The Politics of the Polka Fest Parade

I live in a wonderful small town in the ‘Little Finger’ of the Michigan mitten. Cedar sits squarely in the center of the Leelanau peninsula, settled a century and a half ago by Polish farmers, whose names are sprinkled across the landscape on businesses, farms and roads. Holy Rosary Catholic Church, established in 1883, is the conservative spiritual home to many of the residents.

In many ways, Leelanau County—a spectacularly beautiful place, surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, and marked by blooming orchards, massive sand dunes and rolling, wooded terrain—is a microcosm of American politics. A half-dozen charming resort towns, multi-million dollar lakeside homes, and more modest interior villages where family roots go deep. All of it built on land that was mostly ceded to the Tribes, in 1855, then promptly platted up and sold to white immigrants anyway.

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians are still based here, and we’re home to a National Park, Sleeping Bear Dunes, dubbed The Most Beautiful Place in America.It’s a fantastic place to live—good schools, clean air and water, friendly people. Lots of snow.

But things are changing.

The population is growing older and richer and whiter, around the edges of the county, as wealthy folks from around the globe, looking to escape the ravages of climate change, snap up properties. We need another 600 affordable homes, both rented and owned, to support a plethora of service workers and young families who would like to share the beauty and opportunity. Internet services have been decades behind the rest of the world (although the current County Commission has recently made great strides). And keeping our lakes and shorelines clean should be Job #1—they are the lifeblood of the local economy.

If this is starting to sound like a political ad, that may be because I just got through a primary election, running for County Commissioner in my (mostly rural, heart-of-the-peninsula) district. I love it here, and think we could do a much better job of protecting our assets, bringing in young families, and building community.

I have loved living in Cedar since the first summer we moved here, and learned that the Big Deal Event in Cedar was the annual Polka Festival. We went our first Polkafest parade in 2011—and found it heartwarming. Vintage farm trucks, a dancing pierogi, accordion players on flatbeds and a group of friendly folks in the 60-ish demographic, carrying Vote Blue! signs.

Aha, I thought. Those are my people.

And it turned out that they were. I have been in the parade multiple times since, in election years, marching with Democratic candidates and stalwarts. Singin’ songs and carryin’ signs. The other side was there, too—we’d wave, and they’d wave back. It’s a friendly local parade, and we’re all neighbors.

There was no Polka Festival in 2020—postponed into oblivion, like so many things– and we missed it. There’s round-the-clock dancing in a big white tent, authentic Polish food in Styrofoam containers and a mass in Polish, at Holy Rosary. Not so much fun with a dangerous virus circulating.

Last year, with the Polkafest on again, the local Dems applied to send a marching unit, and were told that the Polkafest Parade was now apolitical—no campaigning, no partisanship. Just a community event.

The previous presidential election and the Big Lie made it a year like no other, of course, and the new rules made sense to me. With so many community traditions, 2021 was supposed to be a return to normal. A chance to have fun together. Let’s leave politics out of it. I was OK with that.

Except that the current County Commissioner (who’s held the seat almost 26 years, and will be my opponent, come November 8) was in the 2021 parade, riding an old red farm tractor with signs wired to its sides, suggesting we re-elect her. She was throwing out candy, too.

The Dems called the parade organizers, afterward, and asked what happened to the apolitical parade. We were told that the rules now stated that elected politicians were allowed, but by invitation only.

The day after last week’s Primary, I applied to field a polka band for the 2022 parade. I play in a number of local musical groups, including a community band, and knew I could assemble a handful of good musicians and Roll Out the Barrel.

I’d put an “Elect Nancy Flanagan” sign on the side of the truck. It wasn’t an original idea—I was in a small, truck-bed band in the nearby Leland Fourth of July parade, with political signs for a different candidate, and it was really fun.

The rejection came back immediately. No political units, except for (and the organizer made this sentence outsized and bold) “seated official representatives elected by the people, by invitation only”.

There was some back and forth—Did she want a list of seated, duly elected Democrats to invite? No—but in the end the polka band folks I’d recruited, after tossing around the idea of calling ourselves the ‘Step to the Left Polka Band,’ decided to opt out rather than go incognito or risk a public kerfuffle.

Yup. I realize it’s a pretty small slight, an early lesson in politics. Organizers can invite the side they want to be at their event, and turn the other folks away. Those with power win, those without lose. It’s how the game is played. Especially in 2022.

Yet I imagine newcomers to Leelanau County watching the parade, seeing 26-year County Commissioner riding on her tractor, thinking: Why didn’t the Democrats choose to be in this parade? Where is that woman who’s running against her?  

Or maybe they’ll be too busy looking for the dancing pierogi.

Lirty Dies or Wandering the Campaign Trail in ‘22

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

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

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

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

The problem? Liars win.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, he said. This just started.

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

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

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

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

Lirty Dies.

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

Do Parents Really Want Control Over What Students Learn?

What’s driving the screaming matches at local school board meetings—the ones where organized parent groups show up to have their say about everything from critical race theory to bulletproof doors?

There are a lot of overlapping factors: A nation that’s bitterly divided. The pandemic we’re still dealing with, and its impact on children. Racism, sexism and the fear of losing “rights.” Gun violence. The political upheaval resulting in an insurrection, which played out live, on national TV.

And, of course, money and support from outside sources and organizations, which perceive these ongoing crises as an opportunity to chip away at public education.

I’m no stranger to parent-led fireworks at Board meetings. I’ve witnessed verbal storms over sex education and teacher strikes and girls who wanted to lift weights with the wrestling team.

During my second year of teaching, in October, the School Board decided to lay off 20 teachers (including me) who signed annual contracts in the spring, because an August millage election had failed. They made cuts to programs across the board, and established a pay-to-play model for all HS sports. There was a huge board meeting that went on until the wee hours. And what were the parents upset about? Eliminating foreign languages—or elementary art and music?

No. It was about the football team.

One mom was outraged at being asked to fund her son’s final year on the team. “This is his time to shine! Teachers can always find another job—but my son has only one chance to play football in his senior year!” There were perhaps a hundred teachers at this meeting. You can imagine how that remark went down with them.

My point is this: when parents are angry enough to publicly spout off at a school board meeting, it’s seldom centered around informed disapproval of established curriculum, instruction or even assessments (unless someone has lied to them about what’s going on in their children’s classrooms). Even book banning—a chronic hotspot for school leaders—seldom flares up because a parent carefully read their child’s assigned book and was shocked into action.

What we’re seeing now is something else: an orchestrated and funded effort to demean public education and the people who work in public schools. It’s about power and control. It’s about ginning up fear, using dishonesty as a tool. As John Merrow notes:

Many of the adults who have been disrupting local school board meetings not only do not have children enrolled in those schools; they are classic outside agitators, perhaps even from neighboring states. 

The foundation of recent wrangling over control—parents’ rights, if you will—is thoroughly political and got a big boost when now-Governor Glenn Youngkin promised to strip culturally responsive instruction from schools in VA.

Parents have always had rights—including the right to see what their children are learning, access to instructional materials, the option of observing their child in his classroom, and the opportunity to talk to his teachers about any of these.

Teachers have the responsibility to know the curriculum well, to be able to tell parents why certain materials and teaching strategies were selected.  And—should parents be genuinely concerned about any of these things—the responsibility to justify the value of a particular technique or content, to adapt or offer alternatives.

That, in a nutshell, is good teaching–based on trusting relationships and understanding. Every veteran teacher and school leader reading this has had difficult conversations with parents about what and how their children are learning. It’s part of the job. Always has been.

It’s also one of the reasons many teachers pushed back against the Common Core: the standards didn’t fit the students they were teaching. Driving responsibility for determining standards, curriculum and assessment upwards means that teachers are left with explanation that they’re teaching something because it’s on the state test, even though it may be inappropriate or irrelevant for a particular child.

It’s not just parents who want to strip control from schools. From Education Week:

States have a limited amount of power over what materials teachers use in the classroom. A new report shows how some of them are trying—and succeeding—to wield influence anyway. In the majority of the country, districts operate under local control, meaning that school systems, or sometimes individual schools or teachers, have the ultimate authority in deciding what curriculum is taught.

That means that if states want to influence what teachers are using, they have to get creative about what levers to pull. A new report from the RAND Corporation suggests that some states have managed to do just that.

Look for the phrase ‘High-Quality Instructional Materials’ accompanied by some disdainful blah-blah about how clueless teachers design lessons based on what they see on Pinterest, so professional curriculum deciders need to step in and choose better materials. Well-paid deciders, naturally.

Earlier this year, Jennifer Berkshire found reason for hope:

I’ve spent the last few days talking to voters and candidates in New Hampshire who powered record turnout, resounding wins for public school advocates. One theme keeps coming up. Voters were REPELLED by the extremism of “parents’ rights” groups. This was a backlash to the backlash.

In the meantime, all the shoutin’ has left educators limp and discouraged. From Connecticut teacher Barth Keck:

Nationwide accusations of schools teaching “critical race theory” found their way into Connecticut despite any evidence of its existence or even any accurate explanation of what CRT really means from the critics. Superintendent Freeman “cited letters to the editor and social media posts regarding the school’s teaching and equity policies which imply that ‘parents shouldn’t be trusting the teachers and school administrators who are shaping the experience for their children in Guilford.’” 

I have not felt such pressure personally, aside from comments on social media from those calling me a “groomer” and “brainwasher” of children. Granted, I don’t know these people personally, and the only thing they know about me is that I’m a teacher. But that’s the point: Strategic political posturing has convinced scores of people that, rather than a noble and essential profession, teaching is an insidious endeavor whose primary purpose is to push a far-left agenda.

It’s not about the things parents already have a say in—their children’s learning.

It’s about raising a public ruckus.

Voting is Not Enough to Save Public Education or Keep Schools Safe

Voting is not enough to turn this nation and its communities around, although everyone MUST vote their conscience and core values. It’s a cornerstone strategy in change.

Nor is speaking out enough—although plaudits to every teacher, organization, political candidate and basketball coach who has spoken out against the ugly spasms of hate and violence. More, please—keep talking and keep writing about how we are collectively losing something we once thought invincible: a safe and just democracy.

Even policy will not save us, although it might have a positive impact—the assault weapons ban of 1994 did. Before it expired under George W. Bush’s watch, of course, when the rate of assault-weapon incidents tripled. There were about 400,000 AR-15 style rifles in America before the assault weapons ban went into effect in 1994. Today, there are 20 million.  Policy helps, but is insufficient.

Policy, political power and public discourse are valuable tools—but we need a public uprising, a change in hearts and minds. We can do better. We need to understand how connected we all are, first.

Education depends on safe, orderly, predictable systems—something that the COVID-19 pandemic undermined. It’s taught many of us how interdependent we all are and how interconnected our systems can be.   (Renee Owen, in Education Week.)

Here’s the thing I have been thinking about most, in the wash of grief over the two most recent shootings: The people we lost were community builders, those who sought and worked for safe, orderly and predictable systems in their own lives and towns.  Grandmothers, family caregivers, a retired cop. The supermarket where the Buffalo shooting occurred was a community-driven project to provide grocery shopping in a former food desert.

And the teachers in Uvalde were exactly the kinds of educators we need right now: Committed to kids, thoroughly embedded in the Uvalde community. Skilled veteran teachers. Role models, in a community where over half the citizens speak Spanish at home. They were obviously teaching the children in their care that they were valuable, that they could accomplish great things.

How were they doing this? Safe, orderly and predictable systems that put structure into their work at Robb Elementary School. Until one day, all of those interdependent, interconnected systems failed, and fourth graders were calling 911, begging the police to come and save their lives.

The national conversation right now is centered around what policies, tactics, and personnel could have prevented this.

Several popular-with-Republican theories have been roundly debunked: There were at least 19 good guys with guns who apparently did nothing. The community had already spent more than $600K in ‘hardening’ the building. There was a nine-member local SWAT team to handle shooters on the loose, but they were ‘unavailable.’ The resource officer wasn’t on site, and when he arrived, the shooter walked right past him.

Ted Cruz went with the inane ‘one door’ strategy, proving he’d never dropped his kids off at school—and Sean Hannity talked about trip wires, because those sound cool. That’s enraging, all right—almost as bad as Alex Jones asserting that Sandy Hook never happened.  

All of these ‘solutions’ and strategic assertions are missing the point, however.

Which is: What is there about the United States that breeds domestic terrorism? Especially in young men? We can—and absolutely should—limit access to weapons and ammunition. But why do these disaffected, weapon-toting kids with grudges keep emerging, to threaten peaceful shoppers and innocent fourth graders?

This brings up the question of what we should be aiming for, in public education.

How about this? Human beings who feel accepted as part of a community, and also know they have something to offer that community. You know, the building blocks of successful adulthood– things that make students finish high school with some optimism that the world of independent living and work will pan out for them.

With all the blah-blah about ‘learning loss’ (after a global pandemic, no less) and bogus testing data and parents screaming at school boards—have we taken our eye off what matters most?

Here’s something that made me think—from a piece in the Washington Post about how the gunman presented himself and interacted online:

Many of Ramos’ threats to assault women, the young women added, barely stood out from the undercurrent of sexism that pervades the Internet — something they said they have fought back against but also come to accept.

That made me incredibly sad. Not just empathy for the young women who are (still) fighting sexism. But that the internet, where countless kids hang out 24/7, is precisely where a kid could incubate the idea that shooting up a school would get him attention, establish himself as a badass dude.  

We have a generation of school-aged kids who have experienced significant loss of the safe, orderly and predictable routines found in school for two years. And now, parents are worried that we’re spending too much time on social and emotional issues?

Democrats will tell you their recipe for turning the country in a better direction: Voting. Speaking out. Policy solutions. Using the levers of democracy to save ourselves from a world we don’t want to live in.

But first, we need to stop demonizing those who want to help. The community builders. The teachers in whose classrooms the next shooter now sits.

Why I am Running for Office

I am running for office. The County Commission, District 7, in Leelanau County, Michigan, to be precise. I am running for a position that has been held by the same Republican woman (whose name will not be mentioned) for 26 years.

It goes without saying that a lot has happened in Leelanau County, the gorgeous, rolling ‘Little Finger’ of the Michigan mitten, in the past 26 years.

Leelanau County is a peninsula, surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, and scattered with smaller lakes. Shorelines are home to new and historic million-dollar homes with killer views, and the center of the peninsula is agricultural. We grow more cherries here than any other state in the union, and the county is overrun with fruit flies every August (you get used to it). In May, however, a Sunday drive through the orchards is absolutely breathtaking.

There is a National Park—Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, named the prettiest place in the United States by Good Morning America, in 2011. There’s also an Indian reservation, on the remnant of land left after white settlers platted up and sold nearly all the land—most of the county—deeded to Indians in 1855.

I’ve been a property holder here—some 14 acres, sold on a land contract—since 1987. We built a home and moved here in 2010. And within a year or two, it was pretty clear that some of the people making decisions about my life needed to get some new ideas about local governance. There were plenty of issues.

In 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020, I worked on Democratic campaigns for the Board of Commissioner seat in District 7. They were worthy candidates, with good ideas. And in all four elections, they lost.

The data jugglers for the local Democratic party (for which, I serve as Secretary) seem to feel that no Democrat, no matter how smart they are or how hard they campaign, could win in the ruby-red center of the county.

The outer edges of the county—lots of well-heeled retirees—were turning blue or at least purple. Joe Biden edged out a win in 2020. But District 7—again, lots of farmland and a couple of tiny towns– remained persistently Republican.

Twenty-six Year Veteran doesn’t really bother campaigning much. In the newspaper candidate forums, she writes about how her family has ‘always’ lived here, and how she protects citizens from excessive spending and taxation. No need for any new-fangled ideas, programs or, especially, regulations. My district is studded with Trump signs and those yellow ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flags.

But change is coming. Out of state (and out of country) buyers are scooping up agricultural land and those homes with the killer views. Our sparkling lakes are threatened by the possibility of Enbridge oil spills, and none of the service industry workers the county depends upon, summer and winter, can afford to live here.

And don’t even get me started on access to broadband, the first inkling I had that all was not paradise after we moved to Leelanau County. The majority-Republican County Commission was not interested in expanding access, seeing it as a private business opportunity, not a public utility. Ironic, seeing that Leelanau County was electrified largely by the Rural Electrification Administration, a depression-era federal project. We still pay our electric bills to Cherryland Electric.

The recent influx of federal dollars is finally going toward broadband coverage, but it took a couple more Democratic County Commissioners and a pandemic for the county to seek the kinds of internet service other entire states have enjoyed for the last decade or more.

So why am I running for office?

First, because somebody had to. If nobody ran, Twenty-Six Year Veteran might assume that everyone feels as she does: Cut taxes. Cut services. Ignore problems. Bury your garbage (this was a response to voter-approved recycling). Vote Trump.

As it turned out, there were four of us willing to run. We all filed the paperwork, then met a couple of days later, promising that whoever won the primary would have the full support of the other three. We toasted with a glass of Prosecco, then talked about issues. We’re all on the same wavelength.

We’re tired of all the Republican baloney that’s been mucking up a full-fledged, voter-approved effort to un-gerrymander Michigan. We’re tired of ongoing fights over issues we thought were settled by public vote—like funding programs for early childhood. We don’t understand why all the rich people buying up properties here shouldn’t be compelled to fund a point-of-sale septic inspection, a crucial first step in protecting our water.

We have watched Republicans force public prayer (Christians only!) at County Commission meetings (yes, I understand the dubious legality) and drive out a hard-working, super-competent local Health Department authority over masking.

There’s more. Way more.

I’ll be writing about the issues (including school-related hot topics) in subsequent columns.  I am running a zero dollars-based green campaign: No signs. No paper literature.

But in the meantime, I’m running for the County Commission.

Vote for me!

Nancy Flanagan, Allison Zimpher, Julie Kradel, Mary O’Neill–all running in District 7.

The Strange Land Where We Find Ourselves Now

Ever read a book that resonates, for whatever reason, with the life you’re living—the things you’re thinking about, things that are happening in your world right now?

Munich (Robert Harris) is a fictionalized, but well-researched, account of the Munich Conference in September 1938, wherein a cluster of European leaders thought they had signed on to ‘peace in our time,’ when in fact Hitler had no such intention.

It’s one of those slow burn novels that starts out by introducing us to two very different worlds—the chin-up, upper-crust British government, trying desperately to avoid another devastating European war, and the collection of thugs and sycophants hanging around the Fuhrer who were willing to bulldoze anyone and anything to expand their own power.

I saw parallel after parallel, which made the book (published in 2018) chillingly real.

As political thriller, it’s a good read from a guy who’s written a ton of great political thrillers, many centered in Germany, in the 1930s and 40s. BUT–reading it now, as Putin is devastating Ukraine, because he seems to think he needs more space, and world leaders (elected and un-elected) are trying to stay out of war— is stunningly relevant.

One particularly galling former leader is trying to cozy up to Putin for political advantage, of course. We’re living in a world of thriller plots.

The only knowledge I had about Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the pre-war period, left over from History class, is that he was widely considered an ‘appeaser’ once World War II began, and his reputation hasn’t been burnished since.

The book is kinder to him, seeing him as a man of a different age, when one’s word was one’s honor. But the image of someone who believed in the power of diplomacy getting totally snookered by the depth of evil remains—powerfully—in mind.

Once the Munich Conference actually begins, every page in the book has a resonant sentence or paragraph, about power and the men who wield it.  Although the whole world now knows the spoiler—World War II and its horrors—the book had me thinking about alternate outcomes, about peace and how to reach it.

Also, of course, what could go wrong in our immediate future, in 2022.

A couple of nights ago, Rachel Maddow had one of my favorite truth-tellers on: Jane Mayer, whose latest piece on the Republican ‘slime machine’digs into the coordinated Lies People Tell to ruin the reputations of Biden’s nominees, the most visible example being the appalling hatchet job attempted on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Maddow precedes the Mayer interview with an illustrated commentary on Stalin, the cover-ups of his hideous crimes against his own people, and the propensity for Russian dictators to use accusations of–get this–pedophilia as an excuse to imprison or execute citizens who give them grief. The video is 20 minutes long, but worth the watch.

I finished the book, then opened Twitter to find my new hero, MI State Senator Mallory McMorrow, burning up the media world. State Senator Lana Theis (who represents the district where I used to live) started slinging around accusations of Democrats grooming and sexualizing children in her fund-raising materials, and McMorrow let go with five beautiful minutes of pure truth to power.

Accusing someone of the sexual abuse of children really is the worst thing one can say about another adult human. Scroll back to 2016, and the QAnon-inspired ‘Pizzagate’ where Hillary Clinton was accused of (yup) pedophilia.

There seems to be a pattern here. After all, it was Joseph Goebbels who said If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

More parallels. And the lying has infected our children, and our schools.

Jonathon Haidt, whose work I deeply admire, thinks that social media has been driving this:

It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history… It’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.

Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?

Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.

I am aware of the irony of posting this blog—all about lies and social fragmentation—on social media. But maybe social media is our only recourse at the moment. Senator McMorrow has had over 10 million views of her video, and it’s been enthusiastically applauded on left-leaning media.

Someone has to tell the truth.  Someone has to pay attention.

The Heir and the Hillbilly

By now, you’ve probably seen Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance, author and candidate for Senate in Ohio, wondering why right-thinking dads don’t just ‘thrash’ teachers for inserting their personal ‘sex values’ into the minds of innocent children. We all know that Carlson is worse than a destructive ass–but ol’ J.D., the self-described hillbilly who rose from nothing, sat there nodding and grinning along with Tucker as he incited a little righteous violence against your children’s teachers.

Incident in the Teachers’ Lounge: A dozen teachers sit around a long plastic table, chatting and eating their packed lunches. A custodian enters the room, skirting the table, to grab a soda out of the refrigerator, then stands looking at the bulletin board, while taking long pulls on his drink. There’s a pause in the conversation, and he says: So. You guys think this is funny, huh?

He points to a piece of paper tacked to the board, an internet-distributed list of excerpts supposedly drawn from parents’ absence-excuse notes. Things like: Please excuse Sally. She was in bed with gramps.

There is silence, but the custodian isn’t finished. He says: This is what you do in here? Make fun of parents? He shakes his head and leaves the room. As soon as the door closes, teachers turn to each other and begin talking. What do you think they say? How do they feel?
——————–
I was reminded of this scenario from my own teachers’ lounge as I read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. I was anticipating a good read—it was on all the “Best of 2016″ lists—but found the book shallow and insubstantial.

J.D. Vance grew up in a small town in southwestern Ohio in a working-class family. Aided significantly in a tough childhood by his ever-present, loving grandmother, and after a maturing stint in the Marines, he attended Ohio State, then got a law degree from Yale.

An impressive personal narrative—plaudits to Vance for his persistence—but hardly illustrative of the poor habits and prospects of an entire region of the country. Nor does Hillbilly Elegy illuminate any of the very real problems or crises, per the book’s title, facing working-class families in America today, beginning with the dangerous income gap between the haves and the have-nots that threatens the social order.

In fact, Vance is intermittently reproachful, blaming family members (mostly his mother) for being irresponsible and foolish, and chalking it up to their Scots-Irish heritage and growing up in Kentucky. He seems unaware of his own privilege—being a tall, nice-looking, intelligent white man in a country where those qualities are an enormous leg up, for example.

He describes his public school education as sub-par, with the exception of one demanding math teacher. The training and subsequent education benefits of a stretch in the military get short shrift. Ohio State? Easy peasy. It isn’t until Vance finds himself at cocktail parties where his admission to Yale seems to be paying off with high-level clerkships and job opportunities that he realizes he’s been handed a golden ticket, and he’s being watched to see if he can fit in.

Instead of reflecting on all that good fortune, however, he labels his family hillbillies, monetizing their salty speech, their blind loyalty to a particular funeral home, and their parochial weaknesses, as they struggle to survive in the most inequitable First-World nation on the planet.

In the post-war years, as millions of Baby Boomers became the first generation to attend college, class lines began to blur. It wasn’t until my Sociology 101 class that I realized my family was not “middle class,” but further down in the pecking order. It wasn’t until I read W.E.B. Dubois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” that it occurred to me that moving up in the social order came with a cost to family relationships, and, sometimes, personal integrity. It wasn’t as easy as excelling in school and leaving your grubby antecedents behind—there were other important values besides “success.”

Here’s the question J.D. Vance avoids: Whose fault is it that more than 50 million Americans live in distressed communities, where nearly a quarter of residents lack a high school diploma?” Conversely, who is responsible for lifting themselves out of poverty? Is this a result of hard work and personal discipline only, “rising above” family characteristics—or do social supports, like public education, military training, and publicly funded scholarships also form the proverbial rising tide?

Most of the educators sitting in that teachers’ lounge were second- and third-generation college graduates. To them, the misspelled excuses were funny; their students were sometimes apples who fell near the poorly educated tree. Still, the custodian’s comment—You think this is funny?—found its mark. The post came down. Teachers responded with a mix of embarrassment and defensiveness.

A good public educator accepts all students, kids raised in hothouse homes with thousands of books and trips to the museum and kids who ate sugary cereal in front of the TV until their single mom unlocked the door at midnight. Kids across the spectrum benefit from public education.

J.D. Vance’s story is more about individual good luck than an analysis of a culture in crisis. I expect absolutely nothing from Tucker Carlson, but J.D. Vance ought to know better. He’d be a terrible senator.

The Glorious Adaptability of Music Teachers

Teachers are my favorite group of people on the planet. There’s been a lot of scare-baloney lately about how much schooling has been missed, learning lost blah blah blah—but a pandemic that’s cost us over a million lives is no joke. And teachers have reliably been heroes, showing up to teach, in spite of a firestorm of unsubstantiated criticisms.

I want to offer a special shout-out to music teachers, my super-super-favorite people. And I want to make a prediction: As awful as the pandemic has been in damaging long-standing gold-star music programs, the net effect could be a useful re-thinking of traditional music education.

I joined the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association in 1975, as a newbie instrumental and vocal music teacher. In subsequent decades, I was a district and statewide officer, festival host and adjudicator.

The organization existed, in large part, to organize and run festivals. I played the game, attending hundreds of meetings, festivals and conferences, some years with as many as four performing groups. I followed their rules. And in my 40+ year association with the MSBOA, not much changed.

This is not a criticism, by the way. Lots of organizations stick with what worked in the past.

But this year, the MSBOA—wisely—changed their previously rigid festival requirements. They listened to their members’ pandemic teaching woes, and eliminated a couple of technical challenges that might keep school bands and orchestras from participating. They tried, in other words, to increase access to the good things about performing for critique, and made the process more flexible. The new rules are set to expire in three years, unless members choose to keep them permanent—or change them again.

We typically teach secondary music through performing ensembles, and award-winning programs are usually run by teachers with student populations and resources that allow them to cherry-pick talent and supplement instruction with outside lessons and coaching. There was some grumbling about ‘lowering standards’ with the new festival rules from some of these directors (don’t call them teachers). But I saw this as a giant leap forward for music education.

For the past two years, I have marveled at how adaptable music teachers are—teaching from home, using brand-new technologies, holding classes outside or in tents, jerry-rigging masks and sharing information on bioaerosol emissions, something none of us studied in college. I have seen some utterly amazing and ingenious things. Standing-ovation dedication and creativity.

But I also understand that the pandemic has had hidden consequences for music teachers. A small urban program that usually has 45 kids in the HS band has only 23 this year, as students have to re-take classes they failed online, rather than a 3rd or 4th year of band. A choir teacher has become the in-building sub for teachers out with COVID, as her three select choirs are combined into one class. A novice middle school band teacher lost her job in 2021, because her beginning instrumentalists were unable to perform at the Honor Assembly in June, having spent months learning online, instead of playing as a group.

Wondering about all those cast-of-hundreds bands and choirs that inspired you from those little online boxes? Why couldn’t school bands use technology like this?  (Click on it—you won’t be sorry.)  

Unless you’ve access to some advanced recording and mixing equipment, the skill to use it, and reliable broadband for all your students–you’re not going to be doing a lot of detail work on rigorous traditional literature. In fact, the person who works magic in those little-heads recordings is the engineer, not the conductor or the individual students. Not to mention—someone taught every one of those 1400 musicians how to play before putting a microphone on their music stand.

I think ‘lost learning’ is total fallacy for all students and subjects, but especially for music. It doesn’t really matter when students (or adults) learn to master an instrument, or start singing with a choir. Music is a life-long skill and pleasure. Introducing competition, benchmarks and timelines into music instruction is almost always counterproductive.

It’s occurred to me that the slower pace and greater individuality in learning might lead to stronger musicians overall, students who will play for enjoyment long past school contests. When live performances have been pushed into the background, there is also time to focus on other aspects of music education: history, culture, elements of musicianship, improvisation and composition. Maybe even fun.

Also: relationships, the heart of all learning. I hear from teachers that kids are quitting because practicing is no longer possible at home. How can we make it possible for those students to continue making music with their friends, when school is the only place that can happen?

Can use what we’ve learned teaching online by setting up computer-based instruction for kids who can’t fit band into their schedule? Or develop alternative music classes to bridge the gap between the advanced orchestra playing Shostakovich and more basic music-making?

Maybe we decide to be music teachers, not competitive ensemble directors. That’s not all bad.

It’s a matter of creativity and flexibility, something music teachers have in spades.

Thirteen Songs

The headline made me laugh: Is Old Music Killing New Music?

The news, it seems, is dreadful:
‘Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.’

I find this interesting, as a musician and sometime music scholar. I spent many years doing lessons with my middle school and high school musicians, pointing out that centuries went by with human beings presumably making music that we can only guess about now—and lots more centuries went by where we have written scores, but no audio confirmation of what folks were listening to.

The earliest wax cylinder recording of music dates back to 1888, Arthur Sullivan’s ‘Lost Chord.’ Upon hearing his own composition played back, Sullivan said he was ‘terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.’ Well then.

Commercial radio has been around for about 100 years, accompanied by lots of argument about the best and highest uses of broadcasting. Records—discs, that is, spun at varying speeds and available to the general public—have also been available for about a century.

I am presuming that the ‘old’ music that is slaying new music does not include that vast sweep of music-making prior to the 20th century, even though it’s a pretty large, um, catalog. Also—and this is a simple math problem—doesn’t the growing body of archived music necessitate that newly created music will represent a smaller portion of the whole?

In other words, while I am a strong supporter of music creation, I don’t think the popularity of old music (defined as something released more than 18 months ago) threatens the human compulsion to generate new music. I think it means that music is that rare thing—something that can be experienced repeatedly without growing old or worn out.

This blog was inspired by two things I ran across lately: A thread on Anne Helen Petersen’s Substack, Culture Study which asked readers to name a ‘perfect’ album. And a post from my friend Bill Ivey wherein he suggests his readers ‘create a playlist/compilation album that would be your autobiography through song.’

This is the kind of thing I love to do—I keep a folder on my computer entitled My Songs where I dump recordings that move me, and notes about music that I want to hear again, and again. It’s a mixed bag, pages and pages long, going all the way back to medieval chant, the first stuff that was written down. It’s comfort food for my inner life.

And lately, I have needed some comfort. My husband and I lost a good, good friend a couple of days ago and I needed to wallow in the (old) music that has been the soundtrack of all my life events and friendships.

As I was listening, rambling through the list, simultaneously wiping my eyes and laughing at shared memories, I thought that this might be that autobiographical playlist. Heavy on the sad and the spiritual (not religious, but metaphysical). But also about love. Which never gets old.

So—thirteen songs.

Gathering of Spirits (Carrie Newcomer)

There’s a gathering of spirits
There’s a festival of friends
And we’ll take up where we left off
When we all meet again

I cannot remember who introduced me to Carrie Newcomer, but her entire catalog, IMHO, is something close to genius.

Into the Mystic (Van Morrison)

Hark now, hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly
Into the mystic

I played this once, on my flute, for a funeral—but it’s not about the tune, which is kind of pedestrian. It’s about the words and it’s about Van Morrison. I know Van has been a jerk lately, but his gypsy soul is still present in his music.

Dimming of the Day(Richard & Linda Thompson)

You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side

A song about love and need and fractured relationships that is both tender and ineffably sad; a once-good thing gone bad. I listened to a half-dozen covers (The Corrs, Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss), but settle, always, on Linda Thompson’s pleading original.

I Know You by Heart (Eva Cassidy/Nelson & Harrison)

We were like children, Laughing for hours

The joy you gave me lives on and on

‘Cause I know you by heart

Oh, Eva. Gone way too soon. Her ‘Over the Rainbow’ makes an entirely new song out of Judy Garland’s version—but I like this tune best.

The River Jordan (May Erlewine)  Jordan River, Michigan

When you fall in, baptized of all your sins
Oh we all take a swim on the River Jordan
From what I understand they say the promised land is on the banks of the River Jordan
And I must agree I’ve never felt so free
As you, me, the river and the morning

May Erlewine is a northern Michigan singer with a broad range of vocal styles and great songwriting chops. This is one of her older songs, often requested—but that hasn’t stopped her from writing many more and exploring new musical turf. So there.

The Parting Glass (The Choral Scholars @ University College Dublin)

Of all the money that e’er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I’ve ever done
Alas, it was to none but me

And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all

This one dates back to the 17th century. I played this at another funeral (there should always be music at a memorial service). The local Ancient Order of the Hibernians were there to sing, and needed a pennywhistle to keep them ‘on the tune.’ I came into their rehearsal room to run through it—a large group of men in green sport coats and ties. I introduced myself–I’m Nancy Flanagan—and their leader said ‘Sure you are…’ and they all laughed.

God Only Knows (Beach Boys)

I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it
God only knows what I’d be without you

My favorite Beach Boys song. What’s amazing about this song is that there are so few words, but so much musical depth and infectious vocalizing.

Drift Away (Dobie Gray)

Thanks for the joy that you’ve given me
I want you to know I believe in your song
And rhythm and rhyme and harmony
You’ve helped me along
Makin’ me strong

Oh, give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away

When I die, this is the song I want played at the funeral. (I want a funeral. Not everyone does.)

In My Life (Sara Niemietz, vocals; W.G. Snuffy Walden, guitar/Lennon & McCartney)

There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all

Everyone knows the Beatles version. I picked this one to highlight the way a great, subtle guitar sketches the harmonies, which are the soul of this otherwise simple tune. The vocalist is superb, too.

Shovel in Hand  (Amy Grant)

Life can change in the blink of an eye
You don’t know when and you don’t know why
“Forever Young” is a big fat lie
For the one who lives and the one who dies

I’m not really a big Amy Grant fan—although I love her husband, Vince Gill. This song, however, is personally important to me. For reasons.  And it always, always makes me cry.

For a Dancer (Jackson Browne)

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down

Perhaps a better world is drawing near
Just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found

Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around

This song is proof that Jackson Browne’s best work was his earliest work, mostly for the craftsmanship of the lyrics.

Say Hey (I Love You) (Michael Franti)

It seems like everywhere I go
The more I see, the less I know
But I know one thing–that I love you
I love you, I love you, I love you

I saw Michael Franti play in Grand Rapids and it was more like a religious experience than a concert. He came out with members of the band as we were waiting in lines in the hot parking lot, holding lawn chairs, and entertained us.

One Love (Koolulam/Bob Marley)

One love, one heart
Let’s get together and feel all right
Hear the children crying (one love)
Hear the children crying (one heart)
Sayin’ “Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right”
Sayin’ “Let’s get together and feel all right”

It would be hard to pick a single Bob Marley song, but this recording (at the Tower of David in Jerusalem, with a beautifully diverse crowd singing their hearts out) never fails to move me.

Legislators’ Guide to Making Useful Education Policy, v. 2.0

I recently attended a virtual kickoff rally for Betsy Coffia, who is running for the MI State House, in the newly drawn 103rd district. I first met Betsy after she ran—unsuccessfully—for the old state House seat, more than eight years ago. We met on-line, and she wanted to meet face to face, over coffee.

Betsy asked lots of questions; we had a great conversation. Although she had worked briefly for Head Start, she admitted there were lots of theories and ideas in education policy she found murky. Personally, I was charmed by a candidate who was still hungry to know about ed policy from the perspective of a veteran teacher. In the next cycle, Betsy ran for County Commission and won—twice.

Betsy said (in 2014): “Wouldn’t it be great if there were a guide for legislators to making useful education policy?” So I sketched out one and put it up on my Education Week blog—and from there, it was picked up by Phi Delta Kappan, among other media outlets. It drew lots of commentary—mostly positive.

I just pulled it out. And wow. You wouldn’t think things would be all that different, in eight years. The 2014 version below. Comments about changes in education policy-making—the 2022 version—follow the list of ten.

#1. You don’t know education just because you went to school.

Even if you were paying attention in high school, your perspective as a student was extremely narrow and is now obsolete. Study the issues, which are more complex and resistant to change than you think. Here’s a brief list of things that, in my experience, legislators don’t know diddly about:

  • A cooperative classroom and how to achieve it
  • Formative assessment
  • Effect of class size on daily practice (not test scores)
  • Difference between standards and curriculum
  • Special education
  • Research-based value of recess and exercise
  • Differentiation vs. tracking
  • What quality teaching looks like in practice
  • The fact that ALL learning is socially constructed.

And on and on.

#2. Plan to pay many non-photo op visits to lots of schools. Do things while you’re there. Read with 3rd graders. Sit in on a high school government class or small-group discussion about Shakespeare. Play badminton in a coed gym class. Take garden-variety teachers out for coffee after your visit; let them talk, and just listen. Resist the urge to share the “good news” about legislation you’re cosponsoring. Ask questions instead.

#3. Take the tests that kids have to take. Then you’ll understand why “achievement data” and what to do with it are sources of high anxiety for public schools, teachers, and students.

#4. Be picky about what you read, listen to, and believe. Media is not fair and balanced. In an online world, information and sexy, upbeat story lines are for sale. At the very least, read both sides, with your crap detector on full alert. Consider that media often enshrines flat-out lies in the public consciousness simply because they’re a good headline or the deliverer is charismatic.

#5. Examine your assumptions. When teachers roll out unsubstantiated chestnuts (“No wonder he’s the way he is—just look at his parents!”), it’s teacher lounge talk. But, when elected officials say clueless things, voters pay attention. For example: “Incompetent teachers are being allowed to teach, and substandard service is being tolerated.” Whatever your deepest convictions about unions, teacher pay, urban poverty, or kids today, check those biases at the door. Represent everyone in your district, not just the people who agree with you.

#6. Follow the money, not the party. A lot of what’s happening in education “reform” today is centered around taking advantage of the large, previously untapped market of K-12 education. Before you get on any partisan policy bandwagon just for the thrill of passing a law, ask yourself: Who really benefits from this? Who loses?

#7. Remember you were elected to represent your constituents’ goals and desires, not some special interest group. Even if the prepackaged legislation is slick and convenient and the Koch brothers are willing to fly you someplace warm with golf courses, do the work yourself. Looking yourself in the mirror will be a lot easier in the morning.

#8. Be like Rob Portman. Change your mind and your public proclamations when the evidence is convincing. Changing your mind — if you do it publicly, and don’t try to sneak the shifts past voters with tap dancing and weasel language — makes you stronger, demonstrating that you have confidence in your own core values and leadership. After all, Diane Ravitch altered her views and earned herself a few million devotees.

Corollary: Admit when you don’t understand value-added methodology, the reason STEM is so hot, or constructivism in mathematics education. There is nothing more pathetic than a legislator trying to act like he knows something by tossing out a few buzzwords.

#9. Big and bold gets headlines, but tinkering around the edges gets results. Want to raise teacher quality? Don’t endorse firing the “lowest” quintile, publicly rank-ordering them in the newspaper, or bringing in untrained but photogenic Ivy Leaguers. Do it the old-fashioned way: careful recruitment, building teachers’ skills and knowledge, investing in their capacity and leadership over time.

#10. Honor our democratic foundations. Public education is the most democratic of our institutions, one of our best ideas as Americans. Public schools may be tattered and behind the technological curve, but systematically destroying the infrastructure of public education is profoundly selfish and immoral. Don’t be that legislator.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

From the perspective of 2022:
Some of these are evergreen–#10 especially, but I could add a half-dozen bullet points (the so-called Science of Reading, for example) to #1, as things around which most legislators have zero expertise. The invitation to visit classrooms (#2) once a foundational strategy of reformy organizations like Teach Plus, is defunct in the time of COVID.

Suggesting that legislators take statewide assessments (so they can learn about the tests’ irrelevance and weaknesses) seems downright quaint now. We’re using admittedly bogus test data from 2021 to proclaim that poor kids suffered more under remote learning (which may have also saved their lives, but oh well… learning loss!) Because hundreds of non-profits would have to close if there were no giant data sets to analyze—testing went on, under conditions rendering the results invalid.

Actual policy-making skill, tailored to real needs rather than outside organizations’ agendas—numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7—has grown considerably worse. This is a result of four years of Betsy DeVos, increasingly divisive rhetoric in the media, a poorly managed pandemic, unregulated social media, and the fact that one of our two major political parties has decided that winning is the only thing that matters and to hell with the public good. Public education is now, essentially, for sale.

I’m trying to imagine any teacher cheerily saying to any Republican representative: Check your biases at the door! Those days are over—and the way Glenn Youngkin used deceptive education policy promises to win an election ought to be a cautionary tale for all of us. So much for civic engagement and community-building. So much for re-thinking and all the other blah-blah about improving schools. The action now is locked and loaded, standing on the Capitol steps.

I was really stunned to re-read #9, to remember that there was once a time when ‘big thinkers’ in education were talking about lopping off the lowest-achieving teachers. Now, of course, we’re inviting bus drivers and lunch ladies to substitute teach.  As Peter Greene notes:  It is amazing how quickly some folks have pivoted from “We must ensure teacher and educational quality” to “We must get students into a building with the word ‘school’ in its name no matter what actually happens once we’re inside.” It turns out that an awful lot of that big talk about educational excellence and quality was insincere posturing and as long as we can get schools open and students stuffed inside with something resembling a probably-responsible adult with a pulse, that’s good enough. 

I am optimistic enough to think that writing ten new talking points for writing good education policy is something that might be useful—at some point in the future, if not today. One thing I learned from reading Ibram X Kendi is that most social beliefs and practices are, when you dig deep enough, driven by decades, even centuries, of policy. And, of course, money.

Plus ca change…