Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Foundations of Anarchotheism: I Samuel 8, Part I

A friend who also professes Christian Anarchism (yes! I know another Christian Anarchist, IRL!!!!) asked me to reflect on 1st Samuel Chapter 8, a wonderful chapter outlining the basic moral argument against monarchy (and by extension all -archies). This chapter testifies to our current situation even as it plays a vital role in the structure of the Old Testament (sacred text for the win once again). I'd like to emphasize: in no way am I an expert on the historical circumstances of this text, nor do I have any understanding of the original Hebrew. But certainly this text is ancient and has spoken to centuries of communities, and it is in this sense that I affirm its importance. A more detailed historical background would interest me, but I discuss here its narrative and rhetorical truth even in the absence of such facts.

You might want to reread this chapter. It relates the powerful, tragic conclusion to the era of the Judges, a village-elders style of government where people brought their concerns to divinely appointed (and almost certainly locally admired) wise people who led through good decision-making. Samuel was a well-regarded judge, but the system broke down under his sons' corruption. Because of their failings, the people ask Samuel to appoint a king for them. Samuel consults God, who disapproves of the King plan; he explains to the people why they should not seek a monarchy. But they clamor for one regardless because they want to be like the other nations! And so God hands them over to the kings, whose misdeeds and exploitations frame the rest of the history of Israel.

In this post, I'll focus on the beginning of the chapter, on Samuel's corrupt sons, and the application to the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. It seems clear that demanding a king was a bad idea, but the demand does not materialize from thin air. Samuel was wise and just in the best tradition of the judges, but his gifts did not extend to fatherhood; his sons, Joel and Abiah, tainted faith in the judicial system by accepting bribes. That they were judges at all represents part of the move to monarchy. When bloodline instead of demonstrated merit determines authority, the distinction between judges and kings becomes very murky indeed. It's not hard to imagine the Israelites, disillusioned with inherited authority, demanding a change in their governance. Not only did the sons thwart justice in a few cases, but they also destroyed the appearance of impartiality and wisdom in the judicial system, directly leading to the demand for a king.

This reminds me of the state's justification of the murder of Trayvon Martin. The corruption and evil of one man helps destroy the legitimacy of the entire system. Samuel did wrong and participated in the destriction of judge-based rule by allowing his sons to continue judging despite their corruption. The State of Florida does wrong by retroactively establishing walking around while young, black, and hoodied as a capital crime. And the greatest wrong is not only this once instance of unpunished murder (although the one instance is heinous), but advertising the state sponsorship of murder. Murders will probably happen, even in the best society we could possibly create--and we must seek to eliminate them and come up with adequate deterrants and punishments. But instead of doing that, the state used the Stand Your Ground law to endorse murder as a good response to fear of unarmed teenagers. We must remember that George Zimmerman had the opportunity to state his case to a jury of somewhat-peers, which is good and right. But Trayvon Martin never had that opportunity because he was dead, and now the State of Florida has murdered him all over again, and may in the future murder other young black men who Cause Fear in armed citizenry. The Florida courts and the sons of Samuel alike devastated trust in the justice system to protect the vulnerable and to make wise decisions, weighting the scales towards the wealthy and the privileged.

And when the existing structures are exposed for their injustice, it is natural and understandable for the people to cry out for a change. We see a reasonable demand from the people of Israel, from the judicially underpriviliged populations of the United States, calling out for oversight and reform. The unfortunate thing in both cases is that the proposed solution does not address the problem. The kings had more authority, and as a result were still worse than the limited corruption of Samuel's sons. Trying to convict George Zimmerman on a civil rights charge on the federal level does nothing to return Trayvon's life, and also does nothing to change the situation of hate and fear that allowed the state to pass Stand your Ground laws and then declare Zimmerman not-guilty. Maybe it is human nature to try to get the higher-ups to clean up corruption and bring about peace and justice. But a federal court cannot establish a land of justice and peace; a king generally did not bring about the Kingdom of God for the people of God.

Tomorrow I will explore more of the tragic establishment of the Kingdoms of Israel. For today, I leave with this thought. Injustice exposed destroys the communal faith in any system designed to relieve injustice. The people who allow that injustice to continue are also guilty, and they should not be surprised when the community cries out for a change.

N.B. I do not argue that George Zimmerman should or should not face federal civil rights charges--only that those charges do little to nothing to address the underlying systemic failures.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Garden 2013

The beautiful summer 2013 garden line has arrived! See the magnificent detailing on the celery, observe the inventive silhouette of the burgeoning oregano plant! And we love that pop of color on the wild strawberries, so unexpected and restrained!

We have been watching a lot of old Project Runway seasons at our house, so forgive me if a bit of that vocabulary seeps into my garden descriptions. In any case, gardening continues to consume a lot of my time and produce abundances of food and joy for me this summer. I actually did get spring plants in this year. We enjoyed a lot of delicious spinach, and I learned to cook with radishes a little bit. My beets are still in progress, as are celery and fennel. All of these are experimental crops this year; I don't really know how to grow them, so I don't expect to reap an abundant harvest, just get an idea of their life cycle.

I did reap an abundant harvest of salad greens, though. The volunteer lettuce keeps coming back--this spring was its fifth reseeding; descendants of plants put in two springs ago keep coming up every spring and fall, and they are delicious. Onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers are the star billing for this summer. It's a gazpacho themed garden: now I grow everything necessary for refreshing gazpacho, come mid-July!

On Sunday, I was out weeding near my basil plants; one of the tiny weedlings I pulled smelled suspiciously amazing. On closer inspection, I realized that the dead cinnamon basil plant tossed on top of a bed over the winter had seeded the area with adorable, aromatic, delicious offspring. Another garden miracle! Also, a half-dozen volunteer tomato plants populate one corner of the garden. I'll need to replant them or possibly donate some. But the miracles of nature really never cease to amaze me; the sacred yearnings of life to continue overpower winter, unfortunate mis-weeding, lawn mowers, bugs, and other pests.

A man for whom I feel great un-admiration (what is the opposite of "admire?" is it "disdain?" is it "despise"?) once defined a weed as "anything you didn't plant where it is." I think about that every time my beautiful volunteer plants present themselves to help feed me and J., to bring extra beauty to our garden, to exude vitality. Now, I struggle with weeding; who am I to determine which plants are worthwhile and which are not, which deserve sun and rain and reproduction and which must be uprooted? But nature is so fertile, and any agricultural attempt must involve some unnatural selection. Still, the side effects of not weeding can be tasty and beautiful at times.

Which brings me to my most exciting garden announcement: We have a MULBERRY TREE growing in our back yard now!!!!!! J. and I have maintained (or, well, not mowed down) about 20 square feet of "native grass preserve" by our compost pile, just to see what might grow there. Anyway, one tree I kept telling J. he should cut down before it got too big, and he ignored me...so I got out of the car and noticed BEAUTIFUL PURPLE BERRIES on the tree everywhere! I can make mulberry jam from my very own magical berry producer! Berries! In my yard! And nature provided them for me from munificence and plenty!

Mom had a mulberry tree on her family farm, and she took us out one day when I was little. I remember thinking it was the most magical thing on the planet, just to pull things off of trees and eat them, plump fresh berries all warmed up in the sun are almost syrupy in their sweetness.

Anyway, I'm going to start canning jam this afternoon. Summer is amazing. Gardening is amazing, a daily revelation of the plenteous and liberated vision God has for the world. Ta-ta for now.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pentecost: The Red and Black Go To Church

Today we celebrate Pentecost, the religious commemoration of the manifestation of the Holy Spirit to the early church. Most Lutherans wear red on Pentecost (I don't know if other denominations do this or not), a reference to the flames of fire said to dance over the head of those early believers. When I was donning my scarlet shirt, I realized that I was dressing as if I was going to a May Day parade as much as church.

The parallels between this holy day of the Church and the high holy day of the labor movement do not end with their color coordination. For Pentecost is also a day about work, about equality, and about our radical calling to move the world towards justice and peace. On this day, we remember the early church beginning to reach out to Gentiles. The apostles affirm that Christ's message includes everyone, even and especially those marginalized by society. As the lesson from Acts chapter 1 affirms:

No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

The spirit of life and light does not speak through the wealthy or through those in situations of privilege (or at least not only through these). No, this God calls us to honor the prophesy and the testimony of the slaves and the women and all flesh. The sacred memories of Pentecost call us to honor those who speak different languages and, dare I say, take different faith journeys, than we are used to.

Christ previews the Holy Spirit's flamboyant appearance at Pentecost in today's Gospel lesson, from John 14:

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

This is a radical transfer of authority, a move from faith's top-down dictation from the powers that be (not that the prophets ever fit those restrictions in their own time and place) to the authority placed in Christ's body on earth, the church and all that seek to follow Christ's example of love. All humans seeking to connect with the other humans in the world can participate in this love, in this divine presence.

We can and must practice solidarity across race and class and linguistic and gender lines, in recognition of our equality before Christ. For He took the slave's vision and the despised Samaritan's position and the adulterous woman's shame, and declared them part of the human condition, part of the saved and liberated people of God who have but to acknowledge and claim our power to remake the world in the image of holy justice.

On a side note, the psalm for today (Psalm 104) was a beautiful meditation on the abundance God has created and which we are intended to enjoy, and it contains this glorious verse:

There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

The rest of the passage leaves no doubt as to humans's place alongside other animals as creatures, and that God provides them and us both with food, that humans are not the only vessels of the sacred, that animals too have rights and are glorious.

And so on this Pentecost, may the spirit of the sacred accompany you throughout your week. May you prophesy and listen to the prophecy and wisdom of those around you. May you honor the creation around you, and the creature that you are. May we all seize the power granted to us to proclaim the gospel of love and dignity and respect for all life.

Happy Pentecost!

Star Trek Into Alienation: A New Standard for Action Movies

Recently I attended Star Trek Into Darkness, the newest film in the franchise. I knew that there would be aliens, and I appreciate aliens as much as the next sci-fi fan. But I did not appreciate the alienation I felt throughout the film. Not only was this not a feminist movie (in contrast with the TV show's revolutionary opposition to traditional gender roles), but it actively sought to alienate women in the audience.

Now, I felt like I didn't have unrealistic expectations for the movie. I just was looking forward to a fun action comedy with the typical feel-good values of acceptance and inclusion that Star Trek led me to anticipate. I didn't expect it to depict a feminist utopia or take on colonialism or do anything too progressive or awesome. Heck, I didn't necessarily expect it to pass the Bechdel test.

It certainly didn't do any of those things, but instead took every available opportunity to remind the women in the audience that their only purpose in life is to be sexually attractive and available to men. From the threesome that Kirk takes on near the beginning of the meeting, to the totally random and unnecessary disrobing of an attractive scientist, to the way that every woman in the film is defined in relationship to men and all major leadership roles are given to men, just about every choice in the film notifies women, "Not welcome here."

I like action movies. I like them better if they have amazing politics, to be sure, and feature women. Machete, for example, has many strong women and amazing politics (although I am a little unclear why women must go into firefights without shirts on). Kill Bill, Looper and Fight Club are not unambiguously feminist films, but they make it clear that women are part of their target audiences and also discuss intriguing politics.

Further afield, films like the last Mission Impossible movie or RED or The Italian Job don't portray anything amazing. They hardly change the landscape of gender definition. But they avoid insulting the women in their audience. I enjoyed all of those movies, not because they sent great messages about liberation but because they fulfilled their generic promise--good guys winning of bad guys with lots of explosions and vaguely witty dialogue.

This is the basic standard, for me: could I overlook or applaud the film's representations of gender? If, at least, the stereotypes are understated enough to avoid active repulsion, the makers have acknowledged that women will see their movie and expect to make that a pleasant experience.

But then you have Star Trek Into Darkness, which made sure that women were shuffled out of the way except for as prizes for men to claim. Gone were the women scientists, women leaders, women of non-standard body types. The sexism was so overt that I could not enjoy the action. This makes me furious. When women pay for movie tickets, we deserve to be acknowledged as part of the potential audience. I will be very, very hesitant to venture into another Star Trek or JJ Adams movie for some time.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Common Core: Drawbacks

Yesterday, I posted about the benefits of the Common Core standards, an educational development sometimes (erroneously) labeled the most significant educational change of the last hundred years. I would say universal education, integration, expansion of post-secondary education, etc., were somewhat more significant than new standards. However, they represent a significant shift in school policy and resource allocation. I fear that their primary goal is not the stated goal (of improving student readiness for college and careers) but instead labelling more schools and teachers (and students) as "failing," then closing schools, firing teachers, and blaming students for their poverty as a result.

I have just read Diane Ravitch's discusssion of why she does not support the common core standards, and I agree with most of it (except, as noted yesterday, that I am not bothered by the increased English focus on non-fiction texts). The development of the tests is a very mysterious process, and we will begin testing students on standards that have guided their education for at most two years. Surely, students will fail these exams in record numbers. Some people will, in fact, profit enormously from these new, more expensive tests, and people pushing to close public schools and open for-profit charter schools will also benefit from the huge numbers of schools that will be declared "failing" as a result of the tests. Never mind that the charter schools don't have any better success rates, on average; once the public schools are closed down, it's very hard to get those schools back into the common public trust.

One major reason I suspect the standards have an insidious unstated goal is the lack of resource development to support teachers in this implementation. I just attended a major math teaching convention where everything claimed to support the Common Core standards, but very few of these materials actually conformed to the standards that we have studied or to the sample test questions that have been released. I have seen only one math textbook that even approached what I perceive as the common core, and that is something of a "fringe" book (little promotion by publisher--you can ask for it, but it's not advertised). Writing a question for my students that actually gets at these standards takes me in the realm of six hours; no teacher can actually come up with a dozen questions like this per day, per class. That should be the job of textbook developers; the frightening lack of these resources shifts that burden onto already overworked teachers.

Promoters claim that the standards were developed by teachers, but Ravitch's blog post indicates that very few teachers were involved in actually developing the standards. A teacher that I know was working on the in-progress science standards, and he/she informed me that the teachers actually were only allowed input on how those standards were worded; the standards themselves were handed down from on high, and the teachers' involvement was but a veneer on the product.

There is a sharp divide here between the English and math standards, though. High-stakes standardized testing is nefarious in either case. But at least we know what the English standards ARE. On the other hand, I have started referring to the math standards as "The Canon, " a set of mysterious statements handed down without research-based justification from the unknown testing gods that be. Since the statements are completely indecipherable, we must depend on Talmudic interpretive books released by different publishers who translate what the standards MIGHT mean for actual classroom practice. Of course, this is another money-making opportunity. Then there are the deuterocanonical textbooks, which offer some publishers' impressions of what school districts will interpret as common-core-compliant.

Understanding the math standards as religious rather than scientific texts has increased my patience with them, as they make a great deal more sense in this context. At this point, the seven teachers affiliated with our math department have spent 24 hours each in desperate attempts to decode the standards' meanings. That is 168 hours of teacher time spent squinting at screens in bafflement and despair, NOT ONE SECOND OF WHICH has focused on student learning, or HOW to teach these standards, or how we might coax students into this kind of engagement with math.

Additionally, the standards require most of Algebra I (traditional 9th grade math) to move into 8th grade; most of traditional Algebra II moved to Algebra I; and most of college alegbra moved to Algebra II, which all students are expected to master in this new regime. I understand that the elementary school curriulum accelerates similarily. Simply stating that students will learn material more quickly will not make them learn more quickly. This compounds the problem that not all students have the brain development to succeed in Algebra by 8th or even 9th grade. Standard defenders claim that they invite a deeper engagement with fewer general ideas (more depth, less breadth), but we have found nothing eliminated in breadth. As the standards are stated, we are simply supposed to teach more material in less time with fewer resources and more pressure.

As I mentioned yesterday, these changes might be beneficial for students of average to excellent ability in math. But there are multiple indices of fairness and multiple ways to educate all students with an eye to equity and excellence. Even assuming the best of these standards, they require every student to learn exactly the same thing at high levels. Now, I do believe that nearly all students can learn rigorous math at high levels. But I do not believe that all students can learn the same content in the same amount of time. Material that takes someone with a natural bent towards math one hour a day to master might take a student with less natural bent three or more hours a day to master. Meanwhile, that same student who is wonderful at math might have no gift at all for woodshop. The student who has to work three hours a day to master those math standards might be a cabinet making genius. I have worked with both these students. Under uniform and rigorous standards, the student who excels at math gets the basic content, but the math teachers' time is occupied with helping the struggling students, and there are no advanced or elective math classes offered to help her achieve her full potential in math. The student who struggles with math must devote massive blocks of time to achieving that mastery, at the cost of developing her talents and passions.

Common standards in this instance serve neither very high achievers nor moderately low achievers in the tested areas. This vision for equitable education sees all students mastering exactly the same things, without regard to their interests, abilities, or needs. Another vision for equitable education sees all students encouraged and enabled to learn to the best of their abilities in a wide range of disciplines. Certainly, everyone should have a basic competency in math and English; we would be remiss as adults, educators, and parents if we encouraged illiteracy, numeric or otherwise, in our youth. And if we could help each child achieve a very high proficiency in math and English with no detrimental side effects, of course we should do that.

But that is not the case. School days are limited, and years of free public education are limited; given these constraints, every hour a student spends in a remedial math class is another hour s/he is not in a class s/he enjoys that can help propel him or her to a meaningful career. Students and parents should have some flexibility to weigh the benefits and detriments of every course offering; even as a proponent of math and English education, I believe some students should be able to choose different vocational preparation than adding fractions with trinomials in the denominator. The common core, and more specifically the onerous testing requirements related to it, cut off student choices to the detriment of students with varied talents.

For teachers to be able to teach all this material successfully, we must have more and better resources, and we must consider placing all children in double blocks of math and English. We simply cannot teach a great deal more material in the same length of time to the same students. If we don't want to double all children up on math and English (and I would argue, vehemently, that it's a terrible idea), we probably need to adjust the testing expectations and allow more flexibility. If I could be assured that the math standards would be rewritten for clarity, that the process of developing tests was open to stakeholder input and done by the government instead of a for-profit corporation, that students could choose to follow their non-math and English passions, and that schools would not close and teachers not lose their jobs as a direct result of the increased rigor of the Common Core, I could get behind the standards a lot more enthusiastically. But those are a lot of "ifs." I hope to revisit this topic in three or four years and laugh at my concerns, as I contemplate the wonderful strides our educational system has taken. Alas, that is not my expectation.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Common Core: Benefits

I have had a lot of people ask me about the Common Core standards, inasmuch as they are becoming the education law of the land and I'm a teacher in the most affected areas and some state legislatures have been trying to outlaw them and all that. So today, I'm going to explain them to you as best as possible and also offer some thoughts on their good elements. I'll offer another post on their less good elements soon.

First of all, the idea of universal standards across state lines is a very good idea. It is centralizing, a little bit fascist (because it imposes one standard everywhere), and dictatorial--yes, all those things. But if you live near a state border, as I do, and if your school serves students from low-income backgrounds, as mine does, the concept of shared standards is marvelous. I have students that move in for three months, move back across the border, return a couple weeks later, then leave to finish the year somewhere else. Of course, every school they attend is doing something completely different. Kids experiencing this kind of transience would benefit enormously from some continuity between their educational experiences. Not that common standards ensure this, but they help.

Secondarily, the Common Core standards do not represent a federal takeover of education. The Obama administration did encourage their adoption by making them a factor in the odious "Race to the Top" (aka No Child Left Behind, but more insulting coming from a Democrat who was supposed to support teachers). But the National Governors' Association, not the department of education, called for their development, and states decided whether or not to implement them. Forty-five states elected to use them; four elected to use state-developed standards; Minnesota opted to use the English but not the math standards. Of those forty-five, Indiana recently outlawed them. The Kansas legislature attempted to outlaw them but fell a few votes short. Concerned parties cited the "federal takeover" as the motivation. I am still not exactly sure how you "outlaw" standards.

The standards certainly represent education reform in the sense that all education should be based on essential skills and objectives, but this is basically the only kind of "reform" from the current movements that I actually support. My own experience has reinforced my belief in standards-based education, and thinking about the essential content my students need to be successful (in personal finance, in further education, in careers) has transformed my teaching. In my math department discussions of the Common Core, we have analyzed the essential skills from our course content extensively. Those conversations have been productive and useful in classroom praxis. They also represent a kind of equality in that we are supposed to make sure all students are mastering these standards, not just the "best" students. I appreciate the Common Core inasmuch as, if it works, I will have a much better idea of what students entering my classroom have mastered in the past.

The Common Core insists that students at all schools are exposed to rigorous content, and this is a great development. I had a student transfer in from a severely under-resourced school, and s/he told me that our school was amazing because the teachers would stop and answer questions when you asked them, and help you until you understood the material. Also, we have science labs! That this represented a break in this student's educational experience horrified me. If the common core makes sure every school teaches real content to every student, that would be a wonderful thing. That is a massive "if," but more on that tomorrow.

The standards are split into two parts, English/Language Arts and Math. I have been teaching math for four years, and next year (big happy dance) I will be teaching English--all to 9th graders. I have only read the English language arts standards a couple of times, but so far I am very impressed with them. Many people have critiqued them for their focus on non-fiction and informational texts as opposed to literature, but I believe the ability to decipher written information is crucial to student and community liberation. There's a lot of great non-fiction out there, and I look forward to teaching it. Also, a lot of people (especially male people) who identify as non-readers actually consume a great deal of non-fiction text, and I want to help those people reclaim their reading identity (and if, by declaring themselves readers, they work up the courage to read a novel or poem sometime, I won't be disappointed). The ELA standards are broad enough to adapt to local contexts and, in general, provide a good base for literacy education. I say that now but will revisit the theme after teaching under them for a year!

The math standards, alternatively, are a mess. But today I am focusing on the upsides of the Common Core. The focus on "mathematical habits of mind" could be revolutionary. They are great, and as teachers reorient their classes to focus on them, students will find their math education applicable across other disciplines and contexts.

One of the features I really like about these "habits of mind" is that they are easy to extend into the world of people who think they "don't do math." Most people do look for structure and patterns, even if they do not conceive of that as a mathematical task. Most people, eventually, must learn to persevere in problem solving, or they will not experience a lot of success in careers, community organizing, parenting (I hear), or a host of other necessary roles.Math habits of mind
Mathematical habits of mind

The math standards themselves, when we understand what they mean, include a needed focus on functions (i.e. what variables are related, and how they are related), and an emphasis on knowing how mathematical processes operate.

But everything else I think about the math common core belongs in another post.

Anyway, my professional opinion is this: if you have a kid in the school system (or are a kid in the school system), you should be cautiously optimistic about the changes the common core standard will bring to you or your child's education. Potentially, the classes you or child takes will be more focused on important ideas, and there will be more connections across disciplines. If you should move during your K-12 education, you may experience more continuity in learning because of these standards. The goal of these standards IS to make a high school diploma communicate mastery of a good set of skills, and if you or child does master those skills, s/he will be more equipped for success in post-secondary schooling and careers. These benefits are more likely to apply to students with average to excellent ability in math and English (not necessarily with low or exceptional ability in those particular topics--again, more on that tomorrow).

If you are a teacher, you already have a long and complicated relationship with the Common Core and I do not presume to tell you what to think. As a teacher, I think there are really good possibilities to improve my teaching and boost student learning through the common core. If all stated goals are the genuine goals, I can mostly get behind the English standards and the comprehensible parts of the math standards. Inasmuch as they can guide education, the standards might do more good than harm.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Atlanta: Failing the Test

As you may have heard, there is a standardized test cheating scandal going on in Atlanta. It appears that many teachers and administrators collaborated to change wrong student answers to correct student answers, thereby improving their schools' reputations and reaping many personal benefits including sizable bonuses. Both the New York Times and Bill Ayers have written cogent commentaries on this, and I thought I would add this educator's voice to the mix.

First of all, cheating is wrong. It nullifies whatever good can come from standardized tests (i.e. exposing weaknesses in the curriculum that need to be addressed), it masks actual deficiencies that should be addressed, and it serves to prop up a system that is inherently worthless. The teachers involved were wrong to participate in the cheating, and the administrators were even more wrong to encourage and/or coerce that participation. If cheating goes undetected, it reinforces the whole system of testing and provides fake successes for the pro-testing and "reform" movement.

The heroic way to resist the testing regime is the way of the Garfield High School faculty, who refused to administer a test they felt did not measure student learning and took time away from useful classroom instruction. They are an inspiration to all teachers who know that high-stakes testing is not the key to student success.

But not all of us can be heroes. This cheating may be a kind of desperate sabotage of untenable work conditions, where your whole value as a human being is boiled down to a number that you ultimately don't have much control over. Many teachers (sometimes me included, but not today) feel helpless in front a system madated at the state and federal level. We know that those tests are of no value to the students involved, and it's hard to help our kids take ownership of testing that has no impact on them but lots of impact on their schools.

Here's the thing: no students were harmed by teachers erasing their answers on a standardized test. In fact, they helped bring money into the district by gaming a corrupt system to get ahead. It's still wrong, and people who participate should face professional punishments--losing their job, perhaps; losing their bonuses, certainly. And some other cheating scandals, where students were actually injured (like this one in El Paso) certainly merit some harsh punishment WHILE AT THE SAME TIME inviting reflection on systems that would lead professionals to think such horrific actions were a good idea.

But the criminal prosecutions being pursued are preposterous. Yes, the testing officials made a difficult work situation (albeit one mandated by Arne Duncan and the feds) by forcing teachers to do something they knew was wrong. But the superintendant is facing up to 45 years in prison, and bail has been set for several teachers and administrators in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are being punished for resisting in the non-heroic mode, for doing what human beings do under extreme pressure. And guess what? Nearly all of the accused are African American.

This reminds me of other large scandals, like when the bank HSBC funded Mexican drug cartels that kill lots of people, both funding and killing in violation of lots of laws and ethics, and none of their officials went to jail or had to pay a single fine. Bizarre. I bet, though, that their officials weren't middle-income African American people. They had to make a profit! That's how the system works!

So, when people of color working in social welfare organizations screw up and cheat the system out of a few thousand dollars, they deserve massive fines and long jail sentences. When people, primarily rich white people, in large banks screw up and cheat people out of their lives and livelihoods and take their houses and fund killers and launder billions of dollars, the people involved are just too important to prosecute and cannot possiblly be held responsible.

This is an outrage. Both systems are wrong (testing to determine school funding, and banking to fund truly criminal enterprise), and both deserve some punishment--but people who did not hurt children deserve much less punishment than people who help murderers and steal peoples' homes out from under them. We should not jail people for their non-heroic resistance; we should jail the people that made them feel cheating was necessary for the survival of a good institution (public schools). Conversely, maybe we could focus prosecuting power on drug cartel enablers and actual child abusers, and then we could focus other energy on creating excellent educational opportunities for every young person.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Country Mouse in the City

Recently my husband and I visited San Francisco, a celebration of our fifth anniversary. Our trip was delightful, our hosts pleasant, and our library greatly expanded. Oh, the bookstores--we visited so many excellent vendors of reading material, it shall take me months to process all the material we picked up. I especially enjoyed the anarchist bookstore "Bound Together" with the requisite baby boomer anarchist with Real Life Experience at the counter. This was on the Haight, a street with lots of history and lots of people celebrating freedom at every possible opportunity. We also explored Lawrence Ferlenghetti's bookstore City Lights, and I discovered that the Beat Generation had an amazing woman poet--Diane di Prima. I devoured her book of poetry I found there and may dedicate the rest of my days to amateur scholarship of her, Ruth Ozeki, and Jeanette Winterson.

Anyway. I also loved the Mission district, which is the home of many immigrants from Latin America (and other places, but that seemed to be the dominant influence). It resembled Mexico's beauty, with abundant murals on historical and cultural themes. One church in the district had a magnificent mural on its front which had verses and images from the Genesis creation myth and the Popul Vuh together.

The Castro inspired me to remember that people have banded together and fought for and often won collective liberation and acceptance. Coming over a hill and suddenly seeing the rainbow flags up and down the street sent chills up and down my spine. This testimony to inclusiveness warmed the heart, and made me sad for all those who do not yet benefit from warm, caring, accepting environments. I cried a little bit at the Harvey Milk memorial, his old apartment. We visited the GLBT history museum there as well. There was a section on the gay liberation movement transitioning from advocating for revolution, to a transition for advocating for equal rights in marriage, employment, housing, and so on. Sometimes I hear criticism of this move from people on the left; however, this exhibit drove home for me that equality does mean no one should be compelled to activism simply to live his or her life. I might (and do) wish that people of all sexual orientations and genders and races would clamour for our collective liberation. But if a person who is gay wishes to pursue a quiet life with a spouse, or a corporate career, or even a capitalist identity (shudder), s/he should be able to pursue that life regardless of sexual orientation. The complete transformation of society is the goal, but making sure that all people are able to participate in the flawed society that we have is an intermediary goal. May the Supreme Court do something useful for once and encourage that to happen.

Like most trips, our trip to San Francisco encouraged reflection on the situation of homelessness. In no way do I mean that the pleasurable situation of bourgeoise tourists wandering for fun and education is analogous to people who do not have a home to return to after the wandering. But when I am home in Larryville, I have many places and relationships where I "belong" regardless of my ability to pay that person or place at that moment. In a strange city, the ties of human connection disappear and only the economic connection remains. As I walked the hills of San Francisco, I was acutely aware that my presence there was tolerated only because I had means. When we wanted to sit down, we had to be able to purchase our seat with a cup of coffee. The necessity of renting space to put my feet at all times became clear. I cannot truly imagine the situation of homelessness, but the degradation of having no right to exist in a space without paying for it is clearer when I travel. I cannot imagine the pain of perpetually wandering from place to place, your presence always unwelcome, your space unransomed and therefore undesirable. I cannot imagine it, and no one should have to live it. In California, posters and signs related to the housing crisis and forclosure were everywhere, yet the articles in the paper about people without homes were no less accusatory or cruel than in places where capitalism's inability to provide housing is less obvious.

Seeing beautiful San Francisco almost made me sad that, four years ago, I was determined to move back to Kansas rather than California. Alas, we don't have birds of paradise and calla lilies and redwoods growing naturally around us. But I actually came away believing that our life is more similar to a typical young couple in San Francisco than we would have expected. Our friends several times asked us, oh, you can't <go to poetry readings/shop at a natural foods store/get that product/etc> in Kansas, can you, and the vast majority of those things, we were able to say, "We do that all the time in Lawrence!" Sure, we don't have a *lot* of good Thai restaurants to choose from, but we do have one or two. We don't have the variety of San Francisco, but we still have good food and good arts and good music. Now, living in the hinterlands of Kansas would be different, but I am not convinced that we would lead a dramatically different existence in San Francisco. I have this weird sense of an actual national culture. Thanks, California, for reminding me of all the things I love about my home.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Righteous Fury

I have been experiencing some serious post-election fatigue, and I know I am not alone on this! The 2012 presidential election was bruising and full of oppressive suggestions. I felt I had to vote for Obama to fight the fascists. But his victory is terribly, resoundingly hollow when he immediately turns around and defends his right to kill any American citizen, anywhere, for any reason, without the facade of judicial review. I now have a better understanding of why anarchists historically oppose elections as an avenue for change. They sap the organizing energy of the people and fool us into complacency.

As a result of this slump, I have been less outraged than usual over the random legislative assaults on liberty. Yes, the Kansas legislature is leading particularly vicious and harmful attacks on women and workers. Yes, my relatively secure and middle-class job as a teacher is being transformed into a fragile, low-wage job. Yes, getting pregnant in this state is now dangerous because of the restrictions on women's health care. But if Wisconsin showed us anything, unfortunately, it was that even massive and well-supported protest can do nothing against an elitist and misogynistic legislature and governor.

In the past, I have argued that a centralized state can successfully enforce some superficial anti-discrimination against oppressed groups. But today, the Supreme Court is listening to arguments on the Voting Rights bill, and they seem inclined to declare it outdated and unnecessary. This is doubly insulting after a campaign season where overt racism and attempts to keep people of color from voting cropped up continually. Thus the state proceeds in gutting even its few possible positive effects on the world. What the state gives it can take away. Cursed be the name of the state.

Still, I can't do anything about these events, so there's no point in arousing my usual fury on them. But Seth McFarlane's Oscar performance of "We Saw Your Boobs" made me furious with blood boiling, headache inducing, manic shouting, fury. Jezebel has already published a great article about sexism fatigue, and Salon demonstrated that many of the scenes described portrayed rapes and other brutality against women. And certainly, there is a grain of truth in that Hollywood makes few movies from a woman's perspective. Most of the movies described probably did feature nudity because studio execs figured that female nudity = more male viewers. Men probably do frequently see only sexual objects on screen, because they are looking for it. But that does not make this okay, or even funny.

This song is a tool of oppression. It reminded all the women in the audience that even immense success, in a capitalist and celebrity obsessed world, cannot protect women from sexual objectification and humiliation. Many of the women named (Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Halle Berry, others) have done a lot to encourage empathy and spotlight oppression; certainly, all the women named have done more noble work than McFarlane--as anything is better than no or negative efforts. But he is a man, so he should be able to remind them that in scenes of emotion and hardship, men only see breasts. That when women portray complex characters, they are really only portraying a sexual stimulant. That no matter what, a women whose breasts have ever appeared anywhere deserves mocking and shaming.

These are the insults and put downs that keep us depressed, on the defensive, always remembering that we are not equal to men, and fearful that we never will be (or that god forbid we transcend gender and interact with other human beings on basis of other characteristics than their functional reproductive parts). Even riches and fame are no defense against casual abuse. There is not an electoral solution to crap like this.

We must relentlessly organize against sexism. In a more just world, McFarlane would never work again, never date again, never wake up without a rush of shame. In a truly just world, that song would never have happened because no one would ever visualize humiliating female-bodied humans because of their complex artistic works; no one would turn a portrayal of injustice into an opportunity to get aroused. Unfortunately, McFarlane probably will work and date again, but we must not accept this as just more awkward humor. Take arms against a sea of sexism, and by organizing, education, and stomping out, end it!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Today in Public Libraries Rock

Not too far from where I live, there is a particularly hateful group of people who preach a vicious, life-denying Christianity. You may know them as the Westboro Baptist Church, most often seen at funeral protests. They also protest area rock concerts and recently made an appearance at the church I attend. They are an embarrassment to the state of Kansas (not that we need another).

But two of their members recently escaped, due in part to the influence of the Lawrence Public Library! Megan Phelps-Roper spoke about leaving the church and shared how a visit to our library helped open up her eyes to the breadth of human thought and experience. Congratulations to Megan on leaving, and I hope she can find peace in a new life.

On reading this, I remembered with fondness the library in my hometown. Some wonderful librarian in my town purchased the community subscription to Ms. Magazine and the Utne Reader. After my introduction to feminism, these were the only pro-woman texts I saw for two years until my own escape to college. During near-daily trips to the library I would check for the new issues incessantly, and secretly, lest anyone see me reading them. I found my first Douglas Coupland books there, and my first Simon and Garfunkel album; they loaned me all of Madeline L'Engle's books, a great deal of science fiction, Holocaust memoirs, The Bell Jar, literary biographies--most of my literary loves came from that one big room filled with books.

The people running that library were hardly leftist or even liberal; they most likely did not agree with the sentiments of those publications. But they had a commitment to open access and knowledge that I respect deeply, and that commitment was rare in small-town Iowa. So the arson that destroyed my hometown library was particularly traumatic. Some local ruffians threw firecrackers in the book-return box and gutted the structure, taking most of the collection in the fire. These young people were caught and punished as little as possible, due to family connections and most probably the low regard those in power felt towards the library.

Later, the library was rebuilt, bigger and more beautiful than before. I never felt the same about the new structure, though; it lacked the central fireplace and cozy surreptitiousness of the former building. The old stacks allowed me to disappear into books; the new were too open, too revealing, too few places for young feminists to hide.

Anyway, if there is one thing that is truly great about America, it is our libraries. I am sure that there is inequality in them, also, in where they are and in how fines accrue and in which writers and artists are represented in the collections. Nonetheless, they are the most promising institution we have, a source of hope for a free and educated future. The public libraries helped me escape; they have given some of my students access to a larger vision; and they helped Megan Phelps-Roper see a new light. Congratulations to all who leave lives directed by hate for lives directed by love and reading. May love and reading bless all of you this year!