Response to Joshua Tang’s Response to my TFA Article

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*-my notes in plain text-*

I would like to respond to Ms. Lucy Griswold’s opinion piece on Teach For America — “Teach [For] America can’t offer real solutions to education inequality” — published on Feb. 4, 2014. Griswold’s piece presents an interesting perspective. However, she makes a few errors.

I should say that Teach For America has made it possible for me to take advantage of amazing opportunities. I was part of the recruitment team that helped the University of Texas at Austin become the top contributing university to the 2013 corps. I also took advantage of the opportunity to intern on the recruitment team at TFA’s Manhattan headquarters. Griswold makes a few errors in her opinion piece. One of the most glaring is that she claims “TFA was a way to [teach in an under resourced district] while getting a master’s degree for free.” The link that she provides debunks her claim. TFA corps members may receive $5,350 grants in AmeriCorps funding that can be used to help pay for a graduate degree or repay qualified student loans. That is hardly receiving a master’s degree “for free.” It is true, however, that many TFA corps members are required to or choose to complete a M.Ed. while they teach.

I was aware at the time this article was published of how exactly TFA participants pay for their Masters and certification programs.  That’s why the hyperlink was there.  This process is complex, and can vary by region and participant as you pointed out.  Had I applied to TFA, I would have preferenced cities where these costs would effectively be taken care of. TFA makes this easy, posting detailed information about expenses for each of its partner cities.  In the sentence Tang is pulling from, which is inaccurately summarized, I was trying to make this clear by specifically pointing to my unique interests in the program, not those of perhaps the general prospective applicant.

Additionally, when I worked as a full-time intern in DC Public Schools last semester, in an office dominated by TFA alum, this was the exact verbiage they used when encouraging me to apply to the organization.  It seems that for many participants, the funds from compensation for labor, grants and scholarships pay for these degrees, creating a relatively accessible avenue to advanced education for those who otherwise would have had more difficulties.

Second, Griswold mistakenly attempts to link Teach For America to an attempt to “[apply] business practices such as increasing competition, emphasizing data and evaluation and promoting efficiency in the educational sphere.” Her argument is based on TFA “being funded in large part” by the Walton Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  The assertion “TFA is funded in large part” is false, and the link between those two groups’ donations and corporatization is not clear.

The full quote would have revealed that I wrote, “funded in large part by wealthy benefactors such as.”  I did not say that these two foundations were singularly responsible for funding the large part of organization as Tang suggested.  These were merely examples of the prevailing types of donors.  More on this below…

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is listed along with Arizona State University, The Dream Fund at UCLA and the UCLA Foundation as “Champion Investors.” The Walton Foundation is listed as providing at least $5 million in support of TFA in fiscal year 2011. However, at least $10 million was donated to TFA from states and the federal government. TFA receives donations from a wide range of groups and does not seem to rely more heavily on either of the foundations Griswold mentioned.

As for the Walton Foundation, in 2011, the year Tang mentioned, they announced they were giving a $49.5 million dollar grant to TFA, an “investment” intended to double amount of recruits to the program in three years.  The Walton Foundation donates around $150 million to conservative-minded education groups annually, supporting organizations that promote vouchers, merit-pay and charters.  The Gate’s are also major players in shaping ed reform, spending over $2 billion since 2008 on various education related projects.  Like the Walton’s, the majority of this funding is directed at groups that share a more conservative vision for education reform.  For example, more than one third of their funding was spent on their effort to “improve teacher quality”—a measure that relies on the myth that bad teachers are at the center of America’s education problems.  Unlike any of the organizations Tang lists, these two foundations are undisputed key players in ed reform (known to those engaged in the ed debate as two of the “Big Three”) which is why they were relevant to include here.  In recent years, only 30% of TFA’s funding  has come from from public sources.  Even if we could think of this as a more neutral or apolitical funding source (which we cannot) it does not make up a relatively insignificant amount of their funding streams.

I am not sure why using data or being efficient in the educational sphere is a bad thing. I hope that educators will make the most informed decisions possible when deciding what’s best for their students.

One negative consequence of this is a new reliance on testing data to label, sort and “target” students.  For low-performing schools, more high-stakes test means more teaching to the test (or just teaching test taking strategies.)  This means less time in subjects that aren’t commonly tested such as history and the arts and more time dedicated to rote learning.  Efforts to develop tests that assess higher order skills, such as those aligning with the Common Core, have not lived up to their expectations and have been widely criticized for minimally updating existing testing materials. When student scores are tied to teacher-pay (another coveted business practice) this incentivizes cheating, as evidenced by the scandals in DC and Atlanta among other cities.

As for your comment, “I hope that educators will make the most informed decisions…” I agree.  However, the  “educators ” you’re referring to are selectively choosing data to push through reforms that serve their vision of ed “reform” and their interests.  This so-called adherence to “data-driven policy making” is laughable when you consider how often these reformers ignore sound research that simply does not align with their preconceived notions about how to change education.  Additionally, these foundations give out a large margin of the grant money that goes into ed research, creating what some see as a monopoly the information.  The Gates Foundation specifically was implicated in a scandal in 2008 for their role in “stifling a diversity of views” in malaria research, a tactic which we can clearly see in operation with their education work.  If you still need more, see Gate’s small-high schools program.

Still, a much stronger link to any proved agenda between corporations and Teach For America is needed for her argument to be taken seriously.

Here, is an extensive list of corporations that donate to TFA.  These are organizations that profit off of existing inequalities.  If TFA was truly “revolutionary”—which by its true definition means altering the existing relations of power—as it claims to be, then why would companies like Monsanto, Enron, Exxon Mobile and Goldman Sachs donate to it?  They give to it because TFA is a neo-liberal project and therefore presents no threat to their bottom lines and in no way destabilizes existing power dynamics.

TFA pushes a particular vision of ed reform on its recruits, which would explain why the majority of them who stay in education lean toward a particular politics.  These ideas, summarized as “choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, data-based decision-making, charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher,” are shared by TFA and by corporations.  Corporations are embracing these strategies because they reproduce the existing system of meritocracy.

Those alumni of the program that are critical of above reforms are often critical of TFA as well, seeing how it clearly contributes to the broader neo-liberal effort.  On TFA’s blog Wendy Kopp writes, “you will see from these posts that there is no official TFA line or monolithic view.”  She cites many of the dissenting TFA alum as evidence of this diversity of ideas within their alumni base. However a quick look at the list of speakers at past TFA summits reveals the tacit political lean of the program, with leaders of organizations like The New Teacher Project and KIPP having been featured in recent years.

Finally, Griswold’s comments on Teach For America’s training is concerning. Griswold insinuates that TFA corps members do not receive enough training to be effective teachers. Yet, principals and school leaders are overwhelmingly pleased with their decision to hire TFA corps members and continue to do so.

Source on this?  Even if this was true, the reasons why would be questionable. First, TFA corps members are often a cheaper alternative to unionized career educators and are an attractive option for districts facing budget cuts.  This economic reality then could be the origin of some of this sentiment.  Second, relying on the subjective level of pleasure from “principals and school leaders” is problematic.  Many of the schools that invite TFA recruits are operated by TFA alumni and aligned organizations and are predisposed to think positively of TFA recruits.  TFA prides themselve as an organization that produces “leaders” in educational transformation and has specific programs designed for alum to reach positions where they can “make an even greater impact.”  These programs have been effective at saturating many urban districts with leadership staff that’s dominated with TFA recruits—a phenomenon I encountered at DC Public Schools.

And, to be sure, principal and school leader satisfaction are not an adequate measure of success for teacher quality and performance.  The most comprehensive, peer-reviewed study revealed that students of TFA recruits performed worse than those of their traditionally certified counterparts.  While student test scores are an imperfect measure of student learning, the long-touted line about the superiority of TFA recruits has shown to be inconsistent with the data.

While I have not seen any peer-reviewed data that compared the student satisfaction of TFA and traditionally certified teachers, Rachel Smith, a student of TFA teachers, expresses her experiences in this poem.

A couple of stanzas:

“Only see them for 2 years because we’re just a

stepping stone so they can get to their

prep schools…

It’s time we refute these self-proclaimed saviors and

put our faith into the true educators…

and not the one’s trying to do the black community

a couple favors.”

Griswold then quotes corps members who state that they were “learning on [their students]” and who felt that conversations around race were “superficial” and “offered little insight to corps members of color.” I — and many within Teach For America — will point out the need for better diversity training. However, it seems that Teach For America is doing more to correct for racism in education that traditional teaching routes. In 2011 only 17 percent of the U.S. teaching force were people of color. This matches with only 12 percent of traditionally prepared teachers being people of color. In contrast, 38 percent of Teach For America’s corps was made up of people of color. More work can be done to increase diversity in the teaching force and create a better environment for children. However, TFA is taking an active role in the issue by recruiting people of color into the teaching force.

The suggestion that TFA is beneficial for communities of color is problematic in many ways.  First, I will address the point I raised in my article on how TFA inadequately equips its recruits—of all ethnic identities—to teach without reifying racial hierarchies.  Historically, education has played a central role in ensuring that certain racial groups are oppressed and given limited access to positions of power.  Theories of literacy acquisition, histories, and methods of discipline have been designed, however unintentionally, to limit the sense of agency of certain racial groups in order to maintain status of others.  The decision to correct a student’s grammar, the wording used when posing a question, the manner in which students are assessed—these are all highly-value laden processes, each of which has been used historically as a tool of racial oppression (Read anything by Lisa Delpit.)  A meaningful engagement with this history and with the literature on the methods that are helping students of color succeed is vital for all teachers who refuse to be participants in deepening racial domination.  Tang recognizes TFA needs “better diversity training,” however I do not believe it is possible to accommodate for this sort of education unless TFA fundamentally changes its model and allows for more time dedicated to teacher preparation.

Second, Tang suggests that given that TFA gets a higher number of people of color into the teaching profession that its contributing to the much needed diversification of the teaching workforce.  However, studies have shown that, when it comes to achieving a representative teaching workforce, retention, not recruitment, is the problem.

Richard Ingersoll, a national expert on teacher workforce issues, stated, “There’s been a victory for recruitment but not a victory for retention. If we want to solve this minority teaching shortage that’s been long discussed, then there’s going to have to be more focus on retention. We’re hiring more minority teachers but also losing more of them. It’s like a leaky bucket.”

Studies reveal that teachers of color cite poor working conditions in urban schools as a central reason for leaving the profession, an issue that TFA would likely write off as “an excuse.”  Additionally, “they want more influence over school direction and more autonomy in the classroom to teach what works.”  This process is inhibited by the use of standardized tests, the increasing power of central office staff, and the move to nationalize educational standards with the Common Core—all policies that are championed by those in the ed “reform” movement that TFA is a part of.

TFA is not an organization whose mission is develop teachers of color in the communities in which they originated.  These organizations exist, and many argue that TFA, by taking a large share of federal and state funds and exploiting special relationships with district policy makers, creates many hurdles to their mission.

An excerpt from an article on this issue gives an example of how this works:

“Grow Your Own Teachers, which helps parents of color become certified to teach in their communities, mobilizes in Springfield every year for state funds—which in 2013 were decreased 60 percent as part of $128 million in across-the-board higher-education cuts. Grow Your Own has also suffered because of TFA’s clout. In 2010, TFA–Chicago director Josh Anderson pushed Illinois’s P-20 Council, an advisory body on education policy, to raise the passing score for the state’s teacher certification test; as a result, fewer blacks and Latinos, who make up most of Grow Your Own’s constituency, have passed.

My goal in replying to Griswold is not to convince anyone to apply to Teach For America. Rather, I think facts are important — maybe it’s the data thing — as people form their views on TFA.

My goal in replying to Tang is not to discourage him from pushing his insider perspective on others.  Rather, I think looking beyond the sanctioned TFA slant is important–maybe it’s a data thing–as people form their views on TFA.

The Disney Fantasy: Day 2, At Sea

Night

“Lucy,” says my sister’s mother from her bed.

“Please step out on the veranda and see if there is a title wave out there.”

It’s two in the morning and I’m convinced that the Dramamine we generously ingested was either a sugar pill or a kiddy dose.  This feels like shit.

“I mean, if there is one, we’re fucked. But just check, yeah?”

I get up from my sleeping couch and struggle to open the child-protected door to our balcony.  Standing up is refreshing, disorienting.  When lying down, perpendicular to the direction we are moving, it’s difficult to tell how many degrees toward titanic we are rising and falling.  I craved more than once a leveler to stare at to calm my nerves—a bubble to follow that would give me at least a one second advantage if this ship decides to tip over.

I open the door, cloaked with the sisterly confidence and courage one gets when pridefully attempting to protect their kin.

It’s beautiful out.  The starry sky shining, seemingly just for us, above the abyss of ocean beneath.  The ship dominating the waves like an unaffected middle schooler, passing hordes of petty bullies trying to shake his pride to no avail.  We are moving with purpose—with a destination.  I step inside.

“So, what’s the verdict?”  Laura asks.

“No title wave.  Or title waves.  I think we’re in our heads.” I say

We have the diagnoses.  Anxiety, not seasickness.  Time to pass out the Lorazepam.

***

 Morning

I’ve heard getting six-year-olds ready in the morning is tough.  They’re tired, whiny and usually look so cute sleeping that waking them feels like a terrible tragedy.  When I was a kid, my mom used to carry us individually from (her) bed to the floor, lining us up like items in an assembly line.  She would slip us into our uniforms one by on, each of us still sleeping only slightly less soundly cause of the hard floor and bright lights.  We would be left there to yawn and stretch and cuddle while my mother would prepare the pancake batter downstairs.  Without the thrill of dropping the chocolate chips onto the pan, I don’t know what would have gotten us out of bed all those years.

However with Sally the actual waking up isn’t what’s difficult, at least on vacation.  She spends time adding detangler to her hair, combing it tirelessly, and adorning it with various gems.  She carefully picks out an outfit, ensuring every garment and accessory match to her highly stylized desire.  She’s super cute.  Always looking like one of those kids on the Disney Channel with her own hippie glitz twist.  I, on the other hand, attempt to brush the growing knot out from the back of my head, borrowing her hair products to accomplish this.  When it hurts or I get tired, I give up and put it in a bun pretending not to see her knowing glances, communicating in her subtle way that I am forgetting something.

I do worry that Sally doesn’t think I’m pretty, that she’s embarrassed by her hairy, non-make-up wearing sister.  In fact she has told me before that she doesn’t think I’m beautiful and, when I asked her why, she said that I just “don’t care about that stuff.”  This made me sad, sadder than I’d like to admit really.  I guess I felt like this was some part of the criteria she used to assess how cool I was and informed how much she looked up to me in some small way.  I wanted, and still want to be her role model and honestly believe that if she mocks some of the empowered and subversive aspects of my behavior, growing up girl wont be as difficult.

It was slightly less troubling that she acknowledged that beauty, in the sense that she understood it, wasn’t something “natural” or fixed but something that could be achieved.  At least, in her mind, I was “choosing” not to be beautiful and wasn’t just objectively unattractive.  But this was more a selfish reflex than anything reassuring about the healthiness and validity of her enveloping worldview however.  The idea that beauty is meritocratic is something that continues to imprison women, hopeful that just one more stick of lip liner and microdermabrasion treatment will bring the confidence they need to be successful.  And while this does bring real, perhaps fleeting self-assuredness to some women, it serves on a broader social level to hold us back, to deprave us economically and spiritually and instill debilitating levels of anxiety in us.

This particular morning we head to the Donald pool, dug in the middle of floor eleven.  Of course, this is not as simple as a hop in the elevator and voila, the most crowded pool you’ve ever seen awaits.  No.  The Disney imagineers have decided to add a game or attraction to every painting, staircase and railing.  There are puzzles, moving photographs and clues, for what exactly I am still unsure, smattered across every surface of the ship.  A two minute walk becomes an hour long adventure, that is, if you don’t come across a character…

Despite the incredible joy and excitement that an encounter with one of these silent, over sized stuffed animals brings to my sister, I avoid them at all costs. The lines are long, usually between five and fifteen minutes and the payoff is minimal.  An illegible signature and an expensive photograph you will surely not purchase is all that comes of these impediments.  But the screeching whine of a small child is enough to delay your journey, especially with the omnipresence of other parents and nannies quietly judging your lack of child rearing abilities.

We make it to the elevator without pause and just as we are about to board our ticket to poolside relaxation there is a sighting.

“Cinderella!” Sally screeches, her finger erect towards the dazzling real life princess across the atrium.

I watch the elevator close as she begins to drag me in the direction of the line.  As we move closer Sally begins to skip, smiling to cheek to cheek in anticipation of meeting what I presume she believes is the real Cinderella.  As I begin to dig in my Castaway Club bag for her autograph book, my dread of the impeding encounter switches to opportunism.

“Sally,” I say, “why don’t you ask Cinderella how long it took her to get ready this morning?”

She looks at me curiously.

“I bet it took her a long time…to do all that hair and make-up.  That’s why I don’t think it would be very fun to be a princess, think of all the time you’d miss playing and swimming and stuff?”

She looks at me in agreement.  “Yeah, and she can’t even get wet or anything…how long do you think it takes her, Lucy?” she asks.

“Hmm…maybe 5 hours?”  I figure overestimating can only work to work to my advantage in this situation.

We continue to talk and laugh about this matter coming up with all the things we could do in five hours instead of stand in front of a mirror.  And just as I think she is ready to ditch this line and cannon ball onto Donald’s beak, we hear the high-pitched greeting that is the stock-voice all the princesses aboard.

“Hello Princess!” says Cinderella, “what’s your name?”

Our chance to meet Cinderella arrives and Sally, awestruck and unable to do anything except jump up and down repeatedly, cannot utter a single word.

“Her name is actually Princess!  How did you know?” I consider replying.

“Her name is Sally,” I say.

Cinderella complements my sisters hair accessories and then holds down her flailing arms to get the photo taken—the one that we will definitely not buy.  Just as Sally begins to approach me, embarrassingly walking away from Cinderella without even a farewell glance, I remind her to ask the question.

Sally then turns around, stiff fingers covering her small mouth, and asks “umm… how long does it take you to get ready in the morning?”

Cindy looks up at me, part troubled and part flattered by my sister’s inquisition.  I signal her as best I can, attempting to covey with just a glance “Please, say a long time, Cinderella.  The self-image of an impressionable young girl is at stake.  Come on, Cindy.”

She looks back at my sister, who is anxiously awaiting her response.

“Oh Sally, well, my fairy god mother just waves her magic wand and voila, I’m ready for the ball.”

Fucking perfect.

***

 Afternoon

What I lack in conventional beauty I surely make up for in entertainment.  As a veteran camp counselor, life-long older sister, and level one improve comedy graduate, my knowledge of games is pretty solid.  Needless to say, upon getting into the Donald pool, Sally begins recruiting other kids to the play the game I am presumably about to organize.  Sally approaches her recruits the way any child would, by getting eight inches in front of their face and asking, “what to play with me?”  If this hook isn’t enough to entice them she usually makes a second effort with the natural follow up, “guess what?”  The recruit, now curious about whatever this pushy kid is trying to get at, replies with the requisite, “what?”

“My dad is sixty.  How old is yours?”

“Sixty?  Whoa.  That’s so old.  Like a grandpa.  My dad is thirty-two”

Laughter.

“So, want to play?” Asks Sally.

I’m not sure what is so alluring to young children about having a sixty year old father, but, like clockwork, this pick up line seems to work every time.

Once we have a motley arrangement of youths, Sally instructs to me “say the rules.”  I decide we will play categories, hardly a testament to my game knowledge but appropriate for the crowd at hand.  I explain, semi-distracted by the girl next to me sipping in a mouthful of pool (pee) water and spitting it back into the space in front of my face.  I decide a practice round is the best way forward.

Half way through the round I find myself holding two participants, one on each side, who have taken Sally’s cue and decided to use me as a flotation device.  I look around awkwardly, inspecting the crowd of boozing parents on the deck, checking to make sure no one looks like the type that will accuse me of molesting the children they have left unattended in the pool.  Before I get a comprehensive look, we have a winner.  The category was, of course, princesses, and the answer was Tiana.

Next round.

The girl who is “it” asks me to make up the category for her.

“How about Christmas?”  I suggest.

“Okay.  I’m ready,” says it girl shyly.

A four-minute avalanche of all things Christmas themed ensues.  Santa.  Reindeer.  Christmas tree.  Presents.  Stocking.  Rudolf.  All the other reindeer.  Elves.  Workshop.  Cookies.  Snow.  Gingerbread house.   But nothing.  Shy it girl shakes her head slyly with each guess as the increasingly frustrated group of guessers begins to show signs of surrender.

I instruct shy it girl to tell us the first letter of the answer.

“J.B.” she responds coyly.

A couple of the older girls, probably around seven, shout out simultaneously “Jingle Bells!”  Shy it girl shakes her head.  I am shocked.  What else could it be?  Someone guesses ginger bread again, hoping that she is spelling it wrong.  Nope.  This girl is good.

I ask her to tell me what it is so I can make up a hint.  Smiling, she whispers in my ear, “Jesus’ birthday.”

Shit.

Sally, half-Jewish and half-godless libertarian, is not going to get this one.  I imagine my dad would consider it a personal accomplishment that my sister is unable to identify key religious figures and iconography at six and a half.  As for the other bunch, who knows if these kids are church going. I would assume that most religious think of Mickey as some sort of anti-Christ, corrupting the youth and distracting them from the service of the almighty.  I begin to feel bad for this girl.  How sweet that she chose something that signified the “true” purpose behind holiday, something I imagined many of the kids around her were unfamiliar with.  I attempt to give my hint.

“Okay, what is the most famous book in the world?”

“Go-fish!”  one girl replies.  Clearly I need to go in a different direction.

“Who is the main character in the Bible?”  I ask.  Blank faces.  Shy it girl is starting to look a bit sad and embarrassed.  “We celebrate Christmas cause it’s Jesus’…” I linger.

“Birthday!”  Another girl screams.  Shy it girl is relieved and I am relieved for her.  Like children do, all begin to share their different iterations of “I was thinking that, I just didn’t guess it.”  Sally, a bit delayed says “Oh yeah, I read that book to my one-year-old sister.”

The thought of Sally reading our baby sister the bible, a book that is definitely not present in my fathers house, is hilarious to me.  Not wanting to embarrass her or shy it girl, I reign in my laughter and begin round two.

***

Evening

Three kids menus and five courses later, we’re ready for our evening festivities.  Laura hands me “The Navigator,” the daily newsletter aboard, and instructs me to look for an activity we can all attend together.    I search the schedule for events. Character meet-and-greet, no.  Deck 11 Mulan sing-a-long, no.  How Well Do You Know Your Family game, absolutely.  These are always entertaining and give you the feeling that your family isn’t so distant and fucked up given that the ones on display don’t know each others favorite color.

It’s being held in “The Tube”—the restaurant and dance hall that’s been decorated to look like the famous English transport system, with a flamboyant Disney twist of course.  The poles standing throughout the space have become the unfortunate playground for the young children in the room who have begun flailing their small bodies around them in the style of a novice stripper.  I guess Disney has a record for sexualizing the infantile.

The small dance party that’s erupted in the center of the room is briefly halted by a crew member, who asks us how we are doing tonight.  Unsatisfied with the cooing cheer from the audience, he lets us know he’s going to try that again.

“I said how are we doing tonight?”

Cheers.

“Welcome to How Well Do You Know Your Family!  Now, we need everyone up on the dance floor so we can pick the families that are going to end up on stage this evening.  So come on down and let us see your best moves!”

I sit down, enjoying my first sip of the imported beer Laura has ordered for us to share and watch the crowd begin to form in front of me.  I notice the discrepancy between the predictable beat of “I’ve got a Feeling” and the awkwardly moving bodies of the tipsy parents on the dance floor.  This is going to be good.

Just as I begin to get comfortable in my oddly shaped mock tube chair, I notice Sally and her mother being escorted on stage.  Brilliant. Even better than watching the families of strangers forget each others most fundamental attributes is watching your own, from a distance.  iPhone’s out, let the show begin.

First the host escorts the parents in the pairs out of the room.  He then asks the kids a series of questions about their parents, the funniest of which is, “If your parent farts, do they a) blame the dog b) announce it proudly or c) deny, deny deny.” Sally chooses a.

The parents return and the disparity in responses is quite a show.  After giving his answer for ‘who is your daughters best friend?’ the daughter of this out-of-touch father responded, “who the heck is that?!”

Laura and Sally get zero matches.  Laura admits she would c) deny, deny, deny.  Now it’s the children’s turn to leave the room.

All the parents guessed that if their children knocked over an expensive vase in the house their kids would fess up.  Wishful thinking.  A couple more questions are asked and the kids return.

The first question the kids have to answer is “What does your child want to be when they grow up?”

The first child gets the mike.  She is a six-year-old girl from Philadelphia named Kindred.  Her mother had guessed she wanted to “do karate.”  Kindred thinks on stage, likely trying to make a compromise between what she really wants to do and what her mother would have guessed she wants to do.  “A cop” she answers.  The crowd goes wild.  The host inquires, “Well, your mom guessed you wanted to do karate, to be a ninja perhaps?”  Kindred’s face is animated with a look of extreme confusion.  “I haven’t done karate since I was three!” Kindred yells in her mothers face.

Not a match.

Sally grabs the mike, looking serious despite the hilarity that had just ensued.  Laura had guessed that Sally would want to be a performer, a dancer she specified.  I was honestly unsure what Sally would say.  A few days prior she told me she wanted to be a celebrity, “like her parents.”  She took a deep breath.

“I want to be a teacher,” she said proudly, looking in my direction.

Maybe I am her role model after all.

***

The Disney Fantasy: Chapter One

“No fucking way!”

“You? How did you agree to that?”

“Seriously? You will be, like, floating on American capitalism!”

The above are some of the reactions I got when I told my friends I would be accompanying my sister and her mother on a cruise aboard the Disney Fantasy for seven nights. Having a developed a reputation for finding something offensive or problematic in most all situations (like any attentive liberal arts students by their senior year really…) I think most people in my life imagined me commandeering a Disney ship and inciting a labor uprising before they imagined me aboard one, partaking in Mickey’s shenanigans. But this was my sister’s vacation of choice. And someone had to be there to balance the cascade of anorexia-inducing images Disney presents.

After trying to coach my 6-year old sister through many Disney films throughout the years, I was familiar with how difficult the task of building critical viewership in a young, impressionable child is. And while countering Disney’s omnipresent master narrative would not be my purpose on the ship, I knew there was no way I could ‘float on American capitalism’ and not give my subtle interventions. I wanted to go on the water slide over and over again, take her on a water safari where yours truly puts on her best Australian accent and points out (mostly imaginary) creatures, and play a billion games of categories in the 11th deck pool. But it would be hard to do this with when every cast member (their euphemism for all of their underpaid labor aboard) greets us with “Hello, Princess” and every kids menu features a picture where the waist of princess X is smaller than the bicep of prince Y.

It’s difficult to maintain and invigorate the natural sense of adventure and discovery in a young girl when all around them tells them that they are only desirable if they are made up and docile and a have an high pitched and unbecoming laugh.

So I would be there, competing against Cinderella and Rapunzel for her attention and moral compass—trying to put into practice the lessons of my critical theory college coursework. I wouldn’t be a shield: it’s impossible (and detrimental) to hide the racist and sexist lessons Disney embodies when stuck aboard a vessel in which “Wish Upon A Star” is perpetually playing in the hallways and growing up in a society where Disney has a virtual monopoly on the socialization of young minds. But I would rise to the harder task: building a critical filter in the mind of a six year old, so that she could take in the Disnified world around her not as a reflection of reality or as a series of fables that should inform her ethical framework but as a particular cultural product that she could classify and critique. What does that really mean for a six year old? And so the experiment begins…

***

The truth is I have some experience reading about and creating culturally competent curricula. As a pre-service social studies teacher looking to work in urban districts, I have read many books about building an “inclusive” classroom and the like. And while I have achieved relative success on creating projects and lesson plans that fulfill this demand, I find the improvised discussion that animates these products incredibly difficult.

Last summer, the first week I introduced my “girls empowerment” curriculum and the residential summer camp I was working at I was practically twerked out of the room by a mob of aggrieved teenage girls. I had just lead them through a “privilege walk,” where the girls were instructed to step backwards, toward a sign that read “Less Rights and Power” and away from one that said “More Rights and Power,” if the statement I read was relevant to them.

The statements addressed the ways in which American women and girls are oppressed, and dealt with issues from having few role models in the political and business arenas to not being encouraged to take advanced coursework in school. All the statements were followed by a short, data-driven explanation of why they amounted to a measurable way women and girls are less privileged than their male counterparts. Following the exercise, I asked the girls the most neutral, calming discussion question I could think of: how did that exercise make you feel?

After a few honest remarks that were mostly different iterations of “I had never really thought about that before,” one dignified and self-assured girl stood up and said something along the lines of, “I don’t care about the barriers that exist. I am going to the CEO of Proctor and Gamble one day and I don’t care if you tell me that these obstacles exist, I am going to surmount them! I am going to work hard and do whatever I need to do to accomplish my dreams.”

Just as I was constructing my response, a mix of cheerful encouragement to accomplish her goals and a sobering reminder that when she confronts obstacles, she shouldn’t blame her lack of hard work but the very real limitations that we just mentioned, the girls in the room begin to applause in chorus, some standing to show the agreement with this beat-the-odds attitude. I had lost them. The sweet myth of meritocracy and the familiar struggle to be the exception beat out my bad news. I made a last ditch effort to convince them that this bad news was really liberating information, that knowing and seeing these social phenomenon will help us navigate the world and ultimately enable our gender to achieve great things. Nope. Done. Victory for Proctor and Gamble.

Since then, I’ve reread Pedagogy of the Oppressed a few times and have become more comfortable facilitating discussion and presenting information in a way that is palatable to a barely pubescent brain. I’ve had successes. But the fact that I was “working with” someone that was not only 6 and a half but by blood relative, whose mental health and self-esteem I had a serious stake in, made this particular endeavor all the more challenging. And I would be in the middle of the ocean on a ship with no soul to “deconstruct” the stream of problematic images I would be encountering daily. It seemed my own sanity would be at stake.

***

There are the usual suspects.

The avid teenage cruise goer, who is as enthusiastic about all things floating as I was about disembarking from the dizzying vessel in at the next port. She knows the ship from bow to stern (and all the ship jargon for that matter) and the color-scheme on each of its elaborately decorated rooms just from studying the Disney website. She loves cruises and all the nautical accessories that accompany them. Charm bracelets made of anchor shaped links, stripped everything and a shamelessly overzealous personality. She can give a comparative analysis of the “teen clubs” on more Disney cruise ships than you can count on one hand. There’s the one in the renovated smoke stack, the one that year that “just, had the best people,” and the one here, where, given that she’s on the cusp of 20, she’s not sure how much time she’ll spend inside, despite the “awesome” design. Each time we see her it’s “go to go, there’s a ventriloquist in the Buena Vista Theater” or “can’t talk long, we have the late dining slot tonight and I just adore our company there!” The girl is definitely getting her monies worth. I thought I was sticking it to the (super)man by indulging in my twenty-five shrimp at lunch time. If I am the casual coupon cutter, she is the spend thrift who sets us an encampment at Walmart before Black Friday. She knows how to do all-inclusive like I know how to spot racism in our exclusive, live performance of Disney’s Aladdin.

There’s the out-of-place couple always without children and with a drink in hand who must have booked this trip accidentally. They missed the trademark mouse ears stamped on every the page of the Disney cruise booking site, realizing the only other adults without children on board would spend the majority of their day dressed as characters from the Seven Dwarfs only after paying the thousand dollar deposit. No sensible adults would elect to do this, right? Wrong. They’re everywhere. They’ve managed to get thoroughly tipsy before the abandon-ship drill that takes place within three hours of getting on the boat. They can be found in the hot tubs with tropical drinks in hand, receiving mixed looks from mothers who have to begrudgingly explain to their children “no honey, you can’t have what that man’s drinking because it has silly juice in it.” Aloof to the fact that they are in an environment completely and exclusively made for children, they chat about last night’s party and the makes of Caribbean rum they plan on purchasing in port. When they complain about how they’ve “reached their threshold for seeing children for the day” you want to pour water on them and say “why the fuck are you on a Disney Cruise?”

There’s the two year old that perpetually looks like they are on the very best drugs you’ve ever taken, combined. Everything around them is blowing their fucking minds. When they step onto the deck eleven Kids Reef Play Zone, they are at the bottom of the ocean, playing alongside starfish and other aquatic life on the sea floor. They are blind to plastic seaweed, the speakers blasting “sounds” of the deep ocean, and the limits the human capacity to survive underwater. Everything is so fucking real and awesome and mind-blowingly magical. Their reaction to everything is to drop their jaw, widen their eyes and bounce up and down until they fall over from the unsteady surface below them. They shit themselves a little at the site of each character. Pluto brings a shart, Donald duck a bronzed nugget and Mickey a dipper change. The only thing that lowers them from their perpetual high is the stinging sensation they get when peeing out vestiges of exorbitantly chlorinated pool water.

It’s a weird bunch. Definitely no likeminded folk on board who would enjoy comparing reflections on the role of media in socializing our children while sharing a mickey waffle.

I shouldn’t pretend be such an awe-struck outsider however. For, upon boarding the ship, I was reminded that I had, in fact, been on a Disney cruise once before. I was six with my dad and I don’t remember much and had honestly not thought about that trip while preparing myself for this one. But surely enough, as we entered the ship, an enthusiastic Ken-ish looking man with an exotic accent, barked in a microphone for all to hear, “Welcome, Cataway Club members, the Griswold-Yosha’s!” Then, a lobby full of clapping “cast members” with that familiar fake-it-til’-you-make-it attitude I recognize from my camp counseling days hands us an assortment of “gifts,” bestowed on us (me really) for being returning cruisers.

I carried my Castaway Club tote the whole week.