Burns, Booze and Sweat: A Recap of the 2011 SOS March in DC

Matt Damon at the SOS March, July 30, 2011 - Taken with my crappy Blackberry camera

Nothing is more awkward than confronting about a thousand people with nametags…and you don’t have one.

To be honest, I didn’t get to the SOS Conference at American University until Day 2, on Friday. Careening into the AU parking lot at quarter to ten in the morning, my mind was awash with witty remarks to excuse my lateness…

(“After the trooper guffawed in laughter, I got a warning and here I am!”)

Yet I just caught the end of the opening remarks as a wall of people collided with me. A mix of earnest do-gooders, professional malcontents, old gray-haired 60’s Bolshies, young teachers confused about education, old teachers distraught about education, as well as assorted writers, journalists, bloggers and support staff.

This was my introduction to the Save Our Schools Conference and March. It was a whirlwind of a weekend, exhausting, exhilarating, exasperating all at once.

And yes…there was heavy drinking involved.

Other journalists and bloggers—many far more creative than I—have already written volumes about the weekend. To wit, take a look at James Boutin’s posts on An Urban Teacher’s Education to get a good overview of the daily flow. So, rather than go over a blow-by-blow of the happenings over the weekend, here is a summary of the good, the bad and the embarrassingly ugly of this past weekend:

The Good

Meeting New Folks (and cyber-folks in the flesh) – The great part of this weekend, for me anyway, was the people. I met so many concerned teachers and parents that my head was spinning. Although there was an overwhelming number of folks from Wisconsin (for obvious reasons), there were pretty much marchers from all over the country. In a short list, I met Floridians, Chicagoans, Californians, Ohioans, Wisconsinites, Bostonians (and other Massachusetts folks), Carolinians (North and South), Coloradoans, Washingtonians, New Jerseyans and New Yorkers.

Also, it was wonderful meeting people I only knew in the cyber world, such as Jonathan from jd2718, James Boutin (mentioned earlier) and Sabrina Stevens Shupe, who I knew only from Twitter and whose posts actually roped me into going in the first place. It was a blast meeting all of you.

Sharing reports about the state of education – In our own districts/neighborhoods/towns, we can get very insular about our issues. It was good to see that certain gripes and problems were universal across the US. Overcrowding, overtesting, micromanaging, and lack of support seem to be recurring themes from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.

One particularly great workshop I attended (I went to only one…the drive forced me to the pool and the bar later) concerned Teach for America. It featured two former TFA-ers who left the organization due to differences between the TFA doctrine and the realities of urban education. This is the kind of information that needs to be more widespread. I even gained some sympathy for those TFA-ers struggling through their tenure while their students suffer.

Trading New Ideas – Mind you, this was an activist conference/march, not one about pedagogy. There was very little in the way of new teaching ideas, but a lot of new thought in the realm of activism and publicity about education. In particular, Boutin and I came up with an idea I will share next time—an idea that could really help the cause.

Some of the Speakers – At the march, the usual cast of characters showed up: Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah Maier, Jonathan Kozol, and of course Diane Ravitch. They spoke with the usual verve and academic command of material. As the patron saints of the anti-NCLB movement, Kozol and Ravitch got a huge pop, even though Diane seemed a little out of place rabble-rousing—like the Duc d’Orleans inciting the Paris mob during the French Revolution. Hope she doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Yet two speakers in particular struck me. One was a superintendant of a school district in Texas (I forgot his name—I must’ve been hung over and sunburned) who railed about the need to teach all children. It was great to hear such passion from an administrator for a change. The second, funny enough, was Nancy Carlsson-Paige’s son, Matt Damon (yes, that Matt Damon). He gave a heartfelt, down-to-Earth speech rallying the troops and demonstrating support for teachers. It wasn’t completely polished (remember he started at Harvard and never finished) but it didn’t have to be. Great job.

The Bad

Some of the Other Speakers – this is where the cynical, jaded Mr. D rears his ugly gin-soaked head. As much as I appreciate music and poetry, there was a whole lot of it going around on Saturday—a little too much for this Republican. Some of the truly great poems were the topical ones: a testing rant by Jose Vilson, Taylor Mali’s ode to teachers, and Marc Naison’s rap on education “reform.” Yet the rest…well…let’s just say it wasn’t my taste.

Some of the other speakers on the docket, however, seemed to submarine the cause more than uplift it. One or two speakers in particular called for creating a new party of “workers”, the kind of talk that drives most parents in Middle America into the arms of the Tea Party. Some of the speeches kept straying from the “combating poverty” script and were creeping precariously close to the “class warfare” script.

I know the organizers wanted a variety of ideas and viewpoints, but their goal of 50,000 participants may not be reached with rhetoric like this.

The “Fringe” groups – this is a common phenomenon: whenever a demonstration is held in DC, fringe political groups swarm the outskirts peddling their wares. Socialists, anarchists, Marxists, even the LaRouche people came out of the woodwork. Now I have a trained eye and can spot (and avoid) these guys pretty easily. Yet they did a good job bombarding the other marchers with rhetoric and material, something that Fox News or Reason.com can easily use as an excuse to pigeonhole the movement as a leftist pipe dream.

Furthermore—and I know this was in the best of intentions—the decision of the organizers to allow a certain number of tables to these groups was not the wisest move. It presents the Save Our Schools movement with a big image problem. Even if the goal was to allow the most voices to be heard, the perception (and perception is EVERYTHING in DC and beyond) is that SOS is allied with the “lunatic” fringe.

The Interviews – I took a look at the taping of a few interviews by different media outlets. The CNN interviews were actually pretty refreshing, and somewhat even handed—painting the march as a lighter, festive affair. Others, like reason.tv, took a different approach. They were asking tough, often leading questions about the financial aspects of educating a child—much like a libertarian outlet would be doing.

I’m not knocking the interviewers. Reason.tv has a point of view, and they were looking at the march through their lens. Same with CNN, though they are loathe to admit it. The problem, for the most part, is the interviewees. God bless them, they really showed their passion and drive to save public education. Unfortunately, they also showed their lack of chops when confronting a camera, and it played right into the hands of the enemy.

Reason.tv’s coverage was a case in point. If you looked at their interviews, the crew made a point to find those folks with the most provocative posters (it makes for good TV, after all). Yet often the reasoned argument stopped there. When an interviewer asked an exasperated marcher how much should the government spend on a child’s education, she exclaimed “There should be no limit! A billion dollars…”

Sure, there shouldn’t be a limit on a kid’s education. But an emotional response is what these people want—to paint the Save Our Schools movement as a bunch of ideological intellectual blowhards without common sense. Matt Damon, as heated as he was, I think gave a better response to reason.tv. It was more measured and ultimately more instructive to those who will make the real decisions on education.

The Ugly

The weather – Even the Founding Fathers knew better than to stick around the malarial swamp of the District in July and August. Unfortunately, this is no fault of anyone, just a sad accident of history. Thomas Jefferson convinced (or cajoled, or hoodwinked, or bamboozled) Alexander Hamilton over dinner in 1790 to move the capital to the pestilent shores of the Potomac in exchange for Hamilton’s debt-assumption plan (always about debt).

Since most teachers can only travel in the summer, any march for education usually occurs at the worst time in DC—the true dog days of summer. It was great that the local teachers union provided fans and water for the event. True to my word, I sweated my nuts off—and some other body parts, too—along with adding an additional layer of carcinogen to my West Coast-sunkissed exterior.

The previous night’s tippling certainly didn’t help. Some advice for next year: bring water, sunscreen, and a stiff hair-of-the-dog to chase the shakes away before marching on the Mall to the White House.

Like I said, this wasn’t exhaustive. Yet it pretty much covered my thoughts and observations on the weekend. Next time, we’ll look at possible “next steps” in moving forward from here.

Whew, that was a lot. Another drink, everyone?

 

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