from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Getting to the roots of the (educational) problem 

One of these days I will offer my own comprehensive view of how I think we should address the issue of public education. As often as I am a critic I feel some responsibility to put my own ideas out for the reactions of others. In the meantime I will continue to offer a variety of other pieces on education. Often they are things from my own experience as a teacher. The offering today will not be, although as a teacher I find myself in great agreement.

What you will read this morning is posted with permission by the author. Marion Brady is a fairly well known author in educational circles. I will not offer details of his background, given that I agree that in the blogosphere our credibility is less dependent upon our credentials than it is upon a proven track record in what we offer. Here I will place whatever credibility I may have behind Marion’s words. I will note that he is widely published, regularly appearing in the Orlando Sentinel and other papers, as well as in publications such as Phi Delta Kappan.

If after reading the material in the blockquote you want to read more of what Marion has written, he has an excellent webpage. You will find the points below presented quite powerfully in the powerpoint presentation, which he wants people to use. You will also find various articles, testimonials, and the like.

Let me explain how this material came into my hands. I will then offer Marion’s words without interruption, then conclude with a far too many remarks of my own. By leaving those until after Marion’s words, you can focus only on what he has to say if you are so inclined.

As I have often noted, I participate in a number of educational list servs. One of the more interesting is run by Gerald Bracey in conjunction with his Educational Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency website. While the webpage is largely dedicated to Jerry’s writing, the EDDRA list is more inclusive. It is a moderated (by Jerry) group, and it was in a recent thread that I encountered Marion’s message, to which without further ado we will now proceed:

I wish I could interest you good people in a strategy for cutting down the pole that holds aloft the "Standards and accountability!" banner.

The perception that educators opposed to NCLB are simply unwilling to be held accountable is surely the engine driving the current "reform" movement.

That perception must be countered.

I tried (again) to explain how to do this in my cover article for the May 2000 KAPPAN, ("The Standards Juggernaut")," but nobody paid attention.

So, now, consider the merit of a concerted effort to speak with one voice to this year's Congressional candidates, saying something like:

1. Standards are WONDERFUL! We love the concept!

2. Unfortunately, the subject-matter standards Congress has mandated are freezing in place a curriculum designed in 1893, the effectiveness of which peaked about 1950.

3. That curriculum:

- Has no overarching aim

- Fails to support the basic process by means of which knowledge expands

- Ignores the holistic, systemic nature of knowledge

- Disregards the brain's need for order and organization

- Fails to model the seamlessness of human perception

- Lacks criteria for determining the relative importance of specific knowledge

- Insufficiently relates to real-world experience

- Neglects vast and important fields of study

- Unduly emphasizes symbol-manipulation skills

- Fails to exploit the mutually supportive nature of knowledge

- Relies on short-term recall rather than logic for accessing memory

- Has no built-in self-renewing capability

- Assigns students an unnatural, passive role

- Does not address ethical and moral issues

- Encourages simplistic methods of performance evaluation

- Does not progress smoothly through ever-increasing levels of intellectual complexity

- Makes unreasonable demands on memory

- Lacks a vocabulary and conceptual framework facilitating educator communication

- Is overly dependent on extrinsic motivation

- Penalizes rather than capitalizes on student variability

4. NCLB isn't just reactionary, it doesn't just stifle curricular innovation, it ignores the most promising education-related ideas to emerge since WW II - General Systems Theory, conceptual modeling, and a new appreciation of the holistic nature of knowledge.

5. NCLB is beating a dead horse, and the rest of the world will quickly pass us by.

I will not burden you greatly with my thoughts right now, as the real purpose of this posting was to expose you to the ideas Marion offers. But I do an explanation of why I thought this was important to share.

I teach social studies, primarily government, although I have taught US History, World History, Comparative Religion, English, Reading, and Social Issues. My undergraduate major was Music, with minors in History and Philosophy. My first masters degree was in religion. I am very much of the belief that knowledge and understanding are not really compartmented the way our academic institutions often approach learning. This is one reason I support an approach such as that of Howard Gardner with what he calls Multiple Intelligences. When I taught at the middle school level I saw the benefits of doing projects that crossed the boundaries of departments. And the final project I give my government students -- that they cannot do an essay or a research paper, they must work four hours (per person if in a group), and show me that they learned something, I get incredibly productions which often demonstrate deep understanding of content material. I will mention but one, since it was done by a young lady whom I recently reference, who because she dos not want to burden her family or herself with debt is going into the Navy to get an education (she eventually wants to be a policeman). J____ created a bird's nest in which there was a styrofoam egg representing the American way of government. The nest was held up by three wings. On each wing was written one of the first three articles of the Constitution. Remove any wing and the nest tipped, and the egg crashed to the floor. Somehow I wish certain people in positions of responsibility in our national government understood the principles of checks and balances as well as J___ does.

I agree with Marion that they way we structure our curriculum is from another time, and realistically does NOT match what we know about how people truly learn. Sometimes it can create oddities: my sophomore year in college I was reading Plato’s Republic. The problem was that I was reading it for 3 different courses at the same time -- Philosophy, Political Science, and Western Civ (although in the latter only a few selections). While it is true that there is value from using a different lens (the curricular area) through which to view a work such as this, and at a prestigious and rigorous college such as Haverford it was not unreasonable to approach the work the way we did, I still wondered whether it might have been more productive for the courses to have coordinated their efforts some. Of course, since I was one of only two students taking all three courses at the same time, the coordination was not practical.

But now think about K-12. I will offer one more anecdote, from my middle school years. I had only two groups of kids, each for two 72 minute blocks. One block was English, the other was split between Reading and Social Studies, an adjustment made in the building by the principal and strongly objected to by the County’s social studies supervisor who resented her curricular area being shorted. I was visited by that supervisor, who was somewhat upset to find that my students were doing some work derived from reading “Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored” because it was not approved for 8th grade social studies, not until 10th grade. I pointed out that the material I was using was in the County’s assigned literature book for 8th grade English, and that I was doling an exercise that crossed the curricular divide because I taught the students both subjects. No one could explain to me how the work was acceptable for 8th grade English but not for 8th grade social studies.

I do not doubt that there are valid reasons to learn the terminology, the paradigms of different fields of study. But I also agree with Marion that the way we divide up knowledge does not match how most people really learn. In far too many cases, rather than structuring our learning environments to match the way people learn -- which I remind readers is by no means uniform -- we force people into models of learning that are artificial, and in some cases downright unnatural. In effect, we are not education, we a training. They are not the same. In the former case we are attempting to empower to operate independently, in the latter we are trying to ensure consistency and conformity. You might well ask which is more likely to result in a creative mind (even in science and technology) and a happier - and hence more productive - person,

Our schools are often structured for ‘efficiency.” But we only look at part of the equation as we measure for efficiency. We build our schools on a factory model, derived from the work of Frederick Taylor. heck, most adults would have trouble chopping their lives up into 43 or 47 minutes blocks of disconnected aspects of learning. The artificial time limits often short-circuit actual learning. And far too often our schools do not provide the opportunity for meaningful exploration of any topic. Our greatest productivity and creativity do not come as the result of watching the clock, but rather of exploring, including exploring down false paths. Schools decreasingly are places where such exploration is possible.

Those schools which allow such exploration, which do not disconnect the material to be studied into strictly separated spheres of learning, often produce children who are far more accomplished academically, far better able to wrestle with new material. Think of things like Montessori schools, for example.

I teach social studies, but even in government my students periodically get music, and art, and poetry, and architecture. It is harder to do than it was in history or religion, but it is still possible. After all, governments put up buildings. Nations use patriotic music to influence people. We have a history of protest songs that well predates the 1960’s (although there are few times as fertile as that, whether it is the songs of the Civil Rights movement, or the many songs protesting Vietnam). Poets are often the canaries in the mine of the public consciousness.

I have gone on far too long. I hope what I have offered from Marion serves some purpose. If my words add anything beyond allowing me to somewhat vent, that is also nice.

I think if we truly want to address the problems with our schools, we need to radically rethink how we do things. Marion’s ideas are of a piece with that kind of approach, which is why I bring them to your attention.

I look forward to whatever responses people may feel inclined to offer.

Have a nice day.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Thoughts on young people after 2 CTG events 

I had read the book. I went to both DC events yesterday. I asked Markos a question which must not have been well-framed, because his answer was not to the point of my question. So I think I should share my own thinking. I’m sure that none of my insights are original, and the things I propose must also be floating out there as well. But since I have not yet seen them elsewhere, I will offer them.

And is the policy at this site, steal what you want. It might be nice to give me credit insofar as you use my words and ideas, but even that is less important if the ideas can serve the end purpose.

Many reading this will already have read Crashing the Gate. In it Markos and Jerome talk about how for years Republicans have funded their gifted up and comers, and contrasts this with the way, as Markos puts it, if you want to work for a progressive non-profit or thinks tank you almost have to be a trust fund baby. Our interns struggle to find houses they can share with 5 other people, the Republicans provide dorms for there. All of this is true, and from a structural standpoint is something that must be addressed.

I look at something else. As a teacher of government and politics to high school students, I notice two contrasting phenomenon. First, on many issues even those who self-identify as conservatives or Republicans when you go through issues, including many of the moral or “family values” issues, they are ate least persuadable if not favorable towards the progressive position once they understand it. Second, even many of those with strong feelings on certain issues are quite turned off to politics and politicians as they see them practiced. Remember, teaching as I do in Prince George’s County, for many of my students national political news as a part of their local news. Oh, and their disgust at politics is even more palpable if you talk about local or state politics.

Those 18-25 tend to vote a very low rate. Here is a group that is at least persuadable, is not currently voting (or in many cases participating in any fashion),and which could contribute mightily to the progressive vote total if only we had the structures in place to reach them. And I would want to start the process of outreach even younger, at least down to 16 years old, if not lower. Remember, one no longer has to be 18 to contribute, many young people might only give nominal amounts but with enough $20 and up contributions (the out of pocket cost of one movie with snacks) you can, as Dean showed and as the netroots has since demonstrated, you can raise some serious money.

Clearly candidates have to address issues that matter to young people. There is that content issue. But it will have to be framed differently, and it will have to be communicated differently.

Look, I teach some kids who are pretty conservative, personally, morally, and politically. Yet take the issues of gays, or of mixed race relationships. In our school everyone has at least acquaintances and usually one or more friends who are openly gay or bisexual. While the kids might be uncomfortable with the term “gay marriage” they are by and large perfectly prepared to support legalized gay civil relationships with ALL of the incidents of marriage -- why should their friends be denied happiness and security. Many students have significant others of a different racial -m or religious - or national origins - background, and more than a few are themselves the products of such relationships. When we talk about the kind of times I knew in high school in the early 1960’s they are shocked to realize how much they now take for granted.

Candidates will not be able to use traditional means to reach and influence such people. In many cases their concerns are less different than are how they communicate. At both events yesterday Markos talked about how Rupert Murdoch has bought myspace.com, looking ahead to this younger demographic group. I was thinking about that in the question I asked him at Politics and Prose. Last night, in response to a thread on dailykos posted by RenaRF, who blogged about that event at P&P, I offered my first semi-coherent thoughts on the subject. I will share them now, and then close with just a few more remarks.

in a sense, developing and supporting leadership for YDs the YRs have done might be PART of the problem, but would be insufficient.  The YR model that produced Reed, Abramoff, and Rove tended to be very incestuous, with people very concerned about their own future careers.   And it is not at all clear to me that such people would be able to reach out to the larger age cohort  -- that is, doing the equivalent with Dems

I was looking for mechanisms that would focus on connecting with this age group.  So, if you know that many of these people are in myspace.com, why does it matter that Rupert bought the site, is it not possible to set up a bot to scan for possible people to contact, or even set up a site as a phisher that might draw people to it?  That's one example.

Are we setting up mechanisms to do age group specific events on a regular basis, including for local and state candidates, that can more easily turn on young people and then get them to network with their friends.

The IM lists some young people have are incredible.  How can we utilize those to reach out, to communicate, to involve? those are a few examples which quickly come to mind.

I may work with young people, but I will be 60 on May 23. I do not use myspace.com (and in fact access to it is now banned from school computers). I offer a few thoughts, but also a caution. If we want to reach the younger people, we not only must think about the structures we use, but also the voices we use. Here my ideas and those of Markos in saying we must develop and support our gifted young people will overlap. Think of a pebble in the water, rippling out. Young people are incredibly networkers -- trust me, I see it every day. We need to find young people, listen to them, and encourage them to be agents of influence.

I hope that some who fall in the demographic group about which I am concerned will offer their ideas. You are far more than the future of the Democratic party, You are the future of this nation, this democracy, and without your involvement there may be no future democracy.

I have no wisdom to offer. I reflected on this last evening while attending an event with a batch of progressive bloggers and media types (fascinating in itself), and continued to think about it on my morning perambulation. I hope it is of some benefit to someone.

Now I must head off to another day with my own group of young people.


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Monday, March 27, 2006

It's another wonderful day 

I do not mean that sarcastically, or even sardonically. Truly, it is a wonderful day. This morning I took yet another brisk walk (and until I drop at least 10 pounds it will be walking and not running to spare my knees). The vernal signals surround me. Each morning there is a bit more light. The number of birds increases and the species are more varied. I can see yellow of daffodils everywhere, and splashes of color from other early spring flowers. And because it is a Monday, and this is still the school year, I will shortly head off to see my students. That always makes for a wonderful day.

I often present my worries when I post. They may be about my effectiveness as a teacher, or what is happening to our schools. I may ponder whether I can honestly keep teaching government, or whether our sense of democracy may already be lost. Today I want to offer another, perhaps somewhat more sanguine, point of view. It will be brief. And I will acknowledge an external inspiration.

This year I put no money down on my brackets. But I can this morning see that two of my final four teams are still alive, LSU and George Mason. And it is the latter that is the occasion of my cheerfulness. They were my longest of long shots,but having seen them play once twice year I realized how good a defensive team they were, and how much they enjoyed playing the game, even when they lost. It is not just Lamar Butler’s irrepressible smile, one that I used to hate when he was so productive at Oxon Hill as they were our fiercest competition in Prince George’s 4A basketball. It was their willingness to make the extra pass, to throw their sometimes undersized bodies into the melee under the boards to get that extra rebound. Even should they lose next weekend (and I actually think they match up better against Florida than they did against Villanova), that will not in any way diminish what they have accomplished, or the joy they will feel.

Often a glance at various blogs could lead a progressive to believe that we are all dyspepsic, that we can find the one bad grape in a luscious bunch. There is much about which we can be concerned, we are vocal in expressing it. I acknowledge that I have oft been one who contributes to that ambiance. But life is not merely a catalog of disasters and failures. It also contains triumphs, however small they may be. And it provides us with many moments of inspiration.

The three remaining CPT hostages were released. That is an occasion of more than relief, perhaps even of joy that they are alive and well. We learn from them that Tom Fox was the one who helped keep their spirits up until he was taken apart from them. For those of us who knew Tom it was a confirmation of our hope that he would maintain his own sense of balance and peacefulness throughout his captivity.

Markos and Jerome have begun their book tour. I will see them twice today, at Politics and Prose and ad GWU. Having finally completed CTG I see in their writing something positive - even while admitting the well-deserved criticism of Democratic politics as it has been they inform us of some of the positive things that have been happening around the country, in Colorado, in Montana, at local levels.

This morning the five cats were playful. They remind me that life can be approached not as something scary and threatening, but at times as a wonderful place still to be explored and discovered, with the possibilities endless. That is something I also experience when I encounter many of my students - their sheer delight in living. It is infectious, it is inspiring, it keeps me going when I think I am not making a difference.

There is much in our world that requires remediation, even outright change. But that would

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Civics - should we teach it? What should we teach? 

In yesterday’s Washington Post, one could read an op-ed jointly written by Sandra Day O’Connor and Roy Romer (now, that’s an interesting duo) entitled Not by Math Alone. Let me offer the beginning:

Fierce global competition prompted President Bush to use the State of the Union address to call for better math and science education, where there's evidence that many schools are falling short.

We should be equally troubled by another shortcoming in American schools: Most young people today simply do not have an adequate understanding of how our government and political system work, and they are thus not well prepared to participate as citizens.

This country has long exemplified democratic practice to the rest of the world. With the attention we are paying to advancing democracy abroad, we ought not neglect it at home.

I was provoked by this op-ed to write the entry you are now reading. Do not presume that you predict what you will encounter should you continue reading.

The two notables unfortunately base their argument on the low percentage of students who score proficient (about 1/3) on a national civics assessment in 1998, and that less than 10% could list two ways a democracy benefits from citizen participation, even as they acknowledge that our current generation of students is patriotic and willing to do volunteer service.

The authors argue
A healthy democracy depends on the participation of citizens, and that participation is learned behavior; it doesn't just happen. As the 2003 report "The Civic Mission of Schools" noted: "Individuals do not automatically become free and responsible citizens, but must be educated for citizenship." That means civic learning -- educating students for democracy -- needs to be on par with other academic subjects.

This is not a new idea. Our first public schools saw education for citizenship as a core part of their mission. Eighty years ago, John Dewey said, "Democracy needs to be reborn in every generation and education is its midwife."
. They go on to write that civics learning has been pushed aside, arguing ahistorically that until the 1960’s THREE courses in civics and government, including “civics” and “the problems of democracy” were COMMON in American public high schools.

When I first read this, I stopped in amazement at what I have just described. I graduated from high school in 1963, my sister in 1963. At the high school level we had NO course in civics or government - we did that in 8th grade. The sequence of social courses had, in ten years before my graduation, had only one change - the edition of an elective in AP American History that one could take after having completed the regular American History course. I would be curious if readers of my age or more senior vintage have memories that accord with mine.

The authors argued that such courses encouraged students to explore the roles of citizens and to discuss current issues, and that current courses in government do not significantly address the issue of citizen participation. I know they are mistaken with respect to what happens in the government course in our school, and not just in my classroom. The content on which our students will be tested by the state of Maryland definitely includes issues of citizen participation. And programs such as “We the People Project Citizen” which go through the 9th grade require students of a participating to actively participate in a civic issue.

Let me offer another selection from the piece:
We need more and better classes to impart the knowledge of government, history, law and current events that students need to understand and participate in a democratic republic. And we also know that much effective civic learning takes place beyond the classroom -- in extracurricular activity, service work that is connected to class work, and other ways students experience civic life.

Preserving our democracy should be reason enough to promote civic learning. But there are other benefits. Understanding society and how we relate to each other fosters the attitudes essential for success in college, work and communities; it enhances student learning in other subjects.

The authors are arguing that the health of this country requires that our students understand our system, that even our economic health depends on it. They have already noted that research shows people with a better understanding of history and our system of government are not only more likely to participate civicly, they are also more likely to vote.

The authors are national cochairs of the advisory council for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which describes itself as
A Long-Term Effort to Renew and Elevate Civic Learning in Our Nation’s Schools
. One can find on their website the following statement:
The Campaign for the Civic Mission Schools was created to increase the quality and quantity of civic learning in our schools, grades K-12. The Campaign works to bring about changes in state, local, and national policy that promote civic learning and implement the recommendations in the Civic Mission of Schools report.

And now it is time for me to offer some thoughts which may not be what you expect. Let me acknowledge some agreement with the two notables. Education for citizenship is clearly as important as for science, math or reading. Historically one reason for the expansion of American public schooling after the period of massive immigration near the end of the 19th century was to better educate the newly arrived as Americans. How we went about it then was fraught with problems, and those problems are in some sense still with us. But there are issues which we first must acknowledge.

O’Connor and Romer base their argument at least in part on the results of a national assessment. These bespeaks a mindset with which I do not agree. Here I will note that NCLB has current requirements for testing in reading and math and forthcoming testing in science, in grades 3-8, and a onetime test in high school of reading and math. There is extensive anecdotal evidence of schools whose scores are low dropping instruction in social studies to have more time for test prep. Some have argued for including testing in social studies and even in Art and Music to ensure that these subjects maintain a place in the elementary curriculum. Clearly if we do not begin to address the basics of the history of our society before high school students will be ill prepared to undertake serious study of government, whether one calls it civics or government or uses some other focus-group tested term.

But I would hesitate to rely on any national assessment as an indicator that our students know and understand less than the previous generations. As noted I graduated from high school in 1963. And yet I have clear memories of reading in the 1950’s - and in each subsequent decade as well - the result of man on the street interviews on occasions like the 4th of July where most people did not recognize key ideas from the Declaration of Independence. We have always had a significant number of the residents of this country, citizens or not, who did not accept the tenets of our democratic republic with guaranteed rights. We see their progeny today - they think the United States is a Christian nation, they are willing to suspend the protections of the Bill of Rights for groups and person they don’t like, arguing that terrorists or foreigners or non-Christians or those accused of crimes really don’t need such protections. It is frightening to see how many of them hold positions of responsibility bin our governments, and even more frightening to see how many are shaping the understanding (or lack thereof) of future generations in their religious organizations and their schools.

And it is this last point which we cannot ignore. An increasing albeit still small percentage of our young people are receiving their education in non-public school settings. The idea of affecting educational policy to develop a more meaningful understanding of our system, assuming it is possible, cannot reach into these schools and homes, which will jealously protect their independence from government interference and oversight (and why do so many of these people not want oversight of any kind, whether it be of their schools, their businesses, their churches, or when they achieve power the governments they abuse by their leadership? Ah, but I digress, or do I?).

Equally dangerous is that in some of these cases they do teach about the government, but what they teach is so alien to the spirit of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that it might be far better were they to have no such instruction. And here I note that the problem is not restricted to non-;public settings. After all, we have seen concerted efforts by some on the Christian right to take over school boards at local and state levels. We usually become aware of this only in battles over Intelligent Design and Creationism, but the same issues apply in how we are allowed to teach about government and economics. This has been an ongoing problem -- if you do not know who Mel and Norma Gabler were, then you do not realize how serious and long-standing are some of the problems.

It is not realistic to assume that one can require more than one course in government in the modern American public high school. Remember, colleges want 4 years of English, the better schools want at least 3 years of a foreign language, math at least through pre-calculus (and those interested in science, math and engineering probably need at least one calculus course), and probably all 3 hard sciences. For social studies one would hope at a minimum US History, World History of some sort would also be required. We can argue that colleges are pushing too much down on high schools, but as a high school teacher I have to acknowledge that far too many of our students do leave high school without being prepared to work at a college level. That for me would be another argument against adding additional course requirements. We need to have time to work on critical reading, on writing, on research, on media literacy, on how to present and dissect political arguments and advertising. All of these are issues of civic competence for which there is already decreasing time in the school day and school year.

I have a further concern, which is reflected in my title. I worry how we will determine the content the students would be required to know in such courses. I have had one principal (in a middle school) try to tell me that I could not inform other teachers that they couldn’t make students even stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, although she backed off when i told her that if she insisted my next action would be to call the ACLU. Would the powers that be prohibit be from teaching Supreme Court cases such as Barnette that explain the rights of students? Whose interpretation of the Bill of Rights will prevail, and would we be prohibited from discussing contrary points of view? How would that prepare our young people to be citizens, or is the concept of citizen supposed to be one who salutes the flag and does what her leaders tell her to do? Certainly we have seen intimations of such an attitude in the current administration, and in how political opponents of that administration have been attacked.

My primary course is government. I teach it because I believe it is the best course with which to connect my students to the content, because they are all affected by the government, and at some point the vast majority (not all are or will become citizens) will have the opportunity to participate in the shaping of that government through voting, and perhaps even by running for office. In my class they are required to wrestle with different points of view, to learn how to support an argument with facts (and it is not merely by listing a lot of facts, as many have discovered to their chagrin when I show them how every fact they cite can be used to counter the argument they are making unless they make clear HOW they are using the fact). They learn to distinguish between fact and opinion, and how to evaluate the propaganda techniques which are so common in our political discourse. Hopefully they learn a great deal about the history and structure and interpretation of our governmental systems, and also how to maintain comity in civic discourse, how to disagree without being disagreeable.

But I would argue that this is insufficient. I would argue that if O’Connor and Romer truly want our students to learn to become citizens, there is something other than courses which is is required. We need to totally restructure how we do our schooling. There are few places in America less democratic than the American Public School. Students have mandates imposed on them, large and petty, about what they can wear, about how they can speak. We do not teach civic responsibility when an 18 year old senior has to have permission and a pass to use a lavatory. Are many students still so immature that we have grave reservations about giving them liberty? If so, when are they going to develop a sense of responsibility? Will it, and civic competence, magically arise at the moment we hand them their high school diplomas? If you agree that such is unlikely, then how do we reshape our schools -- and our society -- so that our young people can learn what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, a role with responsibilities as well as rights and liberties?

I would argue that our students actually have far more knowledge and understanding about our government and society than we adults credit them. In school we often talk about hidden or unstated curricula. Hidden is when we are not explicit about our purposes. Running schools on a basis requiring the students to be compliant is a clear hidden curriculum with respect to learning about civics. And our students know it. And our students often learn that the traditional civics course of the type about which O’Connor and Romer seem to be nostalgic would be ineffective because our students can look at television or read on the internet about a reality which contradicts those nice neat lessons. I would argue that the most important things we could do in helping our students understand our system of government and want to participate would be for adults to live by the principles - which I think should include comity in our civil discourse - and to act as if the Constitution and the Bill of Rights truly mattered. If all that matters is winning, at any cost, then our students will quickly learn that lesson. It will be reflected in the cheating on exams, high stakes and otherwise, because that is no different than cheating on taxes or in fulfilling a contract or in issuing a financial statement. it will be reflected in brutality to those who stand in the way of their goals, as some of our business and governmental leaders model far too often. We will certainly see it in violating the rules for elections for class office and student government, and most of all, in our athletic competitions.

If our society and our government are to live in the neighborhood of our highest aspirations, we cannot get there through civic courses. Teaching formally about our government is insufficient, albeit a necessary step on that journey. Modeling that to which we aspire for our young people is far more effective.

I am interested in the responses of others to what I acknowledge is something of a screed. I feel passionately on this issue, and I worry about the future of this nation, as those who regularly read my posting will already know. But I also accept that mine is not the only possible vision, and that if we are to save this nation -- for it is at risk, but not because of the scores on mass-produced tests, but because the very idea of Constitutional democracy is now under attack -- then the way we approach the civic education of our young people is a critical issue, but one that cannot be addressed merely by what we do in schools. And so I have written this piece.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A diary completely lacking in profundity 

and probably in insight as well.  But it is Saturday morning, and many expect me to write about education, as in my normal practice.  And I was told that the only way to improve as a writer is to write, to subject one's efforts to the vicissitudes of criticism.  And as my far to many prolix and meandering efforts in the blogosphere have demonstrated, my writing is much in need of improvement, so that if you choose to subject yourself to my efforts you are hereby licensed to criticize as you deem appropriate.

Today I will reflect on the approaching end of school.  What, you say, it is only late March, how can you say the end of school is approaching.   But we know it is.  Yesterday's morning announcements gave a clear indication, when one of the seniors made the first of what will be a descending series, that there were only 40 days of school left for the class of 2006.

There are other indicators, which serve to indicate the approaching end as much as the first robin seeking a worm on my lawn or the batch of daffodils thrusting out or the corner remind me of the onset of this vernal season.  Yesterday the two of us who are teaching AP U.S. Government (for the first time) set the schedule for review sessions for the AP examination (on May 9).  For the non-AP kids, we are beginning to work in bits and pieces of review of earlier material for the state exam for which they must sit on May 24.  I have received an invitation May 10 to a celebration of the completion of student teaching by the many interns in our school from Maryland-College Park, including the one I share with the other AP teacher.  We have received the school system calendar for next year.  And yesterday was Class Night, the culmination of Spring Spirit Week.

We know it is Spring.   We can see it in the behavior of our students -- and in ourselves.   Spirit week is an opportunity to burn off a bit of energy, build school and class spirit, raise some money for the graduation efforts of each class, and have a great deal of fun.   I am the sponsor of the Class of 2009, the freshmen.  I was the co-sponsor, but my partner quit because one of our officers is impossible and for a variety of reasons I cannot herein discuss (there are privacy issues) it was impossible to remove her.  During the week the students dress according to a different theme each day, on Thursday afternoon there is a girls' flag football tournament, and on Friday we decorate the gym and have a variety of competitions -- banners, decorations, boys' cheerleading / dance routines, tug of war, pyramid building, and so on.  We cram around 1,000 students in the gym, the noise level is impossible, and for over 3 hours the students go nuts.  

My freshmen have had real trouble getting organized.  That is not unusual.   But there was a core group that begin to understand how to work together.  They learned upon whom they could depend, and whom they should simply ignore.  Normally the freshmen finish last overall (we do not yet know the final score, and we may have), and rarely do better than 3rd in any individual competition.  Yesterday we took 3 seconds, almost winning tow of the events.   This was after the disaster of not even scoring in the football tournament.  The students who participated, who spent several days a week in my small temporary classroom working on decorations, or outside on the pavement practicing their dance routine, or the pyramid and other events, are justifiably proud, and now want to have a celebration.   I had planned to end my service yesterday (doing musical theater as well as soccer does not give me enough time to do this role), but I cannot reject their desire to end the year on a positive note.  And maybe now they are prepared to take on the responsibility of other tasks, such as fundraising.  Still, my service in this role is coming to an end, and that reminds me of the onrushing approach of more significant milestones  -- the tests.

I cannot avoid the impact outside tests have on my teaching efforts.  While I will never teach to the test, I have a responsibility to prepare my students so that they can approach the tests without panic.  After all, some of my AP students will be in College next year, and would really like to earn the 1/2 credit available from the course.   And our school will be evaluated by how all of my students do on the mandatory state test in government.  We as a school are given great latitude in doing things differently than the other high schools, and I as a teacher am subject to almost no restrictions in how I approach my instruction.  In each case this flexibility is granted at least in part because of the high level of performance our students demonstrate on such external tests.  Thus we cannot ignore them even as we do not wish to have what we do be dominated by them.

Regular readers know that I often write about how we as a society misuse tests.  It is nice to know that some of what I write can be of value to others.  I have been informed that a chunk of a diary I wrote here recently will probably appear at least on the website of a major publication in the near future.  I will , if and when that happens, do the concomitant bragging, or whatever it is we call it when we offer for public consumption our successes, perhaps in the hope that we will receive back affirmation that can serve to ensure we do not believe it is merely an hallucination borne of our own insecurity.

There are other indications of the approaching end of the school year.  Yesterday we selected one (out of over 50 nominated from a class of about 750) junior for an award as a student of character.  As it happens the winner was a student I nominated.  At some point I will explain why, after she has received her award (she does not yet know), but she is also a terrific student academically, which is a plus.   This week those juniors who were selected for National Honor Society received roses in their first period classes and on Friday they will be honored for their selection.  Admissions notices from prestigious colleges should, even as I write this, be in the mail for delivery to students next week.  We will see and hear the results.  We have a board outside our guidance office where students can put up stars for admissions, for scholarship awards.  Some students will unfortunately have long faces if they did not get into a preferred institution, others will be dazed that their "reach" schools admitted them, and some will agonize as they choose among varied options.  On April 7 I will participate in this process in yet another way, as those in the DC area admitted to Haverford (my lama mater) are invited with their parents to a reception (with several well-known alumni) at the Cosmos Club.  We hope this "yield" party will result in a significant number of those accepted deciding to come.  Last year there were three students from our high school admitted, but none came.  We will have one or two admitted this year.  I do not know of either will decide on my alma mater -- both have been my students, and I'd be delighted if either chose Haverford, but they will make that choice without undue pressure from me.  

The title warned you that this diary would lack profundity.  And yet I do not think it entirely lacking in value.  What I have described is the inexorable process of the school year moving on.   Soon students I have known for four years will no longer be part of our community.  Class night and preparation for exams reminds me that the students have milestones of their own to achieve, and that these can also indicate - to me as well as to them - how far they have come in the few months during which i get to help them grow up.  And even as I must work on completing the tasks of this academic year  -- including the four inch stack of papers from my 70+ AP kids that I must correct this weekend - we already being the process of planning for next year.   What courses will I teach?  What non-academic responsibilities will I have?  The latter is certainly in limbo (and limbo was another event in which the students competed yesterday), because our girls varsity soccer coach might be moving up to a job as an administrator, in which case he cannot coach.  I would then have to decide if I want to move up to a position as a head coach.  The positive is that I prefer coaching girls to boys because they are more coachable,  The negative is that the additional work and responsibility as a head coach is several multiples greater than the increase in pay I would receive moving up from coaching JV.

And I must begin to plan my summer.   To what workshops will I go to improve my skills?  When, if at all, will I be able to allow myself downtime?   What will be my tasks for maintaining and improving my house, my yard, things to which I cannot get during the school year?  What books will I read merely because I want to?

This year end of the school year is complicated because of Yearlykos, for which I have responsibility -- for the education panel.  I will spend several hours related to that this weekend, and you may in the near future see the results of today's efforts.   My writing has brought me pleasure -- that others occasionally find what I offer of some utility.   It has also brought additional responsibility  --  Yearlykos is one example.  Being asked to write more, or having people seek permission to reprint is another.  And when I write, the responses of others often force me to rethink or to think more deeply on key issues.  Having initiated a process by my words, I cannot abrogate the concomitant responsibility of continuing the dialog.  

At some point my career will wind down.  This is my 11th end of school, after a long career mainly in data processing.  It is also a milestone for me, because in less than 60 days I will turn 60.  Because of that significant event I have perhaps been more reflective, more self-aware (or is it self-indulgent and self-obsessed) than had been my practice in recent years.  Some of what I have written has undoubtedly demonstrated been shaped at least in part by this self-reflection.  Yet as an educator I always have to be reflective,  because my task is not to  pour knowledge into skulls, but to inspire adolescents to believe in themselves, their own possibilities.  I am dealing with persons who differ greatly among themselves and who when aggregated into classrooms form new and possibly totally unique possibilities of mutual exploration.  Were I not to reflect upon what I was doing, were I to merely follow a script or a pacing guide for instruction, not only would I be greatly frustrated by how I spent my time, I would shame the great privilege I have of participating in the lives of these young people as I do.  

It is now approaching mid-morning.  One indication of Springtime is the sound of birds and insects, which arouses our five felines to a high degree of attention, and because they cannot go outside to chase causes periodic frantic dashes from window to window.  In the process they cause mild disarray to the accumulated detritus of the week, the piles of mail and periodicals to which I cannot attend with regularity during the school week.  They remind me that there are other cycles in my life which do not involve my students, and that these cycles also include sentient beings worthy of my attention.

I hope I have not bored you to much.  But now, before I embark on that stack of papers, before I attend to my responsibilities for Yearlykos, and even before I pick up the items just dislodged by energetic cat endeavors, I am going to play with my cats.

Have a nice day.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A vision to consider -- on education and more 

crossposted at dailykos, myleftwing, and teacherken.blogspot.com

Yesterday was an in-service day for our department. One day a year we leave school and go do something together to broaden our knowledge, and to take some time to be together. Our visit yesterday was to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, which I assure you is worth visiting if you are in Baltimore. It is quite close to the Inner Harbor, and fascinating in itself. Their educational goals will be the structure of the vision to consider.

One of the primary benefactors of the museum was the late James Rouse, who among his many achievements developed the Inner Harbor, and Fanueil Hall, and Columbia Maryland. He will also be a part of this diary on a vision to consider.

I urge you to take the time to continue reading what I have to offer today.

If you don’t know the term “visionary art” you might think it is relate to folk art. Not really. While one can go to the link above to learn more, visionary art is that produced by self-taught individuals,usually without formal art training. Often it stems from an intense and “innate personal visions that reels foremost in the creative act itself” (this and the next few quotes are from a handout I received at the museum that I thought especially relevant to many here). The museum understands that such creative self-taught innovators are not limited to the visual arts and even such art must be understood within a broader context of self-tutored innovation.
Throughout history, self-taught, inspired inventors have acted to make a profound and lasting contribution not only in visual arts, but also in science, medicine, music, literature, cuisine, religious thoughts, entertainment, trade, and industry of all sorts.
. It is this understanding that undergirds the museum’s attempt to “convey a deeper comprehension of and appreciation for the roots of visionary art and thought.” It seeks to
promote the recognition of intuitive,self-reliant, creative contribution as both an important historic and essential living piece of treasured human legacy
and it is congressionally delegated as an official national museum for that purpose.

One of the buildings is names after the aforementioned James Rouse. When one takes the elevator to the second floor and alights, if one looks immediately to the left one sees a wall covered with words. The structure of the towards is the 7 educational goals espoused by the museum. Accompanying each of the goals is a quote from Rouse. No source for his words is given, nor could the museum provide me with such a source. At least a few of the quotes seem aimed specifically at a Baltimore audience, perhaps of school children, perhaps of adults. When combined with the goals as they are on the wall, I believe they offer us a vision well worth considering. It will challenge our ideas of the purpose of education and what we consider of value in life. We may not agree with all, but if we disagree even in part we will be forced to clarify our own thinking.

And as you read Rouse’s words, think how they can be applied more broadly, because I know that they can.

As regular readers of my words will surely know, I have many responses to these words. But I do not wish to in any way limit the responses ot this class (oops, thinking like a teacher) -- I mean, this audience to what they encounter. I hope that you will feel provoked to offer your reactions, perhaps to a sentence, perhaps to the entire message. I hope you will consider passing it on to others for their consideration.

Therefore I will offer the material without further commentary from the teacher. I must explain that while I have a printed copy of their educational goals, they museum was unable to provide me with a printed copy of Rouse’s words. When you read those, it is from my rapid transcription will crouching down before the wall. Any inaccuracies or infelicities of expression might therefore be merely my failings as a copyist and not an indication of sloppy thinking by Rouse.

The educational goals will be in bold. Rouse’s words will be in italic.

1. Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.
We must hold fast to the realization that our cities are for people and unless they work well for people they are not working well at all. As the people of the world learn what is possible, they will demand that their cities be geared to the human and the beautiful..

2. Engender respect for and delight in the gifts of others.
Surely the most civilized city would be that one in which the dignity of the individual human being would be so elevated that the bringing forth of his gifts and his talents for his own fulfillment in the service of man would be the ultimate objective.

3. Increase awareness of the wide variety of choices available in life for all -- particularly students
Approach the world out there confidently, optimistically, with brilliant expectations, it is a world of exciting opportunities beyond anything you can imagine. I envy your futures. Pay no heed to the no-sayers, the preachers-of-gloom, and the heavy-hearted who see the world dismally.

4. Encourage each individual to build upon his or her own special knowledge and inner strengths.
Thus, the most important single fact is that we have in our hands the opportunity to make our city - in our generation - the most livable, the most beautiful, and the most effective city in America.

5. Promote the use of innate intelligence, intuition, self-exploration, and creative self-reliance.
The best way to attack any problem is to ask what things would be like if they worked.

6. Confirm the great hunger for finding out just what each of us can do best, in our own voice, at any age.
The way to find new opportunities is to discover needs or yearnings of people that are not being satisfactorily met. The way to prosper is to do that well.

7. Empower the individual to choose to do that something really, really well.
For many years I have worked with the conviction that what ought to be, can be, with the will to make it so. May we rise up in this country an army of thinking that this job ought to be done, can be done, will be done.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A different March Madness -- in our schools 

The title is that of an op ed that in appeared in a North Jersey newspaper. I received a copy of the op ed on an educational list serv, and have been unable to find an online link. I have therefore put fairly large chunks in block quotes, attempting to still abide by fair use by using ellipses and by paraphrasing portions. I have placed in bold those portions about which I will comment briefly at the end.

I warn the reader that I will not attempt to discuss all the issues the author raises. But his points about the nature of the relationship between teacher and students are to my mind critical. I agree with another author, Parker Palmer, that teaching and learning involves relationships. If there were one thing of which I could persuade people it is that our increasing mistaken reliance on high stakes external tests is destroying our ability to inspire real love for learning in our children, precisely because of the loss of the kinds of relationships the piece discusses.

The (North Jersey) Record -- March 20, 2006
op. ed. by James F. Battaglia

Battaglia begins by noting that this month in many schools begins the cycle of the annual testing mandated by No Child Left Behind, and acknowledges in his role as a psychologist he values test scores as ONE tool in assessing children’s learning.

However, this law goes too far by making standardized testing the only assessment tool at specified grade levels . . . .
Because this law inserts itself in the relationship between teacher and student, it is squeezing the soul out of our educational system. Soon, students and their No. 2 pencils will be unwitting players in our country's other "March Madness," and students and teachers are destined to lose.

As a child, I went to school for two main reasons: First, and foremost, because my parents said so, and then, over time, because I valued learning as a means to become a better person.

An unspoken contract was present between my teachers and me: they did their best to teach me and I did my best to learn. For me, schooling became a quasi-spiritual journey toward what Abraham Maslow called self-actualization. Teachers were my guides.

Now that contract between teacher and learner is in jeopardy due to the oversimplifying tendencies of politicians in their doling out of resources and status
.. . .

Teachers were once given license to instill in children a love of learning in immeasurable ways. My teachers showed me how to immerse myself in the lives of people I never met in places I had never been during times I had never lived. . . .

A crucial mission of teachers, to quench children's thirst for learning by instilling in them a love of reading, writing and more, cannot survive this law. Neither the love of teaching nor the love of learning can flourish at the end of the barrel of a gun.

He describes how outside of education people do not rely on only one measure, which is why for jobs there are interviews, because recruiters are interested beyond test scores in things like problem-solving, organizational ability, and teamwork, which can be assessed by “alternative assessment” but not by the tests this law seems to demand.

If these politicians were to talk to psychologists they would learn that vast complexity is simplified when numbers are assigned to abstract concepts. The history of the concept of intelligence is replete with varying theories of intelligence, tasks to measure it, and statistical formulas to calculate it.

Test scores are at best imperfect, intelligence is more than one score, and yet politicians and educators continue to reify the annuls set of education scores.

Sting sang, "Poets, priests and politicians have words to thank for their commissions." But today's politicians are also indebted to flawed numbers that they consider to be, well, flawless.

If our politicians were to run the NCAA basketball tournament using this approach, the tournament would be thrown into crisis. The playing of messy, unpredictable games would be scrapped in favor of a simple foul-shooting contest or, worse, a written test on the rules of the game. The politicians would still get the numbers they like to crow about, but basketball would be stripped of its excitement, passion and individuality.

This is what is happening in classrooms across the country, and it is creating the other March Madness.

But this one is no game.

It is time to leave behind No Child Left Behind.

James F. Battaglia, a psychologist living in Fair Lawn, is
director of AIMRoom Services, an educational program for students with disabilities. For more information, see theaimroom.com

Let me add a few comments borne of my varied experiences. These include not only my 11 years as a teacher, but my own experience as a student in K-12 classrooms and the many times I have dipped my toe into educational waters in post-secondary institutions, in which I have earned one bachelors, two masters, dropped out of another bachelors, another two masters and two doctorates.

Often I have learned most in circumstances in which my test scores did not reflect what I had learned. That is, because I am a quick reader and very good at pattern recognition, and because I long ago figured out how to take mass-produced tests, I would do quite well on external tests but my scores would bear no relationship to what I actually knew or had learned in the class whose learning was being assessed. On the more difficult in-class assessments (I had many tough teachers), it would sometimes be a crapshoot if the items used to assess a block of learning happened to overlap what I had actually learned. Far too often tests either asked things I knew or understood prior to instruction, or overly emphasized domains in which I had less understanding and skill than those in which I had shown more growth. Now, in the case of mismatch between what I knew and what was being assessed,that provided me - and the instructor - information that could be used to improve my understanding. But it did not give a complete picture of what I knew or could do. Perhaps that is why many teachers balance how they evaluate their students -- part of the final grade is determined by things like classroom participation, papers, other kinds of assignments. That way one does not rely too heavily on any one means of assessment which could give a wrong perception because of measurement error, because the student is having a bad hair day, or for any other reason.

And then the test did not stand as an artificial barrier between teacher and student. It generated information that both could use to help understand what each needed to do to help the student learn more.

I have no trouble with the idea of challenging students. I can be a very demanding teacher. And I learned quite a lot from teachers who demanded of me. But in each case we were talking about relationships. Teachers asked and often prodded me to live up to what I could do, to go further, they encouraged me when I was struggling, they persuaded me that I could dream big dreams. Perhaps one reason why I have some effectiveness with my students is because I try to emulate this aspect of those teachers who made a difference in my life while still being true to who I am. I am enthusiastic about my subject, but I care more for my students than I do for my subject. If I have to individualize (one reason for relying upon assignments which allow individualization in a way tests do not) in order to make the subject meaningful for my students, I will.

I do not have time this morning to make this a really thoughtful piece. I have rushed to put this together to make it available. If someone can find an online link to the article, I wish they would make it available.

In the meantime, if you are a teacher, connect with your students. If you are a student, remember that most teachers care about far more than how you do on tests. And if you are a caring person, as I expect most of you are, give some thought to how you would like to be treated as you struggle to learn, then give some effort to help make our schools the kind of place in which you would like to be, or that would be positive and supportive for any child about whom you care, which I hope would be all of our children.


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Should we teach to the test? Should we test? 

crossposted at dailykos, myleftwing, teacherken.blogspot.com

Tests dominate American education. Even before NCLB insisted on evidence that all children in grades 3-8 be tested every year in Math and Reading (and starting shortly in Science) and that schools demonstrate that all disaggregated groups be making Annual Year Progress towards the unattainable goal of 100% proficiency by all groups in all grades in all subjects by 2014, we had a heavy reliance upon tests. As a result of the attack on American public schools in the inaccurate “A Nation at Risk” most states had already moved towards high stakes tests for graduation in in some cases for promotion. And our incessant desire for rankings and competition had led to Jay Mathews of the Washington Post creating his Challenge Index of the ratio of AP tests divided by graduating seniors in American High Schools.

Mathews has started something of a firestorm with a piece he recently wrote that appeared on the op-ed page of the Post in which he encouraged teaching to the test. Our current Secretary of Education has justified teaching to the test as improving of education. I had until today refrained from commenting on the controversy. I have decided that I need to offer my voice.

The immediate reason for my deciding to comment is a piece in response to Mathews by Colman McCarthy that appears on today’s Washington Post op; ed page. I will discuss it further down. I first want to explore Jay’s original piece. My use of his first name requires me to disclose that we are friends, that I have been quoted in his columns more than a dozen times and that we frequently have non-public dialogs on education. Jay knows that I disagree with his emphasis on tests, and thus yesterday he gave me a ‘heads up” on McCarthy’s piece. After reading it early this morning I thought I ought to comment on the issue from the perspective of a teacher who must confront not only Jay’s favored AP tests (I have 77 students in AP US Government) but also mandatory state tests as well (for 65 of those 77 - some have previously sat for the state test - and 74 more).

Jay’s original piece appeared February 20. Entitled Let’s Teach to The Test In it he argues that “teaching to the test” is
the most deceptive phrase in education today

After a discussion of what he means by the term, which he insists is not mere drill and kill, which he says strong teachers are able to resist, he attempts to reframe the issue as addressing any course which requires assessment of students by tests prepared by outsiders. He then offers this paragraph:

Yet if you asked the thousands of educators who have written the questions for the state tests that allegedly produce all these terrible classroom practices, they would tell you their objective is the same as the classroom teacher's: to help kids learn. And if you watched the best teachers at work, as I have many times, you would see them treating the state test as nothing more than another useful guide and motivator, with no significant change in the way they present their lessons.

There is so much in just this paragraph that is a problem. First, many tests items (questions) are NOT produced by classroom teachers. Even if classroom teachers may write the individual items, that does not mean the items are necessarily good measures of knowledge or skill in the domain being assessed, even if the distribution of the items fairly samples the domain. And while Jay has never actually seen me test, he has talked with students I have taught and their parents and knows that I am considered a pretty good teacher. AND YET - even I have to acknowledge that how I teach IS affected by the fact that my students will sit for such outside tests that bear significant consequences. I have to adjust my planning to give my students practice at the kinds of questions they will face. I have to teach them on multiple choice items to read all possible answers, eliminating those they know are wrong and picking from what is left whatever is least inaccurate. That’s because sometimes the way the question is phrased it has no correct answer, or perhaps it has more than one answer that technically could be considered correct.

I also have to devote some class time to practice sessions, so that students have some ability to learn how to pace themselves. For the AP Government exam, I have to teach my students how to do a kind of writing which is NOT good writing. Bear with me. They will have to do 4 “free response questions” (FRQs) in 100 minutes, 25 minutes each. And yet the way those questions are scored taking time for either a proper topic sentence or an effective conclusion is hurting the student, because it is rare that the way a question is scored gives credit for either item. I have to use class time, homework time, and my time for correcting their efforts, to teach them a kind of writing that has little purpose outside of this particular test.

Were I not to make this effort, which is clearly a significant change to how I would otherwise teach, my students would not be able to demonstrate how effectively they understand the content and the concepts.

Jays’ next paragraph is equally problematic:
hose who complain are not really talking about teaching to the state test. Unless teachers sneak into the counseling office and steal a copy, which can get them fired, they don't know what's on the test. They are teaching not to the test but to the state standards -- a long list of things students are supposed to learn in each subject area, as approved by the state school board.

Actually that is very much of an oversimplification on both points. First, for most tests there is a universe of released items and released forms (examples of tests -- and here it is important to note that on many tests, such as our high-stakes High School Assessments in Maryland, not all students take the same tests -- it is not merely that questions or sections may be in different order, as is that case on the SAT, but that students actually answer different questions, and in some cases different distribution of the types -- long essays, short constructed responses, multiple choice questions - within the test). Teachers - and students - turn to these released questions and forms as a means of deconstructing the test itself, of seeing the kinds of topics that are addressed, at how the test-makers attempt to mislead students (and remember, wrong answers are technically called “distractors”!). One does not have to know the specific items that will appear to be able to determine much about the forthcoming test.

The final sentence about state standards demonstrates a real part of the problem. First, even Jay acknowledges the idea of “long lists” of items. I might note that in other countries with which we are often (inaccurately and erroneously, in my opinion) are compared students are not required to “cover” as much. Such coverage often leads to a surface knowledge which is addressed by racing through ideas without much exploration in depth. In those countries fewer ideas are covered in greater depth so that students develop the ability to apply concepts and skill more broadly on their own.

Such long lists of standards that students must meet often mean that not all domains among the standards can be assessed, and/or that what assessment which does occur is limited to selecting one choice out of four or five. That a required content matter appears as a distractor (wrong answer) does not mean that you have truly addressed whether the student has learned that content.

Multiple choice items can be quickly and cheaply scored, so we tend to rely on them far too much. I have had students who know how to address such questions (by process of elimination) who do successfully but who could never provide the answers on their own. Have they really learned the content being assessed> Are their scores an accurate measurement of their underlying knowledge? I think not. Conversely, I have students who truly understand the domain being assessed who get frustrated because they can recognize the existence of more than one technically correct answer or the erroneous framing of the stem (question) such that there is no correct answer. Does that shock of recognition negatively impact their performance? I am unaware of any serious exploration of this issue in the research literature.

Finally, before leaving this paragraph, let me note that a large number of advocates of our testing approach are quite willing to argue that the tests SHOULD drive the instruction. Heck, even if (a) the standards were appropriate, and (b) the tests were an accurate measurement of the learning that has occurred, and (c) the tests were properly aligned with the standards both as to content and as to distribution, should not the tests be measuring the quality of the learning demonstrated by the students (not all of which is an artifice of the instruction received from the teachers) than attempting to drive the instruction itself?

if there is any doubt on this last point, all one need to do is consider how often those who actually produce the test (that is, the corporations which sell the tests) also sell curricula, test prep materials, and the like. One cannot help but wonder about the real motives of many involved in strong advocacy for such tests.

I cannot go through Jay’s entire piece in the same fashion. Let me acknowledge one thing -- he does provide an opportunity for those who disagree with him to respond. And times he has opened his on-line column, Class Struggles (which was the title of a book he wrote on education a number of years ago which featured the high school I had attended which is what led me to first contacting him) as a place where people can offer extended responses, or in which opposing points of view can be expressed in an interchange between advocates of both sides. This past week (Tuesday, March 14) Jay used his column to to present a number of responses to his print op-ed. If you are interested, you can read that column, Backlash to “Let’s Teach to the Test”.

As noted (far too many words ago) Colman McCarthy, who used to be a Post columnist, and who has been an advocate and exemplar of teaching Peace Studies in high schools (which has also been the subject of some controversy -- see here and here ), today has an op ed in response, entitled ’Teach to the Test?’ What Test?. He begins by taking Mathews to task for writing
"in 23 years of visiting classrooms I have yet to see any teacher preparing kids for exams in ways that were not careful, sensible and likely to produce more learning."
by noting in response

On Mathews's visit to my classroom four years ago -- at School Without Walls, where I have been volunteering since 1982 -- he must not have noticed that not only was I not preparing my 28 students for tests but that I regard tests as educational insults. At School Without Walls and two other high schools where I am a guest teacher -- Wilson High School in the District and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in lower Montgomery County -- I have never given a test. I respect my students too much to demean them with exercises in fake knowledge.

Now in fairness, McCarthy's response on this point is a bit unfair - his class is an elective for which he has almost total control as to content, methods of instruction, and methods of assessment, and thus would not fairly be included in what Jay was attempting to address.

I should also disclose that while I am not a “friend” of McCarthy, Colman presented a session on teaching peace studies to a group of those who either taught in Quaker Schools (most of the attendees) or were themselves Quakers who taught in public or other non-Quaker schools (one other person besides me). I am also in orientation very much in agreement with the point of his second paragraph, especially its final sentence:

Tests represent fear-based learning, the opposite of learning based on desire. Frightened and fretting with pre-test jitters, students stuff their minds with information they disgorge on exam sheets and sweat out the results. I know of no meaningful evidence that acing tests has anything to do with students' character development or whether their natural instincts for idealism or altruism are nurtured.

McCarthy used Mathews’ column as a basis of exploring with his students their own attitude towards cheating. What should not surprise most readers is that the vast majority of students acknowledged having cheated, and that most would, if they could be reasonably assured of not being detected, cheat again.

McCarthy has a different concern, one which is not often discussed in our various conversations on education:

Standardized tests measure braininess and memory skills. American society has plenty of people who were academic whizzes in high school but were so driven by the lure of a high grade-point average that their spiritual lives remained stunted. I worry about students who make too many A's. What parts of their inner lives are they sacrificing to conform to someone else's notion that doing well in tests means doing well in life? Is any time left over from mastering theoretical knowledge for gaining the kind of experiential knowledge found in community service or volunteering in programs such as Special Olympics or DC Reads?

Most of us who teach could not take the approach he offers in his penultimate paragraph:

To compensate for my no-testing policy, I assign tons of homework. The assignments? Tell someone you love him or her. Do a favor for someone who won't know you did it. Say a kind word to the workers at the school: the people who clean the toilets, cook the food, drive the buses and heat the buildings. And a warning: If you don't do the homework, you'll fail. You'll fail your better self, you'll fail to make the world better, you'll fail at being a peacemaker.

And let’s be frank - not enough of our schools provide an opportunity for students to explore how to be a peacemaker. We may have opportunities for peer mediation, but even those are not universally available. And perhaps many parents, and administrators, and elected officials would be comfortable with assignments such as those McCarthy describes, even though he is but speaking of common courtesy writ large, something which is nowadays rarely displayed by our political leaders who seek the largest political and personal advantage from almost every incident and situation, courtesy or the other person (or nation) be damned.

I know many young people - current and former students alike - who would offer strong agreement for McCarthy’s final paragraph:
or 25 years of testing the waters by not testing, I've been telling my students not to worry about answering questions. Be braver and bolder: Question the answers. Which answers? To start, the ones from anyone who champions classroom get-aheadism based on test scores. Throw off your chains, students. You have nothing to lose but your backpacks.

This is already a very long posting. But I owe those who have come so far already some insight into my own thinking on this subject. I teach in a public school, and most often the courses I teach are in some fashion required for my students. Thus I must accept that people will want some independent evaluation of the “effectiveness” of what my students encounter in my classroom and with my assigned work. I have taught electives -- in Social Issues and in Comparative Religion - in which I gave no tests, and thus was able to explore issues in far more depth. Students who have taken both my Government classes (required) and one or both of the electives have often told me that they learned more - about themselves, about society, about learning and thinking - in those electives than they did even in my often quite challenging and provocative government classes.

Above I noted that the existence of external tests inevitably influences what occurs in my classroom. I cannot avoid my responsibility for preparing my students to do well on those tests. That takes time away from other things I might want to explore. it limits my ability to respond to events in the world and in the lives of my students that might be far more meaningful in connecting them with the domain. To be fair, I have never had a principal tell me HOW to teach my students. I have at times been questioned, challenged to justify a specific approach, although even this is rare. I must acknowledge that one big reason for the flexibility I have is because my students do quite well on the external tests, and that the only discrepancy between the grades I award for the work I assign and the scores on the tests is the aforementioned example of those who do not do as well for me as they do for the external tests. In my case I benefit in some measure from the existence of the scores on external tests.

But I still do not like them. They are incomplete and gross measures of what my students can know or do. Unlike my tests, they do not provide meaningful feedback either to the students or to me -- the scores are not provided ina fashion timely enough to shape ongoing instruction, to demonstrate my need to reteach a sub-domain because far too many students misunderstood, or for them to realize a need to reexamine the subject, perhaps to obtain extra help (which I do offer, and which is also available in the form of tutoring by National Honor Society members as part of their service requirement).

I worry that we are cheating our young people of their right to true education by our increasing emphasis on tests. I think there may now be enough evidence of the counterproductivity of the approach we have been taking. “A Nation at Risk” came out in 1983. Since then we have ramped up our emphasis on standards and high stakes tests. And yet now we are constantly told that things are even worse. Im will not in examine in detail some of the worst examples of this, such as John Stossel’’s recent atrocity on 20-20, which like far too many such exemplars was apparently based on false or selective reading of a limited subset of information in order to reach a predetermined position.

There are things that need to be addressed in how we do education in this country. Often my posting in electronic fora such as those in which this piece appears has to be in response to issues such as this, rather than on things I think far more important. This issue is prominent enough that I felt I must respond, even though I doubt that I will able to persuade a sufficient number of people to change the structure of our debate on education. B ut perhaps as a result of reading this I will be able to inspire a few people to make a difference. Perhaps a parent will challenge the conventional wisdom on tests with a schoolboard member or a state legislator. Perhaps a teacher will decide to take the risk to focusing on more important aspects of learning and trust that the entire class does not have to be focused on performance on an external test.

I do not know what responses will be engendered. I look forward to any offered here in the form of comments, or in off-line responses to me, or in extended independent postings.

Now I must return to my primary task for the day, which inevitably includes preparing my students to do well on external tests.


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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Each morning, life is teaching, teaching is life. 

I get up each school morning at 5 AM. Sometimes, as now, I may choose to write something as a form of meditation. On other occasions I will go outside for a run, or glance at the morning news. Regardless of the action chosen, it is a preparation for teaching, because teaching is life. This will be a brief meditation on that theme.

If you are not interested in the personal reflections and observations of one slightly warped almost 60 year old who spends most of his daylight hours with people 14-17, you probably should skip the rest of this posting. If you persist and remain with me, I will at least attempt to connect with the idea not only of life in general, but of political and moral life, which to me should be the same.

When I run, it is a chance to clear my head. There are no words before my eyes, either put there by others or, as I am doing now, created by my own efforts. There are still words in my head - reflections on yesterday, concerns about how to approach the day’s lessons, even if I have done them in previous years, because the students are different, the time is different. The period of processing, albeit in a less than purely intellectual fashion, enables me to make contact with the events and persons in a more complete way. I will explain this anon.

When I write as a form of meditation, the process of recording the somewhat inchoate ideas in my skull gives them shape and potentially enables another to find meaning in what I express, if that form is not too alien to her experience, or my vocabulary and phraseology are accessible to him.

And when I glance at the morning news each event or analysis I encounter becomes fodder for my teaching brain. What might it mean for the lesson I have already planned, or is it something of such import that perhaps I should replace part or all of what I had intended and explore this issue with my students.

I also make myself a hot drink, often make myself something to eat. Surely one of the first things I do is to feed the 5 cats and clean out the litter box. The latter serves as a reminder of the importance of cleaning up the detritus of the previous day - even the litter box reminds me of my role as a teacher.

Much of what I know about my students comes not from what they say, or write, but simply from being in their presence, both within and without the classroom walls. To fully access that knowledge I have to empty my thinking mind and let my other perceptions have room to express themselves. If I am to be effective for and with my students (and in this context I define effectiveness as being present and open, and helping them to develop in whatever fashion will make them more whole and complete in their own eyes) I must be able to truly hear and see them not merely as an object of the lesson but as subject in themselves. For me this should be a paradigm for all human interactions. No person should be addressed as an object to be moved in a particular direction to achieve a political goal, nor evaluated merely on the basis of the advantage or disadvantage s/he may pose for me as I seek some personal or political end (and all too often the two ends are hopelessly intertwined). If I do not have some form of decompression so that I can recognize these important characteristics about others, then I also do not fully provide them with the space to grow. And as a teacher, if I cannot model - in all of my behavior - this creation of space for reflection and absorption, then I will contribute negatively towards my students moving too rapidly, without concern for truly perceiving the others they encounter, or understanding the new ideas and concepts that will inevitably confront them.

I may have some wonderful thoughts that could be of value to others. They also might be so disorganized that they are of value to no one, including myself, at least in their current structure. Part of the process of writing is forcing oneself to think. As I speak, I can perceive the reactions of my audience and if necessary adjust on the fly. When I write, I must process the idea of that audience before I release the written words, because - until I am given a response back, as is often the case in electronic interchanges as well as correspondence -- I cannot be sure how my words will be perceived by those who encounter them.

I acknowledge that often my personal posts and my analytical writing are not as clear as I would like. Sometimes the responses I receive demonstrate to me the incompleteness of my own thinking. Sometimes I share the gist of such interchanges with my students, again to model that we can best hone our ideas not in isolation from others but in exchange - listening carefully to the expressions they offer. This too has meaning beyond the classroom. In the classroom it requires me to recognize that more often than I might want what connects a student to an idea is not the words that come from my mouth but those expressed by another student. For true learning to occur I have to be willing to let go of a fair amount of the control. I can somewhat guide, but I cannot dictate.

I believe that the same principle applies in all human interactions. Too many of our political leaders approach us like those dictatorial teachers many of us have experienced. These teachers had all knowledge, would never admit to not knowing, and didn’t want to hear anything different than what they thought on a subject. Methinks that those who aspire to lead us should certainly be willing to express strong beliefs on issues - in fact I hope they would do so more frequently. But they should also be willing to listen. And the words they hear should be more than the percentages in the latest series of opinion polls. A moral political leader can challenge us, but then must work with us as we struggle with the new information.

I teach government. Thus it is probably little surprise that events and analyses in the morning news are relevant to what occurs in my class. But this was true even when I taught pre-Civil War US History. History is about person, about governments, about societies, about interactions. Being ale to see similarities but also to discern differences is an important intellectual - and moral and political - skill. For me the content of my curriculum is but one part of the material with which my students and I must interact. Yes, there is content knowledge and skill for which I must help them develop and learn (forgive this infelicitous construction). The events of the day - large scale or personal - are equally important. And to me no knowledge is free of moral content and responsibility. I do not believe that one can close one’s eyes to the possible impacts of improved technology for example. Here I think the idea of relationship in a broad sense, as encountered in general systems theory and chaos theory becomes very relevant.

I had a fairly happy young childhood, but I had a miserable adolescence. This is neither the time nor the place to recapitulate all the reason why. That experience is one reason why i want to teach adolescence. There were a very few adults outside my family who helped to keep me sane. I am also prone to depression. I am most depressed when I am unconnected with others. Although my words might sometimes indicate otherwise, solipsism is something anathema to me. Even as I often been drawn to the monastic experience, it was never as an hermit, but in a coenobium (a place with a common life). I approach my teaching as I approach my life -- while I have a strong belief in the absolute uniqueness of each person, the uniqueness is meaningless except in connection with others. It provides the diversity of gifts and perceptions that enriches all of us.

If you are still here, then perhaps my musings have provoked you and you will now offer a response. Perhaps you will point out flaws in my reasoning. Perhaps you will offer a meditation of your own. For me this meditation must now at least temporarily cease. I still have to dress and drive 25 miles to school. While I have a lesson plan, I won’t truly know what I will do until my students arrive in my room. Was there a critical event that intervened in the lives of one or more that is now the most important thing to address? Was there something I thought provided a sufficient basis for the preparatory work that in fact was misperceived, or perhaps perceived in a way I had not intended or expected but which itself is valid? Am I prepared to listen, to adjust to events and situations for which I had not planned? Here I note that political leaders cannot anticipate every possibility, which is why they should be humble enough to admit when they didn’t know, and to be willing to adjust to the changed or unexpected situation. We contribute to their rigidity when we criticize them for making the necessary adjustments. It is valid when we ask questions before events and they refuse to consider other possibilities than those they wish to pursue. That kind of rigidity is immoral in my opinion. It bespeaks an arrogance of infallibility that I believe is inappropriate for any human. And it is equally immoral to place all blame for the difficulties of our society on our leaders or on those who take different positions on issues that matter to us, or who are simply different from us. It would be immoral for me as a teacher to blame my students - or their parents - if they do not succeed in the lessons we do together. It would be equally immoral for them to place all blame on me if they do not work with me to help shape the lessons in ways that will be meaningful for them.

Life is teaching. Teaching is Life.

Have a good day.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Cherishing Life and Persons 

As a result of the death of Tom Fox, and the additional news that he may have been tortured, I have in the past day plus done some reflection. I know that as I head to Quaker Meeting for Worship this morning, that process of reflection will continue. Perhaps the content - and the processes - of my reflection will be of little interest to most persons who will encounter them here, but if they can be of benefit to anyone, then the time I take to record and post them is justifiable.

If you are not interested in the subject, feel free to ignore the rest of what I have written here. But if an encounter with the experiences of others might be of benefit, I invite you to continue reading.

Let me begin by explaining something about Quaker Worship. It is rooted in silence and in stillness. We attempt to quiet ourselves mentally, spiritually and physically, so that we allow space and time for the “still, small voice” that can speak to us. We attempt to discern that what arises is not of our own needs and yearnings, but has a purpose in being spoken. The “message” as we call it may be intended for someone we do not personally know. When we hear a message from the silence offered by another, it may not speak to us, but we accept that it may speak powerfully to a third party. We attempt to listen with openness, because perhaps it may touch some place in us that we did not know we had. Part of the wonder and mystery of Meeting for worship is how the messages often build on one another is magnificent ways, so that when a second or a third person gives a message it “speaks to my condition” as I have moved along some unknown spiritual path as a result of previous message(s).

This is preface. So is this. I have just gone on the board of a non-profit Quaker organization in Washington, Dc. William Penn House is a Quaker Seminar and Hospitality Center on East Capitol Street, only a few blocks from the seat of Congress. I am the designee of my Monthly Meeting. I attend my first board session this past week, with representatives from Meetings around the DC metro area. Our clerk is a middle school teacher at Sidwell Friends. And in our business meeting we operate in a fashion not dissimilar from Meeting for Worship -- there is always space and silence between statements, we attempt to listen, we seek discernment and clarity. Perhaps the one difference between ordinary Meeting for Worship and a Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business is that in the latter we attempt to reach a common understanding before moving forward, so that we ensure that our actions are not merely the result of the most forceful and persuasive personality, but represent something different.

Last night there was a gathering at our Meeting House, so that those in need of coming together after the loss of Tom would have a place and support. Today we have postponed having our monthly Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business because we expect that we will have many visitors who may think they are coming to support us but some of whom may need affirmation and support FROM us. I will be at the latter. I did not attend last night, because instead I went to a state championship boys high school basketball game where our boys lost a heartbreaker by one point. I do not need to justify that choice. Tom loved young people and believed in affirming life. That is why he opposed the death penalty, that is why he was willing to die for peace. And when I quietly inquired of some of those in Meeting whose judgment and perception I trust, they all told me to go to the game, unless I needed the support of being in the gathering last night (I did not, perhaps because I did not know Tom as well as others, and because since his kidnapping I had been prepared for this eventuality even as I desperately hoped for a different outcome). I also made the choice as a means of affirming life and persons.

As a teacher I have found that I have my greatest positive impact on students not so much because of the content that I may know or the skill with which I instruct, but because I am perceived as caring about my students as persons. I believe in being subjective in this sense - I think each student -- each person - is subject in themselves, and not to be treated as an object for my particular philosophy or set of goals. I realize my meaning might not be clear to readers, for which I apologize. My aspirations for each of my students is that s/he have the greatest individual opportunity to be her/himself, whatever that self may be. I want each to have the widest opportunity to explore, to find meaning, to determine how to live a life that matters in his/her own terms. I will in class challenge them - intellectually to be sure, but on matters of principle as well. I do the latter not because I wish to change their moral outlook, but so that they will at least occasionally consider the consequences of choices, of actions, of words. I expect that they will challenge me back. That is because in my classroom - and in our encounters in the hall -- education is, as the Quaker writer Parker Palmer notes, a series of relationships. And when I encounter another human being, that relationship for me should recognize the absolute uniqueness of that individual.

Yesterday I attended two state finals. Our girls won their second straight title, and you know about the loss our boys suffered. Both starting point guards were my students. For the young lady, a superb student, this will probably be the end of her competitive athletic career. The young man has several division one offers, including a service academy. He will continue to play. He has often been underrated as a player, and has had to prove himself on the court. He is quiet in the classroom, does not speak much, but has an acute intelligence that when given room offers the listener some penetrating insights and analysis. It has been a delight to watch both develop as persons, and it is important to recognize that for both playing sports has been a part of how they have developed their individuality, developed their confidence. I celebrate that, and affirm it by attending when I can.

I similarly celebrate those students with whom I worked in musical theater. I have come to know some wonderful adolescents whom I had never taught, but who now amaze and inspire me. It is not merely how gifted as musicians and actors they may be, but the quality of spirit, their delight in working with one another. One young lady in particular caught my attention because she missed a cue. Let me explain. We were doing “Seussical” and had planned an abbreviated performance for an auditorium full of elementary school kids. We had one rehearsal in which to practice this shortened version, and in the practice we had omitted a duet in which she participated. In the notes after the performance we told the kids we were putting the duet back in for dramatic continuity. She did not hear those notes because we have a severely disabled young lady in a wheel chair whom we had included in the cast, and our lead was helping her change (the disabled girl has an aide for classes, but that aide is not required to stay for activities and had left). Not knowing that we were going to do the duet, the next day at the performance she was again helping the young lady when she heard the music for her duet. She continued to help her change, and only then came out partway through. Fortunately her partner was skillful in covering her absence, and the little children probably never knew anything was wrong. I was inspired by how she acted.

And I tell this story because it connects, at least in my mind, with the life and work of Tom Fox, who loved young people. He cherished them, as he did all of life. And because he cherished them he was willing to die on their behalf.

“A condition of complete simplicity,
(costing not less than everything)”

The words are from Thomas Stearns Eliot, form “Little Gidding” the last poem in his set The Four Quartets. Quakers are known for their testimonies, their affirmations of basic principles, of which perhaps the best known is the Peace Testimony. Living a life of simplicity is another of our callings, but this is often misunderstood. I am certainly not a Quaker theologian (we do have our share of great thinkers, even if you might not consider them formal theologians, and I would suggest that those interested read the words of John Woolman, George Fox, Rufus Jones and Thomas Kelly among others). My understanding of this does not require me to use “thee” and “thou” but to live the intent of the plain speech -- that we do not distinguish in our speech between those we hold close
enough to use the (now obsolete in English) familiar second person rather than the more formal “you.” Here I note that those who continue to use Thee and Thou in addressing God a la the King James Bible miss the point -- those words then become no more than God Talk, rather than indicating that God is as close as our family or our dearest friend, and hence should be addressed in the familiar form -- think of the distinction in other European languages, where the 2nd person familiar is not obsolete.

Words are one form of simplicity. Dress is often another, although we do not have to be so plain as to be able to appear on oatmeal boxes!! I find it far less important to wear the latest ‘designer” or stylish fashions. I see little purpose in that. This is not a major issue. To me a better example of dress with respect to simplicity connects with celebrating life and persons -- under what conditions were my clothes made? Are those who are making them paid decently, having decent working conditions? If not, am I not ignoring their value as individual human beings for the sake of my own comfort o aggrandizement?

This diary is already too long. And if anyone has had the patience to read this much, I commend you. Let me see if the message can be expressed more directly.

I am posting in situations where most who read will have political concerns. And politics inevitably will involve compromise, because we need to come together on a common basis in order to have sufficient numbers to affect government and society. If the way we come together is to demean those who do not join or agree with us, if our only goal is victory regardless of the cost, then I must withhold my approval. The same way I cannot accept that killing Iraqis even as collateral damage is justified because it “saves” American lives here -- the rationale that is better to fight “them” over there rather than at home -- I cannot accept the idea that my ideas or points of view or those with whom I agree are so superior that I can ignore, denigrate, demean them.

Please let me be clear. I want to celebrate life. I want to find something positive with which I can connect. I know as a teacher I am far more effective when I affirm that which is good. It is far easier to bring a classroom under control by speaking quietly, by acknowledging the right behavior than by focusing on that which is wrong. While I do not think that we can sit by quietly at truly wrong actions, I also think we are far more effective when - even as we criticize a particular action - we approach those whose behavior we perhaps find offensive as people capable of recognizing the harm they do and changing their behavior. In Quaker terms this is answering that of God in the other person, even if what they express at that moment is far from “Godly.” It is why we seek commonality -- if the other cares about his children, help him to see how those he views as others may care as deeply for their own children.

Celebrating and cherishing life and persons -- no matter how different from me they may be. Seeking to find something that helps us to connect. Recognizing the absolute uniqueness in every human at the same time as we hold on to our equally absolute interconnectedness. That is why the death of another diminishes me, as John Donne tells us. And that is why I hope for true joy in the lives of all.

Tom Fox in some ways was a remarkable man. In others he was quite ordinary. He had children whom he loved dearly. He had his share of conflicts with others, at work and at Meeting. He was not, as one of his dear friends remarked yesterday, necessarily the most inspiring of speakers. How he lived at the end of his 54 years, during his service as a CPT member, and how he died, can serve as an example not of the extraordinary, but rather as an illustration of the difference an ordinary person can make if she is willing to be present for others, to do the right thing without measuring the cost. Tom would not have us mourn him, even as he would acknowledge our need to mourn, to comfort one another. He would be satisfied - even pleased with a response the cherishes lives and person. He would feel humbled that our response is to contact all of our Congressional representatives and beseech to make the government account for the names and locations of all we hold as a result of the recent conflicts, so that their loved ones can have some certainty. Family should know why someone is being held. Part of Tom’ s work in Iraq was precisely this, helping Iraqis find out about their loved ones. No matter how horribly my father or brother or sister may have acted, am I not entitled to know where they are, and why they are being held? if we cannot grant this simple act of human decency, how can we claim that others “hate our freedoms” when seem to think we do not have to give freedom to others? I do not understand, and Tom did not accept that rationale.

Today I will go to Meeting for Worship. I will “hold in the light” those who felt compelled to take Tom’s life. I do not accept that their action can be justified. But I also believe that no human being has the power by one act -- or even a series of actions - to place themselves totally outside of “redemption”, of being part of the greater human community. The actions may be monstrous, but I also know that many of the actions done ostensibly in my name by my government are also monstrous, and that people may in hurt, anger, or even cold calculation decide that they will not accept being at only one end of such a set of transactions. l I will also “hold in the light” the leaders of this nation who do such misguided and even evil actions. I will do similarly for those with the courage to stand up for what is right. All of this is one way of cherishing life and persons.

And I will try to acknowledge all persons I encounter, not as a means of meeting some need I may have, but as unique and wonderful in themselves. I will try to smile not only with my mouth, but with my eyes, with my “heart.”

Tom pondered about the need of those willing to die for peace. Certainly we need that. I think we need to start with someone more basic, people willing to live for peace. We start by committing ourselves to peace in our every action, our thoughts, and certainly our words. We seek to affirm peace on the part of others. At some point we may encounter what seems to be an impossible choice. We do what we believe to be right, in humility that we may be wrong, and do not stray from the right because of some level of personal cost. In some ways there are things more horrifying than death -- disfigurement, shame, degradation may, depending upon one’s code of values, be far worse than dying in the name of a good cause. I do not seek martyrdom, nor did Tom. I do seek to be a better person, and to be an instrument that helps others to do similarly.

Giovanni di Bernadone died in 1226, having lived only to his mid-40’s. There are words attributed to him, which do not appear in his known writings, that are an appropriate way for me to end this. Whether or not you accept the Christian theology that underlies this expression, I hope you will find meaning and comfort in what we commonly know as the Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
O Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace!
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, harmony.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sorrow, joy.

Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not 
so much seek to be consoled as to console; 
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive; 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; 
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

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