Because of the edu-sphere, I was reunited this summer with a wonderful student from 16 years ago. We reminisced about the music, art, poetry and current affairs discussions that we had shared and how they are being shoved out of the urban classroom as jacking up test scores becomes the sole priority. Jameka sent me a song from John Legend's "Wake Up." When I learned that the song was a part of the Waiting for "Superman" craze, the moment was ruined.
Just kidding. A mere political dispute could not tarnish our reunion, or the experience in 2009 of my students and I watching John Legend, Bruce Springsteen and other great artists in the "We Are One" concert for President Obama's inauguration.
Mr. Legend, yes we can close the achievement gap, but we cannot do so by driving "Yes We Can" and other music from our poor schools. Mr. Legend, if you do not believe that data-DRIVEN reformers are damaging poor children of color by imposing nonstop test prep and narrowing the curriculum, then we should agree to disagree. If you do not believe that accountability hawks like Michelle Rhee chose the "Blame Game" as "the first resort," then I would urge you to take unannounced visits to high-poverty schools.
You should have seen how it hit the fan when I was caught using Bruce Springsteen's "American Skin" in class. Nobody challenged the quality of the lesson and how it exemplified the literary themes of repetition and perspective. The first verse was from the perspectives of the white cops who "crossed the bloody river" and fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo, because "is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet...? This is your life." The second verse was from the perspective of a black mother counseling her son on racial profiling: "if you are stopped tonight, always be polite, never ever run away, and promise your momma, keep your hands in plain sight." In the third verse, we were all "baptized in each others' blood." Before NCLB, all I had to do to gain permission to teach this lesson was to explain how it was a hook for discussing 4th Amendment issues. After all, it was not as if our kids had never been racially profiled.
But now, teachers are told that "we do not have time" for Springsteen or in-depth discussions. We have to cover the material for the test. When this new curriculum pacing regime was announced, the same phrase was used. The chief academic officer admitted that she and her elementary students had once loved a wonderful unit on dinosaurs, but with NCLB "we have no time for dinosaurs." Neither do elementary kids in many high-poverty schools have time for recess or P.E. And my Black History and Multiculturalism courses were replaced by test prep classes.
Mr. Legend, if you want to lend your name and energy to the believers in standardized test-driven "reform," then please hold them accountable. Visit our neighborhood schools and see the damage done to the students who the charters do not want. If you then agree with Michelle Rhee, who dismisses teachers' concerns about top down micro-managing as "a bunch of bologna," voice that opinion. But if you see with your own eyes the ways that creativity and joy are the unintended victims of the accountability hawks, then help us speak out.
By the way, Mr. Legend, after my students enjoyed your performance at the "We Are One" concert, I tried to fast forward through Garth Brook's songs, not thinking that my black and brown kids would complain. I prejudged Brooks because I resented his sanitized version of Country and Western music, but my students demanded that I give him a listen. And guess what? Garth is no Hank Williams, but he did a fine job, and I learned a lesson.
Follow John Thompson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drjohnthompson