Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Future of Our Schools is in our hands!

By Kathleen Melville

After reading two books about how racist and punitive systems harm our students (Pushout and Discipline Over Punishment), the West Philly Summer Book Group read The Future of Our Schools to help us understand what we, as unionized teachers, can do about it. Lois Weiner’s 2012 book describes a burgeoning form of unionism, which she calls “social movement unionism.” Social movement unions are different from business unions in both their aims (bargaining for the common good instead of just for wages and benefits) and their way of operating (democratically and with broad community support instead of hierarchically and bureaucratically). By transforming our own union into a social movement union, we can build the power we need to make our schools the safe, caring communities that our students deserve. 

Many teachers that I speak to express dissatisfaction and disconnection from our union. They do not feel a part of decisions that are made or priorities for the future. Very few members attend union meetings because they are seen as boring or pointless. In Weiner’s view, “A strong, democratic union values each constituency’s unique contribution and takes care to demonstrate to all members that it is a union of equals” (14). This ideal reminds me of what I strive for in both my classroom community and the community of educators at my school. It makes sense that we should also strive for this ideal as a union of educators.

Weiner also addresses the racial divides that often take root in urban teachers unions like mine. In many of these unions, teachers are primarily white, while the students and families they serve are made up primarily of people of color. She points to Newark as an example of a teachers union torn apart by race riots and she recommends that teachers unions “nurture a culture in which race and racism are critiqued frankly” (28). The Caucus of Working Educators makes discussions of racial justice a priority. These discussion are often complicated and difficult, but we hope to build trust among different groups of people so that we can build the power to enact policies and win funding that will make our city and our school system more racially just.

In the third chapter, Weiner outlines what makes a social movement union different from a business union. One of the primary differences is organizing. In a social movement union, members organize to build power, win campaigns, and solve shared problems. In Weiner’s words, “A social movement unions casts the union’s strength as a function of its ability to mobilize its members to struggle on their own behalf. Union power comes from the bottom up, as it does in social movements” (36). This clarifies for me that my union is definitely a business union or service model union that “depends on the smarts or district or national staff and central headquarters” (42) instead of a broad base of union members and community partners. In order to transform the union, the Caucus of Working Educators needs to focus on engaging members at the building level - visiting schools, having one-on-one conversations with educators, and giving the support and framework for members to “struggle on their own behalf” (36). All public educators in Philadelphia have unmet needs, and we need to find out what those needs are, educator by educator, school by school. 

This is what the Caucus of Working Educators has been attempting to do with its “Listening Survey.” We sit down with members to find out what issues are most important to them and what changes they would like to see in the next contract. This has been an extraordinary experience for me as an educator and an organizer. Over and over again, I have asked rank-and-file union members to name their top three priorities, and over and over again, they name improvements that will benefit students: more counselors and social workers, smaller class sizes, safer building conditions. I have yet to meet an educator who names a “bread and butter” issue like wages or benefits as one of their top priorities for negotiations. To me, this proves teachers’ deep commitment to social justice, even among teachers who don’t necessarily consider themselves “activists” or “social justice educators.”

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Discipline Over Punishment

By Amina Malik

In our group discussion of Discipline Over Punishment we had thirteen educators from Philadelphia area schools. The book is an examination of how restorative discipline practices in schools
can improve education in urban environments. Gardner offers an alternative to oppressive practices that are commonly used in urban schools and that have been feeding the school-to-prison pipeline and has limited the options in life, specifically for youth of color. Gardner gives different scenarios of teachers and students engaged in restorative practices that highlight the possibility of restorative discipline and the opportunity for students to gain a place in society. Gardner gives real examples from different schools in California of inclusive discipline that lead to individual and community development for youth and adults.

However, many of his stories seemed idealistic and always worked because everyone in the school was supporting these practices. In our discussion, we felt that restorative justice is great in theory, but in practice, it would be a lot more difficult. The common feeling was that it would be easy for restorative justice to fall part. The most common problem we identified was teacher training or buy-in. Also, students might not take it seriously. A problem Matt mentioned was that students see restorative practices as weak. Many students in our schools are used to being disciplined due to being treated as criminals.

What resonated in this discussion is that it is difficult to restore someone to a community that they are not invested in. Restorative practices must start with staff before it can be used on students. We agreed that the first step must be using restorative circles and norms among the staff in a school before using them with students.

Monday, August 13, 2018

From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun - Looking Forward

By Hetali Lodaya

The School's Out reading group spent our last session talking about the short book From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson. The book takes us through Melanin's journey as he processes new information about his mother's sexuality, and considers what that means (or doesn't mean) about him as a person and about their family unit. We all felt that the portrayal of Melanin was pretty accurate - he had so many of the responses that we could imagine a middle school student having to these events! Additionally, he finds it hard to disconnect his mother's identity from his own - this is the first time he's realizing, perhaps, that there are things about her that don't directly involve him, and vice versa.

The book started a great conversation about action steps that WE Caucus members might be able to take to amplify the issues we discussed all summer within the school district. From direct advocacy at school board meetings to more trainings around existing platforms like Policy 252, there are a lot of positive steps that group members plan to take in the coming months! This was a wonderful reading group to be able to join and I am so grateful to all the members of School's Out for being willing to share their perspectives and their stories.

Hetali Lodaya is a legal intern at Education Law Center and a student at the University of Michigan Law School.

Book group members discuss action steps they can collectively
take during the 2018-2019 school year.

Friday, July 20, 2018

School's Out - Understanding Queerness in the Classroom and Out

by Jeni Mattingly

as a bike mechanic who is curious about how queerness exists in professional settings, this group has been a fun way to interact with an otherwise dully written book about the unique professional challenges faced by queer teachers. at our last meeting folks shared personal stories about being out at school and what it was like to be an LGBTQ student, which led to a discussion about policy 252 - a set of guidelines for creating a supportive environment for transgender and gender non-conforming students (arguably, all students). it was exciting to see the group come up with action steps to help implement this legislation: more proactive training, community-building, and a shift in classroom habits - one person suggested organizing the students by height rather than gender. 

it will be exciting to see these action steps take shape in the last two meetings of our group, and i am eager to continue connecting an academic book to real-world experiences of educators in our community. 

jeni works at fairmount bicycles where she spends some of her time ranting to delightful customers about "men's" and "women's" helmets (what size is your head! what colors do you like! why is the industry doing this to us!) and other pointlessly gendered products.

Facilitator's Note: We keep forgetting to take pictures during our meetings (the discussions are just too good!), but here are co-facilitator Maddie's cats, Pío and Pasta, helping prepare meeting notes. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Capitalism: A Structural Genocide 2

One last blog to tie together the Capitalism: A structural Genocide Summer Reading Group. If you could not make, no worries. The book will still be waiting for you. 

We had an engaging final discussion of the book and some of the issues that it raises.  
  • we began with a discussion of respectability politics and how this permeates our lives in many different spheres.  How this reduces us to consumers and measures our worth in relation to the market.  We talked about how this imposes itself upon us and defines us in certain ways that are limiting; how it also tells us how to dress and what to buy; how it reproduces "civility"; and how it even creeps into the classroom through certain over-policing strategies under the guise of classroom management. And, we thought about the ways this thinking is inculcated in each of us and what that might mean for us as educators in different settings.
  • we then discusses how our schools might reproduce unhealthy hierarchies that further internalize oppression. In the book Leech titles one of the chapters "Legitimizing the Illegitimate." He discusses coercion and hegemony using the work of Antonio Gramsci. Some of the things discussed from Gramsci include how ruling elites gain and maintain consent by utilizing various methods to socialize the masses and how civil society - the media, educational system, religion, and culture - serve to socialize people into thinking that capitalism is the only way. The school system fits in because by and large schools instill in children the values preferred by capital. Students are taught from a young age to compete with one another, to accept hierarchy without questioning, and about conformity through testing. The media then reinforces those values.
  • We also discussed how schools often prepare students to maintain their place in society. 
  • Education is often seen as a "get out of poverty" ticket. If you do the right things, work hard, go to college, you should be able to make it. But people are still not making it and the odds  are still against the majority.  This causes psychological trauma. People have been socialized into believing in the myth of meritocracy so when they cannot get ahead, they blame it on themselves, just as society has taught them to do. This is called second order blaming.  And this is capitalism
  • One quotation from p. 104 - "The hegemonic discourse, in part through the philanthropic endeavors of capital, also seeks to socialize people into believing capitalism is a humane social system that provides opportunities for individuals who are willing to work hard." This led to some discussion of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (some resources below). 
  • The book discusses environmental issues and we brought up how in order to survive, capitalism needs growth. That growth is based on the extraction, use and abuse of limited natural resources, therefore capitalism is not sustainable for any life on the planet.
·       ·      “The logic of capital is blind to the ecological crisis that has resulted from its constant expansion in pursuit of profit because it is solely focused on accumulation. And in order to accumulate, capital requires constant economic growth” (p. 85)
·      Vandana Shiva – “the growth of the market cannot solve the very crisis it creates”  (p. 86).

  • One member of the group brought up the work of Robin D.G. Kelley, particularly his book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Kelley talks about how we must use our imagination to create something new, but capitalism does not allow us to do this. It constrains us and punishes us if we imagine alternatives. (See the short video from the pervious synopsis of our discussion - Capitalism is Just a Story -
  • We discussed alternatives to capitalism including socialism and cooperative systems like Mondragón in the Basque Region of Spain and Emilia Romagna in Italy which began in the 1860's 
·       ·      “Socialism is based on a simple idea – that the resources of society be used to meet people’s needs, n other words, at the heart of socialism is the impulse to further the development of all people in a sustainable manner” (p. 112).

  • We talked about how it is important to both think about how we can survive more humanely now while we create alternatives. We need to continue to expand out knowledge by reading alternative sources and that we need to commit to working collectively for change
  • Wee need to create systems that are less-exclusionary and more participatory and that do not use language that is alienating and academic. we can do this through]
·       ·      everyday life encounters (Jane Addams)
·       ·      building and nurturing relationships
·       ·      using existing resources like MLK speeches, Angela Davis, and others to spark conversation
·       these can all provide people with a vocabulary to help make sense of the world and then to act to make change.
I hope the rest of your summer goes well. 

Rosi Barbera

Some Resources

·       •Ballard., N. (2009).  To Live Well.  In D. Ransom & V. Baird (Eds). People first economics (pp 153-164). Oxford: New Internationalist Publishing.
·       •Berry, W. (2009).  Inverting the Economic Order. The Progressive, 73(9), pp. 18  – 25). Beacon Press.
·       Chadburn, M. (2015). Resilience is Futile: How Well-Meaning Non-Profits Perpetuate Poverty.  Retrieved from
·       Ciccierello-Mahr., G. Building the Commune
·       Collins, C. & Flannery, H. (2016) Gilded Giving: What happens when Billionaires Dominate the Charitable Sector. Retrieved from
·       Davis, A. Y. (2016). Freedom is a constant struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the foundation of a movement (Chapter One).  Chicago: Haymarket Books.
·       Ho, H. K. (2017). 8 Ways People of Color are Tokenized in Nonprofits. Retrieved from:
·       Kivel, P. (2000). Social Service or Social Justice. Retrieved from
·       Le, V. (2015). Are you or your org guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement? Retriefved from:
·       Kelley, R. D. G. (2003). Freedom dreams: The Black radical imagination.
·       •Miller, E. (2009). Solidarity Economy:  Key concepts and Issues. In E. Kawano, T. N. Masterson & J. Teller-Elsberg (Eds.). Solidarity economy 1: Building alternatives for people and planet (pp. 24 – 41). Amherst: Center of Popular Economics.
·       Nixon, R. (2011). Slow Violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Harvard Press.
·       •Ostrom, E. (2010). Eight Principles for Managing the Commons. In J. Walljasper (Ed.). All that we share:  A field guide to the Commons (p. 22). New York: The New Press.
·       •Restakis, J.  (2010: Humanizing the economy:  Co-operatives in the age of capital. British Columbia: New Society Publishers.
·       •Sitrin, M. (2006). Horizontalism: Voices of popular power in Argentina.  Oakland: AK Press.
·       •Wall, D. (2009). Open Source Anti-Capitalism. In D. Ransom & V. Baird (Eds). People first economics (pp 181-192). Oxford: New Internationalist Publishing.
·       •Walljasper, J. (2010). All that we share:  A field guide to the Commons. New York: The New Press.
·       •Wolff, R. (2012a).  Democracy at work:  A cure for capitalism.  Chicago: Haymarket Books.
•Wolff, R. (2012b, June 24).  Yes, there is an alternative to capitalism.  Mondragon shows the way.  The Guardian.  Retrieved from