Wednesday, April 17, 2013

MORE/Change the Stakes Teacher Lauren Cohen: NYSUT Clamps Down on Free Speech

I agree wholeheartedly that, if I am unhappy with my union, it is my duty as a member to work for change. I am a candidate for UFT Elementary Executive Board on the MORE (Movement of Rank and File Educators) slate, so I hope to do just that! ... Lauren Cohen

Lauren, that a teacher could receive a threat for openly speaking about her educational philosophy is an outrage, and not just a violation of your rights. As a parent I consider it my absolute right as well to freely discuss with the educators in charge of my children's schooling ALL aspects of curriculum, assessment and teaching methods -- anything and everything that affects teachers' work with my children. Anyone who interferes with that free speech is in my view guilty of an egregious violation of my fundamental rights as a parent. Thank you for standing up to the bullies, and as the taboos that have constricted open discussion between parents and teachers in our schools fall away, parents and teachers together can show our children how a free and open society really works. ----- Jeff Nichols, NYC Public school parent on Change the Stakes listserve
Lauren Cohen sparked a bit of controversy with her post at The Chalk Face regarding NYSUT president Richard Iannuzzi's email warning to union leaders about the dangers their members might face in giving advice to parents about opting out.

One could take this warning 2 ways. As a "be careful out there" or as a "threat." Either way you look at it, there is a perception that the lack of a sense of support for teachers who might have moral and political reasons for opposing the high stakes testing craze leaves these teachers "out there."

Julie Cavanagh had similar feelings as I posted on Sunday where she raised the frightening thought that even her speech at the Forum at the Earth School later that day could fall into the realm of Iannuzzi's warning. That didn't stop her from making a fabulous speech however.

The Moral Imperative: Julie Cavanagh Opts in on Opt Out Issue

Just a bit about Lauren Cohen before getting to her Chalkface post. We met her a year ago when she attended the GEM teacher evaluation forum and since then she has been very active with Change the Stakes and as a member of MORE. As the "recruiter" for the MORE elementary Executive Board slate I was excited when Lauren accepted our invitation to run, joining a list of great teachers and activists. Lauren has spent years working for an ogre lunatic of a principal and was heading out of country to teach. When she sent out a round of resumes she bravely included the fact that she was an opponent of high stakes testing and an activist. She said she would rather leave the country to teach if she didn't get a job with a principal who appreciated not only her great teaching ability but also her activism, which went hand in hand. And she got a job at one of the more progressive schools in the city. Lauren exemplifies so many of the MORE people. Great teachers. Great activists.

So here is Lauren's somewhat remarkable letter home to parents followed with her reaction to the Iannuzzi letter which was forwarded to her. There are some interesting comments at TCF below her article taking Iannuzzi's side on this.

NYSUT Clamps Down on Free Speech

Dear Readers, I would like to share with you an email I sent last week to my class parents:
April is the cruelest month
I doubt the NY State Education Department had T.S. Eliot in mind when they made the state testing schedule, but it does seem appropriate. Even with trying to keep test prep – oops, I mean “Defense Against the Dark Arts” – at a minimum, there’s so much I feel obligated to do! [Other 5th grade teacher] and I were talking about the uncertainty surrounding the content on the math test, and she put it really well, “If we see a question on the test about the one thing that we chose not to review, we’re going to feel like we failed our students.” But then I look back at my plan book and realize that we haven’t had a full period of Social Studies in weeks, and I wonder if I’m making the right choice.
As many of you know, I just returned from an exhilarating weekend in Washington DC, “Occupying” the U.S. Department of Education. This article is the best press coverage I’ve seen, and as a bonus, you can see me in the picture yelling in front of the White House:
On Saturday afternoon, we marched from the DOE to the White House, down streets lined with cherry blossoms and gawking tourists. I found out from the organizers that our police escorts re-routed us down the busiest streets because they supported our cause. A personal highlight was the young kid on the sidewalk who pointed to my sign (“High-stakes testing is child abuse”; a march on the White House is no time for subtlety!) then jumped up and down giving me the thumbs up. 
I cannot thank the children enough for their contributions. I opened my speech on Sunday afternoon with one of [student]‘s limericks. I compiled their letters, artwork, posters, and notes into a scrapbook. Everyone who asked to see it found it incredibly moving.
As for the speech itself, To be completely honest, I wasn’t happy with how it went. I’m not used to giving speeches; I’m used to talking about these issues in one-on-one conversations, so it was disconcerting to look to my audience for feedback and instead see people listening politely. Every time I paused to gather my thoughts, I segued back into speaking with a very Valley-Girl-like “Soooooooo….” Worst of all, I let slip a naughty phrase, so now I’m not sure that the children should see it!  Maybe once I get the video link I can put together a censored version. 
In similar news, I’m going to be interviewed along with two of my activist colleagues on the WBAI Radio program “Education at the Crossroads” tomorrow night at 7:00pm. It airs on 99.5 fm or on
I’m not going to tell the students about it, because I don’t think it would benefit them to hear more negativity about testing with it coming up so soon. [NOTE: I didn’t get to appear due to technical difficulties with their phones, sadly, but Fred and Jeff from Change the Stakes were wonderful]
To review, the ELA tests are next Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Each session is 90 minutes (!!!!!), but the state estimates that students will need “only” 70 minutes to finish. The math tests are the following Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, with the same time constraints. There won’t be homework the nights before so that everyone can be well-rested and relaxed. So much of the test depends on having the clarity of mind to recall the skills and strategies we’ve learned all year, so rest is far more beneficial than last-minute cramming. If children want to bring snacks, hard candy, or gum, munching is a great way to keep up stamina and focus. Just make sure that whatever they bring is not messy or noisy! [NOTE #2: I had to send a follow-up email after the new test directions came out and I learned that food was no longer allowed. Aargh!]
If you have any other questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to throw them my way. If I can’t answer them, chances are I know somebody who can. Have a great week, and do your best to keep those kids stress-free!
~Best, Lauren
In the days that followed, my inbox fattened with notes of thanks. A couple of parents commented on my “obvious” dedication to teaching and the courage that I have demonstrated in speaking out. One thanked me for keeping her child sane over the past few weeks. One parent’s email simply read, “You’re the best!” Days later, I began receiving emails from parents whose children are not even in my class, because some of my class parents forwarded it to like-minded friends. In one of the greatest compliments I have ever received, a parent of joked that if her children are not in my class when they reach 5th grade, she might pull them out of the school.
Then another email arrived in my inbox, forwarded from New York State Union of Teachers president Richard Iannuzzi:
A teacher who, in conversations with students or parents, takes a position on testing contrary to the school district’s educational program may potentially be charged with misconduct or insubordination and could be subject to disciplinary action
Um…what can I say? “Whoops”? Do I send a follow-up email: “I take it all back, the state tests are a vital tool for assessing whether students are on the path to college and career readiness”?

I’ve heard plenty of negative talk about teachers’ unions, but this is the first time I find myself ashamed. Ashamed that a group that is supposed to protect us would cave so easily. Ashamed that a group of educators would so readily cede our right to speak as authorities on a subject that affects us all.

 I am an employee of the state, but I do not serve the state foremost – my first duty is to the children I teach. When the state’s policies harm those children, it is not just my choice, it is my obligation to speak out. How can I look into the eyes of people who trust me with their children and lie to them?  Moreover, how can I lie to those children? When I “came out” to them and told them I was against testing, they were delighted. Finally, a teacher who is on their side! I’ve never allowed my stance on testing to become an excuse not to try our best – I told them flat out, “This is a system that is wrong, and I am trying to change it; but it won’t change overnight, and part of my job is to make sure that you’re prepared. Your job is to do the best you can do, not because your score matters, but because in this classroom we put our best efforts into all of our work.” When I have to teach ridiculous lessons about the distinction between a “picture” and a “visual model,” we commiserate and laugh about the absurdity of it all. So, [warning: blatant own-horn-tooting ahead], I’m not only a role model for standing up for what I believe in, I’m teaching kids that sometimes, while we wait for change to happen, we have to make the best of bad situations.
So, President Iannuzzi, in response to your “alert,” your thinly-veiled threats to my freedom to speak out as an authority on teaching and learning, my resolve is strengthened. I will not be silenced. And you, sir, are a sellout.

Two links from the great Mark Naison, whose wife happens to be the principal who hired Lauren Cohen.

To The Children and Families in New York State Opting Out of State Tests

Today, in New York State, democratic renewal takes the form of thousands of children refusing to take tests they and their families deem oppressive. We are all in your debt. You are setting an example for an entire nation where testing has gotten completely out of control due to political opportunism, cynicism and greed. Many teachers, principals, school superintendents- and even a few state education administrators- agree with you but few have been willing to risk their careers to fight a Political Juggernaut that they regard as unstoppable because so much Big Money has been behind it. So it has come to you, ordinary citizens and their children, to stop this Runaway Testing Train.

In NY Today, Largest Act of "Test Refusal" In American History

I am so proud of the thousands of parents and children who sometimes alone and under duress, sometimes with the support of teachers and administrators, decided to Opt Out of testing in New York State today. This has resulted in the largest collective act of "Test Refusal" in the history of this nation, and it is only the beginning of what will become a huge national movement. New Yorkers are proud, they are smart, and they are tough. Anyone who thinks that the parents of this state are going to stand idly by while state officials wearing ideological blinders or driven by expectations of profit fill schools with tests which bore their children, stifle their creativity, and in the worse instance, reduce them to tears, better wake up and smell the cappuchino. "Something's happening here," to quote Buffalo Springfield, but this time it's perfectly clear. Parents in this state are going to take back our public schools and make them places where children are respected, nurtured, allowed to play and allowed to dream!

1 comment:

  1. Kudos Kudos to Lauren. NYSUT defenders can post all they want over at Chalkface, but it doesn't change the fact of the quisling union position. Good for Lauren. Good for Change the Stakes. Good for MORE. Onward.


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