The Hegemony of the Core

Are core teacher teams supporting our students, or are they blockading the education system from change that is essential to the success of our public schools?

We should all feel that we belong on top of the world.

“Specials” teachers should be no less special than those who teach the traditional subjects. The students who excel in the “specials” should be no less celebrated or supported in their triumphs than the students who may some day ace the SATs. Below are two emails I wrote to our grade 8 Core team as part of such an effort. They became part of the school record.

Dear colleagues,

I hope you will read this in the congenial and sincere tone that I intend. Reading Core notes, I can’t help but feel a little bit left out. I am going to take this opportunity to once again ask for reconsideration of the meeting time, and even the name, of Core.

I’m sure all of us have had a student removed from one of our classes without our consent or input… I’m sure we all know what that feels like. I would wager, however, that those of us who do not comprise Core, those of us who are in the implicit periphery, experience this with far greater frequency. I’d like you to read the following through my eyes:

“[A. Student] – We are concerned about her level of dishonesty. Also, she does not stay after school to do academic work. At her meeting we thought we asked that she would be scheduled in Project Achieve – she is open to this. What block does she have available – [the Achieve teacher] asked. She is willing to give up either flute or STREAM. We all agreed she would benefit more from PA than STREAM. [Achieve Teacher] says this would work.”

Had I been in a position to contribute, I may have ultimately concurred, but I also might have told you that in STREAM, this student has emerged as the primary person directing productivity and analysis within her team. I also might have voiced concerns I have about her. I might have told you about our classroom discussion regarding a definition for “integrity,” which, at the middle school level, we have defined as the ability to hold up to the job that one is expected to do: whether that be to support a load of a certain weight, or, in the case of a person, to tell the truth, and to do the work that is expected. As I read your concerns about this student, I believe my class is a good place for her to be, given the parallels we make between engineering terms and forces and concepts in our lives that help to make us stronger citizens.

Alas, I am not in a position to contribute, and I’m left feeling very aware that the “we” who all agreed that this student would benefit more from PA than STREAM did not include me. If it had been decided that she drop flute, “we” would not include the music teacher. I believe that the approach we take at [our school] with Core … demeans our arts departments and ultimately contributes significantly to the disenfranchisement of many of our hands-on learners, and potentially, though I won’t speak for anyone else, our colleagues. I think our present Core model subjects students and colleagues to the very inequalities that we are teaching our students to recognize, and to speak out against.

I once again propose that one meeting per week for Core in each grade, be moved to take place [after school] from 2:25 until 3 p.m.

Thank you for your time, and see you in the halls!

I am learning, firsthand, how it feels to speak out against a social injustice. The only written response I received was from the note-taker, who apologized for the way the notes were worded. She also expressed a wish that all students could take a class with me. It felt like a nice bow on a bag of garbage—easily and prettily disposed of.

I responded, again to the school record:

Hi [note-taker] & all,

I appreciate your sentiments [note-taker], and am very much in agreement with you that it would be great if STREAM could be made available to all middle school kids. I hope you don’t feel responsible, or take the wording of the notes too much to heart–they are only a symptom. Core is an approach to serving a lot of kids that works for a lot of people, but I think that, with a different schedule it could serve more people. I love working as part of [our] 8th grade team, and I know I could learn a lot by being part of the group, and could also bring a lot to the table… if I could come to the table. The present system sets caring people up for making oversights, and makes it impossible for all to contribute equally–I think it is the system that is the problem.

Let’s leave this electronic communication behind. Would love to have a pizza party or some gathering in my –or anyone’s — space (or One Main?) and continue the conversation!

* * *

Alas, no one took me up on the offer of continuing the conversation. The members of Core are content with its makeup. Most remain civil to me, but I get the sense that overall, they feel less comfortable around me now. As a person who loves to create comfortable spaces, I find it painful.

But the meaning of the word “comfort” does not, from its roots, imply complacency, nor does it imply a soft, or cushy existence. The prefix “com-” means with, and the root “fort-” means strength.

My hope is for our public schools to be places where students can build their understanding and their skills outwardly from their naturally strongest foundations and interests. It should not matter if those strengths are in writing, drawing, math, music, science, or phys. ed. The teachers who witness students at their strongest aptitude should be part of the Core team. But to do that, we need to change things at the core level. As I am finding out, it isn’t going to be easy, but if like-minded teachers will speak out–and will encourage their students to do the same–we’ll get there.