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Jones Middle School students march in their town’s Christmas Parade with donated instruments.
From the east coast to the west coast, the U.S. has endured several devastating natural disasters in 2018 as well as a series of other grim events that have dominated headlines. If the seemingly endless negative news cycle has you feeling grinchy this holiday season, read on! Though they suffered enormous loss, disaster-hit communities are still feeling hopeful.
When Hurricane Florence swamped Jones Middle School in eastern North Carolina, it wiped out everything, including all of the band equipment and music library, which had taken years to collect and curate. But even though the massive storm destroyed their instruments, it didn’t stop the music.
The middle schoolers found a new home in the neighboring high school, and band teacher Alexander Williams was determined to keep his music program alive.
The students drummed on buckets, clapped rhythms with their hands, and struck notes on the few xylophones that could be salvaged.
“We made it work and the kids hung in there and kept good attitudes,” Williams said, though he admits he was stressed about how to keep them engaged without the musical instruments he’d relied on for his 30-year teaching career.
Then, a holiday miracle. All of the band equipment was replaced, each and every instrument, along with the music the students had been rehearsing.
And just when they thought they’d have to skip it this year, the Jones Middle School band marched in the Christmas parade, proudly wearing school band t-shirts and jeans because they haven’t replaced the band’s uniforms yet.
“When the instruments came in the kids were so excited they wanted to start playing right away, but we hadn’t even put them together yet,” Williams says.
‘People Actually Do Care’
He was thrilled to have new instruments for the students and that they were able to play in the annual Christmas parade, but the best part, Williams says, was the generosity of the community.
“People actually do care. We hear so much bad news, we don’t hear about the good stuff often enough,” he says. “We are very grateful that so many people who don’t even know us still wanted to help us be successful. I’m hoping our students will remember this and pay it, and play it, forward.”
Williams said that though their community will be rebuilding for many years to come, “at least they had something to come back to.”
“In Northern California, there are no schools, no homes, no structures at all to come back to,” he says. “We’ve suffered a loss, but there are others who need our help.”
Hope in Paradise
In Paradise, California, all but one of its nine schools burned to ashes after the massive Camp Fire raged for more than two weeks across northern California. Like in North Carolina, the community stepped up to help. On Giving Tuesday when a California business man and restaurant owner hand delivered $1000.00 checks to each and every student and staff member in the Paradise district — most of them homeless, with the clothes on their backs.
“I felt terrible for them,” Bob Wilson said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘How can I help?’”
What the students need most is a sense of normalcy after the trauma of the fire that incinerated their town. Recognizing that need, educators are finding ways to provide it. They’re holding classes at their kitchen tables, in hotels where many students are now living, in libraries in neighboring towns, even in shopping malls.
“We just want to bring a sense of healing back to our community,” Partain, who fled the campfire taking nothing but her cats and her students’ college essays because, as she told CBS News, “there’s some part of us where we’re always the teacher and they had to get their essays done to get into college.”
Third-grade teacher Robin is sharing one room at a school in Oroville with four other teachers but they’re remaining optimistic.
“We’re going to color, have PE, talk to each other…” she said. “It’s not about the academics for us. It’s about loving each other and building the kids up…The kids need to see we all made it. We are safe. We’re just going to move on.”
NEA-Alaska Launches Online Fundraiser for Schools Hit By Earthquake
A few weeks after the Camp Fire disaster, Alaska was rocked by an earthquake, and once again the community stepped up to help.
NEA-Alaska in coordination with the Anchorage Education Association (AEA), the Mat-Su Education Association (MSEA), and Mat-Su Classified Employees Association (CEA) launched an online fundraiser to help defer some of the costs associated with replacing classroom materials that were damaged or destroyed in the November 30th earthquake. Fundraising information is available atwww.neaalaska.org/earthquake.
“I want to thank every single teacher, classroom aide, and public school employee, for helping to keep our students safe during this traumatic event,” said Tim Parker, NEA-Alaska President. “The outpouring of support from parents, community groups, and educators is remarkable.”
On a typically warm and sunny Saturday last week in Venice, California, Kristie Mitchell sat outside at a table surrounded by Sharpies and a pile of posters. Each one featured the same basic illustration – an outline of an African-American woman and three school-age children with the words “I Stand For” across the top. It was up to Mitchell and the other public school parents and children around the table to decorate the poster with whatever color or flourishes they preferred, but also to include what they believe their school needs the most.
Mitchell had already created two posters – one declared “I Stand For School Nurses Five Days a Week,” the second, “I Stand for Smaller Classes” – and was busy working on a third.
“We need to give teachers a stronger voice,” Mitchell said. “They don’t have the resources to teach our kids. Everybody in the community should help give them more power. When we get together like we are today, that’s what we are doing.”
Mitchell was just one of the many parents who joined hundreds of educators, students, artists, activists and who converged on a three-day community Art Build hosted by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) to create protest art supporting public education. The event was held at the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), a popular community arts center housed in an old art deco building that until the mid-1970s was the Venice Police Station.
A few feet in front of Mitchell at a longer table, a row of educators, parents and students were dipping into tins of black and orange paint to decorate a large banner adorned with the proclamation “Fight For the Schools LA Students Deserve.”
A little further away, a few students had begun applying the first layers of color to four 24-foot parachute banners that cloaked the outdoor parking lot. At the studio inside, artists were churning out silk screen picket signs with messages denouncing school privatization and corporate greed and championing smaller class sizes and solidarity with educators.
Parents, teachers and students at UTLA’s community Art Build for public education.
“Anyone here is reminded of how much kids love art,” said teacher Julie Van Winkle, “and why we need it in our schools.”
By the time the event wrapped up on Sunday night, participants had produced 8 parachute banners, 1,600 picket signs, 1000 posters, and 30 banners. Every last piece will be carried at a the March for Public Education in downtown Los Angeles on December 15, and a possible UTLA strike in January.
Events like Art Build, said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl, are a demonstration of the power of art in social movements and how passionate the people are about public schools “and the fight we are in.”
“We should take confidence from this. The community is with us.”
Art in Action
Art Build is a “transformative experience” for educators and their allies, says Nate Gunderson, an organizer with the National Education Association. Gunderson, who organized the UTLA event, witnessed the first Art Build in Milwaukee in 2017, and helped coordinate subsequent events in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Gunderson believes Art Builds, regardless of the location, inspire educators and communities and open up new paths for advocacy and union organizing.
“It’s the creativity, the collaboration, the inherent power of art, and the democratization of images and messages,” says Gunderson.
Joe Brusky, a fourth grade teacher in Milwaukee and member of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, was instrumental in organizing that city’s Art Build and was onhand in Los Angeles documenting UTLA’s event on social media. He recalls how Art Build became “entry point” into the union for many educators.
“The event energized them,” Brusky says. “Afterwards, people were getting involved for the first time. I remember seeing them at Art Build and then suddenly they were at school board meetings.”
Where there is grassroots support for public eduction, there is potential for an Art Build. The Oakland Education Association (OEA) will be hosting its own event on January 18-20. OEA President Keith Brown visited UTLA’s Art Build to lend his support and preview some of the logistics.
The Social and Public Art Resource Center was an ideal partner. SPARC not only provides studios for silk screen and digital printing and the necessary outdoor space to unfurl 24-foot parachute banners, but offers invaluable guidance to organizations looking to create public art for social change.
Last November, Gunderson put out a call for educators, artists and activists to submit images and slogans promoting public education. The Art Build Committee reviewed the submissions and selected those that would go on to form the basis of the posters, banners, picket signs and parachute banners that were delivered to SPARC in December.
Gloria Martinez, UTLA Elementary Vice President, was struck not only by the creativity of students and parents in bringing these objects to life, but by the conversations they were having.
“You ask students what they wanted for their schools, and they came up with these long lists,” Martinez recalled. “Smaller class sizes, more art, or just more money for schools in general. And their parents are listening to them. It’s great to hear them and their children talk about our issues and then use those discussions creatively.”
A LAUSD student gets a silkscreening lesson at Art Build. (Photo: Joe Brusky)
For elementary school teacher Maria Miranda, it was important that everyone understood that the chronic underfunding of schools wasn’t isolated in one particular area.
“Projects like this, when we come together with the community, show that our challenges are the same. In my school, we don’t have nurses every day or librarians. But it’s not just in my neighborhood. This is a problem for schools across the city,” Miranda explained.
There’s something else about Art Build, said Cecily Myart-Cruz, UTLA/NEA Vice-President, that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
“Yes, it takes our activism and our visibility to the next level. But you know what? This is a also stress-reliever for our members. They need this. It’s fun and will build resiliency. It’s been a difficult time and we may have a lot more work to do in January.”
“We All Want the Same Thing”
Myart-Cruz is referring to a possible strike early in 2019. In August, UTLA’s 33,000 members voted overwhelmingly (98%!) to authorize such an action if an agreement between teachers and Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) cannot be reached.
After two years of negotiations, educators are refusing to retreat from their demand that LAUSD end to era of austerity and privatization that has starved public education across the city.
The situation was exacerbated in May when the Los Angeles school board selected Austin Beutner as district superintendent. Beutner is the quintessential corporate “reformer”: a billionaire investment banker with zero experience in school or district leadership and a tireless appetite for school privatization. He has dismissed calls to slow down the expansion of charter schools (which currently cost the district more than $600 million annually) and refuses to tap into the district’s $1.6 billion reserves to properly fund the city’s schools.
“We are in a battle between Austin Beutner’s vision to downsize the public school district and our vision to reinvest in the public school district,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl wrote to the membership in November.
This art build is more than a craft session—it is all of us joining together to create beautiful protest art that celebrates our love of public schools and our commitment to fighting together for a better day for our students. #StrikeReady#March4Edpic.twitter.com/5FsMbxk0hV
Unless UTLA stays strong, he warned, Beutner will be back for “another pound pound of flesh every year in a downsizing plan that includes layoffs, school closures, cuts to services, and healthcare cuts.”
From the start, the successful forging of partnerships – a tenet of “bargaining for the common good – has strengthened UTLA’s resolve and its position. The bond between parents, their children and educators at Art Build is striking, said Julie Van Winkle.
“We’re all on the same side. We want the same thing. We don’t want our schools to be starved out skeletons, we want them to be vibrant hubs of learning for our kids,” Van Winkle said as she motioned to a group of students hard at work on a banner that read “Give Our Kids a Chance.”
By Sunday night, that banner would be complete, ready to be added to the abundant stockpile of strike ready art. Next stop: downtown Los Angeles for the March for Public Education.
If a massive rally of educators, students, parents and community members doesn’t push the district into an agreement with UTLA, then there will be a strike, but “it will then be a strike of the city, not just of a strike of teachers,” said Caputo-Pearl,
“And if we’re on the picket lines in January, then this art will again be right there with us.”
A recent study showing that low-income students who attend minority-serving institutions, like historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), are more likely to climb the economic ladder than their peers who opt to attend predominantly white institutions (PWIs) doesn’t surprise the faculty who have dedicated themselves to those students.
The difference is in the quality of relationships between students and faculty mentors, they say. “Climate surveys show that HBCU students leave more confident, more satisfied, and more motivated because they’ve had this one-on-one mentoring with faculty, and the faculty is more diverse,” says Elizabeth Davenport, a professor in the college of education at Alabama State University, an HBCU in Montgomery, Ala.
The study notes that this success occurs despite the fact that these institutions, which include Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges, often are educating the “country’s most vulnerable students” with limited institutional budgets. Indeed, a NEA study last year, “A Looming Crisis for HBCUs?” found that federal funding for HBCUs lingers behind other, predominantly white land-grand institutions, and is falling faster. And faculty are more poorly paid, too.
At Jackson State University, an HBCU in Jackson, Miss., department chair Marilyn Evans estimates about 75 percent of the students in her elementary and early education classes are first-generation or low-income students.
Do they get more support on her campus than they would a PWI?
“Of course they do!” she says.
The HBCU Mission
In 2015, the nation’s minority-serving institutions enrolled about 4.8 million students, or 28 percent of all undergraduates, the report found. Many come from America’s poorest families: about one in four HBCU students grew up in the very lowest income quintile. This poverty rate is about three times higher than the rate at predominantly white institutions. Meanwhile, about half of students at minority-serving institutions are the first in their family to go to college.
In these ways, HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions look like the future—and their success can be a roadmap. As the nation’s demographics evolve, within a decade black, Hispanic and other ethnic-minority students are expected to account for nearly half of all college students in the U.S., the study says. In California today, two-thirds of college students are people of color. At the same time, the jobs of the future are more likely to require a college degree.
It is, and always has been, the HBCU mission to welcome students without economic or racial privilege, and make sure they graduate, ready to succeed. “It’s about mission. You have to remember that HBCUs attract, just by their mission, students with lower socio-economic status and first-generation college students,” says Davenport. “And then, second, once we get them, our mission requires them to graduate.”
This often means smaller class sizes, intensive faculty support, close-knit student communities, and a more diverse faculty who more often look like students. When HBCU students, faculty and alumni talk about their campuses, they say things like, “What you have here is a family.”
This is the not-so-secret formula for success, say researchers. “A substantial body of research, conducted over more than 50 years, makes clear that faculty-student interaction is a key factor in promoting student success, particularly among those students who most need support, such as first-generation college students and students of color,” wrote Adrianna Kezar and Dan Maxey in NEA’s Thought & Action journal. (This is why, they note, “major consideration” should be paid to supporting faculty, too.)
But this doesn’t mean HBCUs don’t have challenges. Their successes often are drowned out by stories of their financial challenges. And often “performance” funding formulas used by state legislatures often focus on metrics that disadvantage HBCUs, like the amount of student debt among graduates, and don’t include other measures that would point to HBCUs’ unheralded strengths—like the rate of income mobility among graduates.
The report highlighted a few institutions that do particularly well at income mobility. They include Alabama State University, Davenport’s institution, which has a mobility rate of about 24 percent.
“People say to me, ‘Dr. Davenport, you went to a PWI!’ and I say, ‘I knew there was something lacking in my experience!’” says Davenport, whose degrees include a J.D. from the University of Michigan, a master’s degree from New York University, and a Ph.D. from Michigan State.
“At Michigan, I was to meet Michigan where they were at,” she explains. “Here (at Alabama State), as a faculty member and mentor, I’m meeting the student where they’re at.”
When teaching about U.S. elections or politics many educators will strive for neutrality. They may insist these discussions have no place in the classroom, while others argue that standardization and a lack of time make them a non-starter. Even if there was an opening, the slightest hint of bias could attract the ire of an administrator or parent. In this hyper-polarized political climate, that’s a line that’s easy to stumble across.
All this neutrality or avoidance may work for the teacher – but what about the student?
Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Michigan State University, believes that a strict adherence to “neutrality” – not expressing your views to students and/or avoiding political topics – is a tactic that can actually marginalize many students.
Neutrality is itself a political choice, Dunn argues, and is one that bolsters the status quo. What results is a classroom that potentially ignores the fears, interests, and concerns of many students.
To be clear, Dunn is not talking about a teacher who stands in front of the class and reads aloud endorsements for local, state and federal political office and then urges students to go home and tell their parents to vote accordingly.
The kind of neutrality that concerns Dunn is, for example, a decision to avoid discussion of “controversial” issues – racism, inequity, climate change, or gun violence, for example – out of fear of appearing political or partisan.
Education, at it’s core, is inherently political, says Dunn.
“Everything in education—from the textbooks to the curriculum to the policies that govern teachers’ work and students’ learning—is political and ideologically-informed,” she explains. “Both what is taught and how it is taught is shaped by the cultural, social, political, and historical contexts in which a school is situated. We can’t pretend that teachers can leave these contexts at the door.”
Especially after as the election of Donald Trump.
Although political polarization didn’t begin with his candidacy, Trump’s incendiary, crude, and divisive rhetoric about race, religion, gender, and immigration that marked his campaign (and his presidency) has been deeply unsettling to many, if not most, Americans.
“I don’t care what my school administration says. My loyalty is to my students and their lives, . . . not to administrator requests to avoid conversations that are uncomfortable.’’
According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the 2016 presidential campaign had a “profoundly negative effect on children and classrooms…particularly acute in schools with high concentrations of minority children.”
Yet, as Dunn and her colleagues Beth Sondel of the University of Pittsburgh and Hannah Carson Baggett of Auburn University concluded in a recent paper, many teachers continue to feel pressured to remain neutral when discussing Trump and are generally uncomfortable addressing racial and social justice issues in the classroom.
“This pressure (to stay neutral) is reflective of the lack of trust, autonomy and professionalism for teachers in our current climate,” the study, published in the American Educational Research Journal, concludes.
The researchers surveyed 730 teachers from 43 states to gauge how their pedagogical choices were affected after the election.
Some respondents made it very clear they did not adhere to what they saw as misdirected directives from school or district officials to stay away from anything Trump-related.
One middle school teacher explained that despite the fear many of his students had of deportation and harassment, “my school, tied by a never-ending desire to remain ‘unbiased,’ did nothing and told teachers to limit conversations about the elections because such conversations were not included [in the standards].”
“I don’t care what my school administration says,” the teacher continued. “My loyalty is to my students and their lives, . . . not to administrator requests to avoid conversations that are uncomfortable.’’
Generally, however, responses from educators were littered with words such as “fearful,” “anxious,” “unsure,” and “scared,” even as they acknowledged that a more engaged, proactive approach in the classroom may be necessary.
One educator from Massachusetts summed up the dilemma this way:
“Trump unlike any other presidential candidate stands for everything I work to combat: racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. My students fall into categories of people he wants removed or controlled, in his America. I do not know how to talk to my students about this and be neutral (as per country policy).”
According to the study, teaching after the election was most challenging for those who were “ideological outsiders” – Clinton voters in areas where the majority of voters were pro-Trump and vice versa.
“Teachers had to negotiate if and how to talk about their own beliefs knowing that their students’ parents and/or colleagues may disagree with them,” Dunn says.
For example, an elementary teacher from a predominantly White school in Michigan explained,
“I always feel nervous explicitly discussing politics in my classroom due to the variety of views of my students’ parents and my own fear that parents will be upset or complain about me if my own view come up explicitly in classroom lessons/discussions. I know I have students whose parents supported both candidates passionately and I do sort of feel a responsibility to respect their parents’ views (no matter how much I may disagree)”.
It doesn’t help that so much of our discourse is labelled “political” or “partisan,” including discussions about human rights and social justice. Pedagogical choices, the researchers argue, should not be confined by this false construct.
“Making justice-oriented pedagogical choices is not about partisanship or controversy but, rather, is reflective of an overarching commitment to equity,” they write.
Both what is taught and how it is taught is shaped by the cultural, social, political, and historical contexts in which a school is situated. We can’t pretend that teachers can leave these contexts at the door.” – Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Michigan State University
Anchoring discussions to a justice and equity framework can provide educators with a path forward. Still, many of the respondents in the survey did not feel particularly well-prepared to take this on, let alone publicly challenge the presumed virtues of a neutral classroom. The study concludes that teacher training programs need to better prepare educators in adapting their classrooms to help students understand current events and political upheavals. The researchers recommend that current teachers, especially those “ideological outsiders,” seek out networks across schools and districts that can serve as “restorative and supportive communities.”
While Dunn and her colleagues are careful not to downplay the pressures educators face, they emphasize that, ultimately, teachers are charged with preparing their students to work toward a more democratic society.
With 2019 and 2020 shaping up to be just as tumultuous as the previous few years, what are the chances more educators will feel empowered and better prepared to talk politics (for lack of a better word) in their classrooms?
Don’t count on the administration to lead the way, at least not yet. “Districts are still issuing bureaucratic demands on teachers that take their time away from the most important thing they can do in the classroom: create responsive and relevant curriculum for their students,” explains Dunn.
And while too many parents still believe the classroom door should always be shut to any political discussion, they may be “ignoring the reality that such a move is never really possible,” Dunn says.
From practical and personal to silly and sentimental, the gifts educators receive definitely leave a lasting impression. We asked our Facebook fans to share their most memorable gifts, and, in the spirit of the season, they delivered. Happy Holidays!
A half bottle of used perfume. A fifth grade boy who lost his mom said I reminded him of of her so he wanted me to have her favorite perfume. I wore that perfume every day.
Holly, Bradenton, Florida
A Christmas ornament given to me in June because his locker was such a mess that he “lost” it until the end of the year locker clean out!
Amy, Boyne City, Michigan
It was a hand-written colorful birthday note from a 6th grade student. She wrote about how much she appreciated me not just because of my role in her life, but as a single mother to my own daughter (2nd grade at the time), and how she saw me working hard in that role, as well. It touched my heart and went well beyond her years.
Stacey, Chandler, Arizona
A simple “Thank you” from one of my high schoolers at the end of the year. I said good morning to him every single day that I drove the bus and he never answered, sometimes even scowled. I knew he was going through something deep. On the last day of school, he told me his mother had left the family and he felt lost. He said he felt happy to hear the ‘good morning’ each day.
The best gift ever! It resides in my heart. Marti , Traverse City, Michigan
The students in a club that I sponsored surprised me with a life-sized cardboard cut-out photo of me so that I could be in two places at once. Debi , St. Louis, Missouri
After my dad, a retired science and social studies teacher and park ranger, died, my student bought a tree to be planted in his memory. I got a certificate and everything. My dad planted hundreds of trees in his lifetime, so this was perfect. Emily, Pheonix, Arizona
I taught students from Haiti in a bilingual program. When school was about to be dismissed for Christmas Break they spontaneously got up and begin to run around the room hugging one another, shaking hands, and wishing each other Merry Christmas. Just watching that go on was such a greatest gift! It was heartwarming. Marilyn
When, 15 years after leaving my class, my student, Marco said, “ I became a singer because of you.”
Pam, Oneieda, Wisconsin
After my house was burglarized my third-graders bought me new earrings! Linda, Pensacola, Florida
When I was student teaching a boy gave me a “Favorite Teacher” ornament that he had taken off of another teacher’s tree. You might not see the love in this, but he was very poor, already in a gang, and had never been successful in any class before. It told me I was making a difference in his life…on so many levels. To this day, I don’t care where he got it. Kathleen, Brentwood, California
I received a hand-painted portrait of my Golden Retriever, done by a second-grade student in a frame made by his Grandfather. Suzanne, Louisville, Kentucky
One of my students made me a traditional Dominican meal which still makes my mouth water when I think about it! Melissa, Hopewell, New Jersey
I worked in a Dual Language school and most of my students were from migrant worker families. Once a young girl gave me a perfume set. I spoke with her mother and expressed my gratitude for the gift. She told me that her daughter worked the fields with them for a month so she could save enough money to buy it. She told me that the gift was her way of showing how proud she was of me for earning my Masters, which I had just done that December. She told me she wanted to be exactly like me and grow up to be a teacher. I still have that empty perfume bottle. My student graduated and is now a teacher and I am honored to have been a small part of her life. Lisa, North Carolina
A seat on a bus. The parents organized a trip to Chicago to see the King Tut exhibit. They paid for all the teachers who wanted to go! Polly, Lebanon, Ohio
My very first student was on the autism spectrum and was primarily nonverbal. Toward the end of the year, I was telling my educational assistant that I had been accepted into the Peace Corps and was going to the Philippines He looked me in the eye and said clearly, “I’ll miss you, Reyna.” Best gift ever and is what got me into the field of special education and autism. Reyna, Nehalem, Oregon
I was pregnant and on bed rest. I went into school the day before break and found a note that said, ”Mrs. Mascaro, I don’t have any money to buy you a gift, so I cleaned your desk. Merry Christmas!” Best Gift Ever.
Kelly, Central Square, New York
A rubbing of my cousin’s name from the Vietnam memorial I received in the mail. A former student was in Washington, D.C. his junior year. I was his third-grade teacher, and always read them “The Wall” on Veterans’ Day, and told them about my cousin. I can’t believe he remembered that! Stephanie
One of my students made a Lord of the Rings cookbook for me. He found the recipes online, and made a leather cover with the Tree of Gondor. I treasure it. Ann, Anchorage, Alaska
After winter break I had a first-grader drag in a Christmas tree he found in the alley to school to give to me. Dolores, El Paso, Texas