Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ernie Silva Show an Allegory for Why Achievement Gap and Teacher Quality Are Phony Issues, Updated

UPDATE: Sunday, April 18, 2010, 11pm

I updated this post today. I saw the show for the 2nd time on Thursday the 15th and it got better and better and I got a few more insights. My wife and Lisa Donlan were with me and we all got to vote for Ernie as the best in the show. There were more "kids" from the old neighborhood there and it was a pleasure meeting Sam C. who wasn't in my class because he moved into the area in the 5th grade. He told me his daughter just graduated from PS 147 last year and he has another kid in the school. Lucky Klein didn't close them down yet and open up a charter. I also ran into a familiar face - one of our robotics coaches who grew up with Ernie. The connections astound me.

It was Ernie's final performance in NYC. He is heading to Chicago and I will let the gang there know he is coming

Ernie called yesterday and he is heading back to LA Monday. He will be back this summer and I hope we can hang out a bit. Last night he and a bunch of the old gang got together for dinner - 3 girls I haven't seen in 25 years. I would have love to see them. Ernie would like to do Fringe NYC and since I volunteer there I hope to get him noticed. They are wrapping up this years' shows for the August festival, but maybe next year I can get all you guys out to see him.

Ernie just sent out a message on Facebook:

Heavy Wins NYC's "The ONE" Solo Festival!!!!!

R. Ernie Silva

Heavy Like the Weight of a Flame has WON N.Y's 2010 "The ONE" solo show Festival!!!!!!!!!!!!


REVISED FOR THE WAVE - April 16, 2010 edition
April 14

I had to cut words for the print edition and this version reinforces the concept that less is more. See info at the end for Ernie's final 2 shows. A bunch of us are going Thursday night. The show is part of a contest and Ernie is in the running to win, so if you go don't forget to vote.

I never write about former students by name because of privacy issues unless they give me permission. But when they are out there performing an autobiographical show about their lives...

So I watched my former 4th grade student Ernie Silva perform his powerful one-man show, "Heavy Like the Weight of a Flame," with a different eye. As his former teacher and a member of the education deform resistance movement, I saw things that a casual viewer might not see. The show reinforced what every experienced teacher knows: it is not the so-called achievement gap or "teacher quality is the most important element" - blah, blah, blah - but the street gap faced by most Black and Latino kids compared to the daily life experience faced by middle class kids.

Ernie's story may be unique but it is also in many ways typical of kids growing up in the projects and on the streets of Williamsburg in the 1980's. There was lots of danger all around. Ernie faced it all. Shots fired at a party with one slicing a hole through his shirt. Being stopped by cops pointing guns in his face. Drugs, drugs, drugs - everywhere - in his own house where he was the youngest of 13 children and his brother, destined to die young, was a heavy user. And the other brother in prison who also died. He ended up riding freight trains across the country.

Ernie became a street performer doing break dancing when he was 12 and still a 6th grader. One thing led to another over the next few years and he started doing stand up. His bio states he became an obscene hooky player and started using his train passes to travel around the city looking for comedy clubs instead of going to school (he attended Murray Bergtraum HS). I won't get into the rest of his journey that led to a scholarship to a graduate acting program at USC. He lives in LA now.

Ernie did not face the so-called achievement gap in reading. He was in one of the two best classes I ever had in terms of academic skills (either 1982 or 1983) in terms of achievement and 75% of the children in that class (which I only got because of a threatened grievance) were reading on or above grade level. They wouldn't have been in that class otherwise since classes were grouped strictly by reading scores. Their math was probably not as good but generally they were at a pretty high level. What needs to be pointed out is that most of these kids walked into school as 4 year olds (the top level neighborhood kids usually attended pre-k) with some level of skills and the teachers nurtured these skills.

Ernie talks about how he was a voracious reader. Shakespeare and he was the only one in his house who watched Masterpiece Theater. Friends and family told him: "You can't change things with all that garbage you read" and "knowledge is dangerous and raises questions." Mostly these questions took the form of "What the f!"

Ernie's teachers through elementary school were experienced teachers who were at the top of their game. That class was pretty much together from pre-k through 6th grade. The bottom classes also had the same teachers and the academic results were very different.

There were only 2 classes on the grade in those years at my school as we had lost lots of population due to tenements being torn down - which by the way automatically raised our scores as the project families were more stable than the tenement kids. Ernie was a project kid. The difference in reading ability between the top and bottom classes was very wide. One of the best teachers in my school had the other (bottom) class and she told me she had a tough time that school year. Thank goodness for the UFT contract or my principal would never have given me that class without my threat to grieve it. The next year we reversed positions as the contract demanded. My principal generally violated the contract and I was one of the only teachers who demanded my rights be honored.

I attended the show with Dina, another student from the same class, who I hadn't seen in 25 years. We caught up during intermission. He taught in NYC high schools for years and keeps track of his former students. He was the best math student I ever had and one of the brightest students. He and his sisters' journeys are also interesting and instructive and illustrate how very bright kids in places like Williamsburg have to take routes - like through the military - that middle class kids don't have to face.

I know that anecdotal stories are not considered "data" but the follow-up stories teachers who spend many years in one community hear inform their knowledge and understanding of what it will take to make real changes and why so many of us are ed deform resisters. Joel Klein and Teach for America tell their minions there are no excuses and they often end up discounting trying to address the "street." This is misleading to young teachers who must have an understanding of the "street" and how it transcends the question of reading and math score data. Having such an understanding - which only comes to white middle class teachers through years of experience and involvement in the lives of their children - is a building block toward becoming a more effective teacher.

I want to stress that I also do not believe in making excuses. Teachers have to believe in every student's potential and do their best to help them fulfill that potential. But there are bigger issues that must be addressed that are way beyond the teacher. Indeed, it was that understanding that pushed me into political activism by my 4th year of teaching. It was the first time I became active – the 60's passed me by – and my activism was driven by the kids.

During our reminiscences with Dino, he had lots of memories of my classroom (my giant room) and the trips - the time I loaded him and 5 other kids into my car and took then to my house after school as a reward for good behavior, how he was car sick and barfed in my driveway – sure ways to get a SCI investigation today - I hope the statute of limitations have expired.

Contrary to the Ed Deformers, I do not take the position that teachers are the major influences in these kids' lives, but are small pieces of a very large jigsaw puzzle.

Seeing Ernie perform was special for me. He managed to work my name into the show ("Mom, my teacher Mr. Scott, gave me an A on my science exam today").

I didn't go out with Ernie and his crew after the show, though invited. The other former student joked that he was waiting for me to leave before lighting up because he didn't me to see him smoking. I thought I was a pretty casual teacher and things like that wouldn't matter. But teachers have an impact in ways that are beyond our imagination.

Ernie has two more shows left (Weds Apr. 14 and Thurs Apr 15 at 8pm) before he heads back to LA and I may see it again on Thurs). His show is part of the 5th annual The One Festival at La Tea theater at 107 Suffolk St. The cost is $20. If Joel Klein and any other ed deformers want to go it is my treat.

I just got this email from Lisa Donlan that touches on the issues raised here discussing the
"soft bigotry of low expectations and the belief that the condition of poverty compromises human development is what we need to reform since we see this belief manifest in schools where teachers believe they can not teach kids who are not ready."

My response is that poverty determines where you grow up and that has more of an impact than schools or teacher expectations.

*I will add the story later of why I had to grieve for that class and all the manipulations my principal went through to screw me.


Unknown said...

Hi Norm,

the show sounds great!

Maybe I can join you on Thursday?

I want your readers to understand the context of that email snippet you posted about the accepted notion that the bigotry of teachers and their low expectations for certain kinds of kids is driving the need to reform education.

On the corrected link on your blog to the Ravitch/Weiner lecture at the Radical Film and Lecture series is a 3rd panelist, Prof Eddie Ferguson from NYU's Metropolitan Center (I think I got the details right...)
His contribution to the panel posited those explcit statements as accepted and unchalleneged facts; since he is an academic who relies on data and research I am looking for the sources that support this charge.

There may be a whole body of empirical evidence on this topic.
The TFA type reforms are clearly based on these conclusion - that if we just believe the kids can succeed, they all will!
Others have suggested on the contrary that for this reason TFA really stands for Tinkerbell Formula for Achievement
Clap your hands if you beleive!

Can anyone point me to any kind of research in either direction?


ed notes online said...

Thanks for the clarification Lisa. I got your email just as I was posting and realized this post could be misconstrued so I added your point. We need to explore the idea you raised further.

Thursday is still up in the air but I will call you if we go.

Unknown said...

I think soft bigotry is actually very prevalent in New York City schools, Norm and it comes from the very top.
The heads of the city system display incredibly low expectations of student behavior in the policies they create.
The message the DOE sends through their policies allows for student behavior and performance that would never be acceptable in suburban schools.
Many teachers become disheartened when trying to hold children to a standard only to be told they need to lower it.
Being forced to pass children who lack basic skills, assigning 'credit recovery' to those who have missed countless hours of class time, and allowing children to behave in ways that will harm them in future attempts is soft bigotry at its most insidious because it masks itself as compassion.
Ask the adult who grows up to realize he/she has huge gaps in his/her skill base or who has learned some very hard lessons about responsibility and dealing with authority and I believe many would agree.

ed notes online said...

You make a very important point that must be delved into further. The No Excuses of the ed deformers and our version of no excuses is very different but we have not expunged the soft bigotry that can come from all levels and I myself had to be conscious of that every step of the way. One time I was pulling kids off the line who were talking while I was waiting for silence and when I looked up there were 6 black kids and 1 Spanish kid and I said "Whoa!" I really thought about that - and on reflection it became clear to me that I had no consciousness about race when I was pulling them but I realized how it might look. Teachers have to constantly reflect on these kinds of things.