A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 26 2010

Cradling the Community

I’m slowly feeling like a part of my local community.  I care about local politics, I am concerned about local issues and I am participating more in whatever forums I can.  This slow increase in civic engagement makes me happy.   It also makes me understand the value and impact of TFA’s mission.

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I recently had an opportunity to take three of my robotics team students to testify about the impact of robotics in front of Chairman Vincent Gray of the DC Council (note: if you are a DC teacher and have students who want their voices heard, sign up for a slot to testify!).  The experience helped me understand more of how our city government works and that it really does work.

Just being in the Chamber–watching how students expressed their thoughts to their elected representatives and listening to their sincere responses–was a beautiful lesson in civic engagement.  All around me in the Chamber, concerned and invested DC youth sat, prepared testimony in hand, ready to voice their views.  A half dozen young girls from Hardy Middle School eloquently expressed their dismay at Michelle Rhee’s decision to remove their principal.  Another middle schooler requested a space from the Council to use for a drug prevention program that he started in his school’s neighborhood.  One of my students testified about the importance of increasing participation in US FIRST Robotics Competition as a way of showing more DC students the challenge and excitement of robotics, engineering, science and technology.

Along the way, I exchanged a word with Chairman Gray.  I found it surreal to communicate with the man whom I’ve read so much about and who has been quite possibly Chancellor Rhee’s most vocal and vociferous vilifier.

I also discovered that the young man working at the DC Council and with whom I was negotiating for a testifying time was the Cedric Jennings from Ron Suskind’s A Hope in the Unseen.  After the hearing, I approached him and told him that I was weeks away from reading, with my 11th graders, the book on his climb out of DCPS and into the Ivy League.  He seemed flattered (mental note: I need to invite him to speak to my students when I do this unit).

Coincidentally, the controversy surrounding Hardy Middle School also brought the media spotlight to my feet.  Somehow, I ended up being interviewed by Fox 5 about a recent DCPS controversy in which a teacher allegedly impregnated a special-needs student (if you’re curious, you can search for the news clip elsewhere).  The hilarious thing was that the following Monday, numerous students dropped in and out of my classroom exclaiming, “I saw you on TV yesterday Mr. K!” or “Mr. K—you funny on the TV!”

I had an opportunity earlier to meet my Ward’s Councilmember Jim Graham and now I’ve met others.  I have made these efforts because I care about my community in DC.  As comparison, I can’t remember the last time I met with and spoke to a Concord or New Haven politician.

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What my students find important, I find important. I am much more invested in the local community as a result.  Some of my more ebullient students constantly tell me that they feel like their voices are ignored.  They talk passionately about how gentrification is pushing them out of DC proper and how there are serious problems with the DC Housing Authority.  They talk about crime, prison, jobs, and getting food to eat.  They talk about how they feel ignored by “white” society.  Some of my students are open racists.  They explain that they do not like “white people.”  After hearing their stories, I can understand why (although, I always entreat them to change their views).  Each conversation I have with a student after class shows me more.  And, given the circumstances, each talk makes me want to do more, to improve what certainly can and must be improved upon.

To be frank, the duration of my United States-based life has been spent living in two big bubbles—one at an in-the-middle-of-the-woods prep school in New Hampshire and one in the so-called “ivory tower” at Yale.  Although I was registered to vote in both locations, I never had much of an awareness of what was going on in the community.  Before this, I spent over ten years of my life as an expatriate, flitting from country to country, from school to school. Thinking back, it is clear that I was isolated from the broader communities in which I lived.

Part of this lack of civic participation was that I had no stake in the community around me.  I was never settled.  Roots could never sink in.  Furthermore, while at school in the US, I could easily live a self-contained life within the metaphorical walls of campus.
But now—now, I have a stake in helping my students achieve.  I’m setting up shop in the community and doing my part in bringing down the once-towering walls of community disengagement. It’s working—quickly.

*****

I think the nuances of my story also show that academic examinations—such as this recent “study” done analyzing Teach For America graduates and civic participation—cannot have the final say about the impact that the Teach For America experience has on its corps members.

The simple publicized “conclusion” is that Teach For America alumni lack the levels of civic participation than those who dropped out or declined acceptance.  The single major flaw is that the study focused entirely on those who had been “touched” by TFA. There are three sub-flaws that stem from this:

  • First, the study does not explicitly point out that all of these subgroups have a significantly higher level of civic participation relative to the average American—about double.
  • Second, the difference between the alumni and non-alumni was questionable at times: “while 92 percent of the sample overall voted in the last presidential election, only 89 percent of TFA completers did.”
  • Third, by not finding a way to measure education-specific civic participation—“educational civic engagement”—the researchers didn’t do nearly enough to accurately measure the impact that TFA has in this sphere.

Flaws of the study’s widely-reported conclusions aside, I can provide one anecdotal explanation for why I think the TFA experience promotes—and doesn’t reduce—civic engagement:

The public education system is intricately connected with every other aspect of public life and politics (not the most breathtaking discovery, but one that I’ve made recently—late, for sure).  TFA involvement heightens alumni’s awareness of this interrelationship, which in turn pushes up civic engagement overall.  I wish I had the statistical “evidence” to back up this anecdotal statement, but I don’t.  Although it is important to press for education reform in the education world, change must be achieved in other spheres too. Positive change in our schools requires political will; but it also requires efficiently-allocated resources, wise social policies, a strong health care system and effective laws.  All agencies and institutions must work hand in hand.

Thus, solving our educational crisis will require advocates across the spectrum.  I believe that most criticisms of TFA claiming that it is wrong for TFA teachers to leave, after 2 years, by revolving door are foolish and short-sighted.  Spread the word!

*****

A final note: three other DC TFA CMs (my roommate who teaches middle school math in PG County and two friends, who teach MS and HS English at two different DC charter schools), an AU MPP student (coincidentally, someone who was accepted by TFA but declined) and I entered the DCPS Urban Education Redesign Challenge.  The initial notification date for finalists was supposed to be today, but “due to the high volume of applications submitted,” they’re delaying one week.  I can guarantee you that I would not have gotten involved with something like this if I weren’t a TFA teacher.  I’m excited by the idea of considering one challenge (of the many) facing DCPS.
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    Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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    D.C. Region
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    High School
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    English

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