40 Degree Days

Posted: March 8, 2011 by Steve J. Moore in The Wire
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In Episode 3 of Season 3: Dead Soldiers Sapper and Bodie come up to the office in the funeral home to talk about the lackluster success of the current package on their corner.  Stringer Bell uses an Al Roker-style metaphor to explain the current situation with their traffic rate:

That’s good. That’s like a 40-degree day. Ain’t nobody got nothing to say about a 40-degree day. Fifty. Bring a smile to your face. Sixty, sh**, n***** is damn near barbecuing on that mo********. Go down to 20, n**** get their b**** on. Get their blood complaining. But forty? Nobody give a f*** about 40. Nobody remember 40, and y’all n***** is giving me way too many 40-degree days! What the f***?

In such a lukewarm climate, no one is spurred into action and people are easily disaffected. Stringer sees the need for disquiet in the same way that Lt. Daniels did early in Season 1 when his crew was half-full of clock-punching drunks waiting for the end of the day whistle.

The 40-degree day is exactly what the leadership is angry about at the Baltimore Police Department too. Rawls and Burrell are tired of slow-working wire taps that don’t give immediate results and clearance on cases. They want bodies in bracelets, names on paper, and figures for their own higher-ups at the Mayor’s office.

Freamon, McNulty, Kima, and the rest of Lt. Daniels’s crew know that the only real progress against the violent drug culture comes through the slow and purposeful drilling into the depths of the organizations. The crime-fighting culture they are going up against is bent to serve the chain of command, the march to promotions, political favors, and the continuation of business-as-usual.

In American education, we are facing the same challenges in our structures and systems at all levels. There is little respect for long-term culture building, deep community embedded actions, and the fidelity of authentic and autonomous learning. What we’re used to is prolonging the number of 40-degree days.

There’s a labor conflict within the education community just as there is within the Baltimore PD and the Barksdale crew. People want to be assured that they will climb the ladder. Teachers build credentials, get advanced degrees, do extra duty. Police study for the detective and sergeant’s exams and take different details. Hoppers, runners, and corner boys work to impress those above them with profit, turf defense, and hope to build their cred.

Within each organization, there are people whose aimless ambition exceeds their ability to add value to their community. State Senator Clay Davis and Commissioner Burrell both have suitcases full of clothes for suited for 40-degree weather; they hope for no change unless it keeps them in power. I want eudcation stakeholders to pack for 20. The Wire allows us to examine how leaders come to navigate the grey areas of political action; whether those politics are about who does time for whom, who scratches whose back, or what really needs to be done for the betterment of everyone.

We need to be aware of the temperature in our classroom, community, city, county, and country if we are going to dress appropriately.

In “The Pager,” episode 5 of The Wire’s first season, as Lieutentant Daniels’s detail closes in on the Barksdale drug ring, and as the Barksdale drug ring closes in on stick-up man Omar’s associates, detectives Griggs and McNulty drive up to check in with one another on Baltimore’s West Side. They start talking about the code that Barksdale’s organization is using on its pagers – members of Barksdale’s crew are paging one another left and right, but they’re sending one another numbers that aren’t Baltimore phone numbers.

Griggs asks McNulty two questions, back-to-back:

“How complex a code can it be if these knuckleheads are using it?”

And,

“Then again, what does it say about us if we can’t break it?”

When we teachers look at kids as knuckleheads – or whenever we judge them because they aren’t behaving like the compliant adult learners we – as a system – seem to wish they were – then it doesn’t surprise me that we can’t break our students’ code or accurately observe and assess what and how they learn. Whenever we see student behavior as an affront to our teaching rather than as information about their learning, we are at a loss, and we stop teaching and learning and we start trying to control, which, frankly, apart from dangerous situations, is a kind of pedagogical learned helplessness.

Kids are not knuckleheads; kids are not criminals. While we share some common habits of minds with detectives, we are not the police.

We need relationships in school that don’t look so much like cops and robbers or prisoners and wardens. We need schedules that don’t cater to our worse natures of hegemony. We need buildings and other sites that open views instead of cut off contact.

What do these needs say about us and about how we view our kids?

Exhausting Every Possibility

Posted: December 14, 2010 by trevorinmidstream in Uncategorized

In Episode Four of The Wire, Detectives McNulty and Griggs learn that in order to get approval for a much needed wire tap to help their case against Avon Barksdale, they have to prove that every traditional means of surveillance has been exhausted and that only the wire tap will move their case forward. In order to do this, they plan to follow a suspect for a day with the intention of losing him every chance they get.  In the counter-intuitive world of police work, this plan is a stroke of genius.

It begs the question though: Have we as educators exhausted every means of traditional teaching and learning before jumping to high-tech, new fangled modes of delivering instruction?  And how many students have we lost, intentionally or otherwise, trying to prove that the “old ways” no longer work?

All the teachers that I can recall having an impact on me as a student from grade school to grad school (shout out: Sister Mary Katherine, Ms. Tomlinson, Mr. Baumgartner, Mr. Nevil, Prof. Brown, Prof. Robinson, Mr. Timms) have two things in common.  One, they seemed to genuinely care about the quality of my thinking and, two, they put forth lots of tough questions and very few answers.  They were as traditional and “old school” as you can imagine.  There were no web sites, no self-paced-interactive-virtual-learning laboratories.  They simply engaged me as an emerging human being and challenged me to accomplish tasks.  They supported me, coaxed me, sometimes threatened me (“I’m calling your Mom”), and always encouraged me to do more.  Do we as modern 21st Century educators still employ those worn out old strategies of human interaction?  It’s harder than putting a bored and distracted kid in front of a computer, no doubt. But have we exhausted the possibilities of unplugged human interaction?

Later in the episode, Officer Herc, usually a bull in china closet, sits down for a short but heartfelt chat with the grandmother of a young suspect for whom he is searching. After apologizing for his rude intrusion into her house, he listens quietly to her story of how difficult it was trying to raise this boy whose life had been ruined by drugs and poverty before he was even born.  It’s a rare moment of kindness in the life of a narcotics cop.  When Herc returns to his patrol car outside of the house, his partner is curious. “What were you doing in there so long?”  Herc’s response – “Talking” – is met with a puzzled look from his partner.

The idea is so old fashioned it seems innovative.

“In?”

Posted: December 9, 2010 by Chad Sansing in Episode 4, Season 1, The Wire
Tags: , ,

Thomas Hauk is the cop they call “Herc.” While he doesn’t seem to change much over the course of The Wire, he does, perhaps, get better at finding his niche in the world of cops and dealers. He aspires to be natural police, but he has to contend with being naturally thuggish and mercenary. His ultimate career choice suits well his twin desires for adult approval and juvenile drama.

Episode 4 of Season 1, “Old Cases,” opens with Herc struggling to shove a desk through a door in his detachment’s basement digs. The legs of the desk keep it from going through easily.

Herc’s buddy Carver loops around through another door to get to the other side of the desk, as does Detective McNulty. Lietenant Daniels pitches in on Herc’s side.

The men heave together to no avail. The desk doesn’t budge. They take a break. Carver suggests shooting the legs off the desk.

Herc says, “At this rate, we’re never gonna get it in.”

McNulty says, “In?”

Carver swears. Daniels walks away exasperated.

Public education is a lot like that desk. It’s never gonna budge until we figure out a new angle and push together – all together – in the same direction, no matter how many times we shoot it.

Be sure to ask for help in changing your practice, school, and system; be clear about the kind of help you want.

At the beginning of The Wire’s third episode, D’Angelo, Bodie, Poot, and Wallace talk about customer service in the drug trade.

Here are two parts of their conversation that stand out to me.

D’Angelo: So you just gonna take his money and treat him like a dog.
Bodie: How I’m supposed to treat him?
D’Angelo: I don’t know, but you ain’t got to punk him like that.

D’Angelo: Everything else in the world get sold without people taking advantage. Scamming, lying, doing each other dirty. Why it got to be that way with this?
Poot: Cause they dope fiends.
D’Angelo: Yeah, but the game ain’t gotta be played like that.

Later in the episode, despite how badly he wants change, D’Angelo teaches Bodie and Wallace how to play chess, explaining how the pieces move by comparing them to the kingpins, queens, stash houses, and soldiers of his uncle’s drug empire. It’s kind of sad that so soon after he calls for a new way of doing business, D’Angelo tries to entice his friends to play chess by making it sound like the ferocious business in which the boys find themselves. When D’Angelo tells Bodie, “I don’t know” how they should treat the fiends, it’s true that he doesn’t know how to change on any practical level despite his leanings towards a morality different from his peers’ and supervisors’.

I think that public school is in a similar situation. We want change, but we don’t quite know how to effect it in any practical way. Moreover, most of our metaphors don’t exit the event horizon of traditional school – it’s the way we teach; it’s how we were taught.

Moreover, I think that despite our mostly good intentions, we punk our students. We build relationships in order to leverage trust into compliance with standardized work. We scam numbers. We lie – we fib about what matters when to whom. We lie to ourselves to make our compromises with the system sting less. We say things that we mean, but that we can’t or won’t follow up on with action. Sometimes we get angry at kids. If we love our job, why is it – at times – so painful to us and those around us? Just because they’re children, why do we manage them like parts? Just because we’re teachers, why do we treat them like that?

Like D’Angelo we strive towards a better system without, perhaps, thinking about leaving it entirely.

I don’t mean that we all burn out and leave public education. I mean that we pour our energy into fixing what remains of school instead of addressing ourselves and our efforts towards the future of learning.

The system is the center around which we circle ourselves. We are convinced it’s the center of education reform because we aren’t looking for what our public education system is circling.

We think that public schools are the center of the universe, when, in fact, they make up only part of an arm of learning spiraling with information.

How do we systematize learning at a macro-scale? How does D’Angelo find worth and family outside the drug trade?

Public schools are part of the big picture, but the big picture is learning. Drug dealing brings D’Angelo some of what he wants, but it isn’t what he wants.

How do we change course?

How do we exit the map?

Are we willing to break some generational cycles of teaching and affluence to break generational cycles of poverty and disengagement with school?

The technologies, businesses, innovators, educators, and partners are there. Can public education resist the siren song of public schooling and get on with creating new ground at the political, economic, and local levels? Can stake-holders staring a public education through the microscope of public schools step back and see what – and who – else is in the lab? We have to stop punking ourselves into believing that the numbers are all that there is.

Maybe we don’t know how to change yet, but are we, like D’Angelo, content to be frustrated in word and satisfied by deed with that? Are we just as much a product as the schools we provide?

Prescriptive Teaching = Heroin

Posted: December 1, 2010 by trevorinmidstream in Uncategorized

by Trevor Przyuski

While teaching his young charges in the projects how to play chess, D’Angelo Barksdale asserts that in chess, like in life, “the King stay the King.”  The assertion is both ironic and poignant in that D’Angelo Barksdale, while clearly being the most thoughtful and self-possessed dealer in the low rises, is probably the least likely to succeed his ruthless uncle who heads the drug cartel.  It’s too easy to see how humanity and success in something as parasitic as the drug trade is mutually exclusive to draw some deep conclusion about the parallels to public education.  “The Superintendent stay the Superintendent” doesn’t have the same dark meaning.  In fact, for those whose business is “dealing” knowledge, humanity is everything.

What I found more compelling was the scene in which Stringer Bell, the cunning accountant of Barksdale’s drug business, explains to D’Angelo the strange reality of supply and demand in drug transactions.  If the product is good, he explains, the customers buy it. If it’s bad, they buy twice as much.  “The worse we do, the more money we make.” At which point he hands D’Angelo a huge cash bonus for selling so much of his admittedly inferior product.

Let’s talk now about the canned, prescriptive, self-paced, computer-based literacy products that our school divisions seem to be buying left and right. These products, to make a long analogy short, are heroin.  They’re produced by big education companies to be sold at a high price to schools in primarily poorer districts where lagging literacy rates are creating big problems for school administrators (and local politicians). Their stated purpose is to help children learn to read.  And while they make curriculum coordinators and school administrators feel good in the short term for doings “something…anything” to address the problem, what they mostly do is create a self-perpetuating need for more boxed programs just like it and lots of money for the CEOs of the companies who produce them.

By offering school divisions an alternative to costly human reading specialists who require a salary, expensive professional development, and resources, the corporations turning out products like i-Station and Read 180 are making actual human teachers more expendable.  What do we need teachers for when kids can simply switch on the computer, upload the program, and go through the paces of some video game simulation of actual engagement and learning experience? Besides, teachers are demanding. They’re always asking for stuff like new texts, smart boards, and pay raises.  This box of software asks for nothing but a licensing fee and maybe a contract renewal at the end of the agreed upon time. How can a besieged school administrator refuse? The saddest fact is that public trust in schoolteachers has eroded to such a point that we’re turning over our students with the highest need for human engagement to a computer program.  The unanswerable question is this: if an army of well-intended, highly trained, and compassionate human beings can’t win the war against illiteracy, what makes anyone think that a computerized reading program will have any greater impact?

Sadly, the recipe for success for these companies isn’t in ending illiteracy but cashing in on the endless parade of under-motivated, under-educated kids who enter our classrooms every year.  By dealing with reading deficiencies on a kid-by-kid basis and removing the x-factor of a compassionate human teacher who might actually have a larger impact upon a community of learners, the plug-and-play education folks pave a long road of profits at the expense of the very people they claim to help.  And by perpetuating the system in which the poor stay illiterate and the corporate chiefs make profits, they ensure the truth of D’Angelo Barksdale’s assertion that the King truly do stay the King.

by Trevor Przyuski

In episode two of The Wire’s first season, Lieutenant Daniels organizes his special task force to investigate West Baltimore’s leading drug lord, Avon Barksdale.  It’s evident from the first glimpse of this rag-tag group of cops that the higher-ups who appointed them to the detail aren’t all that willing to expend the resources necessary.  You see, in the politically charged world of big-city politics, success is measured in the number of arrests made.  The more cops working on long and intricate investigations, the fewer are available to fill arrest quotas that the politicians can prop their campaigns upon.  And in politics, progress that can’t be quantified numerically doesn’t seem to exist.

In our public schools, there are tens of thousands of Lieutenant Daniels’.  They are passionately committed teachers who want to find new and better ways to help children learn, to develop new curriculum and new approaches, and to fix whatever seems to be wrong with the machine we’ve built for educating our kids.  I work with many of them and I’m continually impressed by their ingenuity and, more importantly, their compassion.  And over the course of the last few years, I’ve seen their best work devalued and disregarded because of the constant pressure to improve standardized test scores.  Education is politics, after all, and the only progress that exists is that which we can quantify.

It’s not that administrators and central office brass don’t want kids to be more successful.  No one with a heart would willfully obstruct a student’s potential.  But we have yet to find ways to quantify those elements of cognitive growth that point to academic success.  There is no multiple-choice test for critical thinking, no rubric for self-possession, no data matrix for open-mindedness or cultural sensitivity.  True progress in these areas doesn’t exist in the concrete world of political expedience.  Furthermore, the administrator who found him or herself in a school building full of teachers who were occupied with experimentation, reflection, and concept-based teaching and learning would likely be at risk for diminished results on end-of-year test scores.  They’d be admonished and possibly fired for misallocating their human resources.  What is an administrator to do when their very job security rests on arbitrary data from an inauthentic assessment that no one outside of the state legislature truly believes in?

Near the end of the episode, Lt. Daniel’s wife reiterates for us what Daniels already knows.  He’s set up to fail.  “If you push too hard, they’ll hang you for it,” she tells him over dinner. “If you don’t push enough and make no arrests, they’ll blame you for it.”  She goes on to offer some sage advice.  “You can’t lose if you don’t play.” She suggests that for his own self-preservation he do nothing at all, that he accept the status quo and play the game according to whatever rules are given him.  He understands this yet we can see in his expression that this would truly be the greatest loss.  Teachers understand this all too well.