Friday, November 18, 2011

Danger: Thin Understanding!

Over a year after it came out, I finally sat down to watch Waiting for Superman. A conversation between the filmmaker and an African American grandmother from Washington DC, who has custody of her grandson Anthony, hit the issues square on the head, I thought. "Choice?", the grandmother exclaims. Taking in Anthony after his father died was no choice, she continues. He had no one else, so of course she raised him.

The rest of the movie was bunk. A case can be made for charter schools, but this film's shallow understanding of education puts its level of argument somewhere below that of a pre-service teacher at the end of one good semester of ed school. Those teachers, in other words, have a better understanding of education than Guggenheim does. When the cartoon showed a teacher pouring knowledge into the head of a child (with a comment to the effect of "it should be easy, right; knowledge goes from the teacher to the child"), I had to turn the movie off for a minute. I had to again after the movie claimed that of course KIPP schools can be scaled up -- after all there are around 80 already! -- as if this were any kind of evidence. (Even KIPP's founders deny that KIPP can be scaled up to include all schoolchildren who would benefit from such a program.) And while those were the most egregious errors, there were plenty more.

As I watched, I kept wondering if Guggenheim was aware of the irony of including that grandmother's quote. Choice? There is no choice. If there are children who need to be cared for, those who care about them take them in. That has never been a factual description of the United States, but it is certainly our ideal, our national myth. If all of us thought about schools and schoolchildren the way that grandmother thought about her grandson -- as vulnerable yet invaluable people who need care and commitment, not a menu of choices -- we'd end up with . . . well, public schooling.

This is but one of the deep and important truths that public schoolteachers understand. I'd call them the real Supermen, except, of course, most of them are not men. They're women. So, given that most schoolteachers are women, why not "Waiting for Wonderwoman"? Because there is an ugly gendered undercurrent to the criticisms of public school teachers at large in our national discourse -- and in this ugly movie. One of those other simple lessons that Guggenheim seems to have missed is that anytime you're inclined to scapegoat a group of relatively disempowered people for a national problems, you should think again.

I waited a year to see this movie, and might as well have kept on waiting. The filmmaker, I'm sorry to say, seems to have fallen asleep at the wheel.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Karl Rove's latest attack ad: Watch out, Elizabeth Warren's got THEORIES!

Another week, another attack ad aimed at Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. This one, apparently, is courtesy of Karl Rove and his American Crossroads organization.

This ad, completely ridiculous though it may be, is substantially more effective than the last one. Let's go through it frame by frame:

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Occupy our Classrooms!

Two recent newspaper stories caught my attention. In both, teachers sought to connect the content they were teaching to the Occupy protestors in public parks near their schools. In one case, the teacher engaged her students in asking the protestors about the rationales for their actions, the understandings of democracy that prompted their actions, and the like. Given that much of our current prescribed, tested, and hidden curriculum works to silence student protest and divorce teaching of democracy from that actual practice of democracy occurring outside school doors, I found these stories to be worth celebrating.

Educating students for citizenship should not be confined to school walls or school personnel. It’s important that children experience organic efforts at trying out citizenship and dissent by studying and at appropriate times even working alongside real people engaged in struggle, doing what Giroux calls making “the political more pedagogical.”
Efforts to bring children out to politically and civically active groups and to bring those groups into schools helps to unite the prescribed and external curriculum. Skilled teachers can bring those external experiences back into the classroom as fodder for discussion, such as critique of the way the group operates, including how it uses language and media to engage dissent, how it builds coalitions, and whether or not its intentions are good, thereby helping students better understand how successful dissenting groups work and how they keep democracy healthy. Moreover, such an experience allows children to see how real life people engaged in protest experience suffering, struggle, and triumph, humanizing the learning of dissenting citizenship for children.

So I say let us use the Occupy protests as learning opportunities to help our students make sense of the political events occurring around them and, moreover, to learn to appreciate (and even practice) dissent as central to a flourishing democracy.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"For now I see what is the matter with you, John Dewey": Dispatches from the Scudder Klyce files

One of the little known facts about Dewey is that he had an intense, frequent correspondence with a very strange ex-Navy man, Scudder Klyce (the image above is a postcard sent by Klyce in 1907, when he was on a naval posting in Nicaragua).

Outside of the world of Dewey scholarship, Klyce is perhaps best known his book, Universe, to which Dewey wrote a forward. The opening lines of the book describe Klyce's ambitious project clearly:
1. a. This book is a brief description, and rigorous proof of the truth of the description, of the universe and all that appertains to it, both "spiritual" and "material." Hence, the book is religion, science, and philosophy. 
Since Universe is (as one would expect) rather heavy going, I will make no judgment here as to whether Klyce succeeded in this difficult task.

At any rate, Klyce was a bright man, but he was also an odd duck, as virtually all of his (extremely lengthy) letters to Dewey make clear.

Consider, for example, Klyce's comments in a letter to Dewey, dated July 31, 1927. Klyce has recently found out that Dewey's wife had died, and he takes the time to send the following sympathetic missive:
I am very sorry that your wife has died. And I thank you for telling me the circumstances. For now I can see what is and has been the matter with you. I am sorry that I have been bothering you when your mind was thus preoccupied. This letter of yours which I have just received (yesterday afternoon) is so confused and contradictory as to be substantially incoherent. And I state that simple fact without implying any sort of adverse criticism—I am rather inclined to consider it a positive merit on your part that you should have written such intellectuallly defective stuff.
And the letter does not stop here!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fixing schools because we can't fix the real problems

Did you catch Charles Blow's piece in the weekend NY Times featuring this chart? The chart is aptly titled "Bottom of the Heap" and makes clear that when it comes to the concept of the "just society," the United States does not make the grade. The US ranks 27th among 31 developed nations in measures of intergenerational justice (poverty prevention, child poverty, senior citizen poverty, income inequality, pre-primary education and health rating). Our senior citizens are not at the bottom of the barrel (thank you, Medicare and Social Security), our health rating is higher than Mexico and the former Eastern Bloc countries (something to brag about?), and we spend nearly as much as Finland on pre-primary education (not as good as it sounds since we're still in the next to the last quintile), but the other ratings are truly terrible.

As I was studying this chart I was reminded that inequality is not born and nurtured in our schools; it is deeply woven into American society. It is created by adults and sustained by adults -- and it should be up to adults to talk openly and respectfully about what kind of social fabric we want to weave and wear. Instead we talk about equity vs. excellence (a false dichotomy if there ever was one) and ask that we fix what ails society through high quality schooling.

I am all for high quality schooling for all our children -- and we need to mobilize every person and every resource in that effort not because it solves inequality but because education is good -- for students, for communities, for economic interests. But I can't help but think that those who consider themselves "new reformers" of public schools are fixing schools because they just don't know how to fix any of our real societal problems.