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Commentary: Chicago teachers' movement: Kids enter, stage left

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 18, 2012 - The teachers of Chicago seem to be winding down their strike, and voices on all sides have been using "best interests of the kids" to claim moral high ground. Even though everyone should be going back to school this week, the rest of us should wake up to this refrain for the next time around. Because the minute adults start talking about "the best interests of the kids," I start thinking, "Whose kids are we talking about?"

In the fall of 1968 I was a third grader attending P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Nobody yet said people like my family were members of "the 1 percent," but that's what we were. My school felt safe and orderly. We learned how to spell, add, and subtract. We "did" current events. We progressed dutifully through the color-coded SRA reading program. We lined up "in size order." At recess, my friends and I strolled arm-in-arm around the yard and played hopscotch and jumped rope in the yard.

I was just one of a million kids being schooled in New York City's public system. There were 55,000 teachers in the system that year. And on Sept. 13, 1968, they all walked out on strike.

We missed 36 days of school. The reasons for the strike were rooted in educational inequities, shifting demographics in the city, local versus city-wide control of schools, and complex intersections of black and Jewish identities vis-a-vis race and class. But the deepest root lay in the place where the children of a particular community seemed to be not benefitting from school.

And they continue not to benefit. At least to a degree and in the numbers we should find acceptable.

The children of many communities -- mostly urban and rural poor, but also in the sprawled fringes of our metropolitan centers, the communities of those Elizabeth Warren calls "the ragged middle class" -- are not getting what they need out of school.

More than a third of 4th graders are not reading at grade level. A quarter are not graduating high school.

In a 5th grade classroom this past week, I saw children sitting in silence, their hands clasped on top of their heads, awaiting the next direction from their teacher. Somehow this gesture was known as "having their thinking caps ready"; to me it looked like what we make suspected criminals do to show they are unarmed.

In another school I visited the children have a special mnemonic for moving through the building. It's H.A.L.L.: Hands clasped, All eyes in front, Low speed, Lips zipped. Got that? 

Public school teachers across the country want working conditions that allow them to get better at what they do, that help them serve kids better. The imposition of high stakes testing, the linking of salary to student scores on these tests, and the crazy-making interstate competition called Race to the Top are antithetical to a collaborative, constructive, consensual approach to problem solving. Educational research is telling us loud and clear that for the vast majority of children, we have been moving in the wrong direction.  

As I have mentioned earlier, I spent the past year interviewing 4th graders in Missouri, my home since 1991, the state in which I sent my own kids to school. I wanted to know what their lives in school felt like, what they thought school was for, what they believed they were doing when they went to school. I wanted to hear how they spent recess.

These days, as the Chicago teachers' strike unfolded five hours north of where I sit, I am transcribing these interviews, all 165 of them. Kids from public schools, charter schools, private school, parochial schools. Rural kids, city kids, suburban kids, exurban kids. As any writer knows, transcribing is laborious, but there is no shortcut.

I can't write a book without listening very closely to what each one of these kids has to say. Every single word. Otherwise I'm just talking off the top of my head. 

Much of the first months of my own third grade passed in a blur. I can't remember day by day. I do remember walking to my teacher's apartment for school. School in a living room! Sitting on the floor. How strange. And then, sometime in November, I remember going back to school, and once again lining up, strolling the yard, tossing my hopscotch token, and having my teacher snip off all the erasers on all our pencils (!). At least for the rest of that year, because third grade was my last year in public school.

Like all parents, mine were concerned about my education; the strike and the circumstances around the strike had rattled them. Having the means to send me to private school, they could pull me out. And that's the phrase I remember in the story of my elementary schooling: being "pulled out" of P.S. 6 in 1969.

Of course childcare is a huge problem during a teachers' strike. But just because adults need to park children somewhere all day long while we work does not mean we should not fight for doing right by the kids when they go back to school. And what have the children of Chicago seen, anyway? Teachers and their allies in other labor sectors fighting for the working conditions, adequate remuneration, and meaningful evaluation procedures that render teaching a dignified profession that opens opportunities for children whose parents cannot simply "pull them out" and send them to private school, where teaching and learning conditions are better. This was a good lesson.