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Archive for the ‘Off With Her Head’ Category

So, for all 649 of you who have come to check out this blog, I apologize for taking a nearly year long hiatus. First of all, I had a whole bunch of things to say, said them, and then wondered what the hell I was supposed to say next. Secondly, I was in the middle of the most stressful year of my life, working my first full year as a new teacher on my own (previously I had been a teacher’s assistant while getting my teaching certificate and degree, and then working half time for most of a year, teaching just math and science in the elementary grades). Last year was rough. New teachers have the well-known and exhausting task of constantly reinventing the wheel, and nothing except nose-to-the-grindstone experience can truly initiate a new teacher – especially in a large urban school system with a weak administration.

And work I did. Just getting there was a trial, since the school is on the opposite end of the city from where I live, and the only direct highway link was under construction the entire year. It often took me an hour and a half to get home – a distance of about 24 miles. Remember Michael Douglas in the movie “Falling Down”? On more than one occasion I was seriously tempted to ditch my car on the highway parking lot and just wander off into the ether, muttering incoherently to myself about overpopulation and the cruel tyranny of gridlock and inept city officials.

Once I got there, I was continually disappointed about the lack of support. The principal came to observe my classroom once during the entire year, and that was at my request. There was no official curriculum to follow, other than the continual and overwhelming threat of “state standards,” which the school textbooks only marginally addressed, and in a very schizophrenic way. The principal was not up to speed on current orthodoxy, and didn’t understand how a spiral curriculum (math) is designed to be followed sequentially, not dipped into willy-nilly, depending on which “standard” one was attempting to cover.

I also became painfully aware of how much teachers are expected to compensate for all of the shortcomings of society, the ravages of poverty, the lack of parental support, and the horrors of grossly dysfunctional families. Test scores are test scores (I’ve addressed some of my concerns about the very fundamental nature of standardized tests here), and schools are held accountable all the same, regardless of mushy, qualitative things like poverty levels, cultural mores and family lives. Teachers work themselves into an absolute frenzy, and the weeks approaching the tests are almost laughable, if one could remove oneself emotionally and look in from the outside. I almost wished, at the time, that I could be one of those perky, cheerful types who doesn’t even think to question all of the systemic problems plaguing public education. I said I almost wished, because the reality is that my questioning, analytical nature is fundamental to who I am as a person, and even though it complicates my life at times, it has been part of my essence since I first learned, at a precociously young age, to ask “why?”

Not far into the year I began having doubts about how effective I could be given all I was up against. Clearly this is not unique to me, as well over half of new teachers do not make it to their five year anniversaries in this particular system. This is an important landmark, since “studies show” that teachers usually have the most impact on their students’ test scores after they have been teaching for five years. Chicago my district is aware of this and has attempted to enact various mentoring programs, but it has different rules for different schools, and since my school has good enough test scores (for now anyway), the board allows it to make up its own mentoring program. What mentoring program? Did I say mentoring program? Sigh.

At the tail end of the year, rumors began circulating about low enrollment, budget cuts and the need to eliminate some teachers. I had been at the school for four years (2 1/2 as an assistant, 1 1/2 as a teacher), so I cautiously figured I was safe. Several people had been hired since me, but a controversial little clause in the union contract allows principals to release a nontenured teacher without needing to state a reason, so none of us recent hires were truly safe. A fairly substantial part of me, however, almost wished that I would be laid off (almost wished because, you know, bills and stuff). Then I wouldn’t have a choice about it, and the thought of returning the next year to do it all over again made my stomach flip. But when reality hit, when the principal handed me that white envelope and an attempt at a sincere apology, I buzzed all over with shock. I had never been fired/let go/laid off before in my life. I have always been known to be dependable, hardworking and dedicated, and I just couldn’t believe that someone else was staying while I was being let go.

That someone else had less seniority than me by about two months. That someone else shared with me the little modular unit behind the school, built during the days of overpopulation. That someone else could be heard by my entire classroom screaming at her students multiple times a day. That someone else continually complained about how rotten her students were, and how she was cancelling such-and-such field trip because her students “didn’t deserve it.” That someone else also had a sterile, immaculate classroom that looked like it had never been used. That someone else kept lesson plans and grades in a crisp white binder with little pink and purple tabs. That someone else had about 20 fifth graders, while I had 13 third graders and 13 fourth graders, many special education students, and a third grade population that was entirely new to the school that year. That someone else quickly insinuated herself into the inner circle of sycophants who stroked the ego of the often besieged principal. And so that’s how it goes. I can’t do that, have never been able to, and probably not even to save my life could I do it – I just can’t be false, can’t present to the world one persona, while privately or with subordinates/students behave differently.

The thing that redeemed my whole experience, the one thing that made it worthwhile, was my students. I loved each and every one of them, even the ones who tested my very limits of patience and endurance. I don’t know if I am going to teach again. I truly am in limbo. In retrospect, I can see that I am a bit of an introvert – I have a very rich internal life and rarely get lonely in solitude. Even though I live in the city, I come from farming stock and have always dreamed of having a little patch of earth, some chickens, a little milk cow and real, physical work to do. In teaching, you are always “on,” always performing, always there to attend to the needs of your students, their parents (God bless you, Mrs. G!) and the administration. It’s exhausting work for an introvert, let me tell you. I love the kids, though, and miss every single one of them. Kids are amazing creatures and we should cherish, and thank our lucky stars for, each and every one.

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Are we smart enough to win the “War on Terror”? Has the very term, “War on Terror,” set us up for failure before we even embarked? It seems to me that eradicating Islamism’s guerrilla and terrorist tactics will only be possible if we come to better understand human development, on both an individual and global scale.

Can you negotiate with a two year old in the throes of a hysterical tantrum over not being allowed a third piece of candy? Does this two year old understand that too much sugar is bad for his teeth? Do you even bother explaining this fact to him? Well, you might try, but probably to little effect. If you are the parent, and your child is having his fit at, say, the mall, what do you do to stop it? Do you reason with a screaming two year old, or do you outsmart him, distract him, or ignore him until he realizes he hasn’t got a taker? Can you sweet talk him into thinking there are better things than candy? More importantly, when your two year old becomes a three, four and five year old, does he continue to have tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants, or does he eventually grow out of it? Is it because you, wise parent, have done something extraordinary to permanently alter his behavior, or would his behavior evolve naturally in a healthy social context, as he became better able to communicate his needs and wants?

I tend to view people as going through certain stages, both as individuals and as parts of larger societies. If a society is made up of mostly two year olds, well, we could probably imagine what that would look and sound like. Even if that society contained a few infants, some teenagers, some young and middle aged adults and some elders, it would still be a society dominated by two year olds.

As with an individual’s development, I believe that nearly all societies contain people at various stages on the human spectrum of potential, and that environmental factors serve to both limit and promote progress. Just as a human being goes through stages along the path to maturity, so does a society. First you (or your society) are focused solely on your physiological needs: food, shelter and some measure of emotional comfort (think of infants and very early man). Then you realize you are part of a larger world, and you begin to learn through trial and error your culture’s mores and how to communicate your needs in that context. Next you become more self-centered, focusing on your own wants, often referring to a god or gods to justify yourself. Then you learn the importance of governance, and of sacrificing yourself for the good of the community, followed by an awareness of the importance of not only pursuing your own goals, but also doing what you can for the wider community. Next you realize that you are part of a holistic system, which includes everything on earth, and while you still strive to achieve your own goals, you do it in a way that is in harmony with all life. There is no way of knowing how far we can go beyond this, but the possibilities are only limited to our ultimate, currently unknowable cognitive potential.

Of course, in this context, not every human being or society will realize its full potential. This is where we return to the issue of terrorism. Without a society to support it, it would not exist. Terrorism, in my opinion, clearly thrives in an environment where the culture is at the level where one sacrifices oneself not for the good of community, but in the context of justifying one’s actions in reference to a god, in pursuit of an aim that does not necessarily benefit the wider community (but convinces it that it does). It will take a critical mass of people within this culture to evolve to the next level, one that recognizes that one’s actions can only be justified if they benefit one’s society (and hopefully eventually evolves to a more holistic view, but one careful step at a time).

Where is the majority of America on this path? I believe we are actually regressing, responding to fundamentalism with fundamentalism. We need to move in a better, more holisitic direction, one that recognizes and works on the premise of systemic health, both environmentally and socially. While we cannot currently reason with terrorists and their networks, I do think that we can at least attempt to mitigate the circumstances that help them flourish.

We cannot forcefully impose our will on others and expect them to comply, no matter how fervently parents, executives, legislators and diplomats may hope otherwise. Terrorists will not stop terrorizing until the people who produce and support them feel that their needs are being met, until they learn to process information critically, and until they have reached a level of development that transcends their current understanding of the world. Before people can contemplate higher issues of equality, humane justice and democracy, they must have a certain level of basic comfort, security and education. We cannot achieve a successful and stable democratic revolution from without. Lasting change, by nature, comes from within.

I don’t have a cure for terrorism, but I believe our current actions only provide the proverbial aspirin tablet to a cancer patient. We can keep on slappin’ ’em with the flyswatter, but, like flies and other profoundly successful procreators, we can’t with our current methods get at their source without devastating and extreme measures. We need to outsmart and out-humanize them. They need their people to hate us in order for their engines to continue to run. I believe it is better to use honey in terms of attempting to soften and hopefully, eventually, reverse this hatred. We need to value and use reason, logic and knowledge of human and cultural development especially when dealing with people who are unable to do the same. We need to take the higher, more enlightened path, using our brains rather than our guns.

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As a frequenter of conservative blogs, I’ve noticed a lot of flags and patriotic declarations. If you’re trying to convince others of your true-believing, die-hard, take-no-prisoners brand of patriotism, what would you do? WAVE LOTS OF FLAGS! It seems to me to be a reaction to a perceived threat, a brand of defiant nationalism that pops up during times of trouble. The problem with this, though, is the desire to distinguish oneself from others, as in, “I have more flags than you; therefore, I am more patriotic.” Or, even more troubling, “You have criticized our government. Therefore, you are anti-American.” Yes, this is a simplification of the debate, but we all are well familiar with it.

My fear is that this kind of sentiment (“WE are True Americans, while YOU are just a bunch of liberal communists who are gleefully cheering for the failure of America.”) doesn’t allow for rational debate. Some might roll their eyes, figuring it a waste of time to even respond to this kind of thing. On the other hand, I’m inclined to say, “Wait a minute! I need to correct you on that!” Flamboyant displays of patriotism may well be sincere, but the absence of such does in no way indicate anti-Americanism. It’s time to reframe the debate. This Chicago Tribune article identifies the problem with allowing others to define terms and to judge moral superiority. Here is an excerpt:

[George Lakoff]┬ámakes a very persuasive argument that Democrats have allowed Republicans to hijack words such as “freedom” and “liberty” in fundamental ways that have undercut Democrats’ credibility. His latest book, “Whose Freedom? The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea,” builds on earlier works that urge progressives to stop getting their pockets picked by Republicans over issues in which, he says, progressives actually hold the higher moral ground.

Lakoff contends that Republicans not only have taken ownership of words, they also have skillfully succeeded in framing the debate. That has trapped Democrats into being reactive, implicitly buying into the GOP framework and almost dooming them to failure.

Consider the war in Iraq. Republicans have adroitly labeled Democratic calls for troop pullbacks as “cut and run.” So how did Democrats respond? With John Kerry saying that the Bush strategy is “lie and die.”

Instead, Lakoff says, Democrats must change the nature of the debate, starting by rejecting the premise that America is in fact at war. The war, he says, ended when President Bush said it did with his “Mission Accomplished” stunt on an aircraft carrier. Now, Democrats should refer to the conflict as an occupation. They should say U.S. troops were not trained to be occupiers and that they were betrayed by administration policy, with the U.S. weakened as a result.

Lakoff makes a similar point about the “war on terror.” Terrorism, he says, should be fought in the same way the government went after the Mafia.

Right or wrong, no prominent Democrat has adopted Lakoff’s proposed framing. That hasn’t stopped him from making the rounds in Washington, urging Democrats to take heed.

He is a one-man army for the counterintuitive. Democrats, he says, are an anti-intellectual party. It is Republicans, he says, who support conservative intellectuals with many think tanks and interest groups to promote a conservative agenda.

Republicans, he adds, actually control the media. They reinforce Bush’s positions and use radio, television and the Internet to create an amen chorus before Democrats can even deliver a compelling sermon.

Democrats, he says, need to become framers.

Lakoff says the Democratic message needs to be something like this: Republicans oppress people when they can’t eat the fish they catch because of water pollution, when kids get asthma because of bad air, when ranchers can’t let cattle drink the water in the streams that run through their land, all because of lax regulation. And don’t make the mistake of labeling yourself an environmentalist.

Lakoff likens the GOP orthodoxy as offered by Bush to a “strict father” mentality with a stark and unambiguous view of right and wrong. Democrats offer more a “nurturant parent” who is empathetic and looks at things in context.

Democrats, he says, need to start framing with core convictions and not with calibrations to try to win over converts.

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