Friday, October 31, 2014

Reporting vs. Blogging

Reporting vs. Blogging
By Jim Vail

I am the editor of Second City Teachers education news blog. 

I am a reporter, but I also run a news blog. What is the difference between reporting and blogging?

I think this is an important question today as more and more people grow disenchanted with regular mainstream media and look for alternative sources of news, such as blogs and other social media forums.

First of all, a reporter is someone who interviews sources or researches for a story that they then write to inform the public. The reporter works for a newspaper, magazine, website or any other online or offline news source.

So when a friend of mine said my blog was not a usual blog, he meant that I am doing regular reporting that one sees in a newspaper, not a blog.

Blogs usually just re-post news stories from other sources and comment on the topic. For example, in the Michael Klonsky Small Talk news blog, he features news stories from the Sun Times, Chicago Tribune or other mainstream news outlets, and then comments on it. 

I will report on a news story by interviewing people and then write up my own story. Of course, this takes work and should be compensated. I do report first hand from events like the Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates meetings. 

I also have a top-notch journalist friend reporting on education and politics from Russia. 

I will at times comment on news stories, and write up what I hear from teachers, students and parents throughout the city. 

The key here is a reporter must check and source his facts, while a blogger is not required to.

I'm sure there are different reasons why people blog. I do not trust the mainstream media and do not see a totally independent education news source out there, so I present my news site for teachers and others interested in an alternative view about our corrupt political system. 

I for one do not read many blogs because as I said they are mostly commentaries about the news. I prefer to read the original report. Blogs can be careless and free with the facts. In other words, a newspaper has its reputation on the line when the facts are wrong. A blog has only the writer's vanity to guide it.

That is not to say you should trust the mainstream media any more than a left or right leaning blog. While the writer's reputation is on the line, readers should understand every source has a bias toward something. Look at the person running the news site, and even more importantly, look at the money behind him or her to make the site happen.

Marketing and selling a news site that can earn thousands or millions of followers can be powerful. But still many successful online media ventures have failed. It is not easy to make a buck in this industry.

Anything independent (meaning not connected to a powerful interest with money) is mostly marginalized and not well read. So there are powerful alternative media forums that people should read, but they don't necessarily have huge readership because the business model doesn't allow for it.

Which brings us back to the original question - blogging or reporting. Everyone can blog who can write, but not everyone can report who can write. It is important to understand this difference in today's social media environment, and critically evaluate all media around us.  

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Social Media

Facebook Versus Twitter
By Jim Vail

In this day and age of social media - everything seems to keep evolving, at breakneck speed.

Let's take Facebook. Facebook has over 1 billion registered users. That is why Mark Zuckerberg is a multi-billionaire and the Chicago Public Schools demand its students pass exams lauding his success.

But I know many of us have simply burned out. We would be posting constantly, and then suddenly collapse.

There are the sprinters who run real fast, then stop. Then there are the cross country runners, who post just enough on a regular basis, for the long haul. 

I believe you have to treat this social media carefully. For example, do you post family pictures for friends and send out funny videos, as well as post critical political articles.  

Facebook users did not realize that personal information they thought they were only sharing with close 'friends' was going out to the general public. 

Facebook also tried to fight parents who did not want their children's images used to promote products. 

As Julian Assange of Wikileaks infamously said, it is the perfect forum for the government to track all of our personal information.

I decided that Facebook would be a good forum to promote my Second City Teachers news blog. However, I do not think it is worth my time to be constantly on this social network. Much of it is silly stuff that is not serious.

So I went next to Twitter. I finally got a Twitter account after I finally figured out what this social media forum is all about. It is definitely a more serious network to post articles and frame intellectual debates. 

In fact, I notice that I regularly read my Twitter account to see who I think are the best minds out there in reporting and education. 

For example, I follow Tim Meegan - a brilliant teacher activist running for alderman who teaches at Roosevelt High School. What he posts I read because he is the type of leader we need.

I also follow Mark Ames in the world of investigative reporting. I knew Mark back in Russia in the 1990s when we were both reporters. His writing and reporting is brilliant and I would always make sure I would read him where ever he was published. He is a true independent who says and writes it like it is, versus his sell-out partner Matt Taibbi, formerly of The Rolling Stone, whose writing, while also brilliant at times, was curbed because he worked for a popular liberal magazine.

Twitter is kind of like the best hits. Just like you no longer have to buy the album just to listen to one song, I no longer have to painfully log into news websites where I don't want to read most of what they publish. It feels almost liberating.

In my next article I will take a closer look at the world of blogging versus reporting.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Q&A with Tammie V!

Second City Teachers Interviews Tammie Vinson for Alderman!
By Jim Vail

Second City Teachers news blog spoke with another teacher candidate for alderman on the South side Tammie Vinson. She shared her vision of a better Chicago. Second City Teachers will be profiling the teachers running for aldermen in the Chicago City Council.

The CTU's Tammie Vinson for alderman!

Second City Teachers:       Can you tell us about your background? How long have you been teaching? Where and what do you teach?

Tammie Vinson:    I'm started teaching  in 1999 in Bellwood, then came to Chicago in 2002. I teach special education now at  Oscar Depriest since 2013 after Robert Emmet was closed. I have been active in the union as a delegate, then member of the executive board.  I am a member of the Black Caucus and CORE. I have served as teacher rep on the LSC of two schools and I am on the education committees of Action Now and the NAACP. 
I have one son and a grandson who live with me in the 28th ward where I have lived since 2003.

Second City Teachers:       Why did you decide to run for alderman?

Tammie V.                            I decided to run for alderman because I believe that all incumbents who are not representing the interests of the people in their wards need to be challenged.  The pattern of voting with the mayor without considering the impact of legislation is a problem for me. 

Second City Teachers:        What is the current alderman not doing right? What would you change?

Tammie V.:          Currently Jason Ervin has a record of voting with the mayor 100% of the time. Although he came out to support schools in his ward, he has not taken an active role in lobbying the state for an elected school board. Many people in the ward are dissatisfied with his efforts and want someone to engage them and fight for their interest. We lack jobs, quality schools and have too high a prison population in the 28th. Ervin has a reputation of catering to the elderly based on their voting patterns. Young people in the ward feel slighted. 

Second City Teachers:       What do you feel is important to change in terms of education policy?

Tammie V.          I would consider the impact of proposed legislation and go to established precinct committees to gain insight into the concerns of the community.  I would work to insure that quality public schools are the norm for the students of the ward, as well as the city. 
In education, the trend of testing to close schools, fire teachers and label students is harmful. I would seek support of a system that is family and student friendly. Schools should be community hubs that foster learning and support students and their parents as needed. The state of schools now is alienating, teachers resent  students because of test scores, principals resent teachers because of the networks and board and parents are being ignored in the advocacy for their children. 

Second City Teachers:       What do you think about the Democrats?

Tammi V.            The Democratic party assumes that they will receive working class, black votes. This has lead to complacency and disregard. The party is promoting policies that are not in our best interest. The 'lesser of two evils' seems to be their rally cry.  I am running as an independent.  

Second City Teachers:         Do you think the CTU should have endorsed Gov. Quinn?

Tammie V.       Although I personally am not voting for Quinn, I understand CTU's reasoning in endorsing. I am not sure Rauner would do us anymore harm than we are currently experiencing. 

Second City Teachers:      What are the most important issues? 

Tammie V.         The issues I am focusing on are living wages, quality public schools,  end to outsourcing of city services, alternative revenue sources and affordable housing. 

Second City Teachers:       How can we save public education?

Tammie V.         My belief is that people are not as involved or informed as they could be. My goal would be transparency, supply accurate information to stakeholders and community. Let them make informed decisions about the workings of our schools.  Local control is not an easy task, but who said democracy was easy. Education is too important to let others continually decide what is best for the rest of us. 

Second City Teachers:     What is it like running for alderman?

Tammie V.      Running  for alderman has been exciting, tiring, informative, stressful and overall worthwhile. Some days I feel that I have bitten off more than I can chew, then I meet someone who wants more.  Expecting your elected officials to represent your best interest is not too much to ask. Having safe, quality schools and communities is a right.  I am sure that this is the perfect storm period for change.  Being part of this movement is an honor.  

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Day of the Dead Memory

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) Just recently the Russian Ministry of Justice has filed a claim to the Russian Supreme court to legally dissolve Memorial Society. The case comes up on the 13th of November and its outcome should send strongly profound reverberations through Russia. What is at stake is not only providing respect and remembrance to the victims of   repression but basic human rights to freely discuss and debate what happened in history. Second City Teacher spoke to some representatives of Memorial society.


              Autumn must be the saddest month in Russia! The weather is often forlorn, foggy, rainy and the wind is forever whistling or mourning in melancholic haunting  way. The month also ends with 'Halloween ' or 'The Day of the Dead' where the dead are supposed to surface to haunt or torment the living.

              What added to my sombre mood was an attempt to find some memorial plaques and monuments to the victims of repression. What strikes you is how inconspicuous they
are. Few Russians know of them never mind foreigners!

              Before setting off for Memorial Society I decided to visit some. Perhaps one of the most poignant and powerful monuments in Moscow with powerful images is Chubarov's
granite and metal sculpture to the 'Victims of the Totalitarian regime'. It is located in the 'Park of Sculpture just across the road from Gorky Park. The monument consists of 200 stone heads, in rows, piled on top of each other, staring at you out of barbed wire. The heads have faces which express all the spectrum of emotions; despair, joy, depression, sadness, anguish, agony, astonishment (Why me?') and even hope.

              There  are many thoughtful faces here which are  no doubt still pondering the present fate of Russia.

              Then I visited another monument near Lubansky Square known as the Solovetsky stone memorial. Near the stone one can read a plaque with the words 'During the Years of terror, over 40,000 people were shot in Moscow on groundless political       charges.' It mentions where their bodies were cremated and the two most notorious N.K.V.D. execution sites at Butova and Kommunarka collective farm. In the latter place, construction workers used to hear of the ghosts of the dead who would keep them awake through their screaming and shouting. As many as between 10,000 to 14,000 victims of repression lie buried at Kommunarka farm or dacha. Visiting this park is not straightforward.

               Since it is occupied by an Orthodox Monastery you can't always just drop in but need special permission. Therefore, this hardly represents an accessible park where people can come and lay flowers when they deem it.

               Compared to the very formidable, magnificent and huge Great Patriotic War monuments, the plaques, and memorials to the victims of repression seem scarce, small and discreetly hidden away from the public eye. It is as if Russia finds the monuments embarrassingly awkward. When Anne Applebaum was doing research for her work, 'Gulag ,A History', she discovered four main responses; one of outright hostility, 'it's none of your business,' and, yes it still matters. But the most common response was a silent shrug of the shoulders as if to confess, 'I don't know what to make of this period or how to respond to it'.


                 Whether the Russians try to ignore or forget those times, the scars are still there. The terror affected one out of eight Russians and was no mere sideshow. According to some estimates, around 25 million people were repressed by the Soviets from 1928 to 1953. Of those 25 million people, many were shot by execution squads, some were prisoners in the Gulag camps (as many as 470 camps were dotted all over Russia), some were so called 'Kulaks', some were slave labourers and others deported Crimean Tartars or the Ingush who were deported during the war, which a current exhibition at the Gulag Museum is commemorating.

                 As many as 28 million people may have passed through those camps, settlements and prisons, according to a museum leaflet. However, as the historian Orlando Figes points out in his book, 'The Whisperers':  'In addition to the millions who died, or were enslaved, there were tens of millions, the relatives of Stalin's victims, whose lives were damaged in disturbing ways, with profound social consequences that are still felt today. After years of separation by the Gulag, families could not be reunited easily; relationships were lost; and there was no longer any 'normal life' to which people could return' (Page 31, Introduction, The whisperers, Orando Figes.) 

                 Figes is right! Having spent many years in Russia I have encountered some old people still afraid or uneasy about talking to foreigners and a few who would talk to me in only discreet places while whispering in a low tone of voice. Thankfully, the older people
are becoming less anxious and guarded. It was as if they were afraid the years of repression might just return. When you hear that the Ministry of Justice is attempting to ban Memorial you begin wonder if they might be right.

                 I dropped into the Gulag Museum which displays the photos, possessions, stories and works of art of former prisoners. As I was gazing at some of the photos I recognised one famous Russian actor who I had seen in a lot of spy films. The actor, Georgy Stepanovich Zhzhonov, spent 15 years in a Siberian correction labour camp. His alleged crime? He just happened to meet an American in a train and have a chat with him. When he was released in 1955 his film career took off again when he was asked to play     the roles of Russian security spies and policemen! The K.G. B. even granted him a special award. You can also read of a case where a student was imprisoned because he adored the Russian poet Yesinin. An old security woman asked me, 'Do you have any questions?'

                 Don't ask me why, but I could intuitively tell that a member of her family had suffered during the repression. 

                 'Were any of your relatives victims of the repression?'

                 'Yes, my father, who was a doctor, was executed. They accused him of spying and being part of a 'counter - revolutionary organisation.' Since her eyes started to water with tears, I decided not to be too intrusive.

                 She told me, 'The American and British visitors don't understand the nature of the repression. They of course sympathize, but the Germans understand'.

                 'Do you think Russia might return to those times?'

                 'Yes, I think it is very possible. I have met so many older people who believe Stalin won the war and helped Russia become a great power.'

                 I asked her whether she believed in God and she told me, 'The main point is to be a good person and not how or if you believe in God. I 'm reading an interesting philosopher who mentioned this.' I asked her, 'The philosopher isn't Victor Frank, is it?' She then picked up a book by Victor Frank.

                 The day before yesterday I had dropped into the main offices of Memorial office at Mali Karetny Pereulok in central Moscow. I spoke to a pleasant looking middle aged woman who expressed herself very articulately and potently. She was small with short red hair and very lively with alert eyes. Her name was Olga Rakutko and she seemed happy that they had only recently erected a monument to the 'Thousands of Victims of political repression in Komulnarka between 1937 and 1941.' She showed me a list of the many Russians who had donated money to make this happen.

                 Olga told me that while she was casually leafing through one of Memorials published volumes of the victims of repression she had come across the recorded case of her husband's grandmother ...Until then, her husband had never discovered the fate of his grandmother. She opened the book and I read the entry, 'Balikova Yedokiya, a peasant
1881-1937, semi-literate, arrested on the 20th November 1937 for spying for the Japanese secret services, shot on the 25th December 1937.' Olga stated, 'You see how idiotic those charges are? How can some one who is semi literate in Russian be capable of spying for the Japanese?'

                 His grandfather's father and two brothers and her mother were also apparently arrested. So almost a whole family were put behind bars. 'They were arrested after returning from working on the railways in China,'  Olga told me.


                 According to one survey by the All Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion', in 2005, 42% of Russians wanted the return of a great leader like Stalin and 60% of the respondents over 60 years of age were in favour of a new Stalin. In light of this survey, I asked Olga, 'Do most Russians like Stalin?' She answered 'I don't agree with you that most Russians like Stalin.There is no conclusive research which can tell you how many Russians approve or don't approve of Stalin. What I can say is that I and my family don't like Stalin and the victims of repression don't like him.... Even at huge gathering of war veterans of between 5000-6000 most of them refused to stand up when his memory was ceremoniously evoked. She also told me of a strange case where a Russian was arrested in 1948 on charges of working for the Germans. It all began when he visited a       cinema to watch a war-film and innocuously told his friend, 'How well armed were those German troops in the film.'

                 His friend reported this comment to the police and he was subsequently arrested on charges of having worked for the Germans during the war. But he was 15 at the time of the Great Patriotic war. 'Despite doing twenty years in confinement he told me Stalin was not to blame for his fate because he didn't know what was happening around     him. I couldn't believe it. I know for certain that Stalin was well aware of the terror and was organising it by signing documents which executed many people,' stated Olga.

                 'From what I have heard of Stalin he was very sick. A paranoic. I have read accounts by people who knew him who claimed he constantly lived in fear of being poisoned and would never sit with his back before anyone least he be attacked.' Olga generously spared her time and even gave me free books in Russia. One well written story by Nellie Tachko tells of how she and her brother were thrust into a children's home for orphans following the arrest of her father and mother. Her father was shot and her mother stood by her husband for saying, 'I don't agree with the charges against him'. So she too, was imprisoned for the phrase, 'I don't agree'. The family were reunited and her mother experiences great joy when she succeeds in witnessing her husband's 'rehabilitation.' Olga told me that there are only approximately 100 surviving victims of the repression left in Moscow and most are in their 90 's. She was at pains to point out that the children of the arrested were also 'victims of the repression ' since they were deprived of much required parenthood.

                 I discovered that if I wanted to interview someone about the impending legal case I would have to go to another office. I discovered Memorial society was an umbrella
society for many groups covering around maybe fifty.

                 It has a quite loose and long chained structure and lacks a head office. It is  not only a human rights group which monitors current violations. It has groups that specialise
in doing research about the victims, publishing books, raising money for new monuments, performs an educational role where members educate people and attempt to aid the victims of repression through charity.

                 If you listen to some Russian state channels you might be misled into believing Memorial society is some kind of subversive organisation of 'undesirables' which are           being funded by Americans and therefore represent a threat to Russia's national security. On deeper scrutiny, those charges are so absurd that they border on the insane or surreal. They even echo the irrational charges made against many of the victims of repression we have just heard. In recent days there has been a campaign of disinformation by the government to blacken the reputation of Memorial society by channels such as NTV where they claim the organisers have either links with terrorists or support them. Since 2012, political groups which receive money from abroad have been ordered to register as 'foreign agents' or face a legal ban. The term's insinuation behind the term 'foreign agent' is very insulting and almost accuses you of being a 'traitor'. Now the Ministry of Justice is appealing to the Supreme Court to ban the Memorial society.

                 I asked Aleksandr Cherkasov, the chairman of the board of HRC Memorial, 'Why is the Ministry of Justice making a move to dissolve your organisation?'

                 'They have never offered us an explicit explanation as to why they are taking legal action against us.'

                 I asked him whether he thought that the Society's outspoken views on Ukraine may have something to do with it.

                 'I don't think so. I think the opening of this new case and the war in Ukraine is a coincidence. This case against us has a long history. I think that the case being made against us is all illogical. I can perhaps only describe it as Kafkaesque with maybe a touch of Beckett. Yes, it is true that we got a presidential grant from America in the past, but it does not follow that if we receive a grant from Americans that we are following their will.

                 'They suppose that there is no difference and that is why their case is so illogical. They suppose we want to use this money to bribe and buy people within the Russian Federation.

                  'Of course, we have a complex structure as Memorial society is an umbrella group which encompasses about fifty organisations. But we are calling a future     conference to resolve this structural problem. They tell us that is fine, but are still going to ahead with attempting to ban us. So how can forbidden groups then organise a conference when they'll be already banned? The Ministry of Justice lack  any sense of logic!'

                  'Can you reach a compromise?' I asked. 

                  He retorted, 'Look, could you reach a compromise with people from a mad-house? I think the actions by the Ministry of Justice won't help President Putin's image abroad. It must be embarrassing for him because if the Ministry of Justice goes ahead it will make him look idiotic abroad.'

                  Alex, a jovial and cheerful man told me, 'By the way, we have had a lot of letters of support and many people asking us what they can do to help us. Nevertheless,
the legal outcome of this case remains unclear'.

                  I remember Olga Rakutko stating, 'What happened in Russia could happen in any country in the world. So we can't forget what happened in Russia during the Repression.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Time Rips Teachers!

Time Magazine Rips Teachers - Who Cares?
By Jim Vail

The corporate media has once again slammed teachers with its latest front cover story entitled "Rotten Apples."

The Twittering crowd are up in a twitter over the latest attack on public school teachers, with tweets like, "Can't imagine why any teacher would renew their subscription to Time for Kids," or "There's a shortage of 377,000 teachers & we're trying to find ways to fire more of them."

Well, first of all. Calling out Time Magazine for its latest article on teacher bashing would be like calling out Pravda for lauding the Soviet state once again, or calling Hitler out for stripping more Jews of their due process rights. 

Guys - it's what they does! 

Pravda was a mouth piece for the Soviet State (I love the story my colleague in Moscow told me that when he was a reporter for Time Magazine in 1969. He remembered while stationed in Moscow reading a small tiny paragraph buried on page 9 in Pravda with the headline, 'Man Lands on Moon.').

Hitler was a megolomaniac mass murderer who prided himself on his antisemitism.

We expect these entities to operate the way they do.

So why are people up in arms about Time Magazine's latest attack on the teaching profession? I almost want to cry when I hear calls to cancel subscriptions, send letters, and join American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten and her tweets to stand tall with teachers.

Well, that's what Randi's paid to do, so I get that.

But as for the rest of us - shame on you for even reading and taking Time Magazine seriously! They are merely a mouthpiece of the ruling class hell bent on destroying the last of the great teachers unions. 

Guys, come on. This is what they're supposed to do.

In fact, I would be concerned if the opposite were true. Time Magazine runs a cover story stating we need to defend public schools and public school teachers. 

Conspiracy theories would be running a mile a minute in my head.

But the Joe Blow public would think it normal.

Except it ain't. What we read in the mainstream media represents the 1% views to privatize, tear down and off shore while we the 99% lose our jobs, health benefits and pensions.

And when you read Time, or the NY Times, Washington Post or whoever, that is merely propaganda of the 1%. Wealthy hedge funds or billionaires hell bent on avoiding US taxes and exploiting their workers own the media in this country! 

In fact, it reminds me of why I first started writing for Substance News. I said we need to support our media - the media of public school teachers.

So wake up America and smell the coffee before it's too late! 

Thursday, October 23, 2014


NY Delegates Meeting
By Marjorie Stamberg

 Punchlines from tonight’s D.A. --  ATRs, Philly teachers
This was the first Delegate Assembly of the 2014-2015 school year.
 Two important points came up after Mulgrew's president's report, which I would characterize as the UFT bureaucracy's enchantment with Chancellor Carmen FariƱa.  "Remember all those years with that moron up the street?” said Mulgrew (referring to Joel Klein and the Bloomberg years). Now with a “friend” in Tweed (“call me Carmen”), and the new contract, he said, "teachers have a voice" and the chancellor is telling the principals, "teachers aren't the enemy, they're soldiers in your army.”  Well, the brass and the troops have a very different standpoint, especially when we’re facing a war on teachers and public education.
Plus Common Core, MOSL (Measure of Student Learning, i.e., teacher evals tagged to student test scores), Eva Moskowitz, the ever-expanding number of charters, ATRs, to cite a few of the burning issues.  
Mainly, Mugrew was tracked on UFT phone-banking and doorbell-ringing to get out the Democratic vote in various states and upstate NY (as if that will do us any good, with Cuomo and Obama leading the charge on teachers). The union in the hands of this crowd, far from leading workers' struggle, acts as a pressure group whose fortunes rise and fall according to the requirements of capital.
Two salient points:
Gloria Brandman for MORE put up a motion for an ATR functional chapter. She motivated it extensively, pointing out that the ATRs aren’t going away, that they are denied rights as UFT members, cannot run for union office, can only vote in chapter elections in the school they happen to be in that week in their trek from school to school. 

But as usual whenever a hot issue comes up, the Unity apparatus mobilized to keep this off the agenda at the next meeting.

The UFT leadership has been telling us since 2007 this is a temporary situation.  The reason we have teachers in the ATR pool at all is that the UFT sold out seniority transfer rights in the 2006 contract. And now when they can’t make charges stick against teachers, they ATR them. 

Meanwhile, schools are still closing, including the large comprehensive high schools like Jamaica HS, which has resulted in some of our most experienced and effective teachers wandering like nomads across the city from school to school. And with de Blasio capitulating totally on fighting Eva Moskowitz on charters, the number is sure to grow.

Leroy Barr, UFT assistant secretary and co staff director, speaking against Gloria’s motion was demagogic and just plain wrong.  He argued that the ATRs have full rights because the chapter leaders in whatever school they land for the week will take care of them and treat them like equals. Huh?

How is not having representatives to speak for their interests at the D.A., the union’s highest body, not having a chapter to discuss urgent matters, and not being able to run for union office full rights?   A substantial number of delegates voted to place the issue on next month’s agenda. But there was never any doubt it would fail after the Unity machine fell into line against it.

Mulgrew later said the number of ATRs is down substantially from last year.  I asked, “what’s the number?”  He said in the 300-400 range.  
Philadelphia Schools and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Philly teachers and schools are under attack, as the Republican governor Tom Corbett, in cahoots with the Democratic mayor Michael Nutter, got the school board to break the teachers contract and impose huge contributions on health care, as well as threatening some 5,000 layoffs.  Meanwhile Philly schools have been heavily charterized.  AFT president Randi Weingarten went to Philly for a teachers’ rally last week and the union filed a court suit which won an injunction to put a stay on the union-busting plans.

So there was a motion for UFT to stand in solidarity with Philly teachers. Michael Friedman from P2G spoke in favor of the motion.   I then spoke in favor but wanted to put some teeth in it.  My points were:

  • Corbett is a nasty right-wing governor, for sure. In addition to attacking the teachers, he has just signed into law a special bill to deny free speech rights and silence America’s foremost political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, the famous black journalist, author of Live From Death Row, has been unjustly imprisoned for decades.
 [This is now referred to as the “Mumia Bill,” pushed by the Philly Fraternal Order of Police.  This law silences any prisoner in Pennsylvania whose words allegedly cause the prisoners’ alleged victims “mental anguish.”  It was rushed into law 11 days after Mumia gave an eloquent commencement address quoting John Dewey and Paulo Freire to grads at Goddard College where Mumia earned his degree (while in prison).   This is a blatant violation of the First Amendment.]

  • I said the attack on the Philly teachers’ union came not only from Republican Corbett but was a bipartisan drive of both Republicans and Democrats. That there should be a strike by all of Philly labor against these attacks.  I wanted to amend the UFT’s motion of “solidarity” to read “solidarity action” with Philly teachers, saying the UFT should state that “layoffs make us sick.”  (Like in Wisconsin where the whole 2011 mobilization was sparked by a Madison teachers’ sickout).  Mulgrew jumped on the last part, saying you couldn’t make an amendment if you were speaking in favor of a motion, you had to get recognized to make an amendment.  But the point got out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Scholarship Benefit Show!

Charter School Scholarship Dinner Benefit!
By Jim Vail

The Alliance of Progressive Teachers at Latino Youth, a newly formed unionized teaching force at the charter high school in Little Village, is hosting a Scholarship Fundraiser at Martin's Corner at 2056 W. 22nd Pl. this Friday, October 24, from 4 - 8pm.

The third annual fundraiser has helped raise funds in the past to pay for up to a semester at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

There will be live music, dinner and a stand up comedian Jaime de Leon, said to be a very funny guy.

"You'll have a great time, and know that you are supporting a great cause, helping to pay for college to make their dreams come true," said Latino Youth teacher and delegate Chris Baehrend. "Plus you get to suck down some delicious, home-style comfort food!"

The cost is $25 at the door for dinner and the show!

This years's proceeds will go toward a scholarship for one or more of the the high school's most academically-gifted students with greatest financial need, Baehrend said. The previous winner went on to a full scholarship to UIC.

Baehrend and his teachers fought a long battle to get their staff recognized as a union as part of the Alliance of Charter School Teachers or ACTS, which is under the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

Charter school teachers cannot become members of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

State of Russian Teachers

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) - According to a recent survey by the Centre of Social Labour Rights, more and more Russian teachers are taking part in more radical forms of protests such as unofficial strikes, hunger strikes and in some cases, blocking roads or ways. It is not just Mexican teachers who can bring a city to a halt but angrily frustrated Russian school teachers. According to the institute, last year witnessed 277 acts of protest.

               Those protests not only included metal workers, miners and doctors but also teachers.


               Some events leave an indelible imprint on your psyche. It is hard to shake off the memory. The Russian English teacher walked straight into the classroom just before I was about to teach, slumped down and immediately started remorsely snoring. It was embarrassing. It could have been worse. She might have fallen asleep during my lecture and I would be later accused of 'boring her to death'. She was so fatigued that I even felt obliged to attain a pillow. A Russian mathematics teacher called Dmitri Shnol, from the school 'Intellectual', also had a similar experience. When he noticed just how worn out and ill many of his Russian teachers were, he said, 'I wanted to send all of them to a sanitorium to recover'.

               Like me, he noticed that the overwhelming number of Russian teachers are mentally and physically exhausted.

               They are grossly overworked and abused. And with the endless number of novel experiments and constant changes being proposed, they are much more likely to be stressed out than during the Soviet period where work was much more straightforward, stable and simple. According to feedback from the maths teachers he was instructing, Dmitri found that the average age of teachers was from 45-50 and that at a minimum they had 24 hours a week, and many had more than 30 hours a week, not to mention the time spent       preparing lessons, marking homework, attending training courses and speaking to parents. Dmitri observed that the vast majority of teachers were either late middle-aged or old and had been teaching for 25, 30 or even 35 years.

                There were practically no men amongst the teachers (2-3%).

                 In my class of approximately 40 student teachers there were only two young female teachers and one man. In fact, as Dmitri succinctly summed it up, 'Young male         teachers don't go to school.' They are a rare event.

                (In Scotland, half my secondary school teachers were men.) For teachers like Dmitri this represents an anxiously disturbing trend as 'From generation to generation there
will be a growth in infantile lads because the schools lack men as a role model which could serve as an example of how to live. This plays a colossally negative role in Russian             society and its purpose.' The facts are that children do need clearly distinct role models to emulate or they can easily identify with drug-dealers or criminals whom they might idealise as 'real men'. Prison becomes a test of manhood to pass rather than a place to be avoided. So children enter a prison as 'a rite of passage'.

                 It is not difficult to see why the teaching profession is no longer attracting people. Low pay, growing stress, unclear expectations, a poorer definition of their job description
brought about by new increasingly conflicting demands from officials, parents and teachers and constant bashing.

                 New topics and new reforms are constantly being introduced by officials without any genuine thought or careful consultation. For instance, we have just heard that the           English General state exam will now encompass an oral test and that all the Russian school students will have to write a Russian composition. How long and what exactly this composition will consist has not been made distinctly clear to most teachers. But many teachers feel many of their students are not up to it and that it has been introduced too late.

                 Many teachers lament the passing of the Soviet education system which proved much more effective and its demands were much clearer than the confusion and chaos of the new general Russian state exam system. They yearn for the old Soviet system which worked better because it was simpler.

                 The payment of teachers has become more arbitrary and absurd than in the Soviet system. Now in some state schools some teachers will be paid a lot more than others for the wrong reasons and the number of hours distributed to teachers grossly uneven. So one teacher might have a stavka of 18 and another of just 10.

                 One English teacher Olga told me her hours had been cut and she has been given the most difficult student groups which another teacher is loathe to take. 'I have spent
all my time attending teacher parent meeting, putting on plays and attending this or that conference only to be told this group is being taken away from me with no explicit explanation as to why is this the case'. So a teacher no longer knows where she stands or what her stavka will be each new year.

                 What is one of the most difficult things for older teachers to endure is that their long and wide experience is not valued and that they are being asked to use a new novel methodology which is less effective and untried.

                 So they go to a training course and then ignore everything proposed at a session. This is because a teacher with 20 - 30 years of classroom experience knows intuitively what
works with children and what does not. They don't require the advice of a young graduate who knows a lot of theory but has not spent much time in the classroom.

                 One of the most striking trends in Russian schools is the tendency to 'rate' schools according to the best exam results as well as the commercialization of schools.
So you constantly read in the Russian press of 'the top best schools', when in actual fact the reality is the 'best exam results obtained for the general state exams'.

                 Unfortunately, many readers often won't make such subtle distinctions drawing the worst conclusions.

                 One school is expected to compete against another and even worse, a teacher competes against another. So instead of the aim of school being to create better citizens who serve the public community, the main aim is to turn children into businessmen or women whose only interest in to make as much money as possible.

                 The old school collective with its warm atmosphere of sharing and generosity begins to fall apart. I have seen this in some private schools I taught in where teachers no longer share ideas with others, hide useful textbooks for their exclusive use and try to monopolise resources. Then if life is not stressful enough they use gossip to weaken the reputation of other teachers. So the collective breaks up and becomes 'atomised' and a teacher walks in and out of a staff room like an  'awkwardly pale ghost'.

                 FIGHTING BACK

                 Not all Russian teachers are accepting a situation where they are left increasingly powerless, impotent and without any voice. It is true that the quickening of reform has           shattered and shocked some teachers into a mute silence or even out of the profession. Others are beginning to protest and join unions. They are asking themselves, 'Why should our wages be cut? Why should we do so much unpaid labour? For what purpose do we have an education system?' Some don't want to remain in the major union 'The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions' which compromises and collaborates with
employers rather than defends workers. According to figures, 25 million workers belong to trade unions and 20 million are in the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions. But because this union even conspires with managers to sack striking workers, many workers
are abandoning this union. According to the Institute of Social Labour Rights, this Union is losing 1 million members every year. It is shrinking rapidly and set to diminish further and further as disillusioned workers turn to new Unions such as 'Solidarity', a union which
defends university teachers, and the union 'Teacher', which protects school teachers. Those two unions are proving more militant and assertive in defending teachers. They will have a hard job because many public workers are not viewed by the state as having the legal right to resort to striking. As in practically most countries, the state does not defend the rights of poor and abused teachers regardless of how just their cause is. They preserve the right of  the rich and powerful who thrive on a culture of bribery, corruption and commerce.

                 According to Yelena Gerasimov of the Institute of Social Labour Rights,' During the past twenty years in which I have been involved in labour disputes, in the Russian
Federation there has not been one or ten strikes which the courts have recognised as legal.' Of course this does not mean those strikes were all technically 'illegal' but only that the courts 'perceived' that those strikes were against the law. With this in mind it is amazing  to find how increasingly courageous Russian workers are becoming in the face of risking their livelihoods and even lives by protesting. When workers feel promise after promise is being broken and they might be made redundant anyway it becomes more understandable.

                 Protest is no longer a luxury but an urgent necessity!