A Detroit Public Schoolteacher’s Notebook

I’m talking to Friends after meeting, seeking a word to describe my experiences teaching in Detroit this year, my 17th year in the public school system. My friend, Roger Bliss, helps me. Here’s the phrase: survival mode.

"The students must be so difficult! Detroit must be in such rough shape! No wonder you’re exhausted!" a sympathetic Friend says. No, no, no; it’s not the students, not the city.

This year, I worked at a consolidated school. That means students are coming from other schools in Detroit, ones that are now closed. Robert Bobb has been appointed by the State of Michigan as the emergency financial manager to "fix" the schools. He seems to be interested in more than financial solvency, however. Bobb’s been taken to court several times for appointing himself as the chief academic officer, for closing schools, for cutting teacher pay, and for allegedly trying to replace district administrators with outside contractors. Does it matter that, according to the Detroit Free Press on July 30, 2010, a Detroit court ruled that it’s not a conflict of interest for $145,000 of his $404,000 salary to be paid by pro-charter school foundations?

This is what I remember of the school year. On the first day I greeted my first 150 students. For the next six weeks until "class leveling" was complete, their numbers ebbed and flowed until my rolls settled at the legal limit of 175 pupils per teacher. A teacher around the corner had 47 students in one of her classes. Many sat on the floor, waiting. For what? There were no permanent schedules until the school proved to the central administration that these students, who spent the first six weeks of their high school careers sitting on floors, needed teachers. The challenge: how to keep the students from dropping out during the first six weeks of school. We flexed and strained, teaching and trying to convince them that, yes, this is a school, and they are not just cards being shuffled around in a poker game. But aren’t they?

This is what I remember about high stakes testing. The Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions Incorporated was scheduled to supplant every 11th grade English class in the school for three days a week. From December until March, the students would be exposed to the "Kaplan Method" for taking the Michigan Merit Exam, the WordKeys Exam, and the ACT.

On our last day together as an intact English class, the 11th grade American Literature class was reading The Crucible, by Arthur Miller. A transfer student from New Orleans—the quietest girl in the class—was standing on the stage, wearing a long red dress. "I am but God’s finger, John. If he would condemn Elizabeth, she will be condemned." The class had opened up that day, questioning: "Who has the right to judge?" That day I still had 33 out of 37 students attending. But after Kaplan testing took over, attendance plummeted. Twenty-five out of the remaining 33 finished their 11th grade year. And no, their test scores did not improve.

One day there was a lot of noise coming from the auditorium. It’s Walmart having a kick-off rally for their program to give credits towards high school graduation for completing their job-training course. Now we’ll have two well-funded job programs in the school: the United States Army and Walmart. I grew up in Detroit, and I have never forgotten how life looks when you are on foot and uncertain about your future, living in a dystopian cement jungle. The cafeteria milk is slightly sour, altars for the victims of drive-bys decorate the sidewalk, and shuttered and boarded up houses seem to stare at you as you hurry by. What happens in the school grows epic in importance. It is the center of the neighborhood. How a person is defined there alters his or her life. Is this how we now define the youth of Detroit? Can we shine a better light on the students’ futures? Does it have to be Walmart and the U.S. Army? The importance of these programs is disproportionate because there are so few other highly visible options. I didn’t take my 11th-grade class to the rally. I shut the classroom door and opened up the 11th-grade literature book. "You can stay if you want to. This is still a required course for high school graduation and college admittance." Two students went to look and see what was going on. They came back and sat in the back row, opened up their books, and started reading.

Romeo and Juliet was a big hit with the ninth graders. One student made a detailed floor plan of the Globe Theater. Another gave a mini-lecture about the play’s timeline, complete with diagrams. A third watched the 1996 Baz Luhrmann version of the film repeatedly because "he was falling in love with the language, and finally understood the play." A fourth student wrote "a love song, of course!" A fifth listened to Act 5 being read aloud at librivox.org so she could hear it again and again, and make a 30-minute video presentation with her friends, complete with costumes. The ninth graders definitely passed their final on Romeo and Juliet, but they didn’t fare as well on their standardized tests. The task of making Shakespeare relevant to ninth graders, whose class average reading level ranged from about second grade in the bilingual class to seventh grade in the honors class, dictated a choice to me: Do I focus on "test skills?" or content?

What do I do? Both. Neither. Reread Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Reread some of the literature I received at the U.S. Social Forum 2010 in Detroit, again. Particularly helpful is the mission statement from Urban School Awakening, a group of activist teachers from Michigan: "We at Urban School Awakening believe that education can and should be the great equalizer; that, regardless of people’s race, gender, or class, they should be provided a quality education that offers them equitable entry into the nation’s power structure. Schools need to be prepared to provide the necessary skills for this to be a reality for all children."

The question to be asked, then, is: what is necessary to make this happen? First, I have to apply for my own job because the school is being restructured, again. Then help my fellow teachers to oppose Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s bid for mayoral control of the schools.

And then? Pray. Read. Rest. Think. Get ready for September.

Thanks for holding us in the Light.


Lisa Sinnett attends Detroit and Ann Arbor (Mich.) Meetings. She is writing a series of short stories about Detroit and is studying nonviolence at Wayne State University in her spare time. Read her new blog at http://www.detroitteach.wordpress.com.