Monday, July 21, 2014

Frustration Over the Education Station in this Nation

I woke up to my alarm at eight o'clock...somehow Julia was waking me up...OH NO CLASS STARTS IN TWELVE MINUTES! I managed to not fall off the top bunk as I scrambled down the ladder for clothes. Stubbornly insisting on proper hygiene, I took the world's fastest shower, combed my hair, changed, and brushed my teeth before flying out the door. And it worked: I was there two minutes before class started. 

Class was different today. Normally, we start class with a lecture, and then we have a discussion in small groups about the lecture, but today, we went straight to the discussions, which would be facilitated by teaching fellows and special guests. We were given four options: education, labor, journalism/feminism, environmental justice. 

I started with environmental justice, led by Sarah, with Dinah DeWald as our guest. Dinah came to us from the Maypop Collective, an organization aimed at fighting to solve environmental issues in Philadelphia. She defined environmental justice versus climate justice (environmental justice is focused on defending the environment, while climate justice is focused on defending people from the impacts of climate change). We discussed how wealthy communities ship garbage out to poor areas for it to be dealt with and how the burden of environmental issues should not be shifted onto other communities. We talked about frontline communities, places which are affected by environmental issues and which are taking action to fight them. Dinah told us that in social justice issues, the people who lead movements are almost always directly affected by the problem.

For my second group, I moved to education, and Luna started us off by telling us that she had a background in teaching, and that she was actually a part of Teach for America, which sends recent college graduates to teach in low-income areas. She played us some of her training videos, which showed teachers how to keep students walking in straight lines in the hallway and how to use arm motions that students were taught to respond to. I couldn't help but be reminded of the gestures dog owners use to train their pets. Luna told us that they actually checked up on her in class to make sure she was following the procedure with the command gestures. She described having to keep students walking on specific tiles in the hallway and putting them a certain distance apart, like a military march. We talked for a bit about charter schools, publicly funded but privately managed education, and moved on to Wanda. She started by telling about her neighborhood in New York and the awful public school she attended: the playground was a cleared-out parking lot, and there were bars on the windows. She said, "It was a nightmare. It was a complete nightmare." Wanda skipped forward to her teaching experience. She worked with autistic children, and she thought it was ridiculous to have eight nonverbal kids in a Spanish class, and that it was even worse when the administration wouldn't take the students out of the class. Wanda taught herself sign language so that she could teach it to the students, so that they could actually learn in their classes. She asked us rhetorically, if the goal was to teach these children, why did she have to teach them to communicate? She told us that she felt that the leaders in school systems weren't any smarter than her—it's not that administrators can't figure out that there are problems with the system, it's that they are actively preventing students from learning. Two things she said stuck with me. One: "there are so many ways to keep people stupid," and two: "an educated populace is a dangerous weapon. ...You're dangerous." Wanda's ideas seemed a bit extreme for me, but I had to take a moment to question the way public schools work, and on the way I learned that there were serious issues with how mentally disabled students are dealt with in school. A friend of Anne's (a teaching fellow who hasn't led many of my discussions) named Sarah talked to us about her experiences as a teacher. She said that she realized that "in the current school system, I couldn't teach," and told us about the "impossible system" that taught kids to pass standardized tests, and didn't teach so that students could learn. The teaching fellows wrapped up the discussion, and Luna said something that I really believe about our education system, that "we really value a certain type of intelligence." I thought it was one of the most interesting discussions I have had so far in this class.

I moved on to the feminism/journalism group, where we talked to Maya Francis, a (strangely enough) feminist and a journalist. She told us that as a writer, she is careful to always consider where her privilege lies and why, if at all, her opinion matters on the topic she is trying to address. She advised us that we may have to defend ourselves for our opinions, and we should be certain in what we believe, because our "defense might be the defense of a lot of other people." Maya told us that it was always better to have a conversation, but that no one can tell your story better than you can. 

We broke for lunch, and I hurried to Houston Hall: I had made an appointment for a piano room  at one o'clock. At lunch, I ate as quickly as I could without hurting myself, and made my way over to the building with my practice room. Fisher-Bennett Hall. I found myself in an almost empty building, so I figured it was safe to assume that room 403 would be on the fourth floor. But when I reached the top of the staircase, there was a minor problem. I seemed to be searching for a fourth-floor room in a three-floor building. 

I eventually found a staircase in a different part of the building, though, and made it to a practice room with an upright piano. 
My new happy place

It was great. The piano was really...I don't know...powerful? It was as close as you can get to a grand piano without making a grand piano. I really enjoyed it—though, I'll admit, I was very out of practice and had to find my music to re-learn four lines of Joplin's "Swipesy."

I was back to class on time to meet Julija Zubac, a teacher and a Penn graduate, who talked to us about the education system and student-led movements. We did a privilege walk, where we were asked (eyes closed) to step forward or backward if, for example, our classes had less than twenty people, or if we wouldn't need financial aid to go to college. We watched a video with Ken Robinson called "Changing Education Paradigms," which I thought was interesting. It discussed the overdiagnosing and overmedicating of students for ADHD, the mentality of the school system and how it victimizes students who prefer the arts, and brought up new ideas I hadn't even considered: grouping students by age, as though the "date of manufacture" was the most important thing, when students could be grouped by skill—the fact is, some kids are just better at math than they are at writing. Class ended, and Julia and I ate and attended a mandatory presentation from Dean Furda (it was well-presented, but honestly, I've heard a lot of those ideas before).

Artsy silhouette picture of
Michael talking to us
during a technical issue

We headed back to class for another optional activity—a film. We watched Paris is Burning, a documentary about the LGBT community, specifically the transgender community in New York in the 1980s. The film started with one of the main speakers discussing how the different types of discrimination give you "strikes," and how he just had one more strike when he came out as gay. (Then we had some technical difficulties, which were fixed.) Paris is Burning went into the culture of "balls," party-like competitions, and "houses," groups—families—of queer people who competed in balls. Some of the people in the documentary spoke about family members being ashamed of them, and that when you feel this abandoned by your family, you go out and search for people to fill that void. It seemed like these houses could become a second home, a family for people who had no family. 

We had a discussion of the film after we finished, and then we went back to our dorms to sleep. Well, most of us went back to our dorms to sleep. The rest of us stayed up late trying to blog. :)

Class is almost over! I'm almost coming home! So many conflicting emotions! I don't want to leave, but I don't want to stay! As anyone in Social Justice Research Academy would put it, there are lots of contradictions. I suppose until I decide what I want, I'll just have to get some much-needed reszzzzzZZZZzzzzzzzzzZZZzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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