Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Elements of Great Teaching:

Sense of Humor

When I was in my first years of teaching I did what I like to tell myself most baby teachers did when confronted with discipline problems.  If I was conducting a fascinating discussion on the correct punctuation of introductory adverb phrases and I noticed a kid in the corner writing something on the arm of the kid sitting next to him, I might have ignored the behavior at first, especially if I was on a grammatical roll.  

But then, as was always the case, the kid with the scribbled on arm would retaliate and some friend on the other side of the room would point out the conflict to the kid sitting next to him, and on and on.  You know the story.  So I might have said something devastating like “Okay people, this is important, and you’re going to need to know it when you get into Mr. Fagin’s class.”  If, for some reason, that riposte didn’t phase my recalcitrant corner dwellers, I might have launched immediately into disciplinarian mode.  “Alright, if you people don’t settle down, we can all do this as homework!” 

Of course, that petulant outburst might leave the rest of my students – you know, the ones who looked forward to the daily comma drills - confused, or even outraged.  The class would usually deteriorate from there and I would spend a restless night trying to figure out how I could win them back by making tomorrow’s grammar lesson even more relevant.

It takes confidence to confront the specific evil doer in the corner before the behavior metastasizes to the whole room.  Even at the end of my career I found myself resorting to the same old “some-of-you-people-are-doing-such-and-such” gambit.  It wasn’t any more effective.

I feel like I have just been to confession.  However, I rationalize that penitent feeling away by reminding myself I learned this generalized name calling technique by sitting through faculty meetings and by trying to make sense out of district wide administrative directives initiated to address some specific problem but which invariably ended up in district wide fiats that only ended up confusing or alienating those of us who were plugging away in our classrooms, dutifully following all the other proclamations already in place.

I had an assistant principal once whose unhappy assignment it was to keep order in the parking lots.  When confronted by the problem that some of the faculty members put their parking stickers on the wrong side of their rear view mirrors, he convened an emergency faculty meeting to correct the problem.  

He walked into the meeting brandishing a rear view mirror he had procured just for the occasion.  I can only assume he got it from the auto shop.  That was back in the days when schools had auto shops.  Either that or in his zeal for order he ripped it off his car.  It took him awhile to position himself and the mirror correctly for the demonstration, but after about fifteen minutes the vast majority of the staff walked out of that meeting looking at parking stickers and assistant principals with new eyes. 

This was the same AP who, when weekly forms for discipline, attendance, ineligibility, and the like were not being handed in by everyone with the kind of regularity that a smoothly running school demands, convened yet another emergency meeting.  At retirement get-togethers we still talk about the forms we were asked to fill out if we had no forms to fill out for any given week.  The No Form Form became a reliable source of conversation at faculty parties that year and for years to come.

There was the year when a number of older faculty members were grousing about the latest round of faculty meetings to rewrite philosophies and objectives and standards and all those other things that faculties are always rewriting.  I’m not sure exactly what our goal was, but I do remember that it involved lots of butcher paper.  Instead of dealing with the individual grousers (full disclosure here demands that I was prominent in that group), our principal dug deep into contingency funds and bought a dozen copies of WHO MOVED THE CHEESE for all of us to read.  The idea was that we would take turns reading the book and pass our copy on to the next staff member in line.

WHO MOVED THE CHEESE was a best seller a few years ago.  It was especially popular among people in the business community.  If I were a cynical person, I would suggest that its popularity was due in no small part to the fact that it could be read during the average plane ride and the tedium of print was broken up with an occasional illustration of frustrated mice looking for misplaced pieces of cheddar.  

The faculty all took turns reading the book and certainly got the point the book was trying to make.  Paradigms are shifting.  We have to look to new places for solutions to old problems.  We have to “think outside the box,” to use a phrase that has become meaningless through overuse, kind of like power point presentations.

Of course, we never reconvened as a faculty to talk about the little book.  We just read it, rolled our eyes, and went to more faculty meetings with butcher paper and long submarine sandwiches and potato chips for lunch.  I noticed that one of the football coaches, obviously not grasping the idea that the long subs were supposed to be shared by the various committees, scarfed an entire sandwich for himself, leaving at least one group hungry.  I didn’t worry about it though, content in the knowledge that the misunderstanding would be cleared up at our next faculty meeting.  

* * *

Believe me.  You don’t survive scenarios like that for very long without a sense of humor.  

We had a teacher in our department once who was not blessed with a particularly expansive wit.  Watching her from a distance it was clear she was just barely holding on.  She had lessons to plan, papers to grade, parents to call, attendance to fill out, attendance referrals to complete, discipline referrals to write, hall duty to perform, study hall to oversee once a week, department meetings, team meetings, parent conferences, back to school nights, school plays, football games, basketball games, forensics meets on weekends, Key Club to help sponsor, and the list just keeps on going.  

I remember the fateful department meeting when we all learned the district was changing its email server and we would have to learn a new protocol for accessing our inbox or something like that.  She stood up, eyes streaming tears, dropped her books and papers on the floor, threw up her arms in despair and ran sobbing from the room.  One of our female department members went out into the hall to comfort her and she eventually returned, redfaced and resigned.  I wasn’t about to go after her.  I thought her tearful departure, if made permanent, would be one of the best things that could have happened to our department at the time.

My older colleagues and I hardly ever burst into tears.  We had been through enough protocol changes in our careers to realize the underlying truth to all of these district mandates--the truth, in Bill Murray’s words, that “It just doesn’t matter!”  Poor what’s her name.  She just didn’t get it.  We all realized if we just waited around long enough without moving on the protocol shift, the District would set up an inservice.  We oldtimers had learned to wait, as it were, for the movie.

When I talk about a sense of humor as not only an essential element of great teaching but as the one element you cannot do without, I am not referring to regaling your students with jokes and papering your classrooms with funny Garfield posters.  Your students are not the prime beneficiary of your sense of humor; you are.  It is the one thing that keeps you afloat, that keeps you “passing the open windows.”

Did you ever notice that almost all existential novels or movies take place in prisons, hospitals, theatres of war, or school rooms?  There is always some outsider confronting the impersonality of the bureaucracy in charge always embodied by some evil manipulative nurse, or warden, or teacher.  The rules are at once inaccessible and inescapable.  The hero eventually deals with the absurd situation by finding meaning in the meaninglessness.  Of course, all of this discovering is conducted with a certain amount of amusement if not downright hilarity.  As a 35 year veteran of the public school classroom, that perfectly describes the situation in a public school classroom.  You have to learn to laugh to keep from going crazy.

The group think that necessarily drives large school districts demands an appreciation of irony.  After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold dressed up in trenchcoats and proceeded to murder some dozen of their classmates, the principal at my school reacted by banning trenchcoats!  I had one perfectly sane, but poverty-stricken, young man whose proudest possession was a trenchcoat that looked just like Keanu Reeves’ in THE MATRIX.  It was also the only winter coat he owned.  One day he was accosted by an over zealous parent in the parking lot who had him sent to the principal’s office.  His coat was confiscated and he was left to freeze his ass off on the way home.  You can react to that situation either by laughing it off or by going slowly insane.

My best practice, to use a term all the rage nowadays, vis a vis humor in the classroom, was to let students in on the joke and create a kind of us against the system ethos.  For instance, students were not allowed to come into the academic area during lunch and instead had to scramble to find tables in a commons area too small to hold them all.  Social Studies teachers, most of them ex-jocks who enjoyed flexing their disciplinary muscles, patrolled the double doors leading into the Social Studies/Language Arts Suite.  Even students who wanted to talk to a teacher about an assignment weren’t allowed in.  My wife and I, partly because we preferred hanging out with kids to hanging out with teachers and partly because we couldn’t abide the silly rule, helped students sneak into our area and eat their lunches in our classrooms.  The principal reprimanded us repeatedly for such a horrible breach of professionalism and we dutifully repented.  Then the next day we would sneak the kids back into the room.  We figured that firing us for eating lunch with our students would look bad in the local papers.

One day three kids snuck into our room, each armed with a top of the line HP calculator.  One of the kids, a brilliant senior named Isaak Winkler, had composed a sonata for HP calculator and programmed the three calculators to “play” the music.  It was one of the more remarkable days of my career:  three young prodigies, defying the powers that be, eating their lunch, listening to the original composition, with scowling Social Studies types walking by the scene shaking their collective heads in disapproval.  Now that is funny.  It is also disrespectful, but some rules and some rule makers deserve nothing less.

There is precious little data generated about the effectiveness of humor in the classroom.  In fact, a survey of professional literature on the subject conducted by Israel Magazine-on-Web showed humor has no measurable effect on learning, other than reduced anxiety.  However two separate studies (again this is reported in Israel Magazine-on-Web, November 2000), one in a psychology class and another in a statistics class, used control groups who received lectures laced with humor compared to groups who received lectures stripped of humor.  The humor recipients scored higher on content tests in each instance.  

But here is where it gets interesting.  The conductor of the experiments, Tel Aviv University professor Avner Ziv, went on to quantify the optimum amount of humor to be used during any classroom session.  He concluded the optimal amount of humor was, at most, three or four instances per hour.  So for humor to garner its maximum benefit it should only be utilized to underscore key concepts.

That’s why it is imperative for a teacher to have a sense of humor.  You can bet that if an administrator got ahold of Professor Ziv’s conclusions there would be a top down fiat mandating the number of times students should or shouldn’t laugh during a given hour.  It would inevitably become part of an evaluation form and certain teachers would be written up for being too funny. 

The biggest impediment to using humor to make life in a public school tolerable is Administrators who invariably ask the same question of every new thing they see or hear:  “Can we get sued over this?” or “Will this cause a phone call from an irate parent?”  

I was always getting called into some administrator’s office only to be greeted by a stern faced parent with a list of grievances.  Be forewarned if you are reading this with the idea that you will start using humor as a survival mechanism, you too will be a frequent visitor to some administrator’s office.  If you want to accomplish something worthwhile in your classroom, you have to follow the golden rule:  YOU GET A LOT MORE ACCOMPLISHED BY SAYING I’M SORRY THAN BY ASKING  PERMISSION.

My favorite example of that rule happened during my first year sponsoring the school newspaper.  During the first semester of that year Colorado had passed legislation to allow for the sale of state LOTTO tickets.  It was all the rage.  A Denver Post columnist, Woody Paige, had heard LOTTO tickets were being sold illegally to underaged kids, so he called me up and asked if I would get some of my under eighteen year old students to go do some investigative reporting with him on a Saturday.  I jumped at the chance.  Giving my kids that kind of experience was what teaching newspaper was all about.

I chose five kids and was careful to get permission slips from all the parents.  On the following Saturday my students were able to illegally purchase LOTTO tickets at every venue they tried.  They were thrilled by what they were uncovering.  They were also impressed by Woody’s diligent note taking and serious approach to the whole thing.

The next day Woody’s piece appeared in The Denver Post, explaining how a bunch of intrepid and underaged reporters from Green Mountain High School had delivered the goods.  My principal could not have been happier and he came down with the article in hand and congratulated my students personally.  I was understandably proud of the job I was doing as a newspaper sponsor.

The next day, however, a lawyer from the State LOTTO Commission paid my principal a visit informing him that the school was probably going to be indicted for a class 4 felony, contributing to the delinquency of minors.  The principal stormed up to my classroom, ushered me down to his office, and introduced me to the grim looking legal type waiting for my arrival.  I showed the guy the permission slips.  I assured him none of the LOTTO tickets we purchased paid anything, so we didn’t make any money.  He still was trying hard to scare me into never using my students in such a way again.  I’m proud to say I laughed at the guy and told him if he was trying to intimidate me it wasn’t working and  instead of wasting his time scolding us for our investigation, he should be getting angry at the people in the state commission who were responsible for oversight.  He left in a huff.  My principal looked at me and asked “What kind of newspaper are you trying to run here, The Village Voice?”  I smiled and said we have to model ourselves on something.  That was the end of that little episode, but it still makes me happy just to think about it.  Those are the kinds of moments that make all the bureaucratic crap you have to put up with worth the effort.

My first teaching job was at Marycrest High School, a catholic girl’s school run by the Sisters of Loretto.  It was a pretty grim place.  The school building was constructed of cinderblocks and stretched down Federal Boulevard like a concrete bunker.  I had to punch a time clock and submit weekly lesson plans which no one ever looked at.  Sister Joan was a lot like Meryl Streep in Doubt.  The faculty consisted of older nuns, three rather young and rebellious female teachers and two males other than me.  My starting salary was a whopping $6300 a year.

To make matters worse, the teachers in the English Department had to follow the Nebraska Curriculum which asked freshman students to read things like Tristam Shandy as a “fun” introduction to Gulliver’s Travels.  After taking the curriculum home that first night and reading through it, I don’t think I had ever been so depressed before or since.  I wanted to teach fun stuff just like I did when I played school on my back porch in Estes Park, but no, this was a no nonsense approach to instruction.

I plowed through the curriculum that first nine weeks and pretended I bought into it hook, line, and sinker.  I discovered the school owned enough copies of Animal Farm that I could use it in my freshmen classes and I quickly substituted that work for the fun and frolic of Tristam Shandy.  Things were going okay, but my classes were pretty deadly.  

At the end of that first nine week grading period I was beginning to doubt my vocation when I saw Kathleen Bischoff, my department chair, skipping down the halls after turning in her grades throwing ungraded papers hither and yon to celebrate the upcoming weekend.  She saw me struggling at my desk and flitted into my room, walked up to my desk and said, “Ya know, you are taking all of this way too seriously.  Nobody pays any attention to that curriculum, so what are you worried about?  Do what you want to do.  You’re not going to ruin anybody!”

“Oh, and another thing you need to realize.  Teaching is the only job where anything you don’t get done by the end of the year you get to throw away.”  

I joined her in her lark down the hall and my life has been better ever since.

 Not too long ago I found myself in a video my son produced for his sister’s wedding.  The video involved numbers of comments by friends and family.  I remember all of my comments, but one struck me as particularly profound.  I said that when two people were in love it was kind of like they were in on a private joke the rest of the world wasn’t privy to.  I firmly believe you can see that glimmer of humor in the eyes of a married couple, the knowledge they are in on the joke and no one else is.  That is precisely the kind of environment that should characterize a classroom.  

You  have to give kids the illusion that all of this stuff they are being asked to do is fun and you have to make them believe the unlucky slobs who are not in the classroom are missing out on some great times.  Now I know that probably alienates other teachers and certainly turns off administrators, but their opinions don’t count.  All that counts is what goes on inside the classroom.

There are little things you can do to create this atmosphere.  Taken individually, these little things seem silly and insignificant, but taken as a whole they seem to work.  

I used to make my seniors in Composition for the College Bound (a serious sounding class if there ever was one) line up in two rows, one for boys and one for girls, whenever we went to the library to do research.  They would be required to hold hands and skip to the library.  Weird, yes.  But it pointed out the built in artificiality of high school research projects and gave the whole project a nice ironic feel.

Depending on how Draconian our administration was at any given time, we would be required at times to issue hall passes for students out of class.  I always had a hard time with that particular directive because I usually taught college-bound seniors who could be trusted not to wreak any havoc in the halls, but I had to play along or get written-up.  I finally found a solution to my dilemma and used an old Macintosh SE 20 hard drive as my pass.  It was an irreverent way to make a statement without getting in trouble and my students thought they were being subversive whenever they went to the bathroom.

I called quizzes “reality checks;” multiple choice tests became “multiple guess;” we would loosen up for class by sitting on the floor in a circle for a rousing game of categories; I would write irreverent choices on Bible as Literature multiple guess tests;  I would show off the wall movies whenever I thought certain kids were taking things too seriously; we would “waste” entire class periods playing improvisation games.

There were times when I would write parodies of poets and poems as permission slips:

“I have borrowed your students
Who you were probably wanting to teach today.
Forgive me.
They were so talented.
So young,
And so bright.”  

Believe me, for an English teacher a parody of William Carlos Williams is a guaranteed knee slapper.

I used to be the secretary for our faculty liaison committee.  Every week I would publish uncapitalized notes e. e. cummings style dripping with sarcasm and inside jokes.  I kept it up until a few of my more serious colleagues complained about my irreverence.

As a defense against the above mentioned colleagues, I would write Elizabethan Sonnets during faculty meetings to keep from going crazy and running madly from the room.

Whenever a colleague had a birthday and it was my turn to get the cake and cookies, I would always pen a sonnet to mark the occasion.

None of this is meant as a cookbook of recipes to inject humor into your classroom.  It is just a collection of pleasant memories that helped keep me afloat for some thirty-five years.  Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Pete the Cat.

Is He American?

There are lots of issues to talk about on this Sunday morning.  There's the mid-terms.  There's the newest challenge to Obamacare.  There's the situation in the Middle East.  There's the economy.  But I don't want to talk about any of that.

I want to talk about Pete the Cat.  Pete the Cat is the main character in two books my granddaughter Willa insists on hearing before taking a nap.  That's a good thing because they are both short.  It is also a good thing because I love their messages.  The first book, "Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons" (James Dean and Eric Litwin, Harper), tells the story of Pete and his favorite shirt with the four groovy buttons.  Pete loves his shirt so much that whenever he wears it he sings, "My buttons, my buttons, my four groovy buttons."  But his buttons don't last.  After he does his first chorus, one of the buttons pops off, leaving him with three, but does Pete get mad?  Goodness no!  He just goes on singing "My buttons, my buttons, my three groovy buttons."  Of course, the next button pops off, then the next, and the next, leaving our hapless hero  with zero buttons.  Does Pete get mad?  Goodness no!  He looks down at his buttonless shirt and his exposed stomach and what does he see?  His belly button.  He sings, "My button, my button, still have my belly button."  Mercifully, the book ends there with the closing statement:  "I guess it simply goes to show that stuff will come and stuff will go, but do we cry?  Goodness, NO!  We keep on singing, because buttons come and buttons go."

The second book, "Pete the Cat:  I Love My White Shoes", is even more controversial.  It seems Pete has a brand new set of white shoes that compel him to sing, "I love my white shoes.  I love my white shoes, I love my white shoes."  But Pete, who obviously has attention span issues, steps into a huge mound of strawberries, turning his once white shoes red.  Does that make him sad?  You can guess the answer.  "I love my red shoes.  I love my red shoes.  I love my red shoes."  From there he steps into some blueberries and then a puddle of mud.  Except for the color of the shoes, his song never changes.  Finally, he steps into some water and everything gets washed away, leaving him once again with white shoes.  BUT he discovers they are wet.  You guessed it.  "I love my wet shoes.  I love my wet shoes.  I love my wet shoes."  Sometimes when reading these books to Willa, I feel an urge to slap Pete around a little, but Willa loves singing the songs.  It's the concluding moral that provides the controversy:  "The moral of Pete's story is no matter what you step in keep walking along and singing your song, because it's all good."

I love the books.  I love the message that "it's all good."'  We first heard it read aloud at Columbine Public Library during a packed toddler class on a Thursday morning and we immediately went out and bought all the Pete the Cat books we could find (two).  Is there any doubt, however, that there were some conservative parents and grandparents in the room who, if they had been paying  attention, would have been offended, even outraged, at Pete's collectivist message?  If one of those conservative parents gave Rush Limbaugh a call to fill him in on the latest liberal/socialist/communist program of indoctrination at public libraries, isn't it clear that Rush would devote the rest of his program, the rest of his week, to exposing the scandal.  It would give conservatives more reason to cut funding to liberal programs like libraries and the arts.  Julie Williams and the other conservatives on Jeffco's school board would call for an investigation into school libraries in order to expunge all the leftist texts that were surely imbedded there.

I looked around the Columbine library and found all kinds of books that would surely not pass Tea Party muster.  "The Lorax", "The Butter Battle Book", and the worst one of all, "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish."  Funny things are everywhere indeed!  All these subversive texts suggest to impressionable youngsters that we are all basically good, that we should be trusting, that we should accept everyone.

I heard a Rush Limbaugh show once while stuck in rush hour traffic.  A disgruntled caller was outraged at the latest art thingy his kid brought home from school.  It seems that the kid's subversive teacher (Is there any other kind?) instructed her class to imagine what a giraffe's head on a turtle's body would look like (or something along those lines) and make a drawing of it.  The kid showed his dad the surreal drawing and the father presumably ran to the phone to express his two grievances to Rush.  First, the lesson was suggesting that one could improve on God's (intelligent) design.  Second, what was the teacher doing wasting time on such pointless activities when there were multiplication tables and grammar rules to memorize?  Rush, of course, was even more outraged and the rest of the hour was devoted to a succession of calls from people who were actually angry at turtles with the heads of giraffes.

You know all those problems I listed in the first paragraph?  They all seem kind of urgent to me.  They all need to be addressed by a national discussion.  Do you think it is possible to have a discussion when even Pete the Cat or surreal turtles piss us off?

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America
And to the republic for which it stands
One nation
Under God
With liberty and justice for all.

Right!  Just make sure you keep your buttons and avoid huge piles of strawberries.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Run For Cover

When I taught Freshmen at the end of my career, I decided to try a little experiment in order to assess exactly what I was dealing with.  I wrote a list of ten words on the board, all normal, some proper nouns, some culturally literate references.  Then I said I will give you an A+ if you simply copy those words on your own paper without making any mistakes.  Not a single member of my class on that first day got an A+ on that quiz.  I gave the quiz daily until everyone got an A+.  After a week or two of wasting everyone's time with my little quiz, I gave up.  The whole group never managed to pass that quiz.  As you might imagine, it was a fun year.

I remember joking with my colleagues that some day those kids who couldn't copy a word like "Colorado" correctly would be voters.

That day has come.  Those freshmen--most of them--were simply incapable of listening, taking notes, doing homework, making any but the most elemental decision.  Well, both parties are doing a nice job of taking advantage of that group mentality that currently pervades the country.  THIS CANDIDATE WANTS YOU TO BE UNSAFE!  THIS CANDIDATE VOTED TO RAISE YOUR TAXES.  THIS CANDIDATE WANTS TO TAKE AWAY ALL OF YOUR RIGHTS AND LIBERTY, etc., etc.

Francis Fukuyama (not sure of spelling) has written a new treatise on the history of democracy and republics and has come to the conclusion that, although the world is inevitable trending toward democracy, those differing versions of democracy  are troublesome, not the least in the United States.  The founding fathers made the foolish assumption when they built the framework of our republic that people would trust each other enough to govern, to compromise, to represent the electorate.  That is clearly no longer the case in this country and therefore, the republic we all live under is in the beginning stages of death throes.

Here is my prediction for the election tomorrow.  The Republicans will destroy the Democrats and take both houses of congress and most state houses, including Colorado.  In the two years that will follow nothing will happen, not because of partisan gridlock necessarily, but because nothing ever happens when Republicans control both halves of the legislature.  You could look it up.  Then in the next election, Clinton will win the presidency and Democrats will enjoy a slight resurgence.  Then in the election after that the Republicans will take over again.  And in all that time NOTHING will happen.  That's the country we live in and I find it incredibly depressing.  My ninth graders are taking over the world and I want to run for cover.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Christian Piety, Abortion, and Hypocrisy in Texas

I posted an article on Facebook yesterday that generated a relatively long stream of arguments back and forth.  The title of the article focused on abortion and the lurid specter of back alley abortions with filthy instruments and "doctors" with cigarettes dangling out of their mouths with dumpsters nearby to hold all the dead fetuses.  Obviously, the reactions on both sides were strong, but the article wasn't really about abortion.  It had three points as far as I could determine.  First, it focused on the problem Republicans are having wooing female votes and at the same time treating those female voters as if they were second class citizens who can't be trusted to make choices.  Next, it focused on the hypocrisy of Republicans in Texas (at least) who want to deregulate everything unless they don't. Finally, it brought up the hardships being brought upon the women of Texas who will now (some of them) have to drive up to 300 miles to get the kind of services provided by Planned Parenthood clinics.  Yes, a goodly portion of those services are centered around abortion, but those services also include screening for cervical cancer, screenings for breast cancer, family counseling, etc.

But the streamers, especially those conservatives who are Pro-Life, didn't talk about any of that.  Instead, they went on and on about the morality of abortion, about questions like "when does life start?", about how women use abortion as birth control and our tax dollars should not support that, and of course they talked about women throwing their aborted fetuses away.  It was a lot like the anti-abortion types who haunt sidewalks around high schools holding up graphic photos of aborted fetuses as if to say that abortion is wrong because it is so gross looking.  I understand the concerns of these folks, but I think their methods are tone-deaf, self aggrandizing, pompous, and completely divorced from reality.

The stream was fun to read and I could tell that most of the combatants were really enjoying the debate.  Just like we all kind of enjoyed the debate over health care six years ago.  Meanwhile, as we were debating health care, there were real flesh and blood people in the streets who were hoping the debate would stop and someone would actually do something.  Same thing was true in yesterday's discourse.  There were sophistic, some would say solipsistic, philosophical arguments.  There were impassioned pleas about infant rights.  There were clever, somewhat mean-spirited rejoinders, and I'm sure we were all  quite pleased with ourselves.  Meanwhile, there are a whole bunch of flesh and blood women out there who couldn't care less about categorical imperatives, or legal niceties, or tax law.  All they care about is how are they gonna make it through their unwanted pregnancy, the pregnancy they have because they couldn't afford, or were too overwhelmed to even think about, birth control, birth control that Republicans are busily trying to get rid of, along with their fiscally prudent and morally bankrupt cutting of food stamps.

I can't get my head around the picture of a club of white, male, millionaires making life decisions for (mostly) poor and indigent women.  Does anyone other than Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Hannity and the rest actually believe that the choice they want to disallow is a cavalier one?  When that flesh and blood pregnant lady above weighs her options, does the officially recognized point when life supposedly begins make a difference to her.  Does she actually think that since life doesn't start until the second trimester, if I just hurry up and abort my unborn child in the next week it will be okay.  The whole idea of some white rich guy deciding when life begins and moralizing about it is the most obscene and immoral thing I can think of.

There were also a lot of personal anecdotes that were used to shed light on the whole issue.  Excuse me, but anecdotes on either side of the issue are interesting but have no value.  Okay, you were able to hear a fetal heart beat, or see the outlines of the neonate on an ultra sound and you were moved.  Of course you were!  What kind of monster wouldn't be moved, but that doesn't make the choice to abort or not abort any easier.  It makes it infinitely more difficult.  That pregnant lady above doesn't give a shit, nor should she, about your experience.  And your experience gives you no right to legislate for others.

You don't want your tax dollars to go toward abortion.  Okay, I don't want my tax dollars to subsidize war, or corporate breaks to McDonalds, or tax free status to churches, or to the NFL (same thing).  Besides, once you sit down with your accountant, or hunker down with Turbo Tax, or just got out pencil and paper and calculator and pare down your taxes as far as possible, the check you end up sending to the IRS is no longer your money.  IT IS OUR MONEY.  What do you want to spend our money on if not to insure the health and happiness of as many of our fellow community members as possible.

Look, I still am unable to get rid of the shackles of my Catholic boyhood.  If my wife and I were ever in a position where an abortion might be an option, I can't imagine I could go through with it (of course, I'm not the one who has to go through it.)  For me, as a good, but lapsed, Catholic, abortion would be a mortal sin( Do Catholics still use that term?).  But for you or anybody else?  It is none of my business and it is certainly not the business of a bunch of clueless white guys (Read: Corey Gardner) in Washington.

If you think abortion is immoral, by all means don't have one.  Just keep your Christian piety to yourself when it comes to others.

Friday, September 12, 2014

It Is What It Is

The Asshole's Retort

I think there should be a psychological syndrome right up there with Tourette's officially recognized and defined by the AMA calling attention to that smug comeback:  "It is what it is?"

I don't want to get all schmaltzy here, but I'm going to have to use a quote:

There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why . . . I dream of things that never were, and ask why not? - Bobby Kennedy

If you're my age and not a nutcase, far-right Republican, that quote gives you the shivers.  Depending on your point of view, it either signals the beginning a great movement, or the first warning sign of the emerging welfare state.  In Kennedy's time, the sad complacency of The Asshole's Retort, wasn't even a consideration.  Notice Kennedy did not say "There are those that look at things the way they are and say 'it is what it is.'"

I think the quote and my addition pretty much sum up a basic difference between the liberal and conservative world view.  In the (many) arguments I've had with my right wing friends, the issue has almost always come down to Federalism vs. Anti-federalism, Hamilton vs. Jefferson.  You know, the whole idea that the federal government has no right trying to make blanket decisions that effect everyone.  The State vs. the Individual.  Communism vs. Individualism.

My mother serves as a case in point.  Like everyone my age (I guess--I hope it's not just me), I have Mother-Issues.  She was beautiful, witty, twinkly-eyed, courageous, and certainly destined for sainthood.  She was an autodidact and like most autodidacts I've known, had a hard time admitting she was wrong.  As a teacher, I am ashamed to remember the number of times she blamed school for my laziness.

The main thing about my mom was that she was an Illinois Catholic Liberal born and bred.  She wore her heart on her sleeve and could always be counted on to shed a tear or two over anyone in need.  Just like she was witty and happy and warm, she was just as frequently outraged.  I'm just sad she didn't remain cogent long enough to watch THE DAILY SHOW.

Her liberal side was most on display when in the company of my first wife's parents, rich, genuinely thoughtful and friendly people, and CONSERVATIVE.  Mom actually told them she thought it wrong for people to have as much as they when there were folks who had nothing!  She couldn't understand how we could all sit by while people were starving in Africa, etc., etc.  My first set of in-laws basically rolled their eyes, shook their heads, and marveled at her naiveté.  I, nineteen at the time, rolled my eyes and shook my head right along with them.

The same thing happened with Katherine's parents, also lovely people, fun to be with, and CONSERVATIVE.  She would explain how Reagan (her first cousin once removed) was a terrible president because he put his mother, Nellie, in a nursing home and never went to see her.  Sometimes after a particularly nice get together with plenty of liquor and food, her eyes would tear up over the thought of all those people who had nothing.  I'm telling you, it got old after awhile.

She used to embarrass me when she got like that.  But here's the thing.  She was right.  The rest of us were as wrong as we could be.  We live in a world that produces enough food to overfeed everyone in the world, but we somehow still allow starvation.  It is what it is.

We live in a country in possession of enough wealth and wisdom to insure universal health care, free day care, free pre-schools, improved roads, etc., etc.  Instead, we elect people who are more protective of their ideology than their constituency.  It is what it is.

And in order to make sure that what it is stays exactly the same, we act tough.  We dig in our heels.  We go bomb somebody.  And we worship the NFL.  The three holiest days of the week are Monday, Thursday, and Sunday.  In the football supplement to The Post at the beginning of the season, there was a slick magazine insert focusing in on the toughness of the Broncos.  It seems it was lack of toughness (we all know it couldn't have been talent) that made us lose the Superbowl.  The magazine was sickening.  It just showed photos of the starting Broncos acting tough.  There was Payton Manning, muscles tense, strained fingers on the ball, looking dangerous and ready to beat the shit out of someone.

Wasn't it amazing when the whole city rejoiced (at least the football nuts) when Manning ran down to the end zone and got in that DB's face and told him to "fuck himself."?  Wow!  What a guy.  It makes you proud just to have witnessed the whole thing.  And the awful thing was that I was right there with them.  I would have given Manning a fist bump if I had been on the field.  It is what it is.

Of course, when something like Ray Rice pummeling his soon-to-be wife splashes all over the crawls at the bottom of the TV screen, we become outraged and spend the next weeks (at least it seems that long) analyzing it, agreeing or disagreeing with the outcome, subjecting that poor, battered woman to the leering comments  of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or the blonde bimbos on Fox.  This will dominate the news until the next inevitable school shooting and the ensuing debate.

But, hey.  It is what it is.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Is Mike Rosen Writing The Post's Editorials Nowadays?

Whenever we subject schools to more than our usual scrutiny, which is to say whenever an election is impending or contract negotiations are underway, we are shocked--shocked!--to discover them filled mostly with flawed people, you know, people like you and me and the clerk at the 7-11 and the ill-tempered nurse last time you went to the doctor and the guy in the cubicle down the aisle who spends entirely too much time on Facebook.  The Jeffco school board has just decided not to award pay raises to those teachers who have been rated partially effective or worse.  Gasp!  You mean to tell me that there are partially effective teachers in schools?  I guess I run around with the wrong crowd, but I don't know anyone who isn't partially effective.

The problem, of course, is determining what exactly it means to be partially effective and how an evaluator might spot partial effectiveness when it comes up to bite him/her on the ass.  Is there any institution in society that will look better when subjected to the kind of scrutiny that teachers and schools regularly see.  Haven't we all grown up scrutinizing our teachers?  And with a few notable exceptions, weren't our teachers easy prey?  Is there anyone who hasn't mimicked a teacher or been outraged by a teacher or been disappointed by one?  When Franny was in first grade and she learned the truth that there was no Malcolm in the lake close to Mrs. Spayd's house, she was furious.  I'm sure she still hasn't forgiven her.

We grow up familiar and therefore contemptuous of schools and teachers.  That's just how it works.  It is very difficult not to be contemptuous of anything we know that intimately.  We certainly can all find things about our parents, our friends, to be contemptuous about.  But just because we are familiar with something doesn't mean we know anything about it.  Look at today's editorial in the increasingly irritating Denver Post:  "Jeffco gets it right on pay increases."

The major thesis of the article is if Jeffco can't trust its principals to know a partially effective teacher when they see one, who can?  Therefore withholding incremental raises based on Jeffco's evaluation process is the right thing to do.  At first blush that sounds reasonable, but if the argument is subjected to the same scrutiny it is asking teachers to face, it doesn't hold water.

The first sentence says a fact-finder "allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good" when he recommended that raises not be tied to evaluations.  It sounds like Mike Rosen is writing the staff editorial.  The only loaded word missing is "liberal," as in "liberal fact-finder." I am ready to agree with the "goodness" of Jeffco's evaluation process when the rest of this article proves it to me, not because it was stuck inside a cleverly spun lead.

A few paragraphs later the essay casually dismisses the fact-finders recommendation as "bad advice." How so?  It's bad because even though the evaluation system is not perfect ("Perhaps not" the Post sneeringly says in response), it must be good.  That word "must" is my editorial comment because the tone of this article isn't focused enough to say that anything IS the case.  Mostly, the article just keeps ratifying its undying faith in the wisdom of Jeffco's school board.

There are evidently three reasons why the system MUST be good.  First of all, "either the district trusts its principals or it doesn't."  Secondly, ". . .they are, after all, trained to supervise and evaluate teachers."  Finally, "if they don't know who is effective within their buildings, it's hard to imagine who would."  This is beginning to sound like a DAILY SHOW routine.

I taught for 35 years.  I had somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 principals and maybe 20 assistant principals.  There were only a couple of that group who were not genuinely nice people.  Only two of them did I think were completely incompetent.  Many of them were smart and fun to be with.  But I can only think of two who really understood what it took to be a COMPLETELY effective teacher.

Just to illustrate the incoherence of the Post's and by extension the school board's argument, let us consider the bottom two paragraphs of the first column.  In the first paragraph the essay says that Snyder (the fact-finder) "admits" (does that sound like a loaded word to you?) no evaluative process can be perfect because some subjectivity is always present.  In the second paragraph the essay says Snyder contradicts himself by saying that "a teacher should receive the same rating no matter who performs the evaluation."  That doesn't sound like a contradiction to me.  Isn't it clear that Snyder's argument is that since all such systems will smack of subjectivity and since, for the system to be fair, the evaluations should be the same no matter who the evaluator, it follows that raises should not be tied to systems that are inherently unfair.

The Post goes on to conclude that even though it is obvious that Jeffco's evaluative process is fundamentally inconsistent it is still a "good one" and "will have to suffice."  Wow, that certainly makes me feel better.

Finally, the Post looks down its editorial nose at the whole situation when it claims that less than two percent of the teachers would be denied raises.  Not only that, the Post continues, but fully 45 percent of Jeffco's schools had no one (well, at least no teachers) who were rated partially effective or below. The Post's editorial staff is, to put it mildly, skeptical that there are so few partially effective teachers out there.  "Is it really possible, for example, that 45 percent of schools have no teachers who are partially effective or ineffective?"

As a matter of fact, yes, it is quite possible that our schools are filled with good, well-intentioned, hard working, partially effective human beings who still manage to kill in the classroom.  Too bad the same thing can't be said about the editorial staff at the Post.