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Friday, May 24, 2013

The Embarrassing Rash on My Head

Apparently, the gray hair on my head is more like an embarrassing rash than hair.

I got a haircut about a month ago. The observant among you may have noted what’s missing from that statement. Just a cut. No color.

I’m 51 years old.

So here’s the thing: Not one person -- NOT ONE -- has mentioned my now-very-apparent gray hair.

Over the years, I’ve changed my hair in sudden and noticeable ways many times. I’ve always enjoyed the startled look on people’s faces when they see me for the first time after going super-short, bright red or platinum blonde. And every single time, some people have commented on the change. Not everyone, but at least some. Even subtle changes are always noted. “Did you change your color?” “Is that a new style?” “I like your hair.”

But this time -- nothing.

The whole thing didn’t start as a social experiment, but it quickly became one when I realized that no one was saying a word about my hair. I kept waiting for someone to say, “Interesting choice,” or, “Wow, that’s different,” or just a straightforward, “Why did you stop coloring your hair?” I wasn’t really expecting to hear, “It looks good,” but I guess I hoped just a little.

Instead -- nothing. Dead silence on the matter of my gray hair.

And it dawned on me slowly: People were ignoring the obvious because they felt they were being tactful, as though I had an embarrassing condition, like a nasty rash or a cold sore. Nothing bad enough to be painful and demand sympathy, like a broken bone or a laceration; just bad enough to be in that awkward gray area (if you’ll pardon the pun) where everyone knows it’s there, but no one feels comfortable drawing attention to it.

I can hardly blame them. I wouldn’t mention it, either. In fact, I didn’t. When an acquaintance recently stopped coloring her hair, I never said a word to her, even though I sincerely thought she looked beautiful. I’d like to think I would have said something if we were better friends, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would. It’s awkward. It seems like any compliment would have the subtext, “I admire your courage in staring steadfastly into the face of your own mortality.” Okay, maybe not quite. But sort of.

My acquaintance was inspiring, but the idea definitely didn’t start with her. I’ve been thinking I should stop coloring my hair for years. Well, since I started, really.

It will come as no surprise to those who know me when I say that I lean toward the old-school feminist when it comes to matters of personal appearance. I think so much that keeps women down can be traced to early socialization that makes us insecure about our appearance and causes us to internalize the belief that it’s more important to look good than to do good -- and when I say do good, I really mean do anything. When I see women suffering absurd levels of discomfort and inconvenience in order to conform to some societal expectation about feminine beauty, it makes me angry. High heels, makeup, Botox, Brazilian waxing -- don’t even get me started on plastic surgery.

Yes, I get that there actually are women who wear heels and makeup to please themselves and not because of societal pressure to conform to an unrealistic ideal of beauty or because they see themselves through the filter of the male gaze. A few. But most women who say that? They have about as much credibility as the heavy drinker swearing she can quit anytime she likes. (Taking a pause here to give the third wave a moment to rant at me. Okay? Moving on.)

Worse than anything else, I always thought, were all the potions and procedures women used because of their deeply rooted terror of aging. I think it’s tragic that we’d rather look young and stupid than old and wise. Yes, stupid. The obsession with youthful appearance goes hand in hand with the camouflaging of intellect by playing dumb. It’s all about infantilization. Men can wear age as a badge of honor. In middle age and beyond, they can look distinguished, dignified, authoritative, even powerful. But middle age women? The best we can hope for is to look younger than we actually are. (Oops, sorry. I think the third wave may need another minute here.)

Which brings me to my hair. I started coloring it when I was in my 20s, and it really was all about having fun, or so I told myself. I had not a trace of gray, and I went through periods where I changed my color wildly on a whim, and then went natural again when I got bored. I was never concerned about whether my dyed hair looked natural -- why should I be? I was absolutely certain I was coloring my hair for my own entertainment. I even made a mental deal with myself: I’d never dye for the primary purpose of covering gray, and when I was 40, I’d stop altogether. This was especially important to me after I had kids. I knew my daughter was growing up in a world that would beat her senseless with messages about youth and beauty, and I wanted to model for her a comfort in my own skin -- my own hair -- that contradicted sexist hype.

Forty came and went, and still I colored. There was less whimsy about it, too. I had a color and I more or less stuck to it, with only slight changes. Some highlights here, some more red there, but nothing major. I began noticing when my roots showed -- salted with gray -- and calling the salon to make an appointment when they did. I pushed the guilt down. What’s the big deal? Everyone does it. I’ll stop when I’m 50.

Fifty came and went. My roots were clearly more than half gray now. It was getting harder and harder to ignore the truth: I didn’t have the courage to show my gray. I told myself I just needed to get through my twin boys’ bar mitzvah pictures. Fifty-one came and went. I told myself I just needed to get through my daughter’s bat mitzvah pictures. Last month, I told myself I just needed to get through my niece’s wedding pictures.

And then I told myself, “Bullshit. You’re a coward.”

So I went into the salon and got a haircut. No color. My stylist did her best to be supportive, but clearly it didn’t come easy. (Well, why should it? My personal grooming choice was going to take a toll on her bottom line.) Because I wear my hair very short (part of the whole easy-is-better ethic), the gray was very obvious at the temples, but I still had plenty of color up top. Still, there it was. Gray hair, out there for all to see.

I have to admit, the first week wasn’t easy. I kept looking in the mirror and thinking, to my own chagrin, “I look old.” I’m not sure if I was more chagrined about looking old or about being embarrassed by it. A little of each, I guess. In public places, I found myself looking around to see if anyone even close to my age was showing any gray. The answer, of course, was no. In the last several weeks, I’ve only spotted a couple of people under 70ish showing their gray -- and not very many more over 70ish. They say 75 percent of American women color their hair. I suspect the other 25 percent are under 30.

It’s getting easier now, even though my hair is growing and I’m getting grayer by the day. I imagine the next haircut will involve some more chagrin. Pretty much all the dye will be gone then. I hope that, a week after that, I’ll have more or less stopped giving a damn about whether I look older. (Note that I said “whether.” I’m sure many will argue that of course I will look older. My hair will be gray. But I'm not convinced dyed hair really looks as much younger as we all like to think it does. I suspect it's a lot like a face lift. It doesn’t really make you look young so much as it makes you look less old, but not in a natural way. It signals that you’re trying. You’re not “letting yourself go.” It’s more a sign of youth than youth itself.)

To everyone who has tactfully avoided mentioning the embarrassing rash on my head: No worries. I truly do appreciate the difficult position you’re in, and I’m grateful you have my feelings at heart. Maybe someday we’ll all get to the point where we look at a gray-haired woman and say, “You look great,” without meaning, “That took courage.” But we’ll never get there as long as there are no gray-haired women around.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Comforting words from the Xerox Corporation

Yesterday, after blogging about Xerox’s Ignite software, which turns photocopiers into machines that evaluate student work (including writing), I tweeted this:

To my surprise, I actually got a response from Xerox:

Isn’t that reassuring? The soulless data produced by mechanized evaluation would NEVER replace the human touch. It only makes the teacher’s job easier by identifying problem areas. Then the teacher can better meet student needs!

 Wait a minute...that sounds kind of familiar. Isn’t that exactly what they used to say about standardized testing? The testing companies reassured us that the tests are tools to help teachers gauge student progress and identify learning gaps. That’s all they’re designed to do. They would NEVER use the tests for other purposes. Evaluate teachers and schools based on these tests? That would be crazy! I mean, my goodness -- next thing you know, teachers will be teaching to the test! Pearson wouldn’t want that, now would they? And Pearson would NEVER attempt to drive education policy toward higher stakes testing in order to sell more of their product, now would they?

 So when Xerox says their student-evaluation photocopier upgrade is just a helpful tool for teachers that would never become an automated grading system that every school would be required to purchase, of course we believe them.

 Imagine a world where teachers not only teach to the test -- they teach to the photocopier’s scoring of the test.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Brave New World of Data-Driven Education Reform

What’s driving education reform in America? Money. Specifically, the making of it by big business. Why the obsession with data and testing? Because it opens the door to new sources of profit.

Think this is the raving of a paranoid, business-hating socialist?

Below, you'll find a promotional video created by Xerox for its Ignite software. Ignite turns a photocopier into a grading machine. It “helps” teachers by reading handwritten tests and generating reports, grades, data, etc. It even reads “constructed responses!” (That’s what they call student writing these days.)

And what is it that opened the door to this wonderful innovation, from which the Xerox Corporation hopes to get even richer? In their own damning words:

“State and school systems are requiring more data and more testing. Educators are under a lot of pressure....As Xerox researchers, we started with a simple question: How can we help?”

It’s downright chilling, the way they come right out and say it. Requirements for data and testing means a big opportunity for Xerox. Of course, when they say “How can we help?” they mean “How can we profit?”

Because having the photocopier evaluate your kid isn’t disturbing at all. Right?

Here’s what Diane Ravitch has to say about this.

Why shouldn't a  Xerox machine grade student papers? It does such a good job with photocopies.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Five Reasons to Hate Disney Princesses

You’ve probably already encountered the Merida dust-up. You know, the ire aimed at Disney over the new, glamorized, sexualized image of the Brave protagonist that was released in advance of her induction into the Disney Princess pantheon -- a very different image than the more adolescent, down-to-earth version featured in the film.

Apparently we feminists, with our righteous indignation and our metaphorically, if not literally, hairy legs are scary enough to have cowed Disney into backing down. Nevertheless, the whole thing reminds me of just how much I despise Disney Princesses. I don’t know if they’re single-handedly responsible for the early heteronormative hyper-feminization of every little girl in America, but they’re a damn convenient target.

Five Reasons I, as a Mother, Hate Disney Princesses

  1. Disney Princesses are the most nasty infectious disease ever. The Black Death was nothing by comparison. Your daughter may have never seen a Disney Princess movie, never set foot in a Toys R Us, never watched the Disney Channel, and still somehow she is infected. How do you know? Halloween. You cannot get out of the store without buying that motherfucking Cinderella costume.
  2. Pink. It doesn’t matter that some princesses don’t wear pink. The association between princesses and pink is inevitable, and if not pink, pink’s slightly buck-toothed, knock-kneed cousin, purple. Hop on over to the Toys R Us website and search Disney Princesses. See what colors come up. Even the toy Merida bow and arrow set is purple. (Purple. Not pink. Because Brave was the feminist movie.) It doesn’t matter that you painted her room green, or that you dressed her in yellow and blue, or that you gave her the orange sippy cup. Disney doesn’t give a flying fuck about your concerns regarding gender socialization. Disney wants her in pink (or at least purple) because it helps them sell more Princess crap, and so you either draw a line in the sand and deny your little girl her heart’s desire for reasons she is wholly incapable of understanding or caring about, or you buy everything pink.
  3. Makeup. You tell yourself that pink is not so bad. So what if everything is pink? It’s just a color. She’ll grow out of it. But then she comes home from a friend’s fourth birthday party with a loot bag containing Disney Princess Glitter Makeup. She’s four, and despite your feminist ideology, she now believes that she looks better with makeup. Oh, you tell yourself that she doesn’t really believe that. That you still have more influence over her than her friends or TV or fucking DISNEY. But deep down, you know you’re lying. You know, because you remember the insecure middle school years, when, in an effort to understand how to be accepted and normal and just like other kids, you turned to makeup. Maybe you only ever experimented. Maybe you started wearing it just sometimes. Or you painted your nails. Or you tweezed your eyebrows. Not, you told yourself, because you HAD to. Just because it was fun. But you know that now there’s a good chance your little girl, your perfectly-wonderful-just-the-way-she-is little girl, will someday dig deep in her own psyche and recall that preschool birthday party when she had glitter makeup on just like all the other girls, and she felt like she really, really belonged. Yes, Disney marketing has THAT kind of power.
  4. The marketing of passivity. Yes, the movies have changed. Princesses DO more and wait for Prince Charming less. But when the flick ends, the marketing begins. And the marketing is all about how you look, not what you do. Sure, they’ll make anything pink and slap a Princess on it -- roller skates, pencils, fishing poles -- but it ain’t about skating, doing math or fishing. You know it, and your daughter knows it. Just look at the whole Merida thing. They can’t sell frilly dresses and glittery makeup around a character like Merida, so they change her. But I’m willing to bet that the unchanged Merida, if that’s what we get in the end, will be relegated to the clearance shelf. She does not, in all her original homeliness, serve the Greater Disney Cause.
  5. No matter what Disney says, they don’t believe all the Princesses are equal, and neither do little girls. Oh, sure, there are some outlier Mulan fans, and Pocahontas and Jasmine have their share of followers. But Cinderella, Ariel, Belle and Snow White (Aurora; whatever) are clearly leading the pack, with Cinderella way the hell out in front. Little white girls mostly want to be like white princesses. As a white mother, I will refrain from speaking for families of color, but everyone, please feel free to chime in. Who’s your daughter’s favorite princess?  Tiana? I don’t mean that as sarcastically as it sounds...well, maybe I do. And I don’t know if I can blame Disney directly for the enormous cultural pressures that come down on a kid from every side regarding race, but -- oh, what the hell. Sure I can. Try this. Go to the Toys R Us website and search Mulan. Five items come up. Two are DVDs. Pocahontas? Just two DVDs. Snow White? Ninety-seven items. But here’s where it gets really interesting. Search Cinderella, and you jump directly to the front door of the whole Disney Princess store. So who’s the REAL Princess?
A final note: I know that most girls survive the Princess phase and go on to live happy, fulfilled lives. My daughter seems to have recovered nicely. But despite Disney. Not because of them. And yes, some of the seeds planted by the Princesses become poisonous growths we keep having to beat back over and over again.

UPDATE: Now Disney is claiming they never intended to redesign Merida. "A Disney rep tells EW that there’s no cause for alarm: Merida’s seemingly sexier image was only created for the heroine’s official induction into the Disney Princess Collection and was always planned to be phased out within a few months of the coronation." Mmmm-hmmmm.

Friday, May 10, 2013

No One Wants To Think About That Cleveland Story

I’ve noticed that, despite media saturation with the hideous story of the decade-long imprisonment, torture and rape of three women in Cleveland, people around me aren’t talking, blogging, Facebooking or Tweeting about it. It’s not even mentioned in passing, unlike so many other high-profile crimes in recent memory. I think this one is just too horrible to allow one’s mind to dwell on. I know it’s been plaguing me, and I keep trying not to think about it. But there’s something I think really needs to be said, and no one around me is saying it, probably because they can't stand thinking about it, either.

This is an extreme case of behavior that is actually horrifyingly common and emerges every single day, all over the world, in thousands of instances of domestic abuse and rape. In America, one in four women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime. On average, more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners in this country every day. Estimates range from 960,000 incidents of violence against a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend to 3 million women who are physically abused by their husband or boyfriend per year. (Source.) Almost 18 million women and almost 3 million men in the United States have  been raped. One of every six women has  been raped at some time. In a single year,  more than 300,000 women and almost 93,000 men are estimated to have been raped. (Source.)

It’s really easy to say that Ariel Castro is a psycho and leave it at that. But what about all the thousands and thousands of others? The biggest difference between all those incidents and this one is duration. Yes, it takes a special degree of evil to keep up the lie for a decade, but not a special kind. The kind of evil committed by Ariel Castro is occurring all around us, every day--mostly, though not entirely, committed by men.

I’m sure there are many, many contributing factors we need to confront as a society. I’m no expert. But I’m pretty damn sure we will change nothing if we can’t even stand talking about it.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Education Is None of Our Business

Business-model education reform is not just wrong about education. It’s wrong about business.

The idea is that, like a business, we should measure outcomes in schools (using test scores) and hold workers (teachers) responsible for meeting stated goals. There are lots and lots of reasons why public schools are inherently different than businesses and therefore shouldn’t be run the same way. To name a few: all data is not equal, and test scores are qualitatively different than profit and loss figures; no business tries to serve every single person in a community, while public schools are required to; the ability of workers to influence outcome is quite different when you’re talking about teaching children vs manufacturing widgets; etc.

But beyond all that is the plain fact that businesses aren’t run the way business-model education reformers say they are.

The education reforms of the past decade have schools giving lots of standardized tests to students in order to obtain data on which to base decisions, including extreme measures like closing schools, and now, firing teachers as well. Every kid throughout the state takes the same tests. Every kid is held to the same standard. Some presumably non-arbitrary score is deemed proficient for everyone. Business-model education reform claims to treat test data like businesses treat sales and profits.

But is that how businesses are run? When Starbucks opens a store in Times Square, another in a suburban town, and a third at the Jersey Shore, do they set the same sales goals for the three stores? Do they expect the same level of profit? Do they even charge the same price for a latte? No, because that would be absurd. Times Square is booming every day, all day, and people are willing to pay top dollar in New York; a suburban town might be slow and steady, with lower prices; a Shore town is seasonal, with slow business in winter and booming sales in summer. In other words, the customers have different habits, lifestyles, disposable income, and needs, and the business plan accommodates those differences.

So why do we expect schools to be any more uniform? Because, I hear you say, education is not coffee. We must not accept that poor kids, children of color, or urban kids routinely fail where affluent white kids in the suburbs succeed.


People don’t have to have coffee, but children have to have education. Education is a fundamentally different endeavor than business.

The business model that is being pushed on schools today is stupid and wrong-headed. It holds all kids to the same testing standard, despite the incontrovertible evidence that test results vary based on a variety of factors, some of them to be found inside school, but far more, outside school. So should we change to a more accurate business model like Starbucks, which accepts worse results in historically low-performing areas? Obviously not. No business model accounts for the reality of education--the striving for the best possible results for every kid, every time, despite very different circumstances and very complex human factors.

The fundamental problem is the business paradigm itself.  It is a model that will not do for education, because it assumes a whole range of things about education that are simply untrue or unacceptable: that kids’ circumstances outside of school do not influence them in school; that test scores are accurate reflections of achievement; that competition always produces the desired outcome; that opening and closing schools is as easy or advisable as opening and closing stores; that uniformity is not only possible, but good; that money is the best motivation for workers; and on and on.

Of course we must aspire to a world where all children succeed (not to mention a world where childhood poverty is eradicated). But we will never get there by reducing children to data points. Testing everyone using uniform standards is not even a smart business model, let alone an educational model. It doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t even enlighten us as to the nature of the problem. It doesn’t show teachers how to teach better, or students how to reason, comprehend or create. And it certainly doesn’t address underlying issues of poverty that contribute so much to negative educational outcomes.

The plain fact is, no business model, no matter how distorted, works for education because education is a complex human system involving a web of interrelationships, not a thing that’s created and traded on a supply chain. Some aspects of education may indeed be measurable in limited ways, but to assume that you have a clear picture of the whole endeavor based on those measures is foolhardy in the extreme. Beyond that, education is something we as a society have deemed a right, not a commodity. Rights are non-negotiable, never to be bought and sold on the open market.

So why is this business-model data-driven reform so popular? Because there’s one thing in this whole picture that IS a measurable commodity subject to the laws of business and economics: the tests themselves. They are products bought and sold in the marketplace, and it’s a very lucrative business. It’s in the interest of the testing companies to convince the rest of us that the metrics we gain from their tests are meaningful. They’ve done a frighteningly good job.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Flogging the NJASK

With my daughter facing the start of the middle school NJASK, I made an amusing little animation about the ill effects of high-stakes standardized testing (using Xtranormal - I’m no animator). Well, I thought it was amusing, anyway. The point is, after I posted it, I got to wondering if other people had made similar videos.

So I went to YouTube and searched “NJASK.” What I found were dozens of videos, not criticizing the test, but designed to motivate students who are about to take it. Apparently, that is a thing schools do. Perhaps you know about the pep rallies many schools hold before the test. Many seem to just record the rally and put it on YouTube--I guess with the optimistic assumption that kids will want to relive the glory again and again. But many schools go further, creating special videos which, I assume, are shown at the pep rallies, in classrooms, etc.

 And these....boy. These videos just smack of fear and desperation -- fear that bad results will lead to sanctions, firings, closure, etc., and desperate willingness to try anything, no matter how embarrassing or misguided. Please understand: The schools and teachers involved have all my sympathy. They really, really do. But nothing demonstrates so forcefully just how pathologically test-obsessed our public schools have become, or explains so clearly why so many kids are getting very stressed out about something that should be so fleeting and insignificant in their lives.

 Here's the video I made:


And now, a selection of the various other NJASK videos I found. But first, a disclaimer. I understand that everyone involved in the making of these videos is just trying to do the right thing. There are no bad guys here, only bad situations and bad choices. In fact, many videos feature students, so I just want to say that I have no desire to mock kids who should actually be applauded for participating in what they are led to believe is a useful and positive project, and for showing pride in their schools. So kids, hooray for you and hooray for your schools. As for the teachers and administrators involved -- well, you have my sympathy, too. I know you mean well.

My favorite first. I'm giving this one the award for Most Bizarre and Disturbing, With Extra Gold Star for Mentioning Barfing:

This musical number gets two awards: Worst Overdub and Most Inexplicable Repetition of a Big Word Kids Don't Know (Metacognition):

The award for NJASK Motivational Video With Most 60s TV Clips (and Anti-NJASK Subtext) goes to:

Award for Most Realistic Portrayal of Test Prep Your Kids Suffer Through (also known as the Teaching to the Test Award) goes to this: a 45-minute video of a teacher modeling a persuasive essay about why kids should or shouldn't be allowed to chew gum in school. Really. And, no, I didn't watch the whole thing. But your kids have no choice.

This one gets the God Bless You for Trying, But Teachers, Your Kids Don't Even Know This Song award:

And last but not least, Most Gratuitous (and Boring) Use of Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi:

That's all for me, but if you find your own winners, feel free to post them in comments.