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.

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.

Genuine Education Leadership

There’s yet another thread on Twitter today re: ‘rewarding’ teachers by allowing them to wear jeans on specified Fridays vs. giving them permission to go to lunch (with their students, of course) five minutes early. I have an entire bookcase filled with volumes dedicated to the topic of leadership in schools, but somehow, these casual conversations on social media better reflect what’s really happening than all the blah-blah about Reframing, Maximum Impact, Inspiration, Grit or–God help us–What Works.

The thing is—the success (however you measure success) of a school is almost entirely dependent on the people who work there, and their interactions. There are other factors, of course—resources, the surrounding community, thinking about values—but the best framework for doing right by kids comes from good people who like working together.

I’ve worked under dysfunctional principals, as part of a collegial staff, where teachers rose to mentor and support each other, deftly bypassing administrative snits and roadblocks. I’ve worked with great superintendents, gifted managers—and the occasional evil, ego-bound admin—but I am here to say that the real juice in school-based leadership comes from adults who care about kids and get along well.

Leadership emerges from respect, friendship and trust.

Not from someone with a title based on distributing perks—as we have witnessed this week as the leaderless party nominally in power tries to elect a Speaker of the House. Maybe we’ll see Kevin McCarthy offering Republicans the opportunity to wear jeans on Friday, or go to the Congressional cafeteria early. Ha.

My friend John Spencer thinks the ability to manage is an essential piece of being a real leader:

If a leader focuses solely on new ideas and new initiatives, they run the risk of confusing novelty for innovation. There’s no consistency or sustainability. People miss critical details. Often, the leader is so busy leading, they are unable to step back and maintain what’s already working.

Managing requires the unflattering role of maintenance. Maintenance can feel like drudgery. It can seem inconvenient. It’s a humble part of leadership that often goes unnoticed.

But maintenance is vital. A new bridge can connect people across a city. An unmaintained bridge can be deadly. The best principals I know will say, “I’m not much of a manager,” but they empower teachers to self-manage. They proactively step aside and provide the tools and resources that empower teachers. And in the end, empowered teachers empower students.

One thing John mentions really resonates with me: the inability of a formal leader to step back and maintain what’s already working. I’ve never been in a school—as a teacher, professional development presenter or classroom volunteer—that didn’t have some good aspects, things that needed to be maintained.

I’ve been in schools in deep poverty, the schools that public education vultures can’t wait to shut down, where the building is crumbling, and the playground is literally dangerous. I visited a school where there was one LCD projector in the building, bolted to the library ceiling, and a teacher stood on a table with a broomstick to operate it.

Those teachers—were genuine leaders. They knew the serious limitations they were working with, and kept going despite the environment there. I was merely a person who shared some Powerpoint slides. There were already good things happening in that building, courtesy of the people there. Professional development was superfluous, and they knew it.

Now—there are books about servant leadership and distributed leadership that aim for utilizing expertise rather than following a template for success. I’ve spent the last two decades trying to find a formula for teacher leadership that isn’t about giving someone more work and a small stipend, then labeling them a leader, whether their colleagues consider them leadership material or not. There is an endless parade of articles and commentary from teachers bemoaning the fact that they’re not at the table—they’re on the menu, happy to get a five-minute head start to lunch.

We’re still a long way from normalizing the respect, friendship and trust that are the basis of functional school communities, tailored to the kids they serve.

The issues media believes will dominate public education in 2023 are policy-related: Absenteeism. Mandated retention. Accountability (read: test score fluctuations). Educator shortages. Transparency for charters and vouchers. Funding, funding, funding. And of course, COVID and other viral menaces.

It strikes me that—once again—listening to those who have formed their own communities and informally recognize the leaders among them will have the most success in curbing absenteeism, bringing new, fully qualified teachers into the profession, putting the focus on real learning rather than meaningless data chases, and pushing back—from their own experience—against bad policy.

I’d like to share one illustration, a story from one of those trusted and respected veteran teachers, newly retired, about a favorite lesson that he could no longer teach. Read it—it’s a great piece, and he asks a lot of timely and relevant questions. He also says this:

The conundrum for a public high school social studies teacher teaching about the January 6 insurrection is not to sacrifice one’s credibility while also not pushing one’s own political beliefs on students. 

I had an advantage that other teachers trying to thread this needle may not have. I enjoyed the support of colleagues, administrators, students, and parents. You may be a high school teacher working in a less generous environment — one in which local and state politicians have trained their sights on teaching history. You have my thanks and deserve the thanks of all our fellow citizens for your dogged, noble work on behalf of American democracy.

That dogged, noble work? Let’s call it what it is: leadership.

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.

What Do We Owe Children of the Pandemic?

Another piece in the NY Times, yesterday morning, all about the learning loss ‘crisis’ created by the pandemic. The article starts with the usual—essentially true—statement about test scores dropping as a result of the disruption of dealing with a global pandemic. But paragraph two goes full-on hype:

Nine-year-olds lost the equivalent of two decades of progress in math and reading, according to an authoritative national test. Fourth and eighth graders also recorded sweeping declines, particularly in math, with eighth-grade scores falling in 49 of 50 states.

I am always curious about why these easily debunked, alarmist claims appear in all the NAEP (‘authoritative national test’) reporting. Because we wouldn’t want to have a calm, rational, evidence-based discussion about how we can help all the kids whose lives were turned upside down by a pandemic, would we?

Instead, we’re left with arguments about whether remote learning is inefficientdata on that are not clear-cut, coincidentally —and panicky faux statistics on lost decades of learning. Faux statistics that the general public does not fully understand, by the way—you have to wonder WHY they’re appearing in the New York Times.

What the analyses of NAEP data do reveal: Nationally, we have accepted the idea that test scores are reality, our only reliable indicator of whether a school is doing its job and individual children are learning. There is no test that measures resilience or student well-being—that information would actually be useful.

There is zero doubt that schoolchildren were negatively impacted during the pandemic. Most of them had to stay home, to protect their own health and the health of their families, at some points in the pandemic—and those viral spikes in the population are not over. Remote learning was patchy and less than ideal, for many children. The world, for all kids, from preschoolers to high school seniors, became an unpredictable and often disappointing place.

The question now is not How Bad Was It? followed by handwringing and blame.

The question is: What Should We Do Now? (Notice that I did not say ‘now that the pandemic is over’?) How can we help kids who have been through a rough patch find stability and comfort, even joy, in a school setting?

What do we owe to those children and youth, some of whom are experiencing their first ‘normal’-ish year at school and some who have cut their K-12 losses and moved into the world of college or work?

I have some ideas about that. But first, some essential questions.

The foundational question: What are our real end goals in educating children?

Improving their test scores is a demonstrably terrible goal, as we have learned with the latest round of NAEP data. If all we offer kids, in school, is instruction designed to bump up scores, and then spend all our media capital bemoaning a three-point drop after a massive health disaster, it’s no wonder they feel disconnected from schooling.  

Another question: Is remote learning ever beneficial? Under what circumstances and conditions?

I would argue that remote learning, while a long way from ideal, served a positive purpose in 2020. And further, having experienced it under triage conditions, we could use that experience to explore better uses of distance learning, instead of deciding that it was both a failure in terms of learning, and, somehow, the teacher union’s fault.

 Finally: How much of this panic over test scores is driven by what the pandemic laid bare: Our society-wide reliance on schools for childcare. Parental angst and fears being politicized by opportunistic partisan groups, funded by dark money.

We need our community schools. And we desperately need to reassure the next generation that we believe they can learn whatever they need to learn to become functional adults—and that we will help them toward that goal, as best we can.

What do we owe the children of the pandemic?

  • A universal health care plan, available to every American.
  • A high-quality, fully funded public education for every child, no matter what they bring to the table, and baseline funding to bring schools in poverty into alignment.
  • Additional free or low-cost education and services for those who need or desire them: Free community college. Free auxiliary tutoring for kids with special needs—ESL, disabilities, long-term health issues, etc. Free apprenticeships. Free preschool. Free career counseling for all ages.
  • High-quality, affordable childcare, and adequate parental leave.
  • Plenty of well-trained and well-paid teachers, pre-K through university level.
  • Rich curriculum that acknowledges all children have different gifts and interests.

We had a crisis-opportunity to examine the stressors and weaknesses in our education system. Let’s not fumble that away by pointlessly crying wolf over an incremental but understandable drop in standardized test scores.

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.

Thank You, Supporters

Dear Friends,

Well, we gave my opponent, She Who Shall Not Be Named, a run for her money, but lost by 195 votes.

I learned a lot of things about the place where I live–and remain convinced that big changes are coming to Solon and Kasson townships, and we need to get out ahead of them. We need to stop pretending that there are no problems with housing, that our lakes are (and I quote) ‘sparkling clean’ and not in need of protection, that broadband is a luxury, and that nothing will ever change in our rural paradise.

Change is coming–we’re surrounded by natural beauty, and the largest bodies of fresh water in the Lower 48. Compared to other states, property is affordable. Unless policies are put in place, and residents understand what happens when expensive housing is dedicated to vacationers and workers can’t afford to live here, we’re on a destructive path.

During the campaign, I never misrepresented myself or my beliefs about what’s needed here, in the heart of Leelanau. I know that to some, I was just one of those ‘liberal’ newcomers–but the data and doorknocking told me that there are more and more of us here, concerned about the same issues. We did some good work for future elections, and I’m proud of that.

Why did we lose? For starters, the largest church in the district drew out its voting members, in an attempt to keep Proposal 3, which kept our current (clear, regulated) abortion laws in place, from passing. (It did pass, 56-44, statewide.) I was also relatively unknown in a place where family roots and reflexive voting habits go deep.

THANK YOU to everyone who voted for me.

Thank you to Allison Kimpfer, Mary O’Neill and Julie Kradel who ran against me in the primary, then turned around to help my campaign. We agreed, last spring, that our mission was proving that four smart Democratic women were willing to take on the Charles Grassley of Leelanau County, and we accomplished that.

There is a great deal of good news–it was a blue night for Michigan, and we held the County Commission. The three good proposals were all solid winners. All the work done by Voters Not Politicians, back in 2018, has paid off. It’s a fairer and more progressive state, un-gerrymandered–maybe even a model for other states–and both houses of the state legislature flipped blue, for the first time in 40 years.

Michigan has been a purple state, forever–and now our election results match our popular beliefs. That’s a great feeling. I’m going to be represented in the State House by Democrat Betsy Coffia (photo below), who has promised me that she’ll talk to teachers first when someone gets a big idea about how to ‘fix’ public education. That’s awesome.

Thanks for being on my side, readers. I appreciate all of you.

Vote with Heart, not with Hate

There’s only you and me—and we just disagree…  Dave Mason

It’s been fascinating, this weekend, reading about our actual President’s heartfelt plea to save democracy, and the opposing party’s response: Gas prices (with a healthy side of chicken-fried lies) are going to get us elected, so let’s double down on the destruction. Whoo hoo!

I’ve been voting for 50 years, and there’s never been an election like this one. I know we keep saying that this is the most important election of our lifetime–we say it every two years—but holy tamales. The thought of a Republican-led House launching four impeachments simultaneously, with Jim Jordan preening on the news every night? Nauseating.

And yet, here we are.  

In those 50 years, I have voted for Republicans. In fact, I used to vote in the Republican primary in the district where I lived for 20 years, because it was the only way I got to endorse mainstream candidates over crazypants candidates. I knew that Democrats would never win there, so it was a prophylactic exercise.

That was back in the days when the truly whacko candidates were pruned in the primaries. Unlike 2022.

Those of you who were voters in 2000 might remember compassionate conservatism, George W’s election slogan. I was in the .52% margin of voters who chose Gore over Bush, but I can’t remember anything about Gore’s campaign message. Something about a lockbox? Compassion, on the other hand—compassion and action—I can get behind.

God knows we need it. A more compassionate electorate, one concerned with actual facts about our rapidly changing climate and its outsized impact on populations in poverty, about human rights, about all the policy tweaks we could make to lift up our families and neighbors… what’s not to like?

We’re moving in the wrong direction, away from voting with our hearts toward voting with anger, hate and naked self-interest. Voters have been not only given permission to stomp all over their community’s needs, but are now being encouraged to wrest control of election results from township and village clerks.

Two stories about compassion:

A little more than a year ago, one of the communities I hope to represent on the County Commission, Maple City, raised a civic outcry against having a Dollar General in the center of town. Maple City is a modest little town, with a Post Office, a cute restaurant and a gas station, and lots of similarly modest homes. But its residents did not want to be a Dollar General town, or labeled—as Dollar General Corporate did—a ‘food desert.’  After rejecting Dollar General, that parcel of land was designated as space for six small homes—ground was broken, with lots of enthusiasm, a year ago, and the community seemed poised to welcome six new families. Compassion had beat out Dollar General, it seemed.

Right now, however, there are only foundations in place for four of the homes. A request for a tax rebate was soundly rejected, as the price of building new homes and availability of builders rose. Speaking with the people of Maple City, while door-knocking, there’s a lot of confusion and angst over promises made and promises stalled—or broken. The gap between the haves and have-nots—the thing they were trying to prevent by not plunking a Dollar General down in town—has not decreased.

Also—I was horrified to read that Leelanau County is among the top five counties in Michigan for parents opting out of the standard series of vaccinations that Michigan schoolchildren are required to get before entering public schools. More than 10% of our local schoolchildren are now entering kindergarten and the 7th grade unvaccinated.

This number, statewide, used to be vanishingly small, with waivers granted only on evidence-based need, and herd immunity not threatened. For children whose medical conditions contraindicate vaccination, herd immunity is the thing that lets them go to school safely. I taught school for over 30 years, and we never had to deal with anti-vaccine parents.

It’s not a thing we can ‘disagree’ about. It’s not a parents’ rights issue–I strongly believe in parents’ rights. It’s a rejection of science, for starters, overlaid with ginned-up political rage. It’s a rejection of the genuine needs of other people—vulnerable children who need protection!–in order to win some unnamed contest.

So. Vote with heart, not with hate. Compassion and community hang in the balance.

Back to Basics

Here in the Mitten State, our very good governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is running against a political novice whose qualifications seem to be that she resembles the current governor and that she used to host a right-wing TV show: GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon defended blackface, called hijabs oppressive garments, and amplified racist remarks and conspiracy theories during her two years hosting a daily TV show on the far-right media network Real America’s Voice.

Not a nice person, but she is attractive. Stephen Colbert called her ‘Kirkland Gretchen Whitmer’ and followed up with several substantively awful but amusing things she’s said and done. I have been intrigued by her rehearsed talking points (which you can practically see her mentally retrieving), especially the blah-blah she’s been spouting about public schools.

She’s gone full-tilt Youngkin, of course, with the ‘grooming’ and ‘pornography’ accusations, kindergartners being shown how to have sex and pumping up scary nonsense about transgender athletes (the MI HS Athletic Association says there have been 10 documented cases of transgender athletes in the past five years, hardly a trend, let alone a crisis of ‘unfairness’).

But she’s also been talking—repeatedly—about taking public school curriculum ‘back to basics.’  She is clear about what this involves: reading, writing and arithmetic. All the rest is, in her opinion, unimportant, and the reason that our test scores have gone down in Michigan.

Dixon’s four daughters attend private schools. Now, I am a great believer in parents’ rights—the kind that let well-heeled parents send their kids to any school they choose, because of their religious beliefs, the kind of programming they want, or because they think public schools are where the unwashed send their unfortunate children.

If you can afford private school, fine. You go. Just don’t use that as an excuse to cheese out on public education, using deceptive language and–let’s tell it like it is–big fat lies.

As it happens, I know exactly where Tudor Dixon lives—I grew up in that town, and remember factory after factory, places where our dads worked, shutting down in the 1970s and 80s. I know the schools there—I graduated from one of them. People I know and love teach there, and put their trust in public education. My social media stream is awash in photos of their children in those very schools: fall carnivals, Friday night games, and student-of-the-month certificates.

Those are the schools that Tudor Dixon wants to ‘go back to basics’—a term that seems to be evergreen.

“Frankly, our schools have lost their way,” Dixon said, announcing the first of her policies. “Somewhere along the way, radical political activists decided that our schools are laboratories for their social experiments, and our children are their lab rats. And we’re saying enough is enough.”

Well. Veteran political activists teachers may remember other back-to-basics agendas, through the years. Here’s one definition:

Back-to-Basics Movement– During the late 1970s and early 1980s, a perceived decline in the quality of education, as evidenced by declining scores on standardized tests and attributed to students’ choice of so many electives considered to be “soft” academically, led to a back-to-basics movement. Proponents urged more emphasis on basic subjects, particularly reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also science, history, geography, and grammar. They wanted schools not only to teach content but also to help children learn to work hard. They wanted the schools to demand more orderly and disciplined student behavior. They wanted the authority of the teacher to be reasserted, and they desired a more structured teaching style. Finally, back-to-basics advocates often wanted the schools to return to the teaching of basic morality and, in particular, the virtue of patriotism. In many ways, the back-to-basics movement was a reaction against the personal freedom movement of the 1970s, which emphasized drug use and sexual freedom, symbolized by the culture of the “hippies.”

I was there, in the classroom, when a recession in the early 80s triggered a slice-n-dice on the enriched curriculum we were building, in the name of going back to ‘essentials’ which didn’t include music or art. I remember waves of ‘back to basics’ under certain other—Republican—governors, including a proposal to create ‘value schools’ where public school kids would get a ‘basic’ education for less than $5000/per pupil.

Back to Basics has always been code language for ‘spend less money on public education and those kids.’ (Preferably, a lot less.) It’s always been Betsy DeVos’s core mission, and of course Dixon’s campaign is being largely financed by DeVos.

Back to Basics is also a vague and empty idea. Aside from literacy and numeracy, it’s hard to define just what is meant by a ‘basic’ education. The least children need? Foundational principles—and then you’re on your own?

We’ve already stripped comprehensive social studies education and—God help us—recess from the elementary curriculum. Now, apparently, we’re taking interesting books out of the library and relegating active classes to sit-and-get. What else can we yank, because it’s not basic?

Did you notice the definition of the movement in the late 70s was driven by ‘declining scores on standardized tests’? Michigan was the first state to introduce mandated, statewide assessments in the 1970s—the MEAP—so it’s worth asking how those new, baseline scores were declining.

There was a dip in SAT and ACT scores in the 1960s as the first baby-boomers went off to college, and established a new and much larger testing pool. But it’s taken decades and lots of laws to put every student under the testing microscope—is this all so we can take away things that make school fun and joyful?

Back to basics. See it for the propaganda it is.

Church and State

I have been a churchgoer much of my life.

Initially, my parents went to church, so I went with them. Aside from ditching Sunday School with my friend Sue in high school, I never really rebelled against their conservative religious training.

Then I went to college.

I experimented with other faiths—occasionally—on campus, but spent most Sunday mornings sleeping in, procrastinating and regretting my life choices. There followed a long stretch of life where church was not on my to-do list. Then I had kids.

It seemed important to give them some experience with religion. We fumbled around, rejecting churches that embraced the death penalty or excoriated abortion. One church— a campus-based Catholic congregation—refused to baptize our first-born because both of us had been divorced. We settled on a liberal congregation where our kids were part of services and programs. Eventually, I became the music director there.

Since then, I have worked for seven different congregations, my side-hustle of choice. For me, church is not about being saved, whatever that means, or being told what behaviors and beliefs are good or bad.

It’s about finding an inclusive community whose core mission is doing good. And it’s about the music.

There aren’t many places, anymore, where group singing is a regular occurrence. I’m a dedicated, lifelong musician, and much of the world’s musical literature has sacred roots. The central purpose of music is to illustrate powerful ideas, to release emotion, to spark joy. If you’re not getting live, participatory music in church, where can you get it?

I share these personal details, because I am worried about the separation of church and state—and I want to establish myself as a person who is not anti-church or anti-Christian theology (another thing I’ve seen a lot on social media).

I strongly endorse every person’s right to choose and practice any faith tradition or reject the idea of a higher power entirely. Up to you. But please—keep your religion out of government, be that the public school, the statehouse or the county commission. Or the midterm elections.

I’m well aware that mainline Protestant denominations in America are fading. Evangelicals are in decline, too, although not as fast. Roman Catholics aren’t doing much better. Modern first world nations –the places where people have universal health care, free post-secondary education and report the highest levels of happiness—are largely secular. Islam is by far the fastest-growing religion in the world, but the right doesn’t seem to acknowledge that.

So why did the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy—the Bremerton, Washington HS football coach who prayed with his team at midfield—spur another round of educators feeling as if Christian prayer in schools is somehow the answer to our national problems?

I’m also a veteran teacher, one who has wrestled with church v. state issues in my overwhelmingly Christian school district, mostly around Christmas music. I understand the difference between cultural expressions (OK) and proselytizing (not OK).

I used to share my classroom and office with a Catholic congregation that was building a church and paying to use our cafetorium, attached to the band room, for services. Father Dave kept his cassocks and vestments in my office closet, because he often went for a run before mass.

We all got along. But our functions, while in the same physical space, were distinctly different.

What music is OK in schools is a perennial, often heated, topic in social media groups for music teachers. The Kennedy decision isn’t going to help, or clarify. It seems to suggest that Coach Kennedy’s personal beliefs and freedom of religion—expressed by praying ostentatiously on the 50-yard line—did not impact his influence (this is where the proselytizing comes in) on his football players.

Baloney.

I was not a coach, but if I had ever talked to my students in December about a baby born in a manger, sent by God to save the world, I would have to believe that some of them, especially the youngest, would have thought I was telling them something important and real—something that might be On The Test. Unethical, to say the least.

Similarly, I am troubled by Republicans on our County Commission who, in May of 2021, passed a policy on partisan lines, to open Commission meetings with prayer. A flurry of rules, sub-rules and adjustments followed: Only official clergy could pray. From recognized religions. That had real churches. In Leelanau County (meaning that the closest synagogue, across the county line, could not send a representative).  

Eventually, after lots of letters and right-wing media attention, the Commission revisited their vote, and settled on a moment of silence. But it took nine months and diverted attention from their real work.

Which raises the question: Whose idea was inserting formal, clergy-led prayer into prosaic local government meetings?

The biggest church in my district makes subtle suggestions about how folks should vote—I read a column on the church’s website this summer, re: which party reflects this particular church’s values, urging congregants to choose that party in the upcoming primaries. I went back to find the piece and insert a link into this blog, but it was no longer there.

Probably because it’s illegal for churches, as tax-exempt organizations, to tell their members how to vote.

Separation of church and state. It’s a good thing.