Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Confronting Religious Bigotry in the Classroom by Aaron Michael Baker

Originally posted at: https://spoonvision.wordpress.com/2018/02/18/confronting-religious-bigotry-in-the-classroom/

In June of 2017, in a post called “LGBTQ Advocacy in Oklahoma Classrooms Part II,” I wrote, “LGBTQ issues are non-debatable in classrooms of districts with inclusive nondiscrimination policies. Space should be made in all classrooms (especially Social Studies classrooms) for student expression of a variety of opinions on numerous civic and political issues. There are certain opinions, however, that should not be allowed to be heard.” Brandon Dutcher, Senior Vice President at Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), responded on the blog Choice Remarks by concocting a fictional student’s comments during what he calls a “robust, healthy discussion of LGBTQ issues.” Then he asks, “Would Mr. Baker consider that young lady’s discourse to be what he calls ‘anti-gay hate speech?’” Let’s find out.
Dutcher’s imaginary student starts off well enough talking about “the image of God” and “inherent dignity.” Then the comments elevate to the oft repeated evangelical talking point that “all of us—heterosexual and homosexual alike—are sinners.” This, of course, is always followed by a shift in tone punctuated by the word “but.” The student addresses “anyone who is in bondage to same-sex intimacy” when she says, “I hurt with you over your sexual brokenness.” And then the punchline, “But it is through tears that must I warn you that, if you do not repent, you will fall into the hands of an angry God and be cast forever into ‘into the outer darkness [where] there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Any civic discussion involves some sort of moral imposition. All the positive changes that have taken place in U.S. history have originated from an absolute view of morality and justice. I am certain that Dutcher would agree with me that relativism does a poor job at changing the world. But the real question is “What exactly does my moral or religious belief impose on others?” In the movement for LGBTQ equality what is being imposed is a recognition of the humanity of LGBTQ people. Liberation movements have always challenged the religious belief systems of the ruling class. This is not new, and no one is even saying it is easy, but it must occur. Christianity in this country has been re-imagined on multiple occasions, twice specifically over the racial issues of slavery and segregation.
At my school, it is district policy that, as I like to say, “It is okay to be gay.” In my class, we don’t debate LGBTQ issues the way we might debate guns, technology, or North Korea because the issue has already been settled. LGBTQ people are welcome here.My students feel free to disagree concerning LGBTQ related public policy. We may discuss gay marriage or transgender military service. But policy statements and moral judgments, though related, are distinct. It is one thing for a student to say they do not think gay people should enjoy the same legal status as heterosexual married couples. It is an entirely other thing for a student to describe a gay relationship as “bondage to same-sex intimacy.”
And then there is hell, that distinguishing feature of any conversation that once introduced becomes the filter through which all future words are understood. It changes the very nature of the conversation. Now what is being imposed on someone else is eternal damnation. Opinions that include anyone burning in a literal hell forever are not welcome in my classroom. Telling someone they are in danger of hell is the worst kind of bigotry. It is like saying to them, “Even after we are both dead, I will still be judging you.”
In the movement for LGBTQ equality what is being imposed is a recognition of the humanity of LGBTQ people.
Christians who believe in a literal hell do well to also believe that they do not have the right to decide who qualifies to go there. Students and teachers alike have the right to believe whatever they wish concerning life (or no life) after death. What is inappropriate in a classroom setting is when one explains how their belief becomes the determinant for someone else’s eternal existence. Religious bigotry in the classroom should be handled the way any inappropriate comments are handled, with patience and understanding and with a view toward language transformation. Teachers may be inclined to not confront the kind of comments described by Mr. Dutcher, but religious bigotry must be challenged in any classroom environment that seeks to promote tolerance and acceptance.
Bio: Aaron Baker grew up Free Will Baptist, dabbled in reformed theology in seminary, and now attends Joy Mennonite Church in Oklahoma City (Mennonite Church USA). He was a youth pastor for ten years before beginning his teaching career. He received a BA from Welch College (formerly known as Free Will Baptist Bible College) in Bible and Missions. He received an MA in Theological Studies from Covenant Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri (Presbyterian Church in America).

Economists Don’t Know Crap About Education by Steven Singer

I hate to be blunt here, but economists need to shut the heck up.

Never has there been a group more concerned about the value of everything that was more incapable of determining anything’s true worth.

They boil everything down to numbers and data and never realize that the essence has evaporated away.

I’m sorry but every human interaction isn’t reducible to a monetary transaction. Every relationship isn’t an equation.

Some things are just intrinsically valuable. And that’s not some mystical statement of faith – it’s just what it means to be human.

Take education.

Economists love to pontificate on every aspect of the student experience – what’s most effective – what kinds of schools, which methods of assessment, teaching, curriculum, technology, etc. Seen through that lens, every tiny aspect of schooling becomes a cost analysis.

But what do you expect from a society that worships wealth? Just as money is our god, the economists are our clergy.

How else can you explain something as monumentally stupid as Bryan Caplan’s article published in the LA Times “What Students Know That Experts Don’t: School is All About Signaling, Not Skill-Building”?

In it, Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, theorizes why schooling is pointless and thus education spending is a waste of money.

It would be far better in Caplan’s view to use that money to buy things like… oh… his new book “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.”

His argument goes something like this: the only value of an education is getting a job after graduation.

Businesses only care about school because they think it signifies whether prospective employees will be good or bad at their jobs. And students don’t care about learning – they only care about appearing to have learned something to lure prospective employers. Once you’re hired, if you don’t have the skills, employers have an incentive to give you on the job training. Getting an education is just about getting a foot in the door. It’s all just a charade.

No wonder economics is sometimes called “The Dismal Science.” Can you imagine having such a dim view of the world where THAT load of crap makes sense?

We’re all just worker drones and education is the human equivalent of a mating dance or brilliant plumage – but instead of attracting the opposite sex, we’re attracting a new boss.

Bleh! I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

This is what comes of listening to economists on a subject they know nothing about.

I’m a public school teacher. I am engaged in the act of learning on a daily basis. And let me tell you something – it’s not about merely signifying.

I teach 7th and 8th grade language arts. My students aren’t simply working to appear literate. They’re actually attempting to express themselves in words and language. Likewise, my students aren’t just working to appear as if they can comprehend written language. They’re actually trying to read and understand what the author is saying.

But that’s only the half of it.

Students are engaged in the activity of becoming themselves.

Education isn’t a transaction – it’s a transformation.

When my students read “The Diary of Anne Frank” or To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, they become fundamentally different people. They gain deep understandings about what it means to be human, celebrating social differences and respecting human dignity.

When my students write poetry, short fiction and essays, they aren’t merely communicating. They’re compelled to think, to have an informed opinion, to become conscious citizens and fellow people.

They get grades – sure – but what we’re doing is about so much more than A-E, advanced, proficient, basic or below basic.

When the year is over, they KNOW they can read and understand complex novels, plays, essays and poems. The maelstrom of emotions swirling round in their heads has an outlet, can be shared, examined and changed.

Caplan is selling all of that short because he sees no value in it. He argues from the lowest common denominator – no, he argues from the lowest actions of the lowest common denominator to extrapolate a world where everything is neatly quantifiable.

It’s not hard to imagine why an economist would be seduced by such a vision. He’s turned the multi-color world into black and white hues that best suit his profession.

In a way, I can’t blame him for that. For a carpenter, I’m sure most problems look like a hammer and a nail. For a surgeon, everything looks like a scalpel and sutures.

No one seems all that interested in my economic theories about how to maximize gross domestic product. And why would they? I’m not an economist.

However, it’s just as absurd to privilege the ramblings of economists on education. They are just as ignorant – perhaps more so.

It is a symptom of our sick society.

We turn everything into numbers and pretend they can capture the reality around us.

This works great for measuring angles or determining the speed of a rocket. But it is laughably unequipped to measure interior states and statements of real human value.

Use the right tool for the right job.

If you want to measure production and consumption or the transfer of wealth, call an economist.

If you want to understand education, call a teacher.

Friday, February 16, 2018

America Can’t ‘Grit’ Its Way Out of Poverty and Racism by Renegade Teacher

Why are my students poor?

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist“- Dom Helder Camara [1]
Here are two hard facts about growing up in America:
  • 15 million (21%) of children grow up beneath the poverty line. [2]
  • The median White household wealth is $134,000 while the median Black household wealth is $11,000. [3]
As someone who has taught many impoverished and Black students, these two facts stay with me. On the one hand, as a teacher, I know it is right to push kids to persevere and be resilient no matter what life throws at them. On the other hand, I oftentimes feel like the game is already rigged.
I circle back to one question: why are millions of students subjected to poverty and racism everyday? I have already reflected on these issues in previous  posts. but I am still searching for answers.
Especially from White Republican acquaintances, the pushback I get is that underprivileged students need to work harder. “Yeah, it sucks what life has given them, but when will they stop making excuses?”
Urban charter school zealots take the “no excuses” mindset one step further; they immerse themselves in a magic world of pop psychology aphorisms and relentless positivity, seeming to focus solely on micromanaging every aspect of broken kids’ lives in order to cure them of their plight while somehow ignoring the ills of the world around them.
I am conflicted. I want to believe in the magic of the individual rising above abject poverty. But I am now a veteran witness to many kids getting expelled from school, I have found various former ‘good’ students becoming fathers and mothers soon after they leave my classroom, and I have gone to a funeral of one of the good kids- who did everything right and still found himself dead by a bullet at 18 years old on the East side of Detroit- wrong place, wrong time, they said. It is just so clear to me in my head that there is much more to student results and achievements than the individual merits or skills of the students themselves.
Thus, it was with cynicism and doubt that I entered Angela Duckworth’s book, “Grit” in order to grapple with my own wonder about how to inspire others to succeed. I wanted to read this book to see if I was missing something. Maybe there’s a part of me that wants to put aside inconvenient facts about society and believe in the cult of personal responsibility and meritocracy. Her book has been a staple of the corporate education reform package, utilized by magic factories such as KIPP and Teach for America.

What I like in “Grit”

The teacher in me loves Angela Duckworth’s “Grit.”
“Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another[4]
– Angela Duckworth
How can you not agree with that statement? I would encourage any parent, teacher, friend, or individual to approach their life or their inspiration on others’ lives with the mindset of unlocking potential through hard work and grit.
Duckworth defines grit as a mixture of passion and perseverance, essentially valuing hard work and dedication over raw intelligence. [5] “Grit” as she defines it involves a person working relentlessly to achieve a “unifying goal,” a life’s passion worthy of tremendous practice and dedication. [6]
What are worthwhile “unifying goals” for peoples’ lives? Duckworth peppers her book with stories of ‘gritty’ people such as Pete Carroll (coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks), Jamie Dimon (CEO of Chase Bank), Bill McNabb (Vanguard Investment Group), Judd Apatow (director of movies such as The 40 Year Old Virgin), and Wendy Kopp (CEO and founder of Teach for America…I’ll return to her shortly). Duckworth uses a plethora of name dropping and examples to allow the reader to imagine grit as an attribute that can justify pursuing anything you want to pursue.
So how does one become a ‘gritty’ person and join the ranks of Dimon, Carroll, and the others?
Simple: interest, practice, purpose, and hope. [7]
This formula seems easy, but the way Angela Duckworth describes it, practice in particular requires a lot of sacrifice and overcoming hurdles. To be a gritty person, you have to not give up, you have to stick with your pursuits, and you have to set specific benchmarks in order to achieve those goals.
Hard work, perseverance, resilience, hope, grit. These are all values I try to instill in my students on a daily basis. I totally agree with Duckworth that hard work and perseverance lead to better individual outcomes than just being naturally ‘smart.’
Duckworth ends her book by saying that genius should be defined as “working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being.” [8] I so want that to be true- I want to believe that everyone’s actions represent their own identity, but I have seen too much to believe this. From my experience, the only way to force-feed grit to broken populations is through severe oppression.

Why should we accept poverty as a given?

As I was reading the book, so many questions popped into my head about factors that impact student achievement and peoples’ life outcomes. Where is the mention of systems of oppression? Poverty, racial segregation, War on Drugs? What about the impact of history on today? What about luck? What about ethics? What about the fact that some peoples’ individual ambitions and hard work may spawn morally reprehensible corporations or achievements? What about shared goals? What about sharing things? What about happiness?
My mind pans to the faces of students I have known through the years in Detroit. In particular, I think about some of the kids I’ve come across who have gone through so much and stood so tough from their experiences. Yet, they don’t qualify as ‘gritty’ by Angela Duckworth’s definition. They may take two public buses to get to school every day, but they forget to turn in assignments and regularly fall asleep in class. They babysit their siblings or work to feed their families, but they don’t stick with the same hobby nor practice for years. Worse, they give up easily, and they feel uninspired by their academic work due to crumbling school environments. They don’t have parents who support such ‘gritty’ habits because their parents are busy working multiple jobs to feed their families or were imprisoned in the War on Drugs. They eat unhealthy foods (in and out of school), they attend schools with inexperienced and ineffective teachers, and they go home to chaotic home environments (all of this caused by and reinforced by poverty). This is not to even mention the asthma , the lead poisoning from the walls , and the highest violence rate in an American city , or the White flight from the inner cities. No, my students are not hopeful for the world. Taking one look around Detroit and Donald Trump’s America, would you blame them?
Perhaps Angela Duckworth’s “Grit” has merit to a parent with stable financial resources and access to great schools, but is this really an instructive manual for a country where 21% of students grow up in poverty? Or the city of Detroit where 87%  of children know someone who has been killed or wounded by gun violence? Those problems are far more impairing of student success and achievement than a lack of hard work. To me, Angela Duckworth needed to address the systemic forces that intersect with personal ambition and achievement, and it’s very telling that she did not choose to do so (instead, she lionized bankster Jamie Dimon, the same Jamie Dimon who led Chase Bank to mislead investors in the buildup to the 2008 financial crisis).

Angela Duckworth’s ‘Gritty’ Educators: Teach for America and KIPP

Then, there’s Angela Duckworth’s fascination with the corporate education reformers. She highlights Teach for America Founder and CEO Wendy Kopp, calling her a “paragon of grit,” explaining how Duckworth actually studied TFA and found that optimistic teachers had more ‘grit,’ and in turn got their students to achieve more. [9]Furthermore, Duckworth highlights the KIPP charter school network, the nation’s largest charter network, which she highlights for praising effort and learning over natural talent [10].
In turn, corporate ed reformers have made grit a central part of their gospel. In fact, KIPP worked with Angela Duckworth to create a character development framework that they utilize in their schools.
Teach for America and KIPP are basically fighting for the same things I am fighting for in my public school classroom: so what is my problem with them?
Regarding Teach for America, I am just going to drop this Onion Article here.
Volunteer Teacher: My year volunteering as a teacher helped educate a new generation of of underprivileged kids!
Elementary School Student: Can we please, just once, have a real teacher?
Bleeding heart college kids dropping in for two years to become teachers only de-professionalizes the profession while leaving behind underwhelming results. Any true teacher knows that experience is an essential ingredient to effective pedagogy- by the time Teach for America teachers start to gain that expertise, they move on to law school or the corporate world.
As for KIPP, they have positive academic results…but…
“I’ve seen about four teachers have complete nervous breakdowns…After two years, you become physically ill. Your body breaks down- you can’t take it anymore.”[11]
“Students are managed largely through bullying, screaming, and personal insults. At my previous (traditional public) school teachers did not raise their voice ONCE during the course of the year. At (the KIPP school where this teacher worked) it was ubiquitous. “
“If you don’t tuck in your shirt, if you space out for a minute and don’t track your teacher with your eyes, if your binder is messy, you lose points. If you lose enough points, you are not allowed to go on field trips or be a part of the graduation ceremony.” [12]
This is oppression on the level of the Indian boarding schools of the early 1900s that sought to assimilate Native Americans into White cultural life, but ended up causing harm. I believe these stories of KIPP: I have also participated in charter schools (not KIPP) and seen the oppressive cultures that they instill on students. I wrote this article about my experiences.
Furthermore, according to a study by Professor Gary Miron at Western Michigan, some 40% of Black males from KIPP Schools leave between grades 6-8.
Miron found that about 15% of all students leave each year from KIPP , compared with 3% in the local traditional public schools; oh yeah, and KIPP students receive about $5,000 a year per pupil through private donations IN ADDITION to regular public funding. [13] This is not only oppressive, but it is an unscalable model for education turnaround.
Would Angela Duckworth be proud of that attrition? Do teachers and students who cannot and do not want to survive in such oppressive environments just not have enough grit?

We Owe it To The Future To Fight Poverty and Racism

My mind races back to the students I have seen fail. The students of mine I have seen expelled after letting their rage boil over into violence, the various students I have seen on the local news in handcuffs, and the previously mentioned former student who had his life taken from him on the streets of Detroit.
If you put those same individuals with parents who had stable incomes, schools with nurturing and encouraging environments, and all the trappings of the suburban bubble, they would have a far greater chance to succeed.
We owe it to these students to not only instill passion and perseverance, but to create a society where grit is possible- where the American Dream is within reach. White, Black, Brown- we all deserve quality public schools. We owe it to our young people to abandon the myth that people have complete control over their lives; it is oppressive to victim-blame people into believing that they have full responsibility over their outcomes, and this mentality ultimately advantages the wealthy ruling class. It is good for individuals to gain responsibility, but that needs to be balanced with a hard look at systemic issues that prevent the poor and disenfranchised from being able to have the gritty success that Angela Duckworth idealizes.
Angela Duckworth dropped a James Baldwin quote in her book, so I will end this post with one of my own:
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”- James Baldwin
For an individual looking to achieve something great, Grit is an extremely useful diagram of what to do, far more useful than the usual trope, “you’re so smart.”
But for our greater American society, this is no blueprint. And as Baldwin inspires us, we must face our own monsters (poverty and racism) in order to change them.

When Will It Happen Here? by Steven Singer

It could happen at anytime in my classroom.

A hasty announcement of lock down. An unexpected fire alarm. The sounds of shouting, running feet and… gunshots.

The lights could go out. The door could burst in.

There’s really very little we could do.

My room has no windows. No closets. Nowhere to hide.

These are the thoughts going through my head as my students sit at their desks during homeroom this morning.

Jayden is taking off his hoodie before the principal catches him out of dress code.

Alaina is pestering me for a pass to the library.

Darnell is surreptitiously munching on a pixie stick stashed in his book bag.

It’s all so mundane, so subdued, so quiet.

A few kids are on the computers in the back, others at their desks reading books, writing papers, or listening to music on their iPads.

But there’s very little conversation.

The class of middle schoolers is restrained, thoughtful – which is unusual for children of 12 or 13.

I sit slumped at my desk – exhausted though I haven’t even taught my first class yet.

The news from last night still plays in my head.

How long was it since the last one?

And now here we are – back in the line of fire.

I can’t help but think about my daughter somewhere across town. She’s probably just entering her third grade classroom maybe munching on the remains of a candy heart from Valentine’s Day. Just like me and my students, she’s in the cross hairs.

But what can we do about it?

I can’t hold her out of school forever. I can’t quit my job and work from home. Even if I could, there’s absolutely nothing I can do for the twenty children quietly sitting at their desks in the room with me, abiding the rules of a society too broken to protect us.

After last night, it feels like things have changed somehow.

There have been 18 school shootings so far this year. And it’s only February. Most have resulted in zero injuries.

Of those where people were hurt, the person most in danger was the shooter. But I can’t stop thinking about those cases where a hunter came to school to kill children and teachers.

As an educator, I’ve been taught how to handle just about every situation.

If one of my children acts out, or doesn’t hand in her homework, or even throws up – I know what to do.

But none of my training has prepared me to out teach a semiautomatic weapon.

I can’t differentiate past a bullet.

There is no paperwork that will invalidate the gunpowder or slow the endless rounds through whatever they come into contact.

If someone comes to school with a gun and a will to kill, I will be little more than a target.

But don’t get me wrong.

I am not a law enforcement officer or an action hero. I’m a teacher.

You don’t want me returning fire at every mindless bureaucratic hitch in the schedule. You want me assigning essays and chapter readings. You don’t want me keeping a gun out of reach of curious youngsters always at my desk and in my personal space. You want me safeguarding student assignments and – heck – my cell phone that kids keep trying to snatch and look through my camera roll.

What we need is real gun control legislation.

We need an assault weapons ban.

We need to close the gun show loophole.

We need buyback programs to get the mountains of firearms off the streets and out of the arsenals of a handful of paranoid “survivalists”.

In short, we need lawmakers willing to make laws.

We need legislators who will represent the overwhelming majority of the public and take sensible action to protect the people of this country.

What we don’t need are the trolls who hijack every conversation arguing the semantics of the term “assault rifle” or “terrorist.”

We don’t need weak politicians cautioning against “politicizing” mass shootings because the violence is too fresh.

We don’t need anyone’s thoughts and prayers.

We need action.

And we need it yesterday.

Some people are calling on teachers to take action to force our lawmakers to finally do something.

That sounds like a good idea to me.

I’m game.

But we need more than that.

We need everyone who feels the same way to join in the fight.

Parents, children, grandparents, principals, police, firefighters, soldiers and nurses – the multitudinous faces of America must come together to fight this monstrosity as one.

I may sit in that classroom.

My students and my daughter may be in danger.

But America must be the shield.

America must rise up and protect our future.

WE must take charge.

Otherwise, it is not a case of can it happen here.

It is a case of when.