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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?”


“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?



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

Every episode of The Wire has a quote associated with it. The show’s creators begin each episode with a cold open, followed by the credits, which end with a quote card. Usually, the quote is from the episode. In season 5, there is an H. L. Mencken quote before episode 10, “-30-,” the series finale.

Episode 2 of season 1, “The Detail,” features a quote from Marla Daniels, wife of Lieutenant Cedrick Daniels who’s been tasked with heading up a special unit to bust West Side boss Avon Barksdale on drug charges.

Over a nice dinner in their well-appointed home, Marla tells Cedrick that, “You cannot lose if you do not play.”

Cedrick fears reprisal from his supervisors if he complains about the bad cops on his detail. He also fears reprisal if he pushes the case too hard and winds up with good cops who want to make a bigger case against Barksdale.

Marla (who has political aspirations of her own that we find out about later in the series – she needs him to seem like a good cop) urges caution and discretion. She urges Cedrick not to play at pursuing the case any further than his bosses want him to. If he plays to get better cops, he loses by exposing his bosses’ dance of the lemons. If he wins and gets better cops, he loses because those cops will want to pursue additional drug and homicide charges against Barksdale, which would mean a longer investigation. A longer investigation would mean that his bosses can’t reclaim the media cycle from news of a murdered state’s witness.

Regarding teaching, I have heard Marla’s warning before from people near and far, explicitly and implicitly. I have taken into account the consequences of asking for more or settling for less. I have maneuvered and compromised and given up. I have experienced Cedrick’s self-doubt and ambivalence. If I ask for more time to make a different case for teaching and learning, how does that impact my division’s test scores, AYP, and accreditation this year?

I don’t need to ask for better people – I trust my colleagues and value my students’ immensely. I treasure our learning. However, I sometimes ask for different resources and permissions than those I’m given.

Thankfully, my leaders are not like Cedrick’s. They support different kinds of work in the division.

So sometimes I play. Sometimes I lose.

But that’s okay.

I’m not like Marla. I don’t teach to win. I teach to learn.

Watching Cedrick try to make up his mind about the game over the course of five seasons is one of the profound joys of the show; trying to make up my own mind about it is probably the motivating discontent of my career.

“You can’t even call it a war.”

Posted: November 10, 2010 by Chad Sansing in Episode 1, Season 1, The Wire
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From the first episode of The Wire, it’s clear that what the characters do is who they are. The series does a peerless job of matching its characters with their motivations, actions, and words. The characters don’t get sacrificed for a cameo, joke, or moral, ever, across five seamless seasons that, in my mind, are like the cantos of divine television.

The Wire is bespoke to its creators, characters, and audience. Many people haven’t seen it, and those that have seem split into two camps: those who stopped watching after a few episodes because the series was too dark, and those who watched the entire run, sometimes repeatedly, and somehow found something beautiful in it. I could watch it forever, like how I used to watch Puff the Magic Dragon, Star Wars, and Superman at my granddad's house.

Like Trevor said when we brainstormed this blog, "It's going to be like a reunion of all my friends that I haven't seen in a long time."

I invite everyone invested in changing American public schools to join us – first-time viewers, series vets, Baltimore natives, educators, the show’s creators, cast, and crew, and, especially, those of you willing to give the show a second chance. This blog is meant to help us take another look at education as we take another look at The Wire and the way it uncannily and unerringly portrays the lives of people living, working, and dying in dysfunctional systems.

We plan to watch and write about one episode per week, and we begin this week with episode 1:1, “The Target.”

My reactions:

  1. People are invested in what they do. Teachers teach. Learners learn. However, students aren’t necessarily interested in what we teach, even though they’re learning all the time. Do we teachers ignore what we learn about change, design, and relationships when that information is given to us through student resistance and disengagement? Without sacrificing the potential of schooling to create really tightly knit, positive communities, how do we better structure public school so that it’s something our students want to do – intrinsically – without being coerced into doing it by immediate punishment and reward, which short-circuit the kind of internally framed and motivated thinking needed to make connections and discoveries? What in Wallace’s life can compete with handling the money in the pit, and why doesn’t school do so?
  2. Kima, Herc, and Carver joke around about typewriters, computers, and training that’s a year overdue. Forget about training – what common technologies, apps, and definitions of learning are a year (or more) overdue in schools? If technology makes us more efficient, and we want our students to be efficient learners in our compartmentalized, test-drive world, why do we structure school to make them inefficient? Why do we break up their day to prevent flow, change up the tools available to them by class, and forbid them from fact-finding and fact-checking on the Internet because it’s cheating when they do it (but not when we do)?
  3. “You can’t even call it a war. . . . Wars end.” So much of The Wire is about shifting tactics in the war on drugs. The cops and drug dealers adapt to one another’s behavior. Their successes and failures usually result in a shuffle of personnel. Sometimes the bad guys’ shuffles make more sense than to good guys’ do. Business goes on. Cops keep policing. Dealers keep dealing. There is no game-changer, despite the many changes in the game. How do we get past this stalemate in education? How do we change games and shift purposes and premises rather than people and programs? Creativity, divergent thinking, and entrepreneurship should be the foundation of our curriculum rather than the byproduct of standardized education driving its rebels into disruptive innovation. Our commitment to universal education – to helping everyone, including Snot Boogie, secure the blessings of liberty – should never end, but our back-and-forth on the best way to standardize education must. It’s customization – the promise that school can offer something meaningful to each student – that will most effectively bring back the disenfranchised and the disengaged. How do we make school less antagonistic? How do we deliver opportunities in school that compete with those that students have outside school? How do we make school into something that isn’t a war, but matters more? School should be an apprenticeship for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for individuals and communities; is it already?

I hope you’ll chime in, or even consider watching and writing with us next week.

Let me know if you’d like to participate, or just leave a comment to that effect below.