Category Archives: Big Picture

My paycheck needs protection from bad legislation!

Last month, I got a survey call on behalf of AFT-Pennsylvania. They started naming a bunch of individuals and organizations and then asking my impression of them.

There was only one group on the list I hadn’t heard of: The Commonwealth Foundation.

A quick perusal of the site brought me to an article title that I couldn’t resist: “Union Dues Exploit Teachers, Taxpayers.”

The crux of the first argument goes as follows:

“The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) is a powerful teachers’ union that runs a highly partisan political machine. Each year, it forces tens of thousands of public school teachers to fund its brazen political agenda under the guise that it “represents teachers’ interests.””

I was surprised. I know that my own union (PFT) lets teachers opt in to both union dues and PAC contributions. These items appear separately on my paycheck — the PAC donation is set at a $1 per cycle, aka $26 a year.

It took me all of 30 seconds to find the PAC site for PSEA. It states quite clearly on their main page:

“No PSEA member dues dollars support PACE. PACE is a nonpartisan organization, funded by voluntary member contributions.”

Now, I’m no language expert — oh wait, yes I am. “Voluntary” does not mean “forced.” It is, in fact, listed by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as an antonym of “forced.”

Now, onto the second claim by the Commonwealth Foundation — that union dues exploit taxpayers:

“You and I pay for it. Government union contracts often require state and local governments to deduct union dues and Political Action Committee donations from employees’ paychecks using taxpayer-funded payroll systems.”

I struggle to find a metaphor that adequately reveals the ridiculousness of this claim. It’s like using a public highway, only we don’t cause any traffic. It’s like we’re using pipes to deliver water, only the pipes never erode. I can choose any number of voluntary deductions, including retirement funds and health care reserves, with no burden to the taxpayer. I have a right to opt into deductions that benefit me. Conservative forces may not like my politics, but that’s not grounds for making my financial choices illegal (and vice versa).

So what’s the purpose of this article? Why, it’s a laughably weak (but possibly still effective) attempt at drumming up public support for Pennsylvania House Bill 1507, which seeks to end the ability of all unions to deduct both PAC contributions and regular union dues from the paychecks of public employees. Firemen and policemen are notably exempted. (Presumably because they’ve got nightsticks and water cannons to fight back with, and I’ll I’ve got are some freshly sharpened pencils. Also this blog.)

Can unions be busted in Pennsylvania? It worked in Wisconsin. Legislation exactly like this eviscerated union membership there. Teachers had a small victory when a recent resolution asking County Commissioners to support the bill was taken off the table before they could vote. But the real threat, the house bill, is still out there. And the busters-at-large are going unchecked in Philadelphia media outlets. (At least western PA is publishing rebuttals.)

As an educator, I’m disappointed that the writers for the Commonwealth Foundation, who presumably graduated high school, could forget the writing lessons they learned from their teachers. Present the facts honestly. Don’t manipulate the truth.

As a union member, I am once again reminded that these forces are out there, and it’s not some secret conspiracy we don’t have access to. It’s right in front of our faces.

Tell everyone you know: the Commonwealth Foundation wants to destroy Pennsylvania unions.

What do you need to know about the SLA model?

Today is the first day of EduCon. The school is full of visitors, getting tours from students, poking their heads into classrooms, observing the teaching and learning that goes on, finding inspiration.

It seems as good a time as any to announce that, if all goes at as planned, there will be a book published about the SLA model by this time next year!

 (ASCD approached SLA about the project last summer, and they’ve been fabulous to work with. Our goal is to have it published in time for EduCon 2015.)

The overall goal of the book is to provide a how-to for both individual teachers and schools/districts to transition to this kind of learning model, especially when they are taking the leap of going 1:1.

I feel incredibly humbled by this task. At SLA, we already have a culture of transparency and sharing, but the project has given me a good reason to do some extensive exploration the practice of my colleagues. Technically, I’m the “author” of this book, but I feel more like a compiler of the collective knowledge and practices of the school.

Of course, the book isn’t for us — it’s for all of you!  To those ends, I would love your answers to this question:

What would help you understand and implement the SLA model in your own school?

Folks often walk away from EduCon feeling inspired, and this book is intended to give people the advice an guidance needed to kindle that inspiration back in their own buildings.

I feel a little bit funny publicizing a manuscript so far in advance — but any thoughts from potential readers would be appreciated. Leave your comments here, or track me down on Twitter or in person at EduCon this weekend.

What the students are watching.

I just finished The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract by Theodore and Nancy Sizer. Turns out it’s a great read for an evening when tomorrow’s snow day has already been called.

I’ve been thinking periodically about the hidden curriculum that all schools impart to their students, and their chapter categories resonated: modeling, grappling, bluffing, sorting, shoving, and fearing.

My mind quickly turned these categories into probing questions for my own classroom:

Where do I allow students to grapple with complex, un-solvable concepts? When do I discourage that behavior, and why?

When do I “shove” into the academic and personal lives of my students, even if they protest? Does it work, or does it backfire?

Do I induce fear in my students? Intentionally or unintentionally? Does this help or harm their work? How about our relationships?

I love thinking about this stuff. I’m fortunate to work in a building that allows me to address it explicitly with my students, and also with a staff that also wants to have these conversations.

There’s a danger, though, as well — if I think about it too much, I end up down the rabbit hole, over-analyzing every move that I make in the classroom, not to mention the hidden moral lessons being imparted by the larger school system (and in Philadelphia, that gets real depressing real quick).

And yet — in my sixth year of teaching, I can cautiously report that I’m getting better at that balance.

(Not going to try and figure out why, right now. That might ruin it. Wishing you all some balance in the new year.)

Letting people in the door.

I recently discovered Peg with Pen, and in particular her post “A Quick Guide for Resisting from Within for Educators.” I appreciate this list for a variety of reasons–especially her exhortation to take the high road, when educators have good reason to go for low blows–but it was the second item on her list that caught me:

Open the door.

In the context of the post, opening the door is about letting the greater community see the goodness and light in your classroom, instead of seeking to protect it from the potential harm that could be brought by outside forces.

In my head, however, this statement was also about opening the door as an individual teacher, to yourself and your practice.

I’m fortunate to work at a school where we (literally) keep our doors open all the time — and I work with colleagues who I trust to wander in, jump into class discussions and activities, and give me useful feedback whenever they feel like it.

But in the last year or so, I’ve also opened my door to other parties. I’ve scaled up the Student Assistant Teachers in my classroom so that I typically have one in every section that I teach. I said yes to a university researcher, who took transcripts in my class for two years, blew my mind with her doctoral thesis, suggested that I write an article (published) and apply to a national conference (accepted), and eventually inspired me to overhaul my entire approach to the 10th grade curriculum (more on that later). I had no idea that partnership was going to be so fruitful for me. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that it could turn into a partnership.

This year, I also finally took on a student teacher from the same program I completed six years ago. I got a freshly-minted colleague from September until April, and my students got an addition to their “teaching team,” which usually means three people. I cannot emphasize how awesome this is.

Despite the ongoing threat that my school district will crumble into dust, It’s been a really good year, thanks to the folks around me that were willing to step into my classroom and professional life.

So, who can help you? You should really open the door for them.

(Admittedly, the second half this year was not such a good one for this blog… considering a more regular schedule for 2014.)

#Engchat and Teacher Action Group for Social Justice.

I am beyond thrilled to be co-hosting the next #engchat! This Monday, October 14th, Teacher Action Group will be hosting this week’s discussion around the theme of social justice education.

What’s more, this chat will not just be on Twitter — it will also be a live meet-up at Fado, located at 1500 Locust Street. Come join us starting at 6:30 for some in person discussion before the session begins at 7pm!

Here’s the official write-up:

Students learn to read and write in English class. They practice their methods of observation, analysis, and response. But does school give them a chance to apply those skills to the real world and its problems?

This week’s #engchat will focus on how teachers can facilitate social justice education in their classrooms. Now more than ever, students are living in a world where their lives are marked by inequality–in income, resources, and opportunity. No matter their situation in life, students can benefit from turning the critical lenses learned in English class towards their “real life.” The chat will be a space to discuss both the big picture theory behind social justice as well as tips and tricks on how to facilitate meaningful lessons and activities in school.

First time participant in #Engchat? Great! Bring your laptop, tablet, or smartphone and we can help you get set up to participate. (Don’t have a Twitter account? We can help you with that too.)

Not an English teacher? The topics discussed in this week’s chat will be for all teachers — so join us!

Outside of Philadelphia? Follow the hashtag #engchat on Twitter, starting Monday at 7PM.

Speaking out is not that hard.

Screen shot 2013-07-26 at 5.55.23 PM

Almost two months ago now, I set up the Faces of The Layoffs website.

It was a really simple impulse — I wanted to do something for a friend and former colleague who had gotten a layoff notice in the mail that day. What if I could post her story on Facebook, with a photo to put a face on it? I thought. Wait. What if we could get everybody to do that?

Thanks to Teacher Action Group, bringing this idea into reality was easy. We brainstormed some catchy titles, spent $18 on a unique domain name via, and launched the site on a Sunday afternoon, about two hours after I thought of the idea and two hours of actual “work.”

The most rewarding part of this project was interacting with people who sent in submissions for the site. The vast majority of entries were sent in not by the people who got the layoff notices, but by their colleagues and family members who took the time to honor the skill and dedication of those close to them. Many of them wrote and said, “thank you for giving me something to do about this.” Many of them also wrote, “what can I do now?” The basic organizing principles worked beautifully: take your anger, find some hope, and make a plan.

On the flip side, the most difficult part of the project was wondering about all of the schools from which we received no entries. Were they shy about sharing the fact of their unemployment, often a private matter? Nervous about retribution from their administrations or the district? Or just in the dark about the project? (At one point, after we had been on the cover of the Metro and interviewed on Action News,  we even cold-called the offices of some schools in an attempt to broaden our reach.)

As you may know, the school district budget is still a mess. I don’t think for a second that the Faces project will solve that. But we managed to influence public opinion for the better — and it was not that hard (see paragraph 3.) I had a good idea, and a few great communities to support me.

If you’re in Philadelphia and you haven’t spoken up yet, collect your anger and come join us now.

Protests and Storytelling.

Poster by Alaina.

Poster by Alaina.

A number of our students have chosen to get early dismissal from their families and attend a rally organized by the Philadelphia Student Union.

As a result, a number of us were also left in school — which made Keystone Exam prep not the wisest option for the day.

So, what did we do instead?

We crafted our own responses to the projected school district budget shortfall.

Richard wrote a letter describing his concerns about losing the Engineering program at SLA.

Reggie is seeking individual stories from students about the cuts, to compile into a document.

Allen is worried that basketball will be cut next year — and he also doesn’t think that his voice will be heard on this.

Lloyd described his love of computers, and how SLA has helped his skills grow.

Alaina created a digital poster and also wrote about her experience with Computer Science at SLA.

The ultimate message — you are free to decide how you need to respond to these budget cuts, but the most effective stories are the specific ones. It may be counterintuitive, but these details have the most universal reach.