Seven Times “XQ Super School Live” Denigrated America’s Teachers (And One Time It Praised Them)

At 8 p.m. EST on September 08, 2017, all four major television networks simulcast “XQ Super School Live,” a celebrity-filled stage show reminiscent of MTV’s recent Video Music Awards. Here is a primer on the event from The Washington Post. Here are the reflections of Steven Singer, the classroom authority on corporate education reform schemes. In case you missed it, save an hour of your time by reading the summary below.

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(1) The opening sequence flips between David Muir of ABC, Gayle King of CBS, Chris Wallace of Fox, and Al Roker of NBC all perpetuating the false narrative that American high schools are failing and stagnant. Steven Singer has already successfully debunked this myth. The rhetoric was so heavy-handed that it almost came across as irony. David Muir said that they “have all put aside any network competition to join together… on what needs to change in American high schools.” One minute into the broadcast, the message was clear, network television does not support America’s public high schools or its teachers.

(2) Cut to Bill Hader reporting live from a “real” American high school. “When students cross this threshold, they bring their hopes and dreams only to encounter a system that no longer helps them achieve these goals.” Hader’s deadpan sarcastic delivery of such an indictment must have been an attempt to soften the blow, because soon the camera pans to students and teachers singing a re-imagined version of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me,” an implication that our high schools have completely forgotten about their students.

(3) Chance the Rapper opens the live show with these words, “Everyone here tonight recognizes that the world around us has changed dramatically. But we look at our schools, and we just see the same.” This is the often repeated education reform narrative of public schools as the “status quo.” This was the moment in the show when whatever irony I was perceiving began to fade away, and it became clear that I, as a public school teacher, was the problem and not the solution.

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(4) It takes almost two more minutes of singing and dancing to flash all the names of the celebrities that are soon to appear in the show, be verbally introduced, and have their names on the screen a second time. Host Viola Davis then says, “We at XQ know that the days of hoping someone else will come along to do it for us are over.” This seems to be a nod to the highly problematic 2010 education reform documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” Cut to this video which is at the heart of XQ’s contempt for America’s public high schools.

(5) XQ uses such broad strokes to describe American public schools. To hear XQ tell it, there are absolutely no innovative classrooms or teachers in any public high schools. At this point in the show, you can feel that a punch line is imminent, but it is not exactly clear what the joke is. And then it hits you square in the face, a close up of XQ co-founders, Russlynn Ali and Laurene Powell Jobs, and the words, “Two years ago XQ ran a competition to create super schools across the country.” The message? American high schools are broken, but XQ can fix at least a few of them.

(6) At the very core of branding for XQ are phrases that begin, “Imagine,” and “What if?” With every phrase that begins this way, XQ is essentially saying, “These are the things that high schools are not doing. These are the things that America’s teachers are not doing.” Then, in the middle of a dramatic stage presentation, a faceless narrator drops the commonly used school choice phrase “regardless of zip code.” This is not a reference to funding equity, but an underhanded reference to the vouchers and Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) of the “School Choice” movement.

[1] The one praise that XQ gives to teachers is sandwiched between profiles of “Super Schools” to create some distance from all the negative comments about those teachers’ schools. XQ slightly tweaks the much better “Teaching Center” video from Key and Peele and turns it into a mediocre red carpet event for teachers complete with coverage from Melissa Rivers and Kevin Frazier. And Lin Manuel Miranda wants me to use the hashtag #thanksforteachingme? Didn’t XQ just spend twenty-three minutes convincing me that America’s high school teachers were not teaching anything?

(7) About eight minutes after the red carpet bit, “XQ Super School Live” cuts to a video called “I wish I learned…” featuring a host of celebrities including Hasan Minhaj, Cate Blanchett, Tony Hale, Christian Slater, MC Hammer, Joel McHale, Marshawn Lynch, Samuel L. Jackson and many others basically listing the ways that their high school teachers failed them.

Here is a brief description of each “Super School” profiled in the show. All of these schools have one particular non-traditional school policy in common. They all have some element of a selective admissions process:

Furr High School in Houston, Texas is part of Houston Independent School District. FHS is home to Mindful Exploration of Technology and Arts (META) Magnet Program and REACH Charter School.

Hunter College High School is a highly selective magnet school on the upper east side of Manhattan. The admissions policies at HCHS have been criticized by notable alumnus Chris Hayes, MSNBC journalist.

Da Vinci Rise High School is “a non-classroom based independent study charter school” serving about 30 students in Hawthorne, California.

Washington Leadership Academy is a charter high school in Washington, D.C. funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart).

Hume-Fogg Academic High School is a magnet school in Nashville, Tennessee. Hume-Fogg adopted a selective admissions process in 1982, the same year Nashville’s public schools were forced to desegregate.

Iowa Big is the cooperative effort of multiple Iowa school districts. “Each partnering district has slots proportional to their financial commitment to the program.”

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Those Who Can’t

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Those who can’t,
Teach.

For example,

Those who can’t sit alone at a desk all day,
Whose energy demands movement and interaction,
Teach.

Those who can’t abide platitudes like, “kids these days,”
Who take the time to know every young person,
Teach.

Those who can’t be satisfied with a job or even a career,
Whose everyday work must be filled with passion,
Teach.

Those who can’t look the other way while our schools resegregate,
Who believe the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice,
Teach.

Those who can’t stand by while our public institutions are privatized,
Whose collective conscience sees through the rhetoric of “choice,”
Teach.

Those who can’t ignore the history of organized labor in the U.S.,
Who know that “the union makes us strong,”
Teach.

Those who can’t punch a clock,
Whose passion can’t be confined to 8-4 or to August through May,
Teach.

Those who can’t care only about some children,
Who are committed to the success of every student,
Teach.

Those who can’t avoid conflict,
Whose acumen can diffuse the most hostile situations,
Teach.

Those who can’t be happy climbing the corporate ladder,
Who will master their craft, and stay in the classroom for decades,
Teach.

Those who can’t settle for anything less than constant improvement,
Whose minds are always searching for innovative new methods,
Teach.

Those who can’t quit,
Who will continue to educate more students with less money,
Teach.

But please know.

Those who can’t be fooled by political schemes,
Whose organizing can create a political revolution,
Teach.

 

 

How Was Your Summer?

 

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Dear teacher,
On the first day of school,
When you ask me how my summer was,
You’re assuming that it was good.
You’re assuming it was
something remarkable,
Something incredible,
Something shareable,
Something fun.

And maybe it was.

Maybe I went to Six Flags.
And maybe I flew in an airplane.
And maybe I went on vacation to the beach
with my mom and my dad and my sister
(but we left our dog at home,
so my Uncle Dennis came over every day)
Maybe I participated in the summer
reading program at the metro library,
and I read four books above my grade level.
And maybe I got to spend a lot of time with
my mom because she is a teacher like you.
Maybe, just maybe, I had a pass to the pool.
Or maybe I interned at the zoo.
Or maybe I went to STEM camp,
or church camp, or the lake.
Maybe I played summer ball.
Maybe life was good
because I slept late,
I did whatever I wanted,
And I didn’t have to come here
and eat that nasty cafeteria food.
Maybe my summer was great.

Or Maybe it wasn’t so great.

Maybe I didn’t leave my neighborhood at all.
Maybe I’ve never been on vacation,
Never been out of Oklahoma.
Maybe I couldn’t leave my house all day
because I was in charge of my two
little brothers and my baby sister.
Maybe I’ve never been to the city pool
and I still don’t know how to swim.
Maybe I haven’t opened a book since May.
Maybe I got a summer job
to support my family.
Maybe I went to bed hungry every night
because there was not enough food.

Maybe we moved twice in one month
and I just found out yesterday
that I would be coming to this school.
Maybe I was physically and emotionally hurt
by someone who is supposed to love me.

Maybe I don’t want to be here,
But it damn sure is better than being at home.

Maybe I left my house every morning walking
and didn’t come home until after dark.
Maybe, just that one time, I was at home
by myself
for three whole days and nights.
And even when I wasn’t by myself,
maybe I went whole days
without talking
to anyone.

Maybe I don’t have any friends,
But at least when I’m at school
I can pretend that I do.

Maybe my summer was ok,
But maybe I have the feeling
that I deserve so much better.
Maybe the first day of school
is the most exciting thing about my summer.
And maybe that’s why I am so loud,
And want to talk,
And don’t want to sit down,
And want to touch people,
And want to run in the halls,
And don’t want to do math.
(at least not the first couple of days)

What I am trying to say is,
You don’t know how my summer was.
So just in case it wasn’t as great as yours,
Maybe you might find a better question
to ask me on the first day of school.

Teachers’ Lounge: Take It or Leave It?

I hesitate to reveal this secret. I feel like I am breaking some teacher code, but I am compelled to tell you. Teachers everywhere, at all kinds of schools, talk negatively about their students. It is not the way things should be. It is the way things are. To be sure, not all teachers talk negatively about students, but it is difficult to find a school; urban, suburban, or rural, where there is not at least a handful of teachers who do. As difficult as it may be to imagine, even in the exclusive world of private and charter schools where challenging students are quickly expelled or refused readmission, many teachers still find ways to engage in this destructive behavior.

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The vocal few are sometimes referred to as “toxic teachers.” Just like any other toxin, these teachers have a way of spreading their disease of negativity. In their opinion, rarely does anything go right in the school. There is always something to complain about, and there is always someone who will listen. Because every day there is a small window known as lunch, and the teachers’ lounge is holding “open mic.” Toxic teachers speak up. They are always willing to share their pessimism with others. For this reason, teachers’ lounges are sometimes avoided by teachers interested in what social justice looks like at school.

But too often well-meaning teachers (not the toxic few) get sucked into speaking negatively about students because of subtle peer pressure within the teachers’ lounge environment. It is a coping mechanism in the midst of a difficult day, a way to “blow off steam.” I was guilty of this unhealthy habit my first few years of teaching. My classroom “management” skills were not what they should have been, and “ragging” on particular students to other teachers became a strange way to manufacture the courage necessary to finish the day without quitting.

One of the many problems with speaking negatively about students is that it is a reflection of the way teachers think about students. And the combination of thoughts and words has a way of manifesting in a teacher’s behavior toward students. The best way to change the way teachers think and behave toward students is to change the way teachers speak about students. So in my third year of teaching I decided I wasn’t going to talk negatively about students to other teachers. The immediate result, however, was that I simply replaced all the negative student talk with negative teacher and administrator talk. My speech became less likely to be racist (I am a white teacher teaching mostly students of color), but it certainly was not anything resembling professional. I was not contributing to the health of my school culture.

A teachers’ lounge where the tone is set by “toxic” teachers is at best a place where positive school culture is destroyed by misguided complaints about administration and at worst a place where implicit bias matures into full-blown unchecked racism. When off-handed remarks about particular students are expanded and a discussion about “this neighborhood,” “these parents,” or “kids these days,” ensues, participating teachers should beware. White teachers at majority non-white schools should pay special close attention to teachers’ lounge language. The teachers’ lounge should be a safe space; not a safe space for teachers to say whatever the hell they want, but a space safe from disparagement of any kind.

But what if the tone in the teachers’ lounge is set by positivity instead of negativity? Teachers’ lounges can be a vital part of what it means to be a teacher, especially at the elementary and middle school level. High schools are often too big for teachers’ lounges to play the uniting role that, for instance, the teachers’ lounge at my middle school does. Teaching is a profession where colleague interaction is a precious commodity. Lunch in the teachers’ lounge creates at least the possibility for daily peer-to-peer professional learning, development, and encouragement. For me, that is something worth speaking up for, something worth fighting for.

So I am not leaving the teachers’ lounge. And you shouldn’t either.

Classroom Management or Something Better

In my last post, “Social Justice Teaching in the Content Area,” I hinted that although adapting principles of social justice to fit inside a given curriculum is very important, social justice teaching ultimately has a much bigger scope. Teachers interested in social justice issues will inevitably move beyond critique of standardized text books and creative use of supplemental material. Social justice teaching has a way of fundamentally changing the nature of the relationship between student and teacher.

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The biggest learned lesson of every first year teacher is that classroom management is a skill that is rarely overvalued. Continuously better classroom management is the longing of every teacher. Classroom management is immeasurably more important to learning compared to other elements of teaching like lesson planning or even content knowledge. Every teacher knows this.

Effective classroom management always includes, but is not limited to: rules, procedures, schedules, routines, norms, transitions, and habits. But what does it look like to apply the principles of social justice teaching to classroom management? Is there something better than classroom management?

I am four weeks away from beginning my 6th year as a public school teacher. My first two years teaching can be characterized by the repetitive feeling of falling flat on my face. Years 3-5 were all about honing my classroom management skills through smaller incremental failures. But now I am wondering if “management” is really what I want my role to be in the classroom. The word “management” does not seem to me to be ultimately conducive to authentic learning.

Those who work toward social justice often find themselves doing what is called “community organizing.” There are no “managers” in grass roots movements. So the question I am currently asking myself is, “What does it look like to be a classroom organizer as opposed to a classroom manager?” I don’t have all the answers yet, I think I have just found a good question.

I realize that in its current state this is largely an issue of semantics, but for me, language is important. So if I embark on a new journey that includes the phrase “classroom organizing,” and I begin to compile the language to describe what that means, then somewhere along the way I may find something that is better than classroom management.

Social Justice Teaching in the Content Area

Even in the reddest of states like Oklahoma, public education still bends toward progress. It has been this way from the beginning. Educators know it. The people at Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) and Choice Remarks certainly know it. The so called “liberal agenda” of public schools is one of the favorite talking points of school choice proponents. By social justice teaching, I mean a safe learning environment full of adults who care about economic and social equity for all students and families. If this is what is meant by a “liberal agenda,” then I gladly accept the label.

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I often have colleagues ask me what social justice teaching looks like in math, science, or language arts. In thinking about how to answer that question, I am beginning to let go of the idea that social justice teaching belongs primarily in social studies classrooms. Social studies teachers should be careful not to be the gatekeepers of social justice teaching. Anywhere and everywhere that educators can get students thinking about fairness and justice is a good thing.

Social justice teaching is not supplemental curriculum to be randomly inserted into unrelated content. Much of social justice teaching relates outside of the curriculum and can have a profound effect on elements of teaching like classroom management (or something better), grading policy, teaching style, and of course, discipline. There is so much to be said about the comprehensiveness of this concept, but for now, allow me to submit some thoughts for incorporating social justice teaching into the content area.

Math

It is the struggle of every math teacher to constantly address the question, “What does this have to do with real life?” When relating math to real life, the social justice teacher must also ask, “To whose life am I relating this math?” Word problems in math have a long history of being exclusively relatable to middle class white students in a traditional family structure. White math teachers with diverse classrooms must be careful to move project based learning beyond what sounds interesting to them. PBLs must be grounded in student experience.

Bringing social justice teaching into the math classroom is in part finding the moral component of math. The other part is not being afraid to get political and controversial. Politics creates injustice, and therefore, social justice will always be political. There is a lot of data related to social justice movements and analyzing that data could apply to various levels of math comprehension. Math classes could compare data (from reputable sources) relative to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the new American Health Care Act (AHCA) and draw conclusions about equitable access to affordable health care in the United States. Students could analyze data on gun violence in the U.S., especially as it relates to racial disparities, and conduct a formal debate on possible solutions.

Science

Despite the ardent efforts of law makers and the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma, science curriculum and textbooks are generally strong on the science of climate change. The Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB), the propaganda machine of the industry, spends millions every year to get the message of fossil fuel dependency into Oklahoma classrooms. Read the State Impact piece here. The first part of teaching social justice in Oklahoma science classrooms is fending off the bribery of stipends and classroom materials offered by OERB.

The social justice issue of our time related to science education is environmental racism. Click here for a video primer. In short, climate change is a social justice issue. It’s about people. The situation in Flint, Michigan is ongoing, and science classrooms everywhere should be following closely. Currently, science curricula all across the country are at odds with the policies of the President of the United States. This is controversy that science teachers everywhere should not be afraid to jump into head first.

Language Arts

Particularly in language arts, though it is also true of science and math, representation matters. In literature, students need to see themselves represented in the authors and the stories they tell. Language arts teachers must strive to find works of literature by women, authors of color, immigrants, queer authors, and others. Literature texts are still dominated by “classics” written by straight white men.

If social studies is where social justice teaching originates, then language arts is where it culminates. As I often tell my students, “The people who are changing the world are doing two things: 1.) They are reading a lot and 2.) They are writing about it.” Social justice teaching in language arts could follow a three step process: 1.) Constantly ask students, “What do you want to fix in the world?” 2.) Help them gain full access to reading material pertinent to that problem plus time to read it and 3.) Provide them with the skills and tools to write their ideas and share them publicly and widely.