John Dewey and Lead

Alice Mercer has written a wise post summarizing her response to the recent multi-turn dialogue  about reform (and particularly the effects of standards- based reforms on poor children)  between teacher Anthony Cody and representatives of the Gates Foundation.  “Saying that you believe in John Dewey”, she writes, “does not stop the effects of endemic exposure to lead in Oakland …”

At the end of this dialogue, Irvin Scott of Gates fell back on the tired assertion that teachers who push back against Gates’ vision of school are racist and classist:

Simply, I believe all children can learn. I believe low-income children of color can learn when they have great teachers who believe in them, and treat them with the same passion, enthusiasm and intellectual rigor that they would treat their own children.  …   I want to believe that Mr. Cody believes this same truth about students, yet in each post he carefully marshals an assortment of facts and statistics which seems to suggest that he believes that children living in poverty cannot learn and that until the status quo changes we should lower our expectations for poor children.

Mercer succinctly summarizes what Scott really is saying when he says “all children can learn”:

When “reformers” say they believe all kids can learn, what they are saying is, “I believe all kids can learn a set of standards based solely on their chronological age, within a finite time-frame, by using a common version of curriculum and instructional methods, as measured by a single standardized test.”

The whole compelling dialogue between Cody (and scores of teachers who commented on the posts) and the Gates people is compiled  here.

What strikes me reading the dialogue, and Mercer’s succinct response to the cliched “teachers just don’t believe that children can learn” is that actual children are almost invisible.

It’s too common now for “reformers” to do this quick pivot from an intellectual argument to a moral one and to then smugly claim the high ground.

Too few teachers are taking the same pivot.

What if we made the argument moral?  What if scores of teachers told detailed and compelling stories of the harm being done to children in the dailiness of our classrooms — and the learning that is happening in spite of the “reforms”.   What if we were telling stories of the hundreds of times in a given day that teachers buffer children – through their own emotional labor, their own resourcefulness, their own skill at working the gaps in the scripted curriculum.

What if teachers told the many many stories that they have to tell about the enormous energies they’re now putting into the work of protecting children from the “reforms” of people who proclaim –from the vast distance of their wealthy foundations — they they are protecting poor kids from the teachers standing there in front of them.

Mercer is right: The teacher push back is about pedagogical scripts written by people in corner offices.

What if we told the stories of the ways we’re protecting kids from those scripts?  Where are the photos, the videos, the compelling *moral* narratives of the day-to-day harm being done to children, not only in their lead tainted homes but in their classrooms?

Shall we start telling our stories of teaching?