American Winter: The Right’s War on Education and Contraception

It’s a shocking historical juxtaposition. The pro-democracy movement known as the Arab Spring is in significant part a consequence of rising literacy and declining birth rates in the Mideast. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Right is mounting a direct assault on education and a renewed war on contraception. This ought to tell us something.

It may be spring in the Mideast, but a chill wind is howling in America as America’s Right puffs its cheeks like Old Man Winter. Education and the personal freedom to control one’s body and sexual life fuel powerful democratic movements. What kind of movement then is America’s Right engaged in?

French social scientist Emmanuel Todd is explicit about the democratizing power of literacy and reproductive freedom. They lead to:

…the transformation of the political system, a spreading wave of democratization and the conversion of subjects into citizens.

But the American Right seeks the opposite, the conversion of citizens into subjects. That they do so while speaking of liberty is just more authoritarian “denying and distorting of information” in the words of Italian humanist, Auschwitz survivor and anti-fascist Primo Levi.

Is the Right really mounting a war on contraception? While far-right conservatives have largely succeeded in snookering the credulous news media into framing its anti-birth control agenda as all about abortion, they seek much more than an abortion ban.

In a moment of unintended candor, a leading conservative Texas state legislator, Wayne Christian, recently confessed. The Texas Tribune asked Christian whether he was engaged in a war on birth control. He answered: Continue reading “American Winter: The Right’s War on Education and Contraception”

Sculpture as Political Commentary

Rich Doty describes his work as visual commentary on the state of American life and politics. His work is like a good cartoon. He sculpts his commentaries in three dimensions, then he takes photos so those of us who can’t see the sculptures can still share the commentary and the laugh.

Rich Doty is a graphic artist who lives in Houston. I met him over 30 years ago when I lived there. He, his wife Sarah, an educator, and I were part of a young adult professionals group at a liberal mainline Protestant church. Every year since, I have looked for their Christmas card in the mail because it always made me laugh. Last year, he did a series of “Logos of the Season,” artfully designed. They included:

“Virgin Travel: Egyptian Get-Away Specials!”
“Roman Empire: Homeland Security, Messiah Division”
“Caspar, Mechior & Balthasar L.L.P.: Astronomical Forecast Modeling” and
“Expect a Miracle: The Yahweh Fertility Clinic.”

I was back in Houston at the end of September, and, when the three of us went to lunch, he showed me photos of his latest art work. I think Dog Canyon readers will get as much of a kick out of Rich’s work as I did that afternoon.

As an artist, he describes his work as visual commentary on the state of American life and politics, and “a million years ago” he studied at Texas Christian University to be a political cartoonist. Of the different direction Rich took, he says “I’m grateful for my job and it sucks,” which captures the paradox of working in corporate America today and the ironic tone of much of his art.

Though he went a different route, his work is like a good cartoon. He can capture a whole world of issues in one image. Unlike a cartoonist, he sculpts his commentaries in three dimensions, then he takes photos so those of us who can’t see the sculptures can still share the commentary and the laugh.

He got into sculpture when he went back for a Masters degree, following an urge to do something that was not commercial art: no standards, no customers, no compromise. His wife Sarah collaborates both as an inspiration for some of his ideas (like the one about education, below) and as a critical eye to whether or not they work.  After a short hiatus of a few years, he’s back at it and is working on a paranoid screen door.

A strong narrative line characterizes his sculptures and their ironic humor, and the title is key to the point. As Rich sends me photos, I’ll keep posting them here for the enjoyment of DC readers. I recommend not looking at them with a mouth full of coffee. You could hurt yourself choking while laughing.

When Cows Want to Sit
No Child Left Behind

There Will NOT Be a Test

…there was, at one time, a set basket of knowledge that schools would provide and if you went to all of those classes, you were educated. In the past twenty years or so, the amount of information has ramped up so much and the rate at which it multiplies has grown exponentially, now there is no way anyone could settle on a group of facts to provide that would hold you in good stead in the future. So what we do is teach you how to learn. We cannot know what you will need to learn, but we can teach you how to think, how to solve problems, how to research to find answers, and how to communicate what you need and what you know with others. Algebra is a way to think, a way to solve problems by recognizing equations. Problems that may not even have numbers in them. They may have words, in which case we call it logic. So if A equals B, and if I add C to A, I have to add C or something very like it to B to achieve the same result.

relevance personified
Relevance Personified

“I love your class, it’s all I want to do at school. I can’t stand going to math class after this, I’ll never use algebra.”

My reply:  Back in my day as a public school student, the 1960s and 70s, educators felt there was a specific curriculum you could be taught to be considered educated. A canon, if you will, of math, science, English, and social studies. English, for example, had its American Lit, British Lit, essay-writing, and basic researching skills like use of the card catalogue, the Dewey decimal system, periodicals and books, footnoting their use within your writing, etc.

(I have always LOVED the Dewey decimal system. It’s comforting to think that you can put all of knowledge into groups and number them for easy reference. And the card catalogue! What an incredible piece of craftsmanship, the smooth maple cabinet with the perfect little drawers that slid in and out with the satisfying yet small muffled thok! when they slid flush into the cabinet.)
Back to why all of this is important, or relevant: when those kids told me they saw no need in learning algebra, and I explained to them there was, at one time, a set basket of knowledge that schools would provide and if you went to all of those classes, you were educated. In the past twenty years or so, the amount of information has ramped up so much and the rate at which it multiplies has grown exponentially, now there is no way anyone could settle on a group of facts to provide that would hold you in good stead in the future. So what we do is teach you how to learn. We cannot know what you will need to learn, but we can teach you how to think, how to solve problems, how to research to find answers, and how to communicate what you need and what you know with others. Algebra is a way to think, a way to solve problems by recognizing equations. Problems that may not even have numbers in them. They may have words, in which case we call it logic. So if A equals B, and if I add C to A, I have to add C or something very like it to B to achieve the same result.

(In the case of elementary math we were taught ‘New Math’. It was binary, meaning how to express all numbers as series of 0s and 1s. Of course, I have never used this since, and it is no longer taught to the general population, but do you know how computers work? If you break it all the way down, everything is composed of groups of 0s and 1s to a computer. So somebody got it, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and here we are.)

When I explained it this way, the students grabbed it immediately, and were satisfied to go off to algebra class as a useful activity. If only math teachers were able to explain the relevance of their subject the same way. Because that’s what you have to do with education: make it relevant and make it explicit that it’s relevant, all the time. Just think about yourself. What would it take for you to want to sit your butt in a chair and listen to someone else for an hour or more? Well, it would have to be to get something you could use in your life, something relevant.

I applied once for a job teaching adult education. I now am quite happy doing that in the real estate industry, but this was in an area in which I had no real expertise, medical. It was a communications class, though, so it wasn’t too great a stretch. The interviewers asked me, “What makes you think you can teach adults if you have only taught high school?” It doesn’t matter what you are teaching, or whom, whether it is a class of kindergartners or adults. You have to make it relevant, and you have to make that relevance explicit. You have to tell them, “This is relevant to you because…you will use this in this situation…,” or you lose them. If they can’t see how they can use it, they glaze over and you become like Charlie Brown’s teacher: “Mwaaaah, mwah mwah mwah mwah,” like a muffled trombone.

We need to teach math teachers, and all teachers, that making it real, making it relevant, is what matters to students, and if they can’t do that with their subject material, maybe they shouldn’t be teaching it. Look for another way to get it across, something that makes sense to the person in the seat, not just learning abstract knowledge for its own sake.

Once I thought up a speech in which the speaker identified with an object, and told us why. It is like ‘discovering your metaphor.’ I guess I was wrapped up in an English or Poetry class and wanted to make them think symbolically. They didn’t all get it, and limiting the metaphor to an object you could carry in to school didn’t really open up the world of imagery to them as I had hoped.
To get the idea across, I did the assignment myself. What I came up with as a metaphor for myself was a set of battery cables. I am a connector. I connect people to ideas, to resources, to other people, to themselves. And there is a spark, an energy involved. I bought a new, clean battery cable and after the speech it became a decoration for my classroom, displayed along the top of the whiteboard to generate the question of why it was there. It gave me a chance to let them know how I thought about my job–not as a parent-child relationship, or master-servant, nor anything else that put me higher than them, but on the same level. A tool for them to use to learn, to understand.

Everybody is back to school a week now, so this is a good reminder to students, teachers, and parents. Seek relevance and call it out as often as possible.

Rick Perry’s Race to the Bottom

Little_Red_Schoolhouse_Childrens_Fairyland_Oakland_CAGov. Rick Perry says Texas will not compete for billions in education dollars in the federal “Race to the Top” program. It’s just another pitch to the secessionists, of course. So, Texas schools will go without money that could be used to education children. Instead, kids will be sacrificed to the extremist nonsense that has filled Perry’s tea cup of a head.

The money comes with guidelines of course. So the “Race to the Top” program was denounced by Perry’s education commissioner, Robert Scott. Scott called it, comically, a step toward the federal takeover of Texas schools.

Both Perry and Education Commissioner Robert Scott have harshly criticized the program’s rules, and Scott suggested that one provision was a harbinger of a federal takeover of public schools.

The decision not to apply fits nicely into the anti-Washington narrative that has dominated Perry’s gubernatorial primary against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. It provides him another opportunity to tell the Obama administration that Texas doesn’t want its intrusion in state matters.

In a letter to Perry, state Rep. Garnett Coleman, a Democrat and one of the most knowledgeable leaders in Texas on matters of education and health policy, urged the governor to apply for the funds. Democrats here don’t agree with some of the scoring guidelines — incentive pay and charter school expansion. I don’t either. But the good the money would do far outweighs the downside.

Perry’s actions have nothing whatsoever to do with what’s best for Texas children. Perry has become Sarah Palin in pants, and he’s just  pandering to the idiots. Perry knows about as much about education as Palin knows about Russia. I guess he can see a school from the porch of his $10,000 a month taxpayer-paid luxury mansion in West Austin.

Continue reading “Rick Perry’s Race to the Bottom”

Maybe you could teach?

teacher-doris-dayFour years for a college degree, maybe six for a masters’. Four years of teaching. Leave teaching. Five years later, still paying student loans. That’s me, and that’s the experience of nearly half of those who enter the teaching profession today. Biggest contributing factors: lack of control over your own work and unmanageable workloads. We are burying teachers under the responsibilities that our society doesn’t want, and the burden of the documentation to prove that they are doing it.

I had a chance to talk at great length with a man who had risen through the ranks of a union to become the union president and then negotiator. He also served three governors of his state on their Education Panel, a position that studied many aspects of education in that state. Not the least was teacher satisfaction. During his lengthy tenure on that panel, things really changed. What he told me was that when he started, the teachers were concerned about gum under desks. Twenty years later, they were worried about guns under desks.

I have a friend who teaches elementary school in a small neighborhood school in Texas. She has been there 25 years. For the first 15 years, she was home by 4:30-5pm. Gradually, it has ramped up over the past ten years, a half hour at a time, until now when she doesn’t get home until 7pm. Every day. This is because she must document specifically what she has taught each child, how that child has responded to it, and compared it to what the standardized tests say that the average/below average/above average ranges would be. And when I say document specifically, you have no idea of the degree of specificity and minutiae that can be dreamed up by the ‘instructional coaches’, principals, standardized test creators, and the myriad other positions in the education business that are more highly paid than the teachers.
Continue reading “Maybe you could teach?”