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Category Archives: Culture & Society

Teach me to live in a biosphere, which is real, not a global economy, which is not.

Sat on the chaise lounge and watched the bumblebees work over the raspberry blossoms in a sea of green. After three days of warm, sunny weather I felt confident in my decision to put away all winter coats, turn off the pilot light to the gas fireplace insert and switch off the main furnace. I’d seeded another round of four inch pots in lettuces, peas, onions,herbs, and a few flowers, and sowed beans and chard in the new garden plot off the patio, reclaimed from another corner of lawn. The air was turning cool, with rain expected–perfect for the seeds, though the tomatoes would slow down a bit. Almost time to put a bird net over the cherry trees, and the gangly limbs of the apple trees definitely needed some training and support–they were loaded with baby fruit.

I was thinking about the ways in which some of my students, maybe even a decent body, had been brought to understand something of the laws of nature–the ones that we humans ought to stop trying to ignore–such as there being finite resources on Earth that needed to be continuously recycled, that evolution is a constant and inevitable process, whatever religion says, and that there are fascinating miracles to explore at every turn, as well as inexorable forces we must reckon with, organism among organisms as we are, perched on this spinning rock blasted with radiation more powerful than thousands of nuclear bombs.

I have a mental space full of faces, ever expanding as I go through these years of teaching. Names may fade, but I will never un-know these young people, the 35-odd students I taught last year, the around eighty this year, counting middle, high and third graders. For once I get to teach at the same school–another novelty I look forward to. Ninth graders I’ll see in Physics and Algebra 1 next year, this year’s group will move on to the next math and show up for physics, too. Could be teaching some of the younger ones, though mostly high school. All the same colleagues with the addition of a new teacher–I hope I like her, bet I will.

Dan O’Neill, writer I sublet my summer office space from gave me his book, The Firecracker Boys, to give to my father, and since he’s all the way across the continent, I’m reading it before I send it there along with my son when he goes to college. It tells the story of how the Atomic Energy Commission started a group that was eager to test “peacetime uses” of nuclear power, and their first project was to be blasting a new harbor into the coast of Alaska. Their ignorance about the systems of the Earth and the disastrous effects that would result from their plan is astounding, and even though I know how the story ends, with the killing of the project and all similar ones due to the newly birthed environmental movement that arose there, I feel sick just thinking about how it might have been.

In environmental science we discussed why humans can have, want to have, even, such an outsized effect on the Earth’s systems, and yet do not seem essential to any of them in comparison to other organisms, such as, say, ants or eelgrass. The students were in agreement that if all humans suddenly vaporized, nothing would fall apart. We also explored the question of why humans, of all organisms, deliberately flout ecological principles, and what effect that might have, long term, on our species, on society. And, could there be a way to reconcile our ambitions to discover, build, and create, with the limitations that scientists are discovering that we must live within? Not to overly credit scientists–it took them hundreds of years, two steps forward, one step back (or vice versa) to catch up to some of that instinctive body-knowledge, that innate genetic wisdom, of our pre-historic ancestors.

The Fall–when and how did it happen? Was it the dawn of agriculture, or just agricultural commerce? Did it derive from the spread of the expression of new genes of cognition and self awareness? Was it accelerated by symbolic language and institutionalized ancient religions? Or was all that, really, progress?

Nowadays, just like the real estate bubble, we are talking again, in education circles, economics, science and technology, as if trends, what is happening, are the same as vision. “It’s a global economy–it’s an information age, so let’s get with it.” As I asked a mom I confide in periodically about my doubts about the value of schools systems, “Who’s driving this train and why should I get on–just because it’s going somewhere?”

My younger daughter shared with me how stressed she was about school–with the drive to maintain good grades, the pace, the hours, the lack of joy, the social pressure. By all appearances, she’s a successful student, but here she was in tears, wondering what the purpose of it all was. Her teachers were part of the problem, just because they had bought in. Their success wrapped up in rigor and performance-based assessment, not impact, enlightenment, and empowerment. I thought about the pressure I put on my Monday/Wednesday high school students, how as the test approached, I accelerated the pace of content exposure, started giving them testing tips and practice (while advising them, as the testing websites claimed, that success did not come from “test practice”  or extra study.

Friday classes were different, with only “delight-directed” activities (such as we could manage), no grades, no homework. That too appears to be about to be corrupted by the managers of the system, with a drive toward more “accountability” and record keeping. Hearing this fact at the staff meeting, I expressed my displeasure, tried to voice how dear are the values, to many homeschool families, of freedom and flexibility, as they are to teachers and students. Yes, it would drive away some families, it was acknowledged, this change, but it was what the state needed for financial accountability. Yes, families should drop out–they should save themselves, I thought. Funny how this whole parent partnership started to rope back in some of those opted out families with our flexible.part time program, and now that they’re hooked on the funding and free curriculum, we change the rules.

I sanctioned some respite for my daughter, called in and excused some skipped classes without giving clear reasons to the voice mail recorder, ignored the alarming-sounding letters citing the Becca Bill and mentioning court. She explained why she was skipping–the others were doing standardized testing she didn’t have to do and there was a sub; she’d already done the work and they weren’t learning anything new; they were playing soccer instead of having a lesson; she wanted to spend a few hours on her ceramics project. The ceramics studio, and its teacher, being the sanctuary so many students needed, a kind, blind eye turned and no questions asked. Refreshing subversion.

School is definitely part of the problem. We only need school because we’re a modern industrial society on a crash course with our destiny of ecological disaster, and it takes a lot of rigor to learn all the techniques that have got us into this mess, let alone the ones that maybe could get us out without sacrificing any modern luxuries–the ones we need at the end of our twelve hour labors. The future is coming. Let’s get there first.

Or, we could learn contextually everything we really need to know, like a cub from momma lion–how to get food and water, defend oneself without unnecessary energy expenditure or excessive harm to anyone else’s system, key social norms and boundaries (with the option of challenging them), how to play a musical instrument, and never to poop  in the water hole.

 

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Planned ignoring could be the answer

As a nineteen-year-old counselor at a camp for children from inner city Halifax, I first learned about the idea of planned ignoring (https://www.mayinstitute.org/news/topic_center.html?id=395). I was shocked that there could be such a technique, that being ignored could be recommended as a way to help children, that it could be therapeutic. But then I wasn’t a kid whose acting out, and only acting out, was reinforced by attention. And I suppose it wasn’t in my character anyway, since I did want more attention sometimes than I got. As a person working with children and youth, I thought that all children’s expressed needs, frustrations, complaints, and antics should be responded to in some way.

I have come to know better over the years to respond to people–my children, students, and others, on a continuum of attention, including sometimes purposefully ignoring behaviors or comments that don’t deserve a response.

Now I see planned ignoring as a possible answer to the problem of a Donald Trump presidency. The more I learn about Trump, the more I believe that the only thing that matters to him is attention, and whatever behaviors get that attention will become his modi operandi. So planned ignoring of certain behaviors of his should have the effect of extinguishing them through lack of reinforcement, as long as his more desirable behaviors are reinforced at the same time (https://www.special-learning.com/article/extinction).

Most of us are only exposed to Trump’s behavior through the media, and we know that the purpose of for-profit media is to win our attention long enough that the advertisers see increases in sales. So no one can expect the corporate media, however horrified they appear to be by Trump’s words and actions, to initiate any sort of campaign to ignore him. We’ve seen that his ability to shock, offend, perplex, and provide comedy to the public tends to increase ratings and readership of outlets that cover it. And when increases to readership and viewership of specific types of stories can be tracked, as they can for online media, there’s another layer of reinforcement added, this time for the media to spend more time spreading stories of Trump’s undesirable behaviors, if they are the most consumed.

So it has to come from us. Media consumers can and should make the choice to withdraw attention from all forms of coverage that reinforce negative, attention-seeking behaviors by public figures. Not that we should ignore important coverage, but we need to distinguish between that and coverage that effectively reinforces what’s worst in human nature.

This idea could certainly be applied more broadly, such as to a move to cut down on gluttonous consumption of stories about violent offenders, terrorists, fringe elements, and copy-cat offenders. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/12/04/yes-mass-shootings-tend-to-produce-copycats-so-do-terror-attacks/?utm_term=.2ee9e5a59024)

Is it even realistic to suggest the idea that media consumers can make the kind of concerted effort that could move a person like Trump to behave? Probably not, if it means there is real consensus about what behavior is wanted. Many people love the fact that Trump will say and do anything, and call it a virtue. But from what I can tell, if enough consumers of media did participate in a movement to avoid coverage (and intervening paid advertisements) that’s mostly spin and hype and had no practical application, it could affect ratings and send the heads to media scurrying into the meeting room to adjust their coverage (how ratings are determined: http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/solutions/measurement/television.html).

It’s not helpful to watch five minutes, be appalled, and watch ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes more. That kind of thing gives some of the least trusted news sources the highest viewership. (http://www.businessinsider.com/here-are-the-most-and-least-trusted-news-outlets-in-america-2014-10) So there’s no incentive to be more trustworthy, and certainly none to provide coverage not solely designed to entertain. Personally, if I get sucked in that way as I pass through the living room, I feel defiled and stupider for it afterwords. the phrase amusing myself to death comes to mind. There’s a book that’s as relevant as ever. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amusing_Ourselves_to_Death)

Neither is it effective, apparently, to specialize in coverage critical of Trump, since although he occasionally gets irritated by it, he probably still believes what he was quoted as saying in The Art of the Deal:

“Good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all. Controversy, in short, sells.”

 SO here’s an invitation to one and all. Ignore most of the coverage, and try to get the essentials from sources not dependent on corporate advertising and have excellent journalistic principles and a history of covering what’s truly important. Some diseases can only be cured by being starved of nourishment.
 
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Posted by on February 27, 2017 in Culture & Society, Ideas, Media

 

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In which the teacher wonders whether she will be able to fit in at her new school

More on the job search; new development: I got a full time position. Nice to know a month before starting–lots of time to plan, but maybe too much time to brood. Now there’s just a week, and I’m still feeling unsure.

I had hoped to be called by my district–the one I live in and which gave me the job I finished in June–about a middle school science or high school biology job. I thought I had a pretty good shot at it, with experience, good references, a few connections. But the weeks went by after my application was in, and no calls, no emails, and then “position filled” on the jobs website, same as last year. Also hoped to be able to bike to work, was poised to buy the bike, set up the storage rack inside the garage, now to be vacated by college age child. But no response to the applications I put in.

Six nearby districts had no relevant postings at all. The seventh had a maybe–a posting for high school math and science at an alternative school I’d never heard of, serving homeschooled students. I read the requirements, and I was a one hundred percent match, and more. So I applied, and got a call the next week, had my interview set up for that Friday. I should have been pumped– full time, alternative, fully qualified. The forty minute commute was regrettable, but we had been looking around for properties, and could easily settle closer if things worked out in that district.

But it was in that very religiously conservative town that I’ve written of before, the one I’ve never been interested in living in, never felt I fit in culturally. Even when I was more religious I was never conservative enough in the right ways, felt too edgy, likely to offend or be judged. On paper I looked like a good fit, but deep down I wondered if I would fit in. The school served homeschool families exclusively in a parent partnership model, which meant I needed to bridge those worlds and be super flexible about the different ways families approached education, which working within the public education professional paradigm.

I didn’t prepare much–just refreshed my mind with notes I’d taken for previous interviews, and wrote down my questions for them. My goal was to find out if this job would keep me on track for working with some of the “tougher” kids in the system, preferably back in the city, and maybe even in the school I worked in last year, after it had its new, larger building and needed more science teachers. I interviewed with the principal, who also teaches part time, and a teacher leader who was serving as a kind of assistant principal.

The school uses part of a building shared by a church and several other Christian ministries, including health services (free pregnancy tests) and a clothing distribution center. The principal and teacher were sharing a joke when I walked in the outer door, warmly asked me to wait a few minutes, then I was invited into the office. They asked me to tell about myself, nodded with appreciation at the places in my narrative that indicated a fit to the position. Asked me what was the worst lesson I ever taught. I said I couldn’t think of a specific one, but in general I mostly regretted times when I talked too much and listened too little, or where I was not relaxed enough to be myself and teach in my natural way. The teacher asked me whether I had used a particular curriculum as a homeschooler. I was prepared for this, having resolved not to let on that I had raised my children in Christianity, feeling that this information had no legitimate place in a public school teacher interview. I said I had used various things, and a literature rich approach. She pressed, which approach was that? I confessed that I had used Sonlight Curriculum. Ah, they both sighed in satisfaction–that was a good one. So the cat was partially out of the bag.

I asked them what they felt were the strengths of their school, and the challenges. Strengths were the tight knit team and close community of the student body, challenges included dealing with strong willed parents. Tied to that, I asked them if in the course of teaching some aspects of biology to children of conservative Christians, there sometimes arose conflicts over certain scientific ideas such as evolution. Because although I was brought up a believer, I only became familiar with creationism later, I said. I was interested in others’ viewpoints, indeed had sought out creationist books at a homeschool book fair to see what the most educated creationists had to say. Yes, sometimes, the principal said, there were sometimes parents who objected, but he would be there to help deal with that, and besides, he said, you don’t have to teach everything. This got my attention, as it implied that it might be best to sidestep such conflicts by cutting out science content. For example, he continued, once he worked at a school where the librarian wanted to have Harry Potter books in the library, and he had said to her that he had nothing against having books like that, but why did she have to have them?

By this I understood that, at the very least, this was a principal of the Golden Retriever personality type, a peacemaker who doesn’t stand up for principles where that brings interpersonal conflict. That’s a red flag for me, as I enjoy bringing up and discussing controversial issues in order to learn and teach, and do try to adhere to principles of truth even when that brings on some heat. Not that peace making isn’t an important principle also, and it could be a great thing to work with an administrator who prioritizes mutual good feeling. It all makes me wonder about the balance between teaching from who I am, which includes teaching about evolution, sex ed, whatever, because these are important science, and the need to respect local community values and parental authority over children’s education. That last was big for me as a homeschooling parent–I didn’t appreciate a paternalistic attitude in school personnel, as I viewed them as having only delegated authority and only over a certain aspects of children’s lives. But I do have values to inculcate as a teacher, too, and that includes a respect for reason, logic, and empirical evidence.

I got a call from the principal as I was pulling into the fabric store on the way home. He offered me the job, said he had already spoken to my references, and would be please to hear my answer that Monday, if that worked for me. I thanked him and said I would give it careful thought. I accepted the job on Monday, not having been able to give the final word to my red flags, glad to have a full time opportunity, and knowing I would benefit from the need to learn the curricula for all six courses I would be teaching. Six is a lot, but only Mondays and Wednesdays and heavily supported by home assignments supervised by parents.

My other source of discontent is that I don’t really feel that homeschool kids need the kind of support I want to give. The have supportive families, are economically stable enough to be homeschooled, and are mostly independent, self- motivated learners. I really wanted to get back into serving the tough kids, the kids who didn’t fit, the kids who had something that needed to be discovered and busted out in a special supportive setting, who were the ones mostly driving the best efforts of education leaders and making schools a more authentic place of learning and growth. I missed my school from last year.

There is one way in which I could see these homeschool students, the ones from the religiously conservative families, needing, at least in my mind, what I had to give. I could maybe get some of them them hooked on biology/ecology, more knowledgeable about the natural/created world, help them understand the value of rational scientific thinking about it and see it as a powerful aid to growth and developing purpose rather than a tool of the enemy. I grew up on the hymn “This is My Father’s World,” my earthly father reinforced the Bible’s teaching on stewardship, and I enjoyed and still enjoy reading the Psalms for the way they celebrate the beauty and power of the creation. Later my conservative Christian teachers emphasized, in reaction to New Age religion, that we are to worship the Creator rather than creation, which I had though was a no-brainer, but whatever. The only people with whom I shared the values of living lightly, recycling, cutting down on energy use and preserving biodiversity, besides my father, one Regent College professor, and several friends who I was able to influence, were decidedly non-religious. Inter-Varsity Press, NavPress and Multnomah Press books on how to live the Christian life, think critically and biblically about the issues, were light on stewardship. I was aware that liberal Christians were more into environmental conservation, but they were not very helpful in the struggle with personal morality and purity of thought life.

I’m planning my biology and environmental science classes now, and intend to do what I can to support critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and the development of an environmental ethic rooted in a value for sustainability. In other words, let’s understand natural systems, lets’ understand how humans depend on and affect them, and let’s not promote the destruction of human society. Valuing all other life forms will have to stem from long term self interest with a primal drive rooted in our selfish genes. There is no conservative without conservation, no religion without human society, no traditional values without sustainable traditions. There is no intelligent design of humans in God’s image if those humans don’t know how to design intelligently.

 

 

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Survival of the fittest, moving cheese, and losing my religion

Let me just say first that this is all coming from a sense of failure as a parent, as a family member in general, and a feeling that I have inherited a way of life from my culture that is dooming us all to failure. Also an undying sense of hope that there might…just…be…a..way, if only… Putting this and that piece of understanding together into a picture, dim but somewhat coherent.

First, I’ve been leading my high school students through Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. My thoughts on this have been turbocharged by reading Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. Upshot being only those types of individuals who successfully pass on their types of genes will inherit the Earth, all others go extinct. By definition, I tell them, the only species alive now are those that proved that ability to pass on genes over the long term and in given environmental conditions. Dawkins goes further to argue that the unit of successful survival isn’t even the species, but the genes within, and these aren’t picky about the bodies they use–whatever works for the replicators gets continued into the new line.

Those are the basics, which we might say (no other species being able to join the debate) have favored the pinnacle of creation, humankind. A stupid thought, really, but perhaps born out of wonder at what we see when we step out into self-consciousness–hey, that’s me? No way!

But what about when environmental conditions change, either by acts of God in the abiotic spheres, or the evolution of entire ecosystems in the biosphere? The forest grows up and getting light is a new challenge, so the shorty plants die out. Owls’ hearing gets even better so only mice with genes that give new survival strategies survive. Humans cause mass destruction of ecosystems, disrupt environmental cycling and equilibrium, so begins the sixth massive extinction, and then what? It’s early yet, for real evolutionary change in humans to show, but what’s the trend? Or, is it all too fast for us more complex, slower evolving species and only the bacteria will survive and the whole march will start over, toward what end? The idea of an end being a Western bias, for sure, because in terms of evolution, I suppose there is no end. Even if our planet becomes uninhabitable and we don’t get off onto another one in time, some passing asteroid will  catch the microbial drift somehow.

There are some interesting trends in the human species, for sure, that seem to go against the survival of the fittest rule. One is the tendency of more technologically advanced, educated, less religious people to breed less. Unless those folks simultaneously suppress the higher reproductive success of fundamentalists and the less “educated,” can we predict that natural selection will favor the latter, all other things being equal? Maybe that’s always been the case, and the real reason for the falls of Indus, Rome, and Atlantis.

But there are density-dependent factors too, such as competition for resources, and the requirement that we llive within our means. So quietly living indigenous people, who carry very old surviving genes from people who lived that way for eons, or slipped back into the jungle when past civilizations came to similar crises, will be the means of humanity outliving this crisis, too. Most of them, I hear, practice reproductive self restraint, even without careers and luxury urban apartments. All the reproductive restraint without the economic growth that destroys the habitat. Not so nasty and brutish after all.

A few weeks ago heard a piece on CBC Ideas about the evolutionary advantage for humans of story telling (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/vestigial-tale-part-1-1.3086744). We can assume that up until now there has been a real advantage in most populations, or we wouldn’t be still telling them. A big part of those stories are the mythologies that help people understand their place in the world and what is to be valued, feared, sought, expected.

Tying that to my own experience of losing a grip on the mythology I inherited, thanks to the Age of Reason and Science, combined with a sense of intellectual dishonesty I have frequently encountered in the religious community. Started out with Our Lord Jesus and His body the Church, prayer and sacraments and Sunday school and Resurrection Day, God made the sun, moon, and stars and the purpose of our lives is to worship God and enjoy him forever. Not without a study of molecules, other galaxies, and evolutionary marvels, and an emphasis on stewardship. What I was trying to pass on was that we are to be a blessing to the world. I had occasional real mystic experiences, and most of the time accepted that my spiritual gifts and God-given personality made me prone to listening to my head more than my heart, to nature more than preacher.

It was so easy to stop going to church, once we stopped home schooling. Our public school system, which does such a fine job here up north separating Church and State, has also, by default, conveyed the idea that religion, with its God talk, morality, and exclusivity, is a primitive, private, and personal pastime awkwardly  appended to one’s 145 hour a week push for college and career readiness. That the essence of living is success in the competitive economy, pluralism, and peer socialization. Going to church felt like an anachronism, with its emphasis on discipleship, sacrifice, and worship of the Unseen One. Formal studies in the faith had its pros and cons. Over the years my spouse and I have always openly critiqued every oversimplification of religious ideas, dogmas, and interpretations, so our kids didn’t get any sense of uncritical loyalty that might have kept them attached to church life. They found they didn’t fit in well with the youth group summer mission trip crowd, and couldn’t sign the statements of faith required to be a blessing through youth leadership or working at summer camp. We went to one of those urban, young professional type churches without a strong sense of community (and with a respect for privacy), so when we drifted off weekly attendance, no one noticed.

In homeschooling I had good friends–we all did, but only a few. We never really fit into the religious subculture there that availed itself of its right to educate its own from cradle to loose ends, all under the umbrella of the church, which provided its own sanitized version of biology and the scientific method.

Now we are at loose ends at home, without a community to come alongside and share the pain of bringing up teens to love God and enjoy him forever, without any ritual and tradition–of seasons, coming of age, or divine sacraments. It feels like we’ve lost our way, but the usual road signs offered are outdated brands. I find myself thinking, what is it we have to pass on? What was that blessing we were supposed to be offering to the world?

Is that lack of grounding in myth, in addition to the cultural angst we have absorbed, signs that our genes are not all that fit? None of my kids expresses any strong desire to be a parent. Although the traditional view is for me to look forward to being a grandparent, I’m starting to think it wouldn’t be responsible to pass these exploiter genes on. Maybe the fading of parental longings in so many moderns is a result of the signals coming back from the ecosystems we have wrecked, the zoos and Sea Worlds we have created, but which can’t give us food, shelter, and clothing enough for the propagation of the genes we house.

I do get excited about the possibility of my kids fostering and adopting, though, which seems a more just expression of parenting that adding more feet to the sun baked ground. Would have done that myself, if I could have won over the camp.

At the high school where I teach, I’ve brought up the idea of a survival skills elective (elective!) class that could be offered, and there has been universal interest among the students. Seems like the proper thing to do. I noticed that the idea is trending–there is a display of titles on the topic at the library. One ought to be able to slip off into the woods, live off the land, leaving only organic fertilizer, and footprints, and re-establishing a culture of harmony. I feel it in my genes.

 

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Be a teacher and change lives: the only reason worth doing it, including summers off

Mainly I’m a volunteer, supported by tech dollars. So many teachers are, is my guess, especially in science and technology, where getting a better paying job is pretty easy. It would be an interesting study, to see how teachers’ families make it, and how many family members are really supported these days on teachers’ pay. I brought home less than $900 last month–thought there must be some mistake, until I realized I had to take two sick days. Good medical insurance, though, for the whole family, for a few hundred dollars less, too.

Still, I love my job, and am thankful that my husband had parents who both made a huge impact as teachers, and so his heart is in this endeavor too, despite the long hours beyond the four and a half per day in my contract. As if a half an hour before and a half after could be enough for any sort of decent planning, even if I wasn’t in my first year on the job.

My husband’s dad grew up in a logging town, learned everything mechanical, worked as a machinist until he was injured, then got a teaching credential. He had the tough kids in the shop and on the football field, and related to them, being a dyslexic, having moved out of home at sixteen, encouraged to do so by his dad, who had a new, young wife only a few years older than the stepson. Was insecure around the other teachers, got teased even as an adult at not being able to spell words correctly on the blackboard. He had a temper too, but a soft heart for the boys he taught, and he taught them well. Died early, probably from shop fumes plus a botched esophagus operation, and decades later his widow still hears from students whose lives he helped set on a firm foundation, both as a teacher and as a man with an open door policy toward his sons’ friends at home.

My husband’s mother went back to school and then work at Head Start, on her husband’s insistence, in case anything happened to him and he couldn’t work. Proved to be a good move, as a few years later he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and it was a long haul through which his wife cared for him, and had that other space in which to succeed and have a change of scene, as well as be in community. She came to be an administrator, not the usual kind, but a person known for always believing that the caregivers in the child development centers did their best work when believed in and supported rather than checked up on and scolded.

I’m putting away that thought that it takes more now than caring for kids and an interest in helping them learn, more than a desire to make a living sharing what you know while learning more than you could possibly guess about yourself, the subject, the clients, the community, the meaning of existence, more than all that to choose teaching as a profession. Now it’s also about finding something that will pay the bills, keeping up with the rate of inflation, procreation, and non working vacation. And the strain of being so many new things to those kids, doing the impossible or letting it go a little every day.

There seems to be a growing correlation between the growth of a populace poorly educated, easily swayed voters and that failure to fund and design education, and otherwise inspire and support new generations of teachers. Serves us right, I guess, though I don’t know if I’m ready to turn the show over to either the mob, the moneyed, or the intellectual elite just yet.

I’m reading Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed–a nice, slick library copy, and got so fired up I ordered my own copy, all the way from Georgia to my local independednt bookstore, who hadn’t had a copy in the store in the thirty years it has existed.

I feel it–tha tacit go ahead from my fellow workers at the school to make a difference in any way I can, and there’s this articulation in Friere of what I’m hoping to do in some or other semblance. Yes, even as a science teacher. I’ve only read the preface and a few paragraphs of the introduction, and already I have enough burning inside to start working on communicating that choice all these young people have to be a Subject working to transform this world, rather than a victim. First awareness, then criticism, then action. I guess there will have to be a continual influx of hope and idealism, too, cause when life gets ’em down, there’s the why not just smoke some weed and make out some more in the car with the dark windows method, feelin’ good for this moment seems like a good compromise to stressing out or acting out. Been shut down a few times already for getting on my high horse about the evils of weed. My humbler approach will me a mere appeal to come to class mentally alert at least, for the advantage conferred on efforts to learn enough to graduate.

Yesterday we were chatting in my last period class–a remarkable atmosphere there, with some truly cool and very positive people whose attitudes spread to almost everybody when there’s a group project or discussion or tough assignment to do, even though it’s my largest class at eighteen when full. Anyway, the point was to fill in the newer students on the story of how there had been a new science teacher before me who had had to leave…

“Not ‘had‘ to leave, chose to leave,” said one, that hurt still showing.

“It was hard on everyone,” I said, “and I came in new, and the students were like, ‘Oh you, you’re just the new teacher–whatever..’ with this sour attitude.”

“They were sulking, and wouldn’t give you a chance,” said the same student who had spoken before. She hasn’t any patience for anyone’s bad attitude, doesn’t yet see that a lack of empathy can be a problem, too. Though she’s always had my back, for some reason of her own. “Did you know when we found out your name, we FaceBooked you?”

“Yeah, the principal mentioned it. You didn’t Google me, too, did you? What comes up there might have been keeping me from getting a job at all.” Collective gab for the smart phones, eyes lit up in anticipation. “It’s not what you think…” Not a conviction or former career as a stripper or anything,really. But they were hooked.

“There’s a whole article here!” said Mister positive, and he quoted the title.

“Yeah, that’s me.” He starts reading.

“This is awesome!” They perceived the ant-establishment stance, were feeling the support I was trying to give in that letter to the editor, that opposition to the way “socioeconomically disadvantaged” students are forced through loopholes that only cut them down and make them less likely to succeed. And I was starting to think, what was I thinking, mentioning that? Asked them to keep it quiet, at least until I get a permanent job, and the word was, “Sure thing,” so I’m hoping. Still, that search result hasn’t barred me any way from this position sticking up for kids who got diverted here from the mainstream, so be it as it may, whether forgotten or not.

 

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Recommended reading list for educators

How Children Fail by John Holt – published in 1964, but still a very useful read. The whole book is built on observations of what children do to get through what’s asked of them in the typical classroom–often coping strategies rather than real problem solving, and the ways teachers interfere with the process of the development and use of of intelligence in the classroom. Also How Children Learn

How to Survive in Your Own Native Land by James Herndon – I read this a few decades ago, so I can’t give a very good synopsis. I was reminded of it by reading Holt. Herndon taught in low income black neighborhood schools and wrote this description of the craziness brought out by the combination of generations of marginalization and being in a typical public school setting for these kids.

The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn – she cites her favorites also, which I won’t list here. This is the kind of book of which I want to buy multiple copies, donate it to school libraries, plant it in the cafeteria, then check later to make sure it hasn’t been removed and recycled. I leave it around my house and hope my kids will decide to do what the subtitle suggests: “quit school and get a real life and education.”

The Underground History of American Schooling: A School Teacher’s Intimate Investigation into the Problem of Modern Schooling by John Taylor Gatto – it’s a wonder that he ever won Teacher of the Year Award, but that must be something independent of politics, because, man! he is a real pill to administrators and politicians! Great bibliography in the back, too. Also A Different Kind of Teacher, Dumbing Us Down

Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich (1971). This is not only a great book, a paradigm-shifting, subversive book. Champions freedom in education. As in people who want to learn, go find a teacher or organize a class, course, school even, but client driven. Teachers are sought out, not given classes full of students who have no choice. Again, read a long time ago–assigned by an Acadia education professor, which is much to his credit.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck- pretentious and inaccurate title (probably the marketing people came up with it), as the idea of a growth mindset, intellectual growth, that is, isn’t new. As my father-in-law says, “You can’t learn any younger!” to each new challenge, and I’m sure he inherited the phrase, and attitude, from his parents. Still, the book provides a good reminder, with lots of supporting evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, of the fact that the more learners young and old believe that intelligence (of any type) is not fixed and that talent, like skill, is mostly a developed trait, the more they learn, grow, and excel. Also provides guidance for teachers and parents in communicating a growth mindset to those in their care and avoiding language and attitudes that set up barriers to the growth mindset.in others. For example, telling children they are smart or talented can backfire, setting up a fear of risk taking for fear of losing the label.

A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education by Mercedes Schneider (2014) – identifies the power players attempting to capitalize on the disruptive corporate-friendly reform of educational policy, leadership, infrastructure, data, and markets.

The Language Wars by Diane Ravitch – uncovers the private policies of textbook publishers who actively self censor content, language, and ideas in order to secure education markets when those markets are controlled by multiple and competing private interests across the liberal-conservative spectrum. Only a few large publishing companies can and are willing to compete to sell material that doesn’t offend anyone, from the Christian right to senior citizens to advocates for people with disabilities to LGBTQ activists and more. Even literature and historical sources are edited for acceptability, provided with corrective commentary, or eliminated, resulting in the predigested pap of the typical school text.

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2016 in Culture & Society, Education, Ideas

 

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Who’s making the decisions here, the genes of the masses, or great men of history?

What I hear about in the news and see going on, like war and xenophobia and altruism, and love, and all of it, really could be seen as biologically driven phenomena, and I want more of us to admit it. I’m all for a spiritual or humanistic interpretation too, but it’s also the biology, stupid. There are undeniably biological, biochemical, and fundamentally genetic and epigenetic roots of behavior, and I’d like to see that aspect to be addressed along with the socio-political, ethical, and economic. Should we let Syrian refugees in, mitigate the chaos that’s over straining their homeland resources so that it can recover? Or should we slam the door shut on those displaced by cultural influences they cannot overcome, that lead to civil war and murder and environmental abuse? Should we protect for ourselves and our offspring these finite habitat resources, favor the genetic variations most closely akin to us, and maintain social stability? Or should we welcome these fleeing young families who have survived, who had the strength and intelligence to migrate all the way here, and so will seed our stock with strong genes? Both altruism and xenophobia can be argued to have biological, or genetic, root causes, that’s what I think. Same with race relations, gender identity, sexuality, resource politics, and so much more. Acknowledging evolutionary roots does not mean caving in to determinism, but provides balance to the wishful thinking that education and the exertion of individual and collective will can make all our “problems” go away. A simplistic social Darwinist perspective certainly acknowledges the influence of evolutionary biology, but equates evolutionary weakness with lower class, while contradicting itself with the complaint that the “weak” are multiplying too much (which should be considered a characteristic of the strong or fit, by Darwinian thought).

Now that I’m almost done with Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, I’m even more convinced, except that I accept his argument that it’s not fundamentally the individual or group that is the root of selective pressures, but the genes themselves. It must be so, or the same genes wouldn’t still be around. The same individuals never occur again, after all. Not sure how that would pan out at the socio-political level, this apparent drive by genes themselves (really just random natural selection of those able to successfully replicate). Maybe just a manifestation of a healthy variety of social views resulting in various social trends and cultures, all derived from a hodgepodge of gene-driven influences at the cellular level.

This point of view is influencing what I tell my high school students, too. When we were on the topic of plants that germinate in the dark and then grow for the life of them, or die trying, I told them that the plants do that because they are descendants of plants that survived because they did that too, and the rest, apparently, didn’t succeed.

Apparently no one response to mass migration or economic policy or social views on self governance has proven to be significantly effective for the propagation of genes, or we would have ended up with mainly one point of view. All the points of view that were disastrous all the time are gone. Or maybe the environment has fluctuated so much, we’re still in that cycle, letting it all play out, and haven’t yet reached an evolutionarily stable strategy–an kind of Age of Aquarius many hope for, and Imagine. A good number of folks have carried forward genes that manifest as a drive to change things, sure, campaigning and writing and preaching and teaching. Others have successfully populated the Earth with conservative human minds, with people who wish to be led, who don’t want change, and so that must be an important part of the genetic survival strategy, too. At least up until now.

Because now, the most educated and affluent have rebelled against their genes, choosing to have few children or none at all. Dawkins believes we are capable of rebelling against our genes because of consciousness. I’m not so sure. I think maybe our genes have responded to the tendency of affluent people to destroy their own resources by cutting down on their reproductive rate. Pro-Choice, indeed. Sure, overpopulation is a problem in India and so on, but just watch what happens when the “standard of living” rises there. It will be like rabbits reabsorbing their fetuses, combined with lemmings running over a cliff. In the West, the Plague wiped out a third of Europeans, then a bit of European pathogen DNA killed most of North American residents early in the Age of Discovery, so it seemed for quite a while that colonization, expansion, economic growth and Industrial Revolution might be a good thing, maybe even the best thing, for the human race. All those suffering from its effects in Europe either died or escaped to America, but not before featuring as at least a minor character type in a good nineteenth century novel, asking for alms for the poor or being told to eat cake. Though they were never required to dress for dinner.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2016 in Culture & Society, Ideas

 

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