Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Kiss My Grits

"Is our children learning?"

That was the question asked by C-student and President George W. Bush before he seamlessly morphed into a lucrative but still-unexamined private life of self-portraiture and ghostwritten memoirs.

That was the wrong question. For what we should be asking is not if our children is learning, but WTF is our children learning? You might be surprised. Or not.

If our children is learning in a charter school, mainly operated for the profit of the ruling class whom the children are expected to eventually serve, the first challenge for the elites is to change their very essence, their very personality, their very core. Rather than build and maintain more public or affordable housing, rather than enact a government-sponsored jobs program so that their parents can support them, rather than increase the food stamp stipend so that children aren't too hungry to learn, reformers want pupils to develop what they call grit. It's not their lives that need improving. It's their attitudes. 

Hominy Grits for the Homies

It gives a whole new meaning to the already odious Common Core.

If  this "personality curriculum" -- on which pupils are actually graded -- isn't racist and classist, I don't know what is. Yet the New York Times is treating this bizarre effort at social engineering as, at the very least,"possibly" legitimate.
Self-control, curiosity, “grit” — these qualities may seem more personal than academic, but at some schools, they’re now part of the regular curriculum. Some researchers say personality could be even more important than intelligence when it comes to students’ success in school. But critics worry that the increasing focus on qualities like grit will distract policy makers from problems with schools.
Notice that the gratuitous other side of this manufactured "debate" is defined as problems with schools rather than problems with wealth inequality and stagnating wages in the larger society. No time is wasted before the erection of the stereotypical straw man in this editorial, written by OpTalk columnist Anna North.
The KIPP network of charter schools emphasizes grit along with six other “character strengths,” including self-control and curiosity. Leyla Bravo-Willey, the assistant principal at KIPP Infinity Middle School in Harlem, said, “We talk a lot about them as being skills or strengths, not necessarily traits, because it’s not innate.”
“If a child happens to be very gritty but has trouble participating in class,” she added, “we still want them to develop that part of themselves.”
How about giving the child a snack to help her concentrate in class? How about asking whether her apartment has heat during this cold winter? Maybe she's physically gritty and uncomfortable because the place where she lives has no hot water for baths and showers. But as long as she attends a school named "Infinity" or "Renaissance Academy" and can wear a private school knockoff of a uniform, she can aspire to be as snobbish as the investor class which owns and names her publicly-subsidized and privately profitable place of learning.

Another criticism of the personality curriculum that North mentions in her column is that it fails to teach "morality." The kids being graded on the principles of Ayn Randian bootstrappiness are learning selfishness instead of kindness. The implicit, subliminal message from even the critics of the Grit method is that we can't have these minority overachievers stomping all over one another in their quest to become Top Servant. The aspiring butler has to be kind to the incipient scullery maid. The budding staff sergeant must be humane to the buck private. There cannot be dissension in the lower ranks.

Grit, meanwhile, is making tons of money for its proponents. And it is by no means restricted to charter schools. Strapped public school districts, too,  are vying for Grit Grants funded by (who else) the Gates Foundation:
Piedmont (Alabama) Middle School has been chosen as one of 16 recipients nationwide of grants to fund a new initiative teaching, among other things, grit. Next Generation Learning Challenges, funded partly by the Gates Foundation, will provide $150,000 in initial funding and up to $300,000 in matching funds for "mBolden Piedmont." The funding will be implemented over the next four years. That means the school could receive as much as $750,000 for the program.
So it's not just the inner city kids who must learn "tenacity". It's the poor kids from rural communities. Poverty is an equal opportunity scourge, as is the greed and tenacity of the financial predators making a ton of money through exploiting the indigent in infinite creatively destructive ways.

But to be fair to gazillionaire Bill Gates, his co-gazillionaires over at the Walton Family aren't donating any money at all to the financially strapped schools, for any reason. They are, however, spending a fortune to ensure that public education gets destroyed, and gets destroyed quickly:
 In a June 2011 speech to the graduating class of the private school her son Lukas attended, Christy Walton explained that her family became involved in K-12 education reform because their business—presumably Walmart—“was having trouble finding qualified people to fill entry-level positions” and because the family believed that “the education being provided [in public schools] had been dummied [sic] down.”
The Walton heirs, who despite their limited vocabulary and intellectual skills possess as much wealth as nearly half of all American families combined, want to forgo schools entirely and simply supply poor parents with "education vouchers" so they may teach their children as they see fit. And given that so many poor families lack even the basics of food and shelter, the result most likely will be that the money will go toward survival instead of school.  What the Waltons see fit is the survival of the fittest: them. 

Our "choice" is becoming limited to no public schools at all (Walton) or taxpayer-funded schools controlled by, and profiting, the plutocracy (Gates.)

And let's not forget that since we're also pawns in the lucrative and permanent War of Terror, we must also ensure that children are force-fed paranoia as one of the essential American personality traits. This just in:
A letter sent to parents of students at W.F. Burns Middle School in Chambers County (Alabama again) asked students to bring in an 8 ounce can of food, AL. com's news partner WHNT reported.
Principal Priscilla Holley said the items would be used against an intruder - presumably thrown at them - if someone entered the school.
"We realize at first this may seem odd, however, it is a practice that would catch an intruder off guard," Principal Priscella Holley wrote in a Jan. 9 letter to parents. "The canned food item could stun the intruder or even knock him out until police arrive. The canned good item will give the students a sense of empowerment to protect themselves and will make them feel secure in case an intruder enters the classroom."
The idea is part of the ALICE - Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. You can read more about it here.
Actually, you can learn more about pediatric Kafkaesque nightmares here:

Pay Attention, You Horrid Little Gritless Girl!

The Alabama school prefers canned peas (as in, eat them, proles) or corn. (because Corn is King and cheaply supplements the diets of the poor, But I would suggest Bush's canned grits (shown above.)They're cheap, full of salt and low in nutritional value but boy, do they fill you up. They give you the grand illusion of substance. Eat them, throw them up, or just throw them. It's your free choice.

But is nobody asking the question: is our children learning KIPP-mandated self control if they're encouraged to engage in canned food fights against "intruders?" And what's the definition of an intruder anyway? Immigrant students? The Alabama principal did not specify.

Rather than hurling, though, how much more tempting to simply pry open thousands of cans of creamed corn and golden hominy grits, trickle them all over completed standardized tests, and send them by the bushel to Pearson and Arne Duncan's Department of Education.

 On second thought, scratch that. Pranksters would only be charged with making terrorist threats against the free market and sentenced to a private Corrections Corporation of America prison somewhere where the only book in the library is Decision Points.

"Childrens do learn when standards are high and results are measured." -- George W. Bush. 


Zee said...

“Rather than build and maintain more public or affordable housing, rather than enact a government-sponsored jobs program so that their parents can support them, rather than increase the food stamp stipend so that children aren't too hungry to learn, reformers want pupils to develop what they call grit. It's not their lives that need improving. It's their attitudes.”—Karen Garcia (Bold and [non-]italicized emphases in the original.)

But is it not possible that both impoverished childrens' material conditions and their attitudes need to be “improved upon” relative to education in this day and age? And regarding “attitudes,” perhaps even those of many a well-off, upper-middle-class child could use some significant “adjustment,” too?

Valerie is the only practicing teacher who I am aware of here at Sardonicky, so perhaps she can shed further light on this issue, but if there are other teaching professionals out there, I would hope that they would chime in as well.

I have had some recent experiences attempting to tutor older pre-teen and early-teen children in both math and English, and it has been my observation that these young students simply cannot comprehend the notion that education does indeed involve work. Full understanding, they seem to believe, should come instantly upon seeing the teacher work through an example or two at the blackboard, whereupon all that's possible on the topic should have been revealed. But confront them with a new problem or situation that varies only slightly on the main theme(s) that they have directly observed, and, my God, the angst and immediate sense of total defeat that sets in!

The notion that they might calmly sit and think through how the problem is both similar to, and different from, those that they have seen previously, and how they might–using other tools that they have learned—re-cast the problem into a familiar, solveable form, seems simply beyond them until I work them through the process.

The idea that they might actually take up paper and pencil on their own and fiddle with, and fudge around, a simple, algebraic equation in one unknown until it looks like something they are familiar with is utterly foreign to them. “That's...that's...well...that's... work! Nobody showed me how to do that!

That willingness to stumble about, armed only with the book and a few examples given by the teacher, I think, just might be something that might be called “grit;” and that that type of “grit” might be something that can be learned is not an idea that's either foreign or horrific to me.

I may have related this story at one time or another in the past, but perhaps it bears repeating here.

Decades ago, between her undergraduate degree and her Master's program, Mrs. Zee had a summer job working with underprivileged high school students from Sacramento. These students were given summer jobs at UC Davis, very basic, office-assistant types of work: copying, filing, inter-office mail distribution, and so on. Mrs. Zee's job was to supervise these students, but it really distilled down to teaching them that they didn't get paid because they had a job, but because they did a job. That is, they actually had to work.

“No, you don't get paid to chat up the cute girl who's diligently working the copy machine; you do get paid for taking those copies, stapling them together, sticking them in inter-office mailers—that you've addressed—and dropping them in the inter-office mail. Capisce?”

Hard for me and Mrs. Zee to understand, but there it was.

Perhaps Mrs. Zee was teaching “grit.” I hope some of it paid off. It doesn't seem so terrible to me.

Zee said...

And on the topic of arming middle-school students with cans of peas and corn, to be used as weapons in the event of an active-shooter "event," well, what can one possibly say?

It truly has become "A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

Denis Neville said...

What the reformers really want …

“There are a lot of quiet, passive classrooms where not much learning is taking place, and others where children’s hearts, souls, and minds are being silently destroyed in the name of good management … In school, a high value is placed on quiet: “Is everything quiet?” the superintendent asks the principal, and the principal asks the teacher, and the teacher asks the child. If everything is quiet, it is assumed all is well. This is why many normal children - considering what kind of intelligence is expected and what will be rewarded here - become passive, quiet, obedient, dull. The environment practically demands it.” - William Ayers, To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher

Do neo-liberals ever wonder about possible ramifications of their social engineering?

“We know of course there's really no such thing as the 'voiceless.' There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”—Arundhati Roy

Christopher Bonastia on the origins of the charter school industry: “The now-popular idea of offering public education dollars to private entrepreneurs has historical roots in white resistance to school desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The desired outcome was few or, better yet, no black students in white schools. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, one of the five cases decided in Brown, segregationist whites sought to outwit integration by directing taxpayer funds to segregated private schools.”

Schools and the New Jim Crow … Much of the attack on public education is justified by anti-racist rhetoric, i.e., schools aren’t meeting the needs of inner-city children.

Michelle Alexander asks, “Why is it that these schools aren’t meeting these kids’ needs?”

“… over the last 30 years, we have spent $1 trillion waging a drug war that has failed in any meaningful way to reduce drug addiction or abuse, and yet has siphoned an enormous amount of resources away from other public services, especially education …

“It’s important for us to understand how school discipline policies have been influenced by the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement. Many people imagine that zero tolerance rhetoric emerged within the school environment, but it’s not true. In fact, the Advancement Project published a report showing that one of the earliest examples of zero tolerance language in school discipline manuals was a cut-and-paste job from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration manual. The wave of punitiveness that washed over the United States with the rise of the drug war and the get tough movement really flooded our schools. Schools, caught up in this maelstrom, began viewing children as criminals or suspects, rather than as young people with an enormous amount of potential struggling in their own ways and their own difficult context to make it and hopefully thrive. We began viewing the youth in schools as potential violators rather than as children needing our guidance.

"I am a teacher who rejects the present system of capitalism, responsible for the aberration of misery in the midst of plenty." - Paulo Freire

Karen Garcia said...


You don't see "Grit" as part of the curriculum in middle/upper class public or elite private schools, do you? As you say, most kids will goof off if given half a chance, but we don't ascribe it to a "problem with schools" (the neoliberal code-phrase for teachers' unions). Since the urban charter school pupils are mainly black or brown, this ostentatious crowing, in national media, about the need to teach them "grit" is just a PC way of calling them lazy. Is there really a need to assign a letter or numerical grade to one's innate personality? I find the whole thing really creepy, even cruel.

When rich kids mess up, it's called Affluenza -- and that little malady is never about "the problems with schools," is it?

I've tutored children also. (reading) If they require anything from me besides the actual tutoring,it's a lot of patience and respect and good humor, which do wonders.

The ones with the real personality issues are the financial predators and greedsters who fall into a category called psychopathy.

"Grit and determination," by the way, is also the common catch-
phrase used by Obama and other free marketers to justify their austerity and privatization schemes. Another one is "skin in the game."

I think the more we ridicule "Grit," the better.

Made Guy said...

Students need wit not grit.

Denis Neville said...

I volunteer, tutoring English, math and science, at an adult education program.

My experience is that many of these students are products of neglect by public schools that disserved them. There is an enormous chasm between our urban inner city schools and the “golden ghetto” suburban schools. Our culture of class is alive and well in this country. An anti-intellectual and anti-educational achievement subculture - drop out before the mind rots from exposure to the mediocre educational system - was a consequence of their poor education.

The students I tutor work incredibly hard, harder than many people are willing to do, to overcome the damage done to them by their poor education. Many are the very vulnerable working poor, who are studying now to better themselves. I would venture to guess that most people don't have clue what perseverance it takes to do this.

“Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.” - Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

As Camus wrote, “It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”

I have learned a lot from my students.

Denis Neville said...

Last night I watched the documentary film “A Place at the Table.”

A fifth-grader imagines her teacher as a banana when her hunger causes her concentration to drift away in class. "I struggle a lot, and most of the time it's because my stomach is really hurting,” she says. “My teacher tells me to get focused and she told me to write 'focus' on my little sticker and every time I look at it and I'm like 'oh I'm supposed to be focusing.'”

Her teacher notices the signs of hunger in her students, their physical appearance - puffy and swollen skin due to a protein deficiency; dry and itchy eyes, a sign of a vitamin A deficiency; and extreme thinness or obesity - as well as their school performance and behavior, such as a short attention span, inability to concentrate; hyperactivity, aggressiveness, irritability, anxiousness, withdrawal, distress, and passive/aggressiveness.

She recalls her own childhood experiences with hunger. “It creates not just obvious health problems, but low self-esteem. I constantly had the feeling of being inferior to others. I remember going to the grocery store and the minute it came time for checkout, my brother and I would pretend we were looking at candy or magazines because my mom had the food coupon booklets and there she was trying to count and tear them out, and give them to the checker. It was a cumbersome process and it was humiliating."

Today she delivers bags of food to the families of her students. She says, “"Ultimately, it's about connecting with human beings. Any good teacher knows if you don't have that connection, they're not learning anything. Over time you build the relationship so you can have a discussion that's safe. You have to tread lightly with families. There might be shame, and you don't want to offend them. I think some people have a preconceived notion about 'everybody's lazy' but that's not what this is about. Look at what I'm teaching my family, my students when we do service projects. What's really cool is they are helping out their friends, their classmates, their neighbors."

I support the Kansas Food Bank’s Kid-Friendly School-based Program, which provides pre-assembled bags of food to be distributed to children in backpacks on Friday of each week. Two different sets of bags (each containing different food) are provided to schools by the Food Bank. The food bags are rotated by the schools so that children receive a different bag each week. Kids can open and eat: peanut butter, beans and franks, cereal, milk in aseptic pack boxes that do not require refrigeration, pudding cups, cereal bars or granola bars, juice boxes, fruit cups, and raisins.

An estimated 215,300 people in the Kansas Food Bank’s service area turn to food pantries and meal service programs to feed themselves and their families. This includes 68,900 children and 19,900 seniors.

60 million Americans are struggling to put food on the table and we are not doing enough to fix that.

Having enough to eat is a basic human right.

Kat said...

The problem is not not enough grit, It isn't even that children are too hungry to climb those ladders of opportunity (although hunger in itself is a huge problem). The problem is a system that keeps some on top, some near the top who will probably be OK, a precarious middle, and the true losers on the bottom. The rules are written to keep this system in place. No amount of grit or wraparound services is going to change that.
Charters are bad. But lets not kid ourselves. Schools have always served to maintain the system. There was a brief minute there in the 70's when there was some reimigination of what schools scould be. It lasted about a minute.

Denis Neville said...

Kat said... “Schools have always served to maintain the system.”

Staughton Lynd asks, “What is to be done?”

“Capitalist society in the United States offers very few opportunities to experience another way of doing things.”

How then, are we to help young people to imagine what a new society might be like?

Where, then, can people have the experience of "another way of doing things" in this society?

Staughton Lynd’s answer: at school …

“Let's try to make every school a Freedom School … If not now, then when? If not here, then where? If not ourselves, then who?”

Staughton Lynd was coordinator of the Freedom Schools during Mississippi Summer in 1964.

“Southern blacks not only out-sang, out-marched, and out-prayed their oppressors, but they also out-thought them.” - Adam Fairclough, Professor of American History, Universiteit Leiden

Kat said...

Denis-- thanks for mentioning the Freedom Schools!

Robert F said...

This isn't about this post, but is instead about Karen Garcia's response to today's (01/21/15) column in the New York Times by Frank Bruni. She pointed out many things that Mr. Bruni doesn't mention when writing about education, specifically the connections that link different elements of the education "reform" movement. This is real journalism, the kind we might expect from professionals if they weren't essentially doing public relations for the corporate control crowd. I appreciate her work and think that this is the direction meaningful journalism will have to take: being produced by citizens.

Robert F

Karen Garcia said...

Thanks, Robert.

Frank Bruni sometimes writes like he's on the payroll of Students First. And how ironic that the school privatization crowd (many of whom were/are associated with the Obama administration & corporate Dems)are -- through this columnist -- howling about Obama's plan for government-paid tuition for community college students... when that $$ could be going into their own pockets! I sort of jokingly suggested they'd probably start to "charterize" public colleges in that unlikely event.

Bruni is definitely aligned with the centrist Dems, and has also written about the need to "reform" Social Security and other safety net programs. But since he is socially liberal, he gets a pass.