Archive for March, 2011

Alaska Web Cams

Mar 24 2011 Published by under borderland,technology

Alaska Weather Cams This is fun. You can see real-time images of Alaska from 150 different locations thanks to the FAA Aviation Camera site. An article in Alaska Dispatch announcing the installation of a new camera at Talkeetna caught my attention. I figured they’d have it situated so you can see Denali, which the article confirmed, but it was cloudy when I checked, so I didn’t get to see the mountain. Actually, I can see Denali from my front porch and it wasn’t visible this evening because some clouds moved into the interior this afternoon. But I expect the view from Talkeetna will be far more detailed than what we ever can see from Fairbanks.

Most of Alaska is without road access, and pilots of small aircraft need current weather information, so being able to look at the weather conditions in distant locations is important for travelers. And for the merely curious who, for example, might wonder what the Yukon River at Eagle (Northeast Cam) looks like today, we are now free to find out.

As an example of what the images are like, I’m posting one from Anaktuvuk Pass. They display as a time-lapse slide show using the controls above the image, which I included in the screenshot. From what I gathered looking around the site, the cameras are turned off at night. But since we are rapidly gaining daylight these days, that should not be much of a problem for the next several months.

Anaktuvuk Cam

Google Earth is useless for looking at ground-level, or even near-ground-level images of Alaska away from the road system. But now, Social Studies teachers and armchair travelers, here’s an alternative.

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Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

Mar 21 2011 Published by under borderland,education,politics

edusolidarityIMAGE This piece is being offered in concert with other testimonials by teachers in response to moves by lawmakers (now including Alaska) to restrict the bargaining rights of public employees.

In the political football game of “education reform,” teachers’ unions are blamed for putting the interests of teachers ahead of students, opposing reform measures such as merit pay and school vouchers, protecting lazy and incompetent teachers, awarding teachers unaffordable benefit packages, and contributing to the general moral and economic decline of America. Rebuttals to these charges are tedious, and I’d rather not get mired in taking them all on since they’ve been hashed over and over for years. When you look at them closely, though, most of the “fixes” for public education end up screwing somebody near the bottom rung, and that should tell us something. Teachers know that it doesn’t have to be like that, and our collective power give us freedom to air our grievances without fear of jeopardizing our jobs.

I’m going to make this personal. Before I was a public school teacher, I worked at a private school. I worked for half of the starting pay of public school teachers, and I had a part-time job as a swim instructor that I went to after school and on Saturdays. I had no retirement or health plan. I liked the people I worked with, and I was treated decently, but since I was the only wage-earner in my family, this was not sustainable. During my second year working there, one of the school administrators stopped by my classroom after school to offer me a job as a school janitor, cleaning bathrooms at the end of the day. Without hesitation, I told her, “You know what, I’m looking for another job.” How many part-time jobs would I need if I kept working there? And cleaning toilets after dealing with little kids all day was not on my to-do list. I mentioned to one of the parents of my swim students that I was looking for a teaching position, and she passed my name on to the principal at her school, which lead to a job for me in the public schools the following year.

I got RIFF’d after my first year because of budget shortfalls, and I was rehired over the summer. The contract language that allowed me back in helps to maintain stability in school staffing and programming, so it’s a win-win deal for teachers and kids. In a show of thanks to the union, I attended a union meeting and asked how I could get involved. It was suggested that I attend a teachers’ rights committee meeting, which lead to my involvement as a union rep, an eye-opening experience. I found out that a contract is only as good as the people who are willing to defend it. Principals are not infallible or unconditionally benevolent. Grudges are held and power is abused. I also learned that there is a process for removing incompetent teachers from the classroom, and wherever you find one, you’ll also find an administrator who is not paying attention.

The union serves to manage conflict: No union, more conflict. Teaching is not an easy job, often thankless. When teachers don’t have to worry about taking a sick day or going to the doctor, or working a second job, they have more time and energy for their students and families. When teachers feel free to express their professional views, more ideas are open for consideration. This is how problems are solved in a sane world. Union busting is bullying. We need to defend our profession and our students’ futures from the whims and delusions of politicians. If we don’t, who will?

Finally, a word of caution about depending on our unions to negotiate solutions when push comes to shove: From a post at Solidarity Federation (British Section of the International Workers Association) on the Paradox of Reformism:

If we want to win, we need to recognise that being right doesn"™t cut it. It"™s a matter of power. . . . When the ruling class feared the working class, a welfare state was a price worth paying. Now they don"™t fear us, they feel confident to dismantle it. So the paradox is without the threat of revolution, reformism is a non-starter. On the other hand, with an unruly mob on the streets and a strike-prone workforce, those reasoned reformists all of a sudden look like workable negotiation partners to whoever’s in government. They’ll no doubt claim it was their ‘responsible’ protests which got them there.

It"™s all about the balance of class forces. It"™s primarily a power struggle, not a moral argument. [via Phil Dickens at Property is Theft].

That’s why teachers like me support unions.

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Let it Shine

Mar 15 2011 Published by under borderland,education,politics

edusolidarityIMAGE I was contacted by Stephen Lazar yesterday, asking if I’d be interested in contributing to a blogging effort in support of teacher unions. I am wholeheartedly on board, and I am forwarding this message to encourage other like-minded people to participate, as well.

As we all know, teachers and our unions, along with those of other public sector employees, face unprecedented attacks in the national media and from local and state governments. It is easy for politicians and the media to demonize the "œunions" and their public faces; it is far more difficult to demonize the millions of excellent teachers who are proud union members. Those of us who are excellent teachers and who stand in solidarity with our unions are probably no stranger to the question "œWell, why are you involved with the union if you"™re a good teacher?" It"™s time for us to stand up and answer that question loudly and clearly.

On Tuesday, March 22, teachers in NYC will wear red in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are under attack in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and elsewhere. We also stand with teachers in places like Idaho, California, and Texas who are facing massive layoffs. We would like to take this stand on the web as well. We encourage you to publish a piece on March 22 entitled "œWhy Teachers Like Me Support Unions." In this piece, please explain your own reasons for being a proud union member and/or supporter. Including personal stories can make this a very powerful piece. It would be great to also explain how being a union member supports and enables you to be the kind of teacher that you are. We want these posts to focus not only on our rights, but also on what it takes to be a great teacher for students, and how unions support that.

After you have published your post, please share it through the form that will go live on March 22 at Posts should also be shared on Twitter using the tag #edusolidarity.

In Solidarity,
Ken Bernstein "“ Social Studies, MD "“ teacherken
Anthony Cody "“ Science Instructional Coach, CA "“ Living in Dialogue
Ed Darrell "“ Social Studies, TX "“ MillardFillmore"™s Bathtub
Nancy Flanagan "“ Educational Consultant, MI "“ Teacher in a Strange Land
Jonathan Halabi "“ Math, NY "“ JD2718
Jamie Josephson "“ Social Studies, DC "“ Dontworryteach
Stephen Lazar "“ Social Studies/English, NY "“ Outside the Cave
Deborah Meier "“ Professor of Education, NY "“ Deborah Meier"™s Blog
Doug Noon "“ Elementary, AK "“ Borderland
Kate Nowak – Math, NY "“ f(t)
Jose Vilson "“ Math, NY "“ The Jose Vilson

As Odetta said, “We are affirming ourselves, folks. Please do it beyond a whisper.”

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On Regrets

Mar 11 2011 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,education

There are a lot of ups and downs in the job of teaching. More downs than ups, lately, it seems. But still, I’m glad I got into it and have had an occasional glimpse of the good that can come from influencing someone to set goals and reach for things that might at first seem difficult to attain. When you teach elementary school, it takes a few years before the kids come back to tell you about these things. These visits are hugely meaningful to me since on a day-to-day level, it’s hard to see growth in so many things that really matter, like empathy, confidence, persistence, and goal-setting. And I wonder about the kids that don’t return with stories to tell – the ones who might have gained nothing meaningful from our time together. What could I have done differently to make that chemistry work? This question nags me.

There’s a lot of talk these days about teacher quality as if it’s a thing that can be packaged, and paid for, with salary incentives. This idea misses the mark on many levels. For me, money won’t move me to do bogus things that I know won’t work. I didn’t become a teacher to make a bunch of money; it’s always been axiomatic that teachers do not get rich. My dad, a successful businessman, tried to discourage me from majoring in Education when I was in college, telling me that he wouldn’t help pay my college tuition if I majored in Education because “teachers don’t make any money.” So… to prove a point, I suppose, I quit school and lived hand to mouth for six years doing seasonal jobs and living out of a backpack. I met a lot of people with no hope of ever working their way out of their situations, and eventually, I decided that being a schoolteacher might offer me a way to help people who might not be as fortunate as I was, growing up.

What I found out is that teaching school throws my noble ideals back in my face, exposing them as being more the product of wishful thinking than actual practice. It’s humbling to think back on a hard day, or a hard year, and reflect on how I could have made it better. And more money for higher test scores is never the thing that comes to mind when I mull over this question.

I got to thinking about the subject of regret this evening when I was searching for a video of Bob Dylan, and ran across this clip of Leo Kottke tuning his guitar, and talking about meeting Dylan. It made me laugh. I like Kottke’s dry delivery. His grimaces are eloquent.

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The Change We Need

Mar 06 2011 Published by under anarchism,commonplaces,politics

Annie Leonard breaks it down in The Story of Citizens United v. FEC:

When the United States came into existence, corporations were easier to keep in check. Back then, the government would grant them charters for a specific short-term project, like building a bridge or a railroad.

Once they fulfilled their purpose, they were disbanded. But over time, the law changed and corporations no longer had to be turned off once their project was complete. They began to live on indefinitely, with a much more general purpose, profit. And that"™s how the modern corporation was born. Today"™s corporations have evolved to have something very dangerous in their programming. Unlike people, who are driven by all kinds of motivations — doing the right thing, love for family, their country, the planet — publicly traded corporations are now required, by law and the markets, to pursue one single motivation above all others. Maximize value for shareholders — make as much money as possible.

That"™s it.

No, really, that"™s what the law and the markets demand.

Imagine a friend saying, "œThe only thing I really care about is money." Not someone you"™d want to leave your kids with, or your democracy for that matter.

(Or imagine a teacher who said, “The only thing I really care about is test scores.”)

Leonard calls for us to affirm that “that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights,” by working to amend the U.S. Constitution.

What does this have to do with public schools? Read the excellent piece by Joanne Barkan in Dissent, “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule our Schools” :

THE COST of K"“12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year. So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum? Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels. In the domain of venture philanthropy"”where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision"”investing in education yields great bang for the buck. [Read the rest of it here.]

The reform plan is a business plan. In 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education released its report, A Nation at Risk, people were told that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” And a crisis mentality was born, spawning a cacophony of self-contradictory “reform” ideas that depend on scapegoating teachers and schools in poor communities for their lousy test scores.

For those of us who see it regularly, it’s hard to seriously consider using test scores as a measure of “progress” for kids who don’t have a regular place to sleep at night.

Strangely, we read daily about species extinctions and other very real environmental disasters, yet this news arouses no general alarm except among people who are directly impacted. Greenwashing, a public relations posture adopted by corporations pretending to be eco-friendly, makes environmental destruction and degradation seem almost natural. We should wonder why we do not view it as an act of war when corporations dump industrial wastes in our rivers and air, and when the food industry runs farmers off the land and manufactures food products that make people sick and fat.

We should likewise see it as an act of war when these same corporate entities collude with federal and state governments to deny working people their right to work in dignity for a living wage, especially as we remember that it was Wall Street hustlers, themselves, who recklessly crashed the global economy, taking big bonuses for their trouble.

They only call it class war when we fight back.


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Workers’ Song

Mar 01 2011 Published by under anarchism,borderland,commonplaces,education,politics

The Wisconsin worker demonstrations continue, and there are signs of public opposition to the belligerent Republican stance toward public employee unions, according to a nation-wide New York Times/CBS News poll in which the weakening of public employee collective bargaining rights is opposed by a margin of nearly two to one.

One of the things that Governor Walker may not have considered is how generally pissed-off teachers already are after more than a decade of hearing politicians ranting about “failing schools,” accountability, and choice while ramming tests and threats of sanctions into our classrooms. Now we are told that public employees are overcompensated, while the Wall Street banksters got bonuses, and none of them have gone to jail. I hope that Governor Walker and his cronies get more than they expected.

Ralph Nader sees a middle class awakening in the works, observing that we have watched the poor being stomped on for years, and now we are beginning to realize that the corporate agenda includes dictating terms to everyone. “There is an ideological plan driving these corporatists,” he says.

They create “useful crisis” and then hammer the unorganized people to benefit the wealthy classes. Governor Walker last year gave $140 million in tax breaks to corporations. This fiscal year’s deficit is $137 million. Note this oft-repeated dynamic. President Obama caved to the Minority party Republicans in Congress last December by going along with the deficit-deepening extension of the huge dollar volume tax cuts for the rich. Now the Republicans want drastic cuts in programs that help the poor.

Nader urges workers, both union and non-union to close ranks and focus on the larger struggle between the people and the plutocracy. This is an old story, one that is marked with brutal suffering and violence. I’ve recently been reading Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, chapter 10, “The Other Civil War,” in which the history of struggle for working people in the 1800′s is outlined.

It was a time when the law did not even pretend to protect working people-as it would in the next century. Health and safety laws were either nonexistent or unenforced. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1860, on a winter day, the Pemberton Mill collapsed, with nine hundred workers inside, mostly women. Eighty-eight died, and although there was evidence that the structure had never been adequate to support the heavy machinery inside, and that this was known to the construction engineer, a jury found “no evidence of criminal intent.”

This is what we can look forward to, as corporate excess runs roughshod over the entire planet. The Republican agenda is largely a repeal the 20th century. Accordingly, I offer Dick Gaughan’s Workers’ Song as a salute to the working people of Madison, Wisconsin who are standing up and speaking for all of us now.

The Workers’ Song

Words & Music : Ed Pickford
Lyric as sung by Dick Gaughan

Come all of you workers who toil night and day
By hand and by brain to earn your pay
Who for centuries long past for no more than your bread
Have bled for your countries and counted your dead

In the factories and mills, in the shipyards and mines
We’ve often been told to keep up with the times
For our skills are not needed, they’ve streamlined the job
And with sliderule and stopwatch our pride they have robbed

But when the sky darkens and the prospect is war
Who’s given a gun and then pushed to the fore
And expected to die for the land of our birth
When we’ve never owned one handful of earth?

We’re the first ones to starve the first ones to die
The first ones in line for that pie-in-the-sky
And always the last when the cream is shared out
For the worker is working when the fat cat’s about

All of these things the worker has done
From tilling the fields to carrying the gun
We’ve been yoked to the plough since time first began
And always expected to carry the can

Sea of signs

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