Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Public Displays of Spirit

Living here on the front range of the Rocky Mountains and being a football fan I am happy that Tim Tebow has come to town.  As someone who appreciates a good debate on issues of society, politics and religion I'm even happier.  A recent issue of the Wall Street Journal called Mr. Tebow "God's Quarterback", "Tebowing" has become a buzzword and if you needed any further proof that "something's goin' on 'round here" Saturday Night Live has aired a skit that features Jesus giving a pep talk to the Broncos in the locker room.  That same skit used the phrase "in people's face" in reference to Tebow's public displays of prayer and that's not the first time people have expressed displeasure, upset or anger about his very open profession and experience of faith.  For the record, I thought the skit was pretty funny and I'm willing to concede some use of humor short hand to get a laugh when the actual points are perhaps more complex than a sound bite.  What I'm interested in is this idea of "in people's face".  I lived for a time in New York City and almost anything that went on was "in your face".  Walking down any street I encountered more people engaged in more diverse activities than I do in a week or a month here in Colorado.  Now, I loved it and I understand that some people don't.  I cherished the closeness of a Baptist church to a mosque in the area of Brooklyn where I lived and the chance that I might hear a solid gospel hymn pouring out of one while the call to prayer sounded from another, considering the sound systems that was really "in my face".  I haven't had the chance to meet Tim Tebow (although if he wants to come visit the school where I teach sometime, I know several fourth grade boys who would love to have him play football at recess) so I can't say what he's like in person.  If he were to badger me about accepting his particular definition of faith and Christianity (let's remember this is an incredibly diverse religion) being unrelenting in his single minded pursuit of gaining my acceptance of his beliefs then I'd consider that an unpleasant situation and inappropriate for public discourse.  But, from what I see that isn't going on.  He prays or meditates in public.  So do I.  As a Quaker, my quiet meditative seeking is a bit more stealthy I'll grant you, but so far no one is telling me that I'm "in their face" about my beliefs.  I'm inclined to say "pray on dude!" and why not more people doing the same?  I will offer an question or perhaps a challenge to us all however.  If you are delighted by Tim Tebow's very public displays of a particular brand of Christian faith, are you willing to express the same joy at seeing someone bow towards Mecca in public?  If you profess belief in some divine intervention on the part of the Broncos and are sure it comes from your idea of God, are you willing to accept divine intervention on the part of other's image of God when the brilliant athlete, scientist, musician or whatever is Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or a member of one of the thousands of different wonderful faiths and practices that make up our world?  Or how about this? Tim Tebow has chosen, and I'm sure he'd be glad to tell you about how and why he chose, this particular lifestyle.  If he is cheered for public displays of the faith that he chose, would you cheer the public display of affection between loving partners of the same sex who did not choose their orientation but are celebrating who they are at their core?  What if we celebrated everyone's expression of who they are? What a wonderful world that could be.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Blank Canvas

As I continue to follow the news from my hometown of State College, PA I'm trying to make sense of it all.  We, as humans, do this every day with any experience.  We take in new data and fit it into what we already know, and from that point our understanding either grows to incorporate the new information of we create some sort of spin on the new data to make it fit what we already know, or more accurately, what we already believe.  A wise bumper sticker reminds us "Don't believe everything you think" and that's worth remembering these days especially.  I've read editorials this past week that assert without any doubt that the child abuse scandal may be laid at the doorstep of huge money making sports programs at our universities.  The next article I read, from the sports page of course, stated that large money making sports programs were not the problem, far from it! but the problem lay with one coach becoming so famous and powerful that he lost his sense of reality.
I wonder if we use a story like this to express the beliefs we already have.  Could it be that the story itself is a blank canvas that we project our fears and beliefs onto?  Perhaps a paint by number canvas is more accurate, the story has set up some of the outlines before hand, and we fill in the colors.  I can't help but notice that the stories I've read this week, that sports are out of control at large universities, that an aging legendary coach is suffering under the weight of a gigantic ego, that people living in a "cow town" (thank you for that description of my hometown Maureen Dowd) are too ignorant to know what's right, are the same stories I've heard before.  The only difference is now there's a powerful story with a moral component that can be used to express those same ideas.  I've noticed that "but we need to remember the victims" has become the way to end every news story on the scandal.  Why is that? Why isn't the focus on the victims there from the start?  I wouldn't say that those editorial writers and TV talking heads don't care about the victims, and I do believe people are genuinely interested in making sure this doesn't happen again, but I will pose the question "What steps do we need to take, and can we look for those steps with anything less than a completely open mind?"
Penn State University has taken several steps to address the scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky.  Most of the principal players in the story have either been fired or placed on leave.  As much as PSU is a place of higher learning, it is also a multi-million dollar business.  Of course there are plenty of costs involved with being a place of higher learning so the mere fact that money is a factor shouldn't surprise anyone.  There is, however, a large gray area where the need to raise money to pay for  buildings, professors and other operating expenses and the branding and marketing of a product.  I make these points because I believe that the steps taken thus far are primarily about the business side of the university.  Protecting the bottom line or the product is paramount and the people who have been fired or placed on leave were considered detrimental to that product.  The steps taken so far are not, however are not going to solve the issues that aided and abetted the abuse that occurred.  Looking around our society, it seems that this kind of abuse is sadly not uncommon.  The Catholic Church has been struggling to find some direction forward with this, and the political arena is full of issues of harassment and abuse so there's no shortage of lessons to study.  If there's any one thing we could take from the lessons laid out already I would think it's that hiding or covering up never works.  It does seem to be a driving motivator in any of these scandals, that to have allowed justice to prevail would have compromised the institution.  I believe that this is a larger issue than can be solved by firing a few people no matter how iconic they might be.  I believe that this is a time for thoughtful people to think, and to share and engage in conversation.  I think it's fair to say that accepting"conventional wisdom" is part of the problem that has brought us here.  What kind of solutions could we come up with if no ideas were out of bounds?  What kind of world might we create if stretched the definition of what's possible.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Morality in Business

Most of the world probably only sees the unfolding story in State College, PA as a minor blip on the radar or just another incomprehensible fanatical football fueled frenzy.  I grew up there, I followed Penn State football and later worked in radio with the football network so I'm hoping you'll excuse my deep feelings for what is going on.  I don't claim to have all the answers, or even a few of them but I think that's okay because I do believe that asking questions and thinking about them is often more useful than coming up with a specific answer to fit each question.  I've followed the outrage following Coach Paterno's firing by the university board of trustees on Wednesday night.  Many friends who still live back in the old hometown have expressed great anger at not only the trustees but also the press that descended on Happy Valley for round the clock coverage.  One friend joked that now ESPN stands for "Every Second Paterno News".
Why did the board fire the legendary coach?  People are asking in a shocked tone "How could this be?" I can't say I'm surprised.  A board of trustees is charged with maintaining the status, reputation and in particular how those factors translate into money for a university.  Like a corporation, the bottom line is the key factor, anything that might endanger that will be gone quicker than you can say "Joe Pa"
The board kept Paterno as a coach even as many called for his retirement (and they were calling for that twenty years ago) because his image put people into the seats at the stadium and sold t-shirts, hats and any number of other branded items.  When the idea of someone who was accused of not doing enough to stop child abuse being seen on the sidelines of the school's football team continuing to receive the accolades of his amazing career started to look like something that would damage the image of the university the cold hearted business mind took over.
I don't think we should be surprised.  Corporations or boards are amoral by definition, they exist to safeguard the bottom line whatever examples of moral behavior there are occur because of the decisions of people.   Of course a board of trustees or a large corporation is made up of people but those people have to choose to make decisions, especially if that decision might impact the business model.  What would that have looked like in this situation?  The board could have chosen to let Paterno finish out his final season as coach.  Would that have been the right decision? That's one of those questions that might be worth thinking about, not to answer per se, but to see where it takes you.
As I wrote in my last posting, often there are two sides to the coin, and one is directly connected to the other.  Consider this idea, the same business first process has kept Joe Paterno the head coach of Penn State's football team for years even as university administration sought to have him "retired".  That same system fired him by phone late at night when he no longer served the bottom line.  I'm sure a lot of my friends who are savaging the press now, loved the fact that Joe Paterno became such a recognizable figure over the past twenty or thirty years.  Could it be that when we make that kind of deal (with the devil perhaps?) and accept the fame, we must also accept the chance that the fall will be that much greater due to the heights that you've grown accustomed to.
This story is full of questions about what was the right thing to do? Coach Paterno says he wishes he had done more, so he's obviously thinking about that.  What should the board have done? If they felt they needed to make a clear statement that they were serious about change, there's nothing that could telegraph that intention any clearer than taking down the symbol of Penn State, which I'm fairly sure most people would say was Joe Paterno.  What should they do next? Do they need to remove everyone who was involved with this? At the moment, several of the principal players in this story are still employed by the university.  Can the university have a re-birth and re-invent itself? How clean does the slate need to be for this to happen?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Long Ago, Far Away

This week I've been reading numerous articles about the town I grew up in and the university I attended.  The fact that they are essentially one in the same makes the experience all the more powerful and potentially confusing.  I grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, a town that while some might not want to admit it exists because it's the home of the main campus of Penn State University.  As a child abuse scandal unfolds and threatens to take down many top officials in the university and it's football program there has been a lot of ink split, or data entered on the idea of lost innocence.  Many times I've read that "The town I knew is gone" or "This isn't my alma mater any more".
I have not felt this loss of innocence.  I've not felt like my hometown has been taken away.  I'm still a Penn State alumni and my feelings about the university haven't changed.  And so I've asked myself, "Why not?"
One thing that comes to mind is that when I think of Penn State I think of the people I knew there, teachers and fellow students and my day to day life.  I think of walking to class across the leaf strewn fields of autumn.  I remember late nights working on paintings in the studio or those early morning classes in winter when we'd stumble into a large auditorium looking like zombie extras from the latest horror movie.  I never looked at the university as a sacred idol, it was a series of experiences good, bad and every point in between.
If the president of the university resigns tomorrow Penn State will still be there.  The bells from Old Main will still ring four times an hour and students will still walk through the same hallways as I did back in day.  As much as I admire the football talents of Coach Paterno if he leaves there will still be people playing football.  The sun will still rise in the east and set over the western edge of Beaver Stadium on a perfect, brisk autumn afternoon.
Perhaps these feelings of losing something essential and un-replaceable is connected to what may have motivated the people involved in the scandal.  It seems that many large and profitable entities have grown over time to a point where people will willingly sacrifice the most vulnerable and needy to preserve the institution.  Church officials who hide sexual misconduct or re-assign priests, corporations who cover up pollution or other practices that impact the local community or in this case (it appears) university leaders who either ignore or cover up abusive treatment of children.  Perhaps people are doing this without even thinking.  If something good can come from this I think it would be that the punishment is strong enough to erase any doubt in anyone's mind as to what are the appropriate actions to take when a child is being abused, sexually or any other way.  Those, of course, are to notify police immediately.  If that message came out clearly then this would be a great lesson learned and after all isn't what places of higher learning are all about?... learning?
From the details that have emerged so far I question the judgement of Coach Paterno but still admire his skill as a football coach. The memory of the many games I watched from the stands or listened to as I helped run the radio broadcasts are still there and still wonderful.  It may well be that he needs to leave his position at the university as a result of these incidents, but again the world will continue.   My love for my hometown and undergraduate university have not diminished because of what some people have done even though they hold powerful positions within that institution.  It's the same as my love of my country which is not diminished by the many horrible actions it's committed over the years.  The treatment of Native Americans, imprisoning Asian Americans during the 1940s, anything from slavery right on up through the invasion of Iraq, our history is full of shameful events but I believe it's still possible to love something while you work to make it better.  If you've made your country or your church or your college an idol or some kind of sacred ideal then it's almost impossible to acknowledge any human frailty or mistake.  Again, this kind of worship seems to bring about the horrible actions we're reading about every day now in this particular scandal.  I don't believe that my country or school is absolutely right all the time and so while I will work to make things better I'm not surprised when people turn out to be... well, human.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ten Years After

When I wrote the title for this blog entry I thought of the group Ten Years After that I listened to in high school.  One of their hits was "I'd Love to Change The World" the lyrics followed that title with the line "But I don't know what to do" Strange, but that's a pretty accurate feeling for this entry on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  There is still much I don't understand about that day and everything that followed.
What follows are my writings from that time.  I was teaching fourth grade at PS116 in Manhattan that day and found out what was going on when the security guard for the school came to the classroom door and whispered to me that "the city was under attack" and we weren't supposed to let the kids know what was going on in case they had parents working in the towers.  He also told me that there were believed to be other planes in the air likely to attack other targets, maybe other tall well known buildings.  The school where I worked was close to the Empire State Building and the United Nations.  All the rest of that day military planes flew low over the city and every time I heard one streaking in, I would think "Is this one going to end in an explosion?"  Parents came to get their kids one by one all day and later in the afternoon when there were only about four or five kids left one said "Where'd everybody go?" to which another replied "Maybe they all had dentist appointments" and we just continued on with math or whatever we were doing on that long strange day.
I'm sure this piece of writing will grow over time as I think about, and hopefully understand more of what happened and what continues to happen.

September Journal 
By Kevin Slick
© 2001

There are so many pictures frozen in my mind.  A family album that doesn’t have to be opened to be re-lived.  There was that perfect autumn blue sky, just so blue, so blue that it almost hurt to look at, that perfect blue with a jagged grey cloud ripping across the middle of the sky, like a gash in the atmosphere, a hole in the universe.  There was the man covered in dust standing next to me at the 14th street subway station as we waited to see if any trains could still run over to Brooklyn.  And there in an abandoned lot off Atlantic Avenue, a homemade American flag nailed to a piece of wood in the afternoon sunlight welcoming me home.  But the image that always comes back first is the light coming through the window of my classroom after everyone had left as it gently floated through the window onto the newspaper that was lying on my desk, filled with words that no one would remember.  And I stood there to try to understand that moment when all those words would be re-written and this day would have forever a new meaning.  I stood there trying to understand, but couldn’t.  I could only live in the moment, and so walked outside and headed south toward that ragged tear in the sky.

I bought a newspaper on the way to work this morning.
I thought I would talk with my class, fourth grade at P.S. 116, about the primary election for mayor.  After all there would be people in and out of school all day since it was the polling place for the neighborhood around 33rd and 3rd.
But we didn’t talk about the election.
The voters left early, if they came at all.
By three o’ clock in the afternoon I was alone in my room.
Sunlight was coming in the window at an autumn afternoon slant
Dragging long shadows across the front page of the newspaper,
Still lying where I left it on my desk.
No one will ever remember the stories from the front page of today’s paper.
No one will ever think of this day and talk about the election
Or any one of ten other stories that were worthy of the front page of the
New York Times on September 11th, 2001.

I walked downtown
Smoke arched across the sky
People’s faces; grim, vacant, worried.
We talked to each other like people at a funeral;
“How are you doing?”
“Are you okay?”
The streets, a constant stream of fire trucks, ambulances, police cars.
Police on every corner
Crowds gathering at the hospital a few blocks away.
And the people’s faces, unbelieving
I can’t believe it.
(how many times have I said “ I can’t believe it” when I could have said “that’s surprising” or “ I didn’t expect that”)
Now, I really can’t believe it.
Tell me again,
They’re gone?
Those two buildings are gone?
The two buildings I see from my window every day?
The two buildings I rode past this morning on the train?
I saw an old man walk out onto 3rd Avenue and stop traffic because some people were walking up to a hospital helping several others who appeared to be bleeding or injured in some way.  It was perfectly normal, and all the cars stopped. 
He said that it was what he had to do.  That’s what we were doing there that day – “what we had to do”
When I returned home to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn the man who owned the middle- eastern restaurant on the first floor called me “brother” and offered food.  I joined others from the street and we ate in silence together.
Later I heard someone say “There are no words” 

The next day.
Everyone is in motion today.
On Fulton street the sun is shining and the streets are full of people.
Loud dance music rips out of a store selling stereos.
A man is begging on the corner, shaking a cup full of coins endlessly. 
Now he switches hands and adjusts the volume on his Walkman.  He’s looking all around and no one is looking at him.  He looks around some more and drives his electric wheelchair away.
The other people on the corner just keep talking and ignoring the place where he was.
It seems like this city is too big to slow down, even with the heart torn out, the body is still going through the motions.  If you chose to ignore media and not look across the river you could pretend nothing had happened.
I want to believe that nothing has happened.
This morning I work up and prayed for it to have all been a dream.

The sky is still so blue today
Only that one line of grey
Grey smoke to the south that lays across the sky.
It looks like rain clouds,
Long, low rain clouds
But it’s too sunny for rain.

There’s a cool breeze
Like the best ocean breeze on the last day of summer
It’s such a beautiful day
Such a beautiful day.

Is it nature, or God
Trying to say that life goes on?
Is this a day to help us heal?
Is this a day that covers the terrible with beauty?

This beautiful sky lies across our lives
We are held together under this sky
Held together by each other
By our heartbeats
Our footsteps
Beating out a rhythm together.

I heard a woman say
That the most important thing in the world
Was the smell of her daughter’s hair when she hugged her.

I can see the sun as a fuzzy white ball in the grey, cloudy sky.

In Union Square there are huge crowds
Gathering around signs, candles and pictures
Offerings, gifts people have left.

Behind me, a group is singing “America The Beautiful” some of the crowd, however are only singing the first line of the melody, having forgotten the rest I guess. 
The result is an edgy harmony as one group repeats the same line over and over.

People have written poems
And the word “Love” appears over and over again.
I’ve been writing what I see and feel, waiting for words to have some meaning again, but I can’t find the meaning. 
I’m living on faith that the meanings will be revealed sometime, maybe someday. 
But I see that I’m in the midst of a living poem, the voices, the pictures, the streets themselves, the city itself is singing.
Whitman was right, this is America singing, the varied carols I hear with melodies hard to understand and words that tear and strain to rhyme but still singing.  The music is un-planned, improvised, ragged and beautiful.
Why are we all here, right now, at this moment?  How did we get here?
Maybe we’re all here just to be next to other humans

Every sound is muffled, like a church
This seems like a sacred site.
The stained glass windows have been replaced with
All those pictures
Thousands of pictures.
This whole city has become a photo album
A large family photo album.
Walking down the streets, I feel like I’m leafing through memories
Memories shared with strangers.
Back yard picnics
I’m looking for my family here
Looking for faces I recognize
And I realize I know every one of them.

I can’t sing
I want to sing, but I can’t find a song to sing
Not one song
Not one song I can sing
But all songs
I have no song to sing
Unless it’s all songs

I try to speak but I have no voice
Only all voices

I’m calling on God
But I think God will only answer
To all his names
To all her names
Spoken as one.

One sky
One blue, heavenly sky
Covers us like a prayer shawl.
I want to wrap myself in the sky.

I wrap myself in these pictures
These words
The quilt of life
Of lives sewn together on the streets by broken hearts seeking peace.

I stand with others, with everyone
In search of release.
My feelings pour out on the names
On the faces
And I think all my feelings have gone out of me
But new feelings appear
Like waves on the ocean, endless
The best I can do is open my heart to the emotions
The way a rose opens it’s petals to drink the dew
And I release those feelings
Like the rose gives up it’s petals.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Show Me The Money

One of the hottest discussion topics about, but not so much within, education is merit pay.  The standard line is politicians are pushing the idea, teacher's unions oppose it.  A closer look, as it usually does, reveals that things are rarely that simple but in the hopes of generating discussion I will, as one teacher, share some thoughts and invite response.
Generally the topic of merit pay is part of a larger discussion that features one of more of the following additives; lower pay overall, with some few teachers getting the higher pay for better performance and or doing away with the idea of due process so that teachers, and it's always stressed that we're talking about "bad teachers" can be fired more easily.
Let's address those ideas first - compared with other professions that require a similar amount of education before beginning and then continuing as long as you're in the profession teaching is already floating somewhere about the bottom of the list.  After completing certification courses teachers must continue to take graduate level coursework to maintain certification, it's an ever changing profession that requires constant work to keep up with new curriculum and practices.  Teachers also spend a great deal of money on materials for their classrooms not to mention all the time outside of the work day spent on creating materials to be used in the classrooms.  Those who remember the days of textbooks and assignments like "Read chapter 12 and complete the essay questions" should spend sometime in a modern day classroom.  Musty old textbooks are gone and replaced primarily by teacher created and updated materials.
In any of the school districts where I have worked over the last 15 years, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Colorado teachers can be fired for a variety of reasons.  If a principal wants a teacher out there a many ways to get rid of them.  Once  a teacher has put in a sufficient number of years (this is usually between three and five) of good reviews then they're afforded due process before losing a job.  In other words a principal needs to spend some time evaluating the teacher in the classroom and documenting what the problems are, and steps to correct them.  If a teacher fails to correct the issues at hand they can be let go.  What is not in place in most school districts is the opportunity for a principal to fire a teacher without any evidence of wrong doing or poor performance. Remember, that principals are human too, they are not completely impartial observers.   How many people would like to work in a field where you could fired for no particular reason with no recourse?  I would assume that anyone arguing against "tenure" is also willing to have their job taken away at a moment's notice for no reason, if not then they're being quite hypocritical.
Paying teachers more for excellent work has a logical ring to it.  I would love to see teachers who have put extra effort into their work being rewarded.  In most districts teachers who put in longer hours, mentoring other teachers, or offering classes for the community are able to earn more money for the extra time but as yet there's not really any system in place (aside from various awards from various non-profits or corporations) that rewards the teacher who is just better than their colleagues.  And so, why not?
The first question would be how to determine just who these star teachers are.  What would you use? Test scores will reward primarily teachers who work in affluent districts.  I have worked in super affluent districts and extremely poor neighborhoods and had test scores that were quite different although my teaching skills were the same, so what would I have been rewarded or punished for?  A student who comes to school from a background where there was little or no literate behavior is at a severe disadvantage.  We know that reading with your children from birth continuing through childhood is essential.  Doctors tell us that children should not be exposed to television and computers before two or three years of age.  Studies also show that more than about an hour of screen time a day is harmful and that children should be exposed to literate discussions and thinking in the home.  A student coming to school without that background is like a person who smokes several packs of cigarettes a day coming to the doctor to complain of chest pains and difficulty breathing.  How may doctors would be willing to be paid based on how healthy their patients were, or would the dentist accept less money if their patients had too many cavities?
Some have said that we could deal with this situation by comparing the test scores from the beginning of a school year to the end of the year.  That leans in the right direction, but again, what to do about the student who has no support system at home and is not progressing?  What about parents who say "I'm not really concerned with test scores, I'm sure they're doing fine"?  I've heard that exact statement from parents of a child who rarely if ever completed any work.  Would it be fair to have my pay based on the results of that child?
One of the important concepts in education is that of "scaffolding" or building on knowledge that has already been gained to develop new ideas.  It's important for teachers to assess what a student knows to find the connections that will allow a student to progress, for example, from addition to multiplication in math.  The teaching practice is all about scaffolding in terms of instruction and it's a fair term to describe how one teacher adds his or her own contributions to a students learning.  Something that a first grade teacher teaches a student may not really bear fruit until two or three years later.  Having often taught in the upper elementary grades I find that students are always having "ah-ha moments" where something we're learning connects to something they studied several years before.  So who gets rewarded for that piece of learning?  Myself? I'm building on what has been taught before.  Do I share it with all the other teachers who came before? Well, isn't that the basis behind the idea of paying teachers a fair salary and not singling out individuals?
So far I've not heard any viable ideas for merit pay that takes into account the complex nature of teaching but would glad to hear about any that are floating around out there.
Perhaps someone reading this may come up with a brilliant way to implement the idea.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Dancing in the Streets

I was not dancing in the streets when I heard that Osama Bin Laden had been killed but my mind raced back to the streets I walked on September 11th, 2001.  On that day I walked out of PS 116 in Manhattan with several co-workers.  The nasty smell in the air caused us to take a detour into a paint store to buy some masks to wear to protect our lungs from who knew what.  I thought back to the co-worker I barely knew turning to me in tears and crying against my chest as we watched the first tower fall together.  I thought back to the people I met as I walked south toward the Brooklyn Bridge who were covered in white dust.  I remembered that beautiful, pure blue sky with a seam of grey smoke that ripped through the air.  It's an easy trip back in time to the afternoon sun against a hastily raised stars and stripes over a vacant lot in Brooklyn.  I can feel the warm handshake of the man who owned the middle eastern restaurant under the apartment when I lived, inviting me in to share food with others from the neighborhood.  I can still see the thousands of pictures posted in Union Square, the candles and makeshift alters.
Ten years later, I'm still walking those streets.  The news still sings the song of death.  And now that the mastermind of killing is dead, who has come back?  I wanted no revenge.  I've read several articles that all said "It's only human to want revenge" so what does that make me?  Is this justice? I think perhaps it is.  It's the justice that Bin Laden created for himself.  In my opinion he embraced and celebrated the world of hatred, death and destruction and he followed the trail to it's logical end.  He lived by the sword and perished by the sword.  If there is something good to be gained from his death beyond his inability to spread hatred any longer it might be a warning to others who would tread the path of hatred and death, no matter what their ideology, to reject the gospel of hate.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

History Lesson

Many people know the old saying "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it"  I was happy the other day to discover that several students in my current fourth grade class had recognized that quote.  I think however that it can be misleading.  I feel that history not only shows us the faults to avoid, but helps us understand the present.  Following up on my previous post about the "birther movement" I'm again intrigued to hear so many explanations for what people were "really saying".  More than one friend has told me that they never doubted President Obama's birthplace as the USA and that they were simply "concerned about how much money he was spending to hide his past".  Apart from the inaccuracy of the statement (he never spent money to hide his past) I wonder why people can't admit that maybe they got it wrong.  Do we really need to be "right" all the time?  Any teacher will tell you that we learn from mistakes, but what if we never admit to having made one?  The current situation reminds me of a moment from history, the myth of the "Lost Cause".  For those not well versed in American history and Civil War history in particular, the "Lost Cause" was a story that grew up after the war's end that cast the Confederacy as a noble group of citizens who were protecting their sovereign state's rights and that somehow by seceding from the Union they were fulfilling the dreams of the founding fathers.  The lost cause mythology also goes on to demonize the work of Reconstruction and show groups like the Klan in a sympathetic light.  It's on full display in movies like "The Birth of a Nation" and "Gone With The Wind". Of course any look at the writings and speeches of Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the south reveals that their purpose was to continue slavery.  It makes sense that people would develop some story to help them cope with what had happened. Not only had they gone to war and split the country in order to continue enslaving fellow human beings but they had lost, and not only did they loose the war but their lands were devastated.  Imagine the realization that your farms, your cities, and large numbers of your friends and families were gone for that purpose.  And so, while the "Lost Cause" is a false myth created to help people pretend that they served a noble cause I can understand why some might cling to it.  Reality on that scale can be painful.  What I don't understand is why those of the "birther" movement create myths to explain their involvement with that discredited doctrine.  No one has lost their home for taking up the racist cause of the "birthers".  Now that the ring-leaders are being seen, even by many on the conservative side of the political spectrum, as ridiculous at best what can be the problem with learning from this and moving on?
I believe it's best to live with the thought that you never know where you will next find the truth, or better yet, "a truth" because I think it's like pieces of a puzzle.  You're never finished collecting pieces of the truth, but you have to pick them up to use them.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What He Said.

The other day in the newspaper I read a sad story about a young man who was convicted of a "hate crime" specifically making racial slurs while physically attacking another man.  The story said that the young man's father said "My son is not a racist" as the verdict was read.  I had several thoughts about this; one was that we live in a sound bite society, and a good quote will always get repeated in the news, especially if it's short and doesn't require too much thought, and another thing was that no one had said the man was a racist.  He was convicted of making racially offensive threats.  It would be like a person being arrested for drunken driving and saying "I'm not an alcoholic".  I recall that President Bush when being interviewed about his recent memoir said his major regret was being called a racist by "Conway" West.  Actually Kanye West said that "George Bush doesn't care about black people".  Now, that statement is a provocative statement for sure, and you could easily argue that President Bush's handling of the crisis of Hurricane Katrina was not enough evidence to form a complete opinion of his views on race.  But, and this is an important "but" he was not called a racist in that situation.  It makes me wonder if we're becoming a society that refuses to accept any critique of our actions.  More recently some people have reacted with righteous indignation to the idea that the so called "birthers" the people who doubt that President Obama was born in the USA, is a Christian, "deserved" to have attended Columbia and Harvard, etc., are following a racist agenda.  It seems clear to me that the movement that challenges the validity of the president's birth certificate, his faith or his college grades is without a doubt racist.  Anyone who is supporting those theories is supporting a racist agenda. Does that make the individual person a racist in all aspects of their life?  Are the major cheerleaders of that movement from the carnival barkers to "reality" TV stars, to elected politicians more guilty than the average person at home listening to the lies? I don't know that those points are really that important.  More important, I feel, is the way people seem to want to avoid any critique of what they've just said or done by claiming "I'm not a racist"  Maybe while we've become a much more coarse and crude society, perhaps we've also become too polite or timid to be honest.  Do we need to put a disclaimer on a film like "Gone With The Wind" that says "This movie is based on, and promotes a false view of history, based primarily on the myth of the 'Lost Cause' which purports to give reasons for the Confederacy's starting the Civil War being something other than to continue slavery"  No, I think most people understand that those stories are fantasies.  I'd like to think we don't need to put disclaimers on news coverage of the birthers and their clan that this is all racist nonsense.  But maybe they're the ones who need the disclaimers something like "By supporting this line of thinking you are supporting a racist idea, you may or may not be a racist in all aspects of your life, but you might want to take a good look at your beliefs."

Sunday, January 30, 2011

What Does It Mean?

One of the key elements in reading instruction is helping students develop the skills to apply when they don't understand what they're reading.  In the early stages it's clues on how to decode or sound out words, later it shifts to comprehension and how to make use of what you're reading, how to talk about the ideas in a text and how to use what you read in your life.
In recent years I've had many encounters with young readers who are turning the pages and seem to be engrossed in a book but are unable to tell me anything about what they have read.  Sometimes they're unable to even recall main characters or "what's going on" but a more common experience is that they have no opinion about the story, the decisions made by the characters, the implications of the plot etc.  In other words, not thinking at all about what they're reading.
When teaching these comprehension and deeper thinking skills it's important that a student know when they're not getting it.  I, for example, when reading a complicated novel often will flip back a few pages if a character appears and I'm not sure exactly who they are or what their motives might be.  Many of you probably do the same, or in a newspaper article when a person is quoted you might look back to see exactly who it is, especially if they're listed only by their last name.
When students are reading along without comprehending it becomes difficult to lead them towards a deeper connection and understanding of what they read.
I began asking what was happening with these kids.  Why were they content to read what they didn't understand?  What sort of dull experience were they accepting by doing this?
My theory is that many kids are developing the skills to accept what they don't understand and be passive receptors of information or entertainment in our current culture.  When I would talk further with kids who were not able to form an opinion about what they read, or remember any essential information about the text I found that most of the time they were watching large amounts of video games, TV and video.  Now, the electronic media has been the bad guy in the "Why are students so stupid" stories for as long as there's been electronic media, but I think there's something else going on here.  And while "What it is ain't exactly clear" I have some ideas.  The types of entertainment these kids were talking about were almost entirely programs, games, films etc. that were built around mature themes.   Sex and violence of course being the major selling points, but not the only things going on in the stories to be sure.  Asking further what they thought about the video stories yielded almost the same lack of deeper thinking or comprehension.   It seems like the young kids, and I'm talking about eight year old kids watching R rated films, were content to watch something that made little sense because they knew from experience that pretty soon someone who either loose their clothes or there would be some terrific explosions.  My theory is that kids can become used to not understanding what they're seeing or reading because they've grown accustomed to it through a daily diet of entertainment that was originally designed for a much older and hopefully wiser audience.  You could easily argue about the suitability of some of the material for anyone, but I think free choice is an important thing for adults to exercise.  And I think we have that,  prime time TV may be filled with one programs that aim low but there's still the off button on the remote.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion about a new series on MTV called "Skins" I've never seen it and know virtually nothing about it other than some people are writing editorials saying "They've gone too far this time" while others are saying "The average young teen has seen much worse" My question is "Why has the average young teen seen much worse?" and "What can we do to make sure the average teen doesn't see much worse?" and "What price do we pay when the average kid sees much worse?"
I don't like to sound alarmist, I'm not inclined to predict the end of the world but I am fearful of people not asking the questions.
What does it mean if so many people are developing the skills to not think?  This might be the cue to move into a discussion about the age of sound bite, accusation, and conspiracy theory passing for news but I'll save that discussion for another time.  Right now I have a good book I'd like to read and think about.