Yet One More: A poem for Parkland et al

Yet One More

Yet one more shooting
Followed by more thoughts and prayers
To be followed by more rhetoric
With no action anywhere.

Blame guns
Blame the politicians
Blame the NRA
Blame the parents
Blame the system
Blame and blame away.

Refuse to speak of it
Refuse to see the cause
Refuse to take an action
Refuse to take a pause.

Say we need more God
Say we need more guns
Say we need more safety
Say we need more done.

Our words, they hold no meaning
Our words fall empty at our feet
Our words are simply worthless
Our words, they have no meat.

More lives lost through inaction
More lives lost whilst we debate
More lives lost through no reaction
How many more must meet that fate?

We must awaken once again
When tomorrow’s sun breaks the plane
We must rise up and do something now
Or be forced to mourn again.

America: Becoming an Under-developed Country

When there is talk of undeveloped countries, the focus usually centers on those countries that make up Southeast Asia, Central America, and even South America. Yet, I would argue that there is a new form of underdevelopment that is sweeping the West, and in particular, the United States. It makes it so that the U.S. is not undeveloped, but rather under-developing. America, one of the most richest countries in the world, is becoming an Under-developing Country. While I am certain that making that comment is certain to anger some people, I hope that even they continue to read to see why I make such a harsh observation about the country of my birth.

First, let me define what it is to be an under-developing country. I did not coin the phrase, but read it on a comment about an article about the rise of anti-intellectualism in the U.S. Being an under-developing country means that we are no longer encouraging ourselves or our children to aspire to gaining an education that is broad in scope nor one that encourages critical thinking. We relegate our teachers to teaching to a test rather than encouraging each individual students to attain their personal best. People who question the status quo are seen as deviant and potentially dangerous. The U.S., through certain facets of our population, is careening toward becoming an underdeveloped country. The members of this facet point to those who are educated as being elitists and being bent on turning the U.S. away from core values and beliefs. They define what they consider to be core values and beliefs rather narrowly into their particular values and beliefs and even extremely narrow interpretations of founding documents such as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Those who advocate this anti-intellectualism use labels such as elitist and liberal as if they are profanity. They accuse those who think critically of wanting to undermine and tear the fabric of our society. In short, being intelligent is seen as dangerous and being uneducated is seen as being desirable. It is desirable, especially for those who want to stay in power. After all, an undereducated populace is easier to control. When people think, they make decisions. When they simply allow others to think for them, then their decisions are made for them as well.

Take public education for example. Many of us, at least those of us above the age of 35 or so, can recall a time when our teachers taught and tested us on material learned in class from a fairly decent textbook. Our job was to think about what we were learning and apply it in some way to life outside the classroom, either directly or indirectly. I recall a teacher I had for both math and science in junior high school whose mantra was ‘Try. Try Again. Suffer. And when you feel as if blood is pouring from your pores from your suffering, then, and only then, will I help you.’ He allowed us to work at our own pace within certain parameters. He circulated the room as we worked on whatever chapter we happened to be in. Most of the class may have easily been on five to ten different chapters at any given time. However, we each learned the material. If we happened to finish a considerable number of chapters and were far ahead of our classmates, he encouraged us to help our classmates who were struggling with the material. We learned not only math and science, but also how to help one another. Talk about learning to a higher standard, that was it. We did projects in most of our classes. Took field trips. Engaged in discussions about current events and our subjects. We were even free to disagree with our teachers provided that we listened to them and they to us and never said they were wrong. We backed our arguments with facts and logic.

Move into today’s public education and you have a vastly different story. Many teachers are given a curriculum map with set deadlines for teaching material. These deadlines must be met so that students can take a standardized test that likely had no input from the local teacher. Many times if students attempt to assist one another, then it is considered cheating and they suffer the consequences. Should students not be able to achieve a passing score on the standardized test, then the teacher is considered at fault rather than the unrealistic deadlines imposed by the curriculum map or the test written from the sterile viewpoint of someone hundreds of miles away from the school. There is no longer time for field trips. The textbooks are vetted through a process that has a limited number of publishers whose books are often pre-vetted by larger and more conservative states education panels that wash from them anything that does not fit into a more conservative agenda. Prime example being Texas where Moses is considered as a major contributor to the ideas of the founding fathers of the U.S. We can add to this the numerous arguments for the teaching of Creationism and the lessening of scientifically based Evolution. When teachers deviate from the curriculum or encourage students to do something about an injustice they see, then they risk their jobs.

An article in The Guardian from May 18, 2012, points to a high school teacher who lost her job after having “asked her students in an upper-level language arts class to look at the American Library Association’s list of ‘100 most frequently challenged books’ and write an essay about censorship” (The Guardian, “Anti-intellectualism is taking over the US”). In a more recent article from The Guardian dated September 24, 2014, they listed seven books banned by Highland Park High School in Dallas, TX, “after parents complained about their children having access to ‘obscene literature’” (The Guardian, “Texas school bans seven ‘obscene’ books in banned books week”), among them were Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This is not an isolated incident, nor is it only just Texas being Texas. There are hundreds of cases where books are banned in our country. There are also hundreds of cases where teachers are told to remain silent and just teach what they are told to teach and that their opinions are never to be heard in the classroom.

I know this from experience as having taught middle and high school for over 12 years in Florida. While I, for the most part, was never directly censored by my administration, I did receive comments and even felt some animosity toward me in the form of my yearly reviews as I encouraged my students to think and reason. I stood up for students, including those with whom I disagreed, as they discussed literature and life in my classroom. I never hid my politics from them, but never told them they were wrong when we did not agree. Rather, I advised them to step out of their belief and see how someone else could believe different from them. The majority of my students realized that their opinions were sometimes just that. Opinions based on emotions or their parents rather than facts. Many of them agreed to disagree with their peers, some even with their parents. Yet, I recall being told that I was to remove my political bumper sticker from my vehicle since it was in a school parking lot. I refused stating that those with opposing political views who also parked in the lot displaying their politics would have to do the same. I didn’t have to remove mine at that point. I recall being told by one administrator, and a colleague by another one the following year, that we should not encourage students to form a Gay-Lesbian-Straight organization as that would disrupt the learning process and the school climate. Students want to be able to learn, discuss, and think, not take tests that only require the rote memorization of facts or a version of the facts in order to pass them. They see more gray in the world than simply black and white. The banning of books and critical thinking only serves to continue the downward spiral of underdeveloping our nation.

Moving from the educational realm and into the political, we see this even more as politicians claim not to be scientists, yet refuse to listen to the vast majority of scientists when they say climate change is real and will have devastating effects on the world. Even the U.S. Department of Defense sees it as a major problem. However, there remain a group of politicians in Congress who deny the facts. They seem to relish in their denial of the facts. Why? Because their wealthy corporate donors want them to do so. These are the same people who advocate for looser gun laws saying that it will prevent crime if more people have guns. One of their standard mantras is that a ‘good guy with a gun’ can prevent mass killings like the ones at Sandy Hook or Columbine, or the theater in Colorado from ever occurring. What they fail to see is that even a supposed good guy with a gun could have a really bad day or a bad temper and easily become a bad guy with a gun. They claim that the liberals and elitists want to take away guns from law abiding citizens through laws requiring background checks and gun registration. What they fail to admit is that would take a change to the current interpretation of the Second Amendment of the Constitution to truly do so.

Those who fear intelligence also claim that the liberals and elitists want to take God out of schools because public entities, including schools, are barred by the First Amendment of the Constitution from placing one religion over another. These ultraconservatives claim that by not having the Christian Bible taught in our schools that this is the reason for all the problems in our country. Yet, they fail to see the real causes for the problems of poverty, crime, homelessness, drugs, and the like. They fail to enact laws or create programs that would help put an end to these social ills by claiming it’s not the government’s job or that there is no money to fund these programs. However, they refuse to raise taxes on the wealthy who can afford to pay more. How do they get away with this? Through the dumbing down of the populace. They bombard the legitimate news stations, as well as using their own media, to claim that raising taxes would result in fewer jobs. They further make claims that those who are homeless, jobless, and on government assistance are simply lazy. By only letting out what they want people to hear, then they can get away with harming the majority of the people in our country. How does this tie into religion? Consider the number of religious figures in the United States that are most often heard that hail from the ultraconservative, anti-intellectual front. People like Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee who claim to be Christians, yet talk about how lazy people are who are on welfare, unless they donate, in the case of Robertson, to his ‘ministry’. He recently told an elderly woman whose husband is ill that she needed to keep tithing rather than use that money to help with medical expenses because that is the way God wants it to be. Huckabee recently said he is in favor of what’s termed the Fair Tax which serves to actually be rather unfair to the poor and what’s left of the middle class. These people, and those like them, rely on their being seen as Christians in order to be seen as being somehow more truthful than if they were not. They are, to paraphrase the Bible, simply wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Instead of using intelligence, they play to irrational fears, much like the above arguments they make about gun control. In the last few years, they have used their media outlets and pundits to push that the evil is in the form of Islam and those who follow that religion. What they fail to mention is that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all stem from the same God and the same human progenitor by the name of Abraham. They have gone so far as to try to paint our President as being a Muslim. Why? Because he is of mixed race, dark-skinned, and his biological father was a Muslim. They use this false argument as a way to try to equate our President with the faces of those who espouse a radical form of Islam who commit terrorist attacks. And through the continued dumbing down of American society, there are actually people who believe this misinformation. These are the same people that claim Obama was not born in the U.S. and other such lies that play into the uninformed psyche of those who lack a decent education or wherewithal to research something about which they are uncertain.

Until we, as a society, are willing to confront anti-intellectualism for what it is, that being a way to keep those who hold the power in power, we are destined to continue down this path that leads to failure. At one time, the U.S. was on the cutting edge of discovery and intellectual progress. We had the strongest colleges and universities. The brightest minds who were allowed to think, wonder, experiment, and create. We made it into space with minds like that. We funded education for all from the daycare to the university. We rewarded intelligence of all kinds from the skilled factory worker to the professor to the mechanic to the inventor. It takes intelligence to progress. We cannot allow our country to become one that is underachieving and underdeveloped. We must take back our schools from being corporate run entities and allowing corporate money to influence free thought. I could go on, but this is already longer than I planned. Thank you for reading.

The Real Key to Educational Reform–it’s not what the reformers want you to know

A recent article in Salon about the infamous Michelle Rhee reminded me of the one factor all the alleged education reformers seems to miss when it comes to how to really improve the educational system in the United States. It, however, did not address the other side of the coin. It is my hope to address both sides of what is possibly the real key to have students in the United States to succeed beyond current levels.

When most of the alleged education reformers go on the attack, they blame teachers for the lack of educational achievement that is occurring far too often in the United States. The reformers cite studies and research, usually funded by those who agree with them, that say the reason why our students are not achieving is because the teachers are not doing their jobs. They say that tenure has created teachers who are lazy and care only about summers off and their paycheck. As a former teacher, I can honestly say that there are bad teachers out there who take advantage of the existence of tenure, but they are the minority. The vast majority of teachers are competent and caring individuals who wish to educate and bring up the future of our country as well-versed and well-rounded individuals. However, they are stymied by the endless rounds of standardized tests that occur within our nation’s schools as well as scripted curriculum that prevents the actual learning of lessons, but certainly raises great test takers. The gathering of data is not educating nor is having students take endless End of Term, End of Course tests written by those who have not likely graced the walls of a classroom in decades.

The problem is not with our schools. It’s within our society as a whole. It is poverty. On one end it is literal, financial desperation. On the other, it is literal, integrity-deficit desperation also known as privilege. Both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum produce students who have negative educational achievement. Very different reasons, yes, but still the same lack of achievement.

I have taught students at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Their needs are very different. Providing them with the desire to achieve is also very different.

Students who live in poverty do not perform well in school because their basic human needs are not being met. To put it simplistically, if the stomach is rumbling from hunger, then the brain is not going to focus well on academics. Humans have certain basic needs: food, safe shelter, basic medical and health needs to be met, and proper clothing. If any of these are not being met, then humans tend to focus on ways for those needs to be met. Once the needs are met, then other things can take precedent in their lives, such as education. It does not take a huge research grant to know this, but it does take people from within the social realm.

I’ll give you a couple of good examples, one personal and one from my sister who was a teacher.

My sister, now deceased, was an elementary school teacher. She was a marvel to watch teach. In her first teaching assignment, she taught elementary school in a city near the Appalachian foothills of SE Ohio. The students she taught were poor. Many came to school without food, without supplies, and without proper clothing. She noticed that they were having issues with focusing on lessons, so she did what her heart led her to do. She brought in food. She brought in supplies. She even took what little additional money she could from her own paycheck and bought students coats, gloves, and boots from discount and secondhand stores in the area. Student learning went up in her classroom when they students knew they could get even a basic meal, supplies, and warm clothing. They had their basic needs met.

From my own teaching experience, I witnessed a different form of poverty at my initial assignment in a middle school in Florida. Many students had the clothing, usually such as to mask their poverty. Many did not have the supplies, which I learned to have on hand at all times. Food was sometimes an issue. I tried to have either a little extra to share in my lunch or an extra dollar or two to give them to get something to eat. (It was not exactly against the rules to give them money, but it was certainly frowned upon, but I did it anyway). Many of them lacked active parents in their lives as some of their parents were drug users, alcoholics, and even prostitutes. I had one single mom of one of my students who was an exotic dancer who told me I could have a parent conference with her only if I came to her show and brought dollar bills. She said it might be beneficial for both her student and her if I took her up on the offer. I did not for a number of reasons, including the fact that I might be fired for doing so as teachers are held to a higher standard than to frequent strip clubs. My students needed someone who cared about them first. A classic Ruby Payne observation that many students in poverty value relationships first and foremost. Once you build a rapport, you can teach them anything with relative ease. That worked for me at that middle school as well as the one after that which was a school in the midst of a neighborhood transition from middle to upper class that was slowly getting students from less affluent means.

The fix for poverty at this end of the spectrum is fairly simple. Provide the basic needs for the students and their families first and foremost. Outside the academic realm, this means providing parents with affordable daycare, health care, decent and affordable housing, and a living wage rather than a minimum wage. It means providing expanded free and reduced breakfasts and lunches for students. It means setting up a social safety net for the students and their families for when times are at their roughest. Yes, it means becoming a bit more Socialistic, but that is not a bad thing, except for those who do not believe in helping out their fellow human being.

It also means that teachers in these situations must be willing to build a rapport with their students. They must be willing to see them as unique individuals first and foremost, then as students. It means the teacher must be real with their students for they can sense a phony person and will shut down with them. I saw it happen. It means that the teacher must be flexible when assigning homework and maybe even willing to practice the idea of a flipped classroom where students do their homework at school and review for the next day’s lesson at home. I loved teaching at these schools, except for the administrators who did not espouse these ideas except when convenient for them.

The funny thing is that when I switched to teach at a wealthier, but rural high school, I found that the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum also suffers from negative academic achievement caused by poverty of privilege.

Poverty of privilege is when a child is raised to believe they are entitled to good grades based on their social status. This leads students of financial means to expect high marks because if they do not, then they can simply have their parents call the school and the teacher either forced out or the teacher to modify the assignment or even change the grade for them based on their status. (Other times, the leadership of the school also takes it upon themselves to change the grades after the teacher enters them into the electronic grading system. That happened at least once to me).

Fixing poverty of privilege is trickier. It involves the establishment of a rapport, but it also involves everyone from the administration of the school to the non-teaching staff to not allow those with privilege being able to use their wealth to push others around. I had a student who informed me that it did not matter what grade he received nor even if he passed, just so long as he got a minimum of a GED, his parents would buy him a house like they bought him a car. (A nice Mustang to boot).

Poverty at either end of the socioeconomic spectrum is the real reason why students do not achieve in school. Extremes of poverty and wealth cause a lack of motivation for academics. One needs basic needs met while the other needs limitations to what their means may achieve. Until educational reformers realize this, the American educational system will not improve regardless of how many teachers suffer or tests are given.