Parents’ Rights vs. Reality

I am always bemused by the phrase “parents’ rights,” when utilized by right-wing culture warriors in our current education climate. Because—seriously—parents have always had the right to control pretty much anything around what their child was learning or doing in a public school. As long as it was in general alignment with the school’s mission, of course, and didn’t impact the education of other students.

I have been a public school teacher in five separate decades, beginning with the 1970s—and have seen parent demands and outrage issues come and go, from Sex Education (a perennial sore spot in the curriculum) to The Math Program (aka, Why don’t I understand my kids’ homework?) to Pay to Play Athletics. My friends who taught literature were always willing to substitute one book for another, if parents preferred not to have Jason read Huckleberry Finn or The Bluest Eye.

I could name dozens more instances of parents being upset about something “the school” did—or a teacher said—or how a particular policy was enforced.  In fact, one of the reasons to put your children in public schools is the knowledge that you can complain, even organize a group of complainers, and there is a duly elected school board you can address, if school administrators don’t give you what you want.

What if what the parent wants is not in the best interests of their child, let alone all the other students in her class?

Your mind may jump here to the use of pronouns—or acceptance of realities (historical and current) that some parents find threatening–but over time, teachers run into many legitimate reasons not to trust parental requests or judgment (pay attention to that word, judgment…).

For example, I once had an Albanian student who had only been in the country for a few months. The class was a pull-out, called Homework Hall, where kids who had lots of missing assignments were sent with the hope that taking away their gym or computer privileges would cause them to buckle down and make up all the work. I was supposed to stand over them, keeping their noses to the academic grindstone.

Homework Hall was based on a flawed theory to begin with—but this girl was struggling with speaking/reading/writing English, and not completing most of her written work because it was written in a language she barely understood. I tried negotiating with her teachers to significantly reduce her assignments—answering the three most important questions instead of ten, or giving her a buddy who could read things to her, discuss the content to help her form answers with the vocabulary she’d mastered—but not all of her teachers were willing to do that.

In the meantime, her father kept coming to school. After getting a quarterly grade report, showing that she had not turned in some of her work, he wanted daily reports. He didn’t speak English, either—but his teenaged translator said if the girl was “lazy” then she would be punished. Swell.

This girl was the polar opposite of lazy. She worked hard. She was persistent. She just needed school-based adults in her corner. Her father had the right to ask for information about her progress, undoubtedly. And probably it was his prerogative to continue slapping her and verbally abusing her in a language she did understand, which seemed to be his cultural norm for how to deal with bad grades.

It was one of those judgment calls. Stand up for the kid–or decide it’s none of your business and confirm that she actually had failed to turn in assignments, because they were just too difficult?

In fact, every one of the kids in that class was a judgment call—the brilliant boy who simply refused to copy definitions from a glossary or do other pointless work, the child whose parents had just split up and couldn’t concentrate on equilateral triangles, the girl who was hinting at suicide in her English class free writes (which she never turned in, leading her to Homework Hall). Judgment calls, all of them.

What if you wanted to encourage parent-school dialogue—would passing laws requiring schools to post copies of existing legislation guaranteeing parental rights really be the solution?

Or what if you reported a child for seriously threatening behaviors—repeatedly—and nobody came to help

And sometimes—angry parents are absolutely right to speak their minds about what’s happening in the school their child attends.

Parents do have rights—and they should. Public schools are obligated to acknowledge and address parents’ input. The best thing we can do to ensure parental rights are honored is to invite them to speak their minds and express their beliefs and wishes, calmly, with the relevant adults in the room.

What we are seeing now—nominally “parents’ rights”—is not about parents expressing their beliefs about serious education policy or even personal issues involving their child. They are politicized grievances, often based on nothing more than rumor. And they’re often quietly funded by groups that have no personal interests/issues with the school in question—only in damaging public schools.  

The Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, recently met with a group of parents, some from the district where I taught for 30+ years, to discuss education issues. Here’s what a man (whose son I taught, back in the 90s) had to say:

“The biggest issue I see is just the lack of respect…the Republicans feel that anybody can be a teacher these days, which is the craziest damn thing that you can think of. We recently elected a lot of new school board members who are anti-school. I don’t know any other way to put it. The slates that ran out here are just not going to be supportive of public education. So I think that’s the biggest problem that we see. There are school board members who actually believe, and it just astounds me, that there are litter boxes in the bathrooms. That’s what we’re dealing with.”

Whitmer agreed and made a point to debunk a right-wing conspiracy theory circulated by podcaster Joe Rogan and Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock that kids are identifying as “furries” and are using litter boxes in classrooms. This has been used to push anti-trans policies in schools.

Thank you, Governor—and all of the other education officials who are carrying on as if culture warriors had legitimate things to talk about, letting the system work as it is supposed to. But in all these school board meetings—especially those that become hostile encounters, it’s good to keep in mind that not everyone is set on building good community schools.

The Network for Public Education has a new (free) publication– Merchants of Deception: Parent Props and their Funders. Find out who’s really got a legitimate beef and who’s out to take down America’s best idea, a fully public education for every child, no matter what they bring to the table.

Field Trips Gone Wild

Truth meme, about teaching middle school: Sometimes, Stuff Happens. Or, more accurately, stuff happens all the time and pretty much everyone rolls with it. Because middle school.

I almost hate posting this blog. I know the district and the union would prefer that this incident be quickly forgotten, as it should have been. And as it would have been, had a newbie board member not turned it into an opportunistic fanning the flames of Our Schools are Corrupting Innocent Youth.

Short synopsis: Middle school band and orchestra students, accompanied by their teachers, take a field trip to see the Detroit Symphony. They stop for a pizza lunch on the way home. Because there are so many of them, the owner of the pizza joint offers extra space upstairs to eat. This space—empty when the students are eating there—is set up as a nightclub on weekends. Kids take photos of themselves swinging on poles—and Board member foments outrage by talking about how teachers are taking their kids to strip clubs in a sketchy area, inviting parents to complain.

Yeah. Because that’s what music teachers do—take their students to naughty places. Grooming them, via Beethoven and bassoons.  

What bothers me most is that nobody—not in any of the articles or social media outbursts—comments on the teachers’ professional generosity and ambitious goal for their students– to see and hear a world-class orchestra, and include lunch in the deal.

As any teacher who’s ever initiated a field trip—even a walk to the local fire station—knows, these things take a lot of time and planning. There are the parent permission slips (which these students had), the content students must absorb before going (how to behave, when to clap, which instruments form an orchestra, information about the music they’re going to hear and the musicians playing it). There is the problem of recruiting enough parent chaperones. Don’t forget the financial arrangements—whether the cost was picked up by the school, the boosters organization or the students themselves—which represent hours of management, collecting money and fund-raising.

Why isn’t anybody saying Wow! Plaudits to those music teachers for their hard work in putting together a worthy field trip for music students?

Because I’m fairly certain that this will be the last time those particular teachers take their kids to see the Detroit Symphony. Or any other special, academically valuable foray outside the school walls.

I say this as a 30-year veteran of taking music students places, to see/hear/experience music beyond our own band room. I took 8th graders out of state and occasionally out of the country every year, to see and hear things that weren’t available to them in our semi-rural community. There were always two concerts on these multi-day trips—one to listen to, the other that we played—and a focus on music and culture. There were also formal, sit-down dinners, buffet breakfasts, museums and science centers, musicals and movies on the bus and rules! So many rules!—all of which took preparation and parent buy-in.

And I have stories.

Lots of stories, most of which are like this pizza lunch—amusing, spur of the moment, Stuff that Happened, certainly not pre-planned. I’ve had students get lost in the Toronto Science Center (with a parent, no less). I’ve had tornadoes come through the city where we were staying, requiring us to kneel in the hallway of the hotel, hands laced over our necks. I once took a student who was eight months pregnant on a four-day field trip in another state (she was a dedicated musician, who now sings professionally).

Then there was the time that more than half of the 130 students came down with a stomach bug, while on the trip. Not fun at all.

The story I’d like to share, however, is about taking my students to a night club in Chicago, on Rush Street, near Division. It had been a great trip—the Chicago Symphony, seeing West Side Story at Drury Lane, eating at Ed Debevic’s—and on the last day, we scheduled a pizza lunch at this particular club, so we could hear the house band play some blues before heading home.

As we entered the place, it smelled strongly of smoke. In the daylight, it was not a glamorous place—there was a little stage, sans pole– but it was clean, and the staff was bringing out pizzas and pitchers of soda and water. The four-piece band started playing and the students started pulling their chairs up to listen.

The tour guide—a retired band director—unpacked his trombone and played a few choruses, and the kids applauded wildly. The band made comments between tunes, explaining how they played from memory and lead sheet, and what made certain songs ‘the blues.’ They took questions from the students.

Then they asked if any of the students wanted to sit in. One of my percussionists (let’s call him Scott Ego) volunteered, and had the experience of playing drums with four grizzled, legit jazz musicians on Rush Street in Chicago, at age 13.

After the trip was over, we always surveyed students about what they learned. Hands-down, the pizza lunch with jazz was their favorite thing; the comments were filled with respect and information. 

What are the kids on the Detroit Symphony field trip learning?

Maybe that adults are using them and their teachers to politicize a harmless incident.

Keep Your Hands Off My Curriculum

There is a certain irony, I realize, in a music teacher writing a piece called ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Curriculum.’ Music education is generally one of those areas that Moms for Faux Liberty types ignore (unless—and this comes from personal experience—it’s critiquing the tunes chosen by the marching band whose entire existence, to some people, hinges on supporting football players).

Who cares what they’re learning? It’s just music! There’s a lot wrong with that assumption, beginning with the universality of music—as human beings, we’re swimming in it—but first, I want to talk about all everyday curriculum, across the K-12 spectrum–and who controls it.

My pitch here is about the individual teacher voice in selecting materials and designing lessons for students, and it’s based on two fundamental teacher competencies: *
1. Knowing your students well, and being committed to their learning.

2. Having deep and always-growing knowledge and pedagogical expertise in the subjects and developmental levels you teach.

The second of these is something that can and should be continuously improved, across a teaching career. It’s the point (if not the actual outcome) of what we call professional development.

The first, however, depends on the individual teacher’s character and temperament, their belief that all students have a right to learn.

Now—I’m not opposed to standards or other common agreements, whatever each state or district calls them, the big buckets of what students should learn and when. Broad standards can organize and sequence curriculum; outlining disciplinary essentials and giving all educators a framework for what students should know and be able to do, at the end of their schooling, is undeniably important.

What I’m saying is that site-specific agreements– what all 9th graders in the district should read, for example, or how to teach the life cycle of a butterfly–ought to be made by those on the front lines. The ones who know the kids, and are committed to their learning.

This idea ought to be glaringly self-evident—to educators, to parents, even to Joe Lunchbucket who watches Fox News. Kids who live in Flint, Michigan may need to know and be able to do different things than kids who live in Dallas—or Anchorage. Who is best positioned to choose engaging materials, develop concepts, deliver instruction, lead discussions and check for learning?

Certainly not Chris Rufo, who seems to be everywhere these days, merrily inserting his personal beliefs into college syllabi and waging gleeful war on beleaguered K-12 public schoolteachers trying dutifully to teach things, it must be noted, prescribed by others.

It was the linked article on Rufo—and this piece–that inspired this blog. The story is about an Ohio administrator who interrupts a teacher reading Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches during a recording session intended for an NPR podcast.  A third grader makes a very astute comment; the teacher (Mandy Robek) continues reading, but the admin (Amanda Beeman) shuts that whole thing down:    

“It’s almost like what happened back then, how people were treated … Like, disrespected … Like, white people disrespected Black people…,” a third grade student is heard saying on the podcast.

Robek keeps on reading, but it’s shortly after this student’s comment is made on the podcast that Beeman interrupts the reading.  

“I just don’t think that this is going to be the discussion that we wanted around economics,” Beeman said on the podcast. “So I’m sorry. We’re going to cut this one off.”

(NPR reporter) Beras tried to tell Beeman that “The Sneetches” is about preferences, open markets and economic loss, but Beeman replied, “I just don’t think it might be appropriate for the third-grade class and for them to have a discussion around it.”

I actually have some empathy for the administrator. She’s totally wrong—kudos to the teacher and the reporter for choosing the book and understanding the relevance of the child’s comment—but I’m sure Beeman envisioned her job security disappearing in a wave of rabid, sign-waving Moms for Control Over Everything at the next school board meeting, and panicked.

But that’s the point here: Educators need to be prepared to defend their curricular choices, with passion, conviction, and carefully considered rationales. Rolling over for the likes of Chris Rufo, the Hillsdale crowd, and dark-money funded and fully politicized organizations who wish to take down public education is not professional behavior.

Once they control what gets said and read in the classroom, the next target will be public libraries. All publicly funded services, the things that build healthy civilization and make diverse communities strong, will be on the chopping block. Ironically, this is about what the Sneetches were trying to teach the kids in Ohio: preferences, open markets and economic loss. What students learn, even in 3rd grade, matters, it seems.

This is a huge issue, wrestling over curriculum and parents’ desires, and it’s been part of public education since the very beginning. No matter how many standards are imposed, or school board meetings disrupted, however, the most critical aspect of instruction remains the individual teacher’s understanding of what is useful and important for the students in their care, and their personal knowledge and skill in delivering those things. 

Here’s a story:

In 2008, I was e-mentoring some first-year teachers in an alternative-entry program (in other words, not traditionally trained). They were white teachers, assigned to an all-Black district in eastern North Carolina, country that was once endless tobacco fields. Most of them came from elite universities, and all were laboring under the misconception that they were ‘giving back’ to society. A lot of their conversations were about raising the bar, making a difference, blah blah blah.

It was also the Fall of 2008, when Obama was closing in on the presidency. Students in the school were wild with excitement. One of my mentees, teaching Civics and Government, kept sending me long emails pouring out his concern over the ‘unprofessional’ teachers–the ones who had been there for years. They allowed students to disregard the official curriculum! They spent classroom time talking about this miracle that was about to happen, even letting students campaign. Unethical!

He, of course, maintained that he was sticking to standards and remaining neutral about the race. After all, the students would be taking statewide exams next spring, and he wanted them to score well.  He went so far as talking to the principal about his concerns.

I tried to suggest that he was teaching during events that could make history—and incorporating real life into lessons made them more meaningful. I asked if he had conversations with his veteran colleagues, about why they thought abandoning the prescribed curriculum was sometimes okay. Our dialogue got more and more strained, until he basically stopped communicating with me.

This young man had always considered himself an outstanding scholar in the social sciences. His lesson designs (debates, short-writes, small-group discussions, film clips) weren’t bad at all, especially for a newbie. He had some ideas about how to be a good teacher, and passion for the subject matter. What he was missing was knowledge of students and commitment to their learning. When the principal had a pep assembly to celebrate Obama’s victory, he was disgusted. For a public school, this is totally wrong! he wrote.

I have thought of him often—I’m fairly sure he’s not teaching any more. Which is too bad. Because being a master at custom-tailoring worthy curriculum to the students in front of you is a skill that takes time and confidence. It really cannot be outsourced.

* If you sat for National Board Certification, these principles will look familiar. If they resonate with you, check out the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ Five Core Propositions. Good stuff.

2022. What a Year?

For several years, I have listed my favorite books—or top ten education prognostications—on Teacher in a Strange Land. I love end-of-year roundups like this.  ‘List’ titles draw traffic. I learned that 20 years ago, when I first set out to blog ‘from the classroom’ (although I was really blogging from my living room, on the family’s single computer). Everybody likes to analyze, compare and name favorites. Everybody likes to look back, and pretend there’s a clean slate ahead.

But 2022 was the ultimate strange-land year, here in Michigan. I think it was the first year where more or less permanent changes, wrought by the one-two punch of a corrupt presidency and a global pandemic, have altered the way we live and work. And, possibly, think.

All the local angst—school board hostilities, county commission craziness, health department firings, attempts to kidnap the Governor—sprang from that discontent. People want better-paying jobs. They want affordable housing. They want good—free—public schools for their kids. But they also want someone to listen to their woes, real and imagined, and confirm their biases, even if those biases are life-threatening.  

Living through a pandemic reminds us: Life is short. Might as well get it right, say what we think.

Best things that happened to all of us in 2022:

  • The midterm elections (nope, the country isn’t going to hell, yet)
  • Kids went back to school (triggering other viral waves, but still…)
  • Biden did most things right (including supporting Ukraine). I can honestly say that although I was not a Biden fan prior to 2020—he came in 12th on my list of candidates—I am very happy that Uncle Joe has been at the helm and accepts good advice.
  • The January 6th Committee Hearings. I seriously doubt that Donald Trump will experience significant consequences from the ugly mess he made of the US Presidency. But I am grateful to know that the nation was able to see the truth, in digestible bites.

Best things that happened to me in 2022:

  • I ran for office–and lost. Running for County Commission was a great experience, however. The district where I live has been ruby red for some 30 years–see that little pink square in Leelanau County? Dems came closer than we have in forever to turning the entire county blue. Running for office has been a bucket-list goal, and the conversations I had with people I’d never met were eye-opening.
  • I got to travel, again, another bucket-list kind of thing. My husband and I have spent February in Arizona since 2016, interrupted by the pandemic. This year, fully vaxxed and boosted, we drove to Arizona—and immediately tested positive. We got free, drive-through PCR tests to confirm. And about a half-hour after being notified that we were indeed positive, we got a call from our local health department, 2000 miles away: Were we OK? (OK-ish) Did we think we needed Paxlovid? A doctor visit? (not really) Faith in my local health care system? Restored.

I also went to Europe for two weeks this fall—and that was splendid.

Best Media Consumed, 2022:

  • Favorite Fictional Book: Demon Copperhead (Barbara Kingsolver). Kingsolver is an author whose works I never miss, and always love. Demon Copperhead is simultaneously hilarious and tragic, and Kingsolver finds a way to meld the ongoing opioid crisis, 19th century Dickensian literature and the American passion for football—and reveal what’s really going on in all three.
  • Favorite Non-fiction Book: Jesus and John Wayne (Kristin DuMez). DuMez teaches at Calvin University, near my hometown and alma mater of lots of super-conservative family members, most of whom would vehemently disagree with DuMez’s conclusions here: that evangelical support was not a shocking aberration from their views but a culmination of evangelicals’ long-standing embrace of militant masculinity, presenting the man as protector and warrior. Meticulously researched, and highly recommended.
  • Best school-y media: Abbott Elementary (TV show) and Tracy Flick Can’t Win (novel, Tom Perotta). Everybody knows about Abbott Elementary—warm-hearted and shockingly close to truth, right down to the egotistical, incompetent principal—but Tracy Flick is also that rarity: a book set in a school that feels very real.

I generally shoot to read 100 books in a year—it’s been my (achieved) goal for a decade. This year, I will clock in (if I’m lucky) at 85 books. The traveling and campaigning bit into reading time. But that general angst—the sense that things will never be ‘back to normal’—is also a factor. It’s hard to relax, to concentrate, to give up a long afternoon living in another world.

Finally, the Bad News is About Schools:

I see the culture, in general, in flux right now. The economy, national politics, health care, media—all of them, from Twitter to The Former Guy, will continue to evolve. But I am incredibly depressed about public education, always the scrappy underdog in the question about how we build citizenship and strengthen the workforce.

I became a teacher in 1974, and have observed public schools, up close and personal, ever since. I’ve seen good times and bad (although I wasn’t able to accurately evaluate, in the moment). But reading my fellow educators’ social media feeds is…heartbreaking, no other word. Should I stay or should I go? Have your students lost all motivation, like mine? Here’s a picture of me taking my 300 personal books out of my classroom. Etc.

In an excellent post, my blogging hero, Jan Resseger, captures the zeitgeist in a single title– Culture Wars at Schools Increase: Undermine Educators, Block Respectful Dialogue, and Make Students Feel Unsafe and Invisible.

That pretty much says it all.

Maybe public education is a lagging indicator—maybe the good news about competent government and public awareness, will eventually track back to the cornerstone institution of American progress, public schools. But I think folks like Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin, and countless others, have targeted public institutions for children as low-hanging fruit, perennially underfunded and unstable, and gone after them.

The damage might be permanent.

Teaching Human History

“In this room, our colleagues across history have abolished slavery; granted women the right to vote; established Social Security and Medicare; offered a hand to the weak, care to the sick, education to the young, and hope to the many, doing ‘the People’s work.’”     

 Nancy Pelosi, this week          

The idea that history is written by the victors is—like most cliches’—an inadequate framework for learning about the powerful forces that have shaped our world. I say this as an American baby boomer, born when the future of the United States seemed limitless, and its citizens were justifiably proud of having saved the world from evil. The history I was taught, in the 1950s-60s, was full of stories about our scrappy upstart nation that freed itself from British colonialism, survived a civil war—then made the world safe for democracy.

When I was in my 20s, I spent a summer backpacking in Europe. I stayed in cheap hostels and went where the Eurail pass would take me. At the very end of the trip, the day before flying home out of Munich, I went to the concentration camp in Dachau.

It was a gray and rainy day, and I had the place nearly to myself. Dachau had been open to tourists for 10 years, but—some 30 years after the camp was liberated—there weren’t many exhibits and no docents, then. That’s not to say that the place felt empty. Far from it.

I’ve been in some historic places in my lifetime, but nothing like Dachau.

The first thing people notice is how the village, with its flower boxes and tidy homes and beautiful church, sits next to the main camp. I remember it as an easy walk from the train station, through a lovely old German town, which encompassed tens of thousands of German citizens in the 1930s and 40s, most of whom claimed they had no idea what was going on behind camp walls. Of course, those people assumed they would be the victors, and get to tell the story of their glorious conquest.

The camp—in 1977—was mostly just cleared space, its buildings torn down. There was a bunkhouse or two, and a horrific crematorium to see, some photos on display. But the power of being there was in the voices.

I sat on a bench, under my umbrella, for a long time, listening to and sensing what had happened, around me and under my feet. I can’t explain it any better than that. Whatever evil happened there was not erased, not by a long chalk.

Clint Smith, who wrote the powerful How the Word is Passed: A reckoning with the history of slavery across America, had a wonderful piece in the Atlantic this week, about Holocaust remembrance.  Smith begins by noting that Germany has a global reputation for handling their past with honesty and reparation. I’ve written about this myselfwanting to believe that nations can be redeemed, can be humbled, admitting guilt and teaching their children to do better.

Smith’s piece mentions stumbling stones or solpersteine—small brass plates in the sidewalks of places where Jews once lived or were assembled and sent to their deaths. There are more than 90,000 of these now, in 30 European countries. Schoolchildren raise money to plant more of them.

I was in Germany last month, and our walking tour docents frequently pointed these out. Americans whipped out their phones and took photos. I did not hear voices, but seeing them was sobering. In fact, Smith says that not everyone thinks putting brass plates in places where people can walk on them is the right thing to memorialize the loss of six million people. But, at least, the Germany citizenry is wrestling with the questions around its own guilt. Smith:

In recent years, Americans have seen a shift in our understanding of the country’s history; many now acknowledge the shameful episodes of our past alongside all that there is to be proud of. But reactionary forces today are working with ever-greater fervor to prevent such an honest accounting from taking place. State legislatures across the country are attempting to prevent schools from teaching the very history that explains why our country looks the way it does. School boards are banning books that provide historical perspectives students might not otherwise encounter.

There was, IMHO, way too much celebrating last week over anti-teacher, anti-‘CRT’ school board candidate slates NOT sweeping into power. Data on this, however, is a little murky:  

Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan website that tracks U.S. politics, has so far counted 237 school board winners who took a stance on hot-button topics, including race and gender. Of those, 55 percent took the conservative side on at least one issue, compared with 43 percent who took liberal stands (the remainder had mixed positions).

Hardly a resounding victory, and the thing about school boards is that they’re the first access point for anyone with a political beef (real or imagined). You don’t even have to have children in that school, or live in the district.

There’s dark money behind school board races and vocal protests these days—and the reprehensible folks and thinking at Hillsdale College haven’t gone away. There’s also the Heritage Foundation and its faux education ‘research.’ The state of Virginia just removed Martin Luther King, Jr. from the elementary social studies standards.  

I’m happy that the nation seems to want to pull back from the political abyss—thrilled, in fact—but there’s a reason why lots of school boards, if not a majority, turned over last week, and the impact is just being felt. These are the people who do not believe we need redemption, to admit guilt and teach our children to do better. These are people who—as my friend and new State Board of Education member Mitch Robinson says—find the made-up problems in education more useful than the solutions.

There is no more important study than our own history. Nancy Pelosi illustrated that beautifully in her graceful step-down speech, as first female Speaker of the House this week. If we can’t learn from our own accomplishments and failures, we’re doomed.

What Parents Really Want from Schools

Remember Peter Meijer (pronounced MY-er, national news jockeys)?
He was the freshman Congressman from Western Michigan with the golden name and the conscience—the one who voted to impeach Trump, post-January 6, as a freshman in the House of Representatives. I say he was a congressman, because he was primaried in August.

The guy who’s running on the Republican ticket in Meijer’s former western Michigan district, John Gibbs, recently said this:

Folks, did you ever think that one day in America, we’d have to worry about schools putting obscene books in their libraries? This is simply insane–we must stop the madness. Voters overwhelmingly oppose sexually explicit books in public school libraries.

Well—folks. I’m not worried about obscene or sexually explicit books in public school libraries. Because there is no madness, no insanity, no pornography in school libraries.

Teachers and school leaders also overwhelmingly oppose sexually explicit books in school libraries. The word we use is ‘inappropriate’—materials are selected by trained school media specialists, who know inappropriate when they see it.

The entire slate of MI Republicans running for statewide or national office, not just Gibbs, is hell-bent on insisting that schools have become (in the past two years) hotbeds of sexual orientation and gender identity transformation, not to mention racial tension and guilt-inducement. They are led in this effort by the Republican candidate for Governor, Tudor Dixon.  

What Tudor wants to accomplish is very simple and common sense. She wants to get radical sex and gender theory out of our schools, remove classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity for grades K-3, make sure gender specific sports remain gender specific given biological differences in boys vs. girls and post all curriculum online for parents to see and be involved in their child’s education. Every child deserves a world class education and parents should be in charge of it.

So let’s break this down.

Radical sex and gender theory? (Not a part of the curriculum in any school I’ve been in.)

Classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for the littles? (Likewise—nope, nope.)

Gender specific sports? (The Michigan High School Athletic Association has a policy adopted in 2012 that determines post-season tournament eligibility for transgender athletes on a case-by-case basis. The group received and approved 10 applications in the past five years—so this is hardly a burning statewide issue.)

Post all curriculum online? (Sure. Most districts post their standards framework—what gets taught, when– and public high schools in Michigan have adapted the Michigan Merit Curriculum.)

Every child deserves a world class education and parents should be in charge of it. (Right out of the Glenn Youngkin playbook, a statement like this, which is mostly true, really resonates.)

But here’s the truth (from 32 years of classroom experience): What bubbles up in classroom discussions and playgrounds is what’s on the minds of the kids in that classroom. This starts early, in Tudor Dixon’s forbidden zone, grades K-3—like this story about the boy who chose a ‘Frozen’ backpack.

Kids are curious and they’re paying attention to what their parents and their screens (and their friends, and their older siblings) are telling them. I taught music and math, two subjects you’d think were pretty straightforward and controversy-free, but can testify that anytime you get a cluster of kids together, provocative issues emerge.

When politicians say ‘post curriculum online’ and ‘parents should be in charge’ they’re missing the reality of classroom instruction: It’s universally messy and unpredictable, even when it’s highly effective and led by expert teachers. You just don’t know what ideas kids will bring to the classroom.

I think what Dixon wants is to catch teachers talking about Forbidden Subjects raised by students, encouraging parents to be alarmed and dissatisfied. Her campaign is unable to flesh out her policies, however—this article is well worth the read, for examples.

Parents absolutely have the right to have input into their child’s public education—but not the education of all children in that school. As a music teacher, parent control over curriculum is particularly challenging during the December holidays. But all teachers, school leaders and school board members have dealt with decision-making around curriculum, instruction and assessment. It’s our job.

To suggest that parents are shut out, or have no say, is just not true. To construct legislation designed to thwart ‘forbidden’ subjects and practices is 100% political, and often funded by outsider groups. Because the reality, in poll after poll after poll, is that public school parents are generally satisfied with their children’s schools.

Personally, I have observed parents protest any number of school policies at local school board meetings. Perennially dicey topics? Sex education. ‘New’ math (defined, roughly, as a math program that parents find different from the math program they had in school). Pay-to-play sports (anything about sports will draw a crowd, actually). Your district may vary.

So what do parents really want? Here’s my unscientific, no-data-just-observation take: 

  • A basic education—reading, writing, math, science, civics—that pushes children to learn essential skills for living and working in a democracy.
  • Teachers and school employees who understand and care about their child.
  • Childcare—a nurturing place for their kids to be while parents have other responsibilities.
  • A decrease in the emphasis on data and competition engendered by annual standardized testing.
  • Safety—healthy practices, secure premises.
  • A measure of happiness—all parents want their kids to be happy, and all of them have to learn that happiness cannot be mandated or arranged by schools, although classroom practices can help.
  • Programming that addresses their child’s unique needs—take your pick: Art, physical education, a library, music, learning about technology, extra-curriculars like sports, drama, leadership opportunities, and so on.
  • Friends.

Peter Meijer (whose name is universally known across Michigan) used a different spelling of his name while in high school to protect his identity.  I am guessing his parents, who could afford any kind of education, wanted the same things for him—a good education, a measure of happiness, programming that helped him realize his goals and dreams. Friends.

Watch out for craven candidates who want to trash public education. They’re not ‘concerned’ or ‘for Liberty’—they’re vandals.

Amusing Ourselves into Educational Oblivion

A great new piece in the NY Times from Ezra Klein starts with Marshall McLuhan and his iconic quote: The medium is the message. Content—facts, analysis, opinion—is often secondary to the way it is presented.  McLuhan was prescient, of course—can you imagine what he would have made of Donald Trump?—but only in retrospect do we see just how deeply and comprehensively his remark has come to fruition.

Klein moves on to discuss my favorite education thinker—Neil Postman—and his terrific 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The publisher’s note is a succinct descriptor: a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment.

As it happens, education, religion, journalism and politics are the things I am most interested in, my personal passions. And I’ve seen all of them changing in alarming ways, to fit the attention spans and expectations of immediate gratification that technological change has shaped.

Americans, of course, think they are immune to this. Klein says:

Americans are capitalists, and we believe nothing if not that if a choice is freely made, that grants it a presumption against critique. That is one reason it’s so hard to talk about how we are changed by the mediums we use.

 I heard Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who’s been collecting data on how social media harms teenagers, say, bluntly, “People talk about how to tweak it — oh, let’s hide the like counters. Well, Instagram tried — but let me say this very clearly: There is no way, no tweak, no architectural change that will make it OK for teenage girls to post photos of themselves, while they’re going through puberty, for strangers or others to rate publicly.”

What struck me about Haidt’s comment is how rarely I hear anything structured that way. He’s arguing three things. First, that the way Instagram works is changing how teenagers think. It is supercharging their need for approval of how they look and what they say and what they’re doing, making it both always available and never enough. Second, that it is the fault of the platform — that it is intrinsic to how Instagram is designed, not just to how it is used. And third, that it’s bad. That even if many people use it and enjoy it and make it through the gantlet just fine, it’s still bad. It is a mold we should not want our children to pass through.

Bingo.

Why don’t we have the foresight to just say no to attractive technologies that are harmful to children’s—or even adults’—development and emotional well-being? They’re addictive. And remember what Frances Haugen told us about Facebook: They knew it was harmful to young women especially. But they buried that knowledge in pursuit of profit.

In an election season, candidates are seldom lauded for their creative policy ideas and expertise, let alone their character and integrity. Instead, we have Boots vs. Flip-Flops elections, like the Presidential contest in 2004 where a bona fide war hero was taken down by deceptive media, leaving the term ‘swiftboating’ behind, in the political lexicon.

Kind of makes you long for the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where folks took picnic baskets for refreshment, and each candidate spoke, uninterrupted, for a total of 90 minutes. Tens of thousands of people attended. And there were no sound bites, memes, re-runs or cable news analysis. The medium—each man, speaking his ideas—was the message.

Fast-forward to 2022, where the MI GOP nominee for Governor, one Tudor Dixon, was described by the co-chair of her party as a ‘younger, smarter and hotter’ version of the current Governor, Gretchen Whitmer. (Plus that Trump Seal of Approval, of course.)

Ms. Dixon seems to be the candidate Republicans thought had the best chance of winning: someone who looks a lot like the current governor, but is a relatively blank slate, having never held elected office. Clearly, this isn’t about making good public policy, or the kind of leadership we need. But it illustrates the degree to which the medium—and Dixon has a history in media–is more important than the message.  

Often, the most entertaining and outlandish candidate wins. Viewers routinely say that the loudest and most aggressive candidate on the debate stage ‘won,’ quality of arguments be damned. But– who wins in the 2022 midterm elections really matters.

If people in your household or family circle are heading back to school this month, what media-savvy Tudor Dixon says about public education matters, too: Among Dixon’s education priorities are requiring teachers to put all curriculum and teaching materials online for parents to review, banning transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams, and criminalizing taking minors to drag shows

Much of this is education-media theatre, fed by stoking fear and anger, aimed toward winning elections. The terms and assertions dominating what should be policy discussions about how to shape a community asset—public education—have been, to put it politely, invented.

Fights at school board meetings and public arguments about cherished young adult novels are probably more entertaining than the pedestrian work of stretching public dollars and finding a special ed teacher in August. Boring meetings seldom draw camera crews, and don’t offer the possibility of a mic being stuck in your face.

But there is a role for order and rules and civil discourse. Every teacher in the country understands this.

Zero Tolerance for School-based Threats

In the early 2000s, my middle school spent a couple of years plagued by bomb threats. This was around the time when the shock and awe of Columbine were still percolating in the minds of educators. Threats were taken seriously, always.

And so we would find ourselves being bused to the HS Auditorium, or scurrying out to wait in the snowy parking lot so students could go home early, right after the kindergarten runs. Teachers, of course, were free to re-enter the building, but students had to abandon lunches and calculators. The police were involved. Students were warned in assemblies about the Serious Consequences of getting caught—and that they would indeed get caught, one day. And so on.

It would be quiet for a few weeks and then—someone would scrawl a threatening note on the bathroom wall, about a bomb in a locker. And the day was over. Again.

The teachers weren’t in the inner loop of communication as administrators set about finding culprits, but eventually they nabbed someone, and punishments were meted out, and we didn’t have bomb threats for a good long while. There was never an explosive, of course—but the deadliest school bombing massacre in American history occurred 95 years ago in Bath, Michigan, so we’re careful about bombs around here.

Worth noting: The Bath School Bomber was a disgruntled school board member, upset over school taxes, who also killed the Superintendent.

The school massacre that happened last fall in Oxford, Michigan has yielded a copycat effect, with:

…more than 100 students in Michigan accused of threatening schools in the days and weeks after a terrifying shooting rampage at Oxford High School left four students dead and seven people injured. Scores of schools were forced to shut down, while police and sheriff’s departments were overwhelmed as officers raced to investigate each case.  

Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth said his officers investigate about two school threats a month. “A lot of times, (a threat) means throwing every resource we have at it. We had school threats on consecutive days, and we had 19 officers on it,” he said. “A lot of times it comes out that it’s a seventh-grader who didn’t want to go to school, but by the time we figure that out, we’ve spent 24 hours investigating.”

Exactly.

And that’s what makes this such an intractable problem: Kids do stupid things. How do we deal with that?

Will they do stupid things again if they’re not severely punished the first time? Should they be banished from the school district forever? Sent to Juvie for making an empty threat? Made to pay for their behavior via community service?

The rules are ever-evolving. And for every fan of Restorative Justice, there’s someone else who’s sick of being steamrollered for insisting on strict classroom discipline.

Matching the punishment to the crime is not always simple. It seems to me that hunting and murdering other human beings ought to put you behind bars. But not even that is a guarantee.  

No matter who’s doing the sentencing, there are equivocating factors, including the age and intent of the perpetrator, the level of violence employed or implied, and the political environment of the place where youthful threats are made.

After a credible threat—bombs, shooters, you name it—the focus is often on who could have or should have anticipated the danger (and how to punish them). Who was negligent before or during the terror? Who must pay to find justice for victims?

Here are the questions I’d like answered, instead:

What could have been done to mitigate this situation, before it ever happened? Why do so many students immediately attempt copycat threats? What is there about living in this nation, going to school here, that makes students attracted to aggression, even bloodshed?

With a shooting, we can look at access to lethal weapons. But how do we prevent the urge to cause chaos, to get attention, to seek revenge? To harm other human beings?

If you think I’m suggesting that this job should fall into the laps of teachers, think again.

Teachers need both clear policy and honed human judgment to effectively teach young people. But neither of those is enough to prevent the forces that are pushing students to some very bad decisions involving weapons.

Solving these problems won’t happen with Zero Tolerance policies either, no matter how tough that language sounds to communities.  

We all live in this overheated country. We all see what happens to communities when a whole classroom is mowed down, or an ordinary supermarket becomes a place of terror. We all witness violence in what should be safe community spaces.

It’s everyone’s problem.

Lirty Dies or Wandering the Campaign Trail in ‘22

The Michigan primary is in three weeks, on August 2nd. This is the first pre-election summer I’ve ever been a candidate for anything, so I’m spending more time—what? Thinking politically? Dividing the world into red and blue, R and D? Despairing of the current climate?

Actually, what I’ve been thinking most about is lies. Untruths, mendacities, outright deceit, yada yada—and the party that uses them as bait.

The Capitol Steps –may they rest–a musical comedy group originated over 40 years ago, with a collection of congressional staffers who saw the humor potential in pretty much everything that went down in D.C., had a series of sketches called Lirty Dies.

Lirty Dies were merely phrases with the first letters exchanged—in Capitol Steps parlance, when you WHip their FLurds. A great political tradition: We’re not quite sure what we’re saying; you’re not quite sure what you’re hearing.  Think Herschel Walker.

The problem? Liars win.

This has always been true—plenty of obvious examples in recent history, from the deceptive Trump appointees on the Supreme Court who knew what settled law was, to that dude in Missouri who said that women who were ‘legitimately’ raped could shut that whole thing down.

But in 2022, alternative facts are the norm in every election, from the Big Lie about 2020 to my own small-potatoes campaign for County Commissioner.

In my State Senate district (MI 37th), for example, there are three candidates running on the Democratic ticket. Only one is actually a Democrat. The other two are both Republicans, active in their county parties–and sometime felons, by the way. One of them was quoted as saying, during his podcast on March 31, that the media was trying to destroy the “nuclear family,” with every commercial showing a “biracial mom and dad.” It’s pretty clear who the target audience is.

I’m not really clear on why they think this tactic—running in the party they loathe—will work. There are two actual Republicans running in the primary, so it’s not as if there was nobody to vote for. Just a chance to SPew up real political SCReech, I guess. (That was a Lirty Die.)

Meanwhile, in the Michigan Legislature, the Democrats (the minority party), having been falsely accused by their Republican opponents of being ‘groomers,’ decided to fight back:

As many Republicans push conspiracies about schoolchildren being “groomed” in public schools, a bill introduced by Democrats in the Michigan House that would create a legal pathway to prosecute people who “groom” minors in sexual abuse cases idles, untouched by the Republican majority. 

Partly this is because former (Republican) House Speaker Chatfield is under investigation for actually grooming a 15-yr old girl when he was her teacher at a Christian Academy founded by his father. But mostly, it’s just a ruby-red response to being called out and held accountable for Lirty Dies.

Two weeks ago, the four women running for the Democratic slot in my County Commission district (including me) held an open-air listening session at a local park.  We sent out postcards to likely primary voters to invite them. The weather was perfect, and we had live music and cookies.

The event was a great success—somewhere between 50 and 60 voters showed up, and for two hours, each of us was grilled (or encouraged) by friendly neighbors. People asked good questions about local issues—why our internet infrastructure is inadequate or worse, how to build and repurpose affordable housing, and so on.

The biggest issue is clean water. We live on a peninsula surrounded by Lake Michigan, so passing a mandatory septic ordinance, while the least sexy of issues, is critical.

Midway through the afternoon, an older gentleman and his wife showed up. I greeted him with an outstretched hand, as he passed a table with a fellow Dem collecting signatures for Promote the Vote.  Are they for or against mail-in ballots? He asked. For, I told him.

Mail-in ballots are how the 2020 election was stolen, he said. Oh oh.

I decided to just listen to his issues and concerns. He talked about responsible farming and compost, which seemed to be something we had in common. Then he asked me about my background. I told him I was a retired teacher.

And he proceeded to regurgitate incredible slander about public education, the crapola now floating above every local election: The teachers were teaching kids to hate being white. They were telling lies about history. They were teaching kids about perverted sex (he was embarrassed when he said this, looking down at the ground). There were dirty books, too.

Ironically, his seven children had all attended and graduated from the public school no more than a mile down the road. This is a school where I volunteered—before the pandemic—and that I thought was a good public school, a school that offered a lot of programming for a small district and had a solid staff.

I told him I had been in the classroom for nearly 35 years, then volunteered in three local districts in this county, and I did not believe that teachers routinely did those things. Any teacher who overstepped their bounds in the classroom could and should be called out. By parents—or by an administrator. But this was not the way public education (which is controlled by a locally elected board) worked.

Well, he said. This just started.

He was OK with the school when his kids were there—the teachers were pretty good, and he went to all the football games. But now, he said, teachers have started doing bad things all over the country.

What, specifically? Well, supporting the Blacks, he said. Against the police. Going against the Bible. He struggled to remember what he’d read—some letters, maybe? (No way was I going to fill in the acronym for him. He’d already soaked up too much falsehood.)

You should start volunteering again, he said. Things have really changed in the last couple of years.

I passed him on to another candidate, but he lingered in my mind. Not a bad guy. But he’d been lied to, and he trusted the liars. It was as simple as that.

Lirty Dies.

Voter Linda, chatting with the four candidates for Leelanau County Commission: Allison Zimpfer, Julie Kradel, Mary O’Neill and blog author Nancy Flanagan.

Are Christians to Blame for the Political Mess We Find Ourselves In?

Schoolkids were traditionally taught—at least I was—that the United States was founded because the Pilgrims were seeking religious freedom, an escape from persecution. This incomplete and sanitized declaration dovetailed nicely into the development of formal American schooling and curricula in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It was part of our national creation myth, positioning the original ancestors as men who braved the dangerous ocean journey in order to worship their God in the way they saw fit in this wild, free new land. (Plus their wives and children, of course. Who would naturally be worshipping in the same fashion, and following the laws the men devised.)

Nary a mention of their rapacious commercial interests, let alone the people who had already lived here for a thousand years.

Since the Pilgrims arrived—merely one group of colonizing settlers, albeit one that got lots of airtime in history class—waves of folks with different religious beliefs and heritage, born here/brought here/immigrated here, have shaped the trajectory and norms of livin’ in the U.S.A.  

Educators and civic leaders have adapted to changing mores over more than a century, lurching along and stepping in deep controversy over religious practice—well, all the time. (Think: Scopes Trial.)

Arguing over religious beliefs is our real national heritage. And the separation of church and state is the tool we use to distinguish what is appropriate at home but not at school. The new SCOTUS ruling that permits private (Christian) prayer on public school occasions as long as it’s not required, is another chunk out of that wall of separation. And any veteran teacher will tell you that bringing personal religious beliefs into the classroom is a recipe for disaster.

Contrary to Fox News commentary, good educators are not part of a century-long conspiracy to brainwash little kids about the moral framework of life in community. In my 30+ years in the classroom, most everyone skirted around explicitly talking about religion for fear of violating The Wall of Separation. In some classrooms—the aforementioned history class, for example—discussion of religion is inevitable. Music class, as well.  And literature. And science.

In fact, learning about religion and its impact, positive and negative, on the history of the only world we have, is one of the central reasons to offer public education. But learning about religion is entirely separate from practicing religion, or proselytizing.

The message always needs to be: Religions have existed forever. Religions and sanctified beliefs have caused wars and genocide. Religion has the capacity for both great good and bad—and a whole lot of judging about which is which, and spurious reasons for grabbing power.  Nonetheless, wherever we find extended civilization, there are religious practices.

Lately, the Christians have seemed to be ascending, in terms of political power.   It may have something to do with existential uncertainty of life during the pandemic, or the former President using certain Christians for his own purposes. Or the spate of SCOTUS decisions dragging the nation backwards against social progress, led by a Catholic majority.

Adam Serwer: Given the unholy alliance between conservative politics and conservative Christianity, it is no surprise that right-wing extremists on the Supreme Court prefer to read theConstitution the way evangelicals read the scriptures. That is, selectively, and with a preference for American mores and jurisprudence of the nineteenth century. When men were men and all others were second-class citizens, if not property.

As Garrison Keillor said: Righteous indignation is the easy part of the Christian faith and the hard part is forgiveness.

I would add—‘and also having a sense of humor.’ I’ve seen a lot of social media talk smacking down Christians as a class, blaming them for cruel and regressive policy-making. I know Christianity’s failings better than many, but it seems like we have not outgrown the need for considered values, or the good that religious organizations, Christian and otherwise, have done, for centuries.

Freedom of religion, won at some cost in this nation, has allowed us to safely poke at literal and metaphorical sacred cows and speak freely about what we believe—and dismiss as foolishness. Respecting diverse religious beliefs is a very difficult thing, but if we can’t accept diversity of religious practices (or lack thereof), we are betraying the very story of our founding.

So maybe lighten up on the anti-Christian (or anti-any faith) talk? Or be careful whom you’re sweeping into the category of Harmful and Dangerous while letting other organized groups completely off the moral hook?

Robert Reich: G.O.P. extremism is fed by resentment against the very things that truly make America great — our diversity, our tolerance for difference — it cannot be appeased or compromised with. It can only be defeated.

In  The Ministry for the Future, an awesome book about possible futures (Kim Stanley Robinson), the chair of the Ministry and her trusted associate discuss this question:

What would it take to get the entire planet to commit to necessary sacrifices that could, once and for all, turn climate change and equitable civilization around, practices that would save us all? Mutual assured survival, even mutual thriving?

A new religion, her aide says. A newly conceived religion, based on environmental equity, justice and peace, adopted globally.

My friend Fred Bartels put it this way: God is a personalization of community.

Food for thought. Or prayer. Take your pick.