Monday, May 30, 2011


On this Memorial Day, most folks are taking it easy and enjoying a week without a normal Monday. They also stop, for a moment or two and recognize the reasons we celebrate this day. Well, not celebrate, but rather honor those who have served our country in previously wars.
I have no problem with that. It's tradition, and I love tradition. But I take this time to reflect on the concept of war as well. It really is the last option of presumably civilized countries. But as noted writer and thinker Chris Hedges has pointed out, "War is a force that gives us meaning." His book by that title accurately points out how we are all too often seduced by the mythology of war.
But today is for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Today is for all those young people who never had a chance to live their lives into their 40s or beyond. I submit that they often never had a chance to think deeply about the reasons we go to war, the consequences that follow, or the alternatives to war that we might pursue with as much vigor as we pursue the violence.
In my community, like many others, there is another kind of local war. Gangs. These dysfunction surrogate families remind me, in some ways, of nationalistic entities who value retribution, seem insensitive to violent acts that take human life, and often breed via the seduction of young people. I often see a disconnect in the national dialogue. I'm waiting for someone of legislative or popular notoriety to ask the simple question again: Why do they hate us?
I'd like to see our foreign policy formed along those lines, so we might be able to put an end to foreign interventions and follow the advice of George Washington who warned about "entangling alliances" in his Farewell Address.
But too often we infuse our love for all things military with religion or simple-minded jingoism. We like the sound of "putting a boot in their ass" better than the hard work of solving international issues with permanent solutions.
On this day I feel for my classmates and their fathers who never made it back home from the European or Pacific theaters of war, the mud of Korea or Vietnam. I feel for my former students who did not survive the sands of Iraq or the moon like terrain of Afghanistan.
On this Memorial day I see the 1/3 of the mentally ill and homeless on the street that are veterans. They can't eat the flag, or take it as medicine, or even get close enough to most people to tell their tales. And the little flags carried by children watching parades or stuck into the countless rows of white gravestones at attention on cemetery's are not big enough to keep out the cold of the sidewalk.

They used to call Memorial Day Decoration day. It was a day when people wore little poppies with red, white, and blue decorations and bunting attached. It arose after World War I. There have been too many wars that followed, one every 20 years if you do the math. So at some point, Memorial Day enabled us to lump all the honoring together to include all wars past and present. It solved one problem but ignored an even bigger one.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

History Lesson

I read some of the education blogs. I belong to a list-serv that allows educators all over the nation to exchange ideas. I have "Liked" on Facebook all manner of pages that support public education, authentic school reform, and various events taken or soon to take place. Now and then I write a letter to my local newspaper editor. Such was the case recently when I responded to an Op-Ed piece written by an insightful 17-year-old high school junior who really seemed to get that the so-called "achievement gap" had more to do with poverty and home environment that with teacher quality.
Yet one thing in all the debates and exchanges I see remains constant. People seem to rely on their perceptions of school to frame and inform their opinions. Nothing wrong with that except those perceptions are often inaccurate or sadly lacking. In time I have come to see that much of the disagreement comes because those who teach feel one way and those who do not fell another. Needless to say it doesn't exactly lend itself to treating teachers as professionals when everyone who ever attended a school truly believes they know what it takes to bring about change.
That's why I always invite people to come over to the other side. Unless you do the job for at least 10 years, your opinions, in my view, will continue to be misinformed no matter how well meant.
So what might be the reasons that so many non-professionals feel they know what's best. Again, these perceptions that they carry, no matter how ancient or inauthentic.

There is always the profit motive too. Public education is a multi-billion dollar business. All those bad textbooks, those supplies and most importantly, those many, many tests are worth billions. The profit motive is what drives pseudo reformers more thn anything else. They may tell you that they "do it for the children" but they fool nobody. Those that "do for the children" are in the classroom. They show up day after day, year after year. They are the career professionals that are privy to much more than "perceptions" of what is and what should be.
So what do they see? They see the child that hasn't eaten, that has more going on at home than many will see in a lifetime. They see the child with no self-esteem hiding in plain sight, the idea spark in someone's eyes and everything that can't be measured or standardized. They assess from moment to moment.
Despite this obvious disconnect, it seems to me we need to find a way to deal with all these perceptions. Not easy. Most educators I know are either so depressed or so angry that right now they are incapable of productive conversation. Hopefully the much needed summer break might allow some of this much needed conversation to begin. Until that happens, keep your eyes on the month of July when a million teachers will come to Washington D.C. A little history can go a long way.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Every Day

This week, all over the country, many cities had school bond issues on their ballots. In my town, Portland, there were two such measures. Also in my town, like most other cities, these measures went down. That people are feeling the pinch of our stagnant economy is obviously much of the reason that these bonds failed. I'm sure a lot of folks were torn. No doubt many who always vote for school bond measures did not this time. It's certainly understandable. It's also difficult to face for those in the education community.
It underscores the contradictions so rampant in education today. Give us more with less. It's that simple. Educators are under the gun to deliver a perceived notion of what constitutes "achievement" but nothing that truly might make that possible is provided.
We want higher test scores, highly motivated and engaged students, committed teachers, and curriculum that meets these standards. Oh, by the way, we're cutting your wages, your colleagues, and taking away your right to organize and bargain collectively. Any fool will tell you that this won't work. That this is not leadership. But here's the thing: many teachers go to work everyday, spend their own money for basic supplies, create their own curriculum, and spend extra hours grading papers, calling homes, and educating themselves as lifelong learners...anyway.
I've learned to live with these contradictions. Doesn't mean I like it, or condone the status quo, but I've learned to adjust my reaction. (at least I'm trying)
In the novel and now film Water for Elephants, the theme of illusion becomes the overarching metaphor for not only the circus, but life in general. This we know. Things are seldom what they appear to be. Because this is so, it's a constant in explaining the contradictions that are so much a part of how education issues are seen. If any gap exists in achievement in this country it always comes down to socio-economic status. Put simply...poverty. But the poor have always been invisible. We live in a culture that values appearance. Is it any wonder that poverty is the reigning illusion?
That begs the question, do the people in power even see the real issues? We have a Secretary of Education that was never a teacher. Can you imagine a Surgeon General who never went to medical school or a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was never in the military? Incredible, isn't it?
Recently a high school junior in my town wrote an opinion piece that was printed in the local paper. The title says it all. Struggling Students Need Broad Support, Not Labels. Here she argues that it is the socio-economic disparity in this culture not race or standards or more testing that explains what the reality at play in our schools today. She gets it. But then, she goes there every day.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Look, Up in the Sky

In the aftermath of the death of Osama Bin Laden some fascinating observations have come to light. The President went on 60 Minutes to relate just what happened, how and when. But even then, we all know our knowledge of this entire event will be limited at best. The sequence and substance of events changed half a dozen times in the first few days.
Stories do change with each day; that is just the way it is. This we know. But it was left for Michael Eric Dyson, speaking on Bill Maher's program last week who offered a most unusual, if not dynamic perspective. Considering how President Obama, until very recently, has been considered "the other" by so many seemingly mainstream Americans, Dyson quipped, "Isn't it interesting how as soon as he is violent, Obama is accepted. It's the American way. Harsh words, but I fear, very true. And Obama didn't mince his words or dredge out the the safety of passive voice. He never said Bin Laden was killed, he said we killed him, we got him. Subject -verb, just that simple.
That comment aired on HBO was barely 24 hours old when some of us watched the L.A. Lakers crash and burn in another attempt to win a championship. But not before blowing up in a fit of violent, flagrant, unnecessary fouls. We're not winning so let's have the 6'10 "professional" shove his oversized forearm into the kidney of the little 5'10" guard. Flatten him. If we can't win fairly, we'll just take you out. American way? Is it so unreasonable to think there is a connection between these two media events?
The overwhelming lack of sportsmanship is bad enough, but when professional athletes get paid tens of millions and act that way it truly shows, in an instant, how sick this culture can be.
I worry about people talking about killing other human beings, (no matter how vile) so cavilerly. I had the audacity to hope we were better than that. Is there ever a time when vengeance is preferable to justice? Just asking.
In other news, I read where the good folks at Superman comics are going to remove the phrase, "truth, justice and the American way" from the official Superman text. They defend this decision by explaining that Superman is now a citizen of the world and it's more appropriate in the 21st century to portray him that way. Let's not forget that Superman is a child of the Great depression. Like King Kong and Seabiscuit, his roots run deep into the American psyche. If he can change and adapt to a global perspective, maybe, eventually, there is hope we can too.
Gives one pause.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy 100th Birthday Robert Johnson!

This blues class is presented with a wonderful film that set against it's historical context showcases Robert Johnson's voice and guitar playing talent as well as the social and political realities that produced it. In the first three decades of the 20th century there was a huge Black migration into the cities of the North and Midwest. Fueled by wartime jobs and the possibility of a better life without overt Jim Crow laws and decent wages, the city of Chicago blossomed with youthful energy and thousands of migrants. As Johnson sang, "Come on, Baby don't you wanna go...?

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Tomorrow is the 100th birthday of Robert Johnson. The only thing more intriguing than his legacy, his haunting voice, and the handful of recordings he left in his short 27 year life is all the mystery that surrounds him. There are at least 3 gravestone markers and countless stories of former friends, family members and, of course, girlfriends.
I'be been listening to his music for the last two days. This year, the anniversary of his birth coincided with the Kentucky Derby. Man, it just doesn't get much better than that. I was hoping that all the mythology might come together and produce a winner like Midnight Interlude. After all, Johnson was rumored to have sold his soul t the devil at midnight at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49.
But this year it was Animal Kingdom, a 20-1 longshot that emerged from the pack and won going away by 4 lengths. I'm sure if we looked deep into his breeding we could find a connection. Let's see, there were 19 horses in this year's Derby so no number 49 or 61. But wait! Animal Kingdom was number 16...One and six, the same two numbers that make up 61. Just change the order, invert the possibilities. Oh yeah, I knew it all the time. That ol' devil works in strange ways.
If you listen to the original recordings of Robert Johnson, they are just as stunning now as they must have been then. Had he lived, of course, then all the mythology would be gone. But that begs the question, what other recordings would he have left?
But, we can only guess and that leads nowhere. In the end, there is just his small body of work and the enormous possibilities he left behind. Happy Birthday to the King of the Delta Blues, the Grandfather of Rock and Roll, and an American original.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Jingo All The Way

The names are uncomfortably similar. Osama ad Obama. They rhyme, they connote Islam, at one time they could so easily be "the other." With the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden, confirmed at a midnight press conference by Barak Obama, the names will no doubt be intertwined forever.
The reaction to this death of a villain is diverse and troubling. For some it's a celebration akin to a football rally, but eerily reminiscent to a lynching. There is no moral high ground here. Can't say I'm surprised, but is it so much to ask for more people to react with reflection rather than vengeance? What happens when we mimic our "enemies?"
The polarization in this country is greater than ever and this event really brings it to the fore. This morning I read various responses on Facebook pages. They ranged from carefully worded statements suggesting people think about what it means to celebrate the death of another human being to "hope he was tortured before they killed him and isn't God great."
Time to get out the Dylan recording of "With God on our Side."
The Jingoism is rife today. The media is sucking it all down and regurgitating a red, white, and blue Superman cape for a national picnic.
In a few days, the party will be over. The news of Bin Laden's death will spark another round of militaristic chest beating, but the essence of what is truly here will go unspoken. Who will ask the tough questions? How will anything be different? Would the victims of 9/11/01, in all three locations, be concerned that we address the real issues behind those attacks?
Particularly chilling was how the President used no passive voice in telling the country that the evil archetype of terror was dead.
We killed him, not he was killed. Who stops to think how that will play elsewhere?
Sure, like everyone else, I'm glad that Bin Laden has been brought to justice. But were there alternatives? I think about other archetypal evil figures and I immediately think of Nazi Germany. But the government of Israel took a moral stance and gave their enemies of the state public trials. Isn't that what we'd expect from the United States of America.