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!

Do Your CTU Dues Benefit You, or Just A Lucky Few?

Do your CTU dues benefit you, or is your money going to a lucky few?

And Social Justice for AllCTU could be a union of social movement seeking social justice for all, but the current corporate model it espouses under AFT seems to be only benefiting a few.

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. ~ Lord Acton

     Let me begin by stating that I am a strong supporter of unions as a movement to create greater equity and opportunity in our society. I believe in the collective power of the masses to initiate changes that will benefit the greatest number of members in our society. The way unions were organized amid dire threats and violence to improve the lives of workers as they fought for living wages, limits to the workday and workweek, and safer conditions in the workplace was heroic. I appreciate the sacrifices that teachers before me made to improve working conditions and student learning conditions. I also believe that hard work outside of contracted hours deserves fair payment. However, as I review the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 budget for the Cleveland Teachers Union (CTU), it isn’t pride or admiration that swells within me.

     While my net pay is less than it was before our recent two-percent increase, the latest budget proposal approved at the CTU May 2017 delegate assembly shows a 7.89% increase in the CTU President’s Salary from $38,000 to $41,000 (line item 70190). This is in addition to the President’s Second Salary and benefits reimbursement (line item 70195) that increased from $100,000 to $108,000. Those line items do not include the annual expense account for the president of $2500 (line item 70200), and the president’s automotive stipend of $3600 annually (line item 70201). Combined, being president of the Cleveland Teachers Union provides a benefits and salary package of $155,100. Plus, the president no longer has to teach in a classroom under the stressful and oppressive mandates that everyone else is subjected to (TDES, TBTs, SLOs, SGMs, etc.) because CTU work is a president’s full time job. I am not advocating for less for anyone, but I am questioning why all of us are not seeing a similar increase in benefits. I am questioning why the CTU president has an additional union salary that is higher than what our paraprofessionals make for an entire year of work. I am questioning why the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Chief Executive Officer, Eric Gordon, has declined an automotive stipend in his past two contracts, and has agreed to increases in his salary that are comparable to what teachers receive, yet the union president has a car stipend and a union salary increase that is almost four times what teachers received.

     Here are several other line items that members may ask about in the latest budget, since our dues have increased to almost $1000 per year:

  • Why is there a 43.75% increase for the 5 trustees (line item 70235) from $3840 each to $6000 each?
  • Why is the telephone bill $26,000/year (line item 70125)? Is that what it costs to provide all of the union executives union-provided iphones?
  • Where are the receipts for the committee expenses? How do the two or three parties that the Social Committee (line item 70250) has each school year cost the same amount as workshops provided a few times per year by the Salary and Benefits Committee (line item 70255) or the Civil, Democratic and Human Rights Committee (70260)?
  • How much money and how many resources could we save by providing online digital versions of publications instead of paying the full $9600/year (line item 70280)? Why are we paying a retired CTU member to run the Critique instead of hiring an active member?
  • Why did the amount for AFT/TEACH conventions double from $15,000 to $30,000 (line item 70320)? Are we questioning why AFT is spending more on these conventions when membership is lower?
  • Why did OFT go from 0 to $20,000 (line item 70325)? How does that one convention within our state cost 66% as much as the AFT/TEACH national convention? In a state in which teachers, public schools and unions have been under a barrage of attacks, will spending this much money on the convention produce results? Will attendees leave with more than OFT party favors? Will they leave with skills and strategies to fight the decimation of public education that they can share with members?
  • How does sending union executives or other union members to professional development conferences for $29,500 benefit students or rank-and-file members? What do those who attend bring back from these professional development conventions that we do not already have or cannot already obtain from members in CTU? (line items 70335, 70336)
  • Why are we paying so much for parking (from $16,000 to $18,000 line item 70217)? The residential rate is $150/month at the Halle Building. It costs $1800/person for 10 people to have monthly passes year round, so who gets monthly passes? Do our offices have to be downtown, or could they be in a less expensive neighborhood that needs some revitalization?
  • Why are we paying so much for rent and electricity ($200,000/year line item 70120)? We could purchase a $750,000 dollar building for that amount in Cleveland over the course of five years, employ local union laborers for repairs and upkeep, and not have to spend money on rent or parking ever again.  Would a financial adviser recommend an upfront investment that could save money for members in the long term?  
  • Why is there a 3% increase in Staff Salaries (line 70215)? How are there still union salary steps and levels when this sort of system has been destroyed for everyone still in the classroom full time?
  • Does the financial incentive (line item 70215) of being a union executive (with allowable hours away from classroom assignments) contribute to a climate of corruption within our union? Remember when there was a suggestion by union executives to stop mailings to members’ homes, even though those mailings cost our union absolutely nothing? Luckily, the idea was defeated because the alleged complaints about receiving home mailings were not more fierce than the complaints by members concerning other AFT mailings (I’m really sick of AFT trying to sell me insurance and credit cards, but welcome alternative perspectives from rank-and-file-members in my mailbox).
  • Why are CTU members paying more in dues than ever before, and paying higher salaries for union positions than ever before, yet our membership has dropped over the past 15 years by approximately 40%? Shouldn’t less membership mean less work to be done, less salaries to be paid, and less positions that need filled?

     Over a century of political and economic attacks on teachers, teacher unions and public education are also an attack on women, children, and the working class. Huge pay inequities between men and women and women’s suffrage were driving forces among early social movement unionists and activists like educator Margaret Haley, and social justice activist Susan B. Anthony in 1853. Those early activists recognized the connection between protecting teachers’ rights and students’ rights when it was time to negotiate contracts and working conditions. Currently, an evolution in large urban teachers unions, like Chicago and Milwaukee, has reclaimed the social justice roots of unions, aligning themselves with community groups and other unions to improve the communities in which they work, and the lives of their students as part of a comprehensive strategy to improve education for students. AFT President, Randi Weingarten’s, continued support of charter schools, which were formed to decimate unions and undermine public schools, is a strong indication that we cannot rely on top leadership to guide us in a shift back to social justice unionism. It must begin from within our local unions by rank-and-file members who recognize the union as a medium for democracy and social justice activism, not as an entity that suppresses dissent in order to maintain the power and benefits of a few.

Link to May CTU Approved Budget Documents

 

 

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.

 

 

 

  

 

My Students Pay Every Day for Their “Free” Lunch

     When billionaire Betsy Devos, the woman who bought the Secretary of Education position in Donald Trump’s administration, addressed attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, she received a lot of criticism from people who actually care about children for a remark she made in which she claimed to be the first person to tell Bernie Sanders “to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Although her comment was meant to be humorous, those of us who possess an ounce of humanity know that there is nothing funny about children living in poverty. However, this may be the one and only time that I can actually agree with the literal words of Betsy Devos. There is no such thing as a free lunch. In fact, my kids pay every day.

      According to a 2016 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1 in 4 kids in Ohio, about 600,000 children, are living in poverty.  In the city that I teach in, Cleveland, 53.2% of children are living in poverty. Our children absolutely pay every single day of their lives for the meager opportunity to have a “free lunch.” They may not be paying with the currency that Betsy DeVos and her wealthy cronies value, but they are paying in many other ways that matter so much more. Below are just a few examples from the American Psychological Association:

Effects of child poverty

  • Poverty is linked with negative conditions such as substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, inadequate child care, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and under-resourced schools which adversely impact our nation’s children.
  • Poorer children and teens are also at greater risk for several negative outcomes such as poor academic achievement, school dropout, abuse and neglect, behavioral and socioemotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays.
  • Economists estimate that child poverty costs an estimated $500 billion a year to the U.S. economy; reduces productivity and economic output by 1.3 percent of GDP; raises crime and increases health expenditure (Holzer et al., 2008).
Poverty and academic achievement
  • Chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory which may impact their ability to learn.
  • The academic achievement gap for poorer youth is particularly pronounced for low-income African American and Hispanic children compared with their more affluent White peers.
Poverty and psychosocial outcomes
  • Children living in poverty are at greater risk of behavioral and emotional problems.
  • Unsafe neighborhoods may expose low-income children to violence which can cause a number of psychosocial difficulties. Violence exposure can also predict future violent behavior in youth which places them at greater risk of injury and mortality and entry into the juvenile justice system.
Poverty and physical health

Children and teens living in poorer communities are at increased risk for a wide range of physical health problems:

  • Low birth weight
  • Poor nutrition which is manifested in the following ways:
    1. Inadequate food which can lead to food insecurity/hunger
    2. Lack of access to healthy foods and areas for play or sports which can lead to childhood overweight or obesity
  • Chronic conditions such as asthma, anemia and pneumonia
  • Risky behaviors such as smoking or engaging in early sexual activity
  • Exposure to environmental contaminants, e.g., lead paint and toxic waste dumps
  • Exposure to violence in their communities which can lead to trauma, injury, disability and mortality

    As I was leaving a wake this morning for a teen I knew who was killed while at a playground in Cleveland, the price that my students pay because of poverty weighs heavily on me. There are no free lunches. My kids might get some free food at the schools they attend, but no one can tell me that they aren’t paying.

Reciprocal Rescue Story About Our Dog, Gatsby, as it appeared on cleveland.com

http://www.cleveland.com/faces-of-the-suns/index.ssf/2016/12/gatsby_filling_void_for_family.html

 

‘Gatsby’ filling void for family, now will serve as therapy dog; send us your pet-rescue stories

Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, of Berea, found the perfect furry companion when she rescued Gatsby, a Lab-pit-bull mix.

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By Special to cleveland.com

on December 15, 2016 at 9:12 AM

BEREA, Ohio — We got our dog, Gatsby, from the shelter on West 7th in Cleveland. He was nothing but a big head and bones with a really dull coat of fur whose color was indistinct when we got him. He’s now a healthy, shiny, chocolate-colored happy guy. He overcame a lot, including separation anxiety. I can’t imagine life without him.

We initially sought a lab-pit mixed dog because my son stayed with us in between college and his move to Nashville for about a year with his lab-pit mixed dog,  Ace, and I thought bringing in Gatsby would help ease the pain of the separation we would feel once my son and Ace moved. I tried to get my son to leave Ace with us, but he told me that getting Ace was a life-long commitment, not just an idea he had in college. I thought to myself, “darn it, why did I raise a responsible, caring kid?”

Even more… I work with young people as an educator at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center and Gatsby is about to pass the first part of his certification process towards being a therapy dog with the help of a trainer who specializes in working with dogs from shelters.

This amazing trainer also runs the program at Grafton, which offers dog training through the prison facility for dogs waiting to be adopted.

A colleague who works with autistic students gave me the idea to train Gatsby as a therapy dog. The majority of my students come to me at varying levels of crisis and trauma.  I believe Gatsby and my students will benefit from his intelligent, gentle, and loyal disposition once they begin to interact. Before my grandmother passed in September this year, we took him with us to visit her at a nursing home and the residents loved him there.

In the end, Gatsby may have been rescued, but he also  saved us from feeling completely devastated when my son and Ace moved, brought cheer to residents at Saybrook Landing, and he’ll ease the spirits of kids in detention in our county facility once we finish the therapy training process.

It makes me so sad to hear about breed bans because my pit-lab is the sweetest, most loyal, and fabulous dog anyone could ever ask for. Every time he wants to meet a new dog, he bows down and waits for the dog to approach. The only time I’ve ever witnessed aggression, is from little dogs yipping and lunging towards him.  He just walks away.

Those are the chapters of my dog-rescue life. I hope that others open their lives to the amazing potential of rescue love.

Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith

Berea

Have you rescued a companion animal that is now part of your family? We’d like to hear from you. Tell us something about your pet – all species are welcome – and send along a photo of the two of you. Be sure to tell us which community you live in. Send everything to Linda Kinsey at lkinsey@cleveland.com.

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dgwlkr5 days ago

What a great story. Sounds like Gatsby is touching many lives.

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VP of Discontent6 days ago

Thank you for the beautiful story, Melissa, and thank you for saving Gatsby…although it sounds like he saved you as well 😉

 

It Takes a Community: Social & Emotional Learning at a Juvenile Detention Center

The following are links to the Google slides prepared for a 5-7 minute Ed Talk at SEL in Action, a conference in Phoenix, Arizona, made possible through the generosity of the NoVo Foundation, and planned and hosted by Education First. I am very grateful that I was given this opportunity, and more importantly, that my students were given a chance to shine.

It Takes a Community  

it-takes-a-community-2

Thanks to Jillian A. for the photo. 🙂

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 feel compelled 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 and public attitudes that have encouraged schools to be part of a pipeline to prison nexus, 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 liberation and 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?

 

    

 

    

      

 

     

Hope & the Means for Justice

Speaking Points for May 12th GCC Listen. Act. Win. at FDR School in Cleveland, Ohio

Good evening. My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith. Thank you to everyone for the opportunity to speak this evening.

I’ve been a high school teacher in Cleveland Public Schools for 18 years. The past two years I have been working in a classroom with young men being held at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC).

Yes. CMSD has a school at the juvenile county jail. It is called the Downtown Education Center, or “the DEC.”

I could stand here today and share the stories of tragedy, despair, and trauma that I am frequently privy to, but those stories are not mine to tell. I could also speak to the many ways that we, as a community and society, miserably fail our city’s children, which often results in their placement at CCJDC. However, tonight I am here to present some of our academic challenges, which I believe can be eradicated.

Think for a brief moment… what is the difference between a young person that has plans to attend college soon, and a young person who decides to rob a store or steal a car? (pause)

I contend, that at the most basic levels of our understanding, one young person has hope and believes they have access to a means for justice. The other young person does not see a means for justice and lacks that hope.

Working in classrooms with groups of less than 20 students, the teachers at the DEC work hard to rebuild, or create, a sense of hope in our young people.

In March, a young man who started in my classroom last school year, graduated from our school. Over the course of one year, this young man was in and out of our juvenile facility, at 2 residential facilities in 2 different counties, and he attended one of our traditional CMSD High Schools. I knew in order for him to graduate, I needed to follow him through all of his placements. Without that follow up, he would not have had an accurate transcript, would not have been placed in the correct classes, and would not have been able to earn that diploma. However, this student is only one of over 1000 children each year at the DEC that need this exhaustive follow through.

There is a disconnect between our school, residential facilities, and CMSD.

Just this week I had a student return to me who had worked hard and earned credits while he was with me the first time. He was even  promoted to his proper grade level. He told me that the CMSD school that he was enrolled at, in between his times with me at the DEC, placed him back in 9th grade classes that he had already passed and earned credits for. When he protested, he was told that “it was hard to get transcripts from the jail.” It isn’t difficult at all. We use the SAME data system. His credits and grades are in that system. Plus, we issue exit reports within a week of a student leaving us to return to their last known high school of record. He also had Fs on his report card in addition to the grades we gave him, because teachers are told that they cannot leave any blanks when report card grades are due. Can you imagine how difficult and frustrating it is for this young man? How are we, in CMSD, securing hope and justice for our young people?

There is no clear policy or explanation in place that is being communicated to regional superintendents, principals, teachers, guidance counselors, or administrative assistants, as to how to make sure that grades and credits are following students and being properly shared with the appropriate personnel.

The success that a great majority of our students experience while with us, often all seems like a lie to the families and students when CMSD issues report cards, and they see a bunch of Fs incorrectly listed on them, or they are missing credits that students have earned. This lack of communication consumes a tremendous amount of time and produces an unnecessary amount of frustration.

Mr. Gordon, you have an opportunity to set a local, state, and even national precedent for how education within the juvenile justice system can be done correctly.

Through a collaborative process that includes our staff, we ask for 3 things on behalf of students at the DEC:

  1. Ensure that a clear policy and explanation are in place with regard to record keeping for students at the DEC and other residential facilities. Make this policy available and all CMSD staff, faculty, and administrators aware of it.  
  2. Designate a CMSD key liaison responsible for receiving, requesting, sharing, and following up on academic records for kids being detained or placed in residential facilities to ensure accountability.
  3. Finally, we ask that you allow us to welcome you to the DEC for a conversation with our young people and GCC during the 2016-2017 school year, and become one of the champions of education for the young people in the juvenile justice system who need opportunity, hope, and justice just as much, if not more, than anyone else.

I believe that a conversation with the boys in my classroom will reveal that our young people do not want charity, or pity, or sympathy, but that the most important thing to them during these crucially important developmental years, is hope. They hope that if they do the right thing, the adults responsible for cultivating their future will be pushing doors open for them, so that they can enter into a realm of what is possible, and a means to true justice for all.

 

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Now is Not the Time to do What is Convenient

     Cleveland Public Schools have been under mayoral control with an unelected, mayor-appointed school board since 1998. Under the Cleveland Plan three years ago, test scores became the driving factor for all decisions, and a tedious, subjective, punitive teacher evaluation system, as well as merit pay for teachers, was implemented. The Cleveland Teachers’ Union and the District began negotiations for a new contract this school year. Recently, representatives of  the District announced that they were walking away from the negotiating table, and instead began preparing for a fact finding.

My speaking points for the Cleveland, Ohio, Board of Education Meeting 2-23-2016

Good evening, my name is Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith. I am an educator in Cleveland, CTU member, and an advocate for children.

Rather than leave the profession entirely two years ago, I switched positions in the District for a 20% pay cut, because I feel that the current data-obsessed system (even when the data produced is not valid) is harmful to students. Of course, all of us working in schools deserve to be paid fairly for our education, work, and experience, but being a teacher has never been about money.  

As others have already alluded to this evening – members of multiple unions work in this district because we care about students. We want the children of Cleveland to have a quality, sustainable, public education system.

Those of us who serve students in a variety of capacities in our district, experience firsthand every day the challenges that confront many of our young people in the city. I would like to use my time (3 minutes) to bring awareness to some of these issues, and I hope you consider the multiple factors that influence a child’s educational experience as we move forward this school year and for school years to come.

For example:

We know that the Plain Dealer reported this past October that 2000 children are poisoned with elevated lead levels every year in our city, and that this exposure causes learning disabilities and behavior issues in children that could have been prevented, but now require special interventions; interventions that more “rigor” in school classrooms will not address.

We know that venture capitalists and for-profit firms are salivating over the exploding $788.7 billion market in K-12 education, and are already enjoying making money off of our city’s children. Breaking up unions is not going to stop them, even though Governor Kasich has tried his best to destroy them.

We know that invalid and made-up test scores are repeatedly used to shame and harm students, teachers, and schools so that those with their eyes on dollar signs can run in with the next latest and greatest scam-of-a-solution to save us all; when really it is politicians and society who have repeatedly failed to address or profited from the social injustices that perpetuate around us.

We know that students may show up to school traumatized at varying degrees, and schools do not have an adequate amount of access to mental health professionals or social workers, and that piling more paperwork on teachers is not going to solve that.

We know that structural inequalities, an unequal distribution of resources, and institutional racism still exist in our city and schools, and that hiring more expensive outside consultants will not eliminate that reality.

We know that highly trained, experienced, and committed teachers are what research shows us will benefit our most vulnerable and needy students, and that punishing educators for wanting to work with those students with a subjective and invalid evaluation system is not a solid retainment strategy.

We know that research shows us that children need time for free play and movement, and access to art, music, physical education, and fully-staffed libraries to maximize their learning and development, and that the excessive amount of tests that our young people endure is making those important opportunities less accessible or non-existent.

We know that students who end up in our justice system, foster care system, residential programs, or homeless are often neglected or poorly tracked because of systemic neglect and failures.

We know that access to healthcare can be a challenge for some of our students. We need full time school nurses all day, every day and access to other physical therapy and medical professionals. More unfunded mandates from Columbus, Washington, or City Hall are not going to make access to that healthcare a reality either.  

We know that if our parents and community stakeholders are qualified enough to pass a school levy through the democratic process of voting, then they are qualified enough to participate in the process of voting for a democratically elected school board.

We know that every child has the ability to learn and excel, and we want the best schools for all of our students. We want money to be spent on classrooms and kids. We want our students to be ready for our diverse 21st century world, and not forced into the role of testing robots or drones.

None of us have a problem with being accountable for the things that we can and should control, but the system better be fair and hold every stakeholder accountable, including all of us here this evening.

Now is not the time to do what is convenient. Now is ALWAYS the time to do what is right.

Thank you for your time this evening.

PS – As an RIP to Jeb’s campaign… Please Clap

Suggestions and a Request of the Ohio Department of Education

Emailed to statetests@education.ohio.gov

Dear Ohio Department of Education (ODE),

Please stop misleading and lying to parents about state tests.

In addition to the corruption surrounding charter schools that forced Governor Kasich’s buddy, Dave Hansen, to resign from his position as school choice director at the ODE, and the sinister and deceitful attack on urban school districts in the state (in partnership with business leaders and many in Ohio’s legislature), the unscrupulous and blatant disregard for honesty or truth also permeates the department’s testing “informational” literature.

In opposition to multiple misleading or blatantly false claims in the ODE’s Information on Student Participation in State Tests, I prepared some truth to share.

  1. States are required under the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to maintain annual testing in grades 3-8 in reading and math and once in high school, and three science tests are to be given between grades 3 and 12. Any additional testing is completely at the discretion of state lawmakers and the ODE. Furthermore, state lawmakers decide how much test scores count within state-created accountability frameworks. Thus, elected representatives, who are supposed to represent the people – not test-makers profiting off of the system, or charter school operators looking to use children as cash cows – can decide to continue the climate of test and punish, or they can approach education as a right that all children should have equitable access to, under the guidance of credible research-based instructional approaches. This would be a fresh approach not guided by corporate and unethical profiteers and instead focuses on children’s best interests.
  2. Although thus far Ohio is continuing the pattern of harmful high stakes testing, under ESSA, lawmakers have the discretion to determine how to address schools or districts with parent opt-out or refusal rates which result in less than 95% of the student population being tested. In a democracy, when the government secretly plans then implements policies that are in opposition to the people’s wants or needs, then the people should revolt. The more people that join the revolution or resistance, the sooner the Ohio Department of Education, Governor, and Legislature will get the message.
  3. Testing is not educating. Stop saying that teachers need the results of these tests to inform instruction. It is absolutely FALSE. By the time teachers in Ohio get results back (if they ever get the results), their students are already in another grade, in another classroom, and the scores are meaningless. If teachers were waiting for scores to be returned from last year’s tests to inform their instruction, they wouldn’t have been able to teach anything up until last month. There are still teachers and students in our state who have not received any results from last year’s tests. Have they been teaching students since August, or have they just been sitting around waiting for test score results to inform their instruction? Added to this absurdity is the fact that Ohio is an embarrassing national example, once again, of the manipulation and inflation of scores, which renders those scores to a level of indescribable uselessness.
  4. High stakes standardized test scores are completely INVALID when held to psychometric or statistical standards for validity. The ONLY reliable result of the tests has been a correlation between test scores and socioeconomic status. The exact same teachers can teach the exact same way in two different school districts in Ohio and have very different results based on factors that influence the children and families in their schools that are beyond the teacher’s control. In fact, 70-90% of how students perform on tests is a result of influences outside of school. Results from state tests do not result in an accurate accountability system for schools, teachers, students, or communities.
  5. State report cards that use results from state tests, like Ohio has chosen to implement, do NOT provide an “apples to apples” comparison between schools or districts. Instead, report cards for districts create a hierarchical system of labels and harsh consequences in order to continue the mission of unending plunder of public education at the expense of taxpayers, while contributing to the already wealthy friends of Kasich and some Ohio legislators.  
  6. State tests have nothing to do with providing every child a high-quality education in Ohio, or anywhere else. There is not a single high-performing nation in the world that tests all of their children annually. Furthermore, studies show that the emphasis on testing in our country has actually harmed education, and it has been especially punitive for traditionally underrepresented groups, and for groups protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act(IDEA).
  7. The tests are not “checkpoints” that ensure readiness. In fact, decades of credible research suggests that laws like the “Third Grade Reading Guarantee” only serve to increase the chances of deleterious long-term effects on children subjected to mandated retention.

It is my hope that by bringing to light these discrepancies between the truth and the false claims in your literature, that a more candid and sincere informational message could be shared with parents and stakeholders in Ohio.

Here is a sample. Feel free to borrow any parts for future publications.

Information on Student Participation in State Testing in Ohio (Adapted for the Ohio Department of Education by Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith)

    All schools in our state should be equipped with the resources and funding necessary to ensure that every child has equal access to a quality educational experience. It is important to acknowledge that historic and systemic racism and oppression, as well as economic inequities, have negatively impacted obtaining this goal. Furthermore, the majority of factors that influence a child’s experience in school begin long before a child enters kindergarten or even preschool. For example, the first 2000 days of a child’s life has the potential to negatively or positively impact that child’s future academic attainment. Additionally, twenty-two percent of children in the United States are living in poverty. Poverty can have long-term negative effects on a child’s learning.

    Utilizing the credible and valid research at our disposal, the Ohio Department of Education will fully comply with federal mandates under the Every Student Succeeds Act, yet will not pretend that the annual testing of students has in any way improved education in our state or country. Some schools, districts, organizations, and private entities have been given sums of money to promote testing or hope to profit from testing children, even when it is detrimental to students. However, with the best interest of students and a healthy democracy in mind, we will limit testing to federal mandates, and advocate for policies that do not emphasize high stakes testing. Results of tests should not be used to label or shame districts, schools, teachers, or students. Misusing test data could result in harm to students and education in general.

   POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF HIGH STAKES TESTING

  1. A nine-year study by the National Research Council (2011) concluded that the emphasis on testing yielded little learning progress but caused significant harm.
  2. High stakes testing drives teachers away, especially from schools that need them the most. They also eliminate or reduce time for other subjects that are not tested like music, art, and physical education. Research shows that access to those classes improves academics.
  3. According to statisticians, standardized testing does not meet the criteria for validity. Even score gains do not mean improved learning. It could just mean more teaching to the test. They also fail to accurately assess developmentally advanced students or the progress of students with special needs.
  4. High stakes standardized tests do not measure non-content skills children develop at school, or take into account the individuality of students’ learning needs. There is no teamwork, creativity, or work ethic being learned while sitting in silence and taking a test.
  5. High stakes standardized testing does not help students who arrive at school with disadvantages. Instead, students from low-income households, traditionally underserved students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners are more likely to not earn a diploma and are more likely to be pushed out of school into the school-to-prison pipeline.

    WHY STUDENTS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN STATE TESTS

  1. Children should not have to attend a school labeled “failing,” or labeled anything at all. Schools should be resources for children, families, and the community.
  2. The word FAILURE should never hover over a school building, and make children afraid of how they will do on a test.
  3. Children should not have to be afraid of how their teacher will be hurt by their performance on a test, or how their school, community, or city will be labeled because of how they do on a test.
  4. Children’s privacy should not be violated, and test companies should not profit from harming children or data mining in schools.
  5. Subjects 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
  6. The emotional and social growth of children in school is not measured on a standardized test.
  7. 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, and children’s teachers should be trusted to assess their progress.
  8. The long term consequences of the labeling and retention of children are profound.
  9. There are more effective and research-proven methods to educate our children and to evaluate teachers and schools.

I will continue refusing to allow my children to be subjected to a system designed to attack and destroy public schools. It isn’t because I am afraid of how they will perform on standardized tests, but because I am afraid that children who do not have the advantages and opportunities that they have will be unfairly labeled and punished. I will never be convinced that children in other schools, in other cities or neighborhoods, are getting a better or worse education because of mandated high stakes standardized tests.

I hope my sons grow up to be happy, healthy, empathetic human beings who never forget that their humanity is bound up in others. I will never look back on their childhoods and regret that they did not get to take more standardized tests. I will never wonder if I need standardized test scores to tell me what my children are worth. It will not occur to me that by not taking standardized tests, my children somehow missed out on obtaining the best education that they could.

However, I may wonder how and why so many adults who were supposed to advocate for children failed, and chose deception and harm instead of protection and resistance.

Thank you for your attention to my concerns.

Sincerely,

Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith

 

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

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/

   

    

 

What if the executive council of the AFT lived my teacher-life? A (now open) email to Randi Weingarten

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith <@gmail.com>

Jul 2 (9 days ago)

to rweingarten, bcc: me

President Weingarten, 

 
Thank you for including me on the conference call this evening. It is a relief to hear that many of my brothers and sisters in union have the same concerns that afflict me as a mother, educator, and citizen (except that guy asking about road infrastructure – that was a little out in left field for me). 
 
I will try to be brief so that your staff isn’t deliriously angry about you extending this offer to email you with unanswered questions, but brevity is not my strong suit. I guess if I wasn’t a teacher; I should’ve been a politician. 
 
I’m the daughter of a Longshoreman who raised me in Ashtabula, Ohio, and the granddaughter of a man who told me he went to DC in the 1950s to testify about unions. I’ve been a member of Local CTU 279 in Cleveland, Ohio since August of 1998. I don’t think it would surprise you to read that the culture of education in our city, state, and country is vastly different than what it was when I began.
 
With the Republican National Convention being held in our city next summer, I believe we have a prime opportunity to take action on a national level that will begin to remedy the atrocities that have been occurring in our state with regard to education. The Ohio budget bill is being used to mandate absurdities in education. Ohio got rid of PARCC due to grassroots efforts that encompassed parents, community stakeholders, and educators, but then replaced it within 24 hours with another assessment from AIR that will prove to be equally horrific. Changing the name of the test, or the entity that produces it, does not eliminate the over-testing, nor does it pacify our principles. The legislators and governor demolished democracy in Youngstown last week as they took over the city schools in a late-night, a backdoor deal that included banning any debate on the issue in chambers. Our state teacher evaluation system ties test scores to 50% of a teacher’s annual rating. We have TFA propaganda in abundance as well as a steady stream of TFA candidates not only teaching but now in administrative positions at building and board levels. We have an unregulated charter system that is the laughing stock of 99% of the nation. The other 1% is rejoicing over the billions that they are gathering in profits while they fail our children.
In our district, we have the “Cleveland Transformation Alliance” and “Cleveland Foundation” spitting out propaganda reports, with practically zero credibility, claiming that our schools are failing, our students are failing, and that the teachers are ineffective. The high stakes testing culture has ruined our traditional schools that don’t offer, or barely offer, music, phys ed, art, or vocational and trade subjects that our students are craving. We fuel the school-to-prison pipeline, which fills detention centers with children the system seems intent on disregarding. In Cleveland, my pay is now tied to an evaluation system that has no statistical or mathematical validity and has been implemented with complete incompetence. All of this has left many of my colleagues in fear or apathetic from the defeat they sense. We had one teacher described as a “gentle soul” who “loved her students” placed in “teacher jail” after being bullied by an aggressive, unkind principal all year. CMSD had this teacher removed from a K-8 school in front of her special needs students. Already fragile from other personal issues, Dr. ***** (name omitted in public version) ended her own life because teaching was her life. The callous principal is now working downtown at the board office. 
 
We need our brothers and sisters in union on the largest scale that I have known in my career. The Cleveland Plan is a farce. We all know that by 2018-19, the overarching goal is to have all of our city schools turned into charters. They have been slowly and steadily dismantling us. Unfortunately, our union is viewed as a criminal defense lawyer instead of as a defender of the people. This view is not only held by the public, but by its own members as well. When I’ve been approached about running for office, I scoff at the idea. I don’t want to be an “executive” at a downtown union office, posting pictures of myself at a table at Democratic fundraisers, maintaining a state of oblivion to the daily realities of teaching in a classroom; who will eventually ask the CEO for a job at the board and fight against the very union to which I was once elected (2 names omitted in public version). If someone like me, who came from generations of union workers, who understands and teaches the history of labor in our country, is scoffing at being part of the governing body of the local union, can I be angry at young members for feeling disconnected and disenfranchised?
My teacher effectiveness state rating was dropped from “accomplished” to “skilled” 2 years in a row because my union signed off on a test for 10th grade US History for the “data” part of my evaluation that no one told me about until 2 weeks before it had to be given, and that wasn’t aligned to the curriculum that is in our district’s scope and sequence. It is on public record that I am a “skilled” teacher instead of an “accomplished” teacher, even though I have extensive evidence to fit the “accomplished” rubric requirements, and even though I am a “Master Teacher” and was named the “2013-2014 Cleveland Bar Association Teacher of the Year.” The results of this test from April of 2014 that have been used to supposedly prove that I am an “average” teacher this school year (2015) and last school year (2014) even though I am not even teaching at the same 2014 school any more, have never been given to me, given to students, published in our district database, or revealed to anyone. Due to the merit pay negotiations in our CBA, that means I didn’t get a raise 2 years in a row based on a union decision; the same union that is supposed to be protecting the wages of families. Sadly, I’m not alone in the rank and file with my disappointments.  
 
I file grievances. I email. I speak at school board meetings. I’m interviewed by local and national news organizations. I whistle blow. I blog. I create petitions. I sometimes get a response from the union, just like I sometimes get a response from the district. 
 
It became so frustrating that I formed a group (Refuse of Cuyahoga County) with colleagues to accomplish the things that my union should be doing. We solicit parent input and support. We hold forums and events to inform. We build relationships with families, colleagues, and community stakeholders. We launch counter assaults on our legislators and governor when they don’t do what’s best for kids. We meet with local leaders. We talk to state leaders. We set up meetings with national legislators. We use social media to promote our cause and to inform. We make sure that people know that we care about kids first because once we build that trust, they understand that if we say “teachers need smaller class sizes,” it isn’t because we’re lazy leeches sucking the taxpayer’s money away. It is because we care about kids, and we know research shows that significantly smaller classes make a positive difference for kids. They know that when we say it is time to stop this testocracy, it isn’t because we don’t think kids can achieve, or because we are afraid of losing our jobs or our money, it is because we know from the research that it is harming, not helping, kids. When we build these family relationships, we can say to the district that it isn’t just teachers who want these things, but families of students want them also. It is a lot more difficult to use that leverage in negotiations when the state has already disenfranchised the families in Cleveland and Youngstown with CEOs, mayoral control, and appointed boards, but it is worth something in public opinion polls which leads me back to my questions that couldn’t be answered this evening on the conference call:
 
What can the AFT do on a national level to help our city and state reclaim the culture of education so that teachers are once again valued and respected as competent professionals? So that charters are held accountable? So that schools and students are never labeled as “failing” because they can’t pass tests that aren’t even a valid indicator of their talents or intellect? So that states can’t annihilate a city’s right to democratic processes? So that teachers can’t be punished through public humiliation and loss of pay because they want to work with students who live in high poverty areas? So that teachers feel like being part of the union is contributing to the greater good of society? So that being in the union will feel like being part of a movement for social justice because that is what it was intended to be? 
 
There was a massive campaign in NY, supported by AFT, because of Cuomo’s suggestion to tie teacher evaluations to testing. Our PAY and state evaluations have been tied to test scores for 2 YEARS in Cleveland. We need national attention and outrage while we simultaneously build grassroots support for what we achieve and accomplish with children every day as members in our union of “professionals.” 
 
As Ohio goes… so goes the nation. It works in presidential elections. Let’s make it work to change the national culture that surrounds education.   
 
In Solidarity, 

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith
 
PS. I’ll be in DC on July 24th-29th. I’d be happy to stop by and say, “hello.” Of course, you can probably tell from this email that I may have a little more to add to the “hello.”

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 vulnerable, pushed-out 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.

Why I Tell My Kid Not to Avoid “That Kid”

I recently read a letter sent by a retiring veteran principal to his staff in Stewart, Ohio that was published in the Washington Post. He shared his experiences with zero tolerance policies and testing mandates which have made it harder for those in education to just be nice to kids. Just as adults have picked up on this phenomenon, students sense it also. Even in this age of anti-bullying campaigns and organizations founded with missions to increase love and kindness in schools, students witness their teachers reduced to tears because of pink slips and unfair evaluations based on standardized test scores. In extreme cases, like at Newton D. Baker in Cleveland, Ohio, an educator found the unkindness of administration and unfair mandates too much for her gentle soul to bear, so she took her own life; leaving behind colleagues and students to mourn the loss.  Add to this harsh school culture a pervasive fear among students that their teacher’s job, school’s rating, and community’s real-estate values are all intertwined with how they perform on standardized tests, and it is easy to surmise that kindness, patience, and tolerance are difficult to maintain as school priorities, regardless of how many posters are sticky-tacked to school walls proclaiming to be against bullying and for kindness.

 

Zero tolerance policies in schools which have been a feeder for the school-to-prison pipeline, the pressure of high stakes standardized testing, billionaires deciding that they are educational experts, and the distorted view that teachers are to blame for societal ills, are all menacing bricks constructed behind classroom walls, and they can often act as a barrier to the social and emotional learning and bonds that have always been at the foundation of academic success for students. It is even more difficult for students to see examples of empathy and compassion at school when policies support disciplinary actions that lack recognition of the need for a whole-child approach in education, and are often implemented without respect for teachers as well-trained professionals. My 4th grader this year told me in one of our car-ride conversations that he thought his teacher was “the only one at school who really understands people” because he noticed how she bought things to help accommodate her special needs students instead of “yelling at them to sit still.”  I know there are an abundance of caring teachers at his elementary school, but the current climate in education isn’t allowing for evidence of this fact to be as blatant as it used to be. Half of teacher-effectiveness ratings in Ohio are based on test scores, not kindness and being nice. So, just being nice needs to have a solid start in the homes of children.

 

Yet, kindness and caring may not be as much of a priority among parents at schools either, since test scores and grades determine the value of their child’s learning abilities. No one is getting into Harvard or Yale for “just being nice.” I listened to conversations that surrounded me as I volunteered at a working meeting for a school event, and the dominant theme being discussed among the parents was which of their children was in advanced classes, excelling at a dance recital, first chair in an orchestra, or being recognized for honor or merit roles. I do not think that celebrating middle-class privileges, which enrich childhood and foster success for children, is wrong. However, when a recent playground incident that involved an aggressive act by a child was brought up in the conversation, the parents were quick to offer their disapproval of the child, and in agreement that consequences should be doled out, as they continued to relish in the good behavior of their children, and wonder what was wrong with THAT kid. I left that working meeting feeling sad not only for the child injured on the playground, but also for the child that inflicted the injury.

 

I had already heard about the playground incident before it was discussed at that meeting, and it seemed that the child may have some emotional issues. When my son came home that particular day and described the drama on the playground at recess, I asked him what he did . He replied that he gave his statement about what happened to the adults in charge, as instructed. I offered my approval for his actions and asked him if the injured child was going to be alright. Then we discussed what we could do to help his peer who had caused the injury. We talked about not knowing what life is like for that child; if he was struggling with things going on outside of school, and how my son could be a friend without approving of negative behaviors that the other child may exhibit. This is what we have done all school year when my son comes home to share tales about any of the students often labeled as “THAT kid.” For example: “THAT kid” who is not able to cope with a change in the classroom routine without creating a disturbance, or “THAT kid” who randomly shouts out inappropriate words. I explained to my son what I know about the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome and Tourette Syndrome, so that even if my hunches were wrong, at least he was aware for any future encounters he may have. We talked about not knowing what other kids might be going through outside of school, and I reminded him of the times he may have been struggling through events unknown to his classmates. I encouraged him to be a friend, an example of positive behavior, and an upstander. Luckily, his teacher reinforced this approach by showing love and patience to all of her students every day at school throughout his 4th grade year. Students sensed that in her class being nice was a priority.

Research shows that peers can have a strong influence on behavior, which I am acutely aware of as my son is close to the beginning of his adolescent years, so I am not endorsing harmful or unhealthy friendships. However, understanding and having empathy for conditions others possess, or for struggles others may be enduring, is not an endorsement of inappropriate behavior. Rather, it is building within my son the strength of character to be a leader, even when it would be easier to ignore or taunt children that may not be easy to get along with. He knows kindness is not weakness. Instead, it precipitates a life filled with tolerance, compassion, and happiness.  As Logan LaPlante suggested in his TEDx Talk at the University of Nevada, schools should be able to play a larger role in preparing students for a life of happiness, and not be restricted to just preparing them to make a living. Respecting and honoring “THAT kid’s” experiences without endorsing harmful behavior may not prepare my kid for acceptance into Harvard or Yale, but it will have him better prepared to live a life full of happiness and being nice. And that’s a pretty good start.

Lessons I learned from “THAT kid” in my classroom…

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

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