Shocker! Minneapolis School Board Forum Group Buys Media Coverage

October 25, 2016

Not many people showed up to an October 13 Minneapolis school board forum, according to an article in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a venerated newspaper based in Minneapolis.

The MSR has been around for eighty-two years, making it the “oldest Black-owned business in Minnesota,” and an essential source for the kind of community news and insight that is hard to find elsewhere. I am guessing, but do not know for sure, that the Spokesman-Recorder runs a lean ship, financially speaking. They have just one staff writer, Charles Hallman, listed online.

It’s tough to survive in the news business these days (unless you are TMZ, or on a 24/7 Trump watch, I suppose). Just ask the staff at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who have struck up a #NewsMatters campaign–complete with t-shirts–designed to let everybody know that, in their words, “Minnesota’s oldest newspaper is being eviscerated.” On a carnival-like ride, the Pioneer Press, which has been around for 170 years, has been sold and resold, rebranded, repackaged, slapped up, and trimmed down–and its fate now lies in the hands of something called the Alden Global Capital Group. 

Dave Orick, a Pioneer Press reporter and an officer with the Minnesota Newspaper Guild, had this to say in an October 25 press release:

More people are seeing our coverage now than ever before because of the reach of our digital products. The Twin Cities ranks No. 1 among the top 20 markets for newspaper readers and 70 percent of east metro newspaper readers choose the Pioneer Press.

Although the paper remains profitable, Alden Global Capital has continued to cut staff to line the pockets of its investors. The loss of so many reporters, photographers, copy editors, circulation, accounting and maintenance employees has impacted the communities we serve.

It has meant cutting back on local coverage of education, sports, the arts and a large amount of the investigative journalism that holds our public institutions accountable. We publish fewer local photos that visually tell the stories of St. Paul and the east metro. We’ve lost a measure of quality control and institutional knowledge as our copy desk has been decimated.

Orick’s press release includes an unusual request: “We’re asking civic-minded community leaders to step forward and help the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild, the union representing Pioneer Press employees, find a local owner that values the important role this newspaper plays in the Twin Cities.”

Help the Pioneer Press find an owner who cares about news, investigative reporting and local storytelling. 

And then, look closely at the Minneapolis school board forum article published in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. The forum was sponsored by the Animate the Race campaign, a special election season project of local, very well-financed education reform interests, such as Minnesota Comeback.

In the article about the forum, written by Spokesman-Recorder staff writer Hallman, Animate the Race organizers and funders–Daniel Sellers and Bill Graves, respectively–are quoted in positive terms. Graves also puts in a plug for the group’s next forum, on November 3, saying he appreciates “how much everyone is excited about taking time…to build understanding and awareness.”

Then, at the very bottom of the article, is this important note:

This story was sponsored by Animate the Race.

Uh, wait a minute. Animate the Race not only convened the forum and paid for “fellows” to help lead it, but also bought press coverage for it? And that press coverage includes genteel quotes from Animate the Race staff, with no deeper look at who they are? Sellers, for example, had a heavy hand in the money-drenched 2014 Minneapolis school board race, and Graves is a clear supporter of charter schools and education reform interests. His foundation has even given money to the employer of current school board candidate, Josh Reimnitz. While Animate the Race claims neutrality and a simple, informative stance, you really “don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

This doesn’t sound right. Last week, I emailed Hallman to ask him about this, but I haven’t received a response yet. Maybe there is a good explanation for this PR dressed as journalism that isn’t immediately obvious to the casual reader’s eye.

Or maybe not. Maybe–no surprise–our news outlets are for sale, in this time of increased pressure to stay afloat. Reader, and voter, beware. 

I can say with certainty that no secret group is paying for these blog posts! My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated! 

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From Laney with Love

October 22, 2016

The other night, while walking my dog, I ran into a neighbor who was coming home from work. We exchanged kid-related small talk before she said, “So, how’s your blog coming along?”

Er, slowly. This year, I have the good fortune to be engaged in a long-term writing project at north Minneapolis’s Lucy Laney elementary school. It’s been a dream come true for me, so far, but it means I can’t spin this blog out as frequently as I’d like to (guest posts gladly accepted!). My school year-long project at Laney will culminate in a longer piece of writing, so stay tuned.

There is a lot to absorb at Laney, a school where almost every kid lives in poverty, according to federal standards, and close to twenty percent are homeless or highly mobile. The school year started with gunshots along Penn Avenue, almost directly across the street from the school’s front door. In July, a two-year old was killed by gunfire near the intersection of Penn and Lowry Avenues, a few blocks from Laney.

These statistics and close encounters with gun violence are real, but they are not the whole story.


Gearing up for the Laney Fun Run

On Wednesday, October 19, the school held its first-ever “Laney Family Fun Run.” It was a short jog, really–just a 3K around the neighborhood. But, for Laney Assistant Principal, Lisa Pawelak, it was a chance for the school community to walk together, “into the light.”

Pawelak lives in the neighborhood and knows the sound of gunshots very well. They often wake her up at night, she told the Laney staff and families gathered for the event. And so she wanted to do something that got the school outside, to “take back some of the outdoor space” that can seem forever lost.


Ready to run

The joy was palpable. A small crowd moved together out of the school and down a long sidewalk to where the buses usually pick up and drop off kids. Some people were in their running best, while the kids jockeyed for position at the starting line. The air was cold, crisp, but still bathed in the golden glow of fall, under a brilliant blue sky. 

Just before the starting countdown, a neighborhood guy named “Big Mike” pulled to the front of the line in his pick up truck, pulling a neon sign lit up with messages about Laney love and Northside pride, Big Mike’s job was to provide cover at the front, while a bunch of cherry-lit squad cars were scattered around, ready to roll behind the end of the line.

We’re going to walk into the neighborhood, not out of it, Pawelak promised, “bringing light” along the way.


Maps, paths, leaves

This echoes a light-filled side of Laney I am getting to know well. On Friday, October 14, the third grade classes I have been paired with (as an independent writer) spent the day at nearby Theodore Wirth park, on an “Outdoor Adventure Day” with the  Loppet Foundation. I arrived after the kids, and sprinted to catch up with a group setting out on an orienteering walk through the woods and wetlands. 

One boy’s spontaneous burst of joy and wonder has been ringing in my ear’s ever since: “Whoa! What if the whole world was made of water?!” 

Later, I joined a different bunch of kids, where I was quickly bombarded with hugs from my new, pint-sized friends. 


Learning about leaves


Journaling at Wirth


Drawing plants

Before the Fun Run began, at a required “State of the School” talk, Laney principal Mauri Melander walked a group of parents, staff and students through Laney’s data report. The school’s attendance looks good, and its discipline rates are improving, but test scores continue to hover at the low end of somebody’s bell curve. This prompted a conversation among the staff and parents about how to “show how smart our children are,” despite the school’s struggle to climb higher on the test score ladder.

From the back of the multi-purpose room, a dad spoke up: “How do we change the narrative? How do we show the thriving that is going on here, despite the metrics?”

One Fun Run and Outdoor Adventure day at a time, perhaps.

“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” — Margaret Mead

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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MinnCAN Shifts as Minneapolis School Board Race Gets “Animated”

October 1, 2016

In a September 28 email sent to supporters, Andrea Roethke, interim director of the Minneapolis-based education reform group, MinnCAN, announced that the group has disbanded.

First launched in 2011, MinnCAN–a franchise of the national 50CAN reform outfit--rode into Minnesota on a wave of tobacco lawsuit money, thanks to the Robins Kaplan Miller and Ciresi law firm. In the 1990’s, the firm won a significant case against the tobacco industry, earning more than $400 million in fees. To handle this abundance, the RKMC (Robins Kaplan Miller and Ciresi) Foundation for Children was created. 

As documented in an earlier series of blog posts, the RKMC Foundation then provided seed money for a number of billionaire-backed education reform groups, including MinnCAN, Students for Education Reform, and Educators for Excellence (E4E), so they could set up shop in the Twin Cities.

The RKMC Foundation also gave $30 million to the Minneapolis Foundation, helping to establish an immensely funded, powerfully connected cabal of local reform interests. The highpoint of this, if it can be called that, came in 2013, through a coordinated yet short-lived “RESET Education” campaign. This campaign smacked of either naiveté or hubris, with an ill-advised series of embarrassing public events (co-sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio) that were little more than PR plugs for charter schools, Teach for America and the like. (RESET died out quickly, but fluttered back to life as part of an “education ecosystem” concept, promoted by the local Bush Foundation and built around similar philanthropist-driven reform ideals such as school choice.)

MinnCAN, until recently, was led by former Teach for America employee, Daniel Sellers. The group shared space in southeast Minneapolis with local, but now defunct, charter school champions, Charter School Partners.

While running MinnCAN, Sellers also got heavily involved in the 2014 Minneapolis school board race. That race garnered a fair amount of local and national publicity, partly for the ugly tenor of it, and partly because it featured an eye-popping influx of hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside, reform-soaked money. Sellers played a key role in this through his 2014 side job as chair of a new political action group called the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund.

Sellers’ Fund successfully lobbied for money from heavy hitters like Michael Bloomberg, the reform-friendly former mayor of New York, and Arthur Rock, a lesser known Teach for America board member and venture capitalist from California. Their money was used to promote two candidates for the school board–Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano–and to portray locally-funded incumbent candidate, Rebecca Gagnon, as beholden to special interests. (Gagnon and Samuels ended up winning seats on the board.)

Like the 2013 RESET Education effort, the 2014 Minneapolis race was off-putting for many, with its aggressive tone, nasty campaign literature and flashy hints of the purchasing power of plutocrats. Sellers didn’t seem to take any hits for his role in this, as he kept on at MinnCAN until earlier this year, when he stepped down and Andrea Rotheke took over as interim director.

Rotheke’s goodbye-to-MinnCAN note makes it clear that neither Sellers, nor the apparently flourishing local reform “ecosystem,” is going anywhere soon:

We have had the honor of working alongside many leaders in education advocacy, from the founders of the charter movement to long-time champions for educational equity to partners leading change within our schools.

We’ve also been thrilled to watch the growth of the local education advocacy ecosystem. Students for Education Reform has grown into a thriving chapter, Educators 4 Excellence has emerged to empower local teacher voices—including many of our own teacher policy fellows—and Minnesota Comeback has flourished with support from MinnCAN’s former deputy director. Later this year, this coalition will be joined by a new organization led by former MinnCAN executive director Daniel Sellers, which will further add to the strength of the ecosystem.

Sellers’ new organization, in fact, will be called Ed Allies, and will continue MinnCAN’s reform work, with the ongoing support of local philanthropists, according to a recent Pioneer Press article. He also appears to be taking an active, though less prominent, role in this year’s school board race. Back in August, an advertisement was placed on a local “e-Democracy” forum by a “Daniel Martin,” who was actually Daniel Sellers–according to the required email address that was provided.

Daniel Martin/Sellers’s advertisement was for an “Animate the Race” campaign, regarding the 2016 Minneapolis school board race. “We’re seeking 10-15 Minneapolis residents to become Animate the Race Fellows,” the notice stated, before explaining that chosen participants will earn $1000 for helping to “create a public conversation about the Minneapolis school board race.” 

The ad lists an August 19 deadline, and makes it plain that the Animate the Race campaign is “intentionally seeking to elevate a racially, geographically, and ideologically diverse set of perspectives.” But further on down, at the bottom of the page, sits a small, italicized, legally required disclaimer:

The Animate the Race project is funded in part by MN Comeback, a 501c3 non-profit organization and The JD Graves Foundation, a private family foundation. MN Comeback and the JD Graves Foundation are non-partisan and do not take positions in political campaigns.

Ah ha. That’s it. Minnesota Comeback is the new face of the reform movement in Minneapolis (having absorbed Charter School Partners and the RESET campaign, and so on) and Sellers, who has been involved with the group from the beginning, as a policy advisor, is apparently helping lead their voter outreach efforts. (Former Charter School Partners director Al Fan now heads up Minnesota Comeback.) 

Aaron Glassman's The Harbormaster

Aaron Glassman’s The Harbormaster

Side note: In July, I wrote a blog post about Minnesota Comeback and the likelihood that the group–which is a franchise, or “harbormaster,” in a reform network called Education Cities–would play a key role in the 2016 school board race. Read it here!

The Graves Foundation is a local, private foundation that has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Minnesota Comeback, as well as to a variety of highly-touted charter school chains and the Minneapolis Public Schools (in part to support the district’s school autonomy plan, called Community Partnership Schools). In the interest of promoting “Rigorous and Responsive K-12” schools, the Foundation has been similarly good to the local education reform ecosystem, doling out thousands of dollars in grants to Students for Education Reform, Educators for Excellence (E4E) and Teach for America.

In June, 2016, the Graves Foundation also gave a $12, 650 grant to incumbent school board candidate Josh Reimnitz’s employer, Students Today Leaders Forever, for a “student leadership retreat.” That’s fine. But it makes the idea of neutrality harder to swallow, then, from a Graves Foundation/Minnesota Comeback funded “Animate the Race” campaign. 

Although Sellers’ ad called for 10-15 Fellows, so far, just four are listed on the Animate the Race website, and one of them, Karen Shapiro, was already a MinnCAN blogging Fellow. 

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Wow! Big Buddies Trump Testing for this Kid

September 22, 2016

For the past week, there has been one burning, exciting, riveting, absorbing question on my seven-year old daughter’s mind: Who will be my big buddy?

She goes to a K-8 school, where the older students–in this case, 5th and 6th graders–act as big buddies to little kids like her, mostly in grades K-2. As a second grader, this will be her third year of getting to know a big kid, and the thrill of this has been zinging up, down and all around her for days now. 

She had to have her picture taken at the South High School pow wow in May.

This morning she awoke at 6:30, despite having gone to bed late because of the big storm that rolled through right at bedtime. As we tried to snuggle in, get sleepy and read a chapter of our current favorite book (Super Fudge!), the rain clattered down, making it so hard to fall asleep. But she was up on time, shuffling into the kitchen with one thing on her mind: today is the day she finds out who her big buddy will be!

“I woke up early because my mind was saying, ‘wow! wow! wow!,'” she told me excitedly. She then launched into a thirty minute, off and on monologue about which older kid she would be paired with. Would it be our neighbor? Probably not, because he’s a boy. Would it be Greta, her buddy from last year? No, of course not. Greta is too old now.

Who will it be?

The anticipation of this has propelled my daughter to school on time every day this week, and that’s saying something. Her school starts at 7:30 a.m., which is a merciless hour for a kid whose natural rhythm does not allow her to easily get to sleep–no matter how tired I assume she is–before 9 p.m.

This experience is hers alone. My older three kids also had big buddies as first and second graders, and were then big buddies themselves, but I don’t recall them organizing their every thought around who their buddies were, or would be, and what they would do together as buddies. (The buddy relationship takes place during the school day, maybe once a week, with the older kids coming down to read and talk with the younger ones.)

This year, we are going to sing a song together, she told me rapturously. Music + the company of a big kid? That is the kind of equation my spirited girl can’t get enough of. Math worksheets? Not so much. If she could arrange her day, she would have music class at least twice, she told me. That’s where her heart is; that’s the kind of thing that gets her out the door.

I can’t help but contrast her bubbling joy over her big buddy with a letter that was sent home from school yesterday. Your child, the letter said, will soon get the chance to show what they know about reading and math, by taking the “MAP” test next week. The letter was signed by the school’s Reading Specialist/Testing Coordinator, a person I’ve never met.

Make sure he or she eats a good breakfast and arrives to school on time, the letter advised.

Nah, I don’t think so. Of course I do my best to make sure she eats a good breakfast every morning, even though she is often only hungry for cookies at 6:45 a.m. That’s not the issue.

The issue is the “chance to show what she knows” by sitting for a computerized, standardized test as a seven-year old. Ironically, the notice came on the day that we had her fall conference with her teacher. During that conference, which lasted close to thirty minutes, we sat with my daughter’s teacher and the student teacher who will be working in her classroom all year.

The teacher was prepared. She knows this kid. She had the standard assessments done, about where my daughter sits with her emerging–very emerging–reading skills, and her sufficient math skills. She’s “behind,” according to the reading assessment scale (called F&P) that was altered with the onset of the Common Core State Standards. It is an alphabetical scale, and the level B, where my daughter was last year, was once a perfectly respectable place to be for a first grader. 

With Common Core, though, the scale was tweaked in the name of rigor, so that a first grader at level B now raises red flags. Kindergarteners are supposed to get to level B or C; first graders are supposed to fly past it. My second grade girl is still hovering around the B-C level. 

The kids haven’t changed; the Common Core-adjusted scale has.

The point is, my daughter’s teacher has already met with us and mapped out where my kid is, socially and academically. She was her teacher last year, too, thanks to the looping structure of the school.

The MAP test will take place in the school’s Media Center, not the students’ regular classroom. That’s because–shh!–the test is top-secret and there can be no cheating! Therefore, the kids have to leave their literacy-rich classrooms, with the alphabet and words and numbers all over the place, for the more discreet confines of the library. It is in these spaces–one child, one computer screen, no help allowed–that the dominant culture of individualism and individually crafted success or failure really blossoms. (My daughter won’t be there, as I have opted her out of all standardized tests, using the district’s own Opt Out form. Simply sign and return to your child’s school.)

The MAP test results are also used by the Minneapolis Public Schools to evaluate teachers, according to the science–considered junk by most scholars–of “VAM,” or Value-Added Measures. These measures are supposed to measure growth (where a student starts, and where he or she ends up at the end of the school year), and assess how far teachers take their students, according to the test results. The MAP isn’t timed, so kids can either click through it, or spend hours agonizing over each question.

Some teachers, parents and administrators might find these test results worthwhile, for purposes of planning and diagnosing which kids are in need of intervention or more challenging work. But nothing will take the place of being able to sit for half an hour with my daughter’s teacher, asking questions, bouncing ideas off of her, and otherwise trying to learn how best to support my daughter in her process of becoming.

Becoming what? It’s too soon to tell. For today, it is all about her brain shouting “wow! wow! wow!” as she gets ready to meet her big buddy, at last.

It turns out that Americans are at the far end of the spectrum in their preference for competition over cooperation; for self-promotion over humility; for analytical over holistic thinking; for individual rather than collective success; for direct rather than indirect communication; for hierarchical rather than egalitarian conceptions of status. So in school we…control and direct and measure our children’s learning in excruciating detail, where many other societies assume children will learn at their own pace and don’t feel it necessary or appropriate to control their everyday activities and choices. In other words, what we take for granted as a “normal” learning environment is not at all normal to millions of people around the world.

–Carol Black, “A Thousand Rivers”

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Minneapolis School Staff Fight for “Indispensable” Employee’s Job

September 13, 2016

Another letter writing campaign has been burning along email chains in the Minneapolis Public Schools. This time, it is on behalf of Multilingual department staffer John Wolfe. His job is on the line, apparently due to the kind of “adult interests” that education reform purveyors famously love to rail against. (Until they can’t, but that’s another story.)

One-time Teach for America superstar, Michelle Rhee

One-time Teach for America superstar, Michelle Rhee

Wolfe has worked for Minneapolis’s Multilingual department for the last six years, as a compliance and data guru. He came on just as the department, which serves English language learners (ELL) and their teachers, was trying to crawl out from under a federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Complaint. That complaint found that the Minneapolis schools were not adequately meeting the needs of non-native English speakers by failing to keep track of their progress or offer the proper support services. 

Wolfe reportedly worked closely with Jana Hilleren, who lead the Multilingual department and helped resolve the civil rights complaint. Hilleren, though, has since been pushed out of the district. Those familiar with Wolfe’s work describe it in the kind of saintly terms ascribed to many outliers in the Minneapolis schools (who have often met a similar fate). Here’s a sample:

  • Before John, everything was hit or miss. It was hard to know which students were getting ELL services; it was a free for all, which led to the OCR complaint.
  • John came in 5 or 6 years ago. He was key. Very teacher-leader focused, versus a top down approach. Teachers knew they could rely on him. People felt like they were part of something bigger, and a bigger effort for these kids. He built a compliance system, and did all the data work of monitoring who was getting what services. He was at the heart of rebuilding Minneapolis’s Multilingual Department.
  • Michael Goar started an employee of the month program, and only did it once. It was John.
  • John worked nearly 80 hours per work, living and breathing ELL and MPS.
  • He held “Saturday Sessions,” that paid teachers to learn, grow, and develop materials for district, state, and national ELL students to gain access to success.
  • Brought a 24 hour interpreter service, called the “Language Line,” to the district. According to MPS’s website, “This service is to ensure effective communication between schools and families regardless of a family’s home language. This service provides live interpreters in any language at any time of the day.”
  • Provides iPads, apps, research and “fast responses” to classroom teachers.

Now, in a scene that smacks of unfortunate adult political interests, Wolfe’s status as an employee has been made shaky, as part of a general deconstruction of the Multilingual house that Hilleren built. 

Warning: This is where the adult “concerns” really rear their messy heads. From 2010 on, Wolfe worked alongside HIlleren and teachers to build the Multilingual department into something people rallied around. In 2014, however, change blew in, on the heels of a surprise $5 million funding allocation for district ELL programming. There was a catch, though: Hilleren and her team were reportedly left out of the decision-making and planning for that new money, which was diverted from other departments within MPS at the behest of then-CEO, Michael Goar. 

The $5 million in funds was put under the management of a new employee–former assistant state education commissioner, Elia Bruggeman–and a new Global Education department. By late 2015, Hilleren was gone, and the Multilingual department was placed under the purview of Bruggeman and the Global Ed division. 

Fast forward to the spring of 2016. In a shakeup, the Multilingual department staff was whittled down from fifteen to just a handful of district-level employees, leaving it in skeletal shape. Wolfe was one of the employees left without a clear position for this school year, although he reportedly has been given a part-time district job. The word swirling through district headquarters is that anyone from the Hilleren era is in danger of being swept out, while the Multilingual department itself is on the brink of being starved. There is no money for textbooks, apparently, or for staff to attend the annual state ELL conference.

The extra $5 million diverted to ELL programming in 2014 has been spent on a variety of staffing and programming whose value cannot easily be assessed by the untrained eye (district sources say there is no per-pupil cost analysis of where that money has gone). A lingering concern, apparently, is where the new Global Ed division is headed. Is there a plan? A focus? A structure in place, that will help explain the staffing and leadership changes? If so, no one seems able to articulate it.

Back to John Wolfe. Those who know him well sing his praises, while acknowledging his role as a maverick who can be tough to manage, but delivers on behalf of students and teachers. As politics threaten to upend the ELL department Wolfe helped create, his career in the district hangs in limbo. The staff who have come to value his support, however, are not letting him go quietly.

From a recent letter sent to Superintendent Ed Graff by a longtime Minneapolis teacher:

 John is the single-most responsive individual that I have ever connected with in an administrative position. He listens to us and supports us. 

John has given his heart and soul to this district.  He is passionate about helping EL teachers and students alike.  He works harder than anyone I know and may be the smartest man I have ever met.   Simply letting John walk from this district would be a travesty.  You will receive many more letters like mine from so many of the excellent EL teachers in our district saying the same things.  I would not write a letter like this for just anyone.  Please listen to all of our personal testimony. John means so much to this district and especially to the teachers of our Multilingual Department.

John Wolfe is irreplaceable.  His loss to the EL students and teachers in this district would be immense.  I am writing to ask you to retain John Wolfe in the district and renew his contract within the Multilingual Department.

So far, supporters say, there has been scant response from a district stuck in–but perhaps trying to crawl out of–damage control mode.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Minneapolis Superintendent Sings Prince, Peddles Hope

August 28, 2016

Tomorrow, August 29, school starts in Minneapolis. Friday, August 26, new district superintendent, Ed Graff, did something that hasn’t been done in years.

Using story, song and warm fuzzy-like swirls of hope, Graff delivered a “State of the Schools” address at Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall. Displaying a knack for crowd-pleasing action, Graff also joined the newly-formed Minneapolis Public Schools’s Intergenerational Choir (what a lovely idea) in a medley of Prince songs, including his hit for the Bangles, “Manic Monday–surely intended as a nod to the tangle of emotions parents, students and staff have on the eve of a new school year.

The showmanship worked, judging by the beaming faces, clapping hands and renewed energy bouncing around Orchestra Hall’s golden interior. Graff somehow managed to walk through a PowerPoint about the Minneapolis schools without once mentioning test scores, the achievement gap or any other typical “failure factory” attributes. 

Instead, Graff floated in on the reverberations of a “cheers and chants” performance by students from north Minneapolis’s Lucy Laney Pre-K – 5 school. The kids, part of Laney’sBeaconsafter-school program, shook the house with shouts of “Yeah, I’m hyped/Yeah, I’m ready!” The audience joined in, helping to set the stage for Graff’s upbeat address.

Graff’s theme for the morning was “MPS Strong,” and In his walk-through of what that means, he focused on the good by drawing attention to student voices and adult and kid success stories. There was a montage of young students defining what strong means to them; it was sweet, but not cloyingly so, with kids saying strong means someone is “healthy, fit, strong of heart,” and “confident,” mentally, physically and academically.

Graff prefaced the kids’ view by noting that “being strong doesn’t mean we’re perfect,” but insisted that “our challenges aren’t the most important part of our story.” He later highlighted the success story of a boy from the River Bend Education Center, which serves kids with high behavioral and emotional needs, and a young woman who just graduated from the district’s Longfellow School, for pregnant and parenting teens, and is on her way to community college.

Graff also called attention to Edward Davis, a former special education assistant at River Bend who is about to start his first year as a fifth grade science teacher at Lucy Laney school. Davis was part of the first cohort to go through the district’s Grow Your Own program, designed to diversify MPS’s teaching pool by helping classroom assistants become licensed teachers. Davis’s toddler daughter was there in his arms, stopping the show with her excited cries of, “There’s Daddy right there!,” every time Davis’s image flashed on the big screen in front of the crowd.

The jubilance of Davis’s young daughter infected the somewhat sparse crowd, as many classroom teachers were back in their buildings getting ready to welcome students on Monday. (The event was live-streamed, and can be viewed here.) Graff ended the morning with a brief turn at the piano, before adding his voice to the intergenerational choir’s tribute to Prince, a MPS grad from the “warm fuzzy” era. Wherever Minneapolis students are engaging in the fine arts, Graff declared, “I’ll be there.” 

This was enough to buoy the crowd of administrators, school board members, teachers and staff (along with Mayor Betsy Hodges), and send them off on their Friday–without the usual mountain of edu-jargon and acronyms to hide what goes on behind classroom doors. The whole scene may have prompted the more cynical among them to ask what a nice guy like Graff is doing in a place like this (and how long will he last?).

However, three personnel developments over the summer indicate that perhaps MPS, under and inspired by Graff, might be turning a new page. First, Washburn theater teacher Crystal Spring’s job was reinstated, after she was threatened with dismissal by MPS’s Employee Relations division for being arrested on her own time (the charges were later dropped). Observers said the harsh treatment Spring received from HR was nothing new, and feared her quick reinstatement came only through public pressure.

Then, Washburn staffer Elisabeth Geschiere, also facing HR discipline she felt was unfair and unjust, had a “not recommended for rehire” letter put in her employee file. After public pressure, a meeting with Graff and then a further sit-down with Employee Relations staffers, Geschiere has reported that this letter–which could bar her from future employment in MPS–has been removed from her file.

Finally, in recent days, Barton Open’s principal, Jonas Beugen, was reportedly reassigned within the district, after months of internal and public protest from some members of the Barton community. Initially, Chief of Schools Michael Thomas and Graff both stated that Beugen would stay, despite an emotional outpouring at the July 12 Minneapolis board meeting. Staff at Barton, along with some parents, persisted in asking for an actual investigation into the climate at the school.

Thomas responded–the day before the Barton’s August 25 Meet Your Teacher event–with a Robocall indicating that retired MPS principal Cynthia Mueller will be helping lead the school this year. Thomas’s message did not mention Beugen, but it became known that he has been reassigned, and Mueller, along with new Assistant Principal Diane Bagley will be at the helm.

Insiders say this is surprising action by district administrators, who often have a reputation for delivering hard-edged decisions without rank-and-file input, or evidence of “best practices.” Is this because of Graff and his reputation for thorough decision-making?

Too soon to tell, but, like a blank composition book in a unscuffed backpack, there is hope.

As School Begins: What James Baldwin Has to Tell Us

August 21, 2016

Guest post! Minneapolis teacher and writer, Julie Landsman, reflects on the upcoming school year, and what it means for teachers and students–especially those ready to confront racial injustice.

In words to his fifteen-year old nephew, James Baldwin wrote:

And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be drive from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from a sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.-

-“My Dungeon Shook,” 1962

It has been fifty-four years since James Baldwin wrote these words. What is all too remarkable and depressing to many of us who teach and write from a social justice perspective is that his words are entirely relevant today. After a summer of killings of African-Americans by police officers, and in reaction the killing of five officers in Dallas, along with the recent unrest in Milwaukee, students will come to us in the fall and throughout the year wanting to know: what led up to this? 

What is our history that underlies much of Baldwin’s references? Of all the years of my teaching and working with teachers, this year feels to be one of great urgency. It is an urgency to recognize the initial genocides our country was built on; how important it is to have truthful, unflinching discussions about the difference between the perceptions of, and the reality of, our past.

If we are good at what we do,  we educators will present students with what Baldwin cites in his 1963 “Talk to Teachers”:

The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. 

If we are able, we will provide the space for students to ask questions and we will be ready to let them find the answers, let them disagree and argue. Teaching is a messy experience if it is done right. It may be that high school students will want to take part in direct action, conferences, letters to the editor, self-directed research projects, after what they have observed, absorbed, even participated in over the summer. Some of their work may have to do with what they observe about education itself, how classes for Advanced Placement are filled with White students and special education classes for behavior are filled with African-American males. Their questioning may lead a White student to ask why his Black friend was suspended for doing the same thing he did, and nothing was done to him for the same violation of the rules, the same walk down the hall without a pass.

More than ever, we must build time into our classrooms to listen, to allow discussion and to let these questions, fears, thoughts, interrupt our careful sequence of lesson plans; to let students work these things out together. If we are truly educating as Baldwin predicted in 1962, our goal has to be to provide the chance to examine the society in which our students are being educated. We do this without giving up a challenging curriculum that grows from these questions. At the same time as activists, we must examine the very texts and requirements we have been mandated to teach. We must become aware of whose perspective this curriculum is written from–who is chosen, who is included.

Again, from Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers”:

I would try to make him [my nephew] know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger—and that it belongs to him. I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of a given administration, any given policy, any given morality; that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything. 

What this requires of us is a rethinking about what we do with our students each day: the amount of time we allow students to talk, to lead and to even devise lesson plans . It requires that we think deeply about what is absent from our books, our videos, our YouTube clips– what is not there, what part of our American history that is “larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anyone has ever said about it” is not included in the pages of our texts, the literary anthologies we hand out in September.

We can start with something like Langston Hughes’ 1959 poem, “Theme for English B”:

“The Instructor said,/Go home and write/A page tonight./And let that page come out of you—/Then it will be true.”

Later in the poem, Hughes writes:

“So will my page be colored that I write?/Being me, it will not be white./But it will be/A part of you, instructor./You are white—/Yet a part of me, as I am a part of you./That’s American.”

To open our classrooms with this command, to write a page that will come out of our students–be they seven or seventeen–as a way of understanding who will be sitting before us for the nine months we have them, will be one version of listening.

There is no list of ways to create an educational system that is truly equitable. Yet, the voices of students are the closest thing I know to a beginning for this work.

Julie Landsman ( is the author of three books on education: Basic Needs: A Year with Street Kids in a City School (Milkweed Editions, 1993) A White Teacher Talks About Race (Rowman and Littlefield 2001) and Growing Up White; a Veteran Teacher Reflects on Racism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008). She is also the editor of many collections of essays stories and poems, the most recent being Voices for Diversity and Social Justice, A Literary Education Reader, with Paul Gorski and Rosanna Salcedo, (Rowman and Littlefield 2015) She is a retired teacher from the Minneapolis public schools, and consults and teaches seminars on education, writing, race and culture.

Minneapolis Finds Itself Between a Referendum and a Hard Place

August 16, 2016

Tonight’s Minneapolis school board meeting promises to be a lively one. Friends and supporters of Washburn High School staff member, Elisabeth Geschiere, have promised to show up in force, to protest what they say is unfair disciplinary action against Geschiere.

Other school communities are planning to show up, too. Geschiere’s story–documented here–offers a rare, public window into what many Minneapolis teachers and support staff say is a district-wide climate of hostile management practices. At the most empowered schools–like Washburn or Barton–teachers and support staff who feel targeted can often spill their stories to parents and community supporters, who can help advocate for them.

In the least empowered schools, bullying administrators seem to run roughshod over a revolving door of teachers and staff–without consequence from the district. One northside elementary school, serving a very marginalized population of kids and families, has reportedly lost 40 percent of its teachers this year, due to what sources say are dysfunctional and harmful administrator-staff relationships. 

Staff and teachers of color often don’t feel safe speaking publicly about this, or asking supporters to rally with them at school board meetings. A comment on the Facebook event page for tonight’s school board rally makes this clear:

This story is not unique and we need to have a presence at tomorrow’s meeting to show support for all the teachers of color and advocates for teachers/students of color who have been targeted and silenced. We need to stand up for racial justice and fight against the status quo of power and intimidation that is present within the district.

This is the hard place Minneapolis finds itself in, with many behind-the-scenes hopes being pinned on new superintendent Ed Graff–who charmed the board and community members with his reputation for prioritizing “social-emotional” learning, and for being a breath of fresh air, imported from the Anchorage schools. 

Meanwhile, the district needs more operating money from Minneapolis voters. At tonight’s board meeting, which promises to start with another airing of the district’s dirty laundry, board members will vote on a resolution to put a referendum on the November ballot.

Documents available online indicate that the board is planning to ask voters for nothing more than a maintenance of the current referendum amount, which first passed in 2008 (some board members wanted to ask for an increase, but that hope has apparently died). The request for money often comes with promises of lower class sizes or new technology, but for Minneapolis and most districts around the state, referendum funds are actually needed for general operating costs, to make up for a long decline in state financial support (this trend has deeply impacted funding for public higher ed in Minnesota, too).

A 2008 report from the Minnesota Budget Project, called the “Lost Decade,” put it this way:

From FY 2003 to FY 2009: • Per pupil state aid to school districts fell by 14 percent. • School property taxes per pupil rose by 48 percent.

So, which comes first? The defunding or the dysfunction? As state revenue for public education has dropped, the number of children living in poverty has increased. The needs are greater, the resources are fewer, and the district seems to be going through an existential crisis. Since at least 2007–right around the time public aid for education, housing and child care was dropping–the Minneapolis Public Schools has embraced (or been pressured to embrace) a thriving international trend: the privatization of public education.

This trend, driven locally by a handful of wealthy power brokers, has fixed the blame for much of what isn’t working in the Minneapolis schools at the feet of teachers and school staff. To oversimplify, the narrative goes something like this: Test scores aren’t rising fast enough, so obviously teachers aren’t doing all they could to close the ever-present “achievement gap.” (Yet staff like Elisabeth Geschiere say they face retaliation for working closely with marginalized students who try to advocate for themselves.)

The district seems to have ground itself into a culture of fear and intimidation, coupled with the ongoing destruction of many departments–such as IT–that once drew praise for their resourcefulness and innovation. The only hope may be public demonstrations, like the one scheduled for tonight’s board meeting, where people from schools across the district come together to protest hostile employee relations.

Or, in the words of Brazilian teacher Eduardo Moraes, who participated in a five month strike that ended just before the Rio Olympics started, and recently spoke to a reporter about what teachers in the U.S. could do to improve their own working conditions,

 “I would say that only struggle changes lives,” said Eduardo. “The only way for them to overcome the issues that they face over there, which are similar in some ways to ours, is to organize and to get involved and participate in the struggles of education for the whole society.”

And then, maybe, the referendum campaign will also look more promising.

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Minneapolis School Staffer Challenges Harsh Disciplinary Action

August 6, 2016

How do you go from winning a work-related Peacemaker Award one year, to being told you are unfit for employment the next?

By working for the Minneapolis Public Schools, of course. 

Elisabeth Geschiere

For the past few years, Elisabeth Geschiere has worked for Check and Connect,  a dropout prevention program at Washburn High School. Geschiere is “conversationally fluent” in Spanish, and has worked closely with the school’s Latino population as both support staff and an advisor for the Latino Club. In 2015, she was lauded on the school’s website as “one of a very select group of nominees” to be considered for the district’s Peacemaker Award, which Geschiere then won. The website announcement ends on a high note:

We thank Elisabeth for her tireless commitment to equity, peace, for the students at Washburn.

Now, Geschiere has found herself on the nail end of the district’s often bludgeon-like HR hammer. This spring, students in the Latino Club became upset when the Chicano Studies course they had been told was coming to Washburn was instead rolled into a more general “American Civil Rights” class. The school cited low enrollment as the reason the class had to be scrapped. (Adding more ethnic studies courses is a new focus for MPS, but the classes are electives and thus not required.)

On a day when Geschiere happened to be out sick, the students met with Washburn principal Rhonda Dean to express their dismay over the situation, vowing to make their concerns public at the next school board meeting. When Geshciere returned to work the next day, she says Dean asked her to help the students try to boost the enrollment of the Chicano Studies course they wanted, in order to keep it alive as a possibility. (The students say they have proof that, during their meeting with her, Dean also told them to ask Geschiere for help.)

Geschiere says that is just what she did, by sending out emails to fellow Washburn staffers, alerting them to the course, and otherwise supporting the Latino Club students in their push to make the ethnic studies course a reality. 

Somehow, though, Dean accused Geschiere of telling her students to go to the school board meeting with their complaints. On May 12, one week after Dean asked her to help the students drum up enrollment, Geschiere says Dean called her boss, Colleen Kaibel. Dean wanted Kaibel to “immediately remove” Geschiere from her position–but not until the school’s upcoming Multicultural Arts Festival took place. “I know she is doing good work on that, and the students are excited about it,” Dean told Kaibel, according to Gescheire’s records.

Side note: Geschiere and her Latino Club students started the annual Multicultural Arts Festival three years ago. According to Geschiere, the festival “attracts around 300 parents, students, staff, and community members and happens to showcase Washburn students’ diverse backgrounds and talents as well as the arts.” 

Elisabeth and Latino Club

Geschiere and the Latino Club

Next, Geschiere says she was called to a meeting with the Washburn principal, as well as an assistant administrator and district HR associate, Emma Hixson. During the meeting, Geschiere says she was told that she was “inciting students” and acting “beyond the scope of her duties as Check and Connect staff”–something she was not faulted for when helping to set up the Multicultural Arts Festival, mostly on her own time.)

Weeks later, on June 27, Geschiere received a letter from Hixson. In icy tones, Hixson’s letter accuses Geschiere of telling the students to go to the school board with their concerns about the Chicano Studies course:

Your actions in this matter were outside the scope of your duties as a Check and Connect staff person and inappropriate for your advisory role with the Latino Club outside the duty day. If students brought concerns to you, you should have brought those concerns directly to the administration. It is not constructive or appropriate to take the time of professional staff with questioning, nor is it appropriate for you to have discussed the matter of school curriculum with (other staff).

Finally, Hixson brings the hammer down in the last line of her letter:

This document will be placed in your personnel file and evidence that you are not recommended for rehire with Minneapolis Pubic Schools.

Geschiere says this letter was labeled a “Written Reprimand,” but was clearly intended to end her five-year career in the district. There is no due process apparent here; only a cold note, informing Geschiere of her wrongdoing, which Geschiere insists is based on false information. Moreover, questions linger about what, exactly, Geschiere is being accused of. 

If her alleged crime is talking with students about going to the school board to advocate for themselves, is this considered worthy of dismissal in the eyes of the Minneapolis Public Schools? 

Hixson’s suspiciously toxic letter still sits in Geschiere’s file, although she has written letters to the district’s HR director, Steven Barrett, asking to have Hixson’s letter removed. (She has also received support from her union, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.) After receiving no reply from Barrett, Geschiere wrote to the district’s new superintendent, Ed Graff, and the district’s Chief of Schools, Michael Thomas.

When she also received no reply from these district higher-ups, some of Geschiere’s friends organized a “phone/email zap” on August 5, asking supporters to flood MPS with this message:

I am writing/calling in regard to the unfair treatment of MPS employee Elisabeth Geschiere by the Washburn Administration and HR Department. Geschire has been an outstanding support for marginalized students at Washburn and it appears she is being punished for that. She did nothing wrong. She simply supported students from Latinx Club as their staff advisor. The claims by the Washburn Administration, and subsequently HR, that Ms. Geschiere “incited students” are not only patently false, they are disrespectful to the students who took the initiative to advocate for themselves. I ask you to do the right thing and immediately remove the “letter of no re-hire” dated June 7, 2016 from Ms. Geschiere’s MPS file.

By mid-afternoon on August 5, a message on the Facebook event page created on Geschiere’s behalf held this message: “The public pressure is working! Keep it up y’all! The superintendent reached out to set up a meeting with Elisabeth for Monday. Will keep you posted!”

Geschiere’s experience with Minneapolis’s seemingly hot-headed HR department is just the latest in a string of high-profile encounters between staff and the district, indicating a pattern of behavior some might consider abusive:

  • July 12: Parents, teachers, students and staff from Barton Open School flood Superintendent Graff’s debut school board meeting, advocating on behalf of teachers investigated by Barton’s new principal, Jonas Beugen. District administrator Michael Thomas recently announced his continued support for Beugen, and blamed the Barton events–documented here–on problematic district “procedures and practices.”
  • June 9: Questions emerge about the conduct of Minneapolis administrator, Lucilla Davila, who was then put on leave by the district. Davila was running a nonprofit that did business with the Minneapolis schools, and was responsible for the placement of several principals–including Whittier’s Norma Gibbs. In May, Whittier parents went public with their own complaints about Gibbs and Davila, including the attempted firing of a beloved Whittier staff member.
  • June 8: Geschiere’s coworker, popular Washburn theater teacher Crystal Spring, is threatened with termination by HR director Barrett after being arrested while off work. In a letter sent to Spring, Barrett upbraided Spring and seemed to cast judgment on her actions, telling her it was “troublesome on multiple levels.” Charges were later dropped against Spring, who also had her job restored after a public demonstration on her behalf.

There has been no official word since June regarding Davila’s status. Geschiere has resigned from MPS, a decision she says she made before being put through the HR wringer. Still, before she leaves, Geschiere wants the district to acknowledge and correct the “appalling” and unjust treatment she and her supporters believe she has received–not just for her own sake, but also in light of acknowledged district-level patterns of “problematic” HR practices.

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Come On Feel the Zinn

July 25, 2016

Shocking news: Hillary Clinton’s pick for vice president, Tim Kaine, is a pro-corporate, un-progressive political opportunist–joined at the hip to Wall Street, trade deals and right-to-work, anti-labor laws. Oh, and Democratic party operatives, like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, are calculating and mean, and they write awful emails about other Democrats. 

Okay, maybe this isn’t such shocking news. Or, as historian Howard Zinn put it:

None of this should surprise us. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties. We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism.

And he was writing in 2008, not today. Staying glued to the latest Tim Kaine or Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democratic National Committee shenanigans is a little like watching “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” As in, what did we expect?

I am not surprised that Kaine, as governor of Virginia, didn’t stop the death penalty, despite his personal distaste for it. Virginia is a conservative, “law and order” state. I am not shocked that Wasserman Schultz behaved poorly, and wrote mean emails about Bernie Sanders. (I’d love to see what the Sanders campaign had to say about her!)

Fortunately, I have found my own bright spot in the Kaine for VP pick: for someone (Kaine) who can be labeled a corporate Democrat, he actually seems progressive on education issues, as does his wife, Anne Holton. Holton attended the Richmond, Virginia schools as a child, to support integration in the post-Brown v. Board of Education era. “It was the first time,” Holton notes in a “love letter” she crafted to the Richmond schools, “that I had a chance to be part of something bigger than myself, and it left its mark on me.”

Holton also said the experience made her a “passionate advocate for public schools.” And Kaine, while mayor of Richmond, reportedly made it a point to visit a different city school every Tuesday. At the time, his own kids attended the Richmond schools, and, apparently, “not just the ‘best-performing ones.'”

That is almost shockingly radical, in this era of the hedge fund-driven “Democrats for Education Reform” (DFER), when the party line on education policy has been shaped by the Arne Duncans of the world. Duncan, like Obama and Bill Gates, for example, has been keen on promoting charter schools, testing, accountability and “races to the top” for other people’s kids, while sending his own kids to progressive schools protected by blissful bubbles of non-standardized “best practices.”

Conversely, Kaine and Holton have said they view public education as a public good. Holton is now Virginia’s secretary of education, and her “love letter”–captured in a local Ted Talk–includes testimony from Richmond teachers who “feel a calling” to stay in the classroom, despite clear hurdles and what Holton calls “excessive testing pressures.” (Holton mentions that 74 percent of the city’s kids live in poverty, a rate double the state’s average).

Why are the teachers there, Holton asks rhetorically. Because the students, whom they have “come to know and love,” need them. Whoa. What kind of non-outcome oriented hippie speak is that?

Holton ends her love fest for the Richmond schools by asking others to join in it: “I am a protective lover, but I am not a jealous lover, and so I want to invite you to love our educators, love our schools.” Get involved, vote, pay attention–“maybe run for school board someday,” Holton advises. Or, teach, she enthusiastically calls out, before asking the audience to consider sending their own kids to “our city’s schools.” 

There hasn’t been a progressive education platform in this country since Lyndon B. Johnson first signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965. Back then, it was one of several pro-family, pro-kid initiatives, such as Head Start and federal money for college tuition, put into place, according to Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer’s 2015 article in the Atlantic.

ESEA was doomed from the start, however, as Zelizer argues–with the government choosing to spend money on the Vietnam War rather than on eradicating poverty and equalizing educational opportunities. Even today, with Johnson’s ESEA law finally morphing into the Every Student Succeeds Act, Zelizer offers this reality check: “Without a living wage or better public housing and stronger civic institutions, all the education policies in the world will only have a limited effect on poor communities.” (Or, is testing more important than anti-poverty campaigns?)

Which brings me back to Howard Zinn. Writing, again, in 2008, in a piece for the Progressive called “Election Madness,” Zinn cuts through the clutter of gossip and surface level intrigue surrounding our presidential elections:

No, I’m not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death.

I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.

But then, the real work begins:

But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.

And into “changing national policy” on education, too. 

July 19 Protest pic

July 19, Minneapolis. Teachers For Black Lives protest. Photo: MN NOCVideo available from the St. Paul Federation of Teachers


Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.

–Howard Zinn, “Election Madness”




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