“Cisgender” is a term that refers to individuals who identify with the gender to which they were assigned at birth. For example, I am a cisgender male. My experiences as a person are consistent with that of a male: I feel male, I identify as male, I generally express my gender in a male(-ish) way, and have XY genetics, not that any of that is any of your business.
Because of my biology – and for no other reason, which is the issue – I have been called by male pronouns my entire life. I was called a “boy” as a child, and have always been referred to as “he” or “him,” with the possessive pronoun “his” applied to things that someone thinks are mine. However, this is a gross assumption about who I am. I had no choice in that matter. Individuals decide how they should be identified and referred to, not an obstetrician. Transgender, genderqueer, agender, genderfluid, and other non-cisgendered individuals are victims of the English language’s lack of gender neutral pronouns. Other societies have taken this issue far more seriously than ours. For example, in 2013, Sweden officially changed its language to include a gender-neutral pronoun, which facilitates eliminating gender assumptions in language. As PracticalAndrogyny blogger Nat Titman points out, alternative forms of address have been around for some-odd four decades, but English is not a rapidly-evolving language.
English speakers have several options for referring to people in non-binary ways. As a writer, I often attempt to pluralize, despite it being somewhat inconsistent with my ferociously-individualist approach to teaching and learning. Because “they” is gender-neutral, many individuals prefer to be referred to by “they/them” pronouns, even singularly. (This often tweaks some of my English teacher friends, who say it is “incorrect,” but which is worse? Nontraditional pluralization, or forcing a person into a box for your convenience?)
Still others prefer invented pronouns, such as “xe.” I actually use this quite frequently now because I find it inoffensive in practice. Pronounced “zee,” it is a compromise between “he” and “she.” If you speak it out loud, it’s actually quite facile in practice across its declensions: “I think xe is very nice. Did you meet xem? That’s xyr jacket over there.” However, because it can call attention, there are those who eschew such inventions.
So which pronoun should you use to refer to an individual? The pronouns they choose for themselves, of course, and you should not assume what those pronouns may be… which brings us to my point:
I concur absolutely, wholeheartedly, and passionately with Twitter user Em (@heartIines, who I follow enthusiastically, because they’re brilliant) who recently tweeted that cisgender people ought to be as forthcoming with their pronouns as other relevant personal facts. (I am, for the record, a Sagittarius, though I do not post that in my Twitter profile.)
I believe that all educators should include their gender pronouns in their Twitter profiles. If you are a cisgender person, posting your pronouns in your profile helps reinforce that nobody should assume anything about anyone, and we have a responsibility as role models for children to ensure we do not confound gender any more than it naturally is for the psychosocially-developing child mind.
In typical educational technologist fashion, here’s a tutorial!
First, log in to Twitter, and click on your name to go to your own profile page. Find the “Edit Profile” button on the right, beneath your header, marked here with the green arrow:
Next, on the left, find the “Location” field. This has rapidly become the proper place to put your pronouns. (Nobody cares where you live, and if it’s really important, put it in your profile description above it.)
When you’re done, click the blue “Save Changes” button over on the right where you found the “Edit Profile” button, and you’re done.
If you are a cisgender male, like me, you might type “he/him,” indicating you prefer to be addressed thusly: “He is a nice person. That belongs to him.” I am unoffended by pluralization, so I have no problem with someone referring to me thusly: “They are a nice person. That belongs to them.”
I haven’t included “xe/xem” not because I’m offended by it – I’m perfectly fine with that! – but because I’m just fine with the traditionally-male nomenclature, and so I think that’ll be easiest for people.
This is not an insignificant issue for many of our students. I know students at my own school who have strong feelings about their pronouns, students who are trying on pronouns at any given time (and including that in the Location field helps us honor the references chosen by children, even as they grow), and students who have pronoun combinations and preferences that I would not know they prefer unless they’d told me.
Consequently, I encourage all educators and those who are involved with children to model good online citizenship and to honor the individual’s right to be who they choose to be, and include their pronouns in their profiles.
And if anybody asks who told you this is important, you can point at me and say “Xe did!”
This is an absurd rant. I know that. But hey… what are blogs for on a Friday? (Though this has been slowly building in draft form for a while, ’cause I get peeved by this stuff.)
You’ll read why, in the next few pages, why I caveat this: Read at your own peril. If you don’t like it when I get controversial, remember: On a PC, click the X in the upper right hand corner. On a Mac, hold “Command” and press “Q” to quit.
Nobody is making you read anything online, ever. Here goes.
When my brothers and I get together, we tend to laugh and spar, usually in that order. We’re loquacious. As Jed Barltet said in The West Wing, “In my family if you use one word when you could use ten, you’re not trying hard enough.” Our conversational style can be admittedly-offputting, because we tend to pounce on each other: Logical fallacies are immediately dismantled, suggestions to the contrary of prevailing sentiment are critiqued, and hyperbolic emotional reactions are generally excoriated. We enjoy debate and even more than that, we enjoy storytelling. My father says, half-jokingly, “never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.”
We are unsurprisingly “loud.”
Now, I don’t mean we get bawdy-lit and sing tavern songs at funerals, but we do tend to be energetic and the decibel level may creep above “inside voice” from time to time. Being from New York, we also are very comfortable with what Spock called “colorful metaphors.” I believe it was Chris Kluwe who observed that a well-made argument laced with profanity is an especially effective form of communication.
Let us say that you are dining next to us, and you are dissatisfied with us. You have a litany of options available to you:
Raise your own voices slightly to be heard over us
Ask to be reseated at a different table
Leave the restaurant and dine elsewhere
Speak to a manager
Join in, make an intelligent comment, and do so quietly, modeling behavior
I must underscore that we are not being rude idiots in this scenario. Were we to cross into that territory, I might finally (and I do mean finally, as in as a last resort) add politely asking us if we might keep it down a bit.
But I don’t like that last option. I don’t like it one bit, and I don’t do it to other people. Why? Because it is not my place to tell others how to behave when they are not hurting anyone, and emphatic verbal conversation is not a cause for conflict.
You understand, then, why I think the musclebound vicious-tongued member of the social propriety police who physically threatened assault at a restaurant not long ago was well out of bounds. He had a litany of options at his disposal, but instead of solving his own problem for himself and concerning himself with his world, he decided to alter ours.
You understand, then, why I think a man making somewhat-flailing “keep it down” hand gestures at us across a restaurant and telling us to watch our language would trouble me. He had a litany of options at his disposal, but instead of solving his own problem for himself and concerning himself with his world, he decided he’d take control of ours.
This very phenomenon just happened to me again while out with a colleague and friend of mine at a local establishment, when we were vehemently debating the fact that cost-benefit was not a valid consideration when discussing the matter of the death penalty. (I am in Hitchens’ tradition a staunch opponent of human sacrifice.) A nearby gentleman decided to take issue with the one factoid he overheard out of context – that all American citizens enlist by choice, because we do not have compulsory service, and I was deeply challenging my friend’s suggestion that some people “have no choice” but to enlist – and call me out as a jerk for disrespecting the military. (Which, as I just stated, I was not only NOT doing, but actually illustrating what must be viewed as a positive fact about anyone who has enlisted, because they chose to do so.) This uninvited interjection was not only fallacious and silly in fact, but absurdly and ignorantly presented.
Hey. You. Random stranger: Mind your own beeswax, Ramona.
Part of embracing diversity is recognizing that socially-normative behaviors are relative, and there are things that matter and things that don’t, and a group of five people laughing and conversing in a restaurant or a bar who are maybe slightly-louder than the people around them is not a cause for taking a social stand. It deadens the effectiveness and meaning of interpersonal intervention.
I am entitled, by virtue of being an individual human being, to my opinions, thoughts, and beliefs. I am similarly entitled to expressions of those beliefs, and to the consequences that come from those expressions. As a public employee, there are more consequences for me than for, say, a self-employed private citizen, and there are fewer protections for me than for others, like whistleblowers and journalists. (I recognize that right now, both of those groups are under siege by those who would deny them their rights, and I empathize.)
I am, as a citizen of the United States, entitled to freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly. I am allowed to be loud. I am allowed to offend you, and you are allowed to offend me. While there are Constitutional limitations on intentionally antagonizing someone to incite incident (the Chaplinsky doctrine established in 1942, or the “Clear and Present Danger” doctrine of Schenck from 1919), generally expressions of honest belief in discourse are afforded near-absolute protections. (At least, they ought to be, Constitutionally.) If I laugh at a joke you don’t find funny, espouse beliefs contrary or troubling to you, or get a little loud talking to my friends, in short…
I am colossally troubled by a so-low bar of protestation against expression that strangers come up to me in public and tell me and those I’m with who enjoy spicy discource to keep it down.
You may remove yourself if you find me distasteful. You are not the proprietor; you are a peer. If the proprietor asks us to keep it down, that’s one thing, but being a bully is being a bully. Your dining experience is no more important than mine. If you’d like to meaningfully join the conversation, you may find yourself one of the many lovely strangers I’ve met and with whom I’ve passionately conversed over the years, so long as you bring real contributions and substantive additions to that conversation, and don’t barrel in like Donkey Kong hurling barrels. Otherwise, keep it to yourself. You are not the police of me.
There is, of course, however – and you had to see this coming – conditions under which one DOES intervene. I daresay there are situations that COMPEL us to intervene:
If I shouted a racial slur. If I whispered a homophobic epithet. If I commented in a deeply sexist way. When one engages in bigotry, I think it’s open season. I’d have no problem expressing my deep disapproval to the party sitting next to me if I heard someone use the word f_ggot or n_gger. I would confront (and have confronted) such a person, because that’s person didn’t make a statement of controversy; that person made a statement of conflict. If someone is spouting denigrating racial epithets about people of color, whispered or shouted, I’ll help you in speaking to that person about being deeply offensive. There’s a psychosocial awareness, however, that says there are times, places, and manners of expression that make sense, and those that don’t. Body-tackling that person at a fine dining establishment? Not okay. Expressing deep disapproval verbally? Sure, I can buy that, because that’s not protected belief; discrimination on the basis of race is bigotry; our society says so.
That is my rule: If I say something bigoted, go ahead and say something to me. Otherwise, stick a cork in it. If you say something bigoted, I’m going to say something to you. Otherwise, I’m going to mind my own business. I might leave. I might flee. I have done so. But I’m absolutely not going to come over and tell you you’re wrong and to shut up and pipe down.
Doing so is authoritative and totalitarian, and I do not approve of authoritativeness or totalitarianism.
If you’re quietly expressing your deep conviction in Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior, I have NO right to confront you. You’re not engaging in hate speech. Now, you come proselytize me at my table, different story, but no way would I come over to your table and speak to you about your conduct. That’s ridiculous.
Why would anyone think it’s okay to come to my table, and speak to me about having a conversation, simply because they don’t like its nature? That’s not okay. That person is rightly entitled, however, to change THEIR behavior: Stop listening. Move tables. Leave the restaurant. Speak to a manager. All sorts of options open up, available to anyone. You don’t get to decide you’re the “Me Police” just because you don’t care for me.
Being a little loud is a freedom. Being a bigot stands against freedom. I think that’s an easy distinction, and I don’t care if you agree with me or not in this particular instance… because this is my blog, where I get to say how I feel and what I think. If you want to share your feelings, start your own blog. If you don’t like what I have to say, unsubscribe and don’t visit and read this.
This all brings me to analogize the point: Short of correcting social injustice… Mind your own beeswax, Ramona.
Welcome to social media.
Firstly, there is a distinction: You choose to engage with me in social media. If you don’t want to engage, don’t connect. Social media consumption is voluntary. But, on to more analysis:
For me, Twitter, like my blog, is my “professional” restaurant. Yes, I espouse radical ideas there and foment rebellion, but that’s part of who I am and the work that I do, and when you come to MY Twitter space, you’re getting a table at MY restaurant. This is my little cafe of revolutionaries. I do not shy away from my fervent advocacy for egalitarianism, my strident opposition to bigotry and the infringement upon others’ rights, and my utter disapproval of many aspects of corporate reform and standardized testing profiteering. Don’t like that sort of thing? Don’t follow. Don’t visit. Don’t read. Don’t pull up a chair. I’m not sending you messages; Twitter is an on-demand platform. You see what you choose to see, so if I bother you, choose not to see me.
You can get up and leave. You can be re-sat. And you can talk to the manager, and because this is a professional “restaurant,” I will certainly engage with you accordingly.
Facebook, however, is my rumpus room. It’s private, my house, a place friends and family gather. It’s bedecked with pictures of my nieces and nephew, complaints about ragweed, things I find funny, recipes and football gripes and, yes, sometimes screaming about things that annoy me. I leave my dirty laundry out sometimes. I try to keep it cleaned up, but sometimes, because this is my space, I’m messy.
Do not come into my house and tell me how to hang my shirts.
You don’t get to speak to the “manager” here, because this isn’t a “restaurant.” This is my private space, and I say what goes, with impunity, and owe no explanations.
I do not have the same sociopolitical, philosophical, metaphysical, ontological, pedagogical, and epistemological views as the vast majority of the people I know, like, and love. My beliefs are my own, and arrived at through critique and analysis, reflection and experience, and I feel no meaningful compulsion or motivation to conform to normative expectations, beyond the fearful inner child that just wants to be loved and accepted. However, being authentically me is more important to the health of my inner child than seeking immediate inclusion for the sake of inclusion, and so I do that instead, whenever I can. I try. I recognize that my attitudes and orientations are often the minority view, and sometimes, a minority of one.
So what? I am an individual.
I do not require that everyone I’m friends with on Facebook feel, act, or believe similarly to me. I like diversity. I like dissent. I enjoy debate. I like contrary opinions. But, because this it is not MY space, I also don’t feel obliged to give all parties equal voice. You control your space, I control mine.
If you come into my space, you’ll read my ideas. If you choose to engage me in my space, on my wall or in my messages, you’re engaging me on my territory. I didn’t solicit your input; you reached out to me.
Similarly, if I go onto your wall, into your space, that’s yours, and you have every right to espouse your beliefs there, free and unfettered. I don’t feel entitled to give my counterarguments in YOUR space, though if I choose to, and you let me, we might well debate meaningfully. I think this happens all the time. But ultimately, you have the tools to hide, delete, and control what happens on your wall because it’s YOURS.
In short, my wall is MY WALL, and your wall is YOUR WALL.
If I were to post something that bothers you, and you’re deeply troubled by it, just as if you were sitting at the table at the restaurant, you have a number of entirely viable options to defend yourself against being offended. Instead of moving tables, speaking to a manager, not listening, or leaving, you could:
Block my post
Report my post
Tell Facebook “I want to see fewer posts like this”
Unsubscribe from my feed
However, what would possess you to tell me I don’t have a right to say what I want in my space? What in the world would make you think that it is inappropriate for me to speak controversially or loudly or passionately about whatever I want in my space? My Facebook account is sealed tighter than a drum. If you’re friends with me, it’s because we agreed to be friends, and that means we agreed to be in each others’ spaces using the settings we choose for ourselves to moderate our Facebook experiences. Nobody made you be friends with me. Nobody forced you to read anything. Nobody demands your presence. I don’t.
I have never complained about being unfriended.
I find instructing me on how to make you comfortable in my space to be arrogance tantamount to bullying. Let’s take a recent example.
If you’re not familiar with my position on adult-on-child violence, it’s clear: no adult should ever intentionally harm a child, in any way, for any reason, without exception. No spanking, no hitting, no withholding bathroom privileges as punishment, no forcible starvation, no neglect, no psychological warfare, period. Ever. Nurturing a child does not require you to toughen them up, smack them around, or physically harm them. The research is compelling and concrete, the examples of ineffectiveness replete, the socially-cyclical nature of violence easily observable, and while I don’t expect to convince everyone because so many people are products of that cycle, I have ZERO TOLERANCE for excuse-making and apologies for adult-on-child violence. I simply don’t tolerate it. Call it a quirk, call it fervor, call it whatever, but that’s the score.
If you post something that lauds, approves of, or supports adult-on-child violence, we’re done. If I see someone who posts something about hitting children, I unsubscribe from the thread or from their feed altogether or even unfriend them. You see, I know that my Facebook status with a person is not analogous to my interpersonal relationship with them. I can unfriend you because I like kicking around Facebook to laugh and rant, and still think you’re brilliant, intellectual, insightful, worthwhile, and wonderful.
But you know what really frosts my cupcakes? Telling me that I ought to keep my opinions to myself on my own wall. It’s my wall. Mine. Not yours, mine. Not everybody’s, mine. It’s mine. You can do ALL of those things above to control how you experience me, and if you choose not to, I’m going to be annoyed.
Leave the bar. Move down a few seats. Go engage in your own conversation. You do you.
I don’t blow people up on their own walls. I might engage with someone on a topic about which I disagree, but if I do that, I know FULL WELL that I’m asking for it. What I usually end up doing is when I reach my saturation point with the debate, I unsubscribe from the thread, and it dies. I move on, forget about it, and we all roll merrily along.
I like controversy, and I can have controversy without conflict. I like debate, and I can have debate without denigrating you. What I DON’T do is private message you, summarily blast you on your wall, or excoriate you publicly for espousing a belief about which I disagree.
I recently commented, after a very frustrating day, that if people on my newsfeed reposted the video of that woman in Baltimore beating the crap out of her kid in the street, they should not be surprised if I unfriend, block, or unsubscribe from them, because people by now should know how deeply passionate I am that adult-on-child violence is an epidemic in this country, and any glorification of or justification for it is, to me, loathsome. Because I’ve had problems with this in the past, I gave fair warning to my social media connections that I was in no mood. (This is, after all, Facebook. This isn’t a professional environment; I was chatting with my “usual peeps.”)
Why on EARTH would you think the appropriate thing to do after someone comes home from a long day, plops down at the table with a sigh, and expresses how exhausted of X they are, is to pour that person a gigantic heaping bowl of X?
That’s antagonizing me, and I’m going to react unhappily, as anyone would. Don’t like my comment? Unsubscribe. Think adult-on-child violence is so awesome that you just HAVE to shout about how awesome this mother beating up her kid is? Hey, baby, go right ahead! But when you want to talk to me the next day, and find yourself unfriended, that’s the price you pay. I’m me. If you want to be connected to me socially, you’re connected to THE REAL ME, not to the version of me that’s convenient for you or to the piece of me that you care for.
As Arthur says in “First Knight,” “I cannot love a person in slices.”
Don’t like my post? Unsubscribe. Unfriend. Disconnect. Take responsibility for YOUR social experience, instead of correcting mine. Isn’t that the responsible thing to do? Isn’t that the ONLY thing that’s APPROPRIATE to do? It’s not as if you said something horribly racist or advocated for specific action to abuse kids. You just approved of a woman significantly disapproving of her son joining in a mob scene. (I think such an attitude is deeply misguided and fails to recognize larger socioeconomic issues, but again, this is Facebook, land of Bub and The Oatmeal and Kardashian Butt Memes. C’mon.)
As I absolutely believe you have a right to post and say anything you want, and would never infringe upon your right to do so, isn’t the only appropriate, adult thing to do to handle the situation myself?
A friend I dearly love blew me up for my comment that I vehemently disapproved of the circulating mother-hitting-child meme, and that friend suggested that I had a responsibility not to post controversial things if I didn’t want to be yelled at or chastised.
Dude, that’s messed up.
I accept that there are consequences for one’s actions, especially in public fora, and I certainly confess that sometimes I get quite peeved (that’s the understatement of the century) about things like being violent toward children, majoritarianism that abuses the minority, corporate reform in education, bigotry and homophobia, animal cruelty, and anything about the New England Patriots (not really), but I have two choices:
I can mind my business, and remove myself from the situation, or
Respond with the full preparation to engage in meaningful debate.
What is not, ever, in my mind, a viable option, is the condemnation of others for espousing their own beliefs on their own wall. I did not solicit your input; you are invited to by virtue of being my Facebook friend, but you were not specifically invited to comment. Unless you were, in which case, that’s another story entirely.
Bottom line is that I do believe people have responsibilities to be mindful when they post things, but my expressing a very rational belief – like, I disapprove of being violent to children, for any reason, and have no desire to see that crap on my newsfeed, so don’t be offended if I step out – is being mindful.
I am not everyone’s cup of tea. I did not ask to be, set out to be, or state that I was. Just unfriend me, and move on with your life. It is nobody’s place to put me in mine, any more than it is mine to put you in yours. There’s meaningful debate, and then there’s whatever the other thing is.
In short, I think the bar for intervention in another person’s affairs should be set quite high, and for me, bigotry and the harm of children are just about the only things that clear the hurdle. Debate loudly, speak passionately, laugh boisterously, embrace each other, fan the flames of fervent discourse, and be ferocious and strident at at times, and enjoy the fact that the Constitution of the United States of America guarantees your right to do so.
I have the same rights as you. And I recognize you do have the right to call me a jerk in a public place. Do so at your own peril if it’s just because you don’t like my volume or agree with the substance of my material argument… because I’m not the guy that says “oh, sorry,” and shuts up and sits back down.
It’s assimilate day in the neigh-Borg-hood,
The best kind of day for a neigh-Borg.
You will be mine.
Of course you’ll be mine.
It’s a neigh-Borg-ly day and your species could
add your distinctiveness to our hood.
It will be mine.
You’ll all be mine.
I’ve always wanted to have a drone-Borg just like you.
I’ve always wanted to live in a neigh-Borg-hood with you.
So, let’s make some drones of your beautiful friends.
Since our minds are together we all have to say:
You will be mine.
You’re totally mine.
Now you are a neigh-Borg.
Resistance? Pshh, please.
We are now one as neigh-Borg.
I began my teaching career a week before 9/11 in a poor, rural school district in New York. I’d student taught there for the semester prior, and was hired immediately when my cooperating teacher retired. The only instrumental music teacher in the school district, I was Harold Hill. Young and stupid, idealistic and arrogant, I was ready to transform what I thought was a podunk, backward, totally substandard little program into a program of exceptional quality, teaching the whole child, advocating fiercely for expansion of the program, and raising the standards of performance and musicianship in a way not seen since the heydey of those bands in the 1930s.
My tenure there was short lived. They didn’t fire me, but as you’re going to find out about me today, I’m a straight-shooter. “Exercising the nonrenewal option in my probationary contract” might sound better, but let’s cut to the chase. I got canned.
It wasn’t because I didn’t grow the program, like the first of the five administrators I worked for in those two years asked me to. I did. The program exploded and nearly tripled in size.
It wasn’t because I didn’t raise the level of musicianship, like I’d wanted to. I did, moving from a high school band that played level two stuff to tackling our first sincere level five, albeit roughly, within about 18 months.
It wasn’t because I didn’t expand the influence of music education in our community. I created and instituted a Music History program, added so many sections of general music for non-instrumentalists to gain exposure to the benefits of meaningful music education that I was violating my own professional rights by teaching during lunch and my planning period.
It wasn’t because I didn’t cultivate colleague relationships. I was elected Vice President of my local music ed association chapter, having grown up a NYSSMA kid and knowing full well how robust the music association and music teacher communities were there. I had great colleagues in Central New York.
It wasn’t because I didn’t teach the whole child. I believed in meaningful, valuable experiences that were relevant to each child, not to a general idea of children, and the fact that many of those students today continue to reach out to say that the band room was their one, solitary beacon of light in an otherwise oppressively dark educational environment tells me that mattered.
It wasn’t because I didn’t do those things. My relationship with that school was dysfunctional because I did those things.
It wasn’t because I wasn’t a good teacher. I was good. Not great. Not nearly as good as many of you. I was young and idealistic, and I wasn’t any good at politics or playing the game, and we’ll talk about the game here this morning. But I didn’t lose my first job because I wasn’t a good teacher. The straw that really broke the camel’s back was a single piece of music that I prepared my kids exhaustively to perform. Tiny little rural school, where I built two tubas out of the parts I salvaged from the six that didn’t work. My newest horn was built in 1949. I had a soprano saxophone, but no tenors. I had metal folding chairs, old Manhasset stands that did that thing they do, and you know what I mean. (Raise, fall, raise fall.) Tyrannical, short-sighted leaders. The mayor of the town was the head of the social studies department. One colleague drew and hung derisive pictures of me in the faculty lounge. It was, to me, a dark place, where I built the county’s first MIDI lab out of spare computer parts, got an entire set of marching band uniforms donated from California because we had no money to get our own, and then committed a deep, cardinal sin.
I taught my kids to play this piece, and i’m going to perform it for you now.
[ Movement II, 4’33” ]
You know the work? You know the composer?
4’33” was written in 1952 by composer John Cage, and is written in three movements, each of which is marked “tacet.” I taught it to fourteen and seventeen year old farmer’s kids. We studied it intensely, embarking upon the very journey Cage conceived, to understand sound and the role sound does and does not play, vis-a-vis rests and silence, in music, and to understand what music truly is, as part of deepening our preparations to tackle less and less traditional literature. My. Students. ATE. IT. UP. It was one of the most remarkable educational journeys, and I truly believe it enhanced their performance quality of literature from the usual catalogs. My students were willing and able to tackle the very IDEA of music, and extended tendrils of questioning and investigation into COUNTLESS other areas of their lives.
That, of course, was the problem. I taught my students to think critically and independently in a place where critical independent thinking is practically criminalized. You may know such insular places, where conservative leaders who have never sung a note or plucked a string in their natural born lives can sit on high in judgment and proclaim, as mine did, “that’s not music.”
When a school leadership – I don’t say community, because the community sure did – but when policymakers don’t understand or recognize the value of what you do, the deck is stacked.
The sad fact is that some people have no music in their hearts. Some people rise to so-called leadership positions in schools not because they love children, not because they are good teachers, not because they have something to offer you as professionals, not because they are good for the community, but because they are good at playing the game. They seek power, not promise. They desire control, not compassion. They prefer institutions over individuals.
This story is not to elicit your sympathy; I was a stupid kid, I made some genuinely bad decisions there, it wasn’t a good fit for a lot of reasons and I did make some serious mistakes. Nowadays I’d counsel my younger self to slow down and to have been much more careful. But this isn’t to tell a sad story. It’s to tell a powerful one. Our story, yours and mine: The ability to transform, enhance, and realize the human experience for and with children. You see, while I want you to know that I’ve been there, the target of an administration hell bent on laying waste to arts programs, the victim of an institution that doesn’t believe in the power or value of music education, they haven’t beaten me. I admit it, I was low for a long time, but I got back up, and I did it because the brightness of electrified children lights even the gloomiest heart. There is a battle, but the tide of that war is turning, and I truly believe we are coming into a renaissance of humanity and the humanities in education, if we fan the flames for our side.
We as music educators live, pedagogically and professionally, not at the intersection of art and science, but rather simultaneously occupy all aspects of the spectrum between the two. They’re not mutually exclusive or diametrically opposed in our world.
Personal expression, emotional evocation, drama, inspiration, powerful moments, deeply connected interpersonal experiences… these non-quantifiable creative and psychoemotional experiences, these artistic and even religion-like experiences are found in our classrooms in ways and with frequency rarely seen elsewhere in the school.
However, we also work with precision, with exacting measurements of time and space, tuning sympathetic longitudinal waveforms into resonance patterns specific to the space, specific to the moment. We ensure the mechanical engineering of brass pistons operate within strict tolerances of micrometers, that the tension of spun and steel strings is exact and the physics of wood and metal and air generate not simply the proper frequency, but the proper amplitude and timbre, that posture and breathing and kinesiology and muscle tension shape and transform the human instrument and even tiny tots can learn to really sing.
We study history and apply comprehensive analysis of society and trend to the interpretation of Western notational glyphs, yielding a fundamentally different acoustic reality for dotted-eighth-sixteenth (demo) in 1740 when compared to 1940 (demo).
It is oversimplified to say that we exist at the crossroads of art and science. We constantly and consistently span the whole of art and science.
In my book on educational revolution, I spend a great deal of time talking about what teaching and learning really are, and no moreso are my beliefs about teaching true as when discussing music education.
Teaching music is an art, yes. Teaching music is a science, yes. But these words are often conflated or co-opted by those seeking to justify our existence by relating us to practicality, as if we are riding in a sidecar duct-taped to the hindquarter of the motorcycle of “the economy,” as if we are lampreys with our teeth sunk into the big fish of the core four. We are not ancillary. We never have been. In 2009, archaeologists discovered a carved bone flute made by hand around 35,000 years ago. We have conclusive evidence from this and other similar finds that Neanderthals were playing bone flutes as part of everyday life. It is, therefore entirely appropriate to say that human beings have ALWAYS been musical. We have never been secondary, we music educators; we have been primary and central to the human experience since the beginning of the human experience.
As part of celebration. Of mourning. Of expression. Of representation. Of ceremony. And while it is a misconception to call music a universal language because music is not technically a language, music is also part of interpersonal communication.
Art? Yes. Science? Yes. Between the two? No. INCLUSIVE of the two, simultaneously, always.
Music education is a craft. It is our craft. It is your craft.
We know, by virtue of our having answered our life’s calling to teach music, that music needs no justification. We need not call music a language when it isn’t. It is music. We do not need to cite the REAMS of research that suggests music education enhances a person in more ways than we can count, which it does, and may be directly responsible for increasing intelligence, emotional expressivity, brain size, general health, processing skills, motor skills, and creative problem solving. Yes, it’s true, we can do all of those things, but that’s not why we’re here.
We do not exist so that others may exist. While it is true teaching is the profession that creates all other professions, we do not teach to serve the system. We exist because we are deeply inscribed upon the centermost pillar of the human heart and the human mind.
Our national obsession with standardized multiple-choice testing is psychotic. IT is bad for teaching. IT is bad for learning. It is bad for Connecticut. It is bad for America. But far more importantly and far more damning, psychologically and pedagogically, IT is bad for kids. As a national educational system, we have lost our collective mind. Our national and state and far, far too often local leaders drone on endlessly about the need to create “productive members of society” and “prepare children for the workplace.”
Firstly, the aim of education is not to create workers. That entire line of thinking is philosophically backward, historically uninformed, pedagogically unsound, and in my opinion, deeply anti-individual, anti-child, and inhumane. But moreover, IF we believe that schools have a great role to play in preparing children for their future lives, shouldn’t we be remotely interested in what those who toil in the most emergent sectors say is needed to succeed?
Innovators and true leaders aren’t clamoring for more factual recall, for better test-taking skills, for the ability to conform and comply. They’re screaming for creativity, for innovation, for problem-solving, for critical-thinking, for psychoemotional intelligence, for the intersection of art and science OHHHH… where have we heard THAT before?
If you Google things like “jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago” or “top paying jobs of this year,” you’re going to find piece after piece after piece of evidence that supports what business leaders, entrepreneurs, and community leaders have been shouting year after year: What we need from the young new professionals of America in 2015 is CREATIVITY. Is ART. Innovation and invention are the new cornerstones of the information economy, so they tell us. And while my personal sociopolitical beliefs do not include “JOB” as the pinnacle of the human experience, because I am an artist and they can never, ever take that out of my very bones, the arguments being made against us are frequently made by those people who believe we need to do more to prepare our young people for this future economy.
Well then KEEP THE BAND.
Expand the chorus, grow the orchestra, and make sure that every single child in every single school in Connecticut has meaningful access to quality music education, because we have mountains of research that shows that music and the arts is just about the best bang for the buck in town to ensure children grow up with whole brain health, access meaningful opportunities to create and express, and create relevant connections between the disparate other disciplines.
Year after year, since the early 2000s, we have seen study after study tell us this, and yet the so-called “data-driven policy makers” don’t heed THAT data. The undergraduate major most likely to be accepted into med school? Music. If you want your kid to be a doctor, your kid should be involved in music education! By the way, if your KID doesn’t want to be a doctor, that should matter. Music educators have a unique capacity to address the individual student while simultaneously giving that student meaningful social and team-based opportunities.
We hear budget concerns, but how many fundraisers have we done? How much money have we raised? How able to make up shortcomings have we been over the last two decades? While it’s no excuse for the INEXCUSABLE underfunding and in some cases defunding of our essential music education programs, we nevertheless have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for survival and adaptation that few curricular programs can match.
I count myself an example of the wide-ranging positive effects of music education. My life was forever changed by music education, and by the time I was fifteen or so, I knew I wanted to be one of you. To become one of us, to CREATE that positive change for others, as it had been created for and within me. I was able to touch and change lives only because my life had been touched and changed, and don’t take my word for it.
In 2013, a former student of mine brought me a book. It contained notes from students and parents, saying goodbye after I left that first teaching job over ten years ago. I never knew it existed. I never knew anybody said a thing about me after I left. Here are a few comments:
“Very rarely do students like their teachers as much as we like you.”
“They have gained confidence and performed beyond their years.”
“Your responsible for the re-birth of music in [our community]. May the enthusiasm you’ve created continue in your honor.”
“You did not just teach your subject; you infused your students with a desire to become better thinkers.”
“It’s been awesome have you here to try and counterattack the shallow mindedness of the vast majority of people in this school.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to sit down and be quiet again.”
“You gotta do somethin for me: When you down and all like depressed, you got a take a sec, breathe, and think of us and how much of a better person you have made us and all the memories we take with us to the future. Nothing makes me happier…”
This is no testament to me. This is what we do. This is what you do. If you haven’t heard it lately, let me be the one to say it to you today: Nothing makes them happier. You matter. You change lives. You are the center of some of your kids’ universe, and while that includes a COLOSSAL responsibility to serve those kids, make no mistake about it: You are opening the universe to children every single day, and there is NO better job. I know. I’ve done it.
I miss my band room all the time. I miss my kids, and I do mean “my” kids. While I fervently oppose objectifying children and treating them like possessions or numbered objects more than individual human beings – I also know the compassion, affection, and protection that I felt toward these kids. We develop unique, powerful psychoemotional relationships with children, as we provide the environment and the circumstances through which our student musicians can explore, understand, contextualize, and meaningfully impact their worlds and their lives.
We do not justify our existence in the context of the other disciplines. Rather, the varied academic disciplines are contextualized within the sum total of the human experience, and the arts, especially music, manifest that experience holistically. Knowing all of the math, English, social studies, and science in the world is, I dare to say, effectively useless if one does not know WHY those things matter. The so-called core disciplines teach some of the what, but the arts teach the WHY.
So true, so clear is the research, so strong the impact of music education, that it can penetrate a substance of such density and hardness that it rivals anything on the periodic table: The thick skulls of congresspeople. Just one month ago, on April 7, 2015, as part of the rewriting of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a bipartisan agreement was struck to include Music as a core subject in the new draft of our nation’s primary education law, thanks in no small part to music education associations just like CMEA.
I’ve taught general music, elementary music, middle school band, middle school chorus, high school band, musical theatre, music theory, music history, vocal jazz, keyboarding, and man, whatever your axe, whatever your gig, whatever your group, you are DOING it. You are the life blood of your school and for some of your kids, you are the reason they get up in the morning. For some of your kids, you are the reason they go on living. There are kids out there that are desperate for ONE person to turn to, and you might be that person and not even know it. You are the reason. You are the inspiration. You are music. You have LOVE in your life.
We can create microcosmic universes of safety and celebration, of meaning and art, of deep understanding, reaching the kids that others call intransigent or recalcitrant. I’m sure this has happened to a bunch of you. “Oh, you have John in your class, he’s SUCH a lazy bum,” and you go, “Uh, he’s my lead alto sax player and that kid is AMAZING. Do you know that he’s like two levels ahead of his classmates?” “Oh, you have Samantha, she is SUCH a prissy little stuck up snot,” and you go, “Uh, she’s one of the most sensitive artists I know. Do you know that she survived for two weeks in the mountains with her family to get out of her country of origin?” “Oh, you have Charles, and he is the most sullen, rude little boy,” and you go, “He laughs constantly in my class and I think he’s one of the most thoughtful kids I’ve met.” They, those colleagues, look at you like you’re crazy. “Are we even talking about the same kid?” No. Not really. He’s himself in my class. She’s herself in my group. These kids are isolated and repressed, stymied and silenced, in classes that don’t care about relevance, that don’t take the time to meet their individual needs.
I, as an idealistic long-haired loud-mouthed art-loving child-empowerment-obsessed Whoopi-Goldberg-fighting blog-posting book-writing screaming lunatic former-theater-kid-to-no-one’s-surprise fluffy freak of nature, have always wanted to throw the doors wide. I wanted any kid and every kid that wanted to make music, to come in and do so, no experience required. I wanted comprehensive literature, challenging preconceptions, and a classroom of absolute love and safety, an oasis from hyperconservatism, and the socioemotional and intellectual brutality I found in nearly every corner of that school. Play the electric bass? Join the band. Don’t play an instrument at all? Join the band. Haven’t played since sixth grade? Join the band. On the football team? Join the band. Don’t speak the language? Join the band.
Nobody will stop you here. Nobody will limit you here. Name-calling, ostracizing, cliques, barriers, these are expunged at the door. Here, we will not just say we refuse bigotry and hate and limitation, we will actively tackle them. We will talk, out loud, frankly, about stereotypes and self-harm, about attitudes and perceptions. We will listen to fluorescent light fixtures and debate if that ballast hum constitutes music. We will perform 4’33” and not shy away from passionate even shouting debates about it. In music rooms, we fail and fail and fail, and every time we practice more, we try something new, we try again. Business leaders in technology are desperate for people that know how to “Fruitfully Fail,” who want to “Disrupt” as they say so often in innovative startups. That’s what we do! We experiment and improvise, we create and collaborate, and we safely fail again and again in the pursuit of excellence and perfection that we learn to love as impossible to attain. We embrace nuance, we embrace difference, we embrace difference. Once you start seeing that differences are colors and not corrals, your world starts to change. Questions get asked that lead to more questions, and the status quo, the stolid static structures of state, start to look a lot like nonsense.
That’s what these community leaders and businesspeople are telling us they want. Outside the box. Innovation. Paradigm shifts. Understanding. International understanding. Context. Relevance. Connection. Oh, oh, I got it. You mean musicians.
Unintentionally, in my first job, I created just the right vacuum of anti-authoritarianism of which so many of those young people had been deprived, and they came in droves. The program burgeoned, more than doubling in size in a handful of months. I composed new music, arranged everything from science fiction film scores to Nintendo music, complete with projection big-screen gameplay to accompany the band. We resurrected the musical, created unique ensembles, and were well on the way to reestablishing the long-dead marching band right about the time the administration decided it had had enough.
I was threatening the structure of the school – and by extension the community, in their minds – by engendering critique in the hearts and minds of my kids: Question everything. What a recipe for becoming Public Enemy Number One. It might have ended badly, but it doesn’t mean I did the wrong thing. I kept my band room doors open, constantly inviting people into my teaching space to see learning, to experience music education, to be immersed in, participate in, become a part of our band, and the powerful experiences we know to be endemic to ensembles like ours speak volumes for themselves far better than any words I pen or preach. One of the keymost ways we help ourselves is to be transparent and open about what we do and how we do it, because the very phenomena policymakers are seeking – engagement, technology integration, multimodal and especially kinesthetic learning opportunities, authentic assessment practices, cross-curricular connections, all of these things are naturally-occurring in music education. Simply by opening the windows, we can show our natural leadership, and our thriving, vibrant student communities.
We can advocate for each other, and help answer the questions we’re asked, and ask significant questions in return. If administrators aren’t showing natural interest, I encourage you to question them. Politely, professionally, properly, but ask. What can I show you? What are we working on as a school? What can we do? How can we help?
As Noam Chomsky said, “if you’re willing to be puzzled, you can learn.” I would posit that the opposite is also true: If you are unwilling to ask questions, you cannot learn. If you are unwilling to be asked questions, to be questioned, you cannot teach. You certainly cannot lead teachers. I invite being challenged as an administrator. I’ve had a quote commonly attributed to Doris Kearns Goodwin on my office wall since 2008 or so: “Good leadership requires you to surround yourself with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree with you without fear of retaliation.” I believe all leaders must both question and must be questioned to lead.
I became an administrator in part because I believe this so fervently. One of my jobs involved teaching self-contained classroom music to what was in Stafford County, Virginia termed “ID2-ID3” students, which stands for what they called “intellectual disabilities” of the most significant levels. I LOVED those kids, and because of my passion for working with them, I did some professional development teaching adaptive music technology to my colleagues around the county. The educational technology director saw my work and said, “you really know how to reach teachers. You should think about going to grad school to be a professional developer,” and before you knew it, my questioning if there was a better way for myself led me to help others question if there were better ways for THEM, which led me to question if there were better ways to lead… I question everything. I question everyone. I question myself all the time. I learned that in music. Is there a better way? Is there another way? What’s the history that lead to this way? Why is it this way? Why not improvise, why not experiment, why not try something new?
And the more I do this, the more fellow administrators I work with, the more I remember my music teacher roots, ‘cause brother, I tell ya, there are a whooole lotta so-called leaders that just don’t get it. They’re neither teaching NOR leading. There are a whooole lotta people sitting in big tall chairs that don’t know SQUAT about education, let alone music education.
You see, I understand the exhaustion you feel sometimes. I’ve felt it myself. I know what it’s like to be under siege. I know what it’s like to be on the budget chopping block. To be chopped. To be surplused. I know what it’s like to sit in a room in which a grand total of ZERO PERCENT of what’s being discussed applies to your classroom. I know what it’s like to hear “science and math >SQUAWK< science and math >BU-KAW!<” parroted from every administrator from Putnam to Fairfield.
I am a crusader for every individual child, and my moral compass points directly away from adult interests and straight at kids and learning. I tried, but I’ve not always been successful in affecting positive change even in what I thought were situations with great potential. Many schools are just too inflexible to change wholesale, and while I’ve dedicated my work nowadays to trying to break the inflexible institutionalism that infects our schools, some days it’s darned hard to make any difference at all. You know where I did make a difference? Where you are.
We need you. Your kids need you. I need you.
As an educational revolutionary, my life’s work is no longer dedicated to administration, it’s to insurrection. I am helping to loudly lead the anti-standardized testing movement, because you cannot bubble sheet kids into success. You cannot measure understanding through multiple-choice tests and factual recall. You cannot evaluate creativity and innovation and critical thinking like colleges and businesses and the international community and parents say they want by drilling kids into the ground in the core-four through traditional pedagogy and passing them along through an age-based promotion system that involves thirty kids sitting in nice neat rows, facing the same way, moving from concrete box to concrete box at the sound of the bell with locked doors while an authority figure at the front of the room disciplines children and enforces repetitious tasks. That’s a fusion of the industrial factory and the prison, and historically, that is indeed what our scholastic institutions are based upon. (I write about this in the book, which I hope will come out in the next year, follow me on Twitter!)
But that all ceases at the doors to our rooms. When people come into our spaces, they leave those rigid rigor-factories, and they enter an environment that operates on a different set of physics. In the music education learning environment, children are at the center of the galaxy, not adults. Learning is our core DNA, not test-taking. Individualism and art are the essential elements of life, not control and obedience. Students are empowered to choose participation instead of commanded into it, and young artists are given voices, not silenced. Your room is the last, best hope for children. Your space is sacred ground. Your ensemble is a haven, a sanctuary. It is nothing less than the most important learning world in your school.
In our world, kids sit on the floor or sit in arcs or stand in pods or move expressively. In our world, children use all their modalities, visual and auditory and kinesthetic, and have huge autonomy within a motivating larger whole. In our world, we empower student leadership, encourage child individualism, promote new ways of expressing, foment risk-taking and self-challenge and innovation in creation. In our world, we raise our collective voices to accomplish great things. In our world, we foster discipline and passion, engender responsibility and freedom. In our world, we are not limited by traditional ideas of what is, but we are informed by a glorious past, the richest history of histories, that of the music of humanity back to the dawn of bone flutes. We are not content to go through the motions, but seek new literature, seek new performances, seek creation. We create, and we create creators who will in turn create themselves.
You are here at CMEA, expanding your horizons, ready to tackle something new with old and new friends alike, and you will leave here this weekend and return to your schools, and your children’s lives will be BETTER for it. That’s being a dedicated professional. That’s being a great teacher. You’re here.
In short, my friends, we are not a problem in public education, we are not ancillary or 2ndary, unimportant, we are the SOLUTION to public education, we are the CURE to standardized testing, we are the ANSWER to “why should I go to school” to “why does this matter.” Music education is the very soul of teaching and learning, and every single day you get up in the morning and go to work, you are doing the work of REAL TEACHING, you are SAVING the lives of children that have no where else to go, and you are changing your world and theirs for the better.
That is not lip service. That is the fact, pedagogically and historically, scientifically and artistically, and I am jealous as hell of you that you still get to do it, because you my friends, are heroes.
Music teachers are heroes, and I love you for it, as do your kids.
The article’s author, Michael Godsey (a regular education podcaster and internet article author) opens by portraying a typical dystopian (to educators at least) vision of quasiprogressive technology-facilitated mega-centers of digital content delivery, watched over by (or rather just watched by) an ever-less-relevant facilitator. “Are teachers going the way of local bookstores?” he asks, half-ironic, half-lamentingly.
The article is lengthy and thoughtful, and cites some decent examples and articles, but as is almost always the case, Godsey (a veteran English teacher) fails to drill down far enough into the true pedagogical and philosophical questions he’s tapping up against. This is, to me, one of the hallmarks of “education reform” and where otherwise strong voices (and I like Godsey’s as well as Ravitch’s and Cuban’s and Wormeli’s) sometimes fall down: They do not truly get to the heart of the issue we’re talking about, which is that the conservation of the school, of teaching, and of our cultural concept of children and learning is folly. We cannot, we must not preserve the attitudes, ideas, and understandings of our past as teachers. Children have changed. This is a neurobiological truism that has been true for a long time now, yet many teachers are utterly unaware that the brains of their learners are measurably, observably different than theirs.
Teaching is absolutely going to change. It has changed, and it will change, and it must always change, because children change. Highfalutin abstract notions of “real learning” and archaic lamentations of “real teaching” betray a fundamental misunderstanding of learning and teaching. I don’t suggest here that Godsey has his head in the clouds; he’s right that he’s seeing an explosion of robust, powerful digital learning tools and a constant plummeting of the costs involved (for teachers as well as for students, often totaling zero) in accessing these resources. I see absolutely nothing wrong with children opting to be autodidactic on their own terms, in their own time. But there is a huge difference between a child choosing to do something alone, and forcing a child to be alone. Autonomy is one thing; abandonment is quite another, and the circumstances Godsey describes in the warehouse-like “facilitation center” run by an unskilled, uneducated thrall are conditions of intellectual and psychoemotional abandonment.
The longing for a more comfortable time that weeps out of the interstices of Godsey’s article has good company online, which he even points out: “When I did some research to see if it was just me sensing this transformation taking place,” he writes, “I was overwhelmed by the number of articles all confirming what I had suspected: The relatively recent emergence of the Internet, and the ever-increasing ease of access to web, has unmistakably usurped the teacher from the former role as dictator of subject content.”
And there it is. There’s what Jed Bartlet called “the ten word answer.” There’s your key phrase that’s the nexus of difference between a reformer and a radical, between a position like Godsey’s that apparently yearns for return, and a position like mine, which burns for revolution. “Teacher as dictator” is a nightmare. It’s bad for kids. I know he doesn’t mean it as a political position, and I’m not misunderstanding him: The teacher was, in days of nineties yore, the same a teacher had been since 1635: An ad lib content expert authoritarian who governed a classroom and delivered said content.
But that was never teaching. It never has been teaching. I spend a lot of time in my writing and work talking about what teaching really is, and there is a huge difference between lecturing (“delivering content”) and teaching. In fact, I loathe the phrase “delivering content” because it is so often conflated with teaching. The phrase commoditizes learning as well as learners. This cuts right to the center of Godsey’s article, and his incorrect premise: facilitators can help deliver content, but none of that is teaching, and the technology systems that he describes are incapable of teaching.
Teaching is the bringing about of all necessary conditions for the individual learner to create relevant meaning for themselves and to construct the skills to apply that meaning, which is learning. One cannot “deliver” that as if it is a commodity. Inundating a learner with learning opportunities is not enough to qualify as “teaching,” in my universe. True teachers are more than content experts. True teachers are masters of the craft of pedagogy, able to flexibly adapt in real-time to the individual needs of the individual child, comprehensively inclusive of their psychoemotional conditions, their unique traits of person, their immediate and long-term sociological contexts, their learning styles and thinking modalities… True teachers meet all of the learning needs of their children, and to do so must absolutely be masters of content, but they must also be experts in children and learning. This is a massive field, and no matter how many pieces of paper cultural artifacts someone hangs on the wall or how many bits of comma-separated alphabet soup cling to the end of their names, no person can be a master of children. We try, but we must constantly learn and relearn ourselves, because children are rapidly changing, right in front of us.
That’s not new.
Yes, the rate of change is accelerated, and that’s highlighting this disparity, this too-slow inability for the social institution of “The School” to keep up, but I say, “Good.” Enough is enough. It’s high time we recognized that the school of 1852 wasn’t good enough in 1916, or in 1954, or in 1975, or in 1999, and it sure as heck isn’t good enough now. Teachers must disengage from the concepts of teaching and learning and school as they have been popularly promulgated for decades (indeed, centuries) in America.
At one point, Godsey quotes a teacher who said, “I don’t ever write my own lesson plans anymore. I just give credit to the person who did.” There was a time when lesson plans were sacrosanct, artifacts of a teacher’s guile and panache, mastery and expertise, thoughtfulness and wittiness and cleverness and genius… only there wasn’t, really. True teachers have no desire to throttle learning, to govern or limit or manage or regulate learning. True teachers want learning to explode vibrantly from the minds of each individual learner, not to be poured into them. Freire called this vessel-like objectification of children into empty boxes to be filled “banking pedagogy,” as if each vacuous little head is a vault into which the tight-fisted teacher carefully places an equal and identical little set of facts. That was never teaching and learning. We called it that sometimes, but that’s never what it was. That was lecturing. That was creating conditions within which children were autodidactic, and while autodidacticism is permissible, it cannot be forced upon the learner, lest we impose solitude, isolate, and abandon.
We know at my school, for example, that over forty percent of our learners like to use YouTube to learn how to do things outside of what is required at school. Four in ten kids wants to learn how to do something that we’re not teaching them, and turn to YouTube for help doing that. Is that child learning? Yes, quite possibly. It’s no guarantee, but it’s possible. Should that child be forced to learn that way exclusively? Of course not. Can that child learn absolutely everything s/he needs from experiencing “delivered content?” While the answer is “yes,” because some students are indeed marvelous autodidacts and vastly prefer that, the answer is an emphatic “no” for many other learners. We cannot overgeneralize kids into any one way of being, and we cannot oversimplify learning into the experiencing of delivered content. Consequently, we cannot oversimplify teaching into the delivery of expert content, and that is precisely what we’ve been doing in our schools for two hundred years.
Enough is enough.
Schools have to change, and they’ve needed to change. Radicals like me say that the institution of the school is incapable of true teaching in the way I describe, and consequently children cannot truly learn within that institution, because we as a culture and as a profession are obsessed with the institution itself. We perpetuate the fallacious idea that schools should be structured as they have been, with classes and classrooms, with desks and rows, with clocks and periods and hallways and Spring Breaks and quizzes and no hats allowed. We self-aggrandize an antiquated vision of The Schoolmaster while the students around us gain ever-increasing access to better ways of doing, knowing, and being, as we become increasingly irrelevant to their lives.
Who can blame them? We do it. We tune out when our leaders prattle on about crap we already know. We turn to our devices when our leaders spend forty-five minutes talking at us reading from a slide presentation that’s being used as a script. We comment, “this could have been done in an email.” We comment “I already knew this.” We comment “I don’t care about any of this.” Why are we surprised that our students not only do this, but they’re vastly better at it than we are?
Schools are concerned with rigor and compliance. They are mechanisms of coercion designed for adults. Consequently, they are irrelevant to the modern learner, who has access to the totality of the information and shared experiences of the human race online, and has no need of us to gain the wider world. Well, “rigor” is just the right word for the way things are going in schools, because they’re solid, rigid, uncompromising, unbending, and in many ways lifeless. However, the future “learning environment” that Godsey describes is another kind of dangerous for kids. It may step back from some of these traditional structures, but it still abandons children into the wild by failing to conceive them as individuals and provide for them individually. “Tailoring content” isn’t meeting the comprehensive needs of the individual child.
The Self-Organized Learning Environment that Sugata Mitra talked about in his 2013 TEDTalk advocates for teachers in a facilitative role, and can be considered taking the so-called “flipped classroom” idea to the extreme. (The “flipped classroom” shifts content consumption from in-school to out-of-school, and similarly swaps content analysis from out-of-school to in-school, thereby allowing the teacher to better observe and, ideally, understand and influence the analytical process.) Godsey went on after watching this TEDTalk to talk about Khan Academy and other massive repositories of information and resources, and then pondered, “For how many more years can I compete?”
Dude. C’mon. It is hubris beyond measure to think that any one person can “compete” with the sum total of human freaking knowledge and nearly-universal access to every other person on the planet. There is no “competing” with The Internet. That comment, though made in passing (as much as anything in an article published by The Atlantic can be made “in passing”), demonstrates the misunderstanding of the teacher role about which I’m complaining. We’re not arbiters of information. We’re not custodians of knowledge anymore. In fact, the Joshua Starr quote Godsey uses highlights this: “I ask teachers all the time, if you can Google it, why teach it?”
I am apt to say that it is not important, in 2015, for a child to be able to immediately recall the date of Pearl Harbor. The child should instead be able to access that date, and understand its relevance. There was a time in America when the passing on of facts and factual knowledge was much like an oral rote tradition among a native population, and there was a case to be made for having immediate factual recall, but at some point knowing something factual got confused with understanding something and being able to do something with that understanding. They are not, nor have they ever been, the same thing. I do not care about facts and names and dates and places. I care about being able to find those things when it matters.
And I’ll go a step further, and clarify: When it matters to me. I don’t consider that solipsistic; learners only ever learn what is relevant to them. They may recall things that are irrelevant, but how many things were you “taught” when you were a student that you just plain old don’t freaking know now, because it wasn’t relevant?
I, for one, am thrilled that I no longer have to recall the publication date of Stravinsky’s Firebird like I once had to in college. I can whip out my phone, and there it is. Godsey seems to think this is problematic, or at least paints is as an artifact of what he sees as the lamentable shift toward facilitation, exemplified by his reference to the “cliche” of moving from being a “sage on the stage” to being “a guide on the side.”
Priscilla Norton, a professor of mine at George Mason, used to refer to “the sage on the side.” Is it true that teachers need to “get out of the way of learning?” Yeah. It is, in some cases, if the teacher is being a regulator of learning and a manager of process, because those things aren’t part of learning. Those things are part of schooling, and I have no interest in schooling. True teachers – compassionate, powerful experts in pedagogy as well as content – cannot be replaced by any content delivery mechanism. Even adapting learning platforms lack the ability to comprehensively understand the individual child, as an individual human being, with the empathy, analytical power, observation, environmental and even tactile experience, critical thinking, and human relevance that is critical to teaching and learning. Facilitators are not teachers, and neither ever have been nor ever will be. Teachers may sometimes facilitate, this is true, as they may sometimes lecture or train, but these are not synonyms.
Teaching is a craft, and computer technology is a tool. To conflate the two, and fear the latter will replace the former, misunderstands not only psychology and pedagogy, but philosophy and history in education.
Godsey closes his article with a few wonderings, and I’m going to selfishly answer them, because this is my blog and that’s what I do here, LOL.
“Should I encourage this aspiring educator to fight for his or her role as the local expert, or simply get good at facilitating the best lessons available?” he asks. If he wants to fight to preserve the role as it has existed, then I say “neither.” The former is the status quo and the latter is a misunderstanding that one can pull a lesson off a shelf, plug it into a classroom, and cherry-BOOM-sauce! learning happens, like some chemical reaction. Children’s minds are not beakers to be catalyzed with reagents. Instead, I’d prefer Godsey tell the aspiring educator to remember that mastery of pedagogy, and all of its substudies – child psychology, the history of American public education, socioemotional learning, learning and thinking modalities, child development, emergent work in assessment, etc. – is almost more important than content mastery, and content mastery is more important than ever. The role of the True Teacher is not diminishing; it is expanding. We must be experts in children as well as content. We must study harder and know more than we’ve ever had to before, and we must constantly engage in new learning for ourselves in a way that’s never been seen, if we are to aspire to what I believe is True Teaching. I know a whole lot of people who work at schools who I don’t believe are really teachers at all. It’s scary as hell, but I didn’t make the world, I just live in it. I’m no master teacher, but I try like the dickens to get there.
Godsey asks, “Should I assure this person about my union and the notion of tenure, or should I urgently encourage him or her to create a back-up plan?” Listen, I of all people get that teachers are under fire. I’m the guy who went buck-wild on Whoopi Goldberg defending tenure as a valid method of ensuring due process rights, so I’ll defend my bona fides as a teacher advocate any day. But if the union in question believes that teachers haven’t and shouldn’t change, that union isn’t protecting its teachers. If the union in question thinks that lecturers and content facilitators that try to deliver learning like it’s a dish of cocktail wieners are doing right by kids, that union is way out of touch. As a former board of directors member of a union who resigned in protest despite massive local support because my leadership was out of touch, I’ll again defend my bona fides as a teacher advocate. Tenure is fine. Bad teachers are not. Let’s get those two separated before we get poor Whoopi all ticked off again.
Finally, Godsey closes by suggesting that he might be giving young new teachers “false hope” by suggesting that the teacher role we know it will be gone in 20 years, because he suspects it might be gone sooner.
Sorry, my friend, but I have to be the one to say it: It’s already gone. It’s been gone for a long while. The reason teachers are scared is because a lot of teachers aren’t really teaching, and haven’t been, and to wake up suddenly and realize that your kids aren’t who you thought they were, your school is completely irrelevant, and our entire profession is teetering on the brink of eradication at the hands of laypeople who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing because we have lost our way so badly and are in such deep need of revolution, is a nightmare. It is terrifying.
I’m sorry to be the one to say it. When I woke up, I experienced what I called “My Professional Heartbreak.” I cried. I absolutely, seriously sobbed, for about two days. My entire concept of my career path, where I was going, what I was doing, it all disintegrated. I worked my way “up” from teaching at a poor, rural secondary school as a new, young teacher to a senior (at least that’s what my title says) instructional administrator (at least that’s what my contract says) at an incredibly affluent and renowned school, in a position intended to help teachers enhance their teaching practices… and then realized there is no “up,” and that every school I’d ever taught at, independent of socioeconomic conditions, was basically “the same.” The structures, the institutions of the American public school, are basically “the same,” and that led to a comprehensive review of the history of American public education, tearing through the collected works of Lawrence Cremin… “The same.” That led to digging deeply into the social and psychological structures of teaching and learning, of parents and children, of adults and kids, of individuality versus group, of homogeneity versus uniqueness… The deeper I dug, the more I wanted the answers that terrified me. I became “a radical” in the way Vidal used the word, someone who seeks the root of the problem and wants viscerally, desperately to understand the truth.
My teacher truth is the epigraph of my manuscript. Ken Robinson said it in his legendary 2010 TEDTalk. He rightly said that our schools cannot be reformed, but must be transformed. They must be revolutionized. I believe that. I believe, truly, that our school institutions are preventative, not facilitative, and I do not believe that the future vision Godsey portends is any less prohibitive and restrictive for all its facilitative trappings, because it continues to misunderstand what teaching and learning is.
Teaching is not the delivery of content. Learning is not the consumption of content. These objectifications of meaningful, autogenic, constructed, and relevant processes that are totally unique to the individual continue to plague our national, state, local, and classroom attitudes… as well as well-meaning articles in The Atlantic.
I hope my writing, when it sees the light of day, will help explain what I think we should do instead.
I’m going to add something here that I sometimes forget to when I blog, because I confess I don’t want to get ahead of myself and my writing as I come into the home stretch: I know some wonderful teachers. I know gifted, incredible, fantastic teachers. I know that sometimes it sounds like I’m being terribly harsh and judgmental, and I do think I’m harsh on schools as institutions (rightly so, IMHO), but I believe so, so many of my favorite teacher colleagues would thrive in the conditions I want to bring about. I also think we can do some really remarkable things in classrooms, given these tools and opportunities, in the intervening time between the now of the hardly-changed-in-three-centuries nonsensical, contradictory, anti-child, self-defeating institutions in which we work, and the freedom-loving, learning-loving, child-loving learning environments for which I advocate in my work. I went into educational technology because I believe that I can do great things to connect to my individual students, as individual intellects, using tools that we didn’t have twenty or thirty years ago. I’m not trying to discourage you.
But we cannot allow ourselves to mope about and yearn for times gone by. Pick up the tools, embrace them, and use them… but don’t forget pedagogy. Don’t try to “do it for the sake of doing it.” Don’t use YouTube just so you can say, “I use YouTube with my kids!” Instead, ask yourself the deep questions of learning, skill mastery, assessment, and understanding the unique child that you should ask every day, and use the tools that fit best the needs of the individual child. That’s the key, for right now. That is my advice:
Don’t forget that every single individual child in your classroom is a thinking, feeling, creative unique individual human being with individual experiences and situations. That should be the center of absolutely everything we do, and no technology – not even adaptive and purportedly-individualized technology – can replace you when you do that.
Please, for the love of all that is educational, stop posting pictures that fall into the following meme: “Smiley picture of me and/or my kid! I’m from Anytown, USA and we’re learning about how far and how fast things can travel on teh inturwebz! Share this pic and like it and comment where you’re from! Thanks!”
Hey. Hey. Hey. You. Stop it. This is lousy educational technology and you are not teaching your kids anything that matters at all.
I recently discussed this with my friend Christine, who is brilliant and fabulous, and she summed it up as elegantly as I’ve ever heard it summarized: “Ed tech for the sake of ed tech = lousy ed tech.”
Yup. Exactly right.
“Share my pic to see how fast and far it goes” is the modern day equivalent of a potato battery: Get over it. We’re past it. It’s superficial, unnecessary, and irrelevant. You’re teaching your kids a nonsensical widely-known factoid in a contextless vacuum with at best a hope for data that you don’t need to generate and at worst (and I think, often likely) with a self-aggrandizing egocentrism that is distasteful if not downright unenlightening.
Now, there is the counterargument “you [KDR] believe in individual authenticity, and when it’s my kid’s picture and my kid’s data, it’s more relevant and authentic than some other person’s data.” That’s a fair counterargument, but it’s still answering a question that’s incredibly superficial. I’d much rather students develop some authentic surveys to administer internationally, maybe to gather information on perceptions or cultural norms, to assemble some never-before-conceived data. Children are capable of doing that, and it’s a far better use of their time, which EMBEDS the core understanding – how far and fast we can reach – in the project.
If you want your kids to know how far they can reach, create an opportunity for them to reach out meaningfully to other humans for a genuine purpose. “Repost my pic” is useless; your kids aren’t doing anything. You are. That’s not empowering or enlightening kids, and you’re squandering an opportunity to empower your kids to reach out themselves with the compassionate, protective guidance of a loving adult teacher.
Create a three-question survey in Google Forms about something that matters to them and let them ask those questions to the international community. Create a hashtag on social media that asks a meaningful question relevant to the cross-curricular content your kids are studying at the moment, that informs the discourse. (I’m starting one: #StopTheShareLesson.) Create a race to connect with a picture that says “meet us in X Google Hangout at Y time from wherever your classroom is so we can chat in realtime for 15 minutes about how far away you are.” There are SO MANY brilliant ways to accomplish the objectives you THINK you’re accomplishing, but aren’t. You’re not teaching your kids anything by throwing your blithe smiling face around the internet. You’re wasting opportunities for authenticity.
There is no point in making the point “photos go far and fast on social media” because it’s an established obvious thing that kids know far better than adults. They may not have the equivalent ethical, experiential, social, or safety frameworks to DO anything with that knowledge, and THAT would be a worthwhile set of connections to pursue in the classroom, but I generally find it to be more an exercise in “look at how connected my kids are, fellow digital immigrants” than it is authenticity and experience for kids.
I’ve seen infinite variations on this. The most recent variation I saw was, “This picture is private. Show my kids how private private really is!” And somebody will copy-paste it, download it, screencapture it, or otherwise reshare it, and you’ll get to say “oooooh, look, it’s not private at all.” What have you accomplished here, in a vacuum? Why not have a conversation about Julian Assange and Wikileaks?
The most frequent rejoinder I hear is, “I teach elementary school.”
This betrays the fundamental misconception that I think leads to this entire debacle in the first place: You underestimate the skills-based sophistication of your children because you conflate their moral-psychological (vis-a-vis Kohlberg) development with their technological development, and you ought to differentiate between the two. Children are capable of understanding complexity at a level for which we rarely give them credit at surprisingly young ages, but only if relatively contextualized, meaningful, and authentic. Nevertheless, pedagogically, I would FAR rather you take the time to design something authentic with your collaborative educational technologist than waste YET ANOTHER ounce of the time of your friends, family, and colleagues doing the same tired potato battery picture repost that a million other teachers have done to have the same yawn-fest result:
Hey! Guess what? Things travel far and fast on teh inturwebz! ZOMG!
Get over it. It’s pedagogical charlatanry. It’s hackery. It’s a waste of your time, and far more sinfully, it’s a waste of your students’ time. I’m not saying internet safety and information management isn’t important. I’m saying “repost my pic” threads on your Facebook page is a stupid and ineffective way to accomplish it.
Develop a meaningful lesson and let this meme die, please.
If you don’t know what else to do, talk to your educational technologist. If you don’t have an educational technologist, click “Resources” above and contact me. I’ll help you. Please… internet… we’re begging you: Enough with the “share this picture for my kids” meme.
South Carolina legislator Jonathon Hill is a bit of a twit. He asked thirty questions of judicial candidates in a questionnaire that reads like it was written by a nitwit, betraying deep lacking understanding of legislative process, judicial process, legal precedent, Constitutional law, American government, the English language, and a good number of other things.
I thought it might be interesting to answer said questions. I did so in order, as they came, not having read the document in advance. While now, looking over the answers, I think some of my responses were less than stellar, I answered them as if I were in an interview: answer as you come to them, and don’t go back to edit.
What I got out of it? This questionnaire is N.B.D. It’s all benign and banal. Jonathon is looking for “are you one of my people or not” answers, and no thinking judge in his right mind is going to say “yeah, I’m with X party!” because that’s not the role of the judge. Silly.
BUT… I filled out the stupid thing, so here it is.
Keith David Reeves
2. What religious or community organizations are you actively involved in, if any?
While I am a public employee and associated with many professional organizations, in the context of your question, the answer is ‘none.’
3. As an attorney, what has been your greatest achievement?
I am not an attorney.
4. What Federal or State Justice do you most closely identify with or respect? Please explain why.
Justice Kennedy, who has a track record of independently evaluating cases based exclusively on their merits, independent of sociopolitical agendas.
5. Do you agree or disagree with the Judge Manning’s ruling in Harrell v. Wilson, that only the House Ethics Committee has the authority to investigate the Speaker of the House.
No. An investigation differs from a trial, and the Attorney General did not overstep his bounds in initiating an investigation into Speaker Harrell’s actions. It is up to a court of law to determine sufficient grounds and/or certiorari.
6. Do you agree or disagree with the majority decision in Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina? Please explain why.
I agree. However, I judge the thrust of your question to be whether or not the Abbeville students were receiving a substandard education, which I believe they were. However, limited government jurisprudence required Justice Cooper to rule as he did, in the context of the legislation. The issue in Abbeville can be traced to failures of the school system as required under legislation. The failure is not one of the judiciary, but of the legislative. The issue of public education funding is far more complicated than can be ascertained based on this question. As a public school education policy wonk, I feel qualified to state categorically that this question is oversimplified in nature to ascertain any meaningful information. Entire dissertations have been written on this subject, all of which are worth your study.
7. Do you agree or disagree with the majority decision in Anderson v. South Carolina Election Commission which disqualified hundreds of challengers in the Republican and Democrat primaries?
I agree. You neglected to mention Florence County Democratic Party v. Florence County Republican Party which held the same. No political party has a right to summarily circumvent the will of the voters, no matter how likely it is the same candidates would have achieved the nomination. Freedom is not about what is cost-effective, and sometimes liberty costs more than slavery. It is inappropriate to assume that a political party represents the will of the people. The will of the people is the will of the people, and in America, we are supposed to express that will through as direct a democracy as is permissible under Constitutional law.
8. Should the Constitution be interpreted according to the original intent, or is it an evolving document with flexibility for the issues of today? Please explain.
It is an evolving document.
Explanation: The world is not the same as it was in 1789. We saw fit to declare that black Americans were not, in fact, three-fifths of a person, but are, in fact, people. This is an exemplar for the evolutionary perspective.
9. Do you believe in the “Supreme Being” (SC Constitution, Article VI, Section 2)? What is the nature of this being? What is your personal relationship to this being? What relevance does this being have on the position of judge? Please be specific.
No. Specifically, my interpretation of the metaphysical universe is unrelated to S.C. Constitution, Article VI, Section 2 (1788), and the United States Constitution, Amendment I (1791) in conjunction with the United States Constitution, Article VI, Clause 2 (1789) does not require my allegiance to the S.C. Constitution.
The being described has absolutely no relevance to the position of judge, as established in many Federal documents, not the least of which includes the Treaty of Tripoli (1789), signed by President John Adams and unanimously signed by Congress, establishing our nation as a nation that is not predicated upon the being inferred in the S.C. Constitution.
10. Will you make prayer and religious displays (such as the Ten Commandments) a part of your court? Please explain why or why not.
No. Such actions are prohibited by the United States Constitution, Amendment I (1791) in conjunction with the United States Constitution, Article VI, Clause 2 (1789).
11. Is there ever at time you would make a decision influenced by foreign legal systems and/or international law? Please explain why.
Yes. Thinking people consider all ramifications, and “influenced by” is so overly broad as to require me to answer in the affirmative, without specific jurisprudence to which to point.
12. What role will precedents play in your decisions? What if you disagree with the precedent?
Precedents will be the primary basis of my decisions, as that is the nature of jurisprudence. If I disagree with said precedent, I would have to be able to cite extraordinarily compelling alternative jurisprudence, emergent case law, or emergent prevailing and counteracting studies of a compelling, rational, scientific or logical nature to undo said precedent.
13. If a state and federal law conflict, under what circumstances would you rule in favor of upholding the state law?
See answer to Question 12.
14. Please name an example of a Federal violation of the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and state how you would respond as a state-level judge.
The “Real ID Act” of 2005 strikes me as a potential violation of the 10th Amendment. I would, as a state-level judge, not require the enforcement of the Real ID Act under South Carolina law. While the identifications issued by South Carolina that do not comply with federal requirements may not be recognized for federal purposes should this occur, it is within the jurisdiction of the individual states to determine for themselves what standards constitute appropriate security measures for the purposes of state government issued identification cards.
15. What role do you wish to play in effecting policy change?
I endeavor to set all men free from all possible forms of coercion, no matter how inconvenient or undesirable for any institution.
16. What factors would motivate you to assign the maximum penalty for a crime, given a guilty verdict? What about the minimum penalty?
All penalties should be minimum as required under law, except in cases in which compelling arguments can be made to increase said penalty for purposes of rehabilitation or the general welfare of the public. The government has a responsibility to infringe as little as possible upon personal liberty. If the legislature believes harsher penalties are appropriate, the democratic process avails the people of that right through said legislature.
17. What is jury nullification, and what is your perspective on it?
Jury nullification is a condition in which an empaneled jury of an accused person’s peers believe the trial is founded upon a flawed principle, thereby eliminating the guaranteed due process. It is an appropriate and expected consequence of American jurisprudence.
18. Are there cases you would feel a need to recuse yourself from? If so, what cases would those be?
Yes. All cases in which I have a personal, vested interest or an established compelling bias would require me to recuse myself.
19. Would you ever assign the death penalty in a particular case? Under what circumstances?
20. In a case where someone was assaulted because he was gay, would you consider it a “hate crime” and increase the penalty?
South Carolina has no “hate crime” laws. Your question seems to demonstrate either a misunderstanding of South Carolina law or a desire to elicit my personal opinion on the subject.
21. Do you believe unborn children have rights? If so, how would those factor in to your decisions as a judge?
No. However, your question is overly broad, as rights are legal statuses granted to citizens, and unborn persons are not yet legal persons, and therefore have no rights. The question is more complicated than your question allows, and you cannot glean my position on this response. Please rephrase the question or be more specific.
22. How would you handle a murder case in which the victim had actually requested help committing suicide?
See answer to Question 12.
23. Do you agree or disagree with the argument that homosexual marriage is a “right” protected under the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, which would render S.C.’s 2006 marriage amendment unconstitutional. Please explain why.
I agree. South Carolina’s marriage amendment is unconstitutional. American citizens are granted equal treatment under law, and the totality of case study and precedent shows that gender bias is prohibited under law for purposes of many civic factors, most especially treatment under law. There is little ambiguity in this area.
24. Would you perform a homosexual marriage, either voluntarily or involuntarily?
25. Does the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution apply only to the militia and military, or to the people at large?
It applies to the people at large.
26. Given a case where a local gun restriction ordinance was being challenged, would you uphold the ordinance or strike it down? What factors would play into that decision?
I cannot answer this question based on the lack of specificity and evidence. See answer to Question 12.
27. If a woman sued her employer because she was paid a lower rate than her male coworkers, would you rule in her favor or not? Please explain why.
I cannot answer this question based on the lack of specificity and evidence. See answer to Question 12.
28. Do you see any conflict of interest allowing legislators who are practicing attorneys to vote in your race?
Yes. That said, there is no precedent for denying them the right to vote in said election.
29. Would you like to see the current judicial selection process changed? If so, how?
Yes. I believe all judges at all levels should be approved by state legislatures.
30. South Carolina is currently a right-to-work state. Is this a position you will support or work to undermine in your rulings?
My rulings will be based exclusively on the case at hand, and in no way influenced by my personal opinions.
N.B.: I did edit this response, such as for typographical errors. I worked all day, and flubbed the keys a bit in places.
This morning, WAMU special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza interviewed Carrie Irvin of Charter School Partners, who trains board members for charter schools. WAMU aired two segments, one for Morning Edition and one for Metro Connection. The priorities both Kavitha and Carrie listed for charter boards included “financial, legal, and marketing,” “P.R. [public relations] and communications,” and mentioned “education skills” as a passing aside.
My fury was kindled instantly, unsurprising to those of you who know me.
Carrie spoke about how often “friends and family board(s)” create schools founded around a “compelling and inspirational mission.” Friends and families… also known as non-educator laypeople. I can imagine these missions, advancing idiosyncratic causes made for social-engineering purposes or focused through biased lenses about what matters in society, what businesses need, or what communities want their streets to look like.
That’s not teaching and learning in my universe. That’s coercion. That’s the usurpation of the individual child to advance an adult cause, and I have no patience for such an enterprise.
Private boards cannot bring about the “clear thinking” that Carrie speaks about to “look out for the best interests of the students” if their thinking is predominated by the very items listed in the interview: financial, legal, marketing, public relations priorities… That’s not teaching. That’s not learning.
I am a Radical, in the sense that Vidal used the term. (I came to realize in 2014, in part through correspondence with masters of modern pedagogical reform like Giroux and McLaren that I’m neither a radical pedagogue in Friere’s tradition nor even a critical pedagogue in Giroux’s, though I think our aims for children would often be compatible. Ultimately, however, social engineering endeavors have no place in my definition of teaching and learning. I’ll save boring you with all that for the magnum opus.) I believe to solve problems, we must not be afraid of complexity and must go to the root of those problems. Superficiality and oversimplification are the bane of analysis, and I have been analyzing and prying apart and studying schools for a while now. I am convinced that to understand schools, one must both conceive the individual child and meaningfully comprehend real learning.
As I’m writing extensively, learning is an individualized process. It is autogenic (originating within the learner as opposed to originating within the teacher or the source material), and is entirely unique to the individual learner. Learning must be relevant, meaningful, applicable, and actively-engaged to be “learning.” I believe retaining and factually-recalling inert knowledge is not learning. The mission of teaching – learning! – is complex and difficult to achieve, because it varies from child to child, from situation to situation, from topic to topic, and even from day to day. Teaching must lead to learning, or it is not teaching, at least not in my universe.
It is so, so rare these days that I see what I consider to be “true” teaching and learning.
This brings me to the rebuttal to my lament, and one I’m finally answering today: “Why don’t you make your own school, then?”
I love the idealism of “found your own school and do your own thing,” but it’s all corporate. Private schools? Corporate. Charter schools? Corporate. Parochial schools, for crying out loud, are vassal institutions of a larger sociopolitical entity which while religious in nature is, ultimately, corporate.
A corporation is a distinct organizational entity that is treated, under law, as a person. Non-public schools are distinct private organizational entities and are invariably influenced by a select group of non-educators, be it a board of directors or a board of deacons. One of the reasons I began my writing, speaking, and working outside of the mainstream was because I even believe at this juncture, thanks to the Standardized Testing Industrial Complex and the nature of local-level democratic sociopolitics, that public schools have been corporatized. I wish I could believe that I, with like-minded radicals, could strike out and found a school detached from both the State and the Corporation, but I just don’t believe it possible because the root problems that corrupt teaching and learning would be unsolved in such an enterprise. If one does not stem the poisonous source, seeking a clean corner of a lake does not prevent pollution from eventually destroying the swimmers there. Don’t be pedantic about the definition of “corporation,” though, because I use the phrase “corporatocracy” more broadly to refer to the infusion of capitalism into enterprises that ought to be without it. There should never, ever, ever, ever, ever be any concern whatsoever with money or profit when it comes to loving, nurturing, and teaching children. Ever.
Non-public schooling is ultimately, from the executive perspective, deeply entwined in marketing and competition and money. I recognize that “money” is always going to be involved in education in America because America is a capitalist plutocracy – much to my chagrin, because I believe American corporatocracy to be responsible for dehumanizing, isolating, marginalizing, and destroying human beings – but we cannot solve the problems of pedagogy, and ensure that every person working with children conceives individual children and is exclusively invested in ensuring relevant, meaningful skill mastery for each unique learner, if we introduce utterly-unrelated priorities like “marketing and public relations” or “competition and recruitment.” That has nothing to do with kids and learning. It is the corporate-like systemization, yet again, of teaching and learning, and it cannot be allowed.
People say, “you complain about school so much, form your own.” You can’t. You can’t. We’re talking about the context of American capitalism, folks. It’s banks. It’s Wall Street. It’s The Two Party System. It’s Boeing. It’s Microsoft. It’s Pearson. It’s The Koch Brothers. As Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing in The Newsroom said, “they drop Brinks trucks on people they disagree with.” If I was completely independently wealthy and had ten billion dollars, then certainly I could found a school that would, in my personal and professional opinion, fulfill the mission of truly teaching every individual child, at least as long as I could pay for it. But the minute I start to look for sustainability from outside, it’s going to involve some kind of corporatizing and that instant, that very instant that happens, it’s dead. Even if I’m still the one paying for it, the minute I let the compelling long-term private interest sit at the table, the project is dead, because they’ll want to talk about sustainability which has to do with capital-raising, which in our society means corporate. Even non-profits are often and increasingly corporate, as is evidenced time and time again by the discovery that minuscule percentages of donations and raised funds actually go to the fulfillment of the mission of a non-profit. So either one person who is 100% altruistic has to entirely fund such a project – and I’d do it in an instant if I could! – or it’s never going to be uncorrupted by corporate influence.
Even if I came into all of that money, because I’m not “one of them,” because I’m neither the bootstrapping middle class workaholic storybook American Daydream love story, nor the entitled-to-it insider of the plutocratic sociopolitical elite, they’d destroy me. Who I am? What I believe? Artist? Radical? Out? Vocally opposed to the results of the mechanism of local representative democracy? Vocally opposed to the oppression of the poor, the disenfranchised? Vocally opposed to the coercion of others and the principle of profit and objectification and the imposition of property-status on human beings? What I say, what I do? I’m a buffet of material for them. They’d ruin me, because I wouldn’t… play… their… game.
Going it by yourself as one tiny island amid the sea of machinery that still destroys children is not a solution to the machinery destroying children. You have to stop the machine. Sabot, as Valeris in Star Trek VI illustrated. It’s like a sci-fi film with a massive alien invasion. You grabbing your kids and a couple nearby people and racing off to an island somewhere, holing up, laying low, and hoping that the aliens don’t find you is no way to save humanity. I recognize there is a whole group of rational, compassionate people who say, “that’s a solution! You can’t stop the apocalypse, the aliens are more powerful,” and will go live alone, hope for the best, and try to wait it out and make it better in the future. They concede.
I can’t do that to kids. I can’t walk away. Public school is where the kids are, and the only place to teach children where corporatocracy hasn’t entirely wiped us out yet, we pedagogues of my ilk.
And yes, I really struggle some days with being a part of a system of which I fundamentally, deeply disapprove. You have no idea.
But I’m the dude in that film that needs to save as many kids as he can. How can you not? They’re little kids. Eighteen years old or eight years old, their kids, man. I’m going to leave them to be decimated, to be corrupted and turned into alien slaves by their hegemonic overlords? No way! They’re little kids, man. How can I abandon them? It’s war, it’s going to destroy them, and I have to stop it.
It’s worse yet, though, because they’re not alien invaders: They’ve been here the whole time. They’re us, the corporatocrats, the plutocrats. They’re people. At least I think they used to be.
Yes, you can find a way to get your kids and your friends’ and neighbors’ kids the kind of education you think they should have, but laypeople creating organizational structures that have a schooling mission of a type of character, a way of being, a type of education, a type of learning, that’s not teaching, that’s not learning: That’s indoctrination.
Those are indoctrinationcamps. Corporate-influenced “schools” aren’t schools.
Public education is a trust. The American public school is a trust. It seems like practically every other (mostly socialized!) first world nation has figured that much out. Pluralism is not served by American democracy in the 21st century. It would be better served by a system that did not work like our democracy works, a system that isn’t a system at all, really, and instead conceives of and celebrates individualism and equality, that seeks to empower instead of disenfranchise, that does not, at its core value the defeat of one in favor of another.
Idealistic? Sure. But what’s wrong with that?
The one degree of pragmatism I do have in this is knowing that capitalism and the middle-class machinery of corporatocracy that exists in 2015 is so powerful that if you sufficiently, overtly buck it, it may try to kill you. I know. It’s happened. I’ve been attacked by it, hurt by it, wiped out by it. It’s not so simple as “just go it alone.” The system has to be stopped. I’ve lived it. I’ve seen it. I’ve been complicit in it because of my ignorance. Now, I’m awake, and I’m trying really hard not to do that anymore.
I wish I believed that founding a unique school that practices the pedagogy in which I believe and serves the children to whom I’ve dedicated my life was a solution. I don’t. It’s a patch, and it’s all well enough for those who want to to do so during these dark days of inhumane schools. My work is different. My work is to try and shine a bright light upon the failure of public school, and why I believe free public schools, as insulated as possible from the barest hint of influence from the private sector, is a human, ethical, moral, civic responsibility.
I have fears and doubts. I struggle with big questions. But I do not at all believe that private or charter schools are even remotely the answer to the root problems of education in America. We have an inclination, as people, to preserve that which is extant, and to fear the replacement of the extant with the emergent.
I don’t. I celebrate the unseen, the unknown, and the not-yet-made.
As David Kaplan said in Particle Fever, “In exploration, there needs to be a set of people who have no rules, and they are going into the frontier and come back with the strange animals and the interesting rocks and the amazing pictures to show us what’s out there. Discover something.”
I’m a Radical. I’m not here to patch things up. I’m here to build something new in the place of the failed old. I want to forge out into the wilderness and collide elementary elements of education into each other and split them into a billion fragments and look at what’s inside, and discover what teaching and learning really is, really means, really can be, and then help ensure every single child is loved, uniquely and authentically conceived, and really learns.
I can’t do that sitting on an island waiting for the aliens to finish ravaging my world. I have to be in the fight to win the fight, as agonizing as it is when the battle rages fiercest.
For #throwbackthursday I’m sporting a shirt I custom-ordered to represent a school I loved and a building I cherish in memory.
Andrew Burr Blodgett was the Superintendent of the Syracuse (New York) City Schools from 1899-1910, and when Syracuse constructed what was at the time of completion in 1918 one of the most innovative and progressive school designs in the country, Blodgett’s name was emblazoned across the doors.
Located in the Near West Side neighborhood, I attended Blodgett in 1985 as part of differentiated instruction when I was in first grade. I recall its grandiose halls, towering doorways, massive columns, and endless ornate wood and stone with fervent fondness.
It was at Blodgett where I learned Lego Logo, programmed turtles, played chess for the first time, was read stories in dramatic readings, painted, colored, danced, built airplanes, and engaged in immersive play and deep, relevant, meaningful learning. Vocational stood for progressivity and application in education for the half-century it served as a high school in Syracuse.
Today, however, I sport “The Maroon and Maize” as the local papers of the 1920s and 1930s called the colors of Vocational.
The last high school graduates from Vocational left the halls of the school sometime in the late 1960s from what I can find. (I think the Class of ’65 was the last official high school class.) Those that attended – often hailing from meager means and coming to learn a trade, back during an era when education was largely divided into “academics” and “vocations” – remember the school as a hallowed place of true community. History remembers Blodgett not so much for its originally-progressive educational mission, or the progressive man who gave his name to the school’s halls, but for the fact that the shot clock, a modern staple of basketball, was first used at Blodgett in 1954.
A bit of a delay in posting this… the hotel was without power, internet, or water this morning. An interesting morning, but as Chairperson Becky Fisher was just heard to say, “we technologists are used to having a Plan B!”