Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Rapid but Silent Decimation of the Kansas E/Quality of Life

Ok, all Kansans should read this.

A poetic statement running through our recent, significant losses here in Kansas. The only thing I would add to it, is, "Then they came for children, and said that as long as all children received equally bad educations in public schools, (see Amendment would remove "suitable" in funding law), we fulfill enough of our responsibility to make it look like we care--if kids were really valuable, their parents would be wealthy enough to send them to private schools." 

The fact that most of these don't affect  me, a white, middle-class, employed, hetero-married female, does not for a minute change my outrage.  That is what this administration is counting on--that those of us in positions of comfort are silent, and also the idea that if we don't have the direct line-item-veto power we don't matter.  

I wish I knew a better way for us to matter.

In Latin Americathey developed the cacerolada, where people get out their kitchen pots and pans and beat on them in a public space as a form of protest.  It creates a huge amount of noise and depends on cheap and easily available materials, and makes the area virtually unbearable. If you YouTube it be prepared for LOTS of NOISE. Anyone up for bringing the carcerolada to Topeka?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Revolution Needs Lots of Gardens

So, I realized that I didn't ever spell out why I think a blog can mix gardening with the theme of political revolution  (PEACEFUL, dudes, PEACEFUL revolutions--changes in the heart and mind and maybe at the ballot box).  Well, for me, I got into local food and anarchy/revolutionary thought through the same mechanisms, and the two are inextricably linked in my mind.  Namely, I attended an epic Latin American feminist convention on food sovereignty, and learned why countries should focus on producing people food for their citizens first, and agricultural commodities for export, well, ideally, never.  In Latin America, soy and corn cash crops grown for export have displaced "people food" (i.e., vegetables, fruit and free-range cattle and chickens).  This results in an increase in food prices, which leads to increased hunger.  It also has resulted in a lot fewer people working on farms, since the cash crops are mostly processed with large machinery instead of human labor.  (Yes, a lot of agricultural work is very difficult and miserable and not everyone is interested in doing that work.  Still, it is employment, and many would have preferred to remain employed farm workers rather than unemployed urban slum dwellers, which is the major shift.  This is a complex issue which I do not pretend to understand fully.)  Anyway, practicing local food growing and eating allows people to have more control over their lives (a clearly anarchist principle).  On a national/large regional level, as Henry Kissinger said, "If you control the oil, you control the country; if you control the food, you control the population."  This is possibly the only instance in which I agree with Kissinger.  When we source food locally, we keep control local.  If Mon***** is in charge of all the food in the country, well, Mon***** becomes the invisible government (I am not saying they currently are. Not quite.)  And what is morel local than my yard?

Now, I cannot possibly grow enough food to feed me and my husband, even, let alone kids, so for me gardening is linked to local control only symbolically.  It is good to learn survival skills, like how to grow food from seeds, as a stab at knowing more about the world and increasing our chances of survival in case of an economic meltdown.  This, again, is mostly a theoretical and symbolic use of gardening.  But, practically, there are a lot more connections between gardening and the revolution.  By gardening, I learn to view soil and water as natural resources.  When the soil that I'm entrusted with grows food, I feel like it is being used more effectively than when it only grows grass as an ornamental feature (although grass has its place in this world, too, and is an important cover crop, and all that). I also become a lot more connected to the natural rhythms of the earth, which oil and indoor climate control and a sedentary lifestyle all disrupt.  I am becoming more grateful to God for the abundant plant life s/he offers us to learn about and cultivate.  I am more appreciative of the labor that goes into producing my food, and am more appalled at the low wages endemic in the agricultural field.  (Most of these arguments are familiar to readers of Michael Pollan and others of his ilk).  Gardening is a terrific source of connection, too. It allows me to chat with colleagues of very different viewpoints.  It's one of those activities where what's good for you is good for me, too--not a zero-sum game--an activity focused on learning and production rather than competition and winning.  And if I had a coherent political platform, that would be it--more focus on learning and production, less focus on competition and winning.

Also, gardening produces great joy in me (and if gardening does not create joy for someone, I would never ever want to impel her to practice it).  Supervising growing lives gives me a sense of wonder and gratitude and smiling. My little squash plants are all growing larger now; several seem to have escaped the original slime plague.  I planted some cucumbers late, and they are coming along beautifully.  I am almost to the phase of having more basil than I know what to do with.  Basil is a miracle plant--the more I take from it, the more it produces.  And I learned that thanks to a kind lady at a farmers' market who explained to me that me not harvesting basil was actually causing the plants to die!

This is a good blog on basil, if anyone else was having the same troubles I had:  Harvesting Basil.

Also, through gardening/local food circles, I found out that the city where I live offers composting bins at a deeply discounted price.  So J. and I went to get one yesterday.  I think we are ready for the excitement and waste reduction of backyard composting; that is our afternoon project! Toodles!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Complications of Education

So, after a year of symbolic and monetary attacks, it turns out that a lot of teachers in the state of Kansas are retiring as early as possible.  As the linked article mentions, many are retiring for fear that changes in the pension plan will cause them to lose much of their retirement savings if they do not get out now.

People who push "educational reform" sometimes focus only on "teacher quality," this mythical abstract concept that variably means makes kids do better on standardized tests or is well-liked by students and peers, or has exquisite lesson plans, or whatever else the focus of the day is. Teaching experience is derided as a way of determining which teacher is "better" or not.

Now, I speak as someone whose job is vulnerable to cuts.  If my school has to reduce staff, I am one of the first to go, since I have less experience and am more untenured than many of my fine colleagues.  Despite the fact that valuing teacher experience over other traits could be harmful to me personally, I still think retaining experienced faculty is one of the most important things a school can do.  Why?

Well, according to the studies I have seen, teacher experience is actually one of the few proven ways to improve teacher effectiveness (at least up through 10 years of experience).  As a teacher progresses in years on the job, s/he masters the curriculum more thoroughly, adds student engagement and classroom management tricks to the trick bag, endures more professional development, etc., etc.  Few people disagree with this point too vehemently.

A more-overlooked reality, though, is that teachers who contribute many years of service to a school help create a school culture of stability and continuity which helps every other teacher in the school to be more effective.  Certainly, the more experienced teachers in my building have provided me with priceless mentoring and suggestions that relate to teaching.  But they also contribute knowledge of parents, of families, and of the community structure that cannot be purchased by any level of educational consultant.  One teacher in my building has been there forty years; she taught almost all of the parents of our current students.  Even if she were a totally ineffective classroom instructor (which she is not!), her relationships with parents make her worth her weight in home-grown tomatoes

Kids crave stability, and many of the students we serve have little stability in their homes.  Knowing that there are some stable adult fixtures in their lives is extremely important.  As our state and national policies move towards making teaching a short-term profession for young people, even if our brightest and best young people do start going into education for a few years out of college, our schools and our students will suffer from upheaval, from lack of community, from lack of personal expertise.

Brownback and his crew, just by threatening to mess with the pension system, have cheated many Kansas children out of a quality part of their education.  Every teacher I know took an effective pay cut this year (our salaries remained the same; our benefits packages declined); continued practices like this make teaching a poor career option.

I went to a conference last week with my school.  Although the presenters did have many good ideas, the basic gist of it was:  No matter how much the state cuts your resources, you can do better if you do all the right things.  Well, guess what.  "All the right things" means "ten to fifteen more hours a week of unpaid labor," and saying, "No, no, work smarter not harder!," doesn't make it so.  Cutting resources means cutting positions and/or replacing people with experience, saving a little money here and there in ways that cost a lot over time.  Our government, both national and local, is sending the message that teaching experience is not valuable to the state.  They are wrong, and their ignorance on this point will make Kansas kids suffer.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Defining The Terms

So, for clarification, I propose my definitions of several complicated, loaded words.  These meanings, like those of most theoretical terms, are contested, and their precise definitions fill many, many books. I read a lot of these books and don't exactly agree with any of them, but these aren't TOO far off from any of them either.  So, anyway:  This edition of When I say...what I mean...

When I say..."socialism"

I mean..."the belief that the resources of a society should be used to for the common well-being of its members."

Sometimes socialism is used more specifically, to describe a system of government where major industries and basic welfare of citizens are run by a centralized government.  (I will not bother addressing the uses of the word "socialism" as a code word for Bad and Totalitarian and Un-American and Nanny State and all that drivel).   That is fine, but I think there is a more universal meaning that simply the balance between private and public that the Scandinavian countries strike.  When I say I am in favor of socialism (a *socialist*), I am not talking so much about a specific style of government, but working towards conditions and solutions where societal resources primarily are used to ensure that all members of a society have their needs met.  There are many different ways to do  this, and I don't pretend to know which is the best.  But I do support policy making and governance that takes the well-being of all citizens as a goal.  Also, many wonderful people who agree entirely that we should try to take care of each other run from the word "socialism."  That is their right, and it does not diminish their ethical authority in my eyes at all. I simply respectfully disagree with them on terminology.

When I say...anarchism

 I mean...freedom from hierarchy; the belief that all humans are equal and deserve liberation from hierarchical systems of authority.

Again, there are a lot of other legitimate uses of the term "anarchism."  In the specifically political sphere, it often denotes people who are opposed to a centralized state.  This is also fine, a good definition, one that is true for a lot of instances.  I am not particularly pro-state or anti-state; if a state helps us bring about justice and peace and equality, that is fantastic.  I have not seen a state doing that a lot, but when it theoretically does, again, kudos to all the justice and peace and equality and goodness we can get.  However, I am more interested in analyzing and upsetting the ways that rigid structures elevate some people in terms of wealth, power, authority, etc., at the expense of other people.  All people are created equal.  I believe that, and this is the soul of anarchism.  

When I say...anarchy

I mean...the practice of direct democracy and direct action; communal control of communal resources; communal reaction to communal problems

Anarchy is usually used negatively to indicate a lack of order, or a surplus of chaos.  This definition actually doesn't bother me--it is just as obvious from the roots of the word (an-, without, and arch- rule or order) as is freedom from hierarchy.  But there is also a historical practice associated with anarchy.  Usually when this is mentioned, if it is mentioned at all, it is in association with isolated incidents of bombing or, slightly more intelligently, attempts through violence to create enough chaos that society will self-destruct, then reorganize of principles of more liberation.  As I previously discussed, these have been disastrous attempts.  I am interested in the other, actually much more important and frequently practiced, practices of anarchy: direct democracy (as opposed to representative democracy), direct action (as opposed to waiting endlessly for processes to change), and in general the idea that stakeholders in a problem or opportunity should determine the resolution of that problem or opportunity.  So, parents and teachers should have more say about what a school in a community does; state boards of education, and more importantly, private donors who have no relation to any child in the district and no vested interest in the school should have far, far less say.

When I say...Theism

I mean...Belief in some power or force larger than individual human experience.

Some cultures and religions call this "God."  Some call it "life force."  Some call it "the market."  Some call it "the universe." These are all different, to be sure.  And I am not exactly interested, in this blog, in most of those differences. I am a theist. 

Actually for the purposes of this blog, I think I do mean something a little unorthodox.  When I say I am a theist, I mostly mean, "I believe that religion is a vital and unavoidable part of human existence."  I have faith in God, yes, but that is a separate belief from my faith that faith itself continues to play a huge role in human societies.

One more word of the day:  

When I say...radical

I mean...Related to root causes.

I am a math teacher, after all.  The word "radical," in math, refers to square roots (and other roots too).  So radical changes are changes that attempt to change the root of a problem, rather than the symptoms.  For me, the words 'anarchy,' 'socialism,' and 'anarchism, all make me think of mostly good things.  (I realize that this is not the case for many of my readers.  Obviously, I would like to change people's minds on that.)  The word "radical" is more ambiguous, though.  "Radical" just means that something deals with a root level, not a surface level, and it can be used by liberals, conservatives, moderates, libertarians, and so on and so forth to deride--or praise--opponents ideas.  Eh.  An interesting word, but should be used precisely, not as a value judgment.

Ok, that wraps up How I Use Words...for today!  Cheers all!

Erik Olin Wright's book Envisioning Real Utopias deeply influenced my understandings of these concepts.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Gardening! Sermonizing! Procrastinating!

Our pastor honored me with a request to supply preach for him this weekend.  I agreed, foolishly, completely ignoring the part where he said that it was Ascension Sunday when he asked (several weeks ago).  Now I find myself in front of a few scattered paragraphs that will somehow form a coherent ten-minute discussion of the Ascension of Christ by tomorrow morning.  

Sermonizing is interesting and pleasant and forces me to spend serious time focusing on a small amount of text.  On Wednesday I had absolutely no thoughts whatsoever on the Ascension.  After four days of thinking and attempting to write, I've discovered that this particular event does not enter into my own spirituality very deeply (or at all).  So here I am, analyzing how this event fits in spiritually and narratively with the parts of the gospels I think about more often (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount, the throwing-the-rat-bastards-out-of-the-temple incident).  

Meanwhile, in the time I have been not writing my sermon, I have read four graphic novels, three books on escaping evangelical childhood, two science fiction tomes, the contents of the whole internet.  My hubby and I have watched three exciting movies and countless exciting Simpsons episodes with commentary.  I weeded my garden, sporadically.  I bought new clothes and exulted over new CSA produce and attended parties and basically did everything pleasant I could think of to avoid writing a sermon.   Now it is Saturday night, and I must do what my father before me did every Saturday night all my life, and "tweak" the sermon into a more acceptable state of disrepair.  I'll even make pizza, like my mother did my whole life.

My garden flourishes, variably.  Today I saw the first tomato buds!
That's right, some day soon that little green knob will be a juicy tomato. 

Here's one of my surviving squash plants:

 On Sunday, when I last posted, I had at least nine sprouted plants.  By Tuesday, I had about fifteen.  But today, only six survive some terrible slime plague.  I cried when my plants disappeared overnight--good God, I'm so emotional over these little plants.  I'll be a nutcase when I have kiddos.
 These are the wild strawberries.  I never stop being amazed that literally the only thing I have to do to them is not kill them, and they grow.  I think that's a metaphor for not overprotecting children or something but I'm happy with that non-metaphorical juicy red bite.
And finally the first pepper of the year.  It's a Hungarian wax pepper.  I don't even know what it will taste like--someone I know was selling the seedlings and it sounded like a good idea at the time. Isn't it adorable?