Two horrors, one big and one small
June 05, 2023
The author of this piece about his two-year stint working for Teach for America in Baltimore chooses the word "horror" to describe it. In these days of commonplace exaggeration and hype, I was prepared to dismiss it. But after reading the piece I think the word is justified. If you don't want to read the whole thing, here are a few bits to exemplify the thesis:
It’s around one in the afternoon, and I am planted across my classroom doorway, feet wedged into the corners for leverage. It’s time for the daily math lesson. All twenty-nine of my fourth graders are behind me in the classroom, save for Deandra, who is in the hallway, screeching insults at me (“White motherfucker!”) and repeatedly trying to force her way back into class so that she can continue pummeling Justina. . . .
I lived a different story, whose terrifying immediacy held at bay the grand abstractions through which we are urged to interpret our lives. When a second-grader’s grandmother sent him to school with a loaded gun because he was being bullied, I didn’t see a vestige of white flight. I saw a second grader bringing a loaded gun to school at the direction of his primary caretaker. When Kenyon was transferred into my class mid-second year with an enormous file explaining how his gross-motor problems were in part the product of his mother holding a curling iron to his feet as a baby to stop him from crying . . .
TFA’s training was excellent in a way. In terms of pedagogy, it was far more rigorous than what I got while getting my masters in teaching at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. The curriculum was cutting edge. Our instructors were all veterans of the program who had stayed on in education. Each had achieved the gold standard of TFA success: over a year of learning in a single school year (anything less leaves the achievement gap intact). Much of what I learned, I still use today in my undergraduate classroom, and it works. But it didn’t matter back then. Nothing matters if you can’t control your students. . . .
In the neighborhood around Richmond [Elementary School], a primary task of the ‘good’ parent was to prepare one’s child to avoid being killed. My students often discussed the shootings that occurred in the neighborhood and sometimes acted out what they had heard happened – or in some cases seen. . . .
. . . we were cautioned on several occasions by TFA higher-ups not to stress the negatives when sharing our experiences from the classroom. But I really don’t buy that anymore. Yes, the layers of hierarchy, responsibility and power that surround the horror matter, but the horror itself matters more. We must talk about the horror.
A smaller horror is what has been done to high school and college debate. The article, "At High School Debates, Debate Is No Longer Allowed," details the current deplorable condition of what was once a terrific activity, an activity I enjoyed a lot when I was in high school. (The fall has been in progress for a long time. It was bad when I judged a few rounds of high school debate about 25 years ago. See also my post from May 2014.)