Sunday, April 24, 2011

Line in the Sand

One of the most profound experiences that high school kids can have is to participate in something we used to call Challenge Day. Sure it can be a bit too "touchy/feely" for some people, but the overall impact can have life long consequences. Consequences that can easily affect bad choices, intolerance, and the alienation that many young people deal with daily. Challenge Day is organized around a set of activities that encourage personal growth by having those involved develop empathy for members of their own community, whether it be a school or a culture or a sub-culture. One of the most memorable activities is called "Step over the Line." There are various versions of this movement strategy but it's usually done by stating a condition like, who here knows someone who has died of Aids, or cancer, or heart disease? If so, step over the line. People move around, putting their bodies over the line, or not. As you might surmise, this can get fairly emotional or traumatic given the conditions for crossing over the line. Lots of support comes from all over the room. When we see that we are not so different, that yes, even the white or black kids have had similar experiences, yes even our teachers or administrators have also had those experiences, it's difficult not to change your thinking or at least your assumptions about people.
But this is not about Challenge Day. It is, however, about stepping over a line.
Sometimes I wish we could lay aside all the blathering about educational reform and simply draw a line in the sand. What I'm interested in is telling the truth and sticking to the issue at hand. The conditions have to be specific. If not, the "line game" will have no meaning. For example, I watched one of those Sunday morning talk shows where politicians discuss current events. When asked about a new national poll that says 75% of the American people disapprove of what the current Congress has done, a Congressman, whose name eludes me (but that's no matter) was eager to reply. In 10 seconds, he went from answering the question to gas prices on the rise. He was never asked to go back and answer the question. Who isn't upset about paying $5 for a gallon of gas? The point is simple: deal with the subject at hand and nothing else.
So here's my version of Step over the line.
Step over the line if you agree and wish to do something about public education:
Step over the line if you believe...
*schools are underfunded
*school facilities need to be upgraded and infrastructures repaired or replaced
* Testing is not teaching- standardized testing is wasteful, costly, highly problematic, and often inaccurate
*The privatization of public schools is ill conceived at best, evil, racist, irrelevant, and undemocratic at worst.
*Scripted curriculum and pre-packaged materials from huge publishing houses (aka "teacher proof materials") are attempts to de-skill teachers
*Budgets are moral documents and reflect what we really care about but do not wish to admit.

OK, now I want to give legislators, philanthropists, pundits, and Presidential candidates a chance too. Remember there is only one rule here, you must tell the truth. Step over the line if you love to talk about education reform,
* if your really believe that education is not a high priority in this country, and anyway your kids are in private schools where everybody looks alike.
* if you truly think that not everyone needs to be educated, after all, who will work the service professions
* if you believe teacher unions are the real problem here.
* if budgeting more for education and less for defense is entirely out of the question.
* if you secretly enjoy talking about education because you know it's important to talk, but also enjoy knowing that you can win more favor by talking about tax cuts, the war on terrorism, bad teachers, and how this is just not the right time to ask for more money for schools.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Refresh Your Memory

It's happened again. Another best selling memoir exposed as a fraud? We don't know all the details yet, but according to reputable sources like "60 Minutes" and writer John Krakauer, the blockbuster Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortensen may be full of lies. If not complete falsehoods, then some very questionable facts. Did Mortensen's chain of events happen as detailed in his two books? Are the schools he claims to have built all up and running? Was he really captured by the Taliban and detained in a cell or are the "captors" he's pictured with in the book just friends. And then there is the money? 23 million in contributions that include $100,000. from President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize money. Troubling. Very troubling. As Krakauer writes in a recently published essay called "Three Cups of Deceit,"

The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact. And by no means was this an isolated act of deceit. It turns out that Mortenson’s books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods. The image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born of fantasy, audac- ity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem. Morten- son has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built. T hree Cups of T ea has much in common with A Million Little Pieces, the infamous autobiography by James Frey that was exposed as a sham. But Frey, unlike Morten- son, didn’t use his phony memoir to solicit tens of millions of dollars in donations from unsuspecting readers, myself among them. Moreover, Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, has issued fraudulent financial statements, and he has misused millions of dollars donated by schoolchildren and other trusting devotees. “Greg,” says a former treasurer of the organization’s board of directors, “regards CAI as his personal ATM.”

Those who know Mortensen well, know that he's a bit quirky. They know too that when memoir is written, sometimes events are compacted in time. Dialogue is spiced up a bit, and longer, detailed scenes are gutted in favor of action. Action...just the action ma'am.
What bothers this writer more than anything about this scandal is the book tour. Allegedly, Mortensen is picking up $30,000. speaking fees, globe trotting on private jets, and avoiding questions of the media about his integrity. Thus far, we can't pass judgment on all of this until it sorts itself out and a public accounting of the money and facts occurs. But it does beg a few important questions for writers in general and writers of memoir in particular. Are we being asked to forgo accuracy for action? Is our audience so fickle or so dependent on sensationalism that we must knowingly tweak the substance of our personal stories in order to gain favor with a mass audience?
In my recently completed memoir, I constantly grappled with these issues. I found myself responding to constructive criticism with ethical replies. My inner memoirist was screaming, but that's not what happened. But that's what you want to happen, or If I wanted to say that, I'd have written a novel. It is the job of the memoir writer to find the action and the sensational within the truth. Our stories, as they actually happen, have the power to captivate even the toughest audiences. It's our job, our ultimate challenge to tell them in ways that do just that.
It ain't easy. But it's oh so necessary. Otherwise we end up fabrication. We end up prostituting ourselves to a popular culture that often sacrifices the deepest personal or political for the glitter of overt violence. A publication industry that sometimes panders to the quick buck with no regard for ethics or substance. This explains why Snookie of Jersey Shore, in my view the most inane TV offering of the century, gets a book deal.
Bleak as all this looks, there is another side. I recently received an email from an old friend. In fact, a very special old friend. After 40 years, I found myself talking to one of the VISTA Volunteers I served with in 1970. He'd heard I'd written a memoir of that year through some of the folks I'd contacted and decided he wanted to read it. His note to me mentioned that he'd been up all night reading it from Preface through all 12 chapters and the Afterword. He'd found it compelling and well written. (Thanks Boo) and mentioned that it brought up all sorts of issues and recollections. GOAL!
I realized early on that it would take more time, money, and inclination for me to sell it to a publisher. My goal was for many of my former students to read it, so I put it online. (Readers of this blog will find it connected here) Now I may not be doing too many speaking appearances, or soliciting funds or appear on the most popular top selling lists, but I can say that my memoir is accurate, it occurred...all of it... the beauty and the hatred, the racism and the wonder, the violence, fear, horrible alienation and brutally authentic music of the oppressed..all of it happened.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tune In

This week's daily news is certainly full of blues. Ironic that on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War our country seems more polarized than ever. While the self-righteous politicos like to talk about "the greatest country in the world," the quality of life in the USA continues to deteriorate. One day it's air traffic controllers falling asleep in increasing numbers, and another day we learn of even more tax loop holes for the most wealthy and the largest corporations. We've got blood, oil, and greed all over our hands and faces.
In 1861, session was unthinkable. Today, I'm not so sure. Critics of education like to compare the U.S. with other countries. Mostly China and Japan, but increasingly the Scandinavian countries. When I think of life in a country where the kind of energy expended on social justice is minimal because people come before profit, I think about Canada and then Sweden or Norway. Rarely about countries with millions. Maybe it's time for our United States to re-configure. It's been done many times in mostly amusing ways. Last year a very funny but fascinating attempt to divide the blue from the red states circulated widely around the Internet. Worked for me. I could live without ever setting foot in parts of the heartland, Arizona or So. California. The Bible belt isn't on my itinerary and many of this countries most incredible natural resources would be in my half. It's preposterous, I know, but the possibilities are enticing. I'll gladly swap the Everglades for the Napa Valley. The Rockies for the Mojave Desert or Death Valley.
I must say, the heart beats a little faster thinking about a land where those most vulnerable aren't forgotten, the budget really does resemble a moral document, and health care, women's reproductive rights, school funding, environmental safeguards, and a free press become non-issues because most agree on these crucial issues.
I know...POP!
But I can't help thinking about the loss of resources and all the wheel-spinning we do just to have a discussion on these issues that shape the quality of our lives. Reminds me of the Paris Peace talks on the Vietnam War, where the parties involved took months just to agree on the shape of the table they'd sit at.
Recently, a friend of mine decided to call a halt to the status quo. It took the form of just dropping out for a while. Just sitting back and "watching the world go by" as John Lennon sang. I'd love to give that a try. Just don't know if it's in me. Too many reasons to stand up, plant my feet, and keep trying to put this experiment in democracy back together.
I need to rethink what to do about Kentucky and Louisiana. Any chance of annexing Lexington and New Orleans?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Will You Still Need and Feed?

Dealing with age is something that has never been particularly difficult for me. Like most people, I usually wanted to be older. That changed when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer when I was 16. High School was full of the usual adolescent hopes, fears, and confusion, but in hindsight, I sense that I was forced to grow up a bit earlier than my peers. Too many responsibilities that my friends just didn't have yet. At 22, with graduation from college, I left home. I knew I would never return and felt a bit of guilt because my father was left alone in the family home. Still, I could and would not live there because I wanted to break away from L.A. and many of the people and the geography that was all I knew.
My father lived ten more years. I visited regularly and even offered him many opportunities to move closer to me as began my career in the Bay Area. I have no doubt, though I am well aware that I could be wrong, that I will outlive my parents in all probability. My peers are grappling with getting older in various ways. From surgery to hair loss or color to just plain acting inappropriately, they struggle. I try to stay healthy, try to embrace what I consider to be the logical physical changes that go with age, and marvel at how I seem to have fooled some of my new friends who think I'm a bit younger than I really am. The latter is probably the case because I tend to hang out with younger folks like the people in my writing group or the student teachers I mentor. Of course, I have older friends. Many, like me, are physically mature but think youthful thoughts. Thoughts like try not to resist change, be careful about being too judgmental, and realize that this is a different world than the one our youth inhabited.
This morning I awoke with a certain Beatles song in my head.
"When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now...
Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greeting, bottle of wine....

Today is a good day to be 64. I have an answer to those questions.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sudden Accountability

I'm sure it's been done before. It must have. Still, I keep thinking of another way to counter all the nonsense about teacher accountability I keep hearing from non-experts who nonetheless make policy. Any teacher who has been in the classroom for more than just a few years has them. They are notes or letters. Sometimes scrawled on everything from a 3x5 note cards to Hallmarks, Post It Notes, fancy stationery or plain ol' notebook paper. Sometimes the come quite unannounced if the form of emails. Like the one I received a couple of years ago from a student I'd had in class 15 years earlier. In many ways the sudden thank yous are the most rewarding because they answer the questions that could only be answered after the passage of time. How many teachers ask themselves daily, Am I making a difference? Even after they retire, the question becomes did I make a difference? And then these little notes appear. In some ways they never stop appearing.
I've come to believe it's time to collect these messages and print them in an anthology or two. They are the best data we can use to fight the corporate takeover of our schools. They contain what no standardized test could contain. They tell the tale of what cannot be measured. So, yes, It must have been done before. There must be a book or two with titles like Letters to the Teacher I really must look sometime. If by any chance it has not been done, then someone ought to do it; perhaps I will. Until then, I offer one 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,

Rachael (McDonald) Ford

I will take care. I will take great care to make sure that accountability takes many forms.