Archive for November, 2010

An Ice Week

Nov 28 2010 Published by under borderland

It was a quiet week. For only the third time in the 30 years I’ve lived here, the town shut down on account of winter weather. The weather people called it “epochal,” and most of Alaska got to share the fun.

It started last Monday morning, just as we were getting ready to head into town. Since the roads were still good, and school hadn’t been called off, we drove in. I knew it would get messy. And it did get messy.

We’re prepared for cold weather. We’re prepared for snow. But, in the interior of Alaska, we are not prepared for rain in winter. They called it the #icepocalypse on Twitter.

School buses on early routes headed back to the barn once they realized the situation was out of control, and getting kids home would be a bigger problem than getting them to school. Eight of my students showed up. Walkers, mostly. At first we thought the rest would probably just be late, but as the morning wore on, we realized that those lucky ducks would be home playing video games all day. A few parents came to take their kids home. I had six students by lunch time. School was called off for Tuesday. Yes!

But those of us who showed up that day had to stay until we could be officially discharged, even though the situation outside was getting more treacherous by the hour. Bureaucracy, how it grinds along! We hung out. Early in the afternoon I got a call from my wife letting me know that she had our three high schoolers in the car, and they were crawling home. 20 miles. Eventually, the principal found someone to cover for me in my classroom, with the few kids who were still there at 2:00, and I headed home also.

I drove the whole 20 miles in second gear, miraculously making it over a steep hill mostly in my own lane. Since we live pretty far out of town, I had the last 8 miles of road all to myself. Good thing, too, because I needed all of it. I parked strategically and put a concrete block (which eventually froze hard to the ground) under one of the tires so the truck wouldn’t slide back down the hill while I was in the house.

Intermittent power failures the next day were no big deal, as they only lasted a few hours and we had plenty of (wet) firewood. But walking outside was another matter. Over an inch of steady rain glazed everything smooth. School was called off for Wednesday, too. Again, yes!

After a day or so of hanging out around the house, my kids were bored enough to try skating on the driveway, and an idea for a little neighborhood skating party out on the road took shape.

By Thursday, Thanksgiving, the weather had system passed through, snow fell, and it got colder. With traction, we can resume normal activity. I went snowboarding today, and the groomed runs were fast.

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Nov 24 2010 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

Thich Nhat Hanh begins his commentaries on the Heart Sutra by coining a word, Interbeing:

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be.

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We now the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here – time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. “To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing.

Without boundaries between one thing and another, we have nothing to gain or lose; we are free. I want to build a world where dogs do not eat dogs.

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Reformer Quality

Nov 23 2010 Published by under education,politics

We’ve heard it a thousand times by now: “Raising the quality of teaching in America has been a priority of President Barack Obama"™s administration, and reforms receiving the most attention right now include stronger teacher evaluation systems and financial incentives to attract, reward and retain quality educators.”

It’s been a “priority” for years and years, all the way back to when the issue was being “hotly debated” and helped along with self-evident and all-too-familiar media claims, such as “Effective teachers are capable of inspiring significantly greater learning gains in their students when compared with their weaker colleagues.” Hmmm. Which measurable inputs should we focus on? Academic degrees? Years of experience? Deep content-area knowledge, maybe?

No, no, no, says Bill Gates. Forget all that. "œYou can"™t fund reforms without money," he says. "œAnd there is no more money." And, oh yeah, those things don’t really matter, anyway.

What happened to those “hotly debated” inputs? They sound expensive now; that’s what. The merit pay for teachers, paying students for grades, charter schools, and a host of other questionable and unsubstantiated, ill-advised practices cost good money – money that would attract highly desirable CEOs and management wizards. And as we are beginning to see, reformer quality matters more than teacher quality. In fact, the reformer is the most important variable in any school reform effort.

Paul Thomas offers a blistering, not-to-be-missed critique of the trend to put large school systems under the leadership of corporate saviors:

What do all these professional managers and entrepreneurs have in common?

Little or no experience or expertise in education. (Instead, they have degrees in government and law, along with nontraditional entries into education and strong ties to alternative certification, such as Teach for America). Further, they all represent and promote a cultural faith in the power of leadership above the importance of experience or expertise.

When Klein quit his post as chancellor in New York "“ soon after Michelle Rhee left DC "“ the fact that he was leaving for a senior position at News Corp and that his replacement would be a magazine executive sent a strong message. The implication was that the American public distrusts not only schools, but also teachers and education experts.


The messages coming from state education in the US, then, are that government has failed and that only the private sector can save us. But is that message accurate?

The corporate push to take over state education is, in fact, masking the failures of corporate America.

Meanwhile, things have been happening. Gotham Schools informs us that after Mr. Klein stepped into his new job with Rupert Murdochch’s News Corporation, they acquired Wireless Generation, which “has made its business partly by cobbling together government contracts with school systems,” as it did in New York City, where it took over development and management of ARIS, the city"™s online warehouse of student data.

Tom Hoffman observes:

We’re now officially in the post-charter era of school reform. Not that charters have failed, are going away, or even shrinking, but the real action going forward is in, what do we even call the confluence of online learning tightly coupled with assessment and data analysis? This is the real privatization push.

Yes, it was quite the deal. Except for the matter of Klein’s replacement, Cathie Black, who may have been just ever so slightly unqualified for her new job as school Chancellor, since she has no experience in public education, and consequently needed a waiver before she could step into the position, which the state’s education commissioner has denied.

There may be just desserts served here and there this Thanksgiving, after all.

Being a teacher, and hearing all the big talk, and watching all the back-door maneuvering feels like being stuck in the back seat of a car being driven by a 10 year old kid whose legs are long enough to reach the pedals but still can’t see over the steering wheel, and having a great time, nonetheless.

I’d like to say that these people don’t affect me. But they do. I am tired of the misdirection and the bad faith lobbying for things that will benefit only themselves. How strange it is, hearing the rich and powerful complaining about the rich and powerful teachers unions standing in their way. Stand we will.

Norm Scott posted a great comment from Paul Moore:

All hail Leonie & Company! Feels good doesn’t it? You beat one of the biggest of the oligarchs. Bloomberg looks especially small right now, no pun intended, and he’ll never quite be the same again. Can’t you just hear him, “Why can’t Cathie be Chancellor, she’s got the qualification for the job, she’s my friend. Oh, they’re all stupid Nazis, no they’re all stupid Soviets, don’t they know I got Meg Whitman elected Governor of California?”

Let’s see, Michelle Rhee is jobless, Joel Klein is going to work for Rupert Murdoch, Bloomberg is beaten, Bill Gates is foaming at the mouth about teachers seniority rights, salaries and pensions, the Walton family will open their stores on Thanksgiving in desperation, no one went to see “Waiting For Superman”, and Eli Broad’s got one foot in the grave. To borrow a phrase from the great George Peppard and tweak it a bit, “I love it when a plan falls apart.”

Forget about Guggenheim and Superman; I’m waiting for Underdog. At least this makes me smile.

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Teachers Excepted

Nov 19 2010 Published by under anarchism,borderland,politics

The messaging on this does not add up.

The Gates Foundation:

College-Ready Education
The foundation has set an ambitious goal in K-12 education: to graduate all students college-ready. Currently, only a third of students graduate on-time with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed beyond high school. Together with our partners, we are working to provide all students"”especially low-income and minority students"”with the opportunity to realize their full potential.

Sec. of Education, Arne Duncan, on the “quiet revolution”:

This quiet revolution is driven by motivated parents who want better educational options for their children. They know how important education is to succeed and compete in the global economy, they insist on the very best, and they are willing to sacrifice to make it happen.

It is driven by great educators and administrators who are challenging the defeatism and inertia that has trapped generations of children in second-rate schools. They know that every child can learn in a school culture where parents are engaged, teachers are respected and principals are empowered.

It is driven by elected officials and stakeholders outside the school system who value education enough to fund it adequately and give generously of their time, energy and resources. They know that quality education — more than ever before — is the cornerstone of a strong economy in the 21st century.

Bill Gates, on school budget overhauls:

He suggests they end teacher pay increases based on seniority and on master"™s degrees, which he says are unrelated to teachers"™ ability to raise student achievement.

So, being college-ready is a step to realizing a person’s full potential, except for teachers with master’s degrees, which are worth nothing. Kids should go to college, but teachers should not. Teachers are important, but we should only recognize them for their ability to raise test scores. We will insist on the very best and make sacrifices, as long as those doing the insisting control the conditions of employment, and teachers make the sacrifices. Kids need to go to college so they can get an education which may or may not help them advance their station in life, because results are all that matters – unless you’re an education reformer, in which case you find other people to blame for your own ill-conceived policy recommendations.

It’s a shell game. Nobody wins except the guys who spout this nonsense. To make real changes, here’s an alternative:

The syndicalist strategy of revolution did, therefore, involve a struggle for social power "” a struggle to be conducted through direct action based on the workers"™ own class organizations. The tactics of direct action included ca"™canny or go-slow, the use of the boycott, insistence that goods produced should carry a trade union label, sabotage, and, of course, industrial strikes. What is common to all these tactics is a determined refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of bourgeois rule. It is not, argued the syndicalists, a proper function of trade unions to make agreements with the employers. Negotiations, agreements, contracts all necessarily involve bargaining and compromise within the framework of rules contrived by capitalists. The proper function of trade unions is not to participate with employers in ruling workers but, as far as they able, to impose the will of the workers on the employers.

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Being Human

Nov 15 2010 Published by under anarchism,borderland,politics

Derrick Jensen was interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! today. I’ve been reading Jensen’s Endgame, and was interested to hear him speak. Just a taste here:

DERRICK JENSEN: You know, the Tolowa lived there for 12,500 years, which is sustainable by any realistic measurement. And they didn"™t do it because they were too stupid to invent backhoes. You know, why? Why? How did they look at the world differently that allowed them to live? It wasn"™t because they were primitives. It wasn"™t because they were savages. What did they have? They had social strictures in place.

AMY GOODMAN: Derrick, you"™ve written, “Civilization is not and can never be sustainable.”

DERRICK JENSEN: Yeah. Several years ago, I was riding around in a car with a friend of mine, George Draffan, with whom I"™ve written a couple books. And I was just making conversation. I said, “So, George, if you could live at any level of technology that you want to, what would it be?” And he was not in a very good mood that day, and he said, “That"™s a really stupid question, Derrick, because we can fantasize whatever we want, but the truth is there"™s only one level of technology that"™s sustainable. And that"™s the Stone Age. And we"™ll be there again some day. And the only question really is, what"™s left of the world when we get there?”

It doesn"™t take a rocket scientist to figure out that any way of living that"™s based on the use of non-renewable resources won"™t last. In fact, I would say it takes anybody but a rocket scientist to figure that out. And likewise, it doesn"™t take someone who"™s very smart to figure out that if every year there are fewer salmon return than the year before, that eventually there won"™t be any left.

In the interview, Jensen speaks about growing up with an abusive father, a point of view that he applies to his critique of modern industrial civilization. He emphasizes that, given the rate of global environmental degradation we are now experiencing, cataclysmic changes are drawing frightfully near. Yet no serious effort to prevent them is even being discussed.

Coincidentally, today, a report in Canada’s Globe and Mail informs us that Asian companies looking for alternatives to conventional shipping routes want “to transform the Arctic into a new thoroughfare for the industrialization of Western Canada "“ and turn the Mackenzie River into a kind of Mississippi for the oil sands.” Is this madness, or what? They want to exploit the absence of arctic sea ice from global warming so that they can supply energy intensive oil extraction efforts in Alberta, Canada – contributing to further global warming. Maybe the most disturbing thing about the whole news story is the matter of fact way that it was written – an exemplar of the problem!

Jensen’s book is profoundly disturbing. It’s not easy to think about, let alone discuss the collapse of civilization without giving in to anger, or conversely, hopelessness and resignation. Not only that, I also have strong feelings of grief and sorrow for our children who will soon inherit this epic mess.

So, as a palliative gesture, I’m sharing this prayer from John Trudell, “Crazy Horse,” to the earth, and to the people who walk upon it. Together.

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Monkeywrenching the Standards Juggernaut

Nov 14 2010 Published by under anarchism,borderland,politics

"Quit Playing with Your Dinner!"

School reform in its present incarnation has been with us for over a decade now, and it has finally stunk up just about everything at ground level. Marion Brady, in a Kappan (2000) article, “The Standards Juggernaut,” predicted it:

There is almost no dialogue about fundamental curricular issues because it seems to be widely assumed that there are no serious problems with the traditional curriculum. What should the young be taught? Without hesitation, policy makers and politicians answer, "œThey should be taught what those of us who are educated know." This is the philosophical underpinning of the latest educational fad: the standards movement.

[....] Every day, across America, committees are at work embedding and reinforcing the standards fad. Sadly, because the consequences of their actions will take so long to manifest themselves, the causal link between what they"™re doing and its ultimately calamitous consequences may not become apparent in time to do anything about it.

And so this is precisely where we find ourselves, engaged in ridiculous controversies about whether superheroes will save us from our own ineptitude, while a major media-supported educational fraud is in process.

William Gryder’s article in The Nation criticizes President Obama for his naive failure to play hardball with the Republicans. From our vantage point in the schools, we’ve seen Arne Duncan courting these people, without even so much as a groan from our teachers union. Gryder ends his piece with a call for Obama’s supporters to help him revive his presidency, and start building a people’s agenda.

And what might that “people’s agenda” look like? Depends on who you ask, and which “people” we’re talking about. There’s the standard, more participatory view of democracy pitted against the less participatory view, now ascendant, which has a long tradition. It was succinctly expressed by the President of the Continental Congress and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, who said, “The people who own the country ought to govern it.” Now playing in the economy’s financial sector, and Business Roundtable locations near you.

So, where do we begin building a people’s agenda? Something that could happen as a matter of course any day for teachers, as opposed to “taking it to the streets, “ would be monkeywrenching the standards-based reform effort by following the lead of George Counts, who called on teachers to “establish an organic relation with the community, develop a realistic and comprehensive theory of welfare, fashion a compelling and challenging vision of human destiny, and become somewhat less frightened than [they are] today at the bogeys of imposition and indoctrination.”

His justification is as relevant now as it was in 1932:

We live in troublous times; we live in an age of profound change; we live in an age of revolution. Indeed, it is highly doubtful whether man ever lived in a more eventful period than the present. In order to match our epoch we would probably have to go back to the fall of ancient empires, or even to that unrecorded age when men first abandoned the simple arts of hunting and fishing and trapping and began to experiment with agriculture and the settled life. Today we are witnessing the rise of civilization quite without precedent in human history — a civilization which is founded on science, technology, and machinery, which possesses the most extraordinary power, and which is rapidly making the entire world a single great society. As a consequence of forces already released, whether in the field of economics, politics, morals, religion, or art, the old molds are being broken. And the peoples of the earth are seething with strange ideas and passions. If life were peaceful and quiet and undisturbed by great issues, we might, with some show of wisdom, center our attention on the nature of the child. But with the world as it is, we cannot afford for a single instant to remove our eyes from the social scene.
- George S. Counts, “Dare Progressive Education Be Progressive?” (1932)

In 1932, Counts delivered three speeches at national educational conferences examining the purposes of education and urging progressive educators to recognize the political nature of their work. These speeches were published in a pamphlet entitled, Dare the School Build a New Social Order? And they generated a bit of a stir.

I’m not saying that we should be indoctrinating kids or imposing our own beliefs. But I am saying that we shouldn’t tiptoe around difficult subjects or sweep aside important things that warrant a closer look. Many of these topics are considered off-limits in the classroom. Why is that? What are the roots of the authority that governs what we can talk about?

Noam Chomsky, in a short video clip, makes the case for questioning that authority:

Anarchism covers lots of different things. If there’s one leading principle which unifies them, it’s a simple one. It’s based on the assumption that any authoritarian, or any structure of authority and domination has to justify itself. None of them are self-justifying whether they’re in individual relations, or international affairs, or the workplace, or whatever. They have a burden of proof to bear, and if they can’t bear that burden – which they usually can’t – they’re illegitimate and should be dismantled, and replaced by alternative structures which are fee and participatory and not based on authoritarian systems. …. As I understand anarchism, it’s not a system of doctrines. It’s just the tendency in human society that continually raises this question, seeks to discover systems of domination and to challenge them. When you find some, you usually find others that you hadn’t noticed before. It’s kind of like mountain climbing. You climb one peak, and to your surprise there’s another one behind that you hadn’t thought about.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about those “systems of domination” and wondering about the layers of authority that are operating in school. So many things to question! We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. And whenever I find myself in a box like this, I figure I’m better off standing in support of something I believe in, rather than contributing to something that I hate. As a starting point for answering Marion Brady’s question, “What should the young be taught?” I’m working my way through Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman. It might be more about what should NOT be taught, but that’s helpful, too.

Still, seeing the need for an example of what taking a political stand in the classroom might look like, Jame’s Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers” comes to mind:

I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person. And on the basis of the evidence "“ the moral and political evidence "“ one is compelled to say that this is a backward society. Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them – I would try to make them know "“ that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him. I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that he is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it. And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth. I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man"™s respect. That it is up to him to change these standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country. I would suggest to him that the popular culture "“ as represented, for example, on television and in comic books and in movies "“ is based on fantasies created by very ill people, and he must be aware that these are fantasies that have nothing to do with reality. I would teach him that the press he reads is not as free as it says it is "“ and that he can do something about that, too. I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger "“ and that it belongs to him. I would teach him that he doesn"™t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality; that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything.

Duty calls.

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Designed for the Dump

Nov 12 2010 Published by under borderland,curriculum

The general principle here also applies to textbooks and curriculum materials.

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Let There Be Gridlock

Nov 09 2010 Published by under anarchism,borderland,education,politics

photo: joiseyshowaa

It should be obvious to everyone by now, except the corporate media, that progressive education reforms will not be coming out of any currently operational policy mills. George Wood pretty much summarized the direction my own train of thought has taken over the course of the last two years:

After the election of 2008, I thought the stars were aligning for some serious changes in the way the federal government treated public schools.

Gone were the architects of No Child Left Behind. A president who had repeatedly said we should not judge schools or children on the basis of one test was elected to office. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was up for reauthorization, and I was hopeful things would change.

He concludes that the Department of Education should be dissolved and reconstituted under it’s old umbrella agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Sounds radical – and not likely. In the meantime, I think Glen Ford has the right idea:

We can only hope that the Republicans are so consumed with destroy-Obama fervor that they reject his entreaties to bipartisan collaboration. The people"™s interests would best be served with the GOP charging ahead with their own Neanderthal agenda, forcing Obama to respond with vetoes, if necessary. The people have no champion in the White House or the Congress. The best we can hope for is that the two evils cancel each other out. Let there be gridlock.

I don’t know if it’s the “end of the age of Obama.” If this is a new age, I’ve never seen Obama carrying the banner for it. We need to get over the idea that “leaders” will save us from the evils of the world, and find ways to make changes closer to home on our own.

This post was updated from a previous one, published prematurely.

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How to Win at Failing – Embrace It

Nov 04 2010 Published by under borderland,politics

US schools (and Democrats, too, after their midterm “shellacking”) should take note of our favorite corporate titan’s response to a report warning of immanent and catastrophic failure:

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Internal “F” ratings of pipeline sections operated by BP PLC in Alaska’s North Slope show the company’s corrosion monitoring program is succeeding, not failing, a company spokesman said Thursday.

Spokesman Steve Rinehart was responding to a report by the independent investigative news organization ProPublica that said the rating means the pipeline walls are 80 percent corroded and could rupture.


ProPublica says it obtained an internal BP maintenance report generated in early October that noted at least 148 pipelines received the most critical “F” rating. But Rinehart said as of Wednesday, 151 locations – not entire pipes – had the rating among more than 1,600 miles of pipelines.

“Most of these are small areas that are identified through a big and continuing inspection program,” he said.

This is the deal; the system is working, see? So it’s good. It means they’ll fix it. But, they don’t, see.

Years of Internal BP Probes Warned That Neglect Could Lead to Accidents

Published on Tuesday, June 8, 2010 by Pro Publica by Abrahm Lustgarten and Ryan Knutson:

A series of internal investigations over the past decade warned senior BP managers that the company repeatedly disregarded safety and environmental rules and risked a serious accident if it did not change its ways.

A series of internal investigations over the past decade warned senior BP managers that the company repeatedly disregarded safety and environmental rules and risked a serious accident if it did not change its ways.

The confidential inquiries, which have not previously been made public, focused on a rash of problems at BP’s Alaska oil-drilling unit that undermined the company’s publicly proclaimed commitment to safe operations. They described instances in which management flouted safety by neglecting aging equipment, pressured or harassed employees not to report problems, and cut short or delayed inspections in order to reduce production costs. Executives were not held accountable for the failures, and some were promoted despite them.

Similar themes about BP operations elsewhere were sounded in interviews with former employees, in lawsuits and little-noticed state inquiries, and in e-mails obtained by ProPublica. Taken together, these documents portray a company that systemically ignored its own safety policies across its North American operations – from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico to California and Texas.

I really hope someone remembers this when the bipartisanship kicks in.

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