Friday, August 13, 2010

Music that Gets Us Through: Ant and Arms and Hearts

Antarctica - The Prayer Chain

Are You Sure Hank Done It this Way? - Uncle Tupelo

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Teaching for the Test Machine

The US Department of Education (under the leading of Arne Duncan, previously Daley admin - and non-educator - appointed to head the Chicago Public Schools into privatization and union-busting), is sponsoring a program called Race to the Top, wherein state educational systems prove that they are worthy of extra funding by acquiescing to centralized standards of education.

Not a bad idea actually, if it weren't for the wider context that these changes are happening under.

When No Child Left Behind entered the scene some years ago, the entire game changed. Many progressive educators that were hopeful that the underfunded, largely ignored urban education field was finally going to get the attention it desperately needs felt betrayed to find that it was more about the business of the standardized-testing industrial complex and the business-ification of teaching than about the business of teaching and the implementation of more accurate learning assessments.

Alas, high-stakes standardized tests are the new rules now. Art, music, literature: subjects that can actually further learning and creativity (which is also learning) are being removed wholesale to double the time in reading and math. Not that I have anything against the latter classes being taught or emphasized, but the constant repetitive action of teaching test-taking skills has an adverse effect on burgeoning desires to learn.

If we can agree that children are naturally curious (certainly anecdotal evidence backs this up), and most children leave the educational system devoid of intellectual curiosity, then it must be acknowledged that there is a prime problem in the way we are schooling our children. Our goal should be to leave our students with nourished but growing curiosity, because the world that they inhabit is larger than any one schema can grasp, no matter how we try to pigeon-hole the squares of their minds.

But then I'm encouraged by the site of students themselves taking action and saying that the goals of reform aren't where they should be.

Students draft a lesson plan of their own:

Amara Brady's academic life changed when she transferred to Mother McAuley High School on the Southwest Side last year. She got better books, more passionate teachers and access to postsecondary education information she'd never had.

"The schools aren't on a level playing field. And some systems are just set up for failure," said Brady, 16, who lives in the North Lawndale neighborhood, where many teens are faced with drugs, violence and a rising dropout rate.

Deciding she wanted to do something about it, Brady joined World Vision's Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), which gives young people a voice to become what they call "agents of change." World Vision is a Christian organization dedicated to fighting poverty...

After five months of community mapping, interviews, surveys and debate, the Chicago-area students from both public and private schools had a clear choice for this year's issue: education. They wanted to find a way to keep kids in school.

The students presented their proposal to local representatives in Washington this week...

A recent study from the U.S. Department of Education shows that less than 75 percent of students nationwide got high school diplomas within four years.

"The dropout rate is about violence, but it's also people, the teachers, the schools and the neighborhoods," said Howard.

The students' proposal, which they presented to community leaders in Chicago last week, had four key recommendations:

The first is to level the playing field for all schools in Chicago by updating the facilities and materials. Howard said one of his friends is still using Windows 98 and a Math Busters program from the 1980s at school.

The students also proposed that schools increase social support by asking for more parental involvement and adding extracurriculars.

Carol Beal, chairman of the Block Club Association, who was present at the students' presentation last week, understood.

"If you have nothing to do, you find something ignorant to do," Beal said. "If you don't want it to lead to trouble, it still might. They need resources and activities to occupy their time."

Feedback from students in the form of quarterly and annual surveys was another suggestion. Both could help identify problems such as inedible food and inadequate teachers, students said.

Access to information on post-secondary education, which Brady found at Mother McAuley, is the final point. The teens want counselors who can provide students information on everything from the PSAT to how to fill out a job application.

Lack of funding and budget cutbacks are an issue, say some school officials...

Better funding is part of the students' requests to Washington officials this week. They are also lobbying for the Youth PROMISE Act, legislation that advocates for more resources for preventive programs in education. The bill has 234 co-sponsors in the House.

The Rev. Joe Huizenga, of Roseland Christian Ministries, said hearing the students tell their own stories had a huge impact.

"The kids talked about friends who got into gangs, dropped out of school and missed the window. They all wanted to change this. They told us just how much they believed in it. It was pretty remarkable," he said...

Local advocacy group Logan Square Neighborhood Association is also among a growing group of orgs critiquing the Washington-based reforms as "top-down experiments that disrupt schools and communities."

"You have to give resources to support students and families, and build trust in schools. If you don’t have that, none of your other reforms matter," says Bridget Murphy of [LSNA].
This on the heels of a larger policy report they compiled with several other local urban community development groups nationwide, Our Communities Left Behind: An Analysis of the Administration's TurnAround Policies. Included in that report is this research analysis gem from The Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice:
It is recommended that policymakers refrain from relying on restructuring sanctions (takeover, private management, charters and reconstitutions) to effect school improvement. They have produced negative by-products without yielding systemic positive effects.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Lazy Sunday Reading: Kurt Vonnegut and the Golden Rule

When you get to my age, if you get to my age, which is 81, and if you have reproduced, you will find yourself asking your own children, who are themselves middle-aged, what life is all about. I have seven kids, four of them adopted.

Many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

I put my big question about life to my biological son Mark. Mark is a pediatrician, and author of a memoir, The Eden Express. It is about his crackup, straightjacket and padded cell stuff, from which he recovered sufficiently to graduate from Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Vonnegut said this to his doddering old dad: “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” So I pass that on to you. Write it down, and put it in your computer, so you can forget it.

I have to say that’s a pretty good sound bite, almost as good as, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A lot of people think Jesus said that, because it is so much the sort of thing Jesus liked to say. But it was actually said by Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, 500 years before there was that greatest and most humane of human beings, named Jesus Christ.

The Chinese also gave us, via Marco Polo, pasta and the formula for gunpowder. The Chinese were so dumb they only used gunpowder for fireworks. And everybody was so dumb back then that nobody in either hemisphere even knew that there was another one.

But back to people, like Confucius and Jesus and my son the doctor, Mark, who’ve said how we could behave more humanely, and maybe make the world a less painful place. One of my favorites is Eugene Debs, from Terre Haute in my native state of Indiana. Get a load of this:

Eugene Debs, who died back in 1926, when I was only 4, ran 5 times as the Socialist Party candidate for president, winning 900,000 votes, 6 percent of the popular vote, in 1912, if you can imagine such a ballot. He had this to say while campaigning:

As long as there is a lower class, I am in it.
As long as there is a criminal element, I’m of it.
As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
Doesn’t anything socialistic make you want to throw up? Like great public schools or health insurance for all?

How about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes?

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. …

And so on.

Not exactly planks in a Republican platform. Not exactly Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney stuff.

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!...

I was born a human being in 1922 A.D. What does “A.D.” signify? That commemorates an inmate of this lunatic asylum we call Earth who was nailed to a wooden cross by a bunch of other inmates. With him still conscious, they hammered spikes through his wrists and insteps, and into the wood. Then they set the cross upright, so he dangled up there where even the shortest person in the crowd could see him writhing this way and that.

Can you imagine people doing such a thing to a person?

No problem. That’s entertainment. Ask the devout Roman Catholic Mel Gibson, who, as an act of piety, has just made a fortune with a movie about how Jesus was tortured. Never mind what Jesus said.

During the reign of King Henry the Eighth, founder of the Church of England, he had a counterfeiter boiled alive in public. Show biz again.

Mel Gibson’s next movie should be The Counterfeiter. Box office records will again be broken...

But I have to say this in defense of humankind: No matter in what era in history, including the Garden of Eden, everybody just got there. And, except for the Garden of Eden, there were already all these crazy games going on, which could make you act crazy, even if you weren’t crazy to begin with. Some of the games that were already going on when you got here were love and hate, liberalism and conservatism, automobiles and credit cards, golf and girls’ basketball.

Even crazier than golf, though, is modern American politics, where, thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative...

My government’s got a war on drugs. But get this: The two most widely abused and addictive and destructive of all substances are both perfectly legal.

One, of course, is ethyl alcohol. And President George W. Bush, no less, and by his own admission, was smashed or tiddley-poo or four sheets to the wind a good deal of the time from when he was 16 until he was 41. When he was 41, he says, Jesus appeared to him and made him knock off the sauce, stop gargling nose paint.

Other drunks have seen pink elephants.

And do you know why I think he is so pissed off at Arabs? They invented algebra. Arabs also invented the numbers we use, including a symbol for nothing, which nobody else had ever had before. You think Arabs are dumb? Try doing long division with Roman numerals.

We’re spreading democracy, are we? Same way European explorers brought Christianity to the Indians, what we now call “Native Americans.”

How ungrateful they were! How ungrateful are the people of Baghdad today.

So let’s give another big tax cut to the super-rich. That’ll teach bin Laden a lesson he won’t soon forget. Hail to the Chief.

That chief and his cohorts have as little to do with Democracy as the Europeans had to do with Christianity. We the people have absolutely no say in whatever they choose to do next. In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve already cleaned out the treasury, passing it out to pals in the war and national security rackets, leaving your generation and the next one with a perfectly enormous debt that you’ll be asked to repay.

Nobody let out a peep when they did that to you, because they have disconnected every burglar alarm in the Constitution: The House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, the FBI, the free press (which, having been embedded, has forsaken the First Amendment) and We the People...

I’ll tell you one thing: I once had a high that not even crack cocaine could match. That was when I got my first driver’s license! Look out, world, here comes Kurt Vonnegut.

And my car back then, a Studebaker, as I recall, was powered, as are almost all means of transportation and other machinery today, and electric power plants and furnaces, by the most abused and addictive and destructive drugs of all: fossil fuels.

When you got here, even when I got here, the industrialized world was already hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels, and very soon now there won’t be any more of those. Cold turkey.

Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn’t like TV news, is it?

Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey.

And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.

Kurt Vonnegut
In These Times
h/t to Tina C