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….

Stone Soup

Years ago, when I was a much younger teacher, I had a conversation with my Grandma Flo that I still mull over sometimes as I do lesson plans. Grandma knew I was an English teacher, but she was curious exactly what I did. She assumed meant I taught grammar and punctuation, “things that would help kids get a good job,” as she put it.

Well, no, that isn’t emphasized in high school English, I confessed. We did lots of essay writing, but not sentence diagramming and activities like she was asking about. We didn’t even have a grammar or punctuation textbook. She was pretty incredulous at that, and couldn’t imagine what I did with my students.

“We read a lot,” I explained. “And we talk and write about the reading.” That was the simple version, but basically covered everything we did in the 80’s in English classes.

She nodded her head, agreeing that reading is important, yes. “There are lots of good stories out there. Do your students read about Corrie Ten Boom?” She was on a Corrie Ten Boom kick then. I shook my head no. “Well, there’s lots of other good stories. Do you read any of those stories by Dale Evans that you liked?” Grandma remembered when I was in elementary school and read the books by Roy Rogers’ wife that were laying on Grandma’s end table.

Again, I shook my head no. Grandma looked at me, brow furrowed. The stare went on for a long time….possibly hours, the way I remember it. She finally said something:  “Now Jeannine, you aren’t going to tell me you waste your student’s time with made up stories, are you?”

We’d been reading Hemingway. I was starting a Chekhov story the next week. I had to admit to it.

“Well, that’s just wrong. There are so many true stories out there, so many people those kids could be learning about and inspired by. You just need to look at what you do and ask yourself why you’re wasting their time with lies and made up stuff.”

I tried to counter her position: “Grandma, Jesus told stories. That’s what parables are.”

“He surely did tell stories–and they were teaching a lesson to uplift us. And you don’t know that they weren’t about real people, do you? He just didn’t use names because he wasn’t going to air somebody else’s dirty laundry in front of everybody and their neighbor.”

I could have kept trying. I can explain all sorts of literary theory about the power and universality of fiction. I can explain Bruno Bettelheim’s and Joseph Campbell’s and Jung’s defense of the need and purpose for fiction. I could have quoted C.S. Lewis and Susan Sontag.

But it would have been sound and fury; I would have been protesting too much. I knew the look on Grandma’s face. I wasn’t changing her mind on this.

I’ve told that story a couple times to other English teachers, and we chuckle and shake our heads. Of course we read “made up” stories–and find great Truth and meaning in them.  Using my Grandma story as a quirky icebreaker, though,  ignores the bigger issue, and this is an issue that plagues education reform today, but it’s a difficult, messy question: what is the purpose of education?  Why do we do what we do?

Grandma’s mission statement was crystal clear: formal education is to help people get good jobs. With that as the goal, an emphasis on fiction really doesn’t make sense.  When education reformers emphasize the need to educate a work force that can compete globally, they are rallying behind Grandma—21st century jargon as a value-added fun piece.

Or do we need to create citizens who are capable of governing a democracy wisely? Or should the goal of education be to form “educated” people in the classical sense–people who know the classics, who are well-versed in the humanities? Or to provide an underclass that will consume and keep the free market growing?

At the early elementary level, all the purposes are served by similar methods. But by middle school, it’s clear that we’re trying to do a bit of column A, a smattering of column B–it’s the stone soup approach to education. Everybody brings what they have to the pot and throws it in, hoping that it all fits together in a tasty broth.

But if Grandma were sitting down with reformers and politicians who are cooking the educational broth–I have no doubt that she’d look at them with the same furrowed brow, asking hard questions about what we are doing and why. I’d have wanted a front row seat for that!

Have Yourself….

I miss Sparkle and Twinkle. Years ago–well, not really that long ago, seeing that time is relative–I told my daughter stories about Sparkle and Twinkle, twin elves who lived in Santa’s house at the North Pole. It sounds so simple when I say it that way, but we had a mythos equal to Tolkien’s Middle Earth before Sparkle and Twinkle went into cold storage. My daughter was about three the year I started creating the story cycle; the stories lasted for six or seven years beyond that, I think. I even published a column in the Lima News requesting that Lima respect the fragile belief in the impossible and unlikely in hopes that she–and other kids tottering on the precipice of unbelief–might have one more year of magic.

But Sparkle and Twinkle are gone, and a sense of wonderment and enchantment has sauntered away with them. It’s so easy to be mired in logic, to scoff and debunk. We live in an age, in a society, where the magical is scientific: my phone can do things Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin and Alexander Graham Bell couldn’t even imagine, and my memories are safely digitized, filtered through pixels.

For years, my first Christmas music of the season–AFTER Thanksgiving–has been my ancient John Denver and the Muppets Christmas cd. I take a lot of flak about that from the Denver-grinches around me (and, yep, I invite it). But there’s a method to my madness, a logic in my search for the illogical: John Denver’s joy and wonder and wacky-optimistic-beliefs come through to me in the music. I once saw Frank Oz and Jim Henson (Muppet creators) interviewed about why they worked so often with John Denver; they recounted how even during meetings with the Muppets and their creators, Denver repeatedly addressed Kermit and Fozzie and the gang directly as well as talking to Oz and Henson. The Muppeteers jokingly considered whether someone needed to explain to Denver that Kermit was, in fact, a puppet, not “real.” Many stars who worked with the Muppets had a difficult time talking to the Muppets even in character; they were so acutely aware that they were “playing pretend.” In John Denver’s world, though….magic was real. Sure, Kermit needed Jim Henson to talk and move, but the essence of Kermit, was….well….Kermit.

I want to accept what’s logical but seek the impossible–with a sense of wonderment and openness and joy, of course. There’s a virtue in being able to drop the veneer of reason to seriously imagine Sparkle and Twinkle as teen elves; there’s a solace and joy in making the theologically analytical voices in my head stop long enough to smile at the thought of Grandma finally getting to be under the mistletoe with Grandpa, after a long, patient wait.

But this is a rough era for magic, for belief. Angels and elves alike are dissected on the altar of knowledge and denounced from the podium of facts.

One of my favorite poems–slightly Christmas-themed, Evelyn Waugh’s Prayer to the Magi, seems a fitting close to my homage to Muppets, Elves, and belief:

You are my especial patrons, and patrons of all latecomers,
of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth,
of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation,
of all who through politeness make themselves make themselves partners in guilt,
of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.
For his sake who did not reject you, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate.
Let them not be quite forgotten when the simple come into their kingdom.

Evelyn Waugh, Helena

And with that—Merry Christmas.


I’m thinking about collaborative learning, and, because of an odd point of synchronicity–leadership. First of all, there’s a video on YouTube that is a focal point of my musing. Alex Hughes, an 11th grader from Greensboro, North Carolina, made it for a Dept of Education contest. He is obviously a student with drive, talent, and resources–all important ingredients for success. Maybe those are not the only ingredients needed for success, but kids who have those can accomplish amazing things. Add some friends to support the effort, and–violá! An award-winning video.

It’s clear that Alex Hughes understands 21st century skills. He’s used technology to engage an audience for a specific purpose in an authentic situation. He’s worked collaboratively with his peers, judging by the list of friends who helped him and who appear in the video. He apparently takes ownership of his learning and shown leadership.

A couple days after I watched this video, I attended the University of Toledo’s graduation. It was an impressive scene, with over 1000 graduates. The usual graduation hyperbole was flying with lightning speed, as was appropriate for the occassion. The keynote speaker was Dr. David Eaglesham, a vice president of First Solar, an international company on the cutting edge of green technologies. As he was exhorting the grads to go out in the world and do great things, he said something along the lines of “In the coming years, you need to all be leaders.” My ears perked up and the wheels started whirring. All 1000 plus grads needed to be leaders? Really? So….who’s going to follow? Doesn’t being a leader imply that someone is there, shoring up the rear?

Which lead me back to Alex Hughes, the embryonic Spielberg. As I consider all the various techniques for using collboration in the classroom, there’s one element that can’t be turned into a nifty protocol or check off box on a rubric: for a group to function well, it needs a leader. That doesn’t imply that we need mini-Mussilinis making all the railroads run on time, either. Alex Hughes evidently is a leader. He knows how to organize, he knows how to get people to buy-in and be productive. While leaders obviously can refine their skills, and people can learn skills to lead, many people are not suited to be leaders.

And that’s okay. Really. For a leader to be effective, people who believe in the vision and will take responsibility for helping make it come true are crucial. Ask Alex Hughes–or President Obama, whose friend Rahm Emanuel is working as Chief of Staff to make Obama’s White House effective. Or any Academy Award-winning actor, who was making the writer’s and director’s and producer’s visions come to life, following someone else’s vision to produce a film.

We need to teach students to be responsible, to be curious, to solve problems, and all those other 21st century skills that are becoming ubiquitous buzzwords–but maybe instead of pretending we can teach them to all be leaders, we need to help them learn how to carefully choose who they follow and which visions they should support. I’m still thinking this through, but I’m considering how to use collaboration in the classroom to develop not just leaders, but examplary, creative, effective followers who can challenge their teams and their leaders to achieve more than they imagined possible. That doesn’t sound as….deingrating, I guess…as it did before I thought about Alex Hughes