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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"If I had a million dollars, I would buy my grandmother a kidney."

by folkbum

I had a good conversation yesterday afternoon with Erin Richards, who's taken on the Milwaukee Public Schools beat at the Journal Sentinel since Alan Borsuk took the buyout.

She's got a series coming up starting with an article in Sunday's paper about the intersection of poverty and education, which I am looking forward to, as the topic is an interest of mine. (UPDATE: Richards has let me know that the series will run starting Sunday, 10/4, instead.)

One of the things we talked about really got me thinking: Should teachers organize, Richards wondered, around a goal like eradicating poverty or improving the neighborhood and the community? If teachers see, as we do, the effects of poverty in the classroom, what responsibility do we have to take leadership roles in the community and actively try to change the conditions outside the classroom? And if this is a necessary task for teachers, who organizes it? Who trains us? How do we maintain such activism without affecting the time we already have to put in before and after school to do what we do well?

I don't have an answer for that. On the one hand, it seems to me that one group should not be responsible for fighting the battle on every front; on the other, it makes sense to organize from among a group that has a vested interest in the results.

Which leads me to the quote at the top of the post. This was the first sentence--the first sentence!--of one of my students' pre-test essays from a couple of weeks ago. And it went on from there--her uncles who were sick, her mother who couldn't pay the bills, and so on. She never even got to the "and I would spend some of that million on nice stuff for me" part of the essay that you have to expect. Such pressure! How do you go through your life at 17 with that kind of weight and responsibility on your shoulders? And while her paper was by no means representative, it was also not the only million-dollar fantasy constructed around helping family overcome the effects of poverty and the bad economy and lack of health care.

It's overwhelming, really, to start thinking about the effort it would take within the community to change these conditions. Is it our place as teachers to do it? If no one else is stepping up, it may be.

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