Archive for May, 2013

Ginsberg’s Spirit Alive and Well in Tompkins Square

May 31, 2013
Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

The indomitable spirit of Allen Ginsberg was felt this evening in Tompkins Square where a host of poets took turns reading lines from Ginsberg’s transcendent Howl to kick off the first day of the three day Howl Festival. The reading of Howl was preceded by readings of original poems by many of the same poets, including Eliot Katz.

Reading Howl

Reading Howl

It felt good to hear poetry sung out in the park with abandon. It felt very good to once again take in a bit of the the brilliant defiance and imagination of Allen Ginsberg.

Information on the festival can be found at http://www.howlfestival.com/

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Awaiting the Word of the Corporate King

May 30, 2013

I have known the facts for weeks now but nonetheless there remains in my brain some voice that keeps telling me, this can’t really be true, my union, the once mighty United Federation of Teachers did not really sign off on an agreement allowing the cynically selected corporate crusader, New York State Education Commissioner John King, final say over the new teacher evaluation plan for all of New York City. Surely my union would never entrust this precious fan of Educators 4 Excellence (and other billionaire funded union busting lowlife organizations,) who taught a total of three years (one in a public school) and was just last week seen pathetically cheering on the corporate CEO’s he lined up to shill for Bill Gate’s Common Core. (‘cause, really, who knows more about education than CEO’s? ) to have the final say on the most radical change in teacher’s professional lives in decades.
Surely, this was some kind of bad dream or evil hallucination or elaborate cosmic joke that I’d, in time, awaken from, snap out of or catch on to.

John King who taught for three entire years.

John King who taught for three entire years.

But no. Like their signing on to Race to the Top, easily the most corrosive and insidious attack on American public education in its history ( of which Bill Gate’s Common Core and Commissioner King’s evaluation plan are part and parcel) the UFT, indeed, did sign on to this slow motion train wreck. Worse, my union wants me and my union brothers and sisters to believe that this is a moment for celebration, a victory of some kind.
Reading UFT President Michael Mulgrew’s letter on the matter made me cringe. (See below.) Several times. Then it did something worse. It lit in me the sensation I have known in certain dark hours in my life when I comforted myself with the thought, “it cannot get worse than this” until, a short time later, it was worse than that.

I suspect many teachers from coast to coast have felt something akin to that sickly sensation over the last decade of ceaseless attacks. I am tired of it. And more than tired of it. The corporate disease has over taken all including the only forces capable of withstanding it, namely unions and political parties. The choices of working people, never rosy, are now starker than they have been in a century and there seems there is nothing but darkness in the tunnel. We either find some way, as yet unimagined, to rebel against our own immiseration and degradation or we wind up with lives that are scarcely worthy of the word.

Herein Mulgrew’s letter.

Dear colleagues,
Late on Saturday, June 1, State Education Commissioner John King is expected to release an evaluation plan for K-12 teachers in New York City. It will be done through a binding arbitration process and take effect in September.
The mayor and the DOE will no doubt try to spin Commissioner King’s decision to their advantage. The UFT staff will be working through Sunday to get accurate information about the new system out to you by Monday morning in a form that is both clear and concise.
The process to create a new evaluation system has been long and contentious. The final decision came to rest with the commissioner because the city Department of Education proved incapable of negotiating in good faith with us.
The UFT and the DOE each submitted lengthy proposals to the State Education Department on May 8. Arbitration hearings are taking place in Albany today and tomorrow. Commissioner King will consider the proposals and decide on the final evaluation system on June 1.
We have the opportunity to use our collective-bargaining rights to modify aspects of the evaluation plan during future contract negotiations. Practically speaking, since we are in fact-finding now, if any changes were negotiated, they would not take effect until the 2014-15 school year.
Because the commissioner’s plan must be in accordance with the 2010 state law on teacher evaluation that this union supported and helped shape, we expect it to be fair, professional and focused on teacher development to the benefit of our students. The new evaluation system as set out in state law is designed first and foremost to help teachers improve their skills throughout their careers. Teachers who are struggling will get support tailored to their individual needs.
We have our work cut out for us in September, given this DOE’s terrible track record of translating policy to practice compounded with the fact that they will probably be gone come Jan. 1. We have started working on a professional development plan and we will use our rights to make sure that the new system is implemented fairly. It is a big help that we already have an appeals process for New York City teachers nailed down that will give our members stronger due process rights than they have ever had.
I hope this email clarifies where we are and what we can expect. Working together, we will make this transition. You can count on your union to continue to fight to get you the support you deserve. Thank you for all that you do for our city’s schoolchildren.
Sincerely,

Michael Mulgrew

Visiting Dorothy

May 27, 2013

IDDVisiting Dorothy

And so on Memorial Day Weekend I went to visit my Ma and together with my wife and child went to visit the grave of Dorothy Day, the astoundingly bold and beautiful co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. My mother, a devout Catholic who raised and fed eleven children largely on her own after my father’s untimely death at age 52, has a soft spot for Day as well as a similar sensibility.
Dorothy Day raised one child but fed untold thousands of men and women whom she perceived as nothing less than children of God, but not before she spent years as a hard drinking journalist of a decidedly anarchistic bent. Day was the acting editor of The Masses when it was shut down by the U. S. government and she was arrested for picketing Woodrow Wilson’s White House for women’s suffrage. Day was also known for hanging out with the likes of Eugene O’ Neill and Kenneth Burke, both of whom it is said, she could drink under the table.

young DownloadedFile

Quite a feat, given the thirsts of such crazed Irishmen. But that was nothing to what she would do in years to come.

While she was still young, Dorothy underwent a crisis of meaning, brought forth, in part, by her experience of having an abortion. This crisis resulted in her conversion to the Catholic Church, hands down the most historically repressive of all Christian denominations and at the same time the church with the richest intellectual and cultural legacy. In short, a complicated institution to say the least. Some of Dorothy’s friends were lopsided with shock at her conversion, some considering her mad.

Mad she was and mad she remains in the context of the culture of what William Blake called “Selfhood” in which she was raised and which rages on in ever greater ferocity and diabolical intensity in our own time, when in 1932 she met the enigmatic Peter Maurin. Together they embarked on a project based on the Sermon on the Mount which was both very simple and very radical: to build a “ society in which it will be easier to be good.” Five months later, at a May Day rally in Union Square, the first Catholic Worker newspaper was sold. The price of the paper in May of 1932 was one penny. Catholic Workers were selling copies of the paper this May Day in Union Square. The price of the paper in May of 2013 remains one penny.

You figure it out.

Around the same time Dorothy opened the first Catholic Worker hospitality house in which anyone who showed up was fed, no questions asked. There are now over one hundred spread out in cites all over America. God only knows how many thousands and thousands of despised and desperate souls were fed by Dorothy and those who came after her.

Moreover, there is but one rule: To proselytize was and remains forbidden.

This work of the Catholic Workers is strangely taxing. The people who come to eat are sometimes crazed and often filthy. They are the Unwanted. The Weak. The Failed. They embody the most damning of all American insults: they are the Losers. Their mere presence calls all kinds of metaphysical and theological questions into mind. One must have iron faith. One must have limitless compassion. One must make your breathing and believing one or you may well run out the door in horror.

Dorothy did this work for almost 50 years, on top of her non-stop political activism, until her death in 1980. Her work continues all over America, all over the America demented by greed and the need for power over others, debased by degenerate forms of religion preying on the weak and keeping them so, degraded by a culture where “all that is sacred has become profane. ”
Almost.

Some time ago I was speaking with the writer Jim Douglass, author of JFK and the Unspeakable and The Non-Violent Cross, who runs a Catholic Worker hospitably house with his wife Shelly in Birmingham, Alabama, when he said something about Day that startled me. I did not know that Jim had actually known Dorothy and when I realized he did I asked him what she was like. Jim paused for what felt like a long time and at last he said simply, “ Dorothy was a lover.”
I was shocked and asked him what on earth he meant by that. Jim went on to say that when you are in love with someone, you see only the good in that person, only the potential in that person. That, said Jim Douglass, was how Dorothy Day saw the world.
I think of those words from time to time or rather they swim into my consciousness to haunt or invite or inspire depending on my mood and my strength at the time of their always unexpected arrival. They bespeak of a spiritual state I can only call sublime. They describe a spiritual power of which I am in awe.

Dorothy Day was a Catholic anarchist. Such a thing is an absurdity, something that should not logically exist. But then so is the sun. And so is the soil. And so a song. And so a frog. And so you. And so I. And so all.

But here we are.

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Musings On Corporate Education Reform: In the Absence of Trust Grows Sickness

May 19, 2013

A dog starv’d at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
William Blake
The Auguries of Innocence.

blake

Insofar as an absence is as dynamic as a presence, a sane society that wishes to remain more or less healthy need be exceedingly careful of the things we remove, that much the more if those things are vital human needs removed from vital human institutions. The absence of beauty from a building, for example, does not create building minus beauty. It creates something radically different and profoundly diminished. Such changes can be said to be environmental and they are thus as subtle, unpredictable and dangerous as the removal of a species of insect from the rain forest. We now know that such a removal will create chaos even if we do not know when or where as the removal creates a chain of events outside of the logic of cause and effect. Such a removal, that is, may manifest itself in the Tundra ten, twenty, thirty years after the change.
If this is true with the removal of an insect, how much truer must it be with the removal of as primal and vital a human need as trust in an institution of learning ?

The most degrading and increasingly explicit message from the corporate reform campaign to American public school teachers can be boiled down to the following four words: We don’t trust you. We don’t trust you to teach your students. We don’t trust you to test your students. We don’t trust you to mark the standardized tests that we manufacture for your students. We don’t trust you to know your subject. We don’t trust you to have standards so we have provided standards for you that you will be punished for not following.
If fact, we don’t really trust you to do much of anything at all except the things that we tell you to do and even these we don’t trust you to do. And this is why we reserve the right to micro manage every aspect of your professional life

Of course, this is not the language that is employed to get their message through. The corporate reformers speak, incessantly, of accountability and more accountability – all of which is conveniently quantified on standardized tests and reduced to sacred and all revealing data.

Why do you need trust when you have accountability ?

Of course, only a vulgar mind would confuse trust with accountability. Accountability is the thing you need when you have already banished or you are incapable of trust.
And this is to say nothing of Bill Gate’s moronic totalitarian notions concerning students wearing galvanic bracelets to measure involvement in the lesson or placing teachers under video surveillance under the pretense of sharing the practices of master teachers.

In whatever form it takes, the message is the same: You, Mr. or Ms. Teacher are a person wholly unworthy of trust.

And don’t think for a moment that the students don’t also understand this.

For an additional kick in the head, the very same “reformers” who have institutionalized distrust of teachers demand themselves to be trusted unconditionally (or at the very least, unconditionally obeyed) even as they perform untested experiment after untested experiment on America’s unknowing children.

Consider the fact that Bill Gate’s Common Core Standards which are now remaking American public schools from coast to coast have never even been field tested.
Consider the fact that Valve Added Metric (VAM ) evaluation schemes which will determine the livelihoods of millions of teachers are wholly unscientific and akin to a roll of the dice.
Consider the obsession with merit pay despite a century of failed attempts to prove it somehow improves teacher quality.
Consider the fact that there is no evidence that any of the corporate reform schemes improves anything other than the bank accounts of their proponents.
And on it goes.

It is difficult at times, I will admit, in the face of all this not to fall into despair. Battling systemic degradation on a daily basis wears one down. I see it in the faces of my colleagues more and more and I do not know where or how it will end. Individuals so predatory that they have amassed the wealth of entire nations, at the same time that they have essentially harnessed the political machinery of the state, are neither easily defeated nor likely to admit they are wrong. Ever. No matter what. Observer Michael Bloomberg. Or Bill Gates. Or Eli Broad. Or their political operatives, Rahm Emmanuel or Andrew Cuomo or Chris Christie or Cory Booker, or the biggest catch of them all, Barack Obama.
I do not know where this will go. I do know this though, and I know it in the marrow of my bones: any society that systemically institutionalizes distrust of a profession as vital as teachers has entered a state of moral, intellectual and spiritual decay of a terrifying order. It is an order that true visionaries like Blake prophesied and knew would not long survive.
Nor should it.

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Walcott Urges Principals to Continue Degrading Teachers and Destroying Education

May 19, 2013
The Increasingly Desperate Dennis Walcott

The Increasingly Desperate Dennis Walcott

In a scene reminiscent of George W. Bush’s desperate addresses to captive military audiences attempting to rationalize his criminal invasion of Iraq, NYC School Chancellor Dennis Walcott gave a transparently political speech to 1,100 principals and administrators in Brooklyn Tech High School urging them to continue implementing Mike Bloomberg’s disastrous education policies.

Walcott was responding to the rejection of Bloomberg’s failed and much loathed educational policies by Democratic candidates running for mayor.

Amidst his defense of Bloomberg’s indefensible policies at what was ostensibly a conference on education paid for by the public dime, Walcott, a longtime political appointee, added absurdly, “ I don’t like to involve myself in politics.”

Appropriately, this statement was greeted with laughter.

See article below from the NY Times

New York Schools Chief Warns Against Changes
By JAVIER C. HERNÁNDEZ
Published: May 18, 2013

Warning that the fate of New York City education was “hanging in the balance,” Dennis M. Walcott, the schools chancellor, suggested on Saturday that the school system was at risk of falling into disarray in the hands of a new mayor.

Mr. Walcott, in his latest salvo against the Democrats running for mayor, said city schools had reached a “new day” and that efforts to chip away at Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s 11-year reform effort were misguided.

“Halting the momentum of this extraordinary transformation would be a tragedy,” Mr. Walcott told an audience of more than 1,100 school administrators gathered for a conference at Brooklyn Technical High School.

The Democratic candidates for mayor have promised to reverse some of Mr. Bloomberg’s signature policies, including closing low-performing schools and providing space to charter schools. Those promises have caused distress in City Hall, though the Republican candidates have generally embraced the approach of Mr. Bloomberg, who leaves office at the end of the year.

Mr. Walcott’s speech seemed intended to be a rallying cry before a friendly crowd, but the response was muted. While his calls for preserving the authority of principals and eradicating nepotism were met with applause, some principals seemed uninterested in his message.

Laughter broke out in some corners after Mr. Walcott explained that he was not looking to be a kingmaker. “I don’t like to involve myself in politics,” he said.

Renel Piton, the principal of Brooklyn Lab School, said he shared Mr. Walcott’s concern about the candidates for mayor and did not want them to “gut reform for the sake of gutting.” Still, he said he was surprised the chancellor chose to use a speech at an academic conference to weigh in on a political battle.

“We need to focus on what’s going on in schools,” Mr. Piton said. “I don’t come on a Saturday to listen to their views on the candidates.”

Brian DeVale, principal of Public School 257 in Brooklyn, applauded when Mr. Walcott began discussing the old way of running schools, before the State Legislature handed the mayor authority over the school system in 2002. Mr. DeVale, an opponent of mayoral control, said he thought Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Walcott were too authoritarian in their approach.

“I sat and listened to a political lecture from an administration I have no interest in,” Mr. DeVale, who is a union representative, said after the speech.

John C. Liu, the city comptroller and a Democratic contender for mayor, said he was puzzled by Mr. Walcott’s suggestion that the candidates were pandering to the teachers’ union.

“Candidates respond to complaints and concerns about the status quo,” Mr. Liu said in a telephone interview. “Candidates don’t manufacture concern.”

Even the Department of Education’s chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, waded into the political fray, urging principals to support efforts to overhaul the school system.

Mr. Polakow-Suransky said he was so distraught by the attacks on the campaign trail that he called the chancellor of the Washington school system, Kaya Henderson, for advice.

In response, according to Mr. Polakow-Suransky, Ms. Henderson offered a variation on an African proverb: “The elephants are going to be fighting, but don’t forget to tend the grass.”