The 4th Thing I Learned from Kids in Jail

The following is part of a series titled “10 Things I Learned From Kids in Jail.” This is the fourth thing I learned. You can find the introduction, the first thing, the second thing, and the third thing on my blog in previous posts. I know it has been a few months since I posted and I appreciate your patience.

Thanks for reading!

I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. ― Albert Einstein

The Fourth Thing I Learned

Everyone needs love, but love isn’t all we need.

     My first year at the detention center began with a cohort of young men in my class who claimed membership in a gang called the “Heartless Felons.”  They were not used to being in a structured school setting, and the information I had about teaching in juvenile detention centers before I began working in one was limited to a few readings I found online.  

     National advocacy groups have called students in juvenile detention centers an “invisible population” because little to no attention has been given to this demographic. Fortunately, I had a bank of knowledge constructed throughout my sixteen years of teaching high school in the city to make withdrawals from. Plus, raising my own boys provided me with multiple opportunities to practice not taking things personally.

      I was repeatedly told by some of the angry students my first few months at JDC that “we were not in real school,” and they asked my principal if he could fire me for cajoling them to do school work they didn’t want to do.  My principal responded by chuckling and walking away.

     One day, shortly after the school year began, one of the guards worriedly returned to my classroom after securing the boys back on the housing unit to check on me. He was concerned the behavior of some of the boys might have an impact on me. His reaction was thoughtful and appreciated, but I assured him I was not on the brink of quitting or ceasing my attempts to offer education.

     It is necessary as an educator to care for and respect those within your realm, but reminding yourself of your place of power and privilege when student actions are potentially hurtful is also a valuable tool to utilize. Although our mutual humanity remained at the forefront, I also established myself as a professional with knowledge and skills which prepared me to facilitate their learning. Additionally, I reminded myself of the struggles in their lives which were unknown to me or were absent from my personal life experiences.

     My students’ yearning for someone who cared was consistently present, even when they could not articulate their need. Outside of our classroom, students hunted for kinship and spaces in which they felt valued. Sometimes the only affiliation to give them a sense of safety and validation was a gang. Media outlets may offer glimpses into what gang membership entails, but the nuances of membership in a gang are complex and organized.  

     The Heartless Felons formed after a merger of two gangs in the early 2000s. In one of Ohio’s youth correctional facilities, The Young Felons and The Land of the Heartless joined together. An April 2015, cleveland.com article explained the details of the gang’s origins:

In about 2000, the gang’s leader, Peterson, served a sentence at a state youth facility in Marion for felonious assault. Prosecutors said in court documents that Peterson had an extensive juvenile record of delinquencies, and authorities struggled to control him.

While in Marion, Peterson realized that Cleveland youths from different gangs should bond to become stronger so they could take on youth gangs from across the state, according to interviews and published reports.

Peterson reached out to Donte “Iceberg Ferg” Ferguson, also of Cleveland. Peterson, a member of the Young Felons, joined with Ferguson, a member of the Land of the Heartless, to form the new gang, according to interviews and courtroom testimony.

The gang took off, stunning authorities with its violence. Many of its members were involved in other gangs when they joined the Heartless Felons, records and interviews show.

As their time in the juvenile correctional facilities ended, gang members returned to Cleveland. In many cases, they were soon convicted of crimes and later shipped to prisons, where they quickly gained a reputation for brutality, state records show.

     A student at JDC shared their creed. Part of it reads, “I am a felon by birthrights, gangsta by circumstance… I am a reflection of my brothers and they are a reflection of me…” There is also a pledge. It reads, “I am a heartless felon. From this day forward I been reborn felon. Felon is my backbone.  The calab is the blood that runs through my veins. LOH is the heart within me that keeps me moving. I have a heart of 1000 men… therefore I am a 1000 men. That is what makes me a heartless felon.”

     There are also ten “golden rules” members of the Heartless Felons are expected to adhere to at all times. They were described by a student as follows:

  • No snitching
  • No stealing from another felon
  • No homosexual activity
  • No arguing in front of an outsider
  • No fighting in front of an outsider
  • No fam business in front of outsiders
  • Do not treat another felon like a flunky or pawn
  • Respect high ranking decisions
  • Take risks for the fam
  • Respect all.

     Could anything I did in my classroom compete with a creed, pledge and golden gang rules? I had to remember that I was not vying for members to anything. Capitalist and competitive principles do not apply to education in my classroom. Instead, teaching coexisted within a shared space. The boys gradually respected an inferred code switching between our classroom and activities related to their other allegiances, which very rarely interfered with our learning environment.

     I was also privileged to capture glimpses of the childhoods my students could have had in different environments under different circumstances. One student, Lester, who seemed to be a higher ranking gang member and had no qualms about stating “ima gangsta” on the intake survey he completed when he arrived to my class, had also lost both his parents.

     He wrote that if he had one wish it would be “my mom and dad back.”  Lester was in class with me for several months, and it was challenging for me to connect with him. During his first few months in class, there were incidents during which he screamed profanities and threatened to “flip this” (items in the classroom). There were also days when he was permitted by adults in the housing unit area to not attend school.

     Lester had attended four high schools in three years. School didn’t seem to be a place he felt he belonged. After approximately five months of attempting to engage Lester in school, I sensed a sliver of possibility. He became part of a small group of boys in class who teased me about the way I dressed for work.

     I always loosely covered the majority of my body with various styles of ponchos or flowing cardigans in a mostly successful attempt to extinguish any silhouette of my figure and reduce myself to a blob of clothing. Lester jokingly asked me where I got all of these ponchos. I replied that I found them at discount stores and sometimes I made them. He then asked me to make him one.

     During a long weekend for one of the federal winter holidays, I made him a fleece black serape. I gave it to the social worker on the housing unit because I didn’t want the other kids to know, and students are not allowed to take anything back to the unit on their own. Lester was moved from the juvenile facility to the adult jail shortly after.

     As I was leaving the secure area one day, I happened upon the social worker from House 3 giving the serape and Lester’s other personal items to his grandmother. His grandmother seemed a little perplexed by the article of clothing, but the social worker explained how much Lester enjoyed wearing it when he was in her office away from the pod (the areas within units groups of young people reside while being detained).

     A serape wasn’t going to make Lester believe in school or miss his parents less. The radical love of an educator which inspires the creation of a serape is not going to deter a child from joining a gang, or convince a young man to leave a gang, but if love is what you have to give, then why not give it?

     References to family (fam) and outsiders, and the losses so many of my students had experienced, marinated in my mind when I encountered discussions about gangs. The appeal of being in a gang was not an experience I shared with the young men, but I understood the kids were seeking safety, loyalty and love. Every kid deserves to grow up in a community that provides those things. As much as I loved my students and teaching, it was never going to be enough to topple the entrenched oppression my students were challenged daily to overcome.

The 3rd Thing I Learned From Kids in Jail

     The following is part of a series titled “10 Things I Learned From Kids in Jail.” This is the third thing I learned. You can find the introduction, the first thing and the second thing on my blog in previous posts. Thanks for reading! 

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. – Dalai Lama

The Third Thing I Learned

Anyone can choose to be a better human being.

     During the winter of my last school year as an educator at the detention center, there was an incident on House 4 the day before we were to return to classes after winter break. Property was damaged and local news reports conveyed the property destruction would cost the county over $250,000.

     Contrary to regrettable events like this, touching moments of humanity and generosity were not infrequent at the juvenile detention center. There was tension and sometimes violence and wreckage, but even when there is so little to be had and so few opportunities to give, the thoughtfulness and urgent desire of the kids at JDC to offer kindness was always inspiring.  

     Sometimes the selflessness of the kids I worked with would frustrate me later when I was home with my sons. When my students were profoundly writing on their daily gratitude statement they were grateful to still be alive, conflicts with my sons over video games, cell phones or doing household chores felt petty and ungrateful to me.

     I tried not to bring work home with me, preferring to stay in my classroom long past the school day to finish what needed to be done and to leave it all there. However, human nature does not always allow for our minds to leave work when our bodies exit the building.

     Most young people at the detention center encounter an intersection of obstacles. They are from low income households, environmentally toxic and violent neighborhoods, lack access to resources for healthcare and nutrition, have experienced trauma, and arrive with multiple diagnoses and disabilities.

     Knowing the oppression and inequities my students experienced dispirited me, but my sorrow deepened when students with severe challenges arrived to us. Although in my classroom the students had access to therapy putty, stress balls, fidget cloths, a bike desk, standing desks, and aromatherapy, the center is not equipped to handle a young person with severe mental or physical health needs, but that fact doesn’t prevent these young people from arriving there.

     Henry* arrived to the juvenile detention center with multiple disabilities including Asperger’s Syndrome, and with a recently reported IQ Composite of 49. His grandmother had adopted him a few months after he turned one because his mother struggled with addiction, including while she was pregnant with him.

     He didn’t really know his father who had been incarcerated most of Henry’s life, and whose history of mental health issues and disabilities mirrored Henry’s. Within thirty minutes of Henry’s arrival to my class, I picked up my desk phone and called the intervention specialist assigned to provide educational services to students in my classroom with disabilities. Even with the constant presence of a detention officer in our classroom, I did not believe I was capable of managing Henry’s needs without additional assistance.  

     Detention officers employed by the county escort students to class each day, and from the beginning of class to the end they remain in the doorway of the classroom, or just outside the classroom door. Juvenile detention centers operate twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week and do not close for holidays. The mental and physical demands on detention officers are grueling.

     One of the detention officers who was frequently assigned to keep my classroom safe during my last two years at JDC represented one of the best. I make this assertion without bias, although he was a student in one of my history classes many years before when I taught at a high school on the east side of the city. Yet, even the best among the detention officers, like my former student, were not adequately trained to respond to the needs of Henry.

     For over three weeks other boys who shared a housing pod with Henry assisted him with survival. Henry was protected and cared for by the other young people being held there. He never went hungry. Other students sat with him to watch videos of trains we had downloaded onto a computer for him.

     If students thought the intervention teacher was pushing him too hard to complete a task, they would interject and ask her to be gentler with him. They helped him when he had an accident and soiled his clothes while on the housing unit. Because Henry was taken into custody on a domestic violence charge, it was additionally difficult to expeditiously find another placement for him.

     Juvenile detention centers are not designed to adequately provide for young people with mental health issues or disabilities. Unfortunately, the centers often exacerbate issues already afflicting vulnerable young people. However, the boys around Henry knew the reasons they were there did not define who they are as human beings. They embraced an opportunity to help someone else who needed them, and gave him what they could. I am not sure I would have handled the situation with as much grace and generosity as my students if I had been in their place.

     At the end of each school day, I provided students with an opportunity to reflect on their performance in class for the day. On a half sheet of paper, students received the following prompts:

DAILY REFLECTION/EXIT TICKET

NAME_______________________________________________________DATE__________

Explain what you did well today in at least one complete sentence. _______________________

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Explain how you would rate your performance in class today on a scale of 10 to 1, and explain why you ranked yourself that way. 10= I did my best  5= I tried half the time 1=I did not try at all

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Write a complete sentence about one part of your work in class that you would like to improve and explain why. _____________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Choose to complete ONE of the writing prompts below. Circle which one you are completing.

  1. I wish that you would have known today that I…
  2. I am really proud that today I…
  3. My favorite part of today was…
  4. I wonder if today I could…

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

     This exercise each day allowed for students to experience a sense of accountability to themselves, and granted them a discreet way to communicate with me things they may not have wanted to verbally share.

     After completing tasks like using screen printing techniques to create artistic placemats for children staying at the Ronald McDonald House, or decorating flower pots to fill with soil and milkweed seeds to nourish monarch butterfly caterpillars, the students overwhelmingly responded to the first and last prompt with how much it meant to them to be able to do something nice for someone else or for the greater good. Many of the boys in my class who were being held were accused of murder, assault, aggravated robbery, and gang activity. Yet, when given opportunities to be kind they frequently and enthusiastically embraced them.

     Once, a former student I maintained contact with arrived at a facility in Ohio that was holding another former student of mine also. They both eventually wrote to me, excited to tell me they had met each other.

     The one who had been at the facility first had managed to find work there and save up enough money for toiletries and snacks, after he paid off over $1800 in restitution and court costs. There is no minimum wage in prisons, so it often takes a long time to earn what others on the outside might make in a day. The costs of items in prison can also be significantly higher because there is no need for competitive pricing. Only one company offers items approved for sale there. I was especially touched when the student who had been at the facility first wrote me in July 2016:

hey ms.smith

a student of yours named ***********  just came down here yesterday. I gave him some degree, toothpaste and food to make sure he’s alright. I seen *** at muslim service and told him 2 write you. I thinks it’s good to let you know how our status is.”

     It might be difficult to imagine what it feels like to possess so little in your daily life that all of your belongings could fit into a container the size of a plastic grocery bag. The policies in prisons create a culture of desperation and stashing.  It may not seem like a sacrifice to those on the outside, but within prison walls offering deodorant, toothpaste and food to someone simply because they were also in your former teacher’s classroom is genuinely benevolent.

     When I offered my gratitude to him for being so thoughtful and unselfish while in such a callous system, he humbly responded and actually deflected attention off of himself to compliment me.

ms.smith

how you doing? You’re welcome and it was no problem looking out for *****. He said add him on jpay and he’s sorry for not writing you back. [I had sent the young person handwritten letters while he was being held awaiting his trial proceedings at the adult county facility in Cleveland and he hadn’t responded.]

… thank you for keeping in contact and affecting so many people’s lives. You’re such a wonderful person.

     I am not certain I deserve his accolades. It is a lot easier to be altruistic when unconfined in a position of middle class privilege. I cannot say with certainty that I would be as charitable and thoughtful as the young men who have passed through my classroom.

     Schools should be places that encourage and develop displays of humanity. Whether I’m meeting a parent to give them their incarcerated child’s high school diploma, or sharing words of love from one of my student’s to their grandmother, there is much more to connect inhabitants of our planet than there is to divide us.  Everyone should have a place which connects them to the humanity of others as I found at the juvenile detention center.

The 2nd Thing I Learned From Kids in Jail

The following is part three of a series titled “!0 Things I Learned from Kids in Jail (& You Can Too). The introduction and the first thing I learned are also available on my blog.

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”– Lena Horne

The Second Thing I Learned
No matter what happens, show them a smile.

     As an educator at a county juvenile detention center, sorrow can often feel like a constant companion. There were days when the drenched weight of my students’ stories and struggles shrunk me to frustrated, unfeigned tears, but only later in the day when I was alone at home.

     Often, my students had experienced trauma, toxic stress and the violence that accompanies poverty throughout their lives. Enduring these injustices infuses a heightened sensitivity to the moods of others. This constant state of hyper alertness to determine fight or flight gives them an above average ability to appraise how others are feeling.

     The last thing kids being held at a detention center need is a classroom facilitator in a constant state of sorrow or rage. Fortunately, my years as a server sufficiently prepared me to maintain a smile on my face, or at least to avoid frowning my lips and furrowing my eyebrows. Repeatedly, students extended feelings of relief and gratitude in private notes they generously and discreetly shared with me, because school was a positive place to escape an otherwise harsh and negative environment.

     Augustus* was in my class when I arrived back to school from a summer break. He was there one school year prior to a “call to action” colleagues and I had with our school district’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO). In partnership with a local advocacy group, Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC), we asked for year-round school at the detention center. With the support of GCC, the detention center began to follow a year-round calendar schedule beginning with the 2018-2019 school year. The new school year calendar immediately followed my last school year working there.

     Often, over half of the children being held at the juvenile detention center were previous residents. This recidivism rate indicates crevices in the juvenile justice process yet to be sealed. Augustus, however, was not a prior resident and he had been there all summer. He was quiet and withdrawn in class, which meant sharper attention to his other means of communication was required to build rapport with him. Luckily, he felt comfortable expressing himself through written words.

     Each day, I distributed assignment packets to students, which we would mostly complete together during a series of instructional activities. After putting their names on their papers, the first prompt on the paper stated:

Write one thing you are grateful (thankful) for today. Finding things to be thankful for helps improve our overall happiness. Happier people are more successful people. ____________________________________________________________________________________________
________________________________________________________________________________________

Today I’m thankful I’m here!

     As an example, I also included something I was grateful for that day, and I may have included a silly image. Visuals are imperative when teaching youth impacted by trauma.
I explained the rationale for this practice in the introduction section of a compilation of my lessons created for publication on an online website for educators:

Why is gratitude important for students? For my students, being incarcerated is atraumatic and painful experience. Beginning each day with this small and quick activity is my attempt to mitigate negative energy, and to have students start from a positive place.

According to the Harvard Health Journal, “With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”

My intention with students is to create habits during these adolescent years connected to gratitude, so that as they move into more emotionally mature years they will have a greater opportunity to attain the benefits associated with people who are grateful.

According to Psychology Today, “Fostering gratitude can also broaden your thinking, and create positive cycles of thinking and behaving in healthy, positive ways.” In a detention center that seems like an obvious goal to strive toward as part of our rehabilitation efforts, and in a world often fraught with negative images flashing across screens, more gratitude in our attitudes could improve everyone’s health and happiness.

     Responses to the prompt from students regularly offered speckles of insight into their lives. I would habitually place “smiley faces” next to their answers when I graded their submissions, which inspired Augustus to begin mimicking these faces in his writings. He would sheepishly show half a grin if he caught me amusingly glancing at his imitated creations. This non verbal communication is how I began to understand Augustus’ perspective as a young person being detained.

     On August 26th he unassumingly left a note on my desk on his way out of class. In it he shared the following:

Dear Ms. Svigelj :I
I don’t have the best of handwriting but I just want to say thanks for just being a teacher in here everyday. I wake up super happy to come to this class. It may not seem like it, but trust me I am. I been in here for the whole summer and when I showed up here it was a whole new world. I sometimes don’t want to leave. Each day I’m not in your class I talk to other people about your class and how cool it is. Most people just come for the computer, but I come to escape the madness, the endless fights, the sleepless nights. Sometimes I pray you show up at school so I can come each day… I may not talk a lot. That’s because I just like to do my work, 🙂 or you can say I’m shy. LOL. Just thank you for being a teacher in here. You made me lots happier. I’m kinda mad the weekend is here, so no school…

     In October, Augustus was still at the detention facility. During an art project to celebrate the upcoming holiday, a visiting Italian muralist guided students in the decoration of papier-mâché masks for Dia de los Muertos. Across the top of his black painted mask, Augustus wrote SUICIDE in large white letters.

     Gratitude, expressions of appreciation and smiley faces may insert moticums of positivity into negative spaces, but the continuous causticity of juvenile detention centers can be debilitating.

     According to the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, youth involved with the juvenile justice system have an increased risk of suicide. In a 2013 fact sheet, they offered the following alarming statistics:

  • Suicide is the leading cause of death for youth in confinement.
  • Youth in residential facilities have nearly three times the suicide rate of peers in

the general population.

  • Risk factors for suicide are often more prevalent among youth in the juvenile

justice system.

  • Studies report that over half of juveniles had current suicidal ideation and

one-third had a history of suicidal behavior.

     Augustus had to be placed under “suicide watch” more than once during his stay at the detention center. Were his mental health needs being met before he arrived at the juvenile detention center? Were they assuaged or amplified while he was detained? I don’t know for certain, but I have formed my own suppositions.

     Augustus was a student in my classroom when I was assigned to teach youth staying on House 3. I didn’t learn about the torment many kids living in House One’s residential area were enduring until after I stopped teaching students staying on that house. My heart was distressingly ravaged when friends began sharing news reports on social media revealing “fight nights” on House 1 organized by a couple rogue detention officers.

     According to a lawsuit filed by four young men who had been held on House 1, detention officers would force them to participate in “bloody and brutal brawls.” Local printed news stories reported, “The guards organized the fights that pitted the teenagers against each other all for the guards’ amusement and entertainment. The lawsuit also states the guards conspired to cover up their behavior.” Three of the young men’s names who were parties in the lawsuit were listed in the article. All of them had been in my class.

     Immediately my mind began flipping in reverse searching for a sign I may have missed, or a distress call I may have mistakenly shuffled into the deck with the rest of the routines from a school day. They were quiet and compliant kids in class. I don’t know how anyone could be expected to learn under the duress they were enduring, but I hope their time in my classroom gave them moments of comfort or reprieve.

     I searched through the stacks of notes and letters I saved from students and did not find any direct messages from them, but when I read another student’s note to me, it made me feel worse instead of better.

     The same school year “fight nights” were occurring on House 1, *Pete had briefly been a student in my class. He knew he was about to be placed somewhere else, and graciously left me this note among his classwork the last time I saw him.

Ms. Smith,
I may be getting moved to a CCF tomorrow so I wanted to let you know. Thank you for the handful of sheets of extra information on happenings in the world and just being an overall positive vibration in a pretty negative environment. Maybe I’ll end up running into you on the outside one day, so until then keep doing your thing and filling the youth with wisdom…. I hope you enjoy life thoroughly and follow your happiness… Thanks again for being a friendly face in a place where there are very few.
Much love

     I wish I could roll backwards on the linear continuum of time and prevent the additional suffering and abuse experienced by youth under the watch of adults who should have been protecting them, or at the very least should not have been causing additional harm.

     The “fight nights” revelations haunt me. Some may say I should accept that which I cannot change, but I cannot accept that which is unacceptable. The exploitation and maltreatment of the powerless and vulnerable is unacceptable. I refuse to swallow a pill of injustice or perversion. Thus, I am left with an internal nagging guilt parallel to a trace of hope benevolently bestowed through a student’s note.

     Perhaps a “friendly face” and “positive vibration” allowed for iotas of respite? Even when churning thoughts provoke my eyes to reflexively swell with sorrow, I make sure they see my smile.

*Government names are always changed to protect juvenile anonymity.

The First Thing I Learned: Where you come from and where you are, does not have to determine where you are going.

The following is part two of a series titled “10 Things I Learned from Kids in Jail (& You Can Too). Last Sunday I posted the introduction

Thanks for reading!

I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am. – Paulo Freire

The First Thing I Learned

Where you come from and where you are, does not have to determine where you are going.

I am not one of those time-honored educators, who knew seemingly from their conception that they wanted to teach. I rarely played “school” as a child, and although I have always enjoyed learning, being at school was not always gratifying for me.
I metaphorically checked out of high school before my senior year even started. After being in religious schools for kindergarten through ninth grade, I never seemed to find a coterie I felt I could assimilate with when I transferred to the public high school near my home in Ashtabula, Ohio, before my tenth grade year began. I applied to colleges after my junior year and received a couple merit scholarships to small private universities, but they did not make college seem more financially reachable.                                                     A couple months into my senior year at the age of seventeen, I became pregnant with my eldest son, whom I gave birth to less than two months after graduating from Harbor High School.
Resolved to raise my son on my own, I accepted admission to Cleveland State University, kept a job waitressing and commuted to and from classes while we lived in small apartments near my family.
While in my fourth quarter of courses at Cleveland State, I gave birth to my second son, with visions of a future life as a military wife once his father completed marine training at Camp Lejeune. The course I thought my life would navigate was interrupted seven-and-a-half months later by a fatal car accident on a curvy country road in North Carolina, between Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point.
At age twenty I possessed all of the arrogance and sense of immortality that accompanies the age, and remained oblivious to the wisdom experience engenders to the extent that I was unaware I should be seeking it. Embroiled in a probate court battle with my son’s paternal grandmother for four-and-a-half years, and awash in what I thought was an unbearable and interminable grief, I wanted to hurry up and live, so that I could get life over with and die.
Feeling like I was left with no alternative, I finished school earning a bachelor’s degree in political science, history and social studies. Not knowing what career path to pursue while raising two sons alone, I decided to return to school for a middle school through high school teaching certificate.
While still in college, I turned twenty-one and began bartending, or serving cocktails, in Cleveland area establishments where tip yields were more lucrative than the small restaurants in Ashtabula. A regular customer at one of the bars I was working at taught at a nearby high school. He planned social gatherings for faculty from that high school and requested me as the bartender for their events. His principal would sit at the bar drinking Absolut Vodka on the rocks while the staff socialized around tables, billiards and darts.
For bartenders, the identity of returning customers can often merge with the customer’s drink choice. I could not have predicted that about a year later, Mr. Absolut Vodka on the Rocks would be the first principal to interview and then hire me to teach high school social studies in Cleveland. Nor could I have predicted that sixteen years later I would be an educator at our county’s juvenile detention center (JDC).
Juvenile detention centers resembling institutions designed for mass incarceration should not be places we attempt to raise or rehabilitate children (or adults). Yet, I began working in such a place.
With an intelligent, compassionate and supportive principal at the helm, classes were blended learning environments in self-contained classrooms. Educators provided instruction and enrichment, along with access to online courses for students in order for them to acquire high school course credits. The same group of students remained in one classroom for three hours and forty-five minutes per school day. Plus, they received physical education instruction for up to an hour each day at a gymnasium slightly down the hall from the school area.
Each teacher was assigned to one group of students from one of five housing units divided by age and gender. My first two years, I was assigned to male students ages 15-17 from House 1. The last two years, I was assigned to male students ages 17-21 from House 3.
House 4 holds the youngest males. House 2 is assigned to the second-youngest males, and House 5 is for all females regardless of age. On average, over one thousand students per year passed through the center while I taught there, with an average stay of two to three weeks.
There were extremes at both ends of the spectrum. Sometimes a student would arrive to class for the first time immediately after his court arraignment in the morning, and before the end of class he would be gone. I also had a student in class who was in and out over the course of a few years, with his most recent time there lasting over five hundred days.
There is no doubt it was an adjustment for me when I was planning lessons the first school year. I had to create lessons that could be facilitated successfully without knowledge from a prior lesson for all of the new students, but might simultaneously be expanding upon a previous lesson for students who had been there a while without recycling previous lessons. There were vast differences in levels of ability among students too. Eventually, I implemented a system of instructional strategies and content I felt made learning relevant and accessible to everyone.
During the second half of my first year, a student arrived to class seemingly uninterested in engaging academically. He even went so far as to discourage others from completing their school work as he verbalized the pointlessness of it all.
I had an unwritten two-week policy during which I acclimated students to our class, but did not excessively push them academically. The trauma of being arrested and detained away from their families and friends, perhaps the trauma of events related to an arrest, and sometimes the symptoms of withdrawal from self-medicating, requires an allowance of time for students’ minds to adjust to learning environments.
The seemingly most effective factor of engagement for teenage boys being detained was not taught in teacher preparation courses or professional development, nor read in scholarly articles written by education experts. I admit to incentivizing (bribing) students to complete school work for edible treats otherwise unavailable to them while at the detention center.
Thus, the day this particular academically apprehensive student witnessed me offering a personal cake and caffeine free soda bottle to a student who had successfully completed a high school semester of coursework, he decided to give school a chance.
Before the school year ended, the previously apprehensive student had passed four of the five state tests required to graduate, and was less than a few credits away from completing his high school course requirements. I was able to coordinate a special visit to the juvenile detention center during summer break in June in order for he and another student to take the last state test they each needed to pass for graduation.
At the end of the summer, the student was adjudicated to the adult court as a seventeen year old for a crime he committed when he was sixteen, and then he was transferred to a prison facility in central Ohio. He passed the last test he needed for graduation that June, but had a couple high school credits to complete in order to be certified as a graduate.
We corresponded through mail and then through JPay, a costly prison email system. I promised him I would attend his graduation if he finished his high school course credits. I assumed every facility orchestrated graduation ceremonies when an incarcerated student graduated – the way I did at JDC. I was incorrect.
The following school year, the student finished and graduated in May without a graduation ceremony. Our school was able to request his transcript and, in accordance with state law, also provided him with a high school diploma from a Cleveland high school. He asked me to deliver the Cleveland diploma to his aunt in a neighboring suburb, which I did. Yet, I felt I was not honoring my promise to him by not seeing him for his graduation.
After researching the complex rules and procedures for correctional facility visitations in the state, I was able to make an afternoon appointment in July to visit him. I had also planned a roadtrip with my father, youngest son, and dog during the end of June that year to visit my two eldest sons. One son was in Nashville, Tennessee, and the other was in Fort Myers, Florida.
As happens with many family trips, the length of time travelling was longer than anticipated, which meant I needed to drive nineteen hours straight from Florida to Ohio in order to make it to my appointment with my former student on time. Arriving just minutes late to a scheduled prison visit results in the visitor being turned away without exception, and without any immediate ability to explain why you are not there to the person being held inside.
About 20-30 minutes away from the facility, after driving over eighteen hours, I pulled my Dodge Durango off the highway into a rest area to change my clothes, wash my face and brush my teeth.
I had to make sure the clothes I had on were not a reason to be turned away once I arrived. I discovered this potentially devastating dress code detail previously while visiting a different student at a different Ohio prison. On that occasion, even though I had on a flowing pink dress with layers of satin and chiffon that fell just above my knees, the white leggings I had on underneath warranted being sent out of the facility after getting all the way to the visiting room.
I incorrectly thought the guards would consider the leggings to be a statement of additional modesty since they prevented the visibility of any flesh, but a strict no-leggings policy was in effect. Luckily, one of my sons had left his malodorous soccer bag in my trunk. I was able to take off the banned leggings while standing behind my car in the prison parking lot, put on a pair of my son’s (unclean) athletic shorts under my dress, and return inside.
My (unshaved) legs became visible from right below my knees to my shoes, but because I didn’t have leggings on, I was permitted back into the visitation room to sit with my former student. Knowing how to adhere to strict dress codes for prison visits is a crucial component of access, even when that code’s intended purpose would be better met without a total fidelity adherence. Lots of things about prisons do not make sense.
When we arrived in central Ohio for my July appointment, I left my dad, son and dog in the car after nineteen hours of driving. I rushed inside the prison facility and made it just in time for a visit with my high school graduate.
I was able to buy some items from the vending machine in the visiting area to contribute to our own small graduation celebration. He had gotten taller and no longer had his braces on. My fatigue didn’t diminish our conversation.
As we sat in a set of chairs facing each other in a large room with guards and other people and their visitors, we talked about Cleveland, sports, news, my trip, family, and his future. He shared more than once how he hadn’t previously envisioned himself as a high school graduate, because it didn’t seem to be a goal close enough for him to realistically grasp.
We were mutually appreciative of the ninety minutes we spent chatting and laughing that afternoon. I am not sure exactly why, but I wiped away tears when I left the prison before I joined my dad, son and dog in the vehicle again.
Before this high school graduate was released a few years later, he was transferred to a lower security facility for a couple years. While in the lower security facility, he successfully completed college courses provided by a university nearby with plans to continue college once home.
Where you come from and where you are, does not have to determine where you’ll be in life later. I didn’t imagine I would become a teacher proficient at navigating prisons, and my student hadn’t imagined himself as a successful college student, yet there we both were.

Introduction to “10 Things I Learned from Kids in Jail (& You Can Too)”

     The following is the introduction to a series of ten additional sections revealing what I learned while employed as an educator at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC) in Cleveland, Ohio.  

     The lines between good and evil, justice and injustice, virtuous and unvirtuous, and consequential and inconsequential were never more undefined and indistinct than the four years I taught at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Jail changes everyone, including those who are able to leave and return to their families and communities each day once their shift is complete.

     Anyone repeatedly exposed to the routines, sounds, sights, and the numbing absence of scent or touch, begins to conform unwittingly and often unwillingly to the absurdities of the institution. It is an unhealthy and vacuous normalization to become immersed in.

     Yet, I possess the distinctly immodest notion, as many educators do, that I have the ability to teach any child within my reach. Thus, as I contemplated leaving the teaching profession entirely after working for sixteen years in public high schools throughout the city of Cleveland, Ohio, a position for a social studies teacher at the county’s juvenile detention center became vacant. Communicating through a long-established network of colleagues, I was encouraged to apply for the post.

     After the interview process was complete, a job offer was made. Although the new placement meant my salary would be reduced by approximately twenty percent, the appeal of no longer having to prove my value within a system hyper focused on test scores and data, which requires an intentional neglect of the humanity of children, enticed me more than monetary factors. After all, I have not known any teachers who entered the profession with visions of future fortunes. There is a reason teaching colleges at universities are not part of the business college. Teaching is a humanity.

     Being a teacher for any length of time results in hoarding a massive amount of materials, just in case they are needed in the future, and because teachers are never certain if they will be able to obtain the items again if they do decide to discard them. It took me twenty years to relinquish the plastic sheets filled with history notes for the overhead projector I used when I first began teaching in 1998, even though they had been filed away and unused for fifteen years. This accumulation of materials means it is never enjoyable to pack up a classroom and move to a new one. Yet, I bundled my many belongings and supplies, loaded them into a large SUV and prepared to go to jail.

     My first few days at the juvenile detention center were spent trying to figure out how to get in and out of the facility. The nine-story, low-rise, cream-colored building on a reclaimed industrial site east of downtown Cleveland  looms largely and noticeably over the neighborhoods nearby. It is not coincidental that its location is near some of the most impoverished areas of the city and multiple public housing complexes. The majority of the young men who arrived to my classroom grew up in nearby neighborhoods, plagued with particles of discrimination and segregation.

     For the general public and most employees, entering the Juvenile Justice Center requires passing through a sheriff’s security station immediately after the main entrance doors. Bags are rolled on a belt through x-ray machines while sheriffs view their contents on monitors. Then, everyone walks through metal detectors, hoping they didn’t forget keys or change in their pockets because that misstep requires them to circle around and attempt the whole process once more.

     Next, individuals going to the detention center complex must swipe their badges to open a door which allows entry into an area with coat racks, locker rooms, a kitchen area, a training room, and offices. When transitioning from the public area of the Juvenile Justice Center to the secure area, the visual contrast is stark and harsh. All hues of color are assaulted and consumed by a complete white washing of the floors, furnishings, walls, and ceilings. No natural lighting filters through the solid block walls, which leaves only the intimidating and accusatory glare of fluorescent lights.

     The next step of gaining entry to the residential and school area includes another rolling belt to place bags on for another x-ray. Only clear bags are permitted. There is another stroll through a metal detector, and friendly brief exchanges between the sheriff assigned to the station and employees following the security routine. Once cleared to continue, a short  walk to a heavy white door with a small vertical rectangular window is required.

     Someone in another room watches this brief walk through mounted cameras encased in half circles attached to the ceiling. A buzz at the door from the watcher grants entrance to a narrow corridor that leads to another weighty door. Again, someone in a different room is watching through cameras and the sound of the buzzer at the second door means access to the detention center has been permitted.

     Upon opening the door, a short distance to the left, along rubber track flooring and curved white concrete block walls are two sets of doors with windows revealing the school area. Another swipe of my badge provides admittance to the school. Dark blue, bumpy carpet, walls covered with certificates celebrating student successes and colorful motivational posters break the white monotony, but there is no escaping the unrelenting fluorescent lights.

     When I first arrived to this school, my need to escape the sterile and drab whiteness everywhere overwhelmed me. Soon, my students’ artwork began creeping to walls beyond my classroom, like vines on a trestle covering foot after foot until the whiteness was absorbed. By my second year there, others had embraced the idea of decorating beyond their classroom or office walls. The school at the detention center became an oasis of color in an otherwise barren, bleached desert.

     There are ten classrooms side-by-side along two adjacent walls in the rectangle-shaped school area. An under-utilized life skills room with kitchen appliances and a washer and dryer is in one corner of the school, and an open library area is in the middle. Next to the library is a room with windows on three sides deemed the “fishbowl” room because anyone walking by any of the three windowed sides can peer in. A main office with a teacher supply room and three offices for intervention (special education) teachers is along another wall.  A fourth wall has a barbershop and school storage room.

     In order to exit the school area, the entrance procedures are followed in reverse: swipe out of the school, wait to be buzzed through two heavy white doors, walk past one sheriff station, gather outerwear and personal belongings, exit the secure area, and walk past a second sheriff station.

     My error the first few days of working at the detention center was not identifying a landmark to designate the set of heavy white doors needed to leave. As I attempted to leave work, I was buzzed through the thick white door I was waiting at, only to find myself in a small room with a chair and no other doors. My confusion must have been transmitted through the pixels captured by the camera. A voice over the speaker asked,

    “Ma’am, where are you trying to go?”

     Embarrassed, I responded I was seeking the exit. I was released from the small room and directed back to a door I had initially passed, with a red exit light above it. Remembering to look beyond the eye level my 5’4” height is accustomed to was probably the first lesson I learned at the detention center, but it wasn’t one my students taught me.

Not My Inmates

     When he stood up to sharpen his pencil at the sharpener on the cart directly in front of my desk, he spoke unprompted softly and reflectively while he gazed blankly at the classroom wall. “I have never been to school in an actual high school. That’s a dang shame, isn’t it?” I looked down quickly to fight back any tears that might involuntarily form in my eyes. “Yes. It really is,” I replied.

     I knew this student’s case had just been adjudicated to the adult system, and it clearly weighed heavily on his sixteen-year-old shoulders. All of his high school credits prior to arriving to our classroom were from another detention facility in the state, and he seemed to accept he wouldn’t be exiting the system any time soon.

     As an educator at our county’s juvenile detention center, it is difficult to witness the effects of multiple moments of disappointment and neglect on our city’s most vulnerable children. My heart splinters for their lost childhoods and obstacle-laden futures, but also for those in the community whom they may have hurt because the interventions these kids desperately needed as they were growing up were never provided.

     Teaching is a humanity. It is difficult to find more glaring examples of the need for human connections once you have had the misfortune of being immersed in experiences at a juvenile jail. This necessity for a human nexus continues once kids leave my classroom for their next destination. Ideally, that next destination is in the community because the juvenile justice system in conjunction with other agencies has efficiently and effectively performed its established purpose. Tragically however, I often maintain communication with my students through correspondence with them at another incarceration facility.

     I optimistically expect most citizens to agree with the assertion that the United States’ justice and mass incarceration systems require reform. Yet, unless someone is directly entangled in the system, most of us are oblivious to the many costs people incarcerated and their loved ones must pay.

     In addition to having to purchase cheaply made and easily broken “j-players” in order for incarcerated people to electronically communicate with those outside of the prison system, each electronic message sent requires payment equivalent to or more than the cost of a U.S. postage stamp. Each picture attached to an electronic message sent through JPay also requires an additional “stamp” purchase in order to digitally send it.

     For example, a former student I maintain contact with asked me to send him a picture of his high school diploma because he was taken from our facility before his graduation could be certified. In order to send the picture, I paid .50 cents for the electronic message and an additional .50 for the digital picture attached, for a total of $1.00 for the one communication.

     Securus, the company which owns JPay, yields over one hundred million dollars per year in profits, with a gross profit margin of 51 percent, by exploiting already disadvantaged citizens. Although the profits generated as a result of people’s suffering are sufficiently abhorrent, the pit in my stomach the first time I became a JPay consumer was not initially spurred by the money I was spending. Rather, it is the way in which JPay and multiple other prison industries, in collaboration with various established institutions in our society, have successfully dehumanized people who are incarcerated.

     Going to JPay’s website, users can see how to do an “inmate search.” I am never looking for an “inmate.” I am searching for a young person who was a student in my class. They are sons. They may be brothers, uncles, nephews, or fathers. Whatever their worst deeds are, “inmate” should not be the summary of their existence.

     The over two million people incarcerated in the United States are human beings. Redacting their humanness and reducing them to their prodigious mistakes is a practice utilized by the inhumane to erase their humanity. Just as the revolting practice of referring to enslaved human beings as “slaves” was once embedded into our culture, attributing the term “inmate” to incarcerated human beings is similarly repulsive to my sensibilities.

     I often quote Desmond Tutu when I am concluding public presentations about my students and our classroom at the county’s juvenile detention center. He said “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” We must all remind each other of our innate worth as living beings on this planet, and seek the humanity that connects us. Discarding dehumanizing language that transforms people into negatively implicated nouns may enlighten our perceptions of the people many would rather not know or name.

     I may refer to the young people in my classroom as my students, but they are not my inmates.

Women’s March in Cleveland,Ohio,1-20-18

I made the following remarks at the Women’s March in Cleveland, Ohio, on January 20th, 2018. I was honored to be part of an amazing series of speakers. 

A video link to the speech is available on youtube thanks to Toni Jones.

Before I begin, I’d like to take a moment to honor the Erie Indians who lived on this land long before any of us arrived. They were an Iroquoian tribe of the northeastern woodlands, who spoke an Iroquoian language similar to Huron and Seneca. As we continue to confront those who oppress, may we never forget those who have been embroiled in a struggle to exist for centuries.

I am honored to have this time here with you today, and honored to be representing Ohio’s Badass Teachers Association (BATs), and thousands of educators who are fighting for the public schools ALL our children deserve.

When government officials and the business community attack teachers and the public schools that over 90% of school-age children attend, you can believe that it is an attack on women, who make up over 75% of the teaching profession. It is an attack on our children. It is an attack on our democracy.

As a mother, as an educator and as a woman, I recognize that it is this alliance among women and our friends that is the worst fear of those holding power in (what I like to refer to as) our system of “electile” dysfunction.

And how can those in power who oppress and disenfranchise maintain their power?

Part of their plan includes an attack on and the starvation of the foundation of our democracy: our public schools.

They defund education and steal tax dollars to promote a for-profit education system, particularly in the urban neighborhoods of our most vulnerable citizens.

Those governing Ohio are still out of compliance with a twenty-year-old state supreme court decision mandating that they fix the way we fund our public schools.

We must hold public officials accountable. Budget bills must equitably and fully fund education –  not mass incarceration or deportation.

As we gather here today, there are young people whose civil rights are being violated right now at our county jail, not too far from here. These young people have been identified as individuals with learning disabilities. And even though federal law demands that these young people be offered services for their specific educational needs, the county and city that detains them continues to violate federal law by not offering these already disadvantaged young people access to education.

Perhaps those in power restrict access to education because education is essential to human liberation. An uneducated or poorly educated populace is much easier to manipulate and control.

In the spirit of liberation, we must all continue to fight to dismantle oppressive practices like high stakes standardized testing in schools; practices placed upon us by legislators and corporate interests without any regard for what is best for our children.

Ohio is one of only 14 states in the country that still requires students to pass tests not created by their classroom teachers in order to graduate or be promoted.

We must continue to fight for curriculums and classroom practices that are culturally relevant to every child.

We must support local democratically elected school boards. Because if you can vote to have your taxes raised to support a school district, then you should be able to vote for the board controlling the money used in those schools.

We call for an end to harsh zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, and instead call for the implementation of restorative practices that do not disproportionately put children of color on a school-to-prison pipeline.

You can’t say you’re a pro-lifer and then refuse to fight for every living human being to have an equitable opportunity to enjoy safe quality schools, safe communities, safe water, safe housing, safe neighborhoods, and to have police forces who protect and serve.

When I became pregnant with my eldest son at the age of 17, it was education that helped remove me from a life otherwise destined for dependence on public assistance. There probably isn’t anyone who understands and relates to my passion for justice and equity in education more than my sons. Thus, it is with tremendous pride that I am able to share with all of you that my oldest son here today, Cassimir Svigelj, is running for the 16th district house seat in the Ohio legislature, which includes Bay Village, Rocky River, Fairview Park, North Olmsted & Westlake, with my full support.

Not only do education activists take their power to the polls, but sometimes their kids are inspired to actually get their names on the ballot.

Before I go, I plead with all of you to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools. Liberty and justice for all depend upon it. Thank you.

 

Twas the First Night of Break

‘Twas the first night of break, when all through the school

Not a creature was stirring, except a privatizing ghoul

A public school teacher was sleeping all snug in her bed

While visions of happy students appeared in her head

As the papers she graded slid off of her lap

She had just settled down for a long winter’s nap

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter

The teacher dragged herself from bed to see what was the matter

And what to her tired eyes did appear?

But a bunch of self-righteous folks who were

billionaires

“O’ Waltons, O’ Broad, O’ DeVos , O’ Gates

What are you doing here on my lawn so late?

Do I even want to know your latest plans to deceive?

Seriously, winter break is supposed to be a reprieve!”

Unfortunately, to her front porch the billionaires did dash

Wearing their contempt for public schools like an itchy red rash

Down the stairs she went to meet them, as if in a trance

She thought maybe she could reason with them, if given the chance

A backpack full of cash was flung on their backs

And they looked smug and condescending in their tailored slacks

The teacher presented research about what kids need to learn

But their only care was the money they could earn

“Students are children; not products,” she tried to explain

“Your lack of knowledge and meddling are causing great pain”

She added that teaching is a mix of science and art

“It’s a humanity,” she said “Not a business with no heart!”

The vacant look in their eyes and tilt of their heads

Soon gave her to know she had much to dread

They spoke not a word, disregarding her work

She feared inequity would continue to lurk

Then away they all flew in their extravagant jets

Forgetting to thank her for cleaning up their mess

But they heard her exclaim, as they drove out of sight

“This isn’t over! We’ll continue to fight!”

 

Happy winter break to all and peace to those willing to fight for it.

 

Violence Against Women and the Oppression of Women is not a “Woman’s Problem”

The following are my remarks made at a rally and vigil for the 8th Anniversary of the women who were murdered on Imperial Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. 

My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith. I am honored to have this time here with you today, and sickened by a society that allows for the repetitive horrific acts, like those of Anthony Sowell, to occur at all.

I am here today because as an educator and as a woman, I recognize that our need and desire to nurture each other is not a hindrance but a redemptive strength.

When we join together, our real power is rediscovered and bolstered. It is this alliance among women and our friends that is the worst fear of those in power in our system of electoral dysfunction.

Let us be clear. Violence against women and children, the oppression of women and children, is NOT a woman’s problem. It is the problem of a patriarchal capitalist system, which benefits from the oppression and exploitation of women, children, and people of color.

It is a patriarchal, colonial, racist, and imperialist system that profits off of treating others like they are less than human. It is not a “woman’s problem.”  

I am here today because interdependency between women, and collaboration with our male allies, is the path to dismantling a system that promotes or allows subjugation, violence, poverty, and oppression to exist.

Within our alliances and our interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, we can demolish houses like the one that used to stand here on Imperial Avenue. And we can disassemble a system that still allows for unaccountable police chiefs, mayors, prosecutors, and other elected officials… a system that allows for men like Anthony Sowell to exist and perform unspeakable acts.

Audre Lorde said “Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged. As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change…”

Well, women here today and the enlightened men who join us, know the strength and power among us. Education and the creation of community are the tools of liberation.

Systematic oppression is not an accident or illusion. It is a tangible design evident right here, right now. And now is always a time to do what is right.

So I stand here today calling out all of those not here. It is time for those enjoying the privileges of safe communities and safe water and safe housing and safe schools, and with police forces who protect and serve, to stand up and speak out.

We already know the instruments of justice. We’ve even named them: unity, empathy, equity, compassion, love, peace, and a dialectical ability to seek and discover the humanity in every person’s story. There is no excuse for apathy. Liberation and justice are too long overdue.

No justice. No peace. Know justice. Know peace.

*Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.

Figure Out My Color

This poem was a result of the collaborative effort of three of my students.

This is from The Urban Youth Collaborative’s Facebook post:

**POWERFUL** Yesterday, our young people in UYC participated in a National Day of Action with the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice calling for racial justice in our classrooms! Watch youth leader Estefany Valera, recite a poem written by 3 young men currently in the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, in Cleveland. The poem was written to be read on Columbus Day, soon to be known as #IndigenousPeopleDay #NYC#Education4Liberation

The Video: The Urban Youth Collaborative Event

The poem:

Figure Out My Color

The police thought I had a gun one time and they asked me

“where’s the gun, where’s the gun?”

I didn’t have a shirt on

so it was obvious that I didn’t have a gun

in my waistband

and they checked my pockets

and they thought I had a gun

but I didn’t.

Now think for a minute…

What if it was you

Stopped for being brown

For being in a certain part of town

For being too poor

to afford

To be free?

Do we even know what we celebrate today for?

Is it just celebrating more

Of the punishing of the poor?

Enslavement, rape, disease, genocide

Are these sources of pride?

History lies

Mothers cry

For those who’ve died.

Living in a country

Where the flag waves

For the home of the brave

“Don’t flee!”

“Get on your knees!”

Police scream at me.

Does anyone hear my plea

To end painful legacies?

For people who will stand

For their fellow man?

~From students being held at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center in Cleveland, Ohio, in Melissa Svigelj-Smith’s classroom. 

 

Hope Happens When Opportunities for Hope are Created

I was honored to be asked to write a blog post for Education First’s blog site, which I am also sharing here.

As an educator for 18-21 year-old boys at our county juvenile detention center, sorrow can often feel like a constant companion. There are days when the drenched weight of my students’ stories and struggles shrinks me to frustrated, unfeigned tears, but only when I’m alone at home much later into the day. It is my home and personal life that have shaped the educator and advocate/activist that I have become. Recently, when I was discussing with my 17 year-old son whether or not I thought it was a good idea for him to walk two blocks alone in downtown Cleveland, he provided me with a jarring reminder: “Mom, I look like the monster that other people are afraid of. Don’t worry about me,” he said, as if that was supposed to offer me a semblance of comfort. My thoughtful, polite, intellectual, kind, dedicated son is over six feet tall with keen brown eyes, beautiful brown skin and lovely tumbling dreadlocks. He could be mistaken for any number of the young men I greet in class at work each day, and none of them are monsters.

My son’s words still conjure a feeling of dread within me. They are foreboding and cause my stomach to contort and form a lump, which rises into my esophagus and threatens to appear as a burst of emotional moisture in my eyes. Yet, it also motivates me to keep working, because there is much work to be done on behalf of my son and all young men who may or may not look like him. Thanks to a generous grant as a  NoVo SEL Innovation Award recipient, this work that is so necessary has support and endurance.

Recognizing three years ago when I began teaching at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC) that social and emotional learning (SEL) was going to continue to be an integral part of my practice, I immediately reached out to many of the community contacts I had previously collaborated with while teaching in other public high schools. I planned to continue to provide multifarious SEL learning moments in a variety of modalities for my students. In addition to a trauma-informed classroom approach to teaching, incorporated into our daily classroom routine are the practices and concepts of gratitude, mindfulness, breathing exercises, growth mindset, short term and long term goal setting, and reflection.  A community partnership with SPACES, supported by the NoVo grant, offers an exceptional additional opportunity for students to interact with a diverse array of artistic mediums, facilitated by international, national, and local artists, that are then used as a component of our classroom’s community service and outreach. Written reflections from the young men overwhelmingly cited these artistic experiences, and the opportunity to do something kind for someone else, as their favorite activity in class.

Not only is it crucial for my students to be exposed to the talents and resources that surround them in the community, but it is equally as important that those in the community change their proximity to the young men in my classroom. I strive to plant seeds of hope in the young men who arrive to me, but we must also vigorously attempt to change the narratives surrounding them in our community. As an educator, neutrality simply is not an option. I am pleased to share that two artists who interacted with my young men valued and enjoyed their time with them so much, that they refused the small stipend that SPACES was able to dispense as a result of the NoVo grant. Thus, we were able to offer additional activities we had not originally planned.

Art is a natural medium for social and emotional learning. It allows for the exploration of self, which was quite evident when one young man explained his painting as a representation of the voices he hears. It improves self-management because producing art naturally de-escalates stress levels. Many of the activities, like paper making, screen printing and audio recordings, required a collaborative effort, which improves relationship skills. Having their art valued and appreciated contributes to their confidence and sense of self-efficacy. The empathy expressed and perspectives taken by the young men as they created place mats and cards for ill children at the Cleveland Clinic and pen cases for staff members, or as they decorated cupcakes and cookies for younger students and flower pots to grow milkweed in to help save monarch butterflies, are moments that burst the reality bubbles many people previously resided in.

During a printing activity, some students could not resist the urge to mark their art with street or gang affiliated tags. Although it is their reality, displaying art with gang suggestions would violate school policies. Not willing to throw their creations aside, I cut out the letters and they remained in a large envelope for weeks.  After reflecting on my students’ life stories, I used the cut out letters to create a message on a large poster that could be representative of the essential way my students may differ slightly from my own sons, or kids any of us might know: they haven’t been given opportunities or circumstances that instill in them a hope for their futures. The message I created from their letters for their gallery exhibit at SPACES read “Hope happens when opportunities for hope are created.”

Hope cannot be taken for granted or neglected. It is the beginning of every movement, every struggle, and every idea. It is also the origin of the art collaboration between my classroom of 18-year-old boys at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, SPACES, and the generous NoVo Foundation.  I keep hoping that one day we will make sure every child feels they have a future to look forward to. I am profoundly grateful for all of those involved in supporting and accomplishing that goal.

May we all find more ways to create hope for others.

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith, July 2017

 

 

 

March for Impeachment July 2017

(2 minute limit) (video clip)

Thank you so much to all of you for being here today.

My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, and I am here today representing hundreds of thousands of education activists and advocates across this nation who are fighting for the schools ALL our children deserve.

We are here today to march for impeachment, and it is a patriotic cause. However, this isn’t just about impeaching Donald Trump. An impeachment would just land Mike Pence in the Oval Office and no one here wants that either.

No. This is also about the impeachment of a system that manifested the successful election of Donald Trump.

There is no doubt that our country is in a state of what I like to refer to as “electile dysfunction.” And how can those in power who oppress and disenfranchise maintain their power?

Part of their plan includes an attack on and starvation of the foundation of our democracy: our public schools.

They de-fund education and steal tax dollars to promote a for-profit education system, particularly in the urban neighborhoods of our most vulnerable citizens.

They demonize teachers and allow for conditions in our public schools that they would never accept for their own children.

We know that education is essential to human liberation. An uneducated or poorly educated populace is much easier to manipulate and control.

In the spirit of liberation, we fight for the impeachment of anyone who promotes oppressive practices in schools; practices forced upon us by Trump and his cabinet, and by legislators and corporations, without any regard for what is best for our children or for our country.

We demand that curriculum and classroom practices be culturally relevant, comprehensive, engaging, challenging, and promote critical thinking,

We call for an end to harsh zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, and instead call for the implementation of restorative practices that do NOT disproportionately put children of color on the school-to-prison pipeline.

We call for the impeachment of any public official who does not support bills or amendments that equitably and fully fund education –  NOT mass incarceration or deportation.

Yes, we are gathered here today to demand impeachment, but I plead with all of you to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools. They are the keys to liberty and justice for all, and we cannot salvage our democracy without them.

Are our children being taught what democracy looks like?

THIS is what democracy looks like!

Are our children being taught what democracy looks like?

THIS is what democracy looks like!

Organize, educate, agitate, must be our war cry. (Susan B. Anthony)

The following is the speech I gave as a (very honored to be included) speaker at the International Women’s Day Rally & March in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 8th, 2017, on a very windy day at Willard Park. 

International Women’s Day March & Rally Cleveland, Ohio, 2017

Thank you so much to all of you for being here today.

My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, and I am here today representing 100s of local education activists, 1000s of education advocates statewide, and hundreds of 1000s of education activists & advocates across this nation who are fighting for the schools ALL our children deserve.

When government officials and the business community attack teachers and public schools, you better believe that it is an attack on women, who make up over 75% of the teaching profession. It is an attack on our children. It is an attack on our democracy.

We know that education is essential to human liberation.

In this spirit of liberation, we fight to dismantle oppressive practices in schools; practices placed upon us by legislators and corporate interests without any regard for what is best for our children.

We demand that curriculum and classroom practice be culturally relevant, comprehensive, engaging, challenging, and promote critical thinking, and that these practices be based on research and the input of educators, not based on the whims of politicians or the profit margins of corporations.

We call for an end to harsh zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, and instead call for the implementation of restorative practices that do not disproportionately put children of color on the school-to-prison pipeline.

We support local democratically elected school boards. Because if you can vote to have your taxes raised to support a school district, then you should be able to vote for who is on the district’s school board.

We demand an end to high stakes standardized testing, a system rooted in eugenics and racism that has done nothing to improve teaching and learning for our students, but has created a false narrative about “failing public schools” and “bad teachers.”

We want community schools that are provided with funding and resources to offer the wrap around services that families surrounding those schools need.

School reforms should meet the needs of children in classrooms, not corporations.

All children deserve prepared, experienced and fully licensed teachers.

And all children and all schools must have equitable access to resources and adequate funding.

I plead with all of you today to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools.

Until the government ends the test and punish system, tell your child’s school that your student will not be participating in the state’s punitive system of  high stakes standardized testing. Refuse the tests!

No more of our tax dollars to millionaires and billion dollar corporations, so that they can sell our kids developmentally inappropriate tests and then call our kids failures.

Hold public officials accountable. Budget bills must equitably and fully fund education –  not mass incarceration.

We must fight this battle not because education is called a civil rights issue, but because education is an inalienable human right.

Our children need us too much to get tired of being in this battle.

They may have demolished and neglected the buildings we use for education, but they cannot decimate our desire to educate & be educated.

They will continue to wage this political and corporate war on educators: the Liberators.

But they cannot  liquidate our aspirations for liberation.

Education is liberation. Education. Liberation. Education. Liberation.

 

 

 

  

 

What’s Tough about Teaching in a Juvenile Detention Center?

What’s Really Tough about Teaching at a County Juvenile Detention Center…

     Work obligations plus the generosity of family and friends gave me the opportunity to travel to various regions of America this summer. Frequently, the kind and interesting folks that I meet ask me what I “do.” When I respond that I’m an educator at a county juvenile detention facility, the response is either verbatim, “that must be tough,” or something equivalent. When I worked at other high schools in our urban district over a span of sixteen years, I would get a similar response. Then, I used to reply that kids are just kids everywhere. I would elaborate in an attempt to expand the person’s viewpoint with stories of my students’ brilliance and accomplishments against unimaginable obstacles. The past two years I have had a different reply:

Actually, no. It isn’t tough being a teacher there. I love it. I love the boys I work with. They’re just kids.

I have to explain that these young men, the majority of whom are black and brown, and from environments designed by society to perpetuate poverty and oppression, are not the monsters that the corporate mainstream media and those dominant in our society would like us all to believe. They are kids. When I look at them, I see my own sons.

But let me tell you what really keeps me up at night…

  • A country that has promoted and allowed for mass incarceration; a modern Jim Crow
  • Prosecutors who care more about putting people in jail than keeping them out
  • A system of injustice that treats a guilty, old, wealthy, white male much better than an innocent brown and poor young man
  • A city that spends $50 million on the security of visitors for the RNC, but can’t find the money to protect our city’s children from violence in their neighborhoods or a policeman’s bullet
  • A city that spends $50 million to renovate a public space downtown, but can’t find money to prevent 2,000 children from being poisoned by lead each year in their homes, or money to provide children with nutritious meals free from processed foods and full of fresh ingredients 
  • The criminalization of addiction or other health issues & the lack of services available to assist people in need
  • Tertiary prison-for-profit businesses like “Jpay” who exploit the already desperate and disadvantaged families and their loved ones who are incarcerated
  • Schools, districts and politicians who care more about scores and data than the humanity and potential that every child deserves to have recognized and valued
  • Policies from politicians that have forced schools to become pipelines to prison, rather than conduits of knowledge and discovery
  • A system that magically transforms juveniles into adults in order to bind them out of the juvenile system, and into an adult county system that doesn’t even provide students with special needs access to their federally mandated civil rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

It isn’t tough being an educator at a county juvenile detention center. It is tough to regain the trust of kids who have been hurt by dumb adults too many times. It is tough to plop spoonfuls of self esteem on boys who are used to having it scooped away, and to hope that they embrace their own worth. It is tough knowing their stories of tragedy and childhood trauma, or to read how they can’t stop seeing the violence they’ve witnessed replaying in their minds. It is tough when they tell me they’re afraid because I know they need more than what they’ll get from me. It is tough when I push them to graduate, and they tell me that they never thought they would.

Caring about the boys I teach isn’t tough.

Greedy corporations and plundering profiteers that value money more than people, and capitalism more than children, in addition to our corrupt political system, are a burden ON ALL OF US, which makes things tougher for ALL OF US.

Kids belong in school, not jails. More funding should go to education, not incarceration. The liberty of people’s bodies, minds, and souls should never be exploited for profit.

 

How Can I Make My Students Republicans?

    “I know a lot of guys here hold anger against their fathers. I don’t blame my dad for not being around,” the articulate and thoughtful young man asserted, “he wasn’t given the opportunities that other people have had.”

It is not always easy to smolder the swell of tears, that initiates in my gut and rises with a heat quickly to just below my nostrils, when I hear the compassion and maturity my students express. Working as an educator in our city’s juvenile detention center, the 16-17 year old young men in my classroom in Cleveland, Ohio, bring me on emotional roller coaster rides unintentionally and unknowingly almost daily. I smile and laugh when they reveal glimpses of the childhoods they could have, and should have had, as they earnestly work to earn a treat or certificate in class. I send silent screams of rage out into an unresponsive universe, proclaiming unfairness and injustice as the culprits that are too often the cause of my students’ circumstances. Although I never let my students see a tear fall from my usually sleep-deprived eyes, a persistent heavy sorrow weighs on my shoulders.

    Another student chimed in, explaining that an elder provided him with his gun because he thought it would help keep him safe in his neighborhood. “It’s either shoot or get shot,” he stated as a matter-of-fact. An uncertainty about their health and safety is a reality that our CHILDREN, who are often not even given a chance to grow up in our city, confront every day. Over two-thousand children are poisoned with elevated lead levels every year in Cleveland; a completely preventable toxic attack on their health and lives that we keep allowing to happen. The website Neighborhood Scout rates Cleveland as safer than only 2% of other cities in the United States. Would my students approach the police to protect them, or their rights in our city? Can my students rely on our city leaders to protect and serve them?  A 2015 Department of Justice report about the Cleveland Police Department and the Tamir Rice story are enough to understand why my kids feel like they are in occupied territory. They often feel contained and neglected, not protected.      

    As Cleveland celebrates its historic championship basketball team, Calder Cup winning hockey team, and currently winning baseball team, officials are also preparing to showcase the city to the 50,000 visitors expected for the Republican National Convention, which is less than a few weeks away. The fruits of successful collaborative efforts between government, business and nonprofit entities are evident as long-time residents travel throughout Cleveland’s neighborhoods. Colorful art murals have appeared on the sides of buildings, walls, highway bridge supports, and utility boxes. New hotels have opened in time for the convention. Additional gardens and greenery-filled planters have been placed around the city for added beauty, and extra lighting has been strategically placed to keep visitors safe and so that the city can shine. Sidewalks and roads have been repaired and paved, and new trees have been planted. A redesigned public square was recently revealed for a $50 million dollar price tag. Outside of the aesthetic appeal of the multiple improvements around the city, $50 million dollars of an NSSE grant was allocated for security in a 2015 fiscal appropriations bill “to ensure the safety of convention goers,” according to Senator Portman (R) from Ohio.

    Recently, Cleveland has been given accolades by media sources throughout the country as a “revitalized city” ready for the national stage when the potentially boisterous Republican National Convention arrives July 18th. While Cleveland is putting its best foot forward for the worldwide media attention it is likely to receive, there are questions that should be asked about the amount being spent on the downtown area to impress and keep the RNC visitors safe.

     Where is the money to keep Cleveland’s children safe? Where is the money to revitalize neighborhood centers with mentors for Cleveland’s children? Where is the money to create jobs and job training for our young people and their families? Where is the money to turn our city schools into community resource centers for students and their families? Where is the money to eradicate lead poisoning and to keep testing children for lead? Where is the money to get guns off of the city’s streets? Why aren’t our city’s children as valuable as the 50,000 visitors who will descend upon our city, then leave? Where are the children’s $50 million dollar grants and allocations?

    Some people may respond with lines about generating business, marketing Cleveland to the world, and income generated for the city. The promises of capitalist investment abound for the already affluent, in a city that has no qualms about leaving its most vulnerable citizens in segregated, impoverished, isolated neighborhoods. Others may assert that the convention hosting is about business and not about messy human issues embedded in systematic and historical racism. To both assertions I reply “Correct!” Capitalist principles should not be applied when we are discussing human beings. Capitalism shouldn’t be integrated into healthcare, education, unions, or the judicial system. Profits or marketing shouldn’t be considered when leaders are aware of children being poisoned by lead, or when children need saved from violence. If it helps though, consider what a significant investment in our city’s children right now would do for the future of Cleveland. There is a tremendous waste of human potential created by the purposeful neglect of other people’s children.

   Clearly, the safety of visitors during the RNC is important to city, state, and national leaders. How can we make the children of Cleveland as valuable as these 50,000 temporary residents to those same leaders? How can I make my students, who have tremendous insight, resilience, and brilliance, as important as the republicans?

 

    

 

    

      

 

     

Hillary, Politicians, Education Reformers, & Education Profiteers: You Are Cowards & Failures

You say my school is failing. You label my students as failing. You call me a failure. Then you shake hands with profiteers who wear fancy suits and promote edperialism and a testocracy. These profiteers and elitists you embrace send their kids to expensive private schools, so their children don’t have to endure the policies stuffed full of educational malpractice you collaborated to create. They sit cozy in offices and devise untested business theories for application to the humanity that is education. You let them steal our tax dollars, and you praise them as philanthropists for their astronomical failures in education. It’s time you change your narrative. It’s time you change your proximity.

Do you really want to know what it’s like to be a public school teacher in an economically devastated & segregated neighborhood in one of our nation’s cities? Neither you nor the profiteers and policy makers really want to know. People like you want to keep judging and labeling, but you don’t want to admit that you helped create the suffering and disadvantage. You don’t want to claim the role and responsibility that you bear for the disasters you’ve created for other people’s children. Come take a look at my joyful, sad, sweet, angry, helpless, and hopeful students and tell them they’re failures to their faces. Come see me and my colleagues in our classrooms working 10-12 hour days and look us in the eyes and tell us we’re failures. Tell the families who rely on the existing public neighborhood schools we have left that they’re failures raising failures.

Does that seem harsh? It should.

But you have no problem preaching about “failing schools” full of “failing students” while you’re perched in expensive offices in skyscrapers, or as you muse about education in affluent and gated neighborhoods. Change your proximity and see if your narrative still feels all cozy, warm and righteous. See if you still possess the courage or ignorance to make bold declarations about failure when you’re looking into the eyes of hungry six-year-olds who suffered through childhood traumas and lead-filled homes in one of our nation’s cities. Can you look into those sweet, helpless faces and tell a little girl that she’s a failure?

Yet, that is what you do every time you or your education reformer/deformer friends and contributors suggest competition and privatization or closuresinstead of addressing the poverty, historic and systemic racism, and epic failure of our society to care about other people’s children.  The real failures among us fill boardrooms, legislatures, executive offices, non-profits, and cabinets all over this country. They aren’t in my classroom. They aren’t in my school. And they aren’t the families in my city.  They’re people like you.  And I have the courage to state that directly.  Now, I challenge you to stand in front of us and tell us we are failures while you are looking straight into the eyes of my children, my students, our school staff, and my colleagues. OR you can finally gain the courage to change your narrative, examine the research, and acknowledge the role that our nation has played in making sure that some people’s children start out with less than others, and to admit that we don’t do enough to change that, or do enough to help our fellow citizens catch up.  

Maybe once you have the courage to admit to policy and approach failures, you and those who believe that having money makes them authorities about EVERYTHING, will actually ASK educators, healthcare providers, social workers, mental health providers, safety and security providers, nutritionists, and the people we serve what is really needed to improve our cities and education.  I am pretty certain the response won’t be that we need more politicians and reformers threatening us and calling us failures. You won’t know though until you change your proximity, and then change your narrative. Meanwhile, I’ll keep working under your failed policies and egregious labels while making sure that my students, their families, and my colleagues remain reminded that YOU FAIL US then label us. Yet, until you make an initiative for change, it is YOU who should wear the label of failure and shame.

Not us.

*Changing proximity and changing the narrative were ideas presented by justice advocate and lawyer Bryan Stevenson at a Boston Community Conversation on December 9th, 2015 at Emerson University’s Paramount Theater in partnership with Facing History.    

Evaluate What?!?!

“I’m staying because I haven’t finished reminding our country that students are people not products, and that teachers are people too.”

You can tell Pat your story also! pat.bruns@education.ohio.gov

Hello,

I was told that you are gathering stories from Ohio teachers about their frustrations with legislation, certification, and how they are treated. Thanks for your interest. I’ve been asked more than once while I’m advocating or working for my students and the future of our city: “Are you just a teacher?”

Yep. I’m just a teacher.

If you’re willing to read on, I’m relieved to share what life is like for “just teachers” like me in one Ohio city.

I’ve been teaching in Cleveland for 18 years. I have an extensive resumé. I’ve only wanted to teach in urban schools. I hold an Ohio 5-year Senior Professional license. I am a Master Teacher, an OTES certified evaluator, a certified RE Mentor,  New Tech Certified,  and a certified Class Meetings Trainer. I hold a BA with a triple major and a double minor. I earned an MA in English Lit. I have 50+ hours towards an EdD. In addition to all of my training and education, I love working with kids, especially “those” kids, which is a label pregnant with all of the challenges, obstacles, and disadvantages that your imagination can conjure.

My passion and spirit started to dissipate when the state began to label schools and overwhelm us with testing and absurd mandates. It hurts your soul when you care deeply about kids, but are forced to become an accomplice to their ruin and part of a system that shames. Soon,the state and district threats “if the numbers don’t get higher” began menacingly hovering over our staff at the school I taught at for 13 years. The instability of many different administrators, constantly changing models, and repurposing everything, every year, was too head-spinning for me. So, I left that high school for another one in the same city that didn’t follow a traditional model. It had a consistent national model and innovative approach to education, although the staff and students moved buildings three times in five years. The experience reignited my passion, partly because I joined a staff that had been exclusively selected and were amazing to work alongside.

After completing two years at a New Tech school, the new collective bargaining agreement under The Cleveland Plan took effect. Voters had repealed the signing of Ohio Senate Bill 5, but that did not stop Governor Kasich or the legislature from continuing the attack on public schools. Even though decades of research has indicated that poverty and socioeconomic status far outweigh the impact of anything else on student success, the facts and truth do not stop ed-deformers, corporate profiteers, legislators, or edperialists from continuing to encourage legislation according to whatever whims they fancy. Amid a cluster of chaos and unknowns, the pseudo accountability of tying student test scores to educators and their compensation (salary) began with the year 2013-2014 in Cleveland for some teachers, and the rest would experience the turmoil eventually.

During the 2012-2013 school year, 80% of my students passed the social studies part of the Ohio Graduation Test. It is a test that covers ninth and tenth grade curriculum, but I only taught 10th grade. During the 2013-2014 school year, the new 10th grade class arrived, but they had a different 9th grade teacher than the students before them. There were also more challenging issues that the 2013-2014 10th grade students possessed that the prior year’s class had not. A little over 60% of my students passed the social studies OGT that school year, which was about ten percent higher than the district average. The district assigned predicted scores that my students were supposed to earn on the social studies OGT test, based on reading scores from NWEA tests that the students previously took. Apparently they had examined the numbers and there was a correlation between students’ reading and social studies scores. They didn’t consider other factors when creating predicted scores, such as the fact that some of my students were English Language Learners. There was no causal evidence of a link between reading and social studies scores, and the district only looked at scores from one year, so statistically speaking, the approach was completely flawed. I submitted this statistical analysis to the district as part of the grievance process: Statistical Analysis of the Validity of Using NWEA Reading Scores to Predict Social Studies OGT Results. My students’ scores didn’t match the district’s predictions, and were within a wide range above and below. I thought that the students’ OGT results would count towards half of my overall teacher rating as test scores are required by the state for 50% of teachers’ overall effectiveness ratings. I was incorrect.

Soon after students finished their week of March OGT testing in 2014, which drastically reduced instructional time not just during test week, but during weeks of test prep as well, the test coordinator and principal surprised me with another social studies test that students were to take by April 9th. The student results of this test were to be 35% of my evaluation, and students’ invalidly predicted performance scores on the OGT were the other 15% of my evaluation. The remaining 50% of my evaluation was based on my principal’s subjective placement of my performance on an extensive rubric.

When I was emailed the blueprint for the test chosen, I noted that it did not align with our district’s scope and sequence. I wrote the final version of the American History portion of the scope and sequence for the district that school year, so I was very aware of what was to be taught. There were also topics on the blueprint that we hadn’t been able to cover yet in class, because testing and test prep took up so much time that could have been used for instruction. Plus, the school year didn’t end until June, but the students had to take the test before April 9th, 2014. There was seven weeks of learning left, but they had to take a test on things that they were GOING to learn over the next seven weeks, and on content that was not even on our scope and sequence. I decided that I didn’t choose to be a teacher to make students feel stupid, and intended to resign. I started applying for non-teaching jobs.

In May, even though I had 29 “accomplished” and 13 “skilled” marks on my teacher evaluations throughout the school year, and was chosen as the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association Teacher of the Year, and earned Master Teacher status that year, and was interviewed by a national blog about a happiness project that February, and presented at national conferences, the principal stated at my composite conference that my students’ test scores just weren’t high enough for her to give me an overall “Accomplished” rating. That was the chalk that broke the teacher’s back. My salary is tied to my rating in Cleveland, which meant that I would not be getting a raise. Meanwhile, teachers of electives earned “Accomplished” ratings in the same building because not only are they “accomplished,” but they also did not have any tests tied to their composite ratings.

Neither I, nor my students, nor their families, have ever received the student performance results of the April 2014 test. Someone in our district mysteriously assigned me a “3” or “average” rating for the April 2014 student test scores. I have no idea how they concluded that I was average because I have never seen my students’ test results. This year, my former students from spring 2014 are high school seniors.

In May 2014, when discussing the torment that the students and I were experiencing because of test anxiety, a colleague mentioned a job opening for a teacher at the county juvenile detention center. Only state or federally mandated tests are required there, and current student test scores are not tied to educators’ evaluations (yet) because the population literally changes every day. I interviewed and accepted a position at our juvenile detention facility for significantly less pay than my previous position provided.

My first year at the county detention center (2014-2015) revived my teaching soul, and reminded me why I became a teacher: to facilitate and inspire learning. At the end of the year, my principal reviewed the 3 walk throughs that he completed, and the two formal observations (one announced and one unannounced) he conducted, as required by the teacher evaluation system. I earned an overwhelmingly “accomplished” composite rating. I felt vindicated. Then, in June 2015, I received an email from our Student Learning Outcome email account. It stated that my final rating for the 2014-2015 school year was going to be “skilled.” With shock and anger, I asked them how that was possible. The response has been that our legislature and collective bargaining agreement both allowed for the district to use those student test score results from the spring of 2014, from the school that I no longer taught at, from students that I no longer taught, from a test that I never received student results from, for three years. Regardless of how “accomplished” I am as an educator, scores that have nothing to do with my performance as a teacher, and scores that I never received results for, will hold me to a “skilled” rating for three years. This means that I will not receive an annual raise because an “accomplished” rating is what equals that raise. Educator ratings are also considered when reviewing applications for stipend positions that could supplement a teacher’s salary, so additional monetary losses accumulate.

If this sort of evaluation system is supposed to reward “great teachers,” then the system has epically failed. It certainly hasn’t made me feel appreciated, respected, or inspired either. I would give the teacher evaluation system an overall rating of “ineffective.” It is not even “developing.” (Those are two other ratings in the teacher evaluation system that can be assigned to educators.)

One may wonder…

Why then do I continue to stay late at work, continue to advocate, blog, network, and organize? Continue to monitor and communicate with my students and their families once they are released from me? Why do I continue to collaborate with staff, mentor other teachers, participate in national conferences, and attend additional professional development? Why do I plan engaging, meaningful lessons connected to students’ lives and provide them with effective feedback? And why do I differentiate, assess, and develop empathy and self advocacy in my students every day, if all I am ever going to be, according to the district and state, is “skilled?” If I know that I am not going to be paid more for doing more, then why am I always doing more?

I do what I do because I want what is best for my students. I treat my students the way I want my sons to be treated: with care, respect, compassion, confidence, and integrity. I didn’t decide to become a teacher because I wanted to be rich. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to not want to curse and attack the unfairness that surrounds public education, or to not be compelled to run away from it all. The string of teacher-resignation letters being published around the country is not without cause.

I’m not going anywhere, but obviously it isn’t the rewards I’ve received from the state or district for working hard that keep me around. I stay because I’m naive enough to hope that one day the oligarchy will wake up from their dreams of profiteering, deforming, and controlling, and restore control of public education to the professionals: educators. I’m staying because I know that money and greed have given rise to an opposition force of revolutionaries who want to reclaim the profession and our democracy. I want to bear witness as the resistance continues to swell. I want to remain in the fight until all public schools are equipped with the resources to provide equal access and opportunity to all citizens; because democracy is the people. The right to educational equity should also belong to the people. I’m staying because I haven’t finished reminding our country that students are people not products, and that teachers are people too.

If you’re reading this… thank a teacher.

Skilled I remain,

Melissa

Now is Always the Time to Do What is Right

    Recently, the Ohio Department of Education(ODE) held a phone propaganda conference to inform Ohioans about the state tests that they want students to take this school year (2015-2016). The new (but not really new) tests from AIR will replace the PARCC tests, but will still incorporate PARCC-like questions and possibly even the exact same questions used on tests that AIR created for purchasers in other states. AIR tests in the states of Utah and Florida this past year received less than positive accolades. Recruited for part of the ODE’s propaganda effort was Ohio’s 2015 Teacher of the Year, a high school teacher from Tallmadge, Ohio, and ODE Associate Superintendent, Lonny Rivera, who will soon be replacing retiring State Superintendent, Richard Ross. The following is my sincere plea to those educators who may not recognize the damage that high stakes standardized testing wreaks upon public education as a whole, but particularly on the schooling of underprivileged children.

Dear 2015 Teacher of the Year (and Any Other Educators Who Have Yet to Join The Force),

    I applaud the efforts and dedication that earned you the recognition bestowed upon you. Obviously, like the vast majority of educators I know, you care deeply about your subject, position and students. You have recognized and harnessed the power that teachers possess to impact lives. This ability, that only certain people can master, requires a combination of intellect, heart, endurance, passion, patience, dedication, and crafting. Knowing that, the entire profession should be held in high regard and well respected by politicians, leaders, and society in general. Being a “Teacher of the Year,” provides you with a potentially stronger voice to influence others. Listeners may even offer you a certain level of respect that they will not afford to the profession in general.

    With this great respect, comes great responsibility.

    When you convey to an audience of listeners that standardized high stakes testing is not punitive, or does not require you to teach to a test, you not only misinform that audience, but you forget that while you are lovingly nurturing and nourishing the minds of your students in a supportive community, with a democratically elected and locally controlled school board, there are other students and educators in the state who are enduring the dismantling of democracy, and the enforcement of harmful, non-researched based approaches designed to punish and label children and schools, even if those students and teachers are working just as hard, if not harder, than the staff and student body in Tallmadge.

Below is a comparison of Tallmadge, Ohio, to Cleveland, Ohio.

The cities are 37 miles apart.

2013 Tallmadge, Ohio Cleveland, Ohio
Unemployment Rate 1.8% 15.2%
Median Household Income $53,748 $26,096
Estimated Median House or Condo Value $154,170 $66,600
Average Monthly Rent $655 $631
Foreign Born Residents 2.7% 4.6%

http://www.city-data.com/

    The implications of the data should not need explanation, but it may be necessary to highlight that even when students are from families with a parent working full-time, year-round, they can still be living in a low-income household because wages are so low that many families cannot survive solely on what they earn.

     Growing up in poverty, or in a low-income household, can have significant effects on learning and brain development that have been known about for over a decade. According to the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, “Biological factors include toxin exposure (e.g., lead paint in older buildings), malnourishment, premature birth from prenatal drug and alcohol use, and vitamin deficiencies in the mother (e.g., folic acid). The NRC identified time between parents and their children to be the most important factor in early child development, and parents in low-income households often do not have the time to devote to their children. Less time with parents means less verbal discussion, less vocabulary development, and less social skill development — all contributing to a tougher time in school.”

    The organization  Zero to Three notes, “Research shows that major adversity, such as extreme poverty, can weaken  developing brain architecture and permanently set the body’s stress response system on  high alert.” Children from low-income families are  “at greater risk than middle‐ or  high‐income infants and toddlers for a variety of poorer outcomes and vulnerabilities, such as later school failure, learning disabilities, behavior problems, mental retardation, developmental delay, and health impairments.” None of this research reveals an actual deficit for the potential to learn, but it does reveal that standardization of learning is inappropriate and abusive to the mindsets of children who already have considerable odds to confront. Massive testing that has never been appropriately vetted to eliminate cultural biases, in addition to the dozens of other reasons high stakes testing lacks validity, has been punitive to our most vulnerable citizens, and has neglected the needs of our most gifted learners.

    Before even considering the disparities in access to resources and opportunities for students in Cleveland compared to those in Tallmadge, there is already an established pattern of risk for students that has nothing to do with the school systems, and everything to do with factors related to family backgrounds and socioeconomic status. Testing is not going to change that. An historical account of housing segregation and job discrimination in Cleveland, and other northern urban areas, reveals that the U.S. government contributed to segregated poverty when returning World War II white GI’s could get low-cost federal home loans to move to the suburbs, while black veterans could not. Then, there is the history of “sun-down towns”  and sun-down suburbs in Ohio and other northern parts of the U.S.  These areas still remain purposefully all white, or nearly all-white today, because they were intentionally designed to exclude other groups, particularly African Americans (3.4% of Tallmadge residents are African American). Testing does not promote integration or support equity. 

    There are adversities for Cleveland students that the majority of the population in Tallmadge and other suburbs may never encounter. Being a teacher anywhere means being a member of an important and necessary profession. We have the power to impact individuals and a collective future. However, when a teacher states from a perspective of privilege, that test scores are not punitive or that teachers do not have to teach to the test, then that someone is either lying or sorely lacks knowledge. If anyone believes that testing does not castigate, then they should go teach in one of the most economically devastated neighborhoods in a city, at a public school that cannot turn away students deemed as “less desirable,” and compare that experience to wherever they are coming from. Were the students retained because of a test, even when the professional educators who worked with the student all year saw growth?

     Take all of the teachers from a school rated “A” by the Ohio Department of Education in a suburb like Tallmadge, and swap them with the teachers at a school labeled “F” by the Ohio Department of Education for a year. Will the grades of the schools automatically be reversed the next school year after a year with new staffs? The odds are in strong favor of the state grades for both schools remaining the same, regardless of a staff swap. Does going to a school with despicable overhead labels hovering every day motivate students or teachers, or does that feel punitive? Teachers work hard wherever we are, but we can’t solve systemic poverty that was cast upon marginalized groups in our society, through generations of discriminatory and oppressive practices, all by ourselves. Educators need society to finally decide that rectifying past wrongs and caring for other people is worth the effort. We do not need another member of the profession touting false information to an audience of listeners or proclaiming that testing is not punitive. 

    We cannot change our country’s history or mistakes made in the past, and we should not regret wanting what is best for our children and working for that aim. Yet, we should also not be a society that continues to ignore the fact that the time to do what is right, is always NOW.

    NOW is the time to reject the high stakes test and punish system that has been discredited and exposed as producing little, but costing much. 

    NOW is the time to stand against punitive labels and inequities.

    NOW is the time to proclaim that our children are not products, and that they do not come standardized.

    NOW is the time to say that access to a quality education should not be a competition. It is a right.

    NOW is the time to decide that our children deserve much better.

    And to decide that other people’s children deserve better also.

    A better time than NOW will not arrive. The time to do what is right is always NOW.

Please join us.

Sincerely,

Just A Teacher

    

    

   

    

 

    

It’s Time to End the Age of Edperialism

It’s Time to End the Age of Edperialism

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

Edperialism – when individuals with more resources and power invade a system that belongs to people who live in the system, exploit those people and their resources, and structure a system to benefit the eduperial power and their interests without regard for the inhabitants of the system.

    Not too long ago, Ohio Governor John Kasich stated that if he were king, he would abolish teachers’ lounges. His statement seemed outlandish not only because most educators do not even know what a teachers’ lounge looks like, but also because he seemed to be aspiring to a tyrannical empire that British colonists considered so unfavorable – they would rather die than surrender to it. However, his words are actually a revealing admission of the fragmentation and privatization of public schools, and of what some have referred to as the testocracy. The combination of attacks on public education from multiple political, wealthy, and privileged factions in our society, who perhaps wish they were an absolute monarchy, is akin to imperialism, or what I refer to as edperialism.

    An honest historical outrospection of any nation’s imperial past calls for contemporary global citizens to denounce imperialist policies as racist, classist, elitist, sexist, and yet still very profitable for the nations doing the exploiting. For the people who lived in the colonies, or for those who remain affected by the remnants of imperialism, the cultural and economic effects have been brutal. Similarly, eduperial powers also called “education reformers”—often people who are extremely wealthy billionaires, hedge fund managers, and bankers—have gazed upon the 99% in this country through their possibly racist, classist, sexist, and elitist telescopes, to totally reshape American education for their own interests. With the goal of controlling resources to scratch the nagging itch for wealth and power, dominant members of America’s elite project a facade of benevolence. Unfortunately, most often their motives have been anything except altruistic or beneficial for the masses. Instead, their obsession with forcing all students to learn a similar curriculum at a similar pace has ruined true learning, and has ignored the very basic notion that all students learn through different modalities at different paces. Just as imperial powers failed to value the cultures of those they wished to exploit, or to recognize the humanity of those they subjugated, ed-reformers fail to acknowledge the credible, substantial amount of research and data that proves not only the failure of their test-based, standardized reforms, but also the harmful negative consequences thrust upon our cities, schools, students, and teachers.

    Recently, it wasn’t King John Kasich who was anointed to rule over American edperialism, so he could finally abolish those pesky teachers’ lounges. Instead, John King Jr. was appointed by President Obama to be the acting Secretary of Education once the current U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, steps down from the post in December. Acting Secretary King may have learned something from the failed edperialism policies he began as Education Commissioner in the state of New York, and he may even  possess characteristics of empathy. Surely, not every general or governor appointed to rule over colonized people during the height of global imperialism lacked superficial empathy. However, true empathy goes beyond simply understanding someone else’s viewpoint, or another person’s perspective. True empathy produces heroes that none of us will ever know the names of. These empathic heroes not only understand other people’s perspectives, but they value them and care about them.  They are grassroots organizers, activists, and agitators, and they are part of the resistance. If Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Secretary Arne Duncan, or Deputy Secretary John King were truly empathic people, brave residents under eduperial rule in Chicago would not have to go on a hunger strike for 34 days to try to save and revitalize a neighborhood public high school. Gandhi only had to be on a hunger strike for six days to change the minds of the British.

    More of the same edperialist approaches or policies from (acting) Secretary King is unacceptable. Our children, our public schools, and the future of our country as a democracy, are at stake under eduperial rule supported by an oligarchy. In the spirit of resistance to unjust, inhumane, and incogitable ignorance, it is time for those with true empathy to demand “insistence on truth,” or Satyagraha. This truth-force, or “the force that is generated through adherence to Truth,” must compel all students, educators, families, and communities to refuse to cooperate with the eduperial powers. We must refuse to submit to the injustices and inequities in education that we are fighting. This means we must refuse high stakes standardized tests for our children and students, and demand that truth and true empathy guide education policy. Power is only held through obedience. We allow the tyranny that we consent to. Our children can’t wait for an eduperial king at the U.S. Department of education to develop true empathy. If Gandhi’s Satyagraha can profoundly shake a vast empire, then imagine what the power of mass-mobilization in our country could do to begin to address the injustices and inequities in public education. Step one of the resistance is deposing the test-and-punish system. It will take strength, persistence, courage, and action. Join the non-cooperation movement. Refuse the tests. Help end the Age of Edperialism. 

What if they gave a test and nobody came?

Let’s find out.

For more information visit http://unitedoptout.com/,

http://www.networkforpubliceducation.org/,

http://www.badassteacher.org/, http://www.fairtest.org/, or

http://parentsacrossamerica.org/

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, please visit http://refuseofcuyahogacounty.webstarts.com/

   

    

 

Visit My Classroom at CCJDC & See How Hope Happens

Dear Senator Portman, Senator Brown, and Congresswoman Fudge,

I spent this past school year teaching at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center. I’m sure that you have preconceived notions about what the school and students are like. I can guarantee that your predictions and expectations would evolve after a visit to my classroom.

I work with 15-17 year old male students. Many of them have had childhoods filled with tragedy and have faced obstacles that have left them feeling as if there are no options for them except a life on the street. Most complain about school because it is not designed for students who like to learn with their hands, who can’t sit still for extended lengths of time and be quiet, who are intellectually gifted, or who don’t want to go to college. Instead of changing the system to meet the needs of these most vulnerable students, or providing resources and instituting funded policies that would assist these young men, they are faced with a system often endorsed by politicians that feeds a school-to-prison pipeline.

With all of the research we have about brain development throughout every stage of life, it is inexcusable that we treat these young men as if they have the capacity to make sound adult decisions, particularly when the majority haven’t been given strong social guidance during their crucial developmental years. Instead of endorsing a system of high stakes standardized testing that pushes these students out of schools and bores them into behavior problems that can result in criminal charges, our students need wrap around services such as access to mental health care, addiction treatment, social workers, mentors, nutrition and full healthcare access, and an opportunity to learn in an environment that doesn’t further punish them for poverty or instability in their homes. Families need this support from conception to graduation, not just K-12.

I have had students flourish in my class under the direction of our administrator. They have gone from being chronologically behind grade levels, to being caught up on their high school credits during the time they are incarcerated. These successes give them something that they are lacking in the segregated, impoverished neighborhoods from which most of them begin their academic careers: hope. These achievements can only occur because I have the freedom to design curriculum on an individual basis for my students, the opportunity to design instruction based on student interests and the most recent educational research, and because I am trusted by my administrator to try strategies that I believe may assist my students. Being confined by strict curriculum scripts, a narrow focus on passing high stakes standardized tests, and zero tolerance discipline policies that exist in traditional high schools would only cause further detriment to these students who need the best instruction the most. I am also trusted to adapt my instruction as needed, to collaborate with my partner who teaches the same age group, and to not only learn from successes, but from attempts that were not necessarily as successful as I had hoped.

One student I had this year began his time in my class unwilling to do a lot of work in school. After a little time with us, he began to realize that he was surrounded by people who care, people who have his best interest in mind and heart, and is in a facility that will support him, his education, and his teacher. Through his hard work and some incentives negotiated between myself and the detention officers, the student is now a senior instead of a sophomore, has passed 4/5 state tests, and will not leave our administrator alone about how many credits he has and still needs to graduate. Even in his challenging situation, he now has hope. He has experienced academic success and can now envision possibilities. What if our entire education system was structured to provide this same feeling for all of its stakeholders? What if not only students, but teachers, parents, and the communities that some of these most at-risk students come from were in a culture of hope instead of one that seeks to marginalize, punish, and contain?

The resources, small classes, and wrap-around services provided to our young men should not be exclusive to a detention center. These supports must be provided to all schools that need them, so that some day my school does not have a detained juvenile population to serve any more. Politicians, policy makers, and wealthy elitists need to stop trying to further deform our education system with mandated testing and pseudo accountability, and instead focus on research based strategies in existence for decades that will adapt schools to fit students’ needs. The damage to students and failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top is evident when you walk into our school, or around the community in which we are located. I implore you to come visit my classroom, hear our stories, and meet the citizens that your legislative reforms, and needed reforms, impact every day.

Sincerely,

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

Refuse of Cuyahoga County

Lessons “THAT kid” taught me in my classroom:

As a sequel to Why I Tell My Kid Not to Avoid “THAT Kid”

Lessons “THAT kid” taught me in my classroom:

  • Just when I’m about to declare myself to be completely left without a shred of patience, I can close my eyes, take a deep breath, and open my heart up just a little bit more. There are always more patience.
  • It is alright if some days I learn more from them about humanity, than I think I can ever teach them.
  • Save tears of happiness or sorrow for when I’m alone. Seeing a teacher cry even scares the older students who think they are tough stuff.
  • Always focus on the small victories. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and building children is far more important.
  • Don’t allow the lies of education reformers (AKA deformers) to get me down. They have no idea that teaching is part love, part science, part craft, part knowledge, part social, part academic, part trust, part persistence, part determination, and part faith in “THAT kid” becoming an awesome adult one day
  • Be grateful to fate for bringing “THAT kid” to my classroom. because maybe I can help “THAT kid” figure out that being “THAT kid” isn’t really all THAT bad. In fact, being “THAT kid” doesn’t have to be a bad thing at all.

My 3-Minute Plea to the Cleveland Board of Education 3-26-15

Good evening. My name is Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith.

 

Thank you, once again, for this opportunity to speak.

 

This evening I stand before you as a parent advocate. As evidenced by the easy passage of the last school levy, this community and its parents support Cleveland schools, and that respect and support deserves consistent reciprocity. I don’t believe that I need to rehash recent media reports in order to justify bringing attention to this issue.

 

As I briefly share some reasons why families have refused to allow their children to participate in high stakes standardized tests, I hope that you will consider adopting a policy that is respectful and supportive of families who express the desire to direct their children’s education, as protected by the 14th amendment.

 

This is why we refuse…

 

Because children should not have to attend a school labeled “failing,” or labeled anything at all

 

School buildings shelter children with vast amounts of untapped potential. Not failures.

 

FAILURE should never be the name of a monster hovering over a school building making children afraid of how they will do on a test

 

Children shouldn’t have to be afraid of how their teacher will be hurt by their performance on a test

 

Or how their school or community or city will be labeled because of how they do on a test

 

What sort of sane society that supposedly cherishes its children puts that sort of pressure on a child?

 

We refuse because without the data, they can’t label our children or anyone else’s children

 

We refuse

 

Because we know that standardized test scores have only been good at proving one thing: childrens’ life experiences and backgrounds far outweigh the impact that a school or teacher has on their test performance

 

We refuse

 

Because we don’t want our children’s privacy violated & we don’t want test companies profiting  off of our children

 

Because we know that things like art, music, gym, and recess have been shown by research to increase academic success and shouldn’t be reduced or eliminated because kids need to take or prepare for more standardized tests

 

We refuse

 

Because we know that the emotional and social growth of children in school is not measured on a standardized test

 

Because the teacher who delivers groceries to a family in need, advocates for a student, or becomes a student’s confidant, counselor, or role model will never have that data show up in test results & we trust our children’s teachers to assess their progress

 

We refuse

 

Because struggling students should not be made to feel like less than the developing human beings that we ALL started out as because tests are used to label

 

We know that the long term consequences of labeling & retention are profound

 

NONE of our children are “limited,” “basic,” or “common”

 

Words that label can and do. Hurt and Divide.

 

We refuse

 

Because over 2000 education researchers, experts, and professionals signed a letter pleading with our President and Congress to stop relying on high stakes standardized testing to improve education – we have a decade of data proving that it doesn’t work

 

Because there are mountains of research that provide more effective and research proven methods to educate our children and to evaluate teachers and schools

 

We refuse

 

Because when we look at our children, we see their smiles, their talents, their goofiness, the crumbs around their mouths, the dirt on their skin, and the hope in their eyes

 

And when we look at our kids

 

We never see them as data or test scores

 

And neither should you

 

Thank you for your time and attention.

For additional information, please visit:

 

fairtest.org

 

parentsacrossamerica.org

 

teacher-advocate.com

 

http://unitedoptout.com/

 

Or take a look at recent articles and blog posts:

 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/people/valerie-strauss

 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/

 

http://dianeravitch.net/

 

http://www.plunderbund.com/?s=ecot

 

http://www.plunderbund.com/2015/02/22/do-parcc-reading-passages-exceed-tested-grade-levels/

 

http://www.politico.com/story/2015/02/pearson-education-115026.html

msvigeljsmith.wordpress.com

St Paddy’s Day, Starvation & Public Education

In case you missed it last year…

Perhaps you’ll be recovering this weekend, along with many others, from the celebrations on St. Patrick’s Day which are full of parades, green clothing, Irish whiskey, green beer, and corned beef. Setting all of the green fun aside, the history of Irish immigrants is dark and rich, and should prompt all of us to question why we continue to allow those in power to starve the poor.
During the first winter of famine in Ireland in the mid-1800s, hundreds of thousands of Irish peasants starved, while landlords and the British exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of food that could have prevented the starvation. As those Irish who were able to migrated to other countries for survival, the British government and Anglican church did nothing on behalf of the poor in Ireland to stop the starvation.
In America, Trump’s recent budget proposal could cut programs that feed poor children and the elderly, and his Secretary of Education mocks our national free lunch program. Are we any better today than the capitalist and colonial forces that sacrificed Ireland’s peasants over 150 years ago? Looking at the deprivation, violence, trauma, and toxins that are allowed to surround the students I serve in Cleveland, Ohio, I’m uncertain that we’ve learned anything from history.
According to Feeding America, in 2015, 42.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children. What does it mean to live in a country where over one-third of the adults are obese, and a country that exports $131 billion in foods, feeds, and beverages, yet fails to provide its most vulnerable citizens with access to adequate nutrition? Maybe it is time to examine what it means when food remains a commodity, instead of a human right.
What happens when the same destructive global system of profit that pervasively commodified food is applied to education? We’re left with segments of the population starved of adequate learning materials, resources, qualified instructors, enrichment activities, and the arts, and a citizenry devoid of the ability to think critically. We’re left with colonizers telling certain demographics that they aren’t worthy of democratically controlled school boards or neighborhood schools, but that they are still good enough to pay taxes. We allow for fallacious ideas like competition, charters, vouchers, and the generation of standardized products formerly known as children to invade our common schools and devour public funds. We become victims of profiteers and eduperialists who legally plunder millions (billions?) of public dollars to inflate their personal wealth at the expense of educating all children. We manifest a destiny that empathetic future historians will surely reflect upon with shock, dismay and horror.
As we recover and rejuvenate from St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans, we don’t have to let the dismal tragic details of Irish immigration get us down, but perhaps we can reflect upon our country’s obsession with capitalism and the commodification of things that everyone should have access to as human beings. Consider the words of Fintan O’Toole, a columnist for The Irish Times:
“We either wink at a racism that affords most of us the privilege of a white skin,” he wrote. “Or we honour the struggles of so many millions of Irish immigrants to be accepted as equal human beings.” … Will we stand “up for all of those who share the Irish experience of having to overcome poverty and prejudice in order to make decent lives for our children?

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. (Gaelic)

Under the shelter of each other, people survive.

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