Friday, November 15, 2019

Free Fichter!

By Stephen Wilson 

Jennifer Fichter
I'm writing to you with the request that you support a pardon or at least a reduction in the sentence of the imprisoned American English teacher by the name of Jennifer Fichter. Jennifer Fichter, in April 2015 received the severe sentence of 22 years imprisonment for consensual, but illicit sex with three of her 17-year-old students. Protest and indignation against this unusually draconian sentence has aroused  massive waves of support and sympathy throughout Russia not to mention the World. Almost 77,000 signed one petition. The people who have signed are deeply concerned about the fate of Jennifer Fichter. They are dreaming of her obtaining a pardon and won't relinquish the campaign.  
The case has had a profound impact on America's International relations as well as reputation abroad. This is why all honest, reasonable and thoughtful Americans must be concerned.
I and others believe that this severe sentence is unjustified for three main reasons {Although this hardly exhausts so many other reasons eloquently and acutely advanced by Mike Brandner in his petition}
The sentence is arbitrary, absurd and cruel. It is arbitrary because if Fichter had been found guilty in Georgia where the age of consent is 16 she would have been free today. Different American states apply their own laws which are often incompatible with each other undermining the very notion of universal justice. Justice which depends on geographical location weakens any sense of consistent universal legal norms and sounds capricious. It confuses and confounds people. For even within Florida, a 16 year old can consent to have sex with some one as old as 23. However, a Floridan cannot consent to have sex with someone over 23 unless he or she is 18 or over as Mike Brander points out.                             
The second reason is that the case is unusual. The usually appropriate punishment for such a violation is for a teacher to be dismissed. The loss of employment as well as accompanying stigma should surely suffice. The punishment does not fit the crime as Jennifer Fichter is no rapist, child molester or kidnapper. Yet the prison sentence of 22 years is double the average length for a rape conviction. So the crime is less serious but more severe. The students were not victims who suffered trauma or harm, but freely consented to sex. They were 17 year old who were on the verge of adulthood. The sense of injustice has been compounded by the fact that a Norwegian neo Nazis who murdered 77 people and wounded 150 in 2011 received a lesser sentence of 21 years! 
A third reason is that this case represents an evident and explicit violation of the eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights which declares:
'Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted'. The case of Jennifer Fichter clearly represents a classic example of a cruel and unusual punishment. For what purpose should this teacher languish in prison where her mental esteem is wounded and her family feel they are also serving out this sentence? It is not in anyone's interest to prolong pointless suffering. It certainly does not serve any public interest.
Contrary to certain media reports, Jennifer Fichter doesn't remotely represent a threat or danger to the public. And a just legal system is obliged to find a delicate balance between justice and mercy. Without compassion and right reason, legal despotism looms up. This is why we urge you to support our campaign to secure a pardon or reduced sentence for Jennifer Fichter.

You can sign it here:

Monday, November 11, 2019


By Stephen Wilson
"What use is Shakespeare to us? Knowing him won't help me get a job!  We need to be taught something more practical?" say many frustrated pupils who resent having to study what they often consider incomprehensible and irrelevant works. For a recent survey carried out by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Digital company Adobe, of 2000 British school students aged between 11 to 18, between September 6th to the 10th , found that 42% of them complained that knowledge of Shakespeare would not help them get a job. Approximately 20% stated that digital technology might help them understand the poet. Many British pupils have never even heard of Shakespeare. But the survey does not just indicate a negative attitude to the poet, but how some pupils hold a misconception of the role of school education. For schools are not just intended to prepare people for work, but to at least inspire a minimal interest in the culture and Classics around them so they can enrich their leisure time.

For instance, knowing the Classics not only encourages a better understanding of plays performed in the theater, but can encourage pleasant conversation. It might just make a dull and drab party more interesting and even help you make a friend. Who knows where a knowledge of Shakespeare can take you? The knowledge of the poet can lead to imperceptible and unanticipated results!
An American teacher once told me, "If they teach it at school, it sucks." When you feel forced to learn the classics and have to sit exams in it then the memory of the plays can conjure up all kinds of bad memories. But Shakespeare himself never envisaged his plays being part of the school program or a set exam. He may not have attached  importance to being published. He wanted his works not to be read, but seen and heard. The best place to go is the theater itself. At first many people don't like the idea of going to the theater in Britain because they think its a place where only affluent or posh people go. But when they see his play by accident it often has a profound and deep influence on their psyche. This is because the plays such as 'The Tempest' and 'King Henry the Fifth ' have a lot to say about grief, and the horrors of war. 
Jacqui O Hanlon of the Royal Shakespeare Company states : "Having access to the arts and cultural learning improves empathy, critical and creative thinking in young people. " One of my 17 year old pupils of English Natasha told me, "A person at school should  know Classics. I mean it would terrible if we did not learn Pushkin. Yes, knowing Shakespeare won't get you a job but his works are so wonderful it can really have a profound influence on people." 
But how justified is the claim that knowledge of Shakespeare can't help you get a job? Such a statement seems a misleading and over simplistic  generalization. It largely depends on which job you are seeking. For knowledge of the Classics can help you get a job. For example, I recall being interviewed for a job in a Bakery in Dublin and being asked "Why have you come to live in Dublin ?" When I told the manager I had come to the city to learn more about the culture and the classics because Dublin was the city where Yeats, Joyce and Beckett hailed from " the manager took this as a compliment and I got the job. I also find that knowledge of the classics helps you get work as an English teacher of foreign languages in Russia . For many Russians, knowledge of the classics is not just a hobby or pastime but a necessity. If a Russian student discovers that an English teacher is not interested in his own culture, then why should he be interested in Russian culture? The main point is not to have mass knowledge of the Classics, but to be actively interested in them. So I have found I have managed to keep some students because of the knowledge of Shakespeare as well as Bulgakov.

A teacher of English as a foreign language is often expected not just to teach students to speak or grammar but the culture he comes from. And Shakespeare is an essential part of this culture. Furthermore, the playwright 's works convey a boundless and inexorable positive energy that infects students. For example, if you looks at his play 'The Tempest' , you hear a young woman called Miranda marvel how there is still beauty in some of the worst characters in the play when she says;
'O Wonder ! How many goodly creatures are there here ! How beauteous mankind is! O Brave New World that has such people in it.'
The plays can even teach people how to love people and express their love  in a more poetic way. There is the simple line of Miranda's lover which goes : 'I do love, price, honour you.'
And if you want to obtain work as an actor you can find help in Shakespeare's play Hamlet , where Hamlet offers advice on how an actor should perform by not over acting , over gesturing and speaking too loudly or out of tune. Just go to act three, scene two.
So yes, Shakespeare can help you obtain some kinds of jobs. You certainly can't eat his works . But you can read his plays as a stepping stone to the dining room. What is crucial is not  only knowledge of Shakespeare but how to use it in a doable practical way. So we have to go beyond the academic.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Stacy Gates & IFT

CTU Vice President Stacy Gates Named IFT VP
By Jim Vail

CTU VP Stacy Gates

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) Vice President Stacy Gates was named the vice president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers or IFT.

Usually it is the CTU president who will take a position on the IFT executive board. However, CTU President Jesse Sharkey is not on the executive board.

This has lead many to speculate that VP Gates is making a move in the political field to head to a higher office, including president of the CTU. Politico stated that there have been calls for Gates or CTU political operative and Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson to run for mayor against Lori Lightfoot.

Johnson told Politico the rumors are false and he has no intention to run for mayor.

Serving on the IFT board of directors is a well-paid position. Both Johnson and Gates have two jobs that pay well.

According to an inside source, the CTU has 10 spots on the IFT Executive Board. CTU health care coordinator Annette Rizzo was dropped and Joanna Maldonado, a field organizer for the CTU, replaced her.

Dan Montgomery (IFT President) and Jane Russell (IFT Secretary Treasurer), and Gates (IFT VP) were unopposed in the election. Jesse (Sharkey) did not put his name in the running, the source told us.

Former CTU President Debbie Lynch told Second City Teachers she did not want to also serve on the IFT because she wanted to maintain her independence from the state teachers union that is considered to be more conservative.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Long Live Librarians!

By Stephen Wilson


The  bold and brilliant ten day strike by Chicago school teachers has made an indelible impression on the world. It is certainly unprecedented. It starkly shows that only fools take teachers for granted. This strike was not just about securing a decent wage, but fought for a well thought out social agenda where issues such as the homelessness of teachers and students was addressed as well as class sizes and the facilities available to school students. It is evident to any astute and objective observer that the main aim of the strike was to achieve a more caring and improved education system. Unfortunately, many important aims of the strike  were not met, such as ending an unfair evaluation system which has led to unfair dismissals as well as the failure to restore the jobs of many librarians. 
And libraries play a great role in schools. They are just important as nurses or psychologists. A librarian is not just some luxury or extra. It is not an inconvenient expense but an urgent necessity in schools. The leaders of the strike should have been bolder in insisting that  librarians be returned to schools.
The attitudes of some officials reminds me an incident I recently read in a Russian history book. During the 19th century, the local government in Suzdal were punished by government officials for daring to allocate 50  rubles for building a  Russian library. Two noble woman were arrested for teaching illiterate peasants in their free time. All this was part of the crude counter reforms of Alexander the Third and Nicholas the Second which ultimately led to the revolution. The philistine attitude of so many people who were opposed to libraries was summed up by the crude saying: 'You can't eat books'.  But in Chicago the unmentioned saying should be: "Books won't help you subsidize real estate projects'. 
Libraries are imperative. We urgently need a librarian in every school. Too often people share a misconception of libraries being dull, dreary and pointless places. A grim silence reigns in them as they are not part of this world. They are seen as belonging to 'the other world.' Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, a library can be an alluring and enchanting place. Libraries don't just offer a quiet place to study or books, but organize storytelling sessions where children can tell and listen to stories, writer workshops , art exhibitions and a place where people can gather to make friends with each other. A library is not just a place to read books. It can be a warm and thriving community. 
I recall a kind librarian who visited my school to give a talk on his profession. He asked pupils, "Which is more important ; books or people?" And then he warned, "The correct answer is people." His words have haunted me ever since. Because libraries are not just about books, but about caring for readers. My Aunt Betty once told me how a library was the only place of refuge she could go to get some peace from her strict father. So often a library might be one of the few refuges where children can enjoy some peace away from a tense family situation.
When I visited a local library called the Platonov library near Sokol in Moscow I was amazed at what I could see. The library was beautiful. On display one could only marvel at the beautiful photos on display, the pictures and the poems written by children as well as courses available for people of all ages. You could just feel boundless positive energy around the place. That is why we need the librarian as much as the physical education teacher or nurse. Both complement and assist  each other rather than compete with each other. Doing sport helps you read a book better and reading books can also inspire you to physically keep on the move and perform exercises. 
In some old schools of the nobility one of the exercises which students had to perform was to walk around in an erect position with a book on your head. The exercise was meant to help children develop straight spines. And this would at least help some of them alleviate if not avoid later back pain in old age. So although you can't eat books they can help you to straighten your spine. It sounds very practical! The role of the librarian can be priceless. You just can't measure it in terms of dollars or gold. We must  never give up the struggle to give librarians back their jobs.  

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Strike Ends!

Strike Ends! - But Was it a Win for Teachers?
By Jim Vail

CTU Presidents Karen Lewis and Jesse Sharkey have led the latest CTU teacher strikes

The Chicago Teachers Strike finally came to a crashing end after an historic 10 day walkout, the longest teachers strike since 1987.

The union and its supporters are going to say it was a win.

The opposition and those with high hopes will say it was not.

And that was reflected in the vote - 364 - 242 to end the strike.

So the union was a bit divided when they voted on ratifying the tentative agreement. 

Chicago Teachers Union CTU President Jesse Sharkey stated that the delegates vote on the contract, that he is not here to sell the contract.

But he then went on to sell the contract - saying repeatedly it would be a risk to strike for another week or so with no guarantee we would get more in the contract. But he didn't sell it hard, he knew people would be disappointed.

CTU Vice President Stacy Gates played politics - putting a tweet on the board for the delegates to show that the Speaker and the Governor have agreed to support an Elected School Board. 

Another political promise?

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on empty promises of supporting the neighborhood schools and adding more social workers and nurses, straight from the CTU playbook. When it came down to putting her pledges in writing - she refused until the union and the strike forced her to put some things in writing (about $400 million in extra staffing and support for the schools).

She promised to invest in the South and West Sides that have been neglected, and now in office she is fighting against activists who sued the Lincoln Yards $1.2 billion TIF where tax money to help those "blighted" areas is instead going to a wealthy development company called Sterling Bay. She gave these guys everything they wanted in writing.

She also campaigned for an elected school board and then immediately stopped it. The union has a right to be furious with her.

So the strike helped expose the lies of politicians, and the fight between the people 99% and the billionaires 1% who supported Lightfoot's campaign. It was an eye opener to teachers who voted for Lightfoot based on her lies.

The union leadership organized and ran a very successful strike to fight for better schools. They are to be commended for that.

But the union leadership also plays a dirty political game that they say they have to in order to get anything in this system.

So it was disappointing to hear our leaders say Mayor Lightfoot was fanatical, or religious, a true believer - who wanted a five-year contract (crazy for that long since she can do a lot of damage by closing a lot more schools in her alliance with development), no extra prep time for elementary school teachers (this preserved the 'longer school day' that she they say has led to higher graduation rates) and no change to the Reach teacher evaluation system used to fire lots of teachers at a time of extreme teacher shortages.

What was the union zealous about? What exactly were we all willing to not go back to school until we got it?

The union framed it as a cap on class sizes - we got some good stuff in writing, far from perfect, a nurse in every school, every day (look close at the contract wording!), veteran pay (not that much considering $25 million over five years) and extra pay for Para Professionals (a definite win the union and teachers can be proud of). They forced CPS to increased the sports budget by 35%, adding $5 million to a meager $15 million was a win for city athletics.

It was very inspiring to hear many high school delegates say that their schools still wanted to strike to support of the elementary schools getting a 30 minute prep period each day, to ensure a better school day. Solidarity!

This contract is a reflection of the ruling class attack on public education that was at the apex when President Barack Obama took office in 2008 and implemented the Race to the Top.

The teachers unions supported President Obama (the newly elected CORE leadership was able to abstain from an endorsement, though former CTU President Karen Lewis pushed for it).

Like one of the many colorful signs said during the teachers protests - Unlike Burger King, you can't have it both ways!

But ultimately politics played a very big role here. It almost became a pissing match between the Mayor and the CTU. Nobody wanted to lose - within the box they were playing.

As the great political philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky says, in the American system you put everything within a box - and within that box you can have some very rigorous debate and free speech. But in this system you are not allowed to go outside that box.

So this strike won't change the ugly reality we live in today - where over the past 30 years or so the 1% have accumulated 21 trillion dollars, while the rest of us have lost 900 billion dollars.

It is a fight not only for teachers, but all of us!

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Fichter Sex Case

Sex Abuse Gone Crazy
By Stephen Wilson

Editors Note:  Teachers have been documenting a workplace of fear in the Chicago Public Schools as teachers have been investigated for any little accusation of sexual abuse. Most cases have been thrown out, but many educators have suffered by being taken out of the classroom, or forced to attend hearings. It's safe to say the Chicago Tribune - a pro-business publication that hates unions and public education - lead the witch hunt after featuring a series of sex abuse cases. Our news blog would like to feature the stories you do not read in the mainstream press owned by the 1 percent. The stories about higher up officials who get away with sex abuse, and teachers like Jennifer Fichter, a teacher sentenced to 22 years in prison for having sex with a 16-year-old student. Had she crossed north into Georgia where 16 is legal consent, she would have been a free woman. 
Jennifer Fichter, an American English teacher who received the draconian 22 year sentence for having consensual but illicit sex with three 17 year old students has been languishing in prison for five years. But her valiant supporters are in no mood to give up on her. 
"Anything you are willing to do to help me gain my freedom is so appreciated. Thank you " states part of a letter sent from her to well-wishers and activists who have been persistently pursuing a relentless campaign for her release. 
For those who are unaware of the case, Jennifer Fichter was an English teacher in Polk County, Florida, who was arrested by Lake land Police in April 15th 2014 and charged with sexual battery with three 17 year old students. She was found guilty, receiving an incredible sentence of 22 years imprisonment. This was followed in April 2017 where she was sentenced to a 3 year concurrent sentence. The injustice of this sentence provoked an outcry, especially in Russia where she retains enormous sympathy and support. Almost as many as 77,000 people signed her petition. 
What provoked the wrath of many people was that her sentence of 22 years even surpassed the 21 year sentence granted to a deranged fascist mass murderer who who killed 77 people and wounded over a 100. What is more, while in many other countries, the usually deemed  appropriate punishment would be to dismiss such a teacher. The severe sentence and attempts by some to demonize her as a 'pedophile', 'maniac', 'pervert' and 'kidnapper' only reinforced the belief that she was a victim of some religious moral witch hunt. Critics of the sentence regard the case as an example of 'legal despotism ', 'petty tyranny' and 'United States legal tyranny'. A Russian teacher, Aleksi Kutnetsov, stated : "This is a repressive sentence, basely, extremely cruel and hypocritical ". Another indignant supporter complained "She is not a maniac, pervert or pedophile. She never raped, beat up or killed any children. Contrast this with the case of a Norwegian Neo Nazis." 
However, the supporters of the Free Jennifer Fichter campaign which can be found on Face book are anxious that with the passage of time, her case can be forgotten. The campaign might run out of steam. A spokes person on the site warned: "The worst news is that Jennifer has been in prison for five years.
If initially Jennifer's case caused a public outcry, in the world, now it has slowly begun to forget about it. That's sad. Unfortunately, the petition on the website by Denis Shirynaev , which has collected nearly 77,000 signatures has been closed by site administration. Why, we do not know, and Shiryaev doesn't know. But there's another person on this site in support of Jennifer, author Mike Brandner. There are only 633 signatures. Please sign it ". 
The campaign appeals to supporters and activists not only to sign the petition, but write a letter asking for Jennifer's pardon to Florida governor Ron De Santis and directly to President Donald Trump. They even provide addresses:
             Ron De Santis
             https:// www.Flgov.
             Com/email-the governor/
             Donald Trump
The campaign also urges supporters to write to any famous people they know in politics, or art as well as U.S. ambassadors all around the World. The activists are far from being naive. They claim 'letters of support of her will not lead to an immediate positive result. But we can draw public attention to such a terrible and unfair sentence. We can find an influential person who will feel sympathy for Jennifer and in the end it will have an effect. '
Of course, the activists and advocates have long pondered over which legal procedure might be the most effective in securing her release. Some have suggested the need to appeal to the Supreme Court on the fact that the case not only violated the constitutional separation of religion and the law, but entails cruel and severe  treatment which is prohibited by the Constitution. Ernest Taylor states, " This punishment does not fit the crime. It is totally railroading and a violation of church and state '.
'Let's not forget about Jennifer and help her.' declare activists. We certainly won't forget. We will do our best to help her!
{Editor's comment. Second City Teachers covered this case in two articles dated July 20 ,2015, and February 28, 2016}

Saturday, October 26, 2019

TIF Storybook

TIF Storybook Reading
Video Posted by Ed Hershey

This cute video posted by Ed Hershey during the Chicago Teachers Strike features a delegate reading a children's version storybook based on the story Are You My Mother? where a little bird is looking all over for its mother, asking different animals until it finally finds its mother.

In this version written by teachers and former public school students, a little girl is looking for her mayor so she can get a nurse, social worker, librarian and other support staff in each school like in the surrounding suburbs. She runs into important looking men and women like billionaire Penny Pritzker who tell the little girl, no the city is broke and cannot give money to the schools for those basic necessities because they took the TIF or Tax Increment Financing money for their hotels, businesses, Navy Pier, or luxury condos, and there's no more money for the schools. The little girl does find the mayor in the end, and Mayor Lightfoot finally tells her what every city person who cares about education wants to hear ...