Thursday, July 11, 2013

Oz, the Terrible, Part IV (1985-1987): A hymn to the love of public education I have felt, and how that feeling has changed.

As a wee lad, I loved school, and for thirteen or so years, little happened, a few bumps in the road aside, to change that opinion. Naturally, my experiences led me to want to become a teacher, and so I did.

Then, I finally got to look behind the curtain…
This is the fourth of a multi-installment, highly nostalgic reflection on my 3+ decades in public education, both as a student and as a teacher. This is also the last "student" installment, taking the reader to the end of my days as a high school student. Please enjoy, and share your thoughts, memories and feedback.

Part One is here.
Part Two is here.

Part Three is here.
High School, act two

On the last day of my sophomore year at Liverpool High School, some friends and I celebrated by turning all of the desks in our homeroom upside down.  I’m not sure why, but at that age, it seemed an appropriate way to celebrate.  For this we were given detention, to be served the first available day that detention would next be held:  Monday, September 9, 1985.  The following school year.  I never served the detention.  That summer, my mother got a promotion, and she and my stepfather moved me and my sister to California. [Note:  In 2008, I returned to Liverpool High School, and tracked down the teacher who had assigned the detention, a Mr. Ball.  He was still working at the high school at that time.  I apologized for “cutting” his detention, and a good laugh was had by all.]

My new school, thankfully, was replete with the same kind of wonderful cast of characters that I had left behind. 

Mr. Ulrich’s chemistry experiments of making soap bubbles freeze, or dropping metallic sodium into water, were just about the coolest things many of us had ever seen.  In my senior year, so enamored was I with chemistry that I was allowed to hang out, tinkering around in the lab, setting up and performing experiments independently from an old college-level Qualitative Analysis textbook.  I even cleaned out, catalogued and organized the school’s chemical supply room. (I’m sure there must have been a good reason why there was an old glass jar with a corroded lid with a large charcoal-briquette-looking thing inside and a crackling yellowed label reading “Arsenic – 1969.”)  Nowadays, I would imagine that liability issues would prevent any public school teacher from allowing a student that kind of freedom of access and experimentation.  Besides, it is wholly against the progressivist ethos to allow a precocious student to segregate him- or her- self from the collective; his/her expertise, insight, intelligence, and effort belong to all students, because, you know, sharing is caring. 

Mr. Mitchell was my choir conductor for both of my final two years of High School, and also the co-director of our 1986 musical Bells Are Ringing, in which I played five separate bit parts (including a singing Elvis-flavored walk-on that still gives me the shivers to think about).  Mr. Mitchell’s style was a bit, shall we say, laissez-faire, but I had a great deal of fun (girls outnumbered boys in choir some 8 or 10 to 1 and I was finally at the age to really appreciate that). Plus, Mr. Mitchell never seemed to mind my sneaking into all the football games for free with the Marching Band by holding someone else’s instrument.

I wasn't initially in Mr. Wallach's U.S. History class; first, I was placed in the class of a Mr. Neely.  I petitioned to leave the class after a few weeks.  Why?  So glad you asked... The first day of Mr. Neely's class, he spent the whole period talking about his vacation with his wife to Germany, and about how he had been to East Berlin (you young folks will have no idea what I'm talking about, I suppose).  Turns out, he and his wife and answered "no" to the customs agents' question, "Are you bringing any American money into East Germany?" and, according to him, a search revealed some small change at the bottom of Mrs. Neely's purse, which precipitated a cruel and abusive three or four hours of detention and interrogation.  This was why, he proudly intoned, we were going to say the Pledge of Allegiance EVERY DAY in his class, loudly and proudly, and we were going to be graded on how "proudly" we recited it. It was his way of striking back at those - direct quote here - "goddamn commie bastards." Each day, he would select one person at random to "lead the class in the Pledge."  That person would recite up through "United States of America" alone, after which, the class would join in.  The grade would be based on that first sentence.  I knew I had to get the hell out (read my thoughts on the Pledge here), but before my transfer could be processed, I ended up getting selected.  In what remains one of the saddest and most shameful moments of my life, I caved, and began a half-hearted recital (I still refused to say "under God," and didn't even mouth the words, but I'm sure Mr. Neely was too lost in ecstatic patriotic reverie to even notice).  I got a C-.  Where's a cilice when you need one? Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa...

Mr. Wallach’s American History class was intense, but fascinating. Most of all, I remember Mr. Wallach’s final exam – it was a series of short essays: on the situation in Nicaragua.  We had not talked about nor studied this then-current event.  But he provided us with a quantity of background information, some articles to read, and then asked a series of questions that required us to repurpose and apply concepts we had learned from throughout the year’s American History lessons to the current situation, and analyze it through those critical lenses, comparing events in Nicaragua to events that marked our own history.  It was a brilliant and innovative test, and one that would surely be harshly cast in the glaring light of the Common Core’s beneficent brilliance and roundly demonized (it’s missing half of Bloom’s Taxonomy!  How dare he!)  But it has become the model, conceptually, for almost all of the major tests I have given, in any subject, throughout my teaching career.
Mr. Wallach himself was a riot.  He used to show up to my English class on his prep period (I took English 12 Honors as an eleventh grader because the standard California English curriculum at that time was a year behind the standard New York English curriculum – their English 11 was American Literature, the New York State norm for English 10 at the time, but that's a matter for another blog) to show off his latest gaudy ties – twice as wide as any tie should be, and with color patterns worthy only of 1970s sofas and drapes. His appearances were welcome distractions. 

Not because English was a chore – quite the opposite, in fact; Mr. Fischer’s English 12 was an incredible class, and Mr. Fischer himself was rather like a hybrid of Robin Williams’s Good Will Hunting character and Mr. Kotter.  We analyzed characters in Hamlet and Antigone using Kohlberg’s scale of morality (why, I have no idea), filmed short movies of the Canterbury Tales (my group landed the Physician’s Tale; I played the accompanying music – my group’s video was shot silent-picture style – on an even-then dated Casio keyboard), and a group of friends and I were allowed for a day to turn the class into the totalitarian world of 1984.  I even prepared a batch of Victory Cookies (I swapped the quantities of sugar and salt in the recipe; the cookies ended up pretty foul) and Victory Ade (a standard batch of Kool-Aid, but without the requisite cup of sugar; don’t ever try this at home, kids.)  The students were instructed to eat on command, after paying due homage to our version of Big Brother. One student in particular scarfed down his rather welcome-looking cookie, only to realize how wretched it was; the full cookie partially chewed, he could do little else but look up helplessly as the Snacktime Facilitation Guards insured his proper enjoyment. He quickly, but appropriately appreciatively, reached for his cup of red punch, quaffing the whole thing at a draught.  His eyes told the story of the realization of the mistake he had made.  Of course, he didn’t dare object, as we had cooked up punishments for rebels far more grisly than even Stanley Zimbardo could have imagined.  (Perhaps I exaggerate slightly.)  It was, as they say in those commercials, priceless.  I’m sure that in the modern climate, something like this would be seen as too extreme, and the teacher would almost certainly get into trouble for allowing students to do this.

My 11th and 12th grade math teacher, Mrs. Dillemuth, was an absolute treasure.  She would host holiday parties every year at her rather spacious home, with an open invitation to all of her current and former students.  Her parties were well-attended, with guests stretching back several years.  A picture of how dedicated Mrs. Dillemuth was:  Towards the end of the summer of 1986, she tripped and fell on her front porch, breaking both of her arms.  She refused to take time off, however, and when the school year began, there she was, in front of the class as always, with both of her arms in wrist-to-shoulder casts stretched out in front of her, zombie-style.  She had arranged for an aide to be placed in her classroom to handle the writing of class notes on the board (which the aide did simultaneous with Mrs. Dillemuth’s lectures and discussions, in impressive fashion), the grading of papers and, well, anything else that required arms or hands that actually worked.  She did this for five or six weeks until the casts came off.  She just didn’t want to miss her students. (I’ll claim a tiny fraction of the credit for that; there was a small crew of us who were juniors in her Pre-Calculus class in 1985-86 that were moving on to her Calculus class in 1986-87, and we were, if I do say so myself, pretty special.) 

Once, a calculus classmate and I were incredibly frustrated by a homework problem for which we just could not seem to reach the correct answer.  I only recall that it took a full page of intermediate steps to reach our incorrect answer, and we could not find the error(s).  I also remember, for some unfathomable reason, that it was problem #20. Strange, the things the mind clings to.  We asked Mrs. Dillemuth if we could go to the back of the classroom, where there was a long chalkboard, and try to hash out the problem together. She graciously allowed us to do so, and the rest of the class proceeded as normal, while we were off in our little world, trying to get mathematically unstuck.  I don’t remember how it ended, if we figured it out, or if Mrs. Dillemuth had to come help us after class. I just remember the feeling of - and I never could have expressed it this way then - being allowed to work unimpeded by the artificial strictures of the class period, and appreciation of our teacher recognizing the value of what she allowed us to do, even though it might have been contrary to whatever she had planned for us for the day.  I wonder if teachers are even allowed that kind of autonomy anymore, or would dare exercise it if they were.

Mr. Miller, my physics teacher, had the annoying habit of answering a question with a question.  Usually, it was some version of “Well, what does your group think?”  It was perhaps this (and the fact that he drove an old Peugeot) that led me and 13 confederates to T.P. his house at two o’clock one morning.  Mercilessly.  We celebrated our coup at a Lyon’s restaurant nearby (similar to Denny’s, but with less tacky décor, Lyon’s offered free refills on orange juice, chocolate milk and hot cocoa, which Denny’s did not; sadly, the last Lyon’s closed forever, in Sacramento in 2012) until well past four, and thought ourselves the lords of all creation.  Later on, much later on, when I became a teacher, I found the wisdom of Mr. Miller’s “annoying” ways, and now am proud to say that, as far as teachers go, I am more annoying than most.  I wonder if there aren’t some parents complaining somewhere that there exists a teacher like Mr. Miller who makes their children think things out on their own instead of giving them the answers or rubber-stamp passing them. 

But Mr. Perlman, my twelfth grade English teacher, gave me one of the most unforgettable experiences of my high school career.  As I had taken English 12 as a junior, the school literally did not know what to do with me during my senior year; after all, I needed four years of high school English to graduate, and I had had, officially, but three.  I ended up studying with Mr. Perlman on a self-paced, semi-independent-study basis.  I had a small stack of major pieces to read, and we would meet once a week or so in his prep period, just the two of us, to discuss them.  Up until that point, I had never really had the experience of having “scholarly” conversations in one-on-one fashion (as opposed to participating in a class discussion with 25 other students) with an instructor.  As advantageous as most educators will surely say large-group discussions are, and they are, no doubt, I found the level of focus and continuity – my ability to be able to explore one topic, one discussion, one angle, without a dozen other people raising their hands waiting to inject their two cents – delightful.  I had always had positive relationships with (most of) my teachers, but Mr. Perlman’s was the one that actually crossed over into something like friendship, even though I was just 16 at the time.  Seventeen years later, he attended, and even spoke at, my 2004 wedding.  We just recently re-connected, five years after I left California to move back to upstate New York.

I have left out so many teachers in this waltz down Memory Lane, out of sheer necessity.  But all this reminiscing has a solemn purpose: to contrast, in cruelly high relief, the side of public education I saw when I became a teacher.

Then I learned that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore…

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Oz, the Terrible, Part III (1983-1985): A hymn to the love of public education I have felt, and how that feeling has changed.

As a wee lad, I loved school, and for thirteen or so years, little happened, a few bumps in the road aside, to change that opinion. Naturally, my experiences led me to want to become a teacher, and so I did.

Then, I finally got to look behind the curtain…
This is the third of a multi-installment, highly nostalgic reflection on my 3+ decades in public education, both as a student and as a teacher. I hope to produce follow-up installments every couple of days until this saga is done. Please enjoy, and share your thoughts, memories and feedback.

Part One is here.
Part Two is here.
Bumps in the Road

If you read my first two posts in this short series (and if you haven't, why the hell not?) you may be under the impression that my schooling from pre-K through 8th grade was perfect.  It wasn't, to the extent that few things are.  (My first Rush concert was pretty perfect, as was a particular tortellini dish I savored on the shores of Lake Como once, but beyond that...)  In elementary school, they still used the paddle - a big wooden one, with holes in it, presumably for faster swingability - a punishment I received once for mouthing the f-word to a classmate.  My second time to the principal's office, he, apparently sick of seeing me twice in one year, lectured me sternly by grabbing me by the nose and shaking my head back and forth, leading to a bruise up the side of my nose that impelled my mother to remove me from the school for good, although why we didn't sue the school into the Stone Age is beyond me.  Maybe it's not such a bad thing - these days, people sue for every little thing. Is it possible that we as a society were simply less retributive a generation ago?

In junior high, I was bullied, quite a bit actually.  It never quite rose to the level you hear about in headlines nowadays; then again, I am not a girl, so there was (and is) a different set of pressures.  I had short, parted hair, like some 50s anachronism. I wore Toughskins instead of Levis, and occasionally - gasp! - cords.  These were offenses worthy of a pummeling in Liverpool, New York in 1981, apparently.  I don't remember if the harassment followed me as far as ninth grade, though I do remember a group of boys on my bus who would get off at the same stop as I did, just to provide extra special door-to-door service. My stepfather's solution was to buy boxing gloves and try to train me up in our living room (ouch); my solution was more to ignore the pests and hope they'd go away, rather like some stinging wasp that just wants a fresh piece of meat.  Eventually, they moved on to other things, I guess.  It's just as well, I suppose.  I never was much good with the boxing gloves, but my stepdad did have guns, and those always seemed pretty easy to use.

Like I said, maybe we were all a little less retributive 30 years ago.

Anyway, I always saw these perturbances as existing outside my "school experience."  I was an excellent compartmentalizer.  (Spell check seems to hate that word.)  From 7:30 am to 2:30 pm, anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

High School, Act One

From CHMS, I proceeded to Liverpool High School, where my run of memorable and wonderful teachers continued.  Ms. Matthews taught 9th grade English.  To this day, I still have “Annabel Lee” memorized, and Romeo and Juliet’s Act 3 Scene 1 will always be special for me, since I played Tybalt.  Mr. Showden taught 9th grade history.  I still remember his obsession, long before Avatar, with "Chinese mountains," those dramatic green and gray sawtooth shaped hills, and his having us read about the Asu tribe and their beloved Racs; I felt silly when it turned out that I did not immediately get the joke.  Read here and see if you do!

Mr. Zalewski taught geometry, and he taught it the old-fashioned way – lots of proofs and derivations, theorems and postulates, and constructions, constructions, constructions!  We even read a novel – Flatland, by Edwin Abbott.  It was hard, and occasionally boring, sometimes even unpleasant.  But, despite not having studied geometry for 29 years, I can sit down any ninth or tenth grader and tutor that student in Geometry just from memory, so good was the level of instruction I received.  What passes for geometry these days in some schools is shameful. (The last school I taught at actually offered something they winkingly called “Geo-Lite,” which was listed as “Geometry” on the student’s transcript, but as actually an Algebra refresher course (designed specifically to get the students who had failed the State test, the Algebra Regents Exam, to pass it.  With a little geometry thrown in, you know, at the end, to justify the name. When all that matters is the test score, by hook or by crook, integrity becomes a punchline.)
Mrs. Nolan conducted the choir in 9th grade (with the assistance of her disconcertingly beautiful student teacher, Miss Valentino).  It was in her class that I discovered the band that was to become my all-time favorite.  There had been a couple of pop hits from Chicago from the late 70s and early 80s on AM radio from time to time (“No Tell Lover,” “If You Leave Me Now,” “Baby What a Big Surprise,” “Love Me Tomorrow,” and of course “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”) but we performed a 5-song medley of Chicago’s older tunes – “Saturday in the Park,” “Beginnings,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Just You n’ Me,” and I think the fifth was “Colour My World.”  I had never heard them before.  I dug through some of my stepfather’s old 8-tracks and found a Chicago compilation of tunes from their first three albums (it appeared to be a bootleg 8-track, not an official release), and I listened.  The first song was “Sing a Mean Tune, Kid,” the opening cut off their third album. 

Oh.  My.  Goodness

I was blown away by the jazz-fusion-rock driving sound, and became an instant convert.  I never could draw Chicago’s logo very well, however, on my Trapper Keeper, or anywhere else really.

“Stumpy” Williams was my Earth Science teacher.  Standing perhaps five-and-a-half feet tall, Mr. Williams was also the varsity wrestling coach.  This was a surprising fact only until you actually got close to the man, and realized he was a fireplug – the musculature of a pitbull, but (thankfully) with the personality of a Tim Allen or a Ray Romano.  And somehow, he managed to plow us through the 36 or 40 (or whatever the number was) required labs, teach us the entire course curriculum (none of this leaving out entire sections to hit only the high frequency State test items like teachers nowadays are forced to do so their personal pass rates can look higher, so they don't get disciplined by NCLB lapdog administrators), and have a blast doing it.  He had nicknames for almost everyone in the class; some were not so savory, and the net effect was to turn us into a cross between Snow White’s dwarves and the Gashleycrumb Tinies.  He used to ride a beat-up, old, red women’s 3-speed bike to school every day, and we taunted him mercilessly about it.  But at the end of the year, we had secretly passed the hat around, and put in five dollars or so each (times two classes’ worth of students), and a couple of students cut class to go buy for him, and deliver to campus, a really nice, proper, bicycle.   Seeing Stumpy tear up made many of us tear up as well.  We celebrated the year on the day of the New York State Earth Science Regents Exam by – I do not remember who was responsible for this bounty – bringing two or three cans of vanilla frosting into the testing room, along with a package of plastic spoons.  During the test, we passed the frosting around.  Great teacher plus fun class plus sugar and trans fat (kiss off, Nurse Bloomberg) equals great memories.

Mrs. Stark taught Honors Spanish II.  In my seventeen years or so of Spanish teaching, it is she who most impacted me.  She was mercenary in making sure we did not lapse into English in the classroom, but so outgoing, gregarious, fun and sweet that it didn’t matter.  She was one of those few teachers where all of the students in the class strove to excel not because there was a grade to be earned, but because it was the right thing to do to honor and esteem such a wonderful person.  I became a Spanish teacher largely because of her.

My tenth-grade English teacher, Mr. Bocchino, played much the same role in my becoming an English teacher.  Using a massive American Literature textbook from Syracuse University (see my thoughts on high school ELA curricula here), Mr. Bocchino took us through Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, and Arthur Miller.  He was unfailingly polite (of course, we gave him no reason not to be), calling us Mister, or Miss, plus our last name.  To differentiate between a set of twin girls in the class, he decided that one was "cute" and the other was "adorable."  (I wonder how long he'd have his job in the current climate with a comment like that, even meant innocently and sincerely as it was.)  On top of our textbook work and our required major pieces (six or seven, including Billy Budd, The Red Badge of Courage, Huck Finn, and The Great Gatsby), Mr. Bocchino asked us to read a book every two weeks, and write a short report on it.  I don’t know how he ever found time to read them, much less grade them. But I was inspired to find every great American author I could whose books were 200 or fewer pages or, and as a consequence, discovered the amazing John Steinbeck.  In fact, I never had a teacher require a Steinbeck piece during high school (which makes my experience a bit unusual, I suppose) but in tenth grade, I must have read a dozen of them.  Mr. Bocchino was also a rock guitarist, and had a basement recording studio.  In the eighties, that pretty much made him a perfect human being.  I remember him as a hell of a teacher.

Mrs. Eichenlaub made me write my first honest-to-goodness research paper for tenth-grade (world) history.  To this day, when I teach research writing to college students, my recounting of how I performed the task with a non-electric typewriter and no internet is rather like Bilbo Baggins telling young Hobbits of his adventure to the mountain of mighty Smaug, with much the same reaction.  Someday soon I'll blog about it; it deserves a post of its own.

Mr. Monteleone was a corpulent, jolly man – quite possibly manic, but absolutely delightful.  His admonitions when we would playfully mock him in Spanish III were absolutely legendary.  (“Spit in the wind, it’ll blow back in your face!” or “You better watch out, or when the test comes, you’re gonna shit bricks!” he would snap, not really angry or upset, and sounded – and looked – a bit like a cross between Dom DeLuise and Glen Shadix... you don't know the name Glen Shadix, but you know who he is...)  I suspect that these days, a teacher who spoke of shitting anything would receive at the very least a stern reprimand.

And then there was Mr. Philips, 10th grade Algebra II/Trig, who told us that we had better, as if our lives depended on it, learn the quadratic formula.  To show us that it could be done by anyone, he played a video recording of his son, then only two years old, reciting the formula (with a grand arm sweep for “aaaaaallllllll over two a!”)  If he saw us in the hall, he would ask us.  If he saw us on school grounds, he would ask us.  If he saw us out at a restaurant, at the mall, at the movie theater: any time, any place was fair game. And if we couldn’t do it? Detention.  I never earned such a detention, but I can only imagine it would have been downright Hogwartsian.  I can only imagine now, if a teacher tried to pull that off, what a school administrator would say to mollify the screaming parents.  To this day, 27 years later, Mr. Philips still sends me birthday greetings.

I loved Liverpool High School; I actually felt the kind of partisan, almost cartoonish, pride that students at Rydell High seem to have felt in Grease.  I even loved the school lunches:  One dollar could get me a hamburger (30 cents), a hot dog (30 cents), a piece of pizza (30 cents) and a chocolate milk (9 cents).  The school had seven choirs, and at least seven bands, including a rock ensemble and a full symphony orchestra.  Our concert chorale, led by the inimitable Mr. Firenze, did a series of classical concerts – Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Magnificat.  To blow off some steam, we held a fundraiser (we sold cases of imported citrus fruit from Texas), and funds were used to send the entire choir to Virginia Beach for a three-day vacation; we even had a hotel on the beach (I was on the 8th floor, with a balcony over the ocean!)  I don’t remember if we gave a concert or not, but I do remember that en route, one of the two buses broke down and we had to all pile onto one luxury liner.  It was standing room only, it was late, and we were behind schedule and tired as hell.  But it didn’t matter.  Once the fifty or so of us were all in one place, somewhat uncomfortably and possibly illegally, there was nothing else to do but sing.  Which we did.  A lot. 

One unique Liverpool tradition that, alas, fell by the wayside: Spanish IV and V students collaborated to put on a full-length Spanish Musical each year. The budget was massive, and the course itself was largely the musical’s creation and production.  Each year’s musical was a spoof of an existing property, a la Mel Brooks, but with a completely original script, songs, choreography, costumes and sets, all designed, composed, choreographed and performed by the students.  In Spanish, of course.  The performances were as good as any high school musical you could ever hope to see, with a Borges-esque touch of the surreal that put them over the top.  For example, during Barrioeste (barrio = “ ‘hood,” oeste = “west”), when the Chorros (Jets) were about to square off against the Tiburones (Sharks), a student in full Superman getup was cabled across the sky like Cathy Rigby’s Peter Pan.  For no reason at all.)  The Spanish musical apparently did not survive past the early 1990s.  I’m not sure why.  I cannot say that I’m surprised, only disappointed.
Coda to part III: As I have been saying, this exercise is only slightly narcissistic on my part.  I am immensely appreciative and grateful and nostalgic in the extreme about my educational upbringing.  I really want to share my memories of school because I think that much of what once was is now lost, and want others to think about the changes across generations. And despite the "bumps in the road," I regard my school experiences in a kind of glorious light that motivates me to remark on the changes I have observed over the last generation.

With regard to the aforementioned "bumps in the road," I don't think my experiences were too terribly different than those of a slew of other kids.  I don't think bullying is a new phenomenon, although the way we respond to it certainly is.  And it may, in fact be part of the problem.  But I'll stop short, there; I'm fairly certain that boys bullying boys is a different phenomenon than girls bullying girls, and perhaps always has been.  Here's a thought, though:  When a girl hurts herself as a result of bullying, we celebrate the girl and decry the bullies.  But if the bullied girl hurts the bully, the reaction is the opposite.  It seems like a lose-lose situation.  With boys, the solution has always been more old-fashioned:  Fight, and either win (and gain respect in the process) or lose, and then the bullies are done with you anyway; either way, problem solved.  And I'm ignoring the influence of technology, of course.  I don't mean to oversimplify it; I just think that we've entered a realm where over-advocacy maybe becomes infantilizing.  Bullying is real, but as a teacher I've definitely seen too many victims of bullying play up their victimhood and the security of the protection they assume they have with a dangerous passive-aggressive stance that certainly does not help matters.  I haven't quite yet assimilated it all into a coherent POV.  Any thoughts?

Schools should be safe, but they cannot be made perfectly so, without sacrificing too much of what makes so wonderful. And for me, school was wonderful, even if it wasn't always perfectly safe.  (Chiasmus, biotch!)

I just want what’s best for my kids. And your kids.

Is that too much to A.S.K.?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Oz, the Terrible, Part II (1978-1982): A hymn to the love of public education I have felt, and how that feeling has changed.

As a wee lad, I loved school, and for thirteen or so years, little happened, a few bumps in the road aside, to change that opinion. Naturally, my experiences led me to want to become a teacher, and so I did.

Then, I finally got to look behind the curtain…
This is the second of a multi-installment, highly nostalgic reflection on my 3+ decades in public education, both as a student and as a teacher. I hope to produce follow-up installments every couple of days until this saga is done. Please enjoy, and share your thoughts, memories and feedback.

Part One is here.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (1978-1982, fifth grade through junior high)

In fifth grade I was only in Mrs. Stoker’s class for a short while before an excessive corporal punishment incident at the hands of a school administrator impelled my mother, wisely, to pull me out (One of those bumps in the road I alluded to... What was it that Billy Joel said? “You know, the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems?”) and I transferred back to the Campus School from whence I came, a grade ahead of my old classmates.  Fortunately, Mrs. Reagan’s class, the classroom in which I landed, was a multiage-grouped environment, a blended grade 4-5-6 class, as were the other teachers’ rooms, and as we mixed freely, I saw some familiar faces.

The upper grades of the Campus School were dubbed the “Institute for Experimentation in Teacher Education,” or IETE, and it was truly unlike any school I had been at before, or since.  Each week we were handed a blank grid, and were allowed to make our own schedules for the week (within a few basic parameters).  Did I want three Art classes in a given day?  Or three Home Economics classes?  Extra math sessions?  Or more reading?  Industrial Arts?  (4th, 5th and 6th graders using drill presses, band saws and jigsaws?  I’m pretty sure that would not happen nowadays.)  Much of the academic work was self-paced.  Advancement was mastery-based.  There was a lot of reading, but it too was self-paced.  The room was comfortable, with lots of pillows and cushions for sitting and reading, and I recall it being divided into zones; it was not set up like a “regular” classroom.  There was a zone where we would all sit on the floor in a circle and have powwows, discussions, about what I do not recall, although I do remember Mrs. Reagan teaching us to count using chismbop.  And there was a very large and comfortable reading nook. I used to spend a fair amount of time there.

It sounds like a nightmare concatenation of progressive clichés, but in fact it was quite the opposite.  Our teachers attended to our studies and kept us on track.  We were encouraged to excel, and “good enough” was simply not good enough.  The environment was such that the outer appearance may well have been that of a free-for-all, but there was enough structure to allow the classroom teachers to carefully monitor and choreograph the students’ intricate dance. I simply do not know if that type of environment would ever again be possible in a public school, and CERTAINLY not in the era of Common Core.

In Mr. Bover’s science class, I expressed a desire to absent myself from the regular coursework that the rest of the fifth graders were doing, because I had recently discovered that in an adjacent room, he had a vaguely organized collection of rock and mineral samples – a whole wall of the room of shelves filled to overflowing with boxes and bags, some labeled, some not, of all kinds of wondrous stuff!  I wanted to do that, I told him.  And he let me.  He created an ad hoc geology curriculum for me, and I got to identify, sort classify, label, test and experiment with all manner of interesting rocks, ores, gemstones and fossils. I sat, every day (that I had science) in the side room, sometimes by myself, sometimes with my buddy Mike, and just... played with rock. But with purpose, mind you.  I’m fairly sure that no school would ever do something like that anymore, certainly not for a fifth grader.

But the real treat of fifth grade at SUNY Cortland’s IETE was a music teacher named Mrs. Springer.  If I were to teach a music class to kids of that age, I would do it like Mrs. Springer did.  We listened to and talked about classical music, and learned to identify pieces and composers.  We both watched and listened to the songs of “My Fair Lady” and studied it, like a piece of literature in an English class.  Naturally, we did all the traditional elementary school music class stuff.  And of course, we sang!  One song in particular, if anyone can find me the title, songwriter, or get me a copy of the sheet music, I’d sure be appreciative.  Find some info about it here (click, then scroll down half-way to the post that starts with “Okay, here's a challenge”).
Following a somewhat contentious divorce, remnants of my broken family headed north a half-hour to suburban Syracuse, and to Roxboro Road Middle School.  I remember precious little about that year-and-a-half, for a variety of reasons, I suppose.  I do remember my English teacher Mrs. Howard very well, however, for three things:  1. She had me read a creepy (at the time) short story called “Mr. Dexter’s Dragon”  ("Ope' not this book 'twixt dusk and dawn, lest ye let loose the Devil's spawn!"); 2. During a test, a kid next to me asked me for an answer. I whispered to him “I don’t know,” just to shut him up (I actually did know). She heard, and took both our papers and gave us zeroes. I was mad at her for a long time, but I understand now; 3.  She made us recite from memory the 23 common English helping verbs, in this order: “is am are was were be being been has have had do did does shall will should would may might must can could,” and timed us with a stopwatch.  We had to do it in under ten seconds.  (Most of us did it in under five.  I did it in around two-and-a-half then.  My best time ever is around 1.6 or 1.7.  I have had students of all levels do this for years as a teacher, and two or three times I’ve had students break the 1.6 second mark – with clarity.)  Of course, these days, not only is teaching grammar stigmatized, but having students do anything that smacks of rote is somehow become evil, where I would wave a magic wand and give real years of my life if I could just magically make students at all levels understand what principal parts of verbs are, or know their times tables, or know how to tell time on an analog dial, by grade 9.

My homeroom had two or three TRS-80 Model I computers, on which I learned the rudiments of BASIC.  The girl that sat behind me in homeroom, Annette, used to kick the back of my seat.  I never wanted to turn around to tell her to stop because she was so cute I couldn’t bear to be cross with her.  I also had a mild secret crush on a beautiful girl of Greek extraction in my math class.  (I looked her up online as I was preparing this essay; she’s a professor now at a nearby university.) 

At around this time, girls with feathered hair (and boys with feathered hair - somehow, I recall, the girls required entire cans of Aqua Net to get their hair to hold that shape, whereas the boys didn't. How is that?) were decorating their Trapper Keepers with the logos for REO Speedwagon and AC/DC, an unlikely pairing, now that I look back.  And the dirty, dirty girls who sat at the back of the school bus, bus number 211, came up with some very provocative alternative lyrics for Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” and used to sing them in unison, rather loudly, en route to school, much to the driver’s consternation.

MTV burst onto all of our television screens for the first time (which was especially appreciated as I was saddled with chicken pox), and I begged my mother for music, which she bought me (mostly on 8-track):  Journey’s Escape, REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity, Styx’s Paradise Theater, Hall and Oates’s Voices, The Police’s Ghost in the Machine.  I began listening to FM radio instead of AM radio, and my current and still vital love for music was born.

Putting the pieces back together

In October or November of my seventh grade year, we bought a house, and moved to Liverpool, a neighboring community.  I entered Chestnut Hill Middle School (CHMS), and the first of four years in the Liverpool public schools, in which I encountered a cast of characters of almost mythic stature.  I can’t even begin to give them the kind of elaboration they deserve, but here’s a rundown.

Mrs. ______ (name to be added if I ever find my old yearbook), one of the school counselors, tutored me in Spanish. I had come from Roxboro several weeks into the school year, and I had been taking German with the delightful Frau Sonich.  CHMS did not offer German, so I had to choose Spanish or French, as my mother would not allow me to default to a “study hall.” I chose Spanish, and Mrs. ______ tutored me every day at lunch for several weeks to get me completely caught up, even though I had arrived on campus some two months behind.  I finished with an A (and eleven years later, became a high school Spanish teacher)! 

Mr. Saladrigas was my Spanish teacher for both 7th and 8th grades.  An older Cuban fellow with a dry sense of humor, he used to charge students five cents for every word in English that we spoke in class on Spanish-only Wednesdays.  He saved the money in a jar, for class parties, though to be honest, I don’t remember us ever having one. One day, a classmate, Anthony, went off on a frustrated tirade that cost him $1.35.  Now, when I look at high school Spanish teachers giving their Spanish III and IV students worksheets off the internet, still reviewing basic “What’s your name? Where are you from?” conversation with their classes, and letting them speak English in class, I shudder.  And I’m quite certain that collecting money from students for any reason would land a teacher on some form of suspension.

Ms. Bonnie Gardner was my English teacher, well, “Language Arts” teacher, really (see here for my diatribe on the loss of Language Arts from “English Language Arts”) and she was tough. And mean, or so I thought.  She worked us hard.  We wrote a lot.  She was utterly uncompromising.  She emphasized grammar, correct sentences, clarity, spelling.  Having her for two years in a row was bloody torture.  The following year, 1984, Ms. Gardner, who had recently married one of the school’s math teachers, a fellow we all thought a little creepy, to be honest (and his thousand-yard-stare yearbook photo did not help matters), was killed by that very same man – two blasts with a shotgun as she was leaving choir practice at the local public library.  (Headline here, “Husband Held in Shooting.”)  Later on, when I realized how invaluable her relentless tutelage had been, even much later on, as I entered college, and even later still when I began my career as a teacher, I always felt conflicted about how I had regarded her.  I was a kid, and kids are expected perhaps to despise their workhorse teachers, but when I teach, whether it’s high school or college Spanish, high school English, or college composition, she is one of those whom I channel.

Mr. Black was a Pavarottieqsue gentleman who taught seventh and eighth grade music and conducted the band, orchestra and choir. When he would teach us a song, he would review each part – soprano, alto and tenor (there are no basses in seventh grade) – by singing it for us, in a timid, scratchy falsetto.  His in-class voice was rather like a cross between Rod Stewart, Kim Carnes, and the bus driver lady from South Park; think Mr. Hankey with emphysema.  And for years, I thought that was his actual singing voice, and could not figure out why on earth he was a music teacher.  Much later on, in tenth grade, when Liverpool High School’s concert chorale performed Bach’s Magnificat in D Major, Mr. Black guested as the tenor soloist for the amazing “Deposuit Potentes” (no, that's not him in the link) and showed me just how wrong I was.  When I asked him afterward why he always held back in class, he responded very simply that in a room as small as our junior high choir practice room was, it would have been a bit much.  Fair enough.

CHMS is also where I took my last Home Economics class – I sewed a whole track suit from patterns, and learned to cook various simple dishes.  We had a cooking vocabulary list - 50 important recipe terms: cut, fold, clarify, saute, dice, mince, chop, braise, broil... It was actually useful stuff.  It’s sad that, ostensibly for budgetary reasons, classes like this have gotten the axe.  But I suppose courses that have no standardized tests as their endgame must have little value anymore.
Coda to part II: As I said at the end of Part I, this exercise is only slightly narcissistic on my part.  I am highly appreciative and grateful and nostalgic in the extreme about my educational upbringing.  I really want to share my memories of school because I think that much of what once was is now lost, and want others to think about the changes across generations. 

I know it's cliche as hell to suggest that one's own generation "had it best," and I'm trying to avoid that obvious trap. Nostalgia is not a de facto stamp of quality. But I think today's rat-race, standardized-test-based, data-driven culture is all about numbers, and NOT about students, and the uber-stupid notion that all students must go to a four-year college is preventing us from providing more well-rounded educations (starting at an appropriately young age) to that majority of students who are not destined for a life of academia. Electives, arts, vocational ed -- these are the first to get defunded, every single time. Such decisions are predicated on the notion of the standardized test score as the sole rubric of school "success."  What a depressing, scary road we've taken our children down over this past generation.  I just want what’s best for my kids. And your kids.

Is that too much to A.S.K.?
In my next installment, I will take you to high school. Thanks for indulging me.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Oz, the Terrible, Part I (First Years,1974-1978): A hymn to the love of public education I have felt, and how that feeling has changed.

Oz, The Terrible (Part I)

I remember Miss Veal.  Just barely.  The State University of New York, Cortland’s “Campus School” was housed in Van Houten Hall, and Miss Veal’s pre-school classroom was room number B-33.  That I remember.  I always had a knack for numbers and trivia.

As a wee lad, I loved school, and over the next thirteen or so years, little happened, a few bumps in the road aside, to change that opinion. Naturally, my experiences led me to want to become a teacher, and so I did. 

Then, I finally got to look behind the curtain…
This is the first of a multi-installment, highly nostalgic reflection on my 3+ decades in public education, both as a student and as a teacher. I hope to produce follow-up installments every couple of days until this saga is done.  Please enjoy, and share your thoughts, memories and feedback.
First Years (1974-1978: pre-K through 4th grade)

I don’t remember Miss Veal’s voice, or even any particular incident or conversation involving her.  I just remember her existence, and the feeling that accompanied knowing she existed.  My memories of pre-kindergarten are spotty, but certain moments stand out clearly – how wretchedly I played pick-up sticks, a particular table I used to sit at for lunch, a certain blouse decorated with strawberries that one special girl in the class used to wear. In short, I remember the class fondly, and by extension, I suppose, Miss Veal.  Somewhere I still have the card she mailed to welcome me from pre-K into kindergarten; the envelope was addressed to “Master” Andrew King, a title that I’m pretty sure fell out of common usage within five minutes of her using it, right along with calling little boys “dapper” on school picture day, or relaxing in the afternoon with a good book on the “Davenport.”

The year was 1974.  In addition to giving me all the enrichment work I could handle (I was one of those freakish kids who was years ahead in everything), my two oldest friends, friends I still claim to this day, almost 40 years later, were in the class with me.  Truly halcyon days.
I left kindergarten early, bumped up to first grade at F.E. Smith Elementary School, a public elementary school just two blocks from my house; it was either just shy of or just after my 5th birthday.  I used to walk to school every day, even at that age; an army of crossing guards helped guide the way.  Now, my children’s current school district requires that all kindergartners and first graders be accompanied by a parent just to walk to the bus stop, which, in my children’s case, is all of half a block away.  My children are not allowed to walk to school, period.

My first-grade teacher was Mrs. Allen.  I remember on the walls of her classroom small posters of strange cartoon figures for each letter of the alphabet, each figure an anthropomorphic letter clothed and decked out in various articles that began with that letter.  Each character had a corresponding song; I think the songs must have been on some old 45 records.  Letter R sang about “ripping rubber bands,” whatever that meant, and poor letter X, since so little really begins with X, could only lament in his song that he was “all wrong, X.”  I understand they’ve changed the program, called The Letter People.  Mr. R no longer rips rubber bands – too dangerous – and X is no longer “all wrong” – too politically incorrect; now he’s just “different.” I suppose that’s just the way things go in a brave new world.

Mrs. Edwards was my second grade teacher, and she made darn sure we all know our times tables through 10 by the end of the year, by rote, and with automaticity!  That’s a third-grade standard now, I think.  Isn’t that the direction of all things?  Read my condemnation of the direction that the NCTM took math standards during the late 80s and 90s, and from which we still have never recovered, here.

Mrs. Minielli and Mrs. Inventasch were my third-grade and fourth grade teachers.  Third grade was the first year I remember actually having homework.  Mrs. Minielli would give us a list of spelling words, twenty, if I recall correctly, though it may have been twenty-five, and we would have to write each word three times, and then use each word in an original sentence.  On Fridays we would take a spelling test on that week’s list of words.  Mrs. Minielli would post our weekly spelling tests up on a special bulletin board if we got a 100% (teachers would never do that now, it might make the other kids who didn’t get 100% feel bad).  If we got consecutive hundreds, she would let them accumulate, to show off our “winning streaks.”  I had a stack of 25 consecutive perfect scores, as did Kathy, the school librarian’s daughter and a girl in my class with whom I did enrichment work.  It became a friendly competition.  And on the 26th test, when I shamefully left the second “p” out of the word “pumpkin,” I was admittedly relieved to see that she had suffered the same fate, albeit courtesy of a different word, our impressive stacks of perfect tests cast away in solidarity, our streaks locked for all time in a tie at twenty-five.  Nowadays, posting student work in this fashion is an absolute no-no, as any progressive will tell you that competition in any form is damaging and destructive to children.  And heaven forbid students be asked to practice spelling by rote.  Correct spelling is so… hegemonic!

In Mrs. Inventasch’s class, one day we created a huge cardboard “robot” that I and another student hid inside.  There was an input slot where students would write questions on index cards and slide them in; we would take them, craft answers to the questions on the back of the cards, and slide them out the output slot, like a big know-it-all ATM.  Of course, I’m sure the answers weren’t always right, and for the life of me I have no idea what particular lesson precipitated the creation of the thing in the first place, but at the end of the school day, Mrs. Inventasch put all of our names in a hat to see who would win the privilege of taking the cardboard creation home, and I won.  In the timeless words of the poet Ice Cube, “I have to say, it was a good day.”  Both Mrs. Minielli and Mrs. Inventasch were kind and nurturing, and a lot of fun, and I remember them well, even if I don’t remember them well.

I was doing a lot of independent study at Smith School because I was a bit on the precocious side, so I got to do all kinds of interesting things (well, I thought they were interesting).  I had finished the entire series of Lipincott readers by first grade. I discovered Paula Danziger and Judy Blume, the J.K Rowlings of the seventies, and read them avidly, in the second grade. I was working in a mathematics series brought down from the Junior/Senior High School in the third grade.    When other kids were reading children’s and YA chapter books for their third grade book reports, I did mine on The Snare of the Hunter by Helen MacInnes.  I also wrote a (kid’s version of a) mathematical treatise on the impossibility of Santa Claus based on the earth’s size and estimated travel times that year. (I'm just waiting for somebody to jump on the symbolism of that one; anyone wanna quote me Whitman's Learn'd Astronomer?)

I fear that nowadays, teachers and counselors would put the brakes on a child like that, screaming “developmentally inappropriate!” After all, a generation of progressive teacher education principles has taught us all that not only is precociousness developmentally dangerous and destabilizing, but the precocious student makes his or classmates feel “bad” for their comparative lack of precociousness; it’s just not fair. Not to mention the extra burden it places on a school staff.  Simply shameful, like something out of a dystopian novel:
“We… were not happy in those years in the Home of the Students. It was not that the learning was too hard for us. It was that the learning was too easy. This is a great sin, to be born with a head which is too quick. It is not good to be different from our brothers, but it is evil to be superior to them. The Teachers told us so, and they frowned when they looked upon us.”  (Anthem, Ayn Rand, ch. 1)
I’m sure progressives out there are shaking their heads in despair at a childhood senselessly sacrificed to some elitist parents’ vision of academic excellence.  Well, I was a pretty normal kid.  I played outside, I loved going to the park, I watched maybe a little too much television, I was addicted to my Spirograph, I was convinced that I could ride faster than anyone else on my Big Wheel.  On occasional  Saturday mornings, I would go fishing at the crack of dawn with my father on Little York Lake; on other Saturdays we would go bowling (I was terrible at it, but I loved it).  The other Saturdays, I was up at the crack of dawn to watch all my favorite cartoons – Josie and the Pussycats, Captain Caveman, Dick Dastardly and Muttley, The Wacky Races, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, Hong Kong Phooey, Grape Ape, Magilla Gorilla, The Jetsons, Fat Albert, and the especially Super Friends

And let us not forget: Schoolhouse Rock.

Perhaps my favorite thing to do was always to go with my father to his office in the Old Main building at SUNY Cortland, and roam the expansive and high-ceilinged hallways, exploring, while he met with students, or returned phone calls, or graded papers, or attended meetings.  I remember the so-called “computer rooms”; I thought the punch cards looked so cool, though I had no idea what they were for.  I specifically remember the men’s room stalls on the second floor of Old Main were all solid oak (I don’t know why I remember that, and I'll thank you to avoid any overanalysis) and the soap dispensers above the sinks gave out this harsh-smelling powdered stuff that was abrasive, but I found it fascinating, the way it felt as I ground my hands together with ever-increasing fury in a vain attempt to generate lather.  The grand stairwells, old woodwork and polished floors were, to me at the time, like something out of a mansion in an old movie.  And of course, the college kids themselves seemed like the most towering and worldly grown-ups (suffice it to say that this perception has mellowed a bit). 

My mother worked occasionally as one of those ladies in stores who would give free tastes of food items; I would go to work with her on the weekends sometimes, or walk to her store from home (especially when she was sampling Tony’s frozen pizzas) and roam up and down the aisles of the store, passing by her kiosk and taking samples. Lather, rinse, repeat.  I would space out my return visits so it wasn’t obvious that I was eating so much, even though I'm sure I wasn't as good a ninja as I thought I was. The net result was that after an hour or two, I might have had the equivalent of a full frozen pizza, or maybe even more.  Perhaps that explains my obsession, that stubbornly lingers to this very day, for boxed pizzas. 

At home, we used to clip coupons together, my mother and I, and one of my greatest joys was returning glass milk bottles and soda containers for their deposits, and then shopping with my mom with all the coupons we had clipped.  Maybe because I was a precocious math geek, I loved both shopping for, and reading the nutrition panels of, food packages. [Note to self: Knowledge is not wisdom. To wit: By age seven or eight, I knew all of the vitamins and minerals listed on the side panel of a box of cereal in order, and even their proper chemical names, as well as what functions in the body they aided, but clearly, as I ended up a rather fat adult, I didn’t really ever apply that knowledge meaningfully!]

Plus, I simply loved elementary school in general, and my elementary school in particular.  Around the time of the bicentennial, our class choir sang “Fifty Nifty United States,” a song that required the memorization of all 50 states in alphabetical order, a list (and a melody) I have never forgotten.  I took trumpet (Bb cornet, actually) lessons, though I was pretty terrible.  Odd, since I became an avid music lover, musician and songwriter.  I would buy orange Push-Ups for a nickel in the school cafeteria, and after lunches on some days, they would show films (one, a bicycle safety film called One Got Fat, used to give me nightmares.  Watch it here, and see if it doesn’t do the same for you!) The swings out behind the school were excellent for jumping off, and I remember learning to square dance in gym class.  We also played a version of dodgeball with small fleecy balls that looked rather like Tribbles.  I remember a lot of the older kids making fun of President Carter’s brother Billy, but at the time, I had no idea why. 

All this to say: These days, people who oppose rigor in elementary academics seem to be of the opinion that it steals childhoods; I am of the opinion that nothing is more damaging to good old-fashioned common sense than the either-or fallacy.  Clearly, you can have both.
Note on Part One:  This is not to be seen as an endorsement of Common Core, for corporatization of education is certainly not required to effect the aforementioned, and anyone who has read my earlier posts has read my vociferous objection to the Common Core / Race to the Top / NCLB  juggernaut. [That's four separate links, to four different posts -- read them if this is your first visit to my blog. They're a good primer.]

But scaffolding starts young, and as a teacher I became physically ill at constantly seeing a majority of 9th graders who didn’t know basic arithmetic, whose reading levels averaged around 4th to 7th grade, often who had never picked up a book they weren’t forced to, and who had never been asked to perform with anything remotely approaching rigor or integrity, especially in urban settings where hyper-progressive and ultra-liberal administrators, school boards, and sometimes even (and it pains me to say this) classroom teachers would spew feel-good pabulum and politically-correct apologetic nonsense to justify their complete and continued failure to educate the children in their charge.  This, too, has been a frequent topic on my blog; best captured my personal statement of educational philosophy.
This exercise is only slightly narcissistic on my part.  I am highly appreciative and grateful and nostalgic in the extreme about my educational upbringing.    I really want to share my memories of school because I think that much of what once was is now lost, and want others to think about the changes across generations.  Today there is more glitz, better technology, a rapid pace of change and evolution that is exciting if you are a reader of Wired magazine, but not so much if you are a parent whose children are in the primary grades being made guinea pigs and subject to the yearly changing whims of the educational pundits du jour.  I just want what’s best for my kids. And your kids.

Is that too much to A.S.K.?

In my next installment, I will take you from 5th grade through the end of junior high school. Thanks for indulging me.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

As the 4th of July approaches, some controversial thoughts on the Pledge...

"You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose freewill"
                                                               (Rush, "Freewill")

Didja miss me?  After a prolonged absence from the blogosphere due to some personal and family medical crises, I'm back.  With a vengeance.

As the 4th of July approaches, something to think about:  “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance at the years-long insistence of the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic organization).  It was an attempt to counter-balance the perceived Communist threat Joe McCarthy claimed to have identified, which was seen as “godless.”  So its origin was not religious piety and principle; rather, it was a strategic and pragmatic countermeasure to a perceived threat, and an attempt by a religious organization to use the current coin of the realm – anti-communist fervor – to sidestep the Bill of Rights and leave its mark on a nation it sought to change into its own image through creeping gradualism.

This, from a 2002 New York Times article by David Rosenbaum:
Introducing his resolution in the Senate, Senator Homer Ferguson, Republican of Michigan, declared, "I believe this modification of the pledge is important because it highlights one of the real fundamental differences between the free world and the Communist world, namely belief in God." 
President Eisenhower, in 1954 (emphasis mine):
"From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. To anyone who truly loves America, nothing could be more inspiring than to contemplate this re-dedication of our youth, on each school morning, to our country’s true meaning.... In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”
This is NOT indicative of an America that touts the First Amendment as something of value.

Please take "God" out of my (our) public schools. I'd like my kids to be able to choose when (and if) they speak something that sounds dangerously like a prayer, especially if they're doing so under the direction of someone other than their parents. There is simply no justification for this; it is a black mark on our national character. We can discuss the heroic actions of our soldiers and fighting men and women without invoking a deity, and we can respect the nation, the flag that represents it, and the actions people have taken to defend it (many of them anyway) without forcing children to recite a religious mantra.

I don't know why Neil Peart chose to write "free will" as one word instead of two, but however we choose to write it, we should consider living it a little more, especially in regards to our children. All due respect to the great General Eisenhower, in loco parentis can and should only go so far.

That's not too much to A.S.K., is it?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Partisan politics and the death of civil discussion

"There is a lake between sun and moon
Not too many know about
In the silence between whisper and shout
The space between wonder and doubt

This is a fine place
Shining face to face
Those bonfire lights in the mirror of sky
The space between wonder and why"
                                                                                   ("Between Sun and Moon," Rush)

I took an uncharacteristically long time off between posts (a whole week) to do some reading and reflecting.  I’ve been getting a lot of flak from Conservatives (for whom I’m not Conservative enough), Libertarians (for whom I’m not Libertarian enough), Objectivists (for whom I’m not Randian enough) and Liberals (for whom I’m not nearly Progressive enough).

After my week-long hiatus, I've come to a conclusion, for now:  If I'm making so many people upset, I must be doing something right.

As I blogged last week:
Have you ever noticed that when you disagree passionately with a person, you often abandon a moderate stance in order to more vehemently oppose that person?  It’s easier to defend an extreme position, because it eliminates the complexities and nuance of any argument, and liberates you of the need to make concessions.
I think that many of my posts – not just on this blog, but comments left on other blogs (Washington Post, HuffPo, Diane Ravitch, etc…) – reflect more than a willingness, but a concerted effort to not automatically regurgitate a party-line take on an issue, and I am quick to call on grotesque logical fallacies where I see them, even if in doing so, I may appear to be defending a person or a position I might not normally defend.  In this case, ideologues take my words at their most superficial level and then respond to a straw man hyperbole of what they think my words might have meant, in other words, the interpretation of my words that gives them the greatest leverage against me.

It would amuse me if it weren’t so depressing. I’d like to think that intelligent and thoughtful people read the blogs that I myself frequent – issues-based blogs of political and social import.  And yet sometimes I wonder, is the sport of sparring, the glee that comes from armchair contrariness, is just too much to overcome to have a serious discussion. 

Here is an example. In this case, the other perosn and I eventually made nice-nice after some rhetorical sparring, but it is a good example of what I am talking about:

A few days ago, Diane Ravitch posted up a story about a teacher who had been wrongly accused of publicly revealing a standardized test question (which these days is practically a hanging offense). When he was cleared, the administration refused to concede error or issue any kind of apology for the humiliation, his suspension, the spectacle, or their rush to judgment.  The teacher, R. L. Ratto, on his personal blog, writes:
I was placed on administrative leave, escorted out of my room by my superintendent of schools, ultimately escorted out of the building and ordered not to return until New York State ruled on my guilt or innocence . Twenty four hours later, NYS ruled I did no wrong and I was informed that I was no longer a threat and could return to my classroom.   I have been demanding a public apology from the Superintendent, as well as my school board. To date that apology has not happened.
But what happened then was amazing.  The PTA awarded him the Distinguished Service Award, their highest honor, and made sure that his wife and kids were at the ceremony to see him receive it:
The parents of my school set the record straight! Choosing me for this award and more importantly making sure my family was there as well to witness it was more than I could  ever imagine.  I am forever grateful for the support and confidence during these trying times.
This made my heart glad.  What a wonderful story, a wonderful turn of events.

Ratto went on, and this is the paragraph that Dr. Ravitch chose to highlight on her blog [emphasis in the original]:
Parents throughout the nation are also beginning to set the record straight.  Parents are organizing to opt their children out of high stakes testing. Parents are challenging the motive and research behind the Common Core Curriculum. Parents are challenging those who want to create a data base of their children’s information. Parent’s [sic] all across the nation are saying stop scapegoating our teachers, stop closing our schools, stop destroying our nations [sic] most important asset. Parents will be setting this all straight.”
All of which I agree with, for the most part, in principle.  But what I found, upon a close and careful read, was that this particular paragraph, taken in isolation, has a slightly different main idea, a slightly different (almost imperceptible!) thrust than the anecdote of the teacher’s personal experience.  The theme of the anecdote is something to the effect of:  “Sometimes, wonderful things can happen as a result of the sense of community that a public school can engender.”  It’s a delightful Lifetime made-for-TV movie.  The theme of the paragraph that Diane Ravitch excerpted from Ratto’s blog post was something more like:  “Parents of the world unite!  If you speak out enough, you can topple the authority structure in your kids’ school too!”

Not quite the same thing. 

I taught grades 7-12 for two decades, and I’ve got to tell you:  From my experience, suggesting that all parents need to do is be louder and stronger and they’ll get their way is not always a good thing to do.  I'm not saying parents should not be empowered, and I'm certainly not saying that parents should not be very carefully listened to. I thought this was a subtle point, and one worth making, so I posted up this comment, reflecting the balance, complexity and nuance I try to infuse my words with, to avoid sounding like I’m just regurgitating soundbites (and to avoid confusing or overtly antagonizing the simpleton trolls that invariably surface):
Sometimes parents do know what’s best, what’s right. But I’ve found in my 20+ years of teaching that the extent to which the parents’ voices are put to good use is directly related to the nature of the community. In my experience, better-off communities with more educated parents, more stable homes, tend to be more in touch with and involved in (as well as invested in, philosophically and otherwise) the education process itself and what’s “really” going on than communities with very high dysfunction, illiteracy, poverty, crime, etc… (I’ve seen entire extended families show up to school unexpectedly mass-berate a guidance counselor or administrator over something that anyone with the slightest inkling of how schools really function would have taken in stride.) Also, parents from particularly strong partisan or religious backgrounds tend to focus their grassroots energy on areas that are not pedagogy-centered, but that support their personal sociological or religious agendas (religious displays in schools, banning GSA club activity, etc…) I think overall there is a benefit to restoring more control to local (district, site) levels. I think the Conservatives who call for total parental control are taking it one step too far, in part for [these reasons].

That said, this story is remarkable, and an excellent example of the power of the voice of the grassroots collective. In this case, the voice of the masses was used to a good end. But it is not always so.
I thought it sounded reasonable - even, balanced, not too heavy-handed or overzealous.  And carefully enough worded so that no one could possibly misinterpret and think I was calling all parents idiots or blasting all Conservatives.  Yeah, dream on.  Someone quickly responded: 
blame conservatives, blame parents. ah yes the “voice” of the “grassroots” “collective”.  these low income and poverty stricken areas have been the guinea pigs of leftist curriculum for decades precisely because of their low parental participation. It is much easier to manipulate children while their parents are not watching.
*sigh*  Such drama.  This is what I try to avoid.  My response:
I’m no progressive (seriously, read my blog – TRUST me, I’m no progressive). But it’s foolish to assume automatically that the parents with the loudest voices want and know what’s best for thousands of students in their districts.

I agree that there is a hyper-liberal pendulum swing in process in schools, and I think it is turning back, finally. My fear is that it goes TOO FAR in the opposite direction. […]

A synopsis: Teacher was wrongly accused. Teacher was punished, publicly admonished. Teacher was innocent. District/site administration refused to man up and admit error, apologize, show respect. Community stepped up and showed appreciation by proxy. Teacher feels redeemed.  
It’s not a partisan thing to recognize how f***ing awesome that is.

A fellow poster’s bemused interpretation of the whole exchange: 
There is no lonelier place than middle ground, especially on Internet forums.
And in political discussions.  Especially, it seems, about education.  Last week, I wrote about my disdain about the either-or fallacy and how it stops us from engaging in meaningful dialogue and prevents people from even conceding points to an adversary even when there is agreement out of a sense of “keeping score.”  We place ourselves in camps, teams, groups.  And we adhere to them slavishly and cravenly, and defend them with bloodlust.  Partisan politics is like political soccer hooliganism.  And I’ve never seen a soccer brawl end well.

Most children will tell you that the opposite of day is night, and the opposite of sun is moon.  But often, the moon is visible in the sky, even when the sun is up. 

We need to learn to share rhetorical space.

Am I just naïve?  I’m just…

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

False dilemma: The either-or fallacy and the standardized testing debate

"They call me Mr. Knowitall
I will not compromise.
I will not be told what to do.
I shall not step aside.

They call me Mr. Knowitall
I have no time to waste.
My mouth it spews pure intellect.
And I've such elegant taste! [...]

They call me Mr. Knowitall
I am so eloquent!
Perfection is my middle name,
And whatever rhymes with... eloquent."

                                         ("Mr. Knowitall," Primus)

A few days ago, I came across a blog post by a fellow who chose to write about standardized testing, something that has been written about eighteen or so trillion times.

But this article was different.  It didn’t recycle old rhetoric and clichés, nor was it unduly burdened with melodrama and gross hyperbole, two sins that many, including perhaps yours truly, indulge in from time to time – some deliberately (cheesy and manipulative writers), some accidentally (bad writers).

Instead, I found its tone revelatory in its simplicity.  It says only what it needs to.  It is clear – both precise and concise.   It is so short that my attempts to excerpt it would lead me to duplicate almost the entire article, which only clocks in at just over 800 words.  It is eminently readable, and it accomplishes this without dumbing down the jargon, technical language or rhetoric.  

A few choice snippets:
“As a teacher, if my livelihood is based on test results, then I will do everything possible to ensure high marks, including narrowing the curriculum and prepping fiercely for the test. The choice between an interesting project and a paycheck is no choice at all. These are amazing disincentives to student learning. Tying teachers' careers to standardized tests does not foster creative, passionate, skillful young adults. It does exactly the opposite.”
“As a large body of research suggests, standardized test data are imprecise for two main reasons. First, they do not account for individual and environmental factors affecting student performance, factors over which teachers have no control. (Think: commitment, social class, family.) Second, high-stakes, one-time tests increase the likelihood of random variation so that scores fluctuate in arbitrary ways not linked to teacher efficacy. (Think: sleep, allergies, the heartache of a recent breakup.)”

“Because standardized tests are an inexact estimate of a teacher's ability, they are also unfair. By focusing on a sliver of the curriculum -- often rote facts --standardized tests do not measure meaningful understanding. (Think: ‘Who was the last French monarch?’ versus ‘How much violence is justified in revolution?’) And unless you believe bubbling the letter of the best answer is crucial in the 21st century, standardized tests exclude evidence of important skill development.”
And I love the way the author, Jack McKay, describes testing as America’s “new national pastime.” Hell, baseball is all about the stats now, why shouldn’t teaching be so as well?  Then they could print test scores and passing rates on the back of teachers' I.D. badges -- like baseball cards!  *sigh*

What most caught my attention, however, was this phrase:  “[E]ducation reform has been cast as a false dilemma between students and teachers…”

I wrote my Masters thesis on the either-or fallacy in public policy (specifically, as pertains to education and pedagogy) decision-making.  The either –or fallacy (also called false dilemma or the black-and-white fallacy) is, simply put, the assertion that any set of options is necessarily reduced to either x or y.  I am a passionate opponent of this manner of oversimplified, prone-to-extremes type of issue analysis.  (Think: America’s 2-party system.)

People seem to naturally gravitate towards this simplified manner  of thinking, unfortunately. Have you ever noticed that when you disagree passionately with a person, you often abandon a moderate stance in order to more vehemently oppose that person?  It’s easier to defend an extreme position, because it eliminates the complexities and nuance of any argument, and liberates you of the need to make concessions.

Think about it in debate terms.  There are two ways to approach debating:  One is to use the friction of debate to unlock new lines of inquiry, probe diverse viewpoints, better understand the gestalt of an issue, and reach a better (or at least more acceptable) solution to a problem.  I’ll call this constructive debate.  The second way is to “win,” whatever the cost, in other words, to take down your opponent.  I’ll call this destructive debate. 

There’s nothing harder than engaging in constructive debate with an adversary who is hell-bent on destructive debate.  You want to look at multiple sides, make the necessary concessions to show that you’re not a one-note ideologue; you want your discussion to be rich, nuanced, erudite, but your efforts to recognize the aspects of your adversary’s arguments with which you might agree only fuel his rhetorical zeal, and he in return gives you no such consideration. “Score-wise,” you have capitulated, whereas he has not.  He sees your acquiescence as a sign of weakness, your lack of sureness as to your own core beliefs. Clearly, he tells you, you have no consistent principles.  You feel the center of the debate shifting unacceptably towards your adversary; your confidence slides as he is further emboldened.  This creates a new problem.  You certainly don’t want your supporters to see you agreeing with aspects of your opponent’s position, while not winning any points of your own.  They might think your opponent’s position has merit!  So what do you do? You ratchet up your end of the dialogue, take a slightly more extreme position to “titrate” the discussion more into balance.

Oh, but this has the opposite effect, rather like trying to steer out of a skid.  Ere long, you and he are at radical opposite ends of the spectrum, two polarized extremes, an either-or.  Another debate that could have been a constructive discussion, turned into a destructive battle.

Even the best of us falls into this trap occasionally.  Even, it seems, the esteemed author of the blog article I’m currently lauding.

He writes:
“I believe student results from standardized tests should not be used to evaluate teachers because the data are imprecise and the effects are pernicious.”
“Let's decouple high-stakes testing from teacher evaluations for the sake of students and teachers alike.”
Hey, I agree with him! Well, mostly, that is…

And isn’t that the lure of the either-or trap?  It satisfies our driving human need to emote.  To want to say “Hell yeah!” or “Hell no!”  It’s much less cathartic to scream out, “That’s pretty much it, but there are a few details I’d like to take issue with!”  The either-or fallacy satisfies our need for easy categorization (are you a pro or a con?) and our need for fraternization (it’s easier to match black with black and white with white than it is to color-match an infinite number of shades of grey).  No public speaker is going to rouse a teeming crowd of would-be hangers-on to orgasmic outbursts of applause with “Pretty much!  That’s basically it!”

Look at these modified versions of his sentences:
“I believe student results from standardized tests should not be used as the main metric to evaluate teachers because the data tend to be imprecise and the effects can be pernicious.”
“Let's drastically reduce the impact of high-stakes testing results on teacher evaluations for the sake of students and teachers alike.”
I don’t think the utter elimination of high-stakes testing is the answer, necessarily.  That's the "or" to the "either" of testing. Any assessment can show us something useful.  If four physics teachers at a high school all give the same assessment to their three classes of 75 kids, and the results are radically different, there is a good chance that there’s some reason why.  The score disparity might just alert the teachers, or the department, or the administration to a conversation that needs to be had, a need that is not being met, or simply an artifact of the testing process itself that should be discussed, if for no other reason than to eliminate it from consideration as a failure of one aspect or other of the system.   Those conversations cannot happen if there are no diagnostics of any kind, and standardization (or "norming") is the best way I can think of to achieve, or at least approach, a state of ceteris paribus.

Now, and this is important, the reason is NOT AUTOMATICALLY teacher inefficacy, which would automatically be the assumption under the very real current educational regime that McKay describes.  Therein lies the problem – not so much the assessment itself (although we do way the hell too much of it, and at the expense of instructional time, no less), but the high-stakes, make-or-break impact of what we do with the result.

Simply put:  We trust the numbers more than we trust the people.  In fact, one might to moved to say (if one were wont to hyperbolize) that we trust the numbers to the exclusion of trusting people.   And as McKay correctly points out, the results are catastrophic.  I mean, “can be” catastrophic.  (Modal verbs make great qualifiers.  Consider the subtle, almost subliminal, impact of qualifiers on a debater's presentation by checking this out .)

Anyhow, I enjoyed the McKay piece, and I suggest you read it.  It’s short, much shorter than this (1,300+ words at this point already). And I think he is possibly more eloquent than I.  He doesn’t claim to be a Mr. Know-it-all; he pleads with us for debate (constructive, not destructive), dialogue, a discussion, a conversation.

Works for me.  I may disagree with you, but I’ll always try to talk to you, not at you.  Unless you piss me off, then I’ma have to take you down…

Can blood-feud policy adversaries ever sit at a table and have this kind of constructive discussion without resorting to the cheap and ultimately destructive rhetorical shortcuts of partisan false dilemmas?  Oh, snap, by resorting to the binary of "constructive" and "destructive," did I just create my own either-or?

I suspect I know the sad answers, but still, I’m…

Monday, June 3, 2013

Teacher resignations: Cries in the dark. Is there anybody listening?

"Is there anybody listening?
Is there anyone that sees what's going on?
Read between the lines,
criticize the words they're selling.
Think for yourself and feel the walls...
become sand beneath your feet. "
                             (Queensryche, "Anybody Listening")

I may have misspoken.

“First” came Gerald Conti, I wrote.  Not quite.  Oh, to be sure, Mr. Conti’s eloquent viral resignation letter may have touched off the current jag of public awareness and outcry, but he was not the first.  Not even recently.

I stand eloquently corrected, courtesy of a message from Mr. Stephen Round himself.  Who is he?  Well, if you don't know, then read on.  I did not know either, and I cannot believe, now, that I didn't.

On September 5, 2012, Boston-area teacher Adam Kirk Edgerton’s resignation essay was picked up by The Huffington Post, drawing nearly 5,000 Facebook “shares” and hundreds of comments.  Edgerton wrote that he was “tired of feeling powerless,” and that schools had an unacceptable “standardized test fixation,” comments that predated by the better part of a year those penned, posted and uttered by those public resignees about whom I have erstwhile written: Conti, Rubenstein, Knauth, Brissette.

Select excerpts:
“I quit because the system is demeaning. It's a structure that consumes everyone in it, from the top to the bottom. I didn't quit because of a single school -- I quit because of the pattern of inanity that is replicated throughout the whole country.”
 “No matter how much we regulate, we will always have to trust our teachers to be our surrogate parents, to take our children for an hour or six a day, to protect them, and to mold them into better people. Teachers matter more than superintendants [sic], more than senators, and more than businessmen. They make us who we are. Teachers are the ones who make the day-to-day decisions for the future of our entire nation, and we must start trusting them again.”
I should be clear that I do not agree with, nor do I necessarily endorse, all of the specific details, claims and suggestions in Mr. Edgerton’s essay, nor do I even necessarily embrace what I perceive to be his general ethos. Since, however, my purpose is to trace historical antecedents to the current Teacher Rebellion, those disagreements are not germane to the issue at hand. Edgerton, like others, including myself, is celebrating teachers finally finding their voice (and, more specifically, not letting unions fight our battles for us):
So what is the answer? Unions? Hardly. We can't allow union leaders to absorb teachers, to use them as a platform on which to stand. Our union leaders have failed us. Union politics have contributed to us getting to this point by forcing administrators to deal with them rather than teachers directly. They teach us that we cannot speak for ourselves; they teach us powerlessness. Union leaders are too often mere mouthpieces skimming off teachers' paychecks.
A few months later, in December 2012, a Rhode Island teacher named Stephen Round posted a six-minute Youtube resignation video: “I would rather leave my secure, $70,000 job, with benefits, and tutor in Connecticut for free than be part of a system that is diametrically opposed to everything I believe education should be,” Round intones. His video has been viewed close to half a million times, just short of the number of views that Ellie Rubenstein’s video has racked up, thus far, anyway.

The Huffington Post picked up Round’s resignation as well (HuffPo is considerably more on the ball than I am, it seems), and it drew over 17,000 Facebook “likes,” 1,100 Facebook “shares” and over six hundred comments.

I never knew. Lesson learned: Research your sh*t, mate.

The softspoken Mr. Round (who looks not unlike a cross between Ian Holm and Kevin Spacey) was a second-grade teacher, so his concerns were very K-5 specific. As a parent with two children in that grade range, I listened attentively. Again, I cannot say that I agree with or support with every minute detail of what he said, but this is not about the minutiae. This is about daring to speak out, be heard, and to place principle before pragmatics, despite the possible personal cost.

On January 1st, 2013, motivational/inspirational speaker (she calls herself an “educator/author/student advocate”)  Terry Preuss, NBCT, posted the first installment of a 12-part video response to Stephen Round’s video on Youtube. I will admit right now that I’ve only watched part(s), and read synopses of the rest. I will say that for the record, I’m not a huge fan of, nor am I inclined to trust, evangelistic, Anthony Robbins/Donald Trump-esque personality brands in education. I find them off-putting, and I tend to associate them with people “selling something” (in Preuss’s case, perhaps, her book(s) and her consultant/speaking fees).

I’m also not a huge fan of using NBCT as an honorary title. It’s not – it’s a title that is bought, at great expense and inconvenience, but bought nonetheless. Perhaps I will blog about my scorn for National Board Certification for teachers some other time.

I say this to assure my readers that I do not hold up the subjects of my essays as idols for worship. I recognize their flaws (I have some myself) and I do not necessarily agree with every word out of their mouths. To require one to do so before showing any kind of support would be the grossest form of perfectionist fallacy. And still I say that despite those personally discomfiting superficial indicators, I am appreciative of Ms. Preuss's efforts, all of their efforts, to publicize the plight of both students and teachers in the factories that our schools are becoming.

For two months, I’ve been painting this as a “movement.” Well, the movement’s roots go run a little deeper than I thought. Gerald Conti was not the first hot iron to strike, but when one reads articles, news stories and blog posts about him (even my own) the sense one distinctly comes away with is that he was the trailblazer.

How is it that as a people so collectively in a tizzy over the pathetic state of our education system that no one bothered to place his gesture into a larger context (myself included -- I'm rather embarrassed, actually)? Did people not even remember? Has the current culture of rapid fire news-reporting made us so myopic and attention-deficit-disordered as a thinking people that we can no longer connect the dots? I read a lot on Mr. Conti, before, during and after the first piece I wrote on him. In none of the pieces I read are the names Adam Kirk Edgerton, Stephen Round or Terry Preuss mentioned.  Not once.

This suggests that the media, the news programs, and the blogosphere all continue to see these incidents as anomalies, unrelated, unworthy of connection, not part of any pattern or trend.  I hope they're wrong.

But, maybe they’re right. Maybe there is no movement. Maybe our interest was piqued just long enough to comment on the situation before moving on to who’s leaving American Idol, or what soda pop Beyonce is peddling. (On a side note, it gives me a strange little spark of glee that my spell-checker rejects the name “Beyonce.”) Maybe, like a biological organism, our society is building up a tolerance, a resistance, and eventually, an immunity to news of teacher unrest. And soon, it won’t bother us at all.

I should point out that while the first installment of Terry Preuss’s Ken Burns-esque 12-video opus has been seen 1,000 times (a trifling figure compared to Stephen Round’s and Ellie Rubenstein’s combined 1,000,000 views) her subsequent videos have been viewed only 112, 73, 77, 41, 154, 41, 31, 33, 44, 25, and 35 times. Two recent (May 2013) videos on teacher empowerment have fewer than 10 views each. To be truthful, even I couldn’t quite motivate myself to watch the whole thing, and if you've read my recent posts, you know I'm fairly mercenary when it comes to this topic. Maybe it was her presentation; maybe it was the overall length. Maybe I’m just sick of it all.

Maybe we all are. Oh, that's not good...

So what is it that draws and holds the public’s interest? What spurs them on to action? I’m not entirely sure I understand completely. What is the key to viral success? (No, seriously, I want to know… 10,000 views is nice, and thank you for that, Dear Readers, but I want that next order of magnitude…)

And is viral success only virus-deep? Is it better for 100 people who really care to view something, or for 100,000 people to view it from the bandwagon out of a collective-frenzy of prurient interest that is quickly sated by the viewing and then cast off like a molt?

Does anybody have any thoughts on how to get the message across in a way that will actually do some good? I still believe that massive public resignations, protests, strikes, etc… will send the message, but with Teacher Education programs and TFA spitting out young, hungry, progressive-hearted teachers by the thousands (who cost much less than the people who would be resigning) who are ready and willing to drink the Kool-Aid,  I’m not sure anymore that that’s sufficient motivation.

By the way, for some excellent reasons why TFA (Teach For America) is NOT the savior of public education, take some time and read Julián Vásquez Heilig’s blog, “Cloaking Inequity.”

If not, then consider these sage words by Adam Kirk Edgerton:
Alternative certification programs, such as Teach for America, suggest that education schools are empty, facile and meaningless, at least for the classroom teacher. I don't begrudge TFA, since it helps many children escape poverty, but its existence magnifies a view of teachers as interchangeable parts, as cogs in our machine. I have no moral high ground on the issue of turnover, since I quit after three years, but policy-makers are increasingly devaluing graduate school programs that train teachers to teach -- to innovate. After all, why spend money on training teachers for a whole year, for a career, when we can pump in a stream of idealistic young people for much less money? Why teach teachers to question the machinery whirling around them?
Well, what does it matter if teachers “question the machinery whirling around them” if, when they resign in noble, principled protest, no one really notices?

I’m more than just… I really want to know.