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Doing Research in Education: A Writer's Dilemma in the Age of Trump and Devos

I'm at an impasse in my research and in my paper, and I think I've just become sick of the battle for public education. I am sick of this battle because in the age of Trump and Devos I am losing hope. Even though teachers and other stakeholders have come forward with proof that accountability based statewide standardized testing is lowering the quality of student educational experience, nobody, no matter how loud their voice, is able to make any significant changes.

My paper, heavy on criticism and blended with pedagogies that have been made near extinct by policy, is a just another tired, old dialogue to throw on my scrap heap of other various complaints. For example, I am sick of sharing the road with drivers that haven't bothered to license up for even the most basic of journeys. I am talking about the privileged teacher, the ones working in charter schools, the ones with no certification and no advanced degree. I believe those teachers should be made to go back to school and do it all again. You actually need some background on human and child development, some literature courses, and an awareness of composition theory. You need a practicum or student teaching cycle. You don't become an expert in the English department just by trying to teach the subject. We wouldn't say that about any other occupation, so why are we allowing this to happen in our classrooms? Students are not lab rats; experimenting with them is wrong.

At any rate, I do have a variety of places to go with my paper. I could write about how standardized testing, and these lower standards for teachers, have interfered with an expressivist and critical writing pedagogy in the English classroom. I could write a vitriolic, complaint paper based upon my most recent experiences, but what would be the use? Writing a vitriolic and angry paper would help me blow off some steam, but I don't believe it will help my students. Even so, I have had certain people without even a basic understanding of the writing classroom come into my world and try to make sense of it. They remind me of how lost I would be in a chemistry class, and I wonder why they think they have the expertise to criticize any methods in an English class. I have heard some of the most ridiculous comments from people like that, and I could weave them into my paper for entertainment purposes, but would that help anyone?

I could write about the development of the STAAR writing prompt, and I could make the argument that it lends itself to a formulaic and reductive pedagogy. The STAAR prompts are intended to fit any ethnic or economic demographic, but they fall tremendously short of this goal. I could show the reader why they discriminate, and I could offer some solutions for fixing the prompt. I could write about the history of expressivist writing in high schools, and discuss why it works with marginalized populations. But what would all of this mean for me? What would I learn from this?

Anyway, I am at the classic writer's crossroad, that place where picking up the pen has become a chore rather than a thrill. But no matter what, this writing has to happen. After this, I can write whatever I want... and, believe me, I will 😊That piece of vitriol might happen anyway.

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Five Ways to Survive the Drama King or Queen at Your Workplace

            Just when you started to think that your life had become dull and uninteresting to other people, you suddenly realize that you’ve been a long-running target of the weak-minded and categorical. I say weak-minded because even with a solid education the cause of your misery is still oblivious to common sense and the surrounding world with all its peculiarities, and I say categorical because even though they (he, or she, or the person in transition) rejects insulting classifications and stereotypes that could easily be applied to them, they fall into the trap of outwardly embracing what it is that makes them repugnant in the first place. Happily playing at therapy and liberally applying labels to other unsuspecting people is just daily business for people running on an intellectual deficit.

So, how do we outmaneuver and protect our finances and career, our sanity, from this abuse and assault on our character?

  1. Don’t play nice and don’t help them. People that run around slapping labels on coworkers and acquaintances do not deserve your help. No matter how tempted you are to point out the obvious, or cover for the person, resist. If they are running around judging you, they are somehow in deficit. This means they will lie to obscure the truth about themselves. Labeling other people makes it convenient to dehumanize. In other words, they will never care about anyone that isn’t a convenience to them.
  2. When you are targeted by a person in deficit, do not turn the other cheek. I’ve done this before, and it does not work. Be totally proactive and completely truthful. Do not allow them to bully you, and do not share in any of their blame. I’ve tried to compromise with a person like this before in an effort to make peace and, sadly, it does not work. When someone is pretending that they are qualified to psychoanalyze you, or if someone thinks they know your character better than you do yourself, beware, because they are in search of drama and attention at your expense. This tendency to slap labels and stereotypes on other people will create a sense of isolation ultimately lending itself to inauthentic and dishonest, two-faced relationships.
  3. Keep your sense of humor even as they devalue you. Remember, those obnoxious lips and mouths are really crying out from pain and insecurity, and you can help them coexist without exclusion if you demonstrate your own courage and resilience. Most of the time they are operating from that lonely place of deficit, and that is a place of fear and uncertainty. The attack on you is an act of cowardice. Recognize it for what it is and be glad you are not in that place.
  4. Practice articulation. If you are unable to explain to other interested parties why you think you are a target, then you might be misinterpreted. This happened to me, and this inability to share my thoughts in an articulate and powerful way hindered my ability to convey the truth. I was simply underprepared, blind-sided, and in a state of shock. Prepare to defend yourself at all times. People that backstab you and label you will stop at nothing to destroy you. You have been reduced to a category, a label, or stereotype. Do not soft peddle your defense in an effort to protect your own humanity. The deficit, the cowardice, is real.
  5. The five-year rule. I always tell my students that they will never know how they will feel about someone, or some situation, in five years. Never take an action against your attacker that might cause you shame in the future because nothing is more destructive. Instead, mitigate the damage to yourself by maintaining a sense of dignity. You know that you are more valuable than the careless and irresponsible label that your pretend psychotherapist, or attention seeking gossip, or fake friend, has tossed in your direction. Be strong and resist the temptation to take revenge.

Finally, I would like to say that it is important that we do everything in our power to keep our children safe. That means doing our best to monitor their movements and give them rules that we are able to enforce. If we give our children mixed messages, if we fail to support them with consistent discipline and structures, then we not only endanger them physically, but we also create mini-dramas that will produce more confused and intolerant adults with social and intellectual deficits.

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Unknown Artist


Thoughts on Trump, Literacy Coaching, and Writing for My GIS

Like usual, I couldn't be more disturbed about the incompetence going on in Washington. I've been reading this book by Kurt Eichenwald about Enron and why it failed, and so many of the people at the top of that organization had no business working with large sums of money and creating financial vehicles like hedge funds. They had no business buying up water utilities and shuffling funds around. This compares to the Trump administration in a bunch of frightening ways, and I am tired of just watching the train wreck in slow motion. Some nights after reading in that book, it's hard to sleep well. And then I wake up in the morning and turn on the news, and Trump has already been up since before dawn making a fool of himself and taking the entire country along on his weird little ride.

My theories about incompetence isn't confined to politics; I'm worrying about other places too. When you are depending on your leadership to make good choices (because it's like you are on a bus careening down a dangerous mountain with a bunch of other helpless people when you are subject to the decisions of an incompetent team), your life is on a kind of holding pattern, like at an airport. For example, I went on an interesting job interview last year. The school was in a tough neighborhood and the principal was young and inexperienced. Honestly, she looked like she was just out of high school, and she even had a squeaky little voice to go along with her tiny, young appearance. She had the campus instructional coach sit in the interview, and at the time I didn't see anything wrong with that. And then in January of this year, I read an entire text book on coaching. It turns out that the instructional coach should never chime in on personnel decisions because that interferes with the trust that is needed between the teacher and the coach. The student's success in the classroom should be the goal of coaching, not deciding which teachers should win or lose during hiring season. To help students succeed, the coach has to be trustworthy and ethical so the teacher can feel comfortable asking questions and demonstrating teaching methods in the classroom. The coach is suppose to support the teacher in an objective and professional way. A coach that is critical and unethical, willing to gossip, or seek power over an individual's employment, is unworthy of the position. Coaches should never verbally abuse a teacher or make hateful and derogatory comments either, but most of us in education have seen this kind of unprofessional conduct at least once. 

But my answer on that day was pretty blunt. I told them that I respected credentials and experience, and that I was hoping to work with a team that had a campus wide learning strategy. But in some ways just relying on a person's credentials or education is an invitation to open Pandora's box because as soon as someone thinks that his or her terminal degree means it's okay to stop learning from colleagues, then the department or institution is limited to something that may not be what it appears, similar to Enron's CFO, Andy Fastow. So, if a team is looking up to someone that is believed to have all-encompassing knowledge, overloading this person's ego with decision making power or influence, and grooming them to serve at the top, then the institution will never know what it has been missing in the way of growth or innovation because it has chosen to overlook other perspectives. When an organization centers its attention on a particular individual, and relies on that individual as a source of guidance or constant advice, then the organization threatens its very existence because of this insulating factor. It's important to listen to every voice. Let's take a look at the relationship between Ken Lay, CEO of Enron, and Andy Fastow, the CFO. Anything that Andy did or said was supported by Ken Lay, and it took a string of whistle blowers and mini-disasters, and finally a major disaster, to get anyone outside of the company to believe that the entire organization was near financial collapse. It was basic incompetence 101 that brought Enron to its knees after years of mismanagement, and the fact that Lay was enthralled with an erroneous idea and image of Andy Fastow. 

This is why I have been thinking about writing some ideas about literacy coaching into my GIS. The way we do education in this country does need some revamping, but the reforms that have been tried so far have done nothing but harm students and teachers. Maybe if more teachers were encouraged to take advanced coursework this would help with student achievement. But ignoring professionalism has done nothing to improve outcomes, and just allowing anybody to coach, teach, or lead a school, is just as crazy as relying on a perceived guru. When I say ignoring professionalism, I think of the instructional coach example.

My first instructional coach has since retired, but I met her one night last fall on a moonlit bike trail. It was the strangest way to meet back up again, and I was so happy to see her. She had so much to offer me back at my old school in the way of knowledge and expertise, but she had no clue about the actual learning environment between her visits because all she was ever shown was numbers and data, so she was unsure of how to guide any of her teachers on that campus (an example of how misguided leadership can hurt kids). But our conversation was tinged with sadness since we both already knew from watching the news that my old school is in its seventh year of "improvement required," and will soon be closed, proving in general that drastic reform strategies fail our kids. 

Anyway, my GIS is my capstone course for my master's degree, and I want to expand on how standardized testing has affected student writing. I've already done some work in this area in previous courses, but I would like to offer some solutions on how to mitigate the classroom tragedies that are taking place everyday in public schools everywhere. I know that the emphasis on writing to an examination has overshadowed the creation of student writers per se. The drill and kill method of grammar instruction is once again overshadowing the more effective literature based method. Standardized tests cater to a certain demographic, and the writing prompts are evidence of this. I know that I can't change policies, but one voice at a time can help one child at a time. I hope that what I learn from my capstone course will help me become a better teacher.

Vogt, MaryEllen, et al. Reading Specialists and Literacy Coaches in the Real World. 2nd. ed., Boston, Pearson/Allyn & Bacon, 2007.

Eichenwald, Kurt. Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story. New York, Broadway Books, 2005.

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I Don't Want to do it Myself: Teaching Writing with a Worksheet

This week some of my fellow students (I'm in a composition pedagogy class) shared some worksheets that they would assign during a writing workshop. First of all, I am completely confused by this assignment because I have attended numerous writing workshops around the country, and I've never had to do a worksheet. My own composition classes have all been of the workshop style, so I really didn't even know there was any other way. I have met people that teach writing at the secondary level that have never attended any workshops and don't know what they are, but I have never met anyone teaching at the college level that doesn't use this methodology along with writing pedagogies and theories.

I am totally confused. I don't know what will happen with my grade in this course because it seems as if the professor is more of a constructivist (the Kenneth Burke variety), and I am more of an expressivist (the James Berlin variety). All I can do is look at what most of my classmates are offering in the way of writing exercises, and think about how I could see myself getting into a whole lot of trouble for handing the worksheet back to the teacher and declaring a big "no thanks." I believe if you don't want to do the worksheet yourself (or any kind of classwork for that matter), then you shouldn't be passing it out to somebody else. 

We all know that post-secondary educators are all crying the blues about the low level students they are getting. I keep hearing that none of the kids can write, and that some of the kids can't read, and how close reading exercises have had to be added to classes and textbooks, and how some of the kids have no library skills, or classroom etiquette, and the list of grievances just goes on and on forever. Some institutions are even bucking back against accepting any dual credit or Advanced Placement scores because they think the kids still can't write or think critically.

And all of this makes me wonder if the worksheets are some response to this perceived problem with literacy skills, at least in the undergraduate writing class. So, with this in mind, I would like to recommend a change based on my experiences with math. Schools have transformed the way they teach math, and it is working. Students do small group tutorials on a regular basis regardless of skill level (it is sometimes important to have a mixed ability group). Math tutors are everywhere, and most of the instruction has the look and feel of a workshop. The classes are more cohesive than ever before. I honestly envy what I see math teachers doing, and I can't figure out why secondary English teachers aren't attending workshops and taking advanced coursework so they can do the same thing. And, of course, math has some differences because students have to constantly do worksheets because repetition is important to memorizing an equation or learning how to operate a calculator. But, even so, math departments have their own versions of the writing workshop and writing lab.

Just like a mini math lesson, a mini grammar lesson can be fun. Students can revise pieces in class, and teachers can choose texts that are relevant and engaging. Every now and then a worksheet is okay. But drill and kill grammar lessons with worksheets and computer programs that are out of context with the student's life is oppressive. Students should never be handed a grammar worksheet without some context. Reading and fixing sentences that you didn't write yourself, and that no identifiable person wrote, is boring and tedious. For example, one of the future educators that I'm working with in my course created this elaborate worksheet for citation creation. On one side it has the text information, and then on the other side it has a bunch of lines where you would try to write your citation. If you need to make a bibliography for the sources you have used, you can look up how to do it in a handbook and follow the container pattern. It is really that simple. Teaching how to make citations is okay, but you don't need a worksheet for that, and it's a major waste of time anyway when you can just copy it out of a book. 

Students should be writing for a larger audience than just the teacher. Student writings should be published on school walls, school websites, blogs, or local newsletters and papers. When students are no longer isolated by the teacher, when they are no longer working out of context for some unattainable goal, when they have options about who reads and values their work, they become writers. 

 Cartoonist unknown

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A Few Exciting Ideas for the New Year: Kicking Resolutions, Making Goals and Studying Travel Journals (It's all about me 🥂🎹😃✏️📓🎓🔱)

        I am just happy to report that after a short drought, I now have another A in my grad studies. I worked hard last semester studying the sublime and how it is used in Victorian literature. The sublime was not a topic in my class, but I think it should have been. I am so excited about next semester, and I look forward to pushing those boundaries again (my way of saying that I'm not happy with the usual course of study because I need to get out of the box).

        I am thinking about taking two courses, and if I do that, I will be set for my research piece next fall. I want to analyze travel journals and road stories because they are so vital to the human experience. For example, I recently visited with a man that had journeyed to America via several foreign countries, and then lived around the North American continent. That kind of story would be interesting to analyze against a working-class person’s experience of living and traveling in different states. How do they compare linguistically and structurally? What is important about the narrative itself? What about the use of confessional and memoir? Uprooting yourself and moving into a strange culture, or traveling for work, is an experience that creates wisdom and versatility (more organic and useful than simply vacationing). Does the white-collar experience somehow mirror the blue-collar experience? What difference does the level of education make? If these experiences and insights from moving and traveling are shared across economic, racial, ethnic, and educational levels, can they be used to create dialogue and understanding?

            I am also excited about the goals I am setting for myself this year. I plan on purchasing a nice travel trailer. I don’t want a cheap one; I want an Airstream. I can use my Airstream to work on my research, and I can also use it to teach in areas where housing is unaffordable or unattainable. Unaffordable and unattainable could be a problem in Houston if we have another big flood. I don’t even think we really need another big flood because we are already experiencing some housing shortages and spiking rents.

            One of my previous classmates writes a blog and in his New Year’s post he focused on not making resolutions. I think he is on the right track, but goals are a bit different. A resolution admits to some weakness. By acknowledging your weakness to others in the traditional New Year’s kind of way, you give it additional power over your daily life. I already critique myself enough, so I’m going to pass on resolution and set goals instead. I think kicking the resolution is a smart idea.

Jason Walker's blog address:

jwalkergs.wordpress.com

Happy 2018 Everyone!

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Cover of my new planner by Tools4Wisdom

 

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This planner is full of well-organized goal-setting pages in different formats

The Adult Day Care Center and Donald Trump: The Frightening Reality

Senator Bob Corker articulated what is on everyone's mind these days, and his response to Trump's attack is classic. I am not going to disparage adult day cares by inferring that they are a negative, but I think we understand the comparison. Trump's Twitter attacks are juvenile and spontaneous, and they amount to cyber-bullying. It's hard to reconcile Melania Trump's empty announcement that she wanted to take on cyber-bullying as a cause with the constant echo of her husband's attacks resonating around the country. I don't intend to veer off into what Melania does these days; but I will say that other than decorating her husband's arm she is the most unproductive first lady to date. Her husband is the most destructive force our country has ever witnessed. Everything he does and says is negative and does nothing to help us become a better America. It's almost incomprehensible to me that anyone in our country would consider building a wall to keep our southern neighbors out after we collectively witnessed the reverential conservative icon President Reagan utter the famous words, "Tear down that wall Mr. Gorbachev!" After all of the hero worship concerning Reagan, the outlandish pandering to a basic Hollywood washout, the constant praise, and even the coinage of "Reaganism" our fundamentalist, capitalistic neighbors and friends can't see beyond their account balance into their own wretched hypocritical mindset. 

Trump's team of conservative thieves are trying ever harder to plunge the country into chaos so they can wipe the slate clean and rebuild using Milton Friedman's cruel and criminal theory of economics, the shock doctrine, a system that endeavors to privatize everything and redistribute state wealth to the one-percent. Friedman economics is the failed "trickle down effect" on steroids, and it's responsible for most of the suffering and war that is taking place around the world. Betsy DeVos, (Trump's Secretary of Education) the ugliest rich woman in America, is a prime example of the shock doctrine in full swing. She works tirelessly to privatize public schools (imagine a world of private and charter schools) because education is "flush with cash." 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we have another spoilt and phony television icon that is obviously teetering on the edge of dementia blathering non sequiturs on Twitter while we all scratch our heads and ponder this unimaginable mess of a future, a future without any public services or safety nets. We look at pictures of this fool tossing paper towels to Puerto Rican residents that are suffering without basic necessities, and we listen to him prattle on about how their reconstruction will have to be a "discussion" like Puerto Rico is of no worth to anyone. 

I can't believe that after all my family has been through fighting wars for this thankless mess of a country that any self-respecting American would follow along with this disgusting agenda of greed and cruelty. All of my peers and colleagues, or at least most of them, have a relative that fought in Vietnam and prior wars. They fought before the military became a system of contractual agreements, before privatization had a chance to take over. This labyrinth of private contracts and agreements were long predicted and rightfully feared, and now we are looking at the result. This is a self defeating system that requires death and violence to profit and grow. Trump, and war pigs like him, want to make sure they have plenty of cannon fodder. If they can finish destroying the middle class by underfunding the workers and denying their children an education and healthcare, then they will have a fascist victory. With the new proposed budget, all of our safety nets are under attack. If this mess passes, many of your children's dreams will be destroyed. 

Some of us have carried an unusually heavy load, and some of us have sailed by just enjoying the benefit of somebody else's suffering. It is to those people that have benefitted the most, those many Trump voters and supporters, that I fail to connect with. I can't understand why you have no gratitude for the benefits you receive (think of basic public services and social security or medicare, college loans and grants for your children). I can't understand why you can't envision the suffering that happened while you enjoyed football and movies, opportunities and growth. Other people had to pay for your success with their blood and their minds, but you just wallowed in conservative nonsense, only thinking of yourself. Trump, a reality television star, conned you. The irony is that he is just a demented puppet. He is tearing our country completely down under the assumption that it can be rebuilt, and that his wealthy special interest groups can reap the profits. This does not work...it has failed in every single country. And the people that starve and die from illnesses, accidents, and wars, are just forgotten. By continuing to support this system, the Trump Conservative greed machine, you are marching your neighbors and friends, and their children, to a certain, miserable death. Soon, Trump will be gone, but the machine will remain. You need to think about what you are supporting because it doesn't care about you...you are not the one-percent.

For two great books that support this argument, please see:

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism ISBN-13: 978-0312427993

Mayer, Jane. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right ISBN-13: 978-0307947901


My Struggle with Beauty and Artificiality: The Truth is Ugly

Last week I was asked to define beauty as it pertains to English Renaissance love poetry, and as I was working I came to an epiphany. Earlier in the course we had been asked to examine artificiality as it relates to romance, and I just found the whole exercise, the paper itself, an act in futility. The intersection between beauty and artificiality is so complex, but obvious, that I found the prompt hard to answer.

It wasn't until the final paper on beauty, especially as I examined Robert Herrick's early modern poem Delight in Disorder, that I understood why the piece on artificiality had stumped me so badly. For the past couple of years I had been immersed in an environment based on false intentions and duplicity. Busy and distracted, the guilt of my association was running in the background of my life somewhat like a virus, but its effect on my health and mental happiness was slowly becoming an unavoidable truth. As this truth unfolded this summer, I became seriously ill. I think much of my illness was a reaction to the artificiality of my previous assignation. Now I do not mean assignation in the true sense of the word, but only in its shameful qualities, the fact I should have known better. 

Today I scrolled through my social media feed to see what the captains of artificiality were selling this week, and lo and behold, some good old fashioned fakery is, of course, the rule of the day. Basically disingenuous and fluff without substance, the drumbeat remains the same. But Delight in Disorder is a poem about beauty that rejects its connection to artificiality and connects to its authenticity: A carelesse shoestring, in whose tie / I see a wild civility: / Do more bewitch me, than when art / Is too precise in every part (11-14). 

Beauty is sincere. True beauty, the kind that inspires awe and promotes harmony, is authentic in its behavior and motives.

These lines from John Keats poem Ode on a Grecian Urn explains it best:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all 
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." 
 
The captains of artificiality, these so-called leaders in the midst of their leadership summits, are typical shysters and phonies. Nothing beautiful or harmonious resides within the upper strata of their institution. This "awareness" of their fakery has been a feature of my subconscious for quite some time, and this "awareness" buried under the rush of my everyday life revealed itself during my poetry analysis and interpretations.
 
Now that I am moving forward with my life, I am weighing options and looking at ways to communicate my misgivings about these captains of artificiality. I believe that the fakery will collapse upon itself--but maybe not in time to save the next round of busy, well-intentioned people. The inner sanctions of this feeble institution should be revealed because the intentions at the highest level are false and shrouded in secrecy and lies. And if the intentions are clearly false, then what is the actual motive? The lack of genuine kindness is the ugliness of artificiality, and this is why it was so elusive for me. Removing those layers of doubt and facing the truth, understanding that I defended and contributed to these captains of artificiality has been a humbling experience, not one I dare repeat. My new understanding of ugliness is overshadowing my usual carefree summer break with an ugly rain cloud of despondency. But I think it's important that I made this connection. Now I must not be silent...no one should ever be silent.
 
 

The Fight Over Capitalist Interests in Public Education: Betsy Devos and Donald Trump are not Educators

 

If one were to argue that our most sacred public institution was up for sale after decades of suffering under a merciless political and social attack, most citizens would look around and wonder what sacred public institution was being pillaged. If one were to argue that masses of people had fallen for a false narrative, and had unwittingly aided the enemy, they might look to Russia or Iran to point a finger of blame. These same citizens might innocently be part of the attack because they fail to question the motives of politicians and civic leaders, hedge funds and think tanks. But all around them, in communities of every description, purges and attacks are taking place. Lives are ruined, and community history is drained along with the institution’s funding and brightest minds. And in some urban areas, weeds grow up around abandoned buildings that were once the heart of the neighborhood. What, might you ask, is the cause of this devastating and destructive force? How, you might ask, is it that I have never noticed the purges, the draining off of human capital, and the depletion of monetary funds?

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk, and the filming of Waiting for Superman, other media-related scare tactics have been employed, such as the Rotten Apple article in Times Magazine. The result is that the citizenry has turned against its public schools, the most sacred of institutions. Tenured teachers are described as lazy and shiftless, and a draconian system of deficit learning has replaced critical pedagogy. Standardized test scores have been weaved into funding, making it possible to divide and conquer the neediest of schools. Since No Child Left Behind (NCLB), every child is left behind in a maze of numerical comparisons, factored, ranked and sorted, and then compared to children from foreign countries where different values exist and equitable school funding is a reality, places where teachers are still highly regarded and professionalized. Because of profit margins and investment interests, the edreform community pursues harmful privatization policies that interfere with student literacy while passing down punitive mandates that cater to the citizenry’s contempt of public education, deceptively hindering critical pedagogies.

New catch phrases now pattern the educational landscape. Pointing out in his essay, Schooling in Disaster Capitalism, Kenneth Saltman writes, “[n]ebulous terms borrowed from the business world, such as “achievement,” “excellence,” and “best practices” conceal ongoing struggles over competing values, visions, and ideological perspectives” (43). He then activates his own critical perspective by asking, “Achieve what? Excel at what? Best practices for whom? And says who?” And we all can recount other education-based slogans: rigor, no excuses, whatever it takes, 100% college acceptance, school choice, charter and magnet, STEM, STEaM, and the list goes on. As Saltman insists, everything is based on individual achievement, and everyone is competing. And rather than treat them as school children preparing to live ethical lives in a democracy, they are now data, retention rates, and a dollar sign. He goes on to emphasize that prominent writers such as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, support a “curriculum conducive to individual upward mobility within the economy and national economic interest as it contributes to a corporately managed model of globalization as perceived from the perspective of business” (43). In such a climate as this, who really has time for a critical pedagogy? If no one has time to teach the importance of questioning society and democratic practices, if nothing is more important than monetary power, then how will future citizens know whether or not they are enslaved to a consumer-based, profit-driven dictatorship?

After Hurricane Katrina, disaster capitalists, organized with the state government, began a systematic takeover of New Orleans Public Schools. Saltman eloquently describes the situation, “the destroyed New Orleans public schools sit slime-coated in mold, debris, and human feces, partially flooded and littered with such detritus as a two-ton air conditioner that had been on the roof and carcasses of dead dogs”, yet, reformers referred to this disaster as a “silver lining” and a “once in the lifetime opportunity”, even though thousands of teachers and students had been displaced, even killed, by the flood (35). The voucher legislation that made the privatization of public schools possible in a disaster (disaster capitalism) became a reality when, “[t]his voucher scheme was surreptitiously inserted into federal legislation by being rolled into a budget bill and it was aggressively supported by one of the richest people on the planet, Wal-mart inheritor John Walton of the Walton Family Foundation” (38). Even more shocking, the Katrina federal vouchers expand beyond the city limits of New Orleans. The entire Gulf-Coast region is included in this disaster-voucher legislation, including the entire state of Texas (40).

Knowledge that “disaster capitalists” are working to privatize the public trust for profits hasn’t slowed down the endless barrage of other ridiculous reforms and snake-oil type remedies concocted by businesses hell-bent on cashing in on the testing gold mine. Everyone in the education world knows about MAP testing, a week-long interruption of instructional time that allegedly measures student growth. Generally, charter schools use MAP so that they can support the profit driven scam supported by tax dollars. But teachers that proctor MAP will tell you that it is a blatant waste of funds and student time because the data is not reliable. Students know that if they miss the first few questions, then the computer-based program makes the remaining questions easier by shuffling the questions into a lower range. They also know the MAP is not used for a grade. Getting students to take the MAP seriously is like getting pre-schoolers to stand at attention during recess, futile. Not only that, the student data is stored—somewhere. Parents, whether they understand it or not, are actually providing student information to a private company.

But none of this would be possible without school principals that are willing to browbeat their teaching staff into submission. Privateers have found a way, through the charter school system, to train future principals into their own way of thinking. Sadly, many of these principals, at least in Texas, attend online classes through accredited universities that prepares them for the rather easy principal certification test. Many charter schools do not even require principals to have minimum credentials. The difference between the regular public school route to certification and the charter school route is quite different. Public school principals, at least in good suburban areas, generally spend years in preparation. First, they teach under a successful principal a minimum of five years. Then they become an assistant principal after completing graduate level course work in school leadership. Many principals work for years as assistants before they are considered for the top job. Some assistants never rise to the top. But at the charter school, and even at low-budget urban public schools, the quality of the principal is often overlooked. For example, some charter schools in Texas do not have a certified principal at the helm. Some struggling urban schools have brand new principals. Many of these principals are very young with no life experience, and very little teaching experience.[1]

A teacher recounts the story of her ambitious principal that had only taught 6th grade math for 3 years before quickly climbing into an assistant principalship. She worked in that position for only a year before being promoted to full principal of an older building. The principal seemed to exhibit the qualities of a decent leader, somewhat fair, not too duplicitous, and energetic. But a new building was built, and the very next year they put her in charge without oversight. Now she finds fault in everyone, rarely listens to her well-educated staff, and uses an authoritarian approach that has built barriers rather than foster collaboration. She constantly darts around looking for reasons to attack various staff members, but if anyone in her administration has a complaint about a teacher, the teacher is immediately investigated or otherwise harassed. Even instructional time is not respected because front office staff has the upper hand and can call students out of classes just on a whim.

Two researchers from Seton University did a study that involved 365 teachers that had received the National Teacher of the Year Award “from their respective state or territory between the years 2006-2012” ( Goodwin, Babo 68 ). The teachers were asked to rate the importance of 21 behavioral traits that one would identify with an effective school leader. One of the most important attributes of a good school leader had to do with setting in place systems that contribute to an orderly, structured atmosphere. But most edreform principals have no training in organizational strategies, so the schools they operate are chaotic. Most of the time last minute policies and disciplinary codes are inconsistent or nonexistent. Student safety is not a priority, and an atmosphere of unfairness and favoritism is typical. It’s not unusual for charter schools and struggling urban schools to have principals that serve more as marketers and financiers rather than adults in charge of children. Because of this, they rarely keep up with valid research and methodologies, therefore they are unable to assist their fledgling, underpaid, and inexperienced teaching staff. The “intellectual stimulation” of teachers and staff scored high on the list of effective leadership behaviors (70). According to the teachers studied, a highly visible principal is important to the campus culture. But many edreform principals are busy attending marketing meetings and conferencing on the latest snake oil-money-making-product available from testing and software retailers.

If the emphasis is on education as a means to simply acquire wealth, then the benefits of a critical pedagogy are intentionally ignored. The harmony of a well-educated, literate society adept at decoding bias and naming itself is unwanted by the power hegemony. Teachers trained in rhetoric and composition are teachers trained to spread logic and reason. Teachers trained ethically with deep subject area knowledge would have the tools to resist market-based approaches to education. These are the teachers the struggling school needs to raise awareness about their plight and assist the fight out of poverty, rejecting the traps of social isolation and marginalization. But the edreform-charter-school-principal is only concerned with the balance sheet and the data. Even if the data is invalid and the variables are beyond measure, the charade continues supported by the engines of profit-based educational resource companies (snake oil remedies designed for passing standardized tests).

James Berlin (Purdue University) accentuates this premise when he asserts, “A literacy that is without this commitment to active participation in decision making in the public sphere, however, cannot possibly serve the interests of egalitarian political arrangements. For democracy to function (as we are now reminded in eastern Europe), citizens must actively engage in public debate, applying reading and writing practices in the service of articulating their positions and their critiques of the positions of others” (Berlin 101). Even though these lines were published by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in Berlin’s book, Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures, over thirty-years ago, they are still undoubtedly true. The poor underclass has not achieved higher status nor has it gained civic power. Eastern Europe is still in a chaotic state, so we can still refer to it as an example of what happens when societies are divided. In fact, more recently, the middle class is shrinking and fewer people hold the majority of wealth and power worldwide. Our consumer based society has created unintended consequences for the world at large, and in countries like China more people are working factory jobs and living in urban areas. Overcrowding and pollution is widespread, but just as in education, the power elite largely controls the world’s dialogue and stream of information. The purpose of literacy is different than student objectives found in edreform classroom landscapes. As Berlin states, “rhetoric was invented not because people wanted to express themselves more accurately and clearly, but because they wanted to make their positions prevail in the conflicts of politics” (83). The charter school or poor urban English teacher of today is simply teaching to a test so that meaningless achievement scores can be recorded for the state’s approval. None of the emphasis is on the balance of power, the dialogue of a community, or the participation in politics. Students are mere spectators in the game of life, simply watching the power elite advertise its purported successes and revel in its materialistic rewards.

Because market based education reforms rely on standardized tests, we are beginning to see a rising up against the maltreatment and chaos perpetuated against students and teachers. Terry Eagleton, Marxist scholar, discusses the demise of rhetoric, and how top down education reforms have hampered student literacy. Eagleton argues that students are simply tools of the capitalist machine, not writers or orators seeking power, education, or personal expression via art (Eagleton 549). Eagleton deplores the manner in which capitalism has overtaken aesthetician and depth of meaning. And now we continue to elect or promote those who exhibit very little intellectual or rhetorical skill as demonstrated in our recent election.

If ever an argument could be made for education, our latest election underscores our deficit. After twenty-years of teacher witch hunts, standardized testing, and experimentation, absolutely nothing has changed. Student scores are flat, or in some states declining, and according to the numbers the most undereducated are responsible for electing the most orally gifted presidential candidate in history. While teachers are trudging back and forth to work trying to meet ridiculous mandates passed down by well-meaning, but ignorant, legislators, a new, positive movement engineered the strangest election in history. Well spoken, and intelligent, reality television star, Donald J. Trump the billionaire, graciously debated his way to the White House. His kind comments about blacks, women, Latinos, and disabled people endeared him to the well-educated and the intellectually deprived alike. He even managed to increase his sex appeal when a secret video was released that featured him bragging about grabbing women by the pussy. Nothing that he has said is in anyway rhetorically incorrect, or even illogical. He is the quintessential statesman, a true partner with Russian KGB goon, Vladimir Putin. We can only ponder what profit-based surprises President Trump’s new secretary of education will treat our students to in the near future. Surely, we can just build tunnels straight from our struggling for-profit urban schools into our high-tech for-profit prisons so that not a dollar can be wasted on teaching the humanities or literacy. Torn from the dungeons of a fantasy world from Hell, we can now witness how the lack of a critical pedagogy and the sell-out to profit-driven business has impacted the everyday thinker, a nightmare in real time.

Students and teachers are always at the whim of political winds, and now they have even more to worry about. But even though the focus of this dialogue has been on high school, post-secondary schools are not immune to the commercialization and privatization of education. Big companies are buying or renting property on public campuses, sometimes only signage, and sometimes entire buildings. They are donating huge amounts of money in an effort to influence college student spending habits and subject interests. Only the most ethical of universities is able to place a barrier between the politics of profit and the sanctity of critical pedagogy and the advancement of democratic decency. Henry Giroux, published author and professor, writes about the impact on higher education and the conflict of interest that is taking place between the motivations of profit, and the motivations of a critical pedagogy in his essay, The Attack on Higher Education and the Necessity of a Critical Pedagogy. Giroux insists that the takeover by profiteers of public education is a “backlash against civil rights era programs such as affirmative action and busing” (14). Schooling is now a battleground and conservative right wing groups are determined to “shift away from public considerations to private concerns” (14). He admonishes faculty that “allow themselves to become adjuncts of the corporation, or align themselves with dominant interests that serve largely to consolidate authority rather than to critique its abuses” a manifestation at all levels of education, especially now that positions are threatened with a removal of tenure and teacher unions are collapsing (12). He also points out that many teachers have “lost the language for linking schooling to democracy, convinced that education is now about job training and competitive market advantage,” a manifestation of market-based education reforms. He goes on to say, “Social criticism has to be coupled with a vibrant self-criticism and the willingness to take up critical positions without becoming dogmatic or intractable” (22). Currently our country is dealing with a faction of politicians and citizens that refuse to self-criticize or question their own dogma, and we are now on the slippery slope into a dark abyss which could end the progress we have made in the fight for human rights, climate change, and equitable healthcare. We may have lost our chance to teach our critical pedagogy.

Is it possible that a return to beautiful writing and speaking could perpetuate a return to a more empathetic and democratic time? Before the advent of the crass, poorly spoken electorate, the education reform slogans, testing snake oil, and Donald Trump, Scottish philosopher Alexander Bain labored to write his manual, English Composition and Rhetoric. In his section on persuasion he discusses how poetry can help persuade someone to behave in a moral fashion (174). Considering the state of our society, and the suffering that our students have endured since NCLB and the profit-driven testing frenzy, it seems a return to poetry is long overdue. As English teachers, we all know that the loudest voice is that of the poet. The speech is well enough, if it is done well enough, to sway the politics of a nation, but the poem, if it is done well enough, can sway the heart. I watch my students bent over their exams, and I teach to the test, but at night I go home to my bookshelves, my poems, my pets, and my comfortable life. I once taught in the charter school, and I proctored the MAP, the STAAR, the DA, the CA, and now and then I had time to assign a poem. And when I assigned the poem, my students were mystified by the voice so loud, yet so soft, speaking of something deeper than the test. Sometimes I had time to assign a short story, or I would assign a real essay to my students. And they were mystified by the intelligent voices, so different from the world they are accustomed.

 

Works Cited

Bain, Alexander. English Composition and Rhetoric: A Manual. Elibron Classics replica ed.,           Boston, Elibron Classics. 2005. p. 174

Berlin, James A. Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. Urbana,      National Council of Teachers of English. 1996. Pp. 83, 101

Eagleton, Terry. “The Death of Rhetoric.” Academic Questions 25.4 (2012): 546-551. ERIC. Web. 15 Feb 2016

Giroux, Henry A. The Attack on Higher Education and the Necessity of a Critical Pedagogy. Sheila L. Macrine Editor: Critical Pedagogy in Uncertain Times: Hope and Possibilities. New York. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Pp. 12, 14, 22

Goodwin, Janet, and Gerard Babo. "What Expert Teachers Think: A Look at Principal Leadership Behaviors That Facilitate Exemplary Classroom Instructional Practice." Education Leadership Review of Doctoral Research 1.2 (2014): 65-84. ERIC. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.

Saltman, Kenneth. Schooling in Disaster Capitalism: How the Political Right is Using Disaster to Privatize Public Schooling. Sheila L. Macrine Editor: Critical Pedagogy in Uncertain Times: Hope and Possibilities. New York. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Pp. 27-48

 

[1] I worked at such a school in Houston, Texas. My principal was 28-years old, and she was hired to run the school after my hiring in 2012. She had taught at a charter school in downtown Houston that was later closed for falsifying student records. Some of these records even included student schedules and semester grades.

IMG_0263
Academic freedom? O, that's so "yesterday!"

DeCertification for Professionals: What could it mean?

Because of a so-called teacher shortage, some states are considering not making certification mandatory even for core subjects. I vote let's just get rid of all professional licenses. What difference does it make if the electrician was properly trained? Who cares if the truck driver took a test? Most lawyers do very little work anyway, so why would they need to pass a bar exam? I have a BA, but I think I would make a great science teacher...why would anyone care? After all, I have a college degree, and that is all I should need to take on a classroom full of high school kids. 

The other day my friend's associate principal (who has no certification of any kind) brought a substitute to her classroom to observe her teaching because the substitute believes he is destined to become a high school English teacher. Keep in mind that this guy is north of the fifty mark, and his work history admittedly includes no teaching of any kind, not even work-related presentations. She asked him if he had any background in the subject, and he admitted that he does not. She asked him if he planned on working as a teacher next year, and he countered with a "yes." You can imagine her dismay because this guy isn't even in an alternative certification program. After a few more questions, he demonstrated his knowledge and supreme sense of logic by insisting, "I can speak the language, so I'm sure I can get certified!" This is possible since the Texas exam doesn't focus on subject area content, and passing the test doesn't help him be properly prepared. It's a classic case of so many people not knowing what they don't know that the whole system is in shambles. Texas could easily fix this problem, especially for English teachers, by insisting that the candidate have at least a minor in the subject and commit them to additional trainings and coursework before they can achieve full certification. Especially if you consider that most states require secondary level educators to have a master's degree in the subject they teach, something I am currently pursuing.

You would think that the people that are pushing for privatization of our public trust (especially public education) would protect our students by making sure that every teacher and principal hold the appropriate state certifications and are trained in a proper environment (not in a school where most of the faculty has no subject area degree or education background). But, instead, they are pushing for the opposite--a way to destroy the public trust by stocking it with unprofessional people. No wonder we have so much chaos and public education is in such a state of disrepair. If the reform crowd really wanted to improve teaching, they would make the route to certification more difficult, and they would raise teacher pay to entice talent that might not otherwise care to take a public job. They would help teachers afford the coursework they need to fill in the knowledge gaps, and they would give these teachers some time to learn from peers and collaborate.

In the meantime, I think I would make a good legal associate...or maybe a dentist? 


Warming Up for Twain while Laughing with Friends and Analyzing Tattle Tales

I've been working on Mark Twain papers for five months, and I am getting low on ideas for writing. First of all, I do appreciate all he has done for letters and literature, and not only is he the greatest satirist of all time, but he is one of the first to signal that all people are equally human, a philosophy that is again losing ground.

But I have a stack of papers and books a yard high, and I have no idea where to start. I have to write another literary paper about his work, but I'm confined to working with only one text, and I'm just not in love with it, so I am totally blocked. I vocalized my dread about the course and the text in a general way to my librarian, who felt compelled to share my feelings with my professor. My professor was unhappy with me, but I feel like she should be looking at the librarian who should have held my confidence while I pushed through my doubts and frustrations.

In the good old days your librarian was much like your bartender, willing to listen to your cry for help and offer solutions and research advice without judgement. I've been around a ton of professional librarians, (I had lunch with a retired librarian today) and not one of them has tattled on me for whining about a text or questioning the pedagogy behind a worksheet (yeah, in my grad studies I have been doing some worksheets). 

Except now I am in a quandary because everywhere I turn some tattling piece of fluff seems to be perched around the corner. Asking questions is no longer considered a critical thinking skill, and you are to remain silent in the face of your doubt because freedom is only an illusion. But I am not really blaming the tattle tales because in the age of surveillance I believe some people have normalized pettiness and dishonesty. I am beginning to see that we are in the midst of a social ill that is yet to be diagnosed or given a name. 

The typical tattle tale lives in fear and insecurity, is jealous and dramatic, and believes every little speed bump is a life or death situation. Most tattle tales are not only extraordinarily dishonest, but also malicious and thin-skinned, itchy about trivial stuff and constantly coughing up mucus because they make themselves sick. So maybe we could call this new social ill something like gastrotattletalencephalitis, and abbreviate it to chicken-poop. At this time, I am sitting on a treasure trove of interesting emails shared with me based on the ignorance and fear of such types of people. I'm thinking about finding a way to incorporate these documents into a poem, short story, or other creative enterprise. One such email was authored by a thin-skinned gentleman that sits on a rubber ball during the day and discusses karate--his composition would make a great piece of blackout poetry, and it raises an important question, "Don't they teach character at the dojo anymore?"

Another such funny email hails from a woman that believes that your teaching credentials should be held secret and considers the online- state-certificate-lookup the education department version of Wikileaks. The fact that this ridiculous email exists says a lot about the institution it comes from, and if I was working for their public relations firm, I would have said emphatically, "Don't touch that!" But the irony is completely lost on that particular institution because they failed to do their homework on the issue, or examine an outside perspective. The email reads like an admission of guilt...yes, we are secretive...no, those people are not certified...yes, no one needs to know what we are hiding...no, we are not proud of our staff. I am thinking of making a novelette with that document and use the student journalism story that initiated the whole discussion for a framework.

See story here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/us/high-school-journalists-principal-quits.html?_r=0

Mark Twain would have plenty to say about the way modern society has churned out, and I wish he could help me write these exciting things up. He would be devastated to see that Americans are rowing backwards rather than forward, and I know he would find my email treasure trove an interesting piece of anthropology (the dilemma of Huck and Jim just hasn't reached enough readers).

But not all of the news is bad. Today, I met with my friends for our annual luncheon at Brookwood, and we enjoyed sharing our teacher/administrator stories. We laughed, we prayed, and we shopped for flowers with new gardening gloves. I won a gift card, and we are providing fifteen-hundred dollars to three new teachers; one member may earn a fascinating position. Another educator shared how she examined Hawthorne and the theme of isolation while working on her Masters. The retired librarian, one of the best in the world, just returned from a 16-day European vacation, so she had stories and happiness to share. I was able to personally thank another teacher for the materials she had given me and explain how they worked in my classroom. We had chicken sandwiches, but no chicken-poop, a garden salad, and tomato soup; and we had an open and free discussion...imagine.