Women First!

A social media entry in response to the statement, “I love your solidarity with women!”

I find any man who fails to be solid with women to be a coward and a charlatan. To advance the cause of women is to advance the cause of humanity. To empower women, and – and I mean this sincerely – to cede power as a male, is to uplift the whole of the species.

Our societal structures have been predominantly masculine and masculinist, and it does not logically follow that I am being antimasculine, or that I eradicate or stand against men or masculinity as an abstract idea, in saying so.

However, we must acknowledge the historic, political, structural, social, economic, familial, and realistic violence against women that is endemic to our structures as a species – inborn as they may be in some primitive animal form, which I do not necessarily accept, but acknowledge as a counterargument – in order to advance as a modern human society. We must eschew, set aside, and abhor the concept of women as subservient, inferior, or beholden, and actively, loudly, and viciously oppose those forces. The human race is biologically oriented to be predominantly for the woman, and it is a reality we have sought to oppose through our penetrative and usurping and violent means since the advent of our species.

It is not cuckolding, inferior, cowing, or failing to acknowledge this biological imperative no matter how sociohistorically opposed by the patriarchy, and to dedicate our efforts as honest feminists to the cause of empowering women.

While it does require me to cede power from my “side,” it does not require me to cede any personal power – not really! – as I have always known that the power preferred to me by society was unjust, inequitable, and inappropriate. I am not giving up that which I shouldn’t have had in the first place! I am an elementary educator, and I have seen the righteous egalitarianism of children in which they know that the hundred cupcakes they are offered in the theoretical is unjust, and inappropriate, and will immediately distribute these delicacies to their compatriots!

It is only right! It is only just! This is inborn in us!

By returning the just measure of power to the disenfranchised, I am merely realizing my power as an enlightened human being; I need take no shame or lessening in that enterprise. I have done right, my whole life, by preferring the empowerment of those who have been denied power by the mere virtue of not being me.

I cannot help that I am a male, but I can make this world better by acknowledging that my maleness confers privilege! I cannot help that I am a male, but I can make this world better by not accepting the power granted me by that virtue, and actively seeking to eschew it! I cannot change my genetics or my sex or the nature of society merely by a whim, but I can actively seek to use my position in this society and my role within it to undermine the traditional structures that seek to disempower, disenfranchise, dehumanize, deperson, deplatform, dissolve, devolve, deny, and destroy the FEMALE.

I stand against that which is against the female! It is all I can do, but it is what I MUST do, for if I am ever to be a humanist, I must be a feminist, and if I am ever to be a feminist, I MUST be FOR the female.

I was born male. I am not entitled to the world by that virtue. I am the biological minority, and it makes me NO LESS a human to say so. It makes me an empiricist, who is solidly on the side of humanity writ large.

I will not stand against women. Never will I stand against girls. I will never, ever fail to be their ally.

What else are we to do with this privilege into which we were born, that we did not ask for? That we do not deserve?!

Women first.

Women in all things.

Women! Women! Women!

 

Game Over: Ready Player One

Caveat: I am not squarely a member of the “the book is always better than the movie” camp. I was a huge fan of Cloud Atlas, but there was something incredibly compelling about the film that really spoke to me. I have seen more than a few films that I think are either competitive with their books or had an entire different flavor that still made the film highly effective.

Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash was arguably one more the most prescient works of our era, predicting in some specifically-functional ways the interface and interrelationship between a meaningful and immersive virtual environment and a consequential and experiential physical consensus reality.

Note now a philosophic phenomenon you’ll need to understand throughout this blog: there are two worlds: First Life, or the physical consensus reality in which we live as fleshy, potassium-and-sodium-neurology humans, and Second Life, or the electronic consensus reality in which we live as digital, bit-neurology avatars. The two are irrevocably linked, but you will not hear me use the term “real life” in this blog, because both are real.

If you cannot accept that experiences that do not occur in the physical are “real,” then you must reject every television show, every podcast, every movie, every book, every story you’ve ever been told, as fallacious, inexperiential, unsubstantive, and false. I don’t believe you do, because you’re reading this, so let’s agree to ignore the false divide of “real” between these two worlds.

Ready Player One as a novel continues the tradition of Snow Crash, and both speak most profoundly to those of us who have lived in the virtual. Whether we are World of Warcraft players immersed in story-driven worlds (I was an EverQuest II guild leader for almost eight years, for the record), FPS players of the top-title Overwatch, or residents of Second Life (the most expansive virtual world in history), we were deeply affected by the book Ready Player One. Ernest Cline is a consummate geek, and especially for those of us who have a cultural touchstone around the 1980s – I am an unapologetic Xennial, having been home sick in first grade and watching the Challenger accident live from my bed at home as a child old enough to know what happened and young enough that I shouldn’t have had to – he hit on many cylinders, arousing fond nostalgia around the Atari 2600, CRT displays, Rush albums, and the fanboy-squealing-worthiness of the DeLorean DMC-12.

Consequently, I went to see this movie with such enthusiasm that I bought my seat – back row, center – and the two seats on either side, to make sure nobody touched me, disturbed me, bothered me, talked to me, interrupted me, or otherwise lessened my ability to focus completely on this film. I expected to be spoken to.

I wasn’t.

Now, let me be clear: the novel isn’t Tolkien, for crying out loud. Ernest Cline’s near-Dickensian obsession with detail is fun at times, but his expository passages can descend into the mind-numbing. Additionally, there are moments of narrative inconsistency that can be pretty jarring, and better editing would have helped that. The writing is, at times, very clunky and ineffective, and at times sounds like the worst of Star Trek’s “technobabble” phenomenon, even if those of us with a pretty functional 1980s pop culture reference mental database catch a good portion of the references. It is, in that way, not always an inviting work, shutting out those who (through no fault of their own, and likely due to a healthy dose of having learned other far more useful things, LOL) may not know what the hell Cline is raving about at times.

But all in all, the book was both fun and meaningful. It took the time to tell a powerful story powerfully, and created characters that showed the very best in kids, teenagers, and young adults, and made them the heroes who ultimately defeated “the machine.” They were genuine characters who we rooted for loud and hard all through RP1 when reading it. But yes, the book has some issues and I understand if people don’t love the thing. For me, personally, I was energized and engaged by its ability to help readers see the beauty of the virtual, and invited them inside if they weren’t residents of a virtual world like I’ve been for so long.

My lament isn’t really about the film’s style. It’s about some serious departures of substance that, I believe, really failed to tell the story appropriately.

I fundamentally disagree with the headline of The Verge review of RP1: the film does not improve upon the book. That review rightly points out that some of the book’s flaws carry over. Indeed the book is rife with instances of Wade having just so happened, ever-so-conveniently, to be a master of any given challenge, leading one to exclaim, “oh, of COURSE you did, Wade” with some regularity. But the effective translation of the pop culture and visual references to the big screen doesn’t constitute an improvement of the story, which was not simmered down and concentrated, but chopped into shards of itself and glued together awkwardly and ineffectively, which is why I think a huge part of the problem is the selection of a single film to tell a big, big tale.

Thus, I begin with:

Format

Ready Player One should have been a trilogy. It should have begun with Ready Player One: The Copper Key, outlining the world in which Wade Watts lived, and helping us to immerse in the world of 2045 America. The tense, long march through the virtual world was nearly total, with very little initial time spent in the physical world. The amazing journey of Parzival, our protagonist’s virtual avatar, from poor kid eking out a life in the physical while doing incredible things as a virtual pioneer and adventurer – a “Gunter” as they’re called in the world of RP1 – would have been better spent as a slow burn, raising the psychoemotional stakes and deepening the tragedy of the world in which the characters find themselves: Corporations run the world, the environmental tragedies in which we find ourselves today are spun out to terrible logical conclusions, and the suffering of the average Earth-bound human is growing in leaps and bounds while the criticality of escapism has become one of the most profoundly important phenomena of humankind. The filmmakers should have understood this.

Ready Player One: The Copper Key

Ready Player One: Level Up or Ready Player One: The Jade Gate

Ready Player One: Game Over or Ready Player One: The Last Castle

These are such obvious mechanisms, built around the narrative Cline wrote, that I have to assume that the writers either didn’t understand the work well enough to build a proper story out of it, or didn’t care enough to make a full story-arc out of the work they were given to work with.

But more than the broad complaint I have about the hurried form factor and the lack of depth, I have specific laments against the Spielbergization of the Cline novel. The hurried format led to a nasty, hurried, silly, and reductive reduction of the story to a mere shadow of its original self.

Now that we’ve tackled format, I need to address a few specific, significant, and (in my humble opinion) rather unforgivable failures of the film to tell the story that Cline wrote, and I CANNOT fail to go directly to the most egregious change of all:

They turned a female bad-ass into a damsel in distress.

Art3mis

Art3mis was an independent cybergenius with a formidable skill set and a remarkable, sophisticated understanding of privacy and identity. She was keenly aware that she was independent in her social interactions, between her human and avatar forms, and that was most exemplified by her port-wine facial birthmark. To Art3mis, her birthmark was a source of tremendous personal anguish and consternation, having been likely brutalized socially by children and adults alike, and was an impetus for her independence and disengagement from relationships. It not only gave her a reason to be strong but gave her a reason to keep apart from others. I have a great deal of empathy on this front, as I have a noticeable facial deformity from birth, and suffered at the hands of child peers growing up, and became isolated and independent as a result. However, that independence and isolation became an impetus to develop personal resilience and strength. While I’ve worked to temper the more extreme characteristics of these hurt-based independences, and have striven to create positive pro-social situations as an adult, I think the writers have no experience with this kind of personal pain.

Art3mis was a fierce woman who needed no saving. She was strong by virtue of necessity, and had all of the suspicion and ferocity that would accompany someone who was forced into such circumstances. However, in the film, she was reduced to a capitulating damsel-in-distress, who had none of the fierce insistence upon privacy, distance, secrecy, and individualism that she should have desired based on her circumstances. She had none of the firebrand independence once we shifted into the physical world; her avatar was fierce, but it didn’t mirror her fierce self as it did in the book. I’m so disappointed that her suspicious nature and her individual power were discarded in favor of creating a pawn for Wade to play with in his quest. Imprisoning her at IOI was stupid, and really failed to acknowledge, understand, and honor the fierce, independent, capable character that was Art3mis. Whereas Ready Player One as a book was comfortable with a heterosexual relationship in a largely sexually-liberated and sexually-independent world, the movie screwed any feminist or independent tropes in favor of a blasé schmaltz relationship of ingenue-and-unexpected-hero. I was deeply disappointed.

I will give credit to the art directors for intentionally adding the pixelated incarnation of Art3mis’s port-wine-stain birthmark onto her avatar in the later part of the film. That’s something Cline could have and should have written, as Art3mis accepted her “fused self” (First Life-and-Second Life together) as her “real self” (they are distinct but related; they are unique in their style, incarnation, and zeitgeist though they stem from the same non-corporeal intellect), as this was her story arc: While it’s not necessarily antecedent-consequent, it is true that many who live genuinely in both lives, grow in both lives, and find power in and acceptance within – if not in spite of and/or through – their true, central selves.

However, this one artistic does not, in my view, undo the damage they did to Art3mis by reducing her to a plot element instead of the fierce character Cline wrote.

Aech

Caveat: Lena Waithe is awesome, and she rocked in RP1 as a film, and I don’t take one damn thing away from her about her performance, which was probably the most authentic and electric on screen.

However…

Aech is a loud, big-smiling fat Black lesbian mechanical genius, and if you can’t deal with that, you have entirely missed the point of not only the novel but the values of the virtual. The character of Aech transcends and subverts so many of the most important social barriers in our world today and in the world of 2045 Columbus. The filmmakers missed a huge opportunity to address body image and issues, body shaming, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and bias against kinesthetically-inclined people, and they abandoned all of that.

Aech as a character in-world was bigger, more orc-like, more mechanical, and more obviously voice-shifted than I had in my head, but I really liked the movie version of the avatar. Aech in-world was appropriately strong and badass, and I appreciate that.

But while Waithe’s performance was excellent, her character in the film in the physical world served as an erasure of Aech’s queerness and obesity. Why can’t a fat chick be an ass-kicker? No reason at all. Weight is entirely independent of capability in so many ways in the physical, but it is independent of capability in every way in the virtual. And queerness is as invisible in the physical as it is in the virtual: one’s sex, one’s gender expression, one’s gender identity all of these are independent variables, and we are not ghettoized in the virtual as we so often – too often – are in the physical.

Again, while I think Lena Waithe is awesome and did such a good job once cast, I was disappointed that Aech wasn’t portrayed by Gabourey Sidibe or another actress who would have helped more big girls feel that they could bring down corporations and level entire societies and repair a motorcycle in record time. And I really, really wish they had written Aech as the queer woman that she is in the novel.

Aech was kicked out of her home, and disowned, because she’s gay. That’s a story that needs to be told because it’s real, and a story that we could have shown can be overcome in the virtual. Our sex of birth, our physical appearance, the social normativity of a community… these are all just bits and bytes in the virtual, and we can transcend, overcome, usurp, and use these phenomena in the virtual in a way we sometimes cannot in the physical.

Sorrento

One of the most egregious failures of Ready Player One was writing the villain – the corporatocratic oligarch of Nolan Sorrento – as a technologically-inept older dude who had someone else do his dirty work, specifically the conjured-out-of-nowhere-for-no-reason “F’Nale.” (Though F’Nale reminded me a little of Overwatch’s Sombra, who I adore, but that’s not enough to keep me happy with this unnecessary character.) i-R0k was also unnecessarily involved in the storyline. The faceless throngs that Sorrento hurled at the Easter Egg hunt were nameless victims of his socioeconomic terrorism, and that was a huge part of what made his character in the book so terrifying. He was cold, calculating, and absolutely willing to murder and cheat his way to victory, no matter what. He was a social terrorist. He was a corporate terrorist. Making him a punch-line by leaving his password so obviously stuck on a physical Post-It was a huge failure. That’s not Sorrento. That’s whatever idiot thought rewriting some of these major plot points was a good idea: A corporate hack who will never truly understand the Oasis. He would have murdered – and in the book, did murder – anyone he wanted, without hesitation of moral compunction.

Ben Mendelsohn is a talented actor who is fully capable of menacing. His Krennic in Rogue One was far more like Sorrento than his actual Sorrento, and that’s due to the fluffy writing, not his performance. Shying away from firearms until the end, cringing his way through being fed lines trying to play it cool, and weasling his way around makes little sense. Even his inflated avatar seems inconsistent with the way Sorrento would portray himself in the virtual, making a mockery of him as egomaniacal – which the novel character certainly was – instead of channeling that ego and sinister immorality into the monster he really was, willing to murder children to make his fortune.

Nolan Sorrento is IOI, and that was not the way the film worked, and it made him a used car salesman, not a corporate terrorist.

The Lack of Subversion and Revolution

Writing Art3mis as being captured and getting inside IOI, saved by Parzival – vomit – eliminated the fright and time dilation effect of the book having Parzival voluntarily go underground inside IOI. That daring act of infiltration and revolution forced Parzival to face his shadow-self, alongside his self-imposed exile within his lair. His hacking and circumvention of normal safeguards, his need to create serious physical protection for himself, and his eventual decision to go into IOI by using their indenture systems against IOI itself were all acts of subversion that were wholly left out of the film. Parzival’s use of his outsider status as an attribute mirrors the circumstances of so many of us in the virtual world, where we are able to do things and exist in places and participate in activities that we might not normally be able to, as we use our outsider natures to find inclusion and ability.

We who have been virtual world residents are able to project outwardly – and perhaps even more importantly, exist within the psychoemotional condition of being – a more authentic version of ourselves, to explore elements and attributes of ourselves, even our idealized selves, which can equip us with power that is normally reserved for the elite.

In physical consensus reality, the privileged can. Writers and actors can, if it’s part of what they do. The rich certainly have the ability to explore these aspects of self: they can literally purchase inclusion. But in the virtual, we, too, claim this power: we can garner inclusion democratically, even anarchistically, independent of the impositions of society and economy and family and institution.

Why does this matter? Why is outsider-versus-insider so important a trope in the book, Ready Player One? Why does subverting institution and revolting against corporatocracy and corruption matter so much, making me so angry at its erasure in the film?

Because authenticity is everything.

To be one’s authentic, unmolested, uncompromised self is the very zenith of the human experience. To self-actualize, reach one’s potential, and become the best self, fully voiced, with full agency, is a distant dream for so many people, but one that can be more in reach thanks to the virtual. It seemed to me when Ernest Cline wrote this, that he understood that. He seemed to put in James Halliday a complicated journey for a person who knew how hard it was to be an outsider, and wanted to create a level playing field and all the necessary building blocks for everyone to be able to expand beyond the confines of their birth circumstances or whereabouts or appearance or boundaries in the physical world.

In the virtual, we are consistently empowered with choice, and control over ourselves. We are able to choose: choose expression, choose association, choose location… We have ontological agency in ways many of us don’t have elsewhere, are unable to have in the physical.

To eliminate the willingness of true revolutionaries to safeguard that right, and to eradicate the story elements that helped us understand how important these things are, really hurt the story and reduced it to a popcorn flick.

The Ending

The ending of Ready Player One as a film stunk.

I disagree fundamentally with DenOfGeek’s take that the movie improved upon the finale. Yes, the little “don’t sign the contract” moment was a nice twist, but a waste of creative energies. The idea that shutting down the Oasis on Tuesdays and Thursdays will someone help people by forcing them into the “real world” is economically infeasible in a society that depends on the Oasis for a huge portion of its economy, is damningly obvious as a bone-toss to the angry Luddite moms who think blue light is rotting their kids’ brains so they’ll be a little less pissed off after watching this movie, and a slap in the face to the entire concept of being able to transcend the boundaries of the physical in favor of the virtual.

As an IOI employee states in the film, “The Oasis is the world’s most important economic resource.” Shutting it down 48 hours a week has the potential to massively harm an already precarious global economic situation. This concept wasn’t thought through, and was done merely as a gift to people who hate the very technology this film is supposed to be about.

That writing was not only shoddy, but showed a profound misunderstanding of virtual environments at their best. If Cline signed off on this change, he betrayed the world he created, and if he didn’t he failed to maintain the purity of his creative endeavor by ceding control to meddlers.

RP1 as a film betrayed this, the core principle and the most important attribute of augmented reality and virtual worlds: That it has the potential to be a profoundly powerful force for good, and is not something to be feared, reviled, limited, or shut down capriciously. Halliday put ONE big red button in place, and it was PERMANENT. It’s a world-destroyer, and it was obvious to readers that the button existed only to destroy the Oasis if it were corrupted. It was not to force young whippersnappers outside to play “like we used to back in my day,” shaking the proverbial cane.

No honest-to-gods Rush-blasting l33t gamer hacker is going to think it’s a great idea to shut down the entire system two days a week. It’s foolish.

I just came here to escape, but I found something much bigger than myself. I found my friends. I found love!” says Parzival.

“Except on Tuesdays.” Really? C’mon.

The book also had to have all three of the trio work together, and that, again, was altered for no apparent reason. Instead of “Kirk-Spock-and-Bones,” we just got the protagonist, but that was never the intent of the way Cline wrote the book. There was always a return to collectivism and teamwork, even in the end when Parzival gives his friends equal shares and rights in the ownership and management of the Oasis.

Overall, the ending really failed to capture the power of the original story, even if the battle scene was cool.

Summary

I’m deeply disappointed, and no quantity of pop culture references or shots of a DeLorean DMC-12 will fix that Ernest Cline sold his vision to become eerily reminiscent of the very corporatocrats that created the dystopian enviro-disaster trash-scape in which RP1 is set.

The film betrayed women. It took a powerful, independent, skeptical, thoughtful, skilled woman in Art3mis and made her a damsel in distress, betraying the character, the archetype, and the story. It made a diversity of body types into a punchline. The plus-sized woman dancing on a pole early in the film: The avatar she is in the virtual could be her entire universe, her means of income, her lifelong dream: why is that supposed to be funny? Why not show the full range of people?

The film betrayed queer people by intentionally erasing Aech to a subtle inference, and failing to tell her story, a real story that so many people have found solace from through the virtual. Thriving queer communities in virtual spaces give voice, choice, agency, and safety to thousands of queer virtual citizens, and they had a chance to be seen, acknowledged, and shown to be the powerful voices and potential heroes they are, but that was, again, erased. Aech was wonderfully portrayed, but the character didn’t capture what Aech was really about in the novel.

The film betrayed outsiders and especially “the little guy.” In the book, Shoto’s murder has readers reeling as if the pages became fire. I think I literally dropped the book. It showed just how vicious IOI under Sorrento was – and how treacherous Sorrento himself was – and the impact that that murder had on Daito illustrated how close family relationships between genetically-unrelated people can be, how deep and diverse love can be between people in the virtual, and how vicious and unrepentant unfettered corporatocrats can be. Shoto wasn’t “a cute kid whose height is a punchline.” Shoto was a murder victim, assassinated by a capitalist enterprise hell-bent on domination, and the film erased him. “Sweet Mrs. Gilmore” was also a murder victim in the book, along with Alice and Rick and countless others who died in the stacks bombing. They, too, are dispassionately forgotten, Mrs. Gilmore left alive to snipe at Sorrento and Alice and Rick just forgotten in the narrative.

The film betrayed the poor especially. The world of 2045 that Cline wrote was on the brink of total collapse, between an environment gone completely to hell and a global socioeconomic situation that had people living in trash heaps and stacked towers of old trailers. Wastelands entirely overridden by lawlessness and chaotic crime sprawled across what used to be America, taking the dissolution of the Rust Belt we see today and expanding it to the whole of society. The plight of the poor, the collapse of our ecosystems, and the crushing of those who don’t pay to play, are all completely eradicated from the narrative, showing up only as passing inferences.

I’ll watch it again to enjoy the popcorn factor of all the 80s references, but Ready Player One fails as a film, to me, because it had such real potential in its storytelling, and didn’t deliver. It doesn’t matter how cool the opening race is, and it doesn’t matter that they left out Leopardon in favor of Gundam, and it doesn’t matter that we get a sneak shot of Tracer on the battlefield or that i-R0k was actually pretty funny or that they used the term haptic pretty well throughout. It doesn’t even matter that they totally didn’t use Van Halen or Rush music well enough or appropriately throughout the thing.

What really matters, in the end, is that RP1 could have been an expansive, engaging, human story that made Parzival, Aech, and Art3mis the power-trio they were, and instead they simmered all that incredible subversive social storytelling to a boy-saves-girl-with-best-friend cartoon.

I didn’t want to see that story. I wanted it to be authentic. It wasn’t.

Parkland, Protests, and Your Rights

In light of all 55 of West Virginia’s public school divisions being closed due to a collective protest action this past week, many of us with union and advocacy backgrounds are hearing common calls for such action in Virginia. Understandable as a reaction to the continued instances of mass shootings in American schools, the terrorizing of American school children by threats of violence, and a political apparatus attempting to insert weapons into classrooms, I empathize with the desire of Virginia’s teachers to act collectively.

While Virginia teachers can act collectively, they cannot strike. We in Virginia cannot “do what West Virginia did” without likely losing our jobs.

You need to know your rights and responsibilities around collective action during times of crisis. As many of the local teacher organizations – I can think of one in particular – have been deafeningly silent on this issue, which defies all reason, I’ve been asked by several people to speak up. As a former union leader, I was deeply involved in organizing collective action within the scope of Virginia law when we were fighting for fair pay and better working conditions about a decade ago, and am happy to revisit the big items.

Virginia is what’s called a “Right to Work” State. This ironically-named set of statutes prohibits the formation of collective bargaining units and unionizing, and is especially restrictive on public employees.

Under Code of Virginia Title 40.1 (Labor and Employment), Chapter 4 (Labor Unions, Strikes, Etc.), specifically Section 40.1-55, any public employee in Virginia who organizes with two or more people to “obstruct, impede or suspend” any part of their job or the purpose of their employer, “strikes or willfully refuses to perform” their duties, shall “be deemed to have terminated his employment and shall thereafter be ineligible for employment in any position or capacity during the next twelve months by the Commonwealth, or any county, city, town or other political subdivision.”

Let’s go over that critical passage, ignoring the irritating lack of Oxford commas.

If you take protest action that…

  1. Involves even two other people doing the same thing
  2. In any way even slows down or makes it harder for the school to teach

…then you aren’t just in danger of being fired. Read the statue: you are deemed to be fired.

Yes, that may seem harsh, but that’s the key problem with “Right to Work” legislation: it doesn’t just guarantee that people that don’t want to be in unions don’t have to join (hence the name of this type of law), but it banishes unions and strikes in the ways they’ve historically worked. Unions in states that have them can organize their people to exercise the great lever of power of workers acting together in concert to affect political or organizational change. But that’s a topic for another day, because right now, the issue at hand is what you can do.

I love, admire, and have steadfastly fought for the rights of public school teachers of Virginia, having stood in the freezing rain on corners with signs with you, been elected by and battled institution for you, and I, too, desire collective action to enact positive change for our children. But we cannot walk out of schools during the instructional day like West Virginia did; our laws are different. We cannot strike; our laws prohibit it. We cannot participate in organizing our students to protest instead of instruct for a day. Those things are explicitly prohibited under §40.1-55.

BUT…

I was a union leader in Virginia. Yes, I say union, because the pedantic insistence upon calling them associations should be left to the purview of official governance documents and those who stand against collective action. And when I was a union leader, I used to say the following all the time:

A union is a union if it acts like it.

In fact, if one takes the time to read the Code of Virginia – and I do, because I’m an education law nerd and I need to know the landscape even as I bring in my proverbial steam shovel to reshape it – one will find that just a few sections later, §40.1-57.3 explicitly states that no part of the “Right to Work” laws prohibit teachers forming associations to promote their interests before their employer. This is why in Virginia, teacher unions are often referred to as “teacher associations,” and many people take umbrage at calling it a union. I, clearly, have no such linguistic compunction, because I find word trickery a tired effort to undermine teacher collectivism.

However, this section doesn’t address teacher protest action. All the law says is that we cannot impact the operation of our school, and so we cannot walk out or strike, or undermine or impede what is often termed in education law the “normal operation of the school.”

There is some fascinating case study around the issue of teacher free speech. One of the most baffling is what I sometimes call “Second Brown v. Board,” though it’s properly called Lincoln Brown v. Chicago Board of Education, which held that a teacher did not have free speech rights to engage in a teachable moment around a racial epithet because school board policy expressly banned all use of racial epithets. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the school board did have a right to discipline the teacher, even though the teacher was teaching, because their policy superseded the free speech rights of the teacher during the operation of the school.

To my reading, that infers that it is more likely that an appellate court would err on the side of school board policy when it comes into conflict with a teacher’s desire to exercise free speech, at least during the school day. This is one of the reasons during presidential campaign seasons, I used to very carefully instruct my teachers that they needed to exercise extraordinary caution, and never wear political shirts, campaign buttons, or place candidate stickers on their doors and such. (Though I gave that advice many years before the 2016 Lincoln Brown decision.)

Let’s broaden the scope.

In 1968, Pickering v. Board of Education was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that held, 8-1, a teacher does have the right to express opinions about the school for which that teacher works, including a negative opinion, when that speech is written, even published, and expressed outside of the operation of the school. The Supreme Court overturned an earlier court decision siding with the school board, which had fired Marvin Pickering for writing a letter to the editor excoriating his school district for what he thought was poor budget choices. So we do have precedent that teachers can speak out and act, about schools, outside of the school day.

Next, we must include the landmark 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court decision, that held that peaceful protests against the Vietnam War constituted Constitutionally-protected free speech. In his opinion, Justice Abe Fortas wrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. This has been the unmistakable holding of this court for almost 50 years.”

Notice what he wrote in that decision: While the case was about student rights, he explicitly includes teachers in his opinion, which now forms a girder in American jurisprudence around free speech rights and the school. Indeed, Tinker is one of my most oft-cited cases when I have been called upon to discuss student and teacher rights over the years, and remains so for countless attorneys and judges in America.

This brings us to the final critical distinction:

Students have the right to protest. To walk out. To wear protest clothing. To raise their voices collectively. Students are being served by the school; they do not serve the school. In fact, just this past week, students at the high school at which I previously taught engaged in a collective walk-out, and the administration handled it beautifully. They supervised, protected, and assisted students in navigating their disrupted day. They didn’t crack down. They didn’t take “for” or “against” positions; they recognized the Constitutionally-protected rights of students, and helped them as teachers are supposed to: compassionately, thoughtfully, and legally.

In short: Virginia teachers do have Constitutionally-protected free speech rights, but school board policies are being interpreted to supersede those rights for teachers in certain instances, inside and outside of school. Consequent, especially in light of Right to Work legislation, Virginia teachers concerned about keeping their employment should not engage in or encourage walk-outs or any form of work stoppage. Additionally, when engaging in collective action, such as protesting or marching on weekends or during the evenings, be sure not to wear materials emblematic of your school or school division – as you are exercising your individual rights, not acting as an agent of the school – and be very sure not to use or brandish language or images that are prohibited under your school division’s regulations. (For example, carrying a sign with profanity on it, or wearing a shirt with an example of prohibited imagery.)

We have a right to assemble, and a right to speak, but as public officials, even when we strongly and even actively disagree with schools, we must exercise great caution in our decision-making, lest we lose our opportunities to work with the children we love and care so deeply about, and to positively impact their futures and ours.

If I can help clarify or codify anything else around this issue for teachers, please don’t hesitate to ask. I’m always happy to help, as I’m doing right now as a private individual, at home, off the clock, and reviewing to ensure I’ve complied with all of my employer’s regulations!

The Camel and The Falcon

Since the day I began my public school teaching career – and it is the only work I have done in my adult life, having wanted to be a music teacher since I was about 14 years old – I have been unwaveringly dedicated to children and the cause of the American public school. I have stated repeatedly and consistently in my work that I could not, in good conscience, work in a private, parochial, or charter school situation, as the focus of my pedagogy is meeting all the needs of all children everywhere. While, as I state in Insurrection, for example, I understand the intermediate steps that even some of my closest public school allies have taken in sending their children to these schools because of the troublesome nature of their local public schools, my efforts to revolutionize instead of reform are based upon the premise that every child deserves the kind of school that loves them authentically, meets their needs wholly, and does so with the very best resources available. I believe that so strongly, and with such fervent conviction, that I feel ethically compelled to ensure that my praxis matches my theory.

I have the extraordinary privilege of being a part of a remarkable team of professional public educators who have dedicated their lives similarly to eschewing historic institutional structures that – well intentioned in some cases, and not at all so in others, if one studies the subject, which I do as it is central to my work – are not what we know to be best for children.

I do not indict the American public school as unwise or unwarranted, as a mistake or as undesirable. I have dedicated my whole life to the American public school. It is because I love children, and believe it to be so obviously true that a free, extraordinary public education is essential, that I strive to put emergent research, best practices, and pro-child priorities to work every day in a truly revolutionary American public school. Our team is demonstrating that radical praxis is possible, and that the theories are sound. Our team is creating the infrastructure upon which the next generation of public school can and should be built: we are removing historic structures that stand against children, and putting in place the authentic, research-based, and loving pedagogy that is for children.

To indict artifacts of a bygone era as anachronistic and insufficient by modern standards is not to indict the entire enterprise, but if we wish to thrive in the future, we cannot cling to old rickety biplanes out of nostalgia, or familiarity, or unresearched opinion. We must build a rocket ship, free and open to all children, everywhere. We don’t need Sopwith Camels. We need Falcon Nines, and we need them everywhere, right now. We don’t need what purported to work in 1930; we need what works in 2030. I want to – I need to – be a part of that, and those who strive as we do, we who believe in children so completely that we are career public educators who never rest in finding better, stronger ways of helping those kids, are doing what I consider work that is critical to our society.

I am truly fortunate to work in a school, and with my leaders, my colleagues, and my kids, that is trying to do truly right, and in the process of teaching our kids, help by example to move the American public school system closer and closer to the ideal its potential promises: a free public school education that meets every possible need of every child, every day, everywhere. It is our life’s work. It’s hard, and it probably should be hard, and it’s not always going to make everyone comfortable or happy, especially because (as I write about extensively), change is hard. Humans tend to prefer the manifest over the unmanifest, and I accept and understand that. But I truly believe that I’m in a place where we’re doing the right things for kids.

Congratulations, Jan Streich

This evening I was privileged to attend the Stafford County Public School Board meeting, in my capacity as Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Virginia Society for Technology in Education, to honor an extraordinary educator and a personal hero of mine, Dr. Jan Streich.

Here is a transcript of our remarks:

Karen Richardson:

“Good Evening, Madam Chair, School Board Members and Dr. Benson,

“Thank you for allowing us to join you this evening to present this award to a member of your leadership team.

“The Making IT Happen award, sponsored by the International Society for Technology in Education, is a national honor that recognizes leaders who have made significant contributions to the successful integration of technology in education in K−12 schools.

In 2017, Board Director Keith Reeves nominated Dr. Jan Streich to receive this award.”

Me:

“Good Evening, Madam Chair, School Board Members and Dr. Benson,

“It is a fitting privilege that I am able to return to Stafford, where I began my Virginian teaching career in the early 2000s, and where in this very building I first met our honoree. I was a music teacher [ed: at Garrisonville Elementary School, where now-Associate Superintendent Pam Kahle was Principal] and she saw me presenting adaptive special education techniques in instrumental music to my Stafford colleagues at my first attempt at providing professional development. I was a young teacher, but she saw something in me, a knack for teaching other teachers. Her insight, encouragement, and collegiality was profound, and forever changed my life as an educator and leader, as she has with so many of Virginia’s career public education leaders.

“Jan Streich is among the most articulate and capable professionals with whom I have ever had the privilege of working, a genuine asset to the field of educational technology. You may know, she was one of the primary citations for the earliest crafting of the Instructional Technology Resource Teacher model here in Virginia, and her contributions to the field in both practice and in academic theory form a robust girder around which so many of us have built effective careers to love and teach children. Any time her name is mentioned among educational technology leaders in the Commonwealth, inevitably people smile and nod affirmatively, as her name is practically synonymous with the quality of work to which we each aspire.

“Dr. Streich’s work is more than a testament to her deserving the Making It Happen award; her work has consistently made it happen, for her students and her colleagues, throughout the entirety of her storied and accomplished career. It is a personal as well as professional privilege to have supported her most-deserving candidacy for this esteemed international honor.”

(end transcript)

It was eerie to be back at the Alvin York Bandy Administrative Complex, which once upon a very long time ago was the original Stafford High School, built in 1926.

stafford1926

It is lined with memorabilia, and surprisingly, the era in which I was a teacher in Stafford is rather relegated to the “somewhat long time ago” category of said memorabilia. Now, granted, I worked at the poorest and oldest schools in Stafford… I was the assistant band director at Edward E. Drew Middle School, which was the “new” Stafford High School (built in 1961) after the “original” Stafford High School (the aforementioned 1926 building) needed expansion.

stafford1961

Amazingly enough, I also taught the marching band at the new NEW Stafford High School, built in 1975. I madly loved SHS, known as the “Tribe of Pride.” The most amazing kids, the most remarkable growth, the most innovative and self-challenging things happened there during my time, and I was so proud to be a part of that and an agent of positive change. I felt terrible leaving that program to take a new job, and I missed the kids – and indeed the staff, especially Chuck Hite, a mentor and tremendous human being, who trusted me and took me under his wing – leaving a forever-smile on my face whenever I think of Stafford.

stafford1975

I subsequently, having developed such a love for the community, announced and adjudicated at the new new NEW Stafford High School (built in 2015)… so as a great lover of Falmouth (pronounced FAL-muth, the part of south Stafford I taught in), I can safely say I have a meaningful relationship with all four Stafford High Schools.

stafford2015

 

It was a genuine honor to be back in Stafford for this event, and to be able to pay tribute to a person who did so much for me, so young, and set me on a path that I think neither of us could have conceived. From scraggly long-haired musician standing in her hallway to Chairperson of VSTE… it’s been a ride, and I owe a tremendous debt to our very own Jan Streich of Stafford.

Congratulations, my friend.

As Usual, Cell Phone Bans Miss the Point

Yesterday’s NPR report from Tovia Smith highlighting cell phone confiscation in schools yet again highlights the layperson’s and traditionalist’s misunderstanding of the underlying etiology behind so-called systemic distraction in schools.

Students who are distracted, bored, and constantly reaching for their phones are being failed by poor pedagogy, and the suggestion that merely banning the device is a valid solution to this miseducation is a constant frustration for we professional, progressive pedagogues.

It is entirely inappropriate to blame students for the failures of the school, or of the teaching. As I write about extensively in Insurrection, it is our responsibility – professional, ethical, and indeed moral responsibility – to design teaching to achieve learning and needs-meeting for each individual student. The report’s inference that “all eyes on the board” is a desirable state for learning underscores the traditionalist, banking-style pedagogy being employed by the schools highlighted. Lecture, teacher-centric practices, and the nearly-fascistic demanding of attention from children who have not been authentically, meaningfully engaged through well-designed, appropriate learning opportunities cannot be resolved through bagging cell phones.

I’m constantly amazed how rapidly people will scream and yell about electronic device addiction, and yet have no trouble whatsoever perpetuating miseducative and regressive pedagogical practices. It is a prison-like affect, and that belies the social roots of the school and the historic methodology employed by such schools.

If a smartphone is being used in a classroom, if the instruction is well-designed, that use will be either benign or educational in nature. I am utterly unconvinced that any of the stories highlighted in the piece, or that I’ve heard or seen from schools that insist upon student restriction instead of teaching improvement, reveal authentic, student-centered, well-designed, and relevant pedagogy. “Sit there, be quiet, pay attention, and look up here” is the hallmark of the Dickensian schoolmaster, and has no place in today’s schools.

In Pursuit of Google Innovation

I am fortunate enough to have been nominated several times to become in a Google Innovator, and so submitted my application! I blogged recently about getting my Google creds up to current snuff, and folks responded:

From M.: “Keith is passionate and innovative in all he attempts. He is brave and takes risks. He does anything it takes to make school a safe and wonderful place for all students.”

From L.: “Keith is always on top of the latest and most useful ways to get the most out of the G Suite. He is open and giving of everything he learns to bring the rest of us along. While being knowledgeable about all things G Suite he is also on top of all curriculum areas and always looking for innovative ways to leverage the tools to enhance learning outcomes. He is an innovator he just needs the badge.”

From C.: “He’s remarkably well-read and bases his theory in actual practice with actual children, not just the data points pushed by administrators.”

Here’s a link to my Slide Deck for my Google Innovator project: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1b-KuT3d0Kydn3NQFK9INwolSmDIu__J9OA7wBiMFOvY/edit?usp=sharing

And here’s my quick video on what I propose in it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHeT7_InW94

I should hear back from Google in June! Either way, I’m committed to doing this work! I’ve gotten some great encouragement – my colleague Dwayne McClary called it a “game changer” (a great pun as well as a great compliment!) – and I’m excited to leverage Standards-Based practices into something even more powerful for kids than I think it’s historically been!

Slice of Life #4: Maple Bluff

sliceoflife

The Slice of Life Blog Challenge is sponsored by TwoWritingTeachers.org.


 

My great-great-great-great-grandfather, Lyman Reeves, built a home for his family in 1848 on a hill in Palmyra, New York, which today is on Creek Road, just along side the Garnagua Creek. Lyman’s uncle, Elias, was one of five settlers from Southampton, Long Island, who came up and across the Hudson and Mohawk rivers in 1790 to settle what is today Palmyra, New York, as part of the “Long Island Purchase” that appears on many old maps of Upstate New York. The initial purchase secured, more of the Reeves family – including James, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather – made the same journey, which I’ve mapped, and that, as they say, is history.

History that still stands.

The home is called “Maple Bluff,” and it is in an apple orchard – indeed, it was a working farm the entire time it was in the Reeves family – and it was home to generations of my line, and the birthplace of my great-great-great, great-great, and great grandfathers.

Here is Maple Bluff as it looked in 1937…

maple_bluff_1937

I mapped and researched and read and looked everywhere to find where this place might be, just hoping to see the grounds of it, walk the places my people walked, see the apples they’d planted, or at least the memory of them.

In December of 2014, I found it.

On the far left, an 1858 map, showing “L. Reeves at center.” Discovering this map let me to overlay modern imagery, and zoom in… and there it was.

IMG_2703798997271

And so I did the only thing I could do. I packed up the car, and I went there.

And there it was. Not just the grounds. Not just the spot.

The very house. Maple Bluff stands to this day, 163 years later.

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The current owners, the Wildeys, were incredibly kind and gracious to a stranger, and they knew the history of the house well. They were kind enough to show me inside, where my family once dined together, and celebrated with each other.

On the left, is Christmas 1910. The young man second from the right is Floyd Austin Reeves, my great-grandfather, then age six. On the right, I stood and looked through time into the very space.

livingroom

Mr. Wildey was kind enough to do me one more great service before I left.

On the left, I stand in the very spot in which my great-grandfather stands in the picture on the left, taken right around 1915. Roughly a century later, I walked in his footsteps.

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As a genealogist, I’ve recorded 18,835 individuals in my family history, have travelled to countless cemeteries, spent days on end poring over old source documents, combing town historians’ files, and working to unlock the mysteries of from where I come.

But nothing ever gave me quite so much joy as going back to the beginning, and a beautiful house called Maple Bluff.

Child Identity and Voice

Children have sovereign, individual identity and voice, and are generally denied that by virtue of both their age in society – society views them as incapable – and the historic attitude of adults toward children – specifically that children are property of adults generally and property of their parents specifically.

The revolutionary educator has a moral mandate to refute this antiquated, anti-child philosophy in action and word, often manifesting as policy craft, and has the imperative from the root-most ethic of teaching to validate the individual child’s identity and to amplify that individual child’s voice. Identity and voice are critical elements of an authentically loving relationship, and since – as you surely know by now from my writing and my work – all teachers must genuinely love their children, the validation and amplification of identity and voice is a job requirement.

To fail to do so is to fail to love the child, which violates the ethical principles of teaching.

Students often need to be taught how to use their voice, and sometimes even taught directly that they have a voice. We should carefully consider the need for children to develop their own identities – devoid of adults’ ghettoizing preconceptions and ideology – and their own personal agency whenever we plan and set policy.

Keep student voice and identity clearly in mind throughout your work as an educator.

 

Discipline Cannot Replace Love

When I sit down to have a conversation with a student about choices, I think so often about the times I was “in trouble” in school, and how much better I’d have responded – and about the potential wing-spreading I could have done – if someone had sat down and related to me.
 
We have such power, and to cling to it and wield it is tyrannical. We must seek at every turn, in every interaction with every child, to give them the power. To ask them, invite them, to express themselves, and ask questions, and meaningfully seek greater understanding. Every moment is teachable, because every moment, they are learning.
 
To see tears welling in eyes recede, as the Sword of Damocles fails to drop and a whole invitation to a world of acceptance, kindness, thoughtfulness, reflection, and FREE CHOICE opens before them, brings me, at times, to tears.
I love children, authentically, and demand that all teachers love them.
 
We cannot afford to lose one moment of one day, with even one child, to our adult vanity, expedience, systemized thinking, antiquated notions, or harshness. There is no such thing as too much love for children, and I count myself in the most fortunate and critical situation to understand this and the mountainous research that supports it, and to be able to practice my craft to send healed little ones back into the world, having learned a lesson free of harshness.
 
There is no substitute for love. Not discipline. Not structure. Not hardness. Not consequence. There is NO substitute for love. It must be our foundation, or we are absolutely in the wrong place, as pedagogues.

The professional website of Keith David Reeves