Archive for July, 2007

Ground Rush Kicking In

Jul 24 2007 Published by under borderland,education,science,teacher research

An exploit during my first year of college (1971) that seems worthy of recall right now was jumping from an airplane for gym credit. In those days, in Eugene, Oregon, there was an alternative menu of courses for students interested in nontraditional ways to meet the general requirements for graduation. I decided, What the heck, skydiving and yoga beat jumping jacks any day. I have a mild fear of heights, and why I chose to do this is just because…

We met in the gym a few times a week and learned how to pack parachutes and jump off stuff (like the balance beam) and land with a little roll to the side. We were told that landing a real jump would be about as hard as jumping from a roof 12 feet off the ground. To complete the course we had to take an observation ride in an airplane. Jumping was optional.

We took off from a small airstrip in Springfield near a lumber mill. I remember this because when we were up in the air, the pond near the mill was way easier to see than the landing spot. The jumpmaster times his commands so that the skydiver has a very good chance of landing back at the airstrip, and we were instructed to promptly follow his orders. His first command was, “Get out.” I have to say, getting out of the airplane was much harder than letting go of it. Standing on a little step, holding a wing strut, and going 90 miles an hour 3000 feet off the ground, there is nothing left to do but let go. So when he said, “Let go,” I did.

After my heart slipped back down out of my throat and I could breathe again, I started hunting for the airstrip, my landing spot. There was a very big pile of sawdust, the pond, a smelter spitting a column of smoke, roads and forest, and somewhere around there was the airstrip – which I couldn’t visually find. I regret that I never once looked up at my chute – which I was supposed to do to make sure it opened properly. Obviously, I assumed it had opened, which was the first of two mistakes I was about to make.

I was all business on the way down, trying to find the runway. There was little need, because by the time I saw it, I had the sensation of the ground rushing rapidly toward me, and I doubt there was much I could have done to steer myself anywhere then. My landing was not graceful. Instead of turning sideways to my horizontal path, I faced into it, looking down. When I landed, the impact drove both my knees hard into my face. Nothing broke but a little pride, and briefly, my sense of balance. I decided right then that the gym credit and the story was all I wanted from the experience.

Ground rush, though, has become my favorite metaphor for the end of summer break. Signs of the return to school have begun to appear. I got an email today from the principal announcing the dates when the school office would reopen, etc. There was also a hint that I might not be teaching the grade-level I’d planned on. Huh? I’ve made an inquiry, and await a return call. I’m not going to say more about that now, except that I hope it was only a typo.

Meanwhile, Sarah Puglisi had this to say about creating “on her feet” and being flexible :

Sarah has learned the minute you have a “plan”, you now do not probably have a lesson for someone in that room. Because you will over ride them….


I can change and alter myself in relationship to the children, their responding, with my eyes on the goals. And that’s what I can do.. It might also be worth contending that for exactly the reason I teach as I do, scripts are really being put in place.

All I do know is that if we model what we want to produce it would seem a child might have a basis for belief or for confidence in an adult who can do what they say. A notable turn off for many kids is that dichotomy. In my case it would be then lessons need to have the flexibility to grow from the needs as they are seen in real time, grab insights , suggestion, direction…

This has particular resonance for me because I can only begin to plan for the kids as I get to know them. Before I meet the class, my plans are as general as the list of names I’m handed. After we begin working together, I learn about their interests and their abilities, and I imagine ways to present the “big picture” that I have in mind.

This year, that big picture is going to include an opportunity that I applied for, to work as a partner teacher with a science teaching fellow in an NSF funded program administered by the university. This program makes a grad student in one of the science disciplines available as a classroom resource. They help develop science lessons, locate resources, and provide technical expertise. And we have a budget.

They promote inquiry based activities, which I plan to integrate with web technology, reading, writing, and multimedia publishing. Our new science standards come on line this year, as well, which are also inquiry based. Looking forward to all that; planning, but tentatively, at this point. Hope the landing is even just a little bit graceful.

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Salvaging What’s Good

Jul 21 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics,technology

This is my attempt to make sense of what “school 2.0″ might mean, using a couple of education reform classics I just finished reading. For what it’s worth, I hate speculating about the future, and am more comfortable building with whatever I’m given to work with, if I can see any use.

I found Neil Postman’s Teaching as A Conserving Activity after reading Artichoke’s comment , quoting Humberto Maturana:

“What is conserved defines identity. But what is conserved also defines what can change. This is interesting. We are so concerned about change, yet what is most important is what is conserved… politics conserve. Even revolutionaries conserve. All systems only exist as long as there is conservation of that which defines them.

Postman, addressing revolutionary change, wasted no time in dealing with Ivan Illich, calling Deschooling Society, a “celebration of impotence” (p. 5), and then later dismissing Illich’s proposals as “the utopian disease of which they consider themselves the cure” (p. 202). Since I’d only read excerpts of Illich, I figured it was time to read his book, and so I have. The quote from him (not from the book) that I included in my previous post made a distinction between political and cultural change, in that the political activist works for change in the existing institutional environment, while the cultural revolutionary seeks a change in values. The final sentence, “The cultural revolutionary risks the future on the educability of man,” was clarified for me by by Tom Hoffman’s statement:

This is not to say plenty of people won’t seek alternatives, for a variety of reasons, some will be willing to go “all in” to raise future leaders of the “creative class,” but I don’t see a big upswell of middle class families looking for alternative modes of schooling. It is too big a risk, given the structure of our economy.

The “risk,” as Tom notes, is rooted in social values about what it means to be successful and happy. The idea of “educability” has to be understood in terms of what-for, since people don’t generally seek out formal learning for it’s own sake. Talking about learning as an end in itself is something that I hear mostly from educators and education critics; in practice most people go to school in order to gain an economic edge, and not simply “to learn.” Not always, but mostly. The middle class won’t participate in Illich’s, or anyone else’s revolution until “disenchantment with and detachment from the central social ritual” inspires a popular reform movement. We’re having a political one right now with the standards movement, in fact, and it isn’t moving in Illich’s direction. The deschooled society he envisions is decidedly antagonistic to middle class consumer-oriented values.

Right now, most of the discussion that I read among teachers on the web assumes that technology will deschool education by subverting institutional norms, and we’ll migrate, somehow, from classrooms to distributed networked learning systems without disturbing the institutional death grip that schools and the economy have on each other. Economic motivations encourage people to see education as a means to acquiring certifications of technical competence. Communications technology can facilitate networking, but the need for technical certifications is still going to ensure the preservation of existing educational structures. Even if the uncoupling of curriculum and certifications happens as an unintended outcome of testing and the standards movement (since testing may make schooling optional) schools in some form will still be needed. Vouchers and small charter (magnet) schools, and new opportunities for adult learning, like these ideas of Ilich’s that Terry mentions may be integral to whatever comes next.

I don’t imagine schools disappearing, but I do see them changing as efforts to make schools more efficient run up against the internal contradictions we find in a system that combines compulsory attendance, homogeneous age grouping, and standardized educational outcomes. Everybody can’t be “at grade-level” (or “average”), since it ignores the normal distribution of individual differences. It’s a formula for disenchantment.

Postman uses the metaphor of the thermostat as a guideline for curricular focus, a useful idea once we accept the idea that schools won’t be going away altogether. He recommends cybernetics, the science of equilibrium, to understand how curriculum might be written as a response to prevailing cultural trends. From this point of view, he says,

…education tries to conserve tradition when the rest of the environment is innovative. Or it is innovative when the rest of the society is tradition-bound. It is a matter of indifference whether the society be volatile or static. The function of education is always to offer the counterargument, the other side of the picture. The thermostatic view of education is, then, not ideology-centered. It is balance-centered (p. 19).

It’s important to note that he attaches a limiting principle to his thesis, which is that schools should not intrude on the activities of institutions such as the family, the church, the medical profession, or other community organizations with specialized functions, since involvement in those activities weakens both school and the social institution it attempts to supplant. Most teachers I know would be happy to relinquish those duties!!

He makes the case for studying media ecology and “habits of mind that our revolutionary information environment mocks and even despises, but without which a person cannot be fully educated.” Addressing the need to teach “the basics” Postman returned to one of his favorite topics, language education, calling it the most “basic.” The subject of semantics teaches how we make meaning, and encourages critical thought. It would apply to any of the traditional curricular topics, and it would assist students and teachers, both, in reflecting on the truth of what they read, write, view, and hear no matter what form of media message they are exposed to.

A good starting point for anyone interested in the subject of semantics, besides Postman himself, is S. I. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action.

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Resistant, Clueless, Indifferent, or Just Defensive?

Jul 18 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics,technology

Responding to a distributed blues riff on teacher resistance to systemic change (Will Richardson, Artichoke, Chris Sessums, and Terry Elliot – here and here again). I have a quick story.

We were working on a mission statement for our school. At the end of what had been a drawn-out process in which an experienced mission statement writing leader from downtown had walked the staff through surveying and defining our core values, the job of putting it all into words fell to a Committee of 5. We got together after school one day and began parsing the language from our former statement, streamlining and clarifying the school vision. After an hour we had one sentence: “…school community members will foster a lifelong love of learning, appreciate multicultural experiences, and support diverse learning styles.

I’m not going to comment here on the content of the statement, or my opinion of the need to write one, or my view of mission statements in general other than to say that where schools are concerned, they are the equivalent of educational mouthwash.

It was time for us to be done, but we weren’t done. We’d had some laughs and figured that we could finish up in one more hour. So we had to arrange another meeting. It seemed to me that this was something which could easily be accomplished with a google doc, or a wiki page. So I suggested that we finish it up over the internet. I hesitated saying anything because of the reaction that I knew would follow, but I said it anyway, and I wasn’t surprised. My good idea was instantly squelched. One teacher said, “I don’t want to mess around learning how to communicate in some chatroom.”

Lifelong learning, I see now, is all about your own personal goals, and presuming to decide for anyone else what that should entail is a wrong-headed waste of time. Who are we kidding?

I really liked what Terry said:

The tools have turned the classroom to rubble so that now you must build anew, not clean the mortar off the block and build another schoolhouse. Unless, of course, you just want to run out the clock to your retirement. I do think that there are ways to work within the system, but it is obvious to me that most of us will be Moses seeing not even a foggy glimpse of the Promised Land.

The real issue now is deciding what’s worth keeping and what form that should take. Another time, perhaps.

Artichoke’s post prompted me to check out Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, which I’ve seen but never read. I’m coming to terms with the fact that technologies which introduce compelling new possibilities also displace established designs, both personal and institutional, a point that was clearly made in Stephen Downes’ article.

From Ivan Illich, A Constitution for Cultural Revolution:

We need an alternative program, an alternative both to development and to merely political revolution. Let me call this alternative program either institutional or cultural revolution, because its aim is the transformation of both public and personal reality. The political revolutionary wants to improve existing institutions – their productivity and the quality and distribution of their products. His vision of what is desirable and possible is based on consumption habits developed during the last hundred years. The cultural revolutionary believes that these habits have radically distorted our view of what human beings can have and want. He questions the reality that others take for granted, a reality that, in his view, is the artificial by-product of contemporary institutions, created and reinforced by them in pursuit of their short-term ends. The political revolutionary concentrates on schooling and tooling for the environment that the rich countries, socialist or capitalist, have engineered. The cultural revolutionary risks the future on the educability of man.

Artichoke has me wondering whether we’re prisoners or guardians of the nation-state.

Illich on the web.

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My Sicko Turn

Jul 11 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,politics

I saw Sicko mostly because of this article:

… the theater was in chaos. The entire Sicko audience had somehow formed an impromptu town hall meeting in front of the ladies room. I’ve never seen anything like it. This is Texas goddammit, not France or some liberal college campus. But here these people were, complete strangers from every walk of life talking excitedly about the movie.

And the movie delivered as promised. I need to see it again. I was frightened, saddened, amused, and angered. I was also touched, especially by the scene in which the 9/11 firefighters from NYC were honored by the Cuban firefighters.

Everyone should see this film. A couple of questions that it raised for me:

  1. Why would we ever want to privatize education, when we can see what a miserable mess managed health care is in the hands of private insurance companies?
  2. In countries where there is government health care, are people generally happy with it, as the movie leads us to think? And if so, do those people also feel the same about their schools?

I’m curious whether cultural values for a government role in providing social services are specific to only some things, or whether they extend to most facets of life – if people feel taken care of. It seems to me that once a society embraces something as a fundamental right, then fairness dictates that everyone should have equal access to it. We’ve established that value for education. Public safety is also a shared value. I believe we’re arriving at the same point for health care. And the problem isn’t that we can’t agree on whether people should have those things, but how to equitably and adequately distribute the benefits. The fact that 50 million people in this country don’t have any insurance is shocking to me, and it makes me wonder how anyone can mouth slogans about “leaving no child behind,” or “right to life,” or “freedom to choose,” when the basic needs of nearly a third of our population aren’t being met.

The NYT said the film documents systemic failures and foul-ups. Actually, the film made the system appear more malevolent than that. There were several tragic examples that featured people who’d been denied coverage, and they were not accidental. Moore interviewed people whose job it is/was to review claims. One (I have to see the film again to get his name) said, “People don’t fall through the cracks. We open the cracks, and sweep people towards them.”

Moore showed that people are afraid to change jobs for fear of losing coverage, or that they might lose their homes because they can’t afford the co-pay charges. People deny themselves groceries so that they can afford medication, and hospital patents are dumped on skid row because they can’t afford to pay their bills. These are some of the more egregious shortcomings that were documented, and they are all familiar. It’s not news, and yet I was viscerally moved to see it all happening at once. My heart was in my throat throughout the movie, and maybe that’s because health care is a family issue for me, and will be forever. George Bush’s advice to take good care of ourselves is an insult to the sensibilities of anyone who knows what it means to have your back against a wall.

I liked Moore’s movie most of all because it wasn’t fair and balanced. He didn’t explore the downside of any of the alternatives that he suggests. There was no need. Things are messed up bad enough that they speak for themselves. He used juxatposition, the soundtrack, and historic footage that has high symbolic value to create powerful emotional reactions in the audience. Moore posted a quote from a memo by an insurance company rep that he somehow got hold of, in which the guy said, “You’d have to be dead to be unaffected by Moore’s movie.” We’ll see.

(I’m leaving town for a few days, so if I don’t respond to any comments on the site, I’m not ignoring anyone – I’m gone.) See the movie.

Bonus: Sicko links

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Soldiers, on Politics and the War in Iraq

Jul 09 2007 Published by under borderland,politics

Washington Monthly has a series of articles written by soldiers that address the question, What can Democrats do to win over military voters? The question was prompted by a Military Times poll that shows only 46% of military voters identify themselves as Republican, down from 60% three years ago. Phillip Carter’s assessment of the shift:

Democrats, once at 13 percent, have inched up to 16 percent, most Republican defectors appear to have become independents of some sort. Even the officer corps, which in 2003 favored Republicans over Democrats by a ratio of more than seven to one (the Military Times has not gathered more recent statistics), is reported to be weakening in its support for the Republican Party. After all, what they most feared would happen under a Democratic administration—that the military was being overstretched and weakened—has instead happened under a Republican one. Although many military personnel still poll conservatively on issues, they now show a deep disenchantment with the Republican Party, and this administration in particular.

Here’s the list (with bios from the front page):

One Soldier’s Story: An Introduction
by Phillip Carter – an attorney with McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP in Los Angeles, is an Iraq veteran who contributes on national security to the Washington Monthly.

Withdraw Decisively
by Ross Cohen – a former paratrooper and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He is currently completing his master’s degree in public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

Stay and Fight
by Garth Stewart – a sophomore at Columbia University. He served in Iraq as a mortar gunner in the 3rd Infantry Division during the invasion in 2003.

Understand the War We’re In
by Andrew Exum – a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the American University of Beirut. He led a platoon of light infantry in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks and subsequently led a platoon of Army Rangers as part of special operations task forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Elect More Jim Webbs
by Clint Douglas – former staff sergeant, 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne), served in Afghanistan in 2003, after numerous deployments to Latin America.

Bash the Generals
by Melissa Tryon – a Rhodes Scholar and graduate of West Point, is a veteran of the initial ground invasion of Iraq, in which she served in the 101st Airborne Division. She is currently an associate with the Truman National Security Project and a member of the Disabled American Veterans, VoteVets, and Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Ask Americans to Serve
by Nathaniel Fick – served as a Marine Infantry officer in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is the author of the New York Times best-seller One Bullet Away.

The Bitter End
by Spencer Ackerman – a senior correspondent for the American Prospect and a national security correspondent for the Washington Monthly.

These people are all (except Ackerman, maybe) veterans, and they share a perspective we rarely hear in the chorus of political commentary and propaganda that passes for news. And they can write! They comment on the fractious relationship the Democratic party has had with the military since Viet Nam. “…if you asked any good noncommissioned officer why he votes Republican, he would simply answer, “Because Democrats are a bunch of pussies.” (Sorry, but that’s how soldiers talk.)” says Douglas.

They don’t all agree, naturally, because this war is one sorry mess. Every politician in DC, and anyone else who recognizes the need for us to get a grip on the situation should think about what they have to say. I had to resist the urge to copy and paste repeatedly, there are so many gems among these articles. However, Ackerman did say something that ties into my previous post:

In addition, with the bar for success getting increasingly lower, even small improvements feel big. “They have a new commander over there, and at least the appearance and the rhetoric of a new strategy,” says military expert Richard Kohn of the University of North Carolina. The soldiers, says Kohn, will tell themselves, “All right, this is it. This is the one last chance.” (Indeed, this is almost exactly what Smith and Miller expressed to me.)

Most important, those in the military will be the last people to believe a war is lost, even in the face of nearly impossible odds. Losing a war is almost never the fault of soldiers but, rather, the fault of policy makers and generals, but regular soldiers still feel implicated.

Choose any one. You might end up reading them all like I did.

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Raising Bars and Stumbling Blocks

Jul 08 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics

The idea of using market principles to formulate education policy is the core assumption behind NCLB, testing, accountability, and competitiveness. The idea is that if we “raise the bar,” and set expectations high enough, teachers and students will endeavor to excel. Achievement gains will naturally follow, and our society will continue on it’s path of progress. The taxpayers, or shareholders, are happy because they realize a return on their investment. On the other hand, if schools don’t meet performance targets, teachers and students are designated failures, and “corrective measures” are indicated. Just like business, I hear. But not exactly, it seems.

I ran – or stumbled – across a connection between bar-raising and profits today that has me wondering why this carrot and stick notion about school competitiveness has been so uncritically embraced by policy makers, politicians, and public school critics when it seems to be the antithesis of corporate boardroom strategy. My Sunday paper featured this WSJ article in the Business section with the headline:

Profit Strategy: Set the Bar Low, Leap Over
By Joanna L. Ossinger
July 8, 2007

Set expectations low, then exceed them and make people happy. That classic strategy has been practiced time and again in the world of corporate earnings announcements — and investors are hoping that the second-quarter earnings season, which picks up steam this week, will bring such positive surprises.

If this is a “classic strategy” that’s been “practiced time and again,” how is it also a “positive surprise” unless everyone involved is delusional? These are all smart, hard-headed, bottom-line driven, rational people who don’t mess around. Right? Oh, and another question…if high expectations and business metaphors apply to school, why shouldn’t they also apply to business?

The WSJ calls it “seeing the bright side,” and Ossinger quotes Brian Rauscher, director of portfolio strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman, who explains how earnings estimates are developed:

Mr. Rauscher says “there is very little motivation for management to give positive forward guidance” — that is, to nudge earnings expectations upward — “unless they’re 100% sure it’s going to happen.”

Companies instead often aim for “safe” guidance, which reduces the risk of negative publicity or a big drop in the stock price if actual earnings prove disappointing.

That makes sense, and it’s how we try to manage our household budget, lowballing our estimates for income, and trying to account for unexpected expenses so if we ever have a little money at the end of the month, we can be “surprised.”

I am truly surprised, though, that this article doesn’t treat this “lower the bar and leap over” strategy as morally questionable, because that’s what public school critics do when teachers adjust their instruction to meet the needs of kids in their classes. And why is it that we don’t hear anyone claiming that doing this will “dumb down” the economy, and make us less competitive? Ossinger notes that when actual earnings are disappointing, stock prices drop, indicating that public opinion does indeed have an effect on performance. Applying that principle, wouldn’t we want to boost public support for schools by recognizing the need for flexibility in goal setting, accounting for multiple influences on performance targets? To me it looks like education policy is aimed at reducing support for public schools. That is, if we want to use market principles.

The principle at work here is that when we set our own goals, we can feel free to revise our estimates, but when we have our goals set for us by someone else, the inflexibility of the situation forces us into a win-or-lose position that exposes us to criticism for being weak or ineffective. One person’s “bar” is the next one’s stumbling block. There’s a lesson here for teachers with respect to assessment, too, I believe.

This article by Kevin Carey, writing for Education Sector, Hot Air: How States Inflate Their Educational Progress is a good example of what I mean. The title says it all, but I’ll spend a moment on a couple of points. Carey says that even though the law gives state departments of ED wide discretion in defining the test score cut levels that will constitute “proficiency,” he says that states “have taken advantage of this autonomy to make their educational performance look much better than it really is.” He wants it both ways. States may have flexibility, but they shouldn’t use it to make a school look good. Instead schools have to “be honest” and take their lumps because he assumes that the news has got to be bad.

The result is a system of perverse incentives that rewards state education officials who misrepresent reality. Their performance looks better in the eyes of the public and they’re able to avoid conflict with organized political interests. By contrast, officials who keep expectations high and report honest data have more hard choices to make and are penalized because their states look worse than others by comparison.

How does Carey know what “reality” is? He uses the NAEP tests, which consistently report lower scores than the state tests, and have problems of their own. (see also, A Test Everyone Will Fail.) In Carey’s world, “high expectations” and “honest data” are paired and linked to “hard choices,” which assumes that if we are honest the tests will show that we’re miserable failures. When schools report higher test scores, though, it’s to “avoid conflict,” and not a sign of success, or reasonable goal setting.

In the WSJ article we’re told that expectations are managed to avoid “negative publicity” and protect weak growth. In the economy, therefore, it’s all about looking on the bright side, but in education, it’s hard choices, and glass-half-empty thinking. I’m not defending the status quo, or investing in rose-colored glasses stock (which would be taking a beating right now in the US). What I’m saying is that the way the market principle metaphor is being applied to education doesn’t really reflect real world conditions. Corporations are not required to set high targets and risk disappointing investors, who might then be taking their money somewhere else – which is the rationale for school vouchers. Instead, companies do set lower targets to keep people happy and make themselves look good.

And while I’m on this topic, I’ll note that the White House is using market psychology in its assessment of our achievements in Iraq, as in: Administration Shaving Yardstick for Iraq Gains. We might join Kevin Carey in saying that “Their performance looks better in the eyes of the public and they’re able to avoid conflict with organized political interests.” We call it spin, which is how the real world seems to function now.

This is all politics, isn’t it?

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Teaching Rocks

Jul 07 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

Since Sarah Puglisi is thinking about rocks and Dada today, this might be the time to drop this one into the pool. For fun. As Sarah said, I hadn’t expected Dada, but then, one can’t expect Dada.

I like to read Bird Baylor’s Everybody Needs a Rock to my students. After we get the “rules” for rock collecting worked out, I take the kids out around the school looking for the perfect rock. Amazingly, you’d think they’d never seen a rock. This is the staggering power of suggestion: “Hey look at this!” I hear it over and over. Pockets and shirt tails quickly fill up when hands are no longer free.

This is raw teacher power and the magic of working with little kids. Mind control. It makes you humble when you realize the damage (and the good) you could do.

A couple of years ago I suggested that the kiddos paint their special rocks. They put faces on them, cut out “costumes,” gave them hair and little plastic eyeballs and stuff. The hot glue gun did all the hard work.

The rocks developed, er…personalities. The kids kept them in their desks, and after a while I forgot about them. Little did I suspect that the rocks might come to life. They were making friends with each other, having slumber parties, and some of them even had furniture – beds mostly – for (I assume) sleeping. This went on for the whole year. A little rock counter-culture developed. It was an underground, or indesk, movement. And very low key. Subversive, in a way. For real. I paid attention, but from a distance, because this was one of those things that “just happened” like the ’60′s, and Woodstock, and blogging. You could never plan, or organize, such a thing.

I have this one special rock that I use to illustrate Baylor’s rules for choosing a rock. I found it on the Oregon coast about 30 years ago. It’s a smooth piece of sandstone, gray, and with a clam’s shell embedded in it. It looks like a rock-clam, or a clam-rock. Hard to say. This last year I went to pull it out to show the crew who were reading the book with me, and I couldn’t find it. It was gone! I keep it on my desk with my other interesting rocks and the dead piranha from Brazil, and I had no idea where it could have been. I was beside myself. Understand, I wouldn’t have cared as much if it had been a hundred dollar bill.

I was surprised by my reaction. I didn’t realize this little rock meant that much to me. But when I thought about how this might be the only thing I still have from that long ago, and that it was unique, I was distraught. Somehow, it had “followed” me around, living in boxes and drawers, windowsills and dresser tops throughout my entire adult life. There’s nothing else I can say that about. After several days of anguish, and wondering where it could have been, I found it in a place I’d put it away for “safe-keeping.” I felt relieved, this time, at my own foolishness and poor memory.

Knowing this history of mine with rock life, you might see why I’d be interested in a book called Teaching a Stone to Talk, by Annie Dillard. I quote at length from part I of her essay:

The island where I live is peopled with cranks like myself. In a cedar-shake shack on a cliff – but we all live like this – is a man in his thirties who lives alone with a stone he is trying to teach to talk.

Wisecracks on this topic abound, as you might expect, but they are made as it were perfunctorily, and mostly by the young. For in fact, almost everyone here respects what Larry is doing, as do I, which is why I am protecting his (or her) privacy, and confusing for you the details. It could be, for instance, a pinch of sand he is teaching to talk, or a prolonged northerly, or any one of a number of waves. But it is, in fact, I assure you, a stone. It is – for I have seen it – a palm-sized oval beach cobble whose dark gray is cut by a band of white which runs around and, presumably, through it; such stones we call “wishing stones,” for reasons obscure but not, I think, unimaginable.

He keeps it on a shelf, Usually the stone lies protected by a square of untanned leather, like a canary asleep under its cloth. Larry removes the cover for the stone’s lessons, or more accurately, I should say, for the ritual or rituals which they perform together several times a day.

No one knows what goes on at these sessions, least of all myself, for I know Larry but slightly, and that owing only to a mix-up in our mail. I assume that like any other meaningful effort, the ritual involves sacrifice, the suppression of self-consciousness, and a certain precise tilt of the will, so that the will becomes transparent and hollow, a channel for the work. I wish him well. It is a noble work, and beats, from any angle, selling shoes.

Reports differ on precisely what he expects or wants the stone to say. I do not think he expects the stone to speak as we do, and describe for us its long life and many, or few, sensations. I think instead that he is trying to teach it to say a single word, such as “cup,” or “uncle.” For this purpose he has not, as some have seriously suggested, carved the stone a little mouth, or furnished it in any way with a pocket of air which it might then expel. Rather – and I think he is wise in this – he plans to initiate his son, who is now an infant living with Larry’s estranged wife, into the work, so that it may continue and bear fruit after his death.

Dillard’s essay is a meditation on the value of prayerful watchfulness. We are here, she says, to witness. Our consciousness as we “keep an eye on things,” lends meaning to an otherwise insentient world. She recalls a visit to the Galapagos Islands in which she first noticed only the big things. “Like everyone else,” she said, “I specialized in sea lions.” Later, though, she became aware of the palo santo trees, and realized that she’d like to “come back” as one of them, bearing her existence, as they do, effortlessly witnessing, mute, and “waving their arms.”

“Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing,” she concluded.

And listen, “Hey look at this!” something, or someone, could be saying.

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What’s going on

Jul 07 2007 Published by under borderland,politics

Back from a trip Outside (outside Alaska) to visit family – there was the predictable backlog of messages, blog posts and news items waiting for me when I got back. Between the vacation and the news, it’s kind of hard to figure out where the real world starts and ends. But that’s how it is in the Borderland.

I’m reminded of the old Marvin Gaye song, which is an anti-war song, but it could also be about any number of tragic conflicts and injustices.

Missprofe has a short post today about a situation in Louisiana that really bothered me when I first learned about it, and I’ve been doing a bit of digging, reading about it. Working as I do in a school that my wife affectionately calls “The UN,” I’m aware of the need to teach tolerance every day in school. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t, by a long shot, eliminate racism. And I believe that if we learn to recognize and talk about our differences and prejudices we can begin building bridges of understanding. Confronting injuries caused by stereotyping, discrimination, harassment and oppression involves both the head and the heart.

I don’t know how to adequately express my complete dismay at the breakdown of all standards of fairness and justice described by this story:

JENA, La. — The trouble in Jena started with the nooses. Then it rumbled along the town’s jagged racial fault lines. Finally, it exploded into months of violence between blacks and whites….

More details, from the Just Democracy blog:

On August 31, 2006, a small group of Black students asked permission from their school board to sit under the schoolyard tree, dubbed the White Tree. The White Tree was so named because of an unspoken rule that, since the school’s inception, barred Black students from enjoying its shade. The school board told the kids they could sit anywhere they want. However, the next day when the students arrived to school the tree was adorned with three nooses; two of the nooses were black and one was gold—the school colors. To White residents, the noose was nothing more than a tasteless prank. But to the Black community, it was a threat and a harkening back to the times of public lynching and burnings.

The Attorney General and the superintendent of schools called the noose incident an “innocent prank,” and most white residents, we are told, deny that racism is a problem in the community. However, after a fight in December in which a white student was beaten up, six black students were charged with attempted murder.

I wonder if the escalation of violence could have been avoided, had the school authorities taken it more seriously, and I’m amazed that this story hasn’t been given more media attention. A Wikipedia article about this little burg was written on May 24 of this year. Note the discussion on the talk page about bias and whether the article was written from a “black point of view.”

Profbwoman tells more of the story and shares list of links.

Other links of interest:

  • While Seated has a photos and a story.
  • Town Talk reports on the testimony at Mychal Bell’s trial, noting that the defense attorney called no witnesses.
  • Check out the forum on the Town Talk site. Lots of local reactions.
  • Friends of Justice challenges the defense attorney’s effectiveness.

Where the Blog has No Name commented on the irony of this case in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to limit the ability of schools to manage the racial diversity of student populations. Truthdig called it the Supremely Disappointing Court. And Rhode Island’s Future posted an article called Supreme Court: Racism Doesn’t Exist which includes links to the opinions written by SCOTUS.

This is all very disheartening. I don’t know if mandatory integration will solve the problem, but I’m certain that segregation is not healthy. And ignoring the problem, as the Court seems to want to do, will only make it worse, like it did in Jena.

The saddest commentary on the Court decision, I think, came from David Brooks who preaches resignation, saying that “maybe integration is not in the cards. Maybe the world will be as it’s always been, a collection of insular compartments whose fractious tendencies are only kept in check by constant maintenance.” I can’t imagine a more irresponsible position, the luxury of privilege. “Fractious tendencies” is a euphemism for hatred, and “constant maintenance” is ….what?

Clearly, racism exists. It’s harmful to everyone. We need to recognize it. We need to talk about it.

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