We need to do all we can to include families and community in our schools, and that starts with asking families and the community what *they*need, not what is expedient for school personnel. I love this idea and I hope it will spread to other schools.
“The top-down, test-driven regimen of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiatives in K-12 education is now in the process of being nationalized with those Common Core standards championed by the Times — an enterprise largely funded, and relentlessly promoted, by corporate groups. That same version of school reform, driven by an emphasis on global competitiveness and a determination to teach future workers as much as possible as soon as possible, would now be expanded to children who are barely out of diapers.”
“For our students to be aware, then, of both descriptive and prescriptive views of language, for those students to gain a recognition that language use is about purpose and choice, bound by situation and audience, is for them to become agents in how their own credibility and authority is viewed.”
Galtung (1969) defines violence in part as that which increases the distance between the potential and the actual. ‘No excuses’ charter schools treat children as behavioural pawns and do nothing to make the world a more humane place. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, pulls in a salary of over half a million dollars a year to run Success Academies all over New York. Her salary comes from a mix of private and public funds but there is no public accountability. A couple of days ago PBS Newshour ran a section on kindergarten suspensions, ostensibly at Success Academy schools throughout New York. A zero tolerance policy sees five-year-old children automatically suspended for swearing, and Moskowitz does not see this as problematic. Suspensions may also come from calling out the right answer twice without being called on and getting out of your seat without permission. My last couple of blog posts discussed ‘zero tolerance’ policies at ‘no excuses’ charter schools. The first time I read about discipline measures put on children in these schools I was physically nauseous. This Newshour segment makes me angry more than anything else. Test scores are all that SAs are about, and clean clothes are on hand for when children pee in their pants during test prep. Suspending very young children for trivial matters goes against anything any sane person would want for their children, and others’. All a five-year-old child learns from being suspended for getting out of his or her chair is fear of authority. Fear is no way to build a classroom climate that respects all in the room. ‘No excuses’ charter schools make it an offence to talk unless called upon. This is potentially the most egregious element of a ‘no excuses’ policy, but it’s up against stiff competition. We all learn best in a social environment. We are social beings and need to talk about our world, about our opinions, about trivial matters, and more. It angers me that I even need to spell that out. Fear breeds resentment, and fear of suspension for simply being a child, and being a human being, is an awful lesson to teach our children. Moskowitz says that suspending children early means less suspensions in later years. If Success Academies really were about the children, their suspension rate would not be three to four times higher than in public schools. It is incomprehensible that Eva Moskowitz sees a ‘zero tolerance’ approach as fair and equitable. It goes against all we know about child development. I worry that these five-year-old children will either turn into automatons by following rules that build neither empathy nor compassion; or become so resentful of a system that is constantly pulling them down, that violence will ensue. Violence is already being carried out against all children in ‘no excuses’ charter schools. It is time for the violence against young children to end.
Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(3), 167–191.
Lawsuits have been filed with the Office of Civil Rights regarding racial disparities in school suspensions but the tricky part is explicitly identifying racial abuse. It is no secret that implicit bias haunts many classrooms. As already mentioned, children of color are singled out for discriminatory punishment, yet a charge of violating that child’s rights is not always easy to prove. In 2014 the ex-Superintendent of Schools in Minneapolis placed a moratorium on suspensions of children in Pre-K, K and First grade when it was found that there was a dramatic increase in suspensions for this age group. Ex-Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson also sought to implement an initiative that would have seen potential suspensions of African American, Hispanic, and Native American children for non-violent offences brought before her office for review. This came after data showed that black students in Minneapolis Public Schools were sent home at a rate ten times that of white students. Johnson commented that far too often school officials are suspending students of color for a behavior that doesn’t lead to suspensions for white students. She states that the inequities exist not in student behavior, but in adult response. Michelle Alexander (2012) states that the genius of the current caste system is that it appears to be voluntary. Personal choices are to blame for personal downfall, but “never mind that white children on the other side of town who made precisely the same choices-often for less compelling reasons-are in fact going to college”. Less than two months after defending her decision in the Washington Post, Johnson abruptly resigned from her role as MPS Superintendent, a job she held for over four years. Despite what appears to be overwhelming evidence of racial bias, and despite the OCR examining disproportionate discipline policies in the MPS, people opposed to this initiative claimed that the only way to reduce racial disparities would be if school officials were more lenient towards students of color and tougher on white students. They were able to sidestep the part where white students already stay in school for offences that would see students of color sent home. Opponents also said that this policy would be unfair to whites, sidestepping the fact that systemic racism leads to incredibly unfair policies for children of color. The needs of white people take precedence over the needs of those less advantaged, and whiteness is seen as the ‘normal and neutral measure by which all other groups are defined and compared’ (Horsford & Grosland, 2013). Bernadeia Johnson sought dialogue regarding disparate disciplinary measures, not accusations of guilt. Without dialogue there can be no understanding of individual student need: without dialogue too many children are viewed simply through an essentialist lens. Critical race theory decries essentialism and the belief that all people of a particular group think and act in the same way (Ladson-Billings, 2013). Johnson sought to upend education policy that simply maintained the (racist) status quo. For this she herself was unfairly disciplined, with blame for her departure apportioned to her inability to raise test scores, rather than opposition to a push for racial equity in Minneapolis Public Schools.
Policy shortfall in regards to addressing racial inequities in schools is sorely depicted in the examples discussed here. It is disturbing that attempts to curb suspensions of our youngest children are met with resistance, and disturbing that attempts to balance the playing field when it comes to suspensions by race are also met by resistance. To call opponents of these policies racist would most likely offend their sensibilities. In a ‘post-racial’, ‘colorblind’ era the worst thing anyone can be called is racist, yet racist abuses continue. If the reasons for disparate exclusions from school (inclusions in prison) “can be blamed on their culture, poor work ethic, or even their families, then society is absolved of responsibility to do anything about their condition”(Alexander, 2012). It doesn’t seem to matter that the school-to-prison pipeline is explicitly addressed (Broome in Louisiana); nor that it’s pointed out that children of color are punished for behavior that white children are not punished for (Johnson in Minneapolis). Schools and districts are not held accountable for exclusionary policies that target children of color. In 2014 California became the first state in the nation to ban the use of suspensions and expulsions for “willful defiance” for children in K-third grade. Prior to the signing of this bill, 10,000 children in these grade levels alone were issued with suspensions for this particularly loose charge. It was hoped the bill would reach into the higher grades but Jerry Brown stated that he could not support “limiting the authority of local school leaders”. Just as Loretta Lynch says the US government should not require police to report fatal shootings of civilians, citing federal overreach, the needs of local school (police) officials to exclude and punish takes precedence over accountability measures that may engender racial justice.
The school-to-prison pipeline is real, and with suspensions and expulsions of our youngest children on the rise we have a moral and ethical imperative to stop this in its tracks. The 6th annual National Week of Action Against School Pushout is taking place right now-October 3 to 11, and in the Bay Area an “Education not Incarceration” convening happened for the first time on Monday the 5th of October. Mobilizing of this kind “highlights the need for regional and multi-issue approach to ending the school-to-prison pipeline”. We have strength in numbers, and we have strength in recognizing the need for the rehumanization of education through decolonizing pedagogy that sees all children presumed innocent, and that sees all children in the brightest light possible.
 More than 580 complaints from parents, students or other individuals were received in fiscal year 2013-2014. These complaints regarded possible civil rights violations involving school discipline systems.
Coleman Advocates: http://colemanadvocates.org
Dignity in Schools: http://www.dignityinschools.org
Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York, N.Y.; Jackson, Tenn.: New Press ; Distributed by Perseus Distribution.
Horsford, S. D., & Grosland, T. J. (2013). Badges of Inferiority: The Racialization of Achievement in U.S. Education. In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. Routledge.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2013). Critical Race Theory-What It Is Not! In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. New York, N.Y.: Routledge.
“The presumption of innocence is the only civilized presumption”(Gillen, 2014). It is this presumption that is expected to follow a person into the courtroom, and it is for this reason we have courts of law and juries of our peers. Children of color are too often tagged with a brush labeling them as deviant and as troublemakers, before they even walk into the classroom, before the teacher has even set eyes on them. Kindergarten suspensions and expulsions are on the rise in many parts of the US with children of color being at least three times more likely to be suspended for what could often be deemed trivial matters. Louisiana saw 7,400 children in K-3 suspended in 2013-2014 for loose charges like “willful disobedience”, or as Andre Perry says, “being a kid”. A recent bill that would have seen out of school suspensions banned for Louisiana’s youngest children was met with resistance from teachers’ unions and other groups allied with K-12 education. The bill would have seen loose (and subjective) charges such as “willful disobedience” and “intentional disrespect towards teachers and principals” met with loss of privileges, referral to a counselor or social worker, or other in-school interventions. The bill’s sponsor, Sharon Broome, stated she wanted to stop the school-to-prison pipeline; opponents of the bill chose to see it as potential handcuffing, and loss of authority over their right to suspend. The argument put forward by the ‘pro-suspending of young children for non-violent offences camp’ is that some children need to be removed from the classroom so they do not ‘disturb other children’s learning’. It can be easily be argued that exclusionary discipline practices have a stronger impact on the learning of all children in the class than removing the child presenting with disruptive behaviour. Perry asks, “When kindergartens expel black kids what so they learn next?” What all children learn from discriminatory and exclusionary discipline measures is that a child of color will be unfairly treated by the system, no matter how young they are. They will be presumed guilty before even taking a breath in the classroom.
Last year The Washington Post reported that suspensions and expulsions are down in DC charter schools. Suspensions in early childhood, however, rose from 2.4% to 2.9%. A mealy mouthed response from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education recommended ending suspensions of pre-kindergarteners as “young children might not understand why they are being punished and might be acting out in ways within developmental norms”(emphasis added). It is difficult to digest this comment, and difficult to understand why more teeth are not in the game. Exclusionary punishment is meted out without any accountability, or any referral to experts in the field. It can take as little as one suspension to suck a child into the prison pipeline, but this doesn’t deter those so hard of heart they favor punishing kids who barely reach their waist. Most urban charter schools boast of ‘no excuses’ policy so that children can ‘rise above the odds’. The DC suspensions figures didn’t disaggregate for race but a quick glance at around ten DC charter school profiles show that their population is made up almost 100% of children of color, mostly African American. It appears that only black and brown kids need the ‘tough love’ approach. The myth of black inferiority is reproduced in these schools and the perpetuation of this myth is most dangerous and damaging (Horsford & Grosland, 2013). Black and brown bodies are viewed as something to control, rather than being viewed in their full humanity. The ‘no excuses’ brand is modeled on the ‘broken window’ theory of policing, a theory that is blatantly ineffective and that unfairly targets low-income communities of color. What’s more, ‘no excuses’ is an extreme extension of this theory (Goodman, 2013) as many of the behaviors the schools demand are not wrongs in themselves. It is not wrong to talk to a friend, it isn’t wrong to slouch, and it isn’t wrong to gaze into space. Yet charter schools such as KIPP punish children for the most minor of ‘infractions’ such as not following the teacher with his or her eyes. Falling asleep in class garners 10 demerit points, which triggers a detention, missing a detention may lead to a suspension. There is no suggestion of talking to the child to find out why they are so tired in school. ‘No excuses’ charter schools take an ahistorical view of the children in their care. A director of a DC charter school said suspension rates are higher at her school because of the population the school attracts-“kids who have struggled with incarceration, chronic truancy and other problems”. There is no deferral to understanding the child’s home life and to providing support that respects them as a human being. This would require a humanizing pedagogy rather than the colonizing model these schools use. When viewed through a historical lens there is clearly a paternalistic model in play, one that harkens back to the days of slavery. There is no true desire to improve the lives of children of color living in poverty, as profits come from keeping them down. From the youngest grades on children must comply at all times to directives from above (that make little sense for the most part). They have no control over the curriculum and are unable to properly interrogate subject matter. Individual effort is key, no collaborative learning, and often no speaking for long periods of time. If children fail to (respect authority) follow directives, public shaming may follow, such as wearing a school t-shirt inside out to show he or she needs to work on their behavior (if they want to get ahead). These children are nothing more than data points. A non-critical and ahistorical interpretation of educational statistics only serves to oppress students of color further (Horsford & Grosland, 2013). Even if charter schools could prove their methods help children do better on standardized tests, the people running these charter schools do not respect the humanity of each and every one of their students. The one (or two, or three) time/s a five year old is suspended for daydreaming may be all it takes to one day see him or her referred to by number and not by name.
Gillen, J. (2014). Educating for insurgency: the roles of young people in school’s of poverty. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Goodman, J. F. (2013). Charter Management Organizations and the Regulated Environment: Is It Worth the Price? Educational Researcher, 42(2), 89–96. http://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X12470856
Horsford, S. D., & Grosland, T. J. (2013). Badges of Inferiority: The Racialization of Achievement in U.S. Education. In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. Routledge.
Tall as the Baobab Tree (2012)
Tall as the Baobab Tree opens with two Senegalese sisters getting ready to hear the results of an exam the older sister has taken. Coumba is successful in passing the exam and on hearing the results they girls make their way back to their village. The same day, the sisters’ older brother, Sileye, falls out of a tree as he is cutting down shoots for his cattle. Their father decides that Coumba needs to look after the cattle in the meantime and Debo, the younger sister, is to be married off to help pay for Sileye’s medical bills. Coumba agrees to look after the cattle but she recruits a friend to look after the cattle instead and she then goes to town and works as a maid at a hotel. She hopes she will earn enough to pay the medical bills so Debo won’t be forced into marriage.
Jeremy Teicher, the film’s director, initially went to Senegal to film a documentary with a group of first generation students. He formed friendships with the participants and after the documentary was made he stayed in touch. On hearing stories about the arranged marriages, and living between the world of school and tradition, Teicher worked with students to develop a fictional script addressing these issues. Teicher states that through a narrative story, they felt they could most effectively capture the emotions of the old and new worlds colliding. It is the first film to be shot in the Pulaar language. Teicher said the actors really wanted to bring their personal experiences into their performances and this is their first language. He stated he wanted the story to be told with all the quiet nuances and double meanings contained in the Pulaar language. While it’s a fictional story the film is based on truth and there are many parallels between the actors in the movie and their status in real life. The sisters in the film are true sisters; the mother was married as a child; and the actor who played the brother also missed out on schooling because of his age.
In Senegal as a whole an estimated 33% of girls are married off before their 18th birthday. Coumba and Debo’s father choses to marry off Debo, as Coumba is further ahead in her studies. Sileye is in his early twenties and would have gone to school if there’d been one in the village at an earlier date. The father doesn’t appear resistant to his daughters receiving an education, but neither does he look at possibilities that could have kept Debo in school. It’s unclear what the father does materially for the family, besides organizing suitors, but he is not painted in a negative light. The pacing of the film is very different to many Western films, and many of the scenes were improvised. These factors led me to have faith in the conversations and the people represented. The father does say he is always looking out for what’s best for Debo, and it’s possible he sees education as a force that would take her away from the village too. Seen through this lens it is slightly easier to empathize with him, but young girls should never be married against their will. The man who plays the teacher is the founder and principal of the Sinthiou Mbadane primary school, and the man who plays the elder is a village elder who is supportive of the primary school. Their responses to Debo being forced into marriage, in the film, are diametrically opposed. The schoolteacher’s advice would see Coumba and Debo isolated from their family and village, and the elder’s ‘advice’ to Debo’s father at the end means that Debo will not be able to continue her education. There must be some common ground in real life though, as the primary school has flourished in the village. I would love to know more about this process.
The theme of old and new worlds colliding is powerfully shown. The girls live in a village without running water or electricity. Clothes are washed by hand and grain is ground using a large mortar. Coumba’s friend Amady says to Sileye that he wants to come back to the village when he’s finished his studies and he’ll build a house for his parents with running water and electricity. Sileye responds, “You won’t buy them cows?” Sileye also says that students don’t like fieldwork because they’re used to easy jobs. As they are wringing out clothes together, Debo’s mother asks her why she doesn’t take that as seriously as school, “Don’t you know this is a job too?” These statements show the divide felt by those ‘left behind’ in the village and the fears that education would take the children away. To do the jobs required in the village there is no need for formal education, simply (or not so simply) the ability to work hard to get by. When Coumba goes to the village schoolteacher to tell him about Debo, he responds by saying she should go to the police. Coumba says, “Everyone says school is the enemy. If I take my parents to the police they’ll say it’s true”. The schoolteacher doesn’t seem to take into account what getting the police involved would do for Coumba. She would lose her family and would probably never be allowed back in the village again. It shouldn’t have to be a choice between education and family.
The actual primary school in Sinthiou Mbadane has grown from one classroom and fifteen students in 2000 to six classrooms and 200 students at the time of filming. The community appears to have been mostly supportive of the school so there must be outreach happening. The schoolteacher speaks in French to Coumba, and it’s likely that French is the sole language of instruction. From looking up the schoolteacher’s last name he possibly is of Serer origin and speaks a Serer language. Serer languages and Pulaar are both Niger-Congo languages but the Niger-Congo language family is vast. It wasn’t easy to find up to date information on the Senegalese educational system but from what I’ve read it runs on a French model. On paper schooling is compulsory until children are sixteen but outside of the large towns I don’t think it’s enforced. I agree that French should be taught but in my heart I would also love to see literacy instruction in the language of the village. Pulaar exists in written form, using either a Latin or Arabic script. The organization I’ve been working with in South Africa was given class sets of books in Xhosa (Latin script). This year one of the students was visibly excited that the books were in Xhosa. Her expression has stayed with me.
I am sure that if I were to visit the school in Sinthiou Mbadane I would find a lot to criticize. I think I would see a lot of direct instruction and not much exploratory play. I would probably see some rote learning and not enough emphasis on personal expression. To be fair though, I need to look at what is happening and what the children are learning, in the context of a village schoolhouse. I am drawn to early childhood education in large part because of the creative role a teacher, and students, can play. In a place like Sinthiou Mbadane I feel that the community would expect a school to be more formal than I personally would like. The expectation is maybe that there is time for exploration after school hours. In the movie Coumba’s friend Amady is talking to some friends of his who didn’t go to school, and won’t have the chance. They ask him if he still climbs baobabs, and one of them says that if you don’t know how to climb a baobab it’s like you don’t know who you are anymore. I feel it’s important to note the distinction between schooling and education. As Madjidi and Restoule write:
In an Indigenous worldview, education is based upon the requirements of everyday life. In this way, education is “an experience in context, a subjective experience that, for the knower, becomes knowledge in itself. The experience is knowledge.”[…] The idea that learning should take place only within the four walls of a school, through the prescription of a fixed written curriculum, is diametrically opposed to the idea that learning is dynamic, experiential, and grounded in a sense of place.
While the authors mentioned above comment on integrating indigenous knowledge within the curriculum of the school, this is less likely to happen in schools in sub-Saharan Africa. I can imagine that the majority of schooling in sub-Saharan Africa is based on a colonial/Western model of education. While I would like to see this Western model dissipate, we need to take baby steps. It appears to me that a first step is getting rural communities comfortable with formal educational settings. Location of these schools is critical as the closer they are to the communities, the more likely they are able to connect with the families of their students. The town where Coumba goes to school appears easy to get to as Coumba goes there every day to work. To access higher education it is likely she would need to move to Dakar, or another city, though. There is going to be disruption of traditional life but hopefully division will be avoided. One of the scenes in the movie shows the family sitting under a tree eating. There is tenderness in spades and feelings of goodwill. Acceptance of formal education will probably be more successful in places where families feel their values are upheld. As a social justice educator, I feel a compulsion to encourage children to question the world and their place in it. I don’t think this would be successful in a place like Sinthiou Mbadane, at least not yet.
Watching this movie and reflecting on it has helped me articulate my thoughts on education in sub-Saharan Africa. I have certainly not come to any conclusions but I have put myself more strongly in the schooling camp than not. There is a need to respect traditions and customs but respect doesn’t mean acceptance, especially where physical and emotional damage is done. Teaching people to read and write is key. It opens doors that may previously have been shut. Many African languages exist in written form, mostly in Latin and/or Arabic script. Every African person I’ve met, or read about, speaks at least two languages and often they speak three or more. This isn’t to imply fluency in all these languages but it does infer the ability to communicate with a wide variety of people. Madjidi and Restoule caution against a focus on language that demonstrates persisting interest in the outer, and some would say ‘safer’ forms of Indigenous culture. This resonates with me and I will take this into account moving forward. I would like to think my interest in languages and literacy development doesn’t remain at a superficial level, but I need to look closely at what I actually do.
This summer I was fortunate to be able to return to Port Elizabeth, South Africa for the third time. This year I worked with a woman who lives in Joe Slovo township and we ran classes for the four to ten years olds during the holiday break (two weeks). We worked with the children for four hours and incorporated reading and writing instruction along with gross and fine motor activities. The woman I worked with has worked in schools in the area and she is very critical of the school system in general. Zukiswa is a dynamic and creative person, but this threatens teachers who have been doing the same thing for possibly decades, and who are incapable of change. There is not enough space here to discuss the dire state of schooling in South Africa, but to tie this in with the film, I question how I approach literacy instruction with this group of children. Reading time tended to be time to choose freely among the books we had on hand. The younger children didn’t speak much English so I wasn’t able to check their understanding of text and pictures, but Zukiswa could do that. Writing instruction came in the form of an About Me book. I would model the sentences needed using a book I’d made (from paper) and would write these sentences on the board. If the children wanted to write in Xhosa, that was encouraged. I only had two weeks there this year but Zukiswa is there year round. The tensions that arise for me come from a potential need for direct instruction, despite my belief in constructivist education. In “Other People’s Children”, Lisa Delpit affirms
Acquiring the ability to function in a dominant discourse need not mean that one must reject one’s home identity and values, for discourses are not static, but are shaped, however reluctantly, by those who participate within them and by the form of their participation.
The internal debate that takes place in my heart and intellect swings backwards and forwards and this gives it momentum, but I doubt it will ever be resolved, and be still. Education is never static, it reflects a dynamic world, and reflects dynamic relationships. What we must never lose sight of are the needs of our students. We must be open to distinct forms of schooling and we must tread carefully if we wish to effect change. To quote Freire, we must help students to ‘read the word and the world’.
Delpit, L. D. (2006). Other people’s children: cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton.
Madjidi, K. & Restoule, J-P. (2008). Ch. 4 “Comparative Indigenous Ways of Knowing” In K. Mundy, K. Bickmore, R. Hayhoe, M. Madden & K. Madjidi (Eds.), Comparative and International Education: Issues for Teachers. New York: Teachers College Press
 The books were not originally written in Xhosa but they work well as they are culturally inoffensive. I think the books are translated into all the South African languages (eleven official ones).
 There’s always a risk of generalization but there are certain similarities that exist across sub-Saharan borders.
Repost “Given this political context, whether the next generation of education standards sets bilingualism and biliteracy as explicit goals for all students is not a neutral question. And clearly, the Common Core has taken sides. By focusing on English-only, the standards function as the culmination of more than a decade of attacks on bilingual programs and emergent bilingual youth.”
What is the Common Core doing to bilingual education?
We’re joining hands with The Progressive and In These Times to shine a light on that question. Jeff Bale’s “English-Only to the Core” will appear in the fall issue of Rethinking Schools, but we want you to have it now!
Please use hashtag #ComCoreEnglishOnly to help us amplify the discussion.
. . .
Among bilingual educators, there has been much debate about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Some of the most respected scholars of bilingual education have endorsed the Common Core and are working hard to make it relevant for English learners. Others have been more suspicious. Not only do the standards focus on English-only, critics note, but they were bankrolled by the Gates Foundation, pushed on states in a way that amounts to bribery by the Obama administration, and promise to worsen the impact of high-stakes standardized testing.
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