Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Educational Baggage


Tell, Recite,

Name, List, Ask, Give,

Select, Explain, Predict, Summarize, Identify

Translate, Memorize, Interpret, Demonstrate, Propose

Apply Organize, Categorize, Defend, Compare/Contrast, Analyze

Synthesize, Evaluate, Argue, Conclude

Tease out, Obfuscate,


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Race is a Bogus Idea

What follows are some excerpts from an article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1998; this piece appeared the week TV station KRON aired a week long special called "About Race." You might recall that this was during Bill Clinton's second term when the president initiated a national dialogue about race. It's been 10 years since that happened so I thought it a good time to remind ourselves what we already know.

The very concept of race is bogus and has no basis in biology, according to most scientists.

``This dialogue on race is driving me up the wall,'' said Jefferson Fish, a psychologist at St. John's University in New York who has written extensively about race in America. ``Nobody is asking the question, `What is race?' It is a biologically meaningless category. It is a cultural term that Americans use to describe what a person's ancestry is.

``But biologically the human species does not have categories. It just has variations as one travels around the world.''

True, a walk along almost any main street in a major U.S. city will reveal a host of people of various colors and cultures.

Surely, one may suppose,

the American melting pot is brimming with different races and racial mixtures.

Wrong, say a broad coalition of experts.

``The concept of race is a social and cultural construction. . . . Race simply cannot be tested or proven scientifically,'' according to a policy statement by the American Anthropological Association. ``It is clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. The concept of `race' has no validity . . . in the human species.''

Although few people would mistake a group of Arapahos for Finns, or Malays for Tutsis, anthropologists can find no clear racial boundaries to show where one ``racial'' group stops and another begins.

Jonathan Marks, a University of California at Berkeley anthropologist, said the only pattern that shows up consistently is that as one surveys traditional homelands, ``people are similar to those from (areas) geographically nearby and different from those (who are) far away.'' The bigger the distance, the more different people tend to look. Conversely, while people don't fit into neat racial cubbyholes, the more closely related they are, the greater the chances of finding good tissue matches for such things as bone marrow transplants.

Despite this, many Americans still believe in three great racial groups, a system developed in Europe and North America in the 18th century.

Under that notion, indigenous residents of France, Iran and Poland, for example, are all Caucasoids, members of the so-called white race. People from Somalia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe in Africa are all Negroid, belonging to the black race. Ethnic Chinese, Koreans, Malays and American Indians are all Mongoloids, variants of the yellow race.

And people born to, say, ethnic Swedish and Chinese parents are of mixed race.

No way, say scientists, who call such thinking a folk myth.

``We don't even come close to having enough genetic diversity for races, or subspecies -- not close,'' said Robert Sussman, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis and editor of a newsletter of the anthropological association that has taken on race and racism as its yearlong theme.

``It's hard to get across,'' said Sussman. ``The best audience to try to get to is probably high school and young college students. But even they are steeped in American folklore, and the folklore is that races really exist.''

One reason race is a myth, the great majority of anthropologists agree, is that there has not been enough time for much difference to build up between human beings.

By most measures, modern humans arose in Africa less than 200,000 years ago, a short time by evolutionary time scales. And the migration out of Africa by the ancestors of today's Europeans, Asians, and North and South Americans took place less than 100,000 years ago.

Environmental pressure produced different physical appearances, including slightly different physiques, and Africa has the most human genetic diversity of any continent.

``But the environment, literally, works only on the surface, changing skin and hair a little bit,'' said Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, a Stanford University geneticist. ``Underneath, there has been little change.''

``If Americans in general understood the history of the concept of race, the erroneous biological connotations of race, and the cultural and social dimensions of race, they could better address the initiative's goal of `One America in the 21st Century,' '' said Mary Margaret Overbey, a lobbyist for the association.

But even without race, racism can exist as a belief that ancestry is a significant factor in cultural and behavioral differences among peoples.

Rather than race, scientists like to discuss ``clinal variations,'' or physical types that may be found in one general area but that fade more or less evenly into other types as one move about the globe.

Yet even anthropologists admit they use the term ``race'' -- even if they don't really approve of it -- because so far there is no better term to describe the subtleties of the human species.

``I use it because for some uses, it works,'' said Dennis Stanford, chairman of anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

But at best, it is a clumsy term for people like Fish, the St. John's University psychologist, who is married to a Brazilian.

By standard American usage, he is white because his ancestry is all European, and she is black because some of her ancestors were African. But she is not really the color black, rather more of a light brown, with ancestry from many parts of the globe.

In Brazil, people are labeled not by race, but by ``tipo,'' Portuguese for type, and some families have many tipos. And she is a morena, which means, roughly, brunette. ``Americans think you can't change race, that it's like changing genes,'' Fish said. ``But my wife can change her race by taking an airplane home.''

Last year, the association urged the government to drop the term race from its census categories in favor of blurrier, but more useful, terms such as ethnicity that also reflect culture and the psychological tendency of people to label themselves.

Now, while strict racial categories are not being abandoned altogether, censuses will permit people to list themselves in several races if they so choose.

Since 1900, 26 different racial categories have been used in various censuses, including Hindu and Mexican. At the turn of the century in the United States, Italians, the Irish, and Jews were all thought to be racial groups.

Nearly all college textbooks have long since dropped the idea that humanity can be neatly, or even sloppily, divided into races.

And a recent survey found that some experts in the 19th century graded humanity into as many as 300 races. Even current encyclopedias routinely list as many as nine races (African, American Indian, Asian, Australian, European, Indian, Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian).

In years past, children of mixed marriages ``were assigned the racial (and legal) status of the more subordinate parent,'' said Faye Harrison, an anthropologist at the University of South Carolina.

``That rule, called . . . the `one drop rule' (for one drop of blood), has worked to classify me as African American, period,'' said Harrison. ``Despite the fact that I, like most other African Americans I know, have a mixed heritage and mixed `race' genealogy. But that multicultural or multiracial reality is part of my extended family's private transcript, not our public identity as blacks, as African Americans.''

Studies show that the ancestry of American blacks is about 70 percent African, with the rest European and American Indian.

Stanford geneticist Cavalli- Sforza and his colleagues are collecting genes from traditional peoples all over the world. From them, they can get a good idea how past populations migrated and intermingled.

The gradients, or rate of change from place to place, ``are all gradual. The idea of race is not tenable,'' Cavalli-Sforza added. The geographic patterns of some sets of genes do not match other sets of genes, showing clearly that human populations have been merging, migrating, and intermarrying from the start.

While some racist groups may believe there once were pure African or Nordic or other races, genes tell a different story, according to Alan R. Templeton, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis.

Still, anthropologists know they have a hard sell.

``Teaching that racial categories lack biological validity can be as much of a challenge as teaching in the 17th century that the Earth goes around the sun,'' said Marks.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

One Word

Three years ago one of my students asked me what I was looking forward to most when I retired. I instantly replied, "One word: October." She seemed puzzled. What could I possibly mean by that?
"Would you like me to explain?" I asked. She would. "It's simple," I replied. "I am looking forward to warm October day, just before autumn yields to winter when, in the middle of the week, I can find a beautiful mountain stream and spend the day wandering around, fly fishing, and just marvel at having the place to myself."
She smiled, "October, I get it."
This week, this October, I got it.
Most of the leaves were banana yellow. The ground was damp from rain the previous day. Many of the stream-side rocks were covered with fresh wet moss-soft as pillows to the touch. The sun peaked in and out; mostly out. Winter is only a week or two away, but being in this moment is timeless.

** All fish shown on this blog were released unharmed.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Good Old Days?

Classroom Discipline Your assignment is to watch this film and complete a journal entry of your personal reactions. It is due when you finish.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fetishism of Pain

We all knew it would get worse before it gets better. Anyone who lives anywhere in this country knows that the racism can ambush you anywhere, anytime. It's no surprise in California's great inland empire that the Republicans in Upland see nothing wrong with their racist depiction of Obama on a food stamp.
"It's just food," they protest. "Like spaghetti and meatballs is with Italians." (They often pronounce I raq and I talian alike)
No, it's not just food; it's history. It's the history of racism in American something beautifully, if not painfully depicted in films like Marlon Riggs' "Ethnic Notions."
I have a collection of this history. I often used it when teaching either history or literature. It's the kind of primary source documents you won't find in the textbook version of America's past, but the kind that exceptional teachers or teaching units don't omit.
To think that this Republican racism is not harmful, is not racist, is not deliberate, is not vicious, is not our history, is to be ignorant. It sometimes takes the form of denial, but the older folks perpetuating this hate filled fear know better. They know about the cartoons, from Bugs Bunny to caricatures that go all the way back to minstrel shows.
These images, embedded in our popular culture, in everything from kitchen items, food labels (Aunt Jemima, the Cream of Wheat man, and Uncle Ben being the most famous) post cards, buttons, Christmas ornaments, story books, fruit crate labels, sheet music, toys, movie images, art, sculpture, song lyrics, even school text books, are who we are, they are where we came from, they are important to know about because they can and do return from time to time.
A few years ago in an institute on American Literature at UC Berkeley that brought together teachers from Atlanta, Georgia, Michigan, and the Bay Area, some of us suggested we watch the film "Ethnic Notions." Yes, it's shocking, difficult to watch, lacerates the eye as H.L.Mencken would say, but critically important. A few of the Georgia and Michigan teachers walked out. They'd seen enough and obviously felt sickened, almost offended that we'd make them sit through this tough history. I overheard two of these so-called teachers talking. "Why do we need to feed their fetishism of pain?" they whispered.
Over the years I have often thought of this comment. It typifies the way some academics intellectualize. But they were right about one thing-pain. It's painful. We need to know.
So what's behind all these images of happy watermelon eatin', fried chicken loving, grinnin' black folks. Happiness. Everybody's happy. Always happy. This is all I need to make me happy. If that's how people are perceived, then you or I don't have to deal with the truth. Don't have to deal with poverty, ignorance, disenfranchisement, oppression, hatred, prejudice, or change. See, everybody's happy. Everything is just fine. What's the problem?
Slavery is a two way street.

Friday, October 17, 2008


I have only positives when discussing my medical care provider. It's the Northwest division of a well known HMO. I'd rather not reveal the name, but suffice it to say it starts with a K and my benefits are permanente.
My doc isn't medication crazy and that's fine with me. She suggested I get my blood pressure checked every few weeks for the next few months because that way we'll know that I've got it under control. I'm one of those people whose BP goes up in the doctor's office. It's called the "white coat effect." If I check it on the spur of the moment from time to time, the readings are far more accurate. Today when we stopped by to pick up a prescription, I found a nearby nurse's station and checked in for a quick blood pressure reading.
A male nurse with a shiny diamond earring led me to a small booth and said, "Think of beautiful things and I'll be back in a few minutes to squeeze your arm...err rather to take your blood pressure." That was his schtick. I'm sure he says it 25 times a day. While waiting I heard another nurse talking to a very old man about how to remove ear wax. She told the man and his wife, easily in their mid 80s that some "warm cooking oil left in there over night with cotton stuffed in to keep it in would do the trick. They talked a few more minutes with increasing volume. He could hear only out of one ear and it was the clogged one. Just before the elderly couple left the nurse said, "now you got it, right?" To which the man replied, "yeah, fish oil."
"COOKING OIL," she screamed laughing.
My little BP meditation was over; I was chuckling too. In came another nurse and cuffed me in an instant. My smile was really beaming when she announced, "122/70, wow that's great."
This nurse, like all the others at that station was wearing what appeared to be a smock made from children's pajama material. Lots of pastel colored flannel covered with animated Disney characters, or Sponge Bob, or some other child-friendly face. Reminds me of the stuff sold in Target.
I can hang with their "uniforms." What amazes me is that all these nurses are obese. Yup, really overweight and unhealthy looking. I've actually seen one or two drinking huge whipped cream covered latte drinks.
I know something about stressful jobs. But role models are important, especially in health care.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

This Is The End, My Fickle Friend

"Could this be the end of capitalism as we know it?" asks the talk show host. The economics professor agrees, but he knows you can't say the "S" word. You can say social security, social justice, social dancing, and social dating. You can say social drinking, social science, and social mobility, but you can't really say social-ism.
While people are scrambling to refresh their memories about the differences between capitalism, socialism, communism and the like, it's important to remember none of these "isms" exist anywhere in their pure form. And therein lies the problem. While our politicians are scrambling to parse their remarks about the necessity of our government's role in meeting the needs of the people it serves, it's fascinating to note how the once Socialist/Communist world (2nd world) is slouching toward Capitalism all the more. We know that 90% of what we purchase in this country comes from China, or at least came through China while being assembled somewhere else. We know that millions of jobs have been "outsourced" to cheap labor and deregulated working conditions and product standards. Yes, the economic world we live in is in flux. BUT, do you really think the U.S.A. will ever honor the core principles of "to each according to his/her needs?" Hell, most folks choke on the word, let alone the concept.
And then there is the overriding matter of all those who dutifully rushed off to battle to defend the "free world." Those who swallowed the mythology of war, pure of heart, but void of knowledge. The Chinese and Vietnamese are now the Capitalists, the Americans (North Americans, of course) are flirting with Socialism to survive.

...the first one now will later be last,
as the present now will later be past,
the order is rapidly fading,
for the times they are a changing...
All this talk about Obama "palin" around with terrorists. Easy to refute, I know because he was only 8 years old when William Ayers was building bombs for the Weathermen. (... you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows) What's missing in all the emotional exchanges is the fact that this country was founded by "Freedom Fighters" also known as "Terrorists." George Washington and his rag tag band of revolutionaries embraced violence as a cleansing force as I recall. Ask people about the U.S. role in Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Iran, not to mention Cuba, Panama, and the sovereign Indian nations on our very own soil. Who's asking just what was it that made a young Ayers, now a professor of early childhood education, embrace such radical ideas. Was it the illegal war, the poverty and hunger amid the wealth and arrogance? Was it sadism, or just pure evil at the core? Could it be impressionable youth, a lust for power, or perhaps a genuine desire to improve the quality of life for all?
It can be tiresome reminding some folks about their own history.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Being Subversive

One of the first books I purchased as a grad student at UC Berkeley was Postman and Weingartner's Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It was in the fall of 1972, and my cohort of education graduate students had not only survived the late 60s, we were ready to take the reins, get in the classroom and begin to subvert the dominant paradigm.
We cut our teaching chops on Postman and Weingartner's main ideas. Here are the things outstanding teachers do:

They avoid telling students what they “ought to know”.
They talk to students mostly by questioning, and especially by asking divergent questions.
They do not accept short, simple answers to questions.
They encourage students to interact directly with one another, and avoid judging what is said in student interactions.
They do not summarize students’ discussion.
They do not plan the exact direction of their lessons in advance, and allow it to develop in response to students’ interests.
Their lessons pose problems to students.
They gauge their success by change in students’ inquiry behaviors (with the above characteristics of “good learners” as a goal).

Today, given the oppressive nature of so called "school reform," this book and these ideas are enjoying a resurgence. Not surprising. I found myself referencing Teaching as a Subversive Activity in a recent meeting with one of the student teachers I am now mentoring. It's so difficult for teachers to find themselves in the classroom with constant criticism, continual questioning, outright bashing, and the copious barrage of verbiage that passes for constructive analysis of what, when, where, and how all this effective teaching should be done.
One of the benefits of my 33 years in the profession is that I have the perspective of time. Many of my former students have gone into teaching; that says something. Many have kept in touch, certainly not enough to ay anything with any degree of certainty. Now and again there are surprises.
Last week I received a letter from a student I had in two classes 15 years ago. I will protect her identity, but include most of what she wrote here:

Hi Mr. Greene~

I have often wanted to send you a thank-you note for the incredible experience I had with you as a student at El Cerrito High School. I just cannot tell you how many times, and in how many ways, your class has helped me in the 15 years since leaving high school. Your passion for teaching, your ability to expose your students to your rich perspectives without seeming overbearing or condescending, is a true gift bestowed on all of us who were fortunate enough to learn under your guidance. I still vividly remember the amazing, albeit sometimes obscure, books, the fishbowls, the posters and music… and I could go on and on. You truly opened my eyes while feeding and encouraging my curiosity. I really credit the experiences in your classes for making me a deeper, more critical, thinker and a person willing to stand up for what I believe in.

This is not my best piece of writing and it probably does not adequately express my gratitude. I really just want you to know that you have left a lasting impression on me and I am so lucky to have had you as a guide.

I hope all is well and that life has been good to you.

Take care,

To be sure, I am flattered, proud, and humbled. What matters most is that this note came out of the blue. I know I made mistakes, wasn't always as professional as I might have been, and, at times, could have been more self-reflective or less didactic. Yet, I know that much of what teachers do is like planting seeds. We rarely get to see them grow. When we do we begin to learn the most about what and why we teach.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Their World

I wonder about their world. I've got the time to. He and his two sisters and their parents, (my niece Rose and her husband Eric). I wonder about his education, and how many of my favorite wilderness places will be the same when he is ready to see them, to enjoy them?
I wonder if he will ever write a letter, an actual letter, or read from actual books like I do? Will they look the same, when he's ready? I wonder how much of his life will be online? Will he drive a car? Will he want to?
He's very open to new things. Readily grasps my hand, a carrot, or a rubber ball. Yesterday I watched him struggle with a large plastic bottle of water. He finally got it upright before it suddenly rolled away. He went after it. Put his mouth on the rounded bottom. Rolled it around for a while and felt proud. He'd mastered the universe for an instant.
I wonder if he will like his name, Soren, as much as I do? His namesake was a famous philosopher and already he inspires thought. I wonder if he'll wonder what I wonder?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Two Songs

The other morning I awoke with a verse from an old song in my head. "Many days you have lingered all around my cabin door, oh hard times come again no more." By the end of the day another old tune chimed in. They are both from our collective past. Let me know if you want to hear any of the wonderful versions of either. I thought it might be useful for all of us to read the lyrics as poems in this hour of our need.

Stephen Collins Foster

Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh, hard times come again no more

'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times come again no more
Many days you have lingered
Around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay
There are frail forms fainting at the door
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say;
Oh, hard times come again no more

There's a pale sorrowed maiden who toils her life away
With a worn heart whose better days are o'er
Though her voice would be merry, 'tis sighing all the day
Oh, hard times come again no more

'Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave
'Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
'Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh, hard times come again no more


Blind Alfred Reed

When a man has got the blues and feels discouraged
And has nothing else but trouble all his life
But he's just an honest man like any other
Living in a world that's tearing at his mind
If he's sick and tired of life and takes to drinking
Do not pass him by don't greet him with a frown
Do not fail to lend your hand and try to help him
Always lift him up and never knock him down

If he stays out late at night because he's troubled
Or because his home is not what it should be
Have a smile for him wherever you might meet him
It will help him find the right way don't you see
If he gambles when he's in the town or city
Tell him what he ought to do to win the round
Do not fail to lend your hand to show him pity
Always lift him up and never knock him down

If he has no friends and everything's against him
If he's failed in everything he has tried
Try to lift his load and help him bear his burden
Let him know that you are walking by his side
If he feels that all is lost and he has fallen
Help to place this poor man's feet on solid ground
And when this world has turned its back against him
Always lift him up and never knock him down

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Strange Views

While running a few errands the other day I chanced to hear an international call-in program on PBS. You may know this broadcast; it features people from all over the world having a say in a chosen topic. Like most media attempts to deal with crucial issues, it seems to be exhaustively rushing through it's time slot and capable of little more than a few sound bytes, people talking over one another, and an occasionally salient point made amid all the frenzy. I think it's a BBC program, so all the hosts are Brits and they do a reasonably fine job of sorting out the mess. Sometimes they ask inane questions.
I usually talk to the radio when I hear this program in the car. Rarely do I want to join the conversation.
A few days ago I caught this worldwide discussion in mid-stream. They were discussing compulsory voting and much of the conversation centered on how practical this idea would be. Seems like people who live in more recent democracies think it's a good idea to make people vote, while those who have known only a democratic government would never think of forcing anyone to vote, but felt the need to remind them that that if they don't vote then they have no right to complain about the results. They get that, but unfortunately feel that when they can't support any candidate, they just can't be bothered with voting.
And then came the call of a young man in college who announced he has never voted and wasn't planning to start now. Ironically he now attends the University of Mississippi where the first presidential debate was recently held. What followed was a series of responses encouraging, if not admonishing that young man to vote. What can you tell someone who can but won't vote? I was gnashing my teeth. This guy was so out of touch with his history. I kept thinking of Malcolm X's line that people who don't know their history will unfortunately destroy it. If I knew I could miraculously get through and speak my piece, I'd tell him to recall two words: Strange Fruit. Not the Billy Holiday song, but the metaphor it's based on. I'd remind him that people were lynched in his very state for trying to vote. That's reason enough to exercise his citizenship. But I'd also tell him the story of an old Kansas couple who I heard about a few years ago. Every election day they rise at 5:00 a.m. and drive three hours from their rural farming community to the county seat to vote. They have lunch, then they drive three hours home. Day is done. Here's the kicker. He's a Republican and she's a Democrat. Their votes cancel each other out yet they never miss the opportunity to vote. They get it.