Friday, January 25, 2013

Money Matters: Solorio Teachers Have Raised over $10,000

Sorry for the radio silence, readers! I have been in the process of absorbing some very big news, on which more in a few days or so. In the mean time, here's a post I wrote about the fact that teachers from Solorio have raised over $10,000 since Solorio opened its doors in the fall of 2010. That's pretty amazing. It also shows that "miracle schools" don't perform miracles without tens of thousands of dollars of extra money--literally.


Many people have bought the education reform line that money doesn't make a difference in educational outcomes. But, if you are a classroom teacher or a leftist, you find this argument highly suspicious on its face. Money always matters. I'm proud of Solorio this year, because, even in its short existence, people who teach at Solorio have raised over $10,000 for students through Donors Choose alone. They have also won outside grants for art and public art projects, and sold lots and lots of baked goods, to the tune of probably double that. Add to that the largesse of AUSL, and the newest green building in all of CPS, and it's not hard to fathom why Solorio would be on everyone's "schools to watch" list.

My school boasts a wonderful staff of about 70 people who are mostly young, smart, and nice. Everyone tries to get along with everyone else. We have a lot of meetings. I like working there because it reminds me of another school I worked in like that--a Quaker school, where every decision had to be made by a committee.

I was on 4 committees at Westtown, not counting my two departmental affiliations (English and Theater) or the full faculty meetings, which were scheduled for 90 minutes after dinner every Wednesday. I probably spent 10 hours a week in meetings, 30 hours a week teaching, and 20-30 hours a week prepping for class and caring for students. I loved it, because I love meetings and I love students.

A lot of teachers will tell you that teaching in a high school often feels like being sent back to high school, and they're right. If you were an outcast in high school, you can become a quirky misfit on a high school staff pretty easily, especially if you're friendly and like to volunteer to do dirty jobs nobody else wants to do. In other words, schools are political environments for everyone: all of the adults and all of the children are citizens of the empire, and everyone is a member of a smaller polis ("clique" or "crew" or "bromance") outside the Capitol, which is The Main Office.

You will know you have entered the Hunger Games in a high school building when you realize that what you are wearing matters way more than you thought it would when you put it on that morning. It is very risky to wear bright colors or use the words "folks" or "people" at any urban high school. It is also very risky to use a vast array of other loaded words if you are in a school with a lot of turbulence. The turbulence is just waiting to erupt into violence at any moment. You know you are in such a school when: the school has metal detectors, armed security, a dress code, or a uniform policy that excludes any kind of self-expression through fashion (piercings, nails, earrings are forbidden, shoes must be black or brown with no markings whatsoever).

When a charter school claims to "produce" better students at a more "efficient" rate than its comparable neighborhood school, you have to ask these questions: how much money is spent per student in real dollars? And where does the money come from? Words like "produce" and "efficient" and anything that treats a school like a factory should be treated with caution.

People who feel like they are "other" know this. "The Other" is a word from postcolonialism that is an English adaptation of the word "subaltern," used influentially by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s. Gramsci loved populism and hated Mussolini, whose government put him in prison. Reading Gramsci helped me understand why it might be OK to write an Italian romantic comedy about the Holocaust, which the younger me (The Old Me) would never have thought was OK.

Subaltern people are any people who identify themselves as being "mis-fits" in high school: nerds, LGBTQQ, people with physical, mood, and intellectual disabilities, women, people of color, people with a threatening, "weird" faith--basically, those who get bullied and those who do the bullying. Does that sound like the "bad people" list of anyone you know? Probably not anyone you know personally, because if you're reading my blog, and you've read this far, you probably think it's OK to be Politically Correct, at least when you're not trying to be ironic.

Basically, I'm talking about the same people who are always cool: hipsters, the youth, teachers, and fashionistas. These are people who have learned, either by nature or culture, to find the language of the market highly suspicious. They are the same people as those who also want to try to fit in without looking like they're trying. Teenagers are the most brutal audience there is. If you honed your wit as a social outcast in Chicago, like Tina Fey or Steven Colbert or Gwendolyn Brooks, then your wit can cut like a knife, or tear your flesh (which most people will recognize as the etymology of the word "sarcasm").

We all know or suspect that anything that claims to be "new and improved" or "cool" is actually old and cheaper than it used to be. When I first met Solorio's students, I told them that my favorite store was Target and they could smell the dork on me like I had just bathed in the dollar bins.

Aside: When you let the students ask you questions about yourself, there's a standard list. Top of the list are where you buy your car and clothes. If you're dressed nice that day, they're impressed. If you're not dressed nice and you don't drive a cool car, you reek of loserdom. The best thing about kids these days is that the majority of them are much nicer to adults than my peers were to me when I was young. But the bad news is that all that kindness and courtesy usually masks an ugly underbelly of bullying and deceit and mean girl drama. The way a society treats its children is a sign of the times. When society treats children like objects instead of people, you know times are tough.

In high school, fashion that is cheap rules the day: short or otherwise low-maintenance hairstyles; glasses, facial hair, painted fingernails, and tattoos; and good taste in popular culture are the badges of cool. (I know what you're thinking: those things cost money! Well, they do and they don't. They cost money for some people, and they cost a lot less money for other people. If you've ever wondered why, Google Chicago Sociology or Worlds Columbian Exposition, or read the Sparknotes of The Jungle, or visit a Target.)*

What makes me sad? Educators started using the same value-laden language as the market to describe the kids. Too many educators have so bought into the narrative of modernity that they actually believe the hype. They believe that adults are naturally smarter than young people, that men are naturally smarter than women, that realistic fiction is naturally better than romantic or fantasy fiction. These are all of the cultural lies of modernity: late modernism, which some people choose to call "postmodernism," taught people of my generation to hate the old and love the new. But you only have to visit a high school for a day to be reminded that the old is always new again to a teen.

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