Sunday, February 27, 2011


On a dark, sub-freezing morning last week, I drove out to Gresham High School. Portland's little flirtation with snow was all but over, but there were some patches of black ice that could ruin your day in a hurry.
I like the drive out there because it's due east from where I live and when I get about half of the 10 miles down the road, I often get a nice view of Mt. Hood.
I allowed a bit more time on this day just in case the traffic was thicker because of the dicey streets. Black ice can be a killer because, unlike snow or rain, it's largely invisible. This morning was darker than usual, but when I neared my destination, a shadowy figure loomed up ahead just to my right. The mountain, in all it's stunning glory appeared more a black shade someone had pulled down to keep out the cold. Still the shape was discernible. Then a remarkable thing. The sun, milky and distant peaked over the mountain's shoulder. There they were, vaguely visible but definitely paired up for anybody to see.
The image reminded me how simple some things can be in all their complexity. The day that followed extended this metaphor.
Because the previous day was a snow day, attendance was lighter than usual for a Friday. The student teacher, whose Global Studies class I was observing, was wondering what to do with his lesson plan if some key students were missing. When a substitute failed to appear on time, the CT (Cooperating Teacher, in whose classroom we were) invited those students to come across the hall until someone arrived. So there we were, 2 classes and 3 teachers and the window of opportunity that any true teaching moment affords. Jack, the student teacher, made a few adjustments an both classes participated in a group activity/discussion based on the characteristics of social movements that lead to revolution. From Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, to what is currently going on in Wisconsin with the battle for collective bargaining rights, to the Civil Rights movement, to Gandhi, MLK, and the anti-war movement of the 1960s-70s, the kids considered it all. Probably one of the best discussions any high school class could have. What started out as a busted up day turned into arguably one of the best of the school year. It often goes like that.
On my return trip I realized two things. Like that image of the mountain and the sun, democracy in the Middle East is on the rise and here at home, we're going the other direction. All those hard fought worker's rights are being threatened by dark forces who do not value human rights over cold, corporate, cash.

Monday, February 21, 2011

An Open Letter

Dear Family and Friends,
Given the momentous events of the past few weeks at home and abroad, I'm sure we're all watching with interest how these crucial situations are changing the face of democracy. As one of my treasured compatriots (if you are on this list, I treasure you, like it or not!) I trust that you keep up with world affairs and I suspect that the irony of democracy threatened here at home is not lost on you. That's why I want to share some thoughts with you and why I seek your comments on same.
In short, the siege on public employees and teachers we're now experiencing is as serious a threat to our democracy as anything going on in the Middle East.
In this age of instant communication, the costs and benefits can work in favor or against the dissemination of the truth. To be succinct, public schools and the teachers they employ are under attack. Both the profession and the hard fought rights that involve everything from due process to collective bargaining are threatened. Most of this assault is under the guise of balancing budgets or overspending. Make no mistake, that is hardly the truth. As noted economist Robert Reich said in a recent commentary, "The problem isn't that we've been spending too much. It's that most Americans have been getting a steadily smaller share of the nation's total income."
What we have here is a deliberate and concerted attempt to break unions, and place the blame for everything that's problematic or "wrong" with public schools on the backs of teachers and/or the struggling poor and middle classes. One has only to look at the people and organizations behind many of these so called "reform" efforts to see the big picture. These corporate, hedge fund backed, wealthy (I might add greedy) organizations have no real interest in educating our nation's children. They are all about control, punitive measures, exclusivity, and deceptive use of the all mighty "data." Privatizing and Corporatizing public schools is their agenda. This, of course leads to all manner of undemocratic consequences like de-facto segregation, but it also deepens the gulf between "haves" and "have nots" in this country.
So what's at stake? Only democracy, that's all. If we lose a viable public school system, what will we have lost? Tell me what you think.
Like me, I'm sure you have thought about what it means to live in a culture that values diversity, education, learning for it's own sake, and equity. Unfortunately, many in our country have either abandoned those principles or have decided that they don't matter any longer.
When I think about the future; that is, the world our children and their children will be inheriting, I'm troubled. To be sure, the universe of social media that we are just beginning to explore will make us closer, but it will no doubt make us distant in ways we have yet to imagine. The technology is often about imagery, if it's about anything. Books, photographs, landscapes, people become simulations. Could educating students in a democracy share the same fate? Programs like NCLB or the current "Race to the Top" are examples of the illusion of reform. They are ill-conceived and, unfortunately, appease those who would blame the victim (students) or those attempting to educate. (teachers)
If you are still with me, let me say only one more thing. I write because I'm deeply concerned. I value your perspective and seek your thoughts as well.
As you may know, I taught for 33 years. I know full well the problems in public education. I know there are people who should not be in the teaching profession, as there are doctors, lawyers, politicians, and corporate executives that do not belong in their chosen fields. BUT, the time has come to defend public education. There are millions of dedicated professionals that put in long days at under resourced, ill-cared for facilities. They know that testing is not teaching. They know what it really means to educate a human being. They are on the verge of losing any semblance of integrity and due process to heartless politicos who have no idea what it means to be a teacher. Lastly, there are millions more students, (like many of us) who were educated in public schools that prepared them for careers, occupations, community colleges, state and private colleges, as well as our nation's most rigorous, prestigious, universities. Our public schools are the true essence of our democracy. It's time to stand up and support them. You can do that in many ways, even just telling the truth.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

No Blinking

Looks like some of the fervor over democracy in the Middle East is spilling over into the state capitals of many states as governors scramble to slash budgets and exert the corporatizing of public education. In Wisconsin, neither side is willing to blink. But while the media emphasizes the attack on teacher benefits and salaries, (other public employees too) the real battle is over the right to bargain collectively. If ever my fellow Americans were showing their ignorance of their own history, it's in situations like this. Many have no concept of how the struggle to unionize workers yielded everything from minimum wage, to an 8 hour work day, paid vacations, and the entire structure to bargain collectively and grieve unfair practices. Right now, Capitalism is devouring Democracy. An old labor song says that "every generation got to win it all again." So true. At this writing, demonstrations in state capitals are being planned in California, Colorado, Oregon, and New Jersey. Other states will follow; battle lines are drawn.
Underreported in all of this is the attempt to break up the last of the influential labor unions. That's what all this is about. Republicans know that with no voting bloc in organized labor, they can easily dismantle the Democratic party, and with it the control of Congress, the courts, the immediate future.
Last Friday night, speaking on Bill Maher's program, journalist Tavis Smiley said it best. "Budgets are moral documents."

With the privatization and corporatization of public education comes all the evils that teachers are currently resisting. Skewed data from unreliable tests, data driven curriculum, and all the soulless quasi-reform efforts that make both students and teachers dread going to school.
I'm excited. The time to take a stance is now. I wish an organized body of teachers wasn't such a "sleeping giant." It's the sleeping part I worry about. I hope the train hasn't left the station. Ten years ago, when enmeshed in this crisis, if I started to voice a passionate opposition with everything that's wrong with public education I would be mistaken for a teacher that's burned out.
I vividly recall telling people who genuinely seemed interested in these issues that I might be tired, I might be discouraged, I might be angry, but I AM NOT BURNED OUT. Hardly.
Until we live in a culture that has the will to care for all it's citizens, we will have this unrest. Until our governments have the will to care for those most vulnerable, those most deserving, we will have this unrest. Slowly, more and more people are able to determine what is worth fighting for. Those folks will do what it takes. No blinking.

Monday, February 14, 2011

But I Try and I Try

This year's Grammy awards had something for any musical taste. Too bad we didn't get to see some of the more "esoteric" categories, or even hear the results. But with CBS at the helm, it was more an entertainment extravaganza than an awards show. I think the show was on for an hour before the second award of the night was presented.
As expected, the dress code is wide open and many of the winners actually performed right before their names were called. For me it was all about the new and the old. I've been trying to help some folks my age explain to a genuinely curious young man, why Bob Dylan is so revered. You'll never get a clue from his voice today or even most of his performances. History lessons are required to deal with this subject. Fortunately Martin Scorsese's film No Direction Home will do the job well. One Facebook thread I've been following has whittled itself down to people from all over the country sharing their favorite Dylan lyrics. Seems to be making an impact on this young man. He had only to ask.
Of course a 67 year-old Mick Jagger strutting out a tribute to the late Solomon Burke was a thing of beauty. People in that crowd had a sense that seeing Mick's first Grammy performance, ever, was something to cherish. He's still soulful, full of energy, and knows how to work the crowd year after year. Satisfaction.
Watching musicians age is poignant. We grow up and we grow wise with the music of our time. As our favorites age and pass on we lose a little something of ourselves. But the music remains. It always remains. We may have to change the way we access our music, but it will always be there. So many people I know are figuring out how to "do music" these days. As soon as they got comfortable with CDs, I Pods came along. Some of us don't want the computer to be our key hole to everything we do. It might be inevitable, eventually, but right now we still have choices.

Probably the most satisfying thing from Grammy night came near the end with the announcement of "Best New Artist." No mass selling pop star this time. A beautiful Jazz bassist/vocalist from Portland took the big prize. Surprise, Surprise Surprise. Esperanza Spalding is on the brink of a huge career. She gave the Academy the opportunity to award talent and originality and they did just that. The little girl that saw Yo Yo Ma on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and decided she wanted to play a "violin" (she called the cello a violin at age 5) will inspire millions. Don't know if a shocker this big will ever happen again. What is clear is that right now more than a few 18 year olds are reinventing themselves. They are planning colorful costumes and the logistics of arriving in giant eggs or hanging from and ultimately dropping from the sky. It can't be helped. But for now, there is quite a bit of satisfaction blowin' in the wind.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Big Red

I finally saw the Secretariat film last week. I had been warned, so my disappointment wasn't as great as it might have been. A pleasant distortion of many of the facts, but still entertaining. Disney at its best, especially the undercurrent of "Oh Happy Day," the spiritual-inspired tune by the Edwin Hawkins singers running throughout. It soars during the big climax at the end too. Disney being Disney.
So the question becomes, why can't Hollywood, or anyone for that matter, make an honest horse racing film? Seabiscuit was OK, but the documentaries are always better, in my view. I think it's a matter of will. Now I have no expectations from Disney. You're going to get happy endings and that's that. Even at the end of the film, when they show the real individuals on screen and do the where are they now? messages, Disney won out again. When Ron Turcotte's picture appeared, instead of mentioning that he was a paraplegic, the caption said he was injured in a racing accident and now "rides his wheelchair." No shit. I'm sure there are some Zenyatta ideas in the works. Certainly not the same kind of tension there, but even after the mare wins 19 in a row, and then loses her only race by a nose in the Breeder's Cup Classic, there are disbelievers.
Of the few things I know something about, two have an interesting similarity when movies are made about them. As an educator, I always marvel at how teachers are rarely seen teaching a lesson in class. Ever notice how the bell rings in the classroom of about 14 students and most of the dialogue and action takes place after class? On TV it's even worse. All those TV shows with teachers as main character, and we never see them teach. Why do you suppose that is? A notable exception would be Stand and Deliver, where Jaime Escalante is actually shown teaching math and Calculus. But screenwriters and directors rarely show teachers planning curriculum, teaching lessons, pondering over student writing, dealing with any one of the 14 major decisions daily that researchers tell us are just part of the profession. I wonder how long it will be before we see the hours grading papers after the school day is over, or teachers spending their own money so that they might be able to teach a given lesson or book.
Similarly, in horse racing films, jockeys are always wearing their silks all over the place. They are in silks in the morning, in the barn area, after the race. In the starting gate, they always say things like "you'll eat my dust" (twice in Secretariat!) and rarely speak more than a sentence or two. Just once I'd like to see them reading or talking to each other in the jock's room.
One of the things that I first noticed when I first became a turf writer was how diverse the community of the backstretch really was. And not just ethnic diversity; it could still use a bit more there. But class diversity, for sure. It's really a microcosm of the larger culture: high brow to low brow, God fearer to atheist, dropout to advanced degree.
So they don't get it what? It's a simple matter of will; that's what. Some decide what story will be told, some decide what story they want to hear.
I suppose there is another side when we do finally see something different. Recent National Book Award winner Lord of Misrule would make a great film. It deals, however, with the most ugly and despicable people and circumstances of horse racing. The little universe swirling around Indian Mound Downs, the fictional setting for this tale of low life where the grass is not only less green, but often dying, contains kernels of truth. It has to battle the stereotypes, of course, but it's a gritty tale filled with horror, suspense, and just enough sex and violence to make some screenwriter come calling.
Come to think of it, they do make TV films about teachers gone astray. The ones that get involved with former students, or the pedophiles, or the unethical. It's what sells, isn't it?