Monday, April 28, 2008

A dirty secret about philanthropists

An article published by the New York Times on March 9, 2008 did a very good job of revealing some of what is going on in the minds of the millionaire and billionaire educational philanthropists today.

The article explained that the educational philanthropists donate their money because 1) they need a tax break and 2) educational issues are currently a popular cause. Unlike educational philanthropists of the old days like Carnegie and Rockefeller who were satisfied by providing supplemental help to the system, this new breed considers themselves to be school reformers. They want to see evidence that their money has produced specific types of output. To control this, they actively seek to have a strategic influence over the school districts which are the recipients of their largess. It's crystal clear that their gifts come with quite a few thick strings attached.

The first thing the educational philanthropists do is to deploy a “disruptive force.” Once the established school system is destroyed, they are poised to insert whatever model they think is better. Aren’t they nice?

For a number of years now, these philanthropists have been playing a huge role in changing school districts in many cities, including my own. Of course, they don’t send their kids to those public schools, nor live among the many members of those communities. They have no experience as educators of the masses, and certainly have not had significant personal contact with schools for the commoners, i.e. the public ones. But these qualifiers which would restrain the cockiness of a normal individual don't seem to carry weight for those arrogant and wealthy individuals with an urge to “fix" the problems, undoubtedly driven to do so for various personal reasons.

The educational philanthropists hunt for weak districts because they need a place to test their ideas. Oakland was one such district. Once it was cleanly obtained, with help from California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, the “disruptive force” was installed.

The force arrived as graduates from billionaire Eli Broad’s training ground, headed by the first State Administrator Randy Ward. They set up shop quickly and went to work creating their own special system for managing our large, urban school district. Some members have left, but others have replaced them. As an organized force from the outside, they have been applying their system for nearly five years now (the “Expect Success” program). The whole operation was paid for by the foundations of Gates, Broad, Rogers, and others. Oakland Unified still isn't “fixed” and with their approach it will never be.

Of course, assisting us with our fiscal recovery, the reason they were supposedly sent here in the first place, was never their primary goal.

Their undertaking was quite easy to do because the conduit for public input had been completely eliminated. Information to the public about what was really going on was scant. It was sometimes alluded to in the promotional materials for “Expect Success.” Many experienced and savvy administrators who questioned features of this new program, or showed resistance, either gave up in disgust and left, or were pressured out.

With the return of our local control, the powers of the “disruptive force” will be diminished, or lost – but not if the educational philanthropists can get a toe-hold by becoming a part of the publicly elected power body. Currently, Brian Rogers is running for a School Board seat in Oakland's District One.

“Gary Rogers was the chief executive of Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream in June 2003 when the company signed a $2.8 billion deal with Nestle SA, giving the Swiss food giant majority control. Rogers had bought the Oakland company 26 years before with his business partner, William Cronk, taken it public in 1981 and grown it into a $1 5 billion business.

The deal created what those in philanthropic circles call an “economic event” in Rogers’ life. Rogers realized he could either fill the IRS coffers that year or pour the money into the community in which he had raised his family and take a tax break of roughly 40 percent.

‘It's not the only reason people set up a family foundation, but it's one of the benefits of doing it,’ said Brian Rogers, who is one of Gary's three sons and executive director of the Rogers Gary Rogers Family Foundation. ‘For us, there was a large transaction for my father's business and at that point, he decided to bring together all of his goals for philanthropic giving.’

The result was a $90 million contribution to the Bay Area. Divided between two organizations - the family foundation that Brian runs and a supporting organization through the East Bay Community Foundation - the funds are backing desperately needed projects, large and small, including Oakland's $43 million Expect Success program in its public schools.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Poetry: Lake Bret Harte

If students attended Bret Harte during the years that a certain extremely negligent head custodian reigned, nearly every one of them would be able to tell you about this memorable “lake.” Located on the terrace where the kids ate their lunch, it was a body of incredibly putrid rainwater, rotten food and garbage that filled a concrete planter with a clogged drain. Being imaginative children, the students named it “Lake Bret Harte.”

Our daughter would complain and complain about the stench, but I never thought it would be as bad as she said it was until I checked it out for myself. The lesson here is to listen to your kids.

When workers from the District finally did something about the stinking hole, they just filled it up with asphalt. I always wished they had simply cleared the drain so the container could have been filled with soil and growing plants.


LAKE BRET HARTE
by George Higgins

Is not really one.
It’s not above the timberline
Lapping over lichened rocks or granite,
its gentle surf rattling stones.
It doesn’t freeze in winter
or slumber, fed by a glacial field,
nor does it wallow in the bowl, say,
above Glen Canyon Dam or Hetch Hetchy
houseboats bobbing in the shadow of sandstone arches,
although who knows all origins
man made or atmospheric?
What evaporates here may be deposited there
or piped somewhere else.
Nor did the writer Bret Harte ever sit
by its waters and calculate
a metaphor for this empty planter,
triangle shaped with six inch thick concrete walls
between steps and curb,
leading to the Cafetorium.
This isosceles triangle, a hollowed planter,
the kids say you could bury someone standing up
in this
Oakland Middle School bearing his name.
While the students eat lunch
this well fills up on rainy days but never drains.
It contains the
Milky Ways, the curdled cartons,
the discarded crust, decomposing batter
provided on the Black Top by a vendor.
Lake Bret Harte a name
created by the students
a lesson in irony, self taught,
their gift back to the bard
of the Oakland Hills.

January 2001

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Gang Awareness Workshop: Commentary and Summary

Part 1: Commentary

On April 12, 2008, I attended a Gang Awareness Workshop in the gymnasium of St. Anthony’s Church, located near E. 15th Street and 16th Avenue in Oakland’s San Antonio district. Several weeks ago, this church was the site of a funeral for a 15-year-old Latino boy who was killed by the police for allegedly refusing to drop a gun. On the day of his funeral, mourners at the church were the intended targets of a drive-by shooting. A 13-year-old was shot. Gang affiliations are attributed to these incidents.

In response to this incident and the increasing presence of Latino gangs in Oakland, this workshop was organized by City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and the OCO (Oakland Community Organization). Noel Gallo, the OUSD School Board representative for District 5, was present for a portion of the meeting. I am not aware that anyone else from Oakland's public school leadership attended. A number of parents were in attendance, mostly affiliated with St. Anthony School, a small K-8 Roman Catholic school located at the same site. Several members of the church also attended the meeting.

The information was presented by members of California Youth Outreach and its founder, Pastor Tony Ortiz. It focused on Mexican gangs in particular, but much of the content would hold true for other gangs: Black, White, Asian, Central American, etc.

California Youth Outreach (CYO) reported that they currently provide services to OUSD students at the high school level, namely at the Fremont Federation (College Prep & Architecture Academy, Mandela High School, Media College Prep and the Robeson School of Visual & Performing Arts) and at the Youth Empowerment School (also known as the Castlemont Community of Small Schools which includes Business & Information Technology, East Oakland School of the Arts and Leadership Preparatory High School). They also work with students at the Street Academy and Community Day which are OUSD alternative high schools serving very high-risk student populations.

The presentation was given in Spanish. Several handouts were given, including one for the PowerPoint presentation which was also in Spanish. English speakers were given Assisted Listening Devices (headphones with receivers) so that they could hear the interpreter. For some time I have been curious about what it would be like to use these devices. At other meetings I've been to, the attendees who have needed to use them have been the non-English speakers. I discovered that they work very well as long as the channels are set correctly and the batteries are fresh.

This was an excellent workshop. The summary which I have written is based on my notes taken at the meeting and on the limited amount of Spanish that I am able to read. It is by no means comprehensive, but it is enough to provide you with some of the important points which were covered. My hope is that that the word will spread about the need to disseminate this information to members of the community, and that presentations such as these will become commonplace.

Pressure must be placed on the Oakland Unified School District and the Oakland Police Department to join forces for the purpose of informing school staff and parents about youth gangs. With the rapid turnover of OUSD staff, and the fact that many teachers are inexperienced and coming from out of the area, presentations should be provided on an ongoing basis. Also, since the parent body is constantly changing, sets of parents should receive ongoing instruction as well. I believe that, for the best preventative measures, the middle schools should be especially targeted with this important information.

Even if everyone in the community becomes informed, gangs won’t be wiped out entirely; they have been around for many years. However, there is an urgency to aggressively deal with this issue now. Gang presence is increasing, gangs are more heavily armed than ever before, and gangs are evolving and getting more organized. Taking increased action with today's youngest adolescents will make it more difficult for gangs to acquire new members. This will help to suppress the development and expansion of these organizations.

This matter is extremely serious. These local youth gangs are directly tied to established violent prison gangs. Look at the heartbreak in Oakland caused by violent acts. Look at our homicide rate and at who is involved with those deaths. Consider the fear that many residents of Oakland are experiencing. Witness the dropout rate in Oakland’s public schools. Click on the YouTube links below to observe the presence and power of the world of Mexican gangs for yourself.*

If you are living in one of the safer neighborhoods of Oakland, this problem may feel irrelevant to you. That does not mean that it does not exist, that it is minor, or that the crime that stems from gang activity won’t seep your way. This issue is far outside of the scope of any school’s PTA, although parent groups should insist that their school’s employees have been formally trained and are actively monitoring these matters.

Responsible Oakland residents need to inform themselves, then apply pressure and keep it on. Be involved and be brave, but be smart and careful, too.

Part 2: Summary of the Gang Awareness Workshop given by California Youth Outreach on April 12, 2008

Dealing with the problem of gangs requires a response from schools, parents, police, churches, and the entire community. The goals are to

1. Distance youth from gangs

2. Get youth who are involved with gangs to leave them so they can lead a better life.

Studies reveal the trend that gangs are becoming more and more structured. They are evolving towards more serious organized crime. Gangs will continue to be involved with drugs. They use the money from their drug business to buy weapons so they can continue to sell more and more drugs.

Kids think, "Why go to school?" They can easily see that they can make more money by not going to school than by staying in school. They believe they can get more out of life by joining a gang.

There have always been gangs who have fought with each other. In the past they used sticks to fight. Today’s gangs have rifles and high-powered weapons that make the violence much worse. Also, kids in gangs used to fight out of everyone else's view, in vacant lots for instance. Now they are much more bold and fight on the street near businesses, and even churches. This increases the chance that innocent people will get hurt.

Many times parents don't want to know that their children are involved with gangs. Sometimes they are too busy to be aware of it, or to deal with it. Parents wrongly think, "My child is not involved with gangs; they are just out with their friends." Workers for California Youth Outreach must constantly fight against the parents and their denial.

Schools are also in denial; they think they don’t have problems when they do. Says Ortiz, “The biggest problem we have getting this information into the schools is their denial.”

Many communities don’t identify local gangs early enough. It is very important to see the reality of what is going on, and to do something about it before it is too late and something serious has happened. People need to know about gangs and gang culture.

A criminal street gang is defined by the California Penal Code as any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities, the commission of one or more of the criminal acts enumerated in section 186.22 (E)(1-25), having a common name or identifying sign or symbol and whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity.

Gangs can be identified by certain colors that they wear, tattoos or symbols, the people with whom they associate, where they live, etc. There are three main Mexican gangs: the Norteños, the Sureños, and the Border Brothers.

Norteños are mostly from Northern California. Their symbols are the color red, the number 14 (depicted as IVX, X4, the numbers 1 and 4) and the abbreviation “Norte.”

Sureños are more from LA and are more Mexican. Their symbols are the color blue, the number 13 (depicted as XIII, X3, the numbers 1 and 3) and the abbreviation “Sur.

Border Brothers are usually more recent Mexican immigrants. Their symbols are the colors black and white, the image of the Virgin Mary and the abbreviation “BB.”

These gangs are enemies and hate each other. They have been known to drive around and shoot at anyone they see who they think is a member of another gang. They aren’t shooting at the person – they are shooting at the color.

Sometimes, kids who are not in the gangs will have friends who are in gangs. When they are hanging out together, the good kids can get hurt. Parents must know who their kids are hanging out with.

There are different reasons why kids join gangs. Tony Ortiz explained it is because certain things are going on in their family, in their community and at their school. He says that sometimes parents are “making a living but forget to make a life.” Parents don’t always make time to see what (non-material) things their kids need. He reminds parents to remember that the most important things are the relationships, not the material things.

Five reasons why kids join gangs:

1. Protection: Early gangs were organized by kids to give protection to each other at school and after school. The friends will help them out because the parents are not there.

2. Stimulation: It is euphoric to be involved with a gang and the kids get an adrenaline rush. Kids feel that the activities they once did are boring to them now.

3. Identity: Membership in a gang gives kids who aren’t educated, don’t have enough money, or who live in the wrong part of the city a chance to be something special.

4. Recognition: Kids make friends in the gang who will recognize and accept them for who they are. The things that parents want for their children are not always the things the kids want for themselves. Also, parents need to give recognition to their kids when they do things right. Stressed parents don’t always do this.

5. Opportunity: The reason kids will take these risks is because they can get money for doing so. Membership in a gang gives kids the opportunity to get nice things like iPods and expensive clothing. Sometimes parents see their kids with these items, and know they did not buy them. This is a red flag that is warning the parents about something!

Signs of participation in a gang:

-Nicknames: The first thing the kid adopts is a nickname. Usually this is derived from a special characteristic that they have -- physical, personal or psychological, real or imagined. Many Latino parents give their children nicknames, but if parents learn that their children’s friends are calling them by a nickname that is not familiar, it might indicate involvement in a gang. Parents also need to pay attention to the quality of the nicknames that the friends use, and to ask their children about it.

-Hand signs: Hand signs are used to greet other members of the same gang, to challenge a rival gang member, to intimidate people who aren’t in the gang, etc. The hand signs vary but they usually form letters or numbers. This is often called “throwing gang signs.”

-Graffiti: Graffiti identifies gang territory and declares allegiance. It challenges rivals. If you see a lot of graffiti in your neighborhood, there will be gang activity.

-Tattoos: Many people have tattoos these days, but sometimes tattoos affirm a person’s affiliation to a gang. For instance, someone affiliated with the Norteño gang may have one dot on one hand (stands for 10) and then four more dots on the other hand (to represent 14). They earn the dots by completing tasks for the gang. At school, kids might draw on their hands with a pen and then wash it off when they get home. If they are doing this, they are thinking about gangs. Parents and teachers need to ask, “Why do they want to put those things on their body?” Sometimes members will burn symbols into their skin with a cigarette.

-Verbal codes: These are gang expressions. Some have been adopted by mainstream culture.

-Photographs: Gang members love to take pictures of each other. We need to be looking for certain things in the pictures that kids take of one another. For example, if the people in the photos are throwing gang signs.

-Music: There is music that Norteños make, and there is music that Sureños make. The kids can download this music on their iPods and listen to it all day long. Then the messages in the music get imbedded in the kids' brains and those ideas get reinforced. This influences their emotions. See the links below to listen to some of this music.

-Technology: Web sites exist which feature and promote the gangs. Parents need to look into what is going on in their children’s rooms and on their computers.

-Age: Participation in gangs is now starting in elementary school. Kids as young as seven or eight-years-old are being taught how to throw gang signs.

Signs that a child might be involved in a gang:

  • Dropping grades – for instance a child who was getting A’s and B’s in 6th grade, but now is in the 7th grade and has plummeting grades.
  • Switching to different friends
  • Missing school and cutting class
  • Staying out late
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • In possession of unexplained money and expensive items
  • Gang graffiti symbols in their room, on their clothing, and on their school papers and notebooks
  • Strongly favoring one color to wear
  • Using gang hand signs
  • Attitude problems with parents and/or other authority figures
  • Getting excited about gangs
  • Moving away from family
  • Sudden changes in music or clothing tastes
  • Body modifications like tattoos, wounds, burns and other marks

The overall pattern of behavior is of a child needing to display an attitude which is defiant of authority figures.

Ideas for parents:

Insist that you meet their friends and the parents of their friends. You need to know who your kids are spending time with. Be alert to the possibility that the parents of the friends might be gang members themselves.

Inspect your children’s bedrooms and understand that you have the right to do so. If they resist, say to them, “I pay the rent so I go where I want in this house.”

Set limits to behavior and conduct. Be consistent. In some Latino families, the mom will say, “Go ask your dad,” and the dad will say, “Go ask your mom.” Parents need to be in agreement with each other.

Parents need to go to school and talk to their child’s teachers and counselors. They need to know when the report cards are coming out so they can watch for their child's grades.

It is all a matter of being on top of these things and then knowing what to do.

*These YouTube links demonstrate what kids might be listening to. For the full effect, read the extensive comments that viewers have made. Also, be sure to notice that there are many, many more videos to choose from. The content of the music and the imagery reveal the mentality that the uninvolved community and law enforcement must face.

California Youth Outreach can be contacted at (408) 280-0203 or look online at www.cyoutreach.org. For CYO services in Oakland, call Henry Woods at (510) 377-5121 or email him at hwoods@cyoutreach.org.

A great deal of information about gangs is available online. Check out the U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Community Policing Services (C.O.P.S.) web site at http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/Default.asp?Item=1383. Also, see http://www.safeyouth.org/scripts/index.asp

An article about how innocent people are hurt: “Teens cautious on streets where people get shot for no reason,” SF Chronicle, 1/20/07, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/01/20/MNGP3NM6D91.DTL

Epiliogue: Immediately after this meeting I attended a beautification work day at my daughter’s high school. To document the event, I gathered a group of students together for a photo. These were nice kids who had come to school on a Saturday to help out. When the kids were in position and I was ready to take the photo, I noticed that many of them were making hand signs. I don’t know if these were real gang signs or not, but I told them, “No hand signs. I won’t take the picture if you guys are throwing hand signs.” They were obedient and put their hand signs away. As responsible adults, we need to be aware of, and to insist on, certain things from our children.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

One Response to Nextset

Nextset is the screen name of a frequent commenter on the Oakland Tribune’s education blog. You can read his postings after almost any entry at http://www.ibabuzz.com/education/. This is a modified version of my response to him on April 8, 2008.

Nextset: I will admit that I agree with a few of the things you have said over time. I am interested in the history of Oakland and its demographic changes and would like to get your perspective on something.

I have learned that a few Blacks (some free, some enslaved) came to the Bay Area for the Gold Rush and in the years that followed. After the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, more Blacks settled in Oakland because it was the terminus for the railroad. A substantial number of Black residents were connected to train work especially via the Pullman Company (the biggest single employer of African Americans in post-Civil War America). This was high status work for African Americans at that time.

In 1940, Oakland’s African American population was 8,462. Things changed during WW II.

Henry J. Kaiser needed laborers for his shipyards so he recruited many of them from Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. For instance, I have heard that a large number of Black folk in Oakland have family ties to Monroe, Louisiana. I have also been told that these laborers were some of the Deep South's poorest sharecroppers. Like most immigrants and migrants, they came to California seeking better opportunities.

By 1950, Oakland’s African American population had soared to 47,562.

When WW II was over, ships were no longer needed so the shipyards began to close down. Like most big American cities, Oakland had other industries for a time, such as food processing and auto manufacturing (we were called the “Detroit of the West”). Most of those blue-collar jobs had evaporated by the early 1960’s. Oakland then ended up as home to thousands of Black folk, with few familial accumulated assets (materially or educationally), who could not find work because there were just not enough jobs available.

From what you have written, your “…parents, grandparents and great grandparents were educators going back into the 19th century.” In fact, your relatives “…were among the 1st black teachers in the East Bay public schools.” You have also said that your parents “…had professional degrees for over 2 generations.” Your family assets also included living in a home in El Cerrito that was “nicer and more expensive” and higher on the hill than those of the blue collar whites living nearby. It also sounds like you have a successful extended family since you have revealed that you have “several relatives working in the banking & medical industries.”

Undoubtedly, those many generational and familial assets contributed to your success. How might that contrast with the experiences of the descendants of African Americans who arrived in the Bay Area later than yours, who were poor and uneducated and had few assets, or none at all? Are you saying that their current predicament is simply because of their low IQ’s?

A 14-year-old boy today may have had intelligent and hard-working great-grandparents (b. circa 1919) who moved to Oakland in 1943 from Louisiana to work in the shipyards. Unfortunately, their son, the boy’s grandfather (b. circa 1944), would have had a much more difficult time finding work upon graduating from high school in 1962. Despite difficulties finding regular, adequate employment, he might have still produced a son (b. circa 1969).

That son would have been 18 years old in 1987 at the height of the Crack Epidemic which lasted from about 1984 to 1990. Having experienced weak mentoring from his father and with few prospects for legitimate employment in sight, we can speculate how that young man may have been tempted to make money, or to feel better for a time. And when he was 25 years old, he may have produced a son of his own – thus the existence of the 14 year old boy of today.

So, by the time the great-grandson of a couple from Louisiana was born in Oakland in 1994, no male in his family had been steadily employed for at least three generations. Because the unemployment has been so widespread for so many years, it’s very likely that few men in his neighborhood have ever held a legitimate job, either.

This situation is why a "street" culture developed and has taken hold. It is also why the Underground Economy, simply an alternative system of producing income, thrives so vigorously in these neighborhoods. Guns are just a tool of the trade for the men who work in this non-mainstream economy.

It took about four decades of societal neglect for life skills that have been traditionally transmitted by fathers to sons — about being a steady mate and a good provider — to float away from these family groups. Those vestiges of a bygone era that were perpetuated for many generations are now nearly absent from the bodies of knowledge held by families today.

As for the traditional family unit, the short term effect of long-term unemployment on a marriage is always intense stress for the family. Eventually, the idea of marriage would be rendered completely irrelevant for a social group experiencing multi-generational unemployment. Isn't this exactly what has happened?

Despite their dabbling in the Underground Economy, I would also imagine that today's men who have little knowledge about how to go about being productive members of mainstream society may feel a level of despair and lack of purpose that contributes to substance abuse, pathological levels of anger, carelessness about life, etc. These feelings provide nourishment to the “street” culture.

During the ten years of the Great Depression, unemployment climbed from 3.2% at the beginning of 1930 to 24.9% in 1933. It only took four years for our nation to muster the political will to create the Public Works Administration and other programs. What would have happened to mainstream American society if high, widespread unemployment had been sustained for over fifty years?

According to a 2006 New York Times article, “The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.”*

With one subgroup suffering from such high levels of unemployment for decades, and with such incredibly disastrous social consequences affecting us all, why has there been such meager Federal response? And how realistic is it to now expect our public schools to bear the burden of rectifying the effects of such immense damage to this current generation?

*Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn, Erik Eckholm, March 20, 2006,

Monday, April 7, 2008

A correspondence with Elijah Anderson

I truly appreciate the work that Elijah Anderson has done, so I thought I’d write to him and tell him so. He responded appreciatively and sent me something new that he had written – the introductory essay to his new book which will be coming out this month, Against the Wall: Poor, Young, Black, and Male, Penn Press, 2008. He also asked my opinion about something.

Anderson was quoted in the January/February 2008 issue of the Atlantic Monthly in an article about the hit TV series, The Wire.*

I am struck by how dark the show is,” says Elijah Anderson, the Yale sociologist whose classic works Code of the Streets, Streetwise, and A Place on the Corner document black inner-city life with noted clarity and sympathy. Anderson would be the last person to gloss over the severe problems of the urban poor, but in The Wire he sees “a bottom-line cynicism” that is at odds with his own perception of real life. “The show is very good,” he says. “It resonates. It is powerful in its depiction of the codes of the streets, but it is an exaggeration. I get frustrated watching it, because it gives such a powerful appearance of reality, but it always seems to leave something important out. What they have left out are the decent people. Even in the worst drug-infested projects, there are many, many God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people who set themselves against the gangs and the addicts, often with remarkable heroism.

Apparently, a number of the show's fans have complained about his comments. As he told me, “It is interesting that so many viewers responded to my complaint with complaints about my complaint, apparently comfortable with the images they see on that program, their "window" into the ghetto.”

I am sure it is because he is a longtime observer of human behavior that he wondered what my reaction would be. This is what I wrote back to him:

Hello again Dr. Anderson,

Re: "The Wire" -- I think you are right when you say that the viewers are “comfortable with the images they see on that program.” Because we are so segregated, 99.9% of the viewers probably have no personal contact with people from poor, urban Black communities. Since the media sells sensationalism and fear, everyone likes to fixate on the more extreme “street” variation rather than the less exciting “decent” variation. So the loud, negative images are continually reinforced and any quieter, more positive images are continually bypassed.

I believe that much of mainstream America does have some level of emotional response and fascination about what is happening in these impoverished communities. I think it is mostly a duality of feelings: concern and sympathy vs. disgust and avoidance (in varying proportions from individual to individual).

“The Wire” portrays a singular slice of urban reality that has a tremendously visible and negative social impact. I don't think viewers think much about the fact that it is fiction and not a documentary (my husband's words). It happens to be more sophisticated than the average TV show – so for an hour each week, for a number of weeks throughout the year, viewers can feel like they absorb enough information to be experts about what is really going on. Then for the rest of the time they can be in their safe, oblivious worlds.

By the way, one thing I’ve been slowly researching is the history of the Black community in Oakland. So far I’ve learned that many early residents (pre- and early 1900’s) were connected to Pullman porter/train work because Oakland was the terminus for the Transcontinental Railroad. A few came to the Bay Area earlier than that for the Gold Rush.

From 1940 to 1950, Oakland's African American population grew from 8,462 to 47,562 when folks from Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas arrived, having been recruited to work in WW II shipyards. Of course, those jobs, and the many other manufacturing jobs (cars, food processing, etc.) in this area all disappeared years ago.

Here’s something I ponder. Even if our nation “woke up” and created programs to restore the jobs, I wonder if individuals will be able to recover the skills that are needed to function as two-parent families (ideal for childrearing in my opinion). My biggest worry is that traditional family structures have been so extensively devastated and replaced by the alternative "street" form that any knowledge about how to function otherwise may have been completely lost at this point.

At any rate I hope you get a lot of media attention when your new book is released. I have already leaked the word about it to an important minister in Oakland, to an Oakland city council member, a former Oakland school superintendent, and to my writer friend in San Francisco. I’ll keep an eye out for you on PBS’s Charlie Rose!

All the best,

(me)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Teachers displaying status (or not)

Before teachers ever step into a classroom to lead it, they should be required to master the content of one very important chapter in “Impro: Improvisation and the Theater” by Keith Johnstone.¹ This book is the bible of improvisational theater and it contains information that is essential for helping teachers function effectively.

I became aware of "Impro" last summer on a road trip when my husband started reading the chapter entitled “Status” to the family aloud. Our two daughters immediately recognized that their observations of at least 73 teachers over the past 15 years were being confirmed by the dynamics described in the book.

I am certain that you'll be reading the chapter yourselves, but here is a sample anyway:

“…every inflection [in one’s voice] and movement implies a status… In reality status transactions continue all the time.”

“We’ve all observed different kinds of teachers, so if I describe three types of status players commonly found in the teaching profession you may find that you already know exactly what I mean.

I remember one teacher, whom we liked but who couldn’t keep discipline…

Another teacher, who was generally disliked, never punished and yet exerted a ruthless discipline…

A third teacher, who was much loved, never punished but kept excellent discipline, while remaining very human...

I thought about these teachers a lot, but I couldn’t understand the forces operating on us. I would now say that the incompetent teacher was a low-status player: he twitched, he made many unnecessary movements, he went red at the slightest annoyance, and he always seemed like an intruder in the classroom. The one who filled us with terror was a compulsive high-status player. The third was a status expert, raising and lowering his status with great skill. The pleasure attached to misbehaving comes partly from the status changes you make in your teacher. All those jokes on teacher are to make him drop in status. The third teacher could cope easily with any situation by changing his status first.”

Of course, the rules that govern how status is displayed and perceived in a school environment would also rub up against the rules that govern how status is displayed and perceived by those who adhere to the values contained in the “code of the street.”²

Recently, I was listening to a lecture about urban education by Pedro Noguera, a popular sociologist who studies the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment. He mentioned the importance of having individuals with “moral authority” work in the schools and bemoaned the fact that there are too few.³ I am currently reading Noguera's new book, “The Trouble With Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education” (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

The transcript from his lecture states:

“The biggest shortage in many of our schools is a shortage of adults with moral authority. Moral authority is not authority rooted in a title or in a uniform, it is rooted in a relationship. Adults who have moral authority are adults who are able to get kids to listen to them, to follow their instructions, and therefore able to guide them because of what they represent in the eyes of those children. All of us know of adults who have that ability, don’t we? They are the ones you call on when the classroom is out of control, to bring order again. They are the ones who can come, adults and children now not because they are big and intimidating, but because of who they are and what they represent, there are a shortage of these adults in our schools today.”

Of course Noguera is talking about status, too.

Anyone entering the teaching profession should be consciously learning, and practicing, how their body language and tone of voice can subtly raise, or lower, their status in the eyes of their students. This is especially true for secondary school teachers who are dealing with older children who are in the process of transitioning into adults. A new teacher’s ability to manipulate the students in their classroom will determine if they are going to professionally sink or swim, and how quickly.

The manner in which teachers exhibit their level of status is a crucial concept, but seems to be rarely discussed.

Because we are primates, it will always be true that some people will display a higher status more naturally than others. However, if new teachers acquired a set of acting techniques, they could learn to project heightened levels of status when necessary.

This singular topic is probably as important as the many other things crammed into the six week training given to the Oakland Teaching Fellows combined. This program recruits young people (many in their early twenties) to fill the teaching vacancies in OUSD. The only applicant requirements are to possess a Bachelor’s degree, have a GPA of 2.75 or higher, pass two state teaching tests (the CBEST and CSET), and be willing to dive into an Oakland public school head first.

For a month an a half in the summer before they start full-time work in a school, participants learn about state standards, the foundations of teaching, and classroom management. They have discussions and activities about the challenges and benefits of teaching in a diverse educational setting. They work with current teachers in OUSD summer school classrooms, learn about lesson planning, and get a chance to help teach a summer school class. Then they are thrown to the wolves.

Learning about Johnstone's work may have helped one new 7th grade teacher, a bright and once confident young woman, who spiraled down, emotionally out of control, within the first three weeks of school and then left. Students in her abandoned classes had a string of substitute teachers for four months until they were permanently squeezed into any available spaces of other teachers with already full schedules.

Because it is so hard to find teachers who are willing to work in OUSD schools, recruiters find young people who are smart and well-intentioned, but who have never had the opportunity of being real student teachers, have had little or no personal experience in tough urban schools, and are clueless about the complexities of status and how it determines who is in control of the classroom. No wonder these teachers have such difficulty making 30+ non-compliant, cynical, hopeless urban adolescents cooperate with the State of California's educational agenda.


¹Read the many five star Amazon reviews of “Impro: Improvisation and the Theater” by Keith Johnstone (Routledge/Theatre Arts Books, 1979)

² "Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City" by Elijah Anderson (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999)

³The 2007 Konopka Lecture by Dr. Pedro Noguera, “What Does it Take to Leave No Child Behind?” was sponsored by the Konopka Institute for Best Practices in Adolescent Health, Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota. Go to http://www.med.umn.edu/peds/ahm/programs/konopka/lectureships/home.html