glad to honor them in the right place.”
Bobbie Cavnar received the evening’s top honor, the NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence with an award of $25,000. Cavnar, a 12th grade language arts educator at South Point High School in Belmont, NC, whose classroom is designed like a Victorian library where students feel warm and inviting. “It pulls them in and right away they know that this is a place to think.”
Cavnar prides himself on the fact that he not only teaches by the book but also teaches students to have empathy with each other. “By teaching empathy in a world of numbers and data, metal and machines, we can make schools a garden of kindness, humanity, and hope,” said Cavnar.
Student, Robert Mageau explains that “Learning is very fun in Mr. Cavnar’s class and it’s never a dull moment when he’s around.” Robert Mageau.
Video: Bobbie Cavnar, 2018 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence Recipient
NEAF BOBBIE MS004 0109 2 - YouTube
During his acceptance speech, Cavnar told the audience that “I’m certainly not the best teacher in this room but I want to tell you how thankful I am to get to be the one who is raised up to represent what’s best about teaching. The strength of public schools has always been and will continue to be that they are public. Now more than ever we need empathy. We’re at a turning point and we must decide what ‘we’ means. Who we are as Americans and who we are as public schools.”
”You must be carefully taught to hate.” Cavnar continued. “Children don’t hate. But once you are taught to hate there’s only one way to learn to love and that is to be carefully taught to love. The way we do that is through public education freely given and offered to all equally.”
Tia Mills, a teacher at Eden Park Academy of Ethics and Excellence in Baton Rouge, LA, was recognized for her community service.
“Tia is the consummate teacher, the consummate leader, and community activist.” Debbie Meaux, President of the Louisiana Assoc. for Educators.
Revathi Balakrishan, an educator at Patsy Sommer Elementary school in Austin, TX, challenges her students to learn at their highest ability while giving them the confidence to take on the challenges.
“I think a teacher is the single most important factor in learning. A good teacher helps you develop that curiosity, and helps you appreciate learning,” Balakrishan said.
Afreen Gootee is a middle school math and social studies educator at the Georgetown School in Mechanicsville, VA. who was recognized for her work with special needs students.
“She was very motivational,” said former student Skylar Brown. “When I was upset she would always talk to me and that really helped me with my middle school years. That’s also why I still to this day enjoy talking to her.”
Crystal May, a fourth grade educator at Pray-Woodman Elementary School in Maize, KS, was also honored. May experiments with classroom design to engage her students. She offers a variety of seating options for her students to choose from and she focuses on small group teaching. “When you’re sitting at your table and asking a question she looks at you and pays full attention,” said student Brendan Uttinger.
The NEA Foundation also recognized the American Indian College Fund for their work to support Native American students on the path to college graduation, changing outcomes not only for individuals but also for communities. The American Indian College Fund received the First National Bank of Omaha Award for Outstanding Service to Public Education.
Idaho’s snowy mountains might be more green than white this winter, and its high-elevation trout streams may be growing too warm for cold-water species, but state lawmakers are working to make sure Idaho students won’t learn why.
This week, an Idaho House education committee voted—for the second time—to strip any mention of climate change from K12 science standards, despite overwhelming public support for standards that would teach students what scientists know to be true. With that, Idaho stands alone as the only state in the nation to utterly erase climate change from its classroom guidelines.
“I am confused—and concerned—at how they could turn a blind eye to so much public testimony,” said Coeur d’Alene science teacher Jamie Esler, who was a member of a statewide committee of teachers, parents, and scientists who developed the standards rejected by state House lawmakers on Wednesday. “If lawmakers are elected to represent the people who put them there, and they receive overwhelming communication from those people, this should not be a hard decision for them!”
What’s happening in Idaho is a good example of how climate change has become an identity issue, or a proxy for describing who you are, in terms of politics or moral beliefs. “These issues can be a way that communities describe themselves, to create borders between insiders and outsiders,” said Emily Schoerning, director of community organizing and research at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).
Even as 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is happening, and that it’s caused mostly by human activities, only about 30 percent of Republicans in the U.S. say they agree, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. In Idaho specifically, about 25 percent of Republicans say it’s mostly human caused.
The stage for Wednesday’s vote was set last year when Idaho lawmakers adopted a temporary set of science standards to replace their decade-old standards. (Standards are grade-level benchmarks or skills that students are expected to learn each year.) Although the standards approved in 2017 originally included of mentions human-caused climate change, lawmakers stripped every reference to climate change from the standards before approving them.
This year, the standards committee submitted a revised set of standards, which responded to lawmakers’ concerns. (For example, the revised standards say that, alongside human actions, “natural causes” also drive climate change.) While some science advocates called them watered down, Esler calls the revised standards realistic, given the political landscape in Idaho.
“Given the tight spot we’re in, we did the best we could,” he said. “The revisions maintain integrity around the science of climate, and I’m confident they would enable teaching of human-caused climate change.”
In recent weeks, 1,000 Idahoans wrote to the state Department of Education, which invited public feedback around the revised standards, and 995 of them urged adoption, state education officials told Idaho Education News. Additionally, during two days of public hearings in Boise last week, every one of 28 educators, parents, and students who spoke asked lawmakers to pass the revised standards in their entirety.
And yet, this week, despite the public outcry, in a vote that fell largely along party lines, the committee once again excised any mention of climate change from the revised standards. One Republican joined the committee’s Democrats in defeat, saying he wanted to support the teachers who spent about 1,000 hours writing the new standards. But the Republican lawmaker who led the anti-climate change efforts said he found the standards around climate change to be too “leading.”
He told the Idaho Spokesman-Review last week, ““I don’t care if the students come up with a conclusion that the earth is flat – as long as it’s their conclusion, not something that’s told to them.”
“Current scientific models indicate that human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustion, are the primary factors in the measured rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature.”
“Examples of environmental effects could include negative biological impacts of wind turbines, erosion due to deforestation, loss of habitat due to dams, loss of habitat due to surface mining, and air pollution from burning of fossil fuels.”
Seventeen-year-old high school student Emily Her was one of the speakers in this week’s public hearings. In a subsequent email to the New York Times, she said, “The lack of these science standards is really just the deliberate censorship of facts.” Later, she added, “This is our future, and it’s in their hands.”
Only 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, according to a new report released by the Teaching Tolerance Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Teaching Tolerance surveyed U.S. high school seniors and social studies teachers, analyzed a selection of state content standards, and reviewed 10 popular U.S. history textbooks to evaluate how slavey – the nation’s “original sin” – was being taught in the nation’s schools.
The verdict: “It’s clear that the United States is still struggling with how to talk about the history of slavery and its aftermath.”
The findings are troubling, says Teaching Tolerance Director Maureen Costello, because “learning about slavery is essential for us to bridge the racial differences that continue to divide our nation.”
“Schools must do a better job of teaching American slavery and all the ways it continues to impact American society, including poverty rates, mass incarceration and education,” said Costello, a former history teacher. “This report places an urgent call on educators, curriculum writers and policy makers to confront the harsh realities of slavery and racial injustice.”
As part of the study, Teaching Tolerance administered a multiple choice survey to 1,000 high school students. The results revealed a disturbing lack of knowledge about the basic facts surrounding slavery. In addition to being unable to correctly cite slavery as the central cause of the Civil War (almost half of the respondents selected “to protest taxes on imported goods”), two-thirds don’t know that it took a constitutional amendment to formally end slavery. Overall, not one question on the survey was answered correctly by 2/3 or more of the students.
Teaching Tolerance also surveyed 1700 teachers on their attitudes on teaching slavery. Almost all teachers (97 percent) agree that learning about slavery is essential to understanding American history. Forty percent of teachers, however, believe their state offers insufficient support for teaching about slavery, and 58 percent find their textbooks inadequate.
Although a high percentage of educators claim they are comfortable talking about slavery in their classroom, the report found that their “responses to open-ended questions reveal profound unease around the topic.”
For example, one teacher from Washington state told the reseaerchers, “I dislike that it can turn into a race issue, although there are other forms of modern slavery continuing in the present day.” Another expressed concern that “it is challenging to establish a classroom in which race can be talked about openly. They are ready to label each other as ’racist.’”
As Hasna Kwami Jeffries, Associate Professor of History at Ohio State University, makes clear in the preface to the report, teaching slavery is a challenge:
“Slavery is hard history. It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it. “We the people have a deep-seated aversion to hard history because we are uncomfortable with the implications it raises about the past as well as the present.”
Resources are not the issue. An already abundant supply of online materials are augmented by centers and museums dedicated to the study and teaching of slavery. What’s missing is a national consensus and leadership that leaves many teachers, despite their enthusiasm for the subject, ill-equipped to design let alone implement sound pedagogical practices.
Instead, schools turn to specific practices or approaches that miss the mark. Teachers, when asked by the researchers about some of their favorite classroom strategies, would often describe classroom simulations, which, for a subject like slavery, can be a risky and ineffective approach. Also, slavery is usually presented as an exclusively southern institution, which is inaccurate. And too often we skate over how the racist ideology of white supremacy was used to justify and reinforce slavery.
The tendency not to delve into the nation’s disturbing past is a sizable obstacle, writes David Blight in the introduction to the report. It’s a need “to conceive of and understand our history as ‘progress,’ as the story of a people and a nation that always sought the improvement of mankind, the advancement of liberty and justice, the broadening of pursuits of happiness for all.”
Removing our collective blinders on the integral role white supremacy and slavery has played in the building of the nation first requires a national conversation. By doing a much better job of teaching about slavery, schools can help create a climate for such a dialogue.
Teaching Tolerance assembled an advisory board of distinguished scholars, and partnered with teachers and institutions of higher education, to develop a framework and offer a set of recommendations for teaching about slavery. These include fully integrating American slavery into lessons about U.S. history, expanding the use of original historical documents, improving textbooks, and strengthening the curriculum on topics involving slavery.
Paraeducator Marcell Branch is frank about the tribulations of his past. Working with students who have emotional behavioral disorders (EBD), who are at risk of dropping out of school, or otherwise have a chip on their shoulder, Branch often draws on his own history of unsavory experiences to connect with them.
“I hold them accountable when I need to but also take the time to celebrate their accomplishments,” says Branch, a behavior specialist who has spent 14 years working with at-risk youth, the last five at West Education Center in Minnetonka, Minn., an alternative school for ninth through twelfth graders who focus on vocational as well as academic studies. Most of West Ed’s 200 students are categorized by the state as having EBD.
“There is nothing more rewarding than seeing these kids succeed,” he says.
Walkie-talkie in hand at all times, Branch visits classrooms, monitors the cafeteria during lunchtime, and roams the hallways from daybreak to well past last bell. Usually, he engages students on a friendly basis. However, when a fight breaks out, a student loses their temper and starts throwing things, or begins cursing at a teacher, Branch is summoned.
“I break up fights then try to talk with the students to get to the root of what’s bothering them,” he says. “Violent or unruly behavior is a sign of a deeper conflict.”
Branch points out that students may be lashing out as the result of everything ranging from trying to cope with a learning disability and failing a class to experiencing family issues at home, being cut from the football team, or being cyberbullied.
“To be effective with this particular group of students, adults you need to listen and ask a lot of questions,” says Branch, Education Minnesota’s 2016 Education Support Professional (ESP) of the Year. “They have to know that when they walk into your office, you will respect them.”
The goal, says Branch, “is to give them a strategy and the confidence to cope with their anger … to keep their rage under control.”
Watching a young man get killed. That was my turning point to leave the gang life. I now work every day to not let anything like that happen to any of my students or children.”
Branch has been a case manager for homeless youth, program manager promoting life skills, and employment counselor at various youth-based organizations. He is a certified gang specialist known throughout the community for his candid speeches and training sessions on gang prevention.
In these presentations, he is brutally honest with audiences about keeping his own demons at bay while coping with a dark past: growing up poor in public housing, being homeless, the arrests, the hard drinking and daily drug use, and even the night in 1992 when he held a 9mm handgun to a seven-year-old’s head in order to get the child’s father to sit down and shut up so Branch and his crew could rob their house. He was 19. Fortunately, the father backed off.
“People always ask me if I would have shot that child,” says Branch, who has four children of his own ranging in age from 5 to 25. “My response is, ‘I have no idea.’”
As dysfunctional as some of his experiences were in his youth and early adult years, the 45-year-old Branch says they laid a unique foundation for his hard-earned counseling and peacemaking skills.
“I am no one to sit back and judge these kids,” he says. “I know the gang life from the inside and that helps me connect with students who are gang members or wannabe gangbangers.”
Branch was born in Memphis, Tenn., but lived in almost 30 different states before age 17.
“My mother liked to move a lot,” he says, which meant hitting the road about twice a year. “I don’t have any childhood friends, favorite teachers, counselors or anybody I can remember because I didn’t want to get close to anyone. I never knew when we were going to move again.”
This lack of stability was compounded by his stepfather’s physical abuse. Branch recalls one particular beating with a belt when he was in fifth grade that started after dinner and went long into the night.
2017 Education Minnesota ESP of the Year - YouTube
“It was a 12-hour beating that put me in the hospital,” he says. “He told me if I told anyone what he did that he would do it again.”
That morning, Branch collapsed in his bus seat on the way to school. The bus driver carried him to the nurse’s office. She noticed lacerations on his face and drove him to the hospital for an examination. Eventually, he returned home.
“A lot of my anger … being homeless, joining a gang, drinking and using drugs … stems from that incident,” he says. “But the up side is that my own experiences with this type of behavior has helped me not only to understand but also sympathize with these kids. In my own way, I am one of them.”
Looking ahead, Branch is trying to complete the final credit hours he needs to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Kaplan University. A building representative and member of Education Minnesota Local 2209, he is considering running for a seat on the executive council.
“We have 800 members but only 200 seem to turn out to vote on issues,” he says. “Only a small percentage of active members are people of color. I want to change this.”
Branch says that much of his life has been about transition, progress, and reinvention. As in 2000, when he witnessed a fellow gang member get shot twice in the chest and once in head for betraying a gang leader.
“Watching a young man get killed,” he says. “That was my turning point to leave the gang life. I now work every day to not let anything like that happen to any of my students or children.”
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