Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dumbledore's Army

In case you are not a fan of the Harry Potter saga (as I am) allow me to sum up an interesting moment in the story when it seemed there was no hope of learning to defeat evil. (For the longer summary with a bit more context, read this.) The part that I find interesting is when Hermione (my favorite character) tells her peers:

“Well…erm…well, you know why you’re here. Erm…well, Harry here had the idea – I mean” – Harry had thrown her a sharp look – “I had the idea – that it might be good if people who wanted to study Defense Against the Dark Arts – and I mean, really study it, you know, not the rubbish that Umbridge is doing with us” – (Hermione’s voice became suddenly much stronger and more confident) – “because nobody could call that Defense Against the Dark Arts” – “Hear, hear,” said Anthony Goldstein, and Hermione looked heartened – “well, I thought it would be good if we, well, took matters into our own hands.” (p. 339 in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003)
In the movie version, this is simplified to the line, “We need a teacher, a proper teacher.”
The students of Hogwarts realized that they were not going to learn the real spells and magic they would need if they just accepted the status quo being delivered by Dolores Umbridge and her dull and useless textbook. Hermione was intelligent enough to recognize that her friend Harry had experience and knowledge that he could teach them. The group was formed, a place for secret practice was found, and “Dumbledore’s Army” was born.

Maybe the analogy of preparing for war in the wizarding world seems extreme for those returning to school here in New York State, but as the nation debates the possible consequences of engaging in real war in Syria, Governor Cuomo ramped up the hostile rhetoric today by saying failing schools deserve the “death penalty.” Yes, you read that correctly, it’s a quote. I could hardly believe it when I saw it. What’s really failing is the leadership in Albany that has accepted the federal bribe money through Race to the Top and is creating havoc with lousy tests, inappropriate measures of teacher performance and school quality, and a privatization plan that is unproven and as scary as the return of Lord Voldemort.

So teachers and students, don’t despair. You don’t have to start this year in fear – of failing, of being unfairly judged, of seeing your school closed or resources cut to the bone. It’s time to learn how to defend yourself against these dark times. Here are some tips for starting the year off strong:
1.     Read and get informed. That means not just the news, which is sorely lacking in investigative journalists, at least in education. Find the blogs, the active Twitter users, the Facebook groups, the organizations of people who are actively working for positive change and supporting the public schools that are under assault. A good place to start is Diane Ravitch’s new book Reign of Error:The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s PublicSchools, out in mid-September.
2.     Practice your talking points. You will need these not just for staff meetings, informal lunch conversations, PTA meetings, or school board testimonies. You need to start talking at dinner parties, after lectures and book talks, at the gym, in the taxi, anywhere you find people willing to engage in conversation so they too can be informed and involved.
3.     Get inspired. Learn from history, from role model activists like Bayard Rustin, who just was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously (you can see a beautiful documentary about him called Brother Outsider: The Life ofBayard Rustin).
4.     Show off and be proud of your many accomplishments. You have bulletin boards, windows and walls, and strings to hang things from across your classrooms, and websites and email newsletters, and concert and play performances, and charitable actions and good deeds. Let the world know that you are proud of what you do.
5.     Find strength in numbers. Join up with others, make a regular working lunch date to talk and strategize, organize pot lucks, ask for volunteers, help people who want to get involved but don’t know how to begin.
6.     Make time for play, and joy, and being creative. If that doesn’t come naturally, maybe you can start by organizing a cardboard challenge on October 8th for some kids and let them teach you.
7.     Ask for help and support when you need it. It’s normal to have bad days, to feel depressed and overwhelmed. Reach out to your friends and let them know you need their encouragement and kind words.
8.     Sometimes you just need to go on a march. If that seems old-fashioned or ineffective, read about the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom and listen to the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.’s family, Rep. John Lewis, President Obama, and others who commemorated the anniversary on August 28th.

Most of all, have a good year. Do good, and be well. 


  1. Alexandra -- I just watched Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix YESTERDAY with my 11-year-old. Your post gives me chills, as I'd been drawing parallels myself, sparked especially by the headlines in the movie's rendition of the Daily Prophet front pages, heralding the appointment of Delores Umbridge as "Education Reform" for Hogwarts.

    Parents too can learn to defend ourselves, our children and teachers and public schools against the dark designs of corporatist reform, even when the fully-bought media trumpets their lies.

    Thank you so much for this post!

    1. My post was reposted on Diane Ravitch's blog, and a parent left a comment thanking me for providing a good example for her 7th grader who will be opting out of the tests:
      In my previous post about the NYS test results I said the greatest hope for defeating the insidious poison that is high-stakes standardized testing is the parent opt-out movement. Keep up the important work!

  2. Thank you for these positive steps for teachers!Mary Teresa