Posts Tagged ‘media’

Do our schools inadvertently promote the racism and intolerance we have been witnessing the last several months?

October 11, 2015

I’ve been wondering recently if our schools share any complicity in enabling the blatant racism, hatred and xenophobia we have been witnessing for the past several months. To be clear, I don’t believe that schools created these attitudes as racism and intolerance have a long pedigree in our country. It certainly wasn’t long after the first European immigrants got here seeking religious freedom of their own that they began importing slaves, eliminating the Native Americans that they felt were in their way and oppressing others that didn’t share the same religious beliefs as theirs.

So the hatred and bigotry we see coming from Donald Trump, Ben Carson, the supporters of the Confederate flag and others is really nothing new. But I’m wondering if the way we conduct schools might serve to enable these beliefs and behaviors rather than working against them. Here are some of the things I think could inadvertently promote bigotry and intolerance.

ABC Grading – We’ve all experienced this. At times grades seem to be arbitrary, and even when they aren’t it has been well documented that grades are as much or more a function of who we are when we enter the class, as they are of our work or effort. So, I’m wondering if the subtle message of grading that some folks take from school is that it is okay to judge some people as being better than others based on attributes that may be beyond their control. The folks most often judged negatively by grading are ELL students and students of color. As such it’s easy to see how such judgments in schools (in this case grades) could lead to the assumption that it’s okay judge people as “bad” or “inferior” especially if they are poor or people of color.

How we try to build a respect for others – We celebrate Black History Month in schools but how often is there any real depth to what happens. Many times African-American heroes include entertainers and athletes. I do think Duke Elllington (and others) should be recognized. But is there a subtle message here when the “heroes” we identify from communities of color include musicians, entertainers and athletes and all the white heroes do “important things?”

Many teachers will also engage their students in the well-known activity known as Brown Eyes/ Blue Eyes. In this activity students are divided by their eye color, and one group gets to discriminate against the other. The roles are then reversed. At its best this activity really does help kids to empathize with what it feels like to be discriminated against. But the way it is done often misses some crucial depth and the solutions to discrimination and bigotry are more than getting kids to stop being “mean” to others. But we rarely engage kids with the larger cultural and social factors that drive intolerance and so the message kids get is that everything would be better if we just stopped doing it. This hardly gives them any tools to combat intolerance. We also need to consider if there is an underlying message here that it is okay to make others feel very bad as long as the ends are justified.

How we teach history and civics – Most students will happily tell you that civics and history are among their least favorite subjects. I suspect that for the most part this is a function of how we teach these subjects. In any event it is certainly the case that we have witnessed many public figures in the last several months that seem to not have a grip on basic civics and history. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum clearly don’t get the separation of powers between the branches of government. Others claim that we are a Christian nation (although there certainly are no documents to indicate that this is so). We also continue to hear the debunked canard that the Civil War was fought over states rights rather than slavery.

Even when we do attempt to address these issues they become over simplified and often treated as if the problem had been solved. This was brought home to me most powerfully by the 4th grade child who asked me with a puzzled look when we were discussing current discrimination “didn’t Martin Luther King fix all that?” In these cases we are not giving students sufficient tools to fight intolerance and our over simplified treatment of these issues could contribute to the belief that there isn’t really a problem. This in turn could lead to the targeting of those who raise the issue. much as we have recently seen in the media.

How we treat English Language Learners; Finally, it has become fairly common practice to “help” (and I use that word advisedly) ELL learners become fluent in English by placing them in mainstream classrooms, with an ELL teacher for part of the day. This so-called “immersion” approach is supposed help the children “keep up” with the content while they are learning English. But the subtle underlying message is that the native language is somehow inferior (after all the English-speaking kids aren’t required to learn it!). Beyond that in some schools children are forbidden and sometimes even disciplined for speaking in their first languages. We often hear stories of the first languages being prohibited because teachers assume that children are saying something “bad” or plotting something if the teacher can’t understand them. So the subtle message here again is that non-English speakers (in schools almost all children of color) are “bad” and not to be trusted. (more…)


A Lesson from My Elementary Classroom about the Confederate Flag

July 20, 2015

I started teaching back in the mid 70’s, which admittedly were “wild and woolier” times in schools than the times we live in today The school in which I taught was an alternative school sponsored by parents, but run as a part of the local school system. One of the problems I experienced in my classroom from time to time was with kids “swearing” or using inappropriate language. Frankly, I had no personal problem with my students using such language. I grew up in the sixties and early 70’s. For my peers and I a sentence wasn’t complete unless it contained multiple, multi-syllabic variations of words beginning with f and ending with k. Besides, I believed words were just words, and they only had shock value if we gave it to them.

On the other hand, my peers and I did enjoy the shock value of the language, as I’m sure my students did as well. But my parents finally asked me to stop using four letter words around them as the words offended them. I snidely replied that I would do so if they stopped using certain five letter words that offended me. They agreed and asked what the words were. My reply; Nixon and Agnew.

But within my parents response to my teenage snark was the key to dealing with swearing in my classroom, and ultimately to the confederate flag. They didn’t tell me the words were bad, or not to use the words. They told me not to use those words around them because my parents found them offensive. I used that same approach with the children in my own classroom.

When kids used what some folks consider to be inappropriate language in my classroom we first had a class discussion about it. I told my class that those words made some kids uncomfortable, and made some of the kids parents uncomfortable. Because that language made some people uncomfortable it was unacceptable in our classroom. I neither made nor implied any judgment about the language itself nor did I say they couldn’t use it elsewhere.

That simple message, that in our community we don’t do things publicly that make other members of our community uncomfortable is the same message we should be giving to the folks who want to retain the confederate flag. They should be welcome to retain the flag for their own private purposes and fly it on their own homes and vehicles if they wish. But we do know that the flag offends some folks, and whereas some people see it as representing a distinct history and heritage, others see it as a symbol of hatred and racism. Simply because a significant number of people are offended by it is reason enough that it should no longer be displayed in public spaces.

My students learned this lesson about how we treat other members of our community in my elementary school classroom. I only wish that schools were still focused on teaching children how to treat others well in our society instead of on the common core, testing and test prep.

Trying To Create Some Sanity When None Can be Found

June 20, 2015

This past week we witnessed the shocking hate crime of the murder of nine African American people in a church in Charleston. The best that we can hope for is that horrific event will lead to some long needed national discourse about race and racism and about the ubiquity of guns in our culture. My intentions for this blog are to keep if focused primarily on education, as it would not be a pretty site to witness me holding forth on politics on a weekly basis.

Nonetheless some of the political pronouncements made in the aftermath of the hate crimes this week led me to think about what we can do in our classrooms to create a society less likely to have future such events. As you may have read some politicians have suggested that the murders were “ an attack on religious liberty.” Others have suggested it was the result of a drug problem, or that the incident couldn’t have happened if the members of the bible study group had been armed themselves. All of this is patent nonsense but it does suggest the need for something that is often crucially missing in our classrooms.

It’s really a simple process. First, we must take the time back from the Common Core and test prep to regularly spend time with students talking about what is going in in the real world (I’ve read, listened to, and discussed newspapers and news broadcasts with students as young as third grade on an ongoing basis.) Then, as we discuss stories and issues, and students begin to share their interpretations we should be asking;

What evidence do you have? and

So does your conclusion make sense?

 The question “does your conclusion make sense” is important for two reasons. First it causes students to think about how and why things fit together and how cause and effect work. Beyond that, while still insuring that multiple opinions are honored, it also insists what students are suggesting has some basis in data and could move what we do beyond the constraints of “right and wrong” answers. If we are to move forward as a democratic society we need to move beyond the excuse of ”I don’t have any data to back that up, it’s just my opinion.” (Of course within such a model students would have to learn to judge the quality of their evidence as well)

Citizens practiced in thinking in these ways would be far less likely to make the ridiculous statements referenced at the beginning of this post, It would also make citizens less likely to be swayed the rantings of hate groups or charlatans like Alex Jones. In addition making such discourse a habit could change the nature of our national discourse about race, guns, climate change and other political issues. At the day-to-day school level questions such as these also drive deeper understandings of mathematics and any other texts students are reading. Such a stance might even help to combat some of the lunacies of the school “rephorm” movement.

So what if we could make the questions “What evidence do you have?” and “Does your conclusion make sense?” the sine qua non of work in schools? Could it really make a difference? It may well be my oversimplified pipe dream in the face of an unspeakable tragedy. But today I am searching for a grain of sanity wherever I can find it.

Is your head spinning like mine?

January 10, 2010

A few days ago I attended my monthly meeting of the same Governmental Relations group I referenced in my previous post. Again, much of our time was spent on finance and funding of  public Higher Education in my state. I think I understood what our funding might look like in the next several years, but it took us nearly an hour to get there. The variables included how much money the state will allocate to Higher Education given our budget crisis, the amount of federal stimulus money we will receive for Higher Ed, how much our state funding can be cut without losing the federal stimulus funding, how much tuition will need to go up to cover lost allocations, how the state might divide it’s allocation between the two University Systems it supports, and whether the state can apply to be able to cut allocations further and still maintain stimulus funds.

If your head is spinning trying to make sense of all of this don’t fret. Mine was (and is) too, and I was there. The bottom line is at the end of the day this will affect folks jobs at universities, the availability of classes for students and the amount of tuition students have to pay. Most of the students going to college, and their families have no notion of all of this.. they simply want available classes and affordable, if not lower tuitions. There are other issues at the state level as well such as how much budgets for items like human services and schools will also need to be cut etc. Many different constituencies will want to have a hand in how all of this plays out. It’s probably impossible for most folks to understand the complexity of all. I can’t and I’ve had the benefit of several hours of folks trying to explain it to me.

The real issue here, it seems to me, is that we are not able to have a real national discussion on what it is that we value, and what we are willing to pay for those things. Instead of a rational discourse about what we want for our citizens we have the over heated rhetoric of socialism from the right, and “sell out” from the left. Amazingly all of this nonsense seems to be devoid of any historical understanding. I was surprised to find out this week that the maximum tax rate in the 1950 was 87% of taxable income. In the 1980’s under Reagan it came down to 50%, and the Bush tax cuts will pull it down to 33% of taxable income(the source of this information is Be careful when you read that information though…the bias of the site is that tax cuts lead to economic growth, and that perspective is at least debatable. We had much higher taxes well into the 80’s and we did have huge periods of economic growth during those times.

So how the heck do we get out of this mess? Frankly, I’m tired of stupid rhetoric..our governor here (and a potential presidential candidate too) says stupid things like “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem” as if the two are unrelated. He then goes on to solve the “spending” problem by cutting funding to local governments, schools, social services and Higher Education. Unfortunately, there are folks that believe that our foolish spendthrift behaviors in spending money on such trivial matters as social services, government services, health care for the poor, education really are the causes of our financial difficulties.

From what I can see, none of our politicians are brave enough to try and get at these most basic discussions of who we are. President Obama gets it from both sides for trying to walk a rational middle line and actually get something done. Frankly, I’m just plain tired of this foolishness and lack of vision. I just want to yell at the whole damn crew “Will ya shut up and listen to each other!” I used to be able to achieve something like that (with out the yelling) when I was an elementary teacher with my own classroom. But who can do that for the nation when a majority of the population is acting like a bunch of errant 3rd graders egged on by sniggering bullies like Rush and Glenn?

As for me, I’m going to take some Prozac and hide for a while..perhaps that will solve the problem.

Have a happy “whatever you celebrate this time of year.” And if you don’t celebrate anything go have some fun anyway. We’ll find a way through this one too. See you next week.


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