Sunday, March 30, 2014

Not Training Seals

If there is one word that hits a nerve for me it's the word performance.  Used in many of the educational circles I frequent, that one word, so popular today when discussing student assessment, seems to encapsulate all that is wrong with the so-called "reform" movement today.  Humans, unlike corporations, are people.
The use of the word once prompted me to interject at a faculty meeting, "We're not training seals here."
Yet, the constant use of the term student performance leaves some doubt.
Sure, teachers care about "outcomes" and scores and how data can "inform" our practice, but we care more and know more about people and their diverse learning styles and what motivates an individual.
In a recent interview, leading education historian Diane Ravitch noted that because of the corporate assault on public education, some large American cities (Dallas, Philadelphia) might no longer have public schools.  She followed that comment with the statement that this just might be the most significant threat to democracy that we, as a culture, face.
I think so.
Especially when performance involves so much judgment.
Some think that data in the form of test scores is objective.  Impossible.  Consider this metaphor.  Two boxers in a ring for 10 rounds.  Three judges see the same fight and come up with three different scores.  Sometimes they give the victory to different competitors too.  Hardly objective.

Some years ago a important and thoughtful book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity scared a lot of people.  It's true message wasn't something to be feared, but you know how that word subversive can conjure up images.  Postman and Weingartner were simply saying that teachers need to build relationships with their students, teach the whole person.  Modeling empathy is another message that comes across clearly.  They emphasized the inductive method of class discussion as well.  Complicating questions, not settling for simple one word answers was part of the message.  A classroom where students talked to each other about big ideas was often the goal.
Given the current state of affairs, the threat to public education and how the vast majority of the American people can be easily lulled into believing that "choice" is the answer to all the ills that face public education, we need something that borders on the subversive.  It's crunch time.  Subvert the mistaken notion that student's "perform" rather than think critically.  Teaching is, after all, the ultimate political act..

Friday, March 28, 2014

Ethical Treatment

Only a matter of time.  Given the new technology, the motivation, and the ease with which people will be themselves if given the opportunity, PETA was going to get what it wanted--in a big way.
With the New York Times article by Joe Drape last week, one of the top thoroughbred trainers in the country now finds his nomination to the Hall of Fame "tabled."  Looks like it's going to be on the table for a good while now.
Apparently an undercover investigative reporter with PETA backing has got trainer Steve Assmussen, and his assistant, by the balls.  It's all on tape, captured by a hidden camera.  Reputed accusations of unlawful medications and running injured horses seem to have been norm for the Texas born and bred trainer.  As shocking as that is, what's worse is the way assistant trainer Scott Blasi talks about it all.  His use of expletives in such an uncaring and careless way is telling.  You wouldn't want this man around horses, ever.
And while Assmussen is not quite the Bernie Madoff of horse racing, he does seem, now, to represent the worst of the sport.
I'm sure, in his defense, he'll claim that he is not doing what many others are doing.  He might be right, but that doesn't justify his or those under his employ from their actions.  It doesn't shed any light on the fact that there are thousands of hard working people in the sport that play by the rules and always will.
But Assmussen, who is accused of heartless methods like giving performance enhancements to his charges through thyroid medication or legal drugs like lasix, is definitely in deep horseshit.  The video and it's sound track are damning, if not reprehensible.
Let the chips fall.  To those who don't spoil deserve the victory.

Postscript:  There is also an interesting exchange on this undercover tape featuring the voices of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lucas and Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens.  Stevens, often known for his starring role in the wonderful film Seabiscuit, talks with Lucas about the frequency of "buzzers" used by some in the sport.  These are battery operated devices jockeys use to stimulate horses with a small shock.   They don't injure, but they are illegal and unethical.  This is equally disturbing, though known. Again, it diminishes all the hard working honest people in the sport who must grapple with the fallout. Hopefully the sport will get off it's collective ass and regulate, suspend or expel law breakers, and possibly shoot for federal regulation that clearly and effectively deals with medication and ethical behavior.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Evacuation or Evisceration?

72 years ago today Executive Order 9066 was enforces and thousands of Japanese Americans, many of them citizens, were interred in "relocation camps."  Initially, those were horse stalls at Santa Anita and the old Tanforan racetrack in Northern California.
Much has been written, and with such talented photographers as Dorothea Lange around, many photographs exist.  Some are particularly stunning.

In my view, it's important to remember and honor these dates/events because so many young people don't know about the history of our country.  They may know various terms and dates, but often some of the most objectionable parts of U.S. history conveniently get left out.  Especially now that the big publishers and corporate interests have hijacked so much of the curriculum.
In California, where I taught for 33 years, it was inadvisable, if not impossible to not include this shameful event.  Many of my students had relatives who were sent to those horse stalls and then on to one of the various West coast sites.  Too often that generation endured this injustice with a silent dignity.  In the end they lost many of their possessions that were stored in supposedly safe warehouses.  Imagine coming home to find that your appliances, furniture, art work, and keepsakes were missing?  Still, many young men joined the war effort and distinguished themselves as the 442nd brigade that was unparalleled in their service.
At my high school we had a secretary who spent time in those camps.  She was the kind of school employee who, under the surface, kept things organized and running smoothly.  She had a beautiful smile, was in her 50s at least by the time I met her in 1972, and never spoke about the day that she and all the students of Japanese decent had to leave school a few months before graduation.
Part of the story involves the positive consequences, because there were some.  For example, the camps featured schools where everybody could play on a sports team, go to the prom, take any elective they get the idea.  But that was all against the background of Civil and Constitutional rights being denied.  Dignity and love of country and loyalty, and justice were denied.  Citizenship was worthless suddenly.
The history of racial attitudes in the U.S. must be remembered, acknowledged, honored, and taught lest we forget.  Especially now, with the changing demographics of this country, we need to know where we have been so that we never return.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Vital New Writer

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A NovelA Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel by Anthony Marra
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a first novel, Anthony Marra's Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a stunner.  It gives me faith that wonderful writers are emerging daily.  Marra sets this work in Chechnya, and his character's lives intertwine in time and space to paint a portrait of life in this former Soviet Republic as it disintegrates over a period of 8 years.  The novel is brutal, haunting, and thought provoking.  The writing is eminently readable and loaded with remarkably fresh imagery, historical accuracy, and the promise of similar works to come.
That this work hasn't received more critical acclaim is as unfathomable as the way human beings are treated between the pages of what will surely become a major work of fiction.

View all my reviews

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Male Room

Something recently brought me back to the first real job I ever had: working in a mail room.  My father had learned of an opening in the company where he worked as an accountant.  It was early summer of 1967 and I knew I'd be going back to school that Fall so a chance to make some money to support my college education and put a little gas in my VW bug was a welcome opportunity.
The company in question was an exclusive distributor for Sony Tape Recorders in the U.S.  It can best be described as a plantation.
In this small collection of buildings ruled three plutocrats, all brothers, who had made some money in the development of stereo components and a specific lens used by the motion picture industry.  They'd gained rights to this distributorship just as Sony was making a name for itself in the U.S. market.  Sales were good and the business expanded fast.  Out of this little plant portable tape recorders and all parts and schemata and instruction manuals were shipped all over the country.  Between big semis shipping goods throughout the country and United Parcel and the U.S. Postal Service handling smaller packages, the mail room was an active place.

 It was also the little fiefdom of a pair of characters we'll call S and D.  They were legends in their own mind; a pair of racist, sexist, barely educated underachievers who ruled the roost.  S was the brain (just one) D was the brawn.  The former had once had potential, but he was slowly going to seed aided by a steady diet of junk food and too many nights sitting on a bar stool.  The latter was the quintessential redneck.  From his complexion to his liberal use of everything from the n word to extolling the virtues of his sexual prowess, this guy was a pathetic loser who had taken full advantage of the Peter Principle.  But they were the bosses; they had the power.
I worked there about 3 years all told, mostly summer months, until the day I simply walked away.  Hated to do that to my father, but by the time I hit my senior year in 1969, their behavior and intolerance were simply unacceptable.  Besides, I had places to go and things to see, and a life to lead.
They not only treated me like shit, they used to call me by the name "shitsky."  A friendly reminder that I was on the bottom and that they were in charge.  So dumb, they didn't even know their own offensiveness.  But I learned quite a bit from that little stint, and there were others who shared my status and work station who became friends.  While being ordered around by these two pathetic figures, we shared our own conversations, rebelled in our own ways.  That's what happens on plantations.
If anyone ever wanted to see the depth of racism and sexism in this culture, if anyone ever wanted to hear the language of oppression, the skewed values, the shallow thinking, the stuff of sycophants, one hour of video tape would have done the trick.  Irony is that the first video tape recorders came through that loading dock, but the cameras were never used to record the surroundings.  

Friday, March 7, 2014

Trade Off

That morning I reluctantly drove to the closest shopping mall.  I hate those things.  If you could put all the most disgusting traits of a consumer culture under one roof (with polluted air) just go to any mall.  They all look the same.  Plastic rules from the food to the crap they sell to the people whose eyes light up as they push their kids around in a stupor.  But I digress.  Thus isn't about the mall, just going there.  My local mall has a least for the moment.  It's soon going to go the way of Montgomery Ward and JC Penney will follow soon after.  But Sears still has the best "work clothes" and occasionally a good deal on athletic clothes.

We went to see about some workout cloths or sweats.  Whether Everlast or Russell Athletic, or Nike, or Spalding,  they are all made in some Asian country.  The first pair I picked up was made in Vietnam.  That always gives me pause because I know that Vietnam is the U.S.s fastest growing trading partner.  Yup, things are going great guns with this little re-untied country where my generation shed so much blood.  Seeing that tag with Made in Vietnam on any garment always stops me in my tracks.  Part of me wants to emote.  "See what did I tell you, all those myths about fighting to keep the world safe for democracy were just bullshit.  No dominoes falling, no way of life threatened...just sweatshops for our fastest growing trading partner.  We're all on the same side now, aren't we?  Glad I didn't die so we could have $12.95 sweat pants.
     That afternoon the other half of the circle went unbroken when Ted called.  Ted is my Vietnam vet friend who I discovered again after he was MIA from the Bay Area for 8 years.  We met about 15 years ago as part of a growing circle of friends who liked to handicap horse races and hang out at the Top of the Stretch room at Golden Gate Fields.  Before I moved to the Northwest, Ted just disappeared and we all assumed his past finally caught up with him.  He'd battled a heroin addiction like many vets and got his life together as a caterer in San Francisco.  In the last few years that I knew him, he'd battled other demons like prostate cancer and some injuries he's suffered after being hit by a car on a foggy  S.F. morning.  Ted could have been dead for many reasons.  But last January when I happened to find him in a Santa Rosa, Ca. OTB, Ted surfaced very much alive.  True he was dying from another kind of cancer, looked like a walking thermometer, and even though he'd quit smoking, was the color of dirty snow...but there he was, breathing, talking to me, and still excited about horses running around in circles.
Full circle, from made in Vietnam to made to die in Vietnam.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Having Written

A famous writer once said that writing is "easy."  He went on to say that you just "sit down at the typewriter (change that to keyboard now) and wait until blood comes out of your forehead."  I've seen the quote attributed to a few people, and in a few different ways, but the first time I saw it was next to the great sports writer, Red Smith's name. Hemingway is high on the list too.  His version says you just bleed. No matter; lots of writers agree with the sentiment.
I don't think I've ever littered my keyboard with blood.  Lots of other things, though.  It's dangerous to eat while you write, but we all do it, don't we?
The quote that I think most writers would agree on goes something like this:  "I hate writing, but I love having written."  Again, this little thought finds it's way alongside a few names, but is generally associated with Dorothy Parker.  So what's the message, that writing is torture?  That we like to bask in the light of having gone through something torturous so that we can focus on the praise and adulation that can result?  Probably.  But how often does that payoff arrive, and for whom?
Best to enjoy the process.  If the writer can look forward to the writing, in my view, all these quotes, mislabeled or not become irrelevant.  Either way, it's work.  Like all work, it takes effort and time...for most.

Somewhere on my desk is a small slip of paper with some notes about what might make a good blog post.   An idea goes through my brain, then fades, only to resurface momentarily until I either make it a reality or forget it altogether.  What's more fun and I submit more worthwhile is to combine two or more ideas.  Find the similarities or significance of two seemingly unrelated events, people, or instances and go from there.  Case in point: I daily familiarize myself with the attempt to corporatize and compromise the institution of the public school.  Along the way I find that the same media manipulation and misguided agenda applies to everything from the health care debacle to the demise of labor unions, to the fact that people in this country have lost control of where their food comes from and where and how their clothing is made.  Even more difficult to swallow if the fact that many people just don't care.  At least that's the impression they give.  That's why we have schools.  It follows that it is also the reason a strong system of public education is vital to a democracy.  Here's the rub.  We need leadership to insure we go in the right direction.  But who is attracted to that role?  Only a certain personality type that appears to be made of equal parts of altruism and psychopathology.   That's enough to make yo bleed at the keyboard.