Archive for October, 2008

Teaching for Change in a Culture of Compliance

Oct 23 2008 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

Even though John McCain declared education to be “the civil rights issue of this century,” his idea of equal opportunity has more to do with “shaking up failed school bureaucracies” and introducing market-driven competitive forces to “empower parents with choice” regardless of whether, in fact, a choice actually exists. And while he’s busy talking about shaking things up, he’s wants us to know that Bill Ayers is a menace, which has got Sol Stern worked up again about leftist teachers with social justice agendas:

America’s ideal of public schooling as a means of assimilating all children (and particularly the children of new immigrants) into a common civic and democratic culture is already under assault from the multiculturalists and their race- and gender-centered pedagogy. Mr. Ayers has tried to give the civic culture ideal a coup de grace, contemptuously dismissing it as nothing more than what the critical pedagogy theorists commonly refer to as “capitalist hegemony.”

Like me, for instance? But I’ve never needed Bill Ayers’ or anyone else’s help to understand that teachers and schools should make a difference for people. The big question appears to be, How? I’ll join Nancy Flanagan in saying that it feels like we’ve entered a parallel universe in which social justice has been “muddled up with extremism and destroying the fabric of democracy.” Social justice teaching isn’t all that big a stretch when you consider, as Stephen Colbert has pointed out, “information itself has a liberal bias.”

I’ve been reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham -1963 with my students, and we just finished the church-bombing chapter. I’ve been reading this aloud to them, only a chapter or two each week – not making very quick work of it – so it’s taken us many weeks to get through the book. There’s a first person narrator, Kenny, who has a colorful storytelling style that the kids really enjoy. It’s mostly just good fun, kid stuff, until the end when Kenny’s family travels from their home in Flint, Michigan to Grandma Sands’ house in Birmingham, where they become personally involved in the 1963 church bombing.

I read the book several years ago, but I’ve never read it with any of my students. I chose it because I wanted to discuss first person narratives, and I also wanted to take an informal look at the Civil Rights Movement in the 60′s using multicultural historical fiction as a vehicle. I am, these days, an OLD person who was around when this stuff was really happening. My students think I’m some kind of antique, with first-hand knowledge of a watershed historical moment.

The narrator takes the reader up to the doorway of the church, full of smoking rubble, with people screaming and running. We’re told little, if anything, though, about why the church was bombed. The book doesn’t reach to make a large political statement, and instead focuses on the family’s human response to this horrific trauma.

But to make sense of what happened, if that’s even possible, kids need to know what was going on in the South then. I told them a little bit about Jim Crow and segregation, which they’ve mostly heard about before. I suggested they look on the internet if they wanted to learn more, and several of them did just that. That pleased me, since it indicated an authentic interest, and those students have helped flesh out some of the background for the rest of the class. They learned that Martin Luther King wasn’t just assassinated out of nowhere. There was a lot going on that is not commonly discussed anymore.

At lunch the other day, while the kids were eating, I overheard several of them talking about the election, saying that Obama was going to be shot. Where’d you all hear that? I asked. They pointed to one of the boys. I asked, Why do you think that’s going to happen? And he said – this really got me – Because Obama’s good. I asked them to please not talk like that, and now we’ve started to discuss some of this more calmly.

I did a quick search myself, and found a collection news articles and essays about the bombing. One stand-out quote gave me chills: “Civil rights activists blamed George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, for the killings. Only a week before the bombing he had told the New York Times that to stop integration Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals.” Given the hate talk I’ve seen lately on youtube, and all over the internet, it feels a lot like turbulent old times.

Several students are now asking the school librarian where she keeps the historical fiction.

Test-based school reform and the politics of accountability has pushed classrooms further away from discussions about social issues than at any time in the last two decades. Teachers and administrators have been all too willing to embrace the authority of test scores, standards, and “research-based” reading instruction, minimizing and forgetting the value of community, intuition, genuine motivation, and common sense. The school day has been circumscribed by concern for testing, which has pushed other very important concerns to the periphery.

Inquiring into our history, sources of power in society, current events, and discussing race and stereotyping does not preclude observing high academic standards. And there’s nothing subversive about such discussions unless you admit that the moral order has already been undermined. I’m not interested in indoctrinating anyone. My only agenda is activating some gray matter, and acknowledging the value of participating in public discourse, none of which is emphasized in any official reform agenda.

John Dewey’s, My Pedagogic Creed, begins with the assertion that “all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race.” How can it proceed otherwise?

To that end, The Zinn Education Project offers a free download of A People’s History, A People’s Pedagogy, by Bill Bigelow, and other resources that support social justice teaching. History is a Weapon has published A People’s History, by Howard Zinn, online.

Teachers who want to find multicultural children’s literature, or any other kind of children’s literature, for students at any age, can find plenty in the Database of Award Winning Children’s Literature.

It’s worth emphasizing, I think, that rising test scores are nothing to celebrate. Thank you, Alfie Kohn.

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Oct 12 2008 Published by under borderland,politics

Things are so messed up. I cringe when I turn on the computer, the TV, or open the newspaper. It’s like gawking at the scene of an accident. But I can’t ignore this stuff.

The “troopergate” findings were released by the legislature on Friday, and Sarah Palin was found to have abused her power as governor.

Incredibly, she responded by saying that she appreciated being cleared of any wrongdoing. Then, even more strangely, in the same interview she said that the report was unfairly partisan:

Palin: …Well, I"™m very very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing "¦ any hint of any kind of unethical activity there. Very pleased to be cleared of any of that.


KTVA-Channel 11: "¦ The report that came out yesterday, do you think that the end result is partisan?

Palin: Yeah, I did think it did turn into a partisan circus to tell you the truth…What this legislative investigation — quote unquote — turned into was a political circus.


Glenn Greenwald called it “the perfect snapshot for what we"™ve had the last eight years,” since the McCain campaign has taken the same illogical position, contradicting the findings, and challenging the legitimacy of the report.

My favorite response to this comes from Andrew Halcro:

Palin’s clumsy attempt to try and rebrand the three month independent investigation into allegations she abused the power of her office is reminiscent of the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza tries desperately to rebrand himself as “T-Bone” to his co-workers and ends up being branded “Koko the monkey.”

In the midst of all this noise, we’ve got some real problems here. The cost of food and fuel in the Alaskan rural villages has gone up so high that there is an exodus into the urban centers. But nobody is talking much about this.

Instead, on the local hate-radio talk shows I hear people talking about stockpiling food and ammunition. It makes you stop and think. This is what it comes down to when our democratic processes fail, and our economic infrastructure is threatened.

Sarah Palin will have some explaining to do when she gets home, but there’s little reason to expect that anything she has to say will make any sense. I’m glad there are plenty of people around here willing to call her out.

The first thing we have to maintain is a grip on what’s actually happening. After that, we need to organize at the neighborhood level and begin to take an interest in what’s happening close to home. We had a neighborhood meeting last night, with about 30 people from up and down the road in attendance, discussing local land use issues and the need for us to present an organized response to the direction our local government seems to want to take us. It felt good to be part of this gathering.

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NY Times Meets the Edublog

Oct 01 2008 Published by under borderland,literacy,science

The last of my three articles for the NY Times Lesson Plans blog was posted yesterday. The deal was to write 3 or 4 pieces during September, and I managed to put three together, saying about as much as I have to say, for now at least, in that forum.

The second piece I wrote was about the value of community to the school environment. Nothing says Alaska like the people here, as most of the country may eventually figure out. Sooner, I hope, than later. I described a lesson opportunity that presented itself when our Alaska Native Ed program tutor brought a moose heart to school to show the kids.

Most of the comments were very positive, although there was some push-back on my assertion that community values are overlooked in our current accountability structures, and that community is an important dimension of any school. Someone said I was suggesting that “the demand for accountability is damaging to children,” which isn’t what I said. Alexander Russo said, “This NYT teacher blogger thinks accountability is overly “individualistic,” which also isn’t what I said. But he gets close enough to win a nod from me.

People want to make it seem like teachers oppose ALL accountability when we object to the current half-assed, test-based accountability system. My little story was about something that didn’t come out of any curriculum guide, or even a lesson plan, and was the product of what we call a “teachable moment.” If I had to plan on having a moose heart handy, I’d never teach that lesson. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know what to do with one when a moose heart suddenly appears. Every school community has it’s own potential to show the kids things that are unique to its area, that are worthwhile, and maybe even necessary for them to know. But this stuff isn’t standardized. Accountability structures, to be fair, need to be broadened to distribute responsibility and to reflect the values of local communities.

My third article was about how I use our class website to help the kids take a closer look at their experiences, and celebrate ordinary things as they learn to write for a live audience. The second commenter took issue with me for overlooking a grammatical error in a kid’s writing, and she called their work “boring and trivial.” This comment got the treatment it deserved from other commenters, which left me free to sit back and watch. The discussion devolved to more or less a rehash of the classic meaning vs. behavior question about what should be emphasized in school. This is a major problem, maybe THE major problem we have putting new technology to contructive work in public schools, after we get it there. The most striking thing to me was that my humble little classroom writing project was made to sound revolutionary in the face of the teacher-as-nitpicker model of writing instruction.

A lot of positive comments were left for the kids on their site. Some of them mentioned the Times article, so I put it up on the screen in the front of the classroom, and showed the kids what people out there in the world were saying about them – good and bad. I think they were amazed at how a bunch of adults who don’t even know them could waste so much energy arguing about what we’re doing in our classroom.

The best comment on the Lesson Plans blog, though, was posted just this evening. It’s from a person who grew up here, attended school here, and now works at Duke University Hospital. He wrote:

This article inspired both a longing to be collecting blueberries at the top of Murphy Dome, and the wish that a teacher had been able to use technology in this fashion when I was in elementary or middle school. I don"™t know what I would have written about, but once the flow began I am sure the unlimited tablet at my fingertips would have been heavily used.

This emphasizes how connected we can be, if we make an effort. The kids wrote more this afternoon than they’ve written in any single hour so far this year.

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