It's been two months since a notice of noncompliance to Tucson Unified School District put Andrew Walanski's English from an African-American perspective course under a difficult spotlight.
After several announced and unannounced classroom visits from Arizona Department of Education representatives, the Cholla High Magnet School educator still doesn't know what the state dislikes about his teaching methods.
What confused him even more was Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas' March 3 decision to continue monitoring culturally relevant classes through the end of the school year, despite finding the district in compliance with the 2010 anti-Mexican-American studies law.
While it was great to hear TUSD wouldn't be penalized $14 million for not fixing the alleged issue, Walanski is not thrilled to stand in front of his students and discuss Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" or socio-economic themes depicted in 1980s and '90s hip hop while strangers sit quietly in the back, observing and taking notes.
Sure, he's gotten visits from the administration in the past, but he's not accustomed to this frequency.
"It feels like an intrusion," Walanski says. What initially got him in trouble was using activist and hip hop legend KRS-One's "An Introduction of Hip Hop Presented by Master Teacher." (KRS-One visited Cholla last month for this very reason). "You try to ignore it, continue to move on, students notice it, they are impacted by it, and teachers are certainly impacted by it. It creates a certain level of anxiety."
Every two weeks, he is required to submit outlines detailing absolutely everything he plans to say, use and do in the classroom, which he understands to the extent of ensuring the words and images are age appropriate for the students. But that's not what the state is primarily checking up on.
When Walanski heard the ADE oversight wouldn't cease—but it will scale back—until probably the end of May, it didn't make much sense.
"The fact that we have to continue doing this is somewhat disheartening," he says. "I mean, are we in compliance or are we not in compliance? We all had the expectation that once it was done, it was going to be done."
On John Huppenthal's last day in office, the former schools superintendent singled out Walanski and four other teachers—two from Cholla (among them U.S. history from a Mexican-American perspective teacher Corey Jones, who the Tucson Weekly featured two months ago but has been unavailable for a follow-up), one from Tucson High and another from Pueblo—saying their classes were promoting "the overthrow of the United States government, resentment toward a race or class of people," and "advocating ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."
When Douglas stepped in, she said she didn't have a problem with the content, but she did with the methods being used to teach students. And about two weeks ago, when she—for now—cleared TUSD of possibly losing 10 percent of monthly state aid, she said she was extremely concerned some teachers have been deviating from the curriculum approved by the TUSD board and later the state in 2013.
There haven't been concrete answers on what TUSD did to comply with the state. Certain comments by both Douglas and TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez point to what could be adjustments to the culturally relevant curriculum.
"What we have is a policy that allows for occasional supplemental use of materials, it does have guidance and criteria ... certain times things fall outside of that and that is the principal's job to catch," Sanchez said at a press conference in Phoenix with Douglas at his side. "It goes back to how it is used, if you take any set of content and you misuse (it), it can fall outside what our focus is."
This is the first school year culturally relevant courses have been offered as electives, and as the review process continues, Sanchez said if certain things "are not aligned" with the curriculum, those things will be replaced with more "appropriate material."
Teachers have had the freedom to incorporate content that will intensify the discussions and critical thinking among students, and bridge that gap between events that occurred decades and centuries ago with present circumstances.
Walanski brings up James Baldwin's "If Beale Street Could Talk," which is about a young man in his 20s arrested on a false charge. The book examines police brutality in 1970s New York City. His class read the book during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown.
"Let's look at the way these issues are being discussed and the roots of these issues and let's analyze them. How does this literature address these issues and is there relevance?" says Walanski, who's been in the education world for eight years. "Generally what the kids find is, yes there is. Those connections come to life when we have those same issues manifesting themselves in slightly different ways in society today."
To Sanchez as long as the content used teaches kids "self-advocacy and value," it should be good to go.
"As we evaluate what materials are used, that is what we are going to look at," he said at an evening press conference he held in Tucson after returning from Phoenix. "Do they see themselves reflected and represented? And if so, if the students learn and succeed because of it...that is something that we want to make part of our work."
Ultimately, what makes it onto the syllabus could be up to the state. TUSD is in need of every penny, and $14 million is $14 million.
Lorenzo Lopez Jr., director of TUSD's Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, had a meeting with his teachers last Thursday. At press time, he could not comment on the situation, saying the district didn't feel comfortable yet.
The culturally relevant courses are still in their infancy and curricula are in ongoing process of development. Walanski just wants ADE reps involved to have verbal contact with the teachers and involve students in the conversation.
"The way I articulate all of this through the exhaustion of it all, this whole thing is silly, political theatrics that to me have very little to do with the students and it has to do with a broader political discussion," he says. "That is the problem, you hear all of these terms in education, data driven decision making, talking about tests, aligning to different things ... but we rarely, I never hear student-centered decision making, let's really put the students at the center of what it is that we are doing, let's focus on that, and we will be doing a lot better job at helping raise and bring up our young people. Unfortunately that ends up getting lost in the noise ... and that is frustrating, it is really frustrating."