05/23/2012 11:01 am ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Teachers as Crap Detectors and the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility

My friend Brian of Park Slope Pharmacy in Brooklyn complained to me that my recent posts have been too depressing. He asked me to write a more positive one about teaching and schools. I needed to write a positive one for myself as well. Fortunately I was invited to participate in the 3rd annual conference on "Courageous Schools: Honoring Teaching as a Calling." The conference on Saturday May 19 was sponsored by the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility and held at Bank Street College in Manhattan. It was attended by hundreds of enthusiastic classroom teachers.

The Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, originally known as ESR-Metro, works in public schools in New York City promoting creative ways to resolve conflict and intercultural understanding, teaching bias awareness, developing the social and emotional intelligence of students, and championing respect and resolution as crucial components of holistic learning. It maintains a website,, which is a valuable curriculum resource for teachers. This conference was supported by the Tiger Foundation.

The keynote speaker at the conference was Dr. Martin Brokenleg, a psychologist and member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe. Dr. Brokenleg is an educator, prison counselor, and a chaplain. He believes in using holistic and healing approaches rather than punitive actions when working with troubled youth and stresses the development of core community values including belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity.

At the conference Lauren Fardig, an English teacher at Banana Kelly in the South Bronx received the Courageous Educator Award for her work teaching about problems faced by refugees from war. Lauren and her students were featured in a PBS News-Hour documentary "Empathy 101."

I received the first annual "Crap Detector Award" for my work as a teacher, teacher educator, and Huffington Post blogger. The "Crap Detector" award recognizes Alan Shapiro, who developed the Teachable Moment webpage for Morningside, and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway is reported to have advised writers that the most important thing they need is "A built-in shock-proof crap detector." Crap Detector sounds like a modern term for muckraker, the late 19th and early 20th century journalists who stirred up the "muck" about corrupt politicians and exploitative business monopolies and I am proud to be within that tradition.

In my acceptance speech, I told the audience that unfortunately there still is no working digital crap-detector you can buy or rent, so you have to depend on the internal GPS built into your brain. It's functioning, however, is often clouded by personal ambition and political ambivalence. If you want to get ahead, particularly in a world where Mike Bloomberg can essentially buy New York City Hall, Rupert Murdoch decides what gets broadcast on television, and Bill Gates and the Pearson publishing empire determine what gets taught in public schools, a "crap detector" is going to interfere with your career path.

Crap-detectors have to be prepared to never be rich and always be suspect. A conservative website once called me a "social predator," a label I proudly embrace. I have been attacked by colleagues for brainwashing students and people have written my supervisors demanding I be silenced, reprimanded, or fired because of my ideas.

A crap-detector has to have the strength of Mary "Mother" Jones who defied authority and declared: "I am not afraid of the pen, or the scaffold, or the sword. I will tell the truth wherever I please." There will be a cost. You will be targeted and will probably eat lunch alone if you go to the teacher's cafeteria, but you can always eat with your students, who will appreciate that you are "for real."

Tom Roderick, executive director of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility asked me to share my thoughts on teaching and crap detection. These are some of the things I learned from forty years as a teacher.

First, everybody's crap stinks. If you drop it, you should clean it up. Second, if something, like the latest educational magic bullet sounds too good to be true, that is because it is too good to be true, or as Huck Finn said: "It's too good for true, honey, it's too good for true." I also believe you should always be suspicious when rich people tell you how much they are doing or going to do for poor people or when a white man tells you how much he is doing or going to do for black people.

I am not a big fan of the Obama presidency. I believe his signature "Race to the Top" program with its insistence on high-stakes testing and assessment-driven instruction is very destructive to education in the United States. But President Obama is good at turning a phrase and he can be inspirational. His memoir, The Audacity of Hope sold millions of copies. I like the title. We, as teachers, have to believe in the audacity of teaching.

Mary Lease's advice to Americans, which she shouted out during stump speeches in the 1890s, still remains terrific, especially since it was offered over one hundred years ago. According to Lease, "Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master ... Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags."

Upton Sinclair had a great insight and a great quote worth remembering. The next time you try to convince an obstinate supervisor that you really know something about teaching, remember "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it."

So did Margaret Mead. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

I also like Frederick Douglass' "If there is no struggle, there is no progress," Black Abolitionist and former slave Henry Highland Garnet's call for "Resistance! Resistance! Resistance!" and Italian anti-fascist Antonio Gramsci's endorsement for political activists of "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will."

Lastly, my motto as a teacher, muckraker, social predator, and "crap detector," which kind of summarizes what I learned from these other people and from my students and colleagues during four decades as a teacher, is, "You only walk this way once, so you might as well kick ass."