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Those Who Can, Teach; Those Who Can’t, Pass Laws Against Teaching

August 1, 2011

That  title  quote is from a sign at the Save our Schools rally aimed squarely at Congress and Arne Duncan who received hearty boos when his name was mentioned in the speech below.  Yes, isn’t it interesting that all of the “experts” in education have either never taught or fled the classroom as soon as possible for cushy administrative positions.

Below is Jonathon Kozol’s speech from the rally.   In it he refers to Fremont High, not by name, but by the time he came to visit several years ago the classroom of my colleague across the hall from Room 225 and who he included in one of his books.  While I respect him a great deal, I disagree with his characterization of Fremont as “monstrous”  and his focus on class size.   I’ve had large classes of mature seniors (42+) and was able to teach them better than my 1st period 11th graders that last year of reconstitution- I only had 23 of them.

A couple of those juniors were severely depressed,  others had IEP’s, one was a hard core gang member who waltzed in late deliberately to disrupt the class.   Both of his brothers had been shot to death and he seemed to harbor his own death wish.  And did I mention he was brilliant? But it didn’t matter, because he didn’t have the desire to be a student at that time in his life.   Two girls were chronically absent- one was named Sabrina- I never was actually able to get to know her well.  Two more  girls hated my guts until the last few weeks of class when I was finally able to make some progress and one of them passed.  Of the seniors mentioned above there were about 15 A’s and anyone who knows me knows I don’t dole those out readily.  I had many B’s a few C’s and no F’s.  In that junior class I had only 1 A  and mostly C’s and F’s (I didn’t give D’s).    Was I a crappy teacher in 1st period and then suddenly improved in 2nd and 4th periods?  Hardly. I was just dealing with different kids with different maturity levels and different levels of home support.

So while I admire Kozol,   he does a disservice when he bashed Fremont and failed to recognize so much of the good that went on in those days.  Obama quoted his book in a podcast tribute to Rosa Parks and recited a story about Fremont  that still makes me angry to this day- because of its inaccuracy.   He cited a Kozol interview of a Fremont student who claimed she wanted to take AP classes but was forced into sewing.  I know for a fact at that time that there were many, many AP classes but the biggest problem was getting kids to stay in the classes because they either were not prepared for that level of work, or they didn’t want to do it because  (and this is where I agree with Kozol on segregation) they hadn’t been exposed to other students who had worked at that high of a level and so had no model for success in a college level class.  I remember how getting kids to show up off track and write essays was such a  chore.  And I recently had a conversation with an urban teacher whose students did none of their summer assignment.  So we can’t always blame “the system. ”  Of course what was a problem at Fremont was having decent electives. Manicuring was indefensible, but sewing if we had had a full drama schedule could be justified- but not without many other electives to choose from.

So even though I consider Kozol an ally in the fight for public education,  I don’t ascribe to his somewhat knee-jerk ideology and simplistic explanations.  I taught at Fremont,  but neither he or Obama did.  The school didn’t deserve to become an idealogical pawn of either side  in an unholy war on public education.

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