Monday, July 28, 2008

Book availability crucial for learning

I usually hit a wall on the several bulletin boards to which I post (Slate, Houston Chronicle) when I bring this up. Folks like to debate politics, but ignore the fact that as we have become a less literate society (more oral) we fail to encourage our children to read. That, of course, is the root of the problem. Schools success is limited by what parents fail to impart.

What teachers in the lower grades do well is teach reading and, if standardized testing pressures permit, allow for reading aloud and silent reading. Somewhere around the sixth grade, however, the intrinsic pleasure reading imparts is supplanted by the required readings--including dry textbooks--and the classroom time allotted is minimized since TAKS is all. I believe this fuels naturally rebellious students, and mischievous proclivities turn to subversiveness, discouraging the few remaining readers from doing so openly, thereby losing "cool."

"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good." - Dr. Samuel Johnson

I'm a geography teacher, so my point about a World Almanac pertains to my experiences with both in the hugely successful computerized learning game: Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? and the need for students to know how to look things up manually without the use of a computer. Particularly with boys who naturally tend to read nonfiction (studies confirm this) an almanac or even a Guiness Book of World Records provides an unmeasurable amount of information that some kids will read on their own. That's why the books (most Dollar stores have some in stock) need to be in their actual possession.

Strunk & White is recommended simply because of its portability and its usefulness in directly addressing the grammar issues some folks have. Besides, so many of them were produced that they're easily available secondhand.

Not all methods reach all people, but each reaches somebody.

Yeah, I'm cheap. If I was not, I wouldn't have thousands of volumes of books in my house, cluttering up my living room. The fact that books are so readily available to our children, however, means that they're readers, too, without us having to push it onto them.

"[Book collecting] is a curious mania instantly understood by every other collector and almost incomprehensible to the uncontaminated." - Louis Auchincloss, A Writer's Capital, 1974

When I ask students how many books they have in their houses, few can list more than a dozen. I know, for example, that for every ten books, our kids my only peruse two, but if we have a hundred, that means they gone through at least twenty. Spending time at a local libray is useful as well, but I'm dismayed at how soon they close. I do my best reading at night.

“To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations--such is a pleasure beyond compare.” - Kenko Yoshida

A Bible, even a Qu'ran is necessary, not because I want to preach, but as a matter of common reference. Since so much of what we value in society has its rootys in our religions, simply pointing out where a Bible references this can provide one more realistic tie to their lives, relevance. Churches provide an ideal opportunity to add a day of education; if students can relate what they learn in school to religious belief, learning can be supplemented without having to cross the church/state boundary. Schools need not teach a belief, but it is perfectly valid to tie in factual information to what students already believe (e.g. geographical places & concepts: Tigris/Euphrates rivers, Sinai Peninsula, Israel, Zionism).

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Should churches be taxed?

Many have questioned why churches should retain tax-exempt status. Huge property holdings by some churches allow them, to operate with quite a lavish budget with a bit more pocket change than Jesus was accustomed to carrying.

By what logic is this profiteering allowed to continue?

Keep in mind that they're not required to
disclose records, either. This applies to Muslims as well, which has frustrated the U.S. Treasury's attempt to "follow the money" after 9/11.

Several of the Founding Fathers would have taxed them if they could have: Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Franklin were among those who had no special affinity for organized religion as it was then.

"When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one." - Ben Franklin, (Poor Richard's Almanac, 1754)

Image at right shows Houston Mayor Bill White addressing my Presbyterian Church congregation on city-state issues.

Here's a valid point from SM's Atheist "Bible":

"It is not just one tax that religious organizations are excused from paying, but an entire constellation of them. Clergy are exempt from federal taxes on housing and can opt out of Social Security and Medicare withholding. Religious employers are generally exempt from federal and state unemployment taxes, and in some states, religious publications are exempt from sales tax. Church benefit and retirement plans do not require the church employer to match its employees' contributions. Churches are automatically exempted from filing annual public informational reports on their financial status and activities, and donations made to churches are eligible for income tax deductions. And, of course, the two major tax breaks: church groups do not have to pay income tax and do not have to pay taxes on property which they own.

Repealing churches' tax exemption threatens no one's freedom of religion. If a church sought to rent property from a private owner to conduct religious services but could not afford the rent that the owner was asking, would the church members' freedom to practice their religion have been destroyed? ..."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Postville Round-up time!

Looks like The Houston Chronicle doesn't like the way ICE took it to the employees up in Postville, Iowa. Apparently they think non-Americans have due process rights.

Here's how the venerable Des Moines Register's covered the story as it was happening.

One way to deal with an issue such as this in the classroom is to explore its many facets with a New York Times Learning lesson plan. Check out their Learning Network for archives, crossword puzzles, and Current Events quizzes for a supplement to Social Studies learning.

For a more irreverent view on Mexican-American issues, I cautiously suggest reading Gustavo's Arellano's Ask a Mexican Column. Bring your sense of humor and prepared to be edified.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Send Immigrants home?

Would we ever deport 12 million Mexicans just because they living in this country illegally? Not a chance. Whenever ICE initiates raids here in Houston looking for undocumented workers, nearly every Mexican restaurant (and a bunch of others) shiver.

Author and TV star Anthony Bourdain is one of the few chefs who's been willing to speak frankly on the issue. He says the American restaurant industry would be in big trouble if all the illegal immigrants in this country were rounded up and deported. "The bald fact is that the entire restaurant industry in America would close down overnight, would never recover, if current immigration laws were enforced quickly and thoroughly across the board," Bourdain told me. "Everyone in the industry knows this. It is undeniable...I know very few chefs who've even heard of a U.S.-born citizen coming in the door to ask for a dishwasher, night clean-up or kitchen prep job. Until that happens, let's at least try to be honest when discussing this issue."

It's convenient to blame "Congress" or the "Guvmint" when in actuality it is we whose ambivalence clouds this issue. Yeah, we like low food prices that result from low-wage pickers and building costs kept low by "don't ask, don't tell" subcontractors, but we detest the idea that anyone who has done such menial work for decades be granted the same citizenship status as we who are lucky enough to have be born into affluence.

The work ethic that these people embody is often lost on our youth. Too lazy to pick up a few bucks mowing neighborhood lawns or bagging groceries, their insistence that "Mexicans are taking our jobs" elicits little sympathy. How many high schoolers really want to wash dishes all through high school and/or college?

Certainly, these immigrants put a strain on our profit-dominated health care system that shoves the uninsured onto the public health care system. Their nonresident status means that they are inclined to go to the more expensive Emergency Rooms that cannot turn them away than the much cheaper clinics that can. If a publicly-funded clinic tried to deal with these people, local talk show blabbers would have a field day "exposing" them while doing nothing for the problem except kept costs high. Lou Dobbs and other demagogues
neither explore the problem in any kind of sympathetic depth nor provide a workable solution other than bigger fences.

The contradiction between blatant profiteering and xenophobic electioneering in the formerly Republican majority is made clear when the President's former business partner while with the Major League Baseball's Rangers, Tom Hicks, scandalously employs Central American immigrant groups to his Swift Packing plants.

Today Salcido is a plaintiff in two separate class-action lawsuits against Swift. One alleges that the company wrongly terminated dozens of injured workers to save on workers' compensation costs, slashing them from $6 million in 2002 to just $600,000 two years later, and another claims the company deliberately and systematically replaced native workers with illegal Guatemalan immigrants in a scheme to depress wages. While Swift acknowledges that it fired employees who'd been on injury-related restrictions for more than six months, it denies any wrongdoing. The company also says it did its best to obey immigration laws during hiring.

Right. They probably just thought all these folks were from some big Guatamalan clan that lived near Nacodoches for the last century, but hadn't bothered to teach its children English.

Perhaps the best thing about immigrants is that they reflect so vividly what is wrong with us. We say we want democracy, yet are unwilling to participate in it; we want "universal" medical care, but only for those rich enough to afford it; we want justice, but only for the folks we like. If another country treated our citizens as badly as we do--allowed as many children to be undernourished, unsupervised, undereducated, and medically ignored--we'd declare war on them. Instead, we single out those least able to defend themselves and scream "wrong!"

I realize this is an overused quote, but the irony of blaming others when so often we fail to accept the consequences of our own actions/inactions cannot be ignored.

"We have met the enemy and he is US!" - Pogo

Failure to act when the consequences are minor lead to the overheated media events that surrounding the Jo Horn shooting. Much of the uproar had to do with the shooting victims' undocumented status.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Race , money, and other articles of faith

To argue that racism does or doesn't exist is like arguing the existence of bullion to back up our money supply. Evidence of institutionalized racism still pervades in financial institutions (see: race-based banking practices) but putting your finger on the racists themselves is as elusive as finding out who really controls our money supply.

It stands to reason, then, that "race" is a fiction created by those seeking to gain economically from it. "Money" is a figment that we choose to believe, for if we don't, our entire tenuous economic system would collapse. Both are articles of faith. That people of color tend to have less money can be backed by statistics, but that does not necessarily imply that their "race" has anything to do with it.

Every identifiable group of people maintains power by identifying the groups that represent a threat to their establishment and shrewdly manipulating them, depending on their perceived ability to maintain group solidarity. Whether by "divide and conquer," legalistic maneuvering, media discrediting, or simply ignoring their existence, the various groups are marginalized, usually with their complicity, into non-relevance. Only when political/economical equality is achieved can a group merge with the existing power structure, thereby creating a larger one, but only slightly altering the dominant culture.

If that doesn't work, the best and the brightest individuals are co-opted, thus reducing the movement to perpetual insignificance. Once employed by their heretofore "enemies" the most vociferous of rebels find out how intractable the system can be, impervious to outside change.

The entire concept of "negro" didn't even enter into the conversation until the the early 1700s. Explorers in Africa pushed it as a justification for poaching the continent.

"Academic racism was pushed by white supremacists during the period when white people garnered great profits from slavery and colonialism. Academic racism had the effect of attempting to deny the culture, history and ancestry from the victims of the profitable slave and colonial systems."

The advantage that this set of racial characteristics provided for workers in the heat of the Americas were gradually discovered, therefore economic considerations and the fragmentary nature of African slave culture allowed the concept to take hold. Indeed, some of Jefferson's early writings provide a startling portrait of an educated bigot.

A view of history rarely taught in public schools provides that this country was founded on weak idealistic propaganda provided by a self-serving plutocracy. Those "Forefathers" were often slave-owners, and only allowed those males who owned property to vote. I did not get that complete message until college.

Once the British aristocracy was supplanted, the war-mongering moneyed American ruling class had to label and disparage every definable group vying for power, the earlier, the better. Racism, xenophobia, and sexism were an accepted means to bully the less privileged into compliance.

The only good injun is a dead injun!

The acceptance of inferiority status among blacks depended on the deviousness of those within the clergy to convince the Southern ignoramuses that Africans were not humans, therefore not subject to Locke's Natural Rights. To do so, Southern schools had to exclude blacks, particularly those who would eventually be able to challenge the basic assumptions with which the racial caste system was maintained.

That exclusion led toward the type of race-based segregation that could not have occurred had authoritarian churches not held so much sway. Certainly, underfunding would perpetuate the progation of ignorance through hatred, and those educated blacks who hold such debilitating attitudes are perhaps more likely now to be the products of the disadvantaged schools and the scurrilous caste system partly initiated by the "house slave" class and maintained throughout Jim Crow as these were the lightest and first to be educated (some were already, albeit furtively).

That a class of blacks would accept this secondary role, thus creating a segregated, stratified black bourgeoisie is both cause for celebration and contempt. Many history books deny there ever existed such a class of educated, exclusionary blacks. The dissolution of the Washington D.C. "strivers" was partly a result of the success of Civil Rights in achieving integration, thus depriving them of their exclusive power base.

It's always been about money in this country, and Booker T. Washington noted that successful black businessmen were typically treated with the same deference as their white counterparts, thus buttressing his argument that only through education and hard work could black make lasting inroads into the ruling elite. One thing that always blocked black economic growth, however, has been a lack of access to banking.

Certainly, the Tulsa race riots proved Washington's position not entirely tenable, but the abject failure of the subculture that grew up from slavery's field slaves to embrace education as a means to shed the political shackles created a society where far too few controlled the fate of too many.

Democracy can only work when there is group participation, and the historical tendency of blacks as a group to base their political persuasion on the oral abilities of their Baptist clergy gives us the Reverend Poverty Pimps we have now.

Urban blacks from impoverished backgorunds are overtly more racist than whites, but white bigotry uses "code" words that lead to de facto segregation, suggesting a degree of complicity that still exists to maintain status quo both black and white), thereby perpetuating an undereducated class of citizens. Since this class can be any color, "race" no longer accurately describes it; instead, class conflict might be more accurate.

It's not going to all go away until we start telling more truth, first to ourselves, then to each other. An open society reduces the deviousness necessary for political machinations to remain effective. If the total truth was known about our morally bankrupt banking system, the country would plunge into Depression as it did when Wall Street financiers panicked over this fact in the late 20s. Banks create the paper that lenders accept as "money," but have to pay back with earned green stuff.

An educated, participatory populace reduces the ability of corporate America to deceive the lower classes through carefully chosen wordplay and racist demographics. That education needs to extend into our ability to manage money, yet the average American has no savings and a sizable credit card debt which turns him/her into a "wage slave."

Anyone with an awareness of this country's banking policy knows how the laws are tilted to protect credit card issuers over consumers. That we continue arguing over an agenda set by those seeking to maintain power rather than those seeking to share it assures the success of the red herring tossers.

Reading Rooms? Why not?

I would identify the single most important issue in education as the one most frequently over-looked: reading. As obvious as it may seem, the fact is that in most area schools, students are not provided with a place and time to simply sit and digest that which is taught or supplement it with outside reading. It's as if teachers are telling the students: "what I provide you is all you need to know about this topic."

Absent among the many "How to..." books is the one that discusses various ways in which a reading environment can be constructed that is most conducive to the way children read. Perhaps the modern library with its multimedia buzz is not the best place for this to happen.

I would like to see each school provide a nice, quiet place where students, teachers, and even parents could simply sit and read whatever they want without direction or interference. The role of parents as reading models cannot be overestimated; parent volunteers would be on hand constantly simply sitting and reading quietly, teaching by example. Perhaps an adjoining room could be set up as a "read-aloud" room for small groups to share what they enjoy most about what they read.

Do not expect administrators to buy into this concept anytime soon. I have submitted detailed proposals in three area school districts, been patted on the back and told how "wonderful" it sounded, then waited for any kind of action. I'm still waiting.

Crucial to this concept is allowing students the freedom to read whatever they want. Libraries are actively censored with “net-nannies” and book banning restricting rebellious thought. Rebellion is inherent in teenagers, it’s how they’re hardwired (perhaps, as socio-biologists postulate, so they “leave the nest”).

Could it be that administrators fear what might happen if their professed desire to teach "critical thinking skills" was actually implemented, that encouraging students to do so might also imply that they can criticize the way schools are being run? The near-complete lack of free-wheeling student newspapers in area schools is indicative of the reticence principals have to allow First Amendment rights to be practiced since doing so might invite criticism—valid or otherwise—of the current school environment.

Or perhaps the administrators fear parents busying themselves with what should be their own business. What if, God forbid, the parents come to the realization that quite a bit of time was being wasted in a school when a more productive endeavor—reading, perhaps—could be taking place?

If a child is to internalize reading as a necessary activity, it will require adults to model this behavior and many more, still, to show that it can even be a viable alternative to a jail cell (prisoners typically have plenty of time to read; teachers enjoy teaching such captive audiences)

If I were to impose school policy, I was require all students in school ought to have in their possession as an absolute minimum:

1) two dictionaries, an unabridged one for the house and a cheap, portable one they can write in to put in their backpacks.

2) ditto with a thesaurus

3) a World Almanac

4) a Strunk & White's grammar book

5) a set of encyclopedias, World Book or better

6) a comprehensive world atlas

7) religious books: Qu'ran, Bible, Talmud, etc.

All of the above can be had for less than $100 if newness is not the conspicuous consumption is not the primary objective. Bibles and Qu’rans can be obtained just for the asking, and dollar stores often sell dictionaries, thesauri, almanacs (useful even if up to 5 years old). Salvation Army usually stocks the old textbooks,
encyclopedias, and atlases.

If we continue to believe that only through lecture/discussion can learning take place, we’ll develop a society of Instant Messengers with little insight into what they write.

"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good." - Dr. Samuel Johnson

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Reading is fundamental

The best way to teach our students to read is to allow them to read. If that sounds redundant, I can assure parents that this basic task is not at the top of the priority list for most public high schools, falling somewhere behind paperwork pushing, cell-phone gathering, and restroom policy.

I propose that if schools are serious about teaching students to read, they’d facilitate the reading habit throughout the day, especially during slack times and home room, then after school, both by promoting the concept to parents and providing a quiet place for the students to read. In addition, enough books would be provided that students could read as much for their own enjoyment as for a course requirement.

One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in Houston from Iowa 23 years ago to teach at the all-black Worthing High School was the paucity of books available for my students to read outside of the library and reading classrooms. On the occasions that I would ask students to bring a book or a magazine in from home for a specific project, many students would claim that they had none to bring. When I had the temerity to suggest to students that they consider buying books for birthday or Christmas presents, I was nearly laughed out of the room. It hit me that the idea of getting these students to read anything substantive was akin to chopping firewood with a Bowie knife.

Having married the older sister of one of my first students, I learned from the inside that societal factors prevented these otherwise bright children from reading, that the few who did were subjected to considerable peer pressure to remain under the teacher’s radar, lest he/she be accused of “acting white.” It made little difference if I introduced black-authored books, for although the students would be less reluctant to be seen holding and looking at them, the level of readership hardly changed. The books I would loan them rarely made it home.

I soon realized that these students were somehow passing English and Social Studies without actually doing the required reading. It was only recently that I heard schoolteacher and author Cris Tovani label this as “fake reading.” The savvy students learned the education game, that teachers were being pressured to pass students along despite their glaring inadequacies. Most chose the path of least resistance, the one where they did only what was required of them shortcutting wherever possible. Administrative insistence that teachers maintain a high passing rate still prevent teachers from presenting challenging materials lest the students be discouraged and simply quit. Too often their real needs were ignored as they were passed along until their lack of skills caught up with them, usually about the ninth grade where they stayed, unable to move along in the educational system, dropping out anyway.

My more ambitious students employed a combination of cheating, grasping the predictable teacher patterns, and remaining docile in class, thereby securing grades high enough to be placed in "honors" classes where the learning environment lacked many of the noisy subversives and the ill-mannered. This fiction of high achievement would be maintained throughout junior high where researchers have often noticed a precipitous drop-off in reading skills. Reading level tests I've seen administered while at Elsik Ninth Grade Center consistently indicated only around 14% of the districts students read at or above ninth-grade level and that was before the recent influx of students (mis-)educated in New Orleans.

In my next column, I'll lay out my simplistic plans for improving reading (that I don't expect to be implemented simply for that reason).

Monday, July 14, 2008

"Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.” - Will Durant

With Will Durant's quotation, defining "education," I'm making my first attempt at blogging as opposed to the chaotic futility of arguing on forums.

This essay started with a comment on a forum supposing proselytizing couldn’t be stopped without infringing on the First Amendment’s guarantees:

Freedom of speech is granted by the First Amendment to the Constitution insofar as it doesn't infringe on the rights of others. That's sometimes a subjective measure, and most who are outspoken are accused of or subjected to various forms of suppression.

The Supreme Court has held that students do not have an absolute right to freedom of speech in school if it interferes with the rights of others to get an education. Given this subjectivity, teachers tend to seek a balance between individual versus group rights. Discipline-first teachers and meddling administrators tend to be oppressive, seeking order and uniformity at the expense of freedom of expression and critical thinking skills. Proselytizers have their own religious agendas which also tend toward the oppressive, as opposition is discouraged and the tyranny of the majority squashes dissent.

Without discipline, chaos prevails, and no student's interests are served. The idea, then, is to seek that balance; the trick is to actually find it.

Where it's NOT is the modern political arena. No Child Left Behind is precisely the form of federal intervention our forefathers seemed to want to prohibit with the 10th Amendment that would leave such issues to the states.

With this libertarian goal, President Reagan sought to abolish the Department of Education at the Cabinet level, but instead, he expanded it with ideologue William Bennett mouthing platitudes and hypocrisies (The Book of Virtues).

Following an inconsistent, but increasingly influential path, we get former Superintendent of Schools in Houston, Texas, and Physical Education major, Rod Paige. I've attended speeches where he seemed unable to frame a grammatically correct sentence. He fits the stereotype of an Uncle Tom appointee whose mere skin color curried favor from the Left (esp. Ted Kennedy).

He did have one good quote that I appreciated, however, when he spoke of "the soft bigotry of low expectations." I will argue that this is a hypocrisy, however, in light of the numerous local school districts (including HISD) whose emphasis is in having students merely pass rather than raising academic standards.

Now we have the more articulate Texan, Margaret Spellings. Though smarter, she's still a bureaucrat, apparently more interested in the perpetuation of the Department of Education than improving the overall level of American public school education.

The hotly debated School Voucher issue seems to have polarized into a simplistic debate:

The Right wants vouchers, a theoretically sound concept likely to be subverted into just another welfare program, this time for private schools. It's virtually impossible to believe this concept can work on a national scale without leaving millions of children behind.

The Left seems to be in control of public schools with its unions and apparent control of educational philosophy. I would argue that what much of this amounts to is The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America. (You can download this entire provocative book free), in which Christine Iserbyt, a Reagan appointee, sees the current public school institution as a drive toward socialism. A strong case can be made for that position.

This Cabinet post opportunity to lead by inspiration, to lend assistance without mandates, fell into a political football game in which neither side sought real improvement, only political advantage. No Congress is likely to supply enough money without "strings attached" to equalize educational opportunity. Anything less than that is a political pander.

What is needed first is a strong local consensus, then a national rethink about what should be taught in schools. Personally, I find E.D. Hirsch's books on Cultural Literacy to be most edifying and comprehensive, but as was stated earlier, no one person has identified the panacea that will fix all, or even most of education's problems.

Certainly a child's parents are ultimately responsible for their school performance, but when parents fall short, the mis-educated and ill-informed offspring become society's problems (and often criminals). Effort spent just pulling them into social compliance is less time and energy spent instilling work ethic and promoting excellence. It's a trade-off that varies according to teacher and school.

As much as I'd like a heftier salary, I can see why people are loathe to give schools more tax money given current SAT/ACT results. Accountability issues and a less-than-transparent administrative system tend to muddle the picture.

I would say that vague criticism should be ignored from afar, that those taking potshots at the system have no real desire to learn about it, only criticize it.

Only those who volunteer, who encourage community service and are willing to expend time doing so should have a say in system reform. It's not until one becomes personally involved with a school, observes it for awhile before inputting, and actually does something with students or teachers to effect small changes that he/she can understand the magnitude of the problems facing us in public schools today. Only then can they speak to an issue with any authority or any hope of improvement.

“Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern but impossible to enslave.” - Baron Henry Peter Brougham

“Education's purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” - Malcolm Forbes