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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Merry Christmas. We got you something.

Dear Christians,

Merry Christmas. We got you something.

Who’s we? The rest of us. You know: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists. Non-Christians. We got you something: the War on Christmas.

What’s that you say? “I thought you people deny there IS a War on Christmas?”

Well, yeah. Kinda. I mean, there is no War on Christmas in the sense that Fox News means it. There’s no national conspiracy to oppress Christians and deprive them of their freedom of religion. As Jon Stewart points out every year (and you can watch below), Christmas is everywhere and shows no sign of letting up.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret: There is a kind of a war on Christmas.

See, it’s not because you wished us “Merry Christmas” at work, or because we’re jealous of your pretty tree. (We are jealous of your pretty tree. A well-decorated tree is the prettiest damn thing we’ve ever seen.)

The rest of us go through the Christmas season grumbling under our breath, “I can’t wait for Christmas to be over.” We cringe at the Christmas music in the supermarket - “The Little Drummer Boy” as much as “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” We despise the mall at this time of year for its crowds, its feverish sales pitches, and the screaming children demanding face time with Santa. We sit tight-lipped and grim-faced through school concerts where the Christmas-to-Hanukkah-to-Kwanzaa ratio is 6:2:1. (Oh, and FYI, the reason Christmas music is better is not because Christians write better music, but because for 2000 years Hanukkah was a relative non-event, and Kwanzaa was invented a nanosecond ago on the scale of human history.) And not all of us, but some of us - maybe most of us - grind our teeth when we drive past that nativity scene on the green. So in a sense, yes. There is a War on Christmas.

It’s because we can see what you, perhaps, can’t, because you’re too close to it. Or maybe you can see it, but you’re just not in a position to say so.

Christmas as celebrated in our culture is HIDEOUS. Aesthetically and morally HIDEOUS. And let’s be honest - you know that, don’t you? It’s garish, loud, pushy, and irritatingly ubiquitous. Ninety-nine percent of the Christmassy stuff out there is inarguably unrelated to the religious meaning of the holiday, motivated instead by pure commercial interest. Do we need to say any more about the commercialization of Christmas? No. Because you know it’s true. Everyone knows it’s true. And everyone also knows that the transformation of Christmas into a marketing gimmick is antithetical to the meaning of the holiday. So let’s not even go there. Garishly decorated retail outlets; Black Friday Walmart stampedes; pet photos with Santa; Christmas specials featuring Barbie,  He-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Bratz Babyz; and on and on and on. Yep. Each of us in our own minds is waging a war on the hideous, corrupt version of Christmas that assaults us everywhere we go.

And now to that other aspect of the War on Christmas - the one thing the War-on-Christmas paranoiacs get the most mileage out of - that nativity scene on the village green. The one they had to remove because of some lawsuit by ACLU atheists and Jews.

First of all, every town around me has one of those things, and the ACLU doesn’t seem to have sued them yet, because the citizens of these towns don’t have the bandwidth in their busy lives to make a fuss about them. (I’ve been sorely tempted, but even I have better things to do, and that’s not saying much.) But when some guy in some American town somewhere decides that he just can’t stand looking at a creche any more and demands that it be removed, rest assured: You’ll hear about it on Fox News. Over and over and over again. But do you think for one moment that Fox is doing it for Jesus? A nechtiger tog! They’re doing it because they have a political axe to grind - because painting atheists and Jews (aka liberals) as oppressors of Christians serves their right wing agenda. Jesus really doesn’t enter into it.

Second of all, there’s the whole separation of church and state thing. You may not like it. You may think that placing a menorah on the village green alongside the nativity scene satisfies some neutrality requirement. (It doesn’t. Separation of church and state doesn’t mean equal time. It means - well, separation of church and state. It’s self-explanatory.) You may think that we’re misinterpreting the Constitution. But one thing is for sure: It’s not a war on CHRISTMAS. It’s an objection to religious symbolism in government-supported public places. It’s not restricted to Christmas (remember the Ten Commandments-in-the-courthouse thing?). The only reason Christians and Christmas get targeted a lot is that Christians are the ones who keep putting religious symbols on the village green, and Christmas is when they do it. If you choose to believe that means we hate you and your holiday, probably nothing I say will make much of a difference. But for what it’s worth, we don’t. We’re all for your religious freedom on private property.

So exactly how is the War on Christmas our gift to you? The simple fact is that when you splash religious symbolism on every available surface of a non-Christian nation - and like it or not, America is not a Christian nation - it loses its meaning. It becomes diluted. It becomes the property of everyone, and therefore the purview of no one. When you use that symbolism as a marketing tool to sell merchandise, it does worse than lose its meaning. Its meaning changes to something much uglier and more hypocritical - something about profit, self-interest and greed. It’s not just my Jewish kids who will come to see Christmas as a cultural juggernaut that has become an excuse for putting up decorations, selling merchandise, and replacing their favorite TV shows with awful holiday specials. It’s your kids who will come to see it that way, too. Is that the Christmas you want them to have? Or would you rather they think about the fact that God loved them so much that he sent the world his only son, who taught them how to live a good life and then died for their sins?

So Merry Christmas, Christians. We non-Christians pitched in and got you something: Christmas.

You’re welcome.

The Rest of Us

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The War on Christmas: Friendly Fire Edition
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The War on Christmas: Friendly Fire Edition - Bill O'Reilly's Philosophy
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Yep, I said it. Racist subtext.

So there’s this charter school in Newark called Robert Treat Academy. It’s run by this Democratic party boss called Steve Adubato Sr. The school is often cited by education reformy types as this giant success story proving that charter schools are better at teaching poor, minority kids than regular public schools are. (RTA is 17% African American, 78% Hispanic; interestingly, only 1% have limited English proficiency). Chris Christie loves the place so much, he’s visited twice.

Then there’s this editor at the Newark Star Ledger called Tom Moran, who drank the education-reformy Kool-Aid and regularly writes pieces about the super-awesome-coolness of school choice (code for school privatization, or at least a great way to divert funding from conventional public schools to other organizations like charter school operators, and very popular with the hedge fund-manager set).

Meanwhile, there’s this cheating scandal in New Jersey. State investigators found 15 schools had unusually high rates of wrong-to-right erasure marks on state standardized tests; one of those schools is Robert Treat Academy. The school says this is because students were taught the strategy of filling in two bubbles when they’re not sure of the answer, then erasing one (which would be a staggeringly stupid strategy on a machine-scored test). Students told investigators they were never taught that strategy. Three RTA officials were found to have breached the security of sixth-grade students' tests.

So this is what Tom Moran writes about the cheating scandal at Robert Treat Academy: “If you are winning a game fair and square, why would you cheat to run up the score?”

Winning the game fair and square? The school has been caught cheating, and yet Moran still thinks they were winning the game fair and square? That’s a rather gobsmacking statement, don’t you think? Now, Moran knows about the alleged test cheating, so he  must be thinking of something else that constitutes “winning the game fair and square.” What could that possibly be?

Keep reading, and you find this: “The school is a remarkable place full of respectful children in tidy uniforms who stay late during the week, then return on Saturdays for more. These kids are proving that poverty is not destiny.”

That right there? That is REALLY disturbing.

Apparently, Robert Treat Academy is winning the game fair and square because the kids aren’t running around like wild animals with too much free time on their hands, wearing sloppy clothes and hollering obscenities in the hallway.

Is that Moran’s idea of school success? Really?

More to the point, is this something one would have said about a low-performing school in a poor, rural, white community - that because the kids are respectful and tidy, the school proves that “poverty is not destiny?” I sure as hell don’t think so.

And therein lies a deeply troubling issue about the charter school movement: race. Like Robert Treat Academy, most charters take fewer of the poorest kids, fewer kids with disabilities, and fewer non-English speakers; produce similar results to public schools when adjusted for similar populations; maintain an environment where rigid discipline (of the kind elite private schools would never impose) creates the appearance of order; and then use these schools as “proof” that charters erase the educational effects of poverty. Meanwhile, it turns out that charter schools "are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation." While all the reformy hounds are barking up the charter-school tree, no one is noticing the forest: a segregated education system where schools that often emphasize rote test prep and strict discipline serve primarily minority students, while racial and socioeconomic school integration as a reform strategy is completely ignored.

RTA uses high test scores as proof of its success; when evidence emerges that the school did not come by those high test scores honestly, Tom Moran insists that the school is nevertheless a success story, and that the cheating is just Adubato “running up the score” to boost his legacy. His evidence? Black and Latino children who are “respectful” and wear “tidy uniforms.”

That right there is some racist subtext.

EDITED TO ADD: Education writer Dana Goldstein points out that charter operators who want to blunt criticism about segregation are seeking to open more racially and socioeconomically diverse schools. But in the process, they drop the harsh "no excuses" discipline model so common in urban charters, knowing it won't fly among more affluent whites who expect progressive education.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Politically correct and proud

Politically correct: conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.
                  -- Merriam Webster

I’m sick to death of the now decades-old charge that political correctness is ruining everyone’s fun. Can’t say this, can’t joke about that, woe is me.


Without the courageous, unrelenting tenacity of civil rights advocates, feminists, gay rights advocates, etc., insisting that it’s not okay to use certain terms, make certain jokes, or turn a blind eye to certain behaviors, nothing would ever change. And you know why nothing would ever change? Because Big Evil worms its way into the very fabric of our society, our most established institutions, the agencies that are supposed to serve our citizenry and protect our vulnerable - right in the heart of the supposedly civilized Western world.

We learned a lot about societally sanctioned racism in the 60s and 70s. Now we’re finding out about another Big Evil - sexual misconduct, up to and including extreme sexual brutality against children.

The Catholic Church.
Penn State.
The BBC.
The Boy Scouts.
The US military.
The IMF.
Horace Mann.
The Secret Service.

We would not have learned about any of this had it not been for activists who insist on drawing a clear line in the sand that must never be crossed. You don’t uncover the complicity in heinous crimes of institutions like these by being wishy-washy. Political correctness refocuses people’s attention to notice what they had previously overlooked; to acknowledge the existence of what they had previously refused to acknowledge; and to stop implicitly condoning that which is indefensible.

Let’s be real clear here. Political correctness does not include banning Huckleberry Finn because it contains the word nigger. Or suspending a kid from school for hugging. Saying that those things prove political correctness is bad is akin to saying that Sarah Palin proves democracy is bad. Do not let stupidity ruin everything for the rest of us.

And another point: Political correctness doesn’t mean you can’t ever joke about certain topics. It means you can’t joke about those topics in certain ways. And if you think that’s too nebulous a standard - tough. When in doubt, shut up. (Daniel Tosh, I’m looking at you.)

Given the horrible stuff that’s come to light lately, I hope people will begin to recognize that what has come to be derided as political correctness has made these revelations possible. And those revelations, in turn, make real change possible.

And Daniel Tosh can kiss my politically correct ass.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A binder meme ate my brain

I admit it. The whole "binders full of women" thing captures my imagination. Also gives me a chance to show off my awesome Photobucket skills. So I made these:

If you are living in a cave and haven't visited the home world of this meme yet, click here.

And then, of course, there's this on Amazon.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

On language, education and BS

When I got my first job working for a big corporation in the '80s, after earning a Masters in English lit and another in journalism, I was horrified by the bizspeak gobbledegook I found there. It was the Age of the Mission Statement, with HR and PR departments churning out verbiage that meant nothing; that included way too much jargon and way too many words to convey ideas that weren't very interesting or compelling; or that was outright naked propaganda designed to placate restive workers who might suspect they were undervalued, underpaid and overworked. I couldn't believe any intelligent person would take that bullshit seriously.

Fast forward to today, when that kind of writing (and thinking) has crept out of the Big Biz world into so many other areas. Like, ironically - education. 

With that preface, I bring you a quote from a document describing a project under way at a public high school. 

Sol Lewitt Project for the Freshman Experience
The following project is designed for the Freshman Experience and specifically, connects to the key learning outcomes associated with the Freshman Experience.  The project is to be delivered at the beginning of the year to establish the essential nature of the five key learning outcomes.   
Project Rationale 
The Sol LeWitt project builds off of the Domino Activity which will be the main event of Freshman Orientation in Cohort A.  The LeWitt project places an emphasis on collaboration, problem solving, and communication, while other key learning outcomes such as critical reading and research are folded into the project as students progress through various prototyping stages.   The LeWitt project is also cross-curricular and in particular, fuses together Language Arts and Math.   
The LeWitt endeavor is inspired by the Design Thinking model.  Our understanding of Design Thinking is best captured by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO.  Brown provides the following definition for design thinking: 
“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” 
Design thinking process is a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps or as we have started to normalize it at MHS as “loops.”  These loops are non-linear in nature, but still provide a course of action for students to follow.  The design process exists along a continuum, moving individuals, groups and or companies through three distinct phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Inspiration is the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions. Ideation is the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas. Implementation is the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives. 
The LeWitt project is relevant because of the value placed on process.  Even though students will produce a replica of a LeWitt Wall Drawing, the experience is more about the process of mentoring learners through what is a challenging, complex, and rigorous task.  Without embracing the key learning outcomes, students will be challenged to successfully produce a wall drawing worthy of public exhibition.  

Translation: Students will work in teams to create murals in the style of artist Sol Lewitt. To do so, they must work together and follow instructions that include math.

Ironic that the description of a project designed in large part as a language arts exercise (and in fact taking the place of English classes for three weeks) uses incomprehensible jargon and language that obfuscates rather than elucidates. One hopes the kids aren't actually being taught to write like this. They're probably not. They're probably being told that this style of writing generally signals an author who is being intentionally obscure in order to inflate the importance of a project and to create the impression that a simple idea (possibly even a bad idea) is complex and profound. Let's hope.

Even though what the students are actually doing is creating artwork, it's not an art class. It's "cross-curricular," with the emphasis heavily on language arts and math - not coincidentally, the two subjects schools are most obsessed with these days because of mandated accountability measures linked to standardized testing in those areas. To the extent that the fact that this is an art project is acknowledged at all, the goal is not to learn about art, but something called  "design thinking." After all, art is about creativity. "Design thinking" is required for "business success." 

I suspect that this project is an effort to address the new national Common Core Standards that call for schools to focus language arts instruction more on cross-curricular informational text. Sadly, the Common Core reflects a departure from the view that the development of intellect is a worthwhile goal in and of itself, and that well-educated individuals are capable of applying what they have learned to a wide range of endeavors, opening many doors to them. The trend instead is toward the acquisition of a narrow set of periodically tested skills and information as stepping stones to "success," defined in the most mercenary possible terms. 

Here's an explanation of language arts in the Common Core:

Following on from the balance between literary and informational text in elementary grades, the Common Core pushes educators to shift that balance in middle and high school. By grade 8, middle school students should spend 55% of their time in school working with informational text. By the end of high school, students should spend 70% of their time working with informational text.Again, the aim of this emphasis on informational text is not really about technical manuals or even scientific journals. The aim is to build students’ background knowledge and vocabulary, so they are able to read and comprehend the rich variety of text that they will be confronted with in their future schooling, their careers, and their daily lives.It is critical to note that the 70% of students time in school working with informational text in high school includes the reading they are doing in history, science, the arts, and math, so English teachers should not despair. (Think about it…within a typical school day, students spend a significant amount of their time outside the English classroom.) Probably the best way to do this is to build school-level curriculum that reinforces big ideas across content areas.

In other words, teach less literature and more of the kinds of texts one needs in the business world. Literature nourishes the imagination and develops the intellect. Informational text gets you a job.

The circle is closed.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Get the F*%# Out

Have you seen Wake the Fuck Up, the very effective pro-Obama video with Samuel L. Jackson? (If not, scroll down and watch.) It's a parody of an earlier video in which Jackson reads the mock children's book, Go the Fuck to Sleep, which was all the rage last summer (also below). Both texts were written by Adam Mansbach.

Go the Fuck to Sleep irked the hell out of me. In it, a frustrated parent pleads with his kid to, of course, go the fuck to sleep. Here's my response (originally posted last summer):

The stars brightly shining are spread cross the sky,
But you are still up and about,
You're too chicken shit when your kid starts to cry,
Just man up and get the fuck out.

Here's the original Go the Fuck to Sleep:

↵ Use original player
← Replay

And here's Wake the Fuck Up:

↵ Use original player
← Replay

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

We'll never get there by running the other way

I need to come clean.

After several years of using my Facebook page, NJ Parents Against Gov Christie’s School Budget Cuts, to rail on a near-daily basis against public-education “reforminess” - a pet term that covers business-model education reform, privatization, high-stakes testing, etc. - two of my kids have just started at what can only be called an elite private high school after nine years of public school.

This wasn’t an easy decision, and its not my intention to get into a lengthy defense of that choice. Suffice it to say that I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to afford to make that choice, and I believe that public schools can and should become more like such private schools, instead of rushing in the opposite direction.

And that’s what I really want to talk about - the rush in the opposite direction.

I wish every public school parent in New Jersey - in America - could sit through the typical admissions presentation that prospective students and their families receive at top private schools. They would hear about the depth and richness of these schools’ offerings. They would hear that these schools seek to develop the whole person by emphasizing the arts and humanities alongside science, math and technology. About small class sizes that allow each student to receive individual attention. Advisors who work closely with every student, every day, to ensure his or her needs are being met. Libraries and computer labs available to facilitate homework and research. A faculty comprised of highly qualified teachers with advanced degrees in their subject areas. Emphasis on developing critical thinking skills. Development of writing and public speaking skills.

And over and over again, this selling point: NO STANDARDIZED TESTING.

So really, I have two points to make:

1. These are the kinds of schools to which most reformy politicians and edu-philanthropist-advocates send their own kids. Oh, and the president, too.

2. The educational practices and philosophies of most top private schools are the exact opposite of what most reformy politicians and edu-philanthropist-advocates are pushing for public schools: high-stakes standardized testing, larger class sizes, narrowed curriculum, de-emphasis of teacher experience and education, cutting back on arts and humanities, etc.

The experience of sitting through these presentations, and then reading scores of articles about the reforms being advocated by so many, Democrats and Republicans, reform advocates and billionaire philanthropists - by the likes of Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Chris Cerf, Jeb Bush, Michael Bloomberg, Rahm Emanuel, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and on and on - leaves me with no doubt that the reformy crowd wants one thing for their own children and something less for other people’s children.

I’ve come to the extremely cynical conclusion that most reformies don’t actually believe their reforms are the best way to educate kids. They just believe their reforms are good enough for those who can’t afford better.

No doubt, many will say our nation cannot afford to provide every public school student with the kind of education available in elite private schools. I’m no school finance expert, so I’m not in a position to say what it would actually take - but I’m damn certain that we’ll never get there by running as fast as possible in the opposite direction.

But don't take my word for it. Rutgers professor Bruce Baker is a school finance expert who writes the blog School Finance 101 and knows a lot more about it. So read this:

Borrowing wise words from those truly market-based, Private Independent schools…

and this piece, which affected my own thinking deeply:

Private Choices, Public Policy & Other People’s Children

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Perfect together: Right-wing scare mongering and education reforminess

This morning I read something that made me realize it’s time to stop beating around the bush in the discussion of education reform.

The reason right-wing Republican politicians love the education reformies - Michelle Rhee and her lot - is that they don’t place uncomfortable demands on society to confront not just the existence of poverty, but even more importantly, the segregation of poverty. Charter schools in poor urban areas, vouchers, school turnaround, tenure reform - they are reforms that keep the poor people right where they are - just shuffle ‘em around a bit and shake up their schools, safely within the confines of their own poor, urban neighborhoods.

And that suits right-wing politicians very well, because they’re busy pandering to suburban voters who are terrified of the prospect that their insular, white enclaves might be invaded by the dreaded other. I’m talking about the kinds of suburbanites (by no means all) who see the Mt. Laurel affordable-housing decision as some kind of socialist plot to redistribute the wealth perpetrated by a liberal elite by means of activist judges who  are really puppets of the International Workers Party. Sadly, there are still far too many people in New Jersey who don’t want THOSE people anywhere near MY house, MY school, MY family.

Most politicians are too savvy to come right out and say so, of course. Except for this guy from (aptly enough) Nutley, as reported in Blue Jersey:

Steve Rogers, who ran unsuccessfully last year for Essex County Board of Freeholders on a "too much government" platform, is one of the candidates for commissioner in Nutley...
A mailer received by most residents of Nutley in Essex County states several of Rogers positions using a combination of scare tactics while emphasizing his long career as a police officer. (Translation : the boogie man is going to get you and I'm the white knight to save you.) Made to look like a newspaper under the title "The Nutley Review" a banner headline proclaims "Controlling Property Taxes is Priority #1 For Rogers". ...
Alongside a stock photo of a foreclosed home, "Rogers Vows To Fight New State Low Income Housing Law." And it's here that we see Rogers toss handfuls of misinformation to cast a troublesome light on "the other" in an attempt at a power grab.  The low income housing law being considered will make use of some otherwise vacant houses and make them available for low income families. ...
Five paragraphs in, and dead center in the article, Rogers makes the point that low income families "include ex-criminals, the homeless, persons with AIDS-HIV, and those over 18 no longer eligible for foster care."...
The blow up quote at the bottom of the Rogers mailer reads "Hard working residents, who have spent their lives working to win and maintain a home will see the value of their house drop through the  floor when convicted drug dealers, thieves, and violent offenders move in next door." 

Get the idea? The scary urban poor are coming to get you!

Of course, the truth is that building affordable housing is a great solution to a host of problems and, when done correctly, does not have an adverse impact on the existing neighborhood, as demonstrated in a recent study of Mt. Laurel itself:

But the assumptions and fears fueling critics’ resistance is groundless, according to Douglas Massey, a Princeton professor who led a study of Mount Laurel Township and Ethel Lawrence Homes. Twelve years after Ethel Lawrence opened, Mount Laurel Township has experienced no increase in crime or decline in property values. The study did find that many of the hopes new residents carried with them into Ethel Lawrence — for better schools, a sense of safety and community — have been fulfilled.

There is ample evidence to suggest that socioeconomic integration is a more successful method of education reform than anything the reformies are pushing. It’s just that, politically, it’s a much harder sell. Sadly, on the right, where pandering to tea-party paranoia has become standard procedure, the defend-in-place doctrine of education reforminess is the perfect solution. It lets right-wing politicians make noises like they care about kids, education, poverty, etc - without doing anything that might piss off their hardcore voter base. Everything they want to do -- charters, vouchers, high-stakes testing, tenure reform -- can be seen as part of a policy of containment, measures that do nothing to shift populations or change the underlying demographics. In other words, these measures keep poor black and Latino kids right where they are - Newark, Camden, Paterson - and way the hell away from the Republican voter base.

Christie likes to defend his reformy education policy by saying that “destiny should not be determined by zip code.” He and his buddies accuse opponents of reforminess of using poverty as an excuse for educational failure. But the Christie-Rhee brand of reform, which addresses only in-school factors and not the problems of the isolated, impoverished communities those schools serve, is like building a skyscraper on a foundation of sand. When the building falls, who in their right mind would hesitate to blame the sand?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

35 Years Before The Big Bang Theory

UPDATE: A million thanks to my old friend Naomi, who brought to my attention that James Wolcott's original article on Star Trek fandom is in fact online right here. As I said to Naomi, Wolcott was an even bigger dick than I realized back then. His reductive condescension and dismissive misogyny is - well, icky.


Originally written a few years ago:

I am more than a little verklempt. 

Today I was looking through a folder of my stuff that my parents had given me several years ago -- mostly report cards, high school papers, school play programs, you know the kind of stuff I mean. So I'm turning the pages, and suddenly, there in front of me is a little piece of my personal fandom history that I thought was gone forever. 

It's a letter to the editor of the Village Voice (at that time a widely read alternative New York weekly, for those who don't know) responding to an article about a Star Trek convention I'd attended -- one of the earliest. The letter was published February 23, 1976. I was barely 14, and amusingly enough I called James Wolcott, now culture critic for Vanity Fair and a writer for the New Yorker, a Klingon spy. He did not have kind words for Star Trek fans, and in all my youthful earnestness, I gave him what for. I wish I had a copy of his article, but I'm afraid that really is gone for good. 

Better yet, I even found a photo taken about a month later of me posing proudly in my room in front of the posters and photos I'd no doubt acquired at that same Star Trek convention. I look exactly like the kid who would have written the letter. 

Here's the text:
Dear Editor:
I was shocked by James Wolcott's article, "Big Brother is Trekking You," (Voice, February 2). I find it hard to believe that anyone can so thoroughly miss a point as he has.
Mr. Wolcott is correct in noting that kids (and adults) at Star Trek conventions are serious but he fails to realize why. Star Trek deals with many real problems, and says that we can handle them. This is a message which drives home to today's youth. While the rest of the world doesn't know if it will survive, these kids believe that we can overcome our problems and differences.
I also refuse to believe that the bases for Star Trek's popularity are "sex, cool, and technology." Do thousands of fans come to a convention only because they enjoy playing with gadgets? Are all those women fans because Captain Kirk turns them on? Do thousands of kids watch the show faithfully solely because they envy Mr. Spock's cool? I find it difficult to believe that all those people of all ages and all walks of life completely miss the messages of a show in which a monster who attacks men is really only protecting her children; in which the racial problems of a planet are overcome through rational thinking and many other such episodes. And why should the cooperation of two men such as Kirk and Spock be macho when they are in fact serving the interest of peace?
I have found that many critics of Star Trek, including Mr. Wolcott, look only at the fans instad of at the show itself. How can anyone understand Star Trek fandom without examining Star Trek? 
Mr. Wolcott must be a Klingon spy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Education Reform and What I Learned at Taft High School

Here's what education reformers like:
- Tenure reform, which would end tenure to stop protecting “bad” teachers who supposedly are responsible for “failing” schools.
- School turnaround, where lots of teachers at “failing” schools get fired in order to stop the failing.
- Closure of “failing” schools. Self explanatory.
- Merit pay, where teachers get extra money to teach better, because presumably, without financial incentive, they’re not teaching as well as they could, resulting in - you guessed it - more “failing”.
- High stakes testing, based on which teachers are evaluated and “bad” teachers are identified. Again, this is supposed to cut down on the “failing.”
- Ending LIFO (Last In First Out), a system said to promote failing because it grants greater job protection to teachers with seniority, favoring “bad” older teachers over “good” younger ones. 
Get the common thread here? To get rid of the "failing problem," you have to tackle the “teacher problem.”
Here’s my response: Gerry Cohen.
In 1988, I was a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism when I received an assignment to do a story on education. So I called Gerry Cohen.
The father of one of my oldest, dearest friends, Gerry was an English teacher at William Howard Taft High School in the South Bronx. He’d taught there for...well, I have no idea how long. A really long time. I asked him if I could shadow him for a day. He said yes.
I’d known Gerry since I was five years old, when I became friends with his son. He was a warm, laid back guy who made every visitor in his home feel like family. He was what people in the heartland would have called a real New York character: a left-leaning, intellectual, vaguely bohemian Orthodox Jew with the accent of a cab driver and the laugh of a longshoreman. In the New York of my youth, he was just a dad, and just a teacher.
In 1988, I was a 26-year-old grad student who would never have confessed this truth: I was terrified about visiting Taft. A lot of things I did at the J School were kinda scary, but the prospect of spending a day in a South Bronx high school was near the top of the list.  My ideas about poor urban public schools were formed entirely by the media, and mostly involved violence, drugs and general mayhem. Having gone to a Jewish private school and an ivy league college, I was as sheltered as one could possibly be in urban America. I planned to stick very close to Gerry.
When I showed up at Taft that morning in 1988, Gerry greeted me with a huge smile and a warm welcome, and proceeded to overturn many of my misconceptions. Not that he was intentionally doing anything of the kind. He was just having a normal workday.
I have a few strong memories of that day. One is of sitting in the back of Gerry’s class while he led a discussion on Macbeth. It was a good discussion. Most of the kids weren’t participating, but those who were had clearly read the play and understood it about as well as you’d expect of a high school kid. Gerry was a skilled teacher who guided the conversation with practiced ease, explaining difficult passages, leading his students to make their own discoveries and offering his own insights. He was very much in control of his classroom without looking like he had to work at it. It seemed to me that the students liked him, though that might have been my own bias, because I couldn’t see how anyone wouldn’t like him.
I remember walking the hallways while students rushed to classes in between bells. There were no lockers - something to do with security, I was told. The place was pretty run-down - depressingly so. No fights broke out in my presence, and I didn’t feel particularly unsafe. Kids mostly ignored me. As I wandered among the students, it seemed that the only demographic not represented was American-born whites. I remember Gerry telling me that there were a dozen different languages spoken among Taft’s students. They’d had a recent influx of Guyanese immigrants. 
I also remember sitting in the back of the auditorium during a midyear graduation ceremony. It was a special program for girls who were graduating late because they’d had babies. There was a lot of pride in that room along with all the fussy babies, and a lot of huge smiles under the tasseled caps. The whole thing took me off guard - I knew teen pregnancy was common, but I was surprised to see it treated so openly.
The final thing I remember of that day was asking Gerry one last question: “Why do you do it?” And his exact answer: “If I don’t, who will?”
I left at the last bell. Gerry stayed late. The walk to the subway through those South Bronx streets was by far the scariest part of the day. There’s no sugar-coating it. That was a really bad neighborhood.
Here’s how Taft High School is described in Wikipedia: 
Demographic changes in the sixties, the exodus of the homogeneous population, and the advent of specialized magnet schools brought about shifts in enrollment at Taft HS. During the Abraham Beame (1974–77) and Edward Koch (1978–89) Administrations, there was no priority given to the needs of the shifting demographics in the school community. City-wide, crime rates were high and unfavorable publicity further accelerated the decline of the school. Entering the 1990s, as a non-selective high school, it was unable to compete with the newer schools housing magnet programs that attracted prime students from throughout the borough. Crime intimidated vibrant young professionals from teaching at the high school. The danger was highlighted in May 1997, when Jonathan Levin, an English teacher at the school and the son of former Time Warner chairman Gerald M. Levin, was murdered by a former student in his Manhattan apartment.

Due to the above-mentioned demographic changes, of the 629 students attending Taft in the 1990s, the majority were Hispanic and African-American. On any given day, attendance hovered around 86%. The impoverished community, lacking in political clout or a cohesive PTA, was provided 10 truancy officers, rather than improved education strategies. The last graduating class of Taft High School was in June 2008.
By today’s definition, there’s no question Taft would be seen as a failing school. 
And Gerry Cohen? He was NOT a failing teacher. He was a dedicated teacher and a wonderful man. His commitment to his ideals and to his profession brought him back to that school day after day, year after year, despite everything. It’s likely many of his students would have struggled on standardized tests. A lot. But NOT because of Gerry or the other teachers I met that day.
I know. It was one day at one school. It doesn’t prove anything. It’s hardly scientific. But my experience certainly convinced me of this: It’s total madness to say that the biggest problem at a school like Taft is the teachers. Worse, it’s clear that those who would say such a thing are motivated not by a desire to improve public schools, but by a desire to demean and disempower teachers.
Gerry Cohen passed away a couple of years ago - not long after Taft High School closed, though he’d retired many years earlier. I often think of Gerry when I read about education reformers who blame teachers for “failing” schools - the teachers who show up every day in neighborhoods that a lot of people wouldn’t even drive through without locking the car doors.  It’s somewhat reassuring to know that Gerry’s educational legacy will outlive theirs - because he was a teacher. A really good teacher in a “failing” school.
Note: After I finished writing this, I found this 2003 New York Times story about Taft. Looks like I wasn't alone in my impression of the place.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On little girls, torpedo bras, and clutching at pearls

Have you heard about the latest Toddlers and Tiaras shocker? (Okay, maybe it’s not the latest, but I don’t keep up with these things.) Some two-year-old - yes, I said two - did a pageant routine in which she came out dressed like an angel, then stripped off the robe to reveal a  pint-size version of Madonna’s  gold-colored Blonde Ambition costume, complete with torpedo-tit bra.

And, as is the intention behind Toddler and Tiaras, mothers everywhere gasped in horror and clutched their pearls. When I stumbled across this on the Internet, I gasped, too. (I rarely wear pearls, but if I’d happened to have them on that day, I would have clutched furiously.) It’s truly horrifying. See it here if you have the stomach.

This Madonna-and-child tale reminded me of some other incidents that had elicited pretty much the same reaction last year: A popular retail chain (Abercrombie) introduced push-up bikini tops for little girls,  and then a French company rolled out a line of sexy lingerie for little girls.

The underlying issue, of course, is the sexualization of pre-pubescent girls. These examples are so over the top, so blatant, and so tasteless, one can’t help but be shocked.

But there’s something that’s been eating at me ever since the lingerie story broke last year, and little Mia, with her weapons-of-mass-destruction bra, compels me to say it.

Sexualization is not just about a bra, nor is it just about a way of dancing or posing. Sexualization is about the awareness of, and involvement in, your own sexuality. It’s about the willingness - desire, even - to make yourself the object of sexual desire. It’s about the need to feel sexually attractive, and to devote your time and attention to making yourself sexually attractive. All of which is, within the bounds of reason, appropriate for adults.

A great many of the mothers who are driven to pearl-clutching by a toddler wearing a gold cone-bra Madonna costume, and by an ad for little girls’ lingerie, are active participants in the premature sexualization of their daughters.

Yeah, I know, that’s pretty harsh, and I’ve been hesitating to say it. But let’s be real.

For over half a century, the rules of childhood have been loosening. With the rise of movements seeking to empower previously disenfranchised segments of society came a new awareness of children as individuals, with ideas and opinions that adults should acknowledge and respect. And of course, hot on the heels of that change came businesses eager to sell clothing and accessories that emphasize the new, elevated status of children - basically, by dressing them more like adults. In no time, an enormous industry was born, selling fashions to girls that looked more like miniature versions of their mothers’ wardrobes than like the childish clothes of yore.

It’s no surprise that, with girls looking more adult than ever, and with the general loosening of societal restrictions on childhood, lots of mothers took it even further, taking license to treat their young daughters to special, grown-up-ladies stuff. Manicures. High heels. Facials. Makeovers. And what is all that, if not the devotion of time and attention to making yourself sexually attractive? In short, sexualization?

I’ve heard it said many times that these kinds of things aren’t designed to create sexual appeal, but rather to just “feel pretty” and “pamper yourself.” It’s fun, they say. To which I reply, bullshit. A 5-year-old, or even an 8-year-old, has to be taught to consider it fun to sit still for an hour while her nails and hair are done. And I’m sorry, but if you believe in the inherent aesthetic value of heels and makeup, divorced from their sexual connotations in the human mating game, you’ve been drinking the wrong Kool-Aid. The fun in looking and acting like a sexualized adult is learned behavior. If you don’t believe me - watch Toddlers and Tiaras.

So this kind of direct sexualization of children is something relatively new. But it’s particularly nefarious in combination with the pitfalls of traditional femininity, which teaches girls to value appearance over achievement, beauty over intelligence, allure over comfort. Most of us still model at least some of that for our daughters. When we obsess about our weight, won’t be seen without our makeup, destroy our feet in heels, and console ourselves with “retail therapy,” the message is pretty clear: How we look is as important - hell, more important - than what we do, what we know, or how we feel.

One of the toughest truths about parenting is that the rationalizations we use with ourselves don’t work on our kids. We can tell ourselves that the yo-yo dieting is all about health, or that the frequent primping is our way of pampering ourselves - but our kids know better. They intuit the psychology behind these behaviors - and they internalize it. Every time we pass the full-length mirror and check to see if our butts look big, they get the message loud and clear: For a woman, looking good is job one.

And, yes, that’s sexualization, too. The old-fashioned kind that’s been going on for a long, long time.

I guess I should feel heartened that we still experience the communal gasp over the more extreme version, the outrageously overdone toddler fembot. But my gut is telling me that we’re actually heading in the wrong direction: not toward giving our daughters the strength and confidence to value what they know and what they achieve over how they appear, but away from it. And I’m afraid that, in the not-too-distant future, the toddler fembot will barely raise an eyebrow.

Monday, February 20, 2012

On the Road to Market-Driven Education

I have a great idea.

All kinds of regulations restrict what we can do on roads owned and operated by the government. Speed limits, traffic lights, safety inspections - it all keeps us from getting to where we’re going as fast as possible. The government is slowing us down. Worse, it’s hampering commerce, making us less competitive in the global economy.

Just think of the economic benefits of a privatized, less regulated road system. We could all drive as fast as we want, wherever we want. Those who lack the skill to drive fast - or those weirdos who want to enjoy the scenery along the way - can just get off the road. Let them take another road where people drive slower - if they can find one. Sure, those roads will have been allowed to fall into disrepair, but that’s where the slow drivers belong, anyway.

Yes, there will be a higher accident rate - more casualties, more people who never arrive at their destinations. But that’s only a small proportion of drivers. The rest of us will be zooming along, getting there faster, getting our business done, and benefiting from efficient, unregulated roads.

After all, why should the government have a monopoly on roads? Let the private sector determine what roads we need and where to put them, and then build the ones they deem necessary, based on potential profitability. Those who happen to live in an out-of-the-way place where they don’t put a decent road can move. And if they can’t afford to move - well, if they work hard, someday they might be able to.

What if two competing companies want to build roads in the same area? Let them! Competition is good. Drivers will vote with their wheels. The failing roads will eventually close. And what about companies trying to make a quick buck by creating poor-quality roads on the cheap? They’ll fall apart eventually and people will stop using them, of course.

And how about all the money the government would save by no longer enforcing traffic laws? Think of the tax cuts!

That’s basically what competitive, business-model education reform is all about. It’s what Milton Friedman wrote about in the 1980s in his paper, “Public Schools: Make Them Private,” and it’s what the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice remains dedicated to. It’s what the Broads, Waltons, Gates, Kochs, DeVoses and others are spending large fortunes to achieve. It's what ALEC crafts model legislation to do. It’s what charters and vouchers are stepping stones to.

Let the private sector build and operate schools that get kids from A to B as fast as possible, as determined by scores on standardized tests. If a kid can’t keep up, she can find someplace else to go, like her neighborhood public school. Sure, a large part of its funding will have been diverted to charter schools and vouchers, but that’s the price she must pay for living in a speedy 21st-century society.

Competition is a good model - for some things. It promotes profit-driven innovation, and that can be good. But not all innovations are good. Some are downright terrible, but, through the power of marketing, they still sell well - at least for a while. Think low-tar cigarettes and miracle diet aids - market-driven innovations based on junk science and flawed research, just like so many education reforms being promoted today.

In a free market, everything is out there, the good, the bad, and the deceptive. Is that how we want to run public education?

UPDATE: ALEC is one of the key forces in the privatization of public education. Learn more about what they're up to here.

Friday, January 13, 2012

License to carry

"Please allow my daughter to carry her backpack during the school day. She needs it because she has to carry a lot of books."

That's the note I wrote for my kid to bring to school this morning. I wrote it because she was told by her home room teacher yesterday that she can't carry her backpack around her middle school unless she has a note from home. Carrying a backpack violates a rule. My daughter wasn't sure why the rule exists, but she figured it has something to do with drugs or weapons. After all, she explained, they're not allowed to have water bottles because some kid once brought vodka to school in a water bottle.

Here's what school should be: A place where kids feel safe and respected.

Here's what school shouldn't be: A place where kids feel that adults assume the worst of them and where they are unfairly punished for the infractions of others.

The intention behind such rules is no doubt good, but it's like burning down your house to deal with termites.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Homework, history, privilege, guilt. It's all so complicated.

So did you hear about the school in Georgia that, in an attempt to integrate the social studies and math curricula, wound up sending home a math assignment that asked questions like, "Each tree had 56 oranges. If 8 slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” and, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in 1 week?” Yeah, really. That happened.

So here’s a piece exhorting public schools to do a better job with racial sensitivity. It reminded me of another, related issue:  They also need to do a much better job with socioeconomic sensitivity. We all should.

I’m amazed how often my kids have come home from school with assignments like, “Bring in a photograph of your house,” or, “Write about your family vacation.” These are such enormous cans of worms to open. It’s got to be tough on the kid who lives in a cramped apartment in a run-down building or even a shelter, seeing his classmates’ houses and even McMansions; or the kid whose parents are working multiple jobs to support the family and have precious few hours at home, hearing her classmates’ stories of ski trips, summer camp and cruises.

And then there are the assignments that require kids to bring in materials. My kid comes home with a list of stuff he needs to complete a group project; rather than tell him to divvy up the list with the group, I purchase the lion’s share of the list for fear that the expense will be a burden to a kid who really shouldn’t have to bear it. Most of the time, these projects could be simplified to require fewer materials - so why aren’t they?

This is a very socioeconomically diverse school district; don’t teachers think about these things?

But then again, I often don’t, either. I got schooled, so to speak, when one of my kids came home with an assignment to write about an object of importance to his family. This rang no alarm bells with me - it’s an object, not a house or a trip. Every family has some object that matters to them, right?

The afternoon the kids read their essays to the class, my son came home and told me it was his most emotional day at school. One essay had brought most of the class to tears. This student wrote that he had no object about which to write, because he’d been in foster care for a long time and he owned nothing of importance to his family.

That stopped me cold. The word “family” is an alarm bell, too. One I’d forgotten all about.

As it turned out, the kid did an excellent job writing an essay that educated his classmates (and I suppose his teacher, too) about his situation. I will never know what it cost him to do that; whether it was a positive experience for him, or one he would rather have lived without. But I feel pretty damn certain that he should have had a choice; that if he’d wanted to, he could have worked his story into some other essay. He should never have been put on the spot like that.

I hope schools are starting to recognize these problems and give teachers guidance in avoiding these situations.  And I’m rethinking what I tell my kids, too. Because, let’s face it, you can’t expect a kid not to mention her summer vacation to her friends for fear they can’t all afford the same, but you have to teach kids to be aware of their privilege. How do you navigate these tricky waters? Or am I the hopelessly patronizing white liberal trying to pad the world for people whose problems I don't truly understand? I remain unsure.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Wherein I walk a thin line on tenure

As a parent of public school kids and a vocal opponent of what I like to call education reforminess (the corporate-style, data-driven, high-stakes-testing-loving brand of education reform being foisted on the nation by everyone from Bill Gates to Chris Christie to Arne Duncan), I have a confession to make: I feel deeply ambivalent about teacher tenure.

Tenure reform is one of the key planks in the reformy platform. I have no doubt that this is primarily an anti-union measure driven by big-business interests that hate all unions generally and want to privatize education in particular. The Waltons, Kochs, and Gateses of the world would have us believe that American schools are failing in large part because tenure is protecting the jobs of lousy teachers.

This is absurd. Where schools are troubled, kids and their communities are poor, and they’re not getting the support they need. More affluent schools are doing just fine, and the tenure rules are the same in the best-performing and worst-performing schools. To blame the underperformance of troubled schools on tenure is like blaming World War II on Romania. The Allies couldn’t win the war by defeating Romania, and you can’t improve troubled schools by reforming tenure.

But that doesn’t mean tenure isn’t problematic.

I fully appreciate that, as public employees tasked with a job that depends heavily on many outside factors and that is subject to political pressures, teachers need job protection. I also understand that the “tenure is a job for life” argument is a myth, because tenure allows for dismissal after due process. And I believe wholeheartedly that teacher assessment based on students’ standardized test scores is a stupid, stupid idea.

But there seems to be general agreement that the “due process” provided in New Jersey and elsewhere under tenure is burdensome in the extreme. If you can’t nudge a teacher out some other way (and more often than not, you can), and you have to go to the formal process, it’ll take way more time and money than most districts are able or willing to expend in most cases.

Why does this worry me? Because, like most parents of kids in the public school system, among the dozens of wonderful, caring, competent, hard-working teachers my kids have had, I’ve encountered a tenured teacher who was really not cut out for the job. REALLY not cut out for the job.

I know what a lot of people will say: As a parent, I don’t have the whole story. As a parent, I’m not objective. Job termination is not necessarily the right answer. Professional development and/or transfer to a more suitable position might be viable options.

All true. I could be wrong. But I could be right. If I’m not right about this individual, someone somewhere is right about another teacher - someone who isn’t doing the job well and isn’t fired because it’s simply easier and cheaper not to.

Again, let me emphasize - I don’t think this is a systemic problem that is destroying public education. I don’t even think it happens much at all. And I certainly don’t think, as Perth Amboy superintendent Janine Walker Caffery implied in a recently published column, that kids are endangered by druggies and abusers who remain in the classroom because of tenure. In no way do I want to contribute to that brand of “education in crisis” reformy hysteria.

So what to do? The NJEA has made a very sensible tenure reform proposal: Add a fourth year before tenure is earned, and streamline the process for removing a tenured teacher using an arbitration process.   It seems to me that this would address my concerns quite well. Unfortunately, in the current highly charged atmosphere in which teachers are under attack from politicians and the Billionaire Boys Club, it must feel to teachers like capitulation on the part of the union. I fully understand their resentment. The way things are these days, if it were me, I’d be the Fox Mulder of teachers and trust no one.

But I hope that, at some point, we can move beyond the grandstanding and mistrust and do the right thing. It won’t affect the big picture, but every once in a while, kids in a particular classroom might be spared a few hours a week with an unqualified teacher. That would be a good thing.