A Culture of Civility – Bullying and Student Achievement

I’ve been working hard lately to finish writing and shooting the content for A Culture of Civility, a three-part video seminar series for schools aimed at understanding and preventing identity-based bullying.

Whenever I talk to students about this project, they immediately get it.  They are excited about a new approach to understanding bullying in schools, and they recognize the need for building a culture and climate of inclusiveness.

When I talk to most administrators and many teachers, though, there’s a disconnect, a skepticism.  And I don’t  blame them.  For those tasked with educating our young people, there are about 25 chainsaws they are expected to juggle flawlessly: state standards, graduation rates, student behavior, state-mandated tests, district-mandated tests, college entrance rates, support for extra-curriculars, parent engagement, and on and on…

Above all, I hear the word “achievement.”  And in many ways, I should.  To quote a famous Bushism, we must ask, “Is our children learning?”  We must ensure that students are prepared for the world after high school, and as such, we need a lazer-like focus on standards and achievement.

But to focus on achievement doesn’t simply have to mean that we focus on tests, standards, and innovative reading, writing, and math instruction.  We need to ensure that students have an environment where they are safe to learn so that our academic work is not in vain.

In their article “School Climate as a Factor in Student Adjustment and Achievement,” (Journal of Education and Psychological Consultation, 9:3, 321-329) Yale University’s Child Study Center researchers Norris M. Haynes, Christine Emmons, and Michael Ben-Avie define school climate as “the quality and consistence of interpersonal interactions within the school community that influence children’s cognitive, social, and psychological development.”  School climate is essentially the sum total of interactions “among staff, between staff and students, among students, and between home and school.”

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The Chicago Teacher Strike is NOT About Salaries

If you’ve watched the news in the last few days, you would think all of the teachers of Chicago were greedy assholes who care nothing about the needs of their students or the parents of Chicago.

After all, they turned down a 16% raise, right?  Wouldn’t most of us LOVE a 16% raise?

First, let’s be clear.  This raise was meant to accomplish two things: compensate teachers for the proposed 90 minute increase in their work day (an 8% increase) and to increase teacher pay to keep up with the cost of living in Chicago (something the remaining 8% most certainly would not actually do).  That doesn’t even keep up with the rate of inflation over the next four years.

But despite this fact and even though compensation and benefits are definitely important to Chicago teachers, the issues on which the negotiations between the city of Chicago and the Chicago Teachers Union are stalled have little to do with teacher compensation.

This strike is about class size.

The teachers in Chicago Public Schools work incredibly hard to deliver quality instruction and outcomes to the 400,000 students in the city, but the deck is stacked against those students and teachers.  I should know.  I used to teach in CPS, and many of my good friends are dedicated CPS teachers.

No one disputes that students who live in poverty are much less likely to succeed in school for a myriad of reasons, and in Chicago, 87% of students who attend public schools live in poverty.  Further, there is a research-proven causational relationship between class size and level of achievement in school.  Plus, the gains made by students of Color when class size is reduced are even greater than for their White peers (a notable fact considering that in Chicago Public Schools, 91.2% of enrolled students are students of Color).

Despite these facts, though, Rahm Emmanuel and the Chicago Board of Education are demanding that teachers sign a contract that would allow classrooms with up to 50 students.  When I taught, I had one class with 42 on the roster.  When even 36 of those students would show up to my classroom with 34 desks, learning was INCREDIBLY difficult.  The teachers of Chicago know that such high caps on class size will be wildly detrimental to their students’ learning.

This is a strike for a system that values holistic student learning.

Following the example of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Chicago Public Schools wants to tie teacher pay to their students performance on standardized tests.  The idea of pay for performance is a complicated one.  In some districts, it has brought about some pretty stark achievement gains, which is a good thing!  However, those who oppose pay for performance (like the National Education Association and the Chicago Teachers Union) say that it is problematic in two important ways.

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I Can Haz Rant? “That’s So Ghetto.”

Most of the time, I try to create well-reasoned and carefully-crafted blog posts about pressing social issues.  Today, though, I’ve gotta rant.

There’s a lot of common language that bothers me for its oppressive and prejudiced implications.  With some of that language, though, I find a lot of allies in ending their problematic use.  For instance, I know of at least one school that is hosting an “End the R Word” rally to stop people from calling people and things “retarded.”  I hear more and more young people speaking out against “That’s so gay” and “You’re such a fag.”  That gives me hope.

However, there’s lots of hurtful and messed up language use that seems to go unchecked an awful lot.  So going along with my posts on White people using the “n-word” and on the word “bitch,” here goes my rant…

People need to stop using “ghetto” as a synonym for shitty, low-class, ugly, cheap, scary, or otherwise undesirable.  Seriously.

I mean, what does it even mean when we call something “ghetto”?  After all, the word ghetto refers to the outcome of isolating a particular population (often one that is oppressed or marginalized in society) to a specific area, often forcibly or through economic policy.  That might be a specific area of a city or to a camp or prison.

So when some sunglasses break and you call them ghetto, does that mean that there is a tiny population of people living in your sunglasses that have been placed there by racist and classist policy?

No.  What you are saying is that your glasses were made poorly and that they break easily.

Can I get a little precision of language please!?

Because let’s be clear: every time you call something ghetto, you’re communicating one of three very specific, very messed-up messages.

  1. The item or person you are calling “ghetto” is low-class, cheap, or otherwise associated with those who don’t have access to wealth and wealth mobility.
  2. The item or person you are calling “ghetto” is (most often) Black, Brown, or associated with African American or Latino culture (or occasionally other racial or ethnic minorities).
  3. The item or person you are calling “ghetto” is a combination of 1 and 2.

No matter how you look at it, when you use that language, you’re either using some pretty classist language or some pretty racist language that positions certain items, people, and spaces as beneath you.

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