GARN INTERVIEW: Steven Singer, author of Gadfly On The Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out On Racism And Reform
Gadfly on the Wall print and ebook by Steven Singer are now available. 10% of profits will be donated by Garn to the Badass Teachers Association (BATs). BATs aim to reduce excess testing, increase teacher autonomy, and include teacher-family voices in legislative processes that affect students.
Book: Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform
Author: Steven Singer
246 pages, $17.95
Print: 978-1-942146-67-4 | eBook: 978-1-942146-68-1
Buy Print Book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound (local bookstores) | Books-A-Million
Buy Ebook: Amazon (available for Kindle Unlimited Reading)
About Steven Singer
Steven Singer is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher in western Pennsylvania. He is a National Board Certified Teacher and has an MAT from the University of Pittsburgh. He is Director of the Research and Blogging Committee for the Badass Teachers Association, and is co-founder of the Pennsylvania-based education budget advocacy group T.E.A.C.H. (Tell Everyone All Cuts Hurt). He ran a successful campaign through Moveon.org against the since repealed Voter ID law in the Keystone State. He joined United Opt Out as an administrator in 2016. He is a member of the Education Bloggers Network. His writing on education and civil rights issues has appeared in the Washington Post, Education Week, the LA Progressive, Commondreams.org, Portside Navigator and has been featured on Diane Ravitch’s site. He blogs at gadflyonthewallblog. Follow on Twitter @StevenSinger3.
Garn Press Interviews Steven Singer
Garn Press: Do you have a favorite author?
Steve Singer: I have so many! Where to begin? Jonathan Kozol, Alfie Kohn, Diane Ravitch, James Baldwin, Paulo Freire! I could go on –
GP: Please do!
SS: Okay. Tony Morrison, Dostoyevsky, Jorge Luis Borges, W. E. B. Dubois, John Dewey, Margaret Atwood, Nietzsche, Edgar Allan Poe, Iain M. Banks, Kurt Vonnegut and so many more.
GP: What about bloggers?
SS: I’m glad you asked. We often get overlooked when discussing writers and writing. Here I am, an education blogger, and I was about to overlook us! There are just so many fantastic people out there in the field – either at the college or classroom level, or even parents and students – who are doing some amazing work. If you’re twisting my arm, and I think you are, some of my favorites would be Peter Greene, Paul Thomas, Russ Walsh, Mercedes Schneider, Jennifer Berkshire, Nancy Bailey, Nancy Flanagan, Anthony Cody, and I know I’m forgetting so many more. That’s just off the top of my head.
GP: Is there one author who has influenced your writing more than any others?
SS: I suppose when it comes to education and teaching, the one book I find absolutely indispensable is Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” There are so many great books on the school dynamic and best practices, but for me nothing gets more at the heart of what it means to be a teacher than Freire. Oh! And James Baldwin. Really anything by Baldwin. He wasn’t exactly focused on teaching, but he so clearly understood what it means to be an American and the interrelation between race, class and morality.
GP: Do you think the relationships between authors and readers are changing?
SS: In a way, yes. Authors are more accessible. When I was growing up, if you wanted to communicate with your favorite author, you had to write him or her a fan letter. And I did. Many, many times. Sometimes you’d get back a glossy signed photo. Rarely a personalized letter. But now you can just shout out to them on Twitter or comment on their Facebook pages. And they often respond back. It’s a democratization of the author-reader relationship. Readers expect authors to defend and explain their work. In one way, that means the work is no longer expected to stand on its own quite as much, but on another it allows the reader to be more invested in the process.
GP: Have you noticed any difference in your own relationships with your readers?
SS: My readers are a part of my work. To an extent, I write for them and need a response back. If I write something and no one responds, I feel the piece is a failure. I need that feedback – both positive and negative. I need to know if something I write has an impact, and my readers don’t disappoint. They’ll tell me if I’m totally off base or if I’m right on target. They’re not shy. They’ll offer me suggestions of where to go next and what I may have missed or what I should reconsider. And sometimes they’ll tell me to go to Hell. But it’s all part of the process.
GP: When do you write? Do you have a routine?
SS: No real routine. I write when the urge strikes – which is often.
GP: How do you begin a writing project?
SS: It depends. Sometimes I know a topic I want to research and I take a week or two reading, writing and polishing it up. At other times I sit down at my computer and just pound it out in a few hours.
GP: Do you keep notebooks? Use special paper?
SS: Almost all of my writing is done at a computer. When I had my first heart attack, I was in the hospital and all I had was my cell phone. Somehow I wrote a complete article thumbing it onto the screen. That felt really awkward but it would have been worse not to write.
GP: Do you listen to music when you write?
SS: Yes. Constantly. The music usually fits my mood or the mood I’m striving for in the piece. Sometimes if I want to be cool and logical, I listen to Mozart or Bach. At others I listen to loud punk rock – Anti-flag or Against Me or something. And if I’m writing about racism or prejudice, I often turn to rap or jazz – Common or Wynton Marsalis or something.
GP: Do you share your writing while you are still writing or wait until you have a draft?
SS: I rarely show my drafts to anyone. I just write and publish. But sometimes – if I’m uncomfortable about a piece or wonder how it hits an audience – I ask trusted friends to read it first. When I first started writing articles that centered on racism, I showed it to some of my friends in the African American community. After all, what do I know about racism? I haven’t lived it. I’ve just observed it. But they gave me the courage to keep at it, sometimes suggesting I change this or that, but they were very supportive. I could never have written anything about racism without them. And that’s not to shift the blame. I’m responsible for anything I write. But sometimes you need a trusted friend to believe in you before you have the courage to put yourself out there.
GP: How does your “day job” influence your writing?
SS: My writing springs from my work as an educator. I’m in the public school classroom all day. Sometimes what happens there sparks the need to write an article. A few times I noticed my students were being treated unfairly by the system and was compelled to tell their story – minus their names and altering unimportant details to preserve their privacy, of course. At others, I was compelled by injustices I or my colleagues were suffering. I guess I’m kind of like Batman. I see something wrong or get the Bat signal and I race to write the wrong – only I use my words, not my fists and expensive toys.
GP: What about ideas for books – do they percolate for years before you write, or do you work it out as your write, or perhaps a combination of both?
SS: “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform” is my first book. Before this, any ideas to write something longer or outside of my blog were merely fantasies. We’ll see what happens going forward. I could have twenty more ideas for additional texts. Or this could be my only book. Who knows?
GP: What book or chapter of a book are you most proud of writing?
SS: That’s impossible to answer. Whatever I’m writing at the moment is the best thing I’ve ever written. Then I publish it, and suddenly it sucks. It’s only later that I get any clear view of it. And most of that is based on how it’s received. I suppose if you page through my book, “Gadfly on the Wall,” you’ll get a peek at some of my most enduring favorites. These are the articles that I think made a difference or that make me smile or that I hope my daughter reads someday long after I’m gone if she ever wonders what I thought about this or that.
GP: What does it mean to be a writer in troubled times?
SS: I’m not so sure if it’s the times that matter so much as our perception of them. The U.S. has been circling the drain for a long time now. It’s just that more of us seem to notice it and want to do something about it now. I guess my role as a writer is to try to wake everyone else up to the realities around us. It’s my job to say, “This isn’t right. This isn’t normal,” and “We can do better.” That feeling is what compelled me to write in the first place. It’s why I call my blog and this first book “Gadfly on the Wall.” I want to sting and bite people to action using the privileged point of view of a public school teacher – a veritable fly on the wall of a system most people only dimly remember as adults long after they’ve left the classroom. Most authors don’t want their readers to get angry or upset, but that’s sometimes what I’m going for. You read the article, now get off your ass and DO SOMETHING!
GP: What worries you about today?
SS: Fascism, racism, capitalism and an increasing lack of empathy for our fellow travelers along the way. People haven’t changed, but what we consider acceptable has. It used to be that you knew certain opinions were simply too odious to bring out in polite company. Now we just spray that mental diarrhea all over whoever will listen and act shocked if they object to being subjected to the most hideous bile of our stunted souls. I don’ know. Maybe that’s healthy. Maybe we have to get all that out in the open before we can really heal – you know – as a people. I hope so. Otherwise, we’re just exposing exactly how unrepentantly ugly the face of America truly is. Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I truly want to believe that, but I don’t think it’s so simple. From where we stand, all we can see is the arc of the universe bending across the horizon. We don’t see where it’s ultimately going. I hope with all my heart it’s all going in a positive direction, but none of us will ever truly know. Not ultimately.
GP: What keeps you awake at night?
SS: What kind of world are we leaving to our kids? It’s that question really. I wonder what my daughter will have to endure when she grows up. She’s only 8 – full of optimism and a sense of what’s fair and just. I know the world will inevitably crush some of that. It always happens. It happened to me. But will it be even more difficult for her. I also wonder about my middle school students. They’re further along the path than my daughter is, but they’re not that far along. What’s waiting for them just around the corner? And will they understand how much I tried to stop the monsters from getting them? And will anything I’m doing here really matter? Those are the questions that keep me up at night.
GP: Can you talk a bit about how your writing is connected to present day events?
SS: Absolutely. At least half of what I write is a scream of rage and frustration at what’s happening out there. Charter and voucher schools, the murder of unarmed people of color by the police, standardized testing, racial and sexual double standards, absurd value-added teacher evaluations, continued segregation, Teach for America temps, government corruption, and the ongoing co-option of progressive politics. My writing is both a reaction to what’s happened and a warning against what I see lurking in the shadows getting ready to pounce.
GP: If you wrote a book about the future — the way you imagine it will be — what kind of book would you write?
SS: I don’t think I’d want to write at length about what I think the future will be like. Those sorts of books are out of date a month or two after publication. Things change so quickly and go in directions no one could have imagined. If I was to write about the future, I’d write about what I hoped it would be like, what I thought we should do with the chances and opportunities we have available to us. Not a prediction, a prescription. Something to cut through the pessimism and light the way to a better world.
GP: What would your future be like?
SS: It would be a world of love and understanding. Accepting people for who they are. Valuing children and innocence. Nothing about futuristic gadgets or living on Mars. Just how we learned to live with each other and turned away from self-destruction. I know that sounds corny, but that’s really me at heart – a big ol’ cornball hippy – a John Lennon who doesn’t mind pretending to be Iggy Pop to get your attention.
GP: Let’s go back to when you were a child. What are your earliest memories of words?
SS: I don’t know. I remember being read to. My grandparents reading me bedtime stories. I remember I was really into dinosaurs, and we had these gorgeous picture books about dinosaurs. I used to page through them constantly and somehow – maybe they’d been read to me so much – after a while I was able to read them myself.
GP: Do you remember your first books?
SS: Other than what I just mentioned, I remember this book from my elementary school library. It was full of scary stories with text that rhymed. And it was illustrated with these terrifying black and white pictures kind of like woodcuts. It scared the heck out of me, but I kept checking it out of the library. I was tantalized by it. I remember there was one poem about a banshee with a picture of this ghostly woman standing right over a child’s bed – and the kid’s got all the covers up to his chin like it could somehow protect him. And there was another one about these cartoonish monsters who came into a classroom and ate up all the kids, but the kids didn’t die, they were locked in the monsters’ stomachs and crying. Just terrible stuff I don’t know if we’d really give to little kids these days. But they were so vivid! I wish I knew what it was called or who wrote it. I’d love to see it again. I wonder if it would have the same effect or if it was really as terrifying as I remember.
GP: What about your earliest memories of someone reading to you?
SS: I remember my grandmother reading me bedtime stories from a big book. Adventure stories and fantasies. I remember being told all the Old Testament Bible stories and being almost as captivated and terrified as I was by that book of horror stories from my elementary school. The story where Abraham was going to sacrifice his son, Isaac, was particularly powerful. That and the one where Abraham broke all the idols in his father’s shop. Jacob and Moses and all that stuff. I asked so many questions about them. I was fascinated. Today I’m an atheist, but there’s probably an alternative universe where I’m a deeply religious person, perhaps even a clergyman. It’s amazing, isn’t it? All the things that make up a human psyche!
GP: What did you like about reading?
SS: Everything. You could be anywhere, see anything, talk to anyone. I read an awful lot as a kid. Still do today.
GP: What did you dislike about reading?
SS: Nothing. Maybe not having enough time to read everything I wanted to read.
GP: Did you have a favorite author when you were a young child?
SS: I read a lot of Stephen King. Then Douglas Adams. I rarely went in for books written for children. I had no interest in those. I wanted to get as far away from childhood as possible. There was something condescending about the whole genre. Now people market adult books to children and they’re generally pretty good.
GP: Did you read book series as a child?
SS: Sure. I read all the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books several times. I loved those so much. They gave me such comfort. The world is crazy and illogical and that’s okay.
GP: Can you remember doing research for a project in school?
SS: Yes. It was so much different back then. You had to go to the library and know the Dewey Decimal System and how to use the card catalogue. Kids today can just go online and at least get a start on almost any topic they can imagine. I remember writing notes on note cards and organizing them before even starting to write my paper. It’s a lost art. No one seems to do it that way anymore. If something’s not online, it’s often overlooked. But at the same time it’s cheap and less trustworthy. I guess that’s why it’s important to me that at least some of my writing will be available in book form. It will be out there in the world in a physical form. Maybe someone will even write down all the essentials and put them down on a card in a dusty card catalogue somewhere!
GP: What are your earliest memories of writing at home?
SS: I always wrote. Wrote and drew. My daughter’s the same way. I used to love watching those old Universal monster movies on Saturday afternoon TV, and then I’d turn them into picture books. At some point I started adding text. As I got older they turned into comic books and then full text short stories, poems and essays.
GP: Did you like to draw?
SS: I do, but I know my artistic limitations. My style is very cartoonish. I’m good with black and white pen illustrations but terrible with color. It also takes me a long time to finish a drawing. I’m much quicker and more nimble with text. I drew several comic books and did one of the student comics for the Pitt News when I was in college at the University of Pittsburgh. It was called Panther Hollow. But once again the text started to take over until the pictures were almost an afterthought. I haven’t drawn much lately. Sometimes my daughter gets me to draw with her, but it’s tough for me to find an idea I really want to commit to. When I sign my student’s yearbooks, I usually add a cartoon image of a chicken, and they’re like, “Whoa! Mr. Singer can draw!”
GP: Did you paint as a child?
SS: A little but I was more of a pen and ink man.
GP: Do you still have any of your early writing, drawings, or paintings?
SS: Yes. My grandmother kept a lot from when I was really young and I have a lot of my teenage and college stuff. I have drawers full of comics, stories, essays and old newspaper article from my days as a journalist. Much has been lost, but if I went looking, I could find reams of older works. I rarely look at them, though. The person who created them is gone. I’m someone else – someone related to that older version, but not really him anymore.
GP: Can you remember being taught to write at school?
SS: I remember in many of my classes in middle school we’d get a vocabulary unit and have an assignment to use each of those words in a story. I always wrote much more than was required. I’d write dramatic horror stories, soap operas, sci-fi epics, comedy pieces, satire – almost everything. We’d always have a chance to read what we wrote and I remember the other kids in my classes would often enjoy listening to my stories. If I didn’t want to read, they’d egg me on. I remember once I lampooned some of our teachers in one of these stories and was interrupted and told to please sit down before I could finish reading it aloud. I was so embarrassed because I hadn’t even realized I’d gone too far, but the other kids loved it. I lived off the rep from that moment for years.
GP: Do you remember if writing and penmanship were muddled? They often are.
SS: I have terrible penmanship. I’m also a weak speller. The word processor unleashed my writing ability from a steady spray in elementary to a torrent in secondary and college.
GP: Do you have memories of learning to write an essay, a story, or a poem?
SS: No one had to teach me how to write a story or a poem. I read so many of them, I could just do it. I remember Ms. Robb taught me how to organize an essay in high school. It was tremendously helpful. I had so many ideas and now here was a way to make them intelligible. Some teachers say they hate organization because it’s confining. But I knew even then that it was only a guideline. You had to use it in a way that worked for you to get your meaning across. I found it freeing and I try to get that across to my students. They seem to feel the same way most of the time.
GP: What about taking tests – can you remember taking them?
SS: Yes. I remember tests, even standardized test. There was very little pressure. We’d take them and then move on. That’s worlds away from what we do today in our schools. There’s so much pressure to test prep the Hell out of kids and judge and sort them based on the results. I feel really bad for what this generation has to endure. They don’t even know what they’re missing and their parents rarely know what’s being done to them.
GP: Did you have to fill in bubbles on multiple-choice tests?
SS: Yes. That existed. But it was once every few years. And no one really cared about the results. We got them and moved on. Much more emphasis was put on your class grades. And why wouldn’t it be? Those are based on 180 days of work, not one or two or three.
GP: Can you remember if you had other sorts of tests? Short answers? Essays?
SS: I remember an essay I wrote for a standardized test in high school. The question was something like – describe your earliest memory. I wrote about what it was like to be in the womb. I didn’t really remember that, but it’s what I wanted to write about. I really liked the end result and wanted it back after the test, but no one would give it back to me. It was disappointing that what I wrote was no longer mine, but I must have done okay on the test because no one held me back or put me in remediation for it.
GP: What advice would you give teachers if they asked you how they could create opportunities for their students to become enthusiastic readers and writers?
SS: Have them read and write as much as possible. Make it an almost everyday activity. And give them books and topics that they want to read and write about. If you can make it real, you’re halfway there. In my class, we have lots of self-selected readings and discussions. And don’t get hung up on the whole formal-lesson plan nonsense. Discourse can be purely verbal or involve writing first or even be purely written and never shared aloud. Once students get the bug that they want to have an opinion and want to hear what others have to say, writing and reading become very natural and enthusiastic. Just allow kids the space and the permission to be themselves and not someone else’s idea of what a student should be.
GP: Even you, the teacher?
SS: Especially you. Sometimes the best thing to do is knowing when to step aside. And sometimes it’s not. Knowing the difference between the two is what makes a really outstanding teacher. Because – think about it – you’re not going to always be there. Even if you’re Super Teacher – and I’m not – there will come a day when your students will graduate – to the next class or the next school or whatever. The goal is to help them grow into the kind of learners who don’t need you anymore. You’re kind of like Winnie the Pooh if he ever tried to teach Christopher Robin to do without him. It’s sad and it’s contradictory and it’s the ultimate expression of care from teacher to student.
Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform print and ebook by Steven Singer are now available. 10% of profits will be donated by Garn to the Badass Teachers Association (BATs). BATs aim to reduce excess testing, increase teacher autonomy, and include teacher-family voices in legislative processes that affect students. Buy the print book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound (local bookstores), Books-A-Million. Ebook available on Amazon (available for Kindle Unlimited Reading).