Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Fast Times At "Regnef" High

I really shouldn't have missed this.

I first saw this article at Education Wonks. It details the rather miserable experience a teacher had when he decided to vent his frustrations on a blog, Fast Times At Regnef High. The blog has been removed, but Regnef is a pseudonym for Fenger, Fenger HS being a poorly performing school on Chicago's south side. Here's a link to their state report card.

The teacher started out with an interesting idea: blog in the voice of the school building itself. He soon dropped that pretense, however, and revealed he was a teacher at the school. The staff and students discovered who it was who created the blog after the blogger himself revealed his work to two of his colleagues.

This turned out to be a rather bad idea, as the students unleashed all sorts of violent and vitriolic threats against the teacher. As detailed by the Chicago Tribune (reg. req'd):

He labeled his students "criminals," saying they stole from teachers, dealt drugs in the hallways, had sex in the stairwells, flaunted their pregnant bellies and tossed books out windows. He dismissed their parents as unemployed "project" dwellers who subsist on food stamps, refuse to support their "baby mommas" and bad-mouth teachers because their no-show teens are flunking.

He took swipes at his colleagues, too--"union-minimum" teachers, literacy specialists who "decorate their office door with pro-black propaganda," and security officers whose "loyalty is to the hood, not the school."

Clearly this teacher was fed up with the school, and each of the things he's described I have either seen for myself or have had painfully described to me by teachers in the Chicago Public Schools. Pointing these things out had a negative effect on the self-esteem of the students, resulting in their acting out just a tad:

This week, after returning from spring break, the students read how they were depicted and flamed the blog with profane threats and righteous indignation toward the teacher.

It would seem to me that "profane threats" and "righteous idignation" are mutually exclusive, but perhaps not. The teacher, citing fears for his safety, has not returned to the school.

What interests me though is how the what resulted from the discovery of this blog says about the persistent disconnect between the realities of Chicago schools and the things that students and teachers believe about those schools.

First, the principal says some interesting things about the effect that the blog has. Again from the Tribune:

"There is a silver lining," [Fenger Principal William Johnson] said. "It brought Fenger together." Johnson said he plans to hold student forums next week to discuss the blog, both the antagonism it revealed and the challenges that need to be fixed.

"He was painting a picture of desperation, and I had a problem with the generalizations he made," Johnson said. "But some of it was true, and that was the tragedy. If he had gone about it in a different way, it could have been a great forum."

So, basically, the principal acknowledges that the blogger told the truth, acknowledges that the problems he had cited had been ignored, but criticizes the teacher for being angry at the problems and the fact they were ignored. He should actually be thanking the teacher.

A student at the school does something similar:

"These are things that happen at Fenger--fights, drug-dealing, gangs--it happens here like it does at other high schools. I already feel bad when I tell people I go to Fenger, because they go, `Ooooh, that's a bad school.' But there are still people here trying to do something with their lives," said Ivy [Latasha Ivay, Senior Class Vice President], who has been accepted at the University of Illinois this fall and plans to study biology.

Good for Ms. Ivy for getting accepted to the University of Illinois, but she reveals a problematic line of thought, one that will contribute to the problems the blogger described. Pointing out that Fenger is no worse than others schools a) only tells us how enormous the problems are for Chicago, and b) completely ignores the particular problems Fenger is having. Universalizing the presence of gangs, for instance, means that Fenger never has to deal with the particular gangs that are in their school. What's happening at Fenger is important not because it is representative of what happens at a lot of schools, but because it is specifically happening to Fenger, and the community at Fenger has to find a way to deal with it.

Another student criticized the blog:

Gerald Rogers, 17, said the blog was a "big topic everywhere." He was struck by how many students read the site and posted comments. But he still found the teacher's observations "racist and derogatory."

It is unlikely to happen, but it would be nice if the student first decided whether the observations were true before he decided to use America's favorite shortcut for avoiding a problem: calling someone a racist.

A quote from a teacher closes out the article:

"Although many of our students adopt tough facades and insist they are grown, they are still children: sensitive children who still crave guidance, encouraging words and positive reinforcement," wrote teacher Gina Miski. "Was the author present when students, having read the blog, dejectedly hung their heads with pained, angry tears stinging their eyes?"

This blogger would like to kindly ask Ms. Miski one simple question: What color is the sky in your world?

Seriously, this stock description of high school students is so stale and phony it hardly deserves comment. It is hardly true about any high school student, much less true at a school with so many problems that it literally drove a teacher over the edge. Does this teacher know, or even care, who her students are, or are these kids just fodder for her moral preening?

Also, please note that left out of the list of things these students crave are the words "education", "knowledge", and "academics."

A few others besides the Education Wonks have chimed in:
JoanneJacobs.com -- Anger at Regnef High
This Week In Education -- Blog Shines Harsh Light On Struggling High School - And Its Author

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