Category Archives: Education

What Aren’t Our Children Taught in School?

Are America’s schools teaching children to hate their country?

In his speech at Mount Rushmore on Independence Day, Donald Trump asserted, “Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes but were villains.”

Exactly what are our children being taught in school?  Are they learning about hatred?  Yes.  But until recently they were learning about hatred in other countries—about brutal dictatorships in far-away lands.  Ask anyone who paid the least bit of attention in school, and that person could probably name at least a few of the many atrocities from history’s leaders.

A more appropriate question is this one:  What aren’t our children being taught?  What has been omitted from lessons to ensure that our children grow up with a love of America at the cost of being blind to the brutalities of our history?

I am reminded every day just how woefully ignorant many of us are about what it means to grow up Black in this country.  Recently, I’ve been reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. As I began reading, I remembered that I had written a paper on apartheid in college, so I knew many of the facts about the history of South Africa.  However, as I did research, not once did any of the opinions available to me at the time suggest a similarity to the institutional racism that is also part of America’s heritage.

After college, as a teacher in an oral communications class in the years before apartheid ended, I listened as many of my students gave speeches railing against apartheid.  All of them had a tone that suggested, “Why can’t South Africans do what the Civil Rights Movement did in our country?”  At the time I couldn’t enlighten them because I held much the same view of America.  I was the blind leading the blind in a very white world.

In his introduction to Part III of the book, Trevor Noah says this:

In Germany, no child finishes high school without learning about the Holocaust…As a result, Germans grow up appropriately aware and apologetic. British schools treat colonialism the same way, to an extent. Their children are taught the history of the Empire with a kind of disclaimer hanging over the whole thing. “Well, that was shameful, now wasn’t it?”

In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We weren’t taught judgment or shame. We were taught history the way it’s taught in America. In America, this history of racism is taught like this: “There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.”  It was the same for us. “Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. Let’s move on.”  Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension.

After nine years of teaching English in southern West Virginia, I moved to Maryland to teach in a school in the D.C. suburbs with an overwhelmingly white population.  A few years later I was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for an independent study of women novelists who were largely unrepresented in the literary canon.  That summer I read Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler, but, more importantly, for the first time I encountered Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison.

Reading these women and learning about the context in which they wrote changed forever the way I taught English.  I had never read a novel by a Black female author, and I vowed that I would try to ensure that no student who ever spent a semester in my literature classes would be able to say the same.  I didn’t always teach those works well, but I tried.

The experience also changed the way I taught other works.  I distinctly remember one young Black man whose parents asked that he be given another book to read while the class read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  He told me that he’d like to read the novel so that he could see for himself whether it was racist, so I called his parents.  I told them that I would be happy to provide him an alternate reading, but I laid out the case for reading Twain.  They agreed, and I introduced the novel by having the class read arguments for and against the novel.  Looking back, I now know I could have done more.

The magnitude of what I wasn’t taught—and what, for a long time, I didn’t teach—is staggering.  I don’t remember the first time I heard the name Emmett Till—and for very good reason.  While Jet Magazine published the images of Emmett Till’s face, white publications protected their readers from the most graphic of the images.

A few months after the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, I was invited to join a group of mostly African-American friends when they had an extra ticket.  When we got inside, some of the elevators were broken, and the lines to get into the exhibits on the lower floors were very long.  Our group decided to walk up the escalators and start on the floors that celebrated the accomplishments of Black people, including a wonderful exhibit of President Barack Obama.

I wasn’t fully prepared for what came next.  We went to the lowest floor, where exhibits displayed artifacts from slave ships.  I will never forget my astonishment as I looked at the countries listed on the walls, with the names of the ships and the number of the enslaved who were lost during the voyage or sold as slaves in the United States.  One ship had only a single survivor by the time it reached America’s shores. And nearly every European country was complicit in the slave trade.

But when I got to the events of the 20th Century, the Emmett Till exhibit flattened me.  As a mother, I cannot fathom Mamie Till’s pain or the courage it took for her to demand that America look into the face of her son.

I cannot fathom, either, how it’s taken another 65 years for righteous anger to erupt in the streets of America—an anger that demands that this time, white people like me do not look away.

And yet many of us are still looking away, even as the cameras roll.  Two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, NBC released the documentary Hope and Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media, and at the beginning of June, the network made it available online.  Black journalists say in the documentary that they don’t know a single Black person who hasn’t heard the name Emmett Till or seen that image—that it’s their Kennedy assassination or 9/11 moment—that they can tell others where they were when they first saw the image.

Dr. King and every Black in this country has stared injustice in the face for far too long as whites have retreated to the comfort of looking away.  Fifty-seven years ago next month, Dr. King stood on the mall and, in his “I Have a Dream Speech,” stressed “the fierce urgency of now.”

If you’re white and you’ve been turning away, read the stories, watch the videos and the documentaries—if you have the courage.  If you have an ounce of human compassion, you will come away changed.  And that is exactly the sort of patriotism your country needs from you.  Now.

Need Help Teaching Your Kids?

As I’ve listened to frustrated parents who are trying to work at home and find ways to teach their children until school systems get online learning launched, I wondered how I might be able to help.

I’ve also been thinking about how important it is for both parents and teachers to help students recognize credible and objective sources.  I remembered this lesson I designed for middle schoolers on how to know whether a video was objective or not.

This lesson is packaged in a PowerPoint presentation, and the Notes section has directions for how to use it. All handouts are embedded, and they can only be downloaded when the PowerPoint is not in Slideshow mode.  I checked all the web links, and they still work, but you might want to replace them with videos on topics that might interest your children more.

I hope that you’ll download it to get some ideas for your children.  Once you’ve taken a look at it or used it, please come back to this page and comment to let me know if you found it useful.  If so, I’ll upload some other lessons that might be helpful during this time.  Here is a description of this lesson package:

Evaluating Video Sources–Perhaps the most important lesson we can teach our children in an age where they get their information from online sources is how to recognize whether a video is objective and credible. This lesson package offers resources for helping students recognize biases in videos that purport to be informational or news pieces.

For what it’s worth I think a lot of adults could use this lesson right now, too!

Should Northam and Herring Resign?

Where are the black faces in this image from Gone With the Wind? What do we learn from visual images?

If a child is taught, either overtly or unconsciously, that racism is acceptable, is it possible to change?  This seems to me to be the question at the heart of the crisis facing Virginians as they decide how to respond to the revelations this week that Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to appearing in blackface as young adults.

The debate continues to rage more than a week after one or more of Northam’s medical school colleagues, incensed about the governor’s comments on late-term abortions, called media attention to his yearbook page.  Given that his classmates had known about the photograph for 35 years, the release of the photograph seems not to have been done out of any concern that Northam might be racist.  That, in itself, speaks volumes about the culture that gave rise to the photograph.

Opinions on whether Northam should resign are not as black and white as the painted face and the robe in the yearbook picture. Continue reading Should Northam and Herring Resign?

A Rational Abortion Argument?

As an English teacher I became so frustrated with students for being unable to offer a rational abortion argument on either side that I ultimately refused to let them deliver an argumentative speech on any aspect of the issue.

Abortion was the only topic, among a host of complicated issues, which I ever banned when I taught public speaking.  But I didn’t know what else to do.

I told my students when they were choosing topics that they should either avoid topics they couldn’t do justice to in five minutes, or they should narrow the speech to a single aspect of a topic. Most students followed my advice.

One passionate student, however, decided that her view was worth the risk to her grade and decided to tackle the whole of the abortion issue in spite my cautions.  She defied the time limit and argued passionately but irrationally for nearly ten minutes, and at the end of the speech, nearly every student in the class was angry.  Those who disagreed with her arguments were furious.  Those who agreed wanted a class discussion to continue the debate.  And the moderates and rule-followers in class were indignant that I hadn’t stopped the speech at the five-minute mark. Ultimately, that speech convinced no one of anything.

Though I didn’t ban abortion from arguments in writing classes, I did caution my students, as I did about all topics, that when I evaluated arguments, I would read their papers as though I disagreed, whatever their stance, and I promised them I would be as objective as I possibly could in reading their arguments.  This wasn’t always easy, and the top students always wondered how I could give two papers on the same topic an A when they had such divergent views.  I told them that the A arguments were always the ones that showed some recognition of the nuances of the topic.

This wasn’t always easy for me as a teacher, but I felt a responsibility to encourage students to consider all aspects of a topic, using sound sources, and then to allow them the freedom to draw their own conclusions without forcing my own views on them.

But on the abortion issue, I had no good answers for students then, and I have no good answers now for how we can have a civil, intelligent discussion of the nuances that are crucial to this discussion.

Here are two views that I’ve actually heard former students (and adults) at the two extremes say:

  • “Life begins at conception, and all abortion is murder. It should always be illegal, even in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother.”
  • “As long as a fetus is still attached to a woman’s body, it’s a parasite. And if a woman chooses to abort it, that’s her right and nobody else’s business.”

Most Americans don’t espouse either of these views. In survey after survey, a significant majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade, even though most of us couldn’t tell you exactly what the opinion says.  The complete transcript of the majority opinion isn’t easily available online, and many don’t realize that the decision in 1973 seemed to be based on the doctor’s right to privacy, without mention of the rights of women.  In the decision for the 7-2 majority, Justice Blackmun wrote:

The decision vindicates the right of the physician to administer medical treatment according to his professional judgment up to the points where important state interests provide compelling justifications for intervention. Up to those points, the abortion decision in all its aspects is inherently, and primarily, a medical decision, and basic responsibility for it must rest with the physician.

In the years since, some aspects of the decision have been struck down, including the original guidelines for the trimesters at which abortions can be performed.  Yet we continue to discuss this issue in the public arena as if only the two extremes matter.  (A guide to the key aspects of decisions related to abortion can be found at the Chicago—Kent College of Law’s Body Politic Project.)

We live in a country where the majority is supposed to rule, even though recent presidential elections where the Electoral College and the U.S. Supreme Court have ruled for the minority have called that principle into question.

Surveys of citizens’ attitudes about abortion consistently reveal widespread majority support for Roe v. Wade.  In January of this year, before the current uproar about the Supreme Court vacancy, Pew Research reported that 57% of Americans support legal access to abortion, including a wide variety of religious groups. Even among some evangelical denominations, over half of members felt that the law should allow access to some abortions, even if they personally opposed it.

This week, after the announcement of another Supreme Court vacancy, a number of polls are showing even more widespread support for Roe v. Wade.  A Kaiser Foundation poll showed 67% support for the law, including 43% of Republicans.  A Quinnipiac University poll on a variety of issues showed 63% support of the ruling overall, with virtually no gender gap in the results.

So why are we Americans being held hostage to the wishes of a small minority at the extremes of our culture?

In a more perfect union, where the majority does rule, the rights of the minority should be honored.  But since we don’t live in a utopian state where consensus is always possible, where does that leave us?

I never felt good about banning abortion from class discussions.  But I sometimes want to do the same thing in the discussions that are taking place in the public arena.  Even though the people at the extremes are in a small minority, they seem to have the loudest voices, and because they get their information from the most biased media sites, the cacophony they create takes me back to the day a single student with a loud voice held my class hostage for ten minutes.

Right now Roe v. Wade is the best we have.  I was a junior in high school when that decision was made.  I remember well, in the years before, the stories of girls my age who were mutilated or who died at the hands of abortion providers who took their money and destroyed their bodies.

Here is the single lesson I took away from that time:  Wealthy people will take their daughters out of the state or the country to get a safe and legal abortion.  Poor women or girls who are too ashamed to seek help will find a way to have an abortion, even if it may maim or kill them.

Many of the people who protest in front of abortion facilities weren’t born yet when the Supreme Court issued that decision on Roe v. Wade.  A few of them weren’t even an egg in their mothers’ ovaries or a sperm in their fathers’ testicles yet because even their parents hadn’t been born.

Perhaps only when their sisters and daughters and friends die after an abortion in a dirty and dark room will they realize the folly of not having a sensible abortion law.

Letter to High School Seniors on Gun Control

Dear High School Seniors:

Census.gov’s report on voting by age from 1980 to 2016

Do you want to see an end to school shootings?

If so, are you eligible to vote? If you are eligible, have you registered to vote?

If you’ve ever felt frightened or sad or angry in the wake of tragedies like the mass shooting yesterday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, please know that you have tremendous power right at your fingertips.

If every high school senior in America who feels as you do goes into a voting booth during the 2018 mid-term elections and pulls the lever for a candidate who advocates for sensible gun control laws, you can fight this insanity. Continue reading Letter to High School Seniors on Gun Control

Want Unbiased News?

NAMLE’s parent guide to media literacy offers great questions we should all ask.

Want unbiased news? If so, you’re in good company. According to a Pew Research survey released in January, 78% of Americans believe it is never acceptable for news media to favor a political party in reporting current events.

Why is it, then, that so many of us get our news from biased sites that align with our views?

In the same survey, when asked how much they trust media reports on political issues, only 47% of Americans responded that media’s coverage is fair and balanced. Given the current political climate, this should surprise no one.

What is surprising about this study, though, is this finding:

On the question of whether their news media cover political issues fairly, for example, partisan differences appear in 20 of the 38 countries surveyed. In five countries, the gap is at least 20 percentage points, with the largest by far in the U.S. at 34 percentage points….

The U.S. is also one of only a few countries where governing party supporters are less satisfied with their news media than are nonsupporters.

Interestingly, the survey also revealed that those who are less educated want unbiased news just as much as those who are more educated. [See this chart.] This may come as a surprise to my liberal friends who are quick to label those who support the Trump administration as ignorant and uneducated. But only 21% of Republican Party supporters—no matter their level of education—are satisfied with media coverage. And even among Democratic Party supporters, only slightly more than half are satisfied.

The results of this survey seem to suggest that, in the absence of an easy way to detect bias in our news coverage, we tend to assume that the biases that align with our own are more objective. As the political divide widens, the danger to our democracy if we continue down this path cannot be understated.

For objective journalism outlets to thrive, they must have readers and viewers. The more consumers flock to media outlets that cater to their views and confirm their biases, the greater the danger becomes that the most objective sources of our news will flail and fold. And the more we read only sources that confirm our views, the more insular and less informed we become.

What can we do about this? As I’ve said before in this blog, as teachers we must do a better job of helping our students recognize media bias. Those teachers who foist their own views on students do more harm than good. We must teach our students to question the arguments they like just as vigorously as those they dislike. We must teach them to seek out the original sources of their news rather than relying on sound-bites or click-bait. We must teach them to distinguish fact from opinion.

And what about those of us who have long since finished our educations? We don’t always do these things either. As individuals we must challenge ourselves to go to the most objective sites first, and we must reward those sites with our loyalty and support. Periodically, we should read or view a source that challenges our own thinking.

Digital and media literacy sites for teachers have some excellent suggestions for students that adults might also find valuable. Here are just two that I’ve found helpful:

  • ISTE’s Top 10 sites to help students check their facts. At the top of their list is AllSides, a site that offers views from the left, right, and center in three adjacent columns that allows readers to compare coverage.
  • The National Association for Media Literacy Education offers a guide in three languages for parents to help their children question what they see in media. We adults would do well to ask these questions ourselves.

We can’t afford to procrastinate or to dig in our heels and entrench ourselves any more deeply on opposite sides. I had conversations recently with two friends, one a liberal and one a conservative. Both admitted to me that they had almost no close friends who didn’t share their political views. That is just as dangerous as having no friends of other races. I have other friends who tell me they hate holiday dinners because they can’t have a civil conversation about politics even with family members they love.

We must find ways to bridge this divide, just as we want our lawmakers to do. And if we can’t do it face-to-face, we can at least start by changing our habits in the media we consume.

What can you commit to do?

School Vouchers Law? To Whose Advantage?

 

According to the Winter 2017 of Education Next, public support of vouchers is in steep decline.

Amid all the chaos of the new administration, Republicans in the House have quietly introduced a bill to use government funding for school vouchers:

H.R.610 – To distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students and to repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools.

All arguments about the worth of vouchers aside, why do our representatives continue to introduce bills that are overwhelmingly unpopular among Americans? Continue reading School Vouchers Law? To Whose Advantage?

A Culture of Domestic Violence?

South Carolina’s House chamber, where Chris Corley will continue to serve after being re-elected

No sane person would deny that domestic abuse is heartbreaking. Why, then, do rational people allow a man accused of domestic violence to continue in public office?

A teacher accused of physically abusing a student—or anyone employed in public service, for that matter—would at the very least be placed on paid administrative leave until the matter is resolved. Not so with elected officials.

According to the Charleston Post and Courier, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on domestic violence, South Carolina state representative Chris Corley stands accused of first-degree domestic violence and pointing and presenting a firearm, charges which constitute felonies. Continue reading A Culture of Domestic Violence?

Forget Great. How about Functional?

MSNBC posted this graphic based on early information from The United States Election Project.
MSNBC posted this graphic based on early information from The United States Election Project.

 

Forget making America great. We have some work to do even to make America functional.

Based on the votes counted so far, Donald Trump was elected by only about a quarter of eligible voters. Had Hillary Clinton won, the same would have been true of her. Nearly half the electorate, 44.6% as of the latest data, did not vote at all. That was the lowest since the 1996 election, which involved another Clinton who got a very different result (CNN Politics).

Even if we account for those turned away in states like Wisconsin with strict voter ID laws, the numbers are abysmal. And many of those who did not vote actually do care about our country. Continue reading Forget Great. How about Functional?

Are Trump Supporters Dumb?

 

Creche

As a native of West Virginia who took the last name of a husband of Polish descent, I’ve been subjected to my fair share of jokes about my intelligence.

Just before one of my early Christmases in Maryland, a colleague asked this question at the lunch table: “Why wasn’t the baby Jesus born in West Virginia?”

Several pairs of eyes glanced furtively at me before looking back to him. I’d earned myself a spot as an English teacher in one of the most renowned school systems in the nation—a system that, at that time, usually hired intellectual teachers from prestigious schools. Though I’d graduated both high school and college at the top of my class, I’d earned my degree from a little-known state college, and I sometimes felt out of my league in a department largely made up of intellectuals.

I sensed the punch line before he delivered it with a snort and a laugh: “Because God couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.”

I frowned but said nothing.

He raised his hands in a gesture of apology and said, “Present company excepted, of course.”

Of course.

When people default to a stereotype, they seldom recognize the disconnect when they know someone who defies the stereotype. And that is precisely the problem we face in moving forward on many of the issues that face us. Continue reading Are Trump Supporters Dumb?