Saturday, May 12, 2018

#EducatingReformers - Pt. 1 Samuel

Credit: AJ Garcia - UpSplash
Last week I wrote about how I was going to tell the stories of students who, far too often, become statistics on both sides of the education battle. 

This is my first installment. This story comes from a teacher who works in an alternative high school for students who have not been successful in the regular public school setting. This isn't because of 'bad teachers', it's because they face a host of other challenges, including overwhelming obstacles at home. Over 90% of the students in this school are minorities and qualify for free and reduced lunch.   

As with all of these posts, certain identifying information, including names and locations have been changed. It is also edited for brevity and content.

This is Samuel's story:

I’ve been peripherally noting that one of my senior students, Samuel, who is inches from graduation, comes in as soon as the doors open for teachers at 7:30 am. A bit disheveled, but I know his home life isn’t perfect. Today I came in at 7:15, and he was there. Spent 15 minutes in the bathroom with a lot of water and paper towels. Couldn‘t disguise the filth. I told my school counsellor I thought he slept on the street and yup, he’s homeless. The staff who know Samuel knew immediately what had happened. Of course there were clues: dirty, not shaving, downing energy drinks without eating, and not looking at us in the eyes even for a lunch order. BINGO. I have great staff support this year.

(Note: This teacher went on to say that next year her school is getting a new principal who knows nothing about working with this student population, but simply needs more 'experience' on their resumé, which will be a huge blow to the atmosphere at the school.)

We all kind of enfolded him with gentle questions. He finally opened up and cried. We bought take-home food for him and got him the address of a men’s shelter. He is so reluctant to accept help. As I would expect, knowing his pride.

He is so smart! He can read a lesson 2 or 3 times and pass a test with no notes anywhere! He was on ADHD and anti-depressant drugs throughout elementary school and middle school. Mom married an alcoholic and threw him out. He's been off all prescription drugs, but living on caffeine. He moved in with his girlfriend this year when he was homeless. They had a fight over the weekend. He is back on the streets. 

The counselor, principal and I talked to Samuel at different times today. Lots of work ahead — not to get him to graduate, but to get him to realize he deserves to not be thrown around like an empty trash bag. And a lot of help to get him on his feet after graduation. Meanwhile, his mother called today to find out “what’s going on with Samuel?” Samuel is 18. Our counselor talked to him before she would call mom. She will not call mom back. Samuel is an adult now, and his wishes come first. He wants nothing to do with her. (emphasis mine)

Thank you. This kid is brilliant and broken. 

Standardized testing will not help Samuel, nor will school choice or vouchers, and certainly not decreased school funding. Not being 'college and career ready' is not his problem. This child needs love, security, a home, proper medical and psychological care and a strong support network. He is getting some of that at school, but as this teacher said, what happens after he graduates?

Will he be able to get health insurance from whatever remnants of the Affordable Care Act are left in his state, or will he continue to suffer the debilitating effects of ADHD and depression? Will he find the inner strength to succeed? Or will his life continue to spiral out of control? If he is unable to find that support network, the odds are not in his favor. And yet, 'reformers' say public education is the problem. For Samuel, public education has been his only hope for survival.

If you have a story you'd like to share about a student facing extraordinary odds, and how public education is helping him or her, email me at mcorfield610@gmail. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

It's Time To "Get Uncomfortable"

“Get uncomfortable, challenge your own perceptions to find clarity, be fearless, be kind, meet someone new.”

Those words were spoken by Mandy Manning, newly elected National Teacher of the Year. More on her below...

Time to focus on the little stuff

In a recent NY Times interview, Joan Baez said of her own activism, "I don't think we can think in big terms now, or we'll just get under the covers and never get out. The little stuff almost becomes more important right now, because you have a chance at it. The world we are living in is being made horrible and is going to need every little victory—that your family and friends feel some kind of support, some kind of goodness." 

It was like she was reading my mind.

With the advent of the current administration regime, education activism has become much more than fighting against vouchers, charter schools and standardized testing. It now also includes gun violence, immigration rights, racism, LGBTQ rights, women's rights, an education secretary who is a religious zealot, and the overall fight for the survival of our democracy. As our nation veers toward a Constitutional crisis, I want to focus—as Joan says—on "the little stuff"—our students, because that's where this all started. 

Time to challenge perceptions

In a recent open letter to Betsy DeVos on the current national wave of teacher strikes, I included some pictures of the horrendous conditions in which children in the wealthiest nation on earth are expected to learn. Far too many of our students also live in these—or worse—conditions. In another post, I called out the current keepers of the ideals of this once great nation for abandoning her most precious resource: our future, our children. The wealthiest nation in the history of humanity has turned its back on its children because tax cuts for the wealthy are supposed to magically cure our nation's ills. 

These posts are but drops of water in the vast ocean of education activists who, for more than a decade, have been challenging our nation's leaders on their failed and profit-driven education policies. But every drop combines to create great waves that batter the established shoreline—right on up to the White House—like this one last week:

On Wednesday, EdWeek reported that, at the State Teachers of the Year meeting with Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning, staged a silent protest. She "wore several buttons on her dress, including one that said Trans Equality Now, one for the Women's March, and one of a rainbow-colored apple." She also presented him with letters written by her students. 
Manning said on a press call that the pins were meant to convey her message of support for all of her populations of students. "[Our students] are wanted; they are loved; they are enough; they matter," she said. 
Manning teaches newly arrived immigrant and refugee students in Washington state. She told Education Week that she had her students write letters to the White House to share their stories—from bureaucratic red tape splitting up families to being told to "go back to Africa." 

She was prohibited by Trump from giving her speech, which focused on the plight of her students, but later gave it on CNN's Van Jones Show:


Thank you, Mandy, for being a powerful voice for all your students, especially those whose voices have been silenced for far too long. I look forward to your advocacy this coming year.

The other State Teachers of the Year sparred with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over a host of issues including vouchers, school funding and the current wave of teacher strikes, to which DeVos responded with her tired script about teacher protests being "at the expense of kids and their opportunity to go to school and learn."

Montana's Teacher of the Year, Melissa Romano told reporters, "For her to say at the ‘expense of children’ was a very profound moment and one I’ll remember forever, because that is so far from what is happening."

Time to name names

Among the most moving memorials I have ever seen are the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, and the placards outside the late Senator Frank Lautenberg's DC office that listed the names and pictures of all our brave service men and women killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They remind us not only of profound events, but forever memorialize the individual human beings whose lives were ended by man's inhumanity to man. 

For far too many children in this country their home life is as horrendous as—or worse than—the conditions in their schools. It's easy for anyone (myself included) on either side of the education fight to speak of these children in terms of statistics and/or generalizations. Sometimes we need to. But we also need to give a name to these statistics. We need to hear their stories in all their heartbreaking detail, we need to confront our own fears, admit our misconceptions, and, as Mandy said, "get uncomfortable" with the reality they face, because that is what really matters.  

To that end, going forward I will be devoting much of this blog to telling your stories of individual students and the education professionals who are their greatest champions. The series will be called "Educating 'Reformers'". As always, student and teacher privacy and confidentiality are my number one concerns. Unless I have written permission from teachers and students, all names and locations will be changed.

If you have a story you would like to share, please contact me at