The Speech Pete and I Gave to the School Board Tonight

2020 Update: We fought the good fight and still believe all the things in this speech, but we not only lost that battle–we lost the war. Small schools have been gone from Lima for about seven years, and most of the teachers we taught with have moved on. MI was a brief, shining moment…

2011 Note: Well, we wrote it together. Pete gave it, since I still have bronchitis badly enough that I’m jealous of Kermit the Frog’s melodious tones. We are responding to the proposal to restructure the city schools; the specific issue we mention is changing the high school bell schedule so all three schools housed in it operate on the same schedule (The three “small schools” were created about eight years ago by dividing out of the “old” Lima Senior.)

Address to School Board, January 13, 2011

Lima City Schools have some challenges ahead–no doubt about that. A gale of issues is swirling, creating an epic storm we have to ride through. We acknowledge that there are many different aspects and levels of the current situation that will demand action, but we’re very troubled by specifics in the current proposal.

To people who don’t understand the culture of the small school concept, requiring the high school to return to one bell schedule seems like no big deal. The reason given for returning to one bell schedule is so teachers and students can cross schools more easily. When students and teachers cross schools, the culture and purpose of small schools is compromised. We do
not support any action that threatens to stealthy chip at the integrity and fidelity of small schools. Anytime a teacher has to divide attention between multiple schools, anytime a student straddles schools, the culture of the schools is breached and school climate takes a giant step back to the
paradigm we said didn’t work eight years ago. As long as the number of students and teachers crossing over is very low, we compensate–but we need every teacher within a small school to buy into the approach and beliefs in the vision of that school; we need every student to be invested not only in their education, but in the belief that they matter personally to their teachers and principal.

In the School of Multiple Intelligences, we have a set of belief statements that defines our culture. It was generated over many meetings, proposed and word-smithed repeatedly, until we reached consensus. One of those statements reads: “We believe in asking hard questions, having difficult conversations, and seeking truth and wisdom throughout the process.” We
have spent years–eight years, to be exact–developing a school where teachers, students, and parents have a voice. We don’t always succeed in asking the hard questions–or the right questions–but we’re committed to trying. We have these common values, and we work hard to create a learning atmosphere where the teachers and the students matter–they are not just a number, their voice is heard. One hard question we are asking now is, why were the schools not given a part in the solution-finding process, or why only one of the high schools was.

We’ve heard for years about teacher ownership and the importance of teacher opinions and voice. The process of creating this proposal does not follow what we have understood we should expect as professionals, even professionals who believe in positive deviance as a mechanism of change.Yes, there are problems and economic realities we must face, but we
should face them as one. The district needs creative thinking to deal with the issues, and a united front to present to the public to explain why those are the best courses of action. But top down dictates such as deciding the high school must be on all one bell schedule is neither creatively dealing with the deeper problems, or bringing people together to build support for the solution. We have faith that if specific concerns were brought to the high school, and teacher leadership teams invited to sit down and look for solutions, there would be innovative answers. It takes time to do it that way, but MI has proven repeatedly that the results are worth it.

We had over seventeen years experience in the old Lima Senior. We did some good things there, and we have a lot to be proud of from the old days. But as we see it, there was a part of that paradigm that people don’t admit to: for the best and brightest, we had excellent options, almost an Advanced Academy. Kids who weren’t part of that were often floundering, on their
own, a random face in the crowd. As awful as it is to admit, there was a threshold of acceptable loss. We couldn’t save them all. Small schools changed that. Many of our teachers know every kid in our school, and no kid slips through invisibly. If the school board approves the requirement that we operate on one bell schedule with the intention that teachers and students will cross schools, we may quickly pass the tipping point where small schools only exists on paper, then we’ve rendered students into nameless faces in the crowd.

Albert Einstein had a sign in his office that said “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” We could barrage you with data to help explain why we believe small schools is a success–and many of those numbers are indicative of real gains in our ability to assess what kids know and how to teach better. We could show you data about the number of in-services we’ve attended, and the number of initiatives we’ve instituted with fidelity. But at the end of the year, those numbers may not matter nearly as much as this: there are many graduates of MI who are in college that we believe wouldn’t have been there if they
had just been a face in the crowd–if they hadn’t had the entire staff of our school cheering them on, yelling at them, and believing that they personally mattered.

Making the public aware of the strengths and assets in the Lima Public schools is a challenge, one that intensifies every time a new state report card is published. But playing a shell game by restructuring and renaming doesn’t address the core problems. If major restructuring will address those issues and revitalize our schools–by all means, it is essential. But if re-branding is the major effect, all we’ve done is confuse the community–which hurts our credibility. That undercuts all the truly wonderful aspects–and people–in this district. We need to keep our schools current and marketable in a way that looks towards the future, not merely reacting to
the present. Thank you for giving us a chance to share our concerns.

Pete Badertscher and Jeannine Jordan-Squire

Down the Mississppi

Some days, I hate to admit to being a liberal. I want to put on a “I Love Ann Coulter” T shirt and blend into the crowd. Well…not really. Every flavor of crazy is still crazy. But today was one of those days when the crazies made us thoughtful liberals look as if we should sit in a corner with a dunce cap duct taped on our heads.

Today’s walk of shame? The scholars who are editing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn so it doesn’t offend modern audiences. I teach high school English at an urban school. My classes are generally over 50% African-American, and usually about 70% free lunch. I teach students reading well below grade level as well as students who will succeed at college.  The issues these professors are attempting to address are ones I wrestle with on a regular basis–and I think they need Steve and Blue to sit them in the Thinking Chair until they really grasp the issues and possible solutions.

One prof laments Huck Finn falling from the grade school curriculum. I wonder how extensively he’s looked at typical grade school reading lists. Twain’s masterpiece, with long, complex sentences, flowery language, and dialogue written in dialect, is well above what is considered grade school reading level now. In fact,  the books I see even middle school students reading are much shorter, and written at a much lower reading level.

That’s without even issues like references to Huck smoking, Pap’s drinking, Huck’s alliance with con artists, and Huck’s criticism of the Widow’s religion. Grade school?  Those issues alone make the content controversial for some teens. And I’m ignoring the way test prep has overtaken elementary curriculum, too–how many novels do these professors believe elementary students have time to read? I suspect their number would be way too high.

More importantly, though, is the “inappropriate” racially charged language. I’ve used the book Huck Finn in classes about 6 different years, if I remember correctly. Most recently, about four years ago. I have it as an optional book for projects and outside reading, too. I’ve had poor kids and middle-class kids read it, black, white, mixed…and I doubt I use the book in class again.

The language isn’t the problem. It’s an easy scapegoat, and easy (although artistically questionable) to fix. There are four bigger problems. First, American culture has changed so dramatically that there is little in the book that kids who are essentially non-readers (or easily bored) can relate to. Much of the reading that is done now is “relevant” in some way–contemporary, modern, accessible. The pacing of Huck’s journey, the detailed, meandering storytelling style–getting kids into that is difficult, especially when most of them have little or no experience in nature. A surprising percentage of my students don’t swim–rafting does not catch their imagination.

Second, related to #1, most students don’t have a romantic image of running away into nature, fending for themselves on the river. There’s always concern about why social services don’t step in, who should be in charge of making sure Huck is ok–or why he’s not in juvy as a delinquent. And the assumption that Jim and Huck are sexually involved, that Jim is possibly taking advantage of Huck (rarely, vise versa)–that’s come up every time I’ve taught it.

Third, the overdrawn characters–like the Duke, and the feuding family–make no sense to the students. It’s stupid, and wastes their time. Even when explaining that the journey is the story, and how mythic journeys progress (citing works they tend to  know like National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, Little Miss Sunshine, and others), the cultural context of the characters is lost on them, and they read the SparkNotes and figure they’ve got the idea, so it’s all good.

Fourth–and this is a big point–even if every racial epithet is removed, racism is evident in the book. Take a deep breath before yelling “No” at me–I’m not claiming Twain was racist. For students who do read the book, especially students of color, discussion of Jim’s status, of Jim’s superstitions, of the elaborate ruse Tom Sawyer uses to “free” the already freed Jim–those have to be discussed. Tom Sawyer treats Jim badly, and does so entirely because he saw Jim as just a slave. Discussing the end of the book involves discussing that, and it can lead to fascinating discussion. The Widow Douglas does the moral, modern thing, flaunting convention and freeing Jim. Huck cares about Jim. It’s possible to make the case that the book is not ultimately racist, but the conversations about the issue must occur to treat the book and the characters with intellectual honesty.

And that leads me back to the N word. Sigh. No, I don’t enjoy dealing with that type of language, and I don’t use it or understand the attitudes behind racial slurs. (Some people would suggest that’s because if I’m going to insult someone, I go much more personal; doing it based on something as obvious as race is just wrong) I saw an African-American lit book a few years ago that changed “colored” and “Negro” to “African-American,” even in speeches by Martin Luther King Jr and writings by W.E.B DuBois and Malcolm X.  When we were reading King’s I’ve Been to The Mountaintop speech a couple years ago, I mystified one class by stopping the reading part way through and sending students through my bookshelves to find another version of the letter–King’s references to race had all been changed to read African-American.

Here’s a fact: African-Americans know they are not Caucasian-Americans. It’s not a secret. We can talk about it. We should talk about it, so we can see if and when it matters. The inability to discuss the real issues of race mean we can’t discuss the real issues plaguing America.

Part of discussing race means dealing with language. It means having the hard conversation about why Twain used those words, and if using them makes him racist, no question. And it means listening and considering when some students automatically say yes, Twain had to be racist.

Then…we discuss whether Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Tupac, Kanye, Spike Lee, and a list of others are racists. What’s the difference between those people–and even white performers like Eminem–using language that would get me fired? And we consider what Bill Cosby and Obama and Oprah say about race, and why students yell words down the hall that their grandparents and greatgrandparents found demeaning and offensive.

I use Malcolm X in my classroom, and Martin Luther King, and Zora Neale Hurston, and Lorriane Hansberry. I sometimes even use Pat Conroy’s Lords of Discipline, a more racially charged book than any Twain ever wrote.  I’ve only had a couple students through my entire career who did not read a piece because they found it offensive–and I gave alternate assignments without any problem. But most of the time, the hard conversations and the difficult prep work required to have students read works like that have paid off in fascinating discussions and thoughtful essays.

The professors who think they can revive Twain by wiping some bleach over his words may need to climb down from their Ivory-white Tower for a semester and co-teach with me. It would be fun–for once, I wouldn’t be the most clueless liberal in my school!

Proposal: The 28th Amendment

Note: when I wrote this in 2011, the idea made satirical sense to me. Now I’m leaning the other way: Baby Boomers and earlier generations should only get a half-vote. They have a less vested interest in the future, and it shows in their voting patterns.

I have a radical proposal, one that could transform democracy: change the voting age. When I was in junior high, eighteen year olds got the right to vote. It made sense, and I can defend that as an experiment. In 1971, when the 26th amendment was passed, 18 year olds were being drafted (meaning, children, the government sent males a letter saying they had to go into the Army…not they were invited to, if it fit with their dreams, goals, and schedule). In 1971, 18 year olds could legally drink alcohol some places, and the average age of a first marriage for females was 20 years old; for males, the median age was 23. Eighteen years olds in 1970’s America really were on the brink of assuming adult responsibilities, so arguing that they should be accorded the same rights seems logical and fair.

However, America has changed a lot over the last 40 years. Sociologists have documented the prolonged adolescence that is common now, and the census bureau verifies that the median age for first marriage now is about 27 years old for females, and slightly older for males. The federal government even acknowledged this by mandating that parents’ insurance cover children to age 26–a sign that people in their mid-twenties are often not in a position to take full responsibility for themselves. One more piece of evidence: the average age for enlisting in the Army isn’t 18, straight out of high school; it’s 21--when many of the draftees from the Vietnam era would have been integrating into civilian life as veterans.

So….the 28th amendment should raise the voting age to the late 20’s, an age when people can see age 30 looming ahead and know that sooner or later, they need to become adults. Age 28 makes sense to me: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Kurt Cobain all died at age 27, so that’s become a milestone birthday to some people. Formalizing that to make 28 the official beginning of “your life as a voting citizen” could create a voting citizenry that is less prone to hype in advertising, more skeptical of promises and sound bytes, and have more sense of how the world works and a sense of history, leading to better decisions.

It’s possible that fewer people would vote–I know how hard my school has worked to encourage voter registration and getting out the vote–but I’m ok with that. More people voting easily leads to uninformed people voting, which means sound bite campaigning rules; too often, people are voting based on impressions, emotions and rumors.

I do think there should be one exception: people who have served the country in some fashion–military, Peace Corp, Teach for America, some other official National Service project that requires significant commitment–would have earned the right to vote as well.

This proposal is all just off the top of my head–rambling, freewriting. Not a real proposal, in formal terms. Once I get my Christmas tree down, and my grading caught up, and my laundry done, the campaign may begin….