Archive | September, 2013

What should educators demand?

24 Sep

There has been talk among the Badass Teachers Association about  organizing a mass action in Washington D.C.  Mark Naison, one of the founders of BAT, asked for suggestions on what we would demand if we were to mobilize like this.  I’m writing this post to share my suggestions.

Mark proposed the following:

1. End Race to the Top and eliminate all financial incentives to states and localities to use student test scores to rate teachers, close allegedly “failing” schools, and prefer charter schools over public schools.

2. End Federal support of the Common Core standards, and leave the decision of whether to use them to states and localities without pressure from the US Dept of Education.

3. Use federal funds currently directed towards testing and data collection to lower class size and fund libraries, school counselors and the arts

4. Remove the current Secretary of Education and replace him with a lifetime educator who has at least 10 years classroom experience

5. Call a White House Conference on Education where 50 percent of the participants are teachers, and the rest administrators, parents and students.


End the School to Prison Pipeline. Image from Liberation News.

I like some of these, especially 1-4.   However, I think they are  still within the framework of defending public education from corporate education reformers.  While this is important, I don’t think it’s enough.  I think we also need to organize to transform public education ourselves.    With that in mind, I’d like to propose we also make demands like this on the federal government:

  •  Let’s demand that congress peg prison funding to eduction funding, so that every time they increase funds for prisons they must increase funds for education, and every time they cut funds for education, they must also cut funds for prisons.  Let’s follow up to make sure this is not co-opted by making sure our schools themselves do not function as prison pipelines, which means positive behavior interventions instead of surveillance, cops, isolation rooms, etc.
  • Let’s demand that federal regulations  require all employers to give family members of school aged children paid time off to support their kids’ education. This could look like volunteering in the classroom, becoming active in setting school policies, and especially intervening when kids are in crisis, as an alternative to suspensions and expulsions.
  • Let’s demand that Congress  repeal any legal limitations that prevent collective action on the job or that limit collective action to issues of wages of benefits alone. In particular, remove any limitations of labor law that would prevent teachers, parents, and students from controlling hiring and firing of teachers, curriculum development and adoption, and school policies. Repeal the Taft Hartley Act and other anti-labor laws.

These  demands might help us cultivate a unified teacher-parent-student movement; they might help us prevent  a situation where teachers are  treated as simply another special interest group in competition with other groups.  Let’s make it clear: we are badass workers, and an injury to one is an injury to all.

Mexican teachers occupy the Zocalo, the central square in Mexico City.  Image from

Mexican teachers occupy the Zocalo, the central square in Mexico City. Image from Fox News Latino.

To even come close to winning demands like this, we’d need to engage in a mass struggle that breaks from scripted, predictable forms of protest and pushes the limits, just like the Mexican teachers are doing.   As Jim Horn asks,

How much abuse, derogation, impugning, hostility, and professional savaging will it take for American teachers to respond like those in Mexico, where teachers have been engaged in civil disobedience on an unprecedented scale during the past week.

What do you think of the demand I suggested?  What would you be wiling to fight for?  What kind of strategies and tactics do you think we’d need to engage in to creatively transform learning and teaching?


Statement by Nova Staff and Families: Educational Justice at the Horace Mann Building

18 Sep

The following statement has been signed by the majority of staff at Nova; the signers state that they “do not support the forced relocation of the current programs in the Mann building and are working to explore other possibilities.”

The programs referred to constitute the  Africatown Community Innovation Center (ACIC).  The Seattle Public School District wants the ACIC to vacate the building so that it can be renovated for Nova to move back in.

Please circulate this statement widely.  If you are a Nova student, staff member, family member, or alumni,  you can sign onto the statement by clicking here.

This statement is timely, since the school board will be voting this evening on awarding a construction contract for the Mann renovation. The meeting begins at 4 PM and public testimony begins at 5 PM, at the John Stanford Center.  Supporters of the ACIC will be speaking about why they wish to remain in the building.

For background on this issue, see this post, and the open letter to the Nova community written by a Nova parent and Creativity Not Control contributor.

Educational Justice and the Horace Mann Building

The Nova Project Alternative High School is a democratically-run, all-city-draw, inquiry-based learning community that emphasizes social justice and the arts. We work to educate ourselves and take action around power and privilege and to make our school accessible and inclusive to all students and families. We also strive to maintain and develop a school where LGBTQ students, families, and staff, including LGBTQ people of color, can thrive.

We respect the unique importance of the Central District as the historic heart of Seattle’s African American community, and we recognize and oppose the recent gentrification and subsequent displacement of communities of color out of the CD. We also recognize that, historically, the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has not adequately served African American and other students and families of color. We believe that both of these facts point to the need for long-overdue action on behalf of SPS to listen to and work with communities of color to meet the needs of all students.

Four years ago, SPS displaced Nova from the Horace Mann building and moved us to the Meany building. We fought to stop our displacement and to create solidarity among all of the programs facing closure. After over 30 years of making the Horace Mann building our school’s home, we were heartbroken by our forced move and have no desire for anyone else to be displaced. We do not support the forced relocation of the current programs in the Mann building and are working to explore other possibilities, including collaboratively co-housing with these programs or an alternative location for Nova.

For all of the above reasons, we, the undersigned staff and families of Nova, support an open community process to determine the future of the Horace Mann and other SPS buildings. We seek an inclusive dialogue that will best serve the interests of Central District communities as well as the students and families of Nova and other SPS schools.

Isolation Rooms in Schools

17 Sep
A free-standing isolation booth, now banned in Oregon.  (Source: KATU News, posted on

A free-standing isolation booth, now banned in Oregon. (Source: KATU News, posted on

I am posting two articles about the use of isolation rooms as a form of discipline in schools.   I have spoken to various teachers and parents the past few days who have confirmed that these rooms are still used in Washington state schools, including some in the Seattle metro region.  With the growing  public outcry over racial disparities in school discipline, and the growing emphasis on positive forms of behavioral intervention, we should question and challenge the use of these isolation techniques in our schools.  I am particularly interested in hearing perspectives from special education teachers, students who have been subjected to these forms of discipline, and parents of students in special education programs.  If you have experiences with this, and would like to share your thoughts on it, please comment below or contact me at mamosrotnelli AT

The first article is by our friend Carol Issac; she wrote it for the  newsletter called the ROCK, which is distributed to 800+ subscribers in U.S. prisons.   This particular article is in Volume 2, Number10, October 2013:

In some Northwest schools, if a child has an “outburst”, they may be put forcibly in a device called an “isolation booth” or “isolation room” where they are left for some portion of the school day. In Longview, Washington it is a free standing 4’ x 4’ padded, pink-walled, empty room with ceiling ventilation, an observation window, an outside lock, and, presumably, a monitor. A student from first grade on may be judged as problematic, removed forcibly in front of other students, and locked inside “the naughty room”, the students’ term.

In Oregon, after a shocked parent complained this past year, the state legislature in February unanimously passed House Bill 2576 with follow-up passage of the Senate version. This requires that there be no purchasing, building or use of a free-standing isolation booth in public schools. A Portland elementary school, within months, went around the bill creating a “room” instead of a “booth” by using an already standing wall of the school. It is available for use.

In Washington, where the practice was brought to the attention by the news media, the “isolation booth” was reputed by the school to be used for only special education students whose parents had given permission. A parent shocked to learn about her own student’s detention in this cell while they together watched a news program that showed the unit, came forth with the assertion that she never had, and never would have given such permission. It appears no audit has yet been done by the states.

Therapeutic isolation is supposedly a technique abandoned by the psychiatric field decades ago, and one psychiatrist testified against it in the Oregon Legislature leaving the schools, you would think, with the task of proving their value.

Some schools contend they served disabled students especially in the “autism spectrum”, but there has not surfaced the scientific data needed to show the efficacy of such a protocol. One student reported observing a fellow student go in relatively calm, and later turn violent while locked inside. Certainly this is dangeroulsy traumatizing to the student body witnessing these procedures for some years now. Some of the cells have even been within some classrooms. Young people must come away with the inevitable belief that they may do something that will put them in one of these horrific lock-ups. The element of fear increases the daily stress involved in learning subjects a student may find naturally difficult or there may be stress added when managing racially charged situations traditionally not in their favor. The fact that there are students who have not discussed this with their parents up until now is especially concerning. What other practices are hidden from parents?

There are no actual complete figures on how many schools use this procedure, but so far enough schools have been forthcoming to show that with eight Oregon School districts reporting, children have been put in a seclusion room 791 times in the past school year. Their data do not distinguish between a “booth” or a “room”.

Certainly there are children with special needs whose control of themselves is not going to be adequate for the average classroom. These are children for whom there needs to be a much different situation, but it must be proven at the very least that their isolation in this severe manner away from home and the guidance of their health care professionals is harmless. All parents need to know their child may have been traumatized simply by witnessing the procedure and the schools need to address that harm as well as the possible harm done to the subjects of isolation.

This jump to a punitive, not a harmonious, means to control the student body is in alignment with the growing list of other trends in the nation’s school system: metal detectors at entrances, uniformed police,‘resource officers’ who wear guns, tasers and cuffs in the halls, dogs for ‘sniffing’ and patrolling, warrantless searches, and school suspension rules with sentences expanded to so many days that catching up is impossible, failure insurance. Truancy courts themselves are an along-the-way invention replacing the school principal’s role as the arbiter of situations that used to be called a “ruckus”.

Perhaps the surveillance cameras that students are under in school should be used to live-stream the classrooms to public television channels so parents may watch the conditions under which their children are being educated.

Unfortunately, all these practices brought over from law enforcement and the judicial and prison systems groom the young for a dominated existence instead of deepening an understanding of democracy.

This second article discusses the use of isolation – based discipline in Oregon schools; the author argues that  schools are continuing this practice in new forms after public outrage lead to a state law banning isolation booths.  The author’s conclusion at the end of the article is inadequate though – not everyone can afford to homeschool or send their kids to private school. We also need to organize inside the public schools to change this sort of thing.

Life Is a Story, Not a Test

8 Sep
This is Not a Test.  (From

This is Not a Test. (From

Before I started to become a teacher, I studied liberation theology and considered becoming a minister.  Before that, I studied to become a poet.  I resent the fact that capitalism makes us choose ; I want to continue to teach, to contemplate the divine, and to write poems, without having to make any of these my career.   I want  these things to be my life, not my labor.  So on this quiet sabbath morning, here is a poem I wrote about God refusing to give standardized tests.




Life is a Story, Not a Test


When we were good or bad

Kids in school

We thought of God as a teacher

Who would give us short amounts of life

To study

Then subject us

To a standardized test

When we die

To see if we can pass on

To the afterlife

Or burn in



God had to make the test standardized,

To be fair

So there would be no retakes

If we miss the test

For any reason

Including illness, attention deficit, or joy


– Unless we beg for it-

Then God would always allow it

A boring number of times


Now we see that we have our whole lives

To study


But when he died

(On the cross)

God refused to test us


So now we just pass on

If our lives end up

Becoming stories

That others want to read


Even if they’re just God

And even if God is just


A character

In our


Response to the debate about the ACIC on Save Seattle Schools blog

8 Sep

I wrote the following piece as a comment to contribute to the vigorous debate going on over at Save Seattle Schools about the Africatown Community Innovation Center (ACIC).  For background about the ACIC, see here and here.  The moderator of the Save Seattle Schools blog closed down comments and ended the discussion, so I could not post this there, and I’m posting it here instead. 

I am a young teacher with five years experience working with youth on the verge of dropping out.  Almost all of my students have been low income, and the majority are not white.

I agree with a few points folks have raised in this discussion:

  1. It’s unacceptable that the district does not have a plan for overcoming the so-called “achievement gap” (I agree with  Wyking, this is not an achievement gap, it is really a form of institutional racism).
  2.   I also agree that the so-called “education reform” groups funded by  corporate folks like Gates have NOT improved the situation for Black students, despite all of their opportunistic use of anti-racist rhetoric.

However, I also have several critical questions and points:

Melissa and others who have described yourselves as long-time activists in the district: where is your plan for overcoming racism in our schools?  You have been at it for 10 years – in that time, what have you done to dismantle institutional racism?

Change comes from the bottom up, not the top down; instead of waiting for a plan from the district, we should form one ourselves, and implement it through direct action; if the district wants to support us, that’s great; if not, we should do it despite their opposition.  Right now, the ACIC seems to be one of the only groupings independent of the corporate ed. reform groups that is trying to do that.  If I’m wrong and if some of you have other projects you are working on, please share these.

I’m impressed and inspired by how the ACIC folks have taken matters into their own hands, and I hope their actions start a larger and longer process of grassroots organizing district-wide.

Several commenters are saying we should not support the ACIC because it won’t solve the district-wide problems of racial inequality.  But it’s unfair to expect one program to do that. I see the ACIC as one part of a possible solution.  If you think it’s not enough, why not support it and then do whatever other things you think are missing yourself?  I agree with Wyking’s point at the school board meeting: the ACIC could serve as a “triage unit” for Black students while we all work together to stop the situations in schools across the district that are injuring Black students in the first place.

I am frustrated to see some of the knee-jerk “progressive” responses to ACIC – folks suggesting they are pro-charter, privatizers, ed-reformers, etc., or the suggestion that we should avoid these tensions and just go camp out on the Gates’ lawn because fighting the corporate education reformers is the “real” issue.

I am firmly opposed to corporate ed reform, but that is not the only struggle going on, and some of you are missing the forrest because you’re stuck in the trees.  You are stuck in this siege mentality of defending public education, but you’re forgetting about the need to transform it so that there is something worth defending in the first place.  To do that, we need to confront the racial inequalities – and other inequalities – that the public schools perpetuate.   The ACIC issue brings this to the forefront, and it seems like some of you are  trying to dismiss it or fit it into pre-conceived strategies of building progressive unity vs. the privatizers.  It’s not that simple.

In fact, I would suggest that if we want to win against the corporate education deformers, then we need to focus on organizing against institutionalized racism in our schools.   If we don’t do that, corporate funded groups will try to use the horrible situations that Black students face in our schools to justify anti-teacher policies, privatization, charters, etc.

The ACIC folks have made it clear they want to maintain their autonomy from such forces.  They have made it clear they are seeking autonomy to develop culturally relevant and effective curriculum for Black youth, while allying with forces across the city who are sincerely trying to transform the district schools.   How can that be anything other than a positive development?  If such an alliance fails to materialize, that will not be a failure of the ACIC leadership, it will be a failure of the largely white progressive education activists for lacking a broad enough vision of what is possible and necessary.

Finally, a quick point about race and class.  It’s not a matter of one or the other.  The district is failing nonwhite youth, and is failing low income youth.  These issues are closely related.  Because of 500+ years of institutionalized racism, a higher percentage of non-white communities are pushed into poverty than white communities.  However, in terms of absolute numbers, the majority of poor folks  in the U.S. are white, and they are also being oppressed, failed, and underserved by the public schools. I see this working with youth who are on the verge of dropping it out – some of the white youth also don’t have it easy.  But because working class and poor Black students in general are treated even worse, the system is able to dampen possible resistance from white youth and their families – people think “well, it could be worse” instead of “this is messed up, let’s fight back.”

In other words, those of you who said it’s not a zero sum game are correct, but in a different way than you originally meant.  If the ACIC and other attempts to improve the situations of Black students are successful, this is a good thing, not only for Black students but also for working class white students.  In fact, I hope that working class white parents are inspired by what parents at the ACIC are doing, and choose to take a stance like that for our own kids, in solidarity with Black parents at the ACIC.

Flyer To the Nova Community About the Mann Building

7 Sep

At the last school board meeting, and NOVA parent and contributor to this blog read this open letter to the NOVA community regarding the current debate over the use of the Horace Mann building in the Central District.  We also passed out the flyer below, which summarizes the points in his letter, and folks are also sharing these with the NOVA community.   If you know anyone who studies or teaches at NOVA, or parents who have students there, we encourage you to share this with them.

Why Nova Should Support the ACIC  pdf

Flyer for the NOVA community; summary of an open letter by a NOVA parent

Flyer for the NOVA community; summary of an open letter by a NOVA parent

Mexican teachers disrupt the metropolis; Seattle teachers accept underwhelming contract

4 Sep
Photo of Mexico City teacher protests, from Huffington Post

 Mexico City teacher protests; photo from the Huffington Post

Teachers have brought Mexico City to a halt by strategically blockading key transportation hubs throughout  the metropolis.   According to the Huffington Post,

Some 10,000 educators protesting a government reform program have in the span of a week disrupted international air travel, forced the cancellation of two major soccer matches, rerouted the planned route of the marathon and jammed up already traffic-choked freeways.

Teachers are taking this action in opposition to an education “deform” law that would base their evaluations on student test scores, and would end the union’s control of hiring.  Ironically, as  I mention below, Seattle teachers just voted tonight to accept similar conditions here.  Given the related issues we are facing, we should learn as much as we can from the Mexico City protests.

The blockade tactics the teachers are using there seem to be increasingly popular and effective, part of a global trend in protest methods.  Counterinsurgency theorist John Robb  warns the ruling class that they will face increasingly powerful “systems disruption” from global  insurrectionary forces on both the left and the right; because the contemporary capitalist system is so highly networked, when  actors target key nodes in the system, they can cause cascading ripples of destruction.  Instead of having to spread their labor action into a general strike, the Mexican teachers have used their concentrated power as a militant minority to disrupt the reproduction of daily life across the metropolis; if people can’t commute, they can’t get to work.  All the teachers have to do is go after the system’s weak points: in this case the transportation nodes that were already overwhelmed by heavy traffic before the protests.

Here, the Occupy movement groped toward similar tactics, perhaps a bit too late to overcome its internal contradictions and the effects of state repression.    The clearest example of this kind of move was when the West Coast Occupy general assemblies called for a blockade of the ports in retaliation for the state’s crushing of the occupy camps.

This raised a set of crucial questions:  if a militant minority can  disrupt the contemporary metropolis, should they?  Or, more precisely, when should they?  Should they only do it if they have the support of a majority of  working class, oppressed, and unemployed folks who will be affected by the action?  If so, would they need active or passive support?  Or is it appropriate to act on behalf of a larger class/ group/ community if one’s goals are in the interests of everyone?  It is increasingly easy to disrupt the capitalist system, but what kind of actions simultaneously build our collective capacity to destroy, replace, and supersede it with total freedom / everything for everyone?

Some traditional U.S. labor activists might argue against these tactics of minority disruption; they might say they are desperate moves by teachers outnumbered and isolated from the rest of the working class; that the teachers should try to patiently organize to win over the majority of workers,  like classic U.S labor activists did when they built the unions in the 1930s.   These activists would be forgetting how the Oaxaca uprising began – teachers blockaded and occupied the central plaza, and when they faced repression and fought back,  more and more people began to join them, expanding the blockade into barricades across the city.

In their rush to try to replicate comfortably digested U.S. labor history, these patient folks would also be forgetting a lesson that Beverley Silver documents in her brilliant book Forces of Labor: the 1930s US auto strikes that gave birth to the CIO unions here were themselves militant minority actions that would probably have seemed recklessly insurrectionary the moment before they happened. For example, the Flint sit down strike was initiated by a small number of workers who knew the production process well enough to target crucial parts of the factory; when they shut these down,  cascading disruptions  ended up shutting down the auto companies’ entire production chains, causing massive amounts of economic damage.   And this kind of focused, tactical disruption was not unique to the U.S.; Silver documents how this process of disruptive militant minority action happened over and over again in auto factories located in multiple countries with very different cultural and political situations – from Italy in the 70s to Brazil and South Korea in the 80s.  When it was crushed in one place, it reemerged when a new militant minority of workers took action in the heart of a new, growing area of capitalist development.

This illustrates another one of John Robb’s tactical concepts: the idea of the “plausible promise”.  Once the rest of the auto workers saw in practice that a militant minority could actually deliver on their promise of shutting down the company, they changed their minds about what was possible and what was impossible; the militant minority became a majority after they took action, not before.  A majority of workers gained confidence, and chose to replicate the initial action in new ways across a variety of industries.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for an anti-social insurrectionist logic here (“we’re tired of waiting for The Masses to come around and we’re tried of making demands on the state , so we’re going to take direction action to free ourselves right now, even if it means fighting the masses”).   The Flint strikers  did have demands and they did appeal to a broader sense of class belonging – it was precisely through their ability to win these demands with bold, unexpected direct action, that they were able to generalize the struggle from a minority one to a majority one.  Eventually the autoworkers became a catalyzing force throughout the working class – people said “if they can do it, so can we”.   Of course, later on, this process of making demands through direct action became co-opted into a process  of “responsible unionism”.  Under a new “liberal” labor management regime,  union representatives make demands on behalf of the workers,  refuse to break laws set by the bosses,  confine the struggle to narrow issues of wages and benefits,  marginalize workers  who fight the bosses’ ability to control our creative powers on the job, and confine the struggle within national borders (supporting U.S imperialism instead of allying with the Mexican teachers and other folks who are fighting it around the world.)

The Mexican teachers are also posing demands.  Do their actions have the same potential to generalize from a militant minority into a majority?   Or will that kind of co-opting trade union logic prevent them from generalizing the struggle?  The mainstream media is highlighting the inconveniences the blockades are causing for the rest of the Mexico City working class and the anger against the union that this is causing among some folks.    However, it appears the teachers are uniting with other forces to oppose a range of austerity and privatization measures being pushed by the government (and ultimately by the empire).  They are not simply fighting for themselves.

This is a good step, but I imagine that the teachers will have trouble generalizing the struggle unless their demands also include a transformation of education itself,  not simply a defensive battle against testing and privatization.   Auto workers work on metal, but as caring laborers, teachers work with human beings.  We can’t simply sabotage our jobs without hurting  other oppressed people.  And our demands are inherently linked with the conditions that our students and their communities are facing.  Given that, we need to take direct action to collectively transform the learning process, but this can only happen if our students and their communities also rise up against the oppressive and alienating aspects of capitalist education, with all of its control and its suppression of creativity.

From my narrow vantage point here in the belly of the beast, I have no idea whether or not this is happening in the current Mexico City actions.  But I’ve heard that this sort of thing has  been a significant part of social struggles across Mexico in general, especially in indigenous liberation struggles.   At the end of the film Granito de Arena, some of the Mexican teacher militants discuss how their radical labor tactics are empty unless they also transform the learning process itself.  They talk about the need to collaborate as equals with the indigenous communities where they are teaching, to become part of the community sharing and creating knowledge, instead of imposing state-certified learning standards in a colonial fashion upon the community.

Meanwhile in Seattle… 

Teachers picket in Seattle against testing-based evaluations

Teachers picket in Seattle against testing-based evaluations

Over the past few weeks, Seattle teachers have held a series of pickets regarding the current contract negotiations between the Seattle Education Association and the Seattle Public Schools.  The union threatened to strike if necessary, and tonight many students have been wondering whether school is going to start tomorrow.   The union successfully defeated the district’s proposal to expand class sizes, and pushed the district to set caseload limits for school psychologists and occupational and physical therapists.

However, the district successfully pushed to continue using student test scores to evaluate teachers.  The union had been asking for a moratorium on this, pending changes at the state level in how teachers will be evaluated, including new state tests associated with the adoption of the Common Core standards.  The district didn’t budge, and tonight 1,500 of the union’s 3,000 members met to vote on the district’s final offer.   A majority of those 1,500 voted to accept the district’s offer, so there will be no strike.  Tomorrow, while Mexican teachers continue to fight, we’ll be going to work.

This is a somewhat underwhelming sequel to the vibrant boycott of the MAP test last spring.

What will it take to get to the point where we can fight back like the Mexican teachers are doing?  How can we start building, shoulder to shoulder with our students and their families and communities , starting right now,  so that if we do need to disrupt the metropolis here, we can do it together, creating new forms of learning and growth in the process?