The Handmaid Teacher’s Tale

Every now and then, someone will ask about favorite books, the ones you’ve re-read repeatedly. Books that influenced your life. Answers often range from classics (‘Little Women’) to the Bible. I have my own list of a dozen or so—but it’s easy for me to share the book that most influenced my life: The Handmaid’s Tale.

I like what the Washington Post said about it in an early review: Published in 1985, this is a novel of such power that the reader is unable to forget its images and its forecast. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force. “A novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex.”

Darker interconnections, indeed.

When I first read the book (sometime in 1986, shortly after it was published), I was a new mother; my baby daughter was born in 1985. I was also a full-time teacher, with a 45-minute commute, who didn’t have a lot of time for pleasure reading or meandering trips to the library.

I had, however, read and liked Surfacing, one of Atwood’s early works that was on many short lists of early feminist reading—The Golden Notebook, Yellow Wallpaper, The Bell Jar, and the like, those now-classic novels  about women figuring out how the world works. I checked Handmaid out from the library, and hoo boy—that book was one powerful, dystopian reading experience.

Some years later, I read an interview with Atwood (by then, one of my favorite authors), where she noted that there is real-life precedent for everything in Handmaid’s Tale. This truth re-emerged when Hulu created a TV series based on the book in 2017, and viewers commented on the dark and violent nature of the story—I can’t watch! It’s too violent! And totally unrealistic! Umm—nope.

Lest you think I was a raging, underwear-torching feminist back then—hardly. I was happily married, and embarrassingly grateful for my low-wage, womens-work career as a teacher. I went to exactly one consciousness-raising meeting, and came home with a headache, thinking that these women were whiners who needed to solve their own problems rather than waiting for The Movement to change their lives.

And yet. All the way back to my first day as a band teacher, in 1975, I knew that it was a man’s, man’s etc. world, and the power in K-12 education was firmly in male hands. Although the percentage of women who hold down K-12 teaching positions has steadily increased since the 1960s, I was in a heavily male-dominated subset of teachers: band directors. In the late 70s, working on my masters thesis, I acquired the mailing list of all secondary instrumental music teachers in MI. There were seven women holding down HS band jobs in the entire state, somewhere between one and two percent.

That number has slowly, gradually shifted—but it’s taken forty years, and we’re not anywhere near parity yet. I have dozens of humiliating stories about being the only soprano in a room full of tenors and basses, the designated secretary and coffee-maker at professional meetings. Some of them still hurt. Occasionally, on social media, a female band director will share a story about inappropriate remarks made by a male colleague—and there will still, still be men who defend the other man as ‘well-meaning.’

All of this reminds me of a passage in Handmaid’s Tale where Offred–June, for those who know the TV series—reminisces about the day her bank account is frozen, and her husband Luke says not to worry, he’ll take care of her. And he intends to—because he means well. Luke, Offred thinks, is a little too sanguine about all of this—and he’s one of the good ones.

Being a woman in a male-dominated profession was a lot of that operating assumption: good relationships with men were the key to a productive educational work life. If your principal liked you, or your male band-teacher colleagues liked you, you were probably fine. Underestimated, misjudged and overlooked, perhaps. But they’d be polite and friendly, as long as you were no threat to their presumed superiority in a competitive education arena.

A lot of the sexism in education flies way under the radar. It’s subtle. So subtle that the people who are exposing it in their own behavior don’t see their own words and actions as sexist. This cluelessness is not surprising. Unrecognized, unacknowledged sexism is everywhere—in politics, media coverage of current events, everyplace from childbirth practices to cooking.

And paying attention to it matters, a lot, if we care about raising healthy children and building healthy cities.The current debates on transgender students, for example, are rooted in sexism (and, it could be argued, violence):

Supporters of [a bill to prevent transgender students from participating in sports] heavily centered their arguments around athletic differences between cisgender women and cisgender men. Gabriel Higerd, a former adjunct professor of exercise science who researches transgender sports policy, said “biological females are one of our nation’s greatest treasures” and argued that this bill is necessary because it protects cisgender female athletes from competing against transgender female athletes. I have never heard any single group of Americans described as “one of our nation’s greatest treasures” as if they were some sort of commodity and not human beings.

And there you go: Biological females, a great treasure to our nation. We’re back in 1985—or 1947, as women (white women) were forced out of the post-war job market and persuaded their place was in the home, caring for as many children as they could bear. Go back as far as you like. You’ll find sexism. Atwood took us to a place in a not-distant future when men acted on the principle of female fertility being a ‘great (and biblically designated) treasure.’ Not hard to fathom, at all.

I am a big fan of the beautifully filmed Handmaid TV series which uses Atwood’s book as starting point, and of her sequel novel, The Testaments. I did not re-read Handmaid for 30 years. When the series was announced, I bought a digital copy. I remembered all kinds of things about the characters, passages of text, the plot and the utterly chilling world that Atwood created: Gilead. It rang true—or at least possible—in 1986, and just as plausible, if not more so, in 2016.  

 I also know that every time I have written a blog, over the past 17 years, about how women and their talents have been suppressed in EdWorld, I have received pushback. Some of it has been downright ugly.

Which is why I don’t pay attention to reviewers who think that Handmaid’s Tale, focused more and more about savage retribution in Season 4, has jumped the shark. I prefer to think of it as cautionary tale.

Watch—or read—and learn. What goes around, comes around.

Memorial Day

I am old—old enough to remember when Memorial Day was called Decoration Day, and always came on the 30th of May. For many years, I went to the cemetery with my grandmother–also named Nancy–on Decoration Day, with a pot of geraniums for her husband, my grandfather, who died in the 1930s. Her parents, and some of her siblings, were buried in the same cemetery. We went to visit them all, with flowers, taking care not to step on the green beds where they lay.

There were always little flags on veterans’ graves, but so many men (and a few women) were veterans that it seemed like half the people resting in that cemetery had a flag. A graveyard full of citizens who served their country, sometimes dying for that very cause, surrounded by their loving families.

In 1969, May 30 was a Friday. It was an unusually hot day. My high school band played in the local parade, and band parents met us in the park, after the parade, with galvanized tubs full of ice and glass bottles of Coke. I was a senior, playing my last parade on the first day of a long weekend, wearing the stifling gray wool uniform with its little satin-lined red cape, and the flat-topped hat.

It may have been a dare. Or it may have just been the oppressive humidity, and the fact that I’d never have to march in a parade again (or so I thought—ha). But after opening the Coke, I pulled out the braided neckline of my uniform jacket, and poured the icy cold soda right down the front of my body. There was a moment of delicious coolness and some hilarity among the group where I was sitting.

And then the Band Booster president, an officious mom who was in charge of fitting and maintaining 100+ plus band uniforms (and whose two perfect daughters would never dream of despoiling one) came storming over and read me the riot act.

Did I know that I, personally, would be taking my uniform to the dry cleaners? Did I understand HOW MUCH THOSE UNIFORMS COST? And that they had to last for 20 more years? And (this was the real indictment, an uptick in the charges)—did I not respect those who died for our country, those whom we remembered on this sacred day? For shame.

Actually, on that score, she was wrong. I remembered, all right.

I grew up hearing stories about my Uncle Don, who died at 19, in the first wave of Marines on Iwo Jima. My dad’s favorite brother, the handsome one, the rebel. Buried on Iwo Jima, then moved to Rock Island National Military Cemetery, after the war. My dad, after learning his brother had been killed, went AWOL from his own unit in the Army Air Corps, and was busted from Sergeant to Private for the offense. Although he never talked about his own wartime experiences, he never let any of us forget.

In 2021, those who died on the battlefield are a relatively small handful. Thank God, or whomever can be credited with the policies and foresight to keep us out of war.

But in the past year, as more people died from coming in contact with a deadly virus than were killed in combat in WW II, it’s been easier to understand what it feels like to see daily, mounting death tolls in the news. To personally know folks who were sick but survived, to see friends with longer-term disability from COVID, to know families forever riven by death.

Many of them, to use a worn-out phrase, served their country, as well—as stock clerks and bus drivers, teachers and nurses. They died before the vaccine was available, gasping for air, often without family, victims of a different kind of war—an ugly political war, partly created by our own elected leaders.

As an adult, I have experienced Memorial Day in dozens of ways—leading my own school bands in local parades and cemetery services, playing in or directing community bands, and—just two days ago—playing Taps with the Leelanau Flute Ensemble on a friend’s balcony.

Every year, the day reads a little differently. I don’t think it’s disrespectful, or not-sacred, to reflect on all the other things, besides our always-honored war dead, that need remembering. You’ve probably read snippy memes about the difference between Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day.  Both spring from the same source: Let us pause to remember what we’ve done—the noble and the despicable acts, the proud and the shameful. It’s who we are, as a nation.

And—let us teach our children to pause and remember as well. (Click on this link. You’ll be glad you did.)

Is Critical Race Theory Dividing the Country?

When people start referring to a cultural phenomenon with initials—CRT for ‘critical race theory,’ say—you know that whatever that thing once was, it’s now morphed into something completely unrecognizable. Made less complex. Reduced to stereotype. And in the case of CRT, politicized.  

In my long years of classroom practice, pedagogical strategies and hot topics went in and out of fashion. Back in the 70s, values clarification was all the rage. Parents were a little iffy on having students discuss their values, however—probably because they assumed those values were not securely embedded in their sixth graders. And God forbid a teacher should attempt to inculcate values. Or even discuss them.

After values clarification, there was lots of talk about character education. My school had a multi-year project on Reason, Respect and Responsibility. Our project was home-grown, but you could buy pre-packaged character, it seemed—complete with manuals, posters, workshops and student day planners. Every package seemed to come with a testimonial—57% reduction in suspensions!

Today, I see lots of teacher-chat about mindfulness and trauma-informed education. If you think I’m skeptical about the efficacy of these programs—I’m not. I am strongly in favor of whatever it is schools are doing to encourage students to consider their thoughts and behaviors, to elevate the community over impulsive personal actions, to dig deeper into things that are, well, wrong in our society.

I am especially impressed by school leaders who decide to offer their students a chance to consider multiple perspectives and the meaning of justice in a representative democracy. It takes genuine courage to step up, especially when the country seems to be cracking apart and quasi-intellectuals are using big vocabularies and academic terrorism to spook parents over discussing race in America.  

I write all this to point out that teachers incorporate lessons about fairness, caring, harm, self-control, diversity and authority in their classrooms all the time, whether it’s part of an organized program or just daily practice in teaching disciplinary content.

There is no subject or developmental level where values and character aren’t a part of the curriculum, whether intentional or accidental. You couldn’t strip values and character out of teaching and learning if you tried. But try they will.

As Clarence Page noted, those afraid of critical race theory don’t know what it is:        

[CRT] is an evolving practice that questions how race, as a social construct, perpetuates a caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. I agree with critics who say that CRT often elevates storytelling over evidence and reason and devalues the racial progress that Americans have made, despite the challenges that remain. Real critical race theory is better suited to graduate students than kids. But we don’t do ourselves any favors by hiding good information about this nation’s diversity that can help all of us to better appreciate the “united” in the United States.

So how is that scary? And how is it not relevant to every American citizen? An evolving practice indeed, tangled up in all the things schools are supposed to do: Build American citizenship. Establish workforce skills. Encourage curiosity. Learn how to get along.

If the argument, in all the states now writing anti-CRT laws, was that some troubling but essential questions around CRT—reparations, long-term economic damage, health care disparities, how our racist history in America informs the present day—were best tackled by scholars and adults, well OK.

That still leaves a boatload of foundational work to be done, by people of all ages, and lots of that work falls into the character and values bucket. Simple concepts like: Don’t pre-judge people by external characteristics. Race is a social construct. We have a history of injustice. We all do better when we all do better.   

Also: Go ahead and pass anti-CRT laws. You might scare a few teachers. You might reassure white parents that their children won’t have to hear anything ‘unpleasant’ about our history, laws and subtle forms of discrimination. You might score a few seedy political points.

You might also have to set up a whole new and thoroughly unpleasant teacher policing system to make sure liberal Ms. Flanagan isn’t talking to her students about the roots of the music they listen to, 24/7, and cultural misappropriation. Is that CRT? Who gets to say?

You cannot keep the issues of race and racism out of schools. Schools are a stage where social values play out every day. It isn’t critical race theory that’s dividing the country. It’s fear.

Future-focused Education, Future-focused World

I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Arizona, a first-flight of the fully immunized, and a chance to warm up, eat incredible takeout and be somewhere other than home. A vacation, to see our first-born, in a city that has hundreds of gorgeous outdoor dining patios.

I took along a book—The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been saving it for this vacation, when I could sit on a shaded patio, uninterrupted, and read. Friends recommended it. And it kind of rocked my world.

I don’t read lots of sci-fi, so Robinson’s name wasn’t familiar to me, but I can understand why he has plenty of fans. As dystopian/utopian fiction, the story was pretty good, but what made it unforgettable was the other stuff that Robinson tucks in around the narrative: Observations, testimonies, riddles and mini-lectures on an array of systems impacting the way the world operates, now and possibly in the next few decades.

It’s a series of enlightenments on practices that must become habit before we all think and act globally: economics, politics, health, equity, and above all, the imminent threat of climate catastrophe.

You would think living through a global pandemic would be the kind of event to jump-start that thinking.

We’ve all seen the Crisis = Opportunity meme, but far too many outright crises—dangerous inflection points—have come and gone in these United States without any positive long-term outcomes. In the war against complacency and intransigence, we are losing.

Back in the late 1970s, I took a graduate course in Futurism. If I took one thing away from the class as reliable truth, it was this: the point of studying the future is not prediction—it’s planning. Goal-setting. The textbook we used (remember using textbooks in every class?) included, as an appendix, predictions about alternative futures from famous prognosticators.

Reading through those now is amusing—we have far outstripped where the predictions say we would be in 2020 when it comes to technologies, with our Jetsons phones and carrying the Library of Congress in our pockets. Other changes, however, were just a blip on the horizon 45 years ago: climate collapse, social unrest, the dangerous and growing gap between haves and have-nots. Defunding the police? The student loan crisis? Nobody was talking about those in 1978.

It goes without saying that nobody expected to spend four years of their future living under (and I chose that preposition deliberately) Donald Trump. Preventing another disastrous waste of time, resources and international goodwill like the Trump administration ought to be one of our goals as educators.

We have been talking continuously over the past year about re-thinking the purpose and mission of public education, but most of that talk has been about peripheral things—Zoom classrooms, hybrid models, and the damned tests.

Here’s the question we should be asking: What skills and knowledge do children and teenagers need to make sense of this world and give them agency?

Every young child, for example, should have a thought or two about why sharing with other people makes both of us happier. Every teenager should have experience with service work, and understand the difference between a law and cultural norm. Every single person on the planet ought to be able to distinguish between verifiable truth and burnished opinion.

This pandemic period will linger in the memories on American citizens. What have we done to prepare our world for other, inevitable turning points? Have we trained our children to understand the impact of governance and policy creation? Or does that fall into the caption of ‘Social Studies’ and get swept aside in our eagerness to ‘get back to normal’ and pursue high scores in math and reading?

The Ministry for the Future begins with an unimaginably disastrous, climate-related event that kicks an international team of scientists, political leaders and thinkers, a remnant of the Paris Climate Accord, into action. Each well-considered step they take is designed to, literally, save the planet. Some things work well. Others fail. But all make obvious that we can’t just keep on keepin’ on. We have to change.

Change is scary. Preparing our students ought to address this fact. It’s worth the fight.

Ministry is one of those books that drops a lens in front of the reader. It goes like this: Knowing what I know about the health of the planet and well-being of my fellow citizens, what do I observe about daily life that makes me hopeful? And what do I observe that makes me cynical or afraid?

As it happens, we flew from a state where COVID is out of control and parents are jamming Board meetings to demand that their children go mask-less, to a state where infection rates are among the lowest in the nation. It’s hard to draw comparisons without living someplace, long-term, but Arizonians were mask-compliant everywhere we went. And that compliance was enforced by restaurants and museums, not state law.

Delta’s policies struck me as smart and in-control. Lots of annoying things—rude passengers, late flights, inefficient plane loading, and the drunken seatmate—were not in evidence. The airports were clean and quiet, and absolutely everyone was masked. Old white men doing the ‘not MY nose’ mask thing were publicly corrected. People who failed to check a big, heavy suitcase were corrected, too, when the flight attendant wouldn’t assist.

I could get used to flying masked, and touchless check-in, forever. Air travel is also hard on the environment. Maybe what we all need to get used to is staying home, until air travel is carbon-neutral.

I am mostly on the Cynical and Fearful team, and I put a great deal of the blame on my own nation. On the other hand, I believe there is still inherent in America an opportunity to lead globally. But it means tapping into the talents and resolve of young people. You know–education. 

There are a thousand policy ideas about positive change in schooling leading to an engaged and productive citizenry. But first, we need to have a common vision. I have always liked what Neil Postman said about public schooling and the commons, back in 1995. He understood the future of education, a quarter century ago.

“The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public?

The question is: What kind of public does it create?

-A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers?

-Angry, soulless, directionless masses?

-Indifferent, confused citizens?

Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance?

The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools.

The right answer depends on two things, and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.”

― Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (1995)

Pick up The Ministry for the Future. It will make you think.

The Villains of Education

Back in the early days of internet bulletin boards and discussion platforms, there was a seminal piece on forming virtual communities that was passed around by educators interested in using technology to do more than record grades and attendance. Its author (Howard Rheingold, maybe?) posited a working theory of how virtual communities evolve, and the kinds of connections they built, if they were allowed to exist over time without moderation.

The author said most groups and interactions tend to cluster, over time, into three patterns: Sex. Religious veneration. Common villains. (Or something pretty close to those.)

What s/he meant was that people in online groups either flirt, worship particular heroes, heroines or initiatives—or communally post critiques about persons or initiatives they don’t like.

These were not the outcomes of virtual communication that I wanted to consider when I read this white paper. Back then, I wanted to believe that real and complex work, deep learning and genuine community could be accomplished online, and that the crummy habits we develop in face to face encounters could be avoided. But no.

If you wallow in ed-related social media (and if you’re reading this, you likely do), then you’ll know how a group that forms around an education topic can go off the rails. You’ve seen someone post an out-of-mainstream idea and get crushed by horrible, trigger-happy commenters, folks who live to uncover a villain and pile on.

The last time I saw this happen was when a teacher in Massachusetts posted that she hoped MA would not waive spring testing this year, because she believed the scores would show that her students did just as well online as in face to face schooling.

You can imagine that this outlier opinion did not go down well on a ‘teachers’ unity’ Facebook page. You can also imagine that it didn’t take more than about ten minutes for accusations about this teacher’s work conditions, privileges, inferior moral judgment about children in poverty, and lack of intelligence to start flying. Nobody was posting: Hmm? Tell me more!

Of course, there’s probably an All Kids Must Test!page she can join, and find new friends, but that’s not the point. Online discussion groups around education DO tend to evolve into monolithic viewpoints—veneration of certain policies, thought leaders and policy-makers, or a place to complain, bitterly, about the same things. Plus, a kind of flirting—looking for others who find our ideas and appearance attractive.

So much for vibrant, informed discourse or intellectual challenges. Even Facebook page names—Dump DeVos, BadAss Teachers—let you know that the readers may have a common POV. Many aren’t interested in an exchange of perspectives as much as finding Their People.

That’s OK. Most of the recent, pre-pandemic Red for Ed organization happened via Facebook pages and Twitter. And, of course, the January 6th Capitol insurrection organizers used the same social media sites.

Shutting social media sites down (or warning users about their real or imagined transgressions) won’t keep us from the Big Three human-group behaviors—flirting, veneration and attacking common enemies. Whether we’re good-hearted public school teachers or Proud Boys, we’re looking to find compadres, heroes and villains.

It’s when emergent events that impact all educators quickly morph into ad hominem attacks and assumptions that I worry about our ability to act as activists around education issues. Let’s not get stuck on naming and shaming enemies before we negotiate and advocate for the things that will support public education. Pointing fingers is cheap; better to hone your talking points.

Let’s not, for example, turn every policy issue into second-guessing the results of the 2020 election—who Bernie or Elizabeth or Pete may have chosen to craft policy as cabinet members, and how much better that would have been than Biden’s cautious, dismantle-the-fortress approach. The same goes for panning high-profile teachers’ union leaders, most of whom are currently trying to build relationships with policy-makers in hopes of impacting education legislation during what might be a short window of change.

Over the past year, teachers across the country have taken it on the chin from frustrated parents and craven political leaders. But there are a whole range of issues—standardized testing, safely returning to in-person school, vaccinating kids, the advisability of school sports during a pandemic, summer enrichment, the curriculum we need now, you name it—where there is room for debate, opinion and local differences.

We seem to be paralyzed by the window of policy shifts opened by a year of forced adjustments to habits of educational practice, plus a new administration in D.C. Reverting to ad hominem jabs at elected and appointed leaders—same old, same old—is wasting an opportunity. Better to throw out some new ideas.

That doesn’t mean we stop advocating. On the contrary, it means better, issue-focused arguments instead of poking at people who have not been on the job long, people who are trying to address life-and-safety problems and please a range of constituencies.

I have made similar comments on social media: Hey! The guy you just denigrated? He’s on our side!
This usually doesn’t go well: It’s my right to criticize!

And so it is. This is a democracy. It’s your right to condemn, fan-boy and flirt. But if you want to solve problems? As F. Scott Fitzgerald said:The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

What Will YOU Do in 2021 to Make This a Better Country?

First—I didn’t think this question up. It was a meme, posted by my friend Betsy Coffia, Commissioner in Grand Traverse County, Michigan, who said this:

What will it look like to truly love and fight for your country, this year?

What bubbled up first for me was ‘Ask not what your country can do for you…’ but Betsy’s thousands of followers didn’t need any further prompting. Grand Traverse County recently made national news when a woman (whom I also know, from a postcard-writing campaign) asked her elected officials to denounce the Proud Boys and one flashed a rifle instead.  After five and a half hours of mainly appalled public comment responding to this event, the Commission, by a 3-3 vote (with the gunslinger recusing himself), voted not to censure him.

Evidently, three of them they think he’s ‘learned his lesson.’

Stuff like this is happening all over the country—outbreaks of overt racism and well-meant attempts to declare anti-racist sentiments starting World War III in civic meetings. Charter school administrators in Utah agreeing that parents can opt out of Black History Month lessons. The whole MTG (Q-GA) debacle.

It is, in fact, the perfect time to ask: What will it look like to love your country, and fight for your country, this year, when the most deadly wave of the coronavirus pandemic crashes over a population frantic to be vaccinated, devastated by unemployment and inequity, and torn in half?

I had to think about that one.

How can you fight for something that is mostly a distant vision or aspirational goal? Also, how do you muster the courage to speak–as we used to say in the 70s–truth to power, when it might cost you friendships, and felicitous relationships with family and neighbors? Plus a lot of time and energy.

So I asked my own friends the same question (tipping my hat to Betsy, of course). And I’m asking you.

Some responses, so far:

  • Listen to other opinions and acknowledge the opposing view. Give clear and supportable reasons for yours. It will take time to un-indoctrinate.
  • Support good local and state level journalism financially.
  • Call B.S. on white supremacy.
  • Seriously taking steps to accelerate the necessary transition to clean, renewable energy.
  • More peace and love.
  • Encouraging and really supporting women to run for office. 
  • Attend school board meetings locally and advocate for critical thinking skills to be taught.
  • Figure out outcomes where people agree, then starting there. Infrastructure, for instance.
  • Denouncing all forms of prejudice whenever and wherever we find them.
  • Try to further eliminate unconscious bias and not be politicized by the rhetoric.
  • Develop patience, in all things. 
  • Work with my church on racial parity in the city and state.
  • Speak up for local politicians when they are attacked by the bullies. Vet local politicians, too.
  • Support public schools and teacher recruitment/retention.
  • Keep asking, “Whose voices are missing here?” Move closer to grandchildren who are in a city, in a blue state.

Most of the people who comment on my Facebook page are educators—and that last bullet was one of two responses that mentioned public education. Perhaps teachers have internalized the goal of supporting public education to the point where they don’t think about it anymore. Or maybe they feel that they alone are powerless, admitting the limitations of one-person campaigns to save public education. But the question still applies: What will YOU do to show love for public education?

I think it would be a good exercise on this cold, wintry week, when the Senate begins the second impeachment trial of a corrupt and failed president, and an insurrection on the Capitol is still visible in our rear-view mirror.

What will YOU do this year to show love to your country? How will you fight for America?

Eight Reasons to Ditch the National Anthem–from a Music Teacher

Quick! Which famous, Romantic-era American poet wrote these words?

Where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.

You’re already ahead of me here–yes, these words (and lots more problematic verbal embellishments) were the work of Francis Scott Key, author of our national anthem. Including this bit, speaking of foul: No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.

Of course, nobody ever sings those verses.

As a musician and school music teacher who has played and conducted the national anthem thousands upon thousands of times, I was fascinated by the gusher of praise for Lady Gaga’s creative (and, I thought, quite lovely) rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’  Gaga changed the key (yes, there’s an official key–Ab) and the meter, crafting a unique arrangement and singing a notoriously difficult tune well.

Her critics mostly focused on her politics, rather than her performance. Some ‘classical’ musicians, who typically turn their noses up when amateur or pop musicians sing things at big public events, gave her a thumbs-up.

What we ought to be giving a thumbs-down is the national anthem itself. It’s a disgrace.

  • The tune is an old British drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven. Our second best-known national song, My Country, ‘tis of Thee, also swiped its melody: God Save the King (or Queen, as the case may be). We need our own music, written by a bona fide American.
  • The vibe is warlike—not representing our core values. Seriously. Check out the actual words, above. Don’t we want something that, say, salutes democracy and patriotic concord?
  • The words are meaningless to modern Americans. They were written at a time when the continued existence of any American states, united or not, was in question. There is reason to study that time, as our current lack of unity is pretty terrifying–but my guess is that perhaps one out of ten American citizens can tell you what the song is actually about, with a lyric sheet in front of them.
  • The SSB is incredibly difficult to sing, with a range of an octave and a fifth (that’s 12 notes, from the bottom to the glaring pinnacle). It’s also in ¾ time, which makes marching difficult.
  • The archaic lyrics are eminently forget-able. Here’s proof.
  • The key of Ab is not easy for young or amateur musicians. Instrumental arrangers, trying to make something interesting out of a prosaic tune, often make the range and key problems worse by adding prone-to-crack trumpet or vocal flourishes, in an even higher key.
  • It was officially named the national anthem in 1931 because Woodrow Wilson used it to raise and lower the colors during his administration, and we didn’t have an official anthem during WW I, like all the other countries.  Evidently, Congress couldn’t agree on something better.
  • It does not lend itself to group singing—as you may have noticed if you’ve attended a professional sporting event—and what’s a national anthem for, if not a little dab of honest patriotism that all can participate in?

And yes, I’m thinking supportively of Colin Kaepernick et al, too. We need an anthem that embraces our multiculturalism, our principles of representative government, our gorgeous natural beauty—and (thanks, Joe) our national unity. If we ever get it.

I taught and performed the national anthem every year I was in the classroom. At first, I just taught the notes and rhythms, but stressed the importance of playing it well. My personal preference is a straightforward instrumental version, played at a rapid clip. The longer the song drags out, the more restless the crowd. The meaning shifts from a desire to appreciate our common values to a distraction from whatever it is the audience came for.

Later, I turned learning the national anthem into a humanities lesson, studying the drawbacks to our current anthem and exploring other options to the land of the free and the home of the brave. There are lots of picture books that present Francis Scott Key as noble patriotic hero, quill in hand as the battle rages in Baltimore Harbor, but his backstory as a slave holder from a wealthy American family added complexity and honesty to a classroom discussion with the mostly white students I was teaching.

I polled my students—what could replace the Star-Spangled Banner? It’s a great lesson for music teachers, K-12, vocal and instrumental—but also those who teach literature and civics. You can analyze the musical elements as well as the lyrics and cultural genesis of any number of potential anthems.

I added Lift Every Voice and Sing to the list, because it’s an honest picture of how much of our citizenry lives with generations of abuse and neglect—and still sings about faith, rejoicing and the harmonies of liberty. I was very clear with my students, after introducing the song, that it was the Black national anthem, not available for white people to steal, as they had already stolen too many cultural artifacts and ideas. That one idea could, by the way, could support an entire month of lessons.

Teaching at a middle school, my students would cluster-vote for This Land is Your Land, which is undeniably super-easy to sing and play. The protest verses made it attractive to them in the 1970s and 80s. Later, someone would always propose God Bless the U.S.A. as the national anthemand many times, it was students’ consensus choice. Mostly, I think, because they’d heard it before, and could sing along.

Which proves my point: a national song ought to be widely known and easily sung.

Personally—and this is hardly an inspired choice—I would prefer America the Beautiful. Not for the purple mountains’ majesties or alabaster cities, but for this classic line, more relevant than ever:

America! America! God mend thine every flaw.

Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.

Think of a Leader. Who did you picture?

It was a fascinating article in the NY Times, about a management training exercise that directs groups of people to draw a leader. Originally designed to bypass detailed verbal discussion about leadership in groups where multiple languages were spoken, the assignment merely asked participants to sketch their conception of a leader, with as much detail as possible.

I was especially interested because this draw-a-leader technique was one I have used, many times, in workshops around teacher leadership, for diverse audiences. I can testify that if you want to clear a room of school administrators, who suddenly have to step out in the hallway for an ‘emergency’ call, start passing out chart paper, crayons, and markers–and ask them to draw something.

Management trainers and organizational psychologists who use this exercise agree:

In terms of gender, the results are almost always the same. Both men and women almost always draw men. Even when the drawings are gender neutral [which is uncommon], the majority of groups present the drawing using language that indicates male (he) rather than neutral or female. And yet, clients often insisted that what they meant by “he” is actually “both.”

Interesting. Because from my (admittedly unscientific) sample, female teachers, when asked to draw a teacher leader, draw themselves. Details include bulging tote bags, thought bubbles with visions of dynamic schools and thriving kids, the occasional placard. There are often mountains (to climb) in the background—and clever fine points like bags under eyes, sensible shoes, mandatory pockets and mugs of coffee.

I haven’t done a workshop since the pandemic began, but I am certain that teachers creating an image of a professional leader these days would sketch her wearing a mask, holding her mouse and sitting in front of little Zoom-heads, reminding kids to unmute.

Teacher leaders are pragmatic. They know taking on leadership roles means expanding the workload that already consumes their life. They understand that the only definition of leadership that matters in Ed World is keeping one’s promises. Getting stuff–the right stuff–done. Gender is irrelevant, they’ll tell you.

So why do we perceive leadership as a predominantly male characteristic?  

Holding unconscious assumptions about gender affects our ability to recognize emerging leadership. Studies confirm what many women have long known: even getting noticed as a leader in the workplace is more difficult for women than for men. And doubly difficult for black women.

There’s also that dogged, pragmatic streak where women just keep going: Witness the winner of the 2018 Boston Marathon, Desiree Linden, who considered dropping out, but rallied to finish first. There was a lot of blah-blah about physiology–proportions of body fat and pain tolerance–when considering the higher dropout rate for men, under terrible weather conditions.

Maybe, however, the kind of leadership that lets women place first in the Boston Marathon, as well as the classroom, involves something else: persistence through unimaginably difficult conditions. This has been borne out every day, during the pandemic and election season. Think of Stacey Abrams and her crew.

In a thought-provoking blog entitled Why Teachers are Walking Out, Seth Nichols (after noting that he’s the rare male in a female-dominated profession) kicks off with the following comment:

I am often confounded at what I have seen my coworkers silently acquiesce to, happily playing along, fueled only by the sense of the purpose they work from. I am not surprised that teachers in many states have had walkouts. I am surprised that they waited so long to start. The walkouts aren’t really ultimately about “pay,” the face usually presented. Women are done being taken advantage of.

It’s a great piece–recommended–but it ends with Nichols declaring that he’s walking out for good, at the end of the year, because he (unlike the patient and persevering doormat-women he works with) is really done with being taken advantage of, the petty daily humiliations of teaching.

So who’s the leader? The one with the dogged sense of purpose, or the one who feels disrespected and splits?

A YouGov survey in 2018 asked  “Do you personally hope that the United States elects a woman president of the United States in your lifetime, or not?” Sixty-six percent of all respondents said yes, while 34 percent said no–and 59 percent of Republicans were clear: They aren’t hoping for a woman president in their lifetimes.

There were few women who breached the Capitol during last week’s insurrection—notably ‘bullhorn lady’ who gave explicit directions to rioters on where to find their goal destinations. (My first thought, watching the video, was that she sounded like a teacher.) Mostly, however, the insurrectionists were angry white men.

Among the various forms of violence on display, one has been largely overlooked: misogyny, or hatred toward women. Yet behaviors and symbols of white male power were striking and persistent features of the riots. Members of the overwhelmingly male crowds defending a president well-known for his sexist attacksembraced male supremacist ideologieswore military gear and bared their chests in shows of masculine bravado. They destroyed display cabinets holding historical books on women in politics.

Members of the mob broke into [Pelosi’s] office and vandalized it. Items like mail, signs and even her lectern proved to be particularly popular trophies – symbolizing an attack on Democrats and the House Speaker, but also against one of the most powerful women in American politics.

This is not to say that the riots weren’t about racism—they clearly were. And now—TODAY!!—we have a woman of color as our Vice-President. I hope she becomes a pragmatic leader, keeping her promises and demonstrating persistence when the going gets tough. I also hope that the fact of her leadership becomes unremarkable here in the United States, as it is around the globe.

Until that day, we are operating under an outdated conception of just what a leader looks like.

Picture a leader. Who do YOU see?

Be True to Your School

It’s an early Saturday morning coffee-meeting on Zoom. All of us are teacher leaders—what we have in common is awards for our good teaching. What brings us together is a mutual commitment to supporting both public education in our state and the teachers who hold this threatened enterprise together.

Some of us have left the classroom after long careers and moved on to new challenges, but we know that our observations matter little on this day, as the American republic itself seems to be on shaky ground. What we want to know is: What are the kids saying? How are the kids doing? Are they OK?

Of course, they’re not.

Our colleagues working in the classroom talk of their utter mental and physical exhaustion—every week like the first week of school, instructional mastery honed over years now replaced by calling students at home to ask: Are you still in my class? Is anyone in your family sick? Do you have enough to eat?

All I can think is ‘Thank God students have teachers like these.’ Teachers who understand students’ context. Teachers who care. Teachers who are a bulwark against isolation and fear.

One of the teachers mentions talking with her students—cautiously, but necessarily—about the riots and insurrection at the Capitol, and shares a comment from one of them: After all those people came screaming into the Capitol and smashed things and left it filthy, did you see who did the cleaning up? Black custodians. That’s the way it always is—cleaning up after white folks.

The teacher notes that not all of her students are black, but they’re all participating in this discussion. They’re not disengaged. They are riveted. This is real, unlike some of the things they’re supposed to be learning, so they can be tested.

It bears repeating: Public schools are the stage where all the strengths and weaknesses of American society play out. School is our students’ microcosm. School is where identity politics are first encountered. School is where they find their first allies—and ideally, hear truths.

It’s Sociology 101—parents seek the best classmates that they can afford for their children. And once they get their children into the ‘right’ school, they want them to be part of a group. Even Stephen Miller got his political wings by opposing teachers and denigrating custodians, in high school. And the large majority of schoolchildren attend fully public schools.

We all instinctively understand Dunbar’s number: the size of the group with whom anyone maintains genuinely personal and stable relationships is relatively small, somewhere between 100 and 250 people. It’s the theory behind the small-school movement—it’s a good space for learning when people in the community know each other well. Every elementary school teacher worth her salt begins the school year by trying to build a community in her classroom.

School is where values are shaped, and practiced.

It’s also the reason why some groups are interested in injecting fake patriotism into the curriculum. It’s why many education reformers are pushing as hard as they can to ‘unbundle’ education, to ‘personalize’ learning by chopping it into discrete bits to be delivered cheaply online, then tested. 

With so many students adrift, less connected to family and church than earlier generations, teachers and professors might have ‘too much’ influence over what students think.  Break up the public school monopoly (and teacher unions, while we’re at it)! The very essence of the DeVos Education Department.

Will this change, under a new administration? Jury’s out, but both the reformer-privatizer team and the be-true-to-public-education team are expressing hope. Prepare for a power struggle.

In the meantime, here’s an observation that hit me hard, in the post-insurrection reporting.  Daryl Johnson, a senior Homeland Security intelligence analyst in the Obama administration who wrote a government-funded report about the rise of right-wing extremism– later deep-sixed as too controversial—said this, warning that the Capitol riot was just the beginning:


The government is — if they’re responsible — going to be developing programs and resources to start combating the problem. These people have had over 10 years to stockpile weapons and ammunition to get stoked up and paranoid and fearful. So we’ve got to be very careful about how we go about cracking down on these groups. If there are gun laws passed, that’s just going to feed right into their narratives, draw more recruits, radicalize people.

It needs to be more about de-radicalizing. Funding organizations that have people that have left the movement and can develop strategies on how to do outreach and pull people out. There needs to be a massive marketing campaign on what should citizens be doing. If you’ve got family members, neighbors, co-workers that are part of these movements, rather than ostracize and debate and criticize and isolate them, we need to love them, have compassion and bring them into the mainstream. The only way you’re going to get rid of hate is through love. Every person I’ve ever known about that’s been a white supremacist has left the movement through an act of compassion or love. They didn’t leave it because someone convinced them that their belief systems were wrong.

It’s another way of saying, as Martin Luther King did, that we must meet the forces of hate with the power of love. 

We have all read shocking and horrible stories about what happened on January 6, and the people who took part—who invited them, who aided and abetted them, who gave them money, who told them they were ‘loved’ and ‘special.’  It is not enough to post angry and clever tweets (and I’m guilty of this) or cheer for those apprehended and punished.

Young people need places to be, places where their thoughts are heard and valued, where their talents are appreciated and nourished, where their observations about who’s once again cleaning up messes are honored by an adult listener.

Maybe it’s time to be true to public education, the place where all children are welcome.

Sticking to My Guns

God, I hate that phrase—stick to your guns! —because it represents everything that triggered the Capitol breach on Wednesday: Intransigence. The false glory of never yielding, even when your case is weak or based on falsehoods. Violence as means of accruing power.

In the past two days, as conversations sprang up and grew heated on social media, our new town square, a friend (a moderate Republican I’ve known for 15 years, through education channels) posted this:

Heartbreaking to see violent crowds breaking into US capitol. Reminds me of Vietnam protests and Kent State.

More than enough people immediately countered this—the two are nowhere close to comparable—but there were also several commenters who noted that the vast majority of Republicans are good people, appalled by low-rent protestors, who don’t represent the modern Republican party. This isn’t the party my father taught me to love, back in the day. Tsk, tsk.

I pushed back: The time for Republicans to redeem themselves was years ago. With the possible exception of Mitt Romney — who is hardly centrist— the entire party has been complicit. Feckless. They have incented domestic terrorism and protected liars.

I don’t know how you could have watched as nearly half of Congressional Republicans, hours after their very lives and the processes of American democracy were endangered, continue to promote the fallacy that the election was not free and fair, and come to any other conclusion. It is no longer OK to support the Republican party.

Republicans have utterly failed to come and get their boy. We’re seeing editorial columns and think pieces say the same thing, all over the country. It’s on them. From the NY Times, yesterday:

The modern Republican Party, in its systematic efforts to suppress voting, and its refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of elections that it loses, is similarly seeking to maintain its political power on the basis of disenfranchisement. Wednesday’s insurrection is evidence of an alarming willingness to pursue that goal with violence.

My friend’s response: This is not true. I hate it when you say Republicans. I am a Republican and I don’t think it’s right to lump everyone into one category because of extremists. It does no good to be just as accusatory as those you don’t agree with. Please stop saying this. It is hurtful and certainly not applicable in my case.

So—here’s where the rubber meets the road. Do you go ahead and destroy a friendship by sticking to your principles? Depends, I think, on how deeply you believe in what you’re defending.

I unfriended a woman who revealed herself as an anti-vaxxer a few months ago. I’ve cut ties to any number of folks who are apologists for ‘polite’ racism—the ‘all lives matter’ folks. I’ve blocked people in my social circle who trashed our governor because they wanted to go out to eat. I’ve sent out the same credible link about what Antifa is and isn’t to dozens of ill-informed folks.

I also have acquaintances who have publicly experienced a come-to-Jesus moment and relinquished their ties to the Republican party. That’s not to say they won’t be lured back, in the next election cycle, when (fingers crossed) Joe Biden gets the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act passed, or their taxes go up—but I give all kinds of credit to people who publicly stand up against a party gone so far off the rails, even if they once voted reliably R.

As I said, Facebook is the new town square. It’s where people forge relationships, where minds and hearts are changed. The rise of Parler, Gab and TheDonald when FB, Twitter, Instagram, etc. started aggressively fact-checking and suspending accounts are proof of that.

 It’s also a dangerous minefield, full of misinformation and opportunity for bitter conflict. As Tristan Harris said, in The Social Dilemma, maybe the only cure for the treacherous spread of lies and propaganda on social media is the opportunity to immediately counter them, on social media. The cause is the cure.

I’m not sure that’s true—but I don’t believe that taking oneself out of the game, permanently, by shutting down your account and pretending to be above the fray does much good. Breaks are good, but for genuine internal peace or supporting causes that mean the most in shaping our lives, refusing to be part of the conversation just means you have no say in the solutions. Also, the only people who can safely take themselves out of the political discussion right now are those with privilege and resources.

What happens in the voting booth is and always should be private. But nobody is born Republican—it’s a deliberate choice to declare allegiance to the party and what it represents, right now. Jonathon Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, ponders these questions:

Why do ideas such as ‘fairness’ and ‘freedom’ mean such different things to different people? Why do we come to blows over politics and religion? We often find it hard to get along because our minds are hardwired to be moralistic, judgmental and self-righteous. Haidt explores how morality evolved to enable us to form communities, and how moral values are not just about justice and equality–for some people authority, sanctity or loyalty matter more. 

This makes sense to me. I admit to being moralistic and self-righteous (not good things). I do evaluate justice, fairness and equality as far more important than respect for authority, purity or loyalty. Haidt offers a window into why someone would still claim that Republicans, as a group, are a worthy organization: when deep loyalty and respect for authority are the reason for forming a community, modern-day Republicans are indeed way ahead of any political party in history.

And you can see an echo of this in online conversations everywhere: People who change the subject, tilting it away from contentious talk about justice. People who soothe inflamed tempers, who reinforce relationships in spite of sharp political disagreement, who leap to defend someone whose feelings may have been hurt. These are people who should be incensed by what Republicans have done to their jobs as public school teachers, the health of their friends and families, our fragile democratic republic—but they’re avoiding active conflict in the name of civility and loyalty.

Well, folks. What’s at stake right now is truth. That’s not a rhetorical flourish. It’s about what happened on Wednesday, when millions were disenfranchised by people who lied for political gain, then lied again after the most sacred stage of the American experiment had been desecrated.

Republicans, do you believe Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the election? Your party says it doesn’t. And your party isn’t your grandma, someone you have to love in spite of idiosyncrasies or misunderstandings. It’s not your church, where you overlook the rules about birth control because going to church connects you to your family heritage. Your party is controlling the lives and fortunes of millions of Americans who have not had a choice. And it’s spent four years covering up for an evil, destructive demagogue.  Fish or cut bait.

This was my second response (after 24 hours of thinking it over) to the original post:

Sorry–but at this moment in American History, declaring that you are one of the ‘good’ Republicans does nothing to alleviate the danger and damage that Republicans have fomented.

Saying there are some good Republicans is like saying there are some good racists. Or some good anti-vaxxers. Or some good Nazis. Think about all those quiet villagers who lived near Dachau, who claimed to believe they were living near a work camp. That’s where we are–this is Trump’s Reichstag moment.

I might have been willing to agree with your statement–and feel that I was merely disagreeing, politically, with the Republican party–until a year ago, when not even 15 or 20 Republican senators, from all over the country, were willing to convict and remove Donald Trump in the impeachment hearings, after he extorted Ukrainian officials for personal political gain.  

I might have had some sympathy for hardcore conservatives if they hadn’t forced people into life-threatening situations, refusing to give them enough to survive on during the pandemic, at the direction of Mitch McConnell. I might feel differently if a majority of Republicans in Congress hadn’t signed on to a patently false statement about the election results, triggering yesterday’s coup. Yes, coup.

Of course, all three of the Republicans who represent me in the MI legislature and Congress signed, knowing full well that MI changed its mind about Trump in 2020. I’ve seen long guns in my own statehouse, and my Democratic governor the target of kidnapping and execution. Organized by the hands of Republicans. Not extremists—Republicans.

Where are these ‘good’ Republicans? I can tell you where they are right now: on TV, blaming all of this on the Capitol Police, and on Mayor Bowser for not being ‘prepared.’ Declaring that the 25th amendment is too cumbersome. Resigning, to avoid taking a stance. In the meantime, for the past two months, genuine preparedness for the next administration, a competent one that will serve both Democrats and Republicans, has been blocked. Costing us tens of thousands of lives. Threatening national security.

I’m not saying that there isn’t room for a party with conservative beliefs and practices–I’m saying that Republicans, the citizens who still call themselves centrists and moderates and those who embrace the party of their fathers, all look like Susan Collins today: Enablers. Weak. Supporters (by omission) of insurrection. Shame on all of them.

I probably lost a friend today—and that’s too bad. She’s smart and feisty– I’ve learned a great deal from her about issues in education that matter to both of us. But what matters even more is truth.

So be it.



Mi Senate Majority leader Mike Shirkey (R- Clarklake) meets with protestors in the gallery of the Michigan Capitol.