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Is It Just Poverty Porn? Reconsidering "The Wire"

Starting up again last night, HBO's compelling and realistic-seeming show "The Wire" is quickly becoming a stand-in for poor urban communities or dysfunctional municipal bureaucracies.  The show's fictional version of Baltimore is more discussed than any real-world urban American community outside perhaps New Orleans or the District of Columbia.  Some teacher out there is already assigning the show to ed school and public policy students.

WireBut confusing the show for reality or thinking that it's doing any real good may be a big mistake, say some recent commentators.  The argument is that the show may be excessively cynical and bleak -- created a biased picture of communities and institutions it depicts and an exaggerated sense of intractability.

Some of the arguments are defensive or quibbling, but ask yourself:  was last season's depiction of four middle school boys and the school they attended unfair, outdated, or excessively negative?  How about this year's school budget-caused police cuts?  Is the show bringing attention and energy towards addressing urban education, or distracting us from action? 

Check these commentaries out (The Bleakness of The Wire, The Angriest Man In Television) and give those questions a thought.


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Five years ago I made a friendly bet to my principal that within five years the concept curriculum alignment as the locomotive of educational reform will seem laughable. Obviously my timeframe was off, but The Wire used it as a punch line. And there is a whole lot more wisom on reform in that show than in the think tank's proposals.

As I have written elsewhere, I see the personalities of so many of my students in the characters of The Wire. My Marlow was a younger version of their Marlo; my "Buffalo" was a younger version of Prop Joe, our real assistant principal is the spitting image of the real life character that was Ed Burn's assistant principal, and Bunny's trip with Namond was just like our comparable trips. The show's extreme pychopaths are exaggerrated or it seems to me but I don't run in those circles.

Two types of scenes are absolutely perfect. They reveal the truth of how our "puzzle palaces" respond to NCLB, expending much more energy in "juking the stats" than making improvements.

As in the Wire, the resemblance of NCLB to the 1986 Drug Law that filled our prisons with so many nonviolent Blacks is uncanny. Those of us who understood "the Hood" knew that those perverse effects were inevitable and the dynamics would be institutional racism not personal racism. Sure enough, reformers took discretion away from the sentencing judges and just added to the damage of drugs and the failed drug war. The reformers just didn't know what they didn't know.

Equally great are the portraits of students in class. The "blingk" scene is must viewing for teachers who need to recognize and honor the types of knowledge that our poor kids have. The Wire portrays the pain and degradation imposed upon kids by high stakes standardized tests. It is not an exagerration. You can not fool teenagers. They know that their dignity is being stomped and ground into the dirt.

Porn? When my student from Bed Stuy was mourning his murdered uncle, he told me about his murdered cousin in Brooklyn. Then. he student mourned by smoking marijuanna, watching Animal Kingdom reruns, and looking out the window of the projects ,observing the human drama as being the same as the animal behavior in the documentaries.

I did have a couple of experiences with the children of former kingpins. An emotionally disturbed middle schooler nearly started a riot by killing a turtle. Kids who had seen so much human sufferring went wild over the "murder" of an innocent turtle. But even the members of the opposing gangs had sympathy for this kid, saying that his father had been a millionaire dealer and I would understand when I saw him. If true it was revealing because I then encountered a completely broken-down alcoholic who looked several dacades older than his actual age. I had an honors student who had received a great education before her father was incarcerated for a highly profitable drug ring. She challenged a guest speaker who had been a scholar for the Heritage Founding saying, "George Bush is hypocritical because he says that the government is too incompetent to fix Social Security, but he claims that the government had been perfect in proving that everyone on death row was guilty."

But there was a happy ending to that story. The education theorist listened, debated, reflected, and decided that my kids had a point. He agreed that politicians and scholars need to listen to the students.

If you can't take time to visit your local inner city school and converse with the kids, at least you should watch The Wire. And if you question its realism, read the recent Washington Post series on D.C. schools or last years series by Chicago and Philadelphia newspapers.


Having recently covered two of the most powerful poverty pimps on earth -- Richard M. Daley and George W. Bush -- during last Monday's "State of NCLB" PR Porn here in Chicago, I'll take The Wire.

During my 28 years teaching in Chicago's inner city, I gradually realized that the way you could tell a teacher who had been there was by asking that teacher to count back on "The List." "The List" is the list of students' names who have died violently during the time you taught them. They had to actually be in your class, not just in your school.

If you have "The List," you've been there and have the right to speak about these things. If you don't have "The List" you can speak, but should listen respectfully to those who have "The List."

About ten years ago, I was dealing with this question with a guy who had taught inner city for nearly 30 years. He said he vowed he'd never forget any student who had made The List. I asked him to count back, naming each and one thing he remembered about him (or her). At a certain point, after the sixth or seventh name, the guy got quiet, then scrunched his face, than began to cry.

He had forgotten, for a just a blip, one of the kids who was on The List.

From the day these pricks began prattling about corporate "school reform" from outside -- and sending their Power Point brigades and pundits inside to dump on those of us who worked in classrooms in the inner city -- this has been the divider.

Last week, thirty feet from George W. Bush and Richard M. Daley, I was again looking into the faces of evil who created, in all their bland and ignorant ugliness, the world within which The List rules. Every teacher bashing piece of piety out there has to be judged first by those children who have their own List, and then by those of us who decided, against the smart advice, to teach them and have our own List.

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