“Has anyone heard about what’s happening in Ukraine?” I asked.
A few hands, but they had only heard the words. They didn’t know what was happening.
So I showed my 8th graders a short video that summarized events so far. I drew a map of Europe and Asia on the board. I outlined Ukraine, Russia and the European union. I explained about the Soviet Union and its collapse. I explained about NATO and the struggle for power and prestige.
When I was done, there was a moment of silence. They were all staring up at me. It was one of those rare moments of stillness, a pregnant pause before the questions started raining down.
A patter at first, then a storm.
They asked about what they were hearing at home. They searched for corroboration, explanation and/or other viewpoints.
One child asked if this was NATO’s fault. If it was President Biden’s doing.
Another asked how it would affect us and why we should care.
And yet another asked about nuclear proliferation and whether this war meant the end of the world.
I couldn’t answer all of their questions, though I tried. When there was something I couldn’t say or didn’t know, I pointed them in a direction where they might find some answers.
But it led to some interesting discussion.
Then I asked them if they had talked about any of this in their other classes – perhaps in social studies. They all said no, that a few teachers had promised to get to it after finishing the 13 colonies or another piece of mandated curriculum.
I was surprised but not shocked. I know the tyranny of the curriculum.
I was only able to talk about this, myself, because of the scope and sequence of Language Arts. You see, it was poetry time and I was about to introduce my students to Alfred Lord Tennyson and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
For those who don’t recall, the poem tells the true story of the battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. A cavalry regiment of British troops charged Russian gunners and were mostly shot to pieces.
It’s a pillar of English poetry and a perfect opportunity to talk about warfare in general and Ukraine in particular since the battle took place in the same general area of the world.
In the poem, a general mistakenly orders the soldiers on horseback armed only with swords to charge the enemy armed with cannons and guns.
The video uses images from a silent movie version of the Tennyson poem while singer Bruce Dickinson wails the story of a single soldier of the Light Brigade being senselessly gunned down and dying alone, forgotten on the battle field.
It certainly gives them something to think about as they watch black and white horses flung in the air and our spandex clad narrator commenting on the situation with hairspray piled locks.
Students end up leaving the class continuing the debate with each other about heroism and the waste of war.
Description: The title says it all. Stop wasting teachers’ time by making us fill out paperwork that won’t help us do our jobs but will make administrators and principals look good. We make our own plans for ourselves. We don’t need to share with you a bunch of BS with Common Core nonsense and step-by-step blah-blah that will probably have to change in the heat of the moment anyway.
Fun Fact: Teachers in my building rarely say anything to me about my blog. But I got some serious appreciation on my home turf for this one.
Description: We talk about missing teachers, subs, aides, bus drivers, but not parents or guardians. We should. They are absolutely essential to student learning. I think there are a lot of good reasons why parents don’t participate in their children’s schooling, but they will never get the help they need if we continue to ignore this issue and throw everything on teachers and the school.
Fun Fact: So many liberals lost their minds on this article saying I was attacking parents. I’m not. If people were drowning, you would not be attacking them by pointing that out and demanding help fishing them out of the water. It is not “deficit thinking” to acknowledge that someone needs help. It’s authentic advocacy for both students and parents.
Description: It wasn’t just liberals who were butt hurt by my writing – it was neoliberals, too. Comedian Bill Maher actually mentioned my article “Standardized Testing is a Tool of White Supremacy” on his HBO show. He joked that I was devaluing the term ‘white supremacy.” Sure. These assessments only help white people unfairly maintain their collective boot on the throats of black and brown people. That’s not white supremacy. It’s melanin deficient hegemony. Happy now!?
Fun Fact: Maher’s assertion (I can’t claim it’s an argument because he never actually argued for anything) seems to be popular with neoliberals trying to counter the negative press standardized testing has been receiving lately. We need to arm against this latest corporate talking point and this article and the original give plenty of ammunition. My article was republished on Alternet and CommonDreams.org.
Description: Most of the world does not have competitive after school sports. Kids participate in sports through clubs – not through the schools. I suggested we might do that in the US, too. This would allow schools to use more of their budgets on learning. It would stop crucial school board decisions from being made for the athletics department at the expense of academics. It would remove litigation for serious injuries. Simple. Right?
Fun Fact: So many folks heads simply exploded at this. They thought I was saying we should do away with youth sports. No. Youth sports would still exist, just not competitive sports through the school. They thought poor kids wouldn’t be able to participate. No, sports clubs could be subsidized by the government just as they are in other countries. Some folks said there are kids who wouldn’t go to school without sports. No, that’s hyperbole. True, some kids love sports but they also love socialization, routine, feeling safe, interaction with caring adults and even learning! But I know this is a radical idea in this country, and I have no illusions that anyone is going to take me up on it.
Description: Republicans have a new racist dog whistle. They pretend white people are being taught to hate themselves by reference to a fake history of the US called Critical Race Theory. In reality, schools are teaching the tiniest fraction of the actual history of racism and Republicans need that to stop or else they won’t have any new members in a few generations. I wrote three articles about it this year from different points of view than I thought were being offered elsewhere.
Fun Fact: I’m proud of this work. It looks at the topic from the viewpoint of academic freedom, the indoctrination actually happening (often at taxpayer expense) at private and parochial schools, and the worthy goal of education at authentic public schools. Article B was republished on CommonDreams.org.
Description: I ran for office this year in western Pennsylvania. I tried for Allegheny County Council – a mid-sized position covering the City of Pittsburgh and the rest of the second largest county in the state. Ultimately, I lost, but these three articles document the effort.
Fun Fact: These articles explain why a teacher like me ran for office, how I could have helped public schools, and why it didn’t work out. Article C was republished on CommonDreams.org.
Description: These are terrifying times. In the future people may look back and wonder what happened. These two articles document how I got vaccinated against Covid-19 and my thoughts and feelings about the process, the pandemic, and life in general.
Fun Fact: It hasn’t even been a full year since I wrote these pieces but they somehow feel like they were written a million years ago. So much has changed – and so little.
Description: Pennsylvania Republican state legislators were whining that they didn’t know what teachers were doing in public school. So they proposed a BS law demanding teachers spend even more of their never-ending time giving updates. I suggested legislators could just volunteer as subs and see for themselves.
Fun Fact: So far no Republicans have taken me up on the offer and their cute bit of performative lawmaking still hasn’t made it through Harrisburg.
Description: When it comes to stopping a global pandemic, we need federal action. This can’t be left up to the states, or the counties, or the townships or every small town. But all we get from the federal government about Covid mitigation in schools are guidelines. Stand up and do your F-ing jobs! Make some rules already, you freaking cowards!
Fun Fact: As I write this, President Joe Biden just came out and said there is no federal solution to the pandemic. It’s not that I think the other guy would have done better, but this was a softball, Joe. History will remember. If there is a history after all this is over.
Description: On January 6, a bunch of far right traitors stormed the Capitol. This articles documents what it was like to experience that as a public school teacher with on-line classes during the pandemic.
Fun Fact: Once again, history may want to know. Posterity may have questions. At least, I hope so. The article was republished on CommonDreams.org.
Gadfly’s Other Year End Round Ups
This wasn’t the first year I’ve done a countdown of the year’s greatest hits. I usually write one counting down my most popular articles and one listing articles that I thought deserved a second look (like this one). Here are all my end of the year articles since I began my blog in 2014:
Not only that but the very land we stand on was once the domain of dark-skinned indigenous people.
People who were tricked, coerced and killed if they did not give up this land – if they did not move on to ever shrinking corners of the continent until they were almost all dead, assimilated or stashed away on reservations.
What would it do to a white child to learn all this?
Provide an accurate account of events, I suppose.
These people terrified that children will learn about racism – I don’t think it’s facts that they’re trying to deny.
I mean I’m sure they would certainly like to gloss over the ugliest atrocities committed by their ancestors, but they don’t really seem to dispute the story of conquest that makes up our founding. It’s more the way the facts are being presented.
History is written by the winners and these white people won.
That’s not what they want to hide.
It’s the TONE in which the story is told.
If we talked about the ingenuity of white people in colonizing these others, they might find that tolerable.
If we talked about how great the white people were and how bad the brown and black people were, that might be acceptable.
Even if we spun a tall tale about how subjugating these others was really in their best interests in the long run, that would be okay.
We can’t humanize them by looking at things from their point of view.
We can’t empathize or admit wrongdoing in any way.
In fact, that’s the problem, they say, with public schools.
That’s what they object to.
Public schools teach what it was like to live as an enslaved person. How you could be beaten and murdered with no cause. How you had no rights to anything. How your own children were likewise doomed to a life of servitude and could even be taken away from you never to be seen again.
And not just that but they’re teaching about Jim Crow. They’re teaching about how even after slavery, black people’s rights were almost nonexistent. How they were denied an education, kept in menial jobs, red-lined into ghettos, and often lynched without the slightest provocation.
When children hear about all that, they start to get ideas.
Even the white kids.
It’s not just the history of racism these children are learning, but they’re starting to think that racism is WRONG.
And that’s a problem because it has an impact on how we view the modern world today.
Because there are still black and brown people in the United States.
They make up about 40% of the population and still protest the way they’re treated.
Even if we did as these people want, it would still be up to their kids to make the same twisted conclusions as their parents. They don’t just want us to refrain from pointing in any given direction, but to stop providing counter examples and facts so their kids can’t come to an educated decision.
Those of us who’ve read “1984” have seen this before.
The text is set in Oceania, a state where the government controls the media, education and even people’s thoughts.
The main character, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites history to match the party line – whatever it is this week.
For example, at a “Hate Week” demonstration near the beginning of the story, people are gathered to cheer their country’s alliance with Eastasia. However, when the speaker abruptly declares that Eastasia is the enemy, people quickly crumple up their banners and acknowledge that Eastasia was always the enemy and they must have been mistaken to think otherwise.
The prospective ban on Critical Race Theory is strikingly similar.
Politicos are trying to erase the United States’ troubled history of systemic racism, gas light any discussion of its current existence and otherwise stifle and control any topic that goes against their party line.
It’s a policy enshrined in page after page of the most famous description of totalitarianism in modern literature.
Let’s take a closer look at some key passages.
‘”There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”‘
Central to the book is a belief in objective truth.
No matter what we think or say, there are facts out there in the world.
Sanity is our adherence to that reality. Psychological well being is the attempt to bring our thoughts and ideas about what was and what is in line with these facts.
Moreover, doing so is the definition of freedom, itself.
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
If we take away an individual’s right to try and square the reality of the world with their internal ideas about it, we take away all of their freedoms.
One must come to an understanding of the world. It cannot be handed down. It must be the result of observation and understanding.
In short, it is a product of education. We’re taught the facts, but it is up to us to make sense of them.
If the facts are obscured from us or if they are misrepresented, our freedom is impinged.
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present…”
In direct opposition to the idea of objective truth is the mutability of history.
To some extent it is completely natural. Over time we come to new understandings. We discover things that had been accepted as facts were misunderstood.
Ideas change and we must keep up with that changing understanding.
However, the danger is when that change is NOT the result of new information or recontextualizing what we already knew. It’s when we allow history to be dictated by politics.
“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'”
This idea is essential to the work Winston does at the Ministry of Truth. By rewriting the events of the past and controlling the narrative of history, the Party maintains its authority.
This is the goal of the proposed bans on Critical Race Theory. One political party is attempting to stop the freedom of history based on facts and replace it with history based on whatever is in the best interests of that party maintaining power.
‘”The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware they are oppressed.”‘
Much of the book is focused on how fascist regimes control thought. And primarily this is done through education and the media.
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
If you don’t have the words to express an idea, it’s incredibly difficult to have that idea. We do, after all, think in language.
For example, the definition of “Racism” has shifted over time to mean more than just prejudice or discrimination against a person or people based on their race or ethnicity.
It is now more commonly understood as prejudice plus power – racial prejudice, AND social power to codify and enforce this prejudice into an entire society.
This is what is meant by Systemic Racism, a concept at the core of this fight. Much of the battle against Critical Race Theory is really an attempt to stop this concept of racism from becoming widespread and codified through our school system.
It is an attempt to keep the original definition of racism, to stop people from seeing systemic racism by refusing to accept its reality through control over speech.
Yet the movement, itself, is based on redefinitions and insinuations.
Critical Race Theory is not a concept taught at public schools. It’s a decades old legal framework. It’s about how laws function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities.
It’s as much a part of K-12 public schools curriculum as torts, contract law or civil forfeiture. Which is to say, not at all.
However, the GOP is using it because they think it sounds scary. It’s a self-created boogeyman to incite the Republican base against a nebulous and ever changing idea of what they take to be liberal indoctrination.
As Orwell wrote:
‘”It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”‘
And that’s what we have here. The destruction of words, the destruction of Critical Race Theory from its actual meaning into a trigger point.
It is about insinuation instead of talking about Republican grievances of what this so-called liberal indoctrination is head on. Because if they were to discuss the issue openly, it could never be proven. However, to imply, to hint, to whisper avoids the ability to disprove.
It is Newspeak, the fictional language of Oceania where simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary limit the individual’s ability to think and even articulate certain facts or concepts.
PURPOSE OF EDUCATION
But what is the difference between what Republicans are doing with these bans and the naturally evolving course of history? If education is the process of forming an individual’s ideas and thoughts, how is any of it ever free?
Consider this. Orwell describes the goal of education in Oceania:
‘”Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”‘
We do not want students to be handed down information and simply accept it even if it doesn’t make sense.
Teachers strive to get their students to interact with information, to look at it critically.
And that is the important point – CRITICALLY.
At some point even in Oceania, everyone comes across different ideas, concepts that you may not have considered before or may have actively rejected.
What do you do when this happens?
Winston is expected to believe what the Party tells him to believe. And even in the USA we often act as if being confronted with this reality is the worst case scenario for students. It is the end of the world if they are confronted with a different point of view.
It is entirely absent from public school curriculum.
Critical Race Theory is a legal framework that’s been taught for decades in law schools around the country. And just like torts, contract law, civil forfeiture and a host of other valid topics in law school, the K-12 public schools really don’t cover them much.
Black people are convicted at higher rates and given longer sentences than white people for the same crimes – 5% of illicit drug users are African American, yet Black people represent 29% of those arrested and 33% of those incarcerated for drug offenses. Moreover, African Americans and White people use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of White people.
And on and on.
One has to live in a factually neutral bubble to insist that racism no longer exists in this country, but that’s exactly where these right wing lawmakers are coming from.
After all, their base is almost exclusively White. If they can’t find something to rile up these people and make them feel unduly put upon, they won’t come to the polls. And nothing gets people more eager to vote than fear and anger.
“The slave who knew Christ had more freedom than a free person who did not know the Savior…”
“…Although the slaves faced great difficulties, many found faith in Christ and learned to look to God for strength. By 1860, most slaveholders provided Christian instruction on their plantations.”
“To help them endure the difficulties of slavery, God gave Christian slaves the ability to combine the African heritage of song with the dignity of Christian praise. Through the Negro spiritual, the slaves developed the patience to wait on the Lord and discovered that the truest freedom is from the bondage of sin…”
“A few slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well.”
And here’s another excerpt from the same book teaching that black people were just as responsible for slavery as white people and that white people suffered from slavery just as much:
“The story of slavery in America is an excellent example of the far-reaching consequences of sin. The sin in this case was greed – greed on the part of the African tribal leaders, on the part of the slave traders, and on the part of slave owners, all of whom allowed their love for profit to outweigh their love for their fellow man. The consequences of such greed and racism extended across society and far into the future. It resulted in untold suffering – most obviously for the black race but for the white race as well.” (emphasis mine)
Here’s another excerpt from the same book about the benefits of the KKK:
“[The Ku Klux] Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. Klan targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians.”
“While the end was a noble one – ending discrimination in schools – the means were troublesome. Liberals were not willing to wait for a political solution.”
As bad as these excerpt are, they focus only on racism.
The books are riddled with counter factual claims and political bias in every subject imaginable such as abortion, gay rights and the Endangered Species Act, which one labels a “radical social agenda.” They disparage religions other than Protestant Christianity and cultures other than those descended from White Europeans.
Nearly 80 percent of scholarship students attend religious schools, and most of those institutions are Christian, according to an investigation by the Orlando Sentinel. The books mentioned above all come from a Protestant point of view. However, roughly 16 percent of scholarship schools are Catholic and use their own curriculum as do other schools including Islamic or Jewish institutions (which combined make up about 5 percent of the schools).
It is clear then that this controversy is worse than a tempest in a teacup.
It’s misdirected anger.
Political indoctrination IS going on in the United States, but it is not happening at our public schools.
It is happening at our private and parochial schools through school voucher programs.
If we ban anything, it shouldn’t be Critical Race Theory – It should be school vouchers.