Friday, March 27, 2009

Author Bill Lyne Responds To Teachers on "Beautiful Losers"

Bill Lyne, author of the controversial (naturally) article "Beautiful Losers" in our 2008 issue on "Schooling as if Democracy Matters," met with teachers, both university and secondary, and students at Bellingham High School on February 17th, 2009, to talk about the article.

The article is one of the most thought-and-argument-provoking, that we've ever published. I disagree with some of it, and I help to edit the journal. Yet I can't help but see the wisdom of his argument. Lyne's urge to "give up hope to give up despair" created quite a stir with this group of teachers and potential teachers here at BHS. Read on to see what they said.

Bill Lyne, Bellingham High School, 2/17/09

BL: I’d like to start by saying, with some sense of humility, that I hope to learn as much from you all as you might learn from me or more. I don’t know much about teaching high school. I did it for a year and I was fired. (laughter)

This article was written in response to an article by a man named Henry Giroux, in the same issue of the JEC, and it also was in response to the topic “Schooling as if Democracy Matters.” Part of my article began with this question: is there is actually democracy to be had? The other part of the article was in response to Giroux’s notion that now is the time for us to take back our schools from what he saw as mind-numbing corporate influences. I tried to pose this question: we understand that we want to take this back to something democratic, but what are we taking it from? From Dick Cheney? What is it that he imagines us taking it to?

He poses some sort of utopian path where democratic schools are the place where liberation takes place. It seems to me that American history calls that into question. I wanted to at least complicate the idea that schools have ever been that kind of place.

In the line of work that I’m in a lot of people peg me as a professional pessimist. I go around saying “everything is bad bad bad and if you think it’s good this is really bad." So often I get this question: “What do we do?”

It seems to me there are two ways to answer that. One verges toward this kind of romantic utopian thing, you know: “we must feed the children, we must live our lives honorably.” The other answer is “really, I don’t know.” And that is the more honest answer. If you look at the history of the United States, especially under a capitalist arrangement, and if you choose to work in a place like this, or the place where I work, or any public school in this country, you must recognize that these are institutions of the state. Especially in the earlier grades, the job of institutions of the state is more about indoctrination than opening minds. It’s about teaching kids the Pledge of Alliance, Columbus discovered America, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, and we used to have a race problem but we don’t anymore.

You deliver some sort of usable and marketable skills, reading and writing and arithmetic, but generally speaking, what institutions of the state, a state that is designed to create a class society, are going to do is continue to reinforce the inequalities of a class society.

Working at any public school, we have to recognize that the possibilities of genuinely or fundamentally changing the society through teaching are really pretty low.

What we’re doing is bound by those restrictions and we probably get into more trouble when we deny that than admit it. Paraphrasing James Baldwin, “We can’t possibly solve all the problems that we face, but we aren’t going to solve any of them if we don’t face them.

Now, the frustration that comes with being unable to have those answers shouldn’t be turned into, “well, those answers aren’t really there.” The first shot is to articulate. That was the problem with Henry Giroux’s article: he was imagining a history of past schools that just didn’t exist.

He gave a lot of exhortation to take back our schools, but had very little practical advice about how to do that, and very little recognition of the kinds of punishments and restrictions that would actually greet anyone who might try that.

Q: There’s a lot of research hush-hush that says that the NCLB and Title 1 and basically what we’re doing isn’t really changing the gap, but is more like obscuring the world and keeping people in misery. I’d like to think that what I do here is good for the world. And now, with this article, I’m feeling rather dejected, and that’s what’s bothering me the most.

BL: Yeah, I get that a lot.

Q: Because I do believe I’m doing good. I do believe I’m making a difference.

BL: And certainly I think that’s probably true. I think that by and large, most people who choose to take jobs where you don’t get paid very much and teach people in public schools are doing really good.

I think that absolutely everybody here in any kind of school is doing good work. The point is to recognize where that work is. We might inspire individual students. We might create opportunities for individual students. But the work that we do is not going to fundamentally rearrange the gap that you’re talking about, not in terms of the gap in access to rewards in society that are created along race lines and class lines.

Which is not to put down the goodness of the work we all do, but also not to over-imagine or over-dramatize about it.

Q: That’s discouraging, but I don’t disagree with the truth of it.

BL: You know, I like to think of myself as an upbeat and cheery guy, yet everywhere I go, people say, “wow, you’re a drag.” (laughter) I think that part of what’s been beat into us is that if we can’t, as teachers, imagine that we’re changing the world, we should feel like failures. Admitting to ourselves that “look, this is a job, it’s got certain rewards and does things for me personally and I feel like I’m helping some people,” but in terms of revolutionizing the world no, I’m not doing that,” well, that can be a liberating realization. We don’t need to feel guilty about telling that truth.

If a truly revolutionary method of teaching becomes too successful it often gets crushed. When the Black Panthers were slaughtered by the state in the 1960s, it was in response not to their guns but their schools. They were incredibly successful with a lot of their programs, many of which were later adopted by the state of California, but in terms of educating the children of black inner-city America, and educating them outside of the curriculum sanctioned by the state—well that became incredibly threatening to the state, and they had a storm of fire raining down on them.

Historically, we see the problem in changing education as an “inside-outside” thing. The metaphor for that is the voting for Ralph Nader. “I’m going to vote for Ralph Nader.” You know, it just made me the nut that my friends suspected I was.

And yet, if you can’t break the status quo and put someone like Nader in office, you must start asking what the point is of voting at all.

Well, the big difference there was that we got George Bush.

This dynamic of inside and outside is one that people in our position struggle with all the time. When I taught high school—for a year in South Central LA, the students 98% black and 2 % Hispanic, with exactly one white kid—I showed up there a freshly scrubbed white boy from the suburbs there to tell them about the history of oppression.

Well, my students knew more about that stuff from the time they were four years old than I ever could. They were actually very patient with me, you know, they said: “That’s very interesting, but right now we have to get paid. You need to teach us how to read or how to do this other job skill. It’s a white man’s world, and you have to show us how to behave in a white world so that we can survive.”

That seems to be a genuine demand to be making. “I need you to deliver to me the kind of skills that were delivered to you as a matter of your birthright that will allow me to make progress within society as it’s arranged. I do not need you to be here talking to me all day about how badly society is arranged. I’ve lived that.”

Speaking again on that whole inside-outside thing, there was one brief exciting moment where I was chair of my department at my university. For years I walked around my department saying, “When I’m chair, I’m going to do this or do that,” and within days I found myself being compromised.

That’s the world of being chair. There was a very carefully circumscribed area. And if you stepped outside of that, your ability to be effective for your department became diminished. If I started screaming about what was wrong, that just made the dean and the the other chairs stop paying attention to me and my department suffered. So I had to be there making deals within the rules.

More to come from Bill's presentation.

For a Progressive President, a Very Nonprogressive Educational Policy

(Cross-posted on the Social Issues blog)

The progressive language implicit in many of President Obama's programs was no where to be found in the educational policy that he unveiled recently in his speech on education. Rather than an imaginative vision on what we need for public schools in a complex 21st century democracy, President Obama fell back on the language of neoconservatives for things like rewarding teachers and more school choice at least through more charter schools. Essentially, his proposal for new mechanisms for making changes in the educational system lacked any discussion on what these changes were meant to accomplish. For example, a recommendation for more charter schools is a rather neutral suggestion. The real question is: for what purpose and to what end? That requires a much deeper conversation about the public purposes of education for a democracy that is constantly reinventing itself. For some, it is an opportunity to introduce new ideas and innovative approaches. For others, it provides an avenue for choices within our public school system that can meet the diverse needs, aspirations and talents of our children. For still others, charter schools have been seen as a path to privatization and the dismantling of the public schools and teacher unions.

But more importantly, lurking behind President Obama's educational policy are the silent assumptions that have controlled the national debate for decades. A genuine national discussion on educational reform requires that we start to discuss that which has been undiscussable, namely, that the language of the market place has become the language of education. Students are talked about as the human capital that keeps the national economy competitive. But, as educational critic, John Goodlad, has constantly pointed out from surveys taken to determine parents' desires for their children, parents' visions are not limited to seeing their children as human capital or workers for a competitive market force. They consistently say that they want their children treated as whole human beings, nurtured in their growth, inspired in their dreams, and empowered in their civic voice. Of course, the usual retort here is that such goals are not inconsistent with the goal of producing a working force for the labor market. That is true. And so is the response by parents whose children have been marginalized in the schools. They very rightly are demanding that their children succeed in a competitive labor market at the same level that the children of the more privileged have succeeded. Both of these responses are legitimate. But the force of the arguments is to silence the national conversation that we should be having. In a public school system that serves both democracy and capitalism, the language of the market place prevails and all other discourses are on the edge. It is that conversation that the public needs to have. Nations are guided by the stories they tell about themselves. What story are we telling ourselves about the public purposes of our schools?

Readers who are interested in looking at the issues associated with "Schooling as if Democracy Matters," may want to read our Volume 3 Number 1 issue of the journal.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Scholar and a 14-Year-Old Take on the Issue of Poverty

With our winter 2009 issue on "The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty: Rethinking Poverty and Education" now being read and discussed by our readers, we thought we might add two more sources that we recently found on the web. One is by a scholar, the other by a 14-year-old on YouTube. We invite your thoughts.

David Berliner's report, Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success

14-Year-Old Student, John Wittle, looks at his school's invitation to Ruby Payne on YouTube, Ruby Payne Does Not Understand Poverty

Check them both out.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Obama Effect?

At the Journal, we have long been concerned with the effects of race and poverty on NCLB test scores. Our current issue addresses this theme in depth, while Jonathon Kozol, subject of our second issue, has famously criticized NCLB and its relation to economically and racially disadvantaged areas--and criticized leadership that ignores those findings. See his book The Shame of the Nation (267)

Famous Harvard and Princeton studies on race and performance backed up Kozol's criticism with an even more surprising finding that “it is the targets of a stereotype whose behavior is most powerfully affected by it. A stereotype that pervades the culture, like "ditzy blondes" and "forgetful seniors" can make people painfully aware of how society views them--so painfully aware, in fact, that knowledge of the stereotype can affect how well they do on intellectual and other tasks.”

The effects of these findings, when regarding African-Americans, may see a drastic change from President Obama’s election.

In this article, researchers at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management administered a standardized test to a mixed group of blacks and whites four times during the process of Obama’s run. The further the president got, the better the minority subjects of the study did. They were told that the exam was “created by the Massachusetts Aptitude Assessment Center, and is used as a diagnostic tool to assess verbal problem-solving ability”—a ruse meant to activate the stereotype that blacks don’t do as well as whites on aptitude tests.

After Obama’s election, among students who watched the speech, the achievement gap was roughly equal.

The possible consequences of this study, though it will require follow-up studies to confirm the hypothesis, are incredible. Obama’s example as a black man in power might serve as a psychological reinforcement to the black children of America who disproportionately attend underfunded, poverty-ridden schools that underperform on standardized tests. A picture of a black President might be worth a thousand motivational words. In the spirit of the Obama campaign, we will hope.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Creative Lessons by Woodring College of Education Students

In our winter 2008 issue on Schooling as if Democracy Matters, we published an article on the curriculum developed at Teachers College, Columbia University around the Hurricane Katrina tragedy. Using the HBO documentary by Spike Lee, Margaret Crocco and Maureen Grolnick developed a curriculum called Teaching the Levees: a Curriculum for Democratic Dialogue and Civic Engagement. The goal was to use a contemporary social issue in order to help students engage in a democratic dialogue that the event raised.

Students at the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University have created lessons that bring content from their own discipline (English, social studies, science, art, music, math, physical education) to the democratic discussion that they are trying to generate. We have created this public space for students and teachers to share their ideas. We also invite teachers and students from other parts of the nation and around the world to enter into our conversation. We will keep adding to this post over the years as more and more people share their comments.

Here's a more fundamental question to reflect upon as well: Can we imagine a high school experience that integrates the disciplines around major social issues and engages students in democratic dialogue and civic action? Our very fragmented approach to the study of high school subjects is deeply entrenched in our system. Does this approach prepare all students adequately to participate in a 21st century democracy that is constantly reinventing itself? Can our schools create a public that is capable of sustaining this republic in an increasingly complex and global world? Add your thoughts.

Example from student, Brook Landers:

Dawn Sodt, Lucy Castro and I, MIT students of the Woodring College of education created this integrated curriculum, which combines fine arts and foreign language studies in order to teach the film "When the Levees Broke."

Featured Lesson:

All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men

What is the culture of New Orleans, and can it be restored after Katrina?

For High School Students

Disciplines: Art, Language Arts, Theatre, Music

Our respective disciplines are Spanish and Art. In this context, our approach to this assignment is based on the culture of New Orleans. What struck us after watching Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke, was the strength of the cultural connection each of the inhabitants had to New Orleans regardless of their socio-economic background. This made us curious about how this culture evolved and what made it so strong. There might be lessons here for all of us as we continue to struggle with assimilation into our own increasingly multi-cultural society. Therefore, we posed the question:

Is it important to put New Orleans back together again?

There are many perspectives from which to approach this question. Among them are political, economical, ecological, and sociological perspectives. However, all of those disciplines fall under Cultural and we want students to realize the complexity of the people involved which is important as a prerequisite in any discussion from any other angle. We want students to come to feel the sense of identity each of the New Orleanians expressed in Lee’s movie.

Our Unit on the Breaking of the Levees involves Language and Art, both outcomes of a culture and both considered to be major characteristics of New Orleans life.

First, students will engage in a simulation exercise to understand how new languages form when cultures and languages collide. Students will be asked to combine two versions of the same poem, one written in English, and one written in Spanish. Unique translations of the poem in “Spanglish” will evolve out of the exercise.

The second project for our unit plan is a group inquiry project that culminates in a reader’s theatre production using visual and audio components. We have produced a product similar to what students could produce to give you a sample.

This exercise is sure to raise more questions than it answers. In fact, we do not expect the students to actually answer the above question. We want them, as explained above, to describe a portrait of what New Orleans as a culture represents and to consider what it means to them as citizens of a country in which such a culture exists.

Objective 1.1
o In pairs, students will research one of the four “roots” of New Orleans culture. They will collect images and facts, quotes, and salient ideas that they find interesting while researching.
o Students will understand that the Creole culture of New Orleans has been influenced over time by four main root cultures: 1. French, 2. African American, 3. Spanish, and 4. Native American.
o Students will present knowledge gathered through research in the final reader’s theatre.
o Bloom’s taxonomy: Knowledge

Objective 1.2
• Students will watch selected excerpts from the HBO documentary video: When the Levees Broke. Students will record quotes that stand out as particularly meaningful or poignant.
• Students will understand the main historical, social, and cultural effects of Hurricane Katrina.
• Students record poignant quotes while watching the documentary. These quotes will be incorporated into the final reader’s theatre.
• Bloom’s taxonomy: knowledge

Objective 1.3
• Students will create and perform a reader’s theatre including art and music that will symbolize the complex and unique New Orleans culture. Information gleaned from student research and the HBO documentary video: When the Levees Broke will be incorporated into the reader’s theatre.
• Students will be able to address the overarching questions:
Why is it important to put New Orleans back together?
Would we want to build it back in the same way?
What would you leave out if you were to rebuild New Orleans?
• Students will complete a written response to the questions posed throughout post-reader’s theatre discussion. The response should incorporate emotional responses to the reader’s theatre and include supporting information gathered while listening to the students-directed presentation.
• Bloom’s taxonomy: Evaluation

Objective 1.4
• Students will be given a poem in English as well as Spanish. The task will be to combine the two languages into a new language just as the Creole language is a mixture of different languages.
• Students will understand how languages and cultures collide and are combined to form new cultures.
• Students will turn in a unique poem that presents a unique language formed by combining Spanish and English.
• Bloom’s taxonomy: Understanding, Synthesis

1. Context:
In the Spanish classroom, students have just finished a unit on Chicano culture. Students understand the way in which Hispanic cultures mix with the American culture to form a new “Chicano” culture within the United States. In the same way, multiple cultures have blended together over time to form a unique Creole culture in New Orleans.
In the art class students have just completed a unit on contemporary socially responsive art work and artists. In this unit, students will collaborate and create their own socially responsive piece of artwork.

2. Purpose:
Millions of American citizens where uprooted and labeled “refugees” after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. Who was affected? How did the United States respond to the disaster? Why is it important we rebuild New Orleans? Motivated by the quote, “You can’t embrace the branch if you don’t know the root,” we will work to understand the precious culture unique to New Orleans.

3. Teaching/learning activities:
a. Presentation of excerpts from Spike Lee’s HBO Documentary: When the Levees Broke:
Students will view footage of Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath of the storm through this documentary. They will listen carefully to the citizens of the 9th ward present opinions, observations, and emotions. While watching the film, students will record phrases, ideas, and salient quotes. After viewing selections from the film, students will each select five quotes from the interviews and narration. Students will write out a sentence or two for each of the quotes explaining what issue it is related to and how it is an important issue to address for the future of New Orleans.

b. Exploratory Research of Creole culture:
Students will be divided into pairs and assigned one of the “roots” of Creole culture: 1) French culture, 2) Spanish culture, 3) Native American culture, or 4) African American culture. Students will be asked to research their assigned aspect of New Orleans life and collect images, quotes, and ideas that represent Creole culture. Information and images gathered through research will be recorded and incorporated into the final reader’s theatre project at the end of the unit.

c. Language creation simulation:
Students will read a poem relating to Hurricane Katrina in English. They will read the same poem in Spanish. Their job will be to creatively combine both poems in order to present the same poem in a new language (“Spanglish”). The activity will simulate the way in which a new language or for that matter a new culture is born.

d. The Reader’s Theatre:

1. Students will brainstorm to come up with ideas of creating a readers’ theatre from these ideas and how to incorporate visual and audio components for a production of the readers’ theater. They will take a vote on which ideas to work on together for a single class project.
2. Students will divide the work for the project up into pieces to be assigned to smaller groups within the class.
3. Students will devise a timeline in which work must be done with the culminating production time determined by the teacher.
4. Each group will write a plan with a calendar listing goals for each day and a list of tasks they expect to complete to reach those goals in the form of a check list. Each student will get a copy and one copy for each group will be turned in to the teacher. A copy of each will be posted on a board for all to see so that all groups are aware of the progress of each.
5. The teacher will check in with each group each day to determine their progress, to keep them on-task, and to aid them with any difficulties they encounter. It will be likely that a group will become sidetracked by information they discover so the final goal and product must be kept firmly in their minds.
6. Students will present their final product as a readers’ theater at an assembly or in front of an audience of their choosing within reason and possibility.
7. A class discussion and review following the presentation will be very important and might well take a full day. Begin with asking questions regarding their performance and any comments they received from the audience. Then ask questions to elicit comments and feedback about the process of a whole class project: – How well did it work? Did everyone feel involved? Did everyone feel they had a meaningful part to play in putting the project together and performing? Next, ask the students how their perspective on New Orleans has changed as a result of their work on this project? Follow this up by asking if they have thought of relating this new perspective to how they think about their own community culture. How important is their own community culture to them? If a natural disaster happened to (Bellingham) and they were dispersed across the country would they want to come back? Why or why not? These are just some of the questions that you might ask but, providing adequate time for closure is important. You might do this by asking for a written response to some of these questions.
Questions will percolate out of the discussion. Example questions include: 1) why is it important to put New Orleans back together? 2) Would we want to build it back in the same way? 3) What would you leave out? 4) How much is racism and poverty a part of the culture that evolved? 5) Why do the residents of New Orleans feel so rooted to their home?

4. Homework Assignment:
Students will complete a written response to the reader’s theatre questions posed during the class discussion. The response should incorporate emotional reactions to the reader’s theatre and include supporting information gathered while listening to the presentation.

5. Assessments:
The checklist provided by each group within the class can be used to evaluate each student’s participation by determining to what level they are engaged in each of the tasks listed. Formative assessment is very important and should be tracked carefully. Much student involvement in this project can be pretty subtle so it is important to interact with students asking what they are thinking and how they are proceeding all along the way. The culminating presentation is another source of assessment information. Finally, a written reflection answering some of the questions posed during the Closure will provide individual indicators of involvement, engagement, and how well the lesson provoked further thought and questions.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A New Issue of the Journal is Now Online!

The Journal of Educational Controversy is proud to announce that our Winter 2009 issue, "The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty: Rethinking Poverty and Education," is now online.

This timely edition explores poverty from a variety of theoretical and critical perspectives, and features contributions from:

-Muhammad Yunus (2006 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize)
-C.A. Bowers
-Kay Ann Taylor
-Nandini Gunewardena
-Rachel Jackson
-Jennifer C. Ng, & John L. Rury
-Venus Evans-Winters & Bevin Cowie
-John Korsmo
-Judith Dunkerly & Frank Serafini

Be sure to check our blog for supplementary material in the next few weeks, and, as always, if an article so moves you we encourage you to submit your thoughts for possible inclusion in our Rejoinders Section.