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My Very Real Takeaways About the SOS March

by Jose Vilson on August 2, 2011

in Jose

Allow me to keep it real with you all. Not that I need to ask permission:

1. First, I’d like to thank those of you with encouraging words about my recent speech / poem at the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC. It’ll certainly be a moment I’ll never forget. For those of you that didn’t get to see the video, both Dan Brown  and Jon Becker put versions up on their YouTube accounts. I put up the text for the speech a couple of nights before that magical Saturday. I also wrote something for GOOD Magazine about why I’m marching. Amazingly, the videos created enough buzz to be ranked either 3rd or 4th in views for the speeches, amongst names like Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, and some guy named Matt Damon. John Kuhn also provided a gem worth watching.

2. It’s important to note that, as one of the few current K-12 educators to get to speak, I took that responsibility very seriously. Not to sound self-aggrandizing, but I knew how important it was for those of us still teaching kids to have a voice. What I’m about to say is no disrespect to the experts, organizers, celebrities, parents, and media heads who participated in the march and contributed their voices. We need as many voices as possible to contribute to our movement. The old educator / non-educator dichotomy needs to give way to those who are for our coalition in one form or another and those who believe in the status quo. Yet, reading some of the feedback from the high-profile blogs, media, and marchers themselves, some implied there were no K-12 educators speaking at this event or that K-12 educators were a passive audience in this event, including from those who were actually there.


3. The perspective was made even more complicated with the mainstream media’s coverage of Matt Damon’s participation in the march. Some critics alluded to the idea that teachers shouldn’t have to depend on Matt Damon, who spoke rather eloquently throughout the march about educational issues, to speak on our behalves. Naturally, I agree. Yet, there’s a myriad of benefits for our movement that underlies his participation. This includes smacking down ridiculous “free market reporters.” If he was good enough to represent us then, why not throughout?

4. I’m still ruminating on this concept of separating a man from his work. My fiance likes to say that the audio doesn’t fit the visual. If you’ve lived long enough on this planet, you’ll notice that a man’s words and actions can be completely different. It’s disheartening in a movement like this, but it doesn’t preclude me from continuing my participation and activism within the movement. It just means my eye becomes keener for it.

5. I genuinely believe that there are 95% of us who actually believe in the cause. This 95% will move the objectives of the SOS and will do everything in their power to do what’s right for our students. The other 5%, the ones that can really do some damage, fall into a few categories, but it’s often a strand of selfishness that pervades their thinking. For instance, they might say they’re for a particular group being represented in this space, but only if they’re leading it. If they’re not leading it, then that group was never represented. Any new initiative makes it super-easy for someone to see things as a movement for self. That’s why we need to see things for the bigger picture, and the bigger picture doesn’t always have you in front.

6. The next step for us? Well, we can only do what we can do. I don’t believe the organization has to focus on just a few objectives because of how many arms we have. We have a few guiding principles, but there’s a few (alternative / preferable) ways to get to it. On my end, I’d love to have another round of bloggers discussing what their personal next steps will be under the EDUSolidarity tag like we did before. I also see that we have some ways to go before we use words like “racism,” “sexism,” and “ageism” effectively to talk about what’s happening in our worlds. I also see a need for talking about how teachers advocate for themselves, lest we lock ourselves in the teachers’ lounge.

Overall, my experience was really positive, and there’ll be more after this soon …

Jose, who prefers to discuss ideas instead of people except when necessary …


Kozol and Me

by Jose Vilson on July 25, 2011

in Jose

My name is Jose Vilson and I have a confession to make: I hadn’t read the entirety of Jonathan Kozol’s seminal work Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. I read so slow that I’m often drawing pictures line by line, making connections between every experience I’ve ever had with that sentence, and branch out into some reflective wondering before I get back into the text. At times, I zone out wondering if the phrase I just read applies to me, has anything to do with what I’m doing now, or if I could ever imagine myself doing what I just read. Often, it’s little things that can trigger it. The use of the word “differentiation.” The implication of alcohol-induced nights. The name Schomburg.

The first time I picked up the book was in 2007, during my most disappointing year in the classroom in my career. A couple of months into the 07-08 school year, and I knew I had already done a disservice to the kids by not being absolutely prepared for the worst scenario. While I won’t go into the composition of the class or the personal parts of my life during that period, I will say it was the best and worst time to pick up Kozol’s work. For the normal reader reading such a text, they can disconnect from the narrative and see the manuscript for the set of facts and narratives laid out before them with little judgment on the person themselves. I’m not that. If anything, every other page infuriated me on a globally conscious level.

When I got to page 83 of Savage Inequalities, I already found myself tightening up even worse. In a serene setting, like a waiting room, I thought I could breeze by the chapter without the usual distractions like Facebook and my own desperate classroom situation that year. Then I came across settings I recognized. New York City. District 10. Riverdale. The Bronx. The funeral home on Jerome Avenue. White. Black. Hispanic. New York Post. The wringing of this paperback must have been noticeable to any observer as I scrolled through these words. Then, I came across this:

While we talk, three children who look six or seven years old come to the door and ask to see the nurse, who isn’t in the school today. One of the children, a Puerto Rican girl, looks haggard. “I have a pain in my tooth,” she says. The principal says, “The nurse is out. Why don’t you call your mother?” The child says, “My mother doesn’t have a phone.” The principal sighs. “Then go back to your class.” When she leaves, the principal is angry. “It’s amazing to me that these children ever make it with the obstacles they face. Many do care and they do try, but there’s a feeling of despair. The parents of these children want the same things for their children that the parents in the suburbs want. Drugs are not the cause of this. They are the symptom. Nonetheless, they’re used by people in the suburbs and rich people in Manhattan as another reason to keep children of poor people at a distance.”

Soon after reading the paragraph, I smacked the book to the ground and wondered what the hell I was doing. For 2 out of my 3 classes, I was at least an adequate teacher, but for my most needy class, I felt only a little better than nothing. What am I even doing in the classroom if the problems are so much deeper than my class? How can just one infuriated individual make a change that might make conditions even workable for relatively new teachers like me?

The book was such an emotional investment at the time that I literally stopped reading it that very moment. I kept it around, collecting dust on various bookshelves. I looked at it with a certain sense of fear every time I walked by it, hoping it wouldn’t take me to those dark places when I picked it up again. A few weeks ago, I noticed it there, but this time, I felt differently. For one, there was a certain march on the horizon where I’d get a chance to ask Kozol about this and his subsequent works.

But, more importantly, I had just enough time to separate myself from the 2007 edition of me that I forgave myself for the things I couldn’t possibly do on my own.

I picked up from the aforementioned paragraph and finished the book 3 days ago. Without interruptions or anxiety. I felt an equal amount of passion after reading the book, but now I know how to channel it. Now, the only thing drawing my anger is the fact that it’s been 19 years since this book was published. And very little has been made equal since.

Jose, who wants you to march with me …


Savage Inequalities, A Redux

by Jose Vilson on October 14, 2010

in Jose

Jonathan Kozol

I‘d love for people to actually talk about the sorts of things people like Arthur Goldstein and Nancy Flanagan did on Huffington Post and the Washington Post, respectively, when it comes to education. I hate to break it to people across the nation, but poverty hasn’t gone away. At all. In the conversation throughout and about education, words like “assessment,” “quality review,” and “tenure” get thrown around with little regard to the learning conditions of students … outside class. That people think 16 out of the 24 hours a day every child spends out of school (not including holidays and weekends!) don’t merit attention is beyond me. Abject poverty inhibits the learner in ways you can’t always assess, and all this talk about kids making it out sounds myopic and reek of exceptionalism.

In other words, you think just because one or two poor kids make it out of a batch of 10, the other 8 can as well?

You think that hearing gun shots every night promotes positive images for kids? You think who have to wear the same two or three shirts every week care about being seen by anyone? You think kids who have to prioritize between breakfast and dinner care much about their health? You think knowing that police crawl your tight units of space constantly, looking for people that look just like you makes you feel safe? You think hearing your mother screaming for various reasons all night, or your father coming at midnight from work only to get up four hours later tells a kid that this country has an interest in the working class in this country? You think kids who don’t understand why their vision’s so blurry or why they have to take cold showers in the morning look forward to an icy environment where the crux of their learning has everything to do with their mastery of 49 multiple-choice and extended response questions?

Probably not.

People on this blog have tried to tell me that it’s all about hard work and persistence, doesn’t it make you wonder why no one’s bringing up these environmental issues? With the inundation of poor images and a poor mentality, isn’t it interesting how now we’re asked to ignore the issue of classism at a time when the grand majority of Americans who have been labeled “working class” are dipping further into poverty relative to the top 2% of the country? Isn’t the whole function of this ultra-capitalism to ensure that there are as many losers as possible so the winners can keep winning? I haven’t even mentioned race and sex, though if you’re looking at me, you know that’s what I’m thinking about as well.

We’re a people prime for change, but if we think someone else is going to say it for us, we’re fools.

I don’t use poverty as an excuse, but let’s be serious: since so many of you won’t mention poverty, and haven’t even mentioned the name Jonathan Kozol (who I wouldn’t read again until I brought a leather boxing head guard and a cup), I’m going to keep bringing it up just to irritate people, hoping some of you understand that the bright designs of the broadcast on television aren’t the only designs people have on the general populace. Our silence is complacence, and we can say whatever we want here, but in person we better back it up.

Because these inequalities stay savage, 18 years later …